What’s a blog? Ask 7 companies, get 7 opinions

2006 December 11
by Cornelius

Here’s a list of explanations of the term blog, taken from seven different corporate sites:

Blogs are Web pages which are updated frequently, written from the point of view of an individual, written in an informal tone, and usually expose (sic) an RSS feed for syndication.

from: Microsoft Community Blogs

While we provide a Cox point of view, we also shoot for a balanced discussion that’s light on bull and heavy on substance. We air third-party commentary and even views from those who just might disagree with us.

from: DigitalStraightTalk (Cox)

We live in a constantly changing world where the issues are complex and solutions anything but simple. With such complex issues, we may not always agree on the root causes or best solutions, but we can have a conversation.

from: Open for Discussion (McDonald’s)

We hope that, through this blog, understanding the trials and successes that communities have experienced in natural disasters will propel you to develop your plans for disaster preparedness.

from: Guided by History (Wells Fargo)

From Edison’s Desk [..] offers a unique forum for technology enthusiasts around the globe to discuss the future of technology with top researchers from one of the world’s largest and most diverse industrial research labs.

from: From Edison’s Desk (GE)

Novell Open PR gives Novell watchers information about what’s happening in the company that might not make the cut for a press release, but is still of interest to the market and Novell’s customers.

from: Novell Open PR (Novell)

A blog (short for web log) is a web site containing dated entries. Think of it like an online journal. Blogs are usually written in the first person by an individual or group of folks, and they update regularly, sometimes every day. There are many different kinds of blogs [...].

from: Earthling (Earthlink)

I’ve collected this little round-up of quotes to show that there is hardly a consistant view of what a blog is or does in the corporate world (not that there was any reason to assume otherwise).

The definition to fall back on is the strictly formal-technical one: blogging is a form of web-based publishing and blogs are websites (or parts of websites) which are managed via a specialized content-mangement software. They usually consist of entries displayed on the main page in reverse chronological order and usually have an archive of older entries. Beyond that – i.e. when thinking about the possible functions of blogs – things get a lot more complicated.

The reason for the high degree of variation is that the blogs listed above serve a variety of purposes, and each applies its own “blogging philosophy” to the explanation given. At the same time, I think it’s safe to assume that the blogging practices of those companies are also shaped by what they believe (“good” / “real” / “correct” etc) blogging to be. Let’s look at a few definitions.

Microsoft lists four aspects, one formal (post frequency), one technical (“exposing” RSS feeds) and two stylistic ones (point of view and informal tone). The technical ones aren’t entirely unproblematic. Is it not a blog if I post infrequently? Is every source which provides – sorry, exposes – an RSS feed a blog? But these things are commonly cited because stylistic aspects are even harder to nail down. “Informality” is very much in the eye of the beholder (see here for one end of the scale, here for the other). College professors, teenagers, CEOs and housewives all have their own understanding of what informal language looks (or sounds) like. And what about personal point of view? It seems to apply to most blogs, but there are counter-examples. For example, the Thomson Holiday Blog currently has a word count of several thousand strings in my database, with a mere four instances of the personal pronoun “I”. It is also posted anonymously (as are many product blogs) and comments are quite scarce.

Cox completely omits formal aspects and highlights content instead, committing itself to “substance” and a “balanced discussion” which is contrasted with “bull”. The discursive quality of blogs – different parties expressing controversial opinions – is marked here as the most important characteristic of the blog. The almost complete lack of comments in Digital Straight Talk speaks a somewhat different language. Cox seems to be experimenting with a sort of talk-radio approach to blogging, especially when smacking about its favorite competitor.

McDonald’s similarly highlights discussion (or – subtly toning it down – conversation). The Open for Discussion blog is a part of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. It is authored by the senior director for CSR, Bob Langert, and his staff. Open for Discussion is interesting because it presents the example of a much-criticized company walking on a sort of public relations blogging tightrope. Langert responds to comments quite frequently – a practice which is absolutely not the norm, especially in a blog that is so clearly image-related. Many of the comments are highly critical of McDonald’s’ business practices and accuse the company of using the CSR initiative purely for cosmetic effect (see this exchange). The challenge to Langert and Co. is to be as diplomatic as possible, while never being too drastic in the acknowledgment of possible mistakes. The discursive practice and McDonald’s’ openness in engaging in it with the public takes precedence over the issues, because the issues remain controversial (“we may not agree [...] but we can have a discussion”). That is not to say that the company isn’t serious about the CSR program, but showing McDonald’s’ ability to accept criticism without admitting defeat seems to be the key function of the Open for Discussion.

Wells Fargo and GE don’t care too much about the ontological status of blogs but get right down to business. Guided by History (Wells Fargo) relates the stories of natural disasters to remind us to get insurance… why not from Wells Fargo? Similarly, GE’s focus is on research on the topical level, but on the functional level From Edison’s Desk is about image and possibly recruiting. Both are innovative strategies in my opinion, and they contradict the idea that some kind of constant visible interaction with a community (e.g. via comments) is always an equally vital measure of blog success. GE doesn’t need to appeal to just everybody: what counts is that junior researchers and tech journalists will see the blog as an indicator of the company’s innovativeness.

Novell makes an interesting qualitative distinction when announcing to blog things that might not make the cut for a press release. Press releases are given the “official” and “universally relevant” stamps, whereas blog entries are characterized as containing more general-purpose, less essential information. This hierarchy of relevance is hardly surprising, considering that press releases are an entrenched form of text while blogs are still young. Question is, of course, why the two are regarded as separate concepts at all, especially when assuming the former to be a kind of text and the latter to be a mode of publishing? Why not blog press releases? What about the technology of a blogging software makes it necessary to write differently or present different information than you would with a PM?

Alright, I’ve decided to stick the rest of this round-up into another post because, as usual, I’m far from done. Yeah, so much for writing shorter entries ;-)

8 Comments
2006 December 11

Cornelius: thanks for taking the time to review our first blog, Guided by History. Did you know we have 4 blogs now? Most are on our blog index (see URL I entered), and we have a B2B blog as well /ceo.

It still surprises me when I read some opinions that GBH is meant to sell insurance–that never came up when we developed it. We see it as a community service, and in fact it comes out of our Historical Services dept (museums, etc). I understand the skepticism that accompanies corporations entering this space. We see it as a new way of communicating, and getting customers to learn from eachother through the conversations that hope to develop. We’re not there yet with all of our blogs, but we’ll stick with it until we get it right :-)

Cheers,
Ed Terpening
VP, Social Media
Wells Fargo

2006 December 11

Thanks for stopping by, Ed. I admit that the way I phrased doesn’t quite do GBH justice – from what I have read, it is an informative resource for those interested in disaster preparedness.

There is, however, a clear link between what Wells Fargo does (insurance, loans) and both GBH and The Student LoanDown. I can’t see anything remotely surprising (nor in any way shady) about a provider of financial services blogging about, well, topics related – if tangentially – to financial services. I think you’re providing a valuable service to your customers and GBH and SLD are both well-written and quite interesting (and I say that being neither in need of a loan nor terribly interested in disasters).

Also, thanks for pointing me to your blog index. I was aware of GBH and SLD, but not of Stagecoach Island. I assume the CEO/B2B blogs you mention are internal, not public. I would be very interested in including internal blogs in my PhD study of corporate blogs, as they may differ considerably in terms of style and structure from public-facing ones, so if there is any chance of a collaboration please email me.

2006 December 12

The other blog, “CEO”, is available to the public. We just don’t generally publicize it because it’s focused on a narrow community of B2B users. Feel free to check it out and write about it: http://blog.wellsfargo.com/ceo

2006 December 12

Thanks!

2006 December 12

[...] CorpBlawg » What’s a blog? Ask 7 companies, get 7 opinions (tags: corporate-blogs business-blogs corporate-blogging) [...]

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2006 December 16

Cornelius, Thanks for referencing my blog at McDonald’s. We are addressing key societal issues that our business in some way impacts, or can make an impact. We have covered antibiotic usage, animal welfare standards, our food and nutrition, and many other important substantive issues. With all this, we are indeed having an open discussion, as you can see by posting comments, good and bad, and responding to many of them. So my questions is this: why do you view this as “clearly image related?” I think this discounts the objectives of the blog which is to have a dialogue on the real issues businesses and society face together.

2006 December 16

Bob, I don’t think it is unfair to relate Open for Discussion to McDonald’s corporate image, in terms of the impact that it can potentially have.

That does not mean that the issues discussed there are not vital ones, nor that the dialog between your company and the public is not indeed an open discussion – because to me it looks very frank, direct and lively.

However, I don’t think “image” has to be a dirty word. It describes how others perceive you, and sometimes this perception differs significantly from how you perceive yourself. With McDonald’s, the public perception may well be much more negative than is warranted by the facts, the company partly acting as a stand-in for an entire industry and as a scapegoat for larger social issues. Having an open discussion means expressing your views and listening to the views of others, and OFD as a forum makes such an exchange possible.

In other words: I absolutely do not discount that it is your objective “to have a dialog on the real issues businesses and society face together”. I just think that the way in which the dialog takes place allows McDonald’s to demonstrate its communicative and interactional competence. And that is likely to have a positive effect on how people see you. I don’t feel that there is anything wrong with that.

The situation in a blog is much, much more symmetrical than it is in other situations where corporations and the public interact, meaning all discussants are equally heard (ideally). The result is a corporate image shaped not by “the message”, but by the participants’ evaluation of how the corporate discussant acts (does he listen? does he see my point? does he respond to my criticism? etc).

I know this is a rather long-winded answer but I think the short version is: Open for Discussion works on multiple levels. One of those levels is the perception of the company as a social actor. Act well and people will note it positively. If image as a term isn’t accurate to describe that process we simply need a new word.

I have lumped Open for Discussion together with other blogs which are vastly different – sadly it is the nature of classifications that they are never specific enough. But my semantics of “image-related” simply don’t equate that with something bad. I just think Open for Discussion can potentially change how people see McDonald’s, and that you’re quite aware of that, other objectives notwithstanding.

Thank you for stopping by, Bob, and for your well-placed criticism.

2007 April 18

[...] blogging is – I won’t do that because there is no one single answer (but have a look here if you’re curious). You can interpret blogging to be anything that’s published via [...]

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