Cast your mind back, if you dare, to the darkness of the pre-internet world. On its own, a computer was handy, but unremarkable; hook a few together and we got the web. Similarly, no-one knows the full impact of blogging in advertising as yet, but it's a medium that's drawing its strength from numbers. A lone blogger might not carry much weight, but a blogosphere that draws together millions of individuals can present a very powerful voice.
Blog monitor site Technorati.com currently tracks 13.6 million blogs; up from 13.3 million just two weeks ago. Thanks to tools like Google's Blogger.com and MSN's Spaces, blogging has become an outlet for individuals who want to create and publish commentary in text, audio and visual form.
Combine this with the wider availability of broadband and increasingly cheaper media production tools, such as iMovie or GarageBand, and blogging has become a trendy way to publish opinions on the web.
Blog entries could include the diary of a gap-year student's travels around the world or public opinions of your brand. Blogs are "a powerful social networking tool", points out Eric Winbolt, digital media manager at EMI Records. So, can brands get in on the act? And, if so, how?
Web sites such as US destination Epinions.com are useful for online shoppers, who can type in a brand name and read other users' comments. Adopting this idea, brands can use the blogosphere for research, either by monitoring what's out there through sites like Technorati.com or Blogpulse.com, or by running a blog themselves.
Brands that want to run their own blog can seek inspiration at iPodlounge.com, hosted by Apple. Allowing users to upload ideas for the next generation of iPods, Apple benefits from brand building and receiving ideas to improve design. The site is transparent and doesn't - directly - try to sell anything.
A company can also build its brand by hosting a blog that offers customers a service and value. For example, Swedish spirits importer Svedka Vodka launched lifestyle blog Gardenofsweden.com to target trendsetters with gritty, underground content, such as sex, nightlife, 'what's on' and films.
"It isn't pushing what they're selling, but there's a very subtle branding message. They are subconsciously associating the brand around these experiences," says Wayne Bickerton, head of partnerships and emerging media at Diffiniti.
Blogs enable a brand to develop a dialogue with its audience and build communities with subtle messages. For example, Piaggio USA-owned Vespa is launching two new weblogs later in the year, to be written by owners of the bikes, at Vespablogs.com. It plans to recruit four bloggers - two per blog - and explains why on its site: "Blogs are an ideal way to connect with Vespa brand loyalists and encourage them to become online evangelists."
Blogs can also raise natural search-engine placements. The engines like them as they are frequently updated and use RSS (Really Simple Syndication); a format easily picked up by search spiders.
However, it is extremely important to pay careful attention to managing a blog as the potential pitfalls are enormous. Take bike-lock company Kryptonite: a blogger described how users can open its locks with a Biro, costing the company a reported £5.5 million in replacements.
Brands that allow employees to discuss sensitive information are asking for trouble, reckons Matthew Warneford, head of interactive at Dubit.
"Weblogs are often run by employees who could accidentally, or maliciously, release sensitive, proprietary, confidential or financial information about the company," he says. "Information, once released on the internet, becomes difficult to manage or control, and it can be subverted beyond your intended purpose."
But, he adds, "this can work both positively and negatively". An example of best practice is GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz's personal blog at Fastlane.org, where he openly engages customers. DaimlerChrysler discusses problems and solutions though blogs; American Airlines communicates with staff through them, and IBM's employees use blogs to discuss software development projects and business strategy.
But a marketing message disguised as a blog can damage a brand. For example, Cadbury Schweppes' Ragingcow.com featured product endorsements from children who had been sought and rewarded by the company. It was badly received and shows that transparency is key. At the same time, however, brands have to be brave and allow negative comments to appear alongside the good.
Andy Hobsbawm, chairman of Agency.com, says: "These conversations, between customers or employees or partners, cannot be controlled and companies need to let go of their brands. They should concentrate on creating consistently superior and interactive experiences, built on such principles as giving customers control and letting them discuss, remix, customise, co-create and share the brand on their own terms," he adds.
But blogs are only now emerging as marketing tools. "Blogging hasn't reached critical mass yet," says Diffiniti's Bickerton. "It is not going to reach millions of people at the moment. A lot of companies are still thinking about how it's going to evolve." However, he says the potential "is more about establishing dialogue and generating information for the company. The best users of this channel are companies that are heavily involved in branding activity and want to establish a dialogue."
Diffiniti has introduced a customised advertising service to help companies extend their online presence by placing ads on blogs or blog networks.
The agency creates blogs for clients to encourage communication between the brand and customer. First, clients have to consider how a blog will fit into their overall marketing strategy and how they expect to benefit. "Why are you setting it up? Justify your reasons for having one. What are the people using it going to get out of it?" asks Bickerton.
"Are you prepared to have a conversation and not just broadcast a message?," asks Warneford. Done well, blogs can offer rich rewards. Mykindaplace has managed it without veering from its brand image (see case study) and The Guardian is talking to brands about building microsites based on blogging software, where users can interact with them.
In a campaign planned by Manning Gottlieb OMD, SonyPlaystation used blogs as the main component of its Freedom Explorer competition this summer.
It aimed to recruit as many video-bloggers - Vloggers - as possible. They were asked to keep a video diary of their summer exploits, from gigs to festivals, and post their 'Vlogs' on the PlayStation Freedom web site (www.playstationfreedom.co.uk) each week to share their experiences. The public then voted for a winner, who received a year's expenses-paid entry to gigs, festivals, films and events.
The media agency has also secured sponsorship of mobile blog BusyThumbs.com, to which users can send photos from their handset for others to rate.
A chart of the most popular is compiled each week.
Aside from creating their own blogs, companies can monitor those of others to gain valuable insight. "There are opportunities to monitor trends in various crucial sectors of marketing here," says Bickerton. For example, Blogpulse.com can track who is talking about topics that are of interest to a brand, and their context. It can track trends in the blogging world to see which topics are being discussed each day.
"We use weblogs not just for marketing but also as a research tool," Warneford says. "Teenagers are open and willing to share through their weblogs, so that gives us an insight into their needs and desires. Listening to their emotional needs helps us develop campaigns that support teens and not just try to sell them products." He points to the marketing blog on Joelonsoftware.com. "Joel's flagship product, FogBugz, is a defect-tracking database for software developers, aimed at small teams. His articles reach hundreds of thousands of software developers - the market his product is aimed at," he says.
EMI Records' Winbolt believes bands' blogs help to bridge the gap with fans and sees implications for companies outside the music industry. "This is applicable to brands using the issues or opinions raised by an individual the public is interested in, especially with the obsession with celebrity. It's a way to take the pulse of what's happening, create feedback and filter opinions."
"This might be applicable to a health brand," says Winbolt. "If you are marketing a health product, you can promote the idea as long as it is something that affects or interests them." Flora recently ran a campaign on its site to push its low-cholesterol spread, pro.activ, where singer Lulu kept an online diary of her daily battle to lower cholesterol.
"There is also the rise and rise of blogs as political tools," continues Winbolt. "Brands can use this as a way to promote social interactivity by raising issues that are relevant." For example, Christian Aid's campaign site, Pressureworks.org, saw a six-fold increase in visitors on 2 July, when bloggers filed hourly reports from the Make Poverty History rally in Edinburgh, which ran alongside web clips from the day (see Campaign of the Month, p69.)
GlaxoSmithKline's French arm runs a weblog called Avenir de la Sante ('the future of health'), aimed at sparking debate over the country's plan to reform the healthcare system. GSK France's public affairs director, Veronique Delvolve, launched the blog to inform the public of the issues involved.
Mobile provides a way of keeping blogs immediate and portable, and O2 is one brand seeing success. It teamed with mobile services firm YoSpace for its Mobile Model Search 2005 campaign. Blog technology was used to invite would-be models in the UK to submit a photo via MMS that would appear for public viewing on the O2 site. It chose 12 finalists who were invited to London Fashion Week to take part in a selection day, which involved a catwalk show and assessment by experts. In total, there were 11,000 MMS entries, more than one million web impressions and over 570,000 WAP page impressions. Promotional blogging like this can encourage valuable interaction.
EMI Records promoted new band Starsailor by inviting fans to download pictures from their mobiles to a blog site during a gig on the Isle of Wight, in association with Nokia. The images were instantly viewable online or from WAP sites. The promotion followed similar activity carried out last year when EMI Records launched a mobile version of the band's site to coincide with Glastonbury, enabling fans to text photos from the festival to a similar blog.
Winbolt puts the "much larger response rate" down to a lag in the number of users understanding what the mobile internet is, and not understanding the features of their mobile phone.
While the future direction of blogging has yet to be defined, it will play an important role in the media. Personal publishing on portals such as photo-blog site Flickr.com and news-blog sites Indymedia.org and Ourmedia.org are increasingly popular and may lead to man-on-the-street reporting.
Increasingly, media owners are beginning to incorporate blogging elements in their web strategy and work with individual community content creators.
Observer.co.uk has added a blog, which enables readers of the newspaper to provide feedback on articles and add to stories that have already appeared. Similarly, users can add to the Guardian's blog on Blogs.guardian.co.uk/online and have their say on Dailymail.co.uk though blogs.
"Being able to aggregate the voices of many people creates something that is much louder than any media organisation," says Winbolt. "People need to communicate with others and if a brand can find a way to harness this, they are on to a good thing."
He elaborates: "I just got back from Glastonbury, and was interested in the event and wanted to look up all the pictures of people covered in mud. Rather than going to the traditional media web sites like the BBC, I went to Flickr.com.
"This is a huge blogging community that is especially good at hosting blog photos downloaded from mobiles. There is no media association in the world that could compete with the range of photos on there. The sheer range of material is threatening the role of traditional media."
Dubit's Warneford adds: "I would expect weblogs to become an important and influential journalistic force. As people learn how to syndicate feeds, consuming weblogs will become a quick and easy part of their daily ritual, just like reading a newspaper."
So, as blogging evolves as a tool, brands should respect its potential.
To paraphrase David Ogilvy, "the blogger isn't a moron, the blogger is your wife".
Wayne Bickerton is head of partnerships and emerging media at Diffiniti (formerly Carat Interactive), where he has worked for six months. Prior to that, he spent about three years at Carat; clients included Royal Mail, Beiersdorf and News International.
Eric Winbolt is digital media manager of EMI Records.
He joined EMI in 1990 and moved to its digital media division when it was set up in 1998, handling web retail and catalogue promotion. Two years later, he was digital media manager of EMI:Chrysalis.
Matthew Warneford is head of interactive at Dubit. He joined Dubit five years ago and has been instrumental in creating 3D chat technology. He focuses on creating immersive projects and communities for young people.
Clients have included Sky Sports and Motorola.
MYKINDAPLACE LAUNCHES FREE BLOGGING SERVICE FOR USERS
Teen web site Mykindaplace launched a blogging service for its 600,000 registered users in July, which is free and ad-sponsored.
Chris Thorogood, business development director, says extending the Mykindaplace brand through blogging will have an important role to play for newly relaunched Mykindaplace.com.
Mykindablog.co.uk keeps the look and feel of the site. It has paid-for banner and Skyscraper ads, which may be expanded to overlays. At launch, these included a rich-media ad for Mary Hogan's new teen novel, The Serious Kiss, and a clickthrough ad offering the chance to 'win a room' in HabboHotel.co.uk.
"We debated how to fund this thing," says Thorogood. "Essentially, there are two business models - subscription-based or through advertising. If you look at the US, you have many mass-market blogs, but if you want additional features you have to pay a monthly subscription.
"US mass-market blogs don't make a lot of money through advertising, but we're a defined niche and can add advertising on to our existing delivery through Mykindaplace," he explains.
"It is a slightly different story to mass-market blogs. Our bloggers are 14 to 16-year-old girls and advertising will be sold accordingly, through our normal media sales route. Our blogs are free and will remain free for the foreseeable future. There is a possibility that we might add features under subscription, but teenagers cannot buy online," he adds.
At the moment, teens can download photos and write journals, and soon there will be a mobile element that lets them download MMS.
Mykindaplace will track the site and pick out the most popular blogs, which will be put on a messageboard of 'what's hot' and the top five most-visited sites.
The technology was supplied by mobile service provider Mobrio, whose chief executive officer, Julian Swallow, says: "A blogging service with Mykindaplace branding, fully integrated with the whole Mykindaplace experience is likely to attract significant numbers of users."
TOP TIPS ON MARKETING THROUGH BLOGS
1. A blogging and editorial policy is vital, but don't be too restrictive; balance the rules with the freedom to let users blog in their own style.
2. Choose your blogger carefully. They should communicate well in writing, and have a sincere passion and expertise for their subject.
3. Remember you're building a community. Your readers, if treated right, will become your advocates. Be inclusive and show your commitment by sharing knowledge and listening.
4. Transparency is vital. You need to be clear about your intentions and honest about your company. If it is not in your firm's culture to share your innermost workings, don't blog.
5. Be authentic; don't fake it. If you use your blogs as billboards, the blogging community will give you a public roasting. Blogging is about the human side of companies, not PR speak.
6. Scour the web for your network. Read their blogs regularly, identify the influencers, talk to them and exchange information. Your network will help publicise your blog, boost search rankings and gain visitors through recommendations.
7. Post regularly and keep it fresh. Don't leave your blog untouched for weeks.
8. Plan for feedback. Let your customers talk to you through comments on your blog and be prepared to manage a two-way conversation. How will you manage spam and abuse?
9. Plan for negative PR. Create a management plan and have a rapid response team.
10. Build campaigns around your established blog. Think big. As well as publicising to customers, tell your staff and suppliers.
Thanks to Katy Howell, MD, Immediate Future
Questions that should be considered when thinking about corporate blogging
- Can your firm be transparent, enter dialogue with customers and respond to negative PR?
- Have you evaluated blogs in your market, found a niche and set up a monitor of relevant ones?
- Have you agreed your objectives, target audience, strategy and content schedule?
- Do you understand the rules of blogging?
- Have you agreed target keywords and phrases, and a link strategy to maximise search value?
- Do you have a crisis management plan?
- Have you chosen and empowered your blogger, allocated time for them to blog, and agreed a consistent tone and editorial policy?
- Does your blog's graphics, design, photos and copy reflect your brand?
- Does your software allow others to syndicate, link to, categorise and distribute your blog?
- Is your blog integrated into your marketing?
- Are you monitoring the impact of links?