Bloggers gave Howard Dean's campaign early, unexpected momentum. They fanned the flames of the Iraqi prison crisis with rapid distribution of photos, especially the most controversial ones. They catapulted into the mainstream Burger King's "Viral Chicken" campaign, as well as the controversial "Swift Boat Veteran for Truth" anti-Kerry video. More recently, blogs have showcased new and promising ways for brands like Microsoft, Nike, Nokia, Sun, and HP to reach out to consumers and other stakeholders.
But let the word go forth - to marketers and agencies alike -that the blog revolution brings with it unmistakable tradeoffs and potent new "rules of engagement." Ignore them at your peril.
New Rules of Accountability
Like it or not, bloggers promise to hold marketers to new levels of accountability, impacting just about everything advertisers do, say, and claim.
Just consider the current world of journalism, where blogs have made perhaps their biggest and most indelible mark. Faster than you can say RSS, blog writers have blindsided the journalism community by disrupting traditional protocols, accelerating the speed with which stories get to market, and venturing into media coverage zones once deemed "untouchable."
Bloggers are now serving as fact-checking, credibility-screening, gap-filling counterweights to traditional media. We saw this in vivid Technicolor after "CBS Evening News" released documents alleging preferential treatment toward President Bush during the Vietnam War. Bloggers threw the "memo" story back in CBS's face with a flurry of investigatory rebuttals, counterclaims, and testimonials from real and self-proclaimed handwriting or typewriter experts. Within a day of CBS airing its "scoop", bloggers effectively shifted the story from one about presidential perks to one about network credibility. CBS executives were not only caught by surprise, but will probably never think the same way about story "due diligence." The same principle threatens to create major headaches and challenges for marketers. Bloggers are the new "Copy Cops." While it's easy to dismiss them as subjective, trivial, or even politically motivated, the collective impact of what Dan Gilmour, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury, refers to in his book "We the Media" as an emergent "Citizens Press Corps" is undeniable. In this age of consumer empowerment - where consumers are trusted more than advertisers themselves, according to a May 2004 Forrester & Intelliseek study - ad claims need to be rock-solid, storm-proofed, and battle-ready. No shortcuts.
"Copy Cops" and Consumer "Shelf Space"
Remember, a blog is basically a diary that logs consumer narratives on a public, non-erasable hard-drive known as the Internet. A good percentage of blog content reflects consumer experiences with "branded" products or services. Because virtually all blog content is indexed on search engines, enabling ready access - dare I say "easy listening" - by other consumers, such narratives take on special meaning and importance.
For example, there are already tens of thousands of first-person blog comments that reference McDonald's, all nicely indexed on Google for easy, drive-thru consumption by impressionable consumers. In a world where your brand identity is basically the sum total of your search results, a shelf space dominated by brand counter-claims and hostile consumer comments makes life very difficult for advertisers.
Brand Vulnerabilities - Exposed?
So can a casual dining marketer that promotes a great image on TV get away with gross counters in the age of mobile phone blogs -- or so-called "moblogs"?
Can a wireless provider spending millions to tout customer service escape scrutiny when bloggers can readily provide links to thousands of disgruntled consumers providing evidence to the contrary?
Can a pharma company afford to gloss over the fine print in advertisement when bloggers elect to super-size the untold message?
Can an auto manufacturer pushing a "safety" message on TV risk having consumers type their brand into Google and have it punch back a loaded shelf space of contradictory messages by consumers?
Of course not! Looking ahead, brands need to ask harder questions about whether they can meet the new "torture test" established by the newly conscripted (and growing) blog army of product testers and fact-checkers. Brands also need to consider that these truth-soldiers will only get more persuasive as they integrate new "visual" functionality into their blogs, from digital photos, videos (heard of "vlogs"), dynamic links, and more. Indeed, thanks to Steve Job's iMovie, and the millions being spent by wireless players promoting camera phone usage, consumer generated media is moving to the big leagues of multimedia.
Brands need to stay three steps ahead of this trend, and here are few starting tips:
Listen to the pulse: Know exactly what bloggers are saying about your brand, or about your designated spokespersons or suppliers. Beyond the potential of bloggers picking apart your ad campaign, they will "out" a bad supplier or a less-than-loyal paid spokesperson instantly. Imagine if a viral blogger photo-blogged Lebron James wearing Reebok - not Nike -- shoes not Nike, or caught Catherine Zeta Jones using Cingular, not T-Mobile?
Know thy bloggers: Brand consumer themselves with understanding "key influencers" - writers, analysts, regulators - but what about the bloggers. Know the bloggers who "move the market" and "shape the brand." Period!
Treat your Web site as an ad-lab: Your Web site is the best offense, and it carries a high trust factor, so use it to further substantiate and detail the ad claims you only have seconds to get across in print and TV. If your claim is bulletproof, don't hold it back from truth-hungry bloggers.
Arm the call agents to back the claim: Bloggers are shrewd and they'll put your call center or e-mail feedback mechanism to the "torture test" when they smell something fishy. Arm them well and make sure they know how to talk about advertising.
We're in a new era of consumer control, and the bloggers are underscoring that point in a big way. Blogs can open the door for many marketing opportunities, but advertisers must be aware of both the positive and negative impact blogs can have on brands.