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Blogs: The Marketing Killer - InternetNews.
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Blogs: The Marketing Killer

The tried and true marketing and PR departments may one day make the endangered species list thanks to a rush of corporate interest in blogs and RSS feeds.

Weblogging -- or blogging -- is taking social networking to new heights. And with the improvements to the technology, the personal journals are now supplying tens of millions of bits of information every day. Now multi-million dollar corporations looking for cheap and effective ways of getting their message out are using the technology to their advantage.

Netscape originally designed RSS -- blogging's main backbone -- as a format for creating portals for online news organizations and entities. Though it was deemed excessively sophisticated for this primary mission, Netscape pulled out of its development when the company pulled out of the portal business. The addition of XML, and Atom have augmented RSS, making posting and retrieving information easier than ever.

Now aggregators of all sorts can offer a variety of special features, including combining several related feeds into a single view, hiding items that the viewer has already seen and categorizing feeds and items. Mobile devices may also turn out to be a key client for syndicated content. If a feed is customized enough to be useful to an individual, they may well want to read that feed from wherever they are (e.g. an SMS message telling an online bidder that the auction they bid on has just closed).

The question by some is, "Do companies need a full-blown marketing or PR department when the employees themselves and the conversations they have on these blogs are getting the corporate info out more effectively?"

"Business can use syndication as a communications channel to their customers, partners, or employees. And their technical staff or IT department can use it as a simple way to exchange data between applications or locations," Anil Dash, vice president of Business Development at Six Apart told internetnews.com. "The combination of update notification when information is updated or changed and the ability to deliver content to a person on any device or in any place is extremely compelling from a business standpoint."

Corporate Blogs Compete

Some of the major IT players have all their hats in the ring early. One of the largest projects is Microsoft's Channel 9.

Launched in April, the community was built in two to three weeks and includes text, video and a collaboration site, or wiki . All are used to humanize Microsoft and get people talking.

In some cases, blogs are used to connect special classes of users. For example, HP sponsors a blog for its HP labs engineers. Dell has a company-sponsored Linux blog. And Web graphics software maker Macromedia keeps its developers informed through a series of feeds.

But the boldest move so far to capitalize on the blogging craze has been by Sun Microsystems . The company allows not only its engineers but also its general employee base to post their musings. In one case, Sun's roadmap to open-sourcing its Solaris operating system was discussed in its blogs well before executives acknowledged the strategy.

Sun has also tapped into its sales channels through its blogs. During the company's recent JavaOne conference, Sun executives hinted at an auction on eBay that centered on a dozen Opteron-based workstations that had yet to be revealed or advertised.

Sometimes, blogs can raise more than capital. Sun's Jonathan Schwartz raised a few eyebrows after he suggested on his blog that the Santa Clara, Calif.-based systems vendor could acquire SUSE Linux owner Novell and put IBM in a pickle. The blurb was discounted as speculation, but it forced investors to think more about Sun's other potential acquisition targets.

Matthew Bailey, Web marketing director with the Karcher Group, suggests that corporate public relations and alternative news and opinion outlets are the two industries most impacted by blogs and RSS feeds. Also, consumer advocacy groups and personal marketing are quickly becoming popular uses for RSS.

"Companies can take advantage of this technology to build that direct line of communication to multiple groups, such as consumers, suppliers, investors, etc.," Bailey told internetnews.com. "Taking advantage of this direct line of communication can help a company appear to be 'in touch' and directly concerned with the readers.

"On the other hand, this technology allows any consumer to be able to create an opinion site. If they have any marketing savvy at all, they will be able to quickly accumulate an audience of like-minded peers to discuss the company," Bailey continued. "This is a critical group for companies to target, as these are either a very dedicated group of consumers, or a very disenfranchised group -- both of which must be served."

In Sun's examples, the company would have had to spend extra manpower and resources, not to mention blocking out time for reporters to talk with executives, to publicize any of the announcements. Instead, Sun was able to hype its product and practices without too much effort. And they didn't have to issue a press release, which reporters are reading less and less of these days.

No Fear in the Enterprise

So how should corporations contend with social media? Lisa Poulson, a business consultant with Kirtland Enterprise Group, suggests enterprises watch and learn.

"There are a lot of people who have a lot of opinions about every corporation, and they're having conversations," Poulson said. "That's free market research. A corporation that is afraid of the participation that comes with conversation has larger problems. With social media, corporations lose control of when news gets released. That's OK."

Poulson also told internetnews.com that public relations agencies have to be flexible in using blogs and other social media.

"PR firms love to control the message, control who says the message, control who has access to the message, who says the message and the timing of the message," she said. "Blogs upset the apple cart in all four ways. But building that credibility and trust are still the basis for that individual relationship."

In the case of Channel 9, Poulson said that the issues being discussed are not the voice of Microsoft directly, but of its user base. In that case, she points out that third-party sites can then give validation to the company's message, or at least serve as a public domain for discussion and valuable customer feedback.

While it is difficult to calculate exactly how many individuals are using Web sites as journals, Blog Census estimates that there are roughly 2.1 million likely Weblogs, with at least half of them in English, and 33 separate crawlers running. This is certainly an opportunity for the enterprise to consider.

"In my own usage, I've found that I'm more productive reading sites in RSS than in a Web browser," said Robert Scoble, blogging guru and Microsoft developer and platform evangelist. "Why? For one, I only need to read sites that have actually published something new. Out of the 1,418 sites I'm currently reading, only about 20 percent have published anything in the past 24 hours. So, while I'm reading a few hundred sites, you'd need to look at 1,418 sites to get the same content that I'm getting."

Editor's note: internetnews.com editor Craig McGuire contributed to this report.