FOR INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY
Web logs — or blogs, for short — started out as a way for people to express personal views.
The online journals made it easy to share off-the-cuff opinions with a small or large number of readers. Blog entries can be posted on a Web site or distributed to interested readers via syndication feeds.
Now blogs are moving beyond personal musings and taking on a new role: corporate communications. A growing number of businesses are using the blog format to promote products, interact with customers and shareholders, conduct market research and distribute company announcements.
Some company blogs even add "personality" by featuring posts from top corporate officers.
"CEOs are great to include in the conversation," said Jennifer Rice, president of the blog consulting firm Mantra Brand Communications in Dallas. "Their involvement is a powerful demonstration (internally and externally) that engaging with customers is a priority for the company."
There are no exact figures on how many companies are blogging these days. But it's estimated that around 45% of the largest 1,000 publicly held companies in North America have blogs or plan to start them sometime this year.
Proponents of blogs say the medium is an unmatched tool for getting your message to customers. That includes reaching existing customers, prospective customers and ones that might be under the radar.
Customers can sign up to get all blog updates or just postings relevant to certain interests. With some corporate blogs, readers also can post feedback or ask questions.
But with these opportunities come risks. Unlike a company Web page or press release, which is usually carefully vetted before it is posted, blogging is more of a spontaneous action. Blogs allow instantaneous posting by anyone with password access to a firm's authoring software.
Plus most blog postings are quick and short. They aren't typically written with a lot of reflection or caution.
In many ways, blog postings resemble e-mails. But with e-mail, the message goes to a specific group of recipients — though it can always be forwarded endlessly.
With a blog, an inappropriate posting could do more damage.
Post an entry about the attractiveness of the new assistant or whether the company might go public, and it's there for the whole world to see.
"A press release is carefully crafted and carefully reviewed for the best way to articulate that message," said Cydney Tune, a blogger and intellectual property lawyer with the San Francisco-based law firm Pillsbury Winthrop. "There can even be plenty of time for a legal review. A blog, at least in theory, is not subject to that reasoned a process."
Experts on business blogs say the best safeguards against harmful posts are to institute proactive controls.
"Nothing should make it to the public eye without at least one other set of eyes on it, in any company," said Matthew Oliphant, co-founder of the corporate blogging consulting firm BusinessLogs. "The best way then to run your blog publishing is like any other publishing house: You have post writers and editors, as well as an editor in chief and a publisher. Writers write; editors edit the writing."
If a blog smacks of too much control, readers might tune out.
"Most people have great (hype) detectors and do not read blogs for blatant product pitches," said Molly Holzschlag, an author, consultant and blogger, whose Web site is molly.com.
Many company blogs mute the "blatant product pitch" effect by letting readers post their own comments.
For example, a post announcing a product upgrade could solicit comments from users and customers. The effect would then be to turn the company blog into an ad-hoc research tool. If posting is unrestricted, though, blog readers might post unflattering comments.
This discourse is potentially embarrassing, but it's necessary to build a corporate blog's credibility, Holzschlag says.
"The most important message to corporations regarding blogs is this: If you are unwilling to be scrutinized by intelligent consumers and stockholders, don't blog," she said.
Still, some controls on comments might be in order, Oliphant says.
"A business doesn't want to control the conversation, but they should be in charge and ultimately responsible for what gets talked about," he said. "I can see a guest posting, but it would have to go through the usual review process."
Stating your comment policy directly on your blog is a good way to direct the tone of the conversation.
Oliphant recommends an easy-to-find commenting policy right under the comment entry field. He suggests that the policy state, "We encourage open communication on our site; however, unhelpful or offensive comments will be deleted."
The role and tone of corporate blogs are still being refined, Holzschlag says. "This is especially true when we consider the multilingual, multicultural aspects of global trade, consumer services and investor relations that the Web offers us so readily," she said.
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