vicki powers
freelance writer

Keep Your Eye on the Blogs

Fuel, May 2006

by Vicki Powers

Rick Murray doesn't mince words when he describes the ever-increasing significance of blogs. Over the next 12 to 24 months, any company not actively following conversations in the blogosphere to guide their product development and programs will be out of business, says the executive vice president of Edelman, an independent public relations firm in Chicago.

"This is not complex stuff," Murray contends. "[Blogs] force you to rethink your business model a bit and how you develop programs."

While Murray's bold assessment may seem a bit extreme, there is no denying the dramatic growth of blogs (27 million and counting) and the power they now wield in consumers' eyes. According to a recent report by Technorati, a San Francisco, Ca.-based blog search engine, a new blog is created every second every day - or about 75,000 daily.

Blogs have opened a whole new world to marketers, says Paul Chaney, president of Radiant Marketing Group, a business blogging consulting firm in Tupelo, Miss. In the past, organizations captured customer information through focus groups, which represented a controlled environment versus the "wild, wild west" of blogs. Now, companies of all sizes are having their employees monitor blogs, message boards and chat rooms to gain valuable, uncensored customer insight.

"What you're walking in on with the blogosphere is 27 million conversations," Murray points out. "If you go about listening right, you'll find incredible, sharp insights into what people are talking about - whether it's defining a brand, positioning a brand or developing a new product."

ConAgra Foods, based in Omaha, Neb., recently refocused its product lines based on conversations it followed in online message boards, as reported in the Washington Post. The company, perceiving that the low-carb craze was fading, decided to market a different menu and is exploring portable snack foods.

Experts caution, however, that companies not place too much emphasis on online forums, that this form of market research works best in conjunction with a more structured program.

"There totally remains the need for disciplined market research done through proven and scientific means," Murray relates. "We would never advocate to clients that the only listening and talking with consumers is through the blogosphere."

Listening In

Bloggers influence influencers, says Chaney. What today might be a couple of bloggers writing about a certain product could become hundreds tomorrow. This form of online viral marketing - or "blog storm" - helps explain why more organizations are keeping an eye on the blogosphere.

Recently, Intuit--a business/financial management software developer in Mountain View, Ca.--learned of an issue with one of its products while reading a third-party blog. The company reacted quickly, going so far as to follow up with the blogger directly. "The discussion boards and blogs are just another vehicle for the product development team to capture the voice of the customer, " says Intuit's Scott K. Wilder, group manager, QuickBooks Online Community and Collaboration.

In fact, one of the ways Intuit evaluates its employees, says Wilder, is their ability to share customer feedback from the Intuit community Web site (comprising discussion boards and blogs segregated by product type) through regular face-to-face meetings with the product development teams. Product managers participate in discussion boards and blogs themselves.

Kryptonite, a bicycle lock company in Canton, Mass., is another big believer of blog monitoring, but it came at price. In 2004, a video posted in a bike forum showed how to open Kryptonite's locks with a ballpoint pen. Bloggers caught wind, word spread, and by the time the company reacted, it was too late. Kryptonite spent $10 million on replacement locks.

"If you don't monitor blogs and forums on a regular basis, you could lose opportunities - and the conversation will be more about not responding," says John Cass, director of blogging strategies at Backbone Media in Boston, Mass.

Believable Blogs?

Should companies trust everything they read in a blog? Edelman's Murray believes so because the blogosphere is a self-policing environment. People who write misleading or false statements, he says, will get "called on the carpet."

That said, content found in blogs and online forums does not necessarily constitute a "representative sample" of consumers' opinions, says Murray. He advises companies to hold off on making product enhancements until further market research is completed. With so many distinct conversations going on in blogs, Murray says it's easy to zero in on one thing that may not be the most relevant conversation.

But Murray considers blogs a breath of fresh air "If you're willing to go out and listen to things that might be different and make you feel a little uneasy, you will reap rewards you've never seen before," he says.

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