Businesses have learned to love the blogosphere

Richard Wray

The rise of online social networks such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook has been one of the most dramatic developments on the web over the past few years. But the business world has struggled to come to terms with the growth in user-generated content such as blogs and video diaries.
Representatives from across the business community will descend on London this week to discuss how to interact with this new, growing and already very important audience at the Blogging4Business conference.

The sheer size of online communities such as MySpace has already brought Google and Yahoo! into these sites, looking to attract new users to their search engines. But there is a much wider opportunity for brands and businesses presented by the growing community of bloggers and creators of user-generated content.
Matthew Yeomans, director of Custom Communication and organiser of the conference, says businesses are trying hard to understand the rapidly changing world of social media. "Even the mainstream media is having trouble keeping up with what is going on, so what chance does a corporate communications officer in a FTSE 100 or FTSE 250 company or an account director at a marketing services or PR agency have?"


Much that has been written about the blogosphere has focused on the threat posed to companies by individual consumers, who suddenly have a voice which they can use to complain about a particular product or service. Sites such as NTL:Hell (now CableHell since NTL's rebranding) in the UK, which chronicled the trials and tribulations of consumers who found themselves struggling with the cable company's poor service, have garnered a lot of coverage.

But Mr Yeomans also points to the opportunities available online. The blogosphere, for instance, represents possibly one of the largest untapped reservoirs of market research.

The fact that the key youth audience is abandoning traditional media such as television in favour of on-demand services such as YouTube also means that advertisers will have to understand these new forms of social interaction.

Anthony Mayfield, head of content and media at the online marketing firm Spannerworks, said: "Everything is changing about how media works; we are moving from an age of channel media - where infrastructure and content and distribution is owned by organisations - to one where everybody can play a part. That does not mean those organisations go away; there are just a lot more people out there creating and distributing content."

That change from the old model of one media outlet "broadcasting" to the masses demands a shift in the way that brands and businesses try to get their message across. "What living in an online world is all about is living in networks. I do not mean MySpace but living within networks of inter-related sites," said Mr Mayfield.

Last week, Spannerworks announced the launch of Network Sense, a web-mapping tool that allows businesses to track their brands across these networks so they can build up a map of their position - or the position of particular brands or issues - in cyberspace.

"People have built their entire careers on assumptions and learned models and strategies that have been successful and now the fundamentals of how it all works - how content is created and distributed - has changed and we are living through a revolution," said Mr Mayfield. "I don't think there is any hyperbole in that."

Exactly how brands and businesses use social networks is more complicated than the old advertising model, not least because users of these communities believe they "own" their spaces in cyberspace. Just as most people would object to a poster site being erected on their lawn without their permission, bloggers loathe intrusive marketing in their personal space online.

As a result, advertising to the blogging community needs to be much more inclusive and more of a dialogue than merely shouting a particular message, usually through banner adverts, hoping someone will hear it.

Nathan Elliott, an analyst at the industry specialists Jupiter Research, said: "There are any number of advertisers who will continue to throw banners at social media and treat it as if it was simply another online portal but the reality is, that has limited effectiveness. In this environment the thing that advertisers need to understand, and which they find a little bit scary, is that they are not in charge any more."

'New influentials'

Jupiter recently published research that highlighted the emergence of what the consultancy called "the new influentials". These are the people it believes brands need to firstly identify, and secondly work with, to succeed in social networks. These people influence everything from the purchasing decisions to the opinions about particular brands of other web users. Crucially, they also tend to be "trusted" by their peers. They tend to be the people who regularly update their blogs and have a lot of "friends" on a particular social network.

Once identified, some companies or brands will directly approach these people, offering them products to test and write about in a way which is not particularly different from the interaction between PR firms and journalists in traditional media.

A less direct approach, but likely to have a wider impact, is to create ad campaigns that draw in online communities. Rather than demanding that people visit a website, campaigns that have been successful with online communities give something back, such as content or an application which bloggers can use on their own profile sites. One recent example is the pre-release publicity for Spider-Man 3, which gave bloggers the ability to post the latest trailer on their own sites.

Creative use of social networks for brands and products that are good is relatively straightforward, said Jupiter's Mr Elliott. But for products that do not come up to scratch, marketers are going to have to admit that no amount of advertising can sway online opinion.

"If you have a crap product it is a lot harder," he said. "Don't actively engage this audience. But if your poor product is something that people are talking about, then you need to be honest and say 'we want to make sure that what you think is not very good right now becomes very good in the future.' "

A brand that can successfully open up to its detractors and, crucially, get them involved in creating a better product, can soon find itself with some key advocates in the online world. Because even though the media world may be fragmenting, there still seems to be a fundamental connection between people and products, according to Matthew Yeomans. "A hundred years of consumer marketing has shown that the public is actually very receptive to brands and wants to embrace them."

It is just that brands now have to embrace their audience back.

Too smart, Wal-Mart

Some companies find it hard to give up the old command-and-control advertising model that dominated in the traditional media market when they look at ways of marketing their wares through social networking.

Last autumn a new blog appeared called Wal-Marting Across America, which chronicled the adventures of Jim and Laura, a couple with a mobile home driving from Las Vegas to Georgia. Along the way they took advantage of the fact that Wal-Mart allows drivers of mobile homes to stay for free in its car parks overnight.

Bloggers' suspicions were aroused as the couple only seemed to find very helpful Wal-Mart staff wherever they went - in stark contrast with the fight the company was having at the time with its employees over terms and conditions.

It emerged that Jim was a freelance photographer and Laura was a freelance writer and the trip had been funded, at least in part, by a lobby group called Working Families for Wal-Mart, set up by the supermarket's public relations firm and supported by the company.

Bloggers accused Wal-Mart of trying to whitewash its image through the blog.