“You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.”
—Ziggy, acartoon by Tom Wilson
Through the foreward, introduction and first eight chapters, Naked Conversations has careened on about the virtues of blogging. But if it’s as great as we claim it to be, why are so many businesses not yet joining the blogosphere? While we see all sorts of reasons why all sorts of people in all sorts of companies should blog, even shameless proponents such as ourselves, do not believe blogging is right for all companies in all situations. It also doesn’t mean that blogging is right for all employees in companies that tolerate or encourage blogging. There are indeed thorns in the rose garden and you want to be certain you don’t inadvertently draw blood, particularly your own. As enthusiastic as we are for blogging, we still must caution: blogging is not for everyone.
But, the fact remains, that a great many companies are reluctant to blog for reasons and risks that seem overblown to us. In fact, a statistician could probably prove that driving to work is riskier than blogging. Most reasons we have heard not to blog seem to us to be either exaggerated or fictitious. A few reasons not to blog—such as accidental disclosures and conflicts with other communications channels are identical to reasons we heard in the 1990s on why companies shouldn’t build websites. Others reasons—such as lack of centralized control—remind us of the mainframe administrators of yore who argued that personal computers should not be allowed into the enterprise. What we think is going on is what often occurs in business environments during watershed times—fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) sets in. Decision makers feel uncomfortable. They see reasons to stave off change. Each reason contains some truth that gets amplified to a disproportionate level. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s look at the former group—companies and people who should sit this revolution out.
Companies That Should Not Blog
If you are a genuine bad guy, or are part of an organization of bad guys, don’t blog.
We asked Naked Conversations blog visitors, “Who shouldn’t blog?” We got some insightful answers. Randy Charles Morin, a software developer’ hit the nail on the despotic head with his two-word answer: “Sadam Hussein.” He’s right. Sadam has always been a command and control freak. He prefers monolog to dialog even in face-to-face. We doubt that he would believe his blog readers were collectively smarter than he is and we don’t think he’d respond well to the “tough love” bloggers find in comments and linked blogs. Sadam has a well-documented history of avoiding transparency. Besides, he is going to have some trouble with Internet access at either home or work for some time to come. Sadam, if you are reading this, don’t blog. It won’t help your situation.
Blogs, to date, have worked extremely well for companies and people with do-the-right-thing attitudes. We think they will fail in cultures that have a public-be-damned attitude, such as has been demonstrated by senior officials at all too many companies. The list is longer than the usually mentioned gangs at Tyco, WorldCom, Enron, Adelphia and their wily consultants.
You don’t have to be a despot or a felon to qualify as a company that should not blog. As Church of the Customer’s Jackie Huba told us, “Cheesy companies, with cheesy products and disdain or contempt for their customers should not blog.”
Add to the list, companies who disdain or mistreat their employees, such as diamond miners, rubber plantation owners or “employers” who tether children to workbenches. Such entities would probably find it difficult to tolerate an open employee blogging policy and conversational marketing is probably not among their corporate objectives.
An organized crime blog might prove colorful, but we doubt it would be transparent. But, not all vice mongers need abstain. Two self-proclaimed, top-level call girls maintain well-trafficked blogs. Belle de Jour: INtimate Adventures of a London Call Girl and Jet Set Lara: an international escort's travel blog are both highly literate and occasionally enticing. But both authors remain anonymous. Lara displays enticing photos on her site but she keeps her face concealed. The only testimony we have that she is real is that Belle says she is. Belle and Lara may or may not be authentic business bloggers, but how are we to know? We discuss anonymous blogs further in the next chapter. Our essential thought is that if you need to be anonymous, you should not blog.
Additionally, companies who intend to victimize customers and supporters, such as fraudulent charities, Ponsi and pyramid schemers as well as con artists should not blog. We suspect, however, that con artists will find their way into the blogosphere, and the challenge will be for other bloggers to be vigilant in flushing them out. Bloggers need to ask hard-nosed questions of bloggers making claims or pleas for financial assistance.
Operatives in Security
Some companies deal in highly sensitive and confidential information. We cannot envision, nor would we recommend a Federal employee blogging publicly about a typical workday in a clandestine intelligence gathering operation. Likewise companies engaged in less dangerous, but equally sensitive matters, such as financial consulting, stock brokerages, private investigators and defense attorneys, might find it necessary to blog prudently or avoid it altogether. Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin and Homeland Security were all mentioned to us as companies who should not blog, as were financial institutions, criminal lawyers and prosecutors and so on.
We are not so sure and tend to agree with our friend Jeremy Wright, whose book Blog Marketing was scheduled to publish at about the same time as Naked Conversations. “Those companies could blog, just not about anything vaguely sensitive. This is the same policy ALL companies should have. Some stuff just doesn't get blogged about.”
It should noted that over in this chapter, we have public blogs. Six Apart estimates over half of all business blogs are private. For example, we are told The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, shares internal information through blogging. We surmise they find it safer than intranets, but our inquiry went unanswered, so we remain uncertain.)
Additionally, there are perfectly wonderful companies, whose cultures are just fine, whose employees are happy but sill they should not blog. For example, some companies—very large ones, in fact—have so few customers that they can all meet in a conference room to have open dialog. There are companies whose customers are not on computers, or entities like Bechtel who have a culture so secretive, most of us don’t know if they should or should not blog.
Cultures that Should Not Blog
Wright’s comments address a larger issue—corporate culture. We think that culture is the key point on whether companies should or should not blog. Companies whose culture is restrictive should not blog. “If an organization isn't already a place where openness and transparency in communication exists and is practiced, then using tools like blogs will unlikely do anything positive for that organization. If your openness/transparency foundation isn't there, don't blog,” Neville Hobson , the European-based PR consultant and podcaster extraordinaire, whom we interviewed in Chapter 7 advised us.
In the tech sector, cultural impact has caused some ironies in public perception. For example, Apple Computer and Google, two companies that the public has historically held in high esteem, seem to have cultures not conducive to blogging. Simultaneously, two companies who have felt their share of public scorn—Microsoft and Sun Microsystems have encouraged employee blogging, revealing an openness and trust in their company cultures. In the technology-centered sectors, word-of-mouth seems to be indicate a reversal of perceptions. The former two companies seem to be slipping a bit and the latter two rising. There are many people wondering why Apple and Google have so few bloggers, and the ones that they do have seem to write with the dull caution that gives readers the feeling that supervisors are peering over the bloggers’ shoulders as they write.
Cultures usually change slowly. If yours is closed, we suggest opening it before shocking the ecosystem with your blog. If your employees feel untrusted, you may need to take steps to demonstrate your faith in them before you encourage them to blog. If your culture’s communications policy is rooted in command and control rules, blogging will falter. If you don’t have genuine faith that you can evolve into a better company by listening to what your customers, prospects, investors, vendors and partners have to say, then a blogging effort will not provide you with its full value. If you don’t want to listen—really listen—then blogs will be thorny for you and your culture.
If you can’t be candid about your company’s dirty laundry, then blogging probably isn’t for you. If you think your company doesn’t have any dirty laundry, then definitely don’t blog. Every company has its share of problems. If you aren’t willing to discuss them openly then you’ll be missing a huge amount of power that the blog could bring to your company. People are hungry for companies that have conversations with them – warts and all. They tend to distrust companies that try to say “everything’s perfect here.”
We, of course, believe your decision not to blog will hurt your company in the long run. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant -- all great CEOs encourage transparency and openness as long as sensitive data is not leaked,” Cold River author Jozef Imrich told us.
People Who Should not Blog
Some people just shouldn’t blog even in environments where it is encouraged. If you have really awful communications skills, you should not blog. Employees who hate their jobs, their managers or products will find blogging is a catalyst to deprture. Executive officers who cannot resist making rosy predictions should not blog and the same goes for marketing professionals who cannot resist strings of gushing adjectives. People who find their job repetitive or dull, shouldn’t blog. In fact, people who are dull should not blog. You don’t need to be a professional writer to blog, but you do need basic communications skills. Start by asking yourself if you can tell a story and have people listen to it without falling asleep or looking around for a graceful exit.
People who can’t abide criticism will not enjoy the blogging experience. Having a conversation means facing the facts that there are people who might not like you, might not agree with you, might not like your work, or might have had a bad experience with others in your company. A good corporate blogger will always be working to win his/her detractors over.
It’s very easy to bark at people giving you harsh feedback. Avoid doing that because you’ll shut down the conversation. If you do blog, you will be wise to abstain on days when you are in a bad mood.
A deceitful blogger will learn you may fool some of the blogosphere some of the time, but sooner or later you will get nailed and your lies will be amplified and remembered.
But these are all black-and-white examples and a bit facile. Most business environments are gray. Employees may have to deal with managers who are vague, divided or inconsistent on what should or should not be permitted. Employee guidelines are necessary. In short, a lack of clear policy may in itself be a reason for employees not to blog.
Earlier, we presented Microsoft as providing one of the most blog enlightened employee cultures. But it too, has had its controversial incidents. Australian Cameron Reilly, a podcaster of increasing renown, quit Microsoft after six years as a business development manager, after he accurately quoted a colleague on his blog saying, "Five years ago, Microsoft had average products but great marketing. Today, we have great products but average marketing. The biggest problem is - people think it's still the other way around."
Reilly told us his job was to develop trust in the Microsoft marketplace which he thought meant he should “speak honestly about the company's business." His boss, he contended, disagreed. "I was told that the content of my blog was inappropriate and unprofessional. I was basically given a warning and [told] that if the content on my blog was considered inappropriate again, I'd be terminated.” After a brief stormy period, Reilly quit and started his own company.
“When employers avoid putting clear blogging policies in place, using one of these "just use good common sense" clauses, which can be defined by managers to mean whatever the heck they want it to mean there is a problem waiting to happen. My concern isn't so much for the bloggers—it’s for the employers. If you leave how the inevitable blogging issues get handled up to the imagination (or lack thereof) of your managers, you stand to lose good people. Bloggers aren't the type to take kindly to bullying. They will leave and start their own company or go work for your competition,” he told us. The obvious conclusion for employees is that if you don’t know what you can or cannot post on your blog, you’d best not do it.
FUD that Shouldn’t Stop Blogs
The term “FUD” was coined by Gene Amdahl after he left IBM to found, Amdahl Corp.in 1975. He contended, "FUD is the fear, uncertainty and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering Amdahl products." IBM people were reminding customers that “Nobody every got fired for buying IBM products” implying, of course, that you could get fired for buying Amdahl’s.
FUD often occurs when disruptive technology arrives at the edge of the corporation. There has been a lot of it regarding blogs, enough to make the prudent manager cautious about the issue. In fact, each of the cautions we have heard raised contain grains of truth. But by examining each grain too carefully, one might miss the value of the whole beach.
Of course there are risks involved. But are they significant enough to discourage business blogging? Let’s look at a few.
1. Negative comments
Businesses hate being bad-mouthed. We all hate being bad-mouthed. The fear that someone will post a negative comment on your blog is perhaps the most frequently voiced of all concerns. Church of the Customer’s Ben McConnell who frequently addresses business audiences, says the first question, he usually hears after a talk is: “What do I do about negative comments?” According to his partner, Jackie Huba, “We tell them that that people are saying negative things about you anyway, and they have lots of places to say it online. Why wouldn't you want these people to say it in your forum -- your blog -- where you can address the comments head on? As Microsoft’s Mike Torres observed, “People are a lot more polite, when they know you are listening.”
In fact, even the most veteran blogger occasionally expresses angst at what is euphemistically called “tough love” in comment postings. Some commentary seems to be far from loving. But bloggers collectively believe they have become wiser, provide higher quality services and products by listening carefully to negative comments that contain constructive elements. When the comments are unjustified, Huba points out, a company’s customer evangelists often jump in and defend you before you even have a chance to say anything.” This happened when GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz was taken to task by an auto reviewer’s negative comments on his blog. More than 30 supporters jumped to Lutz’ defense while the vice chairman remained comfortably silent.
In the previous chapter, we discussed how Japanese comments hit nastiness levels not experienced elsewhere and businesses have resolved it there by using Trackback. For the remainder of the world, comments seem to be sufficiently valuable to be worth occasional slings and arrows.
2. Disclosing confidential information
Nearly all companies have certain aspects that they should legitimately withhold from public consumption or at least carefully time. These include, patent-related properties, financial matters, employee information and so on. Blogging is the newest channel into which beans can get spilled. It is most certainly not the only channel. Corporate leaks have been with us for almost as long as have corporate secrets.
According to Atty. Stephen M Nipper, an intellectual property attorney, corporations are concerned about “the possibility that employees might inadvertently disclose trade secrets and other confidential information to third parties outside the corporation,” but by looking at blogs, they are looking for leaks in the wrong pipe.
Instead, business should look at e-mail which, “tends to be considerably less formal, often sent on the fly without much thought about its contents (unlike blogging). How many of us can think of instances where we sent an email we wish we could take back?” Because e-mail is sent more casually and in much greater abundance, the sheer volume of e-mail messages makes it a “greater risk to the breach of confidences than blogging.” In both cases, Nipper thinks good internal communications makes more sense than prohibitive policies. “Every corporation should regularly remind their employees of their duties regarding the disclosure of confidential information in any manner (conversations, e-mails, letters, blogging, instant messaging, etc.)”
Disclosure Laws—are pervasive in business. In the U.S., federal, state and municipal bodies impose them with seeming abandon. Regulations cover both public and private companies on matters of safety, financial and environmental issues and so forth. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act even imposes governance on governance, requiring businesses to retain all sort of written records—including blogs— for lengthy time periods. Companies worry about blogs and their disclosure implications. Blogging is just one more area to add to the complex pile. However, we agree with Nipper. Companies would be wiser to worry about email more than blogs and the amplifications on this issue are an example of FUD.
3. No ROI
It is the nature of business to begin all undertakings with the bottom line in mind. This makes perfect sense, because that is what business is ultimately about. But nearly all businesses understand the value of intangible assets, caused by goodwill or public awareness campaigns. When a manager or financial officer asks what the return on investment is in a blog, it is an impossible question to answer in a literal sense. But then, one cannot answer the question of what the ROI is for a website or a press release. What is the ROI for dramatically increasing a company’s position on a search engine? For that matter, can you really estimate the return on a charitable contribution? Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz said that his blogs and the blogs of over 1000 employees produce more for Sun than a full page ad in a trade publication. It costs less as well. What does that do for ROI? While you may not be able to give a mathematical answer to the question of a blog’s ROI, you can indeed discuss its efficiency. Blogs are faster and cheaper than any alternative for spreading word-of-mouth, and they are more credible.
4. Loss of message control
Among our central premises is that dialog is better for business than monolog. In conversations, there is a loss of control because listening is required by both sides. But the result is better for your business, not worse. Conversations set a more appealing tone, build trust and help companies build better products and provide services that are more valuable. In terms of the tactic of message control, we think people should listen to Fellowship Church’s Brian Bailey, whose blog admonishes us to “Leave it Behind.”
We do, however, need to emphasize that releasing attempts at message control, should have intelligent—and easy to impose—safeguards. Blog policies should make clear what subjects are off limits to employees, just as other company (and regulatory) guidelines control other avenues of communication. For example, bloggers at Microsoft cooperate hand-in-glove with the company’s PR decision-makers, on what product information can be released in advance of product readiness. When Scoble took on his CEO over the issue of discrimination-banning state legislation, he posted the CEO’s email with prior approval from his PR agency.
Blogging doesn’t need to eliminate intelligent controls. But it does change the tone and character of corporate communications. In our public relations chapter, we discussed PR’s division into two schools: the old “command and control” and the new “listen and participate.” We also agree with PR veteran Shel Holtz who told us he didn’t believe PR ever “had control of messages.” He saw a more significant change in an amplified audience.” We are reminded also of the old TV program Outer Limits, which began with an admonition to its audience: “Do not attempt to adjust your dial. We have taken control….” We also think of the long, steady atrophy of network television and its failing attempt to command and control messages to audience who are they suppose will sit and absorb commercial messages, which neither inform nor interest them. People simply respond better to conversations than to shouted or contrived messages.
5. Competitive disadvantages
Scoble’s first job was behind the sales counter in a San Jose camera store. Occasionally, a customer would ask him for a product that the store either did not carry or was out of stock. He would send them to competing camera stores. Very often, the customer would come back and ask Scoble if he could get the product. Sometimes they would buy elsewhere, but become a regular customer with Scoble, because he had established a level of credibility with customers. He persuaded the customers that he was on their side, and would keep their best interests in mind even at the occasional loss of a sale. In fact, Scoble had learned early on that customer loyalty was more important than one lost trasaction and he could not establish that without helping out a competitor now and then.
Back in Chapter 6, marketing consultant BL Ochman recounted how Walt Disney was asked about telling so many people about his ideas. "Those were last year’s ideas," she quoted Disney as responding. In fact, if your company aspires to be a true leader in its marketing category, it is probably going to need to share some market wisdom and best practices with ambitious followers. The blogosphere generally encourages a collegial style of sharing between customers. Publicist Steve Rubel gave us suggestions for other agencies to use, including at least one good idea for Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s PR agency. Sharing some forms of information in the spotlight is good business and examples most certainly pre-date blogging.
Perhaps one new competitive aspect caused by blogging is a new tendency to out-nice” each other in the public light. Companies who show their fierce distaste for competitors in the blogosphere, may imply to prospects that they are so Hell-bent on beating the other guy that they may color or taint the truth in order to win a point.
But the killer reason to blog and to start doing so sooner, rather than later, is to be the one to start the conversation, to have your most important audiences wonder why your competition doesn’t blog. Or, at least to make sure you’re part of the conversation going on worldwide. To be central to the conversation of your market and by so doing, have more influence than your competitor on the criteria by which that category is to be judged.
Word of mouth networks have always been important: 80% of the sales in the camera store Scoble worked at came from word of mouth. It’s just that today those conversations happen a lot faster and are far more efficient. Scoble alone has tens of thousands of people reading his blog every day. If he says something a lot of people spread that throughout their own networks.
7. Large time investment—small audience
We cannot emphasize enough that blogging requires time and if you don’t have it, don’t blog. We have also tried to explain that all bloggers are linked into the blogosphere, and even if that “hit sheet,” from Typepad or Blogger shows only two visitors per day. You will be heard when you have something to say. And when you have something to say, the blogosphere will amplify your voice. In short, we cannot advise anyone on what to do with their time, but central to Naked Conversations is that you can have access to 10s of millions of people at almost no cost. There is no traditional marketing tactic that can make that claim.
On the issue of time, though, remember that going to speak to an important customer takes time, even if you do it over the phone. That one conversation might take an hour. In that time Scoble will have posted a few things to his blog and had 10s of thousands of people reading them (and, if they are important, reposting them on their own blogs, amplifying all along the way).
But Peter Flaschner, founder of the Blog Studio, a Canadian consulting group, adds an interesting point. Beyond culture, commitment may be a barrier to blog entry. “I've come to the conclusion that any company not committed to the process shouldn't blog. Blogging requires an investment of time. The smaller the company, arguably the greater the investment (since there isn't a traditional marketing effort to piggyback on). A blog started and abandoned can do more harm than good,” he commented on the Naked Conversations site.
However, Elisa Camahort, founder of Worker Bees, a marketing consulting firm see another option. “Some industry regulatory environments seems like they would suck the very life out of a blog. That was why one of my clients decided to sponsor a blog instead of starting one in-house. It's an alternate way for companies who perhaps don't have the right environment for internal blogging to participate in a more active online conversation,” she commented.
8. Employee misbehavior
If you are genuinely worried about what your employees might say about you in a blog, you really should think through how you treat them or who you hire. If you an employee and worried about what your employer might do, you should ask your supervisor.
That being said, the fact remains, you can be a saintly boss, but some workers will inevitably still become disgruntled. Occasionally one might choose a destructive course. But this has been rare in the blogosphere. In the first five-years of business blogging, there already have been over a billion business postings by conservative estimates. To date, there have been less than100 documented incidents of employee blogs resulting in discipline or severance, a measurably insignificant percentage.
Even the most risk averse of us, take chances every day. We do it when we breathe or drink tap water. The point is that the risk of employee misbehavior so remote that even the more strident risk takers, should recognize that the benefits well outweigh the risks.
Taking the Plunge
Shel Israel’s best friend, the late Charles P. O’Brien used to tell him stories of growing up in Boston. In summer, kids would go to an abandoned quarry in Quincy, Mass., which served as a swimming hole. The bravest kids would leap from a ledge 20 feet into the deep waters below. When O’Brien was eleven or so, he found himself at the edge, staring down apprehensively at the black waters. He knew if he didn’t leap, his courage would be in question. He closed his eyes, took a leap and hit the water. Not only was he unhurt, by he found it to be one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life. It cemented a lifetime in which water and swimming were among O’Brien’s favorite activities.
Our point is this: Every now and then you need to just take the plunge. You’ll find your fears were greater than they should have been and how you and others see yourself enhanced from taking the risks. You’ll also find that that it can be fun to leap into unknown waters.