Insurance and Technology

RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: The Fortune 500 begins to dance with blogs

February 20, 2006

Ford and GM do it. So do Sprint, Sun, Boeing and Xerox. But Raytheon, 3M, Kmart, McDonald's, and most of the rest of the Fortune 500 don't. At last count, only 22 of the Fortune 500 did it, according to Socialtext.net. Why do so few companies blog?

Before going on, let's define "blog." A "blog" is shorthand for "weblog," which is essentially an online diary anybody can read and anybody can annotate with comments. Blogs are not strictly Web sites, although they can be included on Web sites. They have a much more limited purpose.

A company blog is usually a place where high executives or selected experts can communicate directly with the public. Most blogs are informal and bereft of PR fluff and hype. The language tends to be direct. It reminds me of the days when advertisers were having CEOs like Lee Iacocca of Chrysler talk on-camera in their company's commercials.

It's this direct and forthright approach that distinguishes a blog from any other corporate communications. Undoubtedly, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets his PR people to check his grammar and his openness, but blog readers won't tolerate obvious superficiality. If they want that, they can read press releases.

Blogs have swept the hobbyist Web, but have infiltrated the boardroom only very slowly. The fact that just 22 of the Fortune 500 have blogs is evidence of how little interest companies have in prattling regularly and publicly in a forum where the vox populi can shout back.

For some companies, the lack of a blog is rather surprising. Blogs are read by the young, and some companies, such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, are locked together in an embrace of death as they battle for the youth dollar. Each tries to outdo the other in proof that it's modern and cool, yet neither blogs.

In other industries, the lack of blogs may be more understandable. Blogs are usually as interesting as the products or services they're about. The insurance industry, for example, might have trouble coming up with blog topics that wouldn't seem dull to the majority of readers, although I'm sure some clever PR writer could figure out a way to make insurance seem blog-worthy. To be sure, there are insurance blogs outside the Fortune 500, such as the life insurance blog run by Richard Reich (www.lifeinsure.com/blog/).

Some blogs are naturals. Ford has one for the Mustang. Dell has one about computer technology. IBM has multiple blogs for the technorati. Time Warner and Viacom have blogs about shows and other entertainment. But others are less obvious. Cox Communications has one about happenings in the broadband industry, for instance. The GM blog for Jan. 27 had a posting from Jack Keebler, director of GM's Advanced Concepts Group, who was writing about previously blogged comments that concerned front- vs. rearwheel-drive vehicles. Honeywell has blogs by employees who talk about their lifestyles and their employment with the company.

Some companies have done well with blogs, and others haven't. The Washington Post recently had to shut down one of its blogs after it was engulfed by an avalanche of foul-mouthed comments. But the concept can work in a proper setting. Seth Godin (sethgodin.typepad.com), an oft-quoted Web expert, has a list of five things a successful business blog should have, and he recommends you have at least four before you blog your business. His list is: candor, urgency, timeliness, pithiness and controversy.

As Godin points out, few CEOs want to court controversy or display pithiness, so most corporate blogs issue from lower down on the ladder. It is a fact, though, that the more of Godin's requirements you have, the greater your traffic and the more comments you'll generate. The GM and Ford sites have hundreds of comments on some posts, while many of the Honeywell postings have no comments at all. The public is interested in concept cars and automotive controversies. It's not all that interested in what a Honeywell employee did over the weekend.

Comments are important because the comments make the blog get up and walk. Reader comments can be both valuable and fascinating. Comments give you a chance to peer into the uncensored mind of the customer. They get readers coming back to see what other readers have left. Your post is intended to be the seed around which will grow a crop of contributions from others. If you can get that critical mass, your blog can be one of your cheapest success stories. You can find out more at sites like Business Blog Consulting (www.businessblogconsulting.com/) and Blog Branz (www.blogbrandz.com/).


Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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