LONG DISTANCE: Shiok Far Eastern Cuisine reaches out to the world with a blog offering commentary from Chef Madhu Menon, as well as an online tour of the restaurant.
BUZZ MACHINE: The unofficial Starbucks Gossip (http://starbucksgossip. typepade.com) blog (top, right) is reportedly written by unsanctioned Starbucks employees, as well as anyone with an opinion about the coffee giant. Horsefeathers (below, right) uses its blog to generate local buzz about its recent parties, contests and similar fare.
Once perceived as somewhat eccentric, grassroots vanity sites for writer wannabes, web logs, or blogs, are being taken very seriously these days. Big and small restaurant operations alike have seen the loose network of online diary-like sites translate into a solid promotional medium.
Horsefeathers, a restaurant/bar based in North Conway Village, NH, uses its blog (http://hihowya.blogs.com/ weblog) to generate local buzz about its recent parties, contests and similar fare. And Shiok Far Eastern Cuisine (www.shiokfood.com/notes), based in Bangalore, India, reaches out to the world with a blog offering commentary from Chef Madhu Menon, as well as an online tour of the restaurant, lounge and menu.
While the number of blogs online literally changes minute by minute, Perseus Development projected that the average number would reach 10 million by the close of 2004. Inarguably, hordes and hordes of those blogs are inconsequential. But enough others wield the kind of influence to make Howard Dean a presidential contender, or to force Dan Rather down from his lofty perch on the evening news.
One of the primary reasons why the "blogosphere" has become such an influential force is its culture of ruthless honesty, according to Jacki Danicki, an associate with the Big Blog Company (www. bigblogcompany.net), a U.K.-based corporate blog consulting firm. "Transparency is one of the features that makes the blogosphere so wonderful," Danicki says. "But it also means that incompetence and dishonesty are quickly sniffed out, and reported far and wide. If you are not competent, and if you are keen on slick, meaningless 'messages' or even out-and-out lies, that won't be a secret for long."
Another contributing factor is ease of entry. Unlike website creation, which requires knowledge of HTML or mastery of a web authoring program, blogging demands little more than basic word-processing skills. Essentially, if you can send an e-mail, chances are you should be able to put together a blog for your organization in an eye-blink at free blog-hosting sites like www.blogger.com.
Yet another factor fueling the craze is the easy access web audiences have to these sites. Thanks to RSS, or Really Simply Syndication, anyone can use free, widely available news aggregation sites like My Yahoo! (http://my. yahoo.com) to track new posts to their favorite blogs automatically. With news aggregation sites, blog readers no longer need to visit individual blog sites to check for updates. Instead, those updates are delivered to them in the form of hot-linked updates that are posted on a single, personal web page created just for them.
Another reason why businesses like blogs so much: the intricately interconnected nature of the blogosphere—the fact that so many blogs in highly specialized interest areas are hot-linked so closely together. Businesses have come to realize that such blog networks often trade minute-by-minute links to recent posts with one another, enabling bloggers to disperse significant news across the web in a matter of hours.
Of course, all this new promise and communication power comes with a price. More than a few wide-eyed, corporate bloggers without a clear plan for content generation quickly realize that blogs devour time. Like many a cub reporter, such bloggers experience first-hand that the battle to fill "white space,"—an ongoing ground war to place well-done, presumably thought-stimulating prose where thin air once existed—is never won. It's only held at bay.
And despite quantifiable promotional value, blogs also represent real risk. It's one thing for a corporate management head to log on a few times a week and fine-tune the organization message with laid-back, engaging prose. But give the responsibility to an unsupervised, junior staff member and real devastation could result.
One loose cannon continually spewing thoughtless, politically challenged posts can undo years of goodwill and hard-won credibility. "
Companies don't think twice about establishing policies for things like e-mail practice and etiquette — so it must be with blogging," says Neville Hobson (http://nevon. typepad.com), a web communication specialist.
Case in point: the unofficial Starbucks blog, Starbucks Gossip (http://starbucksgossip.typepad.com). Reportedly written by unsanctioned Starbucks employees as well as anyone with an opinion about the dominant coffee chain, the blog is creating an irreverent, sometimes in-your-face online image, regardless of whether Starbucks corporate brass agree with it.
There's also the prickly problem of a blogger being "too good." Hand over your restaurant's blog to an extremely skilled, highly motivated wordsmith who can advance your organization's message while leaving the readership in stitches, and you may be looking at the next candidate competing for your job. For better or worse, wildly popular blogs have a way of elevating their authors to leadership status very quickly.
If you've weighed the pros and cons and have decided to green-light a blog for your organization, first you need to find someone within your ranks who is a natural columnist, experts say. Blog readers respond most passionately to someone who can render strong opinions artfully and irreverently. The wittier, the better.
For starters, you may want to check out Blogger. com, where you can set up a pilot blog for your organization in a matter of minutes. The primary advantage of a site like this is that it handles all the technical details—although you'll need to put up with Blogger.com's ads if you want the service for free.
If you've gotten positive feedback from your experimental site, you may want to buy your own blog publishing software and bring your blog in-house. Moveable Type (www.moveabletype.org) is cited by many in-house bloggers as their package of choice. But before you buy, you'll probably want to check out Blog Software Breakdown (www.asymptomatic.net/ blogbreakdown), which offers an exhaustive feature-byfeature review of virtually every major blog publishing software package currently on the market.
Even after you think you've got the kinks worked out in your pilot blog, experienced bloggers advise you to open your doors to the world at large without fanfare. Better to make your mistakes before a few sympathetic friends than fall on your face before the cruel, cruel world.
"Launch quietly," counsels Fredrik Wacka, author of the free and extremely helpful "Beginner's Guide to Corporate Blogging." Ideas and fine plans are one thing, he adds, "but how does it turn out? I recommend you start low-profile."
Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, CA. E-mail him at email@example.com