Advice to Marketers: Beware of Blogs

Personal weblogs are the ultimate digital word of mouth. That’s what makes them so tempting, and dangerous, for marketers. Done wrong, a blog is more like a digital foot in the mouth. A blogger’s praise for a product or service carries weight if it’s seen as honest and unsolicited; it carries far, too, given the nature of the Web. Criticism can be valuable as well, if companies pay attention and learn from it. If Dell Inc. had honored its blog critics earlier, the phrase “Dell Hell” might have gained less Google juice than it now has.

So it’s no surprise that companies have tried to co-opt the form, and sometimes the bloggers themselves. The results have not been well received. Witness the “Wal-Marting Across America” fiasco in which Edelman, the large PR firm, concocted a blog that purported to be the diary of two itinerant Wal-Mart fans. The phony grassroots (a.k.a. Astroturf) strategy was quickly exposed, costing the retailer exactly the sort of cred it sought in the first place.

Then there’s a controversial company called PayPerPost, which, yes, pays bloggers for posting reviews of a variety of consumer products, and collects a fee from advertisers for placing the pitches. At first, PayPerPost did not require bloggers to disclose that they were being paid to talk about products, leading to harsh words from (among many others) media critic Jeff Jarvis, who wrote at his BuzzMachine site about “the insidious effort to buy bloggers’ voice and credibility.” Now the company has rules on disclosure, which would seem to reduce the value of mention on a personal blog to the currency of any paid advertising.

So how can companies leverage the power of personal blogs without poisoning the well? One way is for companies to read bloggers who talk about their products, and then respond to them. That’s part of what made Robert Scoble so effective when he blogged at Microsoft Corp. Another tactic is to create branded spaces where people can blog on a common topic, but don’t have to blog about your product. The Coca-Cola Co. did that during the World Cup, inviting bloggers to cover the scene from a single online space
that was sponsored by the company. The idea, says Coke interactive marketing manager Tom Daly, was: “your voice, the world’s ear, connected by Coca-Cola.”

The key, he says, is transparency. “We worry about the authenticity thing. But at the same time, people have a relationship with our product, and they bring it up on their own. Facebook [the popular social networking service for students] has tens of thousands of people who list Coke in their interests. We are looking at ways to magnify that discussion, to preserve but amplify what they are doing,” Daly says.

Marketers need to understand that word of mouth can be fickle, too. “If something gets pushed into the blogging current that’s not good, the consumers will hold your head under the water and not release you,” says Ed Dilworth, an executive vice president at advertising agency Campbell-Ewald, a leader in customer-driven campaigns.

For more on consumer-created content, read: With A Little Help From My Friends

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