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Technofile: Blogging for Business

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The word is out: Business blogs are in.

"Blog" is shorthand for weblog, a sort of public online diary, updated regularly -- often daily or even every few hours -- with the owner's comments, announcements, and recommended links.

Blogging has been popular for years with teens, geeks, and flamboyant extroverts comfortable with blog style: informal, unedited, first-person entries, usually posted in reverse chronological order. While many bloggers apparently consider no detail too insignificant to chronicle for a worldwide audience ("went to the podiatrist today;" "had egglant parm at Gino's and forgot to tape ER"), the best stock their online journals with news and links they believe visitors might find useful.

More recently, the "blogosphere" has expanded to include professional web-based journals (See "Blogging for Dollars", Inc., May 2003) as well as the traditional highly personal ones. Now, with entrepreneurs developing lots of creative new uses for business blogs (or "b-blogs," as serious practitioners call them), the technology appears poised to become the "Next Big Thing" in business communication.

If you doubt blogging's move from an underground phenomenon to bona-fide trend, consider how personal blogs have already become powerful voices in two industries: politics and media. Last December, a couple of high-profile bloggers blasted Sen. Trent Lott for a speech that appeared to sanction racial segregation; the resulting publicity ultimately prompted Lott's resignation as Senate majority leader. Meanwhile, journalists from the Poynter Institute's Jim Romenesko to funnyman Dave Barry maintain high-traffic blogs.

Evangelists believe b-blogs offer similar potential to just about every other industry as well. "Two years out, you'll wonder how you lived without them," predicts author and consultant Jim Carroll, writing in Successful Meetings. At a recent business-blog conference, Jupiter Research vice president Michael Gartenberg said today's single word of advice to Dustin Hoffman's character in The Graduate wouldn't be "plastics" but "Weblogs." B-blog consultant John Lawlor summed it up this way: "Blogging equals opportunity."

Why all the fervor? Unlike corporate websites, b-blogs are cheap to launch and easy to maintain, thanks to powerful, easy-to-use tools. (For a sampling of blogging software and services, see Resources.) Unlike spam, or junk e-mail, b-blogs aren't intrusive; users must click to them. Done well, b-blogs provide a fast, informal way to share information -- project updates, research or test results, product-release news, industry headlines -- inside and outside your company.

But blogs are also deceptively tricky to manage. Do it wrong and you could embarrass yourself, bore or alienate customers or prospects, contribute to information overload, and potentially even wind up on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Worse yet, you could run afoul of the blogging community itself.

Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc. did just that in early 2003, when it enlisted several young volunteers in hopes that they'd plug a new milk beverage, Raging Cow, on their blogs. The effort backfired when other bloggers, upset over the orchestrated word-of-mouth campaign, called for a product boycott. (However, no one complained about the product's mascot, a cartoon cow, who kept its own blog, presumably because, in that case, the diarist clearly worked for the company.)

Like any other initiative, successful b-blogging requires a strategy, which consultant Lawlor sums up in five words: Who, what, when, where, why. More specifically:

  • Who should blog? Who is our target reader?
  • What are we blogging about? What benefits do we expect? What needs to be restricted?
  • Where will blogging appear -- on individual blogs, an internal site, or a public website?
  • When will bloggers do the work, and when will the company see results?
  • Why are we doing this?

Answering the last question is key to determining exactly what you want your b-blog to accomplish. Do you want to demonstrate the company's expertise -- or perhaps your own? Promote products or services? Provide customers with news, announcements, updates? Build a community?

Answering the other questions is key to staying out of trouble, especially if -- as companies like Mobilocity Inc. and O'Reilly & Associates -- you encourage or allow your employees to blog as well. Setting ground rules seems antithetical to blogging's joyously spontaneous and personal nature. But you need make sure bloggers don't -- even accidentally -- libel anyone, insult customers, misrepresent or disparage your company, or reveal confidential or proprietary information. You may also need to establish guidelines about blogging on company time and equipment. (Lawyers point to Groove Networks blog policy as a good model.)

What makes a good b-blog? The best are lively, relevant, straightforward, and, though informal, relatively well-written. They showcase their owners' distinctive voices, interests, and expertise without crossing into mind-numbing narcissism. Some worthy examples: New York PR executive James Horton posts daily observations about PR news and trends. San Francisco attorney Denise Howell blogs about intellectual property law and, well, blogging. And Ray Cox of Northfield, Minn., maintains two professional blogs, one tracking contracting work done by his Northfield Construction Co, the other reporting on his work and observances as a Minnesota state representative. (For a sampling of other CEO Web sites, see Resources.)

Finally, great online journals never get stale. As Jupiter's Gartenberg notes, nobody will ever complain that you update your blog too often.

Glossary

B-Blogs: Business blogs, usually external
Blawgs: Lawyers' blogs
Intrablogs: In-house blogs
K-Blogs: Knowledge blogs, also usually kept in-house
Warblogs: War correspondents' blogs

Last updated: Jul 1, 2003




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