Revenge Of The Suits: Companies Show How To Blog

For many businesses, blogging remains a mysterious medium dominated by teenagers and techno geeks. But there are a few shining examples of business blogs.
McDonald's blogs on corporate responsibility. General Motors' blogging team posts pictures from photo-sharing site Flickr and videos from YouTube. Product groups within Wells Fargo use blogs to exchange ideas. And Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz, one of the first execs to start a blog and really make waves with it, is seeking approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission to write about Sun's financial performance on his blog.

Despite the blog's reign as Internet trend of the year, these companies are in the minority. For many businesses, blogs remain a mysterious medium dominated by teenagers and technology geeks. Most execs "do not read them, they do not understand why people write them," Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li says. According to a tally by blog vendor Socialtext, just 40 of the country's largest 500 companies have blogs. That will need to change if they want to stay current with customers. "It's a different mind-set that they have to understand," Li says.

It's not just car talk on General Motors' blogs

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Software vendors are trying to make blogging easier and more automated for businesses. Market leader Six Apart last week released Movable Type Enterprise 1.5, designed to support more blogs and participants than the previous version. The upgrade lets IT administrators grant more access rights and permissions through integration with directory services--allowing them, for example, to define whether certain groups of people can make comments--and aggregate multiple blogs into a single portal. Administrators can reuse blog-creation templates and the rights and permissions rules they've set up for additional blogs.

Honesty Is The Best Policy
But even with the right blog tools, businesses must execute a good strategy. Just because the medium is novel doesn't necessarily mean the results will be positive, as Wal-Mart Stores recently discovered. A blog called Wal-Marting Across America, which appeared to chronicle a couple visiting stores around the country, was reportedly written by journalists whose trip was funded indirectly by Wal-Mart. Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, a PR firm that does work for the retailer, took the fall on his own blog last week, saying his firm, not Wal-Mart, was at fault.

Some companies get it. General Motors began blogging two years ago, featuring musings from executives, engineers, and PR people on Fast Lane and FYI Blog. GM also posts its code of ethics, which insists bloggers tell the truth and not delete comments unless they're spam, off-topic, or defamatory.

Still, GM's blogs primarily serve a marketing and PR purpose. In an Oct. 18 blog entry about GM pickups, vice chairman Bob Lutz wrote, "We know exactly what it takes to win in this segment, and we intend to deliver." No kidding. But GM also gets creative, plucking consumer-generated content from YouTube and Flickr for its FYI Blog, even encouraging amateur photographers to label image sets in Flickr with the tag GMFYI. This social aspect goes a step further, as GM provides links to non-GM blogs. "Social media is a unique thing that's going on on the Web right now, and it's important for us to take part in it," says Bill Betts, manager of Web services for GM communications.

Wells Fargo has two public-facing blogs about disaster recovery and student loans; a blog for business customers to give feedback; and at least 50 internal blogs to spur discussions among product groups. Ed Terpening, manager of Wells Fargo's enterprise blogging team, says internal blogs are especially important for allowing groups to access archived conversations.

Such examples show how there can be real substance and value to blogs. But if businesses use blogs for thinly veiled PR stunts, or put little thought into content, infrastructure, and ethics, there really isn't a point.