February 16, 2006

Will Blog for Book Deals -- Part 4

It's time for another installment of "Will Blog for Book Deals," wherein we peruse the latest batch of publishing deals announced by bloggers' agents. For previous listings of blogger book deals, see this and this and this:

* One-time teen prostitute/blogger turned bestselling memoirist in Brazil (now 22 and retired from her previous profession) Raquel Pacheco's THE SCORPION'S SWEET VENOM, to Unieboek in Holland at auction; Sonzogno/Rizzoli in Italy at auction; Planeta Argentina for Latin American Spanish rights; Edicoes ASA for European Portugese rights; Tramvay in Turkey; Tammerraamat in Estonia; and Vinabook in Viet Nam; with an auction underway in Germany; all sold within the past week.

* "Hog on Ice" blogger Steven H. Graham's GOOD MORNING, NIGERIA! How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spam, in which Graham scams the con artists whom everyone has come to hate, the Nigerian spammers in the tradition of Ted L. Nancy's Letters From a Nut series, to Citadel, for an advance up to $50,000.

* James Beard Award winner, Time magazine columnist, and Food and Wine Magazine award winner for her blog "Veritas in Vino" Alice Feiring's THE BATTLE FOR WINE AND LOVE (OR HOW I SAVED THE WORLD FROM PARKERIZATION), a chronicle of the author's crusade against wine critic Robert Parker's palate and her search for real wines around the world, from the last riojas in Spain to true champagne, to Harcourt.

* Constitutional scholar and attorney Scott Gant's WE'RE ALL JOURNALISTS NOW: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age, an analysis of a brewing battle in which bloggers and other citizen journalists will vie for rights and privileges enjoyed by professional journalists, and offers legal and philosophical ammunition for their struggle to gain equal standing under the law, to the Free Press.

* Former Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox's first nonfiction book, on the next generation of political activists, again to Riverhead, reportedly for "mid-six-figures" (Washington Post).

* New Yorker, Playboy, and Radar contributor, and blogger Daniel Radosh's RAPTURE READY!: Adventures in the Strange Pop Culture of the Religious Right, an investigative account of the burgeoning multi-billion dollar Christian media industry, to Scribner, at auction.

* Seth Godin's SMALL IS THE NEW BIG: And Other (Little) Ideas that Change Everything, a small collection of big articles - from blog posts, ebooks, and magazine articles, to Portfolio, for an advance somewhere between $100,000-$250,000.

February 09, 2006

When Consumers Call the Shots

A study by the Yale Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management indicates that consumer reviews on and had a potent effect on sales of the products reviewed.

Interestingly, the study's authors, Judith Chevalier and Dina Mayzlin, found that a 1-star review depressed sales more than a 5-star review boosted sales. It seems that negative packs more punch than positive in word-of-mouth.

This report contributes to a growing body of research demonstrating the impact of consumer-generated content -- whether in blogs, product reviews, or other new media -- on brand image, sales and even share price. I'll be posting more on this research in the future.

In the meantime, consider this little factoid from another study by the Yale center, which found that the new price and feature comparison capabilities enabled by the Internet is forcing a transfer of riches from auto companies to consumers amounting to at least $240 million per year for those who shop at alone, or about 2.2 percent of the cost of the average car. That's $770 saved on the price of a $35,000 vehicle.

And again, that's the savings just at alone.

More evidence that the Web-fueled power of consumers is increasingly being felt in the marketplace.

February 06, 2006

Nvidia's Invaders Shoot Themselves in Foot

Ah, the eternal search for buzz! The latest example of a company attempting to use the blogosphere to create buzz for its products has ironically produced a buzz-saw of negative reaction for Nvidia, which apparently hired a bunch of shills to invade gaming forums and post "helpful" mentions of its products.

Check out this and this and this and this, and of course, this, too.

The lesson here? You cannot fool the blogosphere. Sooner or later you're going to get busted.

So if any other companies are thinking of surreptitiously hiring secret word-of-mouth "buzz agents" to shill for them, please bear in mind an axiom that politicians have known for years: the ability to keep a secret is inversely proporional to the number of people involved in your conspiracy.

So if you want to secretly hire one or two shills to plug your products, go ahead. You'll probably get away with it, at least for a while, for all the good those one or two shills will do you.

But hiring 10 or 20?

It's like picking up a gun only to shoot yourself in the foot.

February 01, 2006

Do Patents Really Stifle Innovation?

Despite all the warnings that the flood of new patents and patent litigation in America is stifling innovation, the evidence suggests that increased patent activity (and the associated increase in patent litigation) has always been a reflection of increased innovation activity, not a hindrance to innovation.

Look back in history and you'll see that the United States has witnessed several upsurges of patent activity very similar to today's. The first one occurred in the 1880s, during the time of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, when the average number of new patents issued each year jumped 56 percent, to about 20,000 annually, compared with the 12,000 patents issued yearly the previous decade. This patent boom corresponded, of course, with rapid advances in the emerging steam, railroad, telegraph, telephone, and electric power industries that signaled the industrialization of the U.S. economy.

The next big increase in patent issuances began around 1902 and lasted until 1916 or so, when the number of patents granted doubled from 20,000 per year to around 40,000 annually. This was the period of the newborn automobile and aircraft industries' most rapid early-stage growth.

Patenting levels then remained relatively stable at about 40,000 per year until around 1960 or so, when the revolution in plastics and other synthetic materials along with boom-time growth in the aerospace and computer industries pushed patenting levels to 60,000 per year. And there they remained until the early-1980s, when new patent grants jumped to about 75,000 per year as the personal computer and other emerging high-tech industries of Silicon Valley began to power the whole of the American economy.

That level of patent activity steadily increased over the next decade to 120,000 or so patents issued annually. Then, in 1998, new patent issuances again exploded by almost 33 percent and have continued to grow slowly but steadily ever since to about 180,000 each year as the dot-com boom and then the emergence of Web 2.0 businesses began to power economic activity.

The point is, whenever the United States has undergone a major industrial renaissance during which technology advances led not only to the birth of new industries but to the reshaping of existing ones, patenting levels have risen dramatically. It is precisely such an economy-transforming renaissance that we are witnessing today.

To be sure, there are many problems with the quality of software patents being issued today. Almost half cite no non-patent prior art, which is a real tip-off that the inventions being patented may not be as novel and non-obvious as claimed. And the emergence of "patent trolls" who buy up patents for the sole purpose of extorting (er, excuse me, "litigating") licensing fees from companies they claim are infringers is also a problem.

But the number of patent lawsuits declined 10 percent last year. And the patent office is coming under increased pressure to reform its clearly-inadequate examination proceedures -- not the first time in its history that the USPTO has had to adjust to new technology and new challenges.

The point is, there is no evidence that, taken as a whole, the economy is suffering from any patent-induced slowing in innovation activity. Everywhere I look, at least, invention and the birth of new companies and industries appears to be going ganbusters.

January 31, 2006

The Insurgent Consumer

The consumer today is in open rebellion.

He doesn't listen to advertising anymore. He no longer trusts corporate spokespeople or their messages. In fact, according to the 7th Annual Edelman Trust survey released just last week, people now say their most credible source of information about a company and its products is “a person like me” -- a trust level in peers that has skyrocketed from only 20 percent three years ago to 68 percent today (versus a trust level for corporate CEOs that has now plummeted to only 28 percent).

This lack of trust, of course, has major bottom-line consequences. More than 80 percent of people surveyed say they would refuse to buy goods or services from a company they do not trust. And new research also shows that negative consumer comments on blogs have a direct impact on corporate brands, earnings and share prices.

The fact is that consumers are no longer willing to put up with shoddy products, indifferent service, and lack of accountability and transparency. What's more, they are demanding a decision-making voice in shaping the products, services and media they consume. TiVo is one example of this new take-charge attitude on the part of consumers. Another is the fact that, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey released earlier this month, half of all teens in this country -- and 57% of those who use the internet -- have created a blog or web page, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online, or re-mixed content into their own creations.

Indeed, the consumer now demands more of business -- and thanks to blogs and other new consumer-empowering technology and media, he can now get it. Companies who meet these new expectations are rewarded. Those that don't see their businesses punished as never before.

How should business leaders respond to this new insurgent marketplace? How can they use blogs and other new "voice of the customer" media to develop a new and more democratic relationship with customers -- one that leverages customer insight and initiative to create more effective marketing, branding, product development and public relations strategies that materially enhance firm success?

Richard Edelman, CEO of the world's largest public relations agency, took the lead in answering this question when he posted what amounts to a new mission statement for his firm last Friday: As he noted, the traditional approach to corporate communications has always been a controlled process of scripted messages delivered by the firm to investors and consumers. But this top-down corporate communications model is now being supplanted by a peer-to-peer, horizontal discussion. And as a result:

"The consumer has become a co-creator, demanding transparency on decisions from sourcing to new-product positioning."

How to do business when the customer increasingly calls the shots is fast becoming a strategic issue for the executive suite.

January 25, 2006

Marketing is Dead ... Long Live Marketing!

Responding to my post on "What's Holding Back Corporate Blogging?", Stowe Boyd offers some valuable insight into the myopia of most business executives who see blogging solely as a new marketing vehicle:

"Corporate types steadfastedly refuse to believe that the post-marketing world is better ... blogging is considered an adjunct to marketing, 'just another channel' to carry messages, slightly recast perhaps, to one 'segment' of the 'market.'"

This tendency to define blogging as merely a new-fangled marketing vehicle -- and the business media are just as guilty of this -- has always bugged me, too. Indeed, 3-5 years from now, blogging's value in marketing may be seen as the least of its many benefits to business. Product development, enterprise management, the creation of new businesses -- these functions may turn out to be be the chief beneficiaries of corporate blogging initiatives.

What then, is the role of the marketer in the blog-fueled new commercial epoch in which customers increasingly call the shots in business?

I have some ideas ... chiefly revolving around marketers becoming facilitators of the customer insight and initiative that will increasingly become the fountainhead of enterprise success.

But does Boyd have other ideas? Does anyone?

Or are we truly moving into uncharted territory here?

January 23, 2006

What's Holding Back Corporate Blogging?

Why did the much-predicted 2005 stampede by corporate America into the blogosphere fail to materialize?

The number of Fortune 500 companies with strategic public blogging initiatives, after all, is still quite small -- somewhere between 3-4%, depending on how you figure it. Many of those firms are what you might call "the usual suspects" -- i.e., technology firms such as IBM, Sun and Microsoft that are enmeshed in network culture. And basically none of them are the sort of brand-name consumer powerhouses that could really push blogging and related customer-contact media into the mainstream of everyday business.

By itself, this delay is not surprising, especially when you look at the history of early corporate involvement with the Web a decade ago. When the World Wide Web first emerged in 1994, some pundits predicted the "imminent demise of the shopping mall" as name-brand consumer product firms rushed to set up online stores. In point of fact, it took four years for the dollar volume of online shopping to even hit the $1 billion mark -- in other words, to even reach half the size of the real-world market in blow dryers.

Change, it turns out, usually takes longer than the pundits predict. Especially change in the business world.

But it does beg the question: What are the factors or conditions that will drive mainstream American firms to truly embrace external public blogging -- whether for marketing, product development or other purposes?

I asked two authors of business blogging books -- Jeremy Wright and Debbie Weil -- for their thoughts on this question:

Jeremy Wright, a corporate blogging consultant and the author of Blog Marketing, named three factors holding back a stronger corporate embrace of blogging:

"First, these things take time. It never happens as fast as we imagine. Second, the software tools are in many cases still too immature for enterprise use. And third, a clear ROI (return on investment) from blogging remains to be demonstrated."

As for Debbie Weil, also a blog consultant and the author of the forthcoming The Corporate Blogging Book, she stressed the psychological roadblocks to corporate blogging:

"Fear is the single most important thing holding corporate America back from embracing blogging. Fear of being open, fear of a two-way conversation, fear of not being able to control the message, fear of the time commitment."

Wright and Weil make good points, to which I would add one more:

Blogging really is not for the faint of heart or the control freak -- two personality types usually thought to be well-represented in the ranks of management.

That's because, first of all, there really are dangers involved in tearing down the traditional barriers to direct customer interaction with the firm. There are a lot of angry consumers out there -- their anger fed by decades of having to deal with shoddy products, indifferent service, and the lack of corporate transparency and accountability -- and now, thanks to blogging, for the first time in history they can finally hit back. Just ask Dell, Sony, Kryptonite, Circuit City, and others whose brands, if not also their revenues, have taken a beating from the blog-fueled revolts of angry customers.

But just as important, blogging will ultimately force companies to abandon many of the traditional ways they have always managed not only their public affairs but their marketing and product development functions as well -- not least by giving customers a far more powerful and direct voice in enterprise decision-making than has ever been the case before.

In short, blogging requires firms to turn many of their operations inside out -- or, more accurately, to reverse the polarity of corporate thinking and practice from inside out to outside in.

Think about it: With notable exceptions, most large companies have always operated on a push-driven model, creating everything from their products to their marketing messages in-house and delivering them to what has always been (until now) a passive consumer marketplace. Now, thanks to blogging and other new developments, the transmission belt to the consumer is reversing direction, and marketing and new product insights will increasingly flow from the customer to the company.

That's a huge, epic change -- the sort of change that will require a lot of "tough love" for executives to embrace.

As Weil noted:

"If you put blogging in the basket of corporate communications it runs absolutely antithetical to so-called current best practices."

Ain't that the truth.

January 04, 2006

What's Behind the Fortune 500 Business Blog Index?

I was the writer that Chris Anderson and Wired originally hired to produce an article suggesting that Fortune 500 companies usually only start blogging when they're in trouble. The article was prompted by highly-inconclusive (as it turned out) data assembled by Chris and Wired researchers showing that firms with blogs had lower share price performance over the past year than companies that don't blog.

The article was eventually killed because the evidence I found did not prove the original proposition that there's a firm, direct or causal correlation between share price performance and the decision by a firm to blog.

Recently, Chris Anderson and Ross Mayfield announced a research project called the Fortune 500 Business Blog Index to continue the research into this issue. A number of commentators are interested in what develops, including Henry Lambert and Doc Searls and Debbie Weil.

I'd like to point out some problems with Chris Anderson's original supposition:

While it's true, as Chris notes, that F500 companies that blog have lower one-year share performance than those that don't, statistically this is no more relevant, as Sun's Jonathan Schwartz pointed out to me, than "the share price performance of firms whose CEO's answer their own email vs. those that don't."

The problem is that the percentage of F500 companies that blog is too small, the time period looked at in share performance too short, and the factors and timing behind any one company's decision to start blogging too varied to lend any real support (as yet) to Chris's original supposition.

Plus, when you factor in the five year data on share performance -- and especially the 5-year share performance against industry averages -- this makes even less of a case that share price is any real indicator of whether or not a company decides to blog.

True, there are a number of firms that started blogging clearly because they were suffering image problems that their traditional PR methods failed to redress -- Microsoft, GM and Boeing are cases in point. Interestingly, though, while Microsoft's share price is down nearly 9% the past year, Boeing's is up 29%. Go figure.

Which is exactly my point.

Meanwhile, other companies such as IBM and Sun are clearly blogging because they're enmeshed in network culture and wanted to get closer to their customers and developers. That's just a fact.

One other hardly-minor problem with Chris's supposition:

If you're trying to show that it's corporate malaise that induces companies to blog, then you've got to look at their share price performance PRIOR to starting to blog, which is different for every company.

To say that GM's share price performance over the last year that it's blog has been in existence is down 29% tells us NOTHING about what induced it to decide to start blogging 15 months ago when the decision was first made.

If you want to make any correlation between the last year's share price performance and GM's blogging efforts -- and it would be foolish to do so -- you could only conclude that blogging had hurt the company.

But in fact, as I note in my "First Year Report for GM's Blog" , there's no evidence that it has hurt the company and more than a little evidence that it has helped GM -- at least in the image and PR arenas.

The fact is there's no way to make the firm correlation Chris wants to make between corporate share price doldrums and the decision to start blogging.

December 14, 2005

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.

December 12, 2005

GM's Blogging Experiment -- A First Year Report Card

A little over one year ago, Michael Wiley, the director of new media at General Motors, decided he had to do something to change the company's sclerotic image as a tired relic of the industrial age that had lost touch with American car buyers.

"We had to do something to humanize the company and create a fresh image for GM," he told me. "I knew that a few quick PR hits wouldn't do the job -- that it would take something like a blog to really shake things up. But I could see the carcasses all over the place of companies that had tried to do gimmick blogs. So I was insistent that our blog had to develop a real conversation with our customers. That was the only way it would do any good."

So Wiley brought his proposal for a blog to GM management, and got the go-ahead -- initially for a small-block engine blog for enthusiasts of the company's 1960s muscle cars (which was eventually discontinued in October of 2005), and then for the launch on January 5, 2005 of a GM Fastlane blog -- one of corporate America's first executive blogs -- to be written by company vice chairman and product guru Bob Lutz.

Almost immediately, Lutz's blog turned into a free-for-all between the company and its customers. Typical was a February 2 posting by Lutz in which he addressed this reader complaint about the quality of GM vehicles:

"I'm still looking for an excuse to ‘buy American,’ after switching to Japanese vehicles 15 years ago. With all the talent and resources that GM has, why can't every GM division have at least one vehicle that is best in class for design, quality and performance? AND outsells the Japanese competition?"

In response, Lutz insisted that GM is "trying to live down a reputation that was probably at one time deserved, but is no longer justified." He went on to cite favorable J.D. Power and Consumer Reports quality surveys for several GM brands, and then offered this challenge to his readers: "Don't take my word on any of this. Check the data, and go make comparison drives."

Lutz's post that day generated a phenomenal 122 comments, roughly 40 percent of them negative. Typical was this response from Nicholas Weaver: "If GM wants to dispel [its] bad reliability reputation, then it's going to have to beat the Japanese brand and do it for several years." Noted another critic named Susan: "GM needs to work on interior quality and refinement. The panel gaps on the hugely expensive Cadillac Escalade [are] just unacceptable."

But there were also many positive comments, including this one from Diego Rodriguez, a product design and marketing expert who operates the popular MetaCool blog:

"Quality is an international language, and no one firm can claim a lock on it just because they're Japanese or German or whatever. The proof is in the pudding, and I just might have to go out and test drive a Buick. There, I said it."

Interestingly, a number of readers were grateful simply to have someone -- anyone! -- in authority at GM listening to customer complaints and suggestions:

"Bob, thanks for putting up this weblog. It's [great] to be able to give you feedback." Added reader Jeff Crew: "As a car enthusiast, do you know how exciting it is to have a peak 'behind the curtain'? This is absolutely outstanding!"

Now, after a year into GM's blogging experiment, Wiley told me he believes it's been a resounding success. To be sure, the company remains in a deep financial crisis, as its latest earnings reports and layoff announcements demonstrate. But to Wiley, who never expected blogging -- or, indeed, any experiment in new communications strategy -- to solve the company's sales and earnings challenges, the results of the first year of blogging are clear.

"For one thing, some of the suggestions from readers have made it onto the desks of GM designers, which I think in the long run will improve the quality and appeal of our vehicles," Wiley explains. "But beyond that, I do think that there is less of a tendency to call GM a dinosaur relic lately. In fact, the Business Week cover story on blogging [last May] even referred to us as 'surprisingly nimble.'"

Bottom line? "While it is difficult to pin down a quantum shift," says Wiley, "I feel confident that we have challenged the tired old stereotypes about GM."

I'd have to agree. And I might add that GM seems to have done everything right. GM's chief blogger (company vice-chairman Lutz) spoke in an honest and personal voice. He kept the PR department away from the blog's content. And the blog was equally open to both praise and criticism -- in other words, it was an authentic exchange between the company and its customers.

I'll wager that GM's more honest and intimate relationship with key customers will prove to be a formidable advantage in the company's efforts to surmount its current market challenges.

December 05, 2005

Don't Mess With the Blogosphere!

The business world still does not get it.

The days are over when a business could market a crappy product or treat their customers like marks and assume that the worst that would happen is that they get a few angry letters they could then just dump in the round file.

Thanks to blogging, the customers can now hit back -- big time!

The latest example comes from a blogger who had a bad experience with, one of those ubiquitous online electronics retailers. As reported by Shankar Gupta of Media Post Publications reported:

48 hours after "Thomas Hawk"--a pseudonymous tech and photography blogger based in San Francisco--posted a nightmare tale of hard sells, threats of legal action, endless delays, and runarounds, has found its Web site in shambles, and its listings removed from prominent shopping aggregators like and Yahoo! Shopping.

I don't doubt "Thomas Hawk's" complaints are accurate, because I experienced the very same unscrupulous "up-sell" techniques followed by "I'm sorry we're out of stock" from six (count 'em, 6) online retailers when I recently tried to buy a new camcorder without all the extra batteries, lenses, etc.

Anyway, Hawk's story, which he posted on his Digital Connection blog, was seen by 125,000 readers, some of whom apparently took swift vigilante action. Reports Gupta:

Howard Baker, a manager with, said the business had suffered "millions of dollars" worth of damages in the last two days, apparently at the hands of consumer vigilantes who had read the Digital Connection post.

"In the last couple of days there was one disgruntled customer that posted a blog that caused thousands of people to come out of the woodwork and jam our Web site," said Baker--citing viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and thousands of prank calls. "We're talking to our attorneys this afternoon, and will probably be taking legal action."

On second thought, maybe not. According to Gupta,'s owner, Ed Lopez, later posted this apologetic email on the site:

"On behalf of Priceritephoto I would like to sincerely apologize for the negative experience that you have experienced with our company," the e-mail read. "We are doing a comprehensive review of our company's procedures to ensure that something like this never occurs."

The Kryptonite fiasco. Dell Hell. And now Oh yes, and there's also the saga of Circuit City false advertising and customer abuse, also reported on the gadget blog Gizmodo.

More proof that blogging is "tough love" for companies that need to change their ways. How many more battered and bloody companies will have to litter the corporate landscape before business wakes up to the new, customer-empowered marketplace we're living in?

December 02, 2005

Corporate America Still Schizo About Blogging

What's a poor corporate executive to do?

First Business Week ran a highly-favorable cover story entitled "Blogs Will Change Your Business." Their advice: "Your customers and rivals are figuring blogs out. Our advice: Catch up ... or catch you later."

Then Forbes countered with a surprisingly-histrionic cover story entitled "Attack of the Blogs." Their advice? Be prepared to fight back, because blogs can "destroy brands and wreck lives."

Now, reports Jane Genova, Harvard Business School has weighed in with its endorsement (albeit with caveats) of corporate blogging. The smartest advice from Harvard? They quote Debbie Weil: "Don't let the PR department write your blogs. Bloggers will sniff it out, and when they do, you will lose all credibility."

Why all this schizoid corporate hesitancy about blogging? It's because blogging really isn't for the faint of heart or the control freak. In fact, blogging forces companies to throw out many of the traditional ways they have managed not only their public affairs but their marketing and product development functions as well -- not least by giving customers a far more powerful and direct voice in enterprise decision-making than has ever been the case before.

That's enough to make any CEO reach for his or her anxiety meds.

November 16, 2005

More on the "Use Value" of RSS

NevOn has a smart report about a UK supermarket chain called Tesco that is now sending out an RSS feed for its "Deal of the Day."

Says Neville Hobson, the man behind NevOn:

So my prediction is - more RSS feeds by consumer-focused businesses such as supermarkets. It's getting easier for people to use RSS (often without realizing it) and will get easier still as more businesses offer information via RSS, as simpler ways of describing it emerge (like 'live bookmarks,' for instance), and as it becomes ever more easier to get the information offered via RSS.

Like minds think alike: Five weeks ago I suggested in a post entitled "Use Value: The Money Shot in Syndicated Content" that just such a move by retailers was imminent:

November 11, 2005

What's in a Name? Rights and Responsibilities!

Mary Hodder hates the term "consumer"-generated content and suggests we call it "user"-generated content instead.

Robert Scoble doesn't like the term "user," though, and prefers to be called "participant."

Kevin Marks and Dave Winer, meanwhile, both like "amateur" -- as in amatuer-generated content.

Me? I like "citizen" -- as in citizen-generated content. It connotes the same non-professional status as "amatuer," but it suggests more -- a person endowed with rights and responsibilities to others in his social domain.

Not that my vote counts for a wholle helluva lot, but there it is.

November 10, 2005

Can Bloggers Design Products?

You bet.

For some time now I've been arguing that business blogs should not simply be marketing vehicles but also product development tools. In other words, instead of just telling your customers what to buy, why not let them tell you what new products and services to build?

Powerful support for the notion of blogging and other forms of online customer contact as tools in product development now comes from an article in the new issue of Business Week entitled "Shoot the Focus Group." Here's an excerpt:

"My research department doesn't know it, but I'm killing all our focus groups." So spoke Cammie Dunaway, chief marketing officer at Yahoo! Inc.

Yahoo has been getting little useful information from such groups, says Dunaway. She prefers "immersion groups" -- four or five people with whom Yahoo's product developers talk informally, without a professional moderator typical of focus groups. That leads to work sessions in which a few select consumers work together with Yahoo staffers to actually design a new product.

"The outcome is richer if they feel included in our process, not just observed," says Dunaway. One recent result: Yahoo is testing a new online community for car buffs who want more member-to-member opportunities to chat.

It's not only focus groups that are coming under increasing corporate scrutiny. Conjoint analysis -- asking consumers to pick between two "baskets" of product attributes -- and other traditional market research techniques are also increasingly seen as rather blunt instruments for determining customer wants and needs. That's because even when traditional market research tells you what customers want -- and it often doesn't -- it usually doesn't tell you why they want it. And it is here, in understanding the deeper motivations and emotional drivers behind people's buying decisions, that the greatest opportunities for building winning products and successful brands are generally found.

As I said in Tough Love for Business, the day is not far off when trusted customer representatives will be brought into marketing and sales and R&D; meetings -- and even onto the company's board. After all, smart companies are realizing that their customers are, one way or the other, ultimately the key decision-makers in the enterprise.

November 09, 2005

"Tough Love" for Business

A new Intelliseek study on consumer trust in news media and advertising -- or rather, on the lack thereof -- highlights just how dramatically corporate America will have to change in order to compete in the new world of blogs and other consumer-generated media (CGM).

Herein, some hightlights from the study:

Consumers are 50 percent more likely to be influenced by word-of-mouth recommendations from their peers than by radio/TV ads.

In fact, notes the study:

[Word of mouth and consumer-generated media] has more impact on consumer attitudes about products than either positive or negative news coverage.

In sum:

Word-of-mouth behavior among "familiars" trumps all forms of advertising and is more trusted than news or "expert commentary."

Interestingly, the study also notes that positive word-of-mouth from a personal acquaintance carries just as much impact as negative word-of-mouth. According to Intelliseek CEO Mike Nazzarro, this has "critical implications for brands that nurture evangelism, brand loyalty, and advocacy."

What's it all mean?

For starters, the study suggests that most American companies are woefully unprepared for the managerial, marketing, customer relations, and product development challenges of a new business environment in which customers trust bloggers and each other more than they do traditional corporate marketing. Unfortunately, the modern corporation is built on a solidly-hierarchical "push" model in which customers (and their friends) are at the bottom of the totem pole -- mere passive recipients of whatever the company chooses to deliver to them.

But that's going to have to change. And the change certainly won't come easily, not to a generation of executives and managers who were never trained to deal directly with customers who can now make or break their businesses.

To the next generation of business leaders, perhaps, it will no longer be unthinkable to bring trusted customer representatives into marketing and sales and R&D; meetings -- and even onto the company's board.

But in the meantime, it's going to be "tough love" for business until they learn how to deal with the new marketplace in which customers have become key decision-makers in the enterprise.

November 08, 2005

Media Praise for Blog Book

Sunday, November 6, was a red-letter day for my book. Three newspapers ran favorable reviews:

From Clive Davis, writing in the Washington Times:

"If you want to gauge how far we have actually traveled, "Blog!" does a fine job of assembling a road map. [It's] a valuable introduction to an uncharted realm. The main lesson of this book is that blogs, whatever their ultimate future, have given individuals a voice all their own. Oppressive governments and fast-buck corporations are still struggling to find a way of silencing them."

And from Carlin Romano of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[Kline and Burstein are] savvy, sensible survivors of previous bubbles of irrational exuberance. [They] dub their approach "real-world futurism." They're excited by blogging, but alert to market-driven puff. As a result, blog! -- an anthology that mixes smart previously published pieces with interviews on its subject and guiding essays by the pair -- provides a sophisticated intro to [blogging].

And finally, from Hugh Hewitt, author of his own book on blogging, writing in the New York Post:

"You will want to read this book if you are in anyway connected with information and especially with politics, marketing or media. The book comprehensively surveys the business implications of the blogosphere's rise, including seminal articles on the growth of the blogs as well as informative interviews with big thinkers in the blogging world. There's also a fine set of essays/interviews on blogging and media. The conversation with blogger Jonathan Schwartz, president and COO of Sun Micro systems - the company has encouraged all of its 32,000 employees to blog - will more than return the price of the book to any executive with a marketing department (no matter how many copies that executive buys). To find out why, buy the book."

Oh yeah, lest I forget, there was this Publisher's Weekly review back on October 17:

"In this dense and entertaining analysis of the 'new paradigm for human communication,' journalists Kline and Burstein examine the notion that weblogs, or "blogs," are redefining journalism and media consumption and conclude that, while blogging may not signal the death of big media, it has measurably impacted everything from political campaigns-as evidenced by Howard Dean's presidential bid-to the life of former child star Wil Wheaton, who found his "second act" in a tell-all blog about the humiliations of show business."

October 28, 2005

Forbes Attack on Bloggers: A Contrary View

I have to admit, there is some truth in Forbes magazine's article about bloggers "spewing lies, libel and invective" and how they can sometimes damage companies they target.

But pardon me if I don't get all weepy about the fact that the chickens are finally coming home to roost in corporate America after more than a century of its unchallenged dominion over the major media, public discourse, consumer choice, and the quality of life of the average citizen.

How many dollars, after all, have we all wasted on shoddy products and overhyped stocks? How many hundreds of hours have we frittered away just trying to get our measly little customer service complaints addressed? How much outright lying and patronizing indifference have we all had to put up with in pro-business media reporting, corporate press releases, and those infamous "we're all just one happy family" employee newsletters?

And just for the record, how many people have been killed in automobiles built with exploding gas tanks or high rollover rates because their manufacturers deemed it "cost-ineffective" to correct those defects?

And Forbes whines about some citizen bloggers who, after years of taking it in a thousand different demeaning ways from faceless corporations, finally hit back in anger (and don't always get their facts right)?

Well, what do you expect, gentlemen? As I've said before, blogging represents the revolt of the voiceless against the heedless -- and for the first time in the entire history of American business, corporate America can no longer ignore what its customers are thinking and saying. About time, I'd say.

So what should we do about bloggers that "spew lies, libel and invective" at businesses -- some of whom may not deserve it? The same thing that we do with companies that deceive their customers or market shoddy products:

Don't trust them anymore, and take our attention and our wallets elsewhere.

As for businesses large and small, do not for one second imagine that you can ignore the blogosphere just because it contains some overheated nutcases. Get involved, listen to and learn from your customers, and always try your best to deliver what you promise. Your customers will reward you if you do.

October 11, 2005

Use Value: The "Money Shot" in Syndicated Content?

A new report from Yahoo on RSS usage shows how far we still have to go before publishers, businesses and marketers can effectively tap the enormous commercial opportunities available in syndicated content.

The universe of online content and commerce is staggering in its proportions, and few people have the time and skill to continuously search for and locate what they need -- whether it be news and information or good deals on products they are interested in. Enabling online consumers to subscribe to news, information, or product deal updates is crucial to developing loyal audiences and customers as well as to decreasing the amount of "friction" (i.e., hassle) they have to put up with to get what they want when they want it.

That's what RSS is all about. It enables people to subscribe to the content they're most interested in and then receive it hassle free. It also promises to be a powerful advertising medium, which is why Google is trying to patent RSS advertising feeds.

But according to the Yahoo report, only 4% of Internet users have knowingly used RSS, and only 12% are even aware of it. Interestingly, though, 27% of Internet users have unknowingly consumed RSS subscribed content, chiefly on personalized portal start pages such as My Yahoo and My MSN.

Which suggests, of course, that the raw technology is still too complex or little understood for most people, and that the growth of easy-to-use, browser-based intergrated RSS capability (coming in the new version of Windows and Outlook) will help grow subscribed content to mass market-sized proportions.

But there's another aspect to the problem:

Remember back in 1993, when many pundits were predicting that online shopping would shortly result in the "death of the shopping mall?" In point of fact, it wasn't until 1998 that the total volume of consumer online commerce reached $1 billion annually -- which at the time, was still only barely half the size of the real-world market for blow dryers.

Online commerce would eventually grow to significant proportions, of course, but as I predicted in a 1995 article for Wired's online magazine HotWired, that would happen only when it offered significant savings in time, money or hassle compared to shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.

The same will be true of RSS. Right now, most people who use RSS (unknowingly, for the most part) subscribe to mainstream media news, entertainment, or weather feeds. Only 23% subscribe to blog content. And most glaring of all, only 13% subscribe to financial or banking services, and only 10% to shopping and product information.

What a missed opportunity! Every Best Buy, every airline ticketing site, every online bookstore or clothinmg store, every bank -- in short, every online shopping or financial site -- should start making it as easy as humanly possible for ordinary consumers to subscribe to new product updates, pricing specials and other valuable offers. But that's not enough; they should also include objectively-useful information -- e.g., "How to Pick the Best Camcorder for Your Money" or "The 10 Best Little-Known Vacation Spots" -- in their feeds.

That's because even RSS-aware users, according to Yahoo, only subscribe to about 6 feeds.

There's only so much media, after all, that a person can consume. As Rok Hrastnik of RSS Statistics puts it, ""Even RSS-aware users only subscribe to the content of highest relevance to them. It's up to [businesses and publishers] to make a place for yourself in this consumption channel."

And especially for online businesses, you can only do that if you offer some tangible practical benefit to people -- i.e., information you can use, or some genuine savings of time, money or hassle in people's daily lives.

Use value: just like in the early days of online shopping, that's going the "money shot" not only for RSS syndicated content, but for the greatly-expanded and more-targeted online advertising and commercial markets it will enable.

October 07, 2005

The Blogging Business Gets Real (or, Will the Real Jason Calacanis Please Stand Up?)

Here's the first of two key indicators that tell you when an emerging Internet phenomenon is getting past the early hype phase and moving toward becoming a serious revenue-producing business sector: mergers and acquisitions are starting to be based on reasonable valuations.

This week's announcement that giant AOL (predictions of it's Web-inspired death in 1994 appear to have been premature) would buy Jason Calacanis' Weblogs, Inc for $25 million in an all-cash transaction is a case in point.

Earlier this year, the New York Times paid a staggering $410 million dollars for the psuedo blog aggregator That represented an outlay of $830,000 for each of's anemic 490 blogs.

AOL, however, is paying only $294,000 for each of Weblogs, Inc.'s far-more robust and highly-trafficked sites.

Similar "rationalization" is happening in other M&A; activity in the blog sector.

Interestingly, when I interviewed Jason Calacanis last fall for my book, he pooh-poohed the whole idea that Weblogs, Inc. could become a serious revenue-producing enterprise in any near future. Here's an excerpt from the transcript:

KLINE: You've made comments in the press lately that suggest you're not really sure there's a real business in blogging -- or at least you're not sure how big a business it will be -- and yet you're a blog entrepreneur?

CALACANIS: I don’t see why that’s controversial.

KLINE: No one is saying it's controversial. But it is interesting to see someone in your position trying to damp down some of the hype around blogging.

CALACANIS: Well, the hype has been pretty impossible lately. There has been far more attention paid to the weblogs than is actually healthy. I mean, people need to remember that [few if any] of today's weblogs approach the audience that Matt Drudge has. And even Matt Drudge himself, although he has a substantial audience, it’s still a relatively modest business. It’s just him and one other person. It gives him a good living and that one other person probably a decent salary.

KLINE: But aren't the advertising possibilities with weblogs pretty lucrative, especially the possibility of targeting the "influencers" in society?

CALACANIS: In theory, yes. But a lot of people who theorize about marketing don’t have much contact with the way that media buyers actually work. And most media buyers, at least for the larger advertisers, aren’t even going to look at any site unless it’s got five million unique visitors a month, regardless of how "influential" its audience is.

Conclusion? Despite Calacanis' modesty (or was was it just a savvy pretense of "realism"?), it appears that media investors' fear of losing out on "the next big thing" is being replaced by more solid financial reasoning.

Next week: The 2nd key indicator of when a new business gets real.

Can you guess what it is?

October 03, 2005

Will PR Be the Death of Blogging?

What's the greatest danger to the future of business blogging?

In a posting entitled "The business blog backlash is nigh," Business Week writer Stephen Baker argues that:

CEOs and other top execs [may soon] turn their backs on blogging with a dismissive 'Been There, Done That?' Most CEOs simply don't have the time. The danger for them, as they take stock of their experiments, is to conclude that other blogging efforts within their companies will be as tepid as their own.

Chris Anderson of The Long Tail blog countered that executive blogging is not the same thing as business blogging:

The best business blogs come from the employees, not the bosses. They have more time, and are less prone to marketing gobbledygook and gnomic platitudes. And those kind of blogs are on the rise, not the decline.

Other business bloggers such as Robert Scoble quickly joined in, dismissing fears of a CEO-inspired backlash and pointing out that ordinary employees usually have far more credibility than CEOs anyway. One blogger, Jane Genova, even posted on this subject a day before Business Week's Baker did, noting that the real issue is not who within the firm blogs but whether or not they do so with the "open, candid, concerned spirit of the blogosphere."

All these comments are true enough, of course, but they still beg the question: Why is Corporate America still so reluctant to embrace blogging? Where does the biggest roadblock to business blogging lie?

I believe it lies not in the executive suite, but in the corporate PR department and the marketing communications office.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm an old PR hand myself. Back in the 1980s, I co-founded and managed a public relations firm that represented Sun Microsystems and MIPS, among other high tech firms, in their early growth years. So I've got nothing against public relations per se.

But let's be honest about the PR function in the modern American corporation. Except in very rare cases, it's mostly concerned with message control -- about getting consumers (or investors) to see the company in a positive light. And that is the very antithesis of good business blogging, which is about listening to, learning from, and engaging honestly with customers, partners, shareholders and investors.

I can't tell you the number of times I've had company PR executives ask me to help "get press about how great the company is" without realizing that, even if it were true that the company was really so "great," there's absolutely no story in that idea at all.

I mean, think about it: When was the last time you read a book or a magazine article, or saw a movie or TV show, about a happily married couple who lived happily ever after? Never, that's when. Because there's no drama there -- no challenge to meet, no problem to overcome, no struggle endured or wisdom gained. And if there's no real drama, there's no story. And no press.

It's the same in business. Unless you can tell a story about a business challenge your company is struggling to meet, or a competitive battle it's trying to win -- in other words, a story with some drama in it and maybe even some business lessons that readers can learn from -- then forget it. You won't get much, if any, press.

The truly exciting thing about blogging -- or at least it should be exciting to any savvy corporate PR executive -- is that it's really all about stories. Customer complaints listened to and resolved, ideas for new and improved products bubbling up from the grass roots and being acted upon, employees struggling to meet seemingly-impossible technical or other challenges in order to better serve their customers.

In fact, it's a never-ending story, constantly written and rewritten by company employees, partners, shareholders and customers in collaboration.

And it's from blogging's unscripted, uncensored, uncontrolled stories that the best press and media attention will emerge. Not to mention the respect and loyalty of your customers.

September 27, 2005

The Decline of the Database Miners

Jennifer Rice over at Corante has a nice piece about why companies talk a lot about becoming more customer centric but rarely do anything about it.

I particularly enjoyed this excerpt from it:

"[This] is problematic because the necessary solution is not a new business practice; it’s a new people practice. We don’t need a new ad campaign or a new org chart. There are no quick fixes. The skill sets needed in today’s times are not management consultants or word-of-mouth marketing specialists. If we’re all really honest with ourselves, what we really need are psychologists and coaches and relationship experts. We’re talking about real customer connections, not a personalized direct mail piece."

I've been thinking for some time now that the Era of the Database Miners is coming to an end. In the new customer-focused business environment, where companies now have (for the first time in history) direct contact with customers, Qualitative Insight will increasingly supersede Quantitative Analysis in key areas of the marketing function. And those who can derive relevant and important meanings from direct contact with customers -- including from a smattering of blog comments from customers -- will become highly valued within business.

Whether they are psychologists or just good listeners and communicators is probably immaterial. What will count is their ability to understand not just what customers want but why they want it.

September 23, 2005

Books I Wish I Had Written

A newly-announced book deal sounds like a winner.

According to Publishers Marketplace, editor Rick Wolff at Warner books has just signed Stanford University professor Robert Sutton to write The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, which is described as "a complete manifesto for the masses who feel oppressed by the jerks they work with, by the prima donna bosses they have to serve, and by the dolts that they struggle to lead in the world of business."

Should be a popular book.

September 20, 2005

How Companies Can Avoid "Blog Hell"

Business Week ran an interesting story recently that spotlights once again how dramatically the business world must change now that companies, for the first time in history, have direct personal contact with their customers.

Under the headline "Dell Finds Itself in Blog Hell," the magazine reported on BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis' long struggle to get his Dell PC fixed -- a struggle that was going nowhere until he posted a series of comments on his blog (including an open letter to Dell CEO Michael Dell) about Dell's abysmal customer service.

According to Business Week, "Jarvis' rants struck a chord with other Dell customers," who apparently flocked to Jarvis' site to tell their own sordid tales of Dell's customer disservice practices. It was this blog-fueled public relations storm that finally caused Dell to cave and send Jarvis a refund.

And according to a report by Shankar Gupta in MediaPost, it also forced Dell to adopt a new policy for dealing with the blogosphere. Dell spokeswoman Jennifer Davis announced that henceforth the company's public relations department will monitor blogs and forward complaints to the customer service department "so that representatives can contact dissatisfied consumers directly."

The lesson here is simple yet profound. Throughout the history of corporate America, companies have always existed as faceless monoliths, shielded in a variety of ways deliberate and not from direct contact with their customers. The only means that customers have had, in fact, to influence the quality of the products and services they buy -- and to ensure that their manufacturer is responsive to their needs -- has been either to send a letter to the corporate complaint department (a generally useless exercise) or else to rely on litigation or the investigative diligence of the mainstream media to force the company to redress their complaints. Unfortunately, these methods have historically proven to be less than satisfactory.

In today's blog-enabled world, however, companies are finding it increasingly difficult to get away with ignoring customer complaints. That's because blogging breaks down barriers between customers and the makers of the products they buy, encourages transparency, and forces greater responsiveness from once-indifferent corporations. It puts a face on "organization man," and gives a voice to the formerly-anonymous mass we call "consumers," transforming them into flesh-and-blood human beings whose needs can be ignored only at the company's peril.

In short, blogging is the revolt of the voiceless against the heedless. And woe be to any firm that tries to ignore the roar of today's blog-enabled citizenry.

[P.S. to readers: Any other examples of blogs forcing companies to be more responsive to their customers?]

September 12, 2005

Should Corporate Bloggers Listen More and Talk Less?

Corporate America's interest in blogging has focused primarily on its use as a marketing tool. But I wonder if, in the future, we'll look back and see that marketing turned out to be among the least of blogging's benefits to business.

Consider, for example, how firms might benefit if instead of only using blogs to tell their customers what to buy, they also used blogs to ask their customers what the company should build?

It's not like corporate America couldn't use the advice, after all. Over 40 percent of all newly-launched products fail in the marketplace -- in some high-tech industries, the failure rate is close to 90 percent! And whenever executives are polled as to the reasons for this extraordinarily-high failure rate -- as the consulting firm Booz Allen did in a 2004 survey of CEOs, chief technology officers, and vice presidents of engineering and product development -- they consistently pin the blame on one thing: an inadequate understanding of consumer wants and needs.

As an article in the journal Strategy+Business recently conceded: "Few companies are good at ... capturing and integrating customer insights into product design."

Many people would be shocked, in fact, to learn just often firms undertake multi-million dollar product development efforts without ever speaking to a single current, former or prospective customer. Truth be told, this failure to integrate the "voice of the customer" into new product development is the dirty little secret of corporate R&D.;

To be fair, new technology and improvements in supply chain dynamics have radically shortened product development cycles, and market research budgets are under assault everywhere. But even under the best of circumstances, the tools and techniques traditionally used by market researchers are rather blunt instruments for understanding customer wants and needs.

For example, even when traditional market research manages to pinpoint what customers want, it usually doesn't tell you why they want it. And it is here, in trying to understand the deeper motivations and emotional drivers behind people's buying decisions, that the greatest opportunities for building winning products and successful brands are generally found.

That's why I think some businesses will systematically use blogs -- Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li calls them "the exhaust streams of consumer attention" -- to pierce the sometimes hermetically-sealed labs of new product R&D; with fresh new insights into customer wants and needs.

Instead of asking 20 people in a focus group, for example, to pick between various "baskets" of product attributes -- a clumsy research technique hardly improved by the scientific-sounding name "conjoint analysis" -- why not ask them to tell you directly, in their own often-rambling but always revealing words, exactly what they would like your new product to look like and why?

So here's a question for readers: Which companies are already experimenting with "product definition" blogging? What are the results so far, and how are these firms dealing with the potential confidentiality and competitiveness issues that R&D; blogging entails?

Please send me any leads you have in this regard, which will help me enormously in a new book on blogging and business that I'm doing for Random House's Crown Business imprint (more on this later).