The Scobleizer Versus Cerberus the Hound of Hades

The most powerful piece of software inside Microsoft may be the $40 application from a tiny vendor called Userland that Robert Scoble uses to write his weblog.

Scoble, part of the Windows marketing team, publishes his personal observations at the Scobleizer Weblog . His daily ramblings, unedited by corporate brass or media handlers, give the world a window into Microsoft, building buzz for its products such as Office 2003 and creating a human face for a company that needs all the humanizing it can get.

“I’ve gotten email from people telling me they have changed their attitude about Microsoft because of my blog,” says Scoble. “It helps me share the company’s beliefs.” It also helps Microsoft hear what the market is saying, both good and bad. “I link to everyone who hates Microsoft, and I send the negative stuff to the executives,” he says.

The blog, which Scoble established before hiring on with Microsoft, comes off like a conversation with a smart friend. He links to other bloggers, makes recommendations about Windows-related products, talks about his own upcoming demo of the next version of Windows, known as Longhorn, and mentions the need to balance his personal and professional lives. Almost anything is fair game. “That is the first Apple marketing in a long time that makes me want to buy an Apple product,” he wrote recently about an ad for the iPod music player.

Employee weblogs at Microsoft have the backing of no less than chief executive Steve Ballmer, along with Scoble’s boss, senior vice-president Eric Rudder. Yet Scoble is still looking over his shoulder. “It feels like some people are sort of tolerating it,” he says. Even now he is supposed to check in with media relations before doing interviews with the press, for example, even though he’s already posting his unfiltered thoughts on the Web.

“It’s a huge route-around,” says Scoble of his site. People used to get information either from company press announcements, or from reporters who managed to get past Microsoft’s public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom, which guards Redmond like the hellhound Cerberus at the gates of Hades. Now one person can accomplish things no marketing department ever could.

Still, most companies are reluctant to turn employees into embedded reporters.

Blogging is making an impact in other disciplines. In politics, Howard Dean is generating buzz and bucks via his “Blog for America” site. Journalism is being transformed by amateur writers, like the man calling himself Salam Pax who wrote from Baghdad during the war, and by pros like Dan Gillmor, who blogs and writes conventional pieces for the San Jose Mercury-News. The New York Times is considering featuring weblogs on its site. But business blogging lags behind.

There are some barriers to adoption. Using weblogs means trusting your employees to speak honestly and openly. It means conversing with customers, not just marketing to them. It means even more flattening of your organization.

For public companies, there are concerns about the unauthorized disclosure of financial information. For any company, there is concern about leakage of trade secrets and petty office politics. “The lawyers are scared that I might say something that gets Microsoft screwed,” says Scoble. But these concerns can be contained. “There are certainly unwritten or understood rules,” says Scoble. “If I post the [prerelease] build of Longhorn, I’d get fired.”

Some companies get around the scary stuff by using weblogs behind the corporate firewall. Google this summer purchased weblog software maker Pyra Labs; now, Google employees scattered across the country use blogs to exchange notes and create a shared record of their thoughts – something email can’t do.

Jeff Jarvis, president of the online unit of Advance Publications, is going farther. His sites use blogs to develop new products, such as reporting outlets for local high school sports, or entertainment news, or weather conditions at the Jersey Shore. “It’s a way of unleashing the creativity of your people,” says Jarvis, who writes a personal weblog of his own

During the August blackout, weblogs sprang up at Advance to share information within the company — and with the public. Now Advance uses weblog software from Movable Type as its primary backup system for publishing during emergencies.

Can managers stop worrying and learn to love the blog? As the payoff becomes apparent, more companies will open up. When one doesn’t, its customers are going to want to know what the company is hiding.

Says Scoble of corporate blogging, “I think it’s unstoppable.”