Log on to Sara Ford's Web log, and you'll get a cinema verité look into her daily world. You'll learn about her addiction to TV shows starring Richard Dean Anderson (aka MacGyver), her geek penchant for jokes with punchlines like "F1 F1!," and why she adores Gore-Tex. But most important, you'll learn that 26-year-old Sara Ford is a software design engineer at Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ), blogging away from her fluorescent-lit office in Redmond, Wash. Her most prominent posts are ones about the product she's working on, its latest bugs, and inside dope for users such as the "hide underline letters checkbox issue." There's also her day-in-the-life workplace diary, complete with a glossary decoding Microsoft arcana and strategies for nabbing extra espresso coupons. Customers post replies. Ideas are swapped. Bonds are formed. And Bill Gates is happy.
Until recently, the thought of employees blabbing freely to the masses about their work on company time -- without the suits from PR hovering over them to stay "on message" -- would have created panic in the executive suite. But in the past year, employee blogs have begun to multiply across Corporate America -- and a growing number of companies approve. It started mostly as a techie thing when engineers and product developers at places such as Macromedia, Sun Microsystems (SUNW ), and Dell (DELL ) began posting first-draft free-for-alls of their own volition as a way of communicating with customers, each other, and the outside world. Though employees represent just a fraction of the 2.7 million bloggers today, experts predict they will grow robustly as consumers demand information in a more unvarnished way.
Increasingly, execs see employee blogs as a way to transform a transaction with a faceless behemoth into a personal relationship with an employee. Blogs are also hyper efficient at driving product innovation. And they create loyal audiences. Once people get hooked, they keep coming back for more. "This is nothing less than revolutionary," says Dave Winer, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
It's revolutionary because companies have usually been more concerned with controlling their message than conversing with customers. Blogging changes that by establishing "a connection through real human beings speaking like real human beings, which is something companies have forgotten how to do," says David Weinberger, the Boston-based co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.
Microsoft has been one of the biggest evangelists. A year ago, it had about 100 corporate bloggers. Today there are 800. They post pictures of company refrigerators -- there's one that has all Coke and one that has all Pepsi -- and spout off on everything from the death of Boots the cat to renaming Longhorn, Microsoft's long-anticipated new operating system, "Longwait." Indeed, Chairman William H. Gates III is so certain that corporate blogging is the next gold rush in communications that he's practically handing out the pails and shovels by enabling any employee to create a blog within two seconds. Microsoft doesn't train employees in the fine art of blogs, but employees hold meetings to talk about them. The blogs carry disclaimers, but other than that, "our unspoken policy on blogging is: Don't be stupid," says product manager Adam Sohn.
Other companies, such as publisher Ziff-Davis, started the process by setting up internal blogs that proved enormously helpful to teams by cutting down on e-mail. They also let employees learn what was appropriate when blogging to the outside. Nike is going further. This month the company launched a blog of its own -- "The Art of Speed" -- and hired hip gossip blogger extraordinaire, Gawker Media, to produce it. Nike says Gawker has the following it wants to reach.
Given blogging's ability to give nobodies such awesome powers -- The New York Post headlined the way political bloggers did in former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott as "The Internet's First Scalp" -- you'd think the idea of workers firing off would strike companies as akin to putting dynamite in the playpen. This is, after all, a medium once referred to as the electronic Jerry Springer.
Indeed, blogs can be dangerous, representing a new legal netherworld. Microsoft's most famous blogger, Robert "Scobleizer" Scoble once got into big trouble in a previous job for talking up a rival's products. Therein lies the rub: The more truthful they are, the more valuable blogs are to customers. It's likely only a matter of time before some workplace pundit spills a trade secret, unwittingly leaks a clandestine launch date, or takes a swipe at a CEO that turns into slander.
For now, though, many are running the risk. In an era of fragmented media, with companies struggling to get their message out any which way, blogs are becoming a kind of undercover megaphone. One way to think of them is as the latest guerrilla marketing tool, a new kind of brand bait.
They'll likely backfire, though, if employers attempt to exert control. "Companies inevitably will try to co-opt blogs," says Dan Gillmor, author of We, the Media, a book about blogging due out next month.
Until then, happy reading.
By Michelle Conlin and Andrew Park