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Boston Patriot Ledger

Saturday, May 7, 2005

BUSINESSES ENTER THE BLOGOSPHERE: Online soapboxes becoming a force in corporate America

The Patriot Ledger

Run a Google search for "Dunkin' Donuts" and the first three results take you to the Canton chain's official web site, which extols the virtues of the company's coffee and baked goods and promotes gift cards and franchise opportunities.

But type in "Dunkin' Donuts blog" looking for an outside perspective on the company, and you'll find a link to "All Things Dunkin' Donuts" - an Illinois father's web site that is "dedicated to the Dunkin' Donuts enthusiasts of the world."

Created by consultant Scott Lewis, the site posts the latest company news, such as the imminent sale of Dunkin' Donuts parent company. A prominent section contains E-mailed reader comments on everything from the scarcity of Dunkin' outlets in California to employee complaints about working conditions.

Welcome to the wild frontier of blogging, where millions of web users sound off on any topic that fires their interest. A radically democratic type of mass media, blogs have become a new headache for marketers accustomed to orchestrating their brands' images through tightly scripted ad campaigns.

Now marketers say it's time for companies to get in the blogging game - if they haven't already done so. They argue that corporate-sponsored blogs can give companies a chance to communicate with customers and investors in a chattier, more casual and ultimately more effective format than traditional corporate web sites and press releases.

"Blogs for me do what the Internet promised, which is to re-establish the corner grocery store relationship with the customer," said Toby Bloomberg, an Atlanta marketing consultant who has helped create employee-written blogs for such companies as Maytag Corp. and Intuit.

It's too soon to tell whether blogs are the most over-hyped phenomenon of the new millennium, or a permanent shift in how people receive news and information. A recent Gallup poll found that most Americans had never heard of blogs and that only 3 percent read them daily. Even with legions of bloggers climbing up on their digital soapboxes daily, the audience for most blogs remains tiny.

But just ask Canton lock manufacturer Kryptonite Corp. how quickly they can turn a business upside down. Kryponite Corp. faced a public relations disaster and a costly class-action lawsuit last fall after a popular bicycling blog pointed out that its high-security locks could be picked with a ballpoint pen.

Once the dominion of web heads, teens and academics, blogs are going mainstream. Braintree software company Perseus Development Corp. estimates that 31.6 million blogs have been created on popular free blog-hosting sites such as BlogSpot. Perseus predicts the number of blogs will hit 53.4 million by the end of 2005. Inspired by the survey results, Perseus now has two executives blogging on its own web site.

Some sites, such as Walmartsucks.org, chronicle the perceived misdeeds of individual companies. Others track news about a specific industry, like the fitness blog on NetSweat.com where a user recently recounted switching from Reebok running shoes to Brooks because she suspected the company changed the mold to a wider fit.

Marketing blogs have poked fun at Canton-based Reebok International's new ad campaign, "I Am What I Am," pointing out its similarity to Popeye's catchphrase.

Lewis, creator of All Things Dunkin' Donuts, said the world's largest coffee chain is missing an opportunity by not creating its own blog. He said his site attracts up to 5,000 individual views per day.

"Most companies, especially those with 'cult appeal' like Dunkin' Donuts, should be creating space for their customers to sound off on how/what the company is doing," Lewis said in an E-mail.

If Dunkin' Donuts and Reebok have a blogging strategy, they're not saying. Marketing executives for both companies this week declined requests for interviews on the topic. A Dunkin' Donuts spokeswoman said the company has no plans to start its own blog.

Bloomberg, the Atlanta consultant, said many companies remain wary about hosting a blog, fearful of losing control of their image.

"Corporations are struggling with this," she said. "The risks in blogging are what makes blogging powerful, and that's honesty, authenticity, transparency and the passion of the writer."

Some companies that have blogs delete comments they find objectionable, Bloomberg said. Others have monitoring software that allows them to review comments and decide whether to post them.

Perseus Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Henning started his company's first blog in December 2003 after the firm released a study about the growth of the blogging population. The experiment prompted Perseus to launch a second blog, www.surveymentor.com, which focuses on the company's core business, web-based survey software.

"The nice thing about blogs is they don't have a deadline like newsletters: You can blog in a flurry for a week, then not update again for months," Henning said in an E-mail.

When San Francisco branding agency Igor Inc. was looking for a way to keep its name in front of potential clients on a frequent basis, it created a blog called Snark Hunting in 2002. Updated two or three times a week, the site tracks news about corporate naming accompanied by commentary written in the breezy, irreverent style of many blogs.

Igor Managing Director Steve Manning, who writes Snark Hunting, said he's willing to risk offending potential clients if the payoff is more readers. In a blatant competitive play, he also takes frequent shots at crosstown naming rival Landor Inc.

"A corporate blog wouldn't be in place unless they were trying to promote themselves in some way," Manning said. "Some use it as a forum for a press release. There's only so much you can do on a corporate web site. On a blog, you get to comment on things that are in the news, and your client seems to get a sense of what you're all about."

Blogging also has provided Igor with another advantage: prominent positioning on Google searches.

Because Google ranks pages by such criteria as the number of direct links and the number of pages on a site, the 600-plus-page Snark Hunting archive helps Igor earn the top Google search result for the term "product name" out of 150 million hits.

Manning said he's frequently asked who does Igor's public relations, given how frequently the company gets quoted in the national media.

"Our PR agent is our blog," he said. "We don't pay anybody. People find us on the web, and we [don't even] have a listed phone number."

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