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Opinion - Book Review

Advisor’s Top Pick 2006

Naked Conversations - How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers Robert Scoble & Shel Israel, ISBN - 13: 978-0-471-74791-2 (cloth), 2006

Naked Conversations offers a valuable perspective on blogging and its growing impact on the marketplace. The authors are Robert Scoble, former Microsoft tech guru, and Shel Israel, a blogging evangelist. The book’s tagline sums up their thesis succinctly, “How blogs are changing the way businesses talk with customers.” But is blogging merely another flash-in-the-pan trend, or is it fundamentally changing the way companies view and engage their customers, as the authors contend?

We learn how blogging evolved from a simple utility that enabled software engineers to collaborate on projects, sharing code and exchanging ideas. Today, a growing number of diverse companies, large and small, use blogging to inform and be informed.

Case-in-point: Microsoft’s popular blog, Channel 9, enables its managers, software engineers, and customers to engage each another in a very informal, productive setting. The dialogue has grown into a bona fide community of insiders and customers who benefit mutually. Customers gain a glimpse of the inner workings of Microsoft, and its workers step out of the Ivory Tower to learn what people think.

Scoble argues that Channel 9 has humanized the much-maligned company and, in so doing, improved its perception in the marketplace. Other companies are benefiting, too. But what can we learn from the “early adopters,” and where’s the ROI? Good questions, and the authors take them up, building their case for approaching customers differently. They also explore why blogging is popular at some companies like Sun Microsystems and P&G, and not others, like Apple, suggesting cultural factors at play.

While nearly everyone agrees that blogging is now mainstream, a debate is brewing about whether blogging will permanently alter “mainstream media”. Traditional marketing, communications and PR are now being augmented with blogging. But will blogging transform business communications? Does the popularity of blogging signal the end of command-and-control communications designed to ensure everyone stays “on message”?

The authors believe that blogging has already made a lasting impact. They point out that today’s consumer craves authentic, human contact. We’re tired of streaming banners and leaving voicemail messages. We’re frustrated when we can’t reach a live agent, and when we finally do, it’s often someone who barely speaks our language and often reads from a script. We’re weary of the artifice and spin. Blogging is refreshingly human and authentic. For now, it’s a unique chance to witness “real” people talking to other “real” people.

Naked Conversations is peppered with tips on how to blog. For example, we’re encouraged to be honest, be interesting, and address issues that we care deeply about. Most importantly, we’re warned, “Talk, don’t sell”. If you violate this one, your readers will leavečif you’re lucky. If you’re not so lucky, zealous bloggers will accuse you of abusing this new channel. High profile violators include McDonald’s which tried to use blogging to create a buzz about a Superbowl (french-fry) ad. They were promptly “torched”.

The authors’ best advice to those thinking about diving in to blogging is basic: “Get a feel for the conversation. Come in, listening and watching. Understand the lay of the land before you try to change it.” (They offer more useful guidance in a Washington Post interview [Feb 24, 2006; free registration]).

Blogging is indeed “humanizing” business communications. As consumers yearning for and, increasingly, experiencing transparency and authenticity from those who serve them, the blogosphere has created a sea change that is already being felt in distant corners of the global marketplace.

To paraphrase Victor Hugo, nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. Blogging is such an idea. In this new “conversational” era, companies can no longer succeed by talking at people. They win by engaging in dialogue. In the end, we can’t yet measure blogging’s impact on the marketplace. It’s evolving daily. One day, blogging will likely be replaced by another new mode of discourse. But blogging is reshaping the way businesses relate to people, and that’s a good thing.

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