As some companies dive in, most are skeptical
By Matt Kempner
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/08/06
A Decatur Georgia potato chip company did it. But things went askew and it stopped. An intellectual-property attorney from Atlanta still does it, and thousands apparently read his postings. Georgia-based Internet service provider EarthLink does it, but the company doesnt want to talk about it.
Online, a cacophony of people blog on just about every topic. Search engine Technorati says it tracks more than 55 million blogs —- which it defines as personal journals on the Web —- and indexes more than a million new postings a day.
Yet businesses —- including some of the biggest in Georgia—- have been slow to build their own blogs, which would open them up to very public two-way conversations with fans and critics alike. As it turns out, though, discomfort isnt the only reason companies have avoided creating blogs. Nor is building sales, at least directly, the only reason Georgia businesses have ventured into blogging. "I m not using this as a marketing tool," says Leon Stoltz of his company’s blog. But it does help. A co-owner of PotatoFinger, an eight-person chip company in Decatur, Stoltz says his staff launched a blog last year simply because lots of people seemed to be blogging and it seemed like a trend to follow.
At first, Stoltz was happy with the results. It added pep to the company’s Web presence, displayed a funky corporate culture to consumers and grocery chains, and provided a nimble, chatty way to announce discounts or new stores carrying the snacks. The blog could be updated in no more than 20 minutes. Compare that to the two or three days it might take to make changes on the company’s main Web site, Stoltz says.
One staffer was chosen to write the blog, though others pitched in with ideas. The blog averaged 2,800 unique visitors a month, Stoltz says. But he started noticing problems." It really became its own animal, its own enemy," Stoltz says. The focus wandered. The company’s blogger spent less time on other marketing efforts and too much on blogging. She used subtly worded postings to vent about work issues, Stoltz says. And a mention in the blog about an upcoming sales trip to a potential customer tipped off a competitor, who ended up getting there first, he says.
In the spring, the company pulled the plug. But Stoltz says the blog’s positives remain alluring. He plans to relaunch it, this time with an outside marketing consultant to review potential postings and present them in "a more positive marketing way."
That doesn’t mean the company will weed out negative comments, Stoltz says. He cited a past posting from a consumer who complained about finding stale potato chips. "It helped us to track when there was a problem which we otherwise wouldn’t have known" about, Stoltz says. It’s difficult to determine how many Georgia companies have blogs of their own. Local marketing professionals say they know of few.
Blogs offer small firms a cheaper alternative to traditional marketing, says Ken sBernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University. Nationally, some Fortune 500 companies have mustered the courage to blog, including General Motors. But many participants are technology companies, including Google, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft. While companies can choose which comments to post, they face the wrath of the blogging world if they cut out all the negative ones. Which means some companies with blogs take a beating on their own sites.
Atlanta-based Internet service provider EarthLink launched a blog in December (blogs.earthlink.net) that touches on online and EarthLink-related issues. Company spokesman Dan Greenfield declined to speak about it, saying, "Let the blog speak for itself." One issue in particular sparked a rebellion. Customers complained about EarthLink’s decision to serve up a page with advertising on it in certain situations when users type in the wrong address for a Web page.
EarthLink’s blog posted complaint after complaint: "Debacle." "Bogus." "Frustrated beyond compare." "ByeBye EarthLink." And "I hope your entire company sinks into the depths of hell." But some people also thanked EarthLink’s blogger for at least trying to shepherd their concerns.
Toby Bloomberg, a Tucker-based marketing consultant who specializes in blog strategy, says many business executives are hesitant to launch corporate blogs because "it is a whole switch in business relations, and that makes business uncomfortable." Blogs let the public help shape the message, she says. Instead of launching their own, many companies monitor outside blogs to see how their business is being portrayed. Some post responses.
The technical costs for launching a blog are minimal, perhaps $100 a year or less, says Bloomberg. But it takes people power: Blogs are hungry beasts that rely on fresh material to keep visitors checking in.
How often companies post material should be shaped by the strategy, Bloomberg says. If the idea is to position the company as a thought leader, maybe the chief executive should post a thoughtful piece once a week. Other companies may want to spark conversations about more immediate changes, with assigned bloggers posting daily. Just don’t put out press releases and sales pitches, or the public won’t come back, Bloomberg warns.
Many companies give their assigned bloggers latitude, she says, cutting out bureaucracy so bloggers can post quickly and in their own voices as long as they stick to guidelines such as avoiding security issues or letting slip information about new products in development.
Still, companies are cautious. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola launched a student-operated blog during the World Cup and the Winter Olympics. And the company encourages other online interaction with youth. But Coke doesn’t have a regularblog, spokesman Andras Kallos says, adding that he is not aware of any plans to launch one.
Atlanta-based cable operator Cox Communications has a corporate blog (digitalstraighttalk.com), but you won’t find it mentioned on the company’s main Web page. That’s because it’s not aimed at Cox’s cable customers, says spokeswoman Ellen East. Instead, its target audience is media, policy-makers and industry analysts as the company looks for a quick, direct way to spread its point of view.
East says the company has not discussed starting a broader blog aimed at customers. Cox is a unit of Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Media, including local outlets such as the AJC and Creative Loafing, have various blogs of their own. But some of most common blogs in the local business world are operated by individual professionals.
Bill Heinze, an Atlanta attorney with Thomas, Kayden, Horstemeyer & Risley, launched a blog on intellectual-property issues, his specialty. He hoped it would help drum up business. It’s taken energy and time —- about 10 or 15 hours a week. Usually blogging from home, Heinze focuses on providing quick summaries of recent case decisions and journal articles. It’s exactly the kind of information he thought time-starved lawyers might be looking for.
"My biggest advice is you’ve got to have something to say that is useful for your audience," Heinze says. He signed up with a free service that converts his blog into newsletter e-mails, sending 18,000 weekly around the nation and across the world.
Heinze figures the blog has helped him attract 20 or 30 new clients over the last two years. Still, it hasn’t done as much for his client base as he expected —- and it’s cost him billable hours. As much time as it consumes, "I don’t know how much longer I will be able to keep it up," he says.
Bernhardt, the marketing professor at Georgia State University, says of corporate blogs: "Nobody has sort of figured out the cost/benefit equation." "That’s the still the big unknown," he adds, "whether it’s worth it or not."