PRWeek.com Q&A: Mike Kaltschnee; HackingNetflix.com

By day, Mike Kaltschnee is a VP of business development for Index Stock, a provider of photographic images. But by early morning and late evening, he is the writer/editor of HackingNetflix.com, a blog focused on the established DVD-by-mail and incipient m

By day, Mike Kaltschnee is a VP of business development for Index Stock, a provider of photographic images. But by early morning and late evening, he is the writer/editor of HackingNetflix.com, a blog focused on the established DVD-by-mail and incipient m

With over 60,000 unique visitors last month and over 100,000 hits, HackingNetflix.com has established quite a popular following. Kaltschnee talked to PRWeek.com about his relationship with the company, how he approaches Netflix's PR department, and how he would handle a blog commenting on his company. Separately, we also talked to Ken Ross, Netflix's new VP of corporate communications, about the role of blogs in its media strategy.

PRWeek: How did HackingNetflix.com begin?

Kaltschnee: I wanted to start a software company, and I wanted to learn about it [first]. On Dave Winer's site [www.scripting.org], he suggested you start a blog and read 50 blogs. I didn't want to start one about what I ate for breakfast or something like that. I wanted to follow a company because I thought it would be interesting. And I picked a company that people were passionate about and was somewhat secretive in how it worked. I wanted to find out more about it, hence the name 'hacking,' as I was sort of hacking the company. I'm also a hack writer. It's been great. I had about 110,000 page views last month and 60,000 unique readers. I also started to generate significant revenue, so it's become interesting.

PRWeek: When you started writing about the company, were you curious when - or if - you would ever hear from the company?

Kaltschnee: At first I was scared that it would shut me down, because its name is trademarked. I really just wanted to get some attention from their people, such as, get on the press list and learn about new stuff coming out. I thought it I was too small, but I began to gain traffic. So I made two inquires, and the second time it happened, I posted the e-mail [to Netflix], which got the attention of the company. As it turns out, they were reading the blog.

A week later, I received a phone call from a product manager and someone who was involved in developing its community relations product. Since then, I've had a lot of dialogue [with the company].

PRWeek: Have you yet talked to anyone in the PR department?

Kaltschnee: Well, I've been exchanging e-mails with [director of corporate communications] Shernaz Daver. For this situation, Michele [Turner, VP of product development] is probably the better conduit. I'm somewhat of a project manager in my job, so I've been in Michele's shoes. And we'd kill for this sort of feedback. This must be so valuable for them. One of my users said, "Hey, my webpage looks different than my buddy's," and sent me a screen capture. I asked Michele about it. She said they were doing a trial, and she even sent me a better screen capture. They were testing a new design via feedback on my site.

PRWeek: Does this change the paradigm of the company's relationship with its customers?

Kaltschnee: Companies are looking at blogs and are either terrified or they're embracing them, like Microsoft, with 1,200 [employee] bloggers. It's changing the face of the company. It's change that companies need to embrace; and companies need to start their own blogs.

PRWeek: Have you read any blogs doing the same thing, following a narrow industry or company, to get ideas or see how they interact with companies?

Kaltschnee: I've met a bunch of bloggers either face-to-face at dinners or conferences. The biggest influence [on me] was the PVR blog [PVRblog.com, following TiVo and other personal video recorders].

PRWeek: What would your advice be for a company that might encounter a blog created to cover it?

Kaltschnee: Say hello. Send [the blogger] an e-mail and introduce yourself. Michele reaching out to HackingNetflix.com was very smart. She's very responsive to my e-mails, but I try not to abuse the privilege. I respect her time, and I know she's not at my beck and call. But she really treats me professionally. And it pays off. I got a story leaked to me about the new friends' list feature. I was about to hit send [on my blog post], but I e-mailed [her] instead. It was after hours, but she gave me her home phone number, and she talked me out of posting the story until the next day when [CEO] Reed Hastings announced it. It's been mutually beneficial in the respect that I've had access to beta information, and I get confirmation or denial on queries.

PRWeek: Do you get sense that Turner is looking at the comments your readers leave, and do you think she uses it as a representation of the consumer base?

Kaltschnee: Yes, within reason. There are some extremists commenting on my blog. And there are also investors on my site, trying to move the stock by commenting on it. Several people from Netflix have posted on the blog in response to different stories. It's exciting to see that they're participating in the discussion. Some of the employees even have my blog as their homepage.

PRWeek: What would happen to HackingNetflix.com should Netflix start its own blog?

Kaltschnee: I'm not worried about it. In fact, I've encouraged them to start a blog. I'm very excited about the potential of someone like Reed Hastings blogging. It would only elevate the readership of my blog. Becky from Netflix Fan [another Netflix blog] was a commenter on my site, and I encouraged her to start her own blog. I've linked to her and she's linked to me. Now there are four Netflix-related bloggers that I know.

PRWeek: Have you seen traffic diminish as more people are writing about Netflix?

Kaltschnee: No. It's actually risen. I'm expecting as much as a 20% increase this month.

PRWeek: There have been a lot of false-positives in the blog environment, where people mistake enthusiast blogs for astroturf [a marketing blog pretending to be disassociated with a company]. Has anyone accused you of being a Netflix employee?

Kaltschnee: Yes, but I have responded quickly that I don't work for Netflix. I have a disclaimer, and the majority of people get it. [Netflix] hasn't asked me to change it in any way.

PRWeek: As a VP of business development for IndexStock, if you noticed that someone was sending e-mails to comment on the service or the company, would you encourage them to start a blog?

Kaltschnee: I'd love it. My boss has a blog. And like every company, we have a limited number of resources, but we're looking at starting a couple of others. I'd love to see bloggers, good or bad, talk about our company. I would kill to have 40 different people engaged in a discussion about our product. We could only learn from it.

Ken Ross; Netflix VP of corporate communications

PRWeek: How has Netflix reached out to HackingNetflix.com?

Ross: As someone who just started working here [a month ago], I don't know [Kaltschnee] yet, but I know that we engage in ongoing dialogue with him. We see blogs as an increasingly influential media channel. We think about them, and we pay attention to them just like we do to other media channels like print and broadcast. It represents a good way to keep our finger on the pulse of the consumer marketplace. That's a perspective you get [from blogs].

PRWeek: Is it your knowledge that employees have HackingNetflix.com and other blogs on their radar screens for customer feedback?

Ross: Deep customer insight is very important to us. We seek it, and we analyze it in a lot of ways, including looking at blogs.

PRWeek: Netflix film reviewer James Rocchi maintains a blog. Is this something that the company is considering as a potential outlet?

Ross: We want to engage the consumer in an ongoing, value-added dialogue. That's one of the ways we're looking at doing that. [Rocchi's] blog is definitely gaining popularity.

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