Super Fans Flock to Corporate Blogs

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For years, when I was creative director at loyalty marketing firm Frequency Marketing, I preached the need for companies to engage customers in a dialogue. I believed that pushing messages out to increasingly indifferent consumers wasn't working anymore. Two-way interaction was needed in which a company didn't just talk to customers but also listened for a response.

But doing dialogue right meant tracking and recording each customer's interactions at every touch point: by phone, in stores, on the Web. It also meant digging deeper and getting insights into a customer's wants and needs via interviews or surveys. So while many marketers bought into the idea of dialogue, they often lacked the time or money to do it right. Sure, there was some leveraging of data here, some intelligent cross-sell efforts there. But an ongoing exchange between customers and companies just wasn't to be. I thought it was the end of the story.

A new kind of conversation begins. A funny thing has happened in the past year. The dialogue between companies and customers has begun in earnest, but not the way I envisioned it. It's happening by way of the corporate blog.

The mere mention of the word may have some readers rolling their eyes. Blogs? Those self-indulgent online journals that let anyone with a computer babble on about things that 99.99 percent of us couldn't care less about?

Yes, those blogs, and in a way corporate blogs aren't that different. A casual Web surfer might find the information irrelevant. But like the personal blogs they mimic, corporate blogs aren't (and shouldn't be) directed at a mass market or the casual surfer. Their target should be a small group of influencers I call "super fans."

Super fans are bedrock customers, your most loyal. They not only seek out your products or services but advocate for them. Their numbers may be small, but their potential influence is huge because they represent the group most likely to engage in word of mouth about your brand.

What do these super fans want from you? Information. And not the stuff on your corporate site. If you set up a blog and talk to your influencers in the same marketing-speak as your corporate site, they'll ignore you and possibly turn on you. Super fans want insights into your company and what makes it tick. They want access to decision makers, buyers and product developers, big thinkers. They want to be part of the conversation about new products and new ideas. They want a dialogue.

If you're unprepared to conduct a dialogue with super fans, that's fine, and in some competitive situations it's understandable. But then you probably don't need a company blog. A corporate blog should be about open conversation with best customers. If you don't want to engage in a conversation, don't start one.

Several companies have corporate blogs. Some you might expect, like Nike, Southwest Airlines and Microsoft - which reportedly has hundreds of individual employee blogs, several of which have given the company a much-needed human face and lessened its cold, impersonal persona. But some companies with corporate blogs may surprise you, like Wal-Mart and General Motors.

Yet a scan of several corporate blogs shows a mixed bag, especially in conducting a dialogue with the super fans likely to visit. The blogs often seem to have been started by company enthusiasts who, if overzealous at times, appear honest and open. Some even address visitor comments and questions. But at other blogs, it's a different story.

Running on fumes. I hate to pick on GM. My family drives two GM cars. But its corporate blog appears little more than an extension of the marketing department, churning out a one-way sales spiel that I fear few listen to (see fastlane.gmblogs.com).

GM uses several bloggers, and a recent look showed a variety of stories. There was advance word on three new Saturn models. There was a blog on a recent TV appearance by the CEO. In short, it was good news all the time. But in the same period I read these positive blog entries, mainstream press suggested GM was going through its biggest crisis ever. In a span of about 10 days, the company had offered buyouts to 100,000 hourly workers to try to avert a strike. There was the announced layoff of 500 white-collar workers. Then there was a massive accounting restatement that cut the company's debt ratings and sent its stock plummeting.

As this news came out, I kept visiting the GM site, waiting for any of the GM bloggers to give me insight into what was going on. But the good news blog entries kept coming. It was as if the bloggers were living in a bubble, oblivious to the negative news all around them - the reality almost certainly being that someone from corporate squashed the idea of dealing with these issues directly.

That was a missed opportunity. Remember that visitors to a corporate blog aren't everyday customers, they're super fans seeking inside information. They want honesty and openness. Had GM tried this approach, it could have rallied these fans to its side.

To GM's credit, the blog does let visitors post comments, and during GM's extended bad news cycle, it appeared that some constructive criticism snuck past the gatekeeper. But without official acknowledgment of these postings by GM's own bloggers, it was a one-way conversation. The bloggers told one story, the super fans listened to another, the chance for dialogue lost.

Now for something completely different. On the other end of the spectrum is the Tinbasher. It's an irreverent site by Paul Woodhouse, who works for a company called Butler Sheet Metal in northwest England. As you might expect, topics are sheet metal, scrap metal and stainless steel (see butlersheetmetal.com/tinbasherblog).

You'll find entries that "talk the talk" super fans appreciate, including insider perspectives like: "we regard 304 stainless as being a bit of a middle ranking stainless; it's not as expensive or high a grade as 316, but it's not nearly as cheap as 420."

Yet the Tinbasher is just as apt to pass along an entertaining industry-related tidbit. One post told the tale of an oil stain found on a piece of sheet metal that, according to its owner, bore the likeness of Jesus. It was being peddled on eBay "for a mere $1,575" even though it "bears more of a passing resemblance to Rocky" after several rounds.

Importantly, "comments" links below each posting let others write in, and Mr. Woodhouse frequently acknowledges those who do. He also encourages input on issues where he's seeking a consensus or expert opinion, involving his visitors in a dialogue.

Though topics can vary widely from post to post, like any blog that attracts a loyal following, the site informs, surprises and often delights. It's also a sure bet that - unlike GM - had Butler Sheet Metal just laid off a few hundred workers, the Tinbasher would have something to say about it.

Tips for corporate bloggers.

• Be a thought leader in your industry. Blogs are about making your opinions known, so state your beliefs loud and clear. You don't have to be the market leader to have ideas on where your industry is going and how your company is best positioned to get there.

• Talk in a human voice. Your blog is more likely to attract a following if you avoid sounding like last year's annual report. Keep it conversational. Talk about your mistakes and how you've learned from them, as well as your successes. Don't be afraid to show your human side.

• Encourage a dialogue. Every time you post an entry, give visitors a way to respond. Let them post comments or at least give them an e-mail address where they can contact you. A feedback loop also lets you know if you're striking a chord with readers or rubbing them the wrong way.

• Tap the knowledge of your audience. Blogs are a fast, easy way to tap the experience and skills of your fans. Ask them to comment on new products or for ideas on improving existing products. Super fans are also the group most likely to engage in word of mouth, spreading the good news about your company and brand. Keep them involved.

• It's about relationships, not selling. A corporate blog should aim to develop a personal relationship with site visitors. The Starwood Hotels chain lets visitors customize the blog page they view according to hotel brand, location and categories of interest, while leaving the selling to the corporate site.

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