Weblogs, or blogs for short, have saturated the media in recent months, with publications from the New York Times to BusinessWeek touting blogs' ability to get a handle on the pulse of what people really think.
"Blogs are not a business elective. They're a prerequisite," a May 2 BusinessWeek article reports.
The article points out that blogs not only can be a new source of advertising, but a means to harvest new ideas and learn what the competition is doing.
While some businesses have started implementing this emerging hybrid in their efforts, many more have shied away from it. Others are cautiously determining whether they should be a part of the growing phenomenon.
"It's a new world and an issue that we're going to investigate," Kris Falzone, vice president of communications for NiSource, said. "We'd definitely like to have more understanding from the customers' perspective as well as the executives' and shareholders'."
Troy Keeping, general manager for Majestic Star casino in Gary, will probably wait before diving in to blogging.
"Anything to promote our marketing effort, sure, although there are some people who are leaders and some who are followers, and I'm going to say we're going to be the followers on this," Keeping said.
In their simplest form, blogs are personal journals, but instead of placing their thoughts in a traditional leather-bound book, bloggers code them in HTML and post them on a Web site.
Usually, they can be classified into one of two categories; most are personal, where authors write about their lives and experiences, including those with businesses. But many others are also subject-based, where the author writes about a specific topic, such as cars or politics.
However a person chooses to set up their blog, he or she will have the option to include a comments section or message board for comments.
Once a reader gets hooked on a blog, they have two options to keep the blog on their radar: He can either bookmark it in his favorites through his browser or, if he’s a blogger himself, he can link the blog to a “blogroll.”
Other readers then can click on blogroll links to see other blogs. With all that linking, a network of likeminded people is formed, and it’s a formidable group of which companies take advantage, said Ranjan Kini, professor of management for Indiana University Northwest’s School of Business.
”If a blogger becomes popular, many media companies buy them out,” Kini said, noting search engine Google’s purchase of Blogger.com. “That way, they can put more ads on the blogs themselves, and it becomes another business avenue.”
Blogs are by no means a brand new form of communication, according to Rich Markwart, a consultant for the Hammond Development Corp. and adjunct Marketing professor for Valparaiso University.
Likeminded people have been sharing ideas over the Internet since the mid 1990s with the advent of Usenet and other message boards. But it is new in that blogs are much easier to navigate, and with that comes its own set of problems.
”I’m a little wary of it in a business sense,” Markwart said. “With blogging, you have no control and no level of fact-checking, and that’s a great way of spreading rumors. Message boards, on the other hand, are for the most part moderated, so you get a little less of that.”
BLOGGING IN NWI
Currently, there are few business blogs in Northwest Indiana.
”Northwest Indiana has a history of late adoption,” Markwart said. “If something clearly isn't proven to have value, we stay away from it, and blogs haven’t been proven here. Of course, that’s protected us from boom and bust.”
Not even Kini’s graduate students are aware of blogs yet, he said. But in other parts of the world, however, blogs are huge, said Kini, who recently returned from a conference in Chile.
”When I was there, I was asked to blog my thoughts, but I said ‘No,’ because I was new to the place, and I could establish a dialogue just as easily by talking with them,” he said. “But everyone has them, including CEOs and COOs.”
Joe Grossbauer, owner of Web development firm Grossbauer Group in Chesterton, has talked to a few clients about adding a blog to their Web site and is seriously thinking of creating a personal blog of his own, but so far he has had the best success with the message board.
BLOG VS. MESSAGE BOARD
The Dietary Managers Association in St. Charles, Ill., is a 14,000-member strong organization for which Grossbauer Group designed its Web site and moderates a traditional message board. On a normal day, at least 100 of those members log in to see what’s being talked about, and dozens of them post, he said.
”It’s a very well-run, really effective way to communicate,” he said. “You have people with a common need and a common interest, and it’s really the best way for them to pump and promote things their community needs.”
If a company wants unbridled honesty, however, a blog might be the better choice, Grossbauer added.
Og [not using his real name], of [or city], who owns Neanderpundit.com, a personal blog that he describes as predominantly about his own likes and dislikes, said he often talks about businesses with whom he comes in contact on his blog site.
Most of the time, he gives credit where it’s due, but he’s also bashed a company when he’s felt he’s been wronged. And that’s when the commenters come out and share.
”I find that people comment a great deal, more so when I'm complaining," Og said. "I had a bad experience with (a gas station), and I blogged about it and got dozens of comments as well as private emails."
Grossbauer said any blog that has a hot topic will be read.
Falzone, of NiSource, knows that the Merrillville-based energy company and its subsidiary, Northern Indiana Public Service Co., are the topics of blog sites. She and other spokespeople in the department have even been contacted for comment by bloggers. But since it’s a relatively new medium, she said blogging is a topic on which she and her staff need to do more research.
Along with the complaining set, the demographic maintaining and haunting blogs are the 18 to 25 year-old set, with the majority being white male, said Ron Gholson, co-owner of DataMine Corp. in Gary. They’re computer literate, obviously, and they’re most likely either in college or just out of it.
”You’re likely not going to see older folks embracing this technology,” Gholson said. “But blogs are wonderful, because they’re measurable, an instant survey for positive and negative. Plus, they’re cheap.”
Still, unless a company wants to use it internally, Gholson isn’t ready to recommend blogs to businesses for several reasons, among them credibility and regulation.
”If a company has a blog, it must have guidelines as to how it wants to proceed,” he said. “For example, is blogging going to cut down on productivity? Businesses don’t want to waste time. And what can company bloggers talk about – do we want a political message board? Because I know that if I were to establish a blog for DataMine and its 300 clients, and I started talking about some of my political views, I would likely lose some clients."
Nancy Norris, vice president of media relations for Chase & BankOne & JPMorgan Midwest region, said while employees may have personal blogs, the bank doesn’t have a one because its Web site is all-encompassing in terms of information for its customers. But those with personal Web sites have regulations to which they must adhere.
”Being a financial institution, our employees are under regulations, and there are certain things that employees must keep confidential under our code of ethics,” Norris said. “That would include blogging.”
Falzone said the regulations regarding comment from either NiSource or NIPSCO require that executives or spokespeople for corporate or investor relations are the only people allowed to speak on behalf of the company, so anyone with a personal blog caught giving out information would face discipline.
”We’re not out to stifle the First Amendment or allow people to speak on their own behalf, but there are corporate policies on speaking on behalf of the company so that we can ensure we’re presenting the facts,” she said.
“Usually, it’s a situation where someone inadvertently says something at a conference or to the media – we talk to the person, and it never happens again. Since blogs are so new, I can’t necessarily speak to what would, but I would imagine that at this point, we would take the same approach we do now.”
BLOGS AND BUSINESS
Norris doesn’t pay much attention to blogs because the bank’s Web site is enough for its needs.
But she also doesn’t know of any negative feedback blogs may be having at the bank’s expense.
”I don’t believe blogs have hurt us,” Norris said.
Og, the blogger, believes that could be a mistake. He listens to what bloggers have to say.
”I find that the personal experience of others is more telling than all the advertisement in the world,” he said. “Also, because I feel I know many of the bloggers I read intimately, even if only through their writing, I feel I can trust the experiences they relate.
”A company would be wise to take notice of how they are represented in blogdom. Webloggers will tell you what's really on their mind and not sugarcoat it. Certainly, weblogging has already affected politics in our era, and businesses who want to stay in business should take note of this.
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