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.


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