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Thursday, September 21, 2006
Blogs - Can the Social Community Be Commercialized?


Many people are talking about blogs for business purposes. Is it the best Return on Investment (ROI)? Maybe there are too many opportunities, too misconceptions.

The blogosphere is a relatively new phenomenon that has arrived on the scene and a growing number of people are advancing the idea that it is a great opportunity for companies to sell ideas, products and services cheaply. The problem is that people forget that the blog also allows people to "push back" in a very public manner.

The blogosphere remains a community activity of personal and like-minded people communicating together. Other opportunities have emerged in the Web 2.0 world and perhaps a business blog may not be the best solution.

Today there are roughly 60 million blogs. You get the idea. The blogosphere is growing. Dramatically. Rapidly.

For many firms and public relations/communications people that growth spells opportunity. Opportunity to manage, control, guide.

But before you jump in with both feet let's understand what the blogosphere (a subset of the Internet) really is.

It looks something like a universe cloud. The difference is that this cloud is made up of people, ideas, personal/business/professional exchange and just individuals exchanging ideas with each other.

More importantly the blogosphere is really a subset of the evolution of the Internet, part of a whole phenomenon we see of personal and personalized content/communications. The online, living diary/dialogue represents an opportunity and cautionary concern communications people in every sector ? business, industry, government, nonprofit ? are trying to measure, understand.

Evidence of this are the most popular blog locations - MySpace, classmates.com, YouTube, MS Groups, AOL Hometown, Yahoo! Groups, MSN Spaces, Facebook and a few others. They are all populated by what we term heavy internet uses - where they get news, where they buy, where the enjoy/share entertainment and similar activities.

While 60+ million bloggers - and climbing - is nothing to sneer at, the blogosphere needs to be put into perspective:

- U.S. population is 300 million
- World population is 6.5 billion
- 1.5 B global households in 2000, 1.9 B in 2010
- Internet community of over 1 billion or roughly 15 users per 100 folks (www.internetworldstats.com)
- Total PCs out there are about 1 billion or 14 users per 100 people
- 1.1 B TV households in 2010
- 2 B mobile device subscribers globally in 2005, 3 B in 2009
- 735 M mobile phones sold in 2005, 944 M in 2009
- 16 M WCMDA video streaming subscribers in 2004, 70 M in 2005
- 72 M streaming-enabled devices WW in 2004, 918 M in 2008
- 115 M broadband households WW in 2004, 221 M in 2008
- 8 M IPTV subscribers WW in 2006, 21 M in 2008
- 100M potential mobile TV users in 2008

The blogging universe, kept in perspective is still rather small. Contrary to its champions it will take years to gain broad acceptance and influence because it is still? personal.

Things we take for granted today have taken a lifetime to be accepted.
According to the CEA none of these "gotta have" products are being used by 100% of the folks in the U.S. or anywhere else on the globe for that matter. Research shows that as of early this year:

- Color TV took 20 years to achieve95% penetration
- VCRs required 15 years to produce 87% penetration
- Cordless phones 85%
- DVD players which "everyone" has produced the fastest penetration with 81% in eight years
- Cellphones which are "everywhere" required 16 years for 78% penetration

The Internet which is slightly more than 20 years old still has less than 50% penetration worldwide.

Broadband availability - a requirement for the next generation of web applications - will require at least five - ten years before it becomes reasonably global. Iceland, Japan and Western Europe continue to lead the U.S. and Canada in broadband usage.

Marketing and communications people who promote blogging as the ideal tool for producing 1:1 communications with influentials and consumers gloss over the fact that:

- Ordinary 1:1 email inquiries often take 4-5 days (if ever) to receive a response
- PR web complaints often go unanswered
- Public relations/communications people seldom actively participate in user group site discussions or directly handle/monitor customer issues
- Public relations people seldom communicate with established bloggers

Establishing one's own place in the blogosphere, carving out and nurturing your niche, may be good for one's ego but it does little to achieve organizational/product/service objectives.

While corporate blogging is slowly gaining credibility, most blogs are personal and social activities of individuals coming together and sharing common interests.

At the same time there are a growing number of renaissance web activities that lend themselves to managed and somewhat controlled messaging. These include podcasts, video download sites, photo sharing locations, IPTV, RSS feeds, wikis and other emerging communications efforts.

While formal organization blogs - exclusive of the thousands of internal and external blogs employees already maintain with or without management's endorsement - can produce some level of brand building or sales/lead generation, are they the best use of monies and time when firms are faced with so many challenges and opportunities?

Or rather than striving to establish themselves as an expert in a specific field/area with their personal blog, would communications people better serve their organizations counseling others on how to communicate business messages and working with established bloggers?

Instead of being a commercial success as a blogger (something few believe will ever be achieved), communications people need to focus on business and organizational objectives. Objectives they can see and measure.

Controlled message activities can be measured. More importantly they can produce results and develop a stronger sense of community. Word of mouth - positive and negative -- continues to be the leading influential medium for organizations.

Added to that are opportunities to reach, inform, persuade and convince people using: - 825.5 million cellphones were sold in ?05, 950 million in ?06 and more than 41% are interested in receiving video downloads (The Management Network Group - TMNG)
- Podcast audiences are at 10 million plus this year and projected to increase to 50 million by 2010 (eMarketer)
- IPTV is expected to have an audience of more than 80 million by 2009 (s2data)

Do firms need to establish policies that address blogs written by employees? Certainly!

Should firms establish a program of monitoring and managing response to blogs? Certainly!

Should companies seed story ideas with established bloggers? Certainly!

Should organizations respond to blogs - pro or con? This has to be evaluated on a case, by case basis and determined if the response should be online, offline or silence. Should organizations weigh the merits of product, service, policy issues that are covered by blogs? Definitely ! The social aspects of the Internet are only now beginning to take shape. Suddenly firms have an opportunity to communicate directly with individuals on a combined 1:1, 1: many bases.

The key challenge will be to learn how to exist and participate in this new open environment that has no borders, no clock, no calendar.

The blogosphere continues to be a community, not a marketplace. Sometimes... the best action is no action.





By G.A. Andy Marken
Marken Communications


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