Corporations today don’t have the luxury of indifference to the blogosphere’s viral influence. Bloggers react much more quickly than traditional media such as newspapers and television – their postings are not only instantaneous, they’re ubiquitous. Bloggers, moreover, don’t feel constrained by customary pressures – deadlines, space limitations, self-censorship – that shape old media content.
Perhaps most importantly, the sociology of the blogosphere is, at least in this early phase, radically independent. Most bloggers sound off without fear or favour. That’s a big change from the pre-Web 2.0 days, when major corporations could rely on sophisticated PR and ‘spin’ machines to cultivate influential media figures and react preemptively to potentially negative stories.
Reputational risk was manageable in the closed ‘media elite’ governed by tacit codes of mutual trust and practices of reciprocal favours. The blogosphere by contrast is more difficult to co-opt because entry to its ranks is democratic.
A credible source?
But how much can bloggers be trusted? The Web 1.0 exponents claim, with some justification, that bloggers have no credibility – their main commerce is gossip, rumour and innuendo. The blogosphere, they say, is not an organised democracy, but an ungovernable anarchy where it is impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. And yet when a prospective client or employee is looking for a law firm to work with, chances are that they will Google that company or their query as a starting point.
They may not believe everything they read – Forrester Research found that when consumers were looking for credible information about a product or service, 83% would trust a friend or acquaintance, 63% would trust the opinion of a ‘known expert’, while only 30% would put faith in the views of a blogger. However, they will still make a value judgement based on the good or bad press that they read.
The most famous example of the blogosphere’s power is the so-called ‘Dell Hell’ saga triggered by Jeff Jarvis in his BuzzMachine blog. In 2005, Jarvis bought a Dell computer which, he quickly realised, was not fit for his purpose. He subsequently became even more frustrated when dealing with Dell’s customer service department. To register his protest, he resorted to online shaming. He banged off a post which included the following remarks: ‘Dell lies, Dell sucks. Put that in your Google and smoke it.’ Jarvis followed up with a blog post in the form of an open letter to Dell’s CEO, Michael Dell. The letter began with this reminder: ‘Your customer satisfaction is plummeting, your market share is shrinking and your stock price is deflating. Let me give you some indication of why.’
Jarvis’s blog posts unleashed a ‘Dell sucks’ shaming blaze that spread virally throughout the blogosphere. At first Dell ignored the rants, but the groundswell of rage became so overwhelming that the company soon found itself sinking into a Dell Hell PR nightmare. Its solution? To hire its own ‘chief blogger’ to engage the blogosphere about the company and its products – and its introduction of a social platform, called IdeaStorm, for user interaction.
The Dell Hell saga, when it was finally over, was a major triumph of open-ended network dynamics over the impenetrable vertical logic of corporate hierarchies. Blogs, as Dell learned the hard way, are an excellent way of opening up a dialogue with customers.
Should you blog?
Corporate blogs help position companies as ‘thought leaders’. They put a human face on the corporation, build a dialogue with customers, capture information for sharing, facilitate collaboration, promote knowledge management, test new ideas, manage media relations and attract new employees – so why aren’t companies making better use of them?
Some are. Companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems actively encourage employees to maintain blogs. But at most companies, however, the reaction to employee blogging has been to treat it as a potential threat. The hard rule in most corporate environments continues to be: loose lips sink ships.
Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta are authors of Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How online social networking will transform your life, work and world.
This article first appeared in Legal Strategy Review, issue 2