Blogs promised to fundamentally change the relationship between a company and its staff, customers, suppliers and the media. Websites would be overhauled for the 2.0 era, the press release would cease to exist and the PR industry itself faced revolution.' So starts a recent blog post, Corporate blogging is broken, by Stephen Waddington, managing director of communications agency Speed.
Today, Waddington argues, such early promise appears to have dissipated. But is it the fault of the companies themselves? Were they really willing to embrace potentially radical change? Or did they just see blogging as another opportunity to sell? If it is the latter answer, it seems hardly surprising that the bright vision for corporate blogging has largely paled.
Take the nature of social media for a start. The transformational quality of such online communication is not just that it enables real-time conversation across geographical boundaries and time-zones. It has also played something of a Robin Hood role, taking communication out of the hands of the powers that be and giving it to the ordinary man on the street - albeit one who has a computer to hand.
Internet users now have the ability to create and disseminate blog posts, reviews, videos, tweets and any other number and type of message online - many of which may be directly criticising a company or one of its services. A burgeoning number of social media monitoring tools points to the extent to which companies are realising this interactive nature of online communications. But far from using any insight as a basis to engage in a genuine two-way dialogue, many continue to try to adapt social media tools to traditional push-marketing techniques - a press release, for example, dressed up to look like a blog.
'Marketing has always been about broadcasting a message to an audience,' says Waddington. 'Engaging that audience in conversation, which is critical to the success of a blog, is a very different discipline.'
He argues that one of the reasons why there are very few examples of good corporate blogs is because of this clash between personal and corporate communication. It is incredibly difficult for a company to achieve an authentic human voice. 'There are fundamental differences between how people and companies communicate - only very few organisations have managed to bridge that gap,' says Waddington.
The challenges of blogging
David Ferrabee, managing director of change consultancy Able and How, thinks that people were always too quick to hail corporate blogging as something more than just another communications channel. But he also believes that blogging entails greater potential drawbacks than other new social media channels.
'It takes specialist skills (good writing and technical skills) to set up, like television or radio. But it also takes special interest and attention to consume. Not everyone spends time looking for opinions on the Internet and/or has an RSS feed,' he says.
Ferrabee has written his own blogs on a weekly basis for several years but admits that he rarely reads others. 'Sure there are a dozen people I look up every few weeks. But I simply don't have a habit of reading one every day,' he says.
Nor do corporates often have the resources to properly manage and write blogs. 'Many businesses create mechanisms to encourage or support blogging that will either never be sustainable nor see a proper return,' adds Ferrabee. This may be a reason why statistics suggest that large UK companies have been slow to adopt blogs.
Research by online communications consultancy The Group last year found that just four companies in the FTSE 100 index publish a corporate blog, and just two - Thomson Reuters and Carnival - are written by the chief executive. Yet The Group also noticed an overwhelming number of new blogs coming out each week from smaller companies and start-ups.
An additional cause for such figures may be an acknowledgement of the difficulty large corporates face in aligning their message to a medium that demands a personal voice. Ferrabee, for instance, offers a couple of tips for successful blogging from his own experience: opinions make writing interesting; and it needs to be 'real' and personal to make sense. For many large corporates, writing personal opinions just isn't an option.
Getting it right
While success might not be widespread, Gail Franks, managing director at Summersault Communications, thinks that we should not be too quick to dismiss the blog achievements of some very large companies. 'Some companies have tried it and moved on. Others, and we are talking about some of the world's largest companies here, have genuinely and incessantly engaged with their stakeholders through blogging - McDonald's is a fine example of this,' she says. 'Making better use of the medium is all about being open, honest, personal and freely engaging in challenging dialogue - concepts which some companies might struggle with. But, that's more to do with culture and not blogging per se.'
Waddington and Franks also agree on some key steps to getting corporate blogging right. 'Corporates firstly need to identify who their audience is and what they want the audience to take away from the dialogue,' says Franks. 'Is it increased understanding and advocacy of the company as an employer? As a producer of products? As a responsible company in society? As a way to resolve customer service issues? It's a good idea to keep the topic reasonably well-defined, though not overtly tight, as there will always be extraneous questions and points raised - such is the nature of personal conversation.' Waddington believes it is vital that corporates have a content plan for the first few months.
Most corporates will not find it easy to take advantage of social media. Larger companies, in particular, have their own culture or 'way of doing things' that can make new ventures into social media extremely difficult. Getting internal 'buy in' for endeavours such as corporate blogging can just be the start of the obstacles that will force many companies to conclude that blogging is not right for them. For those companies that are keen to take advantage of this channel, however, it is worth remembering that it requires transformation - to create an honest, personal voice, and content that will appeal to a broad audience. Merely regurgitating press releases will doom any blog to failure. Experts argue that thinking of the blog as a publication might make the process easier and more successful, because it forces a consideration of the audience rather than merely the company message.
Summersault's Franks believes that blogging success will mean challenging the 'build it and they will come' theory of early digital marketing. But with some companies already working incredibly hard to attract an audience to their blogs, such a theory may have already died along with the many hundreds of blogs that believed in it.
The consultants' advice for effective corporate blogging seems to have been taken to the heart of Facebook's corporate blog - although as a social networking company it has something of a significant advantage when it comes to using social media effectively.
'We've spent a lot of time focusing on what content we want on the blog - not just what's interesting to us,' says Matt Hicks, a senior manager within the corporate communications team. 'Often, corporate blogs fall into pattern where it becomes more about the ego of those writing than what is pertinent to the audience.'
The blog first launched in September 2006, but it has recently enjoyed a facelift so that it now looks more visually appealing, with bigger font and more use of images, a list of most popular stories and top headlines, as well as topic tagging and more robust search. But it is clear that, while looks and navigation are important, content is king.
'From the get-go it had a big focus on communicating more insight into our thinking and products, what we were launching and what that means for as broad an audience as possible,' says Hicks. 'That core mission hasn't changed but we now look at what's important for our audience beyond news on our products.' That means that the blog includes features on Facebook topics, but also interviews with politicians or academics and stories from users themselves, aptly named 'Your Story'.
Nor has Facebook shied away from topical issues concerning the company itself. When concerns were raised over privacy issues on Facebook, the team posted a blog inviting a public review of the site's governing policy. 'I think we're pretty cognisant of being really open to most issues on the blog,' says Hicks. 'If there are discussions or confusion about how our products or privacy models work, then we're pretty willing to quickly get out there with a view. That's a great thing about a blog that companies didn't have in the past - you can respond and offer perspectives so quickly.'
Another example Hicks cites in this respect is the Iranian election. 'We have Iranian-American employees here at the company who had really first-hand experience about what was happening in the Iran protests and they were able to relate that on the blog from a highly personal perspective,' he says.
Significantly, the blog has also structurally shifted centre-stage, becoming the mouthpiece for the company. 'Within the communications team, we manage our blog, the Facebook page (the corporate page), our Twitter account and our YouTube channel,' says Hicks. 'We see those as the four main channels for how we're communicating but the blog is the largest and most central to it, because you can have the full story there. We then supplement it with lots of activity on the other channels.' The blog is also directly tied into the Facebook page so that every time a blog is published it goes into a newsfeed that potentially reaches 8.5 million people who are connected with the page.
Like many companies, Facebook has faced a typical obstacle in its blog management: getting people to write posts. In response, Hicks built a database of proposed stories. All 1,000 Facebook employees are eligible to write blog entries by simply assigning themselves a story from the content schedule (Hicks oversees the process to ensure that people and stories match up). Hicks is then aware of the copy coming in and who to hassle as deadlines approach.
For Hicks, the greatest lesson he has learned is that the blog does not all have to be about Facebook. 'You can make a corporate blog really interesting if you view it more like a publication for a broad audience. I think the blog used to be more focused on what we were launching but if you're going to make it successful you have to think beyond yourself: you have to think about your area of influence and reflect that in your blog.'
In future, this lesson will be further expressed by the inclusion of more video interviews with third parties, as well as an increased number of guest blogs, written by technical experts or politicians for example. 'We think that as long as the topics make sense, we want a fairly open contribution model because that helps to build a nice connection between us and the audience,' concludes Hicks.