Saturday, 27 December 2008

How to engage with bloggers

Thanks to the rise of the internet, you have many new ways of reaching your customers, including a new form of publishing: blogging. Engaging with bloggers can be an effective and low-cost method of reaching out to your customers, and joining into a truly two-way conversation.

There’s a mistaken view that blogger engagement is only for the big boys. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth: in fact, small, growing companies can benefit enormously from blogger engagement, without having to spend a fortune on having a PR company do it for you.

But what exactly is blogging? Strictly speaking, blogging is simply a low-cost method of publishing on the internet, open to virtually everyone. This has meant a massive increase in the number of people publishing their views on the web, accompanied by a huge amount of interest from readers. Some blogs are simply small sites produced by individuals in their spare time, about their lives. Others, though, are large professional sites which attract as many readers as newspapers online.

According to Danny Meadows-Klue, CEO of Digital Strategy Consulting, the word "bloggers" is a little misleading. "Try thinking less about ‘bloggers’ and more about opinion formers, or as the informal journalists and columnists that describe the pulse and the issues around you," he says. In that sense, dealing with bloggers is a cross between working with the press and customer service.

Why engage with bloggers?

But why should you be engagement with bloggers? According to Chris Reed of Fishburn Hedges, there are two reasons. "Firstly, it's just good customer service. When people blog about their opinions they're generally not new opinions - it's just that blogging gives people an outlet for them. If someone likes your company/product, then engaging with them will almost certainly boost your reputation further and enhance the "buzz" around you."

As Chris Reed puts it: "In some sectors (especially consumer technology) there are blogs which are at least as influential as the trade press. A positive posting from one of these A-list bloggers can lay the groundwork for a general feeling of goodwill online (and then in print and beyond). A negative posting can be just as influential, and potentially very damaging for an organisation's reputation. Nowhere is the old adage more true than amongst bloggers: good news travels fast. Bad news travels faster. But unfortunately bloggers don't have the same factual checks and balances as print media. Inaccuracies are repeated, embellished, and soon become established. Possibly the only way of preventing this vicious circle is swift monitoring and responding to factual inaccuracies in the first place."

Engaging with bloggers can, though, be a double-edged sword. Get it right and the perception of your company can be improved. Get it wrong, and word will travel fast. As Chris Reed puts it: "The classic example is Dell, which was pilloried for poor consumer service by (now) A-list blogger Jeff Jarvis. Dell has gone full circle now, running one of the most respected blog-relations programmes around, which now actively involves bloggers (well anyone actually) to help refine their products as part of the ‘Dell Community’ - in essence a social network."

How to do it properly

So how do you get it right - and avoid the potential pitfalls? The first question to ask is whether your company is actually ready to launch itself on a blogger engagement programme. As Danny Meadows-Klue puts it, "If the business isn’t ready then wait until the culture is right and the knowledge level high enough. We’ve been running the Digital Blogging Marketing Academy for four years and sometimes I feel we should rename this as ‘a disaster aversion programme’: too many firms assume that because the technology costs are now so low, the art of blogging must be easy. If you put in almost nothing then don’t expect to get good results back."

After this, the next step is to understand who you should be approaching. According to Meadows-Klue, because of the ease of setting up a blog, you need to be sure that you’re talking to the right people. "Always get some sort of handle on how influential a given blogger is as it’s easy to set up a blog hard to earn an audience."

Then there is the approach. In the first instance, it’s important simply to be polite, and remember that you’re talking to someone who may not be a professional. Consider your approach as the opening of a conversation, not the equivalent of simply issuing a press release. Be yourself, rather than trying to put on another character, and avoid overclaims about your company and products - you’ll sound too much like a press release, and not enough like a human being.

This kind of human approach is vital if you’re to avoid the biggest pitfall people make in blogger engagement: sounding too much like a bad imitation of a PR person. As Chris Reed puts it, "the single biggest mistake anyone could ever make would be to approach a blogger you've had no previous relationship with, and pitch them an idea/story in a crass way which they would never consider writing about anyway. They simply won't even open future emails if that's the first contact you have with them."

Once you have decided who you need to approach and what kind of angle you wish to take with them, the next step is to actually make content. Unlike mainstream media, bloggers are usually very transparent about how to get hold of them – which is one of the reasons why engaging with bloggers can be done without the necessity of a big media contacts book, of the kind you’d get from a PR agency.

Almost every blogger will have some kind of contact details on their web site, usually an email address and occasionally a phone number as well. Unless they specifically state that they prefer to be contacted via phone, always use the email address.

If your company has a product which you would like bloggers to look at, don’t simply assume that they will want to receive it. Some bloggers have ethical and disclosure policies as stringent as the best of mainstream media – so make sure you ask first, before sending products along.

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