It's a Blog World After All

Blogs were once the domain of angst-ridden teens and doomed presidential candidates. But the likes of Verizon, IBM, Microsoft, and Dr. Pepper are all climbing on the blogwagon. Turns out, Web logs are a nifty knowledge-management tool. And companies also see them as a promising medium for advertising (naturally).

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Robert Scoble may well be one of the most powerful people in Redmond right now. "The Scobleizer," as he's known to his daily readers, writes a Web log, or blog, posting comments on topics that range from the world's largest pistachio factory to how cheap it is to eat in Shanghai. Mostly, though, he writes about Microsoft. On January 27, 14 of the 31 posts he made between midnight and the time he went to bed, sometime after 3:41 a.m., were about the software giant or its products. But the Scobleizer is no ordinary Windows-obsessed blog jockey. He is, in fact, a Microsoft employee. He's a "technical evangelist," to be precise, whose job includes communicating with customers on the Web. One way he does this is by writing blogs. He gets feedback from tech-savvy readers on how to improve Microsoft products, and at times, he's even mildly critical of his employer. After Microsoft threatened a teen who registered MikeRoweSoft.com, Scoble wrote this: "It's unfortunate that we went after a 17-year-old named 'Mike Rowe,' though. I'm sorry that happened to you Mike."

What's this? Humility from the House of Gates? That's life in the blog world, where one whiff of PR or marketing spin will instantly mark you as phony. "If my credibility goes down," says Scoble, "then what do I have?" Though he's just one of hundreds of employee bloggers at the software giant, Scoble is by far the most widely read. More than 850 blogs and 1,300 sites link to him, putting him right up there with Howard Dean's Blog for America at its height. And he's aware of his power: "I know I'm playing with dynamite," Scoble says.

Dynamite, indeed. The burgeoning blog world--1.6 million keyboard tappers at last count--is making big inroads into corporate culture. From tech companies like Microsoft (which says it "respects and supports" blogs like Scoble's) and IBM to decidedly nontech outfits like Dr. Pepper, companies are starting to use blogging both as a medium to market products and monitor brands and as an internal knowledge-management tool. To meet corporate demand, both UserLand and Six Apart, makers of popular blog software programs, are coming out with enterprise-level products later this year.

Corporate America is jumping onto the blogwagon for many of the same reasons all those journalists, brooding teenagers, and presidential campaigners are already on board. Unlike email and instant messaging, blogs let employees post comments that can be seen by many and mined for information at a later date, and internal blogs aren't overwhelmed by spam. And unlike most corporate intranets, they're a bottoms-up approach to communication. "With blogs, you gain more, you hear more, you understand where things are going more," says Halley Suitt, who wrote a fictional case study on corporations and blogging for the Harvard Business Review. "Even better, you understand them faster."

At Verizon, Paul Perry, a director in the company's eServices division, started a blog to keep up with news about competitors. Using a news aggregator, a popular blog-world tool that grabs and assembles syndicated "feeds" of content from Web sites and other blogs, people in his group can quickly post news they find on those feeds to the internal blog. DaimlerChrysler employs Web log software at a few of its U.S. plants; managers discuss problems and keep a record of their solutions. And American Airlines, where only 20% of the company's highly mobile workforce has corporate email, is considering blogs as a way to give employees more channels to management.

The Hartford Financial Services Group is already finding success using blogs in one of its mobile groups. A team of 40 field technology managers, who serve as links between The Hartford's network of insurance agents and the home office, set up a blog in August. They use it to share information about e-commerce features and solutions to technology problems. Before, email and voice mail sufficed, but email threads would die, and there was no way to search past shared information. "We don't get a chance to talk with each other as often as we'd like," says Steve Grebner, one of The Hartford's field managers, who thinks of the blog a little like a town square. "To me, it's like there's 14--or 40--brains out there, and you might as well tap into that knowledge base."

So do blogs hold the key to seamless sharing of collective corporate intelligence, the holy grail of knowledge management? Web log software is cheaper to install and maintain than many knowledge-sharing programs, and it's extremely simple to use. Knowledge software often requires employees to take both an extra step and extra time to record what they know, and to fit their knowledge into a database of inflexible categories. Internal blogs are more integrated into a worker's regular daily communications. IBM began blogging in December, and by February, some 500 employees in more than 30 countries were using it to discuss software development projects and business strategies. And while blogs' inherently open, anarchic nature may be unsettling, Mike Wing, IBM's vice president of intranet strategy, believes their simplicity and informality could give them an edge. "It may be an easy, comfortable medium for people to be given permission to publish what they feel like publishing," he says.

But that informal transparency is precisely why many companies' embrace of blogs is at best uneasy. Internally, blogs have the potential to let employees who wouldn't otherwise be seen as authorities have a voice with a lot of impact. "[Companies] are not going to be able to stuff it back into the box," says Greg Lloyd, CEO of Traction, a business-oriented blog software company. Externally, the fears are even greater. Letting employees speak directly to customers requires a huge amount of trust. A loose cannon might reveal corporate secrets, give out the wrong message, or even open up the company to legal trouble.

Despite those worries, no new medium can go for long without being turned into a marketing channel. Got a message to get out or a product to promote? The blog world is populated by folks who thrive on racing to be first to post news and getting others to link to, or "blogroll," them. They're naturally the opinionated, hyperconnected influencers marketers crave. Jonathan Carson, president and CEO of BuzzMetrics, a New York-based firm that mines message boards, listservs, and blogs to see what's being said about companies, says his clients ignored blogs nine months ago. Today, more than half specifically ask whether his monitoring includes the blogosphere. "If companies focus in on what's going on in the blog world, it's an amazing leading indicator on what's going to break in the real world," he says.

That's why some businesses are going straight to bloggers for buzz. Random House's Crown Publishing sends books to bloggers for review. Nokia sent a small group of bloggers its 3650 model camera phone to take for a whirl. To help companies find bloggers who fit their target, Internet marketing firm Richards Interactive has even started ProjectBlog.com, a database of bloggers who've completed demographic surveys.

In an episode that shows both the promise and peril of a corporate embrace of blogging, Richards helped Dr. Pepper/Seven Up run a blogcentric campaign last spring for its new milk-based drink, Raging Cow. It started a blog for the cow--"the cow had his own site," says director of corporate communications Mike Martin (who's a little fuzzy on bovine anatomy). Then it screened hundreds of young bloggers to find a suitable group to help promote the drink. Dr. Pepper flew the five winners and their parents to Dallas to try the product and gave them several hundred dollars in Amazon gift certificates.

While Martin says the campaign was a success, it provoked an angry backlash in the blog world, where the relationship between the company and the blogs was seen as crassly commercial and poorly disclosed. "A case of crude corporate cluelessness," wrote one widely read pundit and law professor. Todd Copilevitz, director of interactive strategy at Richards, admits the company should have had the bloggers repeat disclosures more often.

Other companies are finding their visits to the blogosphere less bruising. Tiny 10e20, a Web design firm in Brooklyn, recently began requiring employees to post updates on their progress to a blog twice a day. Within the first six weeks, 10 projects were turned in early. Having a central repository for information helped--but so did the added scrutiny that came from letting everyone see how a project was progressing. Software maker Macromedia, one of the first companies to adopt blogs for customer service, saved tens of thousands of dollars in call-center support when it released a crop of new products for software developers in 2002. A trusted group of employees started blogs to answer users' questions, and the blogs have grown into online communities that give Macromedia valuable customer feedback.

At Microsoft, Scoble sees his blog as a way to put a gentler face on the often-reviled software giant. Is it working? The Scobleizer has detractors who think he's just a shill. But a comment from "thad," who began reading the blog before Scoble became a Microsoft employee, is revealing: "Really liked a lot of your ideas. Then you were assimilated and I came to see how you'd change. But something else happened. You turned me on to XP and I liked it. It is almost enjoyable to work on. . . . you have changed my views on the big evil company."

Jena McGregor is Fast Company's associate editor.

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  • Carel Two-Eagle

    Just because a person's blog is well-read doesn't mean the blogger is not humble. Similarly, it doesn't mean s/he is a phony, doesn't care about any opinion other than hers/his, or any other never-did-fit-all blanket statement. As for MicroSoft going after the kid who registered as MikeRoweSoft.. that's a company thing, not a Scoble / blogger thing.. The company's heads need to take a breath of fresh air & come into a better reality. There's little more off-putting than pompousity, from a company or a person. Or maybe that's common old-fashioned bullying.

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  • James Timms

    I can understand how people that talk about a lot of interesting topics can become popular in the blogosphere, but I can't imagine who would be an avid reader of the Dr. Pepper blog! Unless of course they post stories that aren't related directly to their products, but use it to increase brand awareness.

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  • Matt Timothy

    The reason this open-source market of thinking and writing has such potential is that the always adjusting and evolving collective mind can rapidly filter out bad arguments and bad ideas. The flip side, of course, is that bloggers are also human beings. Reason is not the only fuel in the tank. In a world where no distinction is made between good traffic and bad traffic, and where emotion often rules, some will always raise their voice to dominate the conversation; others will pander shamelessly to their readers’ prejudices; others will start online brawls for the fun of it.