Blogs may have started out as the domain of technology enthusiasts and consumer pressure groups, but they are now becoming a vital communications tool for some of the world's biggest companies.
The way in which consumers use the web has shifted over the past few years from simple browsing to generating their own content, giving blogging a key role in online communication. The emergence of blogging engines such as blogger.com (acquired by Google in 2003) and WordPress has given everyone the opportunity to publish content online quickly and easily.
Companies that were initially ambivalent toward the practice have become aware of blogging's potential, both as a way of influencing consumer opinions of their brands and of giving them a more 'human' voice in a way that is not achievable through traditional advertising.
The business case for brands to try to exploit the blogging phenomenon is now stronger than ever. While there are no firm figures on how many active blogs there are, it is believed to be more than 100m, with hundreds more going live every day. These blogs are being used to reflect individuals' opinions and experiences of specific brands, whether positive or negative.
There have been well-documented examples of blogs being used to highlight faults and spread negative aspects of brands. Perhaps the best known is the case of Kryptonite bike locks. In 2004, a video clip began circulating online showing how tubular cylinder locks could be picked using a ballpoint pen of matching diameter. The story of how it was done spread like wildfire across the internet through blogs and forum postings, and soon a bike trade website revealed that this lock-picking method had been known about for more than 10 years.
Kryptonite says it took five days to investigate the claim before responding to the original forum posting. The company acknowledged that some of its products may be affected and offered a free lock exchange, but was slammed for taking too long to react, and ended up having to defend itself to consumers, suppliers and the traditional media, which had picked up the story.
In the US, brand blogging has been in the mainstream for a number of years, with companies including General Motors, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems at the forefront. In the UK it is still in its infancy, but a number of high-profile brands have realised that bloggers' opinions can now carry as much weight with consumers as their own communications, and sometimes more.
Guinness, Thomson, BT and Honda are among the brands to have taken the plunge into the blogosphere. Earlier this year, Honda sponsored a blog (www.2talkabaout.com/honda) that enables its customers to discuss all aspects of the company and its various car models. Its sponsorship of the blog has now ended, but the community it attracted has remained and the blog continues to be a focal point for Honda consumers seeking information. 'It was a positive thing to do and we fed a lot of the information we received from consumers back into our product marketing department,' says Natalie Kerton, website manager at Honda UK.
As the power of bloggers grows, companies are trying their best to become part of the blogosphere and to understand how to communicate with these new 'influencers'.
Glenfiddich, the William Grant & Sons-owned malt whisky brand, began blogging at the start of this year in an attempt to create a dialogue with its customers that was free of the commercial messages that pepper promotional campaigns. 'The brand ambassadors set it up to develop a different level of relationship with the users, where they are part of a community,' says Victoria Campbell-Davys, online editor at the company.
Glenfiddich's approach to blogging follows one of the key rules of the blogosphere: a dedication to transparency and honesty. One of the biggest mistakes a brand can make is to think that blogging is just another channel that can be tightly controlled and used to market a product direct to users. If brands are not upfront about who they are and what their message is, they will be exposed and spurned by web users.
A number of brands have come a cropper on this point, most notably the Reckitt Benckiser cleaning brand Cillit Bang in the UK. Last year a blogger, Tom Coates, wrote a deeply personal post about his father, with whom he had not made contact for almost 30 years. 'Barry Scott' - a fictional character used in Cillit Bang's ads - posted a response encouraging him to make contact with his father and even went as far as to say that he had been though a similar experience.
After some detective work, Coates, who works at Yahoo!, established the source of the post - an IP address apparently at ad agency Young & Rubicam, which denied any involvement. The brand's actions drew sharp rebukes online and adverse coverage in the traditional media. The blogger eventually received an apology from PR agency Cohn & Wolfe for the 'unplanned (and) inappropriate' posting, which it described as an error of judgment that was not endorsed by the brand owner.
A similar incident recently took place in the US involving mega-supermarket chain Wal-Mart (see box overleaf).
'The differences between public relations and blog culture are very big,' says Suw Charman, an independent social-software consultant. 'Things that are acceptable in the PR world are not in the blogging world. It is about understanding the culture you are working in.' Charman cites Glenfiddich's efforts as blogs that fit well within the blogosphere environment, but slates holiday operator Thomson, which she accuses of 'only blogging PR events'.
The personal touch is clearly a benefit to a company blog, but that does not mean that only small start-ups can run one successfully. BT launched the BT Broadband Office blog in August and, while it is staffed by just three men, that is where any similarities with a small start-up end.
BT is one of the UK's biggest spenders on advertising, but its blog manages to retain a more personal feel. The company first began investigating the possibility of launching a blog more than a year ago and held seminars with companies such as the BBC to try to understand how to run successful blogs.
Underlining the difference between the marketing and the blogging communities, the BT team found that other companies welcomed the opportunity to share their blogging expertise - a practice often unheard of when it comes to brand and advertising strategies.
'You need to be very transparent,' says Derek Hemphill, business portal manager at BT Business. 'Although it is a BT blog, we are not there to sell products. We mention them where relevant, but we don't enter into the marketing that you find on other sites.'
The BT bloggers also had to ensure that their work would be given the green light by BT's strict legal team, so all comments are moderated before being posted. Despite this and the bureaucracy issues common to a company the size of BT, it has taken to blogging relatively smoothly. The team is now keen to expand its activity. 'We think BT should be running internal and external blogs to communicate with customers,' says Martin Faux, business portal development and delivery manager at BT Business. 'We have the experience of the trial and we are now evangelising within BT about it.'
While it is very simple and cheap to start a blog, the most difficult thing for brands using corporate blogs is to ensure that they not only target a specific audience but also deliver relevant content. Blogs are akin to niche publishing, with dedicated but often small groups of people coming together in certain places online attracted by content that they desire. In this context, brands can use blogs to reach out to very targeted groups that they could not normally talk to through mainstream channels.
AOL's 'Discuss' campaign, which was intended to spur consumers to reappraise the broadband provider, is one example of how a blogging strategy can be used to drill down to different groups and stimulate interest in topics that would not normally be addressed by mainstream marketing (see box). 'A lot of the stuff discussed was spontaneous and in fact it turned into briefs that we gave to agencies later in the year,' says Timothy Ryan, brand marketing director at AOL UK.
Like BT, AOL found that the use of blogging required a change of mindset within the company, especially from the marketing department, which was not used to dealing with a medium over which it has little control. But getting people to buy into the idea internally and turning over control of the initiative to users allowed AOL to learn more about them, which is the biggest commercial advantage of a blog.
'Blogging turns the marketing model on its head - you have to be more open-minded about how things will happen,' says Ryan. 'One of the big questions we considered before launching "Discuss" was what we would do if people started to say bad things about AOL. But we are giving the user a platform and would much rather hear them say these things and do something about it than not know that there was a problem.'
It is not only big companies that can benefit from the power blogs have to reach niche audiences. The medium also provides a useful platform for smaller companies to talk to their audience online, especially if they lack the marketing muscle of bigger brands. Firms that cannot afford to employ a PR agency can use a blog to engage customers online and begin a dialogue with them, which can lead to increased brand loyalty.
Butler Sheetmetal and Tinpot Alley are two family-run metalwork companies in Lancashire with their own blog - Tinbasher. Despite the fact that they are small firms, their blog has established a strong following. Another success has been English Cut, the blog of bespoke Savile Row tailor Thomas Mahon. That both blogs serve their businesses so effectively testifies to the fact that there are as many types of blog readers as there are bloggers.
Blogging has become a global phenomenon because of an increase in consumer demand for independent information. The traditional balance has shifted and brands are no longer in total control of their marketing communications. The temptation is clear for brands to enter the blogosphere, but it has to be approached with full commitment if they are to succeed. Get it wrong, and negative reaction can spread worldwide faster than established corporate damage-limitation techniques can handle.
Consumers may be becoming resistant to traditional marketing messages, but if a brand in which they are interested is blogging in a relevant fashion, the opportunities for the company far outweigh the risks.
FACT FILE - BRAND BLOGGING
THE RIGHT WAY: AOL/DISCUSS
AOL launched the 'Discuss' campaign in early 2006 to get consumers to reappraise its brand and service. Although the ISP had an established UK customer base, it wanted to move away from its traditional brand advertising by getting customers to engage with it. It began by asking: 'Is the internet a good or a bad thing?' in a high-profile ad campaign devised by Branded and created by Grey. At the heart of the campaign was the microsite at www.aol.co.uk/discuss, where consumers could join the debate by responding to topical articles written by celebrities and public figures including Alastair Campbell, Piers Morgan and Jarvis Cocker. Crucially, the site allowed users to interact and suggest areas that should be debated. This led the site to cover a range of subjects, including communication, communities, journalism, entertainment, kids, dating, health, learning, lifestyle, music, politics, security and shopping.
All of these are subjects that are as important to the consumers as they are to AOL, and the community site has allowed the company to gain a valuable insight into what its consumers think about its service and the internet in general.
As of July, 750,000 people had visited the microsite, with more than 600 comments being posted every month. AOL used the campaign to help shape its product development and the way it communicates with customers.
THE WRONG WAY: WAL-MARTING ACROSS AMERICA
US supermarket giant Wal-Mart employed PR agency Edelman to improve its image online.
The agency came up with a blog called Wal-Marting Across America, charting a 10-day road trip by 'Jim and Laura'. The story was set up that the couple had found that RVs (motorhomes) park overnight for free in Wal-Mart parking lots. They had decided to cross the US and save money by parking at Wal-Marts, posting upbeat photos and interviews with Wal-Mart staff and customers. An organisation called Working Families for Wal-Mart, which was set up by Edelman to counter anti-Wal-Mart pressure groups, sponsored the trip.
It was soon uncovered by several newspapers and anti-Wal-Mart websites and blogs that 'Jim and Laura' were in fact veteran Washington Post photographer James Thresher and Laura St Clair, a freelance journalist. Richard Edelman, president and chief executive of Edelman PR, was forced to make an embarrassing apology on his own blog in which he acknowledged 'our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. I am absolutely clear that we were wrong and have to do better,' he said.
Since the incident, Wal-Mart has been exposed as being behind several other PR-led blogs and has been forced to issue a public apology to the blogging community.