The numbers are downright puny. According to The Fortune 500 Business Blogging Wiki (a list of blogs provided by employees about their companies and products), only 22 of the 500 largest U.S. companies operate public blogs from their executive suites. That amounts to a measly 4.4%. Has the blogging sensation passed corporations by?
Not by a long shot. Instead of public blogs, think about blog technology. That's the focus for many leading companies around the world. From McDonald's (MCD
) to Cannondale Bicycle, corporations are using the software to revamp internal communications, reach out to suppliers, and remake corporate Intranets. Often the site doesn't look much different from what it's replacing. Sometimes there's nothing particularly bloggy about the results.
But these corporate initiatives are interactive and cheap to deploy -- making them an attractive form of communication. "Blogs are a way to bring our knowledge together," says Dave Weick, chief information officer at McDonald's.
CONVERSATION PIECES. Over the last month, Cannondale has opened its corporate Web site to 15 of its sales and marketing staffers. Each one now has the tools to file his or her own updates, press releases, photos, and news about the race teams Cannondale sponsors, says Janet Maurice, the company's Webmaster.
It may not seem like they're blogging. They're simply using software to send information. Sometimes they do it from remote Internet cafés. In time, they'll be able to file from cell phones. But each mailing, technically, is a blog post. And the program will expand to a host of Cannondale staffers and affiliates. "We're transferring our corporate content management system to blogs," Maurice says.
Why are blogs supplanting traditional corporate Intranets? They're a snap to set up, and cheap to run. That's why the blog universe -- as counted by Technorati, the leading blog search engine -- has tripled to 27 million in the last year. They dwarf the number of personal Web pages, which require more technical expertise.
What's more, blogs are designed to change daily and -- importantly -- to receive comments from the public. This means that while traditional corporate Intranets are static, blogs generate conversation.
EXTRA VALUE. The first corporate blogger at McDonald's was Chief Operating Officer Michael Roberts, who launched his internal blog last fall. He used it to spread information through the company's global operations and receive feedback. Now, according to Weick, McDonald's is distributing blog access to thousands of employees, who will use them to report on operations at restaurants worldwide.
The question at McDonald's and Cannondale is whether they'll extend blogs outside the company, to their customers. Already, newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle are building communities of bloggers, which provide new sources of information -- and new advertising platforms.
Robin Hopper, CEO of iUpload, the Toronto-based outfit that hosts the McDonald's and Cannondale blogs, predicts that growing numbers of companies will distribute blogs in an effort to build social networks around their brands and products. "It's a whole new way to market," he says. "People willingly provide all sorts of demographic information on blogs." Companies can then use that to target them with customized services and advertisements.
BUILDING TRUST. Hopper says that media and entertainment outfits are already sprouting blogs by the thousands. For example, the TV show Canadian Idol, the cousin of Fox's American Idol, provides a blog to every potential contestant.
They use them to post their bios and pictures -- which provide material for the show's producers. Fans can also post on www.idolblogs.ca, a blogging community that has reached 40,000, says Hopper.
Could Cannondale follow suit? Not so fast, warns Maurice. "With every great technology comes the fear that it might go out of control," she says. So she's launching Cannondale's blogging program cautiously, starting with brand managers and their teams. Later it will extend from so-called trusted bloggers, whose posts go up on the site automatically, to "untrusted bloggers," whose submissions must be edited.
EVERYONE'S A CRITIC. Companies interested in opening up branded blogs to the broad public face plenty of risks. Opponents of the company could use them to spread criticisms or nasty rumors -- and the host outfit would face the wrath of bloggers if it were seen to shut down or censor customers' entries.
Conversely, if criticism appears on the blogs, the company can learn quickly and respond. For such giants as Wal-Mart (WMT
) and McDonald's -- both subjects of blistering documentaries recently -- such an early warning system might prove to be worth the gamble.