Why is the industry invisible in the blogosphere?

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Almost no one in the telecoms industry users blogs to communicate their messages to customers

It’s four years since many marketers recognised the power of blogging, yet today almost no one in the telecoms industry users blogs to communicate their messages to customers. Are traditional telcos too much of marketing dinosaurs, asks Lynley Oram

The internet has provided businesses with a unique and flexible marketing tool: blogs. These are web pages that are updated frequently, usually with short posts containing relevant information to the company, its products and the issues faced by its customers.

As blog pages are updated frequently, the business’s site becomes that little bit more attractive to search engines. A further traffic boost can be gained by linking to other posts on the blog, to other blogs, and to other websites.

Profile and brand awareness are one part of why a blog is good for business. Part two comes down to money. Blogs can help drive up revenues when used as a conversational tool to engage customers and potential customers. Market research, product development, and media relations are all enhanced with a well-run company blog.

David Kline, a US expert on corporate intellectual property strategy, describes a brand in today’s blog-enabled world as “not something you buy so much as something you participate in”.

In his analytical book Blog!, Kline divides the marketing approach of a corporate blog into a two stage process: mindshare, then walletshare. “First achieve thought leadership and credibility on the issues of most concern to potential customers.” This, he says, will then convert into sales. “Community first, then commerce.”

Blogging as an important marketing tool isn’t a new concept. Business Week signalled the start of a new digital era in 2005, when it carried a cover story titled “Blogs will change your business”, an article that is still hugely popular on the magazine’s website today.

Four years on, and the telecom industry is hardly awash with vibrant and buzzing blogs. Martin Geddes, former strategy director at BT Innovate and Design, describes the sector’s presence in the blogosphere — a reference to the numerous blog websites on the internet — as “a massive silence from the industry. Telecom executives are largely conspicuous by their absence.”

Geddes has been blogging himself since 2001, when he started the highly regarded Telepocalypse blog “to examine the fundamentals of telecom”. This is one of a small handful of non-corporate blogs focused on the telecom sector. Others include Skype Journal, an independently run blog that focuses, as you might have guessed, on Skype.

There’s also Kevin Restivo, an analyst for research firm IDC, and who writes independently at his Tech Blog about wireless device and applications research.

When it comes to the big telecom operators however, none have really grasped this technology in the same way that Google or Amazon have.

Verizon takes the lead, with its Social Media site, containing five regularly updated blogs. The company also has a wide presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Its blogs contain a great deal of industry information, as well as productivity expertise for using its products and services, for its business clients.

AT&T by contrast clearly sees blogging purely as a consumer tool. Its sole blog is called Calm, cool and collected, and has the tagline ‘brought to you by AT&T and some of its real moms (and dads)’. And that’s pretty much it.

For instance, while Vodafone, Telefónica O2 and Deutsche Telekom/T-Mobile all make use of Twitter and Facebook, they all lack any sort of blogging presence.

Social networking, which for most businesses primarily means Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and MySpace, works well alongside blogging, especially for promoting blogs, but isn’t a substitute for it. Brian Dolby writes eloquently on this subject in this issue of Global Telecom Business — pages 54-55. He points to the crucial part social networking has to play in any company’s public relations and marketing plans.

There are three guiding principles that all companies have to take on, if they’re contemplating blogging.

First, blogs are fast. They need to be updated frequently.

Second, they need to be free of “commercial pollution” to have any credibility and authority with readers. Corporate blogs should be about the issues that concern their readers, not about its products. A survey in December 2008 by research firm Forrester found that only 16 percent of US online adults think that corporate blogs are a trusted source of information.

And third, the blog author needs to be passionate about their subject. The same Forrester report found that 56% of companies just republish press releases or news that’s already in the public domain. It’s hardly any wonder that two thirds of corporate blogs get no comments.

Indeed, it can all go terribly wrong quite easily. Take this example: a small telecom company with big aspirations to build an online community. Its aims were laudable. The company wanted to boost customer care and support, and find out what new features customers really wanted in its products.

Importantly, this company understood how an online presence could help it establish a proper dialogue with its customers, and help it grab every last piece of the revenue pie.

What this particular telecom company failed to understand were the mechanisms that make a blog work.

The managing director insisted that everything, from blog posts to replies made in the forum, had to be run past both himself and the marketing director before posting.

And, the blog would have to use the current database software, which the managing director was quite sure would easily adapt to the purpose.

To a certain degree, he was right, the database software could be forced to mimic blog software, in a cumbersome and very awkward to use kind of way. But why do this when there are plenty of free or low cost programs that can easily be integrated into a corporate site?

Difficulties in posting, and the lengthy amount of time it took to get posts approved, effectively killed the whole project stone dead within a month of going live.

It isn’t just the small companies that are prone to misunderstanding how a tool like blogging works. Back in 2005, Sun Microsystems was one of the large enterprises often quoted in stories about how businesses were embracing blogging as a communication tool. CEO Jonathan Schwartz ran a blog for some time, but has clearly lost steam. The blog hasn’t updated since May 2009.

Finding the time to write would seem to be a huge obstacle that many businesses fail to overcome. According to Geddes, “having a conversation with your customers and partners should be an essential part of industry leader’s job”. However it is a significant time investment.

“To be done well, you can’t delegate the job to the communication team,” according to Geddes. “For senior executives it is harder to live life in the public eye, hard to separate out the confidential and non-confidential of everyday business life.”

That’s something Simon Unwins, marketing director of Tesco’s US arm, knows only too well. In 2008 he revealed on his regular blog that Tesco was stalling the roll out of its Fresh & Easy convenience stores. News that wasn’t intended for public consumption.

Geddes suggests instead that middle managers who can demonstrate their passion about their products are a better bet. Particularly “product managers, customer care, and anyone in the supply chain side”.

Some corporations are taking an innovative approach to blogging, by allowing unfettered freedom to post commentaries by employees, or even by allowing customers to take it over. One of the first to truly grasp the freedom of blogging was Microsoft.

Robert Scoble’s tech blog so impressed executives at the software giant, they offered him a job. He then become Microsoft’s tech evangelist, writing for three years about what Microsoft and its competitors were up to, what technology trends to watch, and general commentary on the issues of the day.

He retained his independence and his credibility with readers remained strong. However he left the company and — a couple of jobs later — he now works at a company called Rackspace, where he is “building a community for people fanatical about the internet called Building43”.

Rare among telecom operators, Global Crossing has defined a fairly open blogging policy for employees to comment publicly about the company. So far this seems to be paying off for the company. Its corporate blogging site has been in operation since 2006, and prior to that employees had their own individual blogs. It needs to do a little more work though if it wants to meet the blogs goal of creating conversations, as few of the posts attract more than a single comment.

In the telecommunications marketplace, perhaps the award for bravery should go to Telefónica O2. It’s gone one step further than allowing employees freedom to comment on the company; it is handing over control of its marketing to its customers.

In November 2009 it launched a subsidiary called Giff Gaff, which calls itself the people-powered network. Like Blyk — which ceased its MVNO operations in mid-2009, preferring to license its ideas to existing operators — the network is relying on “buzz” from its customers, otherwise called referrals, to bring in new customers.

It is also getting customers to do other aspects of its marketing. At the moment crews with “tool kits” are roaming around the country, delivering the necessary kit as requested by customers who are making their own YouTube clips.

It will be interesting to see how this merging of blogging, social networking and customer participation plays out. GTB

Telecoms blogs mentioned here

Global Crossing http://blogs.globalcrossing.com

Kevin Restivo’s Tech Blog http://kevinrestivo.com

Martin Geddes’s Telepocalypse http://www.telepocalypse.net

Robert Scoble’s tech blog http://scobleizer.com/   

Skype Journal http://skypejournal.com

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz http://blogs.sun.com/jonathan/

There are also blog-style news and comment sites about telecoms and the internet, such as Om Malik’s on http://gigaom.com/  and Tom Foremski’s on http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/