News Analysis: Corporations Get Personal

Article excerpt

A growing number of company chiefs are bypassing copywriters to speak direct to consumers.

Brands such as O2 and Topshop have been quick to jump on the social networking bandwagon by using sites such as Facebook to target consumers, but a more recent trend - and one that carries some risk - has been the use of personal blogs as a communications tool.

Last month Waitrose managing director Mark Price, nicknamed the 'chubby grocer', launched a blog on the retailer's website in which he shares his experiences on a healthier eating regime and tracks his efforts to lose weight - as well as arguing for the introduction of tea trolleys to airport immigration halls.

Price's actions are relatively unusual, as corporate blogging is still in its infancy in the UK. However, it is thought likely that it will become as popular as it is in the US, where practitioners include General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz. Several other brands, including Dell and Benetton, also operate blogs where employees and consumers can interact.

The appeal is obvious - blogs are a way of achieving vast reach at a minimal cost. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates spoke about the benefits of communicating with customers via blogs at Microsoft's CEO Summit in 2004. It had advantages over more traditional communication methods such as emails, he argued, which could be too imposing or exclude potential audiences.

Microsoft encourages its staff to talk to consumers through blogging; it claims that more than 2000 employees use blogs to keep people up to date with their projects. 'It is a great way to communicate with a wider audience,' says Dave Gartenberg, HR director at Microsoft UK. 'We are lucky that some of the most prominent bloggers in the world are based at Microsoft.'

Ian Pearman, managing director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which handles Sainsbury's advertising, believes many consumers will react well to chief executives taking full responsibility through blogging. 'It implies the kind of care and provenance that might be expected of a smaller business rather than a big corporation,' he says.

However, this comes with substantial caveats. Unlike traditional advertising campaigns, blogging demands long-term investment by a company or individual. 'Chief executives can't start a conversation and then stop it on their own terms,' stresses Pearman. 'Once the floodgate is open, the responses will keep pouring in and every one will expect a response (from the blogger).'

This was demonstrated in 2006 when Charles Dunstone, co-founder and chief executive of Carphone Warehouse, started his corporate blog at the same time as the company launched its 'free' TalkTalk broadband offer Dunstone stated that he would 'update his blog regularly to keep (customers) up to date with what's happening', but as the firm struggled to cope with the demand for its latest offering, leaving thousands of customers angry and frustrated, Dunstone stopped blogging.

Depending on the content, blogs can also invite ridicule - some consumers, for example, might not take kindly to reading how a chief executive spends his big salary on exotic holidays or hear about his daughter's Pony Club exploits. …