Look past the yakkers, hobbyists, and political mobs. Your customers and rivals are figuring blogs out. Our advice: Catch up…or catch you later
Editor's note: When we published "Blogs Will Change Your Business" in May, 2005, Twittering was an activity dominated by small birds. Truth is, we didn't see MySpace coming. Facebook was still an Ivy League sensation. Despite the onrush of technology, however, thousands of visitors are still downloading the original cover story.
So we decided to update it. Over the past month, we've been calling many of the original sources and asking the Blogspotting community to help revise the 2005 report. We've placed fixes and updates into more than 20 notes; to view them, click on the blue icons. If you see more details to fix, please leave comments. The role of blogs in business is clearly an ongoing story.
First, the headline. Blogs were the heart of the story in 2005. But they're just one of the tools millions can use today to lift their voices in electronic communities and create their own media. Social networks like Facebook and MySpace, video sites like YouTube, mini blog engines like Twitter—they've all emerged in the last three years, and all are nourished by users. Social Media: It's clunkier language than blogs, but we're not putting it on the cover anyway. We're just fixing it.
Monday 9:30 a.m. It's time for a frank talk. And no, it can't wait. We know, we know: Most of you are sick to death of blogs. Don't even want to hear about these millions of online journals that link together into a vast network. And yes, there's plenty out there not to like. Self-obsession, politics of hate, and the same hunger for fame that has people lining up to trade punches on The Jerry Springer Show. Name just about anything that's sick in our society today, and it's on parade in the blogs. On lots of them, even the writing stinks.
Go ahead and bellyache about blogs. But you cannot afford to close your eyes to them, because they're simply the most explosive outbreak in the information world since the Internet itself. And they're going to shake up just about every business—including yours. It doesn't matter whether you're shipping paper clips, pork bellies, or videos of Britney in a bikini, blogs are a phenomenon that you cannot ignore, postpone, or delegate. Given the changes barreling down upon us, blogs are not a business elective. They're a prerequisite. (And yes, that goes for us, too.)
There's a little problem, though. Many of you don't visit blogs—or haven't since blogs became a sensation in last year's Presidential race. According to a Pew Research Center Survey, only 27% Some newer numbers: According to Forrester, 11.2% of online adults in the U.S. publish a blog at least once a month. Of the same group, 24.8% read a blog and 13.7% comment on a blog at least once a month. The numbers are higher for youths. Of online youths, 20.8% publish a blog, 36.6% read a blog, and 26.4% comment on a blog at least once a month. But I suspect the numbers are unreliable because many mainstream sites with millions of readers—celebrity site TMZ and gadget sites like Gizmodo—are actually blogs. But are all the readers aware of this? I doubt it. This is the blurring of the blog/mainstream divide, a theme we'll see again and again in these revisions. of Internet users in America now bother to read them. So we're going to take you into the world of blogs by delivering this story—call it Blogs 101 for businesses—in the style of a blog. We're even sprinkling it with links. These are underlined words that, when clicked, carry readers of this story's online version to another Web page. This all may make for a strange experience, but it's the closest we can come to reaching out from the page, grabbing you by the collar, and shaking you into action.
First, a few numbers. There are some 9 million blogs out there, Yes, there were 9 million, but how many of them were active? Probably only a fraction. In early 2008, says Technorati Chairman David Sifry, the search company indexes 112 million blogs, with 120,000 new ones popping up each day. But only 11% of these blogs, he says, have posted within the past two months. That means the active universe is closer to 13 million blogs. Kevin Burton, CEO of FeedBlog, argues that the number should be lower, from 2 million to 4 million blogs. with 40,000 new ones popping up each day. Some discuss poetry, others constitutional law. And, yes, many are plain silly. "Mommy tells me it may rain today. Oh Yucky Dee Doo," reads only one April Posting. Let's assume that 99.9% are equally off point. What we didn't see in early 2005 was the advent of the spam blog. These blogs, produced automatically, are designed to show up in search results and to attract Google advertisements known as Adsense. Sifry estimates that fully 99% of the blog posts reaching search engines are spam. So what? That leaves some 40 new ones every day that could be talking about your business, engaging your employees, or leaking those merger discussions you thought were hush-hush.
Give the paranoids their due. The overwhelming majority of the information the world spews out every day is digital—photos from camera phones, PowerPoint presentations, government filings, billions and billions of e-mails, even digital phone messages. With a couple of clicks, every one of these items can be broadcast into the blogosphere by anyone with an Internet hookup—or even a cell phone. If it's scandalous, a poisonous e-mail from a CEO, for example, or torture pictures from a prison camp, others link to it in a flash. And here's the killer: Blog posts linger on the Web forever.
Yet not all the news is scary. Ideas circulate as fast as scandal. Potential customers are out there, sniffing around for deals and partners. While you may be putting it off, you can bet that your competitors are exploring ways to harvest new ideas from blogs, sprinkle ads into them, and yes, find out what you and other competitors are up to.
Tuesday 6:35 a.m. How big are blogs? Try Johannes Gutenberg out for size. We attempted the chatty style of a blog. Not everyone appreciated it. Blogger Nick Carr cited this sentence and commented: "I'm so embarrassed." That said, the article might have left the impression that there's one style of writing for blogs. In fact, there are as many styles as there are bloggers. Everyone has the freedom to write however they want. His printing press, unveiled in 1440, sparked a publishing boom and an information revolution. Some say it led to the Protestant Reformation and Western democracy. Along the way, societies established the rights and rules of the game for the privileged few who could afford to buy printing presses and grind forests into paper.
The printing press set the model for mass media. A lucky handful owns the publishing machinery and controls the information. Whether at newspapers or global manufacturing giants, they decide what the masses will learn. This elite still holds sway at most companies. You know them. They generally park in sheltered spaces, have longer rides on elevators, and avoid the cafeteria. They keep the secrets safe and coif the company's message. Then they distribute it—usually on a need-to-know basis—to customers, employees, investors, and the press.
That's the world of mass media, and the blogs are turning it on its head. Set up a free account at Blogger or other blog services, and you see right away that the cost of publishing has fallen practically to zero. Any dolt with a working computer and an Internet connection can become a blog publisher in the 10 minutes it takes to sign up.
Sure, most blogs are painfully primitive. That's not the point. They represent power. Look at it this way: In the age of mass media, publications like ours print the news. Sources try to get quoted, but the decision is ours. Ditto with letters to the editor. Now instead of just speaking through us, they can blog. And if they master the ins and outs of this new art—like how to get other bloggers to link to them—they reach a huge audience.
This is just the beginning. Many of the same folks who developed blogs are busy adding features so that bloggers can start up music and video channels and team up on editorial projects. The divide between the publishers and the public is collapsing. This turns mass media upside down. It creates media of the masses.
How does business change when everyone is a potential publisher? A vast new stretch of the information world opens up. For now, it's a digital hinterland. The laws and norms covering fairness, advertising, and libel? They don't exist, not yet anyway. But one thing is clear: Companies over the past few centuries have gotten used to shaping their message. Now they're losing control of it.
Want to get it back? You never will, not entirely. But for a look at what you're facing, come along for a tour of the blogosphere.
Wednesday 7:38 a.m. Hmm. How to start this post? Idle talk about the weather, or maybe that red wine with dinner last night? No. Let's dive right in: One misstep Tim Bray, Sun's director of Web technologies, thinks we overstated the risks of company bloggers. He says that 4,000 bloggers at Sun, about 10% of the workforce, have had virtually no problems. And except for a few high-profile cases, like Mark Jen at Google, very few companies have had publicized problems with in-house bloggers. "I think there's a news story in the absence of carnage," he says. Jon Garfunkel responds on Blogspotting that a few punishments and firings could frighten in-house bloggers from "testing the limits"—and lead some of them to produce blog PR. and the blog world can have its way with you—even when the coolest, most tech-savvy companies are involved.
Google (GOOG) is regarded as a secretive company. So in January, when a young programmer named Mark Jen started blogging about his first days in the Googleplex, folks in the 'sphere instantly linked to him. Jen certainly wasn't dealing out inside dirt. But he griped that Google's health plan was less generous than his former employer's—Microsoft (MSFT)—and he argued, indignantly, that Google's free food was an enticement for employees to work past dinner.
Two weeks later, Google fired Jen. And that's when the 22-year-old became a big story. Google was blogbusted for overreacting and for sending an all-too-clear warning to the dozens of bloggers still at the company. A Google official says the company has lots of bloggers and just expects them to use common sense. For example, if it's something you wouldn't e-mail to a long list of strangers, don't blog it.
Jen clearly flunked that test. "As the media got hold of it, I was quickly educated," he says. He says he should have understood the company's goals and concerns better and been more sensitive to them. Still, his adventure turned him into an overnight celebrity. He was wooed by recruiters at Amazon.com (AMZN), Microsoft, and Yahoo! (YHOO) A month later, Jen landed a job at Plaxo, an Internet contact-management company. A key part of his job, says a company spokesperson, is to help coordinate Plaxo's blogging efforts—a pillar of Plaxo's promotional strategy. So what got him fired turned out to be his trump card. Plaxo, like many other companies, is now drawing up norms for blogging behavior, so that employees know what's in bounds, and what's not.
2:22 p.m. It sounds like the joke answer on a multiple-choice exam. Name a leading company in blog communications: General Motors?
That's right. For a company that's slipping in the auto biz, GM is showing a surprisingly nimble touch with blogs. GM uses them on occasion to steer past its own PR department and the mainstream press.
In January, Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz launched his own Bob Lutz blogs rarely these days on FastLane. He hands off much of the work to staffers, including PR. Many of the posts read like press releases. One recent post pointed readers to a speech that he said mentioned many of the points he had been too busy to blog! That said, FastLane still attracts lots of readers, and they leave comments. While the blog doesn't revolutionize GM's relations with customers, it provides a useful communications link. Perhaps equally important, it focuses some of the GM team on other blogs, where a lot of the car world is talking. FastLane Blog. Bloggers applauded, and car buffs flooded Lutz with suggestions and complaints. Lutz posted lots of barbs from outsiders and won points for balanced responses. Like his answer to criticisms of new Pontiacs: "Did you take a look at seat tailoring? Carpet fits?…hood gaps, hem flanges? We used to be bad at those, too."
But Lutz is only part of GM's blog strategy. In April the company yanked $10 million in advertising from the Los Angeles Times and demanded that the Times make retractions. Journalists asked GM for specific complaints, and the car company held off. It said it wanted to work quietly with the Times and not battle it out in the press.
How to get the word out through a back channel? GM directed journalists to a blog, AutomoBear.com, that detailed GM's beef. (It had to do with a comparison between two cars, which GM thought was unfair.) Both GM and Miro Pacic, the blogger at AutomoBear, say that GM provided Pacic with information but that no money passed hands.
Fair enough. But even if GM doesn't pay for positive coverage in blogs, just consider the possibilities in this new footloose media world. There's little to stop companies from quietly buying bloggers' support, or even starting unbranded blogs of their own to promote their products—or to tar the competition. This raises all kinds of questions about the ever-shrinking wall between advertising and editorial. We'll cover that later, when we get to the blogs' impact on our own business—the media.
Thursday 8:56 a.m. It's the latest wrinkle on Descartes. I blog therefore I… consult. An entire industry is rising up to guide companies into this frightening new realm. And the consultants establish their brands and reps with their blogs.
Perhaps the biggest is Steve Rubel. Sitting in his office at Edelman PR (he switched jobs in 2006) overlooking Times Square, Steve Rubel says that blogs have turned out to be less important for companies than he anticipated. "Outside of tech," he says, "big companies didn't jump in. They viewed the blog audience as niche. They weren't ready to be open, transparent, and loose." For advertising, he says companies are more drawn to social networks, where they have the potential to reach millions of customers. (We should stress that social networks, a megatrend in media, is not even mentioned in this 2005 story. The emergence of Facebook, MySpace, and others is one reason we should take "blogs" out of the headline.) In fact, it's worth mentioning that Rubel doesn't blog nearly as much as he used to. He regards blogs as just a piece of his communications arsenal. He uses it for longer pieces. For the short stuff, he sends out bursts of thought and links to what he's seeing and reading on Twitter, a microblogging technology. Thousands of people subscribe to his Twitters, which max out at 140 characters. On a Monday morning, he Twitters this message: "Sitting with Steve Baker of BW, wants to know why tweet?" Within 10 minutes, 20 responses flow in from all over the world. (Upshot: Baker now tweets at twitter.com/stevebaker.) A year ago, the exec at the PR firm CooperKatz & Co. started his blog, Micro Persuasion. He was already pushing such clients as WeatherBug and the Association of National Advertisers into the blog world. Then early one Sunday morning, as he recalls it, "my wife was sleeping, and I was sitting in the living room, laptop on my lap, and thinking if I am talking to clients and reading these blogs, I should jump in." When launching his site, he had the smarts to contact big shots such as Dan Gillmor, who was a leading blogger and tech reporter with the San Jose Mercury News. Gillmor linked to Rubel's site, and his traffic took off. It was great for his brand, and it also gave Rubel a blogger's education. "I became a living guinea pig for what I preach," he says.
Now Rubel is positioned as an all-knowing Thumper in a forest of clueless Bambis. The first job, he says, is to monitor the blogs to see what people are saying about your company. (An entire industry is growing to sell that service. Even IBM's (IBM) banging at the door.) Next step: Damage-control strategies. How to respond when blogs attack. He says companies have to learn to track what blogs are talking about, pinpoint influential bloggers, and figure out how to buttonhole them, privately and publicly.
He gives the example of Netflix (NFLX). When a fan blog called Hacking Netflix Hacking Netflix: The site continues to grow, and is now a major site for news from Netflix and Blockbuster. Both companies treat Mike Kaltschnee as a journalist. He puts subscription buttons on his site and gets a take of the revenue. He says the site does well, making money and attracting about 300,000 to 400,000 unique visitors per month. But he still hasn't quit his job as a software graphic programmer. asked the company for info and interviews last year, Netflix turned it down. How could they make time for all the bloggers? Predictably, the blogger, Mike Kaltschnee, aired the exchange, and