How to launch a corporate blog for a professional services organization

I just posted this on the event site of Global PR Blog Week 1.0.

Traditionally, branding is associated with physical products and consumer packaged goods. But branding has become a crucial part of business for the service industry who today employs more people than all other industries combined. And mergers and acquisitions in combination with global deregulation has seen the rise of many powerful global brands in the service industry. Financial services has been in the forefront of this development and four of the 30 most valuable brands (according to Interbrand) in the world are financial services brands (Citibank, American Express, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch).

Branding is increasingly important for professional services companies for several reasons. You can not store a service, it is consumed at the same time as it is produced. If you are going to buy a new digital camera, you can go to the store and look at it, feel it and try it out before you buy. You can’t do that with a service which means that your impressions of the brand are extremely important. You buy a service on trust, this company will best fulfill my expectations.

Services are also hard to show. How do you illustrate management consulting?

In a professional services company, like a law firm, a PR agency or a management consultancy, you sell competence. The most important and most expensive asset is your employees. Since services are hard to illustrate, much of the brand is built in the meeting between your employees and the customers. And the more frequent and qualitative conversation you have with your clients, the better. Corporate blogs can play a vital part of that conversation.

We can assume that the harder it is to evaluate a service before it is bought, the more important it is that the customer has favorable associations to the brand. And the more knowledge-intensive and less standardized the service is, the harder it is for a customer to evaluate the service prior to purchase. It might be easier to evaluate a cleaning company than a PR agency. Another factor is the risk involved in the purchase. The higher the risk, the more importance is placed on the brand.

Few things are more effective in marketing a professional services company than establishing experts or thought leaders who act as speakers at seminars, get publicity when quoted in media and in general act as the face of the brand. And one of the most obvious advantages of corporate blogs is that they fairly quickly can build industry experts and corporate stars. That said, it should be clear that professional services brands are among those that can benefit most from starting corporate blogs.

Corporate blogs can help professional services companies, well, any company, to improve different aspects of its communications, not just in brand building. Before starting a blog, ask yourself:

What areas of communication needs improvement in your organization?

External communication

* Brand awareness/Brand positioning

* Business development

* Issues management/lobbying

* Crisis communication

* Media relations

* Recruitment marketing

* Customer support

* Reseller/dealer support

* Community relations

Internal communication

* Knowledge management

* Sales support

* Project communication

I have researched as many case studies and articles about corporate blogging as possible during the last months in order to list some of the arguments why blogs should belong in the arsenal of the marketing departement.

External communication

Brand awareness/Brand positioning

– Build awareness of the company and the nature of its business.

– Change the positioning of your brand.

– Influence the influencers – “Nike is talking to the right people — instead of the most people — who happen to be the influencers”.

– Marketing your expertise – “As with conventional publishing, bloggers get their names out there and can carve out niches as experts.”

– Improve search engine ranking. A few days after the Stockholm Spectator had an article about plagiarism at Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter, 5 of the 10 first results of the journalists name in Google came from blogs.

– To drive traffic to your company web page. New content makes readers come back, and the effect will spill over to your corporate web site, which probably is not updated as often.

– Reach new audiences. RSS and news aggregators allow people to ”subscribe” to words or phrases which in turn makes it possible for your messages to find new audiences.

Business development

– To launch a product or service – “Oxygen Media launched a blog to promote its new show Good Girls Don’t.”

– Gaining new clients. “Today’s “tech-friendly” (law) students will become tomorrow’s corporate counsels. Indeed, the idea that these students will ignore technology and revert to paper-driven processes becomes the increasingly ridiculous conclusion. More specifically … these decision makers of tomorrow may also immediately think of the web as a logical place to start looking for a lawyer.”

Issues management/lobbying

– Many politicians use blogs for opinion building. Organizations and

corporations can too.

Crisis communication

– I have yet not met a PR Manager that honestly can say that he quickly can post messages on the company web site himself on a Saturday afternoon, without having to call some site owner in a central position within the company. A crisis blog could be a quick way to post information in times of crisis, from remote places and on odd hours.

Media relations

– Companies are beginning to experiment with sending press releases via RSS. Predictions are that journalists will start using news aggregators and RSS readers to avoid being dependent on a mail box full of spam. So far, we have no indications that this actually works, rather we can see that the news stories sent out via RSS are being picked up by bloggers who spread the news. For example, the 8 press releases distributed by Apple via RSS between June 8 and June 23, 2004, were all picked up by blogs. In the Bloglines monitoring system, all press releases were picked up, the most popular one with 15 references (certainly more bloggers wrote about the topics without posting a direct link)

Recruitment marketing

– Today’s students are more used to finding information online, and via blogs, and they will become tomorrow’s employees (and clients, competitors etc).

Customer support

– RSS can replace email as communications channel. The number of e-mail

newsletters is increasing, so is spam. Many newsletters get caught in the spam filters. Syndicating your communication via RSS can be more effective, or at least as a support to the regular newsletters. “At the height of the spread of the Sobig.F virus (…), publisher Rafat Ali suspended publication of his daily e-mail newsletter and opted for an RSS version instead.”

Reseller/dealer support

– Blogs can be used to distribute information about new campaigns, new products, FAQs, to your resellers and dealers.

Community relations

– To engage in a more direct conversation with customers, users, developers, employees etc. “Sun sees its web site as a possible model for a new type of grassroots corporate communication.”

Internal communication

– Motivate present employees. Lets them show their expertise.

– Encourages dialogue, in contrast to ordinary top-down “weekly newsletters from the boss”.

Knowledge management

– Act as a learning tool internally.

– Blogs as research tool. Feeds offer an efficient and inexpensive means to notify a large audience of a research question or need.

Sales support

– Competetive intelligence. “Information about new campaigns or new products. Verizon is reportedly using commercial blog technology within its competitive intelligence and market research group.”

Project communication

– Improve information sharing within projects. The Navy’s eBusiness Operations Office is using blogs to improve information sharing for program managers, project experts, contractors, sponsors, and war-fighters.

Now that you have the arguments for starting a corporate blog I will share some thoughts on how to get started. Since I am in the starting phase of launching a corporate blog for the law firm I am working for, this corporate blog roadmap is written with the eyes of a PR practitioner in a global professional services firm, but can be useful for most organizations. My top priority with a blog is to build brand recognition and promote experts in different fields of law, so if your purpose differs, there might be other factors to consider.

But first we must distinguish between

– Corporate blog: an official blog from a company, which signals that the blog is an official communications channel for the company

– Employee blog: a blog run by one or several employees of a company, with or without the endorsement of the company, about the company or business related to it

How to start a corporate blog:

1. Identify what area of communications you want to improve.

2. Choose to start a corporate blog or to encourage an employee blog.

3. Should you start a group blog or an individual blog?

4. What geographic area should the blog cover (global or should one country begin as a trial project?) and what language should you use (if you start in one country and think of replicating to more countries, should you have all in English or should they be local)

5. Company wide blog or blog per practice group, market unit, product group, industry sector?

6. Find evangelists who are good communicators and willing to spend the time posting on the blog.

7. Get the accept from your CEO or whoever has the final say.

8. Create an editorial policy about who gets to blog, tone of voice, areas to cover, length and frequency of posts, information sources to cover, copyright aspects, target audience, do’s and dont’s.

9. Get accept from your IT department. They will worry about security and the risks of having several individuals post information live on a website. Get their help in selecting admin software and setting up the blog, domain, RSS feeds and tracking/measurement capabilities.

10. Create a corporate blog with the correct graphic profile according to your brand guidelines. Include biographies and photos of the bloggers.

11. Create an extensive list of information sources for the bloggers to cover in order to get information to comment on. Include official news sources, media, other blogs, press releases etc.

12. Give your bloggers access to a news aggregator so that they get the feel of RSS feeds and how it works.

13. Give your bloggers a list of blogs to read. Most people are not used to reading blogs and need to become familiar with blogging style writing and netiquette (linking policies etc).

14. Allow a trial period for some weeks, to be able to fine tune and make adjustments.

15. Start an RSS-feed and make the blog public.

16. Begin marketing your blog. List the blog in blog directories.

Link to the blog in your email signature and from your corporate webpage. Tell your customers and your employees. Don’t send out a press release about it, to get credit let blogs market your blog.

17. Evaluate, adjust and evaluate again.

Corporate blogs are not a universal solution to all communications problems, but used correctly they can be a perfect tool to improve external or internal communications. Law firms in the US have come a long way in using blogs, or “blawgs” as a tool for branding. Many other professional services firms will follow in their footsteps.

Footnote: Since I am offline for the first part of this week, I will not be able to answer questions or comments until Friday.