Stonyfield Farms' CEO Gary Hirshberg envisioned blogging as "a handshake with our customers." Ken Baris, president of Jordan Baris Inc. Realtors, saw blogging as a tool to streamline communications between agents and provide confidential services to customers.
These projects by the New Jersey real estate firm and New Hampshire organic dairy demonstrate the two different sides of corporate blogging. Stonyfield Farms uses blog sites to communicate and interact with customers. Jordan Baris Inc. (JBI) uses blogs to facilitate communications between employees and to give customers access to private documents.
"External and internal blogging are gathering steam in the corporate world," said Anil Dash, vice president of professional networks for Six Apart, a blog services company. For every early adopter, like Stonyfield Farms, there are hundreds of businesses that are evaluating whether this information-sharing medium fits their needs, he said.
The personal touch
Stonyfield Farms started as an organic farming school in 1983 and is now a 250-person company with more than a dozen products. "We are growing at a fast and furious pace, and we don't want to lose touch with our loyal customer base," said Christine Halvorson, the company's chief blogger.
To stay in touch with customers, Stonyfield Farms created five blog sites, which are prominently touted on the company's homepage. "We think it's been a success because we can see we have repeat readers and lots of feedback," Halvorson said.
Speeding up business processes is the primary purpose of JBI's external blogs. Customers contact the company about properties they want to buy or sell via blogs. JBI shares property information, including sellers' disclosures and transaction documents, with customers via a password-protected blog.
"We make it easy for customers to get info about properties before the sale," Baris said. "When a sale is closing, everything a customer needs to know about that sale is available on the blog site."
The personal touch of blogging has paid off for major corporations, too. Both Microsoft and General Motors Corp. have made friends and headlines with their customer blog sites.
With blogs, Microsoft has softened its image, said Scott Swigart, founder and analyst with Swigart Consulting. "Never before have customers and competitors had so much insight into what Microsoft is thinking about, experimenting with and developing," Swigart said.
Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman, blogs on Fast Lane Blog, one of two blog sites at GMblogs.com. Dash notes that "Lutz's site is a good example of the honesty and openness that corporate blogs should offer."
Of course, too much honesty and openness can be a bad thing. What if an employee's blog criticizes the company, or worse, reveals confidential information?
Halvorson carefully chose which employees could blog on the customer blog and established a policy about what is and is not appropriate to disclose. That policy also defines the blog's goals, noting that shared information should pertain to those goals.
While Halvorson leaves most of her blogs' content alone, she does correct factual errors. She also doesn't allow any thread to continue for very long. "I don't want any issue to dominate a site so that people get tired of it and stop reading the blog," she said.
The inside scoop
Internal blogging provides a more open forum than e-mail, enabling workgroups to discuss their projects and employees in general to understand what other departments are accomplishing, according to Dash and Swigart.
More than 230 JBI agents share information with each other about prospective buyers and their property requirements on the company's blog, which runs on Five Across Inc.'s Bubbler software.
"Our agents can use our blog to look for a property for sale by any of our agents," Baris said. "With that one part of the blog, we find extra sales that another broker would miss."
Before the blog, JBI shared information with other brokers by pulling and faxing documents. Now, sharing is done via the blog, thus making it easier for outside brokers to sell properties listed by JBI. "Thanks to our blog, other brokers are realizing that it's very easy to do business with us," Baris said.
The collaboration functionality of blogging is spurring organizations to try or evaluate it. For example, Golden Gate University of San Francisco has just started using blogs for project status reports. "It's an easy tool to bring up portfolio-level status reports," said Anthony Hill, GGU chief technology officer. He's exploring other uses of workgroup blogs.
Software vendor Win4Lin is evaluating blogging as a collaboration tool that would diminish the geography and time barriers that separate its far-flung engineers, said Mark Hinkle, vice president of business development. He's evaluating the blog capabilities of Mambo, open source content management software.
Companies that want to set up blogs on their own sites can develop them internally or use blog platforms like Six Apart's Moveable Type. Movable Type license fees range from about $200 for a single blog site to $1,300 for 50 blogs. There are also dozens of free blog hosting sites (www.myblogsite.com, www.blogger.com, www.blogeasy.com), so it can even cost nothing for a company to get started blogging. A company would simply supply a link on its existing Web site to its blog site.
Usually, a company's existing webmaster sets up the blogs and administers them. If a company's blog is very marketing oriented, then it's usual practice to hire a dedicated blog director.
For example, Stonyfield Farms hired Chris Halvorson, a journalist, to create and edit content for and administer its five blogs. Five Stonyfield employees, all new parents, spend a small part of their time writing for the Baby Babble Blog. And a Stonyfield dairy farmer writes for one blog.
Dash counsels companies that want to implement internal employee blogging to start small. "Have a workgroup journal their progress, or choose one person within a workgroup to report on the group," Dash said. "Monitor the response to gauge employee interest and participation."
Don't just blog because it's trendy, Hinkle said. Instead, make sure that it's an effective way to communicate internally and with your customers.
Maxine Kincora is a technology writer in Berkeley, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com.