20 Jul Business blogs increase customer interactions
Madison, Wis. – When Milwaukee-based coffee chain Stone Creek Coffee went about crafting an online presence, the company chose an emerging tool to enhance customer relationships: the blog.
According to Tom Pionek, the company’s technology and marketing director, the blog can bring Stone Creek Coffee an ability to communicate with customers that goes beyond mere press releases or other traditional forms of communications. The company uses the blog (derived from “Web log”) to announce events at different stores, to seek customer feedback about events or different coffees, and to circumvent traditional media gates for putting out company news.
“For us, the thing is that we’re not a very large company as compared to, say, Starbucks … and the blog lets us speak to people, our customers,” Pionek explained. “It lends a real sort of hands-on feel to our company voice.”
More than 32 million Americans read blogs regularly, with more than eight million having either created a blog or posted in a comments thread, according to a recent Pew survey. And it’s not just the average diary — topics covered include everything from politics to hobbies to movie reviews. But is there a place for the online journal in business?
Whether it’s independent journals that mention recently purchased products, or sites specifically for enthusiasts of certain products, the independent blogosphere will end up providing feedback that has the effect of promoting commercial products, observers say.
According to Dana Vanden Heuvel, an online consultant based in Dyckesville, blogs make up “one of the largest free, for what that’s worth, market research test-beds. It goes beyond the focus groups and some of the other market-research vehicles that people have used in the past or companies have used in the past.”
One example Vanden Heuvel pointed out is how anyone watching television might notice commercials from U.S. Cellular, offering free incoming minutes. That feature itself comes from market research through the Internet and on blogs that showed teenagers and their parents were most anxious about using minutes from other people calling them.
This market-research audience, however, is not guaranteed to be positive toward the company. One example involves Apple’s coverage of the iPod’s internal battery, which can wear out after about 18 months. Feeling dissatisfied, New York-based independent filmmakers and brothers Casey and Van Neistat put out a video protesting the lack of a replacement program or other method of support by Apple.
The video, posted at www.iPodsDirtySecret.com, contained the audio of a phone call with Apple tech support followed by the brothers spray-painting their message on iPod advertisements around New York City. According to Casey Neistat, the site reached over a million hits in only a week-and-half after going online in late 2003 and still gets thousands of hits per day.
According to Neistat, what fueled that buzz was not any promotion on their part but, rather, people across iPod enthusiast sites noticing their own problems and the video, spreading the word around the Web. Soon afterwards, Apple offered an inexpensive battery replacement program and recently paid out a settlement in a class-action suit on behalf of owners of early-generation iPods.
“I think it’s solely responsible for the way things turned out. I mean, all that uprising was in response to our film,” Neistat said. “Not that it wouldn’t have happened without our film; perhaps somebody else would have spoken up or some sort of other public outcry could have taken place. But it didn’t, ours did.”
The applications of blogging are obvious for online diaries or for traditional media outlets where news events can prompt discussion, but is there potential for companies to tap into the power of blogs?
Frank Dravis, vice president of information quality for Firstlogic, a data quality management company based in La Crosse, believes the answer is yes. Dravis is now managing a new company blog, Frank Dravis on Data Quality, exploring issues that enterprises could face in maintaining their databases.
In addition to discussing the latest issues in data management and finding out what customers are interested in, Dravis has also used the blog for primary research, soliciting information from readers about different kinds of technologies out there and their impressions of them.
“Our customers want to be convinced and our prospects want to be assured that they’re investing in a company that really does know what they’re talking about,” Davis said, adding that “it convinces them, it just shows them one more piece of evidence, that there are people at that company who truly do care about their problems.”
Joan Stewart, a former Wisconsin newspaper publisher and now publisher of the media relations site The Publicity Hound, points out the importance of company blogs for addressing market rumors or quality issues with customers — a potential she says is being under-tapped and is not widespread enough in terms of even basic awareness about it.
“I think within the next year or two, if you’re not blogging for business, you’re going to be missing the boat, because there are so many opportunities to either promote a product, service, a cause or an issue through a blog,” said Stewart, whose business is based in Port Washington.
Part of the mystique of blogs is the ability to quickly disseminate information even though it wasn’t necessarily the primary goal, according to Matthew Stanton, director of audience and presentation for Journal Interactive, which manages the Web site of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“The vast majority of blogs out there are a reflection of this person’s need for expression, not for information to be distributed,” Stanton explained. The key then, he said, is to translate that personal expression into commercial applications.
Journal Interactive has gone some distance in providing such a key. What started as journals for columnists and reporters to quickly comment on breaking news has expanded beyond its beginnings. Different Journal-Sentinel contributors maintain blogs where they are able to comment on subjects from breaking news to sports to parenting. Visitors can then comment and start their own conversations on the topics. And they do; the blog section is one of the most frequently visited sections of the site, with reliable return visitors, Stanton said.
Though the feature of community feedback is not necessarily crucial in and of itself to being a blog, it nevertheless fosters a sense of community among readers and will keep them coming back for more. Stanton said the feedback element serves the main goal for an online publication: building brand loyalty and a sustainable readership.
One thing that is becoming clear is the importance of firms investing in blogs and other sorts of online infrastructure, according to Stanton, who predicts that digital media could eventually become the standard for a generation of readers.
“The old thinking was that as people grow up they would grow into the newspaper,” Stanton said. But that’s no longer a guarantee. The Internet is becoming the information source of choice for many, with blogs a growing component of that information base.