For BzzAgent, 2006 was shaping up to be an exciting year. The Boston-based word-of-mouth marketing agency had just landed $13.8 million in venture funding and a brand-new board of directors, and it was planning on nearly doubling its staff from 47 to 80. Making room for all those new hires meant moving into new, larger headquarters. Facing this barrage of change, many companies would lie low and wait for the dust to clear. BzzAgent chose a different path. Call it courageous corporate transparency or a temporary lack of judgment, but for president and founder Dave Balter, it seemed the perfect time to start a blog.
And not just any blog. Rather than post himself or ask staffers to contribute, Balter decided to hire an outsider--someone who would function pretty much as an embedded reporter. For 90 days, the blogger would come to the office, attend meetings, interview employees, even go out for after-work drinks with them, and share his thoughts on the company's transformation. The project's name: 90 Days of BzzAgent.
Corporate blogs, of course, are a fact of life these days. Most of them are used for internal communication or as marketing tools and few are particularly candid. BzzAgent's would be different. As a manager, Balter valued transparency and collaboration. Here was a perfect chance to put those values to a test--and perhaps learn something about himself and his company, which uses an army of 220,000 unpaid volunteers to promote its clients' products by chatting them up to friends, relatives, and strangers on the street. (For a different view on buzz marketing, see " Blinded by the Buzz.") "The business was going through this big evolution; it seemed like those 90 days would really change everything," Balter says. "What would happen if somebody got to see that and talk about it to the world?" The blog would be available for all to see: employees, customers, investors, anyone who cared to log on. And if BzzAgent got a publicity bump as a result, all the better.
Balter presented the idea to his new board members, expecting an argument. Instead, they seemed to appreciate the spirit of the project and gave him the go-ahead. To be sure, the company didn't exactly enlist Woodward and Bernstein to come in and uncover its deep, dark secrets. Balter hired John Butman, a writer with whom he'd collaborated on a book about word-of-mouth marketing. The project would be Butman's first foray into blogging and even he didn't know what to expect. "I wasn't quite sure what my role was," he says. "But Dave was very excited about the idea so it intrigued me."
In early February, Balter held a companywide meeting to announce the project and discuss the ground rules. Butman would have to obtain permission before using an employee's or client's name. And although Butman was free to write on any topic he chose, Balter retained final editing privileges. "Everyone was kind of hesitant initially," says Rob Toof, a director of business development at BzzAgent. But most got onboard. "Once we got more clarity about what the objective was, there was a higher level of comfort that Butman wasn't there to rat us out," says Michele Pearl, a network general manager. There were a few holdouts, including the company's COO. "That was one big black hole I couldn't go near," Butman says.
The first post went up on February 8. Soon, Butman was averaging a post a day, writing about everything from the stress the top brass felt in running a rapidly expanding business to the company's snack situation. He interviewed employees about the issues they were facing, concerns about the new office, what they liked about the job, and what they didn't. "It was almost like having a therapist in the office," says Toof. "It was an opportunity to just get everything off my chest and then move on." There was even a poll asking what employees thought of their boss: "Is Dave a Dick?" The results were posted on the blog: one unqualified yes, 10 no votes, and two votes for, "No, although he is a pain in the ass."
As a company that prides itself on communicating clearly with the public, BzzAgent learned that communication within the company could use a little help too.
But sparks didn't really fly until a few weeks in, when Butman filed a seemingly innocuous dispatch entitled "Free Stuff." In it, he joked about how excited employees became picking through the goodies--everything from cocktail shakers to electric toothbrushes--left over from past BzzAgent campaigns. "Images of Filene's Basement on wedding dress day come to mind," Butman quipped. The agency's volunteers, on the other hand, were far from amused and responded with a flurry of angry replies suggesting that the freebies should have been offered to them. "We go out there and buzz about a product and get opinions and reactions from the public for you, and this is how we are repaid!" wrote one irate volunteer. "I feel like you just slapped me in the face."
Balter had wanted transparency. Now he had it--and a fire to put out. "We had to face the music," he says. The posting led Balter to respond to volunteers in the blog's comments section and begin reworking the company's freebie policy.
The volunteers were not the only ones who reacted strongly to the blog. BzzAgent hadn't launched a PR campaign to promote 90 Days, but it did alert a handful of industry bloggers--who seemed a bit skeptical of the experiment. Robbin Phillips, a blogger and president of Brains on Fire, a marketing firm based in Greenville, South Carolina, noted: "I love its original intent. An insider observing some pretty significant changes in a company. But John's blog doesn't feel real to me. It is all too clever or edited or something. And the comments even seem made up or coached." Another blogger characterized 90 Days as "Too Tame, Too Lame, Too Same-Same."
But if outsiders were less than impressed, Balter and his managers found the experience worthwhile. As a company that prides itself on communicating clearly with the public, BzzAgent discovered that communication within the company could use a little help too, especially in dealing with the company's volunteers. "To a great extent, 90 Days was an opportunity to take these consumers who are out there spending their time talking about our clients' products and make them feel a part of this organization," says Joe Chernov, the agency's director of media relations.
Another unexpected benefit of the blog was that it helped screen potential employees. Job candidates would often read up on BzzAgent through 90 Days before an interview. "You'd have this whole different dialogue with people who feel they already know the business, can talk about how they would handle some of the issues, already know the culture, and even know some of the employees' names," says Balter.
No doubt this was an interesting experiment, but could it or should it be tried by other companies? "I absolutely feel other companies could benefit--if they have the stomach for it," says Pearl. "If you trust that the message will be honest and clear, then go for it."
By the time 90 Days drew to a close in May, Balter was exhausted from checking the blog half a dozen times a day and weighing in to put out small fires before they began to rage. But he says he's happy with the outcome. "Oftentimes the most learning and valuable experiences come with a little bit of suffering," he says. "That was certainly the case with 90 Days." The suffering must not have been too bad. BzzAgent is currently in the midst of another blog project called Bento Box, a variation on 90 Days that brings Butman back along with an artist commissioned to render an artistic interpretation of the goings-on at BzzAgent. One hopes the company has built up its stamina. This project is scheduled to run for six months.
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