Marketing Idea No. 137 – How blogs will change your business

This is a part of an article published in Businessweek magazine

Look past the yakkers, hobbyists, and political mobs. Your customers and rivals are figuring blogs out. Our advice: Catch up…or catch you later

Monday 9:30 a.m. It’s time for a frank talk. And no, it can’t wait. We know, we know: Most of you are sick to death of blogs. Don’t even want to hear about these millions of online journals that link together into a vast network. And yes, there’s plenty out there not to like. Self-obsession, politics of hate, and the same hunger for fame that has people lining up to trade punches on The Jerry Springer Show. Name just about anything that’s sick in our society today, and it’s on parade in the blogs. On lots of them, even the writing stinks
Go ahead and bellyache about blogs. But you cannot afford to close your eyes to them, because they’re simply the most explosive outbreak in the information world since the Internet itself. And they’re going to shake up just about every business — including yours. It doesn’t matter whether you’re shipping paper clips, pork bellies, or videos of Britney in a bikini, blogs are a phenomenon that you cannot ignore, postpone, or delegate. Given the changes barreling down upon us, blogs are not a business elective. They’re a prerequisite. (And yes, that goes for us, too.)

There’s a little problem, though. Many of you don’t visit blogs — or haven’t since blogs became a sensation in last year’s Presidential race. According to a Pew Research Center Survey, only 27% of Internet users in America now bother to read them. So we’re going to take you into the world of blogs by delivering this story — call it Blogs 101 for businesses — in the style of a blog. We’re even sprinkling it with links. These are underlined words that, when clicked, carry readers of this story’s online version to another Web page. This all may make for a strange experience, but it’s the closest we can come to reaching out from the page, grabbing you by the collar, and shaking you into action.

First, a few numbers. There are some 9 million blogs out there, with 40,000 new ones popping up each day. Some discuss poetry, others constitutional law. And, yes, many are plain silly. “Mommy tells me it may rain today. Oh Yucky Dee Doo,” reads one April Posting. Let’s assume that 99.9% are equally off point. So what? That leaves some 40 new ones every day that could be talking about your business, engaging your employees, or leaking those merger discussions you thought were hush-hush.

Give the paranoids their due. The overwhelming majority of the information the world spews out every day is digital — photos from camera phones, PowerPoint presentations, government filings, billions and billions of e-mails, even digital phone messages. With a couple of clicks, every one of these items can be broadcast into the blogosphere by anyone with an Internet hookup — or even a cell phone. If it’s scandalous, a poisonous e-mail from a CEO, for example, or torture pictures from a prison camp, others link to it in a flash. And here’s the killer: Blog posts linger on the Web forever.

Yet not all the news is scary. Ideas circulate as fast as scandal. Potential customers are out there, sniffing around for deals and partners. While you may be putting it off, you can bet that your competitors are exploring ways to harvest new ideas from blogs, sprinkle ads into them, and yes, find out what you and other competitors are up to.

Tuesday 6:35 a.m. How big are blogs? Try Johannes Gutenberg out for size. His printing press, unveiled in 1440, sparked a publishing boom and an information revolution. Some say it led to the Protestant Reformation and Western democracy. Along the way, societies established the rights and rules of the game for the privileged few who could afford to buy printing presses and grind forests into paper.

The printing press set the model for mass media. A lucky handful owns the publishing machinery and controls the information. Whether at newspapers or global manufacturing giants, they decide what the masses will learn. This elite still holds sway at most companies. You know them. They generally park in sheltered spaces, have longer rides on elevators, and avoid the cafeteria. They keep the secrets safe and coif the company’s message. Then they distribute it — usually on a need-to-know basis — to customers, employees, investors, and the press.

That’s the world of mass media, and the blogs are turning it on its head. Set up a free account at Blogger or other blog services, and you see right away that the cost of publishing has fallen practically to zero. Any dolt with a working computer and an Internet connection can become a blog publisher in the 10 minutes it takes to sign up.

Sure, most blogs are painfully primitive. That’s not the point. They represent power. Look at it this way: In the age of mass media, publications like ours print the news. Sources try to get quoted, but the decision is ours. Ditto with letters to the editor. Now instead of just speaking through us, they can blog. And if they master the ins and outs of this new art — like how to get other bloggers to link to them — they reach a huge audience.

This is just the beginning. Many of the same folks who developed blogs are busy adding features so that bloggers can start up music and video channels and team up on editorial projects. The divide between the publishers and the public is collapsing. This turns mass media upside down. It creates media of the masses.

How does business change when everyone is a potential publisher? A vast new stretch of the information world opens up. For now, it’s a digital hinterland. The laws and norms covering fairness, advertising, and libel? They don’t exist, not yet anyway. But one thing is clear: Companies over the past few centuries have gotten used to shaping their message. Now they’re losing control of it.

Want to get it back? You never will, not entirely. But for a look at what you’re facing, come along for a tour of the blogosphere.

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