Big Business “Blog Council” created, business world yawns

I woke up this morning to a lot of fawning messages from people in the blogosphere about the new Blog Council, founded by a dozen big companies that generally just don’t have a clue about modern customer relations and marketing: AccuQuote, Cisco Systems, The Coca-Cola Company, Dell, Gemstar-TV Guide, General Motors, Kaiser Permanente, Microsoft, Nokia, SAP, and Wells Fargo.
Let’s read their press release (press release about a blogging group?) to get a sense of what they’re doing:

“The Blog Council exists as a forum for executives to meet one another in a private, vendor-free environment and share tactics, offer advice based on past experience, and develop standards-based best practices as a model for other corporate blogs.”

My translation: “we’re all clueless, but don’t want anyone to realize just how unplugged our organizations have become from the world of “marketing 2.0″, so we created a club so our ignorance can be shielded from public eyes.”
Alright, that’s probably a bit harsh, I admit, but having helped organize the terrific Blogworld Expo last month in Las Vegas, why weren’t these companies there? We had over a thousand of the smartest trend-setting bloggers and new media people in the world all neatly in one place. That’s how you learn, guys, from talking with the best in the business — and everyone else — not by hiring an expensive consultant to have discussions behind closed doors.
The Council is headed by Andy Sernovitz, formerly of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, an organization that also seems not to have realized that the power is with the people, the grassroots, and that “word of mouth marketing” is so darn ambiguous that it can describe just about anything anyone does, including buying coffee for a colleague or giving the boss a ride from the auto shop (I’ve written about this ambiguity before. See: Bogus word of mouth marketing projections).
Also worthy of note is that the blogcouncil site is ostensibly a blog (it lists “comments” and “trackbacks”) but there is in fact no way to leave a comment that I can find, and the trackbacks count is clearly broken since I know of a number of blogs that are already pointing to their entries. Is this modern corporate “safe” blogging? And listing the author of each entry as “blog council” rather than individual contributors? These are worst practices, not best practices.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I want to believe. I really do want to support the new Blog Council and do want to believe that large corporations like Coca-Cola should be involved in the blogosphere. I just think that the very structure of modern corporations, with their managing to quarterly results, CYA tactics and massive aversion to risk, is the very antithesis of blogging and any word of mouth anything. They’re all conditioned (thanks to business school, and yes, I have an MBA so I know of what I speak) to control the message, which makes it darn hard to have anything interesting to say to the online community.
Indeed, as has been demonstrated time and again, it’s Madison Avenue, specifically the small, nimble, edgy marketing and PR agencies that are really the only hope that large corporations have of getting involved in modern social media and the blogosphere in any meaningful — and interesting — manner. These agencies might stumble occasionally (as I have written about many times) but they’re trying new things and they can afford to take risks in a way that larger corporations, publicly traded entities, simply cannot.
So what do you think? Is the Blog Council going to a milestone in the adoption of blogging and new media by major corporations, or is it a sleeper organization that’s going to come and go, leaving behind a few press releases and a Web site that gradually fades away?

23 comments on “Big Business “Blog Council” created, business world yawns

  1. Hi Dave –
    These aren’t evil companies with some plot to pollute the blogosphere. They are John and Hillary and Sean and Jen – smart people who get it, who are committed to teaching blog ethics in an often resistant corporate environment.
    They are the ones who get it. We should be rallying to support them and wish them well on their worthwhile mission.
    Can you help teach the good word? Call me! 312-932-9000.
    Andy Sernovitz
    Blog Council

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Andy, but you miss the point of what I’m saying. I am not saying that there aren’t smart people in these organizations – I know that there are – and I am not saying that they’re evil or going to pollute the blogosphere – I know better than that and am a pragmatist anyway. I am saying that modern American corporations, publicly traded companies, cannot change their internal DNA and “let go” of the message to the point where their online “word of mouth” efforts will have any traction or be at all interesting.
    But perhaps I’m wrong. Let’s see what happens in the next six months!

  3. I don’t think anyone said these were “evil companies” Andy. I believe you missed the point.
    I’m with Dave, I don’t “get” it. But I’m willing to be proven wrong as long as it’s helpful and useful to everyone.

  4. Dave,
    I’m confused, on their website, they write “Blog Council members are the key executives responsible for their company’s official blog presence” and yet there are no links to who these people are at these companies. Just a list of companies.
    One of the things I find so powerful and important about blogging is that blogs are managed by people and those people typically put their name on their writing (i.e. take accountability). Typically the authors of blogs, whether under a pseudonym or not, engage their audience in a discussion. I hope these large companies realize that blogging and social media is about having a conversation. It’s hard to have a conversation with Coca Cola or Cisco (not to pick on them specifically) – a legal corporate entity that has 1000+ lawyers as a voice.

  5. This move took more time to coordinate than actually figuring out how to listen and in turn, participate on their own merits.
    This is typical of the mindset that has hampered traditional marketing and media.
    Let’s plan, form alliances, and talk ourselves into irrelevance.

  6. It’s basic antitrust law compliance to set up a council like this, if competitors may be communicating. The “yawn” is that you don’t realize that.

  7. I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt. The formation of this council proves to me at the very least that these companies/ individuals within them see the need to engage the blogosphere in a serious manor. Maybe they are going about it all wrong and maybe not.
    I will wait and see what comes of it before making a final judgement. Not that many care what I think anyway =p.

  8. After looking at the list of who’s who in Corporate America along with some large international counter parts that are backing the Blog Council, this shouldn’t be a passing trend. However, based on their poor effort from the start this might already be over if this is what we can come to expect

  9. Dave, while I respect your opinion here, and agree with certain points, by and large I disagree.
    You’re using the design of the template for the site (comments, trackbacks, blogcouncil name, etc.) to “support” an argument that the organization is doing something fundamentally incorrect. That’s a straw man if I’ve ever heard one.
    I would hardly say that Microsoft is “clueless” with what, 5000 corporate bloggers?
    I would hardly say that Dell is “clueless” having gone through Dell Hell and having responded with a pretty decent blogging effort.
    I would hardly say that GM is “clueless” when so many of us industry people use their Fastlane blog as an example of CEO blogging done right.
    But to the bigger point: is there any value in having private, closed room conversations in a world where openness and transparency is of value?
    If we’re saying (which as an “expensive consultant” I often do), this social media/community/blogging/conversation/whatever thing is primarily about building long-term relationships, then we have to accept that the creation of those relationships happen in a variety of ways.
    Sometimes my wife and I might need marriage counseling. Sometimes I need to have beers with a buddy to bitch about my boss. Sometimes I need to call my sister and ask for advice about how to deal with my mom’s weirdness. Conversation doesn’t *always* happen in the public eye.
    The same way, sometimes a brand manager or a corporate blogger needs to ask someone who’s “been there before” for help. That’s not always done best in public. (Yes, very often it is and can/should be, but not always)
    Personally, I’m more than a little concerned with your reaction. I believe that your “my way or the highway”, “all or nothing” approach is an inhibitor to acceptance of what you’re trying to see happen in the first place. The same thing happened when the Web was new – “Print is dead, you should never use it again, it has no purpose, move everything to the Web!” Remember that attitude? I do, and I think it didn’t do anything except make us Web people look like clueless idealist who refused to acknowledge reality.
    As an attendee and speaker at BWE, I don’t think that Kaiser or GM or Dell attending BWE and talking to bloggers achieves the same thing that the Blog Council is set up to do. The same way that members of a Congressional panel don’t get the same thing from meeting with people from their districts as they do being in a closed door session talking about a particular issue. One’s not right and one’s not wrong, it’s how all the pieces fit together into an overall pie.

  10. One last point I’d also like to point out….
    The press release’s first line, the very first (!) says:
    “The Blog Council, a professional community of top global brands dedicated to promoting best practices in corporate blogging, officially launched today.”
    To say (or to imply) that it’s unacceptable for big companies to create a community for similar people is a bold and intensely problematic statement. Basically that would mean you’re arguing against the need/value of niche communities, professional groups, NDA-based product input groups, and any sort of “invite only” group.
    Please tell me I’m misunderstanding…

  11. Jake,
    I think what’s being reacted to here, and in other places across the web, is the total Lack of communication. You gave this as an example and justification for these “closed-room” policies:
    “Sometimes my wife and I might need marriage counseling. Sometimes I need to have beers with a buddy to bitch about my boss. Sometimes I need to call my sister and ask for advice about how to deal with my mom’s weirdness. Conversation doesn’t *always* happen in the public eye.”
    The trick is, conversation requires at least 2 participants. The front page of the Blog Council’s site is obviously a blogging platform, maybe WordPress. Blogging platforms are generally defaulted to show a “Leave Comments” type of link at the bottom of each post. So the obvious assumption is, somebody over there intentionally turned that off.
    That’s not a blog anymore, Jake. It’s exactly what Dave said it is: old school tactics with a stylized face. We see through it, clearly, even if the concept seems alien to your way of thinking.
    Marketing, in my opinion, needs to grow up. Consumers are maturing, and we don’t respond well to the run-of-the-mill schlock our parents once did. I deal with executives in several reasonably large companies. I actually hear them say things like “We’re in business to be in business.” By which they mean, “We’re in business to make money.”
    They are missing the point, and a chance at greater earnings. Soon they will be left behind by those companies who are in business to provide something useful to the customer.
    There’s an old but very true saying in sales: “No business survives except through repeat customers.” Would anyone ever go back to the Blog Council site? Not likely. As a blog, it’s already dead.
    For a real-time visual of how I view this “effort”, take a pinch of sugar and throw it on a heating element on your electric stove. Flash! Poof! Over.

  12. Jon, I use WordPress for my business site (sans-blog, or blog-like features). It’s a great quasi-CMS. Just because you’re using a tool that allows for comments doesn’t mean that you have to have comments or that comments make sense.
    And I’d strongly disagree looking around the web at the discussion happening is about the lack of communication, specifically the lack of comments being turned on. I actually HOPE it’s not…. since that’s a silly straw man issue that really has little relevance.
    I don’t disagree that marketing needs to grow up. Just yesterday I stood in front of 50 marketing people and said “Marketers are lazy”. I agree. But what does that have to do with this discussion?

  13. OK, Dave you’re probably getting sick of hearing from me, but…
    You said: “Indeed, as has been demonstrated time and again, it’s Madison Avenue, specifically the small, nimble, edgy marketing and PR agencies that are really the only hope that large corporations have of getting involved in modern social media and the blogosphere in any meaningful — and interesting — manner.”
    I’d take massive exception to the idea that Madison Ave. (small or large firms alike) are leading the charge to solve these problems. Every decent example of true customer interaction (not social media campaigns) comes from inside the company, not from external firms.

  14. I have mixed feelings after reading the stuff on the site, the blog posts, and lastly, the comments.
    It’s all well and good to talk about “conversations” (a word that, seriously, needs to fall on it’s sword at this point), and grassroots, and the value of listening, and really, I drink that koolaid. But having said that, blogging has been mainstream for at least a couple or 3 years now and for the most part it really isn’t dramatically changing these companies.
    They are adopting the technologies and the networked approach to messaging a group of constituents but it’s not going to completely change the way they interact with their markets.
    Dave, with all due respect, these companies weren’t at Blogworld Expo because the bloggers that are there, for the most part, don’t give a shit about enterprise software, healthcare, or banking… and that’s exactly what at least 3 of these companies do. The problem with the blogosphere is discovery and targeting, not engagement itself. Companies can identify the top 25 blogs they want to work with but beyond that they are clueless and the blogosphere itself does little to help them.
    Lastly, several people have commented that these companies just want to have customers but not have them talk, or that they don’t have a clue about how to engage them. That’s pure bullshit and reflects a shoot from the hip attitude than any real reflection on what these companies do.
    Does anyone really think Microsoft doesn’t understand how to engage it’s customers? I can speak for SAP given that I spent a lot of years there, they have an online community called SDN that generates around a million unique visitors a month to the blogs, wikis, forums, and a really innovative rating and ranking system. This is a company that understands better than most how to engage it’s customer base.
    I looked at the site this morning and wasn’t impressed, but I also understand that putting a pillow over it to smother it won’t be productive either. Ultimate success or failure with be less about bold strokes and more about incremental moves.
    Lastly, yeah a press release… but that’s how most of the world still works and if you want to get attention inside other large companies, which I would imagine these guys do, then a PR is the way to do it.

  15. Very large companies face unique issues. What’s wrong with people from very large companies getting together in a comfortable environment to talk about them and learn from one another? I helped organize a similar effort focusing on employee communications, and the results have been great. And while I’ll be the first to tout social media, nothing beats face-to-face. I think people are reading more into the Council than they should.

  16. Oh, one more thing, re: BlogWorld Expo. Many of these companies DO attend the terrific New Communications Forum, hosted by the Society for New Communication Research. How many conferences do they need to attend before they’re seen as serious about their efforts?

  17. Dave,
    I don’t see anything wrong with representatives within these companies getting together to discuss issues they face which may (or may not, I don’t know) be unique to their situation.
    What I do wonder about is why they felt the need to crow about it, other than the fact that Andy Sernovitz is leading the initiative and, well, I guess, as former President of WOMMA, it’s sort of written into his marketing DNA.
    Speaking of which, what’s wrong here is not that these companies chose to participate in this private club, or even that Sernovitz chose to make some noise about it. What’s wrong is the very thing to which you alluded, that the fabric from which these corporations are made — indeed, their very DNA — is ill-suited to accommodating an effective conversational media marketing campaign. Until that changes, what we end up with is, to quote Seth, a “meatball sundae.”
    PS: I will give Dell a pass. Like Jake, I think they’ve done a pretty good job responding to Dell Hell, even though it took that kind of rude awakening to get them to where they are.
    I’ll also have to give some credit to Microsoft as well. I mean, they did give birth to the Scobleizer, Channel 9, and thousands of employee bloggers, and all the while their corporate blogging policy was summed up in two words, “be smart.” Maybe they’re in there to mentor the less fortunate among the group.
    Anyway, interest conversation thread. Frankly, the chatter about the Blog Council is of much greater interest to me than the announcement about it.

  18. No one should be taking advice from General Motors about anything. Unless they want to talk about how they are going to pay me back, I’ve got no reason to listen. Blogging is not going to help their cause, no matter who writes it, or reads it.

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