In July, Microsoft Corp. did what would have probably been unthinkable just a few years ago: the Bellevue, Wash.-based company’s MSN division launched a commercial Web-log service; that is, a service that enables customers to set up their own personal online journals. Reportedly, executives overseeing MSN’s blogging pilot, which is currently offered only in Japan, expect they’ll eventually sign up 1 million customers.
In an earlier time, say 2000, managers at Microsoft didn’t appear to be such big fans of blogs. Actually, few corporate executives were. Back then, the personal Web pages gave a free and open voice to customers and ex-employees — too often, irate customers and disgruntled ex-employees. In some cases, corporations went to court to try to get business-bashing bloggers to cease and desist.
Things have changed. Blogs, once the domain of the malcontent, have gone mainstream, thanks in large part to the thousands of Web logs dedicated to celebrities and defunct TV shows (“Buffy” bloggers, you know who you are). In the process, business leaders have come to value what they once feared about Web logs: these online diaries provide an easy way to reach a large audience. Venture capitalists, for example, now use Web logs to uncover inventors and entrepreneurs with promising new ideas. Corporate directors, including those at enterprise resource planning giant SAP, have launched blogs to help them better communicate with stakeholders. And managers at some companies, including Sun Microsystems, use blogs (among other approaches) to talk to employees and let employees talk to one another.
The real promise of blogs, however, lies in their tremendous marketing power. For just a few hundred dollars, companies can start a buzz about new products, tout awards won, and generally blow their own horns. For Londonderry, N.H.-based yogurt and ice-cream maker Stonyfield Farm, blogs have become a big part of its promotional strategy. “Blogs are really just the latest natural extension of our communication with our customers,” says vice president of communications Cathleen Toomey. “We never shut up.”
This sort of dialogue has definite appeal. Roughly 6 percent of Web surfers say they use blogs, which works out to, well, a lot (one survey puts the current number of blogs at around 5 million). What’s more, blog readers tend to be the kind of customers companies prize. According to a study released by Jupiter Research last year, 61 percent of Internet users who read blogs at least once a month have an annual household income of $60,000 or more.
It’s no surprise, then, that business executives have suddenly grown very interested in Web logs. Stonyfield’s blog project was inspired by Howard Dean’s unsuccessful Presidential campaign. Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg, a Dean supporter, was impressed by the impact of the former governor’s blog and decided that his company could also benefit from the technology.
Convinced that one blog wouldn’t cover all topics of interest, Hirshberg decided to launch a series of online journals focusing on five different areas: the environment, organic farming, women, kids, and the company itself. He chose those areas “based on current company programs, as well as blogs that connect to Stonyfield’s mission,” says Toomey. The company then hired a writer who followed Hirshberg for a month, gathering information about the company and studying its philosophy and corporate culture. Stonyfield launched its daily blog last spring, and it was an instant hit. “People are commenting and subscribing,” says Toomey. “It’s gotten very, very popular.”