by Tom Webster, Edison VP
Recently I attended the Blog Business Summit (BBS) in San Francisco, a gathering of both current and would-be corporate bloggers seeking to enrich their understanding of this hydra-headed beast. If you have dipped your toe into the world of blogging (either personally or commercially) you know that it can be a potentially scary space, with spammers, scammers and crackpots accompanying the lions, tigers and bears. Many of the genre’s current “A-List” bloggers spoke at the BBS and encouraged would-be corporate bloggers to just start blogging–“you’ll figure it out as you go along.” This is actually better advice than it sounds, though you might want to start off with training wheels and airbags by keeping your corporate blog safely tucked away behind your firewall until you are comfortable that you have found your voice and are, indeed, ready to drop your drawers and become a more transparent entity to your customers.
Rest assured, whether you eavesdrop, participate or ignore them entirely, conversations about your station are going on right under your nose, and they are defining your brand whether you like it or not.
Should your station even have a blog? To long-time bloggers, the question is ludicrous–of course you should be blogging. Let’s face it, however– even the most widely-read blogs are frequented by a few thousand people a day, while your station might reach a million listeners each week. The rules are different, and as both mainstream and corporate America begin to find their way in the blogosphere, I have no doubt that many of the “rules” espoused by the early bloggers will simply evaporate or become irrevocably altered.
To be sure, blogging is not as pervasive as e-mail, but blogging, chat rooms and message boards are rapidly becoming the dominant forms of consumer communication. Many Fortune 500 companies are already making use of consumer generated media from these sources as important customer input. The GM Fastlane blog is one of the best known and best executed corporate blogs, and GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz treats his audience with respect, his topics with candor, and lets his genuine passion for GM’s products shine through with his own unique, important voice. Often his posts will be greeted with hundreds of comments (many of them with the same message: “BRING BACK THE CAMARO!”) and GM executives often take these comments with them into their strategy meetings.
Now, if you are a Program Director or a General Manager, I know what you are thinking-the folks who frequently post to blogs are just like the listeners who light up the phones every night on your Modern Rock station requesting Opeth. True, you don’t program your station just to please the folks who light up your phones, and GM isn’t likely to pop a supercharger in the Aveo either. You do, however, take those calls. Just as the ability to call a station up and voice an opinion is a crucial listener touchpoint, the blog is an equally important and increasingly more relevant outlet for consumer opinions, feedback and suggestions for improvement. Paul Rosenfield, General Manager of Intuit’s Quickbooks Online and the architect behind the Quickbooks Online weblog, spoke at BBS about his company’s experiences with corporate blogging. One of Rosenfield’s more compelling slides was an all-caps, practically incoherent rant emailed to him through the weblog complaining about their service. Instead of circular filing it, Paul wrote the woman back, asking her what her specific problems with the service were. The next day, he received a different sort of email from her–well reasoned, properly spelled and punctuated, and with a specific (and solvable) problem. The difference in tone between the two emails was remarkable–what was a typical blog rant became a relationship with very little effort. The anonymity of blog posting (and the shortcuts we all take with our online writing) might have led Rosenfield to dismiss her as a crank–as we might dismiss the folks who light up the phones–but online, any potential conversation is a potential relationship, if we only make the effort.
I can certainly understand, however, a radio station’s reluctance to start blogging and to allow listeners to comment on their blogs. Blogs have to be managed and moderated, of course, but you shouldn’t automatically delete negative posts or the blog will quickly become worthless. As long as posters aren’t outright abusive or profane to you or their fellow listeners, you should allow both the positives and the negatives to coexist. If you are genuinely worried that you will be flooded with exclusively negative comments, maybe it’s not the listeners who have the problem. One thing about taking the plunge into business blogging–you better have a good product, or you will hear about it. Take some time, though, to really read some of the voluminous comments on the GM Fastlane blog. You will discover that for every negative opinion there is a satisfied, passionate customer advocate stepping up to challenge erroneous comments or to evangelize the company’s products. If there weren’t so many people that cared about Camaros, Corvettes and Saabs, the blog would be a cyberspace ghost town – but it isn’t. If you build a good product and listen to your customers, you shouldn’t be afraid that they will all flame you to shreds. Some will, but what do you think is more powerful–a press release or a bunch of real customers logging on and defending your products against unfair criticism?
At last count almost 30% of wired America is reading blogs. That is not a small number–certainly higher than the percentage of your listeners who call up your station to complain about “too much rap.” I do not think we can justify programming our stations to please the 20% who generate 80% of our ratings on the one hand, but ignore the 30% who are generating 100% of the consumer-generated media about your station on the other. This brings up the most crucial difference between your callers and bloggers. Unlike voice mail, everything on the web is permanent and findable. Try this: Google the word “failure” (or better yet, “miserable failure“) and note the #1 result for each. Conversations are happening on the web–whether you are participating in them or not. If your station doesn’t have its own voice, you will rapidly lose control of your brand and message online. Do you want your top Google results to be “WXXX – Today’s Best Music” or “WXXX SUXXORS.” Sit this one out, and I can guarantee the latter.
Noted blogger and consultant Evelyn Rodriguez recently noted that business blogs can be likened to public marketplaces, such as Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. The Heritage Center at Pike Place Market notes that “villages first developed at the crossroads of trade, and the marketplace became their center.” This was true in Ancient Rome and it is true in Harvard Square today. Unlike the depersonalized experience of the shopping mall, the public marketplace unites customers directly with the artisans and craftspeople who actually made the product. Go to any street fair in America and the person selling you that fantastic Ben Owen ceramic vase might just be Ben Owen or a member of his family.
The Pike Place Market Heritage Center also notes that “There is a difference between a public marketplace and a shopping mall – a difference in how the marketplace functions as a social setting meeting the human need to be with others.” The public marketplace is important not only as a way to unite buyers and sellers, but as a vital social construct. People want to be social–they want to carry on conversations with the folks on both sides of the cash register. We want to ask both the vendors and their customers if the fish is fresh. The conversations in front of the booth are as important to the fabric of American life as the commercial transaction behind it.
The web puts your station and your brand smack dab into the middle of the largest public marketplace in the world–vast and intimate at the same time. Because the distance between consumers and corporations is effectively reduced to zero, any conversation occurring on the web about your station is a conversation going on right outside your booth and right under your nose. If you were a fishmonger at Pike Place, and a crowd began to congregate outside your stall complaining about the freshness of your salmon, would you remain behind the counter, watching it all happen, or would you engage the crowd?
You have a choice–you can ignore the crowd congregating in front of your little stand in cyberspace, or you can welcome them, greet them, and give them an outlet to converse with you and with other listeners about your brand. You can host the conversation yourself with your own station blog, or you can seek out conversations taking place about your station on the blogs of others, and share your side of the story (need a head start? Here’s 5 million to get you thinking.)
Rest assured, whether you eavesdrop, participate or ignore them entirely, conversations about your station are going on right in front of your booth, right under your nose, and they are defining your brand whether you like it or not. Ignore them at your peril.
Comments are welcome, of course.
Tom Webster is a Vice President of Edison Media Research. The opinions expressed here are his own. Tom can be reached at 908.707.4707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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