Asked on LinkedIn: “Blogs are a very good tool for consumers to evaluate prospective product or service providers. However, how can a business use blogs to its commercial advantage (i.e. gain valuable insight into customer behavior and satisfaction levels) while minimizing the risk of being unduly smeared by a minority of disgruntled customers or even competitor attacks?”

First, draw a line in your own mind between smears and legitimate criticism – and err on the side of generosity. A big part of the power of blogging comes from conversations and the relationships that flow from them… and those conversations can’t happen if your readers don’t feel they can be honest about you, warts and all.

In that vein, recognize that the commercial advantage of blogging isn’t exclusively, or even primarily, the window it gives you into your customers’ heads. It’s your ability to engage with your audience. Blogging’s ROI comes in many other forms: as a crisis communications channel, a way to tell stories that don’t work in other media, a training platform and more. (I’m up to part 8 of a series on blogging ROI you might find useful.)

All of that said, how do you reduce the risk of actual smears? Here are a few ways:

  • First, set out your expectations clearly and explicitly in an introductory blog post, and on your blog’s About page. Explain your intentions (and motives – transparency counts), and let people know how they can contribute. And make it clear what is and isn’t in-bounds, and why (that is, because you want to have an open and productive conversation).
  • Second, solicit the kind of contributions you want to see. Ask questions in blog posts that focus the conversation. Join relevant conversations on other blogs – either in their comment fields, or via trackback – to encourage more participation on yours.
  • Third, respond to the comments people leave. Most of your conversation should be with the folks leaving productive comments. If you do get comments that verge on flames, remind the commenters of the purpose of the blog – but address whatever good-faith points they’ve made.
  • Fourth, welcome your supporters… but also your critics. The fact that your blog includes voices that clash with yours lends the ring of authenticity to the conversation – especially when your supporters jump into the fray, as they will. You may find that your biggest challenge isn’t to deal with critics, but to moderate the vehemence of your allies.
  • Fifth, know when to cut and run from a bad conversation. It doesn’t serve you or your readers for you to be getting into a slanging match with someone who doesn’t want to hear you. There’s nothing wrong with agreeing to disagree (even if the “agreement” is purely unilateral).
  • And sixth, remember that what you think of as smearing, a disgruntled customer – and *their* audience – may well think of as a legitimate point. There are ways of engaging even harsh critics in ways that defuse conflict and dampen down the flames. David Eaves has some superb advice on dealing with conflict in blogging, and it’s well worth checking out.

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