Conversing With Your Customers

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in July 2006.

I just finished speaking to the Spring Conference of the Utah chapters of IABC and PRSA. Most of the audience was either public relations or marketing and communications folks. The subject was blogging.

Blogging seems like a natural topic for PR and marketing people to talk about and indeed there was quite a bit of interest. But the subject is also a little scary. The problem is that corporate communications is typically about "controlling the message" and blogging is antithetical to that.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, the seminal book on corporate communications in the Internet-age, the most important clue is "We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings. Deal with it." That statement summarizes the sentiment that makes blogging such an uncomfortable idea for many corporate communicators. Blogging requires a human voice. When was the last time you read a press release that sounded like something a human wrote for another human to read? Not recently, I'd wager.

A human voice is open, honest, and informal. A human voice engages in dialog and provides prompt, personal feedback. Human voice is the hard part of corporate blogging. It's also the part that has value. When you speak to your customers in an open, honest manner, they respond.

Many corporations conviniently ignore the blogosphere, assuming that what they don't know won't hurt them. This is a mistake. Dave Sifry of Technorati reported in February 2006 that they were tracking 71,000 new blogs a day. Some of these drop off, but many do not. The number of active blogs doubles roughly every 22 weeks. The blogosphere is over 60 times bigger than it was only three years ago! What are all these people writing about? Some of them are writing about your company or your products.

The blogosphere is having a conversation about your company. You can ignore it, but you can't stop it. Being part of the conversation is the only tenable strategy. I remember one Utah company not too long ago that was having serious operational difficulties. The Web was abuzz with talk about their failures. But when you went to their corporate Web site it was full of corprospeak..."Welcome to ACME Systems, the Web's most reliable blah, blah, blah." The discontinutity was jarring. They'd have been much better off with a honest acknowledgement of the problem and what they were doing to fix it.

So, how do you engage the blogosphere and become part of the conversation? Here are some starting points:

If you don't use Technorati and Google Blog Search to track what the blogosphere is saying about your company, products, stock, and officers, start now. These free tools are indispensable.

Use Yahoo! Alerts or a similar service to have search results about your company delivered to your inbox or even your mobile phone. This works great with the blog search tools mentioned above and will keep you up to speed with developing stories about your organization.

Decide on your organization's blogging policy. You can't simply say "don't blog" -- employees have a right to speak. It's better to decide what's acceptable and not acceptable before the first incident. Some companies, like Sun, have a very liberal policy. In short, it's "don't be stupid." Others have specific rules about what employess can and can't say about their work. If you want your employees to serve as ambassadors for your organization, be liberal.

Whatever you do, don't create a blog and then just post your press releases. I hate to break this to you, but your customers aren't reading your press releases and they don't want to. A press release blog is worse than no blog at all.

Consider asking people outside the PR or marketing organization to be the corporate blogger. This is an evagelist role that might be only a small part of the employee's duties or the major focus, depending on the size of your company. Your corporate blogger should have clear instructions and be someone who is enthisastic about the company's products, but not a shill. Microsoft's corporate blogger, Robert Scoble is sometimes critical of Microsoft. Remember the human voice.

Speaking of Scoble, he has a load of good tips for corporate bloggers (see http://tinyurl.com/4pnco). Read them.

Blogs are forcing companies to communicate in ways that are uncomfortable because almost anyone now has a voice that can be heard the world over. The game is no longer about controlling the message and broadcasting your advertisements. The new rules require that you converse with your customers. Get used to it.

Phil Windley teaches Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Windley writes a blog on enterprise computing at http://www.windley.com and is the author of Digital Identity published by O'Reilly Media. Contact him at phil@windley.com

Last Modified: Wednesday, 10-May-2006 10:32:30 MDT