I was rabbitting on last week to someone who works for a big IT company about how blogs were actually beginning to be taken seriously – to the extent that in some cases bloggers have a bigger impact than traditional journalists and media outlets.
A few days later, he asked me to stick my thoughts down in an email. So I did. And I feel I've hit something on the head. Not sure what, but here is what I wrote:
Well, for a long time blogs and bloggers weren't really taken seriously for good reason: they were amateurish, written by people with limited skills at organising and presenting information, and they were just rehashes (or rants about) existing information.
Gradually however a lot of people with these skills – and in no way just professionals like journalists or PR people – have seen the advantages of blogging. And with this has come genuine original and insightful material.
Because blogs don't have to go through a system of approval before publication, they tend to be personal, honest and fast: all properties that readers relish.
Suddenly, to find out what the people with vision and foresight think about the latest changes and innovations, you don't have to rely on a journalist summarising their words; you don't ever have to grab the slightly stilted and formal format of a guest comment piece in a publication (assuming you know it's there, and assuming you can get hold of it). No, instead, you can simply go to their blog and read their insights.
Those insights come at almost no cost and minimal effort for the individual writing them, but they would cost a fortune to be harnessed and published through traditional media routes.
All of this has led to a peculiar trend in recent months for blog postings to be viewed as a more accurate and trustworthy source of information than the traditional media outlets. After all, huge media companies have massive conflicting interests and slow, bureaucratic processes. Also, because a newspaper, say, has to grab a broad audience, the level of detail and precision that you want if you are really interested in a particular subject is lost.
With a blog, not only can you gauge the poster individually, but you can also interact directly with them. If they write something and it is rubbish, you can often get a sense of that by reading the comments posted about it by readers. Equally the knowledge of the people posting comments is a good indication of who is reading the blog, and so you can also gauge how seriously this person is taken and hence their level of likely expertise.
So from the perspective of a big company, is there an advantage to getting on blogs and if so, how is it done?
It is definitely worth getting on blogs. An entire generation of people are starting to use blogs as sources of information at least equal to traditional media outlets. In the case of precise subjects, for example, games reviews or software issues, then blogs come with a higher level of trust and awareness. Traditional media still excels in the large, complex issues such as world politics or complex court cases though.
Because bloggers review one another and are not only relaxed about linking to good information on someone else's blog, but often actively view linking as a vital part of their role, there does tend to be a snowball effect with a snippet of information.
If some item of information is interesting, snappy and original, it will spread with almost as much fervour as a big breaking story in the mainstream media. You need only look at the top search terms on blog search engine Technorati to see that there are topics every week, seemingly obscure but interesting, that break through and become widely known by hundreds of thousands of people within hours.
Are bloggers actually interested in big issues, big companies, or is it just a voice for sub-cultures?
Yes they are interested. But not in the traditional sense. Bloggers have no need to fill newspaper space. And they feel no obligation to cover markets. So even if there is a large product launch, unless a blogger senses that launch is of personal interest, they will not bother to write about it. They have, after all, only a limited amount of time each day and there will be lots of other items of interest to write about. Some of which come with laughs.
There is a kudos to writing about what are perceived as interesting stories. And often those topics are “what everyone is talking about today”. So even if one topic has been covered by dozens of other bloggers, a blogger will still cover it. If they find an existing post they particularly enjoy or agree with, they will post a link to it. If they feel they have an insight or angle that hasn't been covered, they will produce an original post.
So how do large companies approach this arm of media?
Well, the biggest problem here is that companies need to relearn their approach to providing information about products. It's not that bloggers are not interested in what companies are doing and, most importantly, producing, it's that they don't like being told things.
Companies tend to act protectively about their products, and aggressively if that product is criticised. This is the approach that has developed as a result of how traditional media works. But bloggers will happily just not write about a company if it is unhelpful or unpleasant. This happens in traditional journalism but it's always viewed as a breakdown in communication or a punishment of some kind. With blogging, bloggers simply don't care if they get on well with a company.
A stark exception to this rule in the IT industry is Apple. Apple has always disliked the traditional media's approach and so has often been unhelpful to the point of rudeness. However it instinctively understands blogging culture and does an incredible job or building hype and excitement over its products. It also produces and releases pics, ads, specs, and so on, causing a buzz over new plans and products.
The result, ironically, is that Apple is scrutinised less because bloggers are happy to run with the fun – to the extent that problems that may exist are often overlooked. There has always been a very strong sense of community among Apple users – sometimes to the point of effectively acting like a cult – but Apple has used blogging to enhance its reputation and get far, far wider coverage than it could ever expect in the mainstream media. Another irony is that all this has had a knock-on effect and Apple's press relations have softened their stance and become vastly more helpful in recent months.
So if you wanted to make news of a new product, or a related type of timely information, available, accessible and popular among the blogging community, how do you do it?
First you find the most influential (most widely read) bloggers that cover the area your announcement relates to. And then you provide them with the information in an honest and straightforward way. No mindless press releases written in corporate jargon. Instead you answer the question: why would this individual care about this announcement/product?
What is actually interesting about it? If it's a product, what real-world use does it solve? Can it do something no one else can do? Why would you be excited if one arrived in the post tomorrow?
If it's news in the sense that a company is planning to do something, or it wants to rebut what people claim it is doing, the same rules apply. So what? What is exciting about it?
If the rebuttal demonstrates someone has got something wrong, say so. If that person has consciously misrepresented information, say so – and how. If it is the mainstream media that has got the wrong end of the stick – a blogger's favourite topic – say so.
The best overall policy is one of honesty. As such, cutting deals or reaching agreements is not advisable since a blogger will see that as evidence of dodgy dealing, which in itself is a more exciting blogging topic.
And lastly, make all related information about an announcement available simply and easily online: pictures, pithy quotes, background and so on. Best of all, direct them to a blog where an open discussion is going on – and where the person actually involved in the news is present and answering queries.
Bloggers in large part prefer to interact online and so phone interviews, PDF files, lengthy reports, blogs that don't allow comments, and email that go unanswered are a no-no.
But be approachable, open, helpful and interactive and the blogging community may well turn its eye in your direction that day.