Three Solutions to the Corporate Blogging Paradox
Corporate blogs suffer from an almost insurmountable paradox: you can write something interesting to readers, but it will make your company uncomfortable. You can write something that will make your company comfortable, but it won't be interesting to readers.
The corporate blogger has a difficult decision to face. Do you want to gain an audience, build relationships with readers, and strike a cord of authenticity -- while at the same time drawing heavy fire and criticism from your company? Or do you remain under the protection and guidance of the company (which pays your salary, remember) by writing safe content that supposedly furthers their goals but which connects poorly with your readers?
It's not an easy decision to make. It appears that most corporate bloggers stick with the latter. And the results are telling. A recent Forrester poll found that only 16% of people actually trust corporate blogs. That means that more than 8 out of 10 people pretty much feel corporate blogs suck. If you can't trust a blog, it's hardly worth reading. And equally problematic, it's hardly worth writing.
I usually tend to assume corporate bloggers are second-rate marketers who don't understand the social media world or writing. But I'm a corporate blogger (I run LDSTech) who first started out as a personal blogger. My I'd Rather Be Writing blog is supposed to be an innovative technical communication blog. Yet I can't really ignite a corporate blog despite having time and energy (and billing code) to do it. Why? What is the secret sauce to corporate blogging that I haven't figured out yet?
Sometimes I believe I'm trapped by the paradox I've described. I'm not writing the real stories. Unlike with my personal blog, I'm not following my own instincts for what would be interesting. This is because the juicy stuff doesn't get approved; it doesn't align with the business scope and plan and purpose. The articles die with the product managers who shy away from the hot topics.
Once as a teenager I had the opportunity to visit with Steve Benson, a cartoonist. He was also the son of Ezra Taft Benson. Steve said that as a cartoonist, his job was to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." This advice has always stuck with me. Applied to corporate blogging, it puts the blogger in a precarious position. Do you afflict the company and comfort the reader? I'm not sure how long such a writer lasts in that position before the company decides it has had enough, no matter how many hits the articles are getting.
The only corporate blog I honestly follow is Scriptorium, and I'm not sure it counts as a corporate blog. Scriptorium is an XML publishing consultancy. I think their blog's business-case purpose might be to get readers to see them as a trusted, go-to source for XML needs. But I find that their blog looks outward much more than inward. They write as industry experts, commenting on trends, technologies, news, and other industry topics. I don't think I've ever read a post that overtly advertises what Scriptorium actually does. In fact, sometimes I'm not even sure what they do (is it DITA, XML, content strategy? content management?) Still, I really like their blogging model -- positioning themselves as general industry experts.
To be an industry expert, you have to keep a pulse on what's going on. You have to immerse yourself in other blog posts and releases and trends. As an industry expert, not everything you write will tie back to your company's specialization, products, or services. It will merely relate to your field as a whole. For example, Scriptorium's latest post is on the Perversion of Indexes. The post touches on the difficult of creating indexes with XML editors and modular content. I don't know what Scriptorium does with indexes in their consulting, or if they have any kind of indexing tools or practices. But the impression I get is that Scriptorium is up-to-speed with index trends. And I begin to trust their voice.
Would such an approach work with other corporate blogs? I'm not sure, but it might be a more fruitful approach than writing about topics that make the company uncomfortable. Commenting on tech in general, and analyzing its relevance to the audience, might be a good way to stay relevant without making everyone in the company avoid speaking with you. As long as the focus is outward, rather than inward, you can avoid the marketing speak and heavy promotional tone, as well the self-inflicted martyrdom that a true journalist would probably undergo.
Another common strategy in corporate blogs is to focus on the customer. Spotlight how your customers are using your products, their tips, tricks, questions, experiences, etc. This focus can shift the attention from the company to the customer, giving the impression that as a company you care about your users.
The problem with this focus is that spotlighting users no doubt involves a filtered selection of happy users, and ignores the angry customers or the ones who are sallying against your company with ugly shouts. And will you really address their true pain points and struggles? Or their road map demands? Essentially this focus can come across not too unlike a list of testimonials that companies sometimes display -- a carefully selected list of people who have only the best praise for you. Other readers know this, so the appeal of the content remains low.
A third approach around the corporate blogging paradox is to avoid journalistic topics altogether and instead focus on help information, in the form of how-to's, best practices, tutorials, and other instructional material. This approach may make the most sense: if you can't write the real stories, why write any stories at all? Writing lukewarm stories that aren't appealing to anyone is hardly any way to embrace the life of a writer. If you have this kind of all-or-nothing writer personality, you'll probably find more space to breathe in the safe arms of help material.
Help material is almost never offensive. The biggest offense is explaining a bug, or admitting a quirk that isn't yet fixed. Additionally, help material is universally welcomed into the world of useful information. Its content value is immediate and undeniable. Is it interesting? Maybe not. But it's sure to keep you far from the edge of corporate danger, while at the same time not forcing you to sacrifice your journalistic ideals to tell the real story. That's probably why being a technical writer is a good career for me. Because I'm too stubborn and bent on controversy to fit into the corporate blogging mode with any kind of comfortable fit. At least as a technical writer, I can avoid stirring up controversy and work on something productive. I can save my controversy digging for the off hours, on my own blog. Meanwhile, the challenge of solving technical problems, coming up with solutions, and figuring out the unknown can keep my attention and provide some level of creative fulfillment.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.