Stepping into cyberspace

Written by Brett Thomas

July 17, 2006 // 9:04 a.m.

Tags: #blog #corporate #dell #msdn

I'm quite sure that all of humanity has ended. Wires were crossed somewhere on that fateful day. Someone must have misunderstood. Maybe hell just froze over. Dell started a blog... and it was not good.

But why?

There are many people who clamoured and yelled, bellowed in the halls about corporate bureaucracy and the giant PR machine. I think they're partially right. And then there are those who cried for the maligned behemoth, saying that Dell has been picked on for being big and stupidly walked into a line of spraying bullets. I don't entirely disagree with that, either. Right or wrong, though, one fact remains: big corporations are opening that even bigger door to their customers and stepping out into space.

"What's the difference between MSDN-B and Dell's new one2one?"

So, if Dell can screw it up, what does it mean to do it right? After all, I laud Microsoft's MSDN blogs on a regular basis, frequently source them for news, and consider them informative and interesting. And this is Microsoft. So what's the difference between MSDN-B and Dell's new one2one? When we get done with Jeff Jarvis crying about listening to other bloggers, and all the fanboys who would tattoo Dell logos on their forearm calling him names, where do we stand? What have we learned?

The answer is simple and timeless. We learn that fanatics of either side can circle their wagons within minutes, leaving the rest of us just looking for something more substantial. That's where Dell failed right out of the gate, and it's where I start to worry about the future of 'Web2.0' and the boundaries of advertising versus freely spoken content versus someone's irate rambling.

First things first, let's look at why I think Microsoft did it right. MSDN blogs work because they're not advertising. Yet, they generate more press than ten times as many press releases. Why? Because they’re the actual developers talking about development. Not about how cool this is, not about how the features will be just what we all want. An MSDN blog says, "Hey, I was thinking about... what do you think?" And then a bunch of developers and customers who care about what MSDN does go and reply and leave good thoughts, to which the developer often replies right in the comments.

There are two important factors there. First, an MSDN blogger is talking about a thought, problem or quandry, meaning he or she is seeking discourse before committing to his or her preconceived idea. It's not horn tooting about a product that's already done and just hit the shelves or how long MSDN has been around. After all, that's what a general press release is for.

Which brings us to the second factor: it has a point, and it has readers who care about and are knowledgeable on that point. Users of MS Office (as well as IT pros) will post in the MS Office blogs to devise better products, but likely not in the Windows MCE blog. The blog solicits thoughts from knowledgeable readers who have a link to the product in question, who feel like they're talking to someone who cares about their opinions and can implement their thoughts before the product is beyond fixing. It's not about who can get the most page views, it's about initiating dialogue with your consumers to build a better product.
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Now that you have my thoughts on blogging done right, let's move back to Dell vs. the lynch mob.

A blog is saying, "I want to have a conversation, come join me in it... I'll start it off and provide the forum." That means you provide the topic and your thoughts on it, and then leave the comments open to invite discussion on your blog. By definition, you would post your own thoughts, but particularly things that could be used for discussion, not just a back-patting. Public Relations displays, therefore, are not acceptable... there is simply nothing to reply to there. It is not discussion. Neither are strongly moderated comments, which quell discussion further. Here's a tip, Dell, cut the moderation and just use a plugin that catches the spam.

"You need to link their own blogs to show you've read them"

Mr. Jarvis and fellow bloggers would like to let everyone know the sins that Dell committed when they entered the blogosphere, first and foremost about the advertising and PR schlock that was posted on the first day. These more 'professional' bloggers talk about listening to your customers, that you should read others' blogs and comments, and talk about what they want you to talk about. That's all well and good, but it completely disavows any understanding of a good blog.

The pitchfork and torch bearers seem to feel the only way you can illustrate that you are listening in a corporate respect is to talk about what everyone else says that's bad about you. Oh, and you need to link their own blogs to show you've read them. This doesn't allow any conversation either; it's simply a tit for tat and a bunch of cross-links. There is no forum and certainly no discourse, just a bunch of pointed posts that reference each other and annoy the reader. It turns all of blogging into a bad soap opera: "This is my opinion of your opinion, and look at meeeeee!"

It also just happens to be convenient for those who receive advertising dollars on a per-impression basis (which sure isn't Dell, who is more likely to pay for that ad space than rent it) to generate page views. If that sounds a bit like a cheap shot, it's because I've been around the business a little now... and I'll tell you, I'd love to get a link on the new, hot topic blog of the biggest computer manufacturer in the industry. Talk about getting your name out!

So on one side, we have Dell wanting to get on a new, more interactive channel for PR, and on the other side we have a bunch of vultures generating page links by condemning Dell for not listening because they're not linked. So what do you do to get me, the dude in the middle, to read? Stop looking at your strongest critics and your most effusive lauders; instead, find a good example of corporate blogging done right, and emulate... like MSDN. Rather than stepping into space, try the shoulders of some pretty smart giants that came before you.

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