By Tom Braithwaite
Published: July 16 2006 16:30 | Last updated: July 16 2006 16:30
BT is preparing to launch its own blog in a marketing move that is also a riposte to Carphone Warehouse, its smaller rival.
Corporate blogging is increasingly used by companies to improve both internal and external communications, as well as for sheer promotional reasons.
It can also be a risky strategy – if uncensored comments are allowed – that gives individual employees and customers a new level of influence over a brand.
John Petter, BT’s chief operating officer, will start blogging in the next few weeks. He believes keeping an online journal offers a way to reach customers who are increasingly disillusioned with traditional public relations methods.
“They are suspicious of ‘corporate speak’ and they want it straight from the horse’s mouth,” he says. “Especially in a big company they want to know that someone is taking responsibility.”
Mr Petter’s blog is partly inspired by that of Charles Dunstone, chief executive of Carphone Warehouse, who started blogging to promote the launch of his company’s new “free” broadband package for TalkTalk, its consumer brand.
Since April, Mr Dunstone has given an account of the struggle to respond to the interest the new product generated.
Sometimes frank but mainly promotional, he tells readers about floods that disrupted his Mumbai call centre and does not pass up the opportunity to takes a pop at his rival.
“We have already had the inevitable grumblings from BT, suggesting to people that it isn’t really free, and to check the small print,” he wrote. “My response is: ‘do the maths, BT.’ ”
BT, which has recently launched a new high-end broadband package, insists its blog will be an authentic personal account. “If it reads like something that had a whole department manufacturing it then it simply wouldn’t work,” Mr Petter says.
Corporate blogging can be a marketing tool, a new approach to collaborative working or simply a way to free computer resources.
Richard Charkin, chief executive of Macmillan, the publisher, has been blogging since December after his IT department complained that his e-mail newsletter was slowing the company’s system.
Switching to a web-based blog let him solve this problem and try to establish Macmillan as a publisher embracing the digital world.
“I think it’s important for a company to have an image which is forward-looking rather than backward-looking,” he says.
Mr Charkin now claims a readership of more than 20,000 and his insights on the difficulty of marketing non-fiction books and tales of burglars urinating in one of his bookshops are eagerly read in the publishing world.
Even the most secretive professions are embracing blogs, if only for internal communications. JP Rangaswami was instrumental in introducing blogging to Dresdner Kleinwort, the investment bank, where he is head of alternative market models, to give different teams the possibility to share ideas.
“There are still a number of objectors,” he says. “It didn’t sound like work.”
But Mr Rangaswami claims that the introduction of blogs and “wikis” – tools that allow collaboration on writing online – have replaced much of the bank’s corporate intranet and increased efficiency.
He now advises other companies on starting blogs and wikis. “The first fear factor seems to be about loss of control; and my claim is what they perceive as their form of control has already been lost,” he says.
“The relationship genie has got out of the bottle. Twenty years ago somebody might have been [protesting] in front of a bank with a placard – that’s quite expensive in terms of human time and effort. Now you can reach 100,000 people [with a blog].”
Lawyers have also started to embrace online journals in spite of the dangers of breaching client confidentiality. Ruth Ward, head of knowledge systems at Allen & Overy, has introduced internal blogs to the law firm and next month will launch a wiki for collaboration with small groups of external clients.
“It really seems to speak to people very powerfully . . . people who found traditional computer systems such as intranets quite hard work both bureaucratically and in terms of technology,” she says.
But she acknowledges that – like banking – not everyone in the legal profession is comfortable with more open access to information.
“In other law firms where it’s very much dog-eat-dog, the last thing people would want to do is post something that could allow someone else to steal their clients,” she says.
The riskiest area to companies harnessing the power of the internet involves “user-generated content”.
In March, General Motors, the US carmaker, invited users of its website to produce 30-second video adverts for the Chevy Tahoe, its new sports utility vehicle.
Companies that have enjoyed the success of such “viral marketing” have seen positive, often humorous, commercials for their product spread around the internet at no cost to their brand or balance sheet.
But GM’s openness led to thousands of ads attacking the company’s SUVs for their impact on the environment.
In the UK, a spoof blog set up last year by “Barry Scott”, a fictional character created to sell Reckitt Benckiser’s Cillit Bang household cleaner, backfired after the top web searches for “Cillit Bang” produced only bloggers attacking the campaign.
Manipulation of a medium that is seen as inherently authentic is a risky step.
“I’m sure people will try but I think very often they will be found out,” says Ms Ward. “There seem to be an awful lot of people who police the internet.”