Slug: corporate-product-support-the-weblog-generation Date: 2003-03-06 Title: “Corporate Product Support: The Weblog Generation” layout: post

<h3>List Community #</h3>

There is a generation of software vendors that "came of age" developing products when mailing lists were state-of-the-art in community software, and they may have difficulty seeing the benefits of adding weblogs to their product support/promotional arsenal.

This may be shifting, however. Some vendors that have successful business and development efforts, using traditional support and marketing tools, are starting to recognize the added community value of using weblogs: Microsoft, Macromedia, Jupiter Research are a few.

I've been chatting up someone at a well-known Mac OS X developer about starting a weblog or two to support their products. The reaction I got was something along the lines of, "Looks interesting, but we're too busy right now to do it 'right'." Meanwhile, reps from this company are active on their product-related mailing lists, soliciting feedback, answering questions, and interacting with a subset of their users (those likely to subscribe to a mailing list for a particular product, including me). They run their own lists (as well as participate on lists for related technologies), keep extensive archives, and route information from the lists to internal bug-tracking systems and feature lists. They are very interactive and responsive - they actually have all the skills they need to do weblogging "right"!

What I see happening now is that the conversations between customers and developers are growing beyond the confines of the mailing list and into the open, on the web - onto weblogs. Mailing lists are not being replaced - they're being augmented by the loosely-joined public interactions between the weblogs.

So how can weblogs improve a vendor's product support and promotional infrastructure?

<h3>Weblog Community #</h3>

On a weblog, the reader gets a lot of 'context': topic or category lists, related posts, search functionality, and links to other weblogs that are related by product or genre. Every post on a weblog is URI-accessible, so it can be linked internally, from other weblogs, and yes, on the mailing lists. Links are the weblogger's language and currency.

As a weblog becomes known, and other weblogs start linking to it, it becomes integrated into the weblogging geography (the "blogosphere"). By then it becomes easier for a product or service's users to find the vendor's weblog, and more likely that interested readers will stumble onto it. This can also be a reason a vendor might link to their competitors' weblogs/websites - doing so creates a referral trail that can lead potential customers back to their site (especially using some of the weblogging tools mentioned later.)

The "conversation" between webloggers and their readers takes place in public, and the weblogger/vendor develops their reputation in public. Users will know exactly where to go to find out what the vendor has to say about their products and the issues that may develop, which means having a greater impact on the marketplace. It means a vendor may need to have the guts to publicly admit to a nasty bug - and deliver the fix. Reputation, especially in the fast-moving distributed economy of the blogosphere, is built on honesty.

Mailing lists are great many-to-many communication tools. But a mailing list misses those who are interested in information from a vendor but not in two-way discussion with other customers. Following the one-to-many flow of a weblog is incredibly easy with the advent of RSS and RSS Aggregators.

Google LOVES weblogs. If the mailing list archives are off-limits to robots and spiders, then posting links to (and commentary on) interesting or useful list messages on the weblog will make sure that Google finds the posts users are likely looking for.

Weblogs are flame-retardant.

<h3>Joining the Revolution #</h3>

Perhaps you're thinking now that weblogs sound like they might be a useful tool for your company or product development effort. You've got a number of mailing lists, either hosted locally or through a provider like Yahoo Groups. How can you best add a weblog or weblogs to your promotion and support process?

Here are some ideas for companies who want to add weblogs to their community toolbox:

  1. Don't get rid of the mailing lists! Mailing lists are a great tool for that group of users that wants to be more involved and feel like they're part of a closer-knit community related to your product.
  2. Add a few features to your mailing list archives: make sure that archive pages have good titles, and link to both chronological and hierarchical collections of posts. Make sure that messages that go out on the list have a url at the bottom pointing to the web-accessible version of the post. This will make it easy for your weblogger and the webloggers on your mailing list to link to particularly interesting posts. This means more eyeballs on your list content and likely more list subscribers.
  3. The obvious: Start a weblog for your product! There are a number of products available - Movable Type, Blogger, and Radio Userland are some of the more popular ones, though there are weblog tools for most every development platform available. Have either the developers themselves, or more likely, a product manager (who interfaces between the developers and management/the public already) run the weblog. This gives you credibility, and weblogs are all about credibility.
  4. What do you post?
    • Product announcements
    • Download links to new versions
    • Links to competitors. Tell your readers why your product is better.
    • Links to clever/useful posts on your mailing lists! Another reason to have good archives.
    • Links to your users' websites and weblogs. Believe me, they've got them, and they're likely talking about you there.
    • Links to clever hacks your users come up with. Often. Plug your users, they'll plug you.
    • Links to articles about your product's genre, new technologies, new trends. Comment on why you are/aren't incorporating those features.
    • Announcements when bugs are fixed! Get your users excited about the next version, even if it's not available yet.

Some may be worried about the time commitment involved in weblogging for your product, or the difficulty of learning a new medium. Generally, weblogging is not much different than posting to the mailing list once you're set up and familiar with the process - open your browser, fill out a short form and hit "Post". There are many weblogging tools available that can be integrated into your existing infrastructure, most can be customized as necessary to accommodate your company's systems.

In addition to the actual weblogging products, there are some sites that provide meta-weblogging services to webloggers. Technorati will show you who is linking to your weblog. Blogdex shows you what other webloggers are linking to. DayPop is a search engine for weblogs and RSS feeds - use it to find out what the weblogging community thinks of a particular topic or link. These tools can be used to explore what people are saying about your product or service, and can open new avenues for development or promotion.

For more on corporate weblogging, check out Robert Scoble's excellent Corporate Weblog Manifesto, and Jon Udell's The future of online community.