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April 11, 2006 6:50 pm

A company voice true and clear

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Weblogs could hardly be more fashionable. Show up to a New Media strategy meeting without the word “blog” in your presentation, and you might as well clear your desk on the way out.

However, many companies imagine that making a weblog is simply a matter of sticking the word “blog” at the top of a column of chatty (often poorly edited) copy on their normal website, and hoping that the magic pixie dust of the blogosphere will somehow bring millions of readers to their door.

The truth is that blogs are very different from normal websites. For the better corporate bloggers, the key to success has been to adopt the same software tools as the consumers they are imitating.

A well-designed blog lends the corporation a friendly, youthful human face, a direct way to talk to customers free from the tedious strictures of press releases and advertising.

For example, General Motors publishes a number of blogs, including The FastLane, one of the best known corporate blogs on the net, written by vice chairman Bob Lutz.

“We felt that there was a lot of talk going on about GM online, but that we weren’t participating,” says Michael Wiley, director of new media at General Motors. “This was a way to get our voice heard.”

The FastLane reproduces quite successfully the look and feel of a real blog. For example, the righthand column has a little calendar that links directly to posts made on particular days – a neat navigation feature that comes standard with most blogging tools, but is tough to design otherwise.

More important features are hidden. One of the reasons blogs attract large-scale traffic is their extensive use of syndication technologies. They publish a summary of each article, complete with headline, text and sometimes pictures. This information can be read through an aggregation service, such as www.bloglines.com, which allows readers to check for updates on hundreds of blogs at once.

Good blogs also provide much more interaction than normal websites. Users can post comments directly below a post, rather than a separate bulletin board, and expect the authors of the blog to respond – which Mr Lutz does.

There is also a strong social element to the blogosphere. Bloggers discuss each other's work, post comments, and sprinkle their sites generously with links to other blogs they enjoy. A technology called ”trackback” automates this process – blogger A writes about an item on blog B, sends a trackback, and blog B automatically adds a link to A's blog.

The exchange of links, comments and trackbacks knits individual blogs into a dense network of mutual reference and endorsement, providing a giant boost in traffic for those bloggers who get it right. These features are not merely nice baubles or add-ons, they are an essential part of the phenomenon. “To me, they are what separates blogging from the rest of the web,” says GM’s Mr Wiley.

So how to replicate this experience on a corporate website? The easiest way is to use the same dedicated software as normal bloggers use. The GM blogs use a package called Movable Type, published by US company Six Apart. It has also been adopted by a number of big media companies, including the Guardian, the Washington Post and Time Warner.

Sun Microsystems and IBM both publish hundreds of blogs, using an open source system called Roller, based on Sun’s Java programming language. The open source WordPress package is also widely used, and there are more than a dozen others. The best of these support all the key blog features, from comments, to mini calendars, to RSS and Atom syndication and trackback.

However, most companies already have software to publish their website – a content management system, or CMS. Any sane IT manager wants to use as few different software systems as possible, and might think it ridiculous to run separate software systems for the blog and the main website.

Nonetheless, GM’s Mr Wiley thinks the extra administrative overhead and cost is worth it, partly because it is pretty small. “I can't imagine why anyone would want to take their CMS and turn it into a blog,” he says. Open source blog tools are free, and even the commercial software is extremely cheap. Movable Type ranges from $50 a year for the simplest, hosted version (called TypePad), to $600 for a 25-user corporate licence.

However, Six Apart is alive to the concerns of IT managers and keen to address them. In March, it launched two business-focused products designed to sit more comfortably within the corporate IT environment.

Over the next few years, it plans to allay some of those IT manager fears about extra administration. “I think we will be working with all of the CMS vendors on tighter integration,” says Anil Dash, vice president of professional products at Six Apart.

CMS vendor Vignette, for example, already has very basic tools for blogging, mainly used on internal intranet sites, but David Thorpe, director of business strategy, does not see his company competing directly with dedicated blog tools such as Movable Type. “I don’t think that the CMS will become the de facto blog tool, but companies will want to capture blog information [in their CMS systems] and we will have to play well there,” he says.

Of course, these tools do not guarantee a successful blogging project. No one will read a blog that is not interesting, and no software yet devised can guarantee that. The rapid, spontaneous back and forth discourse of the blogosphere is not an easy fit with the slow, cautious approach favoured by most corporate marketing departments.

But for companies that do wish to open a serious dialogue with the bloggers and blog readers, it is important to speak the same language. In an online world, that means using the same software.

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