Blogs are certainly among the most infectious sites on the Internet with reportedly 71 million tracked as of two months ago, but experts remain divided on the potential of this social tool as a marketing instrument.
“Blogs have become a powerful marketing tool that can complement traditional marketing techniques,” said Scott Patton, senior research manager in Western Canada for survey firm Ipsos Reid.
“Marketers need to be aware of how to make the most effective use of them to generate interest not only in ideas, but in the products they are presenting to the public.”
In March this year Ipsos Reid conducted an online poll of 1,000 randomly chosen Canadian Web-users and interviewed via telephone another 1,000 adults about their blog experiences.
The survey indicated that one in three Canadian adults (34 per cent) have visited blogs with half the respondents saying they visited a blog within the past week.
The age groups most like Internet users to have visited a blog were: 18 to 34, 45 per cent; 35 to 55, 32 per cent; 55 and older, 21 per cent.
The higher the education level, the more likely people are to visit a blog: university graduates, 40 per cent; post secondary, 36 per cent; and high school or lower, 21 per cent. Thirty six per cent of males visited blogs compared to 31 per cent of females.
Blogs received mixed reviews about their perceived veracity.
About 10 per cent felt blogs are a very reliable source of information to keep up to date on new technology. Fifty four per cent said blogs are somewhat reliable and 13 per cent felt they were not at all reliable.
The potential of blogs in marketing campaigns shows through, Scott said, when its effect on product purchase decisions is considered.
When asked what impact positive blog comments regarding a product or service would have on their likelihood of purchasing it: 10 per cent indicated they would be “much more likely to buy” the product; and 51 per cent said they would be more likely to purchase.
Responses from bloggers were cut down the middle; One in six respondents (17 per cent) said negative comments would make them less likely to purchase and 17 per cent said positive comments will make them more likely to buy.
At least one Canadian blog expert, however, doesn’t appear to be totally sold on blogging as a marketing tool.
The nature of blogs presents some ethical and practical difficulties for organizations seeking to use them as a marketing or advertising device, according to Jim Elve, owner and publisher of Blog Canada a blogging directory and resource site.
“Blogs are opinions. And everyone has opinions,” Elve said.
The effectiveness of a blogger, he said, largely lies on his or her reputation and credibility as a source of “un-influenced” opinion.
According to Elve the most popular blogs or the Web are personal postings and reviews about technology and gadgets, while recently politicians and company executives have also come out strongly with their own blogs.
He believes there will be a considerable amount of skepticism over blogs published by politicians, company officials and businesses.
“The problem with this is that politicians are viewed as advocating their own or party agenda while CEOs and company blogs are seen as a corporate mouth piece”.
Besides, he said, it’s doubtful these officials would have very little time on their hands to monitor and write the blogs on a regular basis without letting their primary duties slip.
Elve explained that some companies tried to get around this by getting independent bloggers to endorse their products in exchange for rewards such as free computers, phones or software that they were suppose to be reviewing.
“The result was that some bloggers lost credibility. Serious bloggers frown upon the practice, refuse the offers and some admit online that they received gifts.”
Blogging however, still has a place in the corporate and political arena, according to Elve.
Public officials, for example, can maintain a blog in order to get vital feedback from constituents and provide them with updates of party issues and projects. Elve said, ideally the site can be maintained by a public relations officer with the politician occasionally providing personal postings.
This same strategy can be used by corporations, to present a “more public friendly persona.”
For technology firms blogs could also be an important venue for providing news such as software patch updates, troubleshooting advice and even peer group development work similar to those carried out by the open source software community.
“The important thing is to stay away from and not to give the impression that you are trying to manipulate opinion or decision,” Elve said.
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), an organization of marketing innovators and experts based in Chicago, Ill., has several case studies of companies that have successfully employed blogs to solve particular issues.
For instance, when General Motors was attacked by a New York Times op-ed columnist who called the company “dangerous” and a “crack dealer” and connected Hummer SUV vehicle sales directly to soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the motor company launched a blog, WOMMA said.
The goal was to reach as many readers as the columnist did. The GM blog posted its futile attempt to get the Times to publish its rebuttal to the column. The columnist responded with another article which this time back off from some of his earlier assertions.
GM responded with a blog pointing out area where it agreed with the columnist such as the idea of reducing gas consumption and the U.S. dependence on oil.
Traffic to the three posts by GM generated 24,765 page views and 379 comments, media outlets and 40 other blogs picked up the story.
The car company said it was able to get the columnist to acknowledge its blog and respond to its arguments and GM’s story that it is improving fuel efficiency sparked hundreds of comments.
In another case the NCCA Football managed to engage old and new sports fans into online discussions about the game by launching an official football blog called Every Game Counts (EGC) with a budget of US$5,000.
The blog enables coaches to provide insight into NCAA Football and their own lives. Fans join in on the discussions about games and players and even bring their debates to their own blogs.
The blog generated 25, 000 unique visitors in its first few months and provided the NCAA with a platform for future brand building awareness.