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Demystifying Blogs

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Nick Denton is publisher of Gawker Media and the brains behind Nike’s “Art of Speed” campaign. Gawker Media, an independent company, includes Gawker, an online review of pop culture, Wonkette, an analogous title for U.S. politics, and Defamer, a Hollywood insider blog. Gawker Media, with properties in nine consumer categories, takes blogging and applies the business model of a traditional magazine.


Denton has been working in Internet media since 1996, first writing on the subject for the Financial Times of London, then founding two companies in the late 1990s. First Tuesday, an Internet-era events business with branches in 80 cities, was sold in 2000. London-based Moreover Technologies provides news search technology to portals such as MSN and corporate customers.


At September's iMedia Brand Summit in Deer Valley, Utah, Denton spoke about the marketing potential for social networking and blogging. Here's the transcript:


Denton: A third of people who actually read Web logs are producing content. It may be in a blog or in a live journal site, or it may be on a discussion forum, but this is an audience that speaks; it can reverberate. If you’re talking about influences, these are influencers by definition because they are not just passively receiving a message, they’re also amplifying it or shooting it down, and that’s one of the dangers.


So the background: My personal background is that I was actually a journalist with The Financial Times and I got addicted to blogs because -- you know how -- if you work in media, you know how all the best stories are not the stories you actually read in the newspapers. They’re the stories that people tell each over a drink or a coffee. The gossip behind the story. And Web logs are addictive; they were certainly addictive to me because they represent that kind of conversation, extended to media. They seem to be the first form of media that really grew out of the Web and are really designed and optimized for the Web. 


But I don’t know if you can say it’s a total, total revolution. Web logs -- they’re Web sites. The first Web log could probably date back to ’97 or even ’95. Matt Drudge -- he doesn’t call himself a blogger, but he’s pretty much a blogger. The Drudge Report is a Web site with lots of length. I’m really glad to be speaking to this audience rather than an audience at a Web log conference, which I advise you -- don’t ever go to a Web log conference.


Moderator Lee Watters: I've been to one, he’s right. Trust me.


Denton: There’s usually about a 45-minute discussion at the very beginning about what is a Web log. A Web log is a Web site. It’s often arranged in reverse chronological order, there’s usually a lot of links, but hey, there’s a lot of links on ordinary Web sites. It’s low cost, so the publishing software doesn’t cost much, which means individuals can set up pretty professional looking Web sites. I guess that’s kind of significant. Can you think of anything else?


Watters: Yeah, they tend to be very personal and they tend to be personality driven, and that’s where there may be some applications within the marketing realm. If any of you are familiar with Microsoft's Channel 9,  what they did was -- Microsoft, after years of being closed and years of getting their asses kicked, basically, by the developer community, they now have between 700 and 1,000 people in the company who blog with the developer community. As a result, the developer community satisfaction with Microsoft is up, I’ve forgotten what the number is -- some astronomical number in just six or eight months. So it’s good for transparency, it’s good for putting a face on your company -- one of the other things that really makes sense.


One of the big things with blogs this year has been their effect on politics, because of the swift -- the swift -- 


Audience Member: Boat!


Watters: … yeah, thank you! The Swift boat vets -- I cannot say that, I don’t know why. You know, the whole “Dean for America” thing; most of the breaking news in politics this year has been through blogs.


Denton: Yeah, one of the big stories this week is how CBS may have got it wrong with the memos that purported to show Bush is a draft dodger. And I don’t want to toot the horns of blogs too much, because most of what I’m going to tell you today is that blogs aren’t all that special; they’re not all that daring; they’re not all that revolutionary, but in this particular instance blogs drove the story. And who knows what’s going to happen with Dan Rather or Kerry’s rating in opinion polls. This is an election, which has clearly been affected by blogs.


Watters: But then the question is, why hasn’t that happened yet for marketing, or do you think it will happen eventually?


Denton: I don’t really know. That’s the honest answer. They’ve had an impact in politics; it’s been mainly a negative impact, if you regard political campaigns as being marketing campaigns. Aside from the Dean campaign, all the other examples of the effects of blogs have been negative. I think probably if you actually look at the broader world of marketing, there are probably at least as many dangers in blogs as there are opportunities, and your danger is that customers post on the Web site about bad customer service, ala the “AT&T sucks” or “Citibank sucks” Web sites. And somehow they have more credibility on a Web log. And so there’s definitely a danger there for marketers. I think it’s probably going to change, but I don’t know how long it will take.


Watters: Before we get into the next question, one of the things you absolutely should be doing, if you’re not doing it yet, is you should be Googling your business daily or get into Bloglines or Newsgator or  …


Denton: … I just want to make one recommendation. There's a baby competing company called Technorati And it’s a little bit shaky, but you can put in the URL of your company’s Web site or product Web site and you can see pretty much in real time what everybody’s saying about your site. Frankly, some of these campaigns should have been doing that earlier. And I have an early warning mechanism for trouble on the horizon.


Watters: Yeah, because they’re talking about you whether you’re aware of it or not, and there are some ways you can get back into there honestly, openly and transparently that can help you with some of your messaging. Blogs have changed the face of PR. Essentially PR’s become a much more “micro” thing now in some respects, it’s not a matter of sending out press releases anymore, it’s a matter of hitting these influencers that blog.


Denton: I’m glad you actually phrased the question that way. The key to actually understanding Web logs is that it’s media like any other kind of media. And you can advertise on it and you can pitch stories to it. There are journalists and there are publishers and the publishers will sell you advertising, and the journalists -- they are receptive to pitches. And I think smart marketers will identify on Web logs -- just as they do in mainstream media -- who the key influences are. Which are the writers who tend to get the stories first, which are the writers who may be favorably inclined towards you. Because if you get your story out to those people who’ve got influence and they’re favorably inclined toward you and you get the story out through them first, you can kind of control the messaging. And all the classic rules of PR apply on Web logs. Let your friends in on the story first.


Watters: And again it can be really good for your budget because it doesn’t really cost anything, which is always very nice. Now one of the interesting collisions between marketing and blogging -- and it’s actually not a new thing; I was thinking it was a new thing but we had this discussion yesterday and it actually isn’t -- is the idea of custom publishing. 


Gawker did the “Art of Speed” with Nike and just launched a new cooperative thing for John Waters’ latest film  …


Denton: … it’s in a format of blog …


Watters: … and when you see that "1.2 million blogs" thing, it could actually be anywhere between 1 and 5 million, nobody knows for sure but the greatest number of those are probably personal blogs and really don’t affect you, but there are plenty of blogs that really will have an impact on a variety of brands.


Let’s talk a little bit about how this custom publishing works and why it’s not new actually.


Denton: Well, these are microsites and there’s nothing more to it, really, than that they're microsites.


Audience Member: Everything’s coming full circle.


Denton: They've got certain Web log features. The content is arranged in reverse chronological order. Readers start at the top and they browse down. There are lots of links out, [like at the Dirty Shame blog there are] links out to things relevant to the film, as you can see here. All of these links are actually -- that was just launched yesterday. These are links to Web commentary about the blog and about the film. We don’t allow user contributor content. Some people think of user contributor content as being one of the essences of blogs; we don’t really agree. That could be a little bit risky depending on what the product is.


And we hired a writer, in fact the same writer who actually did the Nike site.


Watters: Are you all familiar with “The Art of Speed”  site? It was really great. It used … how many?


Denton: Fifteen.


Watters: … fifteen filmmakers who wrote short films about speed, you know, their take on speed. Fifteen well-known filmmakers with their take on speed, essentially, but what makes it work is, this blogging world is so viral, it’s like it’s linked around all over the place. And it really shot around and Nike is very happy with it.


Denton: The interesting thing about that was that the actual original campaign -- because they’d commissioned the fifteen films -- the mandate was to associate the concept of speed with Nike in the minds of an urban, hip audience. And the original film was quite a complex flash interface, and it’s kind of hard to find it.


One of the nice things about Web logs is they’re all structured in a similar way, so for instance, each of these links is a permalink, that can be linked to from other sites so usually most Web sites are actually syndicated out. So “Art” is something that any media site can do, it just so happened that all of the Web log publishing software systems produce RSS feeds so the Web logs have been among the first to hyper syndicate out the content.


Watters: And there are accessories that will allow you just to suck it into Outlook very easily and it’s pretty seamless.


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"Mad-men-logo" image via Social Solutions Collective.

Nick Denton is publisher of Gawker Media, an independent media company, which includes Gawker, an online review of pop culture, and WonketteWonkette, an analogous title for U.S. politics. Gawker Media, with properties in nine consumer...

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