Saturday, August 26, 2006

Blogs, communications and corporations

Stephen Armstrong reports in the New Statesman

Towards the end of last month a posting appeared on a web site called "Blog Republic - By the Bloggers. For the Bloggers". "Blog Republic is looking for bloggers who are interested in being paid per post," it said. "We're looking for motivated bloggers in the following areas: cellphones, broadband, travel, gadgets, health, stocks and blogging. We're looking for quality bloggers who can make insightful posts. The more you post, the more you earn."

This plea caused quite a flurry in the online world. After all, if blog culture has been about anything, it has been about sticking it to large corporations rather than taking their advertising dollars. Last year, for instance, Dell would not replace a faulty computer owned by the influential blogger Jeff Jarvis. He started chronicling the company's poor service on his blog buzzmachine.com under the heading "Dell Hell". His postings hit such a nerve that Jarvis was soon receiving 10,000 visits a day.

Sites attacking McDonald's, Starbucks, Nestlé, Nike and just about every oil company proliferate around the net. With a successful legal action against these vociferous individuals costing more in legal fees and bad publicity than the victory would be worth, blogs have been seen as an extension of consumer activism.

A poll conducted by NOP World Consumer in March last year found that 50 per cent of bloggers express opinions about a company or product at least once a week, while another survey, for Hostway, showed that 77 per cent of online consumers viewed blogs as a useful way to get insights into the products they were looking to buy. With all these opinions reaching their customers, companies felt like a boxer attacked by thousands of children -- staggering from tiny blow to tiny blow, unable to hit back but sure that, at some point, damage was being done.

This summer, however, something changed. In June, a disgruntled Land Rover customer called Adrian Melrose set up a site called haveyoursay.com to track the company's lack of progress in dealing with a complaint about his new Discovery. Melrose was soon attracting 700 visitors a day, which placed him at the top of a Google search if you typed in "Land-Rover Discovery". In July, the company caved in and sorted out his problem but then struck a deal to turn haveyoursay.com into a Land-Rover customer feedback forum.

Suddenly corporations are all over the blogosphere. Last year, BusinessWeek ran a feature, "Six tips for corporate bloggers", which highlighted a deal between the web services company Marqui and 20 bloggers who were offered $2,400 each to write about the company once a week for three months. At the end of June this year, the idea went pro with payperpost.com, a site set up by Ted Murphy, chief executive of the advertising firm MindComet….

Until now, the founders of the blogosphere have protected their online world. This was easy when blogging was a difficult and complicated business, requiring at least some working knowledge of computer code. Early blogs tended to be written by the highly motivated and technologically literate. They often argued that this was a new paradigm - "citizen-generated media", free from the restrictions of top-down "old media".

With the expansion in open-source software over the past 18 months, however, anyone can get involved. Many new bloggers are school or college kids just trying to get laid. For them, the purity of the blogosphere is irrelevant. The idea of getting paid to chat about a soft drink seems absolutely fine. Nicole Discon, a high-school senior from New Orleans, was paid by 7-Up to plug a new milk drink called Raging Cow on her blog Sparkley.net. She said the commercial connection didn't bother her and "now that I've delved into the whole advertising thing, it's something I really love doing". For youth brands, this teenage ambivalence is great news. After all, online is where their customers are.

Steve Henry, executive creative director at TBWA and the adman behind the "You've been Tangoed" and Pot Noodle campaigns, believes that in the next four to five years the accepted model of advertising will change completely. "You're only going to be able to sell in an opt-in environment like a shop or web site, somewhere people choose to be," he believes. "To get a customer there, you need to surround them - PR, stunts, ambient media, the works. Blogs allow your brand to become part of the culture, to become something that's talked about."

In June, the ad agency Starcom MediaVest recommended that its clients use conversation as an advertising medium. "Traditional advertising is not as effective as it used to be," says Starcom's research director, Jim Kite. "Word of mouth becomes more important, but we didn't realise how important it is. We are telling our clients that they should make word of mouth the focus of their ad campaigns."

Companies such as Procter & Gamble have started recruiting "brand ambassadors" - key social figures in a neighbourhood or community who will get paid to drop brand references into conversations or hold barbecues where they pepper the talk with praise for dusters or aftershave….

This month, the fledgling industry created its own trade body - the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Now the hidden persuaders could be anywhere. You may not want to read ILikeCokeBlogger's views on soft drinks, but it's hard to turn away if your best friend recommends a soap powder. What's the price of free speech when opinions are suddenly for sale?

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