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Blog etiquette for marketers

Rapidly emerging as a marketing tool, blogs present a dilemma for companies wanting to communicate with customers. How much marketing is too much?

There's no question Web logs, or blogs, have burst onto the scene as a powerful way for organizations to market themselves, disseminate information and monitor their customer reaction.

However, given the organic nature of blogs, some question just how much, or whether, the marketing department should be involved.

"They should absolutely be involved," said Chris Selland, principal analyst with Boston-based Covington Associates, who maintains a blog about CRM, technology and enterprise software. "It's a channel of communication with customers. The challenge is that some see this as a way to blast out their message. I'm of the mind that people come to blogs not just to read but to talk back. If blogs get too heavily influenced by marketers, they risk becoming a one-way street."

Organizations can harness the power of blogging in multiple ways. By monitoring the Internet for discussions about their company or its products, blogs provide insight into a company's brand and should be monitored much the way traditional media is, analysts advise. Companies can also create a corporate-run blog, giving them a way to communicate directly to customers while receiving feedback.

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Adam Sarner, principal analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., doesn't necessarily consider corporate-run messages to be blogs.

"When I think of blogs, I don't think of CEOs talking about their company," he said. "What you don't want to do is destroy the organic notion of blogs. Coming from the CEO [the content] is already suspect."

Yet, some company-run blogs have proven effective. Sarner notes that TiVo, a home entertainment company, operates a community blog where readers offer news, advice and seek answers to questions, but TiVo does not explicitly control the messages.

"Foremost it has to be interesting," Sarner said. "If it's an advertisement, it's not going to work."

And while blogging is still relatively nascent, the demographics of blog readers are appealing. According to a study from Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, blog users are more likely to be male, affluent and broadband connected. It's an audience most companies would like to not only reach, but engage with. But many organizations are reluctant to relinquish control of their message -- and that can be problematic.

"They have to be careful to acknowledge the fact that customers see blogs as a way to participate," Selland said. "This is not a replacement for e-mail and another way to get marketing messages blasted in my face."

In a November 2004 report entitled "Blogging: Bubble or Big Deal?" Forrester suggests not only monitoring third-party blogs, but also posting to them when someone mentions the company or product. A product manager or someone from corporate affairs should post rebuttals, clarifications or answers, and companies should have clear guidelines on how to interact with blogs.

"Marketing's role should be one of mostly gaining knowledge instead of giving out marketing," Sarner said. "It's not an advertising vehicle, it's more for information gathering."

Blogs can also be a powerful internal tool, Forrester suggests.

Symmetricom Inc., based in San Jose, Calif., is using a blog to communicate with a decentralized salesforce spread across the world. After a number of acquisitions, the maker of sophisticated timing equipment had a mix of new sales reps with little background in the new company and existing reps that needed additional training in the newer products.

"We have hundreds of products," said Jeanne Hopkins, senior manager of e-marketing and transactional sales channels. "If you're booking a specific time code unit and you're using an older, out-of-date sheet that says there's two weeks lead time and the new lead time is six weeks, you [will] have customer satisfactions issues."

So Hopkins launched Symmblog to disseminate product specs, pricing information and staffing information with a tool available from Symmetricom's e-mail marketing vendor iMakeNews Inc., based in Newton, Mass. Hopkins outlines an editorial calendar and hires an outside person to put together the Symmblog, which is posted in the company's extranet up to three times a week. It has proven to be an effective communication tool.

"Once people realized what it was, they couldn't say enough nice things," Hopkins said. "It became a focal point from a communications standpoint."

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Three rules for effective communication. Know your audience. Know yourself. Know your message. If all three are checked off, then you will be well-placed to communicate with customers without burying them under marketing terminology and hard-sell messages. Just talk to them without trying to 'sell' them. The people who do sign on with you will have more affinity and a better feeling for the entire 'transaction'.