This ability to reach out to an audience from an online platform has led to an explosion in what is commonly called the blogosphere. According to blog tracking company Technorati, worldwide we are seeing the emergence of about 75,000 new blogs a day. Moreover, about 1.2 million posts are made daily, which equates to 50,000 every hour.
If the blogger - the author of the personal journal - is influential, credible, provocative, informative and entertaining, then their online activities can make an impact. The rise of the so-called citizen journalist independent of mainstream media is a fascinating development and one that all businesses should be aware of when planning their reputation management strategy.
An intriguing question for many corporations and brand owners is whether they should go a step further than monitoring and engaging with the blogosphere and set up blogs of their own. Not surprisingly, technology companies have led the way here, using blogs as an informal way to impart technical advice to customers and generate useful feedback.
A number of grocery brands have followed suit, but with mixed results. The main obstacle to success has proved to be the nature of blogging itself. Blogs are seen as a forum for personal expression, which can often be at odds with the need to project a consistent brand message.
Brands that have failed to appreciate this, either by trying to push their commercial message too hard or by behaving less than honestly, have seen their blogging activity backfire. Reckitt Benckiser, L'Oréal and Unilever are among the brand owners whose blogging efforts have attracted flak.
"The worst UK grocery brand blog I've seen was for Flora Pro-activ," says Hill & Knowlton head of social media Niall Cook. "They thought that because their advertising campaign involved publishing a diary 'written' by Lulu, they could just post these same diary entries on their web site and call it a blog.
"Blogging is about direct communication, not pushing an advertising message down people's throats. Luckily this 'blog' no longer exists."
Reckitt's cleaning brand Cillit Bang landed itself in hot water in September last year. Tom Coates (www.plasticbag.org) wrote a heartfelt piece in his blog on his worries about meeting his father for the first time in almost 30 years. He was surprised and appalled to find in response a trite post from Barry Scott, the fictional character used in Cillit Bang's advertising, and tracked it down to the brand's PR agency. The result was negative publicity for Cillit Bang.
When L'Oréal brand Vichy brought a new anti-aging cream to market in France, it decided to use a blog as part of an integrated marketing programme that linked the blog to advertising and PR efforts. A fake character named Claire whinged about the difficulties of getting enough sleep while attending too many parties in a contrived voice and the pictures on the blog were patently images of a model.
Stinging criticism spread from the web to the press, even national newspaper Le Monde ran a story. In fairness to Vichy, the brand apologised and the blog was relaunched using weblog publishing platform Movable Type, adding the functionality that makes a blog more than a web site. As a means to rebuild trust, it introduced the Vichy team with a photo showing real people.
"If a brand does a blog as a gimmick it risks becoming an example of how not do to it," says Big Blog Company partner Adriana Cronin-Lukas. "Do use your employees to generate content for the blog. Actually, a blog shouldn't have 'content' but a conversation with those customers who might find it valuable. Therefore, do put interesting and relevant information on the blog, not just information you want people to know about the brand. That said, a blog is the perfect medium for telling the 'brand story' on your own terms."
Employees' honest views certainly increase authenticity, but may also lead to problems. Book retail chain Waterstone's sacked a member of staff because of disparaging comments he made about the company in his blog - and is thought to be the first UK company to take this kind of action.
There are legal implications even for legitimately sanctioned brand blogs. "It's the first time companies are giving workers a platform for self-expression in this way," says Struan Robertson, senior associate with international law firm Pinsent Masons.
"There are a lot of risks. Expressing personality, which makes for a good blog, can lead to a lot of trouble. You need to put a policy in place as to what should and shouldn't be covered. But a blog needs spontaneity, not censorship. You can't run every posting past the legal department. So it's not just about writing the policy, but making sure that anyone who's blogging has read it."
Daljit Bhurji, head of the digital media practice at marketing agency Hotwire, cites the activity of car giant Chrysler as a great example of intelligent blogging. It exploited its US sponsorship of TV show The Apprentice to encourage consumers to design an advertising campaign (in the same way as the TV show challenged its contestants) and used the responses, not all of which were glowing, to trigger debate on a range of key issues and glean customer insight.
Bhurji thinks grocery brands have similar opportunities. "From the fmcg point of view, consumers are feeling more isolated from these companies. Lack of brand knowledge from staff in store and the growth of foreign call centres is making people feel more distant from brands. Blogs are a way for brands to reconnect directly with consumers."
As yet, only a few fmcg brands have gone down the blogging route. Now that we can learn from the mistakes of the pioneers in the field, it is time for others to follow. But they must observe the conventions of the blogosphere. If they do not, they will do themselves more harm than good. nblogging great
Internet address: www.guinnessblog.co.uk/blogs/guinnessblog/default.aspx
Widely held up as one of the best examples so far of a brand blog. It is clear that this is a marketing team device, with the Guinness brand team named and pictured on the site. The blog has a serious purpose in encouraging dialogue with customers on issues such as product quality, but is also a lot of fun.
Internet address: www.blog.glenfiddich.com
A useful, well-crafted blog that allows aficionados of the famous single malt whisky to post questions about distillation, bottling, consumption and altogether quirkier matters.
Internet address: www.stormhoek.com
Stormhoek's blog is its web site, and by engaging with bloggers it has become the most well-known wine manufacturer in the blogosphere. It sends bottles to any blogger who requests it (they often go on to write reviews on their own blogs), supplies wine for the many social gatherings that bloggers arrange - and it even involved bloggers in the design of its label. As a result, blogging doubled Stormhoek sales in less than 12 months.
Internet address: www.scobleizer.wordpress.com/
Robert Scoble works at Microsoft and glories in the job title technical evangelist. His blog is packed with personal opinion but also covers some technology issues relevant to Microsoft. He is the co-author, with Shel Israel, of seminal book Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers.how to blog
By all means accept external help in design and technology, but keep blog control with employees, ideally brand guardians or other trusted staff.
Blogs are about two-way communication. Don't blog if you are unable to deal with negative as well as positive feedback.
Be honest. Never pretend to be anyone or anything you are not.
Read and analyse the conversations, engage with the participants where appropriate and use your brand to facilitate relationships.
Put a legal policy in place.
Blogging is about a sustainable engagement, there is limited 'conversational value' to viral style content.