Blogs represent an explosion of information, from inside and outside companies. Those who figure out how to mine this treasure while protecting their own gems will fare just fine in the new world. But it's a risky world, full of hazards. Here are six tips for companies setting out into the blogosphere:
No. 1: Train Your Bloggers
Who's on your communications team? It used to be a small group, but now everyone who blogs at the company is spreading the message. And it's important that these people be trained.
If a company blogger spills financial information, it can get you in hot water with regulators. Other leaks could help competitors or lead to embarrassing revelations about top executives or the workplace. No wonder many companies are worried about blogging. "They're really scared of it," says Giovanni Rodriguez, a vice-president at Silicon Valley's Eastwick Communications. "They know what mistakes can be made."
The natural instinct is to restrict employee blogging. But that can be shortsighted. Every employee who blogs can be making contacts with potential customers and enhancing the company brand.
If bloggers become part of a company's communications effort, what does the old PR department do? Increasingly, it'll train and coordinate the bloggers.
No. 2: Be Careful with Fake Blogs
Companies are eager to establish one-to-one links with customers, but they're often reluctant to plunge blindly into the blogosphere. So they set up fake blogs. These are blogs that are created by corporate marketing departments to promote a service, product, or brand using a fake character or name. McDonalds (MCD) established one and linked it to a Super Bowl commercial featuring a peculiar French fry. Captain Morgan runs a rum blog.
These pseudo-blogs are risky because many of the most passionate bloggers view them as an affront to their community, and each one stands out like a billboard in Yosemite. When the blogosphere gets hold of a fake, it can turn it into a public roasting of the company.
So should companies avoid fake blogs altogether? That's hard to say, because sometimes the buzz is welcome, even if it's negative. Following the launch of the McDonald's site, bloggers booed. Yet a McDonald's spokesman says the blog, which received more than 2 million visits, "was keeping the ad alive. It generated a lot of great buzz."
The upshot: Your choice on fakes, but the risks are high.
No. 3: Track Blogs
This is the easiest and most important step. First, poke around online and find the most influential bloggers following your company. Read them every day. Then do automated tracking of discussions. Companies ranging from startup PubSub to tech giant IBM (IBM) can help, since they offer services that comb through this mountain of data, turning it into market research for customers.
Big Blue is testing advanced technology called Web Fountain, which analyzes billions of postings to see if they predict spikes in consumer behavior. Last year, Web Fountain plumbed the blog world for buzz on books and then compared it to sales data from Amazon.com (AMZN). In about half the cases, researchers could predict the sales growth that would follow the buzz.
Why is it important to do different kinds of tracking? Postings even from small-time bloggers can get picked up by a search engine, amplified by a top blogger, and eventually break into the mainstream. Last summer, blogs picked up an anonymous post in an online discussion forum from someone who boasted he could break Kryptonite bike locks with a Bic pen. Within a week the story had bubbled up to The New York Times, and Kryptonite recalled the locks.
No. 4: PR Truly Means Public Relations
Blogs knock down the barriers between a company and its customers. Businesses need to take that into account and adapt.
Some companies, such as yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm, start blogs to build loyalty and address people's comments and concerns. For businesses that don't set up corporate blogs, pinpointing and developing relationships with the top 10 or so influential bloggers in their area is key.
Netflix (FLIX) figured this lesson out after a rocky start. A fan named Mike Kaltschnee started a blog called Hacking Netflix that was full of news about online movie-rental company's services. Kaltschnee asked for a closer relationship with Netflix, including access to executives and briefings on news releases. Netflix didn't pay attention to him -- until he wrote about his frustrations on his blog last June. The posting was picked up and spread madly through the blogosphere. Talk about bad PR.
At about the same time, Netflix hired Michele Turner as vice-president for product marketing. She promptly reached a working arrangement with Kaltschnee, whose blog attracts 100,000 visitors a month. The two speak regularly, and Kaltschnee provides Netflix with insights that he's hearing from readers.
Kaltschnee's suggestions have helped lead to a new service called Profiles. Launched in January, Profiles allows customers to create up to five separate lists of requested films per subscription. So, a family with a subscription could have separate lists for the children and the parents.
No. 5: Be Transparent
No hard and fast rules for navigating the worlds of blogging and marketing exist. Still, a few principles are emerging, including the importance of full disclosure. Being open about the kind of marketing you're doing is critical.
Ask Stephen King, the president and CEO of Marqui, a Web-services marketing company. Late last year, King and consultant Marc Canter cooked up the notion of paying bloggers to market King's company. The key to the venture's success was being completely open about it.
In November, Marqui began paying some 20 bloggers $2,400 each to write about the company once a week for three months. "We're a small company selling what we believe to be a creative marketing tool," King says. "We wanted to take creative approaches to the market."
Here's how Marqui ensures openness. Everything about Marqui's blog program is up on its site, including the contract, a list of the bloggers working for Marqui, and background material Marqui sends to bloggers. The bloggers have total control over what they write. They can criticize the software or write at length about it. The only requirement was they have to mention Marqui once a week.
The program stirred up a hornet's nest online. But the discussion didn't center on Marqui's intentions. Instead, the bloggers debated whether this kind of program made sense and under what circumstances. Molly Holzschlag, a Web designer who was part of the program used her blog, www.molly.com, to discuss the issue as well as do the blogging. Holzschlag ultimately decided to stop blogging for Marqui because for her it felt forced.
Yet Marqui benefited from the buzz about the novelty of what it was attempting. King says the program was a success. The number of people who visited Marqui's site rose from 2,000 in November to 150,000 in December. And the company decided to continue the program after the first three-month period ended.
No. 6: Rethink Your Corporate Secrets
Consider one secret you have under lock and key at your company. Maybe it's a list of projects for next year or details of the scandalous bill from the latest software installation. There are all kinds of things you're trained not to leak to competitors.
But what's the value of a locked up secret? In the world of blogs, you may find more value in sharing what you used to think of as secrets. Blogs are certain to make you rethink what should be squirreled away, because companies are increasingly sharing such information to win new partners and harvest fresh ideas. This doesn't mean they don't keep secrets or that you shouldn't -- only that you should reevaluate whether you can get more out of sharing information or keeping a lock on it.
Take the example of San Francisco's ThinkEquity, a boutique investment bank. In recent months, CEO Michael Moe launched a blog in which he shared information, including preliminary research, that used to be more hush-hush.
Moe now looks at the blogosphere as an enormous research tool for the nascent industries ThinkEquity focuses on. Whether he blogs about nano solar technology or an obscure niche in biotech, experts abound in the blogosphere, and they contribute their knowledge. "We're in the experimentation phase," says Moe. "But I'm convinced this is part of the future for research."
ThinkEquity not only shares loads of information that used to be private but is figuring out how to cull insights from a wide range of bloggers -- some unreliable, a few of them liars. But Moe says the extra work involved in writing and figuring out which blogs to follow is worth it. "I sure as hell didn't want to wake up some morning and find out that some other investment bank was doing it," he says.
ThinkEquity is just one of the companies finding that a few of its secrets are worth more in the open than gathering dust in a strongbox. By Stephen Baker and Heather Green in New York