Blogging is latest tool for IBM Companies learn about Web diariesBy Julie Moran AlterioGannett News Service
When Christopher Barger started a blog almost three years ago, he wanted to write about something other than technology and business — topics that filled his days as an executive speechwriter at the Armonk headquarters of IBM Corp.
Barger, a 37-year-old Yonkers resident, wrote in his online journal about the Indianapolis Colts and trivia such as who was likely to be Time’s person of the year.
So, about a year ago, he was surprised to learn that his readers included some people he wasn’t counting on: his bosses.
“I realized that the powers that be were aware of this,” he said. “They were reading it frequently.”
“Panic” is how he describes his initial reaction.
Even though he had never blogged about IBM, Barger wasn’t sure how managers would feel about his extracurricular activity. But instead of getting disciplined, Barger got promoted.
Today, he is IBM’s “blogger in chief,” and he is helping lead the computer giant’s efforts to make everyone in the company familiar with blogs. “My hobby became my job,” Barger said.
Blogs are multiplying
Blogs — regularly updated online journals that mix commentary with links to news on the Web — are in the sights of such corporations as IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, General Motors and Boeing as they multiply.
Technorati, a search engine for blogs, reports that 70,000 new blogs a day join the 23.7 million already in existence.
Corporations are joining the “blogosphere” to take part in the online debates that involve their brands, products and industries.
For instance, a search on Technorati shows 218,855 postings containing the word “IBM,” including 20 in one hour alone on a recent Friday night.
David Sifry, chief executive at Technorati, said corporations are worried by the idea that a disgruntled customer can reach thousands or millions of people with a blog.
“In the world of the Internet, you don’t own your brand. Your customers and your users own your brand. You’re lucky if you get to shepherd it. That loss of control is very scary,” Sifry said.
Companies want to get smart about blogs with the idea that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” said Debbie Weil, an online marketing consultant and author of the forthcoming book, “The Corporate Blogging Book: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know to Get It Right.”
“They’ll be knocked over unprepared if the blogosphere starts talking about their brand, product or service and they’re not listening to what’s being said about them,” Weil said.
Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBM’s vice president of technical strategy and innovation and the company’s highest-ranking blogger, said Big Blue is encouraging employees to bone up on blogging for the same reason it asked them to get savvy about Web commerce in the 1990s.
“We absolutely recognize that blogging, just like the Internet, World Wide Web, Linux and open source, is a major initiative in the marketplace that we should be part of. The best way to be part of it is not to observe it passively but to do it actively,” Wladawsky-Berger said.
Sifry said the ranks of corporate bloggers are growing. A year ago, there were about 7,400, a number that doubled to 15,000 six months ago in the most recent survey.
“We’re still very much in the early stages of how corporations are learning to use blogs,” said Sifry, who said the most important thing blogs do is give a human face to the corporate facade.
For instance, Robert Scoble, who writes the “Scobleizer” blog for Microsoft, has mitigated some of the hatred directed at the software giant by talking candidly about the company’s faults, Sifry said.
In another example, the face of General Motors to the blogging world is Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, whose FastLane Blog caters to car fans.
Sifry also likes the blog of John Patrick, who was vice president of Internet technology at IBM until he left the company in 2001 to write and consult.
“John is a wonderful example of the power of the authoritative human voice. That’s what blogs are good at amplifying. The corporate voice is what you read in press releases. What you have here with John or Bob at FastLane or Robert Scoble at Microsoft is unequivocally human,” Sifry said.
Wladawsky-Berger said that even when he writes about technology, what’s distinctive is his own perspective.
“Even if you’re writing about mainframes or you’re writing about XML, it’s your personal style that comes across. What you choose to write about is which of the contents of your head are you sharing with the world,” he said.
Wladawsky-Berger isn’t shy about being a public voice for IBM by speaking at conferences and giving interviews in newspapers and magazines, but he was originally reluctant to become a blogger.
“Some people, especially John Patrick, had been urging me to take on blogging, and I always resisted. I wasn’t sure who in the world wanted to read anything I had to write,” he said. “I looked at it almost as vanity.”
What changed Wladawsky-Berger’s mind was the growing prominence of blogs in the media as well as IBM’s adoption of blogging as a corporate initiative this past May, led by Barger and a group of fellow bloggers in the company.
IBM is approaching blogs from three directions:
The company is hosting blogs on topics important to its business, such as video games and health care.
IBM is encouraging employees to create blogs for internal consumption on the company intranet.
Employees who do blog on the Internet have IBM’s blessing — providing they follow some practical guidelines.
The rules include identifying yourself as an IBMer if you talk business, not revealing company secrets and stating clearly that your opinions are your own.
IBM’s guidelines were developed last spring by a team of about 25 bloggers in the company. They get a thumbs-up from Technorati’s Sifry.
“IBM has done a really good job here. It’s a very sane document. They talk about being smart about what you’re going to blog about,” he said.
IBM created the subject matter blogs as a way to present its people as experts on more than computers — a key strategy as the company’s expanding Global Services business means more revenue is derived from dispensing advice rather than technology alone.
IBM’s life sciences team, for instance, participates in a health care blog that discusses issues such as genetics privacy.
“Getting our folks out there and getting engaged with communities that matter to them, whether it’s with other developers or customers, is good for IBM,” Barger said. “It isn’t just about us sharing our expertise and telling those communities what they want to hear. We learn just as much.”
Creating a theme blog is smart because customers are more likely to enjoy reading about a topic important to them than an overt sales pitch, said marketing strategist Steve Rubel, a senior vice president at CooperKatz & Co. in New York and author of the Micro Persuasion blog.
“The secret to a good corporate blog is that it has to be high interest, and if your subject matter isn’t, you have to figure out a way to connect with subjects that are,” he said.
For example, yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm has blogs on babies and women. “There’s not much there on yogurt, but it’s all about a higher calling, which is women and children’s health,” Rubel said.
Bicycle maker Cannondale has adopted a similar approach with blogs that talk about triathlons and finding the best mountain bike trails.
Robin Hopper, CEO of iUpload, a maker of blogging software for companies, said businesses often test out the idea by creating blogs for inside the company first.
For example, McDonald’s hired iUpload to develop a blogging platform on its intranet as an avenue to exchange ideas. “Internal blogs are becoming knowledge repositories,” Hopper said.
IBM had the same idea when it rolled out tools last May that allow every employee to create a blog on the company intranet.
So far, 16,416 people have registered and 2,291 have created active blogs.
Among the most popular bloggers is an IBMer from Japan who likes to discuss idiomatic phrases in English and a researcher in California who is running a pet contest, Barger said.
The blogs also are a place where workers talk about their projects, ask for help and learn about what their colleagues are up to.
“When we started out in May and told people to experiment, there were a lot more personal things in the blogs. As it has grown and evolved, people are using it as a collaboration tool,” Barger said.
“The personal stuff is still there, and we’re glad it is, because any time you can make a company of 329,000 people feel smaller, that’s a good thing.”
What about criticizing IBM? That’s OK, too, Barger said.
He said the proof came just two weeks after the initiative started when an employee blasted the company’s falling stock price and recent layoffs in her blog. The post received 1,200 views by noon.
Instead of chastising the employee, Barger posted a comment on her blog that thanked her for her candor, acknowledged some of her points and challenged her logic where he felt it was flawed.
“This is a new medium with new rules. A lot of folks aren’t used to the idea of candor being OK,” Barger said. “Now, we’re saying it’s OK to share your opinions.”
The employee gets heard, and the company also learns what people are thinking.
“We can’t be in every happy hour. We can’t be in every car pool. This was an opportunity to communicate with employees on their turf,” Barger said.