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The Business of Blogging

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The explosive political and cultural power of blogs has made them the focus of numerous media reports in recent months. But thus far the economic impact of blogging has been almost immeasurable.


In an effort to gain some perspective on a segment of cyberspace that is growing and changing at a sometimes bewildering pace, eMarketer aggregated a wide variety of data and commentary about blogs, their readers and writers, and also did a spot check of major U.S. corporations to see how far and how fast the phenomenon has spread as a business tool.


The starting point for considering blogs from a business perspective is that, despite their growth and influence, blogs continue to be an unfamiliar phenomenon to a significant number of internet users.



It is hard to square these high unfamiliarity levels with the attention that blogs have received over the past year. How could so many controversial stories fail to create a broader public awareness of blogs? Part of the reason may be that blogs are not necessarily recognizable as such to many first-time readers. Blogs share certain features that make them instantly identifiable to regular users. But to the inexperienced, blog pages may be indistinguishable from other web pages -- both have text, links, graphics, ads, et cetera. So it seems likely that many internet users have visited blogs without realizing it.


The 2004 election cycle not only brought blogs to the attention of the general public, but also created a much larger blog readership. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that the percentage of internet users who had read blogs jumped from 17 percent in February 2004 to 27 percent in November. New figures released by Pew earlier this month, however, showed readership growth had stalled. 
 

 
The Pew data suggest that roughly 16 percent of the entire US adult population, or about 32 million adults, have read blogs. And although the wording of the question is broad -- if a respondent recalled visiting a single blog even once, it would count toward the total -- Pew found a significant number of regular readers: About seven percent of the online population, or roughly 8.4 million people, said they had looked at a blog in the last 24 hours. (Similarly, a Forrester Research poll found that five percent of online consumers said that they regularly read blogs.)
 
Blog creation has, if anything, outstripped the growth of readership. Technorati began tracking the number of blogs in late 2002, when it counted 15,729. As of early May 2005, the number was close to 10 million. Perseus Development estimates that there will be more than 50 million hosted blogs by the end of this year.
 

 
It is interesting to note that while readership growth may have taken a breather after the contentious US election season, activity by blog creators did not flag. The number of blogs skyrocketed after the election, according to Technorati, and blog posting, after easing up after the vote, spiked to new highs ahead of the Super Bowl this year.
 
For all the interest and activity in the blogosphere, however, American businesses appear to be taking a cautious approach. A spot check of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 found just four percent of companies had any form of publicly available blog -- and not all of these were current and active.  Not surprisingly, most are the products of Internet and technology companies, but a handful of other corporations are experimenting with the form, including General Motors, which has won a lot of attention for its FastLane site.
 
Although the appeal of blogs for many readers is direct communication with the blog writer, “created persona” blogs -- sites ostensibly maintained by fictitious characters -- seem to be a tempting marketing tool for corporate America. Procter & Gamble recently launched a site tied to its Secret Sparkle sprays featuring four blog personas, one for each of the sprays’ scents.  Similarly, Captain Morgan Rum offered a blog by the captain himself.
 
Setting aside these created persona sites, true corporate blogs offering a direct line of communication between writer and reader remain relatively rare. Decentralized by design, blogs are unlikely to become a mainstream business communications tool without change at the root level of corporate culture.  As Intelliseek’s Pete Blackshaw put it in a recent ClickZ article, “Despite the allure, many companies simply aren’t blog-ready.”
 
Technorati founder David Sifry, in an online presentation mapping the extraordinary growth of blogging, sees corporations testing the waters, “but still no mainstream adoption in 2005.”
 
An Intelliseek/Edelman white paper on blogging suggests that companies should not be asking, “Should we have a blog?” Rather, the questions are deeper. The first question on the list is: Are you willing to engage in a dialogue with your public? It also notes: “If you cannot get past ‘marketing speak,’ and defensiveness, then do not blog.”
 
The appeal of blogs is their simplicity and directness. This kind of free-form communication is anathema to most American corporations, which spend vast amounts of money and time to hone a message and then regulate the way that message is delivered, regardless of format.
 
Doubtless more companies will give blogging a shot. But for the time being it is difficult to see corporate blogging becoming widespread, however tempting the new format may be as a marketing and communications tool.
 
This article is drawn from “The Business of Blogging,” a new eMarketer report by Ezra Palmer. Mr. Palmer is the editorial director for eMarketer.


eMarketer publishes data, analysis and market projections focusing on e-business, online marketing and emerging technology. Founded in 1996, eMarketer aggregates, filters, organizes and analyzes data from more than 1700 research firms, consultancies and government agencies around the globe.

Make customer service everyone's job (Zappos)


Think customer service isn't part of your job? Try working at Zappos!


It's no surprise that Zappos has a great understanding of customer service in its corporate culture. The brand requires every new hire in its corporate office to undergo four weeks of customer service training, meaning they spend about a month taking customer service calls in the Zappos call center. Because of this, absolutely everyone has first-hand experience and a good appreciation for the needs of customers, as well as an understanding of how important they are to the company.


Zappos is so well-known for its customer service that it now provides training for other companies through a three-day boot camp and the Insights blog, both all about customer service.


How you can apply it to your company
While you may not have the resources to give everyone a month of training or to start a division of your company solely dedicated to customer service, you can still find ways to instill a healthy customer service mentality in your employees.


Get your customers involved in product development (Hyatt, Starbucks)


Who better to help you develop new and innovative products or new ways to use existing ones than the customers who use them every day?


In mid-2012, Hyatt started using nine of its locations as testing grounds for some of its innovative ideas. While not all of the ideas were successful, what better way to test out new ideas that could cost millions of dollars once implemented than on a small scale with immediate feedback? Since Hyatt began its program, many hotels have followed suit and used similar methods of gathering customer feedback on a more localized basis.


Starbucks' My Starbucks Idea provides a forum for customers to provide not only ideas for new products, but ways to improve stores, processes, and other aspects of the company. With well over 150,000 ideas submitted, it's obvious that the brand's customers have a lot on their minds. Many new products and ideas have come from this initiative.


How you can apply it to your company
Don't have a couple of locations you can turn into product development labs? Don't worry; you can still get ideas from customers that help with developing products, tailoring services, or improving customer service. Even with free social media tools, you can gather this insight and reward your customers for their participation.

Listen to your toughest customers (Marlin Steel)


Sick of people complaining? Be careful, they might be your most valuable customers.


Marlin Steel, a company that specialized in the manufacturing of bagel baskets for franchise bagel shops, learned that by moving up-market to producing metal baskets for the likes of Boeing and Pfizer, they were going to run into some more demanding situations. Along the way, they ran into more than a few difficult customers. They quickly learned that sometimes the most difficult customers can provide valuable insight, push you to be your best, and even turn into the most loyal long-term partners.


Instead of backing away from the opportunity to grow the company and reach a new, much more profitable customer base, Marlin Steel approached it head on and took every opportunity to learn along the way. By doing so, the revenue has grown tremendously, and the company has found a sustainable business model.


How you can apply it to your company
Most successful companies are going to have a lot of happy customers and (generally) only a few difficult ones. Instead of treating these difficult ones as annoyances or flukes, take the time to understand them and what is causing their issues. You might discover that even your happiest customers could be even happier if you would address the issues the less-than-happy group is having.


Crowdsource your customer support (Telstra)


Who knows your product better: a newly-hired customer service rep or a customer that has been supporting your brand for years?


Australian telecommunications company Telstra's CrowdSupport "Videos by You" campaign puts customer service in the hands of the company's most loyal customers. These videos contain varied subject matter and were generated by real customer questions or issues. By providing a contest with monthly themes, Telstra was able to solicit some great content from its customers, allowing real customers to help and solve other customers' problems.


How you can apply it to your company
There are many great opportunities to get feedback from your customers. Finding a way to share this feedback in a way that allows your customers to help one another is a win-win. Telstra's contest idea was a great one, as was the idea of giving some constraints on what the subject matter could be. Other companies use online forums or social media for this.

Have a sense of humor (Netflix)


Does good customer service require a complex, enterprise-wide change? Sometimes the simplest tactic in your customer service arsenal can make a big difference.


Recently, Mike Mears, a Netflix customers service rep, gained national attention by engaging in a chat with a customer while "in character" as a Star Trek captain. The conversation itself was viewed by many after it was shared on Reddit and Mike even appeared alongside William Shatner on national television.


This was not a complete one-off for Netflix, though. Its customer service philosophy is a little different than other companies. With fewer restrictions on what employees can say and little to no pressure to up-sell or try to talk customers out of cancelling their service, employees are free to be creative, just as long as they can solve their customers' problems. Beyond just the use of humor where appropriate, customer service is so central to the culture of Netflix that even CEO Reed Hastings reportedly still answers customer questions from time to time.


While impersonating a Star Trek captain may get a company like Netflix some good press, you obviously need to be careful of how you might apply this idea to your own company. There are certain situations and subjects that would make this type of humor inappropriate, but carefully applied, it can be a great opportunity to connect with your customers.


How you can apply it to your company
This is certainly an approach to tread lightly with, but given the right circumstances, throwing in some humor can make a tedious process enjoyable and leave a positive impression in your customers' minds.


Conclusion


As you can see, there are a number of ways that your company can create better relationships with customers, and from these stories, you can see that companies that took a chance on these new methods also gained even more happy customers.


Hopefully, these five examples inspire you to give your own company's customer service a boost. Even if you can't change your processes quite as much as these companies did, there are some good lessons to learn. An unconventional approach can lead to happier customers, more engaged interactions, and even new product ideas.


Greg Kihlström is VP of digital strategy at Carousel30.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


"A service bell in a hotel" image via Shutterstock.

Ezra Palmer heads eMarketer’s editorial group, managing a team of researchers, interviewers, writers, analysts, forecasters and editors as they collect, analyze and contextualize data from thousands of research sources worldwide for the...

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