By Olga Kharif Jonathan Schwartz, president and chief operating officer of server maker Sun Microsystems (SUNW), first suspected that his blog was a success when his salespeople began reporting that customers were reading his posts and sealing deals faster. Then, the blog started getting a surge of traffic from users with e-mail addresses ending in "ibm.com" and "dell.com" -- folks who work for Sun's rivals. Schwartz saw that as irrefutable proof that his blog, started on June 28, was a gold mine (see BW Online, 8/4/04, "Don't Quote My Blog on That").
Some six weeks later, he's a firm believer that a blog -- which generally consists of diary-like entries that are posted to the Web -- is a must-have tool for every executive. "It'll be no more mandatory that they have blogs than that they have a phone and an e-mail account," Schwartz says. "If they don't, they're going to look foolish."
NO INTERFERENCE. Blogs, until recently almost exclusively the domain of geeks, alternative media, and celebrities, are turning into the cyber equivalent of the corner office. On July 7, Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, started one, discussing the extent to which the government should regulate telecommunications. His initial post drew more than 30,000 readers in its first week. Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates is considering starting a blog, says a company spokesperson. Filmmaker Michael Moore began a blog on July 4 to promote his controversial new movie, Fahrenheit 9/11.
While celeb blogs typically revolve around personal crises and hair vs. the considerably less sexy Linux and routers, business execs' blogs are no less successful in rallying the faithful. In fact, these blogs, which now account for a handful of the estimated 20,000 blogs on the Web, could eventually grab a lion's share of the Internet audience, says Chris Charron, an analyst with tech consultancy Forrester Research in Boston.
The business world's posting pioneers say blogging helps them network, boost sales, and even lobby -- at a fraction of the cost of traditional media. "There's no fundamental difference between giving a keynote speech in Shanghai in front of 30,000 people and doing a blog read by several million people," Schwartz says. A wider audience isn't the only potential advantage a blog offers over a speech. A writer can tailor his message to a particular audience on a moment's notice.
MONOLOGUE OR DIALOGUE? Blogs also give execs a chance to tell their side of the story without interference from the media or analysts. That has been particularly important for Schwartz as Sun has been ailing for some time. "There's a free market of ideas out there," says Schwartz. "And I'd rather be driving the dialogue than be run over by it." While skeptics fear that corporate execs' blogs would simply post press releases, Schwartz believes that won't be the case: If writers want their blogs to be read, they need to make them personal and insightful, he says. Still, a reader can expect a somewhat one-sided, corporate slant on a business blog.
Another plus: writing a blog often is less time-consuming than trying to get a message across via interviews. "I can spend three hours talking about a topic, and the media will edit it to fit the three-minute segment or 500-word column. That's far from the most efficient way to communicate," Dallas Mavericks owner and soon-to-be reality TV personality Mark Cuban wrote to BusinessWeek Online in an e-mail. "The blog changes all that."
Blogs also give readers the chance to respond. Powell wrote in his first entry that he turned to blogging "to try to get beyond the traditional inside-the-Beltway Washington world where lobbyists filter the techies. I'm looking forward to an open, transparent, and meritocracy-based communication." Powell is keeping the dialogue going. He not only reads his audience's comments, but he responds to them as well.
BEST AMBASSDOR. Such comments may be worth millions, believes Tim Draper, the founder of venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson in Menlo Park, Calif.. Draper has been using his blog to discover new business ideas worth funding. "It has become a terrific source of leads," he says. After reading a slew of mini-pitches, Draper contacted three people whose ideas he especially liked to discuss the proposals further. He admits to being enamored of a proposal he received for a flying car.
Jeff Pulver had found his blog to be of multiple uses. When the FCC began considering regulation of PC-to-PC calls, Pulver, whose company, Free World Dial-Up, provided the service, fought regulation through his blog. He discovered through conversations with staffers on Capitol Hill that they read his posts daily. In February, the FCC finally ruled that the calls wouldn't be regulated. "It has been a good means to affect change," he says. And when he needed to find 100 people to test a new application, he posted the query on his blog. All of the spots got filled within 24 hours.
As execs increasingly take to blogging, you'll probably see more of it among the rank and file, too (see BW, 6/28/04, "Blogging with the Boss's Blessing"). Microsoft's employees, including engineers and programmers, already pen more than 700 blogs. Sun expects to start supporting staff blogs within a month, according to Schwartz. Employees won't be censored, they'll only be warned against releasing confidential information. "There's no better ambassador for Sun Microsystems than an employee," Schwartz says.
FORUM FOR EVERYONE. Of course, for business blogs to succeed, writers will need to preserve their personality and avoid having their entries read like press releases, which might be easier said than done. "High-profile people don't have the freedom to speak with authenticity," argues Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School whose own blog has served as a guest blog for politicians Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich. He says his guests were authentic because blogging was so new to them, but he doesn't think it's likely he'll get politicians to write with such candor and ease again.
Not that Lessig wants blogs to be just another outlet for celebrities of any ilk. "Famous people have enough space to talk already," Lessig says. "[Blogging] is interesting because of nonfamous people." There's no shortage of potential candidates to keep it interesting. Kharif writes for BusinessWeek Online in Portland, Ore.