Blogging for business

IT Pro Guide: Marcus Austin explains why blogs are good for business and shows you how to avoid the pitfalls associated with giving employees their very own digital soapbox

Way back at the back end of the 90s, Weblogs (blogs for short) were created as a quick and informal way of distributing information. But since then they've taken on many different roles. Technorati - a website that searches out and maps blogs - currently estimates that there are over 31 million blogs world wide. Last June that figure was just 11 million. According to Pew Internet's January 2005 survey there are about 700,000 posts daily, or about 29,100 blog updates an hour.

It's easy to see why blogs have become so popular. They're simple to set up, easy to update - with some services you can even update from your phone - and above all they're largely free of charge. And a successful blog is a great ego boost too.

Working it out

Blogs written about companies and brands either from within or from a customer perspective have even more going for them. They're informal and are refreshingly empty of management speak, they tell it like it is rather than how the press release and PR say it should be, and they're a good way of letting off steam.

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But blogging is a thorny issue for many companies and organisations. You can see why - employees criticising their own company in public is not the greatest PR exercise, and it gets even worse if sensitive information about the company and possibly other employees is revealed in the process.

So why would any self-respecting company want to encourage its employees to blog? The answer is in the informality of the blog. Matt Cutts is a blogger, and an employee of Google, a company who are notoriously guarded about their communications with the outside World. His blog mattcutts.com presents a human face to the monolith, he talks about what Google are trying to achieve, and he talks about the big issues within the company, and most importantly for his tens of thousands of readers he also explains the process behind its site blacklisting. Before Matt started his blog there was hardly any communication between, the tens of thousands of companies who specialised in search engine optimization, and Google.

Korby Parnell is a blogger and a developer on the Visual Studio Team at Microsoft, his web site http://blogs.msdn.com/korbyp/ is funny. It's not much of a stretch to imagine that the script writers of cult TV comedy hit The IT Crowd based some of their storylines on it.

Respect and trust

His blog also brings out one of the other reasons why blogs are so successful. It helps to build trust and respect in employees. "The fact that I was allowed to blog in 2002 and am encouraged to blog in 2005 by my managers is a clear indication that Microsoft thinks of and treats its employees as partners, not peons. Individual employees can make a positive difference and the relative success of corporate blogging efforts like Microsoft's proves it," says Korby.

However that sort of respect and trust doesn't just happen overnight; it takes a lot of preparation. The first consideration is whether to allow employees to create their blogs on the company website or give complete independence. A blog on the company website or on a company server gives you complete control over the blog. The content is owned by the company and can be regulated. It can also be used to the company's advantage. Latitude, the largest Search Engine optimisation company in the UK, puts its blogs on the front page of its web site (http://www.searchlatitude.com/). They help to promote the idea that the company knows what it's talking about, the staff are committed and they know how to let their hair down. It's a good read and it makes a corporate web site on a dull subject interesting.

You should also create some kind of a standard disclaimer. It's best to get a legal representative to help with this, and it should be added to each blog, either as a separate page, or in small print at the bottom of each page.

Independent blogs

One of the big questions in blogging is whether you do it as an independent stand-alone blog or if you do it from within the organisation. An independent blog hosted away from the corporate site gives a blog the cache of "editorial independence." It's viewed by it's readers as something that is separate from the company, and therefore completely independent and possibly more trustworthy. Where as a blog within a company "must be towing the party-line." However being within the company domain gives a blog credibility, "it's not just another employee mouthing-off", and effectively kick-starts it with a guaranteed amount of traffic, where as an independent blog could be read by very few people unless it's well publicised. There are no right and wrongs.

Ground rules

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The next step is to establish some firm ground rules about what people can and can't write about and what language they can use. Jacki Vause MD of PR company Peppercom and founder of the newly setup Bloggers Association recommends these basic rules for employees:

  • Use your common sense
  • Do not discuss unreleased products and services
  • Keep it friendly
  • Don't criticise other employees, even anonymously, and never post emails with names or addresses included
  • If you express an opinion then make sure that it's obviously your opinion, and not that of the company eg start I think, In my opinion.
  • If in doubt ask

Monitoring

Once blogs are up and running then it's important to keep an eye on what employees are writing - it's amazing how many organisations turn a blind eye until there's a serious problem. Not only is this good practice, but it also gives a much clearer insight into what people are thinking in the organisation. Bloggers tend to open up a lot more than they would ever do in a formalised six or 12 monthly review.

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