Thursday, January 03, 2008

Talking Myself Out of a Job: The Beg, Borrow, and Steal Model for Corporate Blogging

TVNewser reports that CBS has flatlined its Public Eye blog (via Silicon Alley Insider).

I was not a regular (or even sporadic) reader of the blog -- it had launched in the summer of 2005, and I first saw it at the October 2005 BlogOn conference.

At the time, I opined in my then-work blog that I didn't think that Gil Schwartz, CBS EVP for Communication, really "got" bloggers and blogging (though I note that he started blogging in 2007 for his Stanley Bing persona, so maybe he came around).

Trapped in the Cost Center Ghetto?
Now, the Public Eye blog was originally created to bring transparency to their editorial operations (largely in response to the 2004's "Rathergate").

However, the report quotes a spokesperson who says it was shuttered because they weren't able to find a "sustainable business model" for it.

This is the problem for corporate blogging -- how do you justify the costs (however low -- and they ain't necessarily low)? How do you measure blog success, where, unless you're building a mass audience (and you're not), you're just another cost center?

One conceit of bloggers is that our influence is profound, yet can't always be adequately captured by quantitative metrics like pageviews, comments, linkbacks, citations, pagerank, uniques, time spent, repeat visits, and ad impressions.

(This is especially true when those metrics aren't very good.)

I've faced that particular problem, myself, and I don't have a good answer for it. For example, if you publicly answer someone's technical problem, will it be reflected in a tangible way -- reduction in call volume on that issue, resulting in X dollar savings? It's hard to say.

It's even worse when you're talking about anything that's not tied to a fixed point (everything that's not like those defining moments in the PR-blogging talking point-o-sphere -- the Kryptonite lock-opening and iPod nonreplaceable battery examples).

That's when you start dipping in to the weasel glossary for terms like goodwill, branding/positioning, mindshare, and engagement. (Back at AOL before they ditched the paid-subscription model, the equivalent phrase was "helps retention." I used it many, many times.)

Accepting the "Beg, Borrow, and Steal" Model for Corporate Blogging

Lets stick with the assumption that corporate blogging is still valuable (and not just to the corporate blogger). How do you justify this to the bean counters?

I don't think you can, and unless you can co-opt the PR or communications budget, I suspect that the answer lies in explicitly laying out what people are already doing -- for corporate blogs that are not primarily created as revenue-generating destinations (adjunct blogs, or product support blogs that add personality or "behind the scenes" flavor):
If the blog goals are "softer", the costs have to be minimal -- relying on the efforts of non-dedicated staff who are essentially moonlighting, and leveraging the existing infrastructure for things like design, hosting, moderation, etc.
Does this means more work for no pay? Pretty much, unfortunately: Take solace in the fact that, if you're any good at it, you do get to exploit the corporate brand to build your personal brand, which is not for nothing.

(I also note without irony that I would have essentially talked myself out of a job, which I figure is close to what happened. Though I would have tried to justify being in the "infrastructure" bit of things.)

Now, for destination blogs, where you're trying to build a mass audience (even a "mass niche audience") around an interest or whatever, you can and should devote dedicated resources to support them, so long as the return warrants. Though there has to be a rigorous and ruthless eye when it comes to costs and benefits (see the recent Gawker Media pay adjustments).

Of course, given the questionable, ponzi-like nature of the online advertising game, we'll see how long that model lasts.


charlotte harris said...

I am planning on writing my grad school research project on some of these questions... how to measure etc. I start writing it this quarter and finish sometime next year. It may be fun to interview you at some point!

Joelogon said...

Well, I have no answers. If you can come up with an answer of your own -- forget grad school, you'll be able to write your own ticket.