Blogging to consumers

LONDON - Brands such as O2 and Topshop have been quick to jump on the social networking bandwagon by using sites such as Facebook to target consumers, but a more recent trend - and one that carries some risk - has been the use of personal blogs as a communications tool.

Last month Waitrose managing director Mark Price, nicknamed the 'chubby grocer', launched a blog on the retailer's website in which he shares his experiences on a healthier eating regime and tracks his efforts to lose weight - as well as arguing for the introduction of tea trolleys to airport immigration halls.

Price's actions are relatively unusual, as corporate blogging is still in its infancy in the UK. However, it is thought likely that it will become as popular as it is in the US, where practitioners include General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz. Several other brands, including Dell and Benetton, also operate blogs where employees and consumers can interact.

The appeal is obvious - blogs are a way of achieving vast reach at a minimal cost. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates spoke about the benefits of communicating with customers via blogs at Microsoft's CEO Summit in 2004. It had advantages over more traditional communication methods such as emails, he argued, which could be too imposing or exclude potential audiences.

Microsoft encourages its staff to talk to consumers through blogging; it claims that more than 2000 employees use blogs to keep people up to date with their projects. 'It is a great way to communicate with a wider audience,' says Dave Gartenberg, HR director at Microsoft UK. 'We are lucky that some of the most prominent bloggers in the world are based at Microsoft.'

Ian Pearman, managing director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which handles Sainsbury's advertising, believes many consumers will react well to chief executives taking full responsibility through blogging. 'It implies the kind of care and provenance that might be expected of a smaller business rather than a big corporation,' he says.

However, this comes with substantial caveats. Unlike traditional advertising campaigns, blogging demands long-term investment by a company or individual. 'Chief executives can't start a conversation and then stop it on their own terms,' stresses Pearman. 'Once the floodgate is open, the responses will keep pouring in and every one will expect a response [from the blogger].'

This was demonstrated in 2006 when Charles Dunstone, co-founder and chief executive of Carphone Warehouse, started his corporate blog at the same time as the company launched its 'free' TalkTalk broadband offer. Dunstone stated that he would 'update his blog regularly to keep [customers] up to date with what's happening', but as the firm struggled to cope with the demand for its latest offering, leaving thousands of customers angry and frustrated, Dunstone stopped blogging.

Depending on the content, blogs can also invite ridicule - some consumers, for example, might not take kindly to reading how a chief executive spends his big salary on exotic holidays or hear about his daughter's Pony Club exploits.

Jane McNeil, managing director of digital agency Agency Republic, warns of the risks of using a fictional identity, known online as 'sock-puppeting'. 'The views of the blogger will be seen as the views of the company,' she says.

McNeil cites the example of John Mackey, chief executive of US grocer Whole Foods Market, who was exposed for posting negative comments about rival firm Wild Oats Markets on Yahoo! chat rooms for eight years, under the pseudonym 'rahodeb', an anagram of his wife's name Deborah. One post stated that Wild Oats management '[doesn't] know what it's doing' and he also complimented himself as 'cute'.

Whole Foods confirmed that Mackey had written the posts between 1999 and 2006, while Mackey himself claimed he had 'posted on Yahoo! under a pseudonym because [he] had fun doing it', adding that 'many people post on bulletin boards using pseudonyms'.

Similarly, Asda-owner Wal-Mart incurred the wrath of web users in 2006 when it was revealed that a blog called 'Wal-Marting across America', charting the journey of 'average American couple' Jim and Laura across the US in a mobile home, spending each night in a Wal-Mart parking lot, had been engineered and funded by the retailer's PR company, Edelman. Jim and Laura were, it transpired, a Washington Post photographer and freelance writer respectively.

'Authenticity of voice is imperative,' says Rory Sutherland, executive planning director at Ogilvy and an avid blogger. 'It's not a good idea to have a PR blog on behalf of the chief executive as, ultimately, they'll be found out, which could be disastrous for the brand.'

If done effectively, Sutherland sees a bright future for blogging as a form of business communication, alongside web-casts and social media, that encourages 'openness', and he urges marketers to judge audience size in PR terms rather than advertising terms. 'A blog may only attract 30,000 readers, but those readers are self-selective and often the most influential consumers,' he points out.

Senior corporate bloggers

Mark Price, chief executive, Waitrose

(Love is in the air, 30 January 2008):

'I feel a little like Cilla Black, wondering whether we're going to get our first blog wedding. If you're puzzled, check out the exchange between Lucy_Locket and Nice-cup-of-tea on my Sunday blog 'Side Effects'. I've got a pretty good nose for sniffing out romance... perhaps it's the way Lucy has signed off with kisses.'

Tom Glocer, chief executive, Reuters

(What should a CEO do with his time?, 24 November 2007)

'Some in the media have suggested I should have better things to do than spend time on Facebook... I would agree if this amounted to more than an hour or two a week. However, I believe it a very worthy investment of my free time.'

Bob Lutz, vice-chairman, GM

(A time to remember, 21 Sept 2007)

'Every so often I feel compelled to write about something else [other than GM cars]... this Sunday, PBS will begin airing a landmark documentary that I believe will prove educational and entertaining for all, The War, a 14-hour epic series about World War II...'

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