THERE was a bit of a fuss last week among consultants and corporate marketers who’ve made “social media” a big part of their business. Forrester, a technology research and consulting business, released results from a survey showing that only 16% of consumers trust corporate blogs.
The news that corporate blogs are not a panacea for all that ails traditional marketing, public relations and corporate reputations today was a shock to many. How could consumers be do so down on something so hip, risque and leading edge as corporate blogs?
Josh Bernoff, a Forrester consultant and one of the authors of the highly rated book Groundswell,* wrote a post titled People don’t trust company blogs. What you should do about it. In it he explained that blogs themselves are not the problem, but rather consumers are being turned off by how companies are using them.
Pimping on a blog is still just pimping
Turns out that pimping your products and services on a blog is just as pointless as doing so on a brochure-ware corporate website. Who knew? In his blog post and a separate report, Bernoff points to some examples of companies that he thinks have credible corporate blogs.
And that’s where he lost me.
First up, he points to Rubbermaid, but when I visited all I saw was a blog marketing the company’s products. There are posts like Decorating for the Holidays, My Hosting Closet and Getting your home ready for the New Year. Nothing there struck me as anything more than a sales pitch for plastic containers.
I got more hopeful when, in the comments to his post, Bernoff added this update:
“Worthy of note: the Blog Council, a collective of company bloggers, has listed some blogs they think are worthy of trust. http://blogcouncil.org/blog/here-are-a-few-trustworthy-corporate-blogs/ “
But that also turned out to be a disappointment because the post he pointed to was no more than the Blog Council promoting its members’ blogs. I thought it ironic that when the theme was all about trust, the Blog Council chose not to mention any non-member blogs. That’s not believable blogging, and I left them a comment to that effect.
Most important, however, none of the examples that Bernoff or the Blog Council gave were on my list of credible blogs. Of course, the criteria I use are probably a lot tougher than your average marketer’s.
Investors are not your average customers
Investor relations isn’t about selling people plastic containers. Unless its a big ticket item you’re selling, the credibility threshold is generally much higher for an investor than a customer. Think about it this way: a customer buys a product for $10 or $100. Investor relations people are dealing with transactions measured in thousands, millions and even billions.
So when I look at a corporate blog, I’m looking at it through a very different lens to most other web or social media consultants. For me, it’s ALL about credibility and trust. I want to see how a company is talking to its investors through the blog in good times and bad, especially bad. A blog helps me look the company in the proverbial eye.
I figure writing corporate blog posts for investors is the second most difficult kind of corporate blogging (blogging credibly in a crisis is probably harder). Perhaps that’s why most corporate blogs are afraid to go near stories about their companies’ financial performance.
But there are a few that do tackle IR topics. I’ve written about DellShares before, which is still the only investor relations-focused blog. Frankly, it’s not a good blog, but I give them credit for trying.
Then there are a number of CEO blogs that I think have value from an IR perspective. The best of these is Marriott’s CEO blog, which last week ran a guest post by CFO Arne Sorenson on the company’s outlook for 2009.
However, the best blogs from an IR perspective may surprise you because they’re not authored by investor relations people or by CEOs. Instead, they’re produced by people who are just great communicators and passionate about what they’re doing.
There are two in particular that I like.
|Nortel’s Buzzboard blog often covers stories of interest to the company’s investors.|
(UPDATE: Nortel updated their blog to a new “community platform” that I think will ruin the site. While the editorial approaches I’ve mentioned here are still relevant, I think you’ll see a marked deterioration in the level of user activity around Buzzboard in the near term, and possibly longer. The same thing happened at Dell and I have yet to see their community recover.)
Nortel’s Buzzboard is a news blog run by new media manager Bo Gowan, a really impressive corporate blogger. The challenge for Gowan is that his company doesn’t have a whole lot of positive news to share.
Shareholders especially have a lot to be unhappy about. This is a company that was once worth $250 billion and today it has a market-cap of a crummy $240 million. Simply horrible.
You either have to be mad or genuinely transparent to launch a blog at a company like that. Lesser companies and people would bury their heads in the sand. Nortel, however, has chosen to stick its neck out and proactively communicate its story, both good and bad.
Says Gowan, a 13-year employee of the company: “When we started the Nortel Buzzboard news blog at the beginning of 2008, one of the first big topics to come up was our 4Q07 financials. We made the decision back then that if we were going to have a news blog, then we had to cover all the news — good and bad — and financial topics were part of that.
“Of course it’s not always easy when there is bad news, and more than once we’ve had employees and execs ask why we allow negative comments to be posted on the blog. I think the answer is pretty simple. If we ignored bad news, or moderated negative comments (it’s very rare that I moderate any comment) then our readers would see right through the tactic and we’d lose all credibility. Our readers are savvy enough to see when we’re making a real effort at being as direct as possible.”
One recent post in particular exemplifies why I think Nortel’s blog stands apart from those that typically get pointed to as “the best.” Following their dismal Q3 earnings on November 10, Gowan did a post on the media’s reaction. It was a straightforward post in which he listed and linked to articles he thought provided deeper analysis of the company’s situation. All of the coverage was negative.
When you contrast that with the usual defensive, one-sided view found today on corporate websites — and corporate blogs — you begin to understand the real value of blogs in the hands of people who see their role as advocates for better understanding between management and stakeholders. It’s a two-way process, the cliched “conversation.”
Probably no one knows Nortel and its communications better than former National Post senior technology reporter and now social media consultant Mark Evans. He has chronicled the travails of Nortel on the blog All About Nortel. In an email last week, I asked him what he thought of Nortel’s blog. This is his reply:
“I think Nortel’s Buzzboard blog has been a really good communications vehicle. I give Nortel a lot of credit for allowing it to exist given the company could have easily decided to stay away from the blogosphere given its current financial challenges. Bo Gowan, who heads up Nortel’s social media programs, has done a commendable job making Buzzboard into something much more than just a place to regurgitate press releases. Many companies could learn a lot from studying Buzzboard and Nortel’s social media efforts.”
As a former journalist myself, I can tell you that we don’t give out compliments easily. We are always measured and careful in what we endorse because it could come back to bite us and hurt our credibility. So that statement by Evans is one heck of a compliment.
But Nortel and Gowan, who says he has “never done IR in any capacity,” deserve more praise than they’re getting. See Gowan’s live blog of Nortel’s AGM in May for another example of something that has never been done on a corporate blog before.
eBay Ink blog
|eBay’s corporate blog has established a small loyal community around it. However, the company doesn’t promote the blog as much as it should.|
Richard Brewer-Hay is another corporate blogger who has impressed me. He was hired from outside by eBay Inc. in January as editor-in-chief of the new eBay Ink blog, which launched in April. He has built up an impressive rapport with visitors to the blog and with followers on an active Twitter account tied to the blog.
In a comment on the blog, Brewer-Hay writes: “I am presenting the news and discussion as I see it within the company. I will not be apologizing for what I write about or what I say – not internally or externally. I’ve been given no “instruction” on how to tackle this blog assignment. I am an internal reporter, covering issues and news across the entire organization.”
Brewer-Hay is somewhat unique because he presents himself as a servant of his audience. Take these sequential comments he made on Twitter a couple months ago:
“I feel a HUGE responsibility in my role here. It can be overwhelming at times to be honest. It will be 7 months next week since launch. When we hit 1 year on April 2, 2009 I’ll do a full assessment of the first year. If I’m not serving my audience as well as I can be I’m gone.”
Richard, as everyone on the blog calls him, has written several posts about eBay’s financial results and its annual meeting, including a Q&A with CFO Bob Swan that included a question submitted by a reader.
He also has been covering the company’s earnings calls live on Twitter. Each post about the company’s financial results has attracted more comments from readers than any similar post on Dell’s investor relations blog DellShares.
If there is one serious weakness about the eBay Ink blog, it is that the company does not support it enough. The blog is not promoted on the traditional corporate site, including in the media and IR sections. But that hasn’t stopped Richard from building a community around the blog.
There are also inconsistencies in how the blog treats topics, which look to me to be a result of not enough time and too few resources. For example, the company’s Q2 earnings blog post includes links to coverage from several third-party sources. However, no links to outside content were provided in Q3.
It’s remarkable that someone as new to the company as Brewer-Hay has been able to jump in feet first and report on the company like it was his longtime beat. He has earned a lot of respect from many eBay observers and stakeholders.
Going where few dare to tread
Usually I don’t write about companies that I think are doing great things because that’s what clients pay us for. But I decided to write about Nortel and eBay because I didn’t see them mentioned last week when so many people were talking about “trustworthy” blogs and Forrester’s survey.
I feel these companies and their bloggers deserve credit for doing what almost no other corporate bloggers have done: tackle difficult financial topics in a new and transparent way despite challenging circumstances.
They are trailblazers and they deserve to be recognized as such.
I’m interested to hear which corporate blogs you find credible from an IR perspective. Please share your opinion in the comments below.
Disclosures: None of the companies mentioned in this post are clients of IR Web Report or its owners Clarity! Communications. *If you buy the Groundswell book via the link above, we will get a commission from Amazon.com.