In July, Microsoft Corp. did what would have probably been unthinkable just a few years ago: the Bellevue, Wash.-based company's MSN division launched a commercial Web-log service; that is, a service that enables customers to set up their own personal online journals. Reportedly, executives overseeing MSN's blogging pilot, which is currently offered only in Japan, expect they'll eventually sign up 1 million customers.
In an earlier time, say 2000, managers at Microsoft didn't appear to be such big fans of blogs. Actually, few corporate executives were. Back then, the personal Web pages gave a free and open voice to customers and ex-employees — too often, irate customers and disgruntled ex-employees. In some cases, corporations went to court to try to get business-bashing bloggers to cease and desist.
Things have changed. Blogs, once the domain of the malcontent, have gone mainstream, thanks in large part to the thousands of Web logs dedicated to celebrities and defunct TV shows ("Buffy" bloggers, you know who you are). In the process, business leaders have come to value what they once feared about Web logs: these online diaries provide an easy way to reach a large audience. Venture capitalists, for example, now use Web logs to uncover inventors and entrepreneurs with promising new ideas. Corporate directors, including those at enterprise resource planning giant SAP, have launched blogs to help them better communicate with stakeholders. And managers at some companies, including Sun Microsystems, use blogs (among other approaches) to talk to employees and let employees talk to one another.
The real promise of blogs, however, lies in their tremendous marketing power. For just a few hundred dollars, companies can start a buzz about new products, tout awards won, and generally blow their own horns. For Londonderry, N.H.-based yogurt and ice-cream maker Stonyfield Farm, blogs have become a big part of its promotional strategy. "Blogs are really just the latest natural extension of our communication with our customers," says vice president of communications Cathleen Toomey. "We never shut up."
This sort of dialogue has definite appeal. Roughly 6 percent of Web surfers say they use blogs, which works out to, well, a lot (one survey puts the current number of blogs at around 5 million). What's more, blog readers tend to be the kind of customers companies prize. According to a study released by Jupiter Research last year, 61 percent of Internet users who read blogs at least once a month have an annual household income of $60,000 or more.
It's no surprise, then, that business executives have suddenly grown very interested in Web logs. Stonyfield's blog project was inspired by Howard Dean's unsuccessful Presidential campaign. Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg, a Dean supporter, was impressed by the impact of the former governor's blog and decided that his company could also benefit from the technology.
Convinced that one blog wouldn't cover all topics of interest, Hirshberg decided to launch a series of online journals focusing on five different areas: the environment, organic farming, women, kids, and the company itself. He chose those areas "based on current company programs, as well as blogs that connect to Stonyfield's mission," says Toomey. The company then hired a writer who followed Hirshberg for a month, gathering information about the company and studying its philosophy and corporate culture. Stonyfield launched its daily blog last spring, and it was an instant hit. "People are commenting and subscribing," says Toomey. "It's gotten very, very popular."
Technology companies now boost blogs, too. Microsoft, for instance, plays host to more than 1,000 in-house Web logs, where workers can offer opinions on everything from astrobiology to C++ programming. Since blogs are publicly accessible, outsiders can get a glimpse of what's going on inside Microsoft. "We see blogging as a great opportunity for direct and deep two-way conversations," says Sanjay Parthasarathy, Microsoft's corporate vice president (Developer & Platform Evangelism Group). "We get important, real-time feedback on our products, and customers get greater insight into what is going on with key technologies inside the company."
Blogging has become so popular at Microsoft that the company offers a Web clearinghouse to highlight its various blogs and bloggers. The tech giant has also created Channel 9, a project that aims to take blogging to its next level by combining text with streaming video and other multimedia content.
Rival Sun Microsystems has also jumped on the blog wagon. Tim Bray, Sun's director of Web technologies, says blogs are helping the company build strong ties to its global customer base. "People who don't know how to talk to a big California company find it easy to speak up when they're talking to a person whose name they know and whose stuff they read regularly," he says. Like Microsoft, Sun has created its own central blog site. "So far it's been all upside," says Bray. "We think we've improved Sun's image and, more important, become better at hearing what the market is saying."
That's the beauty of blogs: they get people involved. Indeed, blogging took off when programmers started developing Web publishing tools that practically anybody could master. Today, scores of vendors offer blogging software and services, including Google, Movable Type, and UserLand.
While putting up blogs is easy, finding enough material to keep them fresh can be a pain. "Blogging in general needs attention in order to keep postings current and to respond to input from the community," says Microsoft's Parthasarathy. While Stonyfield turned its blogs over to a full-time writer, most companies rely on rank-and-file employees to generate content. Generally, businesses have little problem finding workers who are willing to pen a blog. In fact, the task often confers a bit of celebrity. "People have a natural desire to be heard, and blogging enables that," says Chris Shipley, editorial director of Guidewire Group, a Las Vegas-based company that presents blog training events and trade shows.
Stonyfield's blogs are crammed with human-interest stories, nutrition tips, and strong opinions on issues ranging from personal health to politics. "The more outrageous the headlines are, the more people comment on them," says Toomey. "We don't expect everyone to agree with us on everything we do."
Putting a muzzle on blog posters can be tricky stuff, however, particularly if it's the CEO's blog. Experts also point out that visitors to Web logs are often won over by the frankness of an executive's opinions, not the opinions themselves. Notes Rick Bruner, a New York-based Internet marketing consultant: "Blogs are a way to remind customers that there are human beings behind the corporation," not just fabrications created by the marketing and legal departments.
Frank and Buried
Still, marketing and legal departments do have their place. As corporate managers start putting more of their innermost thoughts online, they're rediscovering the downside of unfettered disclosure. More than one business has inadvertently revealed information that might have been best left unblogged. "It's not a risk-free medium," grants Shipley. "Companies that use blog tools must really have a tremendous amount of courage and trust in their people."
A few companies have already created guidelines that spell out what an employee may, and may not, include in a blog. Staff who cross the line — whether that line is delineated in a corporate policy or not — often find themselves looking for work. Microsoft, for example, reportedly fired a contract worker whose blog included a photograph of Apple computers being unloaded at the Microsoft campus. And in August, community-builder dot-com Friendster apparently axed an employee who posted some fairly benign comments about the company on her blog.
The episode generated a heap of bad publicity for Friendster — not surprising given that the company is in the social-networking business. Nevertheless, a growing number of corporate executives believe blogs are well worth the gamble. "It's a little bit scary for us here at Sun now that the number of employees speaking independently to the world is over 650 and climbing fast," says Bray. "But we wouldn't consider going back for a microsecond."
If they did, there'd probably be a blog about it the next day.
John Edwards is a freelance writer based in Gilbert, Arizona.
Who Let the Blogs Out?
Blogs have become a big part of the virtual landscape. Note that 8% of the survey respondents have posted material to corporate Web logs.
17% have posted written material on Websites
13% maintain their own Websites
10% have posted comments to an online newsgroup
8% have contributed material to Websites run by their business
7% have contributed material to Websites run by organizations
Source: PEW Internet & American Life Project