Three years ago, 12 September 2004 started like any other day for the Kryptonite Lock company. Its range of bicycle locks was advertised with the guarantee that Kryptonite would pay US$3500 to any person who had their bike stolen whilst locked with a Kryptonite product, and that it had grown to be the leading bike lock manufacturer in the US.

But in some small corner of the internet, a Kryptonite lock owner had just published a video demonstrating how to open Kryptonite locks with a normal, everyday pen. Viewed alone, the video was unremarkable; the ability to open the locks with a pen had actually been published 12 years prior in a lowly bike owners’ magazine. But that was before the internet.

Two days later, the video went viral. On 14 September the worlds most popular blog, Engadget, published the hack, and within the space of hours thousands of websites and blogs worldwide were reporting that Kryptonite locks were not secure. By 23 September the story hit The New York Times (‘The Pen Is Mightier Than The Lock’), and most of the mainstream media in the US.

Despite having over a week to respond, Kryptonite said nothing until the news hit The New York Times itself. The problem was that by this stage it was too little, too late. Millions of people worldwide had already read the story online, a story for which Kryptonite did not present a counter case, defence or any other public relations response.

Fast forward three years and some 80 percent of Americans know what a blog is and 50 percent read them. The figures of course arent so high in Australia; take a walk down a suburban street and try randomly asking people what a blog is, and youd be lucky if 25 percent could tell you – but things are changing.

Before considering how blogging can be used as part of a marketing strategy its important to consider what a blog actually is. Many people, even in marketing circles, still consider blogs to be nothing more than amateur online diaries. While blogs can be diaries, dismissing them as such is counterproductive, because they can also be much, much more.

The common parts of all blogs are a content management system that defines it as being different to a static web page, chronologically dated entries and commenting. What a blog actually does in practice though is as broad as the books in your local library or magazines in your local shop. Blogs can be serious, investigative sources of cutting edge news, they can be gossip magazines, pictorials, they can be sources of satire and comedy. The most important thing about blogging from a marketing perspective is to have absolutely no preconceived notions of what a blog is – no two blogs are the same.

To blog or not to blog?

Is running a blog right for your company? Unfortunately there is no simple answer. In the majority of cases the answer would be yes. In considering whether blogging is right for your company, you must consider your communications strategy, including its goals and contingency planning.

First and foremost, blogs are a low cost way of connecting with existing and potential customers, peers and the media. Consider running a blog in the same way you would run a newsletter, bulk email and media releases; a blog is another communications tool in any marketing or PR departments tool belt.

It should be noted though that blogs do work differently, even if at their core they come back to being a communications tool that stands alongside others.

Blogs as a medium tend to be more informal; this isnt a strict rule, but blog posts work best when they dont sound like a media release. In terms of reaching your customers, they are more of a person-to-person direct method of communication. Writing in the first person works best.

That informality can be both a curse and a blessing. Blogging as a platform works better when its raw and personal, not carefully structured, edited then considered in a five-person meeting. They should preferably be written by someone involved with the company itself, for example the CEO, managing director or department head.

“A blog is not an additional sales and marketing channel,” cautions Daniel Young, manager – technology practice at Burson-Marsteller. “A blog that blatantly espouses promotional messages will fail. That’s the role of the website.

“A blog should represent a single identifiable voice or group of voices within an organisation and should be written by that individual,” Young continues. “External consultants can provide advice on style and topics. but ultimately the content and insights need to come from the author.”

Brian Solis is a principal at Silicon Valley PR company FutureWorks and recommends blogging to his clients this way: “A thoughtful and well-cultivated corporate blog can yield many benefits that not only help PR, but also enhance every facet of corporate communications along with improving sales cycles and customer service. The best thing any of us can do is create a strong case for why and how our companies create a new, or improve their existing, blog strategy in order to shape the brand and company personality we wish to portray to customers, reporters, investors, analysts and anyone who can help the company grow. Blogging is about extending a voice, connecting people and nurturing relationships. This is the only foundation for which any blog strategy should be built.”

The case against blogging isnt clear-cut. Some would argue that not everyone has something to say. As someone who has spent time in PR and marketing positions, Id suggest that a company or client who has nothing to say probably shouldnt be in business. Everyone has a story, from the smallest sole trader business through to multinationals.

If youre Joe the Plumber who is turning away work and spends 60 hours a week fixing toilets you probably dont need a blog; a small business of that size with ample work doesnt need a marketing or communications strategy. Yet Jan the Florist works in a hyper-competitive vertical and creates amazing flower creations. Jan could easily blog about her creations, including pictures demonstrating what she is capable of.

The number one reason why companies abandon their attempts at blogging is failed expectations. The very bad news is this: it is difficult to measure the tangible benefits of running a blog, and that doesnt always sit well in corporate budget reviews.

It takes a minimum of six to nine months for a blog to establish itself. It takes on average at least 12 months until direct measurable benefits can occur. The key is perseverance. Over time you build traffic, link to others in your fields and, most importantly, you start getting noticed by the search engines. Presuming youve kept up a reasonable level of posting, and have provided something of interest to your readers, the rest starts slotting into place.

So you’ve decided to dive into the blogosphere, but how should you use blogging as part of your marketing strategy? Blogs can be used to disseminate your message in two ways: you can either publish your own blog (think in the same space as websites, newsletters, email) or you can build relationships with blogs and bloggers to use in spreading your message (think newspapers, radio, TV).

Using existing blogs to spread your message is a no-brainer; after all you wouldnt ignore regular news outlets as part of an outward looking marketing strategy – blogs are simply an extension of that plan.

Depending on what your product is, blogs can often be a better outlet than the mainstream media. Although an important metric, readership isnt always the definitive way of measuring a blog’s worth – influence is. A small blog could be read by the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies, while another blog may have among its readers the top CEOs in the country.

Putting out a blog fire

Another common question in relation to blogging is how to respond should your company or client be attacked in the blogosphere. First rule: dont panic. Second rule: dont attack.

The number one mistake made by companies when on the end of negative publicity from blogs is to attack the medium itself. Attacking blogs and bloggers as being insignificant and unimportant is as brave as waving a red flag in front of a bull. The result will nearly always be further negative publicity and, worse still, the story will spread. There is nothing some bloggers like more than taking sides against a company that is anti-blogging.

The first response should always be to check whether the negative story on a blog is being read. The best tool to check this is Technorati (technorati.com). Copy and paste the URL of the post in Technorati and it will quickly tell you whether other blogs are linking to it. It may be the case that the post is on a blog with low readership and very few people are linking to it. Technorati ranks blogs as well, so you can also use it to ascertain whether the site’s linking to the source have any authority. At this point you need to toss up whether the attack is worth responding to. There are many situations where responding to negative publicity simply serves to highlight the negative publicity to a broader audience. Monitoring needs to be ongoing. You should check regularly whether the story is spreading, and this could be as regularly as every hour if you are concerned by the content. If its spreading, you need to respond as soon as possible.

Presuming youve arrived at the point where you need to challenge the negative publicity, you then need to consider how you are going to respond. Blogging is always the best way of getting your message out to other blogs. Traditional media can work, but it isnt always the best answer. Blogs are ultimately the biggest ongoing conversation on the planet. Bloggers write, comment on and link to other blogs, and they dont always respect or listen to messages delivered by traditional communication paths.

Contact the blog or blogs running the negative posts and provide your side of the story. Most highly read blogs will run a counter-argument if it is insightful and provides something new; smaller blogs are less predictable, but may run it. The biggest rule of all though is: be honest! Bloggers dont take spin well and they are not afraid to call out lies directly to their audience. If you have a product that is obviously flawed or faulty, admit the problem and explain how youll be correcting it. Youll get a lot more respect for being honest than by being caught denying the problem. If there really isnt a problem then you need to provide evidence demonstrating the contrary view; simply saying it is so will not convince all bloggers.

At the end of the day, the best contingency plan your company can have in terms of negative publicity from blogs is by being part of the conversation – not by starting a blog overnight (although sometimes its better late than never), but by already having an established blog, a presence from which you can engage with customers and anybody else operating in this space.