Firms line up to rocket into the blogosphere
From Sunday Times - 08/05/2005
Companies are waking up to 'blogs' -a new way of listening, and talking, to customers. Report by Paul Durman.
IMAGINE the internet as a large, cacophonous pub 10 minutes from closing time. There are a thousand different conversations in progress. Many consist of little more than childish nonsense. Many are conducted in shrill and angry voices. But some of those present are expressing strong and heartfelt opinions. Some of them will act on them tomorrow. And some of them are your customers.
This, very roughly, is the "blogosphere", the fast-growing part of the internet made up of web logs -the online diaries known as blogs. Amid the mass of meaningless chatter and confusion, many contend that the blogging phenomenon is a communications revolution, as important for business to understand as it is for politics and the media. Those who can grasp the opportunities can shape or protect their reputations. Many entrepreneurs think they can scent money-making possibilities.
Technorati, a web-monitoring firm, tracks almost 10m blogs, a number that doubles every five months. In Korea, the broadband capital of the world, there are an estimated 12m bloggers. France has 2m, most linked to the Skyrock radio station.
In Britain blogging has yet to grip the public imagination. But Azeem Azhar, who used to run a blogging service called 20six, reckons there are at least 700,000 UK bloggers. The general election has provided a modest fillip. A Keele University website lists 170 election blogs, including 70 by MPs, candidates and parties, and a handful from major news organisations including the BBC, The Times, The Guardian and The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh.
The real interest in blogging, though, is in the hundreds of thousands of nano-websites produced by "citizen journalists" -commenting and reporting on anything and everything.
Azhar said: "If bloggers write about a product, they probably care about it, either positively or negatively, more than the normal person. They are most likely to be your evangelist customers, most likely to recommend your product to their friends." Or to discourage others from ever touching it.
In America politicians and big business have been transfixed by the need to influence this new form of online debate. Bloggers made a lively contribution to the presidential election. They are credited with hastening the retirement of Dan Rather, the veteran CBS news anchor embarrassed by a bogus story attacking George Bush.
Big companies are starting to experiment with their own corporate blogs, partly to get their own messages out, partly as a way of listening to their customers.
Robert Scoble, a "technical evangelist" at Microsoft, has become a blogging celebrity, helping to soften the software giant's abrasive image with his Scobleizer blog.
But few British companies seem ready for this change. According to Mark Rogers, a founder of BBC Online who now runs Market Sentinel, a web-monitoring firm, BT is the only FTSE100 company that is set up to distribute its news via RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. RSS newsreaders are the easiest way to track news and what blogs are saying. But without an RSS feed, companies' own announcements are largely invisible in the blogosphere.
Rogers said: "It's a real problem for companies that get embroiled in controversy, because responding to blogging attacks requires different smarts to the normal PR response. The more controversial and outspoken (bloggers) are, the more likely people are to link to you." This in turn increases the visibility of a scabrous blog to internet search engines.
Google owns Blogger, the biggest of the services that is facilitating this low-cost publishing boom. Although most bloggers are indulging their own passion and desire for self-expression, a minority are more commercial, and are able to attract pay-per-click advertising from Google and Yahoo.
Nick Denton, former Financial Times journalist turned internet entrepreneur, regards blogs as a way of cheaply producing magazines for niche audiences. His firm, Gawker Media, produces some of the best-read blogs on the internet, including Gawker on Manhattan gossip and Gizmodo on gadgets.
Others, including Market Sentinel and Infonic, are creating a business by advising large companies on how to make sense of the blogosphere.
Roy Lipski of Infonic, which advises Unilever, said: "Our business is to help corporates understand the shifting landscape of opinions. What do people think about their business, their brands, their reputation? Companies in sectors where public opinion can have a dramatic effect will be taking this very seriously."
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Limited
Publication: Sunday Times