Weblogs offer the opportunity to connect to potential customers, but they must be honest and engaging in order to be effective. Maja Pawinska Sims reports.
Keeping an eye on what's being said online about a company or client has always been a major challenge for PR professionals. Discussion forums, chat rooms, and consumer opinion sites are difficult enough to monitor, but another online area has been largely ignored.
Weblogs, or "blogs, are regularly updated online personal journals (written by "bloggers") with links to items of interest on the web. As blogger and technology writer Nick Denton (nickdenton.org) says, it's "personal web publishing, without the cat pictures, done right this time."
There are many thousands of blogs (some estimates put the number at 500,000), with most being set up after easy-to-use software was developed in 1999, such as Pyra's Blogger, Pitas.com and Userland Software's Manilasites.
Bloggers cross-reference each other constantly, adding their own comments, and creating a close community. Many have day jobs in the technical arena, though there are blogs on every subject from media to politics to librarians.
Whether personality-, topic-, or news-based, all are immediate and personal, and get very active feedback.
There are obvious implications for PR. Blogs are viewed by many participants and commentators as a form of journalism, but without the restrictions imposed by publishers. This is very liberating for writers, but should also be a concern for PR professionals.
"Webloggers are, to some extent, mavericks, explains Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood.net), author of The Weblog Handbook. "They build their reputations through a combination of links, commentary, and personality. Since most weblogs are amateur enterprises, webloggers feel no need to pull punches when discussing a news article, an organization, or a product."
Blood admits few bloggers have enough influence to sway a significant portion of the consumer market, as even the popular ones have daily audiences in the low thousands. But, she adds, "If there is a weblog or cluster of weblogs that are closely aligned with a profession or hobby, a vendor who serves that market would be foolish not to pay attention to the kinds of things that are being said."
So how do you do this? One way of monitoring is to look up your brand and company names via Google once a week, as it does a good job of picking up on blog postings. You could also use a blog search engine, such as blogger.com or portal.eatonweb.com. List keywords for your organization, and as you visit the blogs, look at which are cross-referenced with each other. The best and most popular are linked to from many other sites.
You should also take notice of what's being said in interactive blogs, such as Slashdot, which allow readers to comment on the link provided by the blogger.
Tools to manage monitoring do exist, according to San Francisco web designer and blogger Jason Kottke (kottke.org).
"People are starting to develop tools - like Daypop and Blogdex - that can be used to search weblog content, but they are still first-generation, and not very comprehensive, he says. "If weblogs continue to be popular, I'm sure we'll see better tools emerge to deal with the information and the demand of people seeking it."
But can you be more proactive, and use the power of the weblog to work for you?
"In an era of diminished technology coverage, especially for small or start-up technology companies, weblogs offer an opportunity to connect to potential customers, says Deborah Branscum, who writes the media blog buzz.weblogs.com.
But she stresses that there's a trade-off. "To get coverage, you have to kill the spin. You need to be honest and direct, not obsessed about controlling the so-called message."
Some companies are thinking about how they can use blogs as part of their online marketing strategy, not only by targeting bloggers as opinion formers, but by running their own blogs. This burgeoning area is known as corporate blogging.
"The notion of major corporations offering weblogs to get the word out has a lot of attraction, as well as a profound potential for abuse," says Paul Andrews (paulandrews.com), technology writer for The Seattle Times.
"They let businesses take their message right to the public, without TV network news or the local newspaper having to act as mouthpieces."
Kottke agrees that weblogs could be a powerful PR tool. "A clever weblog can combine the information dissemination of a traditional website with the communication you get with direct e-mail or an e-mail newsletter," he says. "The frequent updates, along with the looser writing style adopted by many webloggers, gives your customers the impression that you're having a conversation with them instead of just shoving information at them in press release form."
The main caveat to this is that the blogger must be honest. A few weeks ago, Macromedia set up a number of blogs written by employees about its products, separate from the corporate website. But while customers are embracing this new communication tool, there has been much debate in the blogging community about whether Macromedia was up-front enough about its involvement.
Blood thinks not. "Some people felt Macromedia was trying to pull a fast one, but I think it was just general cluelessness, she says. "Companies that want to gain the trust of readers need to be just as transparent as individual webloggers.
"The smartest companies will hire established webloggers to produce new weblogs for them, rather than try to insinuate themselves onto anyone's personal site - or worse, have their marketing department produce a weblog. Writing an effective, engaging weblog is harder than it looks, and the last thing readers want is a weblog that sounds like it was written by a PR flack."
1 Do take blogs seriously. Find those that seem to be most interesting for your industry, bookmark them, and read them regularly
2 Do act fast. If you need to respond to something on a blog, do so quickly and honestly. Similarly, if you are writing a corporate blog, make sure it is very up-to-date
3 Do be honest about corporate involvement with a blog. If you leave it up to readers to find out for themselves, it will seriously erode the reputation of the blogger and the company
1 Don't ignore blogs, or lump them in with general chat rooms, or assume they have no influence. This is intelligent and informed opinion-sharing
2 Don't dismiss requests for interviews and information from bloggers. Many are also established journalists, and if they are unhappy with your attitude, you may find your e-mail exchange published in full on their site, as happened to Edelman last year
3 Don't attempt to directly plug a product on an interactive blog - you won't get a good response.