Digital influencers: do business communicators dare overlook the power of blogs?
Do you remember the first time you used an e-mail program? Remember how exciting it was just to be able to send around a quick note to your workgroup? It was both a thrill and a relief not to have to create a memo, print it, copy it and distribute it.
Remember the first time you used Yahoo! to search? Maybe it was to find car prices or football scores or software recommendations. It was exhilarating to sit at your desk and find information on whatever topic you wanted without getting on the phone and talking to a salesperson, wasting time clicking through TV sports snows or flipping through product roundups–magazines.
The thrill and freedom you felt with the advent of e-mail and Internet searches is here again with blogs–those easy-to-create web-based journals about a particular subject or penned by a particular person. Most bloggers write whatever they want at any given time. The online journals contain incredible amounts of unedited commentary about companies, products, entertainers and issues. Although the vast majority are created and edited as personal journals, a large number of blogs have become increasingly influential, with multiple likeminded contributors.
In the last five years, the number of blogs has grown from fewer than 100,000 mostly obscure sites to more than 4 million. It seems like everyone is blogging–journalists, college students, techies, soccer rooms, corporations, government agencies, school teachers and even young children.
More than 53 million American adults, or 44 percent of adult Internet users, have used the Internet to publish their thoughts, respond to others, post pictures, share files and otherwise contribute to the explosion of content available online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, released in February 2004 and based on a national phone survey conducted between 12 March and 20 May 2003. Although only 2 percent of adult Internet users maintain web diaries or web blogs, 11 percent of Internet users have read the blogs or diaries of other Internet users. (See www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/113/report_display.asp.)
David Silfry, the founder of web log monitor Technorati, reports that there are currently 4.1 million blogs around the world, with a new blog being created every 7.4 seconds. In October 2004, he told the Web 2.0 (http://web20.weblogsinc.com) audience that most new blog posts appear at Technorati within seven minutes. However, nearly half of all blogs are abandoned after just six months, with 45 percent falling idle shortly after being started.
ARE BLOGS THAT IMPORTANT?
Blogs are certainly a hot topic around the water fountain, or more likely, in line at Starbucks, but should you be concerned about blogs as a business communicator? The answer is an emphatic yes! Blogs have become an incredibly important medium for communicating to primary audiences including consumers, shareholders, employees and critics.
Although business communication has evolved rapidly over the last 10 years, the rapid advent of blogs has not only added a new communication channel, but also has changed the entire communication model for reaching internal and external audiences, especially consumers. Marketers–who were relatively slow to adopt e mail communication programs–must act much more quickly to develop programs to communicate with bloggers.
In the traditional world of press releases, print media and broadcast, many marketers believed that they could control, or at least tightly manage, messaging about their products and companies. Regardless of whether that belief was rooted in reality, there should be no false hopes of control in the new digital world. With lightning speed, messaging and issues can take on a life of their own in the new blogger influenced digital communication model. A single loyal consumer or an angry critic can have tremendous influence on thousands of other consumers simply by posting one message.
Unlike the traditional one-way marketing communication model, the digital world enables bi-directional communication whereby audience members can directly and indirectly express their views to businesses. Consumers now have the opportunity to define their relationships with companies they care about.
It is imperative that businesses join the digital communication sphere as active participants and listeners in order to develop richer relationships with consumers and to understand what critics have to say.
WHO ARE THE INFLUENCERS?
Influencers can be enthusiasts or critics. They are people who communicate their opinions often, and in a way that is appealing to many other people. Everyone may not agree with what strong opinion holders have to say, but either through the sheer number of posts they contribute to popular blogs or through the number of links coming to their own blogs, they have the power to influence many thousands of potential buyers, shareholders or employees. In the blogging world, people can easily link to sites they like and quickly view any new posts. Bloggers may not even know the scope of their own influence. But it’s important that marketers keep tabs on blogs that have impact.
Although marketers may not know the actual name or company affiliation of bloggers of interest, they can assess their influence by looking at trackback links or using monitoring tools to assess site popularity as well as the number of other sites that link to a particular blog, according to Blogcity.com and About.com. Trackback functions allow bloggers to contribute and respond to feedback from around the blog community while maintaining their own unique identity on their blog site. They can write comments in their own blog with links to the original blog that inspired their new entry. This rapid ability to create new comments and respond to topics has created many new voices that influence potential buyers. Many bloggers opt to include lists of other blogs they like. This is called “blogrolling.” There are several online tools for creating blog lists, publishing a blog and subscribing to blogs through blog aggregators. One popular aggregator is www.bloglines.com.
As marketers and communicators use these tools and services, they will better understand who the digital influencers are, what their concerns are and how and when to respond to them. All companies can benefit greatly from listening and responding to their digital audiences. Bad news travels fast, especially on the Internet. Knowing when bad news hits is critical to staying on top of a story and being able to minimize damage. Although marketers can’t control messages by managing media relationships, they can join in the discussion about issues, contribute feedback and address concerns quickly.
The best way to understand who the important influencers are on your main audiences is to begin monitoring blogs that focus on your industry, your company, its products and your competitors. You can do this yourself by signing up for free blog-monitoring services such as bloglines.com or by subscribing to blog-monitoring services such as Technorati, CyberAlert or Moreover, which offer more advanced features to classify blogs and filter out inactive ones.
Although many tools are free or low cost, this growing area of research is so important to corporations, that leading industry analyst firms such as Forrester Research are developing even more sophisticated tools to monitor and analyze brand mentions and consumer opinions on blogs and discussion groups.
According to Forrester analyst Charlene Li’s blog, “Forrester believes that blogging will grow in importance, and, at a minimum, companies should monitor blogs to learn what is being said about their products and services.” Read more of Forrester’s report at http://forrester.typepad.com/charleneli/2004/11/ forrester_repor.html.
A recent BusinessWeek article, “Betting on the Tools that Power Blogs,” by Olga Kharif, makes an interesting comparison between the emergence of blog-monitoring tools to mining for gold in the 1800s: “It’s much like the early days of e-commerce. While e-tailers were spending and spending to build their web sites, e commerce software makers were raking in the cash. To use an analogy to California’s gold rush: It wasn’t the miners who got rich, it was the people who sold the picks and shovels.”
Why Monitor Digital Influencers?
Listening to product feedback from consumers and critics is important, but there are many other tactical and strategic reasons for monitoring influencers in order to shape your communication models. Here are some steps to take and techniques to try.
Proactively identify enthusiasts. Many online discussions can yield positive opportunities to communicate with participants (including reference customers or potential customers). Often, enthusiasts are thrilled to hear back from companies and spread the word about new features and new programs offered by the company. Enthusiasts can be great ambassadors for word-of mouth marketing. Companies should also try to improve their ability to discover and identify emerging trends in the online community while keeping close tabs on how important issues are affecting products and assets.
Real-time analysis and intelligence. By gathering and organizing information from blogs as well as other Internet and traditional news sources, companies will have a more scalable crisis monitoring workflow solution that will enable them to monitor and analyze the impact of issues as they break, how far the issues are reaching and if the company’s response strategies are effective.
Timeliness and internal collaboration. By automating many of the manual day-to day functions associated with online monitoring, companies will have instant access to timely and actionable data. Companies can also share vital information with their spokespeople and executives faster and more efficiently.
Historical analysis and communication. Companies should keep historical archives of significant comments about products, services, and other attributes in order to assess the cumulative impact of listening to consumers and critics. Tracking the feedback and response loop allows the company to update influencers on company progress, new features and resolutions to issues, thereby keeping an open dialog with vital digital audiences.
Strategic analysis. Fortune 1000 companies typically have a high volume of coverage that can make it challenging to monitor, organize and share critical information in a timely fashion. Working with a monitoring and analysis firm, the company can automate the process of gathering and organizing crucial information, allowing it to spend more time on strategic analysis and communication of important feedback and issues and less time on tactical monitoring and filtering.
MOST INFLUENTIAL BLOGS
* Blogstreet.com compiles a list of the top 100 blogs, based on the number of blogs rolling to each blog site. Visit: www.blogstreet.com/top100.html.
TOP MARKETING AND PR BLOGS
* ANA Marketing Musings
* Brand Central Station
* Modern Marketing
* ExpertPR Weblog
* Marketing Wonk
* Media Insider
* Moore’s Lore
* Pop PR
* PR Communications
* PR Planet
* Global PR Blog Week
* Topaz Partners
Julie Woods is executive vice president of product strategy at Cymfony Inc., a provider of real-time monitoring, measurement and analysis solutions based in Newton, Mass., USA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COPYRIGHT 2005 International Association of Business Communicators
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group