If you help run a business, imagine this scenario: Someone walks into the lobby of your office, refuses to identify himself, and demands a chance to say whatever he wants to everyone else who’s present, whenever he wants to. Think you’re likely to just shrug your shoulders and say “Oh, well. If that’s what he wants to do, I guess it’s okay.” We didn’t think so.
The same thing goes for your business’s blogs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with creating a smart policy about what kind of feedback is appropriate, explaining what your expectations are for accountability in a conversation, and enforcing your company’s standards for dialogue in a public setting.
We’ve been using this example scenario for years in talking to businesses, to explain that blogs are about communication, and just like any other form of communication, there are different rules for different contexts. People who are on the sidewalk in front of your office can do much different things than people who enter your lobby, and it’s not just acceptable to ask for identification from those who enter, it’s polite. It’s not just okay to review the statements that are made in the public spaces that your company hosts, it’s your obligation to your employees, your customers, your partners, and your community. And if you don’t want to publish unsolicited feedback to the whole world? That’s okay, too.
All of this might seem fairly obvious, but sometimes these straightforward lessons get lost in the rush to new technologies on the web. One great recent example, which just happens to also use a lobby as a metaphor is The Lobby, an excellent new Movable Type-powered blog produced and maintained by Electric Artists on behalf of Starwood Preferred Guests. SPG is the loyalty program for guests of hotels such as Sheraton, Westin, W Hotels, and more.
Electric Artists and SPG made some smart choices in iterating with their blog, starting from a controlled start and moving towards being more open as their community matures and becomes more clearly defined. Their success has been apparent from the start, as outlined in the Wall Street Journal last week:
The effort is a professionally written and frequently updated Web log open to the public but aimed specifically at members of the “Starwood Preferred Guest” loyalty program. Many of the blog’s posts advertise happenings at specific hotels in the company’s portfolio of brands that include Westin, Sheraton, St. Regis and W. It also promotes ways that travelers can earn loyalty points through special promotions, for example.
Despite the great content, there’s been some questions or even criticism about the control that Starwood has exercised over the content, especially the comments. From the Journal story, “So far, TheLobby.com lacks a place where readers can offer their own comments. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which quietly launched the blog in March, says it is planning to make it more interactive but wasn’t specific about plans. It may allow limited reader input, but only in the form of comments that have been reviewed by the company.” And others in the blogosphere have weighed in, too. Neville Hobson, who’s long been an influential business blogger, had some strong comments:
The most glaring negative is the way in which visitors are invited to participate in the site, ie, to comment. The only way you can is via a â€œcontact the editorsâ€ link in the sidebar which gives you a popup that thanks you for your feedback, says that due to the volume of emails that the site receives each day it may not be possible to personally respond to your email, mentions terms and conditions and gives you a choice of three generic email addresses to write to.
With all due respect, it ain’t necessarily so. It’s a smart policy to start conservatively, to measure the return on the investment in this new blog, and to learn from an audience over time. They’ll tell your company what you need to be doing. Demanding an all-or-nothing policy about comments is the kind of thinking that can scare the hell out of people. There’s a less intimidating strategy for companies that are new to this mode of conversation. Try something like this:
- Start without comments, but accept feedback by email and read all the feedback you get.
- Begin accepting comments on one or two posts, requiring readers to sign in or to at least provide a valid email address. Moderate these comments judiciously.
- Follow the submitted comments carefully and identify any issues or concerns that arise within your company or from your readers. Take time to address these issues.
- Let the people who’ve made helpful or constructive comments become “trusted” commenters, whose feedback appears without requiring your approval.
- Start allowing comments on all your posts, with the trusted commenters as the seed of the new community.
Starting without a defined commenting policy, or with a poorly-planned system for collecting feedback, can and often does result in some public back-pedaling. And those kinds of adjustments garner not just negative feedback from the blogosphere, but more importantly, they damage trust with the intended audience of the blog.
It’s important to remember that blogs are a flexible tool that can be used a variety of different ways. And your blogs will change over time as your community grows. One of the best examples of this comes from another Movable Type-powered blog that’s of interest to frequent travelers, Randy’s Journal from Boeing’s VP of Marketing, Randy Baseler. After an initial effort at blogging without using a blogging tool, Boeing switched to Movable Type and offered up things like feeds and permalinks to their readers, vastly improving the experience for the audience. It was a great demonstration of how a company can iterate and keep improving its blogs, staying true to a human voice for the business, and making its own choices about how to collect and present feedback. In Randy’s own words:
A note about comments. I’ve read and heard a lot of remarks along the lines of: a blog isn’t a blog if it doesn’t _______. Fill in the blank. … I didn’t realize that the blogosphere had such a rule. Sorry, that’s just not what we’re about. Sure, we’re going to post some of your comments. Even critical ones. But it’s not a free-for-all.
And the post closes with an honest interest in continuing the dialogue, regardless of the form that it takes. That’s exactly what blogs are trying to make possible. “You’re welcome, of course, to start your own blog if you like. We kind of like ours the way it is. But our door is always open to advice from neighbors - even if an occasional brick gets tossed in.”