David Bowen: Dipping an electronic toe in the water

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Podcasts, blogs – strange new words that you must at least pretend to understand. Are they just gimmicks, the latest hype from the media world, or should business really get excited about them?

Blogs are much bigger than podcasts, for now at least. They are little websites where, typically, one person rambles on about a subject in the hope that others will join in the discussion. I’ve just started one (http://blog.bowencraggs.com), so I certainly hope that happens. Few words have come from nowhere to everywhere quite as fast, so it is not surprising that many companies have been wondering about hopping on the bandwagon.

Cadbury Schweppes (www.cadburyschweppes.com) has a blog in its UK graduate recruitment section. Here, you can read the thoughts of recent recruits, and quite engaging they are too. ‘Three and a half months into my career at Cadbury Schweppes, I’m tired …’ Ross is not as unhappy as he at first sounds, and the tone of this and other posts is certainly more vibrant than the heavily-edited ‘What I do for my job’ pieces many recruitment sections offer. Blogs allow you to be more informal than you would in other circumstances – I am writing this column with more care than I do my blog, because I know it has to get past the assiduous FT editors. With the blog, I just have to get past myself.

But having talked to Cadbury Schweppes, I now know that its blog is not quite the free and easy chat it appears to be. There is a good commercial reason for this: staff (especially new ones) may not be aware of what is and is not in the public domain. So the blog is monitored in a way mine is not. Purists may say that this means it is not a blog – and they may be right. But does it matter?

Cadbury has found a way of making its careers section more appealing, and therefore attracting a better class of recruit. The label is therefore unimportant. Or is it? Calling it a blog as three advantages. First, as I have said, it encourages recruits to write more informally, which makes it more attractive for a young audience. Second, it may benefit from the cross-links from other blogs that are supposed to make the ‘blogosphere’ so vibrant. Third, blogs are the latest thing – Cadbury Schweppes has had useful publicity (I am just providing more), and is also demonstrating that it is the cutting-edge sweetie company. The last reason will fade as blogs move to the mainstream. Cadbury does not benefit much from the second. So that leaves the first which is important but, it seems to me, could be replaced by some gentle education. I will be surprised if the new recruit diaries are still called blogs in a few years’ time. But does not matter, as long as they help attract the talent the company needs.

What matters more than the label is whether the characteristics that make independent blogs work so well can be transferred to a corporate site. In particular, can they be used to create a lively online community? Eight or nine years ago I went to several conferences where I was told that this was the real future of the business web: a corporate site would be a giant discussion area where customers, investors, anyone else would chatter with the company and with each other. Yet the discussion area or forum has never really taken off. Shell has had much publicity for its Tell Shell Forum (currently being refurbished), because it does not censor it, but it has never had a huge numbers of posts. Chevron has in the last year run a series of earnest debates on a specially-created site (www.willyoujoinus.com). It has generated a respectable 200-300 postings a month, but only with a good deal of pump-priming and, presumably, expense.

The evidence on whether blogs will change this is mixed. The Cadbury Schweppes blog does not have much feedback. However two others I looked at are quite busy. Anther careers blog, from Honeywell (http://honeywellblogs.com/) has managed to get people talking to each other as though they are friends – quite an achievement. And a Boeing marketing guy writes Randy’s Journal (www.boeing.com/randy), which has attracted perhaps 400 comments in the last year, and clearly has a loyal readership. It’s hardly a statistically significant sample, but I can see two differences between Boeing/Honeywell and Cadbury Schweppes. The first two are by individuals, so you are more likely to get some sort of fellow feeling. And they are American, while Cadbury Schweppes is mainly British. Maybe blogs will always do better in the States, where they like to chatter, than in more reserved parts of the world?

I suspect corporate blogs (under whatever name) will never match the vibrancy of an even modestly-successful independent blog, simply because they cannot have the same free-wheeling atmosphere. They may well still be worth doing, but I am inclined to agree with Andrew Marritt, an online HR expert (www.resourcingstrategies.com), who says he sees the new pretender, the podcast, as being more important, at least for recruiting.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers UK (www.pwc.com/uk) has a podcast in its graduate recruitment area. You can listen to it on your computer or transfer it to your iPod, and it consists of a 13 minute programme (can’t think of another word) that intercuts the thoughts of recruits with those of an HR person. It is a subtle sell that manages to make PwC sound quite marvellous. “It’s very rarely I’ll leave the office after six except in January of February” “Rewards can be quite significant.” “Once you’re qualified, your options are open.” I can see my 23 year old self listening to that while lying on the grass, and thinking, ‘Yup, that sounds nice’. Then I’d have become an accountant. Gosh.

So should you be rushing to blog or podcast? Or dismissing them as fads? Or dipping an electronic toe in the water? The latter, I think. Despite its reputation, the web is a relatively slow-moving beast – we need a good deal more experimentation and watching before we see which if either really make a difference to the corporate world. By which time, of course, another set of words will have arrived to perplex us.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com).

dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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