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The rise and rise of corporate blogs

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- As the size, scope and influence of weblogs continue to proliferate, business managers are faced with an increasingly important question: how to make your voice heard above the crowd?

According to a research project conducted by Pew, there will be 34 million weblogs -- or blogs, as they known for short -- by the end of 2005.

These blogs range from the completely ignorable to the regularly consumed and widely trusted. And already it appears the debate companies are having has moved beyond the simple "to blog or not to blog."

Most managers accept the benefits blogging can bring, according to corporateblogging.info, including:

  • establishing a company as a thought leader in its sector
  • providing tips and insights on potential new products and facilitating feedback on existing products
  • allowing an outlet for good company news, and a chance to ease bad news into the ether
  • fostering internal communications and creative brainstorming.
  • But for many, the most obvious and compelling reason to start and continue a corporate blog is to establish a direct relationship with customers in a context that can build trust over time -- something all the advertising in the world can struggle to accomplish.

    And a company that can build trust and respect among external bloggers in the "blogosphere" can expect to reap the rewards of extensive, positive word of mouth in an audience that could reach into the millions.

    Who should blog?

    One method being used to capitalize on the opportunity presented is through employee blogs.

    One recent survey, conducted by communications consultants Intelliseek and Edelman, found that a positive comment from a company employee was more likely to influence a person's perception than external blogs or traditional media.

    Another survey conducted by BlogPulse over six months in 2005 found positive comments from employees outnumbered negative comments by around 2-to-1.

    The key, however, for an employee blog to be credible is that it must include positive and negative comments about the company and not appear to be merely a PR exercise.

    "Many corporations are afraid of weblogs because they're afraid of the sound of the human voice," said David Weinberger of Harvard's Berkman Center, quoted in the Edelman and Intelliseek study.

    "But that voice -- the unfiltered sound of an actual person -- is actually the most important way of connecting with customers and partners."

    Companies have already benefited from that "unfiltered voice". When Microsoft's MSN Space was released to a somewhat muted response in late 2004, employee Robert Scoble's blogging criticisms helped stifle anger elsewhere in the blogosphere.

    "I get comments on my blog saying 'I didn't like Microsoft before, but at least they're listening to us'," Scoble was quoted as saying.

    A commonly cited example of a company getting its blogging response wrong is that of lock maker Kryptonite, who were said to be slow in responding to a blog revelation that one of their locks could be opened with a pen.

    In December, the company's PR manager was interviewed by a leading business technology blog, Dave Taylor's Intuitive Life Blog, where she said the company had reacted quickly to the reports.

    She said the firm had changed its communications strategies in the wake of the incident -- not by a wholesale realignment from traditional media to blogs, but by incorporating a few "respected" blogs into their daily thinking.

    Senior posts

    The uptake of blogging by CEOs, however, has lagged behind the explosion elsewhere. The Edelman survey found only 10 percent had entered the fray -- although that was up from zero a year earlier.

    Some CEO blogs are available to all, while others are merely open to employees, such as that of Intel chief Paul Otellini, which features candid assessments of his company's performance and that of its competitors.

    CEO bloggers have added responsibilities to watch what they say in the legal minefield of the blogosphere, keeping in mind securities and disclosure rules. Employees, too, need to be aware of the relevant laws -- not least that of libel and privacy.

    The Edelman/Intelliseek study urged all due caution and discretion, as well as clear guidelines and the obvious disclaimers prominently displayed, to ensure blogs did not prove more trouble than they are worth.

    Because with a potentially massive audience out there waiting for information, the cost of silence could be far worse.

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