Are character blogs fundamentally a bad idea or just inherently boring?

The latest incarnation of this debate in the business blog community revolves around the Def Perception weblog written, ostensibly, by someone named Tosh Bilowski on behalf of Panasonic Corporation. The tag line of the blog reads “Tosh Bilowski focuses on high-def pro video – brought to you by Panasonic.”
So far, the blog community seems to be enjoying some detective work (see for example Amy Gahran’s article Who Is Tosh Bilowski: Corporate Blogs and Authenticity) and engaging in its typical criticism of any corporations trying to do something new with weblogs, at least in my opinion.
But I want to bring this topic to the business blogging crowd because I suggest instead that Panasonic deserves some significant credit for having the courage to try something new and interesting. Yes, a quick Google of “Tosh Bilowski” reveals zero matches, which seems darn curious for someone who is a blogger, but I don’t think that’s really so important. Indeed, for Global PR Blog Week II I wrote an article on this very subject, entitled Fake Blogs: New Marketing Channel or Really Bad Idea?


In that article, I wrote:
“There’s no reason why a fake blog cannot be interesting, amusing and informative, while also having the desirous blog characteristics of credibility and authenticity within the context of the blog itself. Indeed, I don’t even like the pejorative “fake blog”, so let’s call it a “story blog” instead, to emphasize that everything about the weblog, from its premise and entries to the very persona of the author, are part of the fiction, of the story being told.”
I then observe that: “the real reason that story blogs aren’t better and therefore more popular is because it’s just darn hard to produce material week after week as a fictitious character.”
That’s the fundamental problem with the “Tosh Bilowski” weblog effort from Panasonic and its PR agency in my eyes, not that it’s “fake” or that they’ve pretty clearly created a fictional ‘video geek’ to write about their product line, but that it’s just boring and unengaging.
Even when “Tosh” acknowledges that there’s some controversy about the blog (as he does in the entry Oh Brother, Who Art Thou?) he doesn’t link to anyone, doesn’t acknowledge the controversy and doesn’t have anything interesting to say.
So I remain convinced that there’s an opportunity for companies to create “story blogs” that are interesting, compelling and effective at selling their products, but am still waiting to see an example of what this could be and how this could be done well. My kudos to Panasonic for making the attempt to further push the blogging envelope, but they need to find a better agency or blogger to work with. “Tosh” just isn’t going to make any headway in gaining visibility for their product line in the blogosphere.

4 comments on “Are character blogs fundamentally a bad idea or just inherently boring?

  1. Thanks for expanding this conversation, Dave.
    I agree that there can be good uses for character blogs (what you call “story blogs”). In fact, I’ve written about that before: http://snipurl.com/eaj8. I also agree that it’s very difficult to maintain a fictional persona over time, and for most writers that would be a huge obstacle to character blogging.
    However, despite what you may think, when I wrote my article about the Panasonic blog I was not “engaging in its typical criticism of any corporations trying to do something new with weblogs.”
    Actually, I was criticizing a corporation that was doing something really dumb with a weblog. In this case, the approach they chose, for that blog and with that target audience, actively undermined the blog’s potential benefits. In short, as far as I tell this character approach probably created more problems then it solved.
    Later today I’ll post to Contentious some specific reasons why to do character blogs and ideas for how to do them more successfully. When that’s up, I’ll comment back here again with a link.
    …And yes, although I didn’t find DefPerception’s content quite as moribund as you did, it wasn’t great. I’d probably rate it a 2, not a 0. I do think they could — and should — have done much better. Panasonic obviously had resources to devote toward this blog, which meant they could afford quality content. That should have been at the top of their priority list.
    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, Contentious

  2. Panasonic did indeed have plenty of money. They bought the best slick marketing they could afford. From a marketing/advertising agency. One that still thinks in terms of controlling rather than ceding control over the audience.
    It would have been far better to give the equipment to real people and let them blog about it. People who are talented and creative using such equipment. The deal would be: do creative stuff and push this equipment to the edge of its capabilities. Blog about it and in return, we’ll let you keep the stuff, you’ll get some exposure, and we’ll pay you. The terms of the deal would need to be made explicit so that nobody would ever feel they were being deceived. Something like this could become a new form of sponsored reality entertainment. There’s no reason why other non-competing products could be “inserted,” such as beverages or even vehicles. The main thing is that even in a heavily sponsored, product-placement sort of blog environment, honesty adds credibility and is still the best policy.
    Whether intentional or not, character blogs are controversial enough to drive traffic and engage people. Panasonic is going to sell some stuff because of this. Untill they forget about advertising from advertising agencies, though, and hire actual bloggers who know the new rules of the game (like Hugh McLeod of gapingvoid.com), they’re not going to get much more beyond the controversy.

  3. Character blogs are lies. They violate nearly all nine universal blog core values, such as authenticity, passion, transparency, honesty, and integrity.
    If a stupid company has to “make up a character” to deliver their message, something is wrong to begin with.
    This is the sign of a lazy, arrogant, user-unfriendly business.
    They are too lazy to find a real advocate, an actual satisfied user, or a genuine and real corporate spokesperson, like the CEO or the COO.
    Why a fictional character? As Amy has said, it can be appropriate in rare cases. Ronald McDonald or Mickey Mouse could have a blog, and still represent the organization accurately, in an expected and fitting manner.
    We must be careful that “story” is not a clever euphemism for “untruth” or deliberate falsification to sell more product to unsuspecting nit wits.
    Consumers are not fooled so easily anymore. When they want to converse with an organization, they generally don’t wish to speak with a Talking Moose, Animated Elf, or Phony Person who has unreal adventures that never happened.
    Character blogs in most cases are Pseudo Blogs, not a “new, creative” twist on blogs.
    Consumers don’t like automated recorded messages when telephoning a company.
    What makes anyone think they want to interact with a cartoon or other figment of the imagination?

  4. Most corporations like external communication to run through an editing and approval process. The question is whether company story blogs will become more popular and whether traditional individual blogs will become increasingly prohibited.
    If a company wants to use blogs for advertising then they will go down the traditional route of using an actor to read from a script. If they have a real techo writing the content then a communications team will edit and review the message. Which makes it essentially the same as a story blog.
    I admire Steven’s passion and I enjoy blogs for the authenticity but companies do not like risk, if they cannot ignore blogging they will use it as another controlled advertising outlet. They still have to adhere to an advertising code of practice so while the blogger is fictitious the messages must be as truthful as other forms of advertising.

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