Making Blogs Pay
Blogging is quickly becoming part of the online lexicon of marketing, sales and support organizations as companies look for better ways to connect with customers.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project published a report in January based on two blog surveys. The report is free and can be downloaded from their site, and it makes for interesting reading for those who want to stay connected to customers.
According to the report, 8 million American adults say they have created blogs; blog readership increased 58 percent in 2004 and now stands at 27 percent of Internet users; 5 percent of Internet users say they use RSS aggregators or XML readers to have news and other information delivered from blogs and content-rich Web sites; and 12 percent of Internet users have posted comments or other information on blogs.
Even so, 62 percent of Internet users do not know what a blog is.
The Search for Meaning
If you haven't read a blog yet, go out and find one and see what you think. You can go to Google and search for a blog of interest; Google even publishes a blog about itself.
Some blogs can give you a good idea of what isn't working in a given CRM, channel management or broader enterprise software arena.
What's frustrating about them is the massive amount of data you have to wade through to get to the interesting parts. Blogs are unstructured content gone wild. Companies such as iPhrase, which relies on context-driven searches, and Attensity, which builds linguistic models from unstructured content, have a promising future in companies that want to glean just the relevant content from the millions of words entered into blogs every day.
The First Amendment
For any company looking to create direct, honest and open communications with their customers, blogs are a great tool, but the fact remains that they must be considered a marketing communications vehicle, not an electronic printing press. Publicly held corporations must put standards into place to ensure communication on blogs is compliant with Sarbanes-Oxley legislation and the many Securities and Exchange Commission rules about forward-looking statements.
One of the first cases that tested this involved Google employee Mark Jen, who was fired for a certain blog posting in January of this year. Google says Mr. Jen posted sensitive company information and put the company at risk from both competitors and laws governing disclosure of financial performance. Mr. Jen has since landed at Plaxo. On his blog, he discusses life after Google. His latest entries are great.
The SAP Community
With blogs busting at the seams with content and the readership escalating, it's no wonder enterprise software vendors are using them to keep their top executives in touch with customers. After searching for blogs for all major software companies, I found the SAP site most committed to this new communication medium.
Executive board members at SAP -- including Shai Agassi, Leo Apotheker, Claus E. Heinrich, Peter Zencke and Peter J. Kirschbaue -- keep their own blogs. You can find them here. Apotheker's most recent posting is titled "Strengthening One Face of the Customer," and it's well worth reading.
SAP stands out in part because it invites all customers -- no matter what size -- to a seat at the development table.
Oracle doesn't seem to have the same level of enthusiasm for executive blogs. A quick search of the term "blogs" on the Oracle Web site netted no results, while the same simple search of the SAP site returned 204 results. Microsoft had well over 500, because the company uses them extensively in their development community and in relations with partners.
This is a simple measure of a company's willingness to adopt a new medium for communications. Despite the total lack of blogs on the Oracle site, I found 1,200 Oracle blogs in a Google search -- clearly showing that the Oracle development, system integration and support communities are banding together to create an online community.
The best blogs have a voice of truthfulness, sharing the pain and pleasures of a company. You might expect an executive's blog to contain press release fodder, but SAP offers much more, as do the blogs of other CEOs, even some who run privately held companies. Press release blogs quickly die. The best blogs are those that tell it like it is yet respect SOX and SEC guidelines.
Bottom line: blogs give every customer a seat at the table as long as a software company wants to extend the invitation. If you start an executive blog, stay away from press release fodder. Get into the heart of your products and your customers' needs, and use this as a tool for staying connected.
Louis Columbus, a CRM Buyer columnist, is a former senior analyst with AMR Research. He recently completed the book Getting Results from Your Analyst Relations Strategies, which is available on Amazon.com.