After studying this section you should be able to do the following:
- Know what blogs are and how corporations, executives, individuals, and the media use them.
- Understand the benefits and risks of blogging.
- Appreciate the growth in the number of blogs, their influence, and their capacity to generate revenue.
Blogs (short for Web logs) first emerged almost a decade ago as a medium for posting online diaries. (In a perhaps apocryphal story, Wired magazine claimed the term “Web log” was coined by Jorn Barger, a sometimes homeless, yet profoundly prolific, Internet poster). From humble beginnings, the blogging phenomenon has grown to a point where the number of public blogs tracked by Technorati (the popular blog index) has surpassed one hundred million (Takahashi, 2008). This number is clearly a long tail phenomenon, loaded with niche content that remains “discoverable” through search engines and blog indexes. Trackbacks (third-party links back to original blog post), and blog rolls (a list of a blogger’s favorite sites—a sort of shout-out to blogging peers) also help distinguish and reinforce the reputation of widely read blogs.
The most popular blogs offer cutting-edge news and commentary, with postings running the gamut from professional publications to personal diaries. While this cacophony of content was once dismissed, blogging is now a respected and influential medium. Some might say that many of the most popular blogs have grown beyond the term, transforming into robust media enterprises. Consider that the political blog The Huffington Post is now more popular than all but eight newspaper sites and has a valuation higher than many publicly traded papers (Alterman, 2008; Learmonth, 2008). Keep in mind that this is a site without the sports, local news, weather, and other content offered by most papers. Ratings like this are hard to achieve—most bloggers can’t make a living off their musings. But among the elite ranks, killer subscriber numbers are a magnet for advertisers. Top blogs operating on shoestring budgets can snare several hundred thousand dollars a month in ad revenue (Zuckerman, 2007). Most start with ad networks like Google AdSense, but the most elite engage advertisers directly for high-value deals and extended sponsorships.
Top blogs have begun to attract well-known journalists away from print media. The Huffington Post hired a former Washington Post editor Lawrence Roberts to head the site’s investigative unit. The popular blog TechCrunch now features posts by Sarah Lacy (a BusinessWeek cover-story writer) and has hired Erick Schonfeld away from Time Warner’s business publishing empire. Schonfeld’s colleague, Om Malik, has gone on to found another highly ranked tech industry blog, GigaOM.
Senior executives from many industries have also begun to weigh in with online ruminations, going directly to the people without a journalist filtering their comments. Hotel chief Bill Marriott, Paul Levy (CEO of health care quality leader Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center), Toyota’s Akio Toyoda, and Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh use their blogs for purposes that include a combination of marketing, sharing ideas, gathering feedback, press response, image shaping, and reaching consumers directly without press filtering. Blogs have the luxury of being more topically focused than traditional media, with no limits on page size, word count, or publication deadline. Some of the best examples engage new developments in topic domains much more quickly and deeply than traditional media. For example, it’s not uncommon for blogs focused on the law or politics to provide a detailed dissection of a Supreme Court opinion within hours of its release—offering analysis well ahead of, and with greater depth, than via what bloggers call the mainstream media (MSM). As such, it’s not surprising that most mainstream news outlets have begun supplementing their content with blogs that can offer greater depth, more detail, and deadline-free timeliness.
While the feature set of a particular blog depends on the underlying platform and the preferences of the blogger, several key features are common to most blogs:
- Ease of use. Creating a new post usually involves clicking a single button.
- Reverse chronology. Posts are listed in reverse order of creation, making it easy to see the most recent content.
- Comment threads. Readers can offer comments on posts.
- Persistence. Posts are maintained indefinitely at locations accessible by permanent links.
- Searchability. Current and archived posts are easily searchable.
- Tags. Posts are often classified under an organized tagging scheme.
- Trackbacks. Allows an author to acknowledge the source of an item in their post, which allows bloggers to follow the popularity of their posts among other bloggers.
The voice of the blogosphere can wield significant influence. Examples include leading the charge for Dan Rather’s resignation and prompting the design of a new insulin pump. In an example of what can happen when a firm ignores social media, consider the flare-up Ingersoll Rand faced when the online community exposed a design flaw in its Kryptonite bike lock.
Online posts showed the thick metal lock could be broken with a simple ball-point pen. A video showing the hack was posted online. When Ingersoll Rand failed to react quickly, the blogosphere erupted with criticism. Just days after online reports appeared, the mainstream media picked up the story. The New York Times ran a piece titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Lock” that included a series of photos demonstrating the ballpoint Kryptonite lock pick. The event tarnished the once-strong brand and eventually resulted in a loss of over $10 million.
Like any Web page, blogs can be public, tucked behind a corporate firewall, or password protected. Most blogs offer a two-way dialogue, allowing users to comment on posts (sort of instant “letters to the editor,” posted online and delivered directly to the author). The running dialogue can read like an electronic bulletin board, and can be an effective way to gather opinion when vetting ideas. Comments help keep a blogger honest. Just as the “wisdom of crowds” keeps Wikipedia accurate, a vigorous community of commenters will quickly expose a blogger’s errors of fact or logic.
Despite this increased popularity, blogging has its downside. Blog comments can be a hothouse for spam and the disgruntled. Ham-handed corporate efforts (such as poor response to public criticism or bogus “praise posts”) have been ridiculed. Employee blogging can be difficult to control and public postings can “live” forever in the bowels of an Internet search engine or as content pasted on other Web sites. Many firms have employee blogging and broader Internet posting policies to guide online conduct that may be linked to the firm (see Section 7.9 “Get SMART: The Social Media Awareness and Response Team”). Bloggers, beware—there are dozens of examples of workers who have been fired for what employers viewed as inappropriate posts.
Blogs can be hosted via third-party services (Google Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, TypePad, Windows Live Spaces), with most offering a combination of free and premium features. Blogging features have also been incorporated into social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, and Ning, as well as corporate social media platforms such as Socialtext. Blogging software can also be run on third-party servers, allowing the developer more control in areas such as security and formatting. The most popular platform for users choosing to host their own blog server is the open source WordPress system.
In the end, the value of any particular blog derives from a combination of technical and social features. The technical features make it easy for a blogger and his or her community to engage in an ongoing conversation on some topic of shared interest. But the social norms and patterns of use that emerge over time in each blog are what determine whether technology features will be harnessed for good or ill. Some blogs develop norms of fairness, accuracy, proper attribution, quality writing, and good faith argumentation, and attract readers that find these norms attractive. Others mix it up with hotly contested debate, one-sided partisanship, or deliberately provocative posts, attracting a decidedly different type of discourse.
- Blogs provide a rapid way to distribute ideas and information from one writer to many readers.
- Ranking engines, trackbacks, and comments allow a blogger’s community of readers to spread the word on interesting posts and participate in the conversation, and help distinguish and reinforce the reputations of widely read blogs.
- Well-known blogs can be powerfully influential, acting as flashpoints on public opinion.
- Firms ignore influential bloggers at their peril, but organizations should also be cautious about how they use and engage blogs, and avoid flagrantly promotional or biased efforts.
- Top blogs have gained popularity, valuations, and profits that far exceed those of many leading traditional newspapers, and leading blogs have begun to attract well-known journalists away from print media.
- Senior executives from several industries use blogs for business purposes, including marketing, sharing ideas, gathering feedback, press response, image shaping, and reaching consumers directly without press filtering.
Questions and Exercises
- Visit Technorati and find out which blogs are currently the most popular. Why do you suppose the leaders are so popular?
- How are popular blogs discovered? How is their popularity reinforced?
- Are blog comment fields useful? If so, to whom or how? What is the risk associated with allowing users to comment on blog posts? How should a blogger deal with comments that they don’t agree with?
- Why would a corporation, an executive, a news outlet, or a college student want to blog? What are the benefits? What are the concerns?
- Identify firms and executives that are blogging online. Bring examples to class and be prepared to offer your critique of their efforts.
- How do bloggers make money? Do all bloggers have to make money? Do you think the profit motive influences their content?
- Investigate current U.S. Federal Trade Commission laws (or the laws in your home country) that govern bloggers and other social media use. How do these restrictions impact how firms interact with bloggers? What are the penalties and implications if such rules aren’t followed? Are there unwritten rules of good practice that firms and bloggers should consider as well? What might those be?
- According to your reading, how does the blog The Huffington Post compare with the popularity of newspaper Web sites?
- What advantage do blogs have over the MSM? What advantage does the MSM have over the most popular blogs?
- Start a blog using Blogger.com, WordPress.com, or some other blogging service. Post a comment to another blog. Look for the trackback field when making a post, and be sure to enter the trackback for any content you cite in your blog.
Alterman, E., “Out of Print, the Death and Life of the American Newspaper,” New Yorker, March 31, 2008.
Learmonth, M., “Huffington Post More Valuable Than Some Newspaper Cos.,” DigitalNext, December 1, 2008.
Takahashi, D., “Technorati Releases Data on State of the Blogosphere: Bloggers of the World Have United,” VentureBeat, September 28, 2008.
Zuckerman, S., “Yes, Some Blogs Are Profitable—Very Profitable,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 2007.