Do's and don'ts of corporate blogging
Know your audience, update your blog regularly, and cover your... rear. And don't expect a blog to turn around a failing company.
By Matthew Boyle, FORTUNE

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Every day, 70,000 new blogs appear on the Internet, according to search engine Technorati. Yet few of them emerge from the cubicles and plush corner offices of large public companies. Indeed, a recently established list

(http://www.socialtext.net/bizblogs/index.cgi) of FORTUNE 500 company blogs shows that only about 5 percent of the country's corporate giants have dipped their toes in this medium.

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It's not hard to fathom why. "It's scary," says Technorati founder and CEO David Sifry. "The lesson everyone learns in Marketing 101 is, 'Control the message.' Blogging puts that on its head, and that's very frightening."

Despite that fear, companies like Microsoft, IBM (Research), Google (Research), Sun Microsystems, and SAP (Research) have embraced blogging. And it's not just technology firms -- GM (Research) vice chairman Bob Lutz maintains one of the most widely read corporate blogs on the web, and organic dairy Stonyfield Farm has earned kudos for its sites as well.

If your company is thinking of joining the so-called "blogosphere," know this -- some of your employees are already there, dishing on your products and workplace environment alongside posts about their trip to Aruba or their cocker spaniel. Whatever you do, don't shut these sites down; instead, engage these pioneers in a conversation about what your corporate blogs hope to accomplish, and why.

Here are some other tips for the aspiring corporate blogger:

First, know thyself

The most important question to ask is whether your company should even blog at all. "There are some corporate cultures where blogging is not going to go over very well," says Sifry. Cultures where blogging thrives, he says, are ones that "have faith in their employees, rather than fear."

If your culture supports blogging, then determine who's best to compose your blog. Choose someone who writes well, with a conversational, authentic, yet authoritative tone. Most likely, this person is not your CEO.

According to a survey of 2,000 "opinion leaders" by PR firm Edelman, the most credible source of information about a company is not the CEO, but "a person like me." (Trust in "a person like me" has increased from 20 percent in 2003 to 68 percent this year.)

Take Microsoft employee Robert Scoble (http://scobleizer.wordpress.com/), or Jonathan Schwartz, COO at Sun (Research) (http://blogs.sun.com/roller/page/jonathan), for example. "They feel like friends," says Steve Rubel, a senior VP at Edelman and the author of popular marketing industry blog Micropersuasion (http://www.micropersuasion.com/). "I started writing my blog [for] one or two people and writing how I talked," says Scoble. "I still do that today."

Then, know your audience

If you cannot find something to blog passionately about, your blog will be no more than a corporate PR organ. For technology companies, that's easy -- software makers like Microsoft and Intuit (makers of Turbo Tax) both have legions of knowledgeable users eager to talk about their products. But what if you make, say, cooking oil, or dust mops?

In that case, learn what your customers care about (it could be nutrition, or home improvement) and figure out a way to participate in that conversation credibly. Stonyfield Farm, for example, talks about personal health and parenting -- hot topics for the customers of its natural yogurts.

Engage your audience

The best part about blogging is that it's a conversation. Absorb what people have to say, and reply to their comments. "It's the ultimate zero cost focus group," says Debbie Weil, author of "The Corporate Blogging Book." "My policy is never to delete comments, even ones I disagree with," says Microsoft's Scoble. "I want our customers to feel free to tell us what they think."

That said, you might want to have a feedback filter so you can eliminate spam and so-called "drive-by shootings" -- blog-speak for anonymous negative posts. If someone wants to blast your company, Sifry suggests asking them to write the critique on their own blog and then link to yours. That way, the critic is accountable for what he says, and the discourse will remain civil.

Stay current

Update your blog often, and make liberal use of hyperlinks. The more sites you link to, the more sites will return the favor.

Cover your rear

Creating rules of the road for your company's bloggers is recommended. Microsoft (Research) and others have corporate blogging guidelines that detail what's allowed and what's not. Weil suggests letting the policy bubble up from below, which is what happened at Microsoft -- Scoble and other employees were involved in its creation about two years ago.

As for what not to do: Don't wait until a crisis hits to set up a corporate blog -- it needs time to build up trust. Speaking of trust, whatever you do, don't let your corporate flacks write your blog. "They will take any life out of your writing," says Scoble.

Whoever does end up writing the blog, don't keep them anonymous or hidden behind some cutesy character. For example, if you blogged for Coca-Cola, don't be "The Coke Guy."

Other tips: Don't shut down existing employee blogs. If they are positive about the company, Rubel suggests turning these evangelists into a voluntary sales force. If they are negative, you might have a larger morale issue that needs to be addressed. And don't use search engine trickery to boost the profile of your blog. People will find out.

Finally, a blog is a tool, not a panacea -- don't expect it to turn your company around. "I don't think GM's blog is going to save GM," says Weil.

Plugged in is a daily column from writers at FORTUNE magazine. You can reach today's columnist, Matthew Boyle, at mboyle@fortunemail.com . Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.