The Blogosphere - Customer Relationship Management

It’s impossible to count the precise number of blogs that exist,there are so many. In 2007,which is the last “State of the Blogosphere Report” before blogging got so big that the report didn’t matter anymore,David Sifry,former CEO of Technorati,mentioned 112.8 million blogs that Technorati,the blog indexing service,tracks (mine ranked around 61,000 on the list). But that doesn’t include,for example,the 72.9 million blogs reported in China,or at least not all of them. We can estimate that there are more than 200 million active blogs out there. According to Technorati,in the same 2007 report,blogs are being created at the rate of 1.4 per second—or 120,000 per day if you like big numbers.

All in all,what these sweeping numbers prove is that not only are there a lot of blogs out there,but they are not a phenomenon. They are a mainstream activity. They are accepted as a legitimate channel of discourse and journalism,with bloggers being credentialed at conferences that were previously the domain of only traditional journalists and trade writers. For example,Oracle now holds a regular blogger call with dozens of technology-related bloggers who are treated as if they were press and/or analysts—because they are.

But what about the,ahem,less good ones? You can’t avoid asking that,can you? It’s true,there is a lot of wasted cyber real estate. Gartner estimated in late 2006 that the blogosphere was peaking at 100 million blogs and that there were 200 million other blogs not being updated at all,because the folks who started them got bored after the novelty wore off. But even with that wide Sargasso Sea of dead,floating blogs,there are a lot of serious bloggers out there—those who update their blog at least a few times a month. Forrester Research did a chart on blog activity in their 2007 Social Technographics report that showed the ever increasing participation of consumers in the blogosphere that proves the point.

How Online Consumers Are Using Blogs,Podcasts,and User-Generated ContentHow Online Consumers Are Using Blogs,Podcasts,and User-Generated Content

I’m going to do the math. According to the Miniwatts Marketing Group’s Internet world stats,in 2007 there were more than 219 million Americans using the Internet. If the Forrester numbers are consistent,there are therefore roughly 55 million Americans reading blogs and 24.1 million writing blogs. Keep in mind,the blogs link to each other,so there is a powerful group of loosely connected lobbyists out there numbering in the millions that can be a great benefit to a business or a great headache,depending on how you write your blogs or respond to others.

Social CRM Includes Blogging (It Does)
Blogs are among the most important of the new tools at your service and among the most important of the vehicles for communicating with your customers outside your walls. Intelligent companies are hiring people to monitor blogs or,in some cases,hiring a chief blogger,who functions typically at the level of middle management. Their sole purpose is to monitor or write blogs. They do nothing else,despite the fact that you can’t exactly come up with a tangible ROI—though you can measure things like the level of activity through number of comments or the influencers who are making the comments and their reach, etc.

Why hire these people? Because the conversation goes on with you or without you,and consequently it is your call as a business to decide if you want to engage in the conversations or let them continue without your input at all.It is no longer just a matter of you carnivorously and unidirectionally gathering feedback from your customers’ discussions—not that you did much of that either. But now you engage your customers and your detractors by proactively reaching out to them.

Here’s an intriguing Fox Business News press release,dated April 3,2008:
Eastman Kodak Company . . . today announced that it has named Jennifer Cisney as the company’s first Chief Blogger. Cisney will provide daily oversight and creative guidance for Kodak’s two blogs—“A Thousand Words” and “A Thousand Nerds”—and will boost the company’s social media presence. In addition, Cisney will serve as the company’s eyes and ears online, listening to customer feedback and sharing ideas and tips related to Kodak’s products and services.

“Just over ten percent of Fortune 500 companies have public blogs. Fewer still have Chief Bloggers,and Kodak is among the first to name a female Chief Blogger,”said Jeffrey Hayzlett,Chief Business Development Officer and Vice President,Eastman Kodak Company. “As Kodak continues to break new ground in the imaging industry with our innovative products and services,we are committed to staying on the cutting edge of social media by utilizing the talents of our people.”AMC-blogs are sourcess of information

AMC blogs are sources of information and engender loyalty.

She is not the only chief blogger out there. Dell has one,triggered by a major problem they had—caused by an outside blogger. More on that later in this chapter. It doesn’t all rest with the chief bloggers,though. There is more to do than just have one of those.

Blog Monitoring
Blog monitoring is the practice of tracking blogs. More and more,companies are seeing its value. More and more,they’re debating how to handle it. Some of the benefits are apparent.

You can monitor feedback. There is nothing more valuable than seeing the raw customer conversations in blogs. They can be positive or negative,cool or heated,but they are there. Eddie Murphy—RAW is pretty tame by comparison. One good site to directly monitor for large companies is PlanetFeedback),which has thousands of complaints that are not just organized but sent to the subjects of the complaints. There is more than that on this site. Figure gives you an idea of their scope.

This is by no means the extent of the kinds of venues you’ll need to monitor. Not only are there sites dedicated to general consumer complaints,but it’s entirely possible there is a site devoted to despising your company. there is also chatter on social sites like Yelp,which rates businesses in communities (restaurants,hotels,etc.) or in environments like Twitter (see below),
the conversation “channel” that’s grown wildly popular.

If that isn’t enough,responsive customer service is another benefit if you do it right. This is simple and powerful. If you are aware of a complaint,you can deal with the complaint. There was a blog entitled IHateDirecTV that was created to be a single repository for all the complaints about DirecTV across all digital real estate. I’ll be coming right back to it in a second to show you what can be done with blog monitoring. I’m going to reproduce the one blog entry that existed for the IHateDirecTV site,which was trumpeted by its owner in TiVo forums on the TiVo site. Here it is:

“Within 3 hours of starting this blog and communicating to DirecTV the experience I had,I received calls from the President of DirecTV and the Senior Vice President of Customer Service. These calls were not from the offices of these individuals,but from the actual executives themselves.

“While this probably shouldn’t be as impressive as it is,rarely does a customer complaint warrant the attention and receive the prompt reply that mine did today.Planet-feed-back

PlanetFeedback:The voice of one,the power of many. A consolidated site for customer complaints and questions.

“The executives I spoke with today resolved all issues and have convinced me to remain as a loyal customer of DirecTV. While I’m still not enthusiastic about the conversion from TiVo to the new R-15,I do believe I am a customer of the best digital television service available,10 years and counting.

“I’ll keep this post up for at least the next few days,just for those that have seen my other postings up recently,and want to know the results.”

Boom. Problem solved and potential viral issue diffused. It also improves the reputation of the company when other complainants see the company’s responsiveness to them. Additionally,the former complainant often becomes an evangelist for the company. Look at the note above:“While I’m still not enthusiastic about the conversion . . . I do believe I am a customer of the best digital television service available.” This from a guy who went as far as to register IHateDirecTV so that he could attack them.

Blog Monitoring Tools
There are several ways to monitor blog traffic. One of the most recognizable is Technorati,a site that does nothing more than monitor the 112 million blogs not only for their web traffic statistics but for their content. There are widgets and search tools that can provide you with what you need to see what the blogosphere is saying about you. The scope is so large that there are often significant gaps in the blog updating that Technorati (theoretically) automatically does,so be aware of the lag time.

Google also has Google Blog Search,designed exclusively to find blog information. Set up a Google Alert for the web and blogs,and each day you can have the information you seek sent to you.

The downside is that because these are search tools,you have to know the search terms you want to use and to be pretty precise about it—first,to make sure you don’t get a ton of extra detritus with the true nuggets of value,and second,to make sure you cover the things you need to cover,which may not be apparent in a searchable phrase.

A lot of companies get around all of this by using their public relations firm to monitor blogs for them. I would make sure that my PR firm,as a hiring criterion,was fully conversant in social media. They will not only be the branding agency for you but will be taking an important role—finding those whose who may be great prospects as customers but are still least likely to pay attention to you,and getting them to engage with you.

Business Blogs:Not Just Any Old Blogs
When you think “blog” (which if you say it out loud sounds really strange) you are not likely thinking business blog. It is most likely someone’s personal blog,a technology blog like TechCrunch (www .techcrunch.com),or an entertainment blog or news blog with a political bias like The Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com) or a purely political blog like The Daily Kos. But rarely do you posit a business blog in your thinking. The reason for that is that businesses are still somewhat wary about blogs. There are clearly defined success stories,but there are also easily available stories of embarrassing failures.

Hopefully,we’ll be able to give you some strategic direction on what to do to engage customers,at minimum prevent failure,and optimally be so successful that your results will be measurable. But remember that despite mainstream acceptance of blogging,we are still at the early stage for business blogs,and the rules,frameworks,constraints,and best practices are not fully realized yet. That (and myopia) is one of the reasons only 12 percent of the Fortune 500 have blogs in 2009,though those that do are often enthusiastically involved with hundreds and even thousands of blogs that are either customer-facing or internal. Those at the enthusiastic level include Dell,the aforementioned Kodak,IBM,Intel,and SAP. In fact,IBM purportedly has 3,600 internal blogs and 5,000 customer-facing blogs. I say “purported” because even though I’ve seen corroboration of this number several places,it’s too staggering to get my arms around.

Customer Engagement,Trust,Transparency:
How Does Blogging Help?

Blogs are tools. Perhaps they allow customers to access your corporate leadership or perhaps one of your key employee mavens is the designated voice to the customer community. They can also be the vessels for innovation from customers—such as MyStarbucks.com,which was designed to get input from Starbucks advocates on the new drinks and new possible services or amenities that Starbucks might offer—and the community had a chance to vote up the ones that they thought were the smartest,best,or just coolest.

Okay,you’re in,I presume. You see blogging as one of the social tools that’s needed for Social CRM. Now a brief look at the framework for a business blog and some dos and don’ts. How to actually write a blog is covered in many good books out there. It’s worth going out and buying one.

Customer-Facing Business Blogging Rules and Regulations
The purpose of your blog is not to drive revenue. It is to increase the level of trust in your organization with those who may not have had it before and those who have lost it. That principle sustains your blog always. For those blog readers to trust you (and remember,this is just one part of a Social CRM strategy),you have to be authentic and be seen as a company that is willing to be criticized by its own if that is merited. This latter one is the toughest pill to swallow but one of the most important features of a blog. Honesty to the point of pain.

What to Do

  1. Learn about the tools you’re going to use. Spend time reading other blogs and understanding how they work.

  2. Set the expectations for the blog,both internally and to the potential readers—with clear guidelines. For example,Fast Lane,the GM blog written by GM vice chairman Bob Lutz,and one of the first senior corporate blogs,made it clear from the beginning that he would be talking about products and not customer service issues. This set expectations and allowed the readers to be focused on the subject. They currently have 7,500 unique visitors per day. That would be well-focused visitors.(Except maybe me when I’m on it.)

  3. Make sure that your chosen bloggers are able to write in a personable,passionate,and authentic way—and then give them the leeway to do just that. The worst thing you can do is stifle the bloggers you’ve given the pen to.

  4. Make sure it is focused on the subject at hand. This is a corporate blog and your subject is what your company is about.

  5. Make sure comments are turned on. You must allow readers of the blog to be able to say what they need to (within the bounds of decency,of course) whether it’s good or bad.

  6. Make sure that the bloggers,whether high or low on the corporate food chain,are accessible to the public reading them.

  7. Make sure you have an honest authentic story to tell as a company that your bloggers are empowered to tell in their own way. The bloggers have a voice;the company has a purpose. Let the company’s purpose be expressed in the blogger’s voice.

  8. Link to important resources,even if at times they might have a contradictory interest for you. This will improve the trustworthiness of the company. You’ve seen the ads for Progressive Insurance. If you can get a quote lower from another insurance company,they’ll find it and you can go get it. They are trusted as not just shills but honest arbiters who care about the customer/ reader,not just pushing the corporate message into the faces of the readers.

  9. Let your bloggers out once in awhile—if they gain some fame,with the publicity that goes along with it,they can be important spokespeople for you because they are doing some of the “cool” and beneficial work for the company. Let them have the freedom to speak authentically. They’ll get the constraints without heavyhanded approaches.

What Not to Do

  1. The most important thing not to do: Do not be fake. Don’t make your blogs into PR-run efforts or marketing campaigns. They are meant to be what I just described—authentic voices from the company engaging with customers and others interested in the company for whatever reason they choose.

  2. Do not do let legal control the blog postings. Let legal work with you to set the ground rules for the blog and let marketing have a say in its formation. But once these are established,they have to step aside and let the bloggers blog. Legal should not be approving every entry. When it comes to blogs,their role changes from preventing fires to putting them out if they occur. But the bloggers need to be responsible enough to not create them in the first place.

  3. Don’t avoid difficult comments. Respond to them.

  4. Don’t post with mediocre material that reads like corporate brochures. Remember the words of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto:“We want access to your corporate information,to your plans and strategies,your best thinking,your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure,for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.” Take this very seriously.

What Happens If You Screw Up? Dell Hell and Independent Bloggers
In June 2005,experienced blogger and communications pro Jeff Jarvis,a slight,almost white-haired,friendly guy,wrote about problems he had with Dell customer service in his influential blog The Buzzmachine. To characterize his problems with Dell,mostly having to do with Dell failing to fix a broken laptop as their service agreement stated they would,he coined the term “Dell Hell.”Shortly after he coined it,a Google search found 2.4 million references to Dell Hell,of which only 68 were Jeff ’s. This viral explosion of Dell references due to customer service problems caught the attention of traditional media like the New York Times and Washington Post and was picked up significantly by them. Besides Jeff’s 68 entries,the New York Times was next with 40 mentions. The combination of new media and traditional media was devastating to Dell because of the sheer volume of people reached by the blogosphere and by the accepted authority of the traditional press.

A research report done by Onanalytica entitled “Measuring the Influence of Bloggers on Corporate Reputation” (December 2005)found that the approaches used by the conventional media and by bloggers of influence such as Steve Rubel (now with Edelman but also the owner of the influential blog Micro Persuasion) were very different. The traditional media were focused on Dell customer service issues. The bloggers focused on the problems that Jeff Jarvis had with Dell. It was personal and thus a “person like me” with “problems like me” was someone who was more authoritative than the company responsible for the screw-up.

The Dell Hell incident was exceptionally damaging yet invigorating for Dell. It hurt them badly enough to change the way they approach customer service and the way they deal with their customers. They hired a chief blogger who is highly regarded. Even though they are not all the way back,they are on the way back—largely catalyzed by Dell Hell and similar well-publicized instances.

Edelman,Wal-Mart,and Inauthentic Corporate Blogging
On September 27,2006,Wal-Mart launched the company blog Walmarting Across America. It purported to be the journal of the travels of two Wal-Mart customers who were traveling through the country in an RV and talking to other Wal-Mart customers about how wonderful Wal-Mart was for all kinds of reasons,goshdarnit.
Well,it turned out to be a scam—those “customers” were hired to act the parts (one was a photographer and the other a relative of someone who worked at the Edelman PR firm). This was about as faked as it could get,short of hiring professional actors.

This was blasted from coast to coast as a fiasco. In fact,Media Post called it a “flog,”which is either a crunched term for “fake blog” or a description of what happened to Wal-Mart’s public image when it was exposed by Business Week,who outed them about two weeks after they started.

As a reader,wouldn’t you be upset if one of the RV-tooling couple started the blog by saying this:“We are not bloggers,but since our lives have always been more journey than destination we are explorers at heart. . . . We figured we’d give it a go.” Wal-Mart paid for the trip,so they were giving it a go at Wal-Mart’s expense through the ad agency that ran the campaign,Edelman. In Wal-Mart’s defense,it was Edelman that really screwed this one up. Wal-Mart suffered for it though—and they did go along with it,which is no defense either. Wal-Mart,after a period of extreme defensiveness,is now actually aggressively changing their stance on this with their blog,ElevenMoms,which have real mothers blogging about their Wal-Mart experiences. They also have a senior director of customer experience that is concerned with the interactions of Wal-Mart customers with the stores.

Business Blog Benefits:Customers
There are significant benefits for the relationships between you and your customers. which can range from marginal to profound.

Dell’s response to Dell Hell was incredibly smart. They understood that their use of blogs was characterized by the customer’s ownership of the conversation. Bob Pearson,vice president of communities at Dell,says,“Dell blogs [don’t] differentiate between consumer and B to B customers.”In other words,he understands that their impact is going to be on individuals.

If a blog is successful,it creates an authentic dialog between the company and its customers,especially through the comments. That honesty breeds trust because the representatives of the company writing the blog are able to speak of the company honestly—something refreshing when you’ve lived in a world of marketspeak for a long epoch. The customers feel as if they have a direct pipeline to the company,which means they have the transparency they need to make intelligent decisions on how they will deal with the company and the means to resolve issues when they occur.

Think about it from a personal standpoint. Over the many years that you’ve spent developing your wisdom,how many times would a simple phone call have resolved a situation that instead escalated to be outright ugly? I’ll bet you can point to more than one.

Business Blog Benefits:Employees
For the sake of brevity,I’m going to simply outline the benefits of blogging for employees:

  • Employees feel a sense of participation when thinking about the customer is no longer just management’s domain. If corporate policy allows employees to blog,then it is conceivable that they can engage customers directly,rather than going through management. In June 2008,Oracle started a Social CRM blog,which is for the members of their Social CRM product team to communicate with customers and developers.
  • Project planning and execution can be done in real time or nearly so. IBM routinely uses blogs as tools for innovation jams that are designed to generate ideas in 72 hours.
  • It generates remarkable ideas and improves employee morale. IBM had 3,600 internal blogs in 2006 (latest numbers I could get). Here is a comment from an interview with Christopher Barger,then head of IBM’s blogging initiative,now at General Motors:“We are no longer informers;we are influencers. It’s a scary step,but we need to ride this. Inside the company,it’s democratizing the process of innovating and collaborating. Both the executive and the intern can now be thought leaders—in this marketplace,it’s the best idea and not the biggest title that wins out.”

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