What Are Blogs and Where Did They Come From?

“When people talk, listen completely.” --Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

If there is a single truth about blogging, it’s that bloggers have differing opinions on just about everything—including the question of what blog are (and aren't) and how they came to be. Briefly described, “blog” is an abbreviated form of the term “weblog,” which was coined in the late 1990s to describe personal web sites that were updated regularly, with individual “posts”—date-stamped journal entries—usually presented in reverse chronological order, the most up-to-date writing first.

Blogs are an engaging alternative to static web sites because they offer something new to read, usually every day and sometimes several times each day.

Whether serving as a site for news and opinion, or as a personal diary, most blogs share several characteristics. These include a conversational tone, frequent posts, and links to other sites, especially other blogs.

Bloggers are uniquely audience and author at once. Those who write blogs daily also read them with gusto, which is how conversation among bloggers takes shape. Bloggers refer to one another in their writing, linking to posts on the same or similar topics, which results in a rich dialogue among people with shared interests.

A stepchild of the dot-com boom (and bust), blogs were few and far between throughout the 1990s—primarily, they were the hand-cobbled creations of IT professionals and technology enthusiasts. For example, at the beginning of 1999, there were an estimated two to three dozen weblogs in existence. In 2001, when Evan Williams brought his small software company Blogger (www.blogger.com) to market offering “pushbutton publishing for the people,” blogging became as easy as filling in an online form: typing into the Blogger window and clicking the “Publish” button.

Other, similar software tools also splashed into the market then, giving would-be authors more options, creativity, and opportunity to join the growing “blogosphere”— the loose-knit but increasingly recognizable global network of blogs and related projects.

By the end of 2004, there were nearly four million blogs online, according to Technorati (www.technorati.com), an organization that tracks the growth of the blogging world. As of March 2005, the number of blogs had climbed to 7.8 million, with more than 900 million links between and among blogs, and between 30,000 to 40,000 new blogs created each day.

During the week of May 16, 2005, Technorati tracked its ten millionth blog.

If you’re looking for a phenomenon, you’ve found one in blogging.

Today, blogs are an interesting cross between “journal” and “journalism,” and they cover as many topics as there are passions and opinions on the planet—from quilting to marketing, from engineering to politics. Political blogs, in particular, gained national attention during the 2004 U.S. presidential election, with several bloggers such as Glenn Reynolds (http://instapundit.com) and Andrew Sullivan (http://andrewsullivan.com) rising to national prominence as conservative pundits.

For better or worse, blogs had entered the mainstream. And businesses were fast on their trail.

What Does Blogging Have to Do with Business?

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” --Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

First, blogging is potentially everywhere people are, and you want to be where people are. Imagine if you could talk to every individual in your market, one on one, or in informal coffee-shop talks, about what matters to him or her. Imagine if you could engage your key audiences and influencers in a discussion, or join a discussion they were having, about a problem your product or service resolves. Imagine if you could give a voice to your customers—who, in turn, give you immediate, valuable feedback about what delights or disturbs them about your
product or service.

Well, actually you can. These are exactly the types of interactions taking place where blogs intersect with business. But how to set this in motion? The most important thing for corporations to understand before they start blogging is this:

Companies don’t blog; people blog.

It sounds obvious, but many corporations get it wrong. They create sites with a blog-like format but no personality. Their sites are updated frequently, but without identifying who the people posting are. Or, they are posted with intriguing thoughts and ideas, but don’t allow for public comments and discussion on the site. A sure way to drive readers away is to write a blog using a corporate voice rather than the discernible, unmistakable voice of a human being. The key to business blogging is that people—not the business—read, write, and respond. You can’t blog by Businesses can join the blogging movement in several ways.

First, they can develop an outward-facing corporate blog or internally-written employee blogs, which are supported by the organization to achieve specific results—whether those results are boosting the thought leadership of executives and employees to improve employee satisfaction and morale by giving employees a platform to exercise their voices, or to build better relationships through online conversations with customers and constituents.

Organizations may even choose not to blog at all from a corporate perspective, but to instead support and encourage employees in doing so on their own. Corporations are also using blogs internally to facilitate knowledge management, collaboration, customer relationship management, sales, and product development processes.

There are as many uses for blogs as there are people to write them.

But the point for business is: Conversations are already taking place among the millions of blogs that you can tap into. These conversations—about you, your industry, your company, your competitors, and your market—will occur whether you participate in them or not. Effective blogging will help you to participate in the kind of conversations that enhance your business, building relationships that make people want to do business with you.

You can engage your prospects, better understand them, and even get them to respect and like you (if you are likeable to begin with, of course). You can add wit, smarts, or information to blogs by participating in blog comment areas often attached to each post where possible. You can appoint your own Blogger in Residence, Chief Blogging Officer, or “Technical Evangelist” (as Robert Scoble is for Microsof) to represent your organization in the discussion. You can support bloggers whom you feel are doing interesting things by underwriting their blogs.

You can encourage your employees to meet the market in areas that interest them outside of your products and services—giving employees a platform for discussing things they’re passionate about with others who share similar interests, just as Sun Microsystems’ thousand-plus employee bloggers do.

Sun’s model is a powerful one. And where there is power there is risk. That risk is inherent in the exercise of blogging. Someone can always say something derogatory about your company, you, your products, or your services. But chances are, if there is a reason, they already are
saying those things—with or without permission. By developing your own organizational approach to blogging, you create the opportunity to engage your critics and answer them. Depending upon the circumstances, your answer could range from correcting misconceptions, because the bloggers were misinformed, to changing your business model because they were absolutely right. All because you are part of the conversation.

In addition to bringing you closer to your customers and their concerns, blogging is one of the most reliable ways to gain search engine prominence. You may have noticed when using Google or Yahoo that blogs show up quite favorably in the search results for any given term.

That’s because search engines weigh highly those sites that are frequently linked to and updated. Starting a corporate blog can drive traffic to your existing business web site while building your personal brand. Because blogging is both a low-cost and high-yield feedback loop between your business and your markets, it has already drawn a good deal of attention and considerable investment from senior executives and smart marketers at organizations such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, General Motors, Harvard Law School, the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, AOL, Cisco, and many others. And it’s still true that most of today’s blogging tools are either free or available for a minimal cost.

Google’s Blogger system (http://www.blogger.com/), for example, will host your blog for free on Blogspot, or you can host your blog on the server of your choice. Other blogging tools, such as Typepad (http://www.typepad.com/) and Wordpress (http://http//wordpress.org), require a bit more technical knowledge, but offer bloggers more customization options and overall power.

Blogging has potentially the lowest barrier to entry of any communications medium to date aside from word of mouth, and offers the farthest reach for the least cost when done right (for “right,” just see the rules below). For this reason alone, there is no question that your organization should be participating in the world of blogs.

This is no time not to be part of the conversation.


Ten Rules for Starting Corporate Blogging Off Right

The following guidelines are offered to make your entry into the blogosphere a positive experience. Because blogging is as much art as science, all rules are bendable. The wise approach is to glean best practices first, and then customize based on your own style and
company goals.

1. Read Before You Write.

The best way to start blogging is to start reading blogs. You can begin by reading the blogs listed in Technorati’s Top 100 (www.technorati.com/pop/blogs/)—but don’t trust that those are the only bloggers worth reading, because that is simply not the case.

Because blogging is a bottom-up medium and does not by its nature support hierarchies, looking at only “experts”—whether self-dubbed or named by others—limits you unnecessarily; an artificial hierarchy of anything doesn’t sit well with many bloggers. So don’t limit your reading to the bloggers considered tops. You can find other bloggers by clicking through the links on the blogrolls (usually sidebar links to other blogs) of the blogs you enjoy reading. Chances are they have something in common with the blog on which they are blogrolled, and you will find interesting, relevant reading there as well.

Another way to find good blogs to read is to search Google for terms you’re interested in, such as “knowledge management” or “supply chains,” adding “blog” as another keyword. This will retrieve mostly blogrelated results, with links to a host of people talking about the topic you’re interested in. You can also search Technorati and Blog Pulse (http://blogpulse.com) using keywords in your industry to find blogs discussing the most recent trends and events of relevance. Identify who these blogs are linking to, and bookmark the blogs you like so that you can add them to your blogroll when you begin blogging.

2. Links Are Key.

What made blogging different in the beginning, and what makes blogs special today, are hyperlinks. Hyperlinks—the very core of the Web—are an integral part of how online dialogue works. Blogs join around common themes of interest and conversations via hyperlinks. Typical blog posts contain links to other bloggers, to mainstream news sources, and to articles or web sites related to their topic of discussion. This makes blogging an inclusive medium rather than an exclusive one (such as print), an exchange rather than a statement, a dialogue rather than a monologue.

Some of the most active and popular bloggers are also the most prolific linkers. It’s a curious fact that these bloggers attract sizable and loyal audiences chiefly by pointing away from their own sites to material elsewhere on the Web. But embodied in that fact is the unique word-of-mouth marketing secret of the blogosphere: the human urge to tell people about things that interest us, adding our own impressions as we do. This is the DNA of conversation, the connective chat that makes the world go ’round. When you first start blogging, begin linking to something of interest and relevance in your market, adding your own observations. Repeat this regularly, and you will be surprised at how quickly you can build your readership—and relationships.

Another way blogs guide readers through their areas of interests and communities of choice is through the blogroll. Many blogs have blogrolls, which are simply a list of the blogs they frequently read. Surf through the blogrolls of the bloggers you like, and you are likely to find other blogs that appeal to you. Similarly, when you begin blogging, start a blogroll and add to it. A tool that makes establishing and adding to blogrolls easy is blogrolling.com (www.blogrolling.com).

3. Don’t Use Your Own Blog to Sing the Praises of Your Company.

A blog post is not a press release. And a blog is not a brochure. Readers and participants in the blogosphere can instinctively sense promotional spin and insincere product peddling. If you’re overtly promotional in your blog, you will quickly lose your audience. Use your blog to engage your markets in conversation, to talk about what matters to you—even if that means you talk about sailing and security in the same week. You want to be interesting and approachable, and talking about what you like helps do that.

Your readers and blog colleagues are, above all else, people. They are people who usually happen to work somewhere else, have certain interests, and buy certain things (maybe a product or service you sell), and who want to understand you. They want to know that the voice of the blog comes from someone (or someones) who is genuine and truthful—an intelligent, thoughtful, witty, and interesting someone.

Don’t blog from your business card title (unless promoting corporate blogging is actually your job—as with Microsoft’s Technical Evangelist, Robert Scoble); instead, blog from your areas of knowledge and interest. Of course, your business is one of those interests—but it can’t be your sole interest. Talking about your company’s key strengths and features should be an occasional, even a rare, event. Talking about what you think and what is important to you should be a matter of course. That is where and how you engage readers.

4. Don’t Spam in Comments or Email.

As a related issue, one of the biggest mistakes those who are new to blogging make is to jump into the comments of, or email to, a blogger with an overt sales or public relations pitch. The instinct is
understandable—you read something written by a blogger who seems to understand your market, but perhaps they’re complaining about a problem they’ve had, or a feature they wish they could find in a commercial product.

You think: “My product can help here,” and you
want to dive into the discussion to tout your wares or be the superhero who solves everything. But stop for a second and think. Just as it is considered gauche and disingenuous to overtly pump your own company on your blog, it’s even worse to do it in someone else’s comments or email inbox. Do not disrupt another blogger’s blog by abruptly (read: rudely) pitching, proclaiming, or otherwise touting your company’s (or your client’s) product or service. Don’t even think about it. Ever.

It is as important to be a good “listener” of a blog as it is to be an interesting blogger. A conversation needs at least two people, and you want to be sure you are welcoming the dialogue. Read blogs with care and thought, looking for clues on what would be a response that would generate and continue the conversation. Be relevant in your remarks, to show that your interest is genuine and merely to promote your product or services. People know when they are being heard and appreciated, and when they are only being tolerated.

A crucial element of being a good listener to a blog—as with any form of dialogue or conversation—is discerning what will best maintain the interest, and then to respond in kind. This does not mean repetition (unless you want clarification), but instead becoming really engaged in the discussion. This usually has the effect of genuineness, and convinces bloggers that you find them interesting and not merely an object to sell something to. This is especially true should you wish to use humor. If you are not sure if it is natural, appropriate, relevant, and benign, don’t.

5. Monitor What Bloggers Are Saying About You.

Blog monitoring is a powerful, if not yet fully defined, way for companies to identify what their markets are saying about them. Blog monitoring can tell you what the burning issues of your customers are, their likes and dislikes, and where the company has an opportunity to respond to blog buzz. It also helps you keep an ear to your competitors. You can do basic blog monitoring by entering your blog or company web site URL or company name into the search field of a blog search engine like Technorati and read through the resulting posts in which other bloggers are linking to you. You can also create watchlists that email summaries of activity to you.

The next step, comprehensive blog monitoring, is both an art and a science. It entails gathering and employing information from a variety through countless no-value spam blogs); to news aggregators (see Rule 10), where you can track specific information and subscribe to RSS syndication feeds that will allow you to keep tabs on what is being said on the blogs in your industry and markets; to blog comments; to backchannel, real-time conversations among bloggers on chat sites (IRC, for example)—all of the many places bloggers gather to talk within, among, across, and even outside of their blogs.

This more sophisticated approach to blog monitoring requires an intimate knowledge of the blogosphere, of which bloggers are discussing what topics, and of what the blog buzz is during any given week. Automated blog monitoring tools and services are emerging; few, however, combine the finesse of traditional media tracking products by offering a way to track specific conversations within and among blogs. Pricing on these products is also a moving target and depends largely if they are part of larger media monitoring services or stand-alone blog-oriented products.

The fact is, monitoring blogs comprehensively still requires human skills—direct blogging experience, a keen eye for high-interest topics, search expertise, an instinct for following the link trail among the blogs, and the knowledge of your industry and business necessary to analyze, understand, and report the information that’s most meaningful to the business.

6. Don’t Do Denial.

It’s tempting to jump to the defense of your company or product when you come upon a discussion where bloggers are criticizing them. Think carefully before you comment or post. Maintaining good blogger relations depends on how you respond to the bad as well as the good. Therefore, before you respond, review the details internally with your product people and communications staff to find out whether the bloggers’ critiques have merit. Often, you’ll find that they do. In fact, unless you are being directly, personally attacked in a blog, chances are you can find some useful truth in the observations of bloggers. Take the “bad news” as guidance for your product and corporate improvement initiatives. Remaining in denial about either the perceptions or the realities of your product’s or company’s performance won’t win you any points in the world of blogs—and ultimately won’t improve the fortunes of your company.

Ideally, the response should come from your most expert resource within the organization; for example, on controversial issues, the expert within the company should join the discussion and explain any misconceptions. This doesn’t usually mean your marketing or PR person—unless he or she happens to be the best qualified person to respond. Once you have formulated a response, though, your marketing or PR experts can make sure it addresses the criticism or concern candidly and appropriately. Always keep in mind that it is not a corporate voice but a personal one that bloggers want to read.

If your organization was unresponsive to a problem, apologize briefly but comprehensively, and then tell bloggers what you are going to do to make things better. If you say you will improve things, you’d better follow through. Bloggers are like elephants; they never forget. And if they do, Google is there to remember for them.

A close kin to Denial is coverup. There is nothing that cuts credibility in the blogosphere faster than hiding the truth. Bloggers are notorious for being the first with breaking news because of their passion for sniffing out hypocrisy and using a variety of sources—including the Web—to vet their opinions among other bloggers. Blogger Matt Drudge broke the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky story. Bloggers were responsible for the fall of Dan Rather, and the resignation of CNN news chief Eason Jordan.

It stands to reason, then, that you and your company aren’t likely to slip by with a casual white lie or sleight of hand.

Transparency matters in blogging. Therefore, if you have relationships with bloggers whom you read, or even underwrite (while keeping your hands off their content, of course), proudly say so. If there’s a crisis brewing and you are consulting with your crisis management team on appropriate measures, decide what you will say on your blog as well— because bloggers will be the first bunch knocking (or linking) with the story. This kind of inherent requirement for transparency and disdain for spin is one of the biggest benefits of blogging over mainstream media for readers, and at the same time perhaps one of the hardest things for corporations to come to grips with.

7. Comments—Tread Carefully.

More lightning-quick—if not long-lasting—damage has been done to corporate and personal reputation in blog comments than anywhere else online. More honest disagreement and deep understanding has also been reached in that same venue. Because they are a dynamic and accessible discussion forum, as simple as clicking the “Comments” link on a blog post, you should think carefully about how you craft the comments you leave on others’ blogs; it is not always necessary to resist your urge to comment on controversial or hot topics, just because of the risk of confrontation and cross-examination by other commentators (not to mention the occasional flamer or troll).

But comments are indeed a double-edged sword: Because they are widely read and often-cited areas of discussion that facilitate the passionate exchange of ideas, they are prone to get ugly.

If you choose to have comments on your blog, most blogging tools will
let you decide which posts you wish to allow comments on and which you don’t. Be cautious about turning off comments on some and not on others, though. The best strategy is either to decide to have them, or decide not to. Waffling is not well tolerated by the cynical, engaged audience you’ll find online. And once you make a controversial or cutting comment, you either have to stick by it or decide to admit your error.

Trying to erase history by editing your comments (and especially the comments of others) is wishful thinking and never works.

Blogging takes courage. The least risky choice for corporate blogs is to get your feet wet in the blogworld before you start offering a commenting facility on your weblog. The bravest and most admired choice is to host comments and deal eloquently and honestly with both the positive and negative feedback.

8. Set Your Employees Free (Because They Already Are).

You may not know it, but it is likely that there are employees at your company already blogging—some for years now. If your employees are not blogging, then certainly your current and potential future partners, investors, and customers are. And bet that your competitors are doing it too.

Even if they haven’t started actively blogging yet, they are most certainly reading blogs and tracking the online discussions in the markets you share with them. In fact, research reports suggest that between 27% and 40% of online adults read blogs. So encourage—or at least allow—your employees to blog. Clinging to the illusion that you can control what your employees say, and to whom, won’t help your business.

You are better served to empower your employees as Sun has done, or as IBM has recently done. Encourage your employees to take risks, but to do so responsibly. Foster their desire to communicate with your markets around the things that interest them. You can help steer employees down your preferred blogging path, and protect your organization from some unwanted surprises, by developing a simple set of blogging guidelines and policies. See the Key Corporate Blogging Resources section of this paper for examples from companies that have developed them.

9. Don’t Forget Traditional Marketing and PR.

Corporate blogging is a dish best served alongside other communications tools. In other words, blogging is only part of the answer to how to better connect with your markets, your customers, your employees, your partners, and your influencers using the Internet. Your blog should support and be considered an integrated part of your other corporate communications initiatives.

Where you have public relations, you need blogger relations. When you
attend conferences, see which bloggers are also attending or speaking, and make a point of catching up with them in person. Where you have calls to action in your print marketing materials, think also of your blog: include the address of your weblog in these materials.

Likewise, include
links to downloadable white papers, research, and sites of value on your blog. Give readers real names and contact information for subject matter experts in your company. Your web site should link to your blog, and your blog to your web site. In other words, treat your weblog as any other essential communications channel.

10. Aggregators Are Great—But Start Small.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a complementary technology that can supplement your blogging efforts. RSS enables tools called aggregators to receive and display updated information from multiple blogs that you like to read. In essence, you “subscribe” to your favorite blogs using an aggregator, and can then read the most up-to-date articles from them within a single web-based program, or even via email.

Aggregators like Bloglines (www.bloglines.com), Newsgator (www.newsgator.com), and Feed Demon (http://www.bradsoft.com/feeddemon), help you follow the most recent news and blogs easily, from a single place—rather than surfing links across the blogosphere.

As efficient as RSS and aggregators are, there is a danger in subscribing to so many blogs that the chore of following them becomes more daunting than the benefits of accomplishing it. If this happens, go back to the blogs listed on your blogroll and start from there, reading them each day, or see what the most interesting conversations are by reviewing current news on Technorati. The point is to keep reading.

Sometimes missing a few days means missing an entire debate, or opportunity to contribute. To participate, you must read regularly and without fail. Aggregators can help.

There’s a Blog in Your Future (even if it’s not your own)

“Self-expression must pass into communication for its fulfillment.” --Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)

If your organization is ready to step up to the blog plate, start reading blogs. Do it in your free time, or make it part of your daily schedule. But do it. And when a topic or trend emerges that you can’t stay quiet about, it’s probably time to jump in.

Start slowly. Read extensively. Post frequently. Link liberally. And if you determine that a corporate weblog isn’t part of your communications strategy, the blogosphere and bloggers as a whole should be. Blogging is another channel through which you can communicate with your key audiences. Dialogues are taking place online at the speed of links, many of which would be richer for your participation in them. If your organization truly has something of value to offer, then your people likely have something of value to add to the blogworld. Many are probably already there. (And so, by the way, are your competitors.) Recognizing and encouraging that participation is your company’s best next step.

Whether or not you agree with the authors (and blogging pioneers) of the often-quoted Cluetrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.com), the evolution of the Internet over the last five years has proved the text’s most important thesis true: Markets are indeed conversations.

Your markets are already talking online. Blogging is your chance to join them.

Business Blogging Resources

All About the Blogosphere

Business Blogging Policies and Guidelines

Business Blogs You Should Know About

Other Blogs You Should Know About

  • Elisa Camahort: A blogger/expert at online marketing for small businesses and non-profits
  • Flackster: Blog-informed PR advice and insight from Michael O’Connor Clarke. Corante itself is also a great resource
  • Boing Boing: The de facto standard of reporting on the weird wired culture.
  • Rebecca Blood: Often referred to as the mother of blogging, Blood published an early book on the topic. She still codes her own blog rather than using a blogging tool.
  • All About George: New media and culture perspectives
  • RageBoy: Cluetrain Manifesto co-author and Gonzo Marketing author Christopher Locke's home on the range.
  • JOHO: David Weinberger’s Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization. David is the blog world’s philosopher-in-residence, Cluetrain co-author, and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
  • Esther Dyson: Editor at large at CNET Networks, where she is responsible for its monthly newsletter, Release 1.0, and its PC Forum, the high-tech market's leading annual executive conference.
  • Doc Searls: Respected blogger, technologist, Cluetrain co-author, Linux expert, and cultural commentator
  • Tony Pierce: Buzznet’s Blog Evangelist and the go-to guy on popular culture.
  • Burningbird: No stranger to controversy, Shelley Powers is a technologist, artisan, and early blogging pioneer.
  • Lisa Williams: Great information on blogging, RSS,and life
  • Cameron Barrett: An early blogger with a first post dating back to 1997, whose 1999 essay, “Anatomy of a Weblog,” helped define the concept of the weblog.

Corporate Voices

  • Scobleizer: The Microsoft Geek blogger, Robert Scoble, is the blog liaison for MS, with a down-to-earth voice. His role is outside of marketing and PR, so he can remain critical of the company when
  • necessary. He’s the outsider’s insider.
  • Randy’s Journal: Randy Baseler, VP Marketing for Boeing
  • Charlene Li of Forrester Research
  • Jonathan Schwartz: Sun’s president Jonathan Schwartz has become well known for his musings on industry trends, Sun’s strategy and criticisms of its rivals.
  • Blog Maverick: Home of Mark Cuban, outspoken owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks

Blog Search Tools

  • Technorati: Blogging’s first blog search engine and the de-facto blog search standard.
  • BlogPulse : Intelliseek’s blog search engine
  • PubSub: A combination of a search tool and aggregator, PubSub lets you search on keywords and get RSS feeds that match.
  • DayPop: Site that tracks the most linked-to news stories and posts in the blogosphere.