Dark Blogs and Voices in the Wilderness

SAN FRANCISCO — Business would love to harness the buzz potential of blogging. But the biggest benefits may be found behind the firewall, according to experts at Supernova, an emerging technology conference co-sponsored by the Wharton School of Business.

According to the Pew Internet and Life Survey, the blog audience spiked in 2004, with some 32 million Americans reading blogs.

Yahoo is one of the recent corporations to embrace the idea of letting employees create public blogs at will, while many see Microsoft’s employee blogging efforts as the most successful.

Robert Scoble, Microsoft’s blogging evangelist, told internetnews.com that the company’s successful blogging program grew out of a corporate culture that welcomes criticism and feedback, as well as engineers’ participation in Internet newsgroups to discuss products with users.

“Microsoft hires pretty smart and passionate people,” Scoble said. “It makes for interesting bloggers, because a good blogger is both authoritative and passionate.”

But Microsoft’s success can’t be instantly replicated. “A lot of companies are doing the ‘blogging is cool, we must be blogging’ thing,” said Suw Charman, a consultant who advises businesses on their use of social media. But they can make big mistakes when they rush in — especially if the marketers are involved.

At best, their earnest marketing blogs will be ignored, lost among the 11.6 million blogs tracked by Weblog search service Technorati. At worst, they’ll be ripped apart by the blogosphere.

In fact, Charman believes that blogs should never be used for marketing.

Personal blogs serve as online conversations between people, according to Charman, so marketing messages are seen as interruptions. “The blogosphere is an organic mechanism,” she said. “It routes around damage — and marketing is seen as damage. So marketing blogs are viewed as an injury people will try to heal.” They may criticize it, try to get it taken down or simply ignore the offending blog.

Companies might do better to start the blogging conversation inside the firewall, via dark blogs, according to Greg Lloyd, president of Traction Software, a vendor of enterprise weblogging software. Dark blogs are those that aren’t seen by the public.

“Create blogs that correspond to various stakeholders and audiences within the company and among your partners, contractors, consultants and customers,” Lloyd advised. Rather than using the blog format to publish corporate documents, businesses should deploy internal weblogs that convey the “human value” added to enterprise resources, as well as links to those resources. Such blogs show the timeline for opinions, issues, notes and comments about topics within the company.

Tracy Cohen, who heads the social media for AvenueA/Razorfish, a technology consulting firm, said that companies should make sure to keep the conversation going, whether it’s an internal or external one.

“Companies should look at what is the conversation they’re having internally, what is the conversation they’re having with customers, and what are the tools and techniques you can use to focus those conversations,” Cohen said. “We’re looking at ways to implement customer-facing social networks.”

For example, Cohen said, a cruise line could host software to let passengers connect and get to know each other before the cruise. Later, the same passengers might share reactions to the experience that could provide valuable information about how to improve customer satisfaction. The cruise company could offer them the opportunity to discuss potential destinations for future cruises, as well.

“While social networks have primarily succeeded as destination sites like Friendster, there’s really an opportunity for brands to own that space and conversation,” Cohen said. “For too long, companies have been fearful of owning what customers are saying about them.”

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