July 21, 2003, 12:00 AM

Community is out, blogs are in

A proliferation of weblogs, personal online journals of individuals, is waking up marketers to their potential commercial application. Customers who like--and trust--what they read in a blog could become loyal customers as a result, advocates say.

 

Web applications developed for commercial use often trickle down to personal use, but personal weblogs or blogs, online journals published independently to the web by an increasing number of individuals, may be poised to go the other way.

“We have not built a web site in the last year for a client that in some way did not incorporate blogging technology,” says Jim Coudal, co-founder of web creative services and design group Coudal Partners in Chicago. Coudal has seen so much recent commercial interest in the application that he and another Chicago-based web design firm, 37signals, now conduct BloggingWorks seminars for business on the subject. “A blog is just a tool that allows you to publish easily and in a well-organized fashion to the web. It’s as easy as writing an e-mail,” he says. “Weblogs offer a real opportunity to make communicating with vendors, customers and employees more efficient and economical.”

Marketers are just now exploring the use of weblogs in customer-facing applications. For example, Coudal says, a retail site that sells digital photography equipment might find an enthusiast on the web that already publishes a blog on digital photography, a compendium of personal experiences and relevant informational links he’s discovered on the topic. “Publish that blog daily on the front of that web site, and you begin to develop an audience that connects to the site not only as a place to purchase goods, but also a place they might check out on a more regular basis because it is pointing at things they are passionate about,” says Coudal.

The likely benefits are site stickiness and more repeat traffic-–two promises also made early on by advocates of building and attaching user communities to commercial web sits. But community as a marketing tool is less popular now, as many marketers found cost-benefit ratios didn’t justify them. So how do blogs, which also represent individuals who are providing content not created by the web site operator, differ from that?

Coudal cites two key differences. A blog is most often one voice publishing to many. In contrast, community discussion groups are many people publishing to many. As such, they can be easily derailed off topic unless skillfully moderated. In addition, says Coudal, a blog voice comes to represent a trusted filter. “If you find a blog that interests you and over time it proves to be a useful resource, you trust the blogger as a filter to the web, which is a huge mishmash of commercial and non-commercial information.”

In the end, blogs, and their usefulness as a marketing tool, are only as good at their content. “Someone who didn’t have anything to say before he or she had a blog is not going to have anything to say after they have one,” Coudal says. “Blogs are very democratic, but people who are doing the best work, either in the independent web publishing of content or in commercial publishing, are generating the greatest following.”

 

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