When bloggers talk about your company, knowing how to respond - if at all - is key. Andrew Gordon discusses ways to deal with this growing crop of citizen journalists
When Peerflix cofounder Billy McNair came across a blog with a disgruntled customer complaining about the online company's DVD trading service, he knew exactly what to do.
"I went onto his blog and said I was sorry to hear about his problems with the service," says McNair. "I explained what happened and that our goal is to provide a great experience. I said this was not an excuse, but it was an explanation. And the response to one of the company's cofounders coming in to explain the issue with customer service [was positive]."
But finding those people who are talking about your company - good or bad - isn't easy. And when you do find them, it's hard to find out how to reply in a way that doesn't make a situation turn from good to bad - or from bad to worse.
"The important thing is to get into this world culturally," advises Jonathan Carson, CEO of BuzzMetrics. "You need to be regularly reading blogs to know the culture. You need to have institutional knowledge to know what tools are available to help you find what you are looking for. This should be a core competency for all agencies."
Voce Communications is one firm that has immersed itself in the blogosphere and that brings a bevy of tools to the game for clients like Peerflix and Yahoo. Blog trackers, such as PubSub and Technorati, are available to anyone seeking an automated way to track millions of sites and billions of links, explains Mike Manuel, Voce client supervisor. Subscribers can create an endless list of keywords for such services to track, with results easily accessible via an RSS feed. And for now, these are the best and easiest tools around.
As companies begin to understand where they're being talked about, then they can also begin to understand the pyramid of influence, adds Voce cofounder Matt Podboy. By using such blog trackers, companies can see where conversations start and how they filter down through the blog universe.
But companies won't get far if they just look at what is being said. They also need to understand how influential the blogger is.
"If the blog has only been viewed nine times in two months, responding would only exacerbate the problem," says David Krejci, Weber Shandwick's director of web relations. "There are millions and millions of blogs. So you need to pay attention to how much cross-linking is going on. If only 200 people are reading or linking to a blog, that's still important, especially if one of those 200 writes for BusinessWeek."
But the number of people reading or linking to a blog is not always the most reliable way to measure influence, says Manuel. Such metrics might work for the most popular ones. But it's harder to determine for more specialized or niche blogs.
"No comment lives as an isolated event," Carson explains. "It's not like 10 years ago, when The New York Times would run a story and that was it. People can comment on the comment. So you're not just dealing with the original comment."
"If someone is passionate enough to write about your company in a good or bad way, it's something that should be addressed," adds Manuel.
And that's where the blogosphere gets tricky. Finding who's talking about you, and how influential they are, is a science. What to do once you've found them, well, that's the art.
How influential the blogger is - getting back to the size of his audience, how many people link to the blog, and so on - should play a role in whether you opt to reach out, says Waggener Edstrom SVP Lynann Bradbury.
"But it also depends on what you're trying to accomplish," Bradbury adds. "Make sure you're regularly reading their blog and absorbing their point of view before reaching out so that you know where they're coming from."
Bradbury cautions against a knee-jerk reaction to a negative blog that could offend the writer or a response that comes on too strong, making the person look like a corporate shill. Her advice is to offer information and give the blogger an opportunity to get involved in the issue that concerns him or her.
"We say, 'inform, not influence,' and 'involve, not invoke,'" she adds.
Follow the "good old-fashioned rules" of PR when engaging a blogger, says Carson, but also be a bit more careful, as bloggers might not respond in the same way journalists do. And expect any e-mail sent to a blogger to be posted.
And don't try to pitch bloggers, warns Manuel. Engage them as individuals and explain that you understand and appreciate their points of view.
"If you engage them and become a participant, it can be an incredibly powerful relationship, especially if you are willing to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly," adds Podboy.
But the decision to engage a blogger should be determined on a case-by-case basis, adds Krejci. By reading the blog, you should know how receptive the blogger might be to interaction. They are writing what they're writing about because they are passionate, and that will color how they respond.
"You need to show that you appreciate that passion," adds Krejci. "You also need to give them the opportunity to reach out to you. Give them the power. That's why they're doing what they're doing."
Remember that bloggers are not as familiar with PR as traditional journalists are, advises Kristen Wareham, communications manager at Yahoo. They also recognize the power they wield and often are willing to listen, as they want to understand, and tap into, what is going on.
Also recognize that sometimes people don't want a conversation, but just to vent, adds Manuel. But more often than not, bloggers will appreciate some kind of outreach, adds Nancy Evars, head of influencer marketing at Yahoo.
Whether it's a well-known person or some high-school kid from Kansas, bloggers will appreciate your effort to engage them in a conversation, as long as it doesn't seem as if you're trying to pitch them, says Evars.
"And make sure you've done your homework," adds Evars. "Learn as much about the blogger as possible. Try to understand who they are by reading their bio and previous posts. It's important to understand who the person is and why they might feel this way. They'll know if you've done this or not."
Do be conversational in your outreach, as blogs are a conversational medium
Do research the blogger before reaching out, as you would with any other journalist
Do read blogs regularly so you get to know the medium well
Don't pitch or send press releases
Don't use PR or marketing language
Don't send anything to a blogger that you don't want to see on the blog five minutes after you do so