August 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

Into the Blogosphere

Retailers take their first steps into the brave new world of blogging. Blogs are being used in business to give a voice and personality to corporations and industry issues

Retailers have grappled with the role of their web sites during the Internet’s short history-is it merchant, marketing vehicle, customer research venue or PR tool? By putting their own spin on a new electronic publishing tool initially used by consumers, online marketers have found something that can combine all these functions into one feature: the blog.

Some 62% of Americans still don’t know what a blog is, according to recent data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But if that 62% includes online retailers, they better learn fast. Blogs, personal online diaries or journals and short for “web logs,” have become highly influential in American society and can affect a retailer’s brand faster than the retailer can react. “The power of web logs is that they allow millions of people to easily publish their ideas, and millions more to comment on them,” notes Technorati, a search engine that specializes in crawling and indexing web logs.

While they were started as ways for individuals to post their rants online for the world to see (see box, p. 37), consumer blogs have given rise to marketers’ own blogs hosted on their own sites. The idea is that the personal diary format provides a forum for conveying the company’s values, attitude, positions and additional content that other communications vehicles don’t. And a blog-reduced to its technology underpinnings, an online publishing tool that easily handles frequent content changes-makes presenting such content simple.

Giving voice

Blogs are being used in business to give a voice and personality to corporations and industry issues, and companies have begun to use blogs for external communication as they would other forms of marketing or public relations, says Dana VanDen Heuvel, CEO of web consultancy BlogSavant.

Take GourmetStation.com, an upscale food and gift site that launched a blog in June. “Before I even knew what a blog was, we were planning to put a feature on the web site where we could post entertaining ideas and food and wine pairings. The blog gave us a vehicle by which we could implement that strategy,” says founder and president Donna Lynes-Miller.

The number of company blogs like GourmetStation.com’s is growing. It’s been estimated that the blog universe, or blogosphere, is doubling every five months. While they represent a fraction of the estimated 10 million blogs created by Americans-92% of them by bloggers under age 30-corporate blogs now number about 5,000.

GourmetStation.com’s “Delicious Destinations” blog, which focuses on travel and entertaining, is a way to entice new and return visits from the kind of shopper the site targets for gourmet food sales. The blog is penned by T. Alexander, a fictitious character who represents the collective writings of Lynes-Miller, Toby Bloomberg of Bloomberg Marketing, and Cara Barineau of creative partner Blue Marble Media. GourmetStation is upfront about identifying the blog host as the creation of writers, but Lynes-Miller says the concept nevertheless took some heat from blogging purists. The upside, she adds, was that the controversy gained the blog a lot of exposure.

Why do it?

Organic yogurt maker Stoneyfield Farms is another business blogger. A full-time employee writes three of the four web logs at Stoneyfieldfarms.com. The fourth, a chronicle of daily life on an organic farm, is authored by the farmer.

Only about 1.4% of visitors to the site, which sells souvenir items such as T-shirts and alarm clocks but not yogurt, read the blogs, raising the question of why Stoneyfield puts resources into the effort. Chief blogger Christine Halverson, who notes that the company’s New Hampshire location gave founder and CEO Gary Hirshberg an up-close view of how blogs were used during last year’s presidential primary, says it’s a brand-building effort. “We’ve never had the money to put into mainstream advertising. It’s always been guerilla marketing,” she says. “We do this to build relationships and create positive feelings toward the company.”

For a retailer of premium coffees, job one in the marketing arena is to differentiate the offering from that of industry behemoth Starbucks. At Stone Creek Coffee, a nine-store café chain and web site headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis., a blog helps to get the job done.

“We wanted to bring out that we are a hands-on company and not a big corporate chain. We are trying to reflect the personal nature of what we do and how we make our coffee,” says Tom Pionek, marketing and technology director. “The blog lets us bring that out by letting our people post information in their own words.” The blog, launched on StoneCreekCoffee.com in June, will eventually let team managers, executives and store managers post content live and for the most part unedited by Pionek, who oversees the initiative.

The company’s bloggers will receive guidelines on what kind of information they can post. Pionek will review the blog posts when they go live and make adjustments if necessary. An RSS feed that pushes the blog out into the online blogosphere sends it to his desktop in real time.

Pionek says Stone Creek Coffee’s primary objective in blogging is to express the voice of the company and that a blog lets the company do that quickly and in a timely manner. For example, the company cups, or evaluates, new coffees and coffee roasts every two weeks. “The blog allows us to cup coffee in the morning and post the results that same day. It reduces any bottleneck about getting content on the web site, just by making the ability to change the web site more accessible to more people,” Pionek says.

The non-blog blog

REI Inc. is putting a different spin on a web log scheduled for a limited rollout in July. REI was looking for technology that would make it easier for local REI stores, which already have their own pages on REI.com, to post content about store news and events and to distribute that content to local e-mail lists. It also wanted to bring a standardized look to the grassroots efforts some stores already had undertaken on their own. It found the solution in blogging technology.

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