Welcome to the blogosphere

Before starting his own blog in January 2004, iUpload CEO and founder Robin Hopper could find his name somewhere in the top 50 results of a search engine.


he appeared behind the likes of a folk singer and a ceramic artist who also go by the same name. But since joining the blogosphere he now boasts a top-five ranking.

That’s his way of acknowledging the marketing potential businesses and individuals can tap into if they ably leverage tools often referred to as unedited, informal, online personal journals that can include text, graphics, multimedia, hyperlinks and more.

“Blogging facilitates communication better than e-mail,” said Hopper. “The credibility of e-mail is being jeopardized daily.”

Hopper, whose Burlington, Ont.-based company provides a platform firms can use to establish blogging communities, is just one of the people advocating the technology as a marketing tool. But while some firms and their employees are blogging to their hearts’ content, most corporations–according to some analysts–simply aren’t biting.

The term blog, short for Web logs, was reportedly coined in 1999 by Peter Merholz, at the time a creative director at Epinions. Blogging has since been embraced by many big name high-tech firms such as Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., HP Co. and IBM Co. While estimates for the number of blogs in existence are all over the virtual map, at least one source, PubSub Concepts Inc. in New York, has said that it’s now tracking over 6.5 million blogs.

This has been a banner week for blogs. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “”blog”” is the most requested definition, and on Wednesday Microsoft launched a service called MSN Spaces to allow users to create their own blogs and track others.

Microsoft itself has more than 1,000 bloggers in its ranks. Craig Flannagan, senior marketing manager for MSDN at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., said that he uses his blog to connect with the Canadian developer community.

“(Blogging) is important because it (enables) more connectivity,” said Flannagan. “It’s a more transparent way of talking. . . . No editor, no copywriter. It’s a more personal way.”

The personal aspect of blogging is what Databeacon Inc. considered when preparing for the launch of its Databeacon Smart Client products this past October, according to Nathan Rudyk, vice-president of marketing at the Ottawa-based company. The firm, said Rudyk, used a successful blog maintained by an employee to reach out to Microsoft .Net evangelists.

“The No. 1 objective with our blog initiative was to get closer to the developer community in Microsoft,” said Rudyk, whose firm is a Microsoft Independent Software Vendor (ISV) partner. “Without utilizing blogs like we have, we wouldn’t have had the impact that we have. It’ll definitely be a part of the marketing mix as we move forward.”

According to Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows Inc. in Toronto, there is no question that companies can use blogs to further their marketing objectives. Marketing is undergoing a change, he said, with more one-to-one relationships between companies and users taking place.

“I’m speaking in my own voice when I’m blogging,” said Noss. “There’s no crafting, no editing. When you look at ways to communicate with customers, there’s little better than blogging. Blogging is just another arrow in the quiver.”

While many companies that espouse blogging believe in the technology’s marketing potential, some of them have different views on how to draw the fine line between opinion and the official company message.

“There is an effort to speak in a consistent manner about what we’re up to,” said Stewart Butterfield, president and founder of Flickr, a Vancouver-based firm dedicated to building a better platform for real-time interaction online. He said that while censorship is not practiced at his company, employees are expected to present a consistent message to customers. “It’s generally clear what are opinions are as (compared) to our company policies.”

Noss from Tucows said that, as far as certain regulations are concerned, bloggers have to be careful about what they ultimately publish. “For every post in my blog, there are probably three or four that are never posted,” he said. “We’re a public company so I have all sorts of disclosure concerns to (consider). There are real challenges with that. It comes down to commonsense.”

Although Microsoft Canada doesn’t have any blogging rules, per say, Flannagan stressed that he is still governed by his employment contract. “Blogging is a personal, conversational media,” he said. “But there is something to keep in mind: If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t blog it.”

Meanwhile, Hopper from iUpload said his advice is for companies to avoid the urge to rule by the sword when it comes to blogging. Rather, they should enjoy the best of both worlds. “We try to give people the ability to sit in the transparency camp and the accountability camp,” he said, using the analogy of straddling the fence.

Used effectively, blogs can help companies to ramp up their marketing machines by putting friendlier faces on what otherwise could be seen as lifeless corporate entities. But blogging is also having an impact as a community building tool, as bloggers provide tips and solicit feedback.

“In a lot of ways marketing communication is evolving into direct communication,” said Caterina Fake, vice-president of marketing of Flickr. “People are willing to communicate directly with us. They become involved with helping you to make a better product.”

Analysts acknowledge the benefits of blogging in the corporate sphere, but they believe only a relatively small number of businesses are actually taking advantage of the technology.

David Senf, manager of IT/business enablement at IDC Canada in Toronto, marvelled that despite the opportunity to use blogs for marketing, pre-sales and sales initiatives, most companies aren’t even aware of the technology.

“Currently Canadian organizations barely know that blogging exists,” said Senf. “They’re not aware of how blogging can enhance the marketing side of the organization.”

It’ll be interesting to see, he continued, how organizations use blogs as Really Simple Syndication–an XML language that helps companies create news feeds akin to traditional newswires–takes off.

Tony White, senior analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston said that blogging is basically playing second fiddle to Instant Messaging.

“Instant Messaging is a competing technology that’s far more frequently used than blogging,” said White, adding that the minimal use of blogs in the corporate environment is a worldwide conundrum rather than a strictly North American one. “Blogging is most likely to be found in places where the (Web) site is dedicated to specific interests.”

But for Hopper, going from top 50 to top five in the Google search engine results has convinced him of the marketing potential blogs possess, even if many in the corporate world are still dragging their heels. Enhancing the user experience, he stressed, is key for firms wishing to take advantage of the technology.

“There’s also the ability to give constituents the ability to have a say,” said Hopper. “They can be engaged in the conversation. We’ve taken it a step further. Why not let customers blog? Our focus isn’t individual blogs. We sell branded blog communities–that’s what we evangelize.”

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