Stonyfield Farm, 85%-owned by France's Groupe Danone, is the largest organic yogurt company in the world. Based in Londonderry, N.H., Stonyfield took to blogging in a big way last year -- and even hired its own blogger, Christine Halvorson. A former journalist and almanac writer, she landed the job a year ago in March and now authors five blogs for Stonyfield, including Strong Women Daily News and The Bovine Bugle.
Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg and Halvorson recently spoke to BusinessWeek's Lauren Gard about Stoneyfield's move into the blogosphere. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: How did you get started on blogging?
Hirshberg: Before the New Hampshire primary, my wife, Meg, and I got really involved with Howard Dean. His assistant, Kate, had been his blogger. There was a party one time for 150 people, and Howard came. Everyone was excited to see him, but when Kate walked in you could hear the buzz. As a guy interested in building brands and in particular building through unconventional means, I was really intrigued by the kind of immediate intimate connection created by blogging.
The more I got into it, the more I realized what they were doing in politics was exactly what I'd been doing in business, by having notes on cups and lids, etc. From 1983, when we were still milking cows, we would write "Let us hear from you" on the back of the yogurt container.
Q: What we you looking for in a blogger?
Hirshberg: We wanted somebody who could speak as you and I are speaking right now. And being a lunatic -- which is what I am -- I had to do five of them.
We're really about building loyalty. Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) spend millions of dollars to essentially win your attention. In our case, there's no way we could ever compete with a media-based advertising effort -- we would simply lose. So it has been essential for us to instill a word-of-mouth effort. Blogging is the logical next step. I wanted somebody who was interested in humor and nuance.
Q: How long was your search?
Hirshberg: Not very long. We're fans of Monster.com, and I'm fairly sure that's how we found Chris. We did have four or five people come in. It was not at all a prerequisite that candidates knew what blogging was. Half of the people on my marketing team didn't know what a blog was, they were just following and humoring their lunatic CEO.
Q: What would you tell companies who want to start a blog?
Hirshberg: I'd say two things to BW readers: One, if you're going to go into this as a marketing device, be careful. That's not just what it is, and if you treat it that way consumers will see through it. You have to be willing to let go and allow a really honest expression of genuine things that are going on.
Second thing I would say: Don't use it to sell. The minute you start selling with a point of view instead of having a chat, you're going to lose people.
Q: What are you getting from this, really?
Hirshberg: It's impossible to say what we're getting. But if you press an ad agency really hard about their best ads, their best copy, and ask them to prove that that ad resulted in an increase in sales, it's the rare case when you can spell out cause and effect.
But what I know in my gut from 22 years of doing this is that we have an emotional connection with customers. That helps explain why we're growing at four times category rate in some markets and three times the category rate nationally.
Q: Can most companies benefit from a blog?
Hirshberg: If it's done properly, I can't imagine any company that wouldn't benefit. IBM (IBM) [has been] in the news because of their computer division being sold to group of Chinese companies.... This could be a huge brand opportunity if the CEO decided to just start blogging about the experience he or she is going through, what led them to decision to sell, what's good and bad about it. I bet you millions of people would tune in to what's really going on.
The problem is, especially in the litigious nature of our culture, we've become so defensive, so on guard in protecting what we're thinking.
Q: Had you heard of blogging before you started this job a year ago?
Halvorson: I knew what blogs were and had read some out of political interest, but had not blogged myself.
Q: You bring up controversial subjects, including religion and politics. Do you worry about offending people?
Halvorson: I don't worry, and I don't think Gary does. We know we're talking to a committed audience that loves us in the first place, because they've already found the Web site. Somehow we're managing to sell 18 million cups of yogurt a month.
Q: Do you follow up on the comments readers leave behind?
Halvorson: We just let them stay out there and let readers respond themselves. If people get a fact wrong, I will try to clarify. But I don't think that has actually happened.
Q: How do you find items to blog about each day?
Halvorson: I have great fun doing that. I spend between four and six hours every day doing something with the blogs -- researching and writing new entries and posting them. There are certain topics -- women's health, children's health, efforts to ban junk food -- that I stay on top of. Google (GOOG) news alert sends me any news stories on those topics. I also do a little bit of original reporting.
Q: What's your title?
Halvorson: My title is chief blogger -- company gossip. We've been at this since March of last year. People at the company will see me coming and say "Oop! The blogger's here." It's a really good thing, because people will tell me things that work for the blog.