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Being fake (Sins of blogging)

Sep 15, 2009 • blogging

I've decided to write a series of posts about what I consider to be the Seven Deadly Sins of Blogging (because sins always seem more interesting than virtues). Basically, I'm preparing for some presentations on blogging, and I'm hoping to get some scrutiny and feedback on these ideas. I plan to cover each one of the sins in depth with separate posts over the course of the next two weeks. My version of the seven deadly sins of blogging are as follows: being fake, irrelevant, boring, unreadable, irresponsible, unfindable, and inattentive.

Fake Hurts the Currency of the Blogosphere

If there's one advantage blogs have over other media, such as television, magazines, and even newspapers, it's trust, because bloggers aren't supposed to be fake. Bloggers are usually independent voices, without financial motives or agendas.  The blogger is somewhat of a free-roaming analyst, at liberty to write about any topic, from any perspective, without any obligation to corporate requirements. With such freedom, the independent blogger automatically has a certain degree of reader trust.

This sense of trust is key to the blog's appeal. In a guest post on Problogger, Tony Hung says trust is "the only real currency in the blogosophere." Hung explains,

At the end of the day, trust is the only real currency in the blogosphere, and people who read blogs have the expectation that they're getting at the truth — in whatever form the truth is to them. And because there is the presumption of truth, readers will often react in an intense fashion to being manipulated, hoodwinked, and otherwise bamboozled.

In other words, the strong card that bloggers hold is a sense of trust with readers, which comes from their display of candid honesty. Readers react strongly when they find out a blogger is bamboozling them. For example, a few years ago, Edelman PR created a blog for Wal-Mart called Wal-Marting Across America that consisted of a couple supposedly traveling across America in an RV checking out all the Wal-Marts along the way and writing about their experiences. When someone discovered that Wal-Mart was paying their expenses and sponsoring the trip, readers were furious because the blog was fake.

Sharing and Trust

Not being fake is the first step in getting currency with your blog. To move in the opposite direction of fake, though, you have to share of yourself. It almost seems that the more open and sharing you are, the more powerful your posts become. For example, Stephen Fry, a writer, actor, and film director in the UK, recently wrote a semi-confessional post in which he explains how he loathes seeing some of his quotes on book jackets. Apparently one line of praise from Fry on Twitter alone can dramatically boost book sales, putting the book near the top of Amazon's charts.  When Fry tweets, he writes "completely from the heart," one journalist explains.

You might think that a critic with such literary power would feel nothing but satisfaction and pleasure at helping promote the books he loves. And to a certain extent Fry does. But in this post, Fry also shares another side of his feelings. He jokes with his literary agent that he will make a public confession that he hasn't read any of the books for which he supplied quotes:

The plan, as I told my agent, was to make this confession as a way of getting publishers off my back. It may sound ungracious, but I get asked so many times a week to read book and supply quotes for them that I'm getting a bit fed up. Not because I don't like reading, nor because I don't like being sent books, though mostly of course, I am sent proof copies rather than the finished article. No, what I'm fed up with (and it is my contention that I am SO not alone in this) is seeing my name on the fronts, backs and flaps of books saying things like “a beautifully paced, unforgettable thriller”, “a magnificent feat of imagination”, “a delicately realised and vividly felt journey through memory and desire”, etc etc. Yuckety, yuckety, yuck. Pukety, pukety puke. ("Don't Quote Me")

The more you're open, transparent, and sharing on your blog, like in this post from Fry, where he shares his real thoughts, which may be a little surprising or startling to some, the more trust you engender with your readers. We love Fry even more because of this post (and consequently, I'm guessing he'll be in even more demand for book quotes).

For another example of a post that shares personal information with influence, read this mind-blowing post from the always fascinating Penelope Trunk: How to Decide How Much to Reveal About Yourself. She shares so much it nearly crosses boundaries, but the effect? Nearly 350 comments on the post from engaged readers.

Insurmountable Challenges from Corporate Bloggers

Independent bloggers may find that trust and personal sharing come easy. But corporate bloggers who write about their company's products or services have nearly insurmountable challenges when it comes to trust. A corporate blogger struggles against the "used car salesman situation": no matter what the salesman says, you really don't trust him. If he praises a car on his lot and recommends that you buy it because it's a great deal, uhm, yeah, you don't believe that because the salesman's agenda is obvious -- he wants to sell you a car. There's no trust.

Corporate bloggers have the same problem. As a reader, you may not believe the blogger because of the obvious agenda. But it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. If corporate bloggers praise their company's products or services, we don't believe the blogger. If corporate bloggers disparage the products or services, we perhaps believe the blogger, but this may be damaging to the company's product or service. And most likely the CEO won't allow negativity posts. However you look at it, trust is an issue that permeates corporate blogs.

According to research from Forrester on corporate blogging, Josh Bernoff says that "only 16% of online consumers who read corporate blogs say they trust them." And those same 16% pretty much trust everything. Because of this distrust with corporate bloggers, Josh concludes:

If you blog, your goal should be to create a blog about which people say “I like that – I don't think of it as a company blog.” For the most part, that's a hurdle you need to jump to gain their trust. I don't mean to hide who is writing the blog. I mean it has to be more about your customers than it is about you. Blogs exclusively about companies and products are what I think generate these low trust ratings. So don't do a blog like that.

Kathy Sierra also recommends a similar strategy: "With a few exceptions, the worst mistake a 'business blog' can make is to blog about the business."

Essentially, the strategy of the corporate blogger, then, should not be to focus on promoting his or her own company's products or services so much, because the blogger has no trust with these topics. The agenda is too obvious, and the blogger lacks currency. But neither should the blogger completely dismiss the topics either, because then the blog ceases to be relevant to readers (sin #2).

Instead, according to Bernoff, the corporate blogger should focus on the company's customers, their problems, their successes, their questions, and perspectives. As corporate bloggers shift focus away from a marketing mindset, they will begin to develop relationships with their readers, and those readers may start to feel trust.

Bernoff says Rubbermaid's blog does a good example of focusing on the customer more than Rubbermaid. However, I'm not really into Rubbermaid, as adventurous as organization can be. A more relevant example in tech comm is Techsmith's Visual Lounge blog. Once a week, they showcase videos created by people who use Camtasia Studio. By focusing on user videos, they aren't so much shining the spotlight on themselves as much as their customers. Not all the posts have this focus, though. That's okay, because although user problems and solutions are intriguing, a blog can also succeed by establishing relevance with readers.

Palimpsest from Sarah O'Keefe and The Content Pool from Alan Porter are also written by "corporate bloggers." But with each of these blogs, I don't think of them as company blogs. I think of them as blogs written by industry experts. This is partly because their posts rarely promote their company's products and services.

In the spirit of transparency, you should know that TechSmith, O'Keefe, and Porter all advertise in the sidebar of my blog. And I'm presenting at a conference sponsored by WebWorks. Does that conflict of interest perhaps remove some of the currency of my recommendations? In a way, yes -- even though what I've said is perfectly true.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.