BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis got plenty of ink and links this summer after he flamed Dell about a lemon laptop he had purchased. Bloggers shook their heads: Dell doesn't get it. BuzzMachine ranked high on Google for the search term "Dell sucks." Having stirred up a blog's nest, Jarvis got his money back and bought himself an Apple PowerBook.
Jarvis is what many refer to as an "A list" blogger -- he has an impressive mainstream media resume, he appears on TV as a talking head, and he has a daytime gig with the New York Times. BuzzMachine often turns up on "Top Blog" lists.
What happens when smaller fries harp online? Does corporate America listen?
Most of the time, probably not, but it's interesting to watch when a blog post actually catches a company's attention. That occurred earlier this year, when a North Carolina blogger, Jon Lowder, made a quiet complaint about his hometown paper, the Winston-Salem Journal, and compared it, unfavorably, with a newspaper 30 miles to the east, the Greensboro News & Record.
Part of the post read, "I live in Winston-Salem. I have the Winston-Salem Journal delivered every morning. But I don't feel like I know anyone there… I get all the N&R blogs via RSS. I don't get their paper… yet. But I still feel closer to the N&R."
There are a million and one wistful comments like this on the web, but somehow this one got traction. For one thing, it was quoted by NYU's Jay Rosen, the author of the PressThink blog, a widely read site.
For another, both the Winston-Salem Journal and the Greensboro News & Record responded to Lowder's original blog post. Indeed, the News & Record's top editor posted a brief reply.
More remarkable still, though, was what happened at the Winston-Salem Journal. Not only did the paper respond to the post and supply contact information, but it went and created an RSS feed just days after Lowder's original post.
Now that's customer service.
There are certainly some who would say the North Carolina exchange is a great illustration of the power of blogs. Others would read into it an encouraging lesson about community and communications, with benefits all around, for consumer and business alike.
But the telling lesson is built into the original post: "I still feel closer to the N&R."
Many businesses and publishers are still trying to figure out "blogs," wondering if they should have a blog and what they should blog about. That's probably a mistake. What they ought to be trying to understand is bloggers and blog readers.
It's probably not wise to generalize about something as amorphous as the Blogosphere, but here goes: the Blogosphere is a place for people who want a more personal relationship with various entities they deal with on a regular basis -- corporate, government, media, you name it. They want to have a sense of a person behind or within the enterprise. They are looking for something or somebody real.
All of which brings to mind the Sex Pistols. (Really.)
John Lydon and John Simon Ritchie couldn't sing or play musical instruments, but they took the stage names of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious and in 1977 their album, "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols," upended the music world, tapping into listeners' desire for something real -- real emotion, real anger, real energy.
Tired of calculated professionalism, music fans (some of them, anyway) embraced the raw.
The late art historian Ernest Gombrich called this phenomenon "The Preference for the Primitive," which he traced back thousands of years -- right back to ancient Rome, in fact, when orator par excellence Marcus Tullius Cicero indicated that simple, less sophisticated art speaks to the viewer in a way that more technically proficient work cannot.
New paintings are more beautiful, said Cicero, but "though they captivate us at first sight, the pleasure does not last, while the very roughness and crudity of old paintings maintains their hold on us."
Imagine, Cicero might have been a Sex Pistols fan!
The taste for "roughness and crudity" led Gauguin to the South Pacific and sent Bartok and countless classical composers literally into the fields, to take their inspiration from folk songs.
And it is leading many Netizens to blogs. There's something in a human that doesn't quite feel comfortable with a ultra-refined products alone. We want the simpler, earthier stuff.
Well, at least some of us do. Many of us don't care about or want a personal relationship with, say, our hometown newspaper, let alone the company that makes our computer or car, or our supermarket or trash hauler. There's a reason people flock to self-serve aisles and warehouse stores and other contrivances that reduce or eliminate person-to-person interaction in commercial settings.
Nonetheless, there is clearly a meaningful group of consumers -- your consumers -- who want that feeling of community, the feeling of "the real." They don't want corporate speak or push-button options. They actually might like to know about your personal taste in music and don't mind if you aren't a good speller.
How many of these consumers are out there? It's almost certainly far short of a majority. (After all, the best-selling single in 1977 was not by the Sex Pistols but Debby Boone, with "You Light Up My Life.")
Only a slice of the population is looking for a direct connection with you. To act as if that slice represents the whole may not make sense. But to ignore it is foolhardy.
Ezra Palmer is the editorial director of eMarketer.