A favorable mention on someone’s blog can be a boon to your business. But negative feedback on another blog can be more detrimental than you could imagine. And you may not even know that you’re being openly criticized, or flamed, online.
Take the recent case of Greenpeace vs. Gorton’s. The activist group in March flamed the seafood merchant on its Website, claiming that Gorton’s was linked to whale hunting in the Antarctic; the parent company of Gorton’s owns about a third of the company that owns the Japanese whaling fleet that hunts in Antarctica. The word quickly spread through the blogosphere. Greenpeace included anti-Gorton’s banners and HTML coding that bloggers could put on their own blogs to help raise awareness of the situation.
A month later, Greenpeace reported on its site that Gorton’s parent company, Nissui, said it would sell its share of the whaling fleet. A note on the Greenpeace site read, “As our web wizard Adele put it, ‘We moused them into submission.’”
But how can you find out if your company is being flamed? And if you are, should you respond to the bloggers or leave them be?
Look and listen
Public relations experts say it is essential to assign someone to watch over the blogosphere. “It will take some time, but if you keep tabs on blogs every day or every week, it will be manageable,” says John Wagner, owner of Houston-based public relations firm Wagner Communications. “There’s not going to be 500 posts a day about your company.”
Wagner recommends that companies just entering the blogosphere use free services such as BlogPulse (www.blogpulse.com) or Technorati (www.technorati.com) to help them troll through the myriad blogs. Both work in the same way as general search engines: You type in the company name and a range of dates, and the service will return pertinent results. BlogPulse says it has identified more than 26.5 million blogs; Technorati boasts of tracking some 36 million sites.
Once you get used to the free service, Wagner says you can graduate to a pay service such as Nielsen BuzzMetrics (formerly Intelliseek; www.nielsenbuzzmetrics.com), a more sophisticated mining tool that can provide you with only the most relevant results.
Let’s say that you’ve found several negative references to your company on a few blogs. Your first reaction may be to rush right out and respond. But Wagner says that, generally speaking, you should bide your time. If you’re a blog newbie, monitor the blogs silently for a couple of months first. This way you will get a sense of the language, tone, and style used by bloggers so that you can better gauge the potential for damage of the various posts. If you begin to respond to everything helter-skelter, Wagner says, you won’t understand where to put your priorities.
Lisa Hahn, president of Glen Rock, NJ-based public relations firm Caugherty Hahn Communications, agrees, in large part because written communications provide more opportunities for misunderstanding than verbal communications. “Once you start talking in an open forum where you can respond without people hearing your voice infliction, your response could be taken totally different from your comment,” Hahn says.
A byproduct of monitoring the blogs, says Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Cincinnati-based Nielsen BuzzMetrics, is that you’ll be learning much more about your customers.
“Companies tend to be obsessed with demographics, when influence is one of the biggest drivers,” Blackshaw says. “I’m sure if you did a survey of multichannel merchants, they would say they have very little information on the size of their customers’ megaphones. They don’t think about how viral a customer can be, just about what they are buying.”
Blackshaw also says that you should allow employees to start their own, non-company-related blogs as a way to further learn about the blogosphere.
“Once you develop a first-hand intimacy with the platform, you can bring that platform to the company,” Blackshaw says. “The whole notion of doing it yourself will help you gain the confidence to respond to other blogs. I find the folks who do that tend to become the most persuasive and evangelizing people in the blogosphere.”
Almost every company has a policy covering what to do when traditional media call about an issue, Wagner says, but hardly any companies have a similar policy regarding blogs and other social media.
How to respond and who will respond should be the major tentpoles of your policy. “Should it be a public relations initiative, or should PR forward the link to customer service?” Wagner says. “In an ideal world, whoever does the monitoring will forward the links to the proper people.”
The people you choose to respond, Hahn says, should not only have a deep knowledge about the company, but they should also have at least basic writing abilities and be able to edit and monitor their work to make sure they don’t come across the wrong way.
“The reply can look spontaneous, but it has to be well thought out,” Hahn says. “Like a business e-mail, it should not be filled with typos, bad grammar, and poor punctuation. You still have to look at the fundamentals before getting star-struck with new technologies.”
Of the principal types of bloggers, so-called ax grinders, who have a big-issue beef with your company, can be the most challenging ones to engage with. Even though they can be influencers and gain a high level of visibility in the blogosphere, as was the case with Greenpeace, at times you should just ignore them, Wagner says.
“If they have an anti-company blog, engaging that blogger will be tough, and a tough customer to win over,” Wagner says. “You have to take those people with a grain of salt, even if what they have to say about your company can be painful to read. Sometimes you’ll try to resolve their situation, and they will still complain. And sometimes, valor has to come into play.”
The other principal kind of blogger to watch out for can be easier to deal with from a customer relations standpoint. This is the blogger who has had an experience with your company and is probably writing about it in his own personal blog.
Take the case of Dell vs. Jeff Jarvis. Last summer Dell would not replace his malfunctioning computer, so Jarvis went on a three-month-long anti-Dell rant on his personal blog. Unfortunately for Dell, Jarvis is a sophisticated, well-connected blogger (he was the founding editor of Entertainment Weekly). At one point his blog, BuzzMachine.com, was receiving an estimated 10,000 visits a day.
Dell eventually responded in August, with a refund for his defective machine, an apologetic phone call, and a follow-up call to make sure he was satisfied.
“The smart companies are capturing those experiences and responding to them,” Wagner says. “They are taking care of them just as if [the bloggers] had already called into the customer service line or had sent an e-mail. If the people monitoring blogs see a legitimate concern out there, they can respond to it immediately.They can turn around a bad experience and make it a positive one.”
One or two isolated, specific complaints in the blogosphere can generally be cleared up in the same way as any other customer service snafu. But comments from multiple bloggers about a particular issue can be warning signs of major problems.
For example, Wagner says, if you read a number of posts about slow shipments from your catalog or e-commerce site, you should make a point of checking for problems in your distribution center or with your carriers.
Bloggers can also serve as a free focus group for your marketing team, since they are offering stories of what’s good and bad about your business. And evangelists for a company may use their blogs to offer insight, advice, and product ideas that they may think would get lost in that catalog’s e-mail box.
5 tips for beginning bloggers
Monitoring the goings on of other blogs is important, but launching a company blog can give your business a distinctive personality and another way to communicate with your audience. To ensure that your company’s blog doesn’t turn into another corporate ad (which will undermine your credibility in the blogosphere) or an unprofessional rant, Stephan Spencer, founder/president of Madison, WI-based Web development and marketing agency Netconcepts, offers these suggestions:
Create a “safe haven” for employees to experiment with blogging. Set up a private blog on your intranet or extranet, or start a blog that’s password-protected. Then offer access to that test to a selected audience. Your inexperienced bloggers will feel more comfortable knowing that all your customers and competitors are not watching their every move.
Decide on a permanent home for your blog. The Web address you choose should be one that you will be happy with for years to come. Remember that it will become difficult to switch blog services if you allow the service’s name to be part of your URL. Ehobbies.blogs.com, backcountryblog.blogspot.com, and sethgodin.typepad.com are all examples of blogs that are forever wedded to their blog platform, for better or for worse. If they switch platforms, all the links they’ve earned will be unavailable to their new blog. Links are the lifeblood of your search engine visibility, so the significance of this cannot be overstated.
Select a scalable, flexible, and user-friendly blog platform. There are so many solutions to choose from! Some are hosted services, such as TypePad, Blogger, and WordPress.com. Some are software packages that you install on your Web server, such as WordPress, Drupal, or Movable Type. You can pore over comparison charts (such as the one at www.ojr.org/ojr/images/blog_software_comparison.cfm), though I suggest you simply go with WordPress (the software package, not to be confused with the hosted service at WordPress.com). WordPress is free, so the price is right. It’s highly configurable, since it’s open source, and it has a plethora of free, useful plug-ins written for it.
Decide on a posting schedule. Try to post at least three times a week. Allow several hours per week for this. I typically spend two to three hours a week blogging. Don’t hire a ghostwriter for your blog, or you’ll get slammed by bloggers for lack of transparency (an unwritten rule in the blogosphere). As far as retaining readers, recency is more important than frequency. A couple weeks of inactivity makes the reader feel like nobody’s home. Conversely, having the latest post be only a day old makes the blog appear “fresh.”
Build relationships with respected bloggers. Not only will they be more likely to link to you, but they will also offer advice and bolster your street cred. Posting thoughtful comments on their blogs is only the first step. Attend blogger conferences such as BlogOn and Blog Business Summit and meet bloggers in person. Keep the dialogue going through e-mail and through phone or Skype conversations. Become an evangelist, and you will really get them on your side.