Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2004

 

"Life...is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
       -- Macbeth

Just last week, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission started a blog to better communicate with constituents.  Clearly, something  is going on with this blogging thing.  

I decided to try this month's newsletter [note: this one is OLD, written in 2004] in the form of a Point/Counterpoint (without the "Jane, you ignorant ..."), presenting two opposing perspectives on blogs. 

Point:  Blogs are the next email

There are over 2.7 million bloggers, mostly in the US and in technology fields.  (2007 update:  there are now 55 million blogs worldwide -- 20x growth in under 3 years.  To put this in perspective, in 2007 there were 300 million email boxes in the world after 20+ years.)  Over 2M blog postings are added every day.  Blogs combine the best characteristics of email, newsgroups, and web pages - and blogging can revolutionize the way you communicate with customers, prospects, and constituents.  The technology and developing sociology of blogs are the next step in democratizing information and access.  Best of all, blogs are inherently search-engine friendly, achieving very high Google visibility and rankings.

Blogs are a superb communication and community-building tool, providing  instant feedback loops.  If the Cluetrain Manifesto's assertion - that commerce is a conversation - is correct, blogs facilitate those conversations with new levels of speed, transparency, and worldwide access.  Blogs are a fantastic guerilla marketing tool, providing a way to develop and document word of mouth.

Blogs have been used with tremendous results by executives who want to reach out directly to the customer base, bypassing the PR wonks and uncooperative press.  Blogging is the cheapest PR in the world.

Blogs are also a great way to refine and document complex decisions about features, priorities, and policies.  By providing an open and thoroughly documented conversation, a blog can bring a group to consensus, with the participation that automatically increases buy-in.  Blogs are terrific for:

  • Refining product features and design priorities.

  • Engaging a constituency in the formation of a new policy, standard, process, or by-law.

  • Removing the veneer of "messaging" and organizational politics, allowing direct engagement between executives and customers or constituents.  Blogs are to spin-control what open source is to proprietary software.

  • Identifying and rectifying support or process issues.

When done right, blogs are self-organizing and provide a highly searchable archive for opinions, consensus-building, and decisions.  External blogs are highly visible to search engines.  Internal blogs can also cut down on e-mail -- particularly the annoying "response to your response" threads.  By reducing redundancy and providing an authoritative store of "everything we know about this topic," blogs help users manage information by exception, helping reduce information overload.

Blogs are similar to newsgroups, but they are much easier to set up, search, and use.  Entire web sites can be created without writing a single line of HTML or JavaScript.  Take a look at WordPress or Moveable Type.  

Blogs also add something wholly new:  syndication and alerting.  If there's a topic you care about, you can get automatic (email) alerts when there is a new posting or update.  Blogs are a content-stream, and the RSS  protocol allows for easy exchange and aggregation of relevant content for special-interest portals.

Blog search engines and desktop tools are at:  KinjaTechnoratiBloglinesBlogwise and elsewhere.

Blog creation and website tools are at:  WordPressBloggerMoveable TypeNewsgator, Greymatter, and elsewhere.

From the standpoint of customers, users, or community members, blogs transform what was a transaction with a faceless behemoth into a personal relationship with a "known face" inside the organization.  Bill Gates and Jonathan Schwartz have blogs .  If there's a problem with corporate blogs (clogs?), it's this inherent conflict of interest:  the more truthful a blog is, the more valuable it is to customers -- but the more risky it is to the sponsoring organization.

Counter-Point:  Blah, Blah, Blogs

At best, blogs are just newsgroups with a face-lift.  Yes, they are easier to use and prettier to look at than a newsgroup, but they are only an incremental improvement.  While blogs can be useful for community building, it is tough to make them really effective in a commercial context.   For the purely outbound side of marketing, "a marketer needs a blog like a fish needs a bicycle."

Up to now, blogs have been relatively free of spam, and their "opt in" nature means that blogs have not been subject to spam filters.  (Blogs aren't delivered via SMTP, so conventional SPAM filtering won't even work.)  But even that advantage won't last long. Thanks to the wonders of the free market, there are already VC-funded companies working to use RSS feeds as spam channels.  Can spam-filtering of RSS be far behind?

The popularity of blogs is amazing, but the popularity seems more focused with the producersof blogs than with the consumers.  Blogs are the ultimate in vanity publishing:  free instant worldwide distribution of mostly-worthless content.  Who has time to read all the drek?  (2007 update:  even now, 90% of IT professionals do not read blogs...and other professions will be even later adopters.)  This is a write-only medium.

Many political activists and some candidates are using blogs this year.  This makes them more appealing to the under-30 crowd, and there's hope that this is a first step to getting them to vote.  You'll know when blogging is so mainstream as to be passé when Dick Cheney starts one.

It is true that a few press and analysts say they prefer blogging as the way to communicate with them:  it's their way to avoid information overload.  But it's not blogging they like, it's RSS and the ability to filter and organize.  Ironically, the vast majority of press and analysts have never used a blog themselves, any more than they looked at newsgroups or (shudder) UseNet.  This goes double for the non-technology press. 

The problems with blogs are the same as with newsgroups and email:  content value.  There's no reliable way to filter for the high-quality stuff that's relevant to you. There isn't any technology to enrich the information value of the blog text, to make it truly useful.  For example:

  • metadata (aka XML tags) to help organize and cross-reference the stream of consciousness that's inevitable in an on-line conversation,

  • automated means for content discipline, structure, and moderation, 

  • mechanisms for establishing / maintaining the qualifications and credibility of posters, and a "reputation index" for articles or threads,

  • internal mechanisms for editing or refinement of communications, such as markings for annotations, corrections, verified fact vs. opinion, etc.

Until some of these enhancements are made to blog engines and readers, blogs will just be an uncontrolled channel -- completely free, but seldom worth the time to read. 

Epilogue:  This text stolen from Scott Adams' DNRC newsletter... 

"Q:  Lots of people write blogs, but I’ve never heard of anyone who actually reads them.  What’s up with this?  
A:  Blogs exist to fill the important market niche of writing that is so dull that your eyes will burrow out of the back of your head to escape.  People do read blogs, usually by accident, sometimes on a dare, but those readers are later mistaken for Mafia victims with what appears to be two holes in the back of their heads."

How can I top that? 

 

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