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7.2 Blogs

Learning Objectives

  1. Know what blogs are and how corporations, executives, individuals, and the media use them.
  2. Understand the benefits and risks of blogging.
  3. Appreciate the growth in the number of blogs, their influence, and their capacity to generate revenue.

BlogsOnline journal entries, usually made in a reverse chronological order. Blogs typically provide comment mechanisms where users can post feedback for authors and other readers. (short for Web logs) first emerged almost a decade ago as a medium for posting online diaries. (In a perhaps apocryphal story, Wired magazine claimed the term “Web log” was coined by Jorn Barger, a sometimes homeless, yet profoundly prolific, Internet poster.) From humble beginnings, the blogging phenomenon has grown to a point where the number of public blogs tracked by BlogPulse has surpassed 160 million.BlogPulse.com stats, June 1, 2011.  This is clearly a long tailIn this context, refers to an extremely large selection of content or products. The long tail is a phenomenon whereby firms can make money by offering a near-limitless selection. phenomenon, loaded with niche content that remains “discoverable” through search engines and that is often shared via other types of social media like Facebook and Twitter. TrackbacksLinks in a blog post that refer eaders back to cited sources. Trackbacks allow a blogger to see which and how many other bloggers are referring to their content. A “trackback” field is supported by most blog software and while it’s not required to enter a trackback when citing another post, it’s considered good “netiquette” to do so. (citation links back to original blog post) and blog rollsA list of a blogger’s favorite blogs. While not all blogs include blog rolls, those that do are often displayed on the right or left column of a blog’s main page. (a list of a blogger’s favorite sites—a sort of shout-out to blogging peers) also help distinguish and reinforce the reputation of widely read blogs.

Most blogs offer a two-way dialogue, allowing users to comment (a sort of “letters to the editor” section for each post). The running dialogue can read like an electronic bulletin board and can be an effective way to gather opinion, brainstorm, and vet ideas. Comments also help keep a blogger honest—a vigorous community of commenters will quickly expose a blogger’s errors of fact or logic.

Blogging can have significant appeal for an organization looking to be heard. Corporations that blog can enjoy immediate and unfiltered distribution of their ideas, with no limits on page size, word count, or publication deadline. And they can gather immediate feedback from readers via comments. Corporate blogs can be published directly to the public, skipping what bloggers call the mainstream media (MSM) and presenting their words without a journalist filtering their comments or an editor cutting out key points they’d hoped to make. That appeal has attracted some of the most senior executives to blogging. Hotel chief Bill Marriott, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh, Timberland’s Jeff Swartz, and Forrester Research’s George Colony are among those CEOs who use their blogs for purposes that include a combination of marketing, sharing ideas, gathering feedback, press response, image shaping, and reaching consumers directly.

Given the advantages of blogs over traditional broadcast and “dead tree” print publication, it’s not surprising that most mainstream news outlets also supplement their content with blogs that offer greater depth, more detail, and deadline-free timeliness. But they’ve got competition, and many of the most popular blogs have transformed into robust media enterprises. The political/news blog The Huffington Post grew to be more popular than all but eight newspaper sites and was acquired in 2011 by AOL for $315 million, a valuation significantly higher than many publicly traded papers.E. Alterman, “Out of Print, the Death and Life of the American Newspaper,” New Yorker, March 31, 2008; and M. Learmonth, “Huffington Post More Valuable Than Some Newspaper Cos.,” DigitalNext, December 1, 2008; V. Kopytoff, “AOL’s Bet on Another Makeover,” New York Times, February 7, 2011. Keep in mind that this is a site that lacks much of the sports, local news, weather, and other content offered by the locals.

Ratings like this are hard to achieve—most bloggers can’t make a living off their musings. But among the elite ranks, killer subscriber numbers are a magnet for advertisers. Top blogs operating on shoestring budgets can snare several hundred thousand dollars a month in ad revenue.S. Zuckerman, “Yes, Some Blogs Are Profitable—Very Profitable,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 2007. Most start with ad networks like Google AdSense, but the most elite engage advertisers directly for high-value deals and extended sponsorships.

Blogs

While the feature set of a particular blog depends on the underlying platform and the preferences of the blogger, several key features are common to most blogs:

  • Immediate and unfiltered publication. The ability to reach the public without limits on publication size and without having posts filtered, edited, or cut by the mainstream media.
  • Ease of use. Creating a new post usually involves clicking a single button.
  • Comment threads. Readers can offer comments on posts.
  • Reverse chronology. Posts are listed in reverse order of creation, making it easy to see the most recent content.
  • Persistence. Posts are maintained indefinitely at locations accessible by permanent links.
  • Searchability. Current and archived posts are easily searchable.
  • Tags. Posts are often classified under an organized tagging scheme.
  • Trackbacks. Allows an author to acknowledge the source of an item in their post, which allows bloggers to follow the popularity of their posts among other bloggers.

Despite this increased popularity, blogging has its downside. Blog comments can be a hothouse for spam and the disgruntled. Ham-handed corporate efforts (such as poor response to public criticism or bogus “praise posts”) have been ridiculed. Employee blogging can be difficult to control and public postings can “live” forever in the bowels of an Internet search engine or as content pasted on other Web sites. Bloggers, beware—there are dozens of examples of workers who have been fired for what employers viewed as inappropriate posts. The voice of the blogosphere can also wield significant influence. While not all blogosphere commentary deserves a response, firms ignore social media at their own peril (see sidebar below)! Tips on how firms should organize for social media engagement, issues to consider when developing corporate social media policy, and examples of effective and poor social media use are covered in Section 7.9 "Get SMART: The Social Media Awareness and Response Team".

The Power of the Blogosphere

Organized bloggers have often banded together as a powerful voice for change, leading the charge, for example, for news anchor Dan Rather’s resignation. Others have helped an otherwise silent market voice be heard, such as when bloggers prompted the design of new insulin pumps. While not all blogosphere commentary deserves a response, firms ignore social media at their own peril! For an example of this, consider the flare-up Ingersoll Rand faced when the blogging community exposed a design flaw in its Kryptonite bike lock. Online posts and a video demonstrated that the thick metal lock could be broken with a simple ball-point pen. When Ingersoll Rand failed to react, the blogosphere erupted with criticism. Just days after online reports appeared, the mainstream media picked up the story. The New York Times ran a piece titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Lock” that included a series of photos demonstrating the ball-point Kryptonite lock pick. The event tarnished the once-strong brand and eventually resulted in a loss of over $10 million.

Like any Web page, blogs can be public, tucked behind a corporate firewall, or password protected. Third-party blogging services include Google Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, and Posterous, with most offering a combination of free and premium features. The most popular platform for organizations choosing to host their own blog server is the open source WordPress system. Firms often choose this option to gain more control over security and formatting.

In the end, the value of any particular blog derives from a combination of technical and social features. The technical features make it easy for a blogger and his or her community to reach out for an ongoing conversation on some topic of shared interest. But the social side means that unless a reader base discovers a blog and is engaged, an effort will have little impact.

Key Takeaways

  • Blogs provide a rapid way to distribute ideas and information from one writer to many readers.
  • Search engines, social media sharing, and trackbacks allow a blogger’s community of readers to spread the word on interesting posts and help distinguish and reinforce the reputations of widely read blogs.
  • The comments section in blogs can create a conversation to gather opinion, vet ideas, and brainstorm. Public commentary can also apply pressure to correct inaccuracies and keep a blogger honest.
  • Well-known blogs can be powerfully influential, acting as flashpoints on public opinion.
  • Firms ignore influential bloggers at their peril, but organizations should also be cautious about how they use and engage blogs and avoid flagrantly promotional or biased efforts.
  • Top blogs have gained popularity, valuations, and profits that far exceed those of many leading traditional newspapers, and leading blogs have begun to attract well-known journalists away from print media.
  • Senior executives from several industries use blogs for business purposes, including marketing, sharing ideas, gathering feedback, press response, image shaping, and reaching consumers directly without press filtering.

Questions and Exercises

  1. Search online to find out which blogs are currently the most popular. Why do you suppose the leaders are so popular?
  2. How are popular blogs discovered? How is their popularity reinforced?
  3. Are blog comment fields useful? If so, to whom or how? What is the risk associated with allowing users to comment on blog posts? How should a blogger deal with comments that they don’t agree with?
  4. Why would a corporation, an executive, a news outlet, or a college student want to blog? What are the benefits? What are the concerns?
  5. Identify firms and executives that are blogging online. Bring examples to class and be prepared to offer your critique of their efforts.
  6. How do bloggers make money? Do all bloggers have to make money? Do you think the profit motive influences their content?
  7. Investigate current U.S. Federal Trade Commission laws (or the laws in your home country) that govern bloggers and other social media use. How do these restrictions impact how firms interact with bloggers? What are the penalties and implications if such rules aren’t followed? Are there unwritten rules of good practice that firms and bloggers should consider as well? What might those be?
  8. Investigate blogs online and share your list of favorites with your professor. Why do you like the blogs on your list? Are there blogs that are particularly useful for students of this course? Which ones?
  9. What advantage do blogs have over the MSM? What advantage does the MSM have over the most popular blogs?
  10. Start a blog using Tumblr, Blogger.com, WordPress.com, or some other blogging service. Post a comment to another blog. Look for the trackback field when making a post—if it’s available, be sure to enter the trackback for any content you cite in your blog.