Lessons on corporate blogging and the media – UK Blogging Seminar

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We’ve just wrapped up our breakfast seminar on blogging, held in the LEWIS Media Centre in London. About 80 marketers, CEOs, PR consultants and reporters gathered to hear presentations from Loic le Meur, EVP of SixApart and Dr Jo Twist, technology correspondent for BBC Online, talk about the impact of blogging on corporate reputations and on the way the media operates.

As the warm-up act, I opened with some basic definitions of what a blog is, how RSS works, the size of the blogosphere (100m according to The Blog Herald), and what a typical blogger is like. I also talked through examples of reacting to blogs in a good way (Apple) and bad (Dell), as well as the impact blogs are having on the media at large. Finally, I touched on how a corporate communicator can begin to listen and then engage in the conversations from a tools and policy perspective.

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Loic then took the podium, giving an intro to SixApart and walking through some interesting case studies about the power of blogs on corporate reputations. It was interesting to hear Loic’s example of Pascale Weeks, who had ridden the long tail up to over 90,000 page views per month (in 8 months to May 05) simply by blogging about recipes and cooking. Her secret? Daily posts which recounted the good and the bad experiences she had. If she burnt the food, she said so. If the ingredients were wrong and it tasted bad, that went in too. She’s now attracted advertisers and become a semi-professional journalist writing in women’s lifestyle magazines in France. A new take on the ‘are bloggers journalists’ debate – I’d say Pascale probably is.

Loic also made a great point, which had personally escaped me, about the differences between blogs and websites. Sure a blog needs an RSS feed, it needs comments enabled and to have permalinks – those are the key technologies which define a blog, or differentiate it from a website. But they also differ in terms of access point. You can enter a blog via any of the posts you find in a search engine. A website has a more restricted entry point via the homepage. This makes the whole user experience and surfing behavior different – it’s non-linear. For online publishers who host blogs this is a change of perspective since you can’t gate archived content, restricting it to paid subscribers (at least not all of it).

Loic told me he has just written a book about corporate blogging (currently only available in French, though potentially to be serialized on his English blog – publishers take note). He shared a word of caution for corporates not to use a blog as an advertising medium. There are several examples from the US, but evidently Vichy France also launched a fake blog around an anti-aging cream it was launching. The images were too professional and the content too polished. French bloggers brought the company to task. It was evidently the first time a corporate had tried to launch a blog like this in France and the company admitted its mistake. A rapid revision lead to negative opinions being turned to positive as Vichy put the product into the hands of bloggers to use and write about. Evidently it’s a good product, so the posts were positive. By giving up control, the company gained authenticity.

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Jo Twist then gave us the a journalistic perspective of blogging. By her own admission, Jo is not representative of the MSM in general. She has a doctorate in virtual communities, is a blogger and has been following the development of participatory media for the last ten years. That said, she’s probably a role model for the future of reporters working in traditional media. She relies heavily on blogs to gather her news. Sites like Scobleizer fill her Bloglines RSS reader, which contains roughly 120 feeds, from which Jo gathers much of her news. I was impressed that, as well as traditional sources, the BBC is souring blogs for stories.

So what is the BBC’s role in covering news which breaks on blogs? Jo explained that the BBC filters and builds on the best stories. It has the ability to check the facts and to take a story to the next level. The BBC’s presence opens doors to interviews with people which the average blogger could not reach on his/her own. This is a more symbiotic relationship than is currently perceived between bloggers (as fact checkers and news breakers) and the MSM.

Jo looks to blogs for original stories, for opinions, rumors and offbeat news. In this respect, blogs represent a microcosm of the BBC’s broader audience, providing an advanced insight into how its readers will view an event. Of course, linked to this, RSS is key as a means to distribute news: ‘the news must come to me,’ explains Jo, since stories are researched and written within 45 minutes.

I liked the guidelines Jo gave for corporate blogs. They should: be updated daily (a lot I feel for many companies); provide specialist knowledge in an informal, personal tone; report and filter debates and inform readers about new angles on that discussion; link to other sites; encourage conversation, be trustworthy and authoritative. I think that has strong implications about who the company selects to blog, particularly for group blogs.

Posed with the question – what is more important, speed or truth? – Jo states that the BBC does not aim to compete on speed with blogs for the majority of news. Its main job is to provide accuracy in order to maintain trust. But speed is always essential in an online environment.

We had some great questions from the floor about journalistic practices, sponsoring corporate blogs and the future of blogging – a debate which we carried through to the networking afterwards. This event showed the hunger there is among UK marketers and senior management to know about blogging and its potential. There was an unspoken sense that the UK lags behind the US and mainland Europe (France now has more blogs per capita than the US for instance). A quick show of hands revealed few of those present are current bloggers (or are too shy to admit it in open forum). I’m sure by the next one, we’ll have a forest of hands and the debate will have moved on even further.

Thanks Jo and Loic – was great to meet you. And thanks to all the others I met too including Niall Cook from Hill & Knowlton (albeit briefly – let’s catch up Niall), Hugh Fraser of Blog Relations (great to meet you in person), Charlie Cannell and Jeanette Fikke of Edelman’s Interactive Solutions team, and Sinclair Beecham, the entrepreneurial founder of Pret a Manger (who I really hope starts blogging) among others.

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