March 30, 2017

Is ghost writing in social media right or wrong?

This week, I posted the first of what may prove to be a series of controversial blog posts on the SAP community network (known to members as SCN).

The posts won’t be controversial so much for the content itself (although I hope that that happens eventually) as for the way I’m presenting it.

I’m going to channel other people’s ideas, not my own. You can read the entire post here. It introduces me to the community and explains what I’m planning to do.

They may not like it and you may not either.

But I think what I’m proposing is a necessary blend of realism and good ideas. Others call it ghost writing.

As I say in the SCN post and as I’ve mentioned here plenty of times, I think we are kidding ourselves if we think that many of our best SMEs are going to take the time to blog. And many who do would be better off getting some help.

I wanted to present the core arguments here to see what you think. I think that if we limit the discussion only to those subject matter experts who have the time and skills to blog, we’re missing out.

Here my arguments for letting me present others’ ideas from the SCN post and adapted for your consideration here:

  • Most people—even really smart people—can’t write worth a damn. Why do we assume that anyone can channel passion into his or her writing?
  • Social media is biased toward English. Most of the people I speak to at SAP are German and while most Germans are amazingly skilled at English, that skill rarely translates to the written word.
  • It’s not about the style, it’s about the ideas. One of the best aspects of social media is the opportunity to put ideas to the community and gather feedback. I’m excited about the prospect of not just presenting ideas to the SCN community but also in building ideas with this community. As I interview SMEs around SAP and external influencers like analysts and customers, I want to be able to share the raw ideas in their earliest stages so that I can inform people and get their feedback.
  • Transparency is the “hidden” problem. I think what people object to most about ghost writing is that the real people behind the prose are hidden. I will always blog as myself, introduce the ideas myself, and will always reveal whose ideas I’m channeling. I will attempt to respond to all comments myself, based on the work I’m doing with the SMEs. If I don’t have an answer, I’ll go to them and get the answer and come back with it. I’ll also name the writers that I have working with the SMEs as we are doing interviews and working towards the “final” products: white papers, videos, etc.

What are your arguments (for and against)?

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Why the volume and quality of interactions with customers has to pass for social media ROI

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Image by LollyKnit via Flickr

I wish I could say that social media leads to sales. I really do. But I can’t. And I haven’t encountered anyone else who can either, have you? So when we think about social media ROI, we need to make a leap of faith. We need to believe that more engagement between our companies and the people we want to reach is a good thing that ultimately leads to sales—but down a long, narrow, winding path with a few jumps between cliffs thrown in there.

To make ourselves feel a little more comfortable with this idea, we may need to categorize social media with something whose hazy ROI we’re more familiar and comfortable with: PR.

There have been research attempts made to uncover and evaluate methods for measuring the ROI of PR. But you’re not going to like them.

Jumping through ROI hoops
Techniques include measuring the:

  • Value of impressions. We track the marketing mix (including PR) over time against trends in sales. Lots of variables there.
  • Return on media impact. This is the number of articles or blog posts that mention the product or service measured against the trend in sales. Again, tough to isolate PR’s role.
  • Value of earned media. This is what it would cost to place an ad in a magazine vs. the cost of getting the story placement. The PR cost is usually less and the value is usually larger, but by how much? Old beliefs about the relative value of earned media vs. advertising are all over the map—and probably need to be revised in the age of social media.

But ROI has to be there, right?
Still, we know in our bones that positive word of mouth has a positive effect on sales. We just have a hard time proving it. The only effective argument I’ve heard recently is that we embed calls to action in social media that drive readers to a landing page where we capture their information and start nurturing them as leads. But without good systems for tracking those leads from social media all the way through a sale, it’s difficult and expensive to do. And it leads back to the problem we have with PR. Did the social media impression really lead to the sale?

As with PR, perhaps all we can do is establish that social media was at least a guidepost along that narrow rocky path to a sale.

Volume and quality of interactions
So if you buy that leap of logic, let’s say that blogs are another channel, like PR, in a marketing mix designed to familiarize customers and prospects with our companies and us. And if that’s true, then we should try to increase the volume and quality of interactions with have with customers and prospects through social media, no?

That’s when things start to get easier. We can more easily measure engagement in social media. Especially on blogs.

For this reason, I think we need to think about blogs as the center point of a social media strategy. Aside from the corporate, a blog is the mother ship of social media interaction and content. And blogs are really measurable. In fact, we can do a lot of it for free. Here are some metrics, mostly for blogs, that help build engagement with customers and prospects. Please tell me what I should add or take away. And if you have the magic sauce for social media ROI, please douse us with it!

(For much more on the social media ROI topic, see this terrific list of resources compiled by Robin Broitman at Interactive Insights Group called the Social Media Metrics Superlist.)

  • Connect to your most important keywords. SEO is really a fancy term for constructing your sentences carefully—especially your headlines. If the intention of your blog is to drive traffic to your main website for lead generation, then you should be using the keywords on your blog that matter most on your website. To oversimplify it, if you want to sell more ERP software, you should use keywords like “enterprise software,” a lot on your blog so that Google associates your blog with your company’s area of expertise.
  • Grow the number of influential referral sites. “Owning” a keyword term in Google searches is nice, but building traffic to your blog through references on other blogs and websites is the key to sustained, long-term growth. Obviously, the more influential the referral site the better. But we’re not talking just sheer numbers here. For example, being listed on the blogroll of a highly respected blogger, analyst, or journalist not only generates traffic; it also establishes you as an authority among the people who care most about the subject you’re blogging about. That authority begins to have exponential effects over time. You and your posts are referred to more often as the network of referrals grows. The growth in traffic then confers its own authority—you get lots of visits so you must be smart. It becomes a virtuous cycle.
  • Don’t forget the outbound links. We all tend to obsess over the number of mentions with get in blog rolls or our influence rank in Technorati. But we often don’t stop to think about whether we’re linking to anyone else’s blog. One of the cornerstones of social media is sharing. Be generous with links to other blogs and websites and others will return the favor and build your traffic for you.
  • Understand the location of your audience. In Google analytics, you can drill down by country—even by city—to see where your traffic comes from. Comparing the geographical distribution of your blog to your company’s website should give you a sense of whether your blog is hitting with the same areas of the world as your website. It could also reveal potential new areas of focus for your salespeople.
  • Measure endurance. Good blogs hold people to the page they’re viewing. So time spent is metric to track to see if people spend more time reading over time. Bounce rate is a good metric for websites because it helps show whether people are finding what they’re looking for. But it’s not so good for blogs because blogs generally only have one or two pages—a page for the posts and a page for “about me” or “contact me—so the bounce rate is going to be higher for blogs by default. You read the post, you leave. Google analytics also has a metric for loyalty—the numbers of repeat visits over time—that shows whether people are sticking with you.
  • Find and nurture your VIPs. It’s hard to measure the number of people who care about and are really influenced by your blog. So I apply the old subscription model. If people care enough to want to know when your next post comes out, they are engaged. If they also comment on your blog, they are friends. Make a list of the people who subscribe to your blog through RSS and e-mail and match them up to your comments. Those who both subscribe and comment regularly are your VIPs. RSS+comments=VIP. These are the people who matter; they should receive responses to all their comments and an e-mail thanking them for being such a valuable collaborator. If they happen to also be customers, then all the better. But just don’t try to sell them. They know where to find you.
  • Use Twitter for blog PR. If Twitter isn’t one of your highest-ranking referral sites, you’re not using it properly. Twitter is the logical front end to a blog post. It’s where you distill the post down to a nugget and put a link next to it. There are even tools like Tweet This, that can be set up to send a tweet based on the title of your post automatically. Or a tweet can be the inspiration for a blog post later on. Regardless, blogs and Twitter accounts should be joined at the hip, because Twitter is a powerful traffic builder to blogs.
  • Use URL shorteners to gauge subject interest. By using a URL shortener like bit.ly within a Tweet, you can track how many people click on the content link you offer in your tweets. Sure, the language of your tweet counts in building interest, but if you link to content that is directly related to your tweet, it’s a good gauge of how popular the subject is among your followers.
  • Use social networks as water coolers and newsstands. LinkedIn and Facebook have groups where you can post elements of your blog post as a question, or post the entire thing as a news item. Track the number of comments and views to the things you post. The numbers aren’t too big here generally, as the group tools on these sites are crude and many group leaders don’t spend much time filtering out the self-promoting jerks that litter these things with spam. But it’s a way to expose your blog to new faces and engage in dialog away from the blog.
  • Build cross-referencing across social media tools. No social media tool is an island. All should cross-reference each other at every opportunity. So for example, your blog comments on other’s blogs should contain your Twitter handle and a link to your blog. The communities you belong to should all Your LinkedIn profile should display your most recent posts and tweets, and your blog should display all of the above. There’s no real way to measure all this from what I can tell, but it isn’t hard and it can’t hurt.
  • Embed and measure calls to action. If we can get people to a landing page, we should. Social media offer plenty of opportunities for doing that. And sometimes social media becomes the end in itself. For example, the landing page could be for a LinkedIn group you manage rather than the traditional white paper, newsletter, or Webinar. Social media gives us ways to build relationships with customers that white papers or newsletters can’t.

What do you think?

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Where should your corporate blogs live?

Earlier this year I surveyed B2B marketers about their approaches to corporate blogging. Their strategies take two basic approaches.

Onsite. These marketers take a direct role in finding and supporting internal bloggers and in helping them develop content. The blogs are an integrated part of the corporate marketing strategy and are usually hosted on the corporate website. Most say that they try to suggest topic areas that fit with the company’s overall thought leadership strategy.

Offsite. Whether through choice or through necessity, these marketers take a more hands-off approach—the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach. They encourage subject matter experts to blog, track what they write about, and offer blogging guidelines and help when needed. They do not set up or tend corporate blogs. The subject matter experts have independent blogs or speak through third-party platforms like Linked-In, etc.

I don’t think that one approach is necessarily better than the other. But I’d like to hear your opinions. Here are some strengths and weaknesses of both approaches.

Onsite advantages:

  • Built-in traffic. It can takes years to build enough word-of-mouth to build a marketing worthy audience for a blog. The corporate homepage can direct a fire hose of traffic to the blog from the start.
  • Integration with other marketing. Blogs are only part of a thought leadership marketing program. Surrounding the blog with links to other sections of the site gives the blog credibility and helps build interest.
  • Brand respect. Impress visitors by having a summary page of your blogs set against the corporate backdrop.
  • Incentives for bloggers. Being on the corporate site is a good way for bloggers to raise their visibility inside the company and promote their careers. It’s also easier for marketers to justify spending their time supporting bloggers when the blogs are on the corporate site.

Onsite disadvantages:

  • Suspicion. You can’t have a disclaimer on your corporate-hosted blogs. Readers will assume that corporate bloggers will sanitize their opinions and do what they can to promote their companies. That runs counter to the spirit of the best blogs. Of course, a good blogger can break through that suspicion with content that is interesting, unbiased and altruistic.
  • Content inflexibility. Bloggers will feel more irresponsible taking flights of fancy on their corporate-sponsored blogs than on their own personal blogs. And visitors will frame their expectations of the blogs through the expectations they have of the company. For example, visitors may not feel that an executive from a computer networking company should be writing about tangential topics, even if he or she is qualified to do so.
  • Technology inflexibility. Corporate websites are complex beasts that are difficult and expensive to change and require going to another department, IT. Meanwhile, social media technology is changing constantly. Corporate-hosted blogs won’t be able to take advantage of the latest social tools that complement blogs without going to IT and getting some custom coding.
  • Life sentence. It looks bad when corporate-hosted blogs shut down unless there are others to take their place.
  • Failure runs deep. A bad blog with little traffic and no comments reflects badly not just on the blog but on the corporation hosting it.

Offsite advantages:

  • Resource savings. Letting bloggers do their own thing requires little support from marketing. A blogging policy is generally enough.
  • A degree of separation from mistakes. Gaffes by independent bloggers generally don’t lead back to their employers.
  • Thought leadership farm team. Marketers can spot and encourage budding subject matter experts and re-purpose their content as thought leadership.
  • Half-life is less important. Independent blogs can appear and disappear without reflecting badly on the blogger’s company.
  • Technology flexibility. Independent blogs can take advantage of new technology quickly and easily, because most independent platforms are built on standard internet technologies.

Offsite disadvantages:

  • Building traffic takes longer. The search engines don’t pay much attention to blogs with little content. Building up that foundation of content takes time.
  • No integration with marketing goals. You take what you get with independent bloggers. You can’t pick the topics.
  • Limited incentives. Marketers won’t be able to do much for their independent bloggers.

What do you think? How are you handling your corporate blogging strategy?

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Getting Started in Social Media: An Interview and Podcast with SAP's Steve Mann

Podcast: Getting Started with Social Media with SAP’s Steve Mann Part 1

Podcast: Getting Started with Social Media with SAP’s Steve Mann Part 2


Here’s my edited interview with SAP’s Steve Mann, who is creating and implementing a social media strategy for the B2B software giant. With his personal interest in science and sociology, Steve has some insightful views on the human side of implementing a social media strategy. I’ve also included a two-part, edited Kochcast with Steve if you’d rather listen than read.

Chris Koch: Steve, what do you think should be driving B2B companies’ strategies in social media today?

Steve Mann: The dynamics of most markets have changed dramatically over the last few years. We have gone from being a supplier-centric economy where the supplier is in control to a buyer-centric economy where the buyer is in control. And these buyers are demanding transparency from their suppliers.

One of the best ways to drive that transparency is through the use of social media. It has become a conversational economy where customers expect to be able to talk to suppliers and they get really turned off when suppliers talk at them. Social media is what enables that conversation between the suppliers and buyers to happen.

Chris Koch: We’re getting a lot of questions from ITSMA members asking, Where do I start with a social media strategy? There are so many different things that they could be doing, that many don’t end up doing anything. What’s the first thing that people should do to get started?

Steve Mann: It’s been our experience that there are a lot of things happening in companies around social media which organizations don’t even know about. So, one of the first places to start is actually to take an audit of what’s happening in your organization.

Through our audit at SAP, we found that there are a number of grassroots initiatives around social media that we are really happy that we know about for two reasons: Number one, we can take advantage of synergies in those efforts and number two, we can use the enthusiasm and the passion around these grassroots initiatives to drive an overall social media strategy.

So, for example, SAP has an internal social networking project that launched a couple of months ago called “Harmony,” which has over five thousand SAP employees involved.

And another good opportunity is our SAP Developer Network and Business Process Expert community platforms, which, combined, have over one million community members already.

Chris Koch: Can you talk a little bit more about Harmony? How did that get started, and what are the goals of that?

Steve Mann: Well, it got started because there was a realization that we needed a better way to connect individuals with one another inside SAP. The informal networks that people create at SAP are very powerful in helping you perform your daily business tasks and so we wanted to create tools that enable individuals to make those connections easier and to collaborate more effectively.

But Harmony also comes from the realization that our employee base is changing rapidly. There are 76 million millennials—people born after 1977—that are now entering the workforce, and one of their expectations is that they have the tools and the technology that enable them to easily collaborate across functional groups. Harmony does that.

Chris Koch: What are some of the highlights of Harmony’s functionality?

Steve Mann: Well, for us it’s the ability to profile ourselves and to develop expertise roles and a behavior-based profile of an individual. Say somebody is looking for a person who has social media skills and customer experience skills. They can do a search on Harmony and my name will pop up. So it enables you to easily identify those individuals who you could need on any given project.

Number two, it will also allow integration into SAP’s transactional systems—obviously, we use our own transactional systems. Harmony enables you to run the workflow and the processes that support any given project at SAP.

Chris Koch: What prerequisites do you need to have internally in terms of social media before going externally?

Steve Mann: Number one, do you have a culture where you allow experimentation and have a high tolerance for failure? Because frankly, failure is big part of social media and social networking initiatives because we are still so early in the evolution of strategies and technologies.

For example, if you are a very strong command-and-control type of organization, it may be much more difficult for you to implement either an internal or external social media strategy. It’s difficult to maintain that traditional sense of control in an organization that truly implements a 360-degree social media strategy for both internal collaboration as well as for external collaboration with the market.

Secondly, do you also have tolerance for negative commentary in the market about your organization? If not, you should stay away from social media because customers will see through any efforts to control them or their messages.

The third assessment factor is to discover the real pain points that can be addressed with a social media strategy. Is it my communication strategy? Do I need to be closer to the market? Is it around co-innovation? Am I not being innovative enough in my products and services or is there not enough uptake of my products and services and if so, why?

Well, to answer those questions, I need to get closer to the market and one of the best ways to get closer to the market is to co-create with customers and partners.

Chris Koch: Can you give us an example of how you would use social media to do co-creation with customers?

Steve Mann: Let’s say that I am planning SAP’s next-generation CRM system. We go out and solicit “voice of the customer” input into the product development cycle. We ask customers what they need in terms of capability that we should be delivering into the solution. So the customers are actively influencing what the product does from generation to generation of that product.

We also do that on the content side. We have many plans to develop user-generated content. Many times customers and prospects do not necessarily want to speak to a supplier. They would rather speak to another customer.

And so by enabling a prospect to talk to an existing SAP customer, there is a user-generated content component. For example, the content that a prospect is getting about SAP solutions could potentially come from another customer and not SAP. That is in fact what happens today on SDN, the SAP Developer Network.

Chris Koch: How do you know whether your existing customer service infrastructure is ready to handle all the communications that occur in social media? For example, let’s say a customer posts a complaint on a blog. There is an expectation in the back of his or her mind that somehow everyone across the company is reading this and that someone is going to get back to him.

Steve Mann: The first issue is don’t do social media if you are not willing to hear negative things about your company. It’s a conversation and in any conversation there are positives and negatives and you have to take the good with the bad.

Secondly, when an individual gives feedback to a company—no matter whether that feedback is negative or positive—that individual deserves to be engaged with. And so the people, the processes and tools need to in place to engage with that individual and not only say, hey, we heard you, but here is what we are going to do about it.

It’s critical that organizations realize that social media drives a greater degree of customer intimacy than ever before. You are much closer to your customers and they are much closer to you, which is a good thing and a bad thing.

It’s a bad thing in that if you don’t manage it well, it can hurt your brand. It’s a great thing in that customer intimacy promotes greater customer loyalty, customer loyalty promotes more repeat business, which in turn promotes greater satisfaction with the brand.

Chris Koch: Let’s talk about content. Marketers hear over and over—and ITSMA research shows—that customers want to talk to each other and get peer recommendations. But then marketers set up an online community and nothing happens. Nobody says anything; it just dies. What content should marketers provide so that you can generate some real good discussion?

Steve Mann: Well, again it goes back to this notion of co-creation. I would never just create a forum for a customers to talk without first figuring out what customers want to talk about.

And the way you do that is you need to interview a lot of customers and really understand what’s on their minds, what issues they would want to talk about and then you build the community of interest that will focus on those issues.

You then have to market these capabilities just like you market anything else. People need to know that they exist. People need to understand what the value would be to them and what the benefits are to them for becoming members and taking time out of their day to participate.

Then, finally once you get those folks in there, yes these discussions need to be moderated so that they stay on track. But my advice to companies that are looking to do this is to stay out of the way and let the customers talk to one another.

Great things will happen when they have the opportunity to talk to one another, but you have to provide the forum, you have to provide the right topics and you have to provide the right moderation.

Another equally important strategy is to go to where our customers are and listen and participate in their communities. SAP has other communities like ASUG, SDN, BPX, and Diamond where we engage customers directly. Through participation in these communities we not only hear what our customers are telling us but we begin to understand what they are saying.

Chris Koch: Should you create communities around fairly narrow topic areas? Is that more likely to get them talking?

Steve Mann: Well, I think that’s a very good point, Chris. As a matter of fact, my prediction for 2008 is that you will see a lot more closed and proprietary social networks developing rather than these large, broad, open social networks like Facebook and MySpace.

Chris Koch: And why is that?

Steve Mann: Because I think people want to coalesce around specific interests and talk to people who have expertise and capability in their particular area. It goes back to this notion of compelling content. If you are a lawyer and you want to find compelling content, you should go to a social network that focuses on lawyers—same thing for physicians, or engineers, or high-tech guys like me.

Chris Koch: People come to us all the time and ask, what technology should I start with in social media? Blogs? Podcasts? Second Life? I don’t think this is the right way to approach it, but people always seem to want to lead with the technology. What do you think?

Steve Mann: I get the same questions all the time. Chris, it’s an impossible question to answer because there are hundreds of different solutions out there. When people ask me this question I ask what business problem they are trying to solve. Once they have told me what the business problem is then I will recommend a solution.

Chris Koch: Okay, let’s talk about the future. In our research people say that the most bang for they get for their marketing buck comes from in-person meetings around a topic or thought leadership. Should the goal of social media marketing be to create an online version of those in person meetings?

Steve Mann: That’s an interesting question. I can tell you what’s happening in SAP. One of the things we are doing is exploring virtual events and bringing people together online in virtual event spaces to really interact and collaborate with one another.

We’re building out some tools to do that now and we are going to be holding one of our first virtual events shortly and the goal is not necessarily to replace real time events because there is nothing like networking in real time with other individuals.

But the goal is to provide alternative methods of communication and collaboration. There will always be other opportunities to do that real time networking and we will never move away from those, but it allows us in a cost-effective manner to really bring people together for collaboration and knowledge transfer and that’s what it’s all about as far as SAP is concerned.

Chris Koch: Let’s talk about other ways social media will impact existing marketing tactics. For example, how do you see the traditional case study changing?

Steve Mann: First, I would move away from static customer stories and replace them with live reference stories—such as videos that tell the story.

Barring that, I would want to try to get the customer to blog about his experiences, or allow me to record video about his experience or his company—to make communications and entertainment merge into something of real “communitainment” value. In that way I think you drive a level of stickiness around the content that you could not possibly achieve in a standard, static case study.

Chris Koch: You talked about the rise of the Millennials before. Can you say more about the generational issues that will impact social media?

Steve Mann: There are going to be and continue to be generational differences in the way people consume content and information and you need to take a multi-generational approach to how you communicate with your market. I actually recommend that companies hire inter-generational experts.

Chris Koch: What do you mean when you say that?

Steve Mann: Individuals that have expertise in understanding generation differences both in your workforce as well as in your market and can help you attune your strategies to those generational differences.

Chris Koch: So would that be like a change management consultant?

Steve Mann: Well, these individuals really will do a number of things for you. First, they will educate you on the intricacies of intergenerational differences between Millennials and Gen Xers and Boomers. They will help you construct your appropriate plans to inform and educate not only your executives, but the people who have to tell the stories to the market. And they can help guide you on tone, process and policy for each specific generational segment.

For example, Boomers may not care if your IT department blocks access to Facebook from inside the firewall, but the Millenials will. They have an expectation that those tools will be available there for their life, both professional and personal. Social media is not some passing fad with them. They are digital natives. They have grown up with the Internet and they expect to be able to access it whenever, wherever, and however they want. It’s really important to understand that their individual values are not going to change over time. So if companies want to attract, retain, manage and motivate young employees and customers over the next generation of workers, it’s the companies that need to adapt—not the workers. That’s the big one.

Finally, you need to train your leaders to lead differently. The leader almost has to be a little bit of a therapist, because the individuals that you are working with to deploy social media are very self-sufficient individuals who are highly networked and highly collaborative to begin with. They require more passive listening and a teaching management style. You need to set expectations carefully with them. I know I am focusing a lot on the human side here, but I really believe that it’s the human side that makes a technology implementation effective.

Chris Koch: Meanwhile, all we keep hearing about is RSS and other technologies.

Steve Mann: Yeah, I mean if you think about it, if the goal of SAP’s social media strategy is to create increased collaboration and intimacy between individuals, well, what I am asking of these individuals?

I am asking them to become more social and frankly you either are social, or you are a little bit social, or you are not social at all…it is who you are. So all you can do is give them the tools and techniques to be social in the workforce, but that means you need to manage them differently, you need to lead them differently and you need to set expectations differently.

Chris Koch: Can existing communities and social media tools like Facebook be substitutes for building your own tools?

Steve Mann: Well, I think that if you are a brand that will resonate well with the demographics of Facebook, then you can go ahead and generate a Facebook page and you should try to use the social ads and infrastructure that Facebook or MySpace provides to do that.

Marketing has gone from a mass volume broadcast one side suite or a message platform to a one-on-one, word of mouth, referral based marketing model. We have actually gone back in time to the 1600s and the 1700s, as Seth Godin characterizes it. Facebook and MySpace provide excellent environments for trusted referral marketing and that is why we have talked so much today about this notion of creating compelling content in communities where the supplier can step out of the way and connect prospects to the customer. Because at end of the day that is trusted referral marketing, it’s one-on-one marketing, and there is no more powerful type of marketing than that.

Chris Koch: What lessons would you recommend that B2B marketers take to heart from what the B2C is doing in social media these days?

Steve Mann: Oh! Good question. All I would say is that it goes to that notion of trusted referral marking and that B2C marketers and B2C tactics in general have infiltrated the B2B space.

So those customers who used to do a search on Google and used to talk to other people and check out the reputations of folks recommending a book or a soft drink, well you know what, those same people are using those same tactics in a B2B environment. And so those same environments where powerful B2C communication takes place are also ripe and right for B2Bs.

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Why blogs should be personal—even if they are corporate

I don’t hold out much hope for the future of corporate blogs. Most customers won’t read them because they won’t trust them. Companies exist to sell things and make money and the people who work for those companies are paid to further those goals. We humans are tribal, and our tribal loyalties always come first. Readers understand this and operate from the presumption that corporations are going to have a bias toward making themselves look good and getting their agreed upon message out. Discerning exactly how biased a given corporate blog is—and how much of the total puzzle of information the reader may be missing by not going elsewhere—takes too much time and energy.

This is why we have journalism. Readers don’t have to do as much work to determine the motivations of the writers. Regardless of whether you believe that journalists are inherently biased, the business model and the tribal bond that holds journalists together is that they are supposed to sample the entire field and report what they hear. Otherwise, they will earn the wrath of their readers, bosses, and peers. There is tribal pressure not to take one person or company’s word for it. I would much rather read about Microsoft’s corporate strategy in the New York Times or see it on Fox News than read it in a corporate blog from Microsoft.

The relevance of blogs is that they are personal. That’s why corporations can’t do them well. As an employee of the company, you would never want to take a controversial stand on something in the corporate blog without first figuring out whether it accurately represents the opinion of your tribe. That’s why corporate blogs will never be risk-taking enterprises. They will be press releases for broader consumption.

That’s not to say that corporate blogs won’t be controversial. The numbing lack of controversy in the blog posts themselves will be in stark contrast to the comments about the posts. Take for example this innocuous post about GM’s new Pontiac G8. It’s written by one of a number of rotating authors on GM’s blog that include Bob Lutz (yet another issue for readers—whose voice really represents GM here and whom should we trust most?). This time it’s Adam Denison, GM’s Coordinator of New Media. And guess what! He really likes the G8! He congratulates Pontiac on building “an amazing car!” You know, maybe he really believes that. But it’s harder for readers to figure out his genuineness than to go elsewhere—or to point out their concerns in their comments. Like this one:

Adam Denison said: “So congratulations to Pontiac for a building an amazing car that is sure to be the brand’s flagship performance sedan. Great work Pontiac!”

Mr Denison,
Aren’t your congratulations misplaced? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the G8 only a rebadged Holden Commodore SS? Isn’t it a bit of a stretch to congratulate Pontiac for an amazing car when there role was little more than to put different badges on it and move the steering wheel to the left side?Shouldn’t the congratulations go to the Holden team who actually conceived and designed the car?
It’s a smart idea to bring the best models from GM’s overseas partners to the U.S., but credit for the design should go where it’s due. Wouldn’t you agree?Regards,Gary Dikkers”
Denison responds to other comments in the blog, mostly to correct errors in specifications and to urge readers to visit showrooms. But he doesn’t comment on this one. And that’s because he can’t. He may have an opinion, but likely GM hasn’t formed a tribal opinion about how to deal with the Oz issue. At least the comment wasn’t wiped off the blog, as other corporations have done.
For a corporate blog to be effective, it can’t be what we currently conceive of as the corporate blog. There needs to be a layer of separation between the corporation and the blogger or bloggers. The layer of separation gives the blogger and the corporation an out. For example, when the folks at ITSMA asked me to take up the blogging reins of my predecessors, my boss, Julie Schwartz, our senior vice president of Thought Leadership, suggested that I start my own blog rather than an ITSMA-hosted blog. Her suggestion stemmed in part from her knowledge that blogs are a lot of work and that the people doing them deserve some personal recognition for their efforts. She also knew that having a personal blog would motivate me more than doing one hosted by the company.

Julie’s has many smart ideas, but this one really intrigued me. I think blogging about marketing from an independent position benefits everyone involved. It lets me feel more emboldened to be personal and opinionated, and it gives Julie and Dave the ability to rightfully point out that stupid or incorrect things I might say are not necessarily reflections of their or ITSMA’s opinions (that was a shameless disclaimer in case you didn’t notice). I mean, let’s be real here. They don’t have the time to look over my shoulder while I blog through a corporate vehicle, so why not make that clear to everyone from the start?

I think this is where the corporate blog is headed. One of the models for my blog is Paul Dunay’s “Buzz Marketing for Technology” blog. Paul is a marketer for consulting company BearingPoint, but his blog is his own. He blogs on topics that interest him and his follow B2B technology marketers. It’s hard to discern any BearingPoint influence on his blog, and he puts a disclaimer on the front page absolving the company of any link to what he says. My work as a reader is lessened. Sure, Paul may be somehow advancing the corporate goals of BearingPoint through his blog, but as a reader I know he can’t hide behind the corporation or suddenly give way to someone else to do the talking. The result is that he looks smart and genuine, and, by extension, so does BearingPoint.

And that’s all corporations really can ask for from a corporate blog. The point is not to get a message across anymore, it is to engage people who are, or may someday be, customers, peers, or partners in a dialog—not with the corporation, but with smart people who want to help.

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Why I'm doing this

I’m viewing this blog as an experiment, as I think anyone blogging these days should. I’m convinced that this stuff is going to change very quickly over time, and I want to keep an attitude of experimentation at all times. Plus, I know that marketers—especially B2B marketers who will be the focus of much of my writing—are just getting started with social media and are confused about how to make it serve the traditional marketing goals of awareness, trust, and loyalty.

So I’m going to beg your indulgence while I write about my experiments with these new media. I will of course also include the research, best practices, and thoughtful opinions of those I encounter as part of my day job—as Associate Director of Research and Thought Leadership at the Information Technology Services Marketing Association, ITSMA.

Pardon more indulgence. Here’s more information about me: I am currently paid to learn and write about B2B marketing in the technology industry. I have a hard time imagining what could be more rewarding than being paid to learn about something—anything. As for writing, the rewards are obvious—50 gazillion bloggers can’t be wrong.

The kind people giving me money to learn are Dave Munn, CEO and president of ITSMA, and my direct boss, Julie Schwartz, senior vice president of Thought Leadership for ITSMA.

This blog will be about what I learn about marketing, my interactions and conversations with marketers in general and ITSMA members in particular. I prefer to think rather than just link, and will try to do that in everything I post. Point of view is more important than frequency. For that reason, I will not be the most prolific blogger in the world, but like my readers, I have a day job.

I have done this before. I blogged for about three years at my previous job, as executive editor at a technology trade magazine called CIO. I had a blog called “Koch’s IT Strategy.” The web people hated me because my blog posts were rarely less than 1500 words. But the longer ones got all the comments and were more fun to write. So I’m going to keep doing it that way.

I have spent most of my career in journalism, but it was interrupted for a few years by a stint as a marketer at a now-defunct consulting firm called CSC/Index. I did what they now call “Thought Leadership Marketing”: Developed and wrote case studies, ghost wrote articles for consultants, helped develop consulting content and edited publications. So I know something of what B2B marketers go through. I’m on a quest to understand the rest.

If you’ve gotten this far, I have earned the right to tell you about my other work experience, which is as a founding editor of a now-defunct consumer magazine about cycling, called Bicycle Guide. It was my first startup experience (my second was starting a bike touring company that took Americans to view the Tour de France bike race-so you can see how cementing I am about this stuff) and gave me a chance to learn and write about a sport I love more than any other. You will probably see postings somewhere on this blog about cycling.

You can see more about me at LinkedIn and Facebook.

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