What the best corporate blogs say about blogging

Blogs come in many forms, and in a new list of the top 10 corporate ones that in itself is among the things most worthy of comment, David Bowen says.

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In the strange fast-forward world we inhabit, blogs already seem like yesterday’s news. They are always included as part of social media, but have none of the glamour of Twitter, Facebook or newcomers like Foursquare. Even the news that there are 150 million blogs left me a little cold – how many are not updated, how many are read by the authors and no one else, how many are in any sense useful or interesting?
But as with so much in social media, they start to become a lot more interesting if you break them down into different groups. ‘Blogs’ encompass so many forms that it is difficult to find a single definition for them.
The first division must be between ‘yours’ and ‘theirs’. ‘Theirs’ – blogs written by other people – are where the numbers and the reputation risks are. But for now I will ignore them and concentrate on ‘your’ blogs – that is, corporate blogs. You probably don’t write them yourself, but if you are in any way responsible for online communications, you should certainly be aware what your colleagues are up to.
Mark Schaefer, a marketing consultant, author and college lecturer, has produced a fascinating list of ‘The 10 Best Corporate Blogs in the World’. I find them fascinating not so much for their individual appeal, but for what they tell us about the ‘blogosphere’. Taken together, they may not tell us much: break them down, and they become fascinating.
They are all from the US. Mr Schaefer says this is because he couldn’t find any decent ‘international’ ones, but they are still a good selection. He has also excluded IT company blogs because “they are so far ahead”. It certainly makes the list more interesting.
He has categorised them by goal. I class them differently below, but first there is one point that emerges blindingly from the list. A blog doesn’t need to be part of a ‘conversation’ to be effective. Indeed, only two in the list (under online communities) are about getting the world to talk. The rest are different ways of presenting content and do not rely on feedback or conversation. Look at the comments at the bottom of each post, delete the ones that say ‘Great post’, and you may starting asking a question: why are blogs in any way social?
Here’s my grouping of Mr Schaefer’s top 10.

Online communities


These are blogs where most of the content is user-generated. The most interesting one is Caterpillar’s online community – that is what it calls itself, and I’m not quite sure why it counts as a blog. But it is an excellent business-to-business example of the web being used to get people to help one another: “’I installed a door on my A series 226 skid steer 5F020. I can’t get the washer or wiper to work.’ ‘Did you check the fuse for it?’ ‘Thanks, it was a blown fuse’.” Problem solved, as the site happily says.
My Starbucks Idea is a site where people can submit ideas to improve Starbucks: there are 24,226 ideas about coffee alone. “Many people (actually probably most) also cannot tolerate cow’s milk. Please offer rice, almond, or coconut milk”. They loved that – 82 comments, all saying ‘yes please’. Starbucks shows it’s listening (especially if it does what is asked).

Dressdown blogs


Blogs can be used to provide a ‘second website’, with a tone that complements the more formal content on the main site. Comments are not integral and the ones that are made are generally quite inane. These are excellent for companies that have an enthusiastic customer base or that really do want to show they are listening.
Bill Marriott, head of the hotel chain that bears his name, dictates his own blog entry every week, according to Mr Schaefer. He talks in an extraordinarily organised way, if that is true, but people do seem to love him. He gets between zero and 30 comments, all positive – so perhaps not very useful. “There is no question that MARRIOTT’s name is blessed. They planted a lot, now they are harvesting a lot.”
Wegmans is regional grocery chain. A recent post ‘Celebrating 10 years of products we love’ generated 214 comments, all along the lines of Wegman is best. Chirpy, uncynical – great if you can do it.
Southwest Airlines has a celebrated blog that succeeds because it provides an informal alternative to the website, but also shows the company really does seem to be listening. It does not get many comments, luckily for it, but if any are critical or questioning, it always posts an answer. Good use of video, too.
A variation is where a blog is used to give a softer edge to a potentially dull subject. The chief legal officer of Manpower North America writes a blog about employment law, but while he does his best, it’s pretty dry stuff. Better than formal web content, though. Almost no comments here – why would there be?

A website by another name


These are different in that they are self-contained sites and are really just marketing sites dressed up in blog form. The two on the list are scissors company Fiskars and retailer Whole Foods Market. Even here, very few comments.

Online publications


These are blogs designed to keep you up, to date, like a newspaper, or be a good read (like a magazine). GE Reports is like a newspaper attached to the General Electric corporate website, with news, comment and video. It is excellent at adding dynamism to what is otherwise a slow-changing publication. Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, has something glossy and beautiful, all about adventure and travel. It looks more like the National Geographic than any blog I’ve seen and, needless to say, is not in need of comments to be thoroughly worthwhile.

First published 09 February, 2011
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