Are You Ready to Love Blogging?

By Edward Cone Print this article Print

Weblogs are changing journalism and politics. Next up: Business. Trusting employees to speak honestly is hard. But that's only the beginning.

The most powerful piece of software inside Microsoft may be a $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" http://radio. weblogs.com/0001011. His unedited daily ramblings give the world a window into Microsoft, building buzz for its products and creating a human face for a company that needs all the humanizing it can get.

"I've gotten e-mail 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. After Microsoft said it would release a prototype of its next-generation Windows product to developers, Scoble wrote: "[W]e want you to hate it. Openly. On your weblog. Tell us what's wrong with it. What can be improved about it…when it ships, we want it to be a product that's impossible to hate. We're a long way from that, believe me."

Employee weblogs at Microsoft have the tacit backing of no less than chief executive Steve Ballmer, along with Scoble's group head, 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, 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 releases or 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.

Blogging is making an impact in many arenas. Howard Dean is generating buzz and bucks via his campaign weblog. Amateurs are changing journalism and The New York Times is considering featuring weblogs on its site. But business blogging lags behind. Most companies are reluctant to turn employees into embedded reporters.

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

For public companies, there are concerns about the unauthorized disclosure of financial information. Any company fears leakage of trade secrets and 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," he says. "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, owner of weblog software maker Pyra Labs, has its employees using blogs to exchange notes and create a shared record of their thoughts—something e-mail can't do.

Jeff Jarvis, president of the Advance.net 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. "It's a way of unleashing the creativity of your people," says Jarvis, who writes a weblog of his own. During the August blackout, weblogs sprang up 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."

This article was originally published on 2003-11-01
Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.
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