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Balancing blogging

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Joel Spolsky writes one of the best blogs for programmers that I, as a non-programmer, have ever read. Joel on Software is soon to be ten years old and has provided me with some real insight into how software companies work. One of my favourite essays of Joel's is Hitting the High Notes, which he wrote in 2005. I still refer back to it even now because it contains truths that apply not just to programming but to many other areas as well.

In his Inc.com column, Joel takes a look at what makes a good business blogger. He says:

These days, it seems like just about every start-up founder has a blog, and 99 percent of these bloggers are doing it wrong. The problem? They make the blog about themselves, filling it with posts announcing new hires, touting new products, and sharing pictures from the company picnic. That's lovely, darling -- I'm sure your mom cares. Too bad nobody else does. Most company blogs have almost no readers, no traffic, and no impact on sales. Over time, the updates become few and far between (especially if responsibility for the blog is shared among several staff members), and the whole thing ceases to become an important source of leads or traffic.

I've never counted to know if 'most' company blogs are like this, but certainly too many are. It's something I come across over and again: The business whose social media presence is all about them.

Reading these blogs or Twitter streams or Facebook walls or LinkedIn Groups is like being trapped in a noisy restaurant with the worst date of your life who just cannot stop talking about how great he or she is, how well travelled they are, how fascinating their life. By dessert you're eyeing your spoon, trying to figure out just how blunt it is and just how hard self-disembowelment would be.

Joel goes on to paraphrase Kathy Sierra:

To really work, Sierra observed, an entrepreneur's blog has to be about something bigger than his or her company and his or her product. This sounds simple, but it isn't. It takes real discipline to not talk about yourself and your company. Blogging as a medium seems so personal, and often it is. But when you're using a blog to promote a business, that blog can't be about you, Sierra said. It has to be about your readers, who will, it's hoped, become your customers. It has to be about making them awesome.

Kathy is, of course, spot on. Blogging, along with other forms of social media, is not about blowing your own trumpet or bragging about you or your company's achievements, its about giving people something interesting, entertaining, useful or valuable. It's about having a conversation and listening as much as talking.

But where Joel surprises is in his announcement that he's quitting blogging, writing columns and public speaking:

So, having become an Internet celebrity in the narrow, niche world of programming, I've decided that it's time to retire from blogging. March 17, the 10th anniversary of Joel on Software, will mark my last major post. This also will be my last column for Inc. For the most part, I will also quit podcasting and public speaking. Twitter? "Awful, evil, must die, CB radio, sorry with only 140 chars I can't tell you why."

The truth is, as much as I've enjoyed it, blogging has become increasingly impossible to do the way I want to as Fog Creek has become a larger company. We now have 32 employees and at least six substantial product lines. We have so many customers that I can't always write freely without inadvertently insulting one of them. And my daily duties now take so much time that it has become a major effort to post something thoughtful even once or twice a month.

The best evidence also suggests that there are many other effective ways to market Fog Creek's products -- and that our historical overreliance on blogging as a marketing channel has meant that we've ignored them.

I think that's an understandable move, but for my money it's also an overreaction. Blogging alone is not a marketing plan. Social media doesn't stand isolated from other marketing techniques, but should instead be part of a wider strategy.

My advice to Joel would be:

  • Don't abandon your blogging and public speaking, just scale it back.
  • Look at your new markets, the ones you want to move into, and figure out what those people want to hear about.
  • Start a new blog aimed at your new market. Better yet, get someone else in your company who is already interested in these new markets to start it.
  • Do whatever other marketing you were planning on doing as well. Remember, this is an 'and' world, not an 'or' world.
One doesn't have to sacrifice a blog for traditional marketing - the two can coexist quite happily.

The cost of inauthentic communities

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Roger Martin has an excellent post on Harvard Business Review that looks back at how business executives used to be embedded in the community they served but are now disconnected from it, as are the businesses they work for. It is a must read.

In the 60s, business were smaller, executives knew their customers and their staff. Shareholders were in it for the long run so tolerated long-term planning. Companies had more loyalty to their home city, so "doing things to benefit the city made sense both corporately and personally."

While not perfect, this structure enabled the executive to live a reasonably authentic life; the way he wanted to live personally was largely aligned with her corporate responsibilities. He wanted to make the customers -- whom he was likely to know personally -- happy. He wanted to support his employees' well-being -- employees who he and his family probably knew. He wanted to be a respected figure in the city, a city that was important to his company and his family. And he wanted to make his shareholders happy because he knew that they had placed a long-term bet behind his company. If he worked on all those aspects of his community, he could be successful and happy. And by serving customers and employees well, the corporation was likely to keep on prospering.

But now companies and the executives that work for them have become dissociated from their environs, their staff, their customers and, crucially, from long-term thinking. Martin says:

[T]he idea that shareholder value was a corporation's principal objective function took hold, largely, I think, through the agency of business schools, whose dramatic rise coincided with the decline of the traditional business community.

This disintegration of community is not a good thing for the exec, his business, the community or frankly, anyone else. It leads to the sort of short-termist thinking that led to the Crash.

Martin paints a fairly bleak picture, but I think there is a cause for hope: Social media. Blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other tools provide a way for the people in business, whether executive or not, to get back in touch with their wider community. It also allows customers to collaborate and to become a countervailing force to shareholders, Wall Street and analysts who encourage companies to make bad decisions.

The new community that businesses find themselves in isn't a geographically constrained community, but a community of interest, or rather, a community of people who have an interest, whether they are customers, staff or curious onlookers.

And there's nowhere to hide, either. The sunshine of the public's attention can illuminate any previously hidden nook or cranny, and behaviour that businesses once got away with can now be exposed and challenged. The broader reach of businesses also frequently allows customers to swap away from the worst offenders, using their dollar or pound to vote against a company's policy or behaviour.

I think we have a long way to go before we make real progress, and the largest of companies frequently have the longest journey, but I think the tide is finally on the turn.

Listening - Connecting - Publishing

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Chris Brogan talks about a handy framework upon which to build your social media strategy:

There are three main areas of practice for social media that your company (or you) should be thinking about: listening, connecting, publishing. From these three areas, you can build out your usage of the tools, thread your information networks to feed and be fed, and align your resources for execution. There are many varied strategies you can execute using these toolsets. There are many different tools you can consider employing for your efforts. But that's the basic structure: listening, connecting, publishing.

This framework is ostensibly about external social media usage, but these concepts are just as important internally:

  • Listen to what staff what and need, and allow staff to listen to each other
  • Provide meaningful ways for staff to connect with each other
  • Allow staff to publish information in a way that makes sense to them

Does it work that way in your company?

Customer outreach doesn't trump genuine change

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Sucking up to disgruntled (and well-connected) customers that you've found on Twitter is by now a fairly well established social media CRM strategy. Trouble is, your well-connected disgruntled customer doesn't necessarily want to be mollified. She might want to see real, tangible change, not just for her benefit but for all your other customers. Says Tara Hunt:

I don't take bribes (#12) even when they don't look like one. I want change. I don't want to see change for me, I want to see change for everyone. I want banks to stop experimenting with how far they can push us before we cry 'uncle' on their policies and start thinking about how they can help us achieve our dreams with customer-empowering policies. I want business to invest in technology that streamlines and helps the customer experience, not technology that spies on us.

Social media marketing and word of mouth isn't just about finding new ways to gloss over cracks and quieten down the loudest critical voices, it's an opportunity to learn about what really doesn't work in your business and then figure out how to fix it. Permanently. Anything less is a whitewash.

The importance of voice

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Does a more personal voice make information more credible? Carrie Brown-Smith writes that, in the news industry, there is some evidence that "a hint of personality" leads to "higher credibility". She goes on to say:

A recent study by my former Mizzou colleagues Jeremy Littau, Liz Gardner, and Esther Thorson, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Boston last August, found that news with more opinion, voice, and analysis could be key in attracting younger readers. [...]

They also tested the impact of voice on what is known in the academy as "political efficacy," or the belief that you are able to act upon your knowledge.

What they found is that voice increases efficacy, in part because, unlike a dry, authoritative, institutional voice, it better engages your brain. It gets you thinking, actively processing the information, which in turn makes it more likely that you will not only remember this information, but feel empowered to act on it, too.

Understanding what encourages trust is very important indeed. Edelman's Trust Barometer survey showed that across the board, trust in official channels of communication is declining:

Mirroring the erosion of trust in business this year, trust in every type of source of information about companies and of every type of spokesperson is down in most markets around the world. These lower levels of credibility suggest that business must engage with its audiences through multiple voices on multiple channels, especially since informed publics say they need to hear information several times before they will believe it.

If a more personal voice is key to reversing this decline in trust, then social media is an obvious way to do it. Now this might all seem like stating the obvious, but it's worth going over this familiar ground. A lot of businesses have yet to shake off their fear of having actual, real humans speaking on their behalf. If they don't, they're going to find that a trust divide has opened up underneath their feet, with people trusting companies who are open, transparent and personable and not trusting those who use only corporate managed communications channels.

Saatchi and Saatchi get it horribly wrong for Toyota

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Tim Burrowes explains just how wrong Saatchi and Saatchi got Toyota's Australian social media campaign. There are key lessons here not just for social media marketing, but for social media use across business.

  1. Do not assume that the agencies you work with, whether they are marketing, internal communications or PR, understand social media. The chances are high that they haven't got a clue.
  2. Do not assume that your internal departments, whether they are marketing, internal communications, PR or any other department, understand social media. The chances are that they haven't got a clue either.
  3. If your clue-free marketing/internal comms/PR department is working with a clue-free agency on a social media project, all your warning lights should be going off and your klaxons blaring. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger, Will Robinson!
  4. Social media is easier to mess up than to get right. And it's easier to think you know what you're doing when you don't than it is to recognise when you don't know what you're doing. All that known unknowns and unknown unknowns, y'know?

The commonest excuse I hear about why companies aren't going to bother learning about social media themselves is that they 'don't have time' or 'want results now'. Which is a bit like opening an office in a foreign country, without anyone on staff who can speak the language, and then demanding 'results now' whilst expecting nothing to go wrong.

With attitudes like that so prevalent, I expect that social media cock-ups will continue to entertain us throughout the foreseeable future. Maybe I need to start the social media version of FailBlog or ClientsFromHell.

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