Why blog? V 2.something

Since I’m a proponent of blogging by the Society, I am asked fairly regularly, “Why blog?” You’ve got to come up with something more
compelling than “everybody’s doing it.” So I think about the rationale for it from time to time, like this weekend. The
result is what I call “Why blog? V 2.something.” That means I reserve the
right to issue versions 3.0 and so on.

Credibility

Corporations and institutions are flipping-out about
blogging and other out-of-channel media of communication. There has been for
decades a cozy co-dependency between large-grained institutions and the
one-to-many media of communication. Powerful institutions and limited
communications channels have gone hand-in-hand for some time. The media
themselves have been corporations; their primary purpose has been marketing and
their primary revenue from advertising. The mediator, facilitators, and
decision makers of media constitute a well-established infrastructure of
professionally trained journalists, PR agents, and advertising agencies that
put it all together. The system co-evolved over the past five or so decades; it
is cozy, well integrated, and the rules were well laid-out. Personally I think
most Americans have had the false impression that media is about informing and
entertaining. I say it’s not; it’s about marketing with the info and
entertainment as filler content between the marketing messages. Media insiders
know this well.

But a couple of things have happened. First, many people
have begun to understand the overwhelming majority of stuff you see in
traditional media consists of contrived messages designed, not necessarily to
tell the truth, but to persuade, convince, and, above all, influence behavior
such as buying or voting. I think people have had a belly-full of messaging and
the credibility of about everything on traditional media has dropped.
Evidently, there is some panic among advertisers because the most free-spending
demographic, the 18 to 35-year-old have become so inured to advertising that
they are termed “unreachable.” Advertising rolls of the backs of the young like
water off a duck’s back. The ads, the
spinners, the “company spokespersons,” the handlers have overdone it.

Meanwhile, the Internet has greatly multiplied the
accessible channels of communication. The cost of transmission of digital data
is spiraling down towards zero. The tools of rudimentary content production are
better and cheaper. Blogs can be started for free—that is, if you’ll accept the
banner ad at the top of the page. This has sucked in a whole new group of
“amateurs.” But it’s the amateur status of bloggers that gives them a margin of
credibility. They may be opinionated, biased, and even plain wrong, but they’re
generally not sending a paid-for message disguised as the truth or feigned
interest in your wellbeing.

I think people have come to value the opinions of
non-professionals on a par with the
messages of institutions. We know that institutional messaging has an agenda,
so why put particularly high value on it? Why not see what others have to say?
The new channels will, at least for the time being, be valued for their candor.
The comments in blogs are kind of like word-of-mouth.

Many companies know that their marketing messages are not
attended to by their intended targets, especially if the targets are under say
35. They don’t have credibility and are not effective.

Evidently businesses have begun to get the picture: their
advertising and PR is diminishing in cost-effectiveness, and there’s a new mode
of communication signified by the blog. As Lisa Brown reported, the May 2, 2005, cover and several
internal articles of BusinessWeek will be about blogging and how to
capture the juju. The feature article, “Blogs Will Change Your Business,
attests to the fact that many companies are giving blogging a try in a
promotional way (when they’re not canning staff for getting off-message on
their personal blogs). General Motors and others are cited for their developing
prowess in blogging.

But here’s the vexing thing: the only value-add of blogs is
their candor. Promoting, cheer-leading, hyping, they’re all being done through
still-active traditional media. It’s clear that doing PR through blogs is a
duplication of effort and a waste of money.

So the title of BusinessWeek’s article may be right, not
because blogs have some special magic or the technology confers some advantage,
but because telling the truth and having open discussions between customers and
real company people in full public view could be transformative. “Just tell the
whole truth.” What a marketing concept!

The network is the thing

What’s so strikingly different about the Internet as a
medium is—as its name says—the net. It’s power derives from the ability to put
together elaborate webs of connections. The old system was a relatively few big
connections (one-to-many); the new media is a fine-grained, web of connections
and relationships (many-to-many). The channels pull in many, many more
producers of content in a shifting fabric of connections and relationships. No
particular channel is very powerful, but the totality is important. Sound kind
of CRM-ish, doesn’t it? Indeed, the blog-o-sphere (I spell it that way because
it reminds me of something maybe invented by Ron Popeil; and don’t take it too
seriously) is perhaps one gigantic, self-organizing CRM system.

This is where I get excited about the potential of new
media—exemplified at this point in time by blogging—in nonprofits and,
especially, voluntary agencies. The ability to build networks building has been
the source of past success. Forming webs of relationships is a game nonprofits
like the Society have been playing all along. The system of community volunteers—a local network—is the foundation of
the Society. Volunteerism has always been a who-knows-whom system. The
blog-o-sphere is a community-based system. Sound familiar?

Another advantage nonprofit, voluntary agencies have
is—unlike for profit companies—we have a large group who will speak favorably
about our cause and our agency—if we’re performing correctly—at no cost.
Volunteers say wonderful things about the Society all the time with sincerity
and the ring of truth. Most companies would kill for that kind of endorsement
power.

Likewise, if we’re doing our jobs right we have many
thousands of constituents per year who have positive things to say about their
experience with the Society. There may be some who have negative things to say
too, and we should be listening to those concerns, not just react to them
defensively. My belief is that the ratio of the positive to negative comments
should be much greater. If it isn’t, were in trouble.

How to get there

But here’s the thing: an electronics-based network system
takes a lot of proactive work to come alive. Community networks have been based
on cars, offices, face-to-face meeting, pyramids of committees, paper, and old
media. An infrastructure of connections seen in blogs and other social software
based relationships need to be re-established. The old systems of relations
took decades to build. They also took literally millions of dollars per year of
staff and meeting time. They cannot be built with robustness and as
effectiveness by way of the Internet without a lot of deliberate effort.
Networks of email, blogs, social lists, cell phone messaging, etc., will take a
lot of effort by staff and volunteers with special skill-sets and experience.
Strategies based on networks and flows of network information needs to replace
trails of paper, pages of minutes, and cycles of quarterly meetings.

A good start is being made as volunteers in just the past 5
to 8 years have jumper on the Internet. Our email lists were very skimpy just a
few years ago. Now we have an email address for nearly all volunteers. Just now
in California we are beginning to implement the Link, an extranet that brings
volunteers into the mainstream communication on the same level as staff for the
first time. And what do we call groups of associated people on the Link?
Communities, of course, but built around new electronic tools of communication.

But, in my opinion, much more is to be done with new
innovations like blogs. We need to find ACS-oriented bloggers who are out there
already. We need to support volunteer blogging with tips on doing it, with
easily-available information about the society, by providing an easy way for
bloggers to link together proactively.

It won’t be done overnight. Organized effort will get better
results than no organization. It won’t happen by spontaneous generation. For instance,
links between blogs take real relationships among real people, not just hypertext.
It takes time and investment to build such a mesh. It will also take evolution
because the blogs we see today will morph surely into other forms. We must stay
up.

Furthermore. blogs aren’t just about writing and putting
messages out. They are also about tapping into streams of common interest and
knowing what’s going on. It means using search engines like Technorati and
aggregators to be aware of the information flowing at any point in time that of
interest. For instance, for years there has been a Dialogue on Cancer (with
caps); perhaps now there is a dialogue on can cer (lower case) going on among
people through blogs and web sites.

It’s important not just to blog but to initiate an ongoing
embrace of the distributed, networked communication process. Blogs—in their
current incarnation—are temporary. They are evolving as we speak. What’s more
important is to recognize and embrace the paradigm of decentralized
communication and learn to be effective with it. There’s no waiting for it to
stabilize or to become rule-bound. It won’t anytime soon. The networking of
people-to-people has not begun to peak. Staying with it will take constant
evolution—evolution as corporate strategy. As Stowe Boys put it at the
NVHAInnovations Conference: “Never ending, always beginning.”

I’ll close with a trial formula for “blog calculus.” I call
it David’s conjecture:

Impact = the number of bloggers X the number of links
X the flow of information X the number of readers

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