The Challenge Last year, all manner of middle-aged CEOs had to start talking about blogs—with most sounding about as authentic as middle-aged CEOs talking about Death Cab for Cutie. This year, they may realize that talking isn’t enough, and they’re likely to find that they have two concerns: one, whether they need to launch a corporate blog to get their message out, and, two, what the blogosphere is saying about them.

On the first front, a lot of companies have already messed up, and their mistakes can serve as learning tools. Some have launched corporate blogs to try to “connect with consumers; however, if it’s an uptight company, that can strike a false note. On the second front, lots of companies have learned the hard way that the blogosphere is unedited and unpoliced and gives alarming power to, say, a 13-year-old in Pasadena who thought your sales rep was rude. “We need to listen to what the consumer is saying, says Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Intelliseek, a marketing firm that monitors the online world for clients such as Procter & Gamble and Canon. “We need to watch our backs. Some companies are putting plants online to defend themselves; if bloggers figure out the bystanders are fake, though, they can turn it into a credibility crisis for your company. Pitching the bloggers via a public relations team is also difficult; if they find you annoying, they won’t just ignore you—the way journalists do—they’ll post messages about the idiocy of your company.

What You Can Do One smart way to use other peoples’ blogs and message-board postings is as a huge, free focus group. “Consumers have control; use it to your advantage, says Mary Meehan, co-founder of Iconoculture, a Minneapolis firm that does consumer research for General Mills and CBS, among others. “Use it as a way to learn what your consumers want and need and then react to what they’re saying to you.

Intelliseek’s Blackshaw also advises a client to ask which of its customers blog when the client does demographic research—that means they’re “influencers and should be handled with kid gloves. “Companies are going to have to reinvent the way they profile consumers in order to have follow-up strategies, he says. “They may want to send free samples only to consumers with blogs.

Launching a corporate blog can work well for a company, but you have to be prepared to let customers and readers post frank comments. The Go Daddy Group, an Inc. 500 domain-name seller based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one such freewheeler. “You have to have thick skin, says CEO Bob Parsons, who launched his blog last winter. “You have to enjoy controversy, and you have to like to write and communicate with a diverse group of people. Along with managerial musings, he links to controversial content, like a racy ad showing a girl in a Go Daddy shirt soaping up a car, its driver, and herself. The responses he got were equally racy. “Bob thinks with his little head instead of his big one, posted one reviewer—to which Parsons responded, “I like to think of both heads more like a team, operating in tandem.

Banter aside, the blog allows him to deal with upset customers one at a time. A poster called Sharon wrote that, because of the “sexually suggestive advertising, she was considering transferring her 120 domains from Go Daddy. Parsons responded that he’d hate to see her leave, noted Go Daddy was proactive in shutting down suspect sites, and noted that at least at Go Daddy, she knew with whom she was dealing. “If somebody has a criticism of the company, we want to hear it, he says. “And in spite of how controversial I might have been—one time I wrote about torture at Gitmo—business goes up.

As companies come to understand they can’t control what’s said about them online, they’re also reexamining those marketing channels they can control. Many are turning to aggressive channel marketing, says Craig Binkley, chief consulting officer of Zyman Group, an Atlanta marketing firm whose clients include JPMorgan and the Aspen Snowmass ski resort. They’re thinking about when consumers will be most receptive to buying their product, and they’re realizing that it’s not necessarily while they’re watching television, looking at billboards, or reading the newspaper; it’s when they’re about to pull the trigger on a purchase. So, for example, companies that sell processed food are amping up grocery store signage and promotions, while pharmaceutical companies are offering doctor’s office tchotchkes to attract customers.

Business-to-business companies are trying similar strategies. “We’ve gotten more targeted with our customers, says Sun’s McNealy. “A Super Bowl ad isn’t necessarily going to be the most cost-effective way—we do things like Google advertising, stunt marketing, trade shows, hospitality events, and other things that get us closer to the very big, important customers.

This, by the way, is a big business opportunity. Companies offering targeted ways to reach customers have been intriguing Tom Stemberg, the Staples founder who’s now a VC at Highland Capital Partners. “I think you’re also going to see a lot of interest in alternative media of all kinds, he says. “And I’m seeing lots and lots of ways of reaching customers, ideally close to their point of decision, and providing alternatives to visceral media. He points to Focus Media Holding, a Chinese elevator-advertising company that just went public, as a prime example.

What Insiders Watch

  • The Interactive Advertising Bureau statistics on online advertising spending.
  • Advertising Age data on total advertising spending.
  • Where giants like Procter & Gamble are spending their marketing bucks.