Chris Anderson on Corporate Blogging

In November of 2005, Wired's Editor in Chief Chris Anderson raved about his new Xbox 360, particularly as an "extender" for his Media Center, linking TV, PC DVR and the game console.

Anderson is interested in the Media Center PC as a "Long Tail video platform." The term "Long Tail" is a three-way title: it is an influential article that Anderson published in Wired in November of 2004. "The Long Tail" is also the name of Anderson's blog and the title of his forthcoming book, due out this year from Hyperion. Anderson argues that "our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of 'hits'... at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail." (You can learn more about the theory of the Long Tail here.)

After the positive Xbox 360 review in November, Anderson discovered that the console had disabled his older extenders in his home network. Several bouts with Microsoft tech support proved fruitless, so Anderson reached out to Charlie Owen, a Microsoft blogger, who got Anderson in touch with the right Microsoft team and together they fixed the problem. You can read Anderson's post about this experience here.

Anderson's experience was in sharp contrast to BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis's negative experiences with Dell, so I reached out to Anderson to chat about his experience, dealing with companies that blog and that don't blog, and what this holds for the future of corporate blogging and marketing.

Brad Berens: Were you following Jeff Jarvis's epic battle with Dell a few months ago? He finally got them to take care of his problems. It's a similar tale to your Xbox problems. The question is this: do ordinary consumers have anything akin to the leverage of big-time media folks? Or, how much of an aberration do you think your experience with Microsoft was?

Chris Anderson: I did indeed follow it, with awe, and it has greatly influenced my thoughts about how companies should approach the blogosphere (Step one: set up those Technorati filters. Step two: put out fires fast!)

My experience was a bit different. After hitting a dead end with the regular customer service channels, I didn't blog my frustrations. Instead, I emailed some of Microsoft's very approachable bloggers first, and they were quick to help me. We sorted it all out in email and I then went public as a satisfied customer. Would they have done the same for any blogger, or even a non-blogger? Perhaps not quite as much, but I do believe they would have tried to help in some way. That's the egalitarian compact of blogging -- your readers are your peers and you try to respond to them as such.

No doubt if Dell had some equivalent public bloggers with email addresses, Jeff would have done the same. But because they didn't, he vented on his own blog, just as I would have done. There's a lesson in that ;).

Do ordinary consumers have the same power as media folks? I think they do.

Most people probably don't realize that Jeff was a big-time media guy; instead they know him as a prolific and influential blogger, which is something he earned one smart post at a time. That's a path open to anyone.

As an example, I'd point you to the experience of regular-guy blogger Thomas Hawk, whose horrific experience with a Brooklyn bait-and-switch shop also resulted in an outpouring of web fury over similar scams (and got the company implicated delisted from Yahoo! shopping).

Berens: Corporate blogging-wise, Microsoft is clearly -- and, to my mind, still surprisingly -- on the cutting edge with Robert Scoble, Channel 9 and the rest. We also have a bunch of executive and C-level bloggers out there. (See this link for a handy -- and long -- list of CEO bloggers.)

On the consumer side, the great thing about blogs and blogging is that any thoughtful, engaged citizen with a browser and an internet connection can become a media voice in just a few minutes. On the corporate side, this is great if the citizen is a thoughtful and engaged customer. But the terrible thing about blogs and blogging is that any meathead with a grudge or too much time on his hands can have the same megaphone. Whose job is it to tell the engaged customers from the meatheads?

Corporations currently don't have much of a rule book for when and how to engage with blogs. I like your first two steps: 1) Set up the Technorati filters and 2) Put out fires fast. Those are good reactive goals. Having the CEO blog is a proactive way to get the company's vision out before the fires start. But let's drill down a little more: Just how are corporations supposed to do this? Are call center folks supposed to ask callers if they happen to be bloggers? How should usually siloed divisions like Product Management, Development, PR, Corporate Communications, Marketing, Customer Service and the like work together? And who decides when a fire is a fire and when it's just somebody playing with matches?

Anderson: You're certainly asking the right questions. My general advice is have PR watch the filters and notify the appropriate product managers where there's something that needs to be responded to. But that response itself is always best coming from the line managers -- the folks who are actually responsible for the product or service.

As for proactive blogging, product-level people again tend to be best. They know their stuff, often have a real passion for what they do and come across more like peers to the typical reader, which makes them more approachable and trusted. It's hard to have specific corporate guidelines on how they should blog, since anything too specific tends to suppress the natural voice; my experience is that "Use Good Judgment" usually suffices.

Berens: Let's take a back door into your book. In November of 2004, Micropersuasion's Steve Rubel wrote a piece here at iMedia Connection called "The Long Tail of the Blogosphere."

You've linked to Steve's piece in your Long Tail blog, and I wanted to check in and see about your thoughts on how the long tail of ecommerce and retail equates -- or doesn't -- to the long tail of the blogosphere -- how, in other words, does infinite niche media parallel infinite niche retail? And, since it has been a while since Steve's article, how has the landscape changed in the last 12 months or so?

Anderson: Yes, but it's even more infinite ;).

Berens: I'll wind up by asking you about one of Wired's new initiatives. In a recent -- very recent -- blog post you talk about a new joint project between Wired and SocialText: "The Fortune 500 Business Blog Index" in which you track business performance against corporate blogging. One of the interesting early findings is that, generally speaking, companies that blog are doing less well than companies that don't blog, which empirically supports Doc Searls' contention -- which you explain at length in your post -- that companies blog when business is bad, and when business is good they're afraid to blog because they don't want to dilute their marketing message.

I can't imagine this trend lasting, can you? It seems very much like a threshold phenomenon that is an artifact of blogging as a new medium. I'd predict that -- if technology stopped changing, which it never does -- within five years the businesses that didn't blog would be performing worse. What do you think? More generally, as podcasting, RSS, better cell phones, local search and the like come online in the next months and years, I think we'll see the blogging = poor performance phenomenon reiterated again and again, with each new technology functioning as a canary in the coal mine. Do you buy this, or do you think it has something more intrinsic to do with blogging?

Anderson: I suspect you're right. Since business blogging seems to reflect a whole bunch of qualities I think are good for companies to have -- transparency, good community relations, passionate employees, engaged customers, trust in its employees, decentralized communications, et cetera -- I would expect it to correlate with good performance over time.

But these are early days yet, and the virtues and best practices of business blogging are not yet clear enough for many. So it doesn't surprise me that it's often the companies with the least to lose in terms of image and reputation who are jumping in first.

Brad Berens is executive editor for iMedia Communications.