Robert Scoble , one of the blogging community’s most recognized members, achieved online fame during his tenure at Microsoft by podcasting interviews with Bill Gates, sparking discussion and debate on Vista, and generally opening the company to direct interaction with the public on a daily, even hourly basis. Acknowledging that the software giant based in Redmond, Wash., needed to take its lumps, Scoble helped foster Microsoft’s current pro-blogging attitude, which was a dramatic departure for Gates and company.
One main benefit of this approach has been that a horde of bloggers leaves footprints about Microsoft all over the Internet. Case in point: Microsoft’s Zune MP3 player. Employees as well as outside developers have discussed Zune at length in their blogs.
Any Web search of Zune or related products turns up tens of thousands of relevant blog posts. “That couldn’t have happened with a company that didn’t have 3,000 bloggers,” says Scoble, who is now vice president of media development at PodTech Network in Menlo Park, Calif. “If you can get thousands of people to write about something and link to something, Google rewards that with a high relevancy score in search results.”
There’s one answer about whether or not to blog. Every company should embrace blogging and then make room in the parking lot for the dump trucks of money, flattering press and legions of fans that will ensue. OK, that might be overstating, but clearly a pro-blogging stance is a good fit for a company such as Microsoft, which reaps the benefits of all this attention in the form of increased traffic, product support, and product and brand exposure. And it’s certainly not alone. Sun Microsystems counts more than 1,200 members among its blogging community.
Yet, for a small business, blogging might not always make good business sense. If you’re considering taking the plunge, ask yourself whether you’re niche-enough to benefit, genuinely have a unique voice that will help position your company in a way that grows the business and have a mechanism for dealing with unflattering posts.
Say you’re promoting a new soap that promises to get clothes cleaner. To demonstrate authority in this area, you recruit an enthusiastic technical engineer to blog about how he discovered the new formula or the scientific research behind the formula. The blog invites readers to post questions — to which the engineer promptly responds online. The blog links out to Consumer Reports and other studies and news reports, promoting the soap’s environment-friendly ingredients.
After a short time, the blog acquires some links and gets referral traffic from Google. It turns out that there’s an untapped market for “environmental-friendly soap.” The traffic grows, and one reader’s blog for stay-at-home moms mentions the product to her 300 daily readers. Meanwhile, back at your corporate blog, the conversation continues.
The scenario seems plausible and illustrates two of the requirements for a successful business-oriented blog: a point of differentiation that generates interest and the right person to tell the story. But you’ll notice there’s no quote from the CEO or other corporate bigwigs. Herein lies another lesson Microsoft learned: Steve Ballmer can talk all day in press releases, but it’s the voices from the front line that lend a blog the most credibility. The secret ingredients are in-depth knowledge in niche areas and a general passion for the subject.
Delivering the right message is, of course, another critical component of a blogging strategy. Some implementation details also will determine whether your blog is loved, loathed or just plain ignored. Figure out whether you truly want and can convey meaningful commentary in the form of a blog. If you don’t have an individual or a team that’s willing to pen and feed your blog, don’t start one.
“You really want to find people who are passionate, and they will be the advocates of your company,” says Jory Des Jardins , a popular blogger and founding member of BlogHer (blogher.org ), a community of women bloggers with 7,500 active members. “The first place to look is not always in your marketing department. You don’t want a blog to sound like a press release. You want to pull people in by their passion.”
You may find that you’ve got several voices just waiting to be heard. It’s common to use a shared blog and have multiple contributors. But the traditional struggle for one common voice, tone and style can definitely cause problems. Try to avoid draconian editorial controls and let individual voices ring out.
Blogger Robert McLaws  (www.windows-now.com ) talks with surprising calm about the day he used credentials afforded to him as a popular blogger about Microsoft products to borrow some information from the company’s internal project server. McLaws says he downloaded a complete set of Microsoft bugs and then created a graph showing the correlation between the number of reported bugs and the number of releases. Then, in a clear violation of his nondisclosure agreement with Microsoft, he published the information to his blog, which gets which gets 5 million page views per month
There is little question Microsoft could have banished his blog to “page not found” limbo and repaid his maverick publishing methods with a lifetime of courtroom proceedings. So how soon did he receive the first cease-and-desist order? “I still haven’t received one,” McLaws says. “But an employee told me that my graph was used in a presentation within Microsoft. That was pretty cool.”
If someone says something negative about your brand or product online, link to it, advises Scoble. “The trick to building trust is to show up,” he says. If customers are saying things about your product and you don’t answer them or act like they don’t exist, then that foments distrust. There are some shockingly candid voices out there that are unafraid to let you have it. It can be daunting at first, but remember that if you do things right, you’ll find 50 supportive readers for every critic.
“If you’re not open to criticism, you shouldn’t be blogging,” McLaws says. “If you don’t have a thick skin, you better have your employees berate you first or something. Because when you’re out there, you don’t have any protection.”