by: Josh Hawkins
I was in a PR meeting last week and blogging came up. These conversations always seem to turn on risk, exposure, liability, trust, competition. Unfortunately, these topics tend to derail attention to the key benefits of engaging in social media tactics as part of more general marcom strategy.
I subscribe to the school of thought that believes markets are conversations, and that brands live and breath with consumers and their experiences with products and services – not with pixel perfect design or in finely tuned copy. If you buy that, you can see how blogs can provide an extremely powerful conduit that brings internal corporate strategy and product management into alignment with consumer understanding, motivations and values. The more closely aligned these conversations become, the more likely you are to engage in successful brand management and marketing strategy.
But too often blogs – along with other social media and CGM in general – are relegated to stepchild status in the marcom mix. If blogs are to be pursued, it most often involves having PR consultants use social media monitoring tools to identify "influentials" – by some proxy such as inbound links or search ranking – and pitch stories, often by emailing press releases. I remember having these same conversations years ago with campaign managers worried about loosing control of the message, or coming off as "inauthentic." Of course, it all changed when Joe Trippi and the Dean campaign parlayed a blog strategy into a fund-raising bonanza.
Nevertheless, these concerns remain very salient in the corporate sector. But, I think the root cause is often a lack of clarity over the different kinds of blogs and the role they play in driving brand experiences in a consumer-driven media environment.
I see blog strategy as breaking out into three distinct, but interrelated, categories: corporate, employee, and customer evangelist.
- Corporate blogs often have direct c-level involvement with high-level industry perspectives, PR announcements, and thought leadership messaging. Sometimes these will have filters such as PR or legal oversight. Other times, you have blog mavericks like Bob Lutz and GM's Fastlane blog that have a slightly more direct flow of communication. In general corporate blogs can provide a useful platform to quickly address issues, level-set and respond to salient customer complaints or broad consumer concerns. When done right, these also provide an avenue for consumers to engage with leadership in meaningful dialog over corporate strategy and marketing messages. Customer evangelists get a "bat phone" to elevate market-critical issues. Customer concerns get a platform to call out opportunities for improvement with unparalleled immediacy. On the other hand, when these fail to include meaningful back and forth with customers, corporate blogs can also come off as regurgitated press releases and scripted commentary that does little more than insight cynicism.
- Employee blogs represent a slightly different approach. Here organizations trust their employees to be brand ambassadors and actively engage with customers in a dialog over value and service. Employee blogs can also be canaries in the coal mine for identifying customer concerns or problems that need to be addressed. Most importantly, employee blogs give customers direct input into the direction of feature development and service delivery. Smart organizations harness the power of customer input across the board, including the development of marketing messages (a much more authentic way to glean market insights than focus groups or customer sat surveys). Organizations as large as Microsoft have undertaken significant employee blogging programs, such as Channel 9, and have been able to reap significant benefits.
- The third approach is to facilitate customer evangelist blogging. At one level this can be a simple as reaching out to vocal advocates and being responsive with new information, creating a customer advisory board with devoted resources and actively recruiting customer participation. Blogs often organically grow out of such a program. There is also a more intentional approach like what Vespa did with their customer evangelists at Vespaway. With this type of program, brand collateral, privy access to events and marketing collateral, and sometimes the blogging platform itself is provided to harness the energy and passion of customer evangelists. The balancing act here is to "keep it real" and make sure the community is participating for the right reasons. These efforts can backfire if selective benefits begin to outweigh the organic participation that grows out of a genuine desire to share, endorse and promote a brand based simply on positive experiences.
Each approach to blogging has its own unique benefits and risks. And each requires an intentional road map and commitment to be successful. But blogging is no ordinary marketing tactic. It's more an indicator of the healthfulness of a brand; confidence, transparency, and an acknowledgment of a certain degree of vulnerability. This last part is often the hardest characteristic to come to terms with. But it is an inevitable dimension of doing business in today's media environment.
Blogs, social media, and word of mouth promotion all represent the front lines of brand experiences. This form of online content is keyword saturated, link-rich, and frequently updated. Search engines give preferential treatment to online content with these characteristics in search result rankings. What's more, search engines are used by over 90 percent of consumers searching for information about products and services. And the vast majority of purchasing decisions and consumer behavior are driven by peer-generated content, which is a defining characteristics of CGM and blogs.
That's the "no duh" part of the equation. There's also deeper level, and value dimension, that is so damn important which surfaces with blogs and blogging. My friends at social media consulting group, Frank, get this and capture it with an integrated suite of services. Their graphic below provides a nice snapshot of some work involved, the possible directions a blog strategy can taken an organization, and some of the benefits that can fall out of such an approach.