Below is the text of an article by Kyle Wingfield that was published on July 20, 2005 in Wall Street Journal Business Europe. The link will work only for the subscribers of WSJ, so I published the full version below.
When you hear the word "blog," what comes to mind? The online rants of teeth-gnashing, pajama-clad political junkies? If so, it’s time you got up to speed. That kind of thinking is so 2004.
Increasingly, companies are realizing that blogs — shorthand for "Web logs" — can be effective business tools. Just as e-commerce has dramatically changed the retail industry, many predict that blogs and other online innovations yet to come will revolutionize the way businesses conduct public relations and marketing. Enthusiasts even dare to say that the effect will be still greater on communications and creativity within firms.
"It is a tool that you make work for whatever you want it to….It’s like a Swiss knife," says Adriana Cronin-Lukas, co-founder of the Big Blog Company, a London-based firm that builds blogs for companies and trains workers to use them.
Those political-junkie bloggers out there have turned to their keyboards for one reason: They’re passionate about a particular subject, and they want to talk about it with someone. Seeking an outlet in the blogosphere means they aren’t constrained by geography or schedules, and their discourse is available to anyone who wants to join in. That same kind of wide-ranging discussion can take place between a business and current or potential clients. "There’s a lot of pent-up goodwill on the part of customers," Ms. Cronin-Lukas says. "They’re talking about the company anyway. So it’s a matter of joining the conversation."
This may feel a little disconcerting at first; after all, the primary way that companies communicate with the public emulates the style of television broadcasts: a one-way message sent from one source to the masses. Think of it, though, like learning to ride a bicycle: The off-balance sensation eventually will give way to a confident, even liberating, feeling that allows you to go farther, faster, than you could before.
In the long run, conversing directly with customers could help your credibility with them. That can come in handy in a crisis, as frequent readers of the blog will visit it first to hear directly from the company. "The blog is a great opportunity to tell the public directly about the cars and trucks we have on the market and the ones we’re bringing to market soon," Bob Lutz, vice president for global product development at General Motors Corp. and a frequent contributor to the company’s FastLane blog, wrote in a recent Information Week article. "We’ve also used the blog to address specific media articles that we considered unfair, unbalanced or uninformed."
Far more beneficial, however, may be the gains in employee productivity and creativity that can come from an internal company blog. "If you look at the modern business system, I would say the current structures create bottlenecks," Ms. Cronin-Lukas says. "You have a clash of top-down structure and the bottom-up dynamics that are needed for creativity….My theory is that if you look at any successful company, you will see that innovation happens despite the formal structure."
Rather than trying to generate ideas in meetings, Ms. Cronin-Lukas advises, companies should create an internal blog on which employees can share ideas. A blog allows employees to show tangible evidence of their thinking and expertise, getting ideas out of their heads and putting them to work for the company.
Don’t worry if this sort of talk evokes bitter memories of the tech bubble and Web-site-development costs that spiraled out of control as entrepreneurs tried to keep up with the Gateses. First, this is hardly a recent phenomenon. Those who weren’t introduced to blogs until last year’s U.S. presidential election — in which bloggers helped to uncover the "Rathergate" forged-document scandal at CBS and were accredited, for the first time, as journalists at the Democratic and Republican national conventions — were indeed behind the curve. The origins of blogs can be traced back to the pre-World Wide Web days of bulletin boards. And the business applications are at least as old as Cluetrain.com, launched in 1999, and "The Cluetrain Manifesto," the book that followed a year later warning businesses to "communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking" or risk losing their customers. Blogs merely provide a forum for doing this, and companies from Boeing Co. to Butler Sheetmetal Ltd. in Lancashire, England, have since come on board.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, this new online wave is not about glitz for glitz’s sake, but rather that, when it comes to communication, simpler is better. Flash? Forget it.
With blogging, technology is no longer the end but the means. There’s little doubt that the folks at Microsoft could create for themselves the most whiz-bang Web site imaginable. Yet it’s a very amateur-looking blog by Technical Evangelist Robert Scoble (yes, that’s his real title) that, in the words of Ms. Cronin-Lukas, "almost single-handedly changed the monolithic image of Microsoft" (even the blog’s URL is plain: http://radio.weblogs.com/0001011).
Blog consultancies are springing up in greater numbers, particularly in the U.S. and U.K. Depending on the size of your firm, and the amount of training required, consultancies like the Big Blog Company can get you started for £1,000 to £10,000 (€1,450 to €14,500). Sites such as Blogger.com, a division of Google Inc., offer a chance to try your hand at blogging for free, if not in the most attractive format.
In the business realm, though, better to leave the pajamas at home.
Mr. Wingfield edits the Business Europe column.