Joi Ito, the investor-blogger-philosopher turned Loic Le Meur onto blogging in 2003. Le Meur consequently started UBlog, a popular French blog authoring software company, which was subsequently purchased by Six Apart where Le Meur serves as EVP and GM for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Essentially, he evangelizes blogging on three continents. He seems constantly in motion, during our conversations with him over the past month, he has replied to our questions from his native France, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Russia. A month earlier, he conceived of, promoted, produced and hosted Europe’s first blogging conference—Les Blogs attended by enthusiasts from 25 countries and during all of this, he remains a prolific blogger in both French and English. Both are widely read and he is among Europe’s most popular bloggers. .
The following is excerpted from our Skype interview with him last month plus numerous conversations. His help and contacts have made him essential to a chapter we are currently working on about non-English language blogs.
Note: Loic was the source who pointed us to Andrew Carton and Treonauts, whom we’ve interviewed and included in an earlier chapter. He is also the source on Patrice Cassard of La Fraise, whom we interviewed and will be covering in out non-English Language blog chapter. We include Loic’s comments on them both here.
Q. We’re trying to get an understanding of what's happening with business blogs in non-English speaking countries. Can you give me an overview?
The broad picture is that France, the UK, Spain and Italy are waking up very fast. Germany remains very dead. This is surprising because with 80 million people, it’s Europe’s largest country and usually pretty advanced in technology. France, I’m amazed to say, leads the EU in blogging. It’s crazy here. There are three million blogs in France.
Q. Naked Conversations is focused on business blogs. These include official company blogs and blogs people write about their work. How many such blogs do you have in France?
The number is much smaller—conservatively speaking, 10,000 business blogs, I would say. Many of these are small business and there are lots of employee bloggers in bigger companies. Very few company blogs. Most of the French bloggers are kids. I would guess they make up 1.8 -2 million kids. A great many are doing Live Journal stuff.
In Europe, it isn’t just Movable Type. Many Typepad blogs are small business blogs and a third of them are used internally only. Sixty to 70 percent of European business blogs are French. The UK has not taken of yet as the U.S. has. One bright spot is the media. A lot of media blogs for their business.
The BBC has 50-60 internal blogs for information sharing. They have one "coffee machine" blog with thousands of internal readers. They use it as a billboard to post everything happening at BBC. Any employee can post. Marcel Reichart executive at Hubert Burda (one of the largest media groups in Germany ) is blogging. Burda gets it but the company is not launching big projects with it yet. Deutsche Telecom T-Online, with 14 million customers, launched its blog service on Typepad, which should help enlarge the German market.
Q. Why is Germany so far behind?
Germans probably lag for cultural reasons. They are not inclined to share what's on their mind the way the French and Americans or even the Spanish and Italians. Growth remains slow in Germany. But the corporations, like BMW, are aware and they are watching what’s going on very carefully. Also, there are a few ecommerce sites of interest, like Fish Market that are doing okay.
Total blogs in Germany—consumer, business, public & private is about 100,000, with maybe 50-100 of them business blogs, mostly by consulting firms—people who have to get it. For the time being, bloggers are viewed as weird people by the rest of business. In France, we already have published at least five blogging books. In Germany, nothing to my knowledge. EBay in Germany is huge, which indicates Germans trust technology, but not blogs, not yet. It seems it is not very natural for them. They don't expose their ideas in public. Germans have a passion for privacy, particularly in business.
Q. So are there any companies, I’ve heard of in Germany who are blogging?
SAP is an interesting case. They have something they call a community blog. They seem to be just starting to get their management and employees blogging. A board member and senior executive, Shai Agassi, blogs himself, but it is not often updated. He said to me today at a World Economic Forum’s event we were both attending, that he tells his employees “if you blog, you exist and you start gathering a community around your expertise.”
Six Apart is also seeing many companies use MovableType, but some of them use it only as a web publishing tool and strip out everything that makes it a blog—Permalink, Trackback, Comments and RSS. Of course, this makes me crazy. They make a normal website with blog technology. It's a cheaper, faster way to build a website, but this is not the best use of blog tools such as Six Apart’s.
BMW is a company who is watching very carefully. I’ve attended a seminar there to discuss how they can figure out what to do about blogs, which is, of course, very private, but I think something will come of it eventually. You don't need focus groups anymore. Blogs are ongoing, permanent focus groups, not closed to ten customers but open to all. Why should you use a closed focus group. "I'm a BMW owner and I have lots of things to tell you, but you don't know them. If you had a blog, I would be on it every few days and I would give you feedback and so would other BMW owners.
German author and freelance journalist Jochen Wegner—explained at the Les Blogs conference in Paris why there is nothing in Germany, he insisted it was the cultural aspects and that it is not natural for Germans to share their views and talk about themselves.
How is blogging different in France?
France is an entirely different case. There is amazing press buzz here—lots of articles on corporate blogging. We have some very interesting business blogs here.
The L'Oreal brand Vichy has started a blog called “Journal de ma Peau” (My skin’s journal) about an anti-aging product called Peel Micro-abrasion. Vichy is one of the very first consumer brands in Europe to launch a blog. They started by having everything wrong as they created a fake person, Claire, and made her talk about the product. We can’t blame this brand for having started this way for two reasons, the first one is the risk they took as a brand, the other one is that inventing a story is just normal for a product manager: that is how most advertising works. On blogs, it obviously did not work. A great many bloggers started to comment and link on the blog and call it a fake blog, quickly the press started to write also about the painful beginning of Vichy. Vichy reacted very well. They started by saying how sorry they were for having invented “Claire’, then they introduced the Vichy team to the bloggers with a picture and asked how bloggers thought they could improve the blog. A key suggestion was obvious— to have real customers speak in total transparency about the product, and Vichy did just that with five-to-10 customers and bloggers who expressed themselves on the Vichy blog, who became the blog of the customers. They asked questions such as if the product could be used at the same time as a sun bath and Vichy started answering openly in the comments, as well as other customers.
Michel-Edouard Leclerc, luminary, billionaire CEO of Supermarchés, leading French retail distributors,sometimes likened to Wal-Mart. Started a blog early in 2005. It was immediately criticized by the French blogosphere including me because the comments were filtered, it had no RSS and so on. I tried to constructively criticize it in "the blog way." I put up a long post on my own blog and wrote, "Mr. Leclerc, I don't know you and please don't take this personally, but here is what you would get from a real blog rather than on this website that you have made and call a blog. If you don't filter comments, you will get dialog…and so on.”
I was hoping somebody who reads my blog could reach Leclerc. The day I get this call on my cell phone out of nowhere, I pick up and I hear: ‘Hey Loic, this is Michel-Edouard Leclerc’s office. When can we meet?’ I was shocked —another proof that this is all crazy. One of my blog readers—Silicon Valley VC Jeff Clavier — had passed the message along to Leclerc’s office. All this happened in 24 hours. Within two days I was with Leclerc in his office. He spent two hours with me, saying, ‘well, explain to me how blogging is different. He was interested because no one had yet told him the differences between a blog and a website. I started by Googling Leclerc's name, and my own blog came out in the first results while his blog did not show up at all . He asked me: "How did you manage—on a search for my name—to get your name to come out above mine?’ I told him that because he didn’t have a real blog, Leclerc had no Google juice. He was amazed, and has subsequently turned his blog into something more real with all the blog features. He really is authentic on his blog.
I was really impressed with Leclerc, more than I thought I would be. The very first thing he did, was to show me a paper diary where he had made entries every day for 20 years. He writes about the future of France, Europe, his company—one thought every day. He has considerable political influence. There is a huge discussion around distribution vs. local boutiques in France. He would kill smaller shops, the local boulangerie, for example. Leclerc wants to be closer to the people. His blog seems to be the perfect tool for this. Of course, the transparency that open comments provide was new to his team. I think this is the first CEO of a company this size and reputation that gets blogging and likes it. He was shocked that he could blog quickly and cheaply. As a result, he turned his site into a real blog.
Q. That is a great story. Are there any good small business stories as well?
A T-shirt guy in central France started his La Fraise blog about t-shirts. He has passion for t-shirts and blogged about them every day for a year on what he thought made a good t-shirt . He started building a community of people who felt t-shirts in retail shops were crap and that they could design something better themselves. He started to post examples of t-shirt design and bloggers gave him feedback. He gets incredible numbers of comments. There were. 345 comments on recent post, and he averages about 30 comments per post. So he put up a gallery of t-shirt ideas sent in by customers. And then his readers vote on each design. He then produces the ones that get the highest votes and sells them through the blog. You give him a good design, he gives you 300 Euros and then he produces a t-shirt. The very smart thing is that there is no cost until he goes into production, and when he does go into production, the t-shirt is pre-sold through the blog, because it’s the one the community wants. Making 30,000 to 40 000 euros a month. He does this fulltime. It has become a company. The customer is at the center of the company. They design the products. They decide which products to produce and then they buy them. He asks customers also to send photos of themselves in t-shirts which of course is a good promotion. Defining, designing and choosing. This T-shirt guy probably has 10,000 comments on his blog. He’s completely transparent. He blogs his financial reports. He gives it all back to the community, saying how much he makes and being very real.
I use this t-shirt guy as an example to large corporations, because it shows what can be done in large corporations. They always laugh at me at first. They say, this is a geek writing about T-shirts. I say, no, wait. Our t-shirt guy puts the customer at the center of everything he does in the company. He realized very quickly through the comments that the customer had more ideas about the products than he did. It's not just about feedback. The customers design the product. I took this idea to L'Oreal. L’Oreal says, we are this global corporation and you bring us a guy who designs t-shirts? I tell them this is the future of your e-commerce. Your customer will be in the center of it all. This goes back to "markets are conversations." The t-shirt guy has not put a single euro into advertising. It is all word-of-mouth. The customer does everything. He is merely organizing it. What’s important is how the blog moves customers to the center of the organization, rather than over on the edge of it.
I think its pretty good to talk about this t-shirt thing because it is simple and makes a good point. Corporate prospects either throw me out of the room or they say: ‘Let's talk.’
Q. What’s happening elsewhere in Europe?
Over in the UK, Andrew Carton’s Treonauts is similar to my t-shirt guy and he’s incredibly successful. This is what a brand should do. Andrew is doing what Palm should have done for itself but wasn’t bright enough to do. Andrew is a Treo fanatic and he started blogging about it. He gets 300,000 page views per month. He takes a neutral approach to Palm and writes with great accuracy. He asks people to vote on the features they want and to determine what should be in the next Treo. The Treo press turns to him more than anyone for expertise. He has become Mr. Treo. This stuff threatens the brands but it has a huge opportunity because this guy has more followers than the brand site and more Google juice and its not mass marketing. Starting to design the next Treo—or what it should be—with his readers. What's the value of one guy who has all the customers on his blog. The Treo companies just don't get it. On the right hand column, he has Google ads and sells software and it’s become a real business for him. He's asked to write books about the Treo. Companies don't see this happening at all. If people become the central place on the Internet it changes the very structure of business.
It doesn't matter if it's a Treo or a BMW. If a blogger has enough passion, it will become the central place on the Internet for whatever topic it covers. Companies don't get this yet. This Treo guy has more audience than the corporate site. He has more Google links than the corporate sites and he has more readers on Treo than anyone else. It’s the best advertising that a company can get and its not mass marketing. If the corporation doesn't do this, then someone else will.