Defending and Defining The Blog Culture

10/13/2006

Blogs / social media are the only marketing/business strategies, that I know, that have their roots in a culture.  Therein lies the rub!*

Advertising, PR, marketing research even email and search engine optimization were developed from a need to support the ultimate business goal - the sale. Not so blogs. Blogs began as an innocent way to communicate online for a group of people who wanted to share ideas and information. 

I'll be the first to admit that it is the marketers who are morphing the purpose of blog into something quite different .. a persuasive marketing tool. However, most marketers, who are working in this emerging industry, realize that the value of blogs / social media is their ability to support and encourage open conversations. Most marketers are careful, if not passionate, about respecting the culture of blogs.
Sidebar: I know I'm over simplifying.

What is interesting, awesome, amazing and quite fascinating to me is the culture of blogs remains strong. It is said that the blogosphere self corrects. Sometimes it seems that there areKnight_1 knights in shining armor standing guard to protect the essence of blogs: Honestly. Transparency. Authenticity. Passion.

When you think about it .. in a world where relationships are developed virtually - Honestly. Transparency. Authenticity are critical. Building and maintaining trust is the cornerstone of developing an online community. No wonder bloggers are fast to draw their virtual swords when they find a blog that they consider is dishonest.

This week the trumpets were blown and bloggers rallied to defend the culture of the blogoshere.

From Newsweek: On Sept. 27, 2006, a folksy blog called Wal-Marting Across America was born. It features the journey of Laura and Jim, a couple on their maiden trip in an RV (recreational vehicle), capturing lives and stories as they journey from Las Vegas to Georgia, and park for free at Wal-Mart Stores (WMT ) parking lots. Laura's first blog post features a black-and-white photograph and humbly says: "We are not bloggers, but since our lives have always been more journey than destination we are explorers at heart…. We figured we'd give it a go."

What sounded like a brilliant social media strategy was discovered to be a hoax. The bloggers were hired by Wal-Mart. So what you may ask. The blog nor the bloggers never disclosed that fact. So what you may ask. Therein lies the rub!*

Laura and Jim may have been passionate about this project. The stories that Laura told may have been authentic. However, the lack of honesty and transparency - two important aspects of the culture of blogs were ignored. How can we really trust and believe in these people? In their stories? In Wal-Mart? 

Sidebar: Apparently no one trained Laura in the culture of blogs. Or clued her into the fact that blogs are more than "diaries" but the building blocks of an extended real online social community.

I’ve met too many people — real people, not imaginary Internet people — who’ve told me about all the good Wal-Mart has done.  Final Word post by Laura

However, who was really asleep at the virtual wheel? Was it Jim or Laura? Was it Wal-Mart? Or was it their PR/social media advisors' at Edelman, the PR firm that put the strategy into play?

Looks to me as though this is strike two for Edelman, on the Wart-Mart account, in terms of social media consulting. You may recall in March Edelman got called on to the blogopshere carpet for not being transparent in a bloggers' relations strategy. I don't get it.

I really like Richard Edelman and the work he does on his blog. He even kindly wrote a Blogger Story. And once sent me a thank you email for a comment I posted on his blog. Richard Edelman gets it.

But Richard, there seems to be a disconnect among your staff, who are consulting with clients on social media strategies, and the work you are publishing. How can your company, positioned as a leader in the social media industry, not understand or respect the values of this culture? Perhaps more of your people should be reading your blog and in particular this recent post One Step Into The Blogopshere which addresses the importance of trust.

The smart company will listen first, then speak, and listen again. It will speak from inside out, informing its employees, its consumers and yes, even its critics from non-governmental organizations before it speaks to investors, regulators and elite media. It recognizes the simple truth that in a world lacking trust in established institutions such as business, government and media, the most trusted source for information is a person like you.

The archives from the Wal-Marting Across America blog were pulled. With that went the stories that Laura wrote and the photos that Jim shot. Why would Wal-Mart do that if they believed the content was valuable and their strategy sound? 

In the last post by Laura she takes responsibility for not disclosing her relationship with Wal-Mart. Seems to me that Wal-Mart has made Laura the fall-woman. It was Wal-Mart's responsibility to set guidelines for their bloggers and ensure that full disclosure was posted on the blog.

I think Wal-Mart owes Laura and Jim an apology. I think the blogosphere owes Laura and Jim an apology too. Although Laura may be a talented writer, as I tell clients and people I speak to about blogging, blogs are unlike any other type of communications. The writing style and nuances are different. The Blogosphere is like playing jazz. You have to know the notes before you can create or change the music.

Sidebar: Therein lies the rub!* Interesting that this popular quote is a misquote from Shakespeare's famous "To Be Or Not To Be" speech in Hamlet.

To be, or not to be? that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind, to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;

Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;

However, unlike Hamlet who is searching for complex answers about the existence of life and what death holds, answers to corporations' questions of how to develop a blog strategy begin with a much simpler response. A blog (character, corporate, topic, business or personal) must  revert to the preestablished values of blogging: Honestly. Transparency. Authenticity. Passion

And yes, dear divas and divos - ay, there's the rub! 

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Tracked on Nov 13, 2006 9:15:10 PM

Comments

Amen sister Toby! Halelujah!

We spoke about this to some lesser extent at the Daily Fix this week. (I can't believe I am a contributor there with you!)

Honesty, transparency, authenticity and passion are crucial ingredients to a blog that will stand up to the test and scrutiny of the blogosphere. Using my own blog as an example, without full disclosure of who/ what I am, it would have failed. I believe that my readership continues to grow and I continue to get noticed because I "tell it like it is" and try as hard as I can to share real, honest experiences with the readers. So far so good.

Like you, I respect Edelman a whole bunch, but it does seem like something is happening somewhere between Richard Edelman's office door and the "factory floor". Somebody somewhere doesn't get it as much as Richard does.

BTW- When are you going to be here in San Diego again? I still owe you a drink!

Posted by: Tim Jackson on Oct 14, 2006 1:15:12 AM

GREAT post, Toby. I like especially how you clearly and concisely parsed out just what is different about blogs vs. (let's say) newspaper articles or tv ads or billboards. There is a culture that must be considered. And I also don't think you're being one of those much-maligned "blog purists" in pointing this out. You simply understand the blogosphere a little better than Wal-Mart and their PR agency do.

Posted by: Maggie Fox on Oct 14, 2006 9:40:47 AM

Toby - great post. What you're saying about Walmart is true. How are you going to get someone to capture these moments without funding them? While blogging presnets great opportunities for marketers, it doesn't just happen. You can't have an instant blog. There needs to be an incentive for someone to travle across the country and write about their favourite product etc.. I think the issue is that while everyone loves a great story, they value honesty and everything else. When I'm researching about a TV, I want to know that it's Jane Schmane who is writing about her TV and not being funded by Sony. Anyways, great post!

Posted by: Chad Horenfeldt on Nov 19, 2006 8:16:28 PM

Thanks all.

Chad, I love your line, "You can't have an instant blog." Perhaps in the old days of blogging .. say before 2005 all you need to do was hit publish and voila! success. But the blogosphere is too cluttered these days and every day more so. As you pointed out, without maintaining the core values of blogging: honesty and transparency .. what's it really all about? Trust.

Posted by: Toby on Nov 20, 2006 1:04:41 AM

This is a nice article. 

I've been doing some research for my (marketing) agency about BlOG's, (virtual) social networking and the growing power of community. When I studied marketing (in the late 90’s) there was a lot of discussion about how big brands and in particular supermarkets were destroying town centres and traditional shopping centres here in the UK, which in turn was having a negative effect on breaking down communities. Almost ironic then, that digital technology and networking, would just give a new platform for communities to rebuilt in a new way, which from my perspective are going to be the counter-balance to brand dominance in the 21st Century. Even tiptoeing around the edge of the BLOGESPHERE you find countless examples of communities bringing branding, products and services to their knees, and I suspect this power is not fully realised yet either. Virtual communities are something I've always been involved in on a personal level for various different hobbies and musical / social passions, so it's quite weird and also exciting to look at it from a commercial view point for my work. It's staggering how very wrong so many agencies and companies have got this, I think summed up nicely in your article here. It’s something I’ve always avoided because of my own personal entanglement within it, however, it would seem that does also offer quite some advantage over the marketing BLOGORREA which seems to be spewing from all directions at the moment.

Sadly I haven’t had the time I would have liked to commit to this research as I would have liked due to other commercial demands on my time, but I am finding it really hard to find any BLOGS or community led projects by companies or marketers which have observed the rules or have got it right. I’ve seen Kyrptonite responding to the backlash to their product flaw, which whilst commendable, they didn’t really seem to have much option if they wanted to keep their business. I am struggling to find companies who have produced an effective online social interaction strategy, which observes the values and respects the intelligence of their audience. At the moment my presentation is a damning expose of all that is wrong with modern marketing and I wish I could find some examples which got it right, surely it’s not all doom and gloom?

I realise this is a rather cheeky request, so I’ll apologies in advance, but if anyone can think of any they can put their hands on easily, I would be extremely happy!! I don’t for a second expect anyone to go out of their way, but it would be great if you do know of any off the top of your head.

Nick, London, UK.

Posted by: Nick C on Jan 19, 2007 6:25:59 AM

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