To Blog or Not to Blog, a Question of Branding

Ellis Booker, editor of BtoB, the magazine for marketing strategists, recently began an editorial on blogs by declaring, “I don’t have a blog, and I don’t plan to start one.”

His editorial was written partly in response to a May 2 BusinessWeek cover story titled “Blogs Will Change Your Business,” which described blogs as “the most explosive outbreak in the information world since the Internet itself” and argued that “blogs are not a business elective. They’re a prerequisite.”

So — to blog or not to blog, that is the question. One thing is clear: more and more companies, including Sun Microsystems, General Motors, and Boeing, are using blogs, and it would be a mistake to dismiss this potentially powerful marketing and communications tool without carefully considering both sides of the issue.

At its most basic level, a blog — short for “Web log” — is simply a public Web site that allows users to informally post, update and respond to each other’s entries. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 8 million Americans have created blogs, 12% of Internet users have posted entries to a blog, and in 2004 27% read blogs (a 58% increase from the previous year.)

Increased mainstream media coverage of the blog phenomenon (including an entire Charlie Rose show on PBS focused on blog publishers) has been driven not just by the rising popularity of blogs but by their impact — on everything from politics and journalism to academia and pop culture.

As for the effect of blogs on the business world, Booker quotes Debbie Weil, a corporate blogging consultant and BtoB contributor: “There are two ways to think about blogs. One is: Blogs will revolutionize everything, changing the nature of the relationship between companies and customers. Another is: Blogs are part of an incremental change in the way big companies talk to and interact with their customers and other constituencies.”

Kolbrener’s view is more in line with the latter school of thought. We see blogs as a single tile in the ever-evolving mosaic of a company’s marketing communications. When and where that tile is placed depends on a company’s specific needs — but that’s true of traditional marketing tools as well. We respect Booker’s implication that blogs are not a “must-have” for every company, but his editorial fails to grasp the real value blogging can have for many companies.

To be sure, he does acknowledge a few advantages: blogs are easier to set-up and update than a Web site or e-mail newsletter, they provide additional content for your Web site, and the increased content and traffic can improve your ranking on Web search engines. But he quickly undermines these positives by emphasizing the drawbacks: a lack of laws (or even standards) related to fairness, advertising and libel on blogs, and the fact that blogs, by definition, include “real, raw and unfiltered content.”

The latter concern reveals a common mistake: evaluating blogs as if their only value would be as a traditional marketing tool. To a traditional marketing mind focused entirely on controlling content and perceptions, “real, raw and unfiltered” content sounds more like a marketing problem than a marketing innovation. Indeed, Booker ends his editorial by warning against a tempting solution to this apparent problem: creating a “faux blog” which is actually written by your marketing department or an outside agency. Booker rightly worries that a “faux blog” could become a major faux pas: “If this deception is uncovered, you’ll likely be vilified by self-righteous people in the vast blogosphere. Will this thrashing ruin your business? Probably not. Yet it begs the question: What were you trying to achieve with your blog in the first place?”

That is exactly the question companies must ask themselves. Booker’s conservative view isn’t necessarily wrong, just too narrow: a blog isn’t the best tool if you expect it to achieve what “controllable” marketing does. The real value of blogs becomes evident when you expand marketing to include the oft-neglected terrain of community-building.

Community-building, after all, has been the purpose of blogs — and the reason for their popularity — right from the beginning. And even before blogging software officially hit the market in 1999, respected business leaders like Patricia Seybold were pointing out that the Internet is an inherently good medium for community-building — and that community-building is inherently good for business. In her 1998 book, Customers.com, Seybold explains that a sense of community can keep customers coming back for more. The values she attributes to community-building closely parallel some key benefits of blogging:

o Customers meet and interact with others who have common interests

o Terminology and values particular to your company or industry are reinforced

o Customers will enjoy “strutting their stuff”

o Customers will feel like part of an “in crowd”

If community-building, on its own, seems a little too touchy-feely, consider this more traditional benefit: a blog’s “real, raw and unfiltered” content offers deep insights into what customers and other audiences honestly think, value, dislike and get excited about. In fact, as a marketing research tool, blogs offer a level of authenticity difficult to achieve with focus groups and other “controlled” methods.

“To blog or not to blog” is not a simple question with one easy answer. And zealous blog advocates can be as guilty of oversimplifying as blog skeptics like Booker. Kolbrener advises looking at all the pros and cons before deciding whether blogging fits into your overall marketing strategy. There are some risks and challenges to consider, but a blog’s natural community-building power can be harnessed to deepen customer loyalty and extend brand values, and the raw data it provides can help you identify and understand key audiences and growth opportunities. Like any other tile in the marketing communication mosaic, a blog can play a valuable role in helping you successfully evolve your brand.