Flogging the Gold rush

Another entry in the 'blogging gold rush' file. General Motors, Trump, Mazda, Wrigley, et al are more corporate bloggers who are attempting to figure out the medium.

Chicago Tribune | Pinstripes invading blogosphere
Blogs have gone corporate, raising doubts about the credibility of a fast-growing Internet innovation once used primarily for private thoughts. Business honchos from Donald Trump to General Motors executive Bob Lutz are among those embracing the new online journals, to the dismay of some blogging purists skeptical about the authenticity of such from-the-top viewpoints. The same worries have arisen as Wrigley, McDonald's and Boeing, to name a few, churn out interactive diaries aimed at generating word of mouth about the goods and services they sell. The upshot is a growing backlash against fake blogs launched for commercial purposes -- dubbed “flogs” -- as well as suspicions that corporate executives rarely write the entries attributed to them.

Unmentioned in this discussion is the simple fact that without compelling content, nobody is reading whatever Mr. Lutz deigns to thumb-type on his Blackberry. Mark Cuban often (not always) has interesting things to say, but I'm not sure if I'd subscribe to an rss feed of Jack Welsh's ruminations even if I knew about such a site. What would he say that would interest me? On the other hand, I do subscribe to Davd Sifry's blog, for example - there are tidbits of interest there occasionally.

(more excerpts saved for posterity, below the jump. Cranky, parenthetical note: speaking as the D list blogger spokesperson for a moment, there wouldn't be a need to excerpt such large portions of articles if live links didn't die so quickly. I would rather just provide a link, and perhaps a paragraph or two, but link rot is a pain. I happened to look at a posting I made about a year ago, and all 7 of the links to major media organizations led to either 'dead' links or 'pay for view' pages. I would really save a lot of storage space, eyeball space, and copyright-infringement worry if more sites used the BBC or Wired Magazine model of permanent links. My content, such that it is, is available years later, why isn't the Chicago Tribune's? Anyway...)

Automaker Mazda has drawn criticism for inventing a 20-something blogger who praised one of its sporty sedans in fictitious postings. Web marketers have offered secret payments for bloggers willing to tout certain companies. And at least one Internet consultant openly advertises ghostwriter services for bigwigs too busy to produce the content in their blogs. ... “A lot of this stuff that masquerades as honest information is being supported by somebody,” said George Harmon, a business journalism professor at Northwestern University. “They've all got an agenda, and a lot of times it's hidden. This is a new way of delivering the same old Shinola.”

Nevertheless, corporations are expected to keep on blogging, seizing the new opportunity to communicate with customers and employees in a first-person, conversational style, as well as to advance their marketing strategies. Some bloggers definitely have connected, such as the organic dairy farmer whose manure-tinged musings have struck an authentic chord on behalf of food marketer Stonyfield Farm.

“This is not some sort of fad,” said Derek Gordon, marketing director at the Technorati blog search engine. He estimates the number of blogs is doubling every five months worldwide, surpassing 26.9 million at last count, including thousands of corporate sites. Employees at some of the biggest technology companies, including IBM and Microsoft, have launched blogs by the hundreds.

It's still a young medium. Blogging caught on in earnest only five or six years ago, and corporations started experimenting with it no more than two years ago, according to Charlene Li, analyst at Forrester Research, a technology trend spotter. “The hard part isn't the technology, it is the mind-set. This is a very different way of doing business,” Li said. “Everyone's trying to do the same thing and have a unique voice on the Internet.”
Both Trump and Lutz say they allow critical postings on their blogs. The comments “have to be really extreme” to be edited out of Trump's Web journal, said Michael Sexton, president of Trump University, who works with the real estate magnate.

Business blogs perform better as soapboxes than as sales or corporate communication tools, because of the doubts they engender, Sexton said. “People are increasingly skeptical about what they read on the Internet.”

Many of the postings on GM's FastLane blog come from die-hard fans of the vehicles. Lutz and other executives who contribute to it keep the tone positive. But the occasional commentary accuses GM of making “PR pushes” or denounces it as “an almost-bankrupt loser.”

Typically, though not always, GM public-relations executives preview Lutz's posts, which he writes mostly on his BlackBerry hand-held, he said. Similarly, Trump dictates his entries to a trusted aide, who types them “almost verbatim,” Sexton said.

Not everyone believes executive blogs ring true. Though she “can't prove it,” Internet consultant B.L. Ochman said, “I'm 1,000 percent sure the GM blog wasn't all written by Bob Lutz.”

On the contrary, Lutz said, his entries are “unsanitized” and straight from the heart: “It destroys this negative image of GM as a faceless company run by robots. This guy's alive. Tells it like it is.”
“It is kind of galling that you take the same lame marketing message and shove it into a blog,” noted Dan Buczaczer of Reverb, a division of Publicis Groupe in Chicago.

Another tack has inspired even more cynicism: The practice of paying bloggers to tout products or services. A Web marketer known as USWeb pays $5 per mention, and some bloggers have signed on to pepper the Web with testimonials, while never disclosing their compensation deal.

To some, such practices reflect an unsettled period in the Internet's development. Blogging is just one way for organizations to harness the Web's huge potential, discovering pitfalls mostly by falling into them.

At Boston University's College of Communication, Associate Dean Tobe Berkowitz sees a steep learning curve ahead.

“The risk is that misinformation, disinformation and just plain lies can take on the aura of news and truth,” Berkowitz said. “What you want is open, honest, credible information. The degree of difficulty is like the Olympics.”

Also, one wonders how many commenters are actually paid, by the word, or the insult. I can't bother reading through the comment threads at certain liberal sites that I used to frequent: too much noise, not enough signal. I can't help but suspect that this is an intentional strategy.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on February 12, 2006 7:57 PM.

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