Lessons in Corporate Blogging
Last week, Dell launched a corporate blog, joining the small but growing group of businesses that have embraced the trendy communication medium.
You might think that the blogosphere would have rolled out the welcome mat for the newcomer. Far from it. Dell (DELL) was treated like a party crasher with bad hygiene. "Ho ho ho," chortled one prominent blogger, ridiculing Dell's site as "a blog in content management system name only." Sniffed another: "Perhaps it might have been better for them to have stayed silent."
The irony is that Dell's blog, called "one2one," is actually a pretty good one. It lets employees post messages and videos, in their own voices and under their own names, and it allows readers to submit comments, even negative ones. There are limits to what Dell will publish—no curse words, no defamatory rants—but the ground rules seem sensible, and they're clearly laid out on the site.
Dell's one2one may or may not prove a winner, but at least it's been well thought out.
The disparaging reaction to Dell's effort shows that establishing a corporate blog is not a risk-free proposition. The blogosphere is full of quasi-journalistic gunslingers with anticorporate leanings and itchy trigger fingers. If your blog falls afoul of their unwritten code—as it almost surely will—they'll shoot first and think later. Having a blog can actually make your company a more inviting target.
Blogospheric sniping, though, is little more than a nuisance in most cases. Other risks loom larger. Microsoft (MSFT) found that out in June, when its most prominent blogger, Robert Scoble, announced he was decamping to a startup that offered him a more attractive pay package. Scoble's departure received almost as much play in the press as Bill Gates's announcement, a few days later, that he'd retire from the company in two years. PC Magazine even ran an article suggesting that Scoble would prove a bigger loss to the company than Gates.
The blogger had become the story, to the company's detriment.
Beyond revealing how bloggers can upstage their patrons, the Scoble affair underscored the tension that can arise between the interests of a corporate blogger and the interests of the company. Scoble's affiliation with Microsoft—he dubbed himself the "Microsoft Geek Blogger"—was instrumental in earning him fame in the blogosphere. But that fame made him a hot commodity in his own right, and when he left, he took his Scobleizer blog, and its many fans, with him.
The equity a corporate blogger builds up is portable, in other words. Rather than sticking to the company, it will follow the blogger—even if the blogger heads to a competitor.
IMAGE AND STRATEGY AID.
Still, a blog can be a useful communication channel. By providing companies with unvarnished feedback from customers, it can serve as an early-warning system for product or service problems. It can also provide an easy and inexpensive way to deliver specialized information to narrow segments of the market. And because subscribing to a blog is a snap, it can be a great way to distribute technical updates, new product announcements, and other periodic messages.
There are a few rules of thumb that can help companies reap the benefits of a blog while sidestepping the pitfalls. The first one is simple but critical: Don't blog for blogging's sake. Make sure you have a clear business goal for your blog—and that you stick to that goal and track how well you're fulfilling it. Remember that, for companies, blogging isn't an ideology—it's a tool.
Second, make sure your blog reflects your company's desired image and supports its strategy. Dell's blog provides a good model. By emphasizing how the blog provides a direct connection between the company and its customers, Dell reinforces its core strategy of selling gear directly to buyers, without having to go through middlemen. The blog has also been designed as part of a larger coordinated effort to rebuild the company's reputation, which has been damaged recently by service miscues and other snafus (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/19/06, "Dell: Facing Up to Past Mistakes").
Third, remember that there's no one "right way" to blog—no matter what the blogerati might say. You can certainly use blogs to let employees exchange information and ideas with customers. But you can design them more narrowly as well. Apple Computer (AAPL), for instance, doesn't allow employees to blog on its behalf—probably because it doesn't want to risk muddying a painstakingly designed corporate image—but it has set up a blog to promote its .Mac services.
A narrowly focused blog can be a particularly good idea if your company is just getting started with blogging. It allows you to test the waters before you open the floodgates.
Finally, make sure you educate your employees about the legal and business risks inherent in blogging, such as the possibility that they might inadvertently disclose sensitive or regulated information.
Blogging is very different from the kinds of communication activities that employees routinely engage in, like speaking at conferences. Anything that goes up on the Internet is immediately available to a worldwide audience of billions—and it becomes a permanent part of the public record. Independent bloggers may not have to think before they post, but corporate bloggers do.