Since when did blogging become elitist?

A communication industry site, ragan.com, picked up my recent post about why it’s “ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging.”  This was cool because it opened the topic to a new set of commenters and perspectives.

However, I was struck by some of the elitist views on blogging and wanted to address the issue here, instead of a long comment on that site.

What I mean by “elitist” is that some folks seem to uphold a narrow, sanctified view of blogging and dismiss those outside that view (i.e. “Blogs are by definition in their own class.”)

One person opined that blogs should be different than any other form of corporate communication because they “grew from people’s personal communications and because the audience for blogs expect it to remain personal.”

Another reader commented that “Blogs are designed to be be participatory and conversational, with a discussion leader and participants in the discussion.”

And, “To use a blog as a personal communication when it’s not genuinely personal is an assault on the purpose of a blog and an intentional deception of readers.”

Excuse me friends, but who is coming up with this definition of a “purpose of a blog?”

There can be MANY purposes for blogs …

  • For the highly-interactive, personal, and prolific Chris Brogan, the blog is an engine to build community and ultimately monetize services and affiliate advertising.
  • GE’s stellar corporate blog features product ideas and solutions but has almost no reader interaction or community. They rarely even identify a post’s author.
  • Caterpillar’s blogs serve as forums for technical problem-solving and have an extremely high level of community sharing.
  • The Red Cross blog tells stories of heroes and global crises with authors from all over the world.
  • There is a whole science around connecting blogs to keywords and SEO results. In that analytical world, blog content is derived from probabilities, statistics, and a sales funnel. Personality need not apply.
  • For my daughter in college, a blog is simply a way to journal and tell her life stories — no strings attached.

All of these blogs are relevant and serve a unique purpose.  They may or may not be personal. They may or may not nurture community. They may or may not be participatory.

And they may or may not be authentic. Here’s what I mean.  This challenge was posed to me on the Ragan site:  “How would people feel if the marketing/PR/comms guru types whose blogs they follow weren’t written by those people. What if Seth Godin ‘s blog wasn’t actually written by Seth Godin?  Would you be okay with that?”

Actually, I’m guessing Seth doesn’t write his blog all the time.  The fact that he keeps a busy travel schedule, writes every day, posts a short riff from a speech or book, and doesn’t allow comments (which would require a response) on his blog, indicates that it is probably ghost-written by an assistant, at least some of the time.  I don’t KNOW this. It’s a hunch.  But in any event, I am perfectly OK with that. It’s his advice. It’s his brand. It may even be him. Ghost or no, the blog provides value to me as a reader which is why I subscribe.

Bottom line, I believe it’s anachronistic and short-sighted to try to force blogging into somebody’s pre-conceived bucket of expectations.  Instead of trying to define and dictate what our blogs and communities should be, let’s celebrate the amazing diversity of writing, readers and missions on the social web.

Illustration: Comedy Central

Can the social web play a role in customer retention?

The recession has culled the weak from the pack but it’s likely that your competition is still fierce.  Is there a way to attract and retain B2B customers without lowering your price? And is there a way to leverage the social web to keep your customers … even in the extreme case of a commodity market?

Holding onto customers in a buyer’s market is one of the most extraordinary challenges in business, especially if you’re selling a commodity (Commodity = purchasers view suppliers as identical on all factors but price, i.e. common coal, steel, or chemicals).

There is usually only one winner in a commodity market — the lowest cost supplier — except in periods of high demand when supply falls short.  But there are ways to lock-in customers even in ugly downturns.  One strategy I used throughout my career was to create a systematic plan to raise switching costs. By this I mean create obstacles — through valuable benefits — to prevent a customer from leaving you for the competition.

A process to retain customers

This process starts with getting out to your most valued customers and listening. And I mean REALLY listening. We would sometimes have half-day sessions to explore un-met and under-served customer needs that would …

  • Improve their competitive position
  • Enhance profitability or productivity
  • Eliminate waste
  • Lower risk
  • Increase speed to market

One strategy that uncovered potential points of differentiation was to ask customers what they hated about their job. This always seemed to get people to open up about an idea we could implement to make their life easier!   Some other potential approaches to this challenge:

  • Solve a customer problem (reporting, data-gathering, analysis/testing) that might add slightly to your cost, but establishes enough value to create a hurdle to switching
  • Create a specialized service that would be difficult for competitors to match (we did a specialized truck-return recycling program, for example)
  • Work actively with customers to influence specifications and terms that could advantage my company or disadvantage a competitor
  • Focus retention efforts on most profitable customer locations
  • Look at eCommerce integration options to enhance retention

Notice that all of these ideas go beyond the basics of price, quality and service. Those aren’t strategic initiatives. Those are competitive tablestakes these days.

When customers don’t play nice

This process of listening, reacting and renewal must be continual and integrated through an effective CRM system. But it doesn’t always work.

In the middle of all this great creative marketing work I just suggested is another dynamic. Purchasing may not want you to implement your ideas – even if there is an advantage – because it reduces their flexibility with suppliers.  They may even force you to hand over your innovations to competitors. I witnessed this in the automotive market in the 1990s.  This ended up hurting customers because when there is no reward for innovation, innovation ends.

Now what about the social web?

Is it possible to develop some distinct value through social media that could create a switching cost? My answer – probably not. The social web might be a tool to listen and tune-in to possible innovations and market needs but I don’t see how social networks can create sustainable switching costs in this part of the sales cycle. It’s free to everyone and easily duplicated by competitors.

However, I do think you can create PRIVATE information networks and communities that create distinct value. For example, one idea that worked really well was a private, unique market information hub for customers who remained in our top tier in revenue.

What are you doing to hold onto your best customers in tough economic conditions?  Can you think of any way to leverage the social web for DISTINCT value in a commodity market?

Why it’s ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging

It seems like “ghost blogging” — the practice of penning posts for others –  is always under attack.

Jon Buscall wrote a fine piece about it recently as did Mitch Joel.

Philosophically I agree with them.  In a pure and perfect world executives should write their own copy.

But practically speaking I don’t agree.

Here’s why.

  • It’s not a pure and perfect world. Ghost writing is going to happen and it always has.  Wishing and pontificating will not make it different.  So why not at least do it well?
  • Most executives don’t have the time or ability to blog consistently and effectively. So if they don’t get help, it just won’t happen. Isn’t it a good idea to help bring their ideas to life?
  • Personal connection and “community” is probably less important to somebody at the “rockstar” level of chairman.  I know this will get hollers from the crowd that community is “everybody’s business” — and to some extent that is true, but again, I’m being practical. Most CEO’s are not being compensated to build community through a blog.
  • The chairman does not pen his own speech, yet nobody questions that they own it. They don’t write the shareholder’s letter in the annual report, yet this is deemed as authentic. Do you think Former GE Chairman Jack Welch sat there and pecked out his own book? And yet it is seen as his.

So why do so many people seem to want to put blogs in a different class of writing?  In the world of corporate communications it could be argued that blogs are even less important and critical than a major speech or a document being submitted to the SEC.   Why are people on a quixotic mission to fight against reality?

Here’s a better solution. Establish guidelines to have an effective ghost blog in an effective and ethical way.  A few months ago there was a debate on this topic on {grow} that resulted in some guidelines for ghost blogging:

  • The host executive should provide general ideas for a ghosted blog post and a few bullet points expressing key thoughts for the writer to work from. Obviously the writer needs to spend as much time as possible with the host to get a feel for their language and opinions.
  • The executive should approve every blog post before publishing under their name.
  • Content aimed at a personalized connection – such as responses in a blog comment section – ideally should be authored by the executive, not the ghost writer.
  • Be sure there is an approval process in place that can handle the need for flexibility, responsiveness and the opportunistic tendencies of the social web.
  • Guidelines of the corporate blog process and a list of blog contributors could be contained in an “about” section.

Do these make sense?

A fascinating B2B social media success story

With many companies now engaged in social media marketing strategies for nearly two years or more, success stories are starting to emerge, even in the difficult marketing world of industrial B2B.  I discovered a great success story to share with you through a masters thesis being developed by Haakon Jenson of Norway.

The case exemplifies an integrated approach to CRM, customer research, SEO, web design, content development, and social media marketing that I think you’ll enjoy!

BACKGROUND

ShipServ is a leading e-marketplace in the maritime industry providing a portfolio of software, services and hosted applications designed to enable efficient global shipping.   Their core product TradeNet, an e-commerce platform connecting industry buyers and suppliers. Currently ShipServ serves 150 shipping companies managing 5,000 ships and approximately 30,000 suppliers. In 2008 the company turned to the social web to help them through several marketing challenges:

  • Image of being an impersonal software company.
  • Limited marketing budget and employee resources
  • Increase awareness of using eCommerce as a shipping solution — a big change for traditional customers
  • Customer base not early technology adopters. A survey showed 65% regarded the social web as a “distracting waste of time”

OBJECTIVES OF THE MARKETING PROGRAM

  • Drive 50% more traffic to website in three months
  • Raise awareness of brand throughout global shipping industry
  • Attract new sales leads through relevant content
  • Change focus from “shouting” at customers to “listening, engaging and inspiring”

STRATEGY

The company began with research to find out where customers were receiving their information, their participation in the social web, information needs and the current “state of the conversation” for the ShipServ brand. Key discoveries included that there were very few online communities for their industry and that the mention of their brand was rare. Despite the fact that their historical customer base largely did not use the social web, they saw an opportunity to seize the lead and become a thought leader in their marketplace.

ShipServ partnered with an outside marketing firm and their CRM vendor to create an integrated social media plan that focused on leading the creation of an online community, developing outstanding content and using social media channels to drive new sales leads through their website.

ACTIONS

> Conducted research to determine customer information needs and keyword themes.

> Revamped website to be more customer and content driven — New design was more easy-going and personal. Developed custom landing pages for groups of keywords used to find the company and specific calls to action based on individual customer needs.

> Created a blog that frequently featured their customers. They also used the blog as a way to establish conversations in the industry.

> Established “scorecard” through their CRM system to track lead nurturing progress. All reactions and visitor behavior was examined for possible sales leads.

> Developed quarterly content plan based on themes established from research. Content was leveraged and re-purposed in various ways across all the social media sites.

> Promoted original content through variety of social media channels, which were used as “beacons” to drive traffic back to the main website. These channels included:blog, e-newsletter, Twitter, light-hearted videos, podcasts, Facebook and LinkedIn.

> A series of valuable white papers (like 10 Essentials of Online Marketing in the Shipping Industry) were created and promoted through the social channels, website and newsletter, resulting in 1,000 downloads in seven months.

> Established online industry community by creating a group on LinkedIn. The company introduced this forum to both shipping company suppliers and procurement professionals and had 863 members as of last week.  Content for the community was developed based on the initial research of user needs and included research, surveys, and of course content re-purposed from other sources.

> Search engine optimization campaign, including keyword content planning.

RESULTS

Website

  • Website visitors increased by 59 %
  • Pageviews increased by 70 %
  • Average time on site increased by 25 %
  • Generated over 1,000 downloads of a white paper

Community

  • 378 members in the ShipServ Maritime Network group on LinkedIn
  • 300 visitors to the blog
  • Over 600 views of the company videos
  • LinkedIn and Twitter have gone from zero to the top 20 traffic sources

Business statistics

  • Increased contact-to-lead (landing page contact) conversion by 150%
  • Increased lead-to-opportunity conversion by 50%
  • Decreased campaign management costs by 80%
  • Increased the number of sales-ready leads by 400%
  • Measurable increase in brand awareness

Break-even on the $30,000 social marketing media investment was achieved in three months. The company estimated the results they achieved would have cost $150,000 through traditional media.

What are your thoughts on ShipServ’s project?

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