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Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers – Book Review – Sathappan Thiagarajan

by on November 9, 2008

Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers (Hardcover). Robert Scoble, Shel Israel. Wiley, January 2006, 272 pp, $16.47 (ISBN: 0-471-74719-X)

The book Naked Conversations’ fundamental premise is that direct, uncluttered conversations and communications are better for everyone, at least for most of the time. To enable this, the authors propose with facts, fun and deep insights that blogging is the answer.

The book is basically divided into three major areas. The first is termed as “What’s Happening” and focuses on the topics like blogging, business blogging, impact of blogging on businesses, impact of blogging on major corporations like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Google, L’Oreal, General Motors and several minor ones.

The Introduction chapter sets the tone effectively for the rest of the book. Here the book claims that everything began with conversations then broadcasting came along and now blogging is taking us back to conversations. Further the authors propose that the import of this medium lies in the fact that blogging strips all the crap from the usual forms of marketing–led communications. Authors declare that one way marketing techniques as we know them, the “We talk, you listen” are set to be doomed. While one tends to agree with most of the claims, the authors take it a step further and go overboard by claiming that in the future if companies don’t blog in the future, they would be perceived as “sleazy and hiding something”.

The following chapters in section 1, are sort of like case study examples, where the authors try to bring the good (mostly) of blogging and its impacts on businesses of various industries and sizes.

In Chapter 1 the general direction is that large corporations have been perceived as monolithic borgs without souls, while in reality are just a collection of actual human beings. Microsoft and its alleged image as the Evil Empire is taken as an example. Chapter goes on to explain how Microsoft has actively tried to soften its image through a “charm offensive”. One of the components of this charm offensive is said to be employee blogging. Despite initial resistance, fear and legal department’s worries, the book claims that the employee blogs have initiated two way conversations between employees and direct customers and has certainly helped with Microsoft’s image makeover.

While the softening of image may be true, it’s quite hard to find other positives for Microsoft. The softening phase (since about 2000) seems to coincide with some disturbing facts like, an almost static stock price, increased encroachment by rivals, far lesser clout, etc, all of which seem to point otherwise. This suggests that blogging (and other charm offensives) may have in fact affected Microsoft in a negative way.

The book in later parts takes this claim further by suggesting a turn around at Sun Microsystems (and Microsoft) and attributes it to its employee bloggers. By the way Sun Microsystems has the largest percentage of employee blogger, followed by Microsoft. Additional claims that seem indigestible are that trouble may be brewing for Google and Apple due to their closed or stodgy blogs and blogging policies.

Book claims that one way communications like direct mailing, TV ads, and phone calls belong to an annoying category of marketing and that people have become resistant to these methods. I totally agree and empathize with the authors when they suggest that people use TiVo, spam filters, go to the refrigerator or restroom, check emails or make quick phone calls and try to avoid these intrusions in every way possible. This coupled with increasing costs of TV spots and general decline in viewership could accelerate the decline of traditional approaches. Authors argue that blogs have made conversational marketing come back and declare that evangelism is one of the best forms of marketing. As examples ICQ, Skype, Firefox, etc are lauded for their inventive approaches to marketing through blogs and the web in a viral fashion.

Chapter 4 talks about blogging in large corporations, especially by executives. Here General Motor’s Vice Chairman Bob Lutz and Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz are shown to have effective blogs that aren’t purely marketing and one way devices, but refreshingly different and open to comments and suggestions. These are touted on the lines of best practices for blogging by corporations. Chapter also claims that out of Sun Microsystems’s 32,000 employees 1000 bloggers as of 2005.

Chapter 5 talks about blogging for smaller and diverse companies. Here the authors suggest 5 tips for bloggers:
Talk, don’t sell
Post often and be interesting
Write on issues you know and care about
Blogging saves money but costs time
You get smarter by listening to what people tell you

In today’s world of ‘Joe the Plumber’, the book goes into detailed advice for hypothetical plumbers to start their own blogs. The book goes as far as suggesting content for plumber blogs. Another example talks about Victor’s Celtic Coffee Company in Redmond’s higher search ranking than Starbucks, all because Robert Scoble blogged about it, and others linked to it. This is a true, try Googling “coffee in Redmond”

The book proposes novel ideas like, marketing as an unintended byproduct of talking, conversing and blogging; to stop looking at blogging in terms of ROI and start looking at it as altruistic. And “Altruism turns people on even more than making money ………..That makes blogging the sex god of the Information Age” – p43

All blogs mentioned in the text are referred clearly at the bottom of each page and makes it a breeze to evaluate immediately while reading.

Through chapters 1 to 7 the book talks about blogging from various perspectives as to improving conversations and hence businesses. But chapter 8 – Blogs and National Cultures, breaks this monotony with a jolt and touches important topics like cultural and national perspectives. Here the cultural effects on blogging in several countries are examined. Authors talk about pervasiveness of blogging in France (3.5 million blogs) while neighboring Germany has just 200,000 blogs. The authors with inputs from European blogging experts claim that this is due to the generally more expressiveness of the French when compared to Germans. Chapter also mentions status of blogging in China (1.23 million), Spanish (50,000) speaking countries, Ireland and England. The China discussion also touches on the impacts of government censorship. But the striking aspect is the complete lack of commentary on India given the fact that India is the largest outsourcing destination and has legions of highly educated IT centric employees, whose inputs could potentially educate clients and clear some myths.

Ch.9 (Thorns in the roses) is probably the most interesting part of the book, as it gives out some great insights and advice to bloggers. It suggests that blogs are usually accommodating for any type of company as they don’t necessarily have to be public and could be within the intranet. Some of the thorns in blogging’s path allegedly are – culture and success. While culture seems to be a no brainer, the ‘success’ aspect is intriguing. Authors suggest that the companies with closed cultures especially, those which are successful would find it hard to come up with a case for blogging. The examples stated are also very interesting – Google and Apple. It seems that with very few employees blogging, Google’s corporate blogs bland and often they interlink to other Google’s sites. While Apple is well known for its secrecy the idea of Google being secretive seemed to be outlandish, especially with Google owning popular blogging site Blogger, and Google’s separate Blog Search feature. The fact that’s even more amazing is that throughout the book, the authors bring up concepts like Google Juice, high Google rank ensuring more visitors, etc and in essence have based their argument (whole book) around being visible on Google Search. With such a critical role played by Google for blogging, it does come as a surprise when the authors bring to light Google’s secretive culture and lack of employee blogging.

Other noteworthy points in the chapter are a list of reasons not to blog given by the authors:
If you are a genuine bad guy, or part of an organization of bad guys, don’t blog.
Blogs work well for do the right thing cultures.
Mobs, con-artists, employers who mistreat employees shouldn’t blog.
People who are security operatives and people associated with security agencies, defense contractors, Homeland Security, etc.
There are several more examples for people who shouldn’t blog, please read the book to find out more.

The second section of the book “Blogging Wrong & Right” gives tons of advice and tips on how to blog in a corporate environment. Here the authors give specific rules and suggestions to be followed while business blogging, that could potentially protect the employee bloggers, companies and everyone in general from major as well as minor fiascos. While maintaining their straight forward style, the book touches some of the nuts and bolts of do’s and don’ts.

The basic principles listed are:
1. What’s in a name – selecting names for blogs.
2. Read a bunch of blogs before you start
3. Keep it simple. Keep it focused.
4. Demonstrate Passion,
5. Show your authority
6. Add comments
7. Be accessible
8. Tell a story
9. Be linky
10. Get out into the real world
11. Use your referrer log

Scobel took it a step further and came up with “The Corporate Weblog Manifesto” a 34 point advising guide, which expands on the above principles with more corporate centric advice that could potentially save a lawsuit or two and getting fired.

The last section and the shortest section of the book gives a “Big Picture” of how blogging fits into the larger scheme of internet technologies like video blogs, tagging, podcasts, RSS feeds, etc.

In writing this book on naked conversations the authors, remain faithful to their title, and present their ideas in a reasoned and straight forward manner. The general style of writing in the book is often conversational and just like reading a blog. There are several memorable quotes and punch lines, sprinkled all over the book, which are often funny, insightful, defiant, outrageous, and even unprintable. These features enhance the readability even when some of the ideas may seem hard to digest.

Ultimately the book is about business blogging – Blogging by employees and executives. Being a college student in the current internet age with access to Wi-Fi, cloud computing, and laptops, most of the ideas presented in the book seem to be dead on and at times, feels like preaching to the converted.

However while there may be tons of stuff to blog about for execs, marketers, product managers, entrepreneurs, or employees in the tech sector, the book doesn’t offer much insight about the vast majority of others – like say workers at General Motors, machinists at Boeing, several layers of staff in non-security related government departments, etc. Perhaps only time can tell how these groups evolve in blog adoption and usage.

One last central issue would be concerning vigilantism in the blogosphere. From reading the book, my understanding of the blogosphere is like comparing it to a mega sized city with practically no law enforcements other than citizen vigilantes, where anyone can say anything and anyone can listen, but if what is being said is deemed to be untrue or flimsy, the listeners descend on the speaker and lynch him (verbally), until he retracts and turns ‘good’. Check out this article in the Forbes magazine – Blogosphere to a lynch mob.

On the whole an excellent and insightful read, and I am off to start my own blog now.

Quote – “Like the gold miner who carefully plies his trade, a corporate employee can do a lot of great things with a blog – make the company more approachable, build relationships and partnerships, scale out evangelism or PR efforts, or even just arrange a dinner for fellow geeks. But if you mishandle your responsibilities, you can find yourself dooced or even worse (yes, there are worse things than getting fired – for example, sued)” – p195

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One Comment
  1. Who gets to be the first person to touch, feel and review the latest releases (atleast in the tech world) – BLOGGERS.I never noticed this before reading the book. But now I realize that at every new product launch event the first people who get invited and get to play with the products seem to be bloggers. – Recently, Nokia Touch, Azure, Steve Jobs launces, the next Msft OS, have all been blogged about extensively.

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