Blogathon 2009 is here.
Starting on Saturday at 6:00 am, nearly 200 bloggers from a number of cities – Vancouver prominent among them – will be posting to their blogs every half hour for 24 hours. They’ll be raising money for a wide range of charities; so far, nearly $27,000 has been raised.
Here in the Vancouver area, Rebecca Bollwitt is serving again as the rallying point for local participants. Many of them will be gathering at Workspace in Gastown, where she’s sponsoring a tweetup for the duration.
It’s a terrific event. So tomorrow, give a thought over the course of the day to those bloggers (especially as the wee hours approach!) – drop by their blogs and leave a comment, and maybe make a donation via their widgets.
Good luck, folks!
There’s a convergence going on: some big social and business trends that have one thing in common – the word open.
Whether it’s open-source software, or enormous information repositories that are open to be accessed and sometimes even edited by anyone, or the growing requirements for transparency on the part of organizations and governments, your customers, supporters and audience are expecting you to be open to them.
Not just in the sense of open-minded… or having a contact form on your web site. But open in the sense that they know what you’re doing, how it affects them, and why. That your organization’s leadership is available and accountable. That they can engage with you and your brand as peers.
Books like Wikinomics and Tactical Transparency explain not only the forces driving the trend toward openness, but the real value that businesses and other organizations can gain when they let in some sunshine. Freeing some of your intellectual property, for instance, can allow your users to run with it – sometimes as brand ambassadors, other times as analysts who generate new and unexpected insights for you. And opening up internally, by creating a place for conversation that cuts across departmental walls, can give your organization new opportunities to collaborate.
Even the more intimidating aspects of openness, like the increased accountability it imposes, can be positive when it keeps organizations true to their mission and their brand values – and aligned with the communities they serve.
There’s more – a lot more – to openness than blogging, of course. But a blog can be the way your organization opens the windows a crack, sniffs the air outside and decides whether to go further.
Here’s how to start opening up:
- Nobody’s expecting you to run naked through the digital streets – and certainly not right off the bat. Get buy-in from your organization, start small, and open up gradually… validating what you’ve done at every step.
- Your first step can be a modest one: bringing in a manager as a guest blogger, for example, available to respond to reader comments and questions about their area of responsibility. A successful outing there can lead to more ambitious efforts later on.
- Focus your efforts on relevant openness – things that actually matter to your readers. And aim at first for the areas with the least controversy and risk, while you build up your organization’s comfort level (and your own knowledge of your community of readers and commenters.)
- Openness is as much about getting to know people as it is about hard facts and controversial issues. Introduce your readers to the behind-the-scenes folks who make things happen. If those people are willing, give your readers access to them with a Q & A or live chat on your blog.
- Let your readers in on what goes on backstage. Take them through the process of making that hot new product you’re selling, or walk them through the processing of a donation all the way to where it makes a difference out in the world.
- Share your challenges. Is the economic downturn causing breaks or bottlenecks in your supply chain that are causing delivery delays? Has heightened interest in your organization meant a slow web server or site outages? Be the first to tell that story to your readers, before they hear it from others or experience it themselves; they’ll appreciate the candor, and respond well to your lack of defensiveness.
- Anticipate the risks of openness: backlash, criticism and tough questions. Plan in advance for how you can deal with them, so a brief spark doesn’t have the time to flare into something more destructive.
- “Open” doesn’t mean “floodgates”. You probably have reams of data you could share on your blog, from the cafeteria’s daily specials to the new guidelines for office allocation. Be judicious, and choose the information that will mean the most to the people you want to reach.
- If you have an especially thorny problem, consider throwing it open to your readers. Be very clear about the kind of help you’d like, so you can focus their contributions and ideas where they’ll actually be useful.
- When the time comes to make a decision that affects your readers, use your blog as consult them
- See if you can make your organization’s logo and wordmark available for reuse (perhaps under a Creative Commons license), and post them to your blog. Invite your readers to use them, even to remix them, when they’re talking about your organization. Do the same with photos of your organization’s leadership, audio and video clips of products or services in action, and other digital assets that your readers can run with.
- Do at least as much listening as talking, and build the reflex of responding with access. If you’re seeing a lot of blog chatter or reading a lot of comments about a particular issue, find ways to open up around it – by exposing some of your internal conversations about the issue, for example, or inviting a conversation between your readers and some of your organization’s key people.
- Look for ways to bring people inside – not just virtually, but in the physical world. Hold a real-world meetup in your offices, for example, or a townhall with your organization’s key leaders. And complete the circle by linking it back to the online world – for instance, via a Twitter feed or liveblog of the conversation.
You’ll know that openness is starting to pay off when:
- Your research and monitoring show an increase in public perception and description of your organization as open, accessible and accountable.
- Ideas from your blog’s readers start getting discussed in your organization, and taken seriously.
- Your organization steps back from the brink of a bad decision because of concern over how it will be received in the community. And your organization takes a courageous good decision for exactly the same reason.
- Internal collaboration starts to cut across silos, as the culture of openness soaks in.
- People in your organization start to approach you with things they’d like to ask or share with your readers.
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.
Social media should be a no-brainer. After all, it’s all about conversation and relationships – and in fact our conversational instincts can serve us well in blogging, podcasting, social networking and other social media channels.
Instinct alone, however, won’t suffice. You need skills, knowledge and experience to succeed in social media – from tech chops, to the unique demands of various social media venues, to the social nuances of dealing with conflict between online antagonists.
You can develop those social media muscles with training (self-directed or with a teacher), by watching others and – most important – through practice.
And “practice” in more than one sense: learning involves making mistakes, sometimes big ones. Those can be hard enough to swallow if you’re communicating as an individual, although you’ll find a lot of people willing to cut some slack for teh n00bs.
But when you’re out there on behalf of your organization, there may be more at stake. People are less forgiving of institutions than individuals, and depending on your organization’s profile, the damage to its reputation could be significant.
That’s where your blog comes in. Smaller in scale, more manageable in scope and simpler in concept than more ambitious social media projects, your blog can be the perfect place to build your skills and experience – and those of your embryonic social media team.
Here are some of the ways you can make your blog serve as a training platform as well as a conversational communications channel:
- Go in prepared. Yes, it’s a training ground – but it’s also happening in the full light of day. So before you begin, give yourself a grounding in blogging by reading other blogs, commenting on them, and seeing what appeals to you and what doesn’t. Consider blogging behind closed doors for a little while before going public, and you’ll not only start settling into a consistent voice, but you’ll have a solid body of posts to show the world.
- The same applies to team members. They don’t have to be seasoned hands, but be sure they know some of the basics before you give them the keys. (And by “the basics”, I mean about blogging generally … but also about your blog’s goals, tone, policies and culture.)
- Assemble your blogging team with some thought to the future. Choose folks you’d like to develop as potential social media team members, and let them try on different roles – from writers to community animators to editorial managers – and discover their strengths. And if you’d like to try someone on for size and see how they adapt, bring them on as a guest blogger for a little while.
- Set learning goals and milestones for yourself and your team, and take them seriously. Plan a curriculum that includes self-guided study, practical experience and – if you have the budget – formal training. And think strategically. What skills do you need not just as a blogger, but as a manager and strategist? Learn about analytics, conversions and calls to action.
- Look to the future: what kind of social media initiative will your organization likely want to pursue? Draft your blog’s roadmap in a way that will take you in helpful directions, anticipating and honing the skills that will serve you well when the time comes – by adding the odd video or audio clip if a podcast is in your future, for instance.
- Look for overlap. Think about your organization’s training needs; where do they map onto some of the skills you and your team members can develop through the blog?
- Build a peer social network on Twitter, LinkedIn or other services, and ask questions. There’s a strong sense of community among social media types, and asking for help with a technical issue or a pointer to a resource will almost always get you – if not the definitive answer – a solid starting point.
- Share what you learn among your team, and broaden it to your organization. Holding lunch and learns, lightning sessions or monthly seminars can help spread the knowledge about tools and strategies. Alternatively, social bookmarking, a wiki or an internal blog can let you organize your collective expertise and share that blog or podcast you just discovered.
- Offer training opportunities to the rest of your organization. An internal internship on your blog could help a customer care rep learn more about engagement, a marketing manager get a handle on social media culture, or your ED’s speechwriter brush up her conversational chops.
Here’s how you’ll know you’re creating a high-value training platform:
- You have a clear picture in your head of exactly what skills and knowledge your team has, where you need to improve, and where individual members’ strengths lie.
- Blogging, blog monitoring and other social media activities are faster and easier, because they’re becoming second nature.
- Team members’ performance assessments show improvements in areas related to their social media activities, such as facilitation, collaboration and communication.
- You and your team members start trying out new skills, because you’ve mastered the old ones.
- You’ve developed a network of people – peers, mentors, prospective new hires – you can count on for sharing ideas, knowledge and support.
When you’re talking about yourself, your brand or your organization, you may have first-person credibility… but you also have a pretty obvious conflict of interest. Add that to the growing distrust of advertising and public relations – in fact, of institutional communications generally – and you have a challenge.
These days, your audience is putting much more trust in their personal networks: their friends, family, neighbours and colleagues. When they hear a personal message from someone they know, it punches through in a way that organizational communications can’t.
Blogging can help connect you to the power of those personal networks. It gives you a vehicle for bringing content to your audience in a way that makes it easy – sometimes even irresistible – to pass along to the people they know.
But here’s the thing: they often don’t just pass your message along. Your readers aren’t automatons; they’re active participants in a conversation, and they’ll transform your content – sometimes in ways you never anticipated.
And you don’t get to pick which messages get disseminated and which don’t; a blog’s audience chooses those for themselves. The content that gets sent around is the stuff they find compelling – the message they’re motivated to run with.
If you think that sounds like you’re giving up a lot of control, you aren’t wrong. But what you lose in control, you gain in power and reach. The unexpected twists that can drive a traditionally-minded brand manager wingy are exactly what lend the weight of personal authenticity – and engagement – to the results.
Here’s how to enable your readers to be effective, motivated messengers on your behalf:
- The readers who are most likely to bring your message (or, rather, their take on it) into the world are the ones who feel some level of personal investment in your organization or brand. It won’t be hard to recognize them; on your blog and on others, they’ll be the ones sticking up for and encouraging others to check you out. Build relationships with them.
- Your critics are also worth talking to, at least the reasonable ones, and not just to keep them from saying “That organization wouldn’t even reply to me.” Whether they have good-faith complaints about you, or their beef with you comes from a misunderstanding, talking with them can be the first step toward building a positive relationship.
- Don’t waste too much time trying to offer content that will “go viral” – that is, turn into one of those memes that flashes across the web like a wildfire across dry prairie. Instead, concentrate on offering great content: engaging stories, unique perspectives, entertainment or practical information.
- Make it easy for your readers to tell your story. Include logos, photos and video and audio clips… along with permission to not just reuse, but remix them as they please; the Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution license is your friend. Even easier, adding a single snippet of code to your blog template will generate one-click links that let users share your posts with every major content-sharing site on the web. (Here’s an alternate service for the same kind of one-click sharing.)
- Offer full-text news feeds (aka RSS feeds) from your site, so your readers can get whole blog posts in their newsreaders. Many of them, especially power users, have set up workflows to let them quickly share posts in Google Reader or similar services with their friends.
- There may come a time when you wouldn’t just like your readers to pass your content along – you need it. Go right ahead and ask them; be transparent about what you’re hoping to achieve, and suggest ways they can most effectively deliver the goods. Just be sure your tone makes it clear that you’re asking for help and making suggestions, not giving orders.
- Be ready for unexpected, even hostile uses of your content (especially if you work in a contentious or competitive arena). Greet them graciously as part of the conversation without making a huge deal about them, and they likely won’t overshadow your message.
- Choose messages and content that people will want to convey. News releases, talking points and marketing-speak won’t work with any but your most dyed-in-the-wool supporters (and you should in fact have a separate strategy for working with them). You’ll get a lot more traction with engaging, compelling content that gives readers and their friends some kind of value.
- Include calls to action in your content – the kind you can track, like a landing page with an URL keyed to a particular blog post. The results will give you clear metrics… and if you’ve chosen a call to action with tangible value, a simple way to calculate ROI.
- Measure your reach by tracking searches on Google, Technorati, Twitter and other services. Get a baseline for the metrics that count for you, and then monitor what’s working and what isn’t. Experiment, watch and learn, and you’ll find your viral reach growing.
You’ll know you’re getting value when:
- You see your content reinforcing your brand and messages – not on your site, but in the blogs and social media streams of your readers.
- You see that content being reproduced by people you weren’t aware of before.