Corporate blogs are a dime a dozen. These days, most brands have something that at least looks like a blog somewhere on their website. Some brands even update those blogs on a fairly regular basis. But simply having a blog isn't the end of the story. In fact, it's just the beginning, because whether your brand deals in entertainment, consumer-packed goods, services, or some other product, blogs must have one thing in common if they are to succeed: They must be compelling.
But what makes a blog compelling?
While the details are going to vary by brand, the key is to talk to your audience in an approachable way, says Deborah Ng, a professional blogger and part-time community manager for BlogTalkRadio.com.
"The purpose of using blogs and social media for businesses is to build up a community around a product or service," Ng says, adding that she is often hired for her "voice," which she describes as more casual than that of traditional corporate communications or a news story.
But highlighting that "less formal" voice isn't easy, and striking a balance between a casual discussion and a brand message is always a challenge. In fact, it's a constant balancing act, but one that will be aided by employing some of the following tips and keeping a close eye on brand blogs that are taking corporate blogging to a new level.
It may sound strange, but most corporate blogs miss an obvious detail right off the bat, says Doug Lowell, a partner and executive creative director at ID Branding, who advises his clients to post pictures of the blogger with each post so that users know who's talking to them.
Lowell points to Kodak's "A Thousand Words" blog as an example of corporate communications with a great personal touch.
While the tone of the blog may best be described as corporate/friendly, the pictures of the bloggers (members of Kodak's marketing team) don't wreak of the standard sales pitch. Of course, one added touch is that the bloggers often share personal stories and photos, giving the site a feeling of community.
I just took a trip to the beach with my family and had the bright idea of sending a kite up into the air with a video camera on it. I looked at my Kodak Zi6 and my Kodak Zx1... and then I looked at the ocean... and all I could picture was losing one of them forever if the kite took a dive bomb. The Zx1 is weather proof, but that's no help if a big fish eats it.
After many, many attempts that involved my Dad using massive amounts of duct tape, and my sister running down the beach like a nut -- we had liftoff.
2. Spread the wealth
Not everyone in your organization may be cut out for blogging, but marketers who rely on a single blogger to disseminate the brand's message may not be doing all they can to connect with users, says Ryan Evans, director of experience design at Corey McPherson Nash.
"Employees, even CEOs, change jobs," Evans says. "You need to make sure that your social media stream has value beyond a single person. One way to achieve this is to spread authorship among a number of authors at your organization."
But multiple bloggers can also serve as a hedge against rubbing some users the wrong way. While it's still important to communicate with a certain amount of decorum, the decision to include personality will almost always mean that some users simply won't mesh with your bloggers. According to Evans, The Wells Fargo Wachovia blog -- which has the fitting tagline: One Team, Twice As Strong -- offers users a nice sampling of personalities to choose from.
3. Link, link, link
You've probably heard an earful about the power of linking from your search team. But links aren't just about SEO; they also play a valuable role in any blog.
"Blogs feed on links," Evans says, pointing out that the practice is a great way to build an audience for any blog, corporate or otherwise. But links also provide another critical ingredient to a personality-driven blog: the ability to listen. After all, links are a visible indicator of the blogger's willingness to engage in a conversation and actually listen to what others have to say in that space.
4. Have a little fun
Most people don't have to be told to have fun, but for a host of reasons, most marketers work hard to hide their human side behind a wall of branded messaging. While that might be just the trick for TV or print, it's no good on a company blog, says Sarah Jo Sautter, associate creative director at Organic and assistant editor of the agency's ThreeMinds blog.
So how do you have fun with your readers and still stay on message? According to Sautter, brands like Coca-Cola relax a little for readers of their blog by holding a regular caption contest. In the example below, readers are invited to caption a Coke ad from the 1920s.
John Held, Jr. was an artist and cartoonist who became famous for his illustrations of American society in the 1920s. He was a regular contributor to such magazines as Life, Vanity Fair, and Harper's Bazaar. Many of his drawings depicted collegiate life in the Jazz Age, including this 1926 advertisement for Coca-Cola.
Your Challenge is to create a witty caption for the artwork by 5 p.m. on June 10. A winner will be announced June 11. I look forward to seeing your entries.
5. Admit when you're wrong
Companies don't make mistakes; at least, that's the official position of your legal department. But people do screw up from time to time, and the people worth knowing are those who admit their mistakes and move on. The same is true for corporate blogs.
According to Sautter, brands that use their blogs as a way of letting customers know that they've made an error do a tremendous service to themselves because people often appreciate the honesty and integrity.
Consider the forthright language in this post from Dell's chief blogger Lionel Menchaca: "One of those things I think we can do better on is to streamline content on our external network of blogs. We've got to make content easier to find. Longer-term, this means that some of our existing blog content will be consolidated back into Direct2Dell. More on that front in the coming weeks."
The message is simple and right to the point. First, Dell can do better. Second, Dell is moving in that direction.
That may not be the message you want to put into a media buy, but in a blog, where you're likely to reach highly enthusiastic customers, many of whom could be considered brand evangelists, a more direct and -- if necessary -- humble message can go a long way toward turning a negative into a positive.
6. Take off your marketing cap
It's easy to go for the hard sell on a brand blog. After all, there's nothing really standing in your way, which is why authenticity has become a rallying cry for marketers who are passionate about blogging. Unfortunately, authenticity has become so overused in the context of blogging that it has nearly lost all meaning.
But according to Melissa Braverman of the PR firm Quinn & Co., one quick tactic for screening out overly polished messages is to ask this simple question: Am I writing this the way I would say it in conversation? If the answer is "no," it's probably too polished. Bloggers can even try saying the words out loud if they have trouble gauging tone.
One corporate blog that consistently gets high marks for its authentic style is "Nuts About Southwest." According to Braverman, the blog "features posts from a diverse cross-section of Southwest employees -- all of whom strike just the right conversational tone in writing about their job adventures and love of travel."
A quick read of the blog backs up that point, and it certainly rings true for anyone who has ever flown the airline and noticed that their crews are a little out of the ordinary.
7. Ask for ideas
While the success of your brand's blog often comes down to what you say and how you say it, sometimes it pays to use the blog as a platform to ask questions.
Blogging shouldn't just be about the outbound message, says Drew Hubbard, manager of promotions and social media at The Search Agency. Instead, Hubbard advises brands to follow the lead of company's like Starbucks, which has used its corporate blog to solicit new product ideas.
But Starbucks doesn't just take those ideas and lock them away in a product development lab. Instead, the brand goes one step further and uses its blog as a platform that allows users to weigh in on the ideas of fellow customers.
8. Broaden the brand's POV
At its core, any brand is about business. But the more a brand grows and matures, the more it touches upon various aspects of society. For branding consultant Denise Lee Yohn, that means the blog is the perfect place to broaden out the brand by highlighting how the company fits into the user's daily life.
Once again, Coca-Cola's blog offers a good example. By ceding authorship to the company's historian/archivist, Yohn points out that Coke does an admirable job of reminding users that Coke is everywhere.
Scroll through the blog and you get an idea of what Yohn is talking about. Users can read about Coke's historic partnership with Delta Airlines, the company's summer bottling campaign, or some of the early experiments in developing Coke's secret formula.
9. Think like a publisher
It doesn't matter what type of brand you have, if you're using a company blog, you're a publisher, so it pays to think like one, says Leslie Hammann, a PR and communications specialist at Geary Interactive.
According to Hammann, marketers should devote in-house resources to establishing specific "beats" for their bloggers because giving pre-approved guidance will not only help keep the blog on message, it will also help ensure that the blog is updated regularly because bloggers won't have to scour the entire web to find a good topic.
Hammann points to "Beauty And The Blog," which is part of Sephora's online marketing presence, as a good example of the publisher mentality at work. Take a quick scan of the blog's tagged items, and you can see that the defining quality of the publication is that it covers news and information that is of interest to fashion-conscious women. Sometimes that means posting about makeup, but more often than not, it means thinking like a publisher, which is really just shorthand for thinking like a reader. And it's that publisher mentality that will help corporate bloggers put themselves in the shoes of their customers and create content that engages in ways that traditional marketing messages cannot.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.