Marketing Moves to the Blogosphere
Business Model Shifts to Engage Customers Online

By Sarah Halzack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

Jason Calacanis, who got into blogging early and big, has quit.

He co-founded a network of blogs called Weblogs in 2003, before the medium cracked the mainstream, and then sold it to AOL in 2005, working there until 2007. Today he is chief executive of Mahalo, a search engine guided by editors rather than algorithms.

After five years of writing on tech industry topics as well as personal ones and building an audience of 10,000 to 20,000 daily visitors, Calacanis said he got tired of all the nasty commenters and opportunistic "link-baiters," people who post just to promote their own blogs.

So he signed off, leaving the blogosphere to others. One group that has been firing up its keyboards is corporate types. Of the approximately 112.5 million blogs on the Web, almost 5,000 are corporate, according to blog indexer Technorati. Calacanis blogged to start conversations and be a part of a virtual community, but corporate bloggers are in it for other reasons: talking directly to customers or giving a personal touch to a big business.

"It's a phenomenal promotion vehicle for a company, or a great crisis tool or a great customer service tool," said Geoff Livingston, a public relations strategist and social media expert.

Bethesda's Honest Tea launched its blog in late 2005 as a way to get close to customers. With a name like Honest Tea, chief executive Seth Goldman said, "we're trying to be as open and disclose as much information as we can." When the company announced that Coca-Cola would acquire a 40 percent interest in the brand, many of Honest Tea's customers who opposed the agreement took their complaints to the blog.

"We gave a very loud voice to the people who said they weren't happy about this decision," Goldman said.

Goldman then took one of the most thoughtful, detailed customer criticisms and responded to each point. Even if readers still didn't agree, "The blog at least helps people see how we think about it," Goldman said.

Kathleen Matthews, who heads global communications at Marriott International, came up with the idea for chief executive Bill Marriott's blog. He saw it as a good way to communicate.

"That's the importance of public relations, of advertising, of everything we do," Marriott said. "And this is just another channel." Marriott also likes how the blog shows that he's "a human just like everybody else." He sometimes breaks from writing about corporate issues to post about the movies he sees on Saturdays with his wife.

Marriott has thousands of employees around the world, who make up about one-fifth of the blog's readership and comment frequently. "It is the virtual substitute for Bill Marriott visiting every hotel," Matthews said.

He's not your typical blogger -- he doesn't use computers. Instead, he dictates entries into a recorder and a staff member transcribes and posts them. The audio is also on the site, which averages about 6,000 visitors per week and has had more than 600,000 total visitors since its inception in January 2007.

Marriott has made more than $5 million in bookings from people who clicked through to the reservation page from Marriott's blog.

Viget Labs, a Falls Church Web consulting firm, began a blog in 2006. In his field, it's practically obligatory, chief executive Brian Wynne Williams said. "If we didn't blog," he said, "people would start to wonder about us."

The one blog has since expanded to five, each focused on a division of the company.

Wynne Williams said Viget's blogs, which target industry peers, have had a "huge impact on recruiting."

"Anybody that we've hired in the past couple of years, I think any of them would tell you that they read the blog heavily to get a sense of our people," he said.

Designer Samantha Warren said her decision to take a job with Viget was sealed by the blog. "The design was fantastic. It just made me feel like, 'I want to be part of something this good,' " she said.

Smaller businesses are experimenting, too, since a blog can be an economical way of getting attention.

"It's a small business, so we don't have a marketing budget," said Robb Duncan, who began a blog for his Georgetown gelato shop, Dolcezza, about two years ago. "We've never done any ads or promoting because we can't afford it. So I guess it's kind of guerrilla marketing, and it's free."

When his second store opened in Bethesda in July, Duncan used his blog to advertise an opening night ice cream giveaway. He ended up serving over 300 gallons of ice cream to more than 1,000 customers that night.

Though blogs may not always yield immediate results, they can be part of a "halo effect" that ultimately gives a business a bigger online presence, says Debbie Weil, a corporate blogging consultant and author of "The Corporate Blogging Book." "I think that the really important thing about using a blog as a business strategy is that usually you cannot connect the dots directly from blogs to revenue," Weil said.

The strategy part is important because a blog may not work for every business. Before starting one, companies have to "make sure that the blog fits in with the existing culture of the company," said Walter J. Carl, a professor of communications at Northeastern University who has studied corporate blogging. He says a blog is a "really bad idea" for companies that are secretive or tend toward non-disclosure.

As Weil said, "Some brands are just not hip, informal, conversational."

For well-read blogs with active reader feedback boards, there are tough decisions about how to deal with comments that are off-topic, negative or downright offensive. Marriott's comment section is moderated, which means no comments go up until someone approves them.

Matthews says they do not remove a comment simply because it's negative, but they do cut those not germane to Marriott's original post.

Wynne Williams, on the other hand, does not moderate comments on Viget's site, because he said it "stifles the discussion." In fact, Viget's blog for its Web strategy division has a post titled "You're Moderating Your Site to Death."

Calacanis now focuses on a personal e-mail list, not directly affiliated with Mahalo, with about 4,000 subscribers. With the list, he said, "I have a much tighter relationship with people." He said it's more intimate and generates more substantive feedback than his blog did.

"It's basically become a mudpit and it's very loud," he said of the blogosphere. In his final post, he wrote, "Today the blogosphere is so charged, so polarized, and so filled with haters hating that it's simply not worth it.

But "the limitation of the medium is the strength of the medium," he said. "It's open to everybody."

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