By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer
When the American Advertising Federation surveyed 1,000 advertisers earlier this year, 73 percent of ad executives said they planned to spend up to 20 percent of their marketing budgets on “new media platforms.” Blogging is one of those new platforms and, already, some heavy corporate hitters are doing it. Among them, you’ll find General Motors, General Mills, Southwest Airlines and even Wal-Mart.
Could utilities benefit from the blogging phenomenon? Maybe, says Matthew Joyce of E Source, a business-intelligence consultancy for the energy industry. According to him, blogs could be a useful tool, provided they’re used to augment other messaging strategies, such as traditional media relations and customer communications, as well as internal communication channels like employee newsletters. There are other rules to follow, too, if you want to harness the power of online journals.
Know thy medium
The word blogs is short for weblogs and, from their start in the late 1990s, these Internet diaries have had a person-to-person feel about them. They are, by nature, casual and conversational. Most blogging “how to” articles will tell you to let authentic voices through. The sanitized voice of your public relations team or legal department isn’t likely to win over readers, Joyce notes.
Rather, he recommends you find a subject-matter expert who is “passionate” about the subject. Why? “It takes time and energy to maintain a blog. Without passion, you can see burn out.”
On the other hand, reader input could help keep a blog lively, and Joyce recommends companies consider opening up their weblogs to reader commentary. “That’s where the power of a blog comes in,” he says. Unlike one-way media, such as TV or radio, blogs allow companies to “move from a monologue to a dialogue” with customers or employees.
He points out that blogs are a safer venue for interactive communication than “forums,” because the technology of blogs makes them more controllable. For example, anyone can start a commentary thread in an online forum. In a blog, only the author can initiate a topic. What’s more, blogging software allows the site author to review comments before making them public. Joyce likens a blog to a nightclub with a good bouncer. Bars are a place where people can “interact sociably, but if someone starts a fight, you can usher them out the door.”
Honesty: the only policy
Early corporate bloggers caught flak when they started using blogs in the same way they’d use a traditional medium, such as TV advertising. On TV, you can pay people to adopt fictional personas and shill for your product.
That’s not the case in the blogosphere, as the Dr. Pepper / 7 Up team found out in 2003 when they used a blog to help introduce their “Raging Cow” line of flavored-milk beverages. After the company’s online advertising agency paid teen bloggers to link to the Raging Cow site and talk up the product without disclosing their business arrangement with the beverage maker, other bloggers called for a product boycott. Perhaps the boycott worked. Raging Cow never moved beyond market-test status.
Inform, don’t sell
This summer, Lauren Turner, a Google employee got bruised in the blogosphere when readers reviled her plug for Google advertising. Following her negative review of the movie, “Sicko,” Turner mentioned that healthcare companies could use Google advertising to tell their side of the story. That didn’t go over well. Turner quickly explained that her comments were personal, not Google policy.
Anti-sales reactions are probably due to the blog’s counter-culture origins. But, while the sites have never moved into mainstream promotion, that doesn’t mean blogs lack value as a marketing device. Many companies cite them as great market research and feedback tools.
For utilities, blogs could come in handy as a means of educating customers on energy management or help readers track a big project, such as deployment of broadband over power lines or the construction of a new power-plant, Joyce notes.
And remember, not all corporate blog tales end up as horror stories. Dell Computer’s Lionel Menchaca appalled his legal department but ultimately won kudos from the business community for posting a video clip of a Dell laptop bursting into flame because of battery problems. Rather than hide from the public relations disaster, Dell faced it head on and even made the company blog a primary means of spreading information about the battery recall. After all, a blog gives customers and employees one more place to find answers to questions.
Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.