Saturday, March 25, 2006

Blogging: Some things I’ve learnt (and am I learning) and commercial uses

Lets get one thing straight: this isn’t a “why do I blog?” navel gazing entry. No, I promised myself I wouldn’t write one of them until I had a year of blogging under my belt - so you have another couple of months until I hit that anniversary.

No, this entry is a set of thoughts on what blogging can do for commercial organizations. And specifically, can blogging help the company I work for?
(Plus my usual exploration of just what is it product manager do? which is becoming such a theme I should add it to the blog description.)

The story so far: I’m the product manager for an extranet site. The site exists to help our customers with support issues and to communicate better with them. One of the problems I face is: lack of content. Trying to get people to write specific stuff for the site is nigh on impossible, product managers and technical support staff (the people I’m most interested in) all have full jobs already and the idea that they might have a spare hour to write something for the extranet is not something they recognise.

Compounding the problem is the fact getting content into the site is considered “difficult.” So, even if they did have the time its not an very attractive proposition.

So, product manager hat on: Problem, How do I get content into my site?

Second, I sense an opportunity. The opportunity to provide better marketing of our company and products. Actually, this opportunity probably always exists in every company, its hard to imagine a company that could not communicate about its products better - although I can imagine a company were they can’t communicate better in a cost effective manor.

Now, problem and opportunity are two words that address the same idea from different sides. So, I think, still with my product manager hat on, I can go after this opportunity.

Lesson for the product manager: Don’t just look for problems, look for opportunities.

Actually, I recently had a go at defining what I was doing. After all, does any company need and extranet? And do you need a product manager for it?

Eventually I came up with a definition of my role something like “To find opportunities to address customer problems by using the internet.”

Now I didn’t start with these problems and opportunities and work out a solution. What happened was something like this: I accepted that in the next development iteration we need to do a particular piece of work. Shortly after I realised that if we did this work the site would also be able to host blogs created with a regular blogging tool.

Then I asked: and what good would that do?

After all, I could probably host an online Space Invaders emulator on the site but I don’t think it would do much good.

Lesson for the product manager and developers: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

When I thought about it I realised that if I hosted blogs in the site it would lower the barriers to contribution and maybe encourage some people to contribute. Hopefully if we have a couple of people blogging (and showing it can be done) it will encourage more.

Then I started to think about the marketing angle. Suddenly a host of articles I’d read in various places (mainly the FT and Economist) came to mind about how companies could use blogs to speak directly to customers. This makes a lot of sense to me, blogging is less formal, sometimes designed to provoke, and more personal than press releases and glossy marketing leaflets.

Now all I have to do is persuade people inside the company. So far its looking positive. To start with we’ll keep the blogs inside the password protected section and switch off comments.

But all this set me thinking about how other companies are doing this.

Now I should make a confession. Although I’ve been blogging for the best part of a year - and writing a website before that - I’m not a great reader of blogs. Partly this is a case of too much choice and partly well, I guess I’ve never really found a blog that fits me.

Still, when I look around its clear that a number of technology companies are using blogging effectively. Some are using it as marketing and some are using it to present a more human face (e.g. Microsoft). And blogging can act as a big employment advertisement, good people attract good people so let your good people blog and tell the world.

IBM bloggers are interesting. They have an official policy that encourages staff blog. IBM seem to be using partly as a technology and change play (get staff familiar with what the internet can do) to keep them ahead of the game.

I know people at Thoughtworks who blog. They seem to use it both as internal communication and a motivator for people to look out for stuff to blog about. That can be technology, process or just personal awareness.

As I may have mentioned I’m a great fan of people keeping diaries. I think it helps you reflect and assess your situation. Blogging is another form of this - more comments when I do the navel gazing in a couple of months.

Since I’ve been blogging I’ve learn a lot more about the current wave of internet technologies: blogs, RSS, syndicated advertising, referral fees (yes, I’ve earned commission from my Amazon referrals!) and sites like Bloglines and recently Technorati.

The other thing I’ve learnt is that people do read blogs. A few months ago I found myself in a meeting were someone told a story I’d put in my blog a few days before. This made me think a lot: firstly I have to be responsible here, then, what a great tool for internal communication.

(Actually, one of my recent blogging entries said I was wondering if I could start my own company. When I started talking to people inside my company about blogging I had to “decloak” and say I had a blog. I then realised: if they all rush to see what I say in my blog they’ll find I’m thinking about what I do next! So, be careful what you write.)

One thing I am decided on: if anyone ever hires me as CEO the first thing I’ll do is start an internal blog.

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