With the tremendous amount of publicity blogs received during the US presidential election, it is not surprising that more and more companies are wondering whether and how they should use blogs in their marketing programs.
Last week, I attended an excellent panel about corporate blogging sponsored by AMA Boston. Not surprisingly, the panelists were "for it" but they all agreed on some criteria for successful blogging (corporate or otherwise), with which I suspect many companies will have a hard time, at least initially. In fact, one of the panelists cited a few examples of horrible corporate blogging that have already appeared.
I’ll try to do justice to all the excellent presentations in summary fashion:
- A blog should be a human conversation, show the personality, creativity and honesty of the writer — "word of mouth on steroids," "authentic," "chatting at the virtual pub."
- A company blog needs to break out of the rigid style of formal company communication — written by and for real people, not the marketing or PR department ghostwriting it for the CEO.
- Content is important but the real key is — does the community come and respond? The driving force is the audience.
(You can read more about the panel at John Cass’s PR Communications blog.)
One of the main things on my mind as I listened to the panelists speak was how to square this open, natural conversation, which sounds like a GREAT way to reach out to customers, prospects and other audiences, with corporate confidentiality. Particularly for public companies, but in fact all companies need to protect their proprietary information, brand and reputation.
We had a spirited conversation during the discussion portion of the panel, and the consensus seemed to be that companies should allow, and encourage it, but perhaps provide some additional guidance to employees that wanted to blog, much as they do for general corporate confidentiality.
Personally, I think this will become a major topic as the blogging phenomenon spreads into the corporate world and companies grapple with this just as they have other technologies that have changed the way we do business (web, e-mail, IM etc.) What if an employee blog inadvertently reveals information that affects the trading of the company stock? What about when an employee blog recommends a product that ends up causing consumer harm? Even if the company and the blogger are proved not at fault legally, the damage to brand and reputation could be enormous.
Dave Austin, one of the panelists wrote an excellent follow-up post on the topic: Telephones vs Blogging. I agree with him that the liability concerns aren’t reasons to prevent blogging, but they do seem to indicate, that companies should provide some guidelines to employees, without getting in the way. And as I said, we’ll be hearing more about this …
There’s another issue at hand, which is whether companies should actively embrace blogs as a marketing tool. This is bound to change the liability of the company for the posted material, so let’s distinguish among three types of companies in the blogosphere:
- companies that simply allow employee blogs, perhaps with some reinforcement of confidentiality guidelines;
- companies that actively encourage and (quasi) sponsor employee blogs, with the express intent that the blog help build brand, drive business, etc.;
- a company blog deliberately created as a marketing tool.
When should a company more actively embrace employee blogs, either by encouraging employees to embrace blogging or by launching a corporate blog?
For blogging to work as a corporate communications tool, and not be false or stupid or disingenuous, I think there are two important criteria:
- The company must have an open communications culture, where information is valued and shared, not hoarded. Any company that is scared by the idea of an on-line technical support forum should not try a corporate blog. If employees can’t find the suggestion box, virtual or otherwise, the company is not a good candidate for a blog. If there is any chance that the blog will become simply a press release archive, it’s not a good idea. And that is not to say that blogging technology can’t be used for your press release archive… if you are willing to get the comments 🙂 and are upfront about what it is.
- The product, service or idea creates a community of users/believers. For blogging to work, the audience has to engage in the topic, and like to read and talk about it a lot. That’s probably why there are so very many marketing company blogs 🙂 We are a pretty opinionated, generally articulate bunch. And a little bit of controversy never hurts either…
Anyway, I am going to keep thinking and reading on this topic. For now, here are two interesting takes on the topic: Seth Godin, Beware the CEO Blog and yesterday’s Future Tense with Jon Gordon: More businesses consider blogging