July 20, 2009

Marketing, Blogs, and Conversations

I read blogs and have always been generally surprised by the quality of information people are publishing. The first time I saw real value (at least in a situation where the information provided gave me a real insight) was when I've interviewed for a position a Microsoft in early 2006. I was researching Microsoft CRM product for this interview and felt pretty frustrated about the information provided through the official mktg channels (i.e. web site, collateral, press releases, etc).

Not that the information found through the official mktg channels was bad or inaccurate, but I wanted more. I wanted to go beyond the usual corporate marketing airbrushing and get a better look at the product, and possibly learn more about the challenges and opportunities my potential boss and his team were facing. I then discovered Channel 9.

It was an epiphany moment for me because:
1- the posts were written by Microsoft employees themselves. I didn't know any of the bloggers personally, but the fact that regular Microsofties were posting their thoughts and ideas was a big boost in the credibility department.
2- the posts were free of mktg spin and seemed genuine. Hey, it felt like I could read and trust this information without a marketing cipher to make the encrypted information readable again.
3- the content posted was providing value (at least to me, the reader interested in knowing more about Microsoft CRM).

I was also blown away by the fact that Microsoft, the big and mean software company (as often depicted in the media) was letting employees do something very simple and very fundamental to any organization: having conversations with people showing an interest in what they are doing.

Like many companies, Microsoft has a blog policy in place (Channel 9 doctrine). If you remove any mention of Microsoft or Channel 9, you end up with a pretty interesting reading:
  1. It is all about the conversation. It should inspire our company and our customers to talk in an honest and human voice. It is not a marketing tool, not a PR tool, not a lead generation tool.
  2. Be a human being. It is a place for us to be ourselves, to share who we are, and for us to learn who our customers are.
  3. Learn by listening. When our customers speak, learn from them. Don't get defensive, don't argue for the sake of argument. Listen and take what benefits you to heart.
  4. Be smart. Think before you speak, there are some conversations which have no benefit other than to reinforce stereotypes or create negative situations.
  5. Marketing has no place on it. When we spend money on it the goal is to surprise and delight, not to promote or preach.
  6. Don't shock the system. Lasting change only happens in baby steps.
  7. Know when to turn the mic off. There are some topics which will only result in problems when you discuss them. This has nothing to do with censorship, but with working within the reality of the system that exists in our world today. You will not change anything by taking on legal or financial issues, you will only shock the system, spook the passengers, and create a negative situation.
  8. Don't be a jerk. Nobody likes mean people.
  9. Commit to the conversation. Don't stop listening just because you are busy. Don't stop participating because you don't agree with someone. Relationships are not built in a day, be in it for the long haul and we will all reap the benefits as an industry.
I have to say that if someone was asking me about a blog charter for his organization, I would have no problem highlighting that one except for one rule:

Rule #5 - Marketing has no place on it. When we spend money on it the goal is to surprise and delight, not to promote or preach.

As an organization, you would not want just to 'copy and paste' content that can be found on your corporate web site and you wouldn't want blogs a to be just a one-way communication tool. That said I disagree with the fact that 'Marketing has no place on it'.

I think blogs can be used as a valid and effective marketing tool to recapture the art of having a conversation with customers. I see it as way of re-establishing 1:1 relationships with willing customers and prospects. Sure, you cannot ignore the fact that one of the purposes of marketing is to influence positively customers, prospects and other peripheral audiences, but I think that if you revisit rules 1-4 and 6-9, it can work.

I certainly think blogs are as important as web site and collateral for an organization and if used within the etiquette boundaries highlighted above it can work for marketing too.