Weil, Debbie

Debbie WeilDebbie Weil is a corporate & CEO blogging and social media consultant. She is the author of The Corporate Blogging Book: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know to Get It Right, which has been published in Italian and Mandarin Chinese, as well as English in both the U.S. and the UK. She writes BlogWriteForCEOs, a blog about social media marketing. Debbie has mapped out the implications of Web 2.0 for thousands of executives and entrepreneurs at conferences and events in the U.S., the UK, Europe, and China. She has been quoted on the topic of corporate and CEO blogging in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Business Week, the New York Times, CNN.com, the Guardian, and numerous other publications. She was previously a marketing manager for Network Solutions, Inc., the original dot-com company. Before that, she was a reporter and editor for several leading U.S. newspapers, including Roll Call.

[Bio adapted from her website, www.debbieweil.com.]

tompeters.com asks …

Debbie, what did you hope to accomplish when you began writing The Corporate Blogging Book?

DW: Believe it or not, it was one of the first books about how businesses could use blogging. I was hoping to—and I think I did—codify what this is as a phenomenon and how it could be used as a business strategy.

Why did you decide to focus on the corporate side of blogging?

DW: As a consultant it became clear to me, five years ago, that businesses would be able to use this as an effective online communication strategy. It’s an important brand-building and credibility-building tool. It’s a new way of doing business, really, by listening to your customers.

The book was published in 2006 and you use examples from 2005. Now that it’s 2008, what’s changed?

DW: Amazingly enough, not that much has changed. While more companies are experimenting with blogs, a surprising number still haven’t dipped a toe into the blogosphere. When I was writing the book in 2005, not everyone knew what a blog was. Now they do. And if they’re in an organization, they’ve heard that blogs can provide an advantage. So now it’s not “what is a blog” but “how can we use one.”

I think the book was two years too early. I think companies have been very slow to catch up to this social media explosion.

Good blogging relies on good storytelling. It seems that it would be easier for an individual to tell her story than for several people to tell the story of an organization. From the corporate standpoint, it’s difficult to determine who would be responsible for a blog. Marketing? A ghost writer? An executive?

And I agree with you that the corporate world can be sluggish when it comes to appropriating new tools. I’ve witnessed that with Tom Peters’ Brand You50. I worked with Tom on it in 1999.

DW: What’s changed?

Tom’s article “The Brand Called You” was in Fast Company in late ’97. That’s 11 years ago. And it’s only in the last couple of years that the Brand You concept has become ubiquitous.

DW: The corporate mindset does change very slowly. With blogging, as you point out, it’s a matter of logistics. Who will do it? What will our story be? Are we going to allocate resources for a blog editor? The companies that do, like GM or Google, tend to have much better blogs, even if they have multiple authors. That way, there’s someone keeping an eye on the voice, content, and editorial direction.

Those logistics come only after you believe … as Peter Pan does. You have to believe that this is worth doing, that there will be an ROI, even if it’s soft. It will brand your company as more progressive. But more than that, you will receive feedback from your customers. GM reviews the thousands of comments they receive on their blog. Some of the comments suggesting design changes for cars have actually been handed off to their high-level design strategy committee. It’s heartening to hear about a company taking feedback and doing something with it.

In order to have a successful corporate blog, you can’t have the old marketing mindset of throwing polished morsels of marketing messages to the masses and expecting consumers to accept them. You have to understand that it’s a back-and-forth.

It’s part of the whole corporate movement away from command and control. Many of us like to believe that that’s actually happening. It may or may not be. The idea of a blog goes against everything that someone who believes in command and control believes in, right?

DW: Maybe you can help me answer that. Is the command and control mindset changing? The current credit crisis feels more like we’ve lost control. So now what?

There’s a lot of backlash about behavior on Wall Street. It will be interesting to see how things play out. It doesn’t seem to bode well for taking on new strategies like blogging. When things are turbulent and scared people tend to hunker down.

DW: There’s a very good example of that. Southwest Airlines has one of the most popular corporate blogs. About a year ago, they had a problem with aircraft inspections, and the threat of a fine. This is the biggest attack on their brand that they’ve ever had. They went into total crisis mode. Interestingly, they didn’t handle it very well on their blog.

That surprises me.

DW: They were caught flat-footed. Their main blogger posted a diatribe that had clearly been reviewed by a lawyer. You could tell it wasn’t her language. It was a little too defensive in tone. It got hundreds of comments, most of them negative.

They were simply unprepared for the blog to be part of their crisis communications plan. When they were in the midst of the crisis, I’m sure they were busy thinking about other things. But there is a way they could have used the blog appropriately, legally, and productively during that period.

If they’d had more belief in it. I’m guessing that when a company starts a blog, as long as things are going well and it’s smooth sailing, they think it’s fun. And I’m guessing some of the higher-ups in the company think, “As long as it doesn’t do any harm, we’ll see how it goes.” But they don’t really believe in the effectiveness of a blog. Once things do go badly, they resort to the old tried and true, which is the PR machine rather than letting the folks who are closer to their customers deal with it.

DW: That sounds about right. There’s a protocol. Dell had a problem a couple of years ago with their customer service reputation. There was a lot of criticism in the blogosphere. It took them well over a year to start their own blog. When the incident with faulty batteries and exploding laptops came along, a year or so ago, it took them a few weeks to respond on their blog. But when they did so, they provided information for how to find out if your laptop was affected and explained that they were doing everything they could to address the issue. They did exactly what you’re supposed to do, which is provide a real-time response showing that there were humans in the company who cared and were doing something about it.

And you know what happened? Things died down and we moved on. It really could’ve gone the other way. There are a lot of Dell laptops out there. This was a big deal. If you think it’s going to explode, you’re not going to buy a Dell laptop. In my speeches, I used to show a video from an Australian TV station’s newscast where a laptop suddenly explodes in front of them. Hilarious. And then one of them says to the other, “It must be a Dell.”

One of the things that struck me in writing the book, consulting, and speaking is how important humor is. Humor is probably the strongest ingredient of storytelling. Being self-deprecating, admitting that you’re real, helps people to connect with you. It’s so lacking in corporate culture.

I’m appalled at the lack of humor out there. For me, personally, it’s so important. It’s so helpful in working with people. My experience is that people with a sense of humor are more competent. They know enough that they can laugh at a situation that seems bleak, because they know they’re going to get through it. When people don’t really know what they’re doing, they don’t have a sense of humor because they’re too nervous about everything.

DW: I think that’s true.

The reality is blogging isn’t for everybody. You’ve got to have personality to make this work. Many corporations don’t have personality. Some of them do. I think that’s why Southwest’s blog is so successful. They’ve always had a personality. Their founder was a strong leader who likes Wild Turkey and likes to laugh.

Apparently some people think that corporate blogging is dead. Others don’t. I saw Valeria Maltoni, the Conversation Agent, remark, “Whoever said corporate blogging is dead is an idiot. Start a blog for God’s sake.”

DW: It’s the social media digerati who have told me, “Oh, blogging is so last year, now we’re talking about Twitter and social networks.” Sure, but that doesn’t make corporate blogs irrelevant. Look around to see who’s doing what. I hate to use Dell as an example again, but I just noticed their two new blogs. One, called Digital Nomads, asked me to submit a little riff. The blog is clever. There’s a little picture of the new Latitude laptop on it. Very discrete, but they’re not hiding the fact it’s a Dell-sponsored blog. The topic is what it means to be a digital nomad. They’re inviting outside bloggers to contribute and talk about why they need laptops. It’s fun, interesting, promoting their product, and it has a bit of a sense of humor. A good example of a different kind of corporate blog. Dell has another one called ReGeneration about the cross-country trip that they’re funding. It’s a hybrid car with a blogger and a photographer talking to people along the way. Sound familiar? That’s what Wal*Mart tried, except they weren’t transparent. They didn’t clearly reveal it was a Wal*Mart sponsored trip. Wal*Mart caught a lot of flack for that.

Corporate blogging is marketing with content. It’s turning yourself, your company, into a publisher. It’s a completely different mindset in which you are as much a publisher as mainstream media. In fact, if you do this right, you can do an end run around what mainstream media might want to say about you, and be your own mouthpiece.

What’s happened in the last two years is very interesting. There’s a gray area now between traditional mainstream media and the blogosphere. Dozens of high profile reporters now have blogs on the online edition of their publications. It is very painful for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal and other pubs to realize that the print edition may be slowly dwindling away.

I like to make a connection between the slow death of print media and what’s happening in corporate America. Companies don’t necessarily need Madison Avenue to create ads for them. They can tell their own story and it’s more effective and authentic if they do.

What if the Post and the Times disappeared? Aren’t bloggers still getting their information from some mainstream media source? They’re not over there on Capitol Hill talking to senators, right? It’s always second-hand.

DW: Actually, it’s not all second-hand. Think of the Twitterers (micro-bloggers) who were first to report the earthquake in China.

Good point.

DW: I was a journalist for many years. I find that if I’m ever in a place where I can do a little interview, create a little news, I jump right in, then I blog it. A media outlet does the same thing. Who, then, is creating the news?

Yes, of course, there are bloggers who are reporters and they’re reporting news that they’re the closest to. Reporter or not, if you’re reporting something, you become a citizen reporter. CNN has iReport where they’re looking for video from people out in the field who are closest to the action.

DW: I think the other question you’re asking is, do bloggers even care about mainstream media? The answer is that they care desperately. There’s nothing that a blogger would like more than to be quoted or profiled in the New York Times. It gives you a stamp of credibility.

We’re in an age of transition regarding where people choose to get their information. Much of it concerns voice. The appeal of blogging is centered on a writer’s voice. We like certain people because we like the way they talk to us. The problem with mainstream media is that it has a corporate voice, devoid of the individual. We like to hear stories, news from our friends.

DW: I always say you should blog as if you’re talking to your mom. That’s the kind of information you should include. I call blogging the People magazine of serious business. I’d like to add something about global conversations to the updated (proposed) paperback edition of the book. Many bigger companies are now realizing that not all their customers speak English and that they should have blogs in multiple languages. It can’t be a translation, it has to be a little different than the English blog.

That reminds me of Global Voices, where people around the world are reporting daily in their local language.

DW: That’s a fantastic initiative. They particularly encourage voices from war-torn places and repressive regimes. Journalism is starting to use social media to get all these stories out that we wouldn’t hear otherwise.

In Guy Kawasaki’s latest book, Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging and Outmarketing Your Competition, he says about blogging, “I grew frustrated because people rarely go past the home page, nor do they search for previous material.” In a way, he seems to be saying he had to write this book because he had a lot of information about entrepreneurship in his blog but felt that people couldn’t find it.

DW: That’s an interesting point. Blogs don’t supplant printed books, particularly in the world of business. People just love to hold a book in their hand. Seth Godin calls it a souvenir. You flip through a book differently than you flip through a website. That’s a good observation. They’re two different things.

I tell the executives I work with about starting blogs and developing good blogging voices that if they’ve ever thought about writing a book—and what top executive hasn’t—this is a great way to get started. Collect a bunch of material on your blog and you can turn it into a book.

Excellent. I run into all kinds of people who want to write a book these days. I tell them, “Start a blog about your topic. Find your voice. Learn how to tell a story. Think about how to appeal to an audience.”

DW: I found it was very different and more difficult to write the book as compared to writing the blog. When you blog, you get lazy because you can reference other stuff that you or someone else has written. You can just link to a complicated concept without having to explain it. You can’t do that in a book.

While I was writing the book, it was so hard that at one point I thought about importing two years of my blog into a document and sending it to my editor. The word count was more than enough. Of course, I didn’t. That doesn’t work. It wouldn’t be organized, things wouldn’t be in context.

By the way, I was approached to write the book because of my blog. Megan Casey, who now works with Seth Godin, was with Portfolio at the time. She emailed me and asked if I’d consider writing a book because they needed a book on business blogging. She made it clear that authors need a platform. If you don’t have an online platform—as in people reading your blogs, your e-newsletter, or having some visibility online—you’re not going to get a book contract. There’s just no way. Every author has to promote their own book and that’s the best way to do it.

Exactly. Publishers have gotten even worse in that regard. They used to have good internal PR departments. But now they just expect the authors to take care of the whole online aspect of it themselves.

DW: They don’t have the resources. Publishing staffs are very, very lean.

You’re going to Dubai in December?

DW: Yes, I’ve been invited to speak. I’ve spoken in many places in Asia, including China. The book often opens doors that I could have never imagined.

As you say, one has to have an online presence to get a book contract now. A book still bestows credibility on the author as the authority on a subject. These days, invitations to speak don’t happen unless you have a book, right?

DW: I guess. But a book has a short shelf life.

For a (proposed) paperback edition, I’d like to add some deep-diving stories about the best big brand bloggers and what can be learned from them. A couple of years ago it was all about how to figure out the technology. Now the technology is all so simple. If you can write an email, you can write a blog. But that’s not what blogging is all about. It’s about an ongoing content strategy, figuring out what your story is, and who should write it. For a company: How can you be interesting? How do you talk about your widgets without talking about your widgets? There are lots of clever ways to do that.

You mention Stonyfield Farm frequently. They have a chief blogger and a few different blogs.

DW: I don’t think they have the chief blogger anymore, and I think they’ve reduced the number of blogs. Their CEO was an early convert and he was very into the idea of marketing with content. And that’s what good blogging should be, trading useful information, stories, links, and resources.

People getting their start with blogging often ask me, “How many comments should I get? What do I do if I get a negative comment?” Not every corporate blog is going to get a huge number of comments. They just don’t. A handful do, like Sun, GM, Dell, and Southwest Airlines.

Do you consider Twitter and Facebook to be part of this realm? Are they taking energy away from blogs?

DW: The new, correct way to blog is to have your Twitter posts feeding into it along with links to your Facebook page or group and LinkedIn profile or group. They’re all different pieces of the social media pie.

Remember, a blog is just a next generation website. It’s a website that you can continually update. You don’t need any technical knowledge to do it. Every new entry is searchable by Google, as is each tweet on Twitter.

I think you mention in your book that websites are over because they’re not getting much Google juice—a higher position in search results—from a static website. Just updating a blog regularly helps your search results position. At tompeters.com, each component of the website, such as a sidebar, is a different blog.

DW: Exactly. Blogging may not be the sexiest new thing anymore (at least for some folks), but it’s pretty obvious that it should be part of your web strategy, particularly if you’re a company and you want to be found when people search for your brand, product, or service.

You quote our former colleague Halley Suitt who says, “The word PR will be gone and the word blog will be gone. Your employees will be your ad agency and your customers will be your backup agency.”

DW: I love that. For companies who get it, I think it’s happening slowly. What she said is radical but true. The companies that collaborate with their customers to tell their story, to be their evangelists, are the ones that succeed.

Okay. Maybe it’s a little too soon for your customers to be your backup agents. But there’s a lot of consumer-generated content out there.

DW: Customers, especially big fans and evangelists of a brand, are more actively participating in the creation of a brand than employees who feel hampered by rules about what they can say. But that’s changing. I was on a panel yesterday with a guy from Intel who works on one of their blogs. That’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s inside the company, figuring out how to get the knowledge from inside the company onto the blog.

Any last points you’d like to make?

DW: Keep blogging. Expect the unexpected. Own up when you’re wrong. Accept some criticism. And just do it, don’t over-think it.

Thank you very much for your time.

DW: It was fun.

Email: debbie.weil (at) gmail dot com

Twitter: twitter.com/debbieweil

Website: www.debbieweil.com

Blog: BlogWriteForCEOs