Blog Boom: Newest Web craze becoming a key tool for business marketing, communications

February 27, 2006

Myles Brand needed a way for his organization to reach out to the public. It had to be direct and immediate and initiate an honest two-way discussion.

Brand, NCAA president, chose an offbeat idea-albeit one with a growing following-to solve this age-old business problem.

He gave the directive late last year for the NCAA to launch its first blog, an online presence that two years ago few corporate types understood, much less considered a viable means of communication.

Now, the blog, which is growing with astounding speed even for the Internet era, has become a powerful marketing and business communication tool.

Blogs-short for Web logs-are online journals that typically invite reader feedback. They began cropping up less than five years ago, and took off during the 2004 political elections. Some blogs are highly influential and have enormous readership while others are intended for a close circle of family and friends. Conservatively, Web experts estimate, 250 million people worldwide read blogs daily, with a high-traffic blog pulling in more than 300,000 readers a day.

There are more than 28 million blogs worldwide covering almost every subject imaginable, according to Technorati Inc., a San Francisco-based information technology research firm. That's up from 6 million just a year ago. More than 80,000 new blogs pop up every day-about one every second-and one in every three Internet users is either writing, responding to or reading blogs.

"Blogs are transforming the global communications landscape," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer for Intelliseek, a Cincinnati-based Web research firm.

Along with the NCAA, corporations such as Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Motorola, Sprint, Sun Microsystems, Boeing and Xerox all maintain blogs.

Blogs are so powerful, Blackshaw said, that in 2004 his firm launched Blogpulse, a Web site that tracks, searches and analyzes the key people, phrases and top links posted on millions of blogs daily.

There's good reason for corporate America to pay attention to this emerging medium, Blackshaw said, since many privately run blogs focus on companies and their goods and services.

"New rules are emerging about the way companies and their customers interact," he said. "At the heart of a blog is people's need to be heard. If companies aren't listening to their customers through blogs, you can bet other customers are listening. And the shared information is changing customers' behaviors."

Open discussion

While a growing number of businesses have launched blogs to get their spin on information to customers, marketers said blogs can backfire if they're seen as propaganda.

"It has to be an open discussion," said Josh Centor, who writes and maintains the NCAA's blog. "There's nothing we won't discuss on the blog. It's a great way not only to disseminate information, but to be accessible, and get the pulse of your customers."

Brand is often a guest blogger on Centor's blog, and also frequently posts comments to current topics being discussed on the blog. Outsiders can post messages on blog sites much like a message board.

Crowe Chizek and Co. LLP has helped the Indianapolis Colts launch blogs on the team's Web site to give fans a "unique look into the team."

"It can't just be sanitized fluff," said Mark Strawmyer, an executive with Crowe Chizek's technology consulting practice. "The consumer quickly sees through that."

Blogs started out as simple text, but have quickly evolved.

Last year, vlogging, or posting video diaries in a blog format, began to grow in popularity as individuals and companies found that posting a video tour or an ongoing travel diary attracted a niche following, said Chris Jefferson, director of business development for Miller White, a marketing firm with offices in Indianapolis and Terre Haute.

Blogs are much easier to launch than Web sites. Numerous Web sites and public domain software exist that allow almost anyone to host a blog.

At the heart of blogs' power, Blackshaw said, are their ease of being indexed on the Internet, which means blogs often get placed high in search engines using key words. Bloggers are also known for linking to other blogs, Blackshaw added, creating a powerful network.

Businesses joining FastLane

U.S. and Japan lead the way in blog creation, according to Technorati research, with businesses increasingly jumping into the blogosphere.

General Motors was one of the first major U.S corporations to launch a blog. GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz pens Fast-Lane, which is hailed as a model for how online conversations with consumers can work, giving the corporate monolith a human voice. Lutz reported that his blog had more than 6,000 reader posts its first year.

Though Lutz remains among a minority of big-time executives who have gone blogging, the number of corporate-run blogs has more than doubled in the last year, according to Technorati.

Blogs, in many ways, have shifted the control and direction of information, marketers said.

"Consumers using the Internet to voice their support or vent frustrations about companies and their products is nothing new," said Crowe Chizek's Strawmyer. "But bloggers have taken this to a whole new level. Consumers tend to trust other consumers, so there's power in this dialogue."

Companies concerned about "this dialogue taking place off their radar screen" are contracting out the job of tracking what people are blogging about them, Strawmyer said.

"So often, companies don't know what the word on the street is about them," said Randy Kron, president of Kron & Associates, an Indianapolis-based advertising agency. "Often, they only hear from the very dissatisfied or the very pleased. Blogs give companies another view. It's something to take very seriously."

Business blogs can be business-to-business or consumer-oriented, Kron said, but he warned that, despite their rising popularity, they're not for everyone.

"I don't think you have to be as big as GM, but if a company is going to have a blog, it must have the resources to devote to it," Kron said. "If a company has significant Web traffic, a blog provides a real opportunity. But an outdated blog can do more damage than good."

Blogs and media: friend or foe?

Media outlets have also jumped on the blog bandwagon. The Indianapolis Star launched its first blog in 2003 and currently has seven, ranging from Raygan Swan's lifestyle blog to Terry Hutchens' blog on Indiana University sports. Other newspapers have a much larger presence. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for instance, has almost 50 blogs, and the Los Angeles Times has more than 40.

The Star's blog activity has picked up considerably in the last three months, said Bob Jonason, Star vice president of online services. Some blogs get several thousand page views daily, he said.

Newspapers have found blogs are a great way to draw a younger audience, Jonason said, which is critical given the aging demographic of newspaper readers.

"It also gives newspapers a new kind of immediacy," he said. "It allows beat writers to react immediately to news on the blog. It also allows reporters to drive the blogs through their personalities."

The Star is just beginning to sell advertising on its blogs, Jonason said.

"I think people are still trying to figure out where this is going," said Ray Begovich, journalism instructor at Franklin College. "The interactive capabilities of blogs appear to have real potential power. Like any new media, there are always elements of excitement and anxiety."

But Begovich, unlike some of his brethren, doesn't see blogs as a threat to news outlets. Begovich said independent bloggers don't have the credibility of professional journalists.

Blogs, even in their infancy, represent a changing of the guard of communication gatekeepers, said Tim Nudd, who covers pop culture for AdWeek, an advertisingindustry publication.

If television, radio and print publications are the official record of public life, keyboard-tapping consumers now offer millions more unofficial accounts-a groundswell of observation, analysis and commentary on a scale mainstream media could never match, even with unlimited TV channels and production budgets and barrels of ink, Nudd said.

"Journalists may complain about bloggers' unchecked facts and questionable sources, but since when did large numbers of Americans consider corporate media outlets unbiased sources of information?" Nudd said. "Bloggers develop trust through the consistency and immediacy of their writing, and by projecting authentic voices ostensibly free from corporate interests."
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