Corporate Blogging and Virtual Communities

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  • 1. Corporate blogging and virtual communities Received (in revised form): 5th April, 2013 Bradley Jobling is Social Media Manager for the Columbia University Department of Surgery. Mr Jobling has 20 years of web strategy and online marketing experience, and has been a speaker at a number of conferences on social media. Mr Jobling earned an MBA from the Columbia Business School in the management of information, communication and media. He is an active member in the Social Media Club of New York and the Columbia Business School Alumni Club of New York. Columbia University Medical Center, Department of Surgery, Office of External Affairs, 21 Audubon Ave, Room 209, New York, NY 10032, USA Tel: +1 201 723 8605; E-mail: bjobling95@gsb.columbia.edu Abstract A well-defined blogging strategy that includes purpose, mission and goals should be the cornerstone of any social media programme or digital marketing initiative. Understanding and locating blogging communities and the influencers in them is important to promote readership and participation. This paper describes five strategy exercises required for a successful blogging programme. KEYWORDS: blogs, blogging, social media, digital marketing, marketing strategy INTRODUCTION As buzzwords go, ‘social media’ has been one of the most social. Social media have been endlessly discussed in journals, news stories and books. Facebook has been heralded as the ‘deathblow’ to websites. As the number of smartphones and tablets grows, mobile and location-based marketing will change the internet. Yet, with all these changes and predictions, the cornerstone of any web or internet strategy should be the humble blog. A blog is a tool, like a brochure, a sign, or even an advertisement. There are many ways to use it. A blog does not have to be WordPress, Drupal, or a platform like Blogger or Tumblr. A blog can be any web page or a section of a website with frequently made posts. Blogs usually include permalinks, tags, archives, and most importantly, comments. 182 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing Blogging software is not a requirement per se, but as a platform, the specially defined software optimises results. A one-click feature or enhanced summary may seem trivial at first, but in some cases can mean a 20 per cent growth in traffic and faster rates of growth. Launching with the web scene in the 1990s,1 the number of blogs has exploded to 184 million as of 2010.2 Written by a class of individuals more educated than the general public, 75 per cent of US bloggers have a college degree, 40 per cent of those are at the graduate level. One in four bloggers has an annual household income of over $100,000.2 These are all desirable demographics. Blogs vary in topic, size and audience. Homebound mothers (and fathers) who feel disconnected from the world use blogs to socialise. Barack Obama perfected the Vol. 1, 2 182–191 ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013)
  • 2. Jobling art of political blogging, breaking online fundraising efforts at the time.3 Yet blogs are than a shingle for posting notes or raising money. Blogs can be used to organise protests. A Canadian woman by the name of Shannon Smith used her blog to organise a ‘nurse-in’, protesting against a store manager that requested she discontinue breast-feeding in a children’s clothing store. The event received national attention on Canadian television networks.4 Blogs can also be used to collect information. The US Department of Health and Human Services is the largest health organisation to have used a blog, having created it for the purpose of collecting pandemic flu preparedness information from healthcare leaders.5 The blogosphere is highly fractured, very decentralised, and grouped into clusters. Each community has its own style, norms, practices and objectives. These clusters rarely link to each other. To use a blog for marketing purposes effectively it is critical to be seen as a peer.4 Business blogs represent one of the top content marketing tactics used to reach consumers and potential clients. According to a 2012 Content Marketing Institute report, 69 per cent of North American business-to-consumer content marketers6 used blogs to reach audiences while the number was 77 per cent for business-tobusiness.6 In the UK, 78 per cent of all businesses that create content for marketing purposes were found to keep a blog.7 As depicted in Figure 1, there are five steps to developing a strategy for a blog. They are: 1. Listening and research. 2. Defining purpose, mission and goals. 3. Installing the editorial calendar, defining roles, regulations and procedures. 4. Reaching out through social media platforms and other bloggers. 5. Analysing, refining and regrouping. ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013) The ‘listening and research’ and ‘defining purpose, mission and goals’ phases can be worked on concurrently. They are iterative processes at times contributing one into the other. If the blog is already in place, these strategic exercises can be performed to fix or readjust the focus of the blog. Additionally, these exercises should be revisited from time to time to accommodate changes. Listening and research Listening, or monitoring, is a social media term that involves finding and analysing comments about a company or brand on social media. In the past, listening was performed by media-clipping services that scanned periodical databases for articles. With the proliferation of blogs, new tools were created to collect and analyse the comments. Listening can be performed by setting up a series of Google Alerts or by subscribing to a social media monitoring tool. Even though listening is the most important of all phases it is often skipped or poorly performed. In a 2012 survey conducted by the consulting firms Web Liquid and RSW/US, 75 per cent of the marketing executives surveyed reported monitoring social media for discussions about their brand or product; however, only 25 per cent of these were extremely satisfied with the results.8 Part of this may be due to the quality of tools or an inability to extract actionable insights from the information provided. When performing social media monitoring or listening, the report concluded that paid tools led to better results. Why is listening for a blog strategy so important? A blog needs to connect with its audience and cluster. Finding the target community and becoming a part of it increases traffic and encourages valuable engagement. By listening to or reading the posts of others, the blogging team will Vol. 1, 2 182–191 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing 183
  • 3. Corporate blogging and virtual communities Figure 1: Steps to developing a blog strategy understand the norms and practices of the community, ensuring the blog’s acceptance as a valued member. Questions to be answered from the listening (or monitoring) phase of a blogging strategy include: • Does the demographic community exist online? If so, where are they located and what types of content do they read and write? • Can the blog community be classified into a type? (Examples would include parent blog, product reviews, political, 184 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing health or travel blogs.) • What are the norms and practices of the blogging community? • What is the purpose of the blog within this community? • Do the readers and writers of these blogs wish to remain anonymous? • Does the community use specific social media sites or forums? If so, which ones? • Is the community currently discussing the product or service being marketed? If so, what are they saying? • Who are the influencers in this community? Vol. 1, 2 182–191 ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013)
  • 4. Jobling Even though the types of blogs and communities vary, those that cater to specific niche products or services may be hard to find. If a target community is not found, there is a distinct advantage to being the first, but it is not easy work nor is there instant payoff. Nevertheless, even a business-to-business industry, such as cement mixing, can write about customer success stories to create virtual interactions that might ultimately turn into real-world business.8 Outreach to other bloggers at this stage should focus on finding those who are the most able to help spread your message. Unlike traditional media, blogs and blogging communities do not have directories or standard rating services. Looking up site rankings and Twitter rating scores will locate the more popular blogs and influential bloggers. Defining purpose, mission and goals Once there is an understanding of the places where target communities exist, the knowledge gained from this research can be used to define the mission and goals. Effective blogging should be an extension of existing marketing and business strategies. Even though online marketing has been heralded as the leveller of advertising, a fully integrated approach that combines traditional and digital will achieve the best results. Blogging can achieve much more than just marketing goals. For example, personal computer companies were the first to use blogs for customer service and technical support. Blogs can also be used to: • solicit feedback from an exclusive list of loyal customers to develop and launch a new product; • communicate regulatory changes affecting an industry to clients, employees and stockholders; • provide a personal side of the company ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013) by spotlighting the environmental and philanthropic efforts of individual employees; • provide timely and useful case studies to how clients can use products or services in unique ways; • build and foster links with the traditional media or other bloggers; and • expanding television and print advertising to online communities. Although it may seem like the ‘the sky is the limit’, it is important to remember that a blog must be sought out and works best if informative and participatory. A spot developed for television can be splashed on the web, but if not useful or entertaining, will not be seen by many. As for another misconception, blogging and social media sites are not free. While blogging software and services can be purchased and maintained for hundreds of dollars a year, a blog’s most valuable resource, the content, will involve time and resources to be effective. As social media and blogging audiences grow, so will the expectations of clients and customers. Videos embedded in blogs and used in social media sites should reflect the image of the company. This is especially important for blogs targeted to business-to-business vendors. To justify the expenses incurred to develop good content, it is important to have a clear mission with measureable goals. Example missions and goals could be as follows: • A blog from Columbia University Medical Center will communicate the changes affecting patients due to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act 2010. The goal is to reduce the number of customer service calls regarding insurance by 20 per cent. • The mission for this personal blog is to connect with others in the social media Vol. 1, 2 182–191 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing 185
  • 5. Corporate blogging and virtual communities • • • • field by summarising conferences and networking events. The goal is to expand professional networks. The mission of the Leonia Community blog is to document and record changes occurring in the neighbourhood caused by the construction of the light-rail line. The goal is to encourage community involvement and possible political action. The mission of this internal blog is to document the steps taken as a company to resolve a product recall. The goal is to work with related vendors to design a solution. The purpose for this internal blog is to communicate the changes occurring in the company caused by the implementation of a new procurement system. The goal is to minimise disruption and provide a platform for employees to pinpoint installation issues early. This blog will communicate innovative uses of the product line from real customer experiences with a goal of increasing sales leads and volumes. Some goals are not always measureable in quantifiable terms. Yet whenever possible, these should be stated in ways to determine objective success. The mission and goals can be posted in the blog sub-header as a constant reminder of purpose. Most goals will be business-related and usually involve sales or leads. As with all digital marketing initiatives, the results can be measured partially through a web analytics package. Analytics consist of secondary metrics such as page views, visits, time spent on site, or number of downloads. Key performance indicators (KPIs) define goals that affect the bottom line. The secondary metrics are used to help tell the story behind changes in the KPIs. The process and use of web analytics and KPIs should be considered within this stage. 186 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing Installing the editorial calendar and defining roles, regulations and procedures Marketing on a blog requires thinking like a journalist. Growth will require creativity and consistency. The first step in achieving this is setting up an editorial calendar. Good content takes time to develop and will come from various sources. Customer service employees and sales personnel have front-line access to the wants and needs of consumers and will be excellent resources for blog post ideas. A collaboration site can be used for the process of collecting these ideas and organising the resources to complete them. Along with this calendar, both the content development process and the response interaction will redefine workflows and require new roles that cross department boundaries. New processes will need to be thought out to deal with questions such as: • Who will moderate the blog? • Will the comments be policed internally or by the community itself? • What are the regulatory roles regarding the information discussed? • Does the legal department need to sign off on content? If so, when should they be involved? • What is the process for handling a customer complaint? • Who is going to analyse comments? Within this stage, a team as well as processes for several scenarios should be developed and planned. Reaching out through social media platforms and other bloggers In the multi-platform media world of today, viewers consume information in various ways and different places. Social media networks are challenging search engines as the primary entry point to the Vol. 1, 2 182–191 ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013)
  • 6. Jobling Figure 2: Using the blog as a central point protects the content while diversifying reliance on a single social media platform web. Even with the most useful and entertaining content, readers will require reminders or hooks to be brought back into the fold. As shown in Figure 2, keeping a blog as a central hub of marketing content and then using social networks as a means of spreading this content will take advantage of the viral nature of social media sites without giving away control or ownership of the content itself. Using the blog as a central point will also protect the content while diversifying reliance on a single social media platform. Social networks require a certain amount of time and effort. In the end, these sites still maintain ownership of the content and the subscribers or fans. In return for sharing the company’s content, the networks send traffic to the blog that can be verified in the analytics. Not all ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013) social media platforms are worthy. Those that are increase KPIs and important web analytics. Blogger outreach should also be considered as a means of content distribution. Pitching a story to a blogger is similar to pitching a traditional meeting. Targeting the correct blogger with the appropriate message requires research and increases the likelihood the writer will cover the story. Blanket pitching or ‘say and spray’ does not work.9 Analysing, refining and regrouping The blog and its community are living. Changes occur in the members who participate, the goals and missions of the firm, and the general business environment. The reason for the blog may cease to exist. Throughout the daily and monthly process of managing the blog, the Vol. 1, 2 182–191 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing 187
  • 7. Corporate blogging and virtual communities overall strategy and mission defined in these exercises should be kept in mind and reevaluated periodically. Any signs of decreased participation or readership should warrant immediate intervention and possible realignment. As growth slows, it becomes more difficult to reanimate the hive of activity that was once in place.10 ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS Comments and commenting tools Comments are the lifeblood of the blog. Comments drive traffic and traffic drives additional comments. To encourage participation, calls to action are a critical part of any blog content. A post that is written to provoke thought, criticism and even controversy will do better in search rankings and traffic than one that is not. Replying to comments in a timely manner, and in a way that encourages even more engagement, will promote conversation and keep the article alive. Technological features that enhance sharing and commenting systems are worth the efforts and cost. Any engagement performed by a reader should be magnified as many times as possible and as privacy dictates. Tools that post the users’ comments on social media sites or micro-blogs will help drive and expand the community. Encouraging commenting through gamification can also grow the blog. On the human side, the community must have clear rules of engagement and codes of conduct. The types of speech and allowable actions should be explicitly defined; the consequences of violation clear and fair. As in any functioning group, order is required for a smooth-running blogging community. Content, navigation and attention Blog content should be natural and in the first person. Blogs are meant to be journals 188 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing and opinion pieces discussing the company, product or service from a personal point of view. The reader should be made to feel like an insider. Forget 15 minutes of fame. A blog post has seconds to catch a reader’s attention. The length of a blog article should be short, around 500 words. Visual graphics or an attention-grabbing picture are a plus; a well-crafted title critical. Bullet points or paragraph headers should be easily scanned to attract the reader’s attention. Whatever can be done to draw the reader in is helpful. An excellent navigation system is essential to keeping a reader on the site. Tagging, categorisation and archiving schemas that help readers locate additional articles of interest will keep them on the site for longer periods of time. Blog frequency If there was a blog post for every time the question ‘How many times should I post?’ was asked, the blogosphere would be much larger than it is today. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is the typical consulting answer of ‘it depends’. As a rule of thumb, experts suggest that posting multiple times per day will result in the fastest growth for a blog. For steady growth, post once per day. Posting two or three times a week will lead to slower development. Anything less than two or three times a week will stifle success.11 The caveat to these numbers is the quality of the content. Fewer posts of higher quality mean more than actual quantities. CASE STUDIES Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) The consummate homemaker Martha Stewart is an accomplished blogger. She hosts ten blogs, covering topics that range Vol. 1, 2 182–191 ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013)
  • 8. Jobling from home design, crafts, food, gardening and pet care to purvey her television programmes, radio shows, magazines and growing line of products. Each blog is written by a topic expert, Martha Stewart herself, or — apparently — one of Martha’s French bulldogs. In addition to recipes, crafts, wedding planning and home design, Martha pens posts about her farm, trips abroad, an outing to the circus, even an emergency trip to the local hospital for stitches. Along with a few good recipes, takeaways from Martha’s blogs include: • Optimal use of content: MSLO uses clips from Martha Stewart’s television programmes as web video. This expands audiences to include working homemakers and the increasing numbers of online video viewers. Her Pinterest site contains pictures of perfect-looking dishes with links to recipes on MarthaStewart.com. • Reaching out through social media: Martha Stewart uses Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to promote the content from her blogs. Effectively using the cluster, the Martha’s Circle blog posts link to posts from other like-minded bloggers to generate additional content for MSLO. • Be multi-platform to reach fragmented and changing audiences: In addition to the social networks and smartphone apps, MSLO partners with wedding planning, event, greeting card and recipe/grocery shopping sites for additional viewers. • Be strategic: MSLO has a small presence on LinkedIn with some job listings, but nothing else. Not every social network is appropriate for all blog communities. Knowing the audience will prevent wasted efforts on unproductive sites. Analysis will determine how well a social media site is performing. Regrouping will lead to new ones as the blogging and social media environment changes. ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013) • Be informative for inbound marketing: MSLO makes money from advertising and product licensing. Several US retailers will claim that the Martha Stewart brand is a leader or driver of sales in their store.Yet, rarely will there be a mention of a Martha Stewart product in any blog content. Posts that focus on the perfect recipe, the most beautiful flower arrangement or the cutest children’s party sell cookware, stationery, pet scoopers and Caribbean honeymoons. It may not make good sense to stretch a brand to all of these products, yet the use of informative blog posts as an image builder is spot on. Mayo Clinic Can healthcare be marketed on a blog like a Martha Stewart product? Hospitals and clinics mean so many things to different people. Good things happen in these places like the birth of a baby. Yet people also go through bad experiences such as cancer therapy. Traditional media covers heart-warming stories, innovative technologies and celebrity deaths, but mainstream news is not interested in the small stories such as positive clinical trial results. Yet these topics are of utmost interest to the community or people who have that condition or disease. Several years ago, Mayo Clinic took a risky gamble by creating a few podcasts and setting up a blog. Within a short amount of time, results from these efforts would lead to situations such as a mother from California finding a YouTube video about postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and a cure for her daughter.12 Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth participated in a Twitter chat on the split tear of his ulnotriquetral ligament that led to national coverage of his story in USA Today and an ongoing USA Today/Mayo Clinic series.13 A mobile-phone video of an elderly couple Vol. 1, 2 182–191 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing 189
  • 9. Corporate blogging and virtual communities playing a duet on the piano in the clinic lobby began a viral sensation that ended up on Good Morning America.14 These are all great images of a place that wants to inspire hope and provide care. These anecdotes should not be surprising, however. Confirming long-held beliefs that more people are seeking medical advice online, a 2013 Pew Internet Study found that within the previous year, 59 per cent of US adult internet users looked for health information on the internet, 35 per cent of those self-diagnosing a specific medical condition.15 As healthcare information is niche and at times technical, a blog is a perfect platform for conveying information that would be of interest to few, but very important to those interested. Blogging seen as the most intellectual of social media platforms can be an effective way to communicate with hard-to-reach clinicians. THE FUTURE OF BLOGGING Adoption of blogging by institutions and businesses varies by industry and audience. Technology and software companies were the first to reach out to their audiences. Healthcare and financial services are finally getting on board. Still, there have been some recent, interesting shifts in the blogging landscape. A survey by UMass Dartmouth found that the percentage of firms on Inc. magazine’s 500 fast-growing companies that maintain blogs fell to 37 per cent in 2011 from 50 per cent in 2010. Additionally, 23 per cent of Fortune 500 companies maintained an active blog in 2011, a number that has flat-lined for the last several years.16 Underutilised platforms to watch are those that provide event-based blogging and social media tools. Webinars, online call-in radio programmes, chats and 190 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing hangouts could be the most sought-out web content due to their informative nature, and format that can easily be consumed on-the-go and on-demand. As smart televisions become the norm, it will be interesting to see how technology changes affect corporate marketing. Regardless of changes or new platforms, a strategy-based approach to blogging of any kind will protect the value of content and allow for realignment of the marketing efforts to environmental and technological changes as they occur. References 1. Wikipedia (2013) ‘Blog’, updated 14th February, available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog (accessed 15th February, 2013). 2. Clauson, K. A, Elkins, J., Goncz, C. E. (2010) ‘Use of blogs by pharmacists’, American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, Vol. 67, No. 23, pp. 2043–2048. 3. In der Smitten, S. (2008) ‘Political potential and capabilities of online communities’, German Policy Studies, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 33–62. 4. Morrison, A. (2011) ‘Suffused by feeling and affect: “the intimate public of personal mommy blogging”’, An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 37–55. 5. Thielst, C. B. (2007) ‘Weblogs: a communication tool’, Journal of Healthcare Management, Vol. 52, No. 5, pp. 287–289. 6. Pulizzi, J. (2013) ‘B2C content marketing benchmarks, budgets and trends’, available at: http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2012/11/20 13-b2c-consumer-content-marketing/ (accessed 3rd April, 2013). 7. Pulizzi, J. (2013) ‘Content marketing in the UK: benchmarks, budgets, and trends’, available at: http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2013/03/uk -2013-content-marketing-research/ (accessed 3rd April, 2013). 8. Web Liquid and RSW/US (2011) ‘Marketers & social media monitoring survey’, available at: http://www.brandchannel.com/images/papers/12 4_web_liquid_paper_social_media_monitoring_08 11.pdf (accessed 3rd April, 2013). 9. Harris, R. (2012) ‘Rethinking blogger outreach’, Marketing: Advertising, Media and PR in Canada, 26th November, available at: http://www.marketingmag.ca/news/agency-news/ rethinking-blogger-outreach-66719/2 (accessed 15th February, 2013) 10. Bartholomew, M., Jones, T. and Glassman, M. (2012) ‘Community of voices: educational blog Vol. 1, 2 182–191 ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013)
  • 10. Jobling management strategies and tools’, TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, Vol. 56, No. 4, pp. 19–25. 11. Gunelius, S. (2008) ‘Blog posting frequency overview’, available at: http://weblogs.about.com/od/startingablog/qt/ BlogPostingFreq.htm (accessed 3rd April, 2013). 12. Aase, L. (2010) ‘Hayley’s POTS story: getting answers at Mayo Clinic’, available at: http://sharing.mayoclinic.org/2010/02/23/hayleys -pots-story-getting-answers-at-mayo-clinic/ (accessed 3rd April, 2013). 13. Turner, E. (2010) ‘My e-patient Twitter success story’, available at: http://www.spectrum science.com/blog/2010/02/26/my-e-patient- ᭧ Henry Stewart Publications 2050-0076 (2013) twitter-success-story/ (accessed 3rd April, 2013). 14. Aase, L. (2009) ‘Mayo Clinic “octogenarian idols” appear on Good Morning America’, available at: http://sharing.mayoclinic.org/2009/05/25/mayoclinic-octogenarian-idols-good-morning-america/ (accessed 3rd April, 2013). 15. Fox, S. and Duggan, M. (2013) ‘Health online’, available at: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/ 2013/Health-online.aspx (accessed 3rd April, 2013). 16. Yu, R. (2012) ‘More companies quit blogging, go with Facebook instead’, USA Today, 20th April, available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/ tech/news/story/2012-04-19/corporate-blogging/ 54419982/1 (accessed 3rd April, 2013). Vol. 1, 2 182–191 Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing 191