By Larry Weber

By the time you read this, the blogosphere will have maxxed out at 100 million blogs. That’s right, 100 million blogs—some personal, some professional, all adding their voices to the social web.

From a marketing perspective, a blog can be an excellent tool to build awareness of your company, product, or brand; build trust and strengthen relationships with customers, prospects, employees, and others who are interested or influential; and create a sense of community around the people who are important to your brand’s success. So what’s your strategy for marketing in the great big blogosphere?

I have suggested sending important bloggers free products or tipping them off to special deals. If this sounds like a no-brainer, pay close attention to the story of Oh! Gizmo ( David Ponce is the owner and managing editor of this blog about “gadgets, innovation, and design,” where he, senior editor Andrew Liszewski, and their readers blog about the gadgets.

In a “Disclosures” section of the site, Ponce clearly states that he and his colleagues are allowed to keep any products sent to them for review purposes. He also emphasizes that they take “great care to maintain our impartiality and will never, for any reason, give a product a positive review when we feel it is undeserved.”

Now here’s where things get interesting. During an interview, Ponce told a SmartMoney magazine writer that a $600 Nokia N91 phone is “great as a music player, but it sucks as an actual phone.” In the first Oh! Gizmo review of the product, however, Ponce wrote, “It’s solid, powerful and jam-packed with features rarely found all combined in one package like this. Everything works as it should and works well.” A follow-up review on Oh! Gizmo softened this opinion: “Things are a little rough around the edges, and turn what would otherwise have been a perfect phone, into, well, one that’s slightly less perfect.” As SmartMoney commented, “Nokia must have been pleased.”

I suspect Ponce’s comment about the N91 was an unthinking remark he tossed off and was surprised to read in the magazine, but it highlights a couple of key issues. Always be careful what you say to a reporter. And be careful what you say in your blog. The remarks may come back to bite you—once on the Web, they never go away.

Blogs Go Big-Time

In the blogosphere, the self-edited and the authoritative tend to rise to the top. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that blogs are bloated with half-baked ideas and crackpot opinions. Maybe blogs aren’t the New York Times or the Washington Post, the New Yorker or Reader’s Digest, or even Fox television news. Certainly among the millions of bloggers, a wealth of half-baked crackpots regularly belch their opinions. But readers are quick to point out mistakes. And if the mistakes continue, all but an unreconstructed hard core committed to the source will fall away.

At the same time, I see a new generation of media authority developing rapidly in the blogosphere. I believe the blogosphere is mirroring the evolution of newspapers only in a New York minute. It took decades for the New York Times, Le Monde or the Financial Times to become brands, but the Boing Boings and Suicide Girls are becoming trusted information partners to a new generation. They’re being held accountable for accuracy by readers rather than by editors and fact-checkers. Blogs will not take entirely replace newspapers, but I predict that in five years, no American newspaper will have more than a million (hard copy) readers. Increasingly, consumers and businesspeople will look to blogs for specific, timely, expert information and advice.

Half the news destinations right now are blogs, says Technorati, including the New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the BBC, USA Today, NHK, San Francisco Chronicle among many others. There is a maturation process in the blogosphere that is going to continue with increased sharing of social media; more and more we’ll see “mainstream” media saying, “DailyCandy said . . .” or “Medpundit said . . .” or “WebMD said . . .” or “Boing Boing said . . .” or “The Drudge Report said . . .”

And, as the blogosphere evolves, bloggers are going to be more professional; they’re going to look for more resources. More a third of the respondents to the Edelman survey said they blog to gain visibility as an authority. (What kind of an authority is often wrong?) In Paul Gillin’s survey, one-third of the respondents listed “career advancement” as motivation for blogging, “perhaps reflecting the large number of consultant bloggers.” Overwhelmingly, Gillin says, people noted intangible factors as being more important, factors like connecting with others, influencing markets, and ‘it just feels good.’ ”

So watch for the blogosphere to become equal to—if not heavier in weight than—traditional media within the next 18 months. With that in mind, how can businesses (large, small, and mid-size), employ this tool? Start with the practical issues you confront every day. You can search the blogosphere for the best plastic to use in a certain manufacturing process; or the best distribution network; or the best reseller. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it discussed and dissected by experts who are blogging.

For example, Doc Searles writes one of the most important blogs for software ( He’s been in the business for three decades, so this is not just somebody who stepped off the bus and says, “I’m going to write a blog about open-source software.” This is a man who has studied the subject and can write authoritatively about it. And there are thousands of other experts, specialists in their fields, who like blogging about their ideas and responding to readers’ comments.

You Do Want to Hear the Bad News

Isn’t there a danger in allowing just anybody inside and outside the company to say anything in public? What about competitive information? Trade secrets? Proprietary data? After all, loose lips sink ships.
Yes, there’s a danger. So for comments coming from outside the company, I agree that it’s both legitimate and prudent to screen out the irrelevancies, obscenities, and liabilities.

Every responsible senior executive wants to hear the bad news, whether it’s a negative reaction to a new policy or a customer gripe that could be an early sign of something far worse. The problem, says Jonathan Schwartz, is the natural tendency to keep bad news away from the boss. He says that Scott McNealy, Sun’s chairman and former CEO, told him, “Always worry about what people aren’t telling you.”

That said, however, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t invite outsiders to comment on company products, policies, and performance and allow only the enthusiastic or innocuous to be heard. These days, word will get out faster than you can imagine, and the firm’s timidity will be exposed. I believe it’s far better to take your lumps and correct the problem. As Josh Scribner at IBM says, you want to head off problems or be able to address them. “IBM has been making a great effort to keep an eye on what’s going on out there and listen to what our customers have to say.”

What about bloggers within the company? How can you confidently allow employees to blog?
When I have this discussion with senior executives, I can only respond with question: Do you trust your employees? Do they cheat on their expense accounts? Steal company supplies? Freelance during company hours? If there’s no trust between employees and managers, if managers believe that most employees are basically dishonest and looking for a way to rip off the organization, then allowing employees to blog about the company is probably a bad idea. (Obviously, the company cannot stop an employee from blogging about, say, her gardening challenges, when she’s at her home computer and on her own time.)

If, however, senior management believes that most employees are basically honest, the issue is one of guidelines rather than control. Josh says that when IBM decided to go into blogs in a big way, management carefully considered the issues and established guidelines for employee bloggers. These guidelines included “things like: don’t get into an argument with people, because there’s no point. Be the first to apologize. Say who you are. We want people to say who they are and to say that their opinions are not necessarily those of IBM.”

Still, Josh knows that companies worry about what might happen if an employee blogger says something wrong or inflammatory or otherwise inappropriate. What then? “You need to make sure that it is clearly explained that they are talking on their own behalf, because that will satisfy a company’s legal team. That’s how we work with our own legal team here.”

IBM also insists on transparency, meaning employees must say they work for IBM if they blog about IBM. This is critical, Josh emphasizes, because readers should “feel we’re being honest when we’re out there. We don’t have subterfuge in the blogging world.”

Larry Weber is chairman of W2 Group, a next-generation marketing services holding company. Weber started his own public relations company, The Weber Group, in 1987. The Interpublic Group of Companies purchased The Weber Group in late 1996, and in early 2000, Weber was named chairman and CEO of Interpublic’s Advanced Marketing Services group. He left the firm in 2004 to return to his entrepreneurial roots. The above is excerpted from his new book, Marketing to the Social Web, which helps marketers and their companies understand the context of the new marketing, and prioritize what they need to do to build customer communities and maximize profit in a time of marketing confusion.