Professionals, Publishing for the Public

If it's true that markets are conversations, business blogs might help corporate conversations scale globally.

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David Weinberger is the author of Small Things Loosely Changed: A Unified Theory of the Web, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and an all-around insightful thinker at the crux of business, society, and the Web. Other hats include strategic marketing consultant and most recently, Internet advisor for the Dean campaign (remember those days?). Back in January, on the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, Fast Company pulled Weinberger in from the cold for a phone chat about blogs in business. Here's an excerpt of the conversation transcript.

Fast Company: What's your view on how much companies are and should be paying attention to what's being said in the blog world?

David Weinberger: Companies have wanted to be able to personalize their offerings, but they've been stuck with a broadcast model for marketing. They're trying to reach masses of people. So you can say, as [one of my co-authors] says in Cluetrain, that markets are conversations, which I thoroughly believe is true. But the immediate question is how do you scale conversations globally? Markets are way too big to have conversations with.

Blogs are part of the answer to that question, because they're built from the bottom up. They are people talking about what they care about in a public forum. They're not one-to-one, but they're also not one-to-many. They're generally small groups who are reading each other's blogs, but together, because the blogs are linked, they form a much wider conversation of the universe.

So they provide a way for a company to find out what their customers actually think about their products. Do they care about the products at all, and if so, how are they talking about them and what are they saying? Who's championing them? Who's a useful critic and what are the topics that are naturally emerging from the people who care enough about these products to talk about them? Just as a way of listening, blogs provide a type of natural aggregation of talk that simply hasn't been available before.

FC: How is that different from companies listening to what people are saying in online forums or message boards?

Weinberger: It has to do with the rhetorical forms of blogs. Of course, there have been ways of aggregating all instances of the use of a product name, finding every message anybody has left, and that's certainly something useful for companies to do.

But because of the nature of blogs as a persistent place for thought, and because of the fact that they link together in relatively persistent ways, the quality of the conversation can be longer form, more thoughtful, and in an important way, less centered on the original message. This is not an either-or. Message boards tend to be more useful for addressing relatively small topics that generate a set of responses that have some degree of urgency.

FC: On an internal level, do you think, whether it's for communication or for knowledge management or project flow, that there's an internal way that blogs are going to take off or do well in a corporate or business environment?

Weinberger: Yes. I think it's obvious. Blogs enable local expertise to emerge. That's what happens on the Internet, and given enough space and liberty, there's no reason that same thing won't happen inside a corporation. . . . But it's really hard for companies to do that, because blogs look like digressions, and because people who are best at blogging are not necessarily the perceived experts. That's true on the Internet as well. You never know; some people you'd think would be great and natural bloggers just can't do it.

In part, you have to be willing to write really badly. That's part of the deal; you have to willing to publish things, to make things public, pretty much as soon as you've written them. The deal with the reader is that the reader gives you preemptive forgiveness for the bad writing, for errors. That's the only way this social transaction can go forward. And many people -- not just in business, but especially in business, where documents are your avatar -- are reluctant to expose writing that's suboptimal.

FC: Or that hasn't been approved by somebody.

Weinberger: Exactly. Not to mention that they may say something that won't be pleasing or even allowed. So companies can have difficulty creating a climate in which blogging can flourish.

FC: Then why do you think it will take off? How will companies create those environments and how will people get beyond that?

Weinberger: The same way intranets took off. They took off first as sites that engineers put up without asking anybody. Exactly the same thing will happen with blogs. The urge to blog doesn't show up in management by objectives -- yet, anyway. So if people are going to do it, they're going to do it because they want to.

FC: From the people you're talking to, how new are internal business blogs?

Weinberger: Underground blogs are springing up simply as a way for people to talk about what they know and care about inside the corporation. It does seem, however, that businesses are having difficulty coming to grips with the fact of blogs. The initial reaction to blogs at the corporate level is "How much time are people going to spend on this? That times the number of people equals my loss of productivity." They view it as a distraction from the real work of business, and of course it can in some instances be that. In other cases, it's a way of surfacing the genuine experts who are able to teach others and spark innovation in the most human of ways.

FC: Do you think that loss of productivity is a valid fear?

Weinberger: It's a prediction based on, as far as I know, no data. If everybody at some global company were to start blogging half an hour a day, that would absolutely be a huge loss of productivity. But we don't know how many bloggers will actually emerge in a company. We don't know how many will persist and we don't know how many will be of tremendous value. I don't think we know the answer to the question.

FC: What about externally, where you have employees who reveal the fact that they are part of a company and either use the blog to help them with their job or somehow get information on what people think of their company?

Weinberger: I don't know that companies have figured out what the role of the outward-facing blogger is. It's too new. Corporations are always tempted to co-opt the medium. Companies look at blogs and they see the good marketing that blogs can do for them. So they set up the blog in order to do the marketing as opposed to allowing blogs to emerge that are genuinely enthusiastic about the product. Those sorts of blogs can be scary because somebody who loves a product is also willing to talk about what's wrong with the product and may be desperate to talk about what's going to happen with the product.

And if she's inside the company, it can look like a threat. If you can find those people and allow them to talk and not be shills, it can solve the most basic marketing problems that companies have, which is they have been stuck with a broadcast model for marketing, a single message going out to masses of people. It's economical for the company but is generally quite alienating to the people who receive it. Here's an alternative method in which somebody -- an identifiable, real human being -- speaks in her own voice about what she cares about, and gathers a collection of people internally and externally who also care about it. That is great marketing.

FC: Do you think companies need to have a policy about what can and can't be said?

Weinberger: I have a long and boring answer to the question, which I will skip, but my conclusion is policy should be made only when there's an actual problem. Trying to spec out policies of unknown areas ahead of time is very likely to kill the very thing it's trying to maintain. This is one of those things you learn from experience and have to be willing to forgive the mistakes your bloggers make because that's required for learning. And there's no learning without forgiveness.

You can learn more about Weinberger and his work in Joho the Blog.

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