A blogger's guide to blogging

Nancy Vonk, advertising's most famous blogger, offers a guide to the powerful new communications tool, and tells how she moved from ignoramus to blog evangelist.

When Campaign asked me to write a piece on blogs, I almost said no; writing on a blog since 2003 has not made me an expert. Doing a quick survey of creative people, I learned I wasn't the only one many steps removed from blogosphere thought leadership. In fact, I was clearly in the majority. I put out emergency calls to my smart friends who are immersed in blogland, and did my homework. I took the crash course so you don't have to. Read on and you too may move from being ignorant about the most powerful new-ish communications tool, to blog evangelist.

I live out my agony-aunt fantasy with my long-time creative partner and co-creative director, Janet Kestin, writing an advice column on a blog called Ask Jancy (found on ihaveanidea.org). Here are the blog basics, delivered in the question-and-answer format I use when writing my own blog.

Aren't blogs written by a bunch of losers with nothing better to do than criticise everything and anyone? Why should I waste my time trolling the blogosphere?

Yes, yes, yes, millions of blogs are tragic, but many others are hugely worthwhile. To get hooked straight away check out boingboing.net (strapline: a directory of wonderful things), kuraoka.com/adblog - priceless as a cheat sheet for the latest highly relevant ad news and trends.

Great bloggers are fantastic editors; their blogs have tons of stuff you'll be interested in. And you can find incredible focus on subject matter: www.drawn.ca is a place to check out new artists of all kinds, with up to five new posts a day. Seek and ye shall find - technorati.com is a particularly good blog search engine. You can ask to be notified about subject matter you are interested in every time it appears on a registered blog, too.

The best blogs have links to other worthwhile blogs. But watch out for falling into countless rabbit holes - I couldn't resist the detour to the US advertising legend Mark Fenske's ramblings (markfenske.com), or the former creative director Ernie Schenck's (eschenck.typepad.com), or dozens of others in one sitting. The next thing you know, it's Tuesday.

Who are the blog experts? What are their rules for a good blog?

Blogs are so new there aren't any gurus yet. The "rules" are being stumbled upon through all the mistakes and lessons learned, particularly when it comes to corporate blogs.

Microsoft's Robert Scoble is a frequently cited blogger (scobleizer.wordpress.com) who has a lot of credibility in his role as "chief humanising officer". When readers go to him with questions or complaints about his employer, they know they can count on a straight answer, no matter how squirmy that may make his boss. He has done the unthinkable: made people think Microsoft is filled with human beings.

Scoble has created a "corporate weblog manifesto" (radio.weblogs. com/0001011/2003/02/26.html), which lays out 20 rules of conduct for anyone thinking of doing a weblog about a product or company.

Looking at successful blogs from companies such as Microsoft and IBM, should all my clients be starting their own blogs?

For most, not yet. It may be a while before most companies are prepared to do what it takes to make a blog really work for them.

The best company blogger is an employee, not a PR person. Not even a top agency copywriter will cut it because the first prerequisite for success is authenticity. The blogosphere has no tolerance for spin, so the voice of a company needs to be that of a real insider, with tons of time to do it. Keeping a blog current is vital to getting anyone to keep visiting. Many hours of research to bring in lots of goodies worth seeking out is important.

Critically, the company has to feel a high level of trust and give permission to its blogger to speak their mind. Truth is easy to recognise and falsehood even more so. As with traditional advertising, truth builds credibility.

Falsehood is off-putting and, on a blog, it's instant death.

If you can identify someone such as Scoble (no easy trick), it's a goldmine.

He literally puts a human face on a brand that badly needs one, and this is one of the greatest benefits of a corporate blog. An ad that attempts to do the same job pales in comparison with an actual voice that a wide audience can engage with and come to like and respect. The halo on the brand works insanely well.

Scoble will help pave the way for a good reception for the launch of the next version of Windows. Although that launch will be surrounded by traditional advertising, it's easy to imagine the blogger being invaluable.

Of course, Scoble will have to think it's a great product first.

It's also interesting to see the smart use of blogs such as AOL's (discuss.aol.co.uk) that open up a topic that resonates with a huge group of users (in this case: internet: good or bad thing?) and Dove's campaignfor-realbeauty.com, where the topic of women's and girls' poor self-esteem is debated at length. Oceans of ink have followed these efforts and polished their brand images.

What's to stop a company from creating a fake blog to promote its agenda?

You just don't go there, no more than you would put an obvious lie in a print ad headline. You will be caught out and disliked, maybe even destroyed for it. Nobody "outs" better than bloggers. Check out the patently bogus Lincoln Fry (lincolnfry.typepad. com/blog) that McDonald's got nailed for creating. A perfect example of blogging with wooden tongue.

Couldn't a corporate blog get lost among the millions and be a waste of time to create?

It's true that no-one is waiting breathlessly to hear your message. The really vibrant blogs have stickiness for a few common reasons. They're focused; they stand for something and stay on topic. A message that's too broad dilutes the chances of people thinking to check in again.

Many successful bloggers are generous with praise; they have links aplenty to other blogs they like and will chat up their competition when they deserve it. That goodwill is often reciprocated, and it's also another credibility- builder.

It is becoming common to use graphics; text blogs are so six months ago.

Eye candy takes more time and effort, but pays off in increased viewership.

Blogging software such as Movable Type and blogger.com make it easy.

Do the best bloggers have incredible writing skills?

You don't have to be a phenomenal writer to be a successful blogger.

The good ones write spontaneously; their words aren't meticulously thought through. In a context where speed and authenticity really count, this kind of under-thinking is a plus.

How will traditional, rule-bound marketers cope with approaching this powerful communications tool that cannot be controlled?

Blogs have much in common with traditional media. Without great stopping power as they are skimmed - much like a newspaper ad - people won't linger for more than a few seconds.

If there isn't immediate relevance, they'll move on. If it's delivered in an unappealing voice, they'll move on. Without a focused, single-minded message and consistent voice, they won't be remembered.

But then there are the differences: you can't research a blog. No over-thinking allowed, or spin. You can't take the time to make every word perfect. The oxygen for blogs is truth, transparency, focus, nimbleness and constant refreshing of content. Delightfully different from the months-in-the-making, researched-to-death productions we're all accustomed to.

Clients that want to get in the game have to pry their gripping fingers off the wheel, and embrace the risks.

How can agencies get involved in blogging?

Proposing to create a blog for your clients right now should be done with extreme caution. Agencies are still far better poised to create the next ad campaign for their client than their blog. The resources required to set it up and keep it going are huge.

However, the time is right now for agencies to start researching blogs that are relevant to clients' products and to tap into this fantastic means of understanding the consumer's interest in them or their categories.

You want to find a group of baking enthusiasts or, for that matter, short bisexual knitters? You're a click away. And you can see what they're saying right now (using two-year-old research is history).

Launching a new product? Involve the most popular bloggers with the same energy you'd use to approach the press. This might mean providing them with free access to PR events, product literature and maybe a demo of the product. Bloggers are far more likely to write a glowing review (assuming the product really is good) than traditional newspaper and magazine journalists.

The cost to the company when compared with the exposure it gets is minuscule.

Shouldn't a company live in fear that when they have bad news, it will be amplified on their blog? Who would want that kind of spotlight on their bad moments?

Everybody's going to hear about your bad news anyway. Remember the guy who shared his story of springing his Kryptonite bike lock with a Bic pen? Blogs turned a respected brand into a mistrusted one in just days.

With the right blogger at the wheel, a bad moment can be addressed quickly and with admired transparency. You have the chance to beat the press to the message and take control of your response, which cannot be altered by inaccurate quotes or misinterpretation. A blog can help reduce the impact or even neutralise some events that have PR nightmare written all over them.

Besides the crime of sheer boredom, what kinds of blog abuse stand out for you?

A few examples leap to mind. Employees who get blabby on blogs about information that clearly shouldn't be leaked (usually followed by a pink slip). The Delta flight attendant who got fired for posting lewd photos of herself on the job is a classic (queenofsky.journalspace.com/).

Journalists that go to blogs as sources to quote assume accuracy of information; that isn't always reasonable. Last October, I was stunned when the "female like me" article I posted on ihaveanidea.org was referenced in many papers and blogs with my thoughts put in quotation marks, attributed to Neil French. I also saw reference to an entirely fabricated interview with me on a blog. It's chilling to know how easily events and facts can be misrepresented.

Okay, you brought it up. Lessons learned from "death by blog"?

I thought it was important for the people who attended that now-infamous event to hear another point of view, from a female creative director and key sponsor of the night. I posted it on the site that sold the tickets, with that group in mind.

To say I had no idea it would fuel a global scandal is an understatement.

To say I was naive is an understatement.

The lack of women in senior creative ranks demands serious attention, and clearly this resonated as a huge problem and hot button far beyond our little industry. So, strictly speaking, I can't regret helping to snap attention to the issue for all to debate and analyse. But had I truly thought through all the consequences, I may have considered other choices about where and how to present my view. The power of the blogosphere is vivid to me today.

Other blogging watch-outs?

Not to get profound or anything, but blogs are making it possible for us to stick closely to our topics of interest, and completely avoid hearing about stuff that doesn't interest us. We'll surf less so we'll miss coming across all kinds of information and perspectives; it appears we're poised to have a narrow window on the world.

Ad people already tend to live in bubbles. Blogs are our fancy new friend, but they may dumb us down in the long run. In the meantime, don't wait another day to get on the ride. It's thrilling.

- Nancy Vonk is the co-chief creative officer of Ogilvy Toronto. She is also the co-author of the Adweek book Pick Me, with her creative partner, Janet Kestin.