BLOG SPECIAL: Blog myths exposed

Are most blogs read only by their creator, or are they more powerful than newspapers, asks David Murphy.

If 2005 was the year of the podcast – when the word, along with ‘wiki’ and ‘phishing’, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary – then 2006 was the year of the blog (PRWeek, 8 Dec).

Last January, ‘blog’ was entered into US-based National Public Radio’s list of words that should be banned, while the American Dialect Society named ‘flog’ (fake blog) its Word of the Year.

Both recognitions highlight the obsession with blogs and the interest they attract from PR professionals and the media. But what if their influence has been overhyped? Should PROs – as they have often been advised to do – fundamentally redefine how they manage their clients?

PRWeek assesses six common claims made about blogs – and bloggers – to try and distinguish fact from fiction:

1. ‘Most blogs are never read’

This is the claim most used by blog detractors. According to blog measurement specialist Technorati, PR practitioners should balance the estimated size of the blogosphere with the percentage of ‘short-life’ blogs (those that soon disappear after their arrival).

Last July, Technorati heralded the birth of the 50 millionth blog. The current estimated size of the blogosphere is 60 million – but some argue that the figure paints an inaccurate picture, because so many of those blogs are static (rarely, if ever, updated). US researcher Perseus claims that 66 per cent of blogs have not been updated in the past two months. It describes more than a million blogs as ‘one-day wonders’ (with no follow-up postings).

Technorati supports these statistics, estimating that around 45 per cent of blogs have not been added to in the past three months.

‘It’s obvious that a large number of blogs are never read,’ says Jonathan Hopkins, account manager and digital specialist at Bite Communications. ‘There are an estimated 100,000 new blogs created every day, but a large percentage of them are doomed never to be read, or are merely stumbled upon via RSS feeds.’

Chris Price, MD of UK blogging network Red Shiny Media, points out that its blogs, including TechDigest and
Bay Raider, attract 2.2 million unique visitors a month. Meanwhile, Euro­pean networks, such as Blogo in Italy and Weblogs SL in Spain, attract 2.8 million and five million unique visitors respectively. Price says: ‘Ninety per cent of blogs are for personal use, but the remaining ten per cent are important, and ten per cent of 60 million is still a big number.’

The traditional measure of a blog’s popularity – in terms of ‘readership’ – is the number of other sites that link to it. According to Technorati’s Global Top 100 Blogs list, tech blog Engadget leads the pack with 25,580 links. But 80 of the top 100 – mostly US-based, although Chinese bloggers are on the ascendant – have fewer than 5,000 links.

Immediate Future account director Graham Lee says PROs need to take into account the fact that although a blog may have a relatively few number of links, those links may be to influential websites. ‘Lots of blogs have a small readership, but if a story has some weight it can be picked up very quickly,’ he explains.

Conclusion
The vast majority of blogs are barely – if ever – read, but that is not the point. PROs should concentrate on blogs that are read.

2. ‘Bloggers are more influential/respected than journalists’

Research into this is unclear. In a recent US survey by Blogcount.com, 30 per cent of respondents said they found blogs less credible than newspaper articles, with 38 per cent finding blogs more credible. In a poll last November by Ipsos MORI for Hotwire PR, more than 25 million European adults said they had changed their minds about a company or its products after reading reviews on a blog.

In the same survey, blogs (24 per cent) came second to newspapers (30 per cent) as the most trusted infor­mation source.

Jeff Sharpe, account manager at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, says blogs are polarising into niche topics, and it is in the technology space where readers give bloggers most respect: ‘Tech-savvy readers will put more stock in an Engadget blog than they would in a magazine article because those blogs have auth­­ority.’

Alex Brown, comms manager at sports marketing agency Fast Track, says the transfer of information between bloggers, and the opinions they foster, represent a speedier mode of PR than that offered by other media. He adds: ‘Blogs rely on word of mouth, so if brands can influence bloggers in a positive way, there is benefit to be derived from that.’

Conclusion PR professionals cannot afford to dismiss bloggers as ‘ranting lunatics’.

3. ‘Bloggers’ power and influence are overhyped’

It is a widely held belief that bloggers merely regurgitate news from mainstream media. Tim Dyson, CEO of Next Fifteen, says every news item generates, on average, 120 blog mentions, most of which are musings with no extra insight – or influence.

But Shiny Media’s Price says bloggers are playing an increasing role in breaking news – as when Michael Arrington, of blog forum Techcrunch, first reported that Google was set to buy YouTube. ‘The story was posted on Arrington’s site, and picked up by The Wall Street Journal soon after­wards,’ says Price.

Golin Harris joint managing director Jonathan Hughes says: ‘Anyone who thinks bloggers are not influential should talk to John Prescott, or corporations such as Sony BMG, who have all been embarrassed by the voice of individual bloggers. Bloggers share similar views, so when they become engaged in an issue they carry with them an active community of like-minded people.’

Mike Mathieson, founder of Cake Media, handles PR for Nintendo. Last July he discovered that a Japanese website had discovered the name for the upcoming Wii brand. ‘We managed to close the site down in the nick of time,’ he says. ‘We were hours away from it being everywhere.’

In terms of measuring a blog’s influence, ‘hits’ are losing their usefulness. In 2003, US blogger John Hawkins compiled a list of the ten best ‘unknown’ political blogs with daily hit-rates of less than 300. Included was instapundit by Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee. It has since grown to be one of the most widely read political blogs in the US, covering everything from the war in Iraq to the latest developments in nanotechnology.

Conclusion Most bloggers have little or no influence, but the few that do can wield extensive power, both online and off. PROs ignore them, and their influence, at their peril.

4. ‘PROs can’t influence bloggers’

Are bloggers journalists in disguise? If they are, then it is appropriate to approach them in the same way as
one would a journalist. And if not? Burson-Marsteller knowledge development director Idil Cakim advises against trying to sway bloggers. He says: ‘PROs should engage in well-informed, transparent conversations with bloggers who indicate that they are open to them.’

Last year The Red Consultancy launched a joint venture with Shiny Media to help companies build relationships with influential bloggers. ‘Bloggers’ reputation for being un­controllable exists because no one is trying to build relationships with them,’ says Price. ‘PROs will be surprised how bloggers can be engaged.’

From the blogger’s perspective, Ewan MacLeod – who runs smstextnews.com – says he is open to app­roaches from PR people. ‘If there is something going on with a company in the mobile industry, I want to know about it,’ he adds. ‘I enc­ourage people to get in touch.’

Examples of how PROs have promoted clients via blogs can be found on this week’s Campaigns pages.

Conclusion PROs can talk to bloggers, but should not treat them as journ­­alists. Approach with caution.

5. ‘Corporate blogs give credibility’

Many companies are convinced of this. According to Jupiter Research, 35 per cent of corporates planned to start a blog by the end of 2006, while 34 per cent already had one.

Corporate blogs are particularly evident in the tech arena, where Microsoft, Sony and Sun Mic­ro­systems are especially active. Even Dell – often criticised for its level of customer service – has a corporate blog.

However, Martin Price, director at ‘integrated PR’ firm Cherrett Price PR, says: ‘Most comm­ercial blogs are so boring and blatant that I can’t believe they are read.’

Bite’s Hopkins says: ‘If a blog prints “corporate speak” and feels false, people will dismiss it. Blogs that demonstrate this may damage their credibility. Meanwhile, too many firms try to check the “interactive box” by posting repurposed marketing material without considering how it can further their rela­­­­tion­­­ship with their audiences Brands such as McDonald’s and General Motors have established credibility by having direct conversations with customers.’

Those who get corporate blogs wrong risk a backlash. Before Christmas, Sony set up a flog at www.alli­wantforxmasisapsp.com to promote its PlayStation3 games console. The site was ost­ensibly written by two young boys, Charlie and Jeremy, as a way of convincing the latter’s mother to buy him a PS3. Visitors saw through the ruse, and left little doubt – via posts – what they thought about it. Sony closed the site on 12 December.

Conclusion Corporate blogs can be useful if they give writers free reign to express themselves. Most do not.

6. ‘More people will get their news from blogs than traditional media’

In Ofcom’s report on media consumption last August, younger people were more likely than the older generation to favour online media. It found that 16 to 24-year-olds watch TV for one hour less a day than the average viewer, and that 37 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds have contributed to a blog or website message board. Thirty-seven per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds said they read newspapers less as a consequence of their online usage.

The question is whether these people will retain their preference for online media as they grow older. One PR professional says: ‘Traditional media will die a slow death – within our lifetime the paid-for magazine sector will be vastly reduced to glossy coffee-­table publications.’

Bite’s Hopkins adds: ‘For PROs wanting to keep their finger on the pulse, I think that mobile RSS will soon be a must-have.’

But Fasttrack’s Alex Brown warns PR people against losing their focus on traditional media: ‘Many journalists are well respected and will offer more informed opinion that audiences respect. Building relationships with these leading opinion formers defin­itely remains a good bet. Older people still distrust blogs.’

Cherrett’s Price adds: ‘Blogs are insignificant as a news source, and will continue to be. They are comment, not front-page news.’

Conclusion It is inadvisable to assume traditional media are in terminal decline. More likely, old and new media will co-exist, giving greater choice.

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