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Do Companies Start Blogging Only When They're in Trouble?

My last post offered a first-year report card on General Motors' blogging effort. In that piece, GM's director of new media Michael Wiley told me quite openly that it was the company's desire to overcome its serious image problems that was the prime motivator behind its blogging strategy.

"We had to do something to humanize the company and create a fresh image for GM," Wiley told me. And blogging was the solution they came up with.

All of which raises an interesting question: Do most companies tend to start blogging, as General Motors did, only when they're in trouble? In other words, is blogging a form of "tough love" for companies in crisis?

To be sure, surveys of companies that blog reveal a variety of motivations behind their efforts. But given that only 3 percent of Fortune 500 firms even have a public blog in the first place -- a clear indicator of the hesitancy and fear which still hamstring corporate acceptance of blogging -- it's not clear how much we could learn from such surveys anyway.

That said, it's certainly not difficult to find companies that have openly adopted blogging as an antidote to either poor corporate performance in general or ineffective public relations and marketing communications efforts in particular.

"When European competitor Airbus edged Boeing in passenger plane sales last year, the U.S. aircraft manufacturer decided to take its pitch to a growing audience in the blogosphere," noted the Anchorage Daily News recently. The blog, which generates 16,000 hits per month, is written by Boeing marketing vice president Randy Baseler. According to a spokesman for Boeing, "If you're a customer deciding between an Airbus product and a Boeing product, maybe [Randy's Journal, as the blog is called] tips you a little in your decision making."

And then there's Microsoft -- or more to the point, Robert Scoble, the poster boy for corporate-sanctioned employee blogging. Originally, Scoble worked at NEC, where he used his blog to resolve customer complaints and get product feedback. According to the Economist, Scoble's blogging work caught the attention of Lenn Pryor, Microsoft's "director of platform evangelism," who thought Scoble might be able to help Microsoft with its image problems.

Pryor, it turns out, used to be afraid of flying, but he discovered that by listening to the uncensored pilot and control tower communications over channel 9 at his airplane seat, "the irrational nature of my fear started to fade." Pryor wondered if, by listening to the honest, uncensored communications of Microsoft insiders, the supposedly "irrational" fears of Microsoft among many developers and customers might similarly be eased.

So Pryor hired Scoble to serve as the reassuring "pilot" of Microsoft's blogging effort. Three years later, it appears that Scoble, through candid blog postings that are sometimes quite critical of his new bosses, has accomplished what literally hundreds of millions of dollars in Microsoft image advertising and public relations initiatives over the last ten years could not -- i.e., the humanizing of a company once reviled as a monopolistic bully.

As the Economist put it:

"He has ... succeeded where small armies of more conventional public-relations types have been failing abjectly for years: he has made Microsoft appear marginally but noticeably less evil to the outside world, and especially to the independent software developers that are his core audience."

Would Microsoft even have hired Scoble had its own traditional public relations efforts not been so ineffective? Scoble has no way of knowing the answer to that question. But he did tell me that "being on top and being fat and happy certainly does seem to keep some companies from doing initiatives like blogging. It's hard to change when what you're doing seems to be working fine."

Not everyone believes that most companies tend to start blogging only when they're in trouble, of course. Executive blogger and Sun Microsystems president Jonathan Schwartz, for example, dismisses the idea that there is any connection between, say, a company's share price and its decision to start blogging. Instead, Schwartz insists, he and others at Sun started blogging simply because it allows them to communicate more effectively with the firm's customers and developers.

"Don't make blogging into something dark or mysterious," Schwartz told me. "It's just a way to communicate with more authenticity and transparency. In fact, ten years from now, probably all effective CEOs will have a blog. I really believe that."

Whatever the reasons why companies start to blog, one thing is certainly clear: it is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, blogging presents major challenges to the traditional ways companies manage not only their public affairs but also their marketing and product development functions -- not the least being that it gives customers a far more powerful and direct voice in enterprise decision-making than has ever been the case before.

But in a marketplace in which 90 percent of new products fail because of what R&D; managers call "an inadequate understanding of the voice of the customer" -- and in which, according to a new study by Intelliseek, consumers trust recommendations from bloggers and their own peers far more than they do either advertising or media reportage -- it would seem that most companies could benefit mightily from a stronger customer voice in their affairs.

Certainly that's the view at GM, Microsoft, and Boeing, who all discovered that blogging's "tough love" was just the remedy for what ailed them.


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I'll just echo your quote from Jonathan Schwartz -- business leaders who "get it" will use blogs to enhance what they already do naturally, which is to listen to their markets, and talk to their markets, and keep an open ear for the whisper of new markets. More than likely they're working from a position of strength, from a company that's doing well.

When I started the first blog at Intuit in 2004 (for QuickBooks Online) it wasn't out of desperation. Far from it. Blogging just seemed like the best way to enhance the dialog we were already having with our customers, albeit on a much larger scale.

But, beware the marketer who views blogging as the new PR or a replacement for direct mail.

Thanks, Diego. Could you expand on what you mean by "beware the marketer who views blogging as the new PR?"

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