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The Wild West of Blog Marketing

A few days ago ZDNet senior editor (and chief blogger) David Berlind posted his thoughts on Scalix, a start up that’s going after Microsoft’s Exchange/Outlook market. An Exchange administrator chimed in with skepticism and a catalog of questions. Later in the day, Scalix’s founder responded to the thread with point-by-point replies to each question, right there in Berlind’s blog.

There’s an element of old-school, block-and-tackle PR to the dialog: When a columnist or an op-ed contributor challenges your brand in the pages of the newspaper-of-record for your industry, you send your rebuttal for tomorrow’s edition. Blogs shorten the cycle, certainly, and democratize the process by eliminating the gatekeeper role played by the managing editor. But is something bigger going on?

For one, the Wild West democracy of blog culture (and platforms) is a whole lot less controlled.less predictable.than the op-ed page of yesterday. There’s no editorial vetting process no word-cap limits to reign in your antagonists. And there’s nothing to prevent them from plastering your industry’s journal-of-record with outright lies. Ironically, though, this free-wheeling format is what gives blogs a new kind of credibility. If Scalix’s CEO decided to publish marketing spin stolen from her company brochure, the freelance critics of the blogosphere would light up the forum with fire and brimstone. Where the op-ed page gives you a podium at the front of the room, blogs toss you right into the fray. Yours is merely an equal voice among a round-table discussion.

It is this new level of credibility that drives deeper, more thorough engagement by readers. On the day of the above exchange, ZDNet visitors spent twice as long on the blog pages than on other pages of the site.

And where prospective buyers go with more of their time and mindshare, sponsorship dollars follow. Last fall ZDNet began offering vendors.for a fee.the opportunity to blog alongside editorial staff bloggers like Dan Farber and David Berlind and independent bloggers like George Ou and Phil Windley. Sun’s Jonathan Schwartz was an early participant. Sun’s ad director Jeff Solof ranked it a success: “Our customers are already at ZDNet so it made sense for Jonathan to engage with customers there, as a complement to our own blog site (http://blogs.sun.com). The ‘cost per reader’ at ZDNet was quite affordable, giving us a great and cost-effective way to extend the reach of our community.”

In addition to increased credibility and customer-engagement efficiencies, blog-like environments engender greater honesty among focus group participants. Engadget.com puts a “comment on this advertiser” link under their front door MPU (Engadget). A recent ad for Griffin Technology elicited 21 comments. That’s 21 prospects from their target audience (presumably) who not only saw the ad, and not only took action by clicking on the comment link; they spent a few minutes providing feedback on the product, the creative, the relevance of the message, and the placement. Most applauded Griffin’s bravery for allowing public discussion of their ad messaging. One customer offered product development tips: “I have the FM transmitter and it works great. If you have an iPod and you’re in someone else’s car you can share your music with them. … Now, if they could make a Sirius add-on that would be hot. Right now I’m not going to buy the FM receiver because Howard Stern is moving to Sirius.” Very deep engagement with the ad message and bit of insight for the product marketing team.without the focus group fees and 3 hours behind a one-way mirror.

This all may be unwelcome news for the Brand Police and IP lawyers who are our partners in taking brands to market. But vendors who offer real solutions will benefit as their competitors. hype is called out for what it is, and the rest of us may benefit from a little more truth in advertising.

I laughed when I first read David Ogilvy’s 1983 Thirteen Predictions (Ogilvy on Advertising)-twenty years after he wrote them. Especially Prediction Number 3: “Advertising will contain more information and less hot air.” Maybe Ogilvy saw this blog thing coming.