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Power to the blogosphere

Geekiness has given way to consumer activism, so the major corporate players are having to learn the weblog game, says James Cherkoff

Imagine a room with tens of thousands of your customers talking about your company and your products. That's one way to think about the blogging community (the blogosphere). The choice for companies is whether they want to be in that room or not. And increasingly, staying out is just too risky.

Imagine a room with tens of thousands of your customers talking about your company and your products. That's one way to think about the blogging community (the blogosphere). The choice for companies is whether they want to be in that room or not. And increasingly, staying out is just too risky.

Weblogs or blogs have been around for some time and are generally regarded as a highly geeky pastime. But in the US they have hit the mainstream. Technorati.com, a respected blog monitor, estimates that the blogosphere is doubling in size about once every five months. Today, the company tracks more than 11.7 million blogs (and 1.2 billion links), double the number of weblogs tracked in October 2004.

But what are they? They are websites that allow individuals to create their own site and to do so easily, at minimal cost. (Micropublishing might be a more helpful name.) They are normally a mixture of text and images. but recently video has become more common, and audio has made it possible to create radio-style commentary, known as podcasts.

However, it's the interaction between blogs that makes them so interesting and influential. A single blog can be akin to a ranting madman on the corner. However, when linked together into massive intertwining communities, they have the vibrancy and passion of a massive street market, with information, opinions and whispers exchanging hands at light speed. And it's no longer confined to techy chats. Conversations about every conceivable subject take place. And as the quantity and quality of these conversations grows, so does the blogosphere's influence beyond the internet, including the commercial sector.

In September last year, a company called Kryptonite (which manufactures super-secure, super-expensive bicycle locks) was forced into a massive product recall when a rumour about a faulty product design raged through the blogosphere, onto San Francisco's bikeforums.net and into The New York Times.

TiVo, the manufacturer of personal video recorders (PVRs) has also fallen foul of the blogging community. When a commercial blog called PVRblog.com ran a piece claiming that adverts would be shown on its machines (which people often buy because they enable the viewer to avoid advertising), all hell broke lose in a 75,000-strong, online TiVo community. The company only realised there was a problem when the story hit the Los Angeles Times.

While consumer power is not a new thing, the passion that the blogging community creates and the speed at which communities build definitely are. The design fault that led to Kryptonite's problems was a long-standing one which they had been quietly dealing with on an individual basis. It only became a problem when a video demonstrating the fault was posted on a blog. As a result, corporations in the US have started to pay attention to how relations with these online groups of highly motivated, super-switched-on consumers can be best handled.

One way for companies to join in these huge conversations is to set up their own blog. But when they do, it's vital to get the tone absolutely right. Blogs using opaque PR language and corporate-style tactics can do more harm than good. Dialogue, transparency and openness are the watchwords.

One blogger called Scobleizer (aka Robert Scoble) is a Microsoft employee who writes about technical issues, many closely related to the software giant's business. He does so with the blessing of his employer (Bill Gates is a blog fan) but with a good degree of autonomy.

The idea of an employee publishing at will to the world on any subject he pleases is probably enough to bring many PR executives out in a light sweat. However, Scoble is attributed with bringing a much-needed human quality to Microsoft's communications. Elsewhere, Jupiter Research has set up a group of its analysts to blog about industry issues. "The sometimes offbeat journals are stirring sales leads from clients who otherwise might not have contacted Jupiter," says David Schatsky, Jupiter's chief of research. And at General Motors, Bob Lutz, the company's vice-president, has set up a blog called Fast Lane. The site is fast becoming a haven where petrol-heads exchange tips and views.

Before creating their own voice in the blogosphere, corporates should carefully monitor issues being raised that affect them. A number of tools have sprung up on the web (Technorati, PubSub, Blogdex, Sitemeter) that allow anyone to follow the trends and issues driving the big discussion. Blogging is a grass-roots platform and it's vital for even the biggest players to respect that if they are to benefit from taking part. And that means listening carefully.

The bloggers' voice is already a powerful one in the US but is now starting to be heard in Europe. According to Six Apart, a blog software company, there are about 3m bloggers in France, and at least 500,000 in Britain. While in the UK, the emergence of community sites such as Britblog.com and London Bloggers suggest the British are catching on, too.

Now that blogging has emerged from its technical origins and become part of the mainstream, other terms are being used to describe it: Citizen's Media, consumer-generated media, or the 5th Estate. They all promote the fact that blogging is giving ordinary people a powerful voice, and one that is only getting louder and more influential.