During the past year blogging has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Once the preserve of technically-minded enthusiasts, blogging has begun to transform key areas of society such as journalism and politics and now seems set to rival e-mail as a medium for personal communication. The number of blogs is increasing exponentially. In June 2008, Technorati, a blog search site, was tracking close to 112.8 million blogs, up from four million just three years before. The number of blog readers is also on a sharp upward curve.
Importance of blogs in our society
Importance of blogs was first felt in early 2000. Evidence for the blogging revolution is not just statistical. Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher, chose ‘blog’ as its ‘top word of 2004’, defining a blog as ‘a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks’. Bloggers featured in the ‘People of the Year’ lists of both Time Magazine and ABC News in 2004. Finally, the purchase of Blogger, one of the original online blogging tools, by Google in February 2004 and the launch of a blogging service, MSN Spaces, by Microsoft later that same year, are clear indications that blogging is more than a passing fad.
Businesses also appreciated the power of blogs, a trend reflected in the business press. In its January 2005 issue, Fortune put blogs at number one in its ’10 Tech Trends to Watch for’, arguing that blogs are changing working practices in the areas of advertising, marketing and PR. Infosys, a successful Blue-chip Company, uses blogs written by its top executives to discuss almost every minute introduction in its conglomerate (Thinking about acquisitions and Conversion Rates, Using Styles in WPF User Experience Design, dates Oct.24, 2008).
The word ‘blog’ is an abbreviation of the term ‘weblog’, coined by Jorn Barger in December 1997. Both terms are used interchangeably throughout this study. Proof that blogs had finally entered the business mainstream was given in May 2005, when the front cover of Business Week boldly proclaimed that ‘Blogs will change your business’.
Blogs started boosting sales
The emergence of blogs as a business tool was witnessed in the western markets first. For example, some global companies have been using blogs for a number years. In 2005, the FMCG giant Hindustan Unilever was among the most successful to encourage the youth to start blogging. The company realized that blogs could provide a forum for its consumers to discuss new products with developers and answer their questions. The response was very positive. Blogs are credited with ‘humanizing’ Microsoft, a company which had been widely criticized for its aggressive business strategies. In February 2005, Microsoft had over 1,400 blogs listed at blogs.msdn.com. Even Bill Gates himself was reported to be thinking about starting a blog (India PR Blog, 2008). Many companies, including Google, are using blogs internally for project and knowledge management. Others have created blogs for external marketing,PR or communication purposes. In fact, blogging is now emerging as a corporate job, and ads for bloggers have begun to appear on online job boards.
If businesses in USA recognized the power of a blog in early 2004-05, the same took place in India somewhere in mid 2007. Corporate citizens of the country took to the blogging phenomenon, and used it as a tool towards upping sales. It all began with the Jessica Lall case. Very few know that apart from the media, it is blogs that created awareness about the Jessica Lall murder to a great extent. Expressing anguish over Manu Sharma’s acquittal or taking up cudgels on behalf of Chaman Lal Mattoo, blogs became an important medium for middle class India to express its ire against the state’s inability to punish the rich and well-heeled.
But now, marketers are looking at blogs as a powerful social media. Corporate blogging activity is either internal (where they are used as a collaborative tool among employees to share inputs) or external (as a medium of interaction with customers). Most importantly, communication with stakeholders is direct and two-way.
There is also a celebrity cult attached with blogging. In countries like the US, many CEO and leaders have started writing their own blogs. According to Rajeev Karwal, founder, Milagrow Business and Knowledge Solutions, blogs are an effective medium of transferring knowledge to junior and middle-level executives. This former president of Reliance Retail started his blog last August.
Blogging has become a huge money making tool today
As blogs require minimum financial outlay and only basic technical know-how, the barriers to entry are virtually non-existent. At one end of the scale, Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of General Motors, blogs about everything from management issues to new GM models in his Fast Lane Blog. At the other, 23-year old student Prashant Kaushal uses his blog as a means to promote his Internet-based clothing business. Gaurav Mishra, a well-known PR blogger, calls it “the future of marketing”. While such claims are impossible to substantiate, small businesses would seem to be uniquely positioned to take advantage of the blog phenomenon. According to Joshua Allen, Microsoft‘s first blogger, “small businesses need blogs even more than big ones, because they live off relationships and blogs build relationships very effectively”.
Interest in the blog as a business tool has coincided with a growing realization that traditional marketing methods are no longer suited to today’s fragmented markets and increasingly cynical customers. The nineties saw the introduction of new forms of marketing, including relationship marketing, buzz marketing, word-of-mouth marketing, one-to-one marketing, opt-in marketing, guerrilla marketing and viral marketing, to name but a few. Blogs have the potential to fulfil many of the aims of these new marketing methods. They are a form of instant publishing which enables companies to ‘have conversations’ with their customers while projecting a more human face. Keeping the ongoing Indian Cinema circuit as well as social media bloggers, PR marketing and research professionals agreed that blogs ‘”will soon be an indispensable marketing tool” . However, the number of businesses currently using blogs for marketing or PR purposes remains small. A survey carried out in October 2006 by Fortune estimated 4.6% of Fortune 500 companies blog, while only 0.73% employers have taken up Blogging. A major share of the pie is occupied by Microsoft and Sun Microsystem (Fortune list, Oct.2006).
Blogs that made history
A case study released on March 18, 2007 by The Times of India, world’s largest selling newspaper, found that business blogging was barely registering on the proverbial radar. Blogs may be hip and trendy, but they don’t do diddly-squat for most people’s businesses. Customers are hungry for information about a product/service from anyone other than the company itself, which already does the job of advertising . In other cases, they are seeking first-hand help from companies on issues related to the product itself. For example, HLL’s SunSilkGangofGirls is a community-driven portal whose blogging feature is a hit with users. They chose to give a live demo by inviting young girls to volunteer for a makeover in public. The response was overwhelming- Sunsilk managed to create the magic it never had before.
General Motors’ Fast lane blog – In 2006, the company’s FastLane blog delivered an estimated US$410,470 worth of customer insight and marketing at an approximate cost of USD 255,675 – a return on investment of 67 percent – according to a newly released report from Forrester Research. Compare that to 2005, when GM’s blog generated an estimated US$578,374 worth of information and publicity at an approximate cost of US$291,196. That’s a 99 percent return on investment.
The results of these surveys highlight a paradox. If blogs are potentially such an effective marketing tool, as the business press, books on blogging and specialist blogs would have us believe, why are so few companies using them? The answer may be simply that the business blogging phenomenon has not yet reached the ‘tipping point’. Alternatively, businesses may not be convinced that blogs offer a suitable return on investment. Press reports about companies firing rogue bloggers and concerns over confidentiality may also have contributed to the slow take-up.