Three Questions to Ask (& Answer!) Before Starting a Customer Blog
This is my site Written by Alora on March 5, 2009 – 1:11 am

QuestionsIn a recent conversation with a friend, we were discussing corporate blogging efforts to engage existing customers. After reading Joshua-Michele Ross‘ post recently, on the Wells Fargo/Wachovia merger blog, I was excited to see yet one more company prepare to engage customers in this forum.

That is, until we started talking in more detail. It suddenly occurred to me that, much like Krishna De‘s article yesterday about using blogs to attract customers, there needs to be more thought put into using blogs to service the customers you already have. “Engaging customers” is a wonderful buzz phrase, but there is real work behind those two little words. If you are not prepared for it, you could be in for a rude awakening.

As a compliment to Krishna’s questions, I would like to add the following three questions to the discussion: Who? What? …and How?

Who is going to be responsible for writing the content for the blog?

Is it the Marketing team? Or is it a cross-section of capable writers from other parts of the organization? Are the people doing the writing intimately familiar with your product line enough to speak to it in detail? Do they know the types of issues and challenges your customers face every day? And are they equipped or empowered to respond to those issues, if posted to the blog?

If we use a B2B or SaaS-type software company as our model, then I would recommend that writers from different parts of the organization are tapped to produce content that has a cross-section of relevancy:

  • The Sales team can write great success stories of growth increases and wonderful ROIs.

  • The Product Team can discuss little-used or new features; they can get feedback from customers on the newest releases and collect ideas to help prioritize future ones.
  • The Design Team can offer tutorials to customers on good design practices, and usability considerations to keep in mind.
  • The Implementation Team can provide suggestions and recommendations for the types of things that make a new implementation run smoothly.
  • The Customer Service Team can help educate on the maintenance and upgrade process, on-going customizations capabilities and new feature training and applicability.
  • The IT Operations Team can provide practical tips for good data security and can use the blog to speak to customers about routine maintenance windows or incident reports.
  • The Quality Assurance Team can create a coaching series designed to help customers understand what the testing process looks like when they implement a customized project.
  • The Marketing Team can provide tips designed to help your customer-base launch an effective marketing campaign – with either their customers or their employees.

The options are really endless, and this is precisely the type of information that often helps customers understand (and be more patient with) the process a company goes through to provide their services.

The last thing you want is for your Marketing Team to be trying to engage with your customers as though they are experts in all of these areas. Marketing people are experts in Marketing. Limiting your blog’s authorship to the Marketing Team only makes sense if what you are trying to engage your customers about is their marketing campaign.

A great example of a company blog that represents a broad spectrum of an organization’s disciplines is Convio‘s. Their blog, The Connection Cafe, is team blog – but not the Marketing Team. Their team is made up from people all across the organization, who work with clients in every different capacity throughout the client implementation life cycle. If you look at the Authors page, you’ll see the array of groups represented – starting with the CEO.

Not only does this provide article content that meets the needs and interests of clients at all different maturity levels and in all different stages of implementation, but it also keeps the blog from being monotonous to read and onerous to write. The Marketing Team owns the process, the writing standards, and the responsibility for ensuring that the content lives up to their guidelines, but they do not do all the writing.

What are you hoping to provide to your customers by engaging with them in the blogsphere?

This is a dangerous one, because all too often the answer to this question reveals that a company is less interested in having a “dialogue with” their customers than a “monologue at” their customers. And if that’s what you want, then skip the blog.

What is your organization’s relationship with your customers? Are they generally happy, or are they generally hostile? Do they feel like your organization is responsive to their needs? Or do they feel like once you’ve cashed their check, you’ve stopped caring about them?

Whatever the general consensus is among your clients, be prepared for the fact that if you get them to engage with you on the blog, that sentiment will be made very clear at every turn. And if you are not prepared for how to respond to it, then stop, count to ten, and figure out how you would before you move ahead.

There is very little that helps turn around troubled client relationships better than directness, honesty, and transparency. The only thing that works better is results. So if the team that is doing the blogging is completely disconnected from the teams who can solve the customers problems, then beware of setting everyone up for disappointment – and setting your customers up for a revolt.

It is not realistic to ask your customers to be involved in a dialogue if, as an organization, you are not committed and prepared to try to resolve (at least some of) their issues. But if the customer blog is completely removed from the operational planning of the organization, then you’re simply giving your customers a megaphone so they can scream into a well. And that’s just going to upset them more.

Do you know what type of functionality you really need in a blog yet?

It could be all of my years in small businesses and startups, but this one never ceases to amaze me: instead of starting small, with a local installation of WordPress, a company decides to spend a fortune on something written in a proprietary language – and this is all before they have any idea if their customers even have any interest in engaging with them via a blog.

Stop. Put the checkbook down. Back away.

I don’t care whether you call it a “beta” release or a proof of concept, but in these tight economic times, if there is one piece of advice I have for any Enterprise 2.0 evangelists out there, it is this: Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by asking for the moon unless you’re sure you really need it.

Times are tight. Budgets are being slashed. And ‘frivolities’ are frowned upon. While I would never classify a customer blog as a ‘frivolity,’ it is not uncommon that it is a hard sell to an executive with budgetary authority. Make your limited funds count.

Time and time again, we see that the organizations with the greatest success in Web 2.0 are the ones who are willing to experiment. But the only way to afford to experiment is to keep the proof of concepts affordable. The first time you ask for $80k for something that quickly turns into shelfware will be the last time you are given a check for $80k.

Start small and build. It is much easier to make the case for resources – financial, technical and human – once your leadership team has tangible proof that your customers are finding value in your corporate blogging efforts than it is when it is all just a theoretical experiment.

But $80k is an employee’s salary for a year, so don’t be reckless about spending it. The last thing you can afford to do is to spend money foolishly only to have your efforts wither on the vine. If that happens, you can be sure the next time you need funds for another social media effort, you’re going to have a much harder fight on your hands.

One of the beauties in Web 2.0 is that affordable solutions can be found everywhere. And no, they may not have all the bells and whistles you are looking for, but an organization that is dipping its collective toes in the water needs to start somewhere. You have to walk before you can run. Once you’re up to speed, then that fancy platform might make sense, but until you know for sure, don’t burn bridges by unnecessarily burning through money.

I’m a big fan of the value of blogs as a customer service tool. But remember, your marketing people are not your customer service people. What people look for in social media is authenticity – they know it when they see it and they know when someone is faking it. So don’t try to have a marketing team pretend to speak for all of the other departments in an organization. Get the other teams involved, and let Marketing direct the efforts (or be the “project manager,” as it were). Not only will you get better results, but you’ll also be far less likely to burn out your writers and bore your readers.

Cross-posted at Social Computing Magazine.