A Top Blogger Speaks

John Frost owns and edits blogs on the Internet. While he’s an unabashed Disney enthusiast, his blog is a straight account of both the good and bad news related to the company he covers. The Disney Blog attracts about 100,000 monthly visitors, but it is not formally recognized as a media outlet by The Walt Disney Co.

I asked him a few questions about his blog and he generously provided these detailed answers.

Q: What value do you provide that mainstream media doesn’t?

Frost: I’m a subject matter expert, the voice of a peer, a shepherd to the community and, to some degree, an advocate.

Q: How is your content shaped by contributions from your readership?

F: Mainly through comments and emails. I get leads from readers and they let me know when I’ve stepped over the line.

Q: How do you believe interactions between customers and businesses are changing as a result of Web 2.0?

F: It flips the funnel. It changes the art of marketing to the art of listening and contributing. For Disney, however, they’re still just getting used to providing better tools for guests to make decisions.

Q: How do you avoid inaccuracies and provide balance in your coverage? What are your practices for correcting mistakes?

F: Use reliable sources, always attribute, provide links to background as needed. Minor mistakes might just disappear; factual mistakes, when caught by readers, are acknowledged with an update to the post and quick notice that a change was made. Major mea culpas usually involve a new post that links to the old.

Q: What could the companies you cover do to make better use of customer feedback?

F: First, show us they’re listening. Have an online community manager and/or liaison who reaches out before feedback is even needed. Then, when feedback is received, you have the trust of the community to respond honestly, even if it’s only “I can’t answer right now, but we will find the answer and get back to you.” Then follow up.

I’m particularly impressed with companies that go out and search for feedback loops and attempt to deal with problems even before the consumer knows there is a problem. RSS feeds on various engines are a great help with this. If someone posts a complaint about all the weekday fireworks shows being canceled, be ready with an answer of alternate experiences for that evening.

Q: What frustrates you most about dealing with these corporations?

F: Faceless voicemail loops, help centers located overseas staffed with people who have no expert knowledge of the subject matter — the usual stuff.

In my case, each division has its own rules and contacts for material that my audience is interested in. Some still won’t deal with blogs, some are beginning to reach out. But our primary audiences are — and I use this term endearingly — the super geeks. They have different needs than the average consumer. PR may only release one photo and no concept art, no details on the background story or interviews with the creator. Mass media gets all that at the press junkets, but I’m not invited, nor can I afford to attend events like that. Why would I want to repost the press release that they can get anywhere?

Q: What could these companies do to put you out of business?

F: Hire me. They can’t put the fans out of business. There will always be a niche market for fan groups online and off. What they can do is feed our need to be brand defenders, not just brand critics.

Q: Blogging is a hard way to make a living. What motivates you to keep going?

F: I wish I was making a living at this. It pays the bills and helps with the costs involved in being a Disney fan. What keeps me going is the same thing that got me started: my passion for the subject matter.

What You Probably Don’t Know About Links

I got a press release today from a PR pro whose client has an interesting story to tell. The company makes a security product that combines cellular and global positioning technologies to alert people when valuable items have moved beyond a specified location. This particular pitch told about a customer who had recovered an expensive motorcycle just 20 minutes after it was stolen, thanks to the clever technology.

I have several blogs, including one that deals with location-awareness, and I thought this would be a nice item to mention. I searched for the headline on Google, but came up empty. So I contacted the PR person directly. He responded that the press release actually wasn’t posted online anywhere. “It’s a media alert that I distribute to generate press,” he said. “I was definitely not trying to get blog coverage.”

There are a few questionable assumptions in that statement, including the fact that 95 of the top 100 newspapers in America now have blogs. For the purposes of this newsletter, though, I want to address the importance of having a Web copy of anything you send out for media consumption.

The reason I searched for an online version of the press release was because Web publishing differs from print publishing in some fundamental ways. Look at prolific bloggers and you’ll see that their entries are full of hyperlinks. This practice may look strange to someone who doesn’t write principally for online consumption. Is the blogger being lazy by linking to source material instead of summarizing it?

Actually, quite the opposite is true. The comment-and-link approach leverages the strength of online media to minimize wasted time for the reader while making the blogger more productive.

To understand this phenomenon, look at the way we used to publish. In the print world, journalists typically have to excerpt or summarize any material they reference because they have no choice. The only way to convey information is to include it in the story. This makes articles longer and creates more work for the reporter, who has to guess what source information is relevant. It also means that good information is more likely to be left on the cutting room floor.

Online, the dynamic is very different. By linking to source material, the writer minimizes the amount of background information that has to be summarized. If the reader wants that information, he or she can click through to the source document. There’s less time spent creating extraneous content and less time spent reading it.

This tactic is a core reason why some bloggers appear to be so prolific. Instead of wasting time reinventing the wheel, they can focus on the most relevant information. You need to understand this practice if you want to play fully in the online publishing world.

I maintain four personal blogs — paulgillin.com, geocachesecrets.com, mediablather.com and newspaperdeathwatch.com — and manage to post to all of them frequently. I use comment-and-link combined with some clever online tools to keep the content up-to-date. For example, if I see something interesting online, I can easily bookmark it, type a brief summary or comment and save everything online. My bookmark service knows to gather up these entries every day and post them to my blog automatically (here’s an example of the result). My time expenditure is minimal and I focus only on the material that I think is most important. For audio or video content, there’s practically no other way to do this.

Marketers who want to incorporate online journalists into their communication plans need to understand this tactic and build it into their strategy. Link-and-comment isn’t a copout or a shortcut. It’s a tactic for minimizing waste. By posting every press release online, you not only make it easier for bloggers to reference the information, but you also make sure it’s you who tells the story and not some third party. Why would you have it any other way?

As for the press release I received earlier today, that company is out of luck. Had the press release been available online, I would have linked to it and recommended it to my readers. But reprint the whole thing? That’s just too much trouble.

Corporate Blogs Blather While Markets Tumble

Between checking Marketwatch.com and commiserating with colleagues, it’s safe to say there wasn’t a lot of work getting done this week. Nervous investors flock ed to the Web for some sign that the turmoil in the financial markets would soon die down.

With so much attention riveted on the future of the economy, this seems an ideal time for corporations to use their blogs to provide guidance and reassurance, or at least perspective, on the Wall Street meltdown. However, a quick tour of some prominent sites demonstrated that they were doing anything but that. Here’s a sampling:

Kodak‘s Thousand Words blog posted photos of Northern California scenery and humpback whales off the coast of New England.

Accenture has a perfectly aligned blog about Accelerating High-Performance Business. It hasn’t been updated since early July. There’s also an Accenture blog devoted to advice from experienced consultants. That one hasn’t been updated in two months.

BenettonTalk took on the topic with its characteristic directness and left-wing advocacy. It pointed to several articles from people who want to revamp the US financial, transportation and participative government systems.

Boeing is tied up with a strike, so it can perhaps be excused for not addressing bigger economic issues. Randy’s Journal hasn’t.

Wal-Mart, which is one of the most important companies in America , posted two entries since the crisis began. One was about its campaign to reduce plastic bag waste and the other clarified its strategy on digital rights management. I suppose that’s more important than the economy in some parallel universe.

Factory activity hit its lowest level in seven years last month. With that as a backdrop, Chrysler chose to devote space to test-driving the Dodge Challenger and a new model of its gas-guzzling RAM 1500 truck. It also posted a video of Chairman Bob Nardelli talking about electrical prototypes. We can assume everything is just great at Chrysler.

As the Dow fell 777 points on Monday, Delta Airlines posted an item about its sponsorship of the World Business Forum in New York City. Describing an event that covered “leadership, innovation, the intersection of politics and business, and the challenge of change,” the blog didn’t say one word about a mounting financial crisis that touches on all those areas.

Give General Motors credit for trying to be topical. Its September 29 entry presented Chairman Rick Wagoner making a case for government loans to automakers to meet more stringent fuel economy standards. At least that’s newsworthy.

Johnson & Johnson talked about a visit to BlogWorld and a dinner honoring two esteemed scientists.

Bill Marriott, who is one of the few CEOs who blogs, commented proudly on Marriott’s selection to a list of best places to launch a career and more soberly on a hotel bombing in Pakistan. Not a word about the outlook for the travel sector.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers has an article by David Phillips about the shortcomings of regulatory reports. Of all the corporate blogs I checked, this is the only one in the US that addressed the market turmoil directly.

Sony wrote about a charity it supports and the long-term viability of the Blu-Ray disc format.

Southwest Airlines talked about a new approach to speeding up lines at airport security and also a pilot’s experience during a particularly rough landing in Austin. In 13 entries since September 17, there was only one passing reference to “the current mess on Wall Street.” Toyota was happy to report that 48% of Lexus owners are repeat customers. It also boasted about two new crossover vehicles as well as its ongoing work on hybrids. I guess the US economic crisis is a domestic matter.

Wells Fargo says its Guided by History blog “allows our archivists and historians to provide a rich online experience that bridges events in the past with an outlook on the future.” You’d think this would be a great time to look at past economic meltdowns for context about the current turmoil. You would be wrong. Instead, the entry posted the day after the Dow’s record drop was a travel video.

My point isn’t to ridicule these companies. Rather, it’s to demonstrate how far we still have to go in achieving the culture of openness that new media enables. Here was an opportunity for some of America’s most respected corporations to offer guidance and thought leadership to frightened consumers. Instead, most chose to serve up the same old happy-talk mush they’ve delivered for years. That’s their right, but that isn’t leadership.

These are historic times that offer businesses the chance to break through the noise and do something daring and different. So far, corporate America has fumbled the opportunity. Perhaps, as the economic picture becomes clearer, some will start talking with their customers instead of marketing at them. That would be a welcome development. I’ll keep an eye out for you.

Tips for Dealing with Online Negativity

I’ve recently counseled some clients who have been struggling with blogger negativity. Their experiences offer lessons in how to deal with this common problem.

Anyone who embarks upon a social media campaign risks opening him- or herself to attack. Even the most noble causes can run afoul of extremists. In the vast majority of cases, these problems can be contained with sufficient planning. The trick is not to get caught flat-footed by criticism you didn’t expect. In fact, when managed professionally, negativity can actually enhance your image by demonstrating that you’ve thought through the issues in detail.

Negativity can usually be anticipated and blunted if you deploy a few basic tactics:

Anticipate. Before launching a blog or public forum, know what you’re getting into. If you have critics, they will use the opportunity to air their gripes. Even if you don’t think you have critics, you should be prepared for them to emerge from unexpected places.

One client chose to blog about his adventures exploring new geographies. He was proud of his efforts and so was completely blindsided when environmentalists began attacking him. Had he thought through his topic more thoroughly, he might have anticipated such criticism.

Most businesses are poorly prepared to anticipate criticism because they only see the good in what they do. Here’s where an outside perspective may help. Come up with all reasonable arguments against your story and prepare a defense for each. It may be worth hiring a domain expert or journalist to help poke holes in your case.

Keep calm. If you really want to confound a critic, look up his phone number online (this usually isn’t difficult). Even if you end up leaving a voicemail, the mere act of personalizing an anonymous interaction often heads off a confrontation.

Don’t censor. A little criticism actually isn’t a bad thing. It makes you look more credible. Respond to adversaries using the tactics outlined above, but don’t use your power to silence them. It will backfire on you.

Address issues, not people. You also don’t have to speak directly to your critics. If people are harping on one issue, post information that addresses several critics. DuPont did this a few years ago when rumors popped up that Teflon caused cancer. DuPont didn’t address its critics directly but instead set up a website to tell the truth about Teflon. By refuting the rumors with scientific evidence, the company quickly put the issue to bed. Bloggers helped out by linking to DuPont’s informational website. The company never got down in the muck with its detractors, but effectively dispatched the rumors with facts.

If you employ these four tactics, you’ll be able to cope with nearly every challenge to your credibility, even the unanticipated ones.

Social Network Adoption Races Ahead

Awareness, Inc., which has been in the social media software market for several years, has just come out with a new research report on enterprise adoption of Web 2.0. There are some interesting findings that I wanted to share with you. You can download the entire report after filling out a short registration form.

My basic take-away is that social media tools are ripping through the enterprise with amazing speed. Whether used internally, externally with open enrollment or externally with invitation-only enrollment, social networks are proliferating as business tools. Some highlights:

  • The number of organizations that allow employees to use social networks for business purposes has increased dramatically to 69% in 2008 from 37% last year;
  • More than six in 10 companies are using social media to build and promote their brands, improve communication and increase consumer engagement;
  • There has been a fivefold increase in the percentage of employees who use popular social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn for business purposes, from 15% in 2007 to 75% this year;
  • While only a tiny percentage of organizations are currently using internal communities, one in three plans to use them in the future;
  • A quarter of respondents say their companies are planning to deploy external-facing communities, which is double last year’s total;
  • Some 37% of organizations plan to focus communities on specialty areas where they can provide focused business value;
  • More than 40% of respondents report using one or more of the following tools: user groups, tags, communities, blogs, social networking and videos;
  • The most popular internal tools are social networks, blogs and wikis, with adoption rates of between 50% and 55%;
  • Seven in 10 respondents say their companies plan to deploy external blogs.
One of the most notable trends this research reveals is the rapid acceptance of social networking not only for marketing and customer support, but also for employee communications. When you consider that Facebook was barely known outside of the academic realm just two years ago, the acceptance of this technology for internal knowledge management is remarkable.

I’m also intrigued by the findings that seven in 10 businesses allow employees to use social media during business hours. This is a big change in corporate attitude. In the first couple of years of social media, businesses moved slowly to permit employees to speak outside the company walls. There were fears about people revealing company secrets or saying inappropriate things in public forums. Those fears appear to have largely melted away.

The lack of horror stories combined with the powerful utility of features like LinkedIn’s Answers forum are clearly overwhelming these reservations. It turns out that when you give people the freedom to speak on behalf of the company and combine that freedom with clear guidelines about what’s appropriate to say, the vast majority do the right thing.

This is inspiring and affirming. It may be an unanticipated benefit of social media acceptance, but it is a very welcome one.

Caveats: Any research conducted over the Internet needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The Awareness survey accumulated responses from 160 people, of whom 27.5% were from large companies and 40% were at a management level. Awareness says statistical accuracy is +/- 7%. Awareness also has a vested interest in promoting acceptance of social networks. However, the company used an independent research partner, Equation Research, to conduct the survey and I don’t think it has any incentive to fudge the results.

While I Talked, People Twittered

Have you ever had an audience comment loudly on what you were speaking about while you were actually speaking? I did this week, and I found the experience to be weird, invigorating and a little bit scary.

The scene was the New Marketing Boot Camp, a seminar I conducted with Chris Brogan and CrossTech Media. The group was the most tech-savvy I have addressed in some time. About a half-dozen of the members were using Twitter, the short-message microblogging service that inspires a fanatical following.

Sitting down after my presentation, I was able to call up search.twitter.com and read what people had been saying while I talked. Most of them simply summarized points I made, but a few added their opinions, and not all of those opinions were complimentary.

I can tell you that the act of presenting to a group that is actively talking about you requires new skills. Simply knowing that thoughts are being exchanged can be flustering; the tendency is to speak to the people in the room who you know are documenting your talk, hoping to get an inkling of what they’ll say. There’s also a certain ego-drive voyeurism that comes from this kind of instant feedback. I found myself wanting to hustle back to my computer to get the online evaluations of what I had just said!

There was a famous story at the South by Southwest Conference last March in which a keynote session was disrupted by negative Twitter messages from some members of the audience. In that case, the speakers were in the difficult position of having those comments actually scroll across a public screen while they were on stage. That was an extreme case, but an increasing number of events are incorporating Twitter conversations into the experience by encouraging attendees to share messages with each other using specific tags or keywords.

Like most new technology developments, there are both good and bad sides to this new form of instant feedback. On the positive side, speakers and conference organizers need as much audience reaction as they can get, and the sooner the better. Having recently waited six months to get audience evaluations from one presentation, I can tell you that the immediacy of the tweeted feedback was wonderful. I was able to use it to get a read quickly on the tech-saviness of the audience and adjust accordingly for the rest of the day. Hopefully, that was a good thing for everyone.

The major downside of this trend that I see is that real-time feedback from a small number of people can force a speaker to unintentionally focus on trying to please that vocal few. This is dangerous if the small but loud group isn’t representative of the majority of listeners. It’s human nature to fixate on criticism, and focusing on the comments of a few audience members can throw a presenter off track. The feedback is great, but keep it in perspective.

I’m telling you this because many of you work in the technology industry. You will soon find (if you haven’t already) that attendees to your meetings and events will use tools like Twitter to share their observations. Encourage this. Ask attendees to use Twitter’s hash function (#) to label their messages for your event. Use search.twitter.com to filter their comments and save the search query as an RSS feed so you can collect all this feedback in one stream or even display it on a public screen.

However, Twitter feeds aren’t a replacement for the tried-and-true tactics of feedback forms and post-conference surveys. Real-time impressions can be incomplete and misleading, so take them with a grain of salt. But seek all the feedback you can. Your presentation or event will only be better for it.

Let a Thousand Networks Bloom

News that the American Bowling Congress will launch a social network arrived last week, raising the question of whether this social networking thing has gone just a little too far. There are, after all, nearly 2,700 social networks on the Internet according to Go2Web20.net. Facebook and MySpace together command over 85% of social networking traffic, so what’s the point of starting another?

This is just the beginning, folks.The boring job of picking the social network winners is already done, and now the action shifts to the small communities where innovation can really flourish.

I’ll give you one example. About two years ago, my wife Dana and I took up geocaching. It’s a global game that uses global positioning satellites (GPS) technology to create a worldwide treasure hunt. Players use handheld GPS receivers to find containers full of trinkets placed by other enthusiasts in locations ranging from city street corners to remote mountaintops. People log their finds on a website and try to make up elaborate clues for others to unravel.

Dana and I became so captivated by this game and the culture that has grown up around it that we decided to write a book about it. In the process of interviewing some of the most active and successful geocachers in the world, we’ve come upon some remarkable stories.

People have told us that geocaching has brought their families together, introduced them to new friends and reinvigorated their lives. One man credited the game with helping him shed 150 pounds and give up smoking. Several have said it saved their marriages. One disabled war veteran even told me geocaching gave him a reason to live at a time when he was contemplating suicide.

The online street corner for caching enthusiasts is a website called geocaching.com. This is where people can log their discoveries and share their stories. People go there to seek out others and start relationships that may develop online or in one of more than 100 local geocaching clubs around the U.S.

There are probably a couple of million people who love to geocache. That number is a rounding error on MySpace’s member list, but for active geocachers, it’s a lifeline so strong that enthusiasts often put their personal safety in the hands of other geocachers they’ve never even met. It’s a perfect example of a micro community.

There are two points to this story. The first is that small communities tend to be more engaged than large ones. The more time and effort someone has invested in learning a craft, skill or sport, the more passionate he or she is likely to be about it. People at Communispace,a company that manages private communities for corporate customers, tell me that they advise their clients to break up communities into smaller subgroups once their membership surpasses a few hundred. Think of it: No one is particularly passionate about Facebook, but they may be very engaged with communities within Facebook. Small is beautiful.

Secondly, the folks at Geocaching.com didn’t set out to organize an existing community. They created the community. It was almost impossible for people to play the game until a resource existed to coordinate their efforts. This is a great example of the Internet actually enabling special interests to flourish.

Have social networks gone too far? On the contrary, they haven’t gone nearly far enough.

How NOT to Cope With Bloggers

My passion for journalism keeps me in close touch with the newspaper industry, a business whose perilous decline I’ve documented through my Newspaper Death Watch blog. A trend has been playing out there recently that is relevant to anyone who is trying to cope with the new influence of citizen publishers on their market.

Nearly every major newspaper company has recently seen blogs spring up that speak to their problems and future. Among them are TellZell (Tribune Co.), McClatchy Watch (The McClatchy Co.) and The Gannett Blog (Gannett Co., Inc.) It’s the Gannett example that intrigues me most.

The independent Gannett Blog is written by Jim Hopkins, a former Gannett editor and reporter. It covers all kinds of topics related to Gannett’s business and its future. These days, that content includes a lot of speculation about layoffs and cutbacks at a company that recently announced it will cut 1,000 jobs, or about 3% of its workforce.

The Gannett Blog has gone viral in its quest to become a sounding board and information source for employees. Jim Hopkins recently revealed some traffic statistics: 91,000 visits and 189,000 page views in the last 30 days. That’s serious blog traffic, and much of it comes from Gannett employees who feel they can’t get a straight story from their employer. Gannett Blog has become the virtual watercooler for a company of 46,000 people.

The conundrum for Gannett is what to do about Hopkins. So far, it’s chosen a strategy of benign neglect. Tara Connell, Gannett’s chief spokesman (and interestingly, a former managing editor at USA Today) has gone almost silent recently as rumors have swirled about layoffs and cutbacks, Hopkins says. Meanwhile, traffic has grown. This post from two days ago has drawn more than 160 comments, many of them from people who identify themselves as Gannett employees. People are now actively trading rumors about layoffs at their individual newspapers, with Gannett blog functioning as the gathering point.

Gannett’s strategy is worse than “No comment.” Not only has the company not contributed its perspective to the flood of comments, it now barely even responds to Hopkins’ requests for information, he says. As the chorus of pleas for guidance from the company grows in volume, Gannett becomes more closed and insular. Gannett didn’t respond to my own requests for comment.

Gannett is approaching this problem in the worst way possible. Regardless of its opinion of bloggers and citizen journalists, the fact is that The Gannett Blog is drawing huge attention among the company’s own employees, who are the most valuable spokespeople it has. Gannett’s failure to respond to the speculation and allegations of this critical constituency has become almost as big a story as the company’s business problems.

In the new world of citizen-powered publishing, institutions have fewer places to hide than ever. Silence is an invitation to speculation, and individuals now have the means to state their opinions in a very public way. A better course of action for Gannett would be to respond to the comments posted by Jim Hopkins and his readers. Even if that response is a “no comment,” it’s at least an acknowledgement that their concerns are being noted.

You might argue that an engagement strategy is risky for a publicly traded company. That’s just wrong. Public companies live under all kinds of regulations, but there is nothing to prevent them from acknowledging that they care about and listen to the concerns of their stakeholders. Any comment is better than silence.

One of the great ironies of watching the newspaper industry collapse has been to see the same media icons that have long scolded institutions for their insularity become reclusive and inwardly focused when the spotlight is turned on them. Gannett Blog is exhibit A in how not to handle new influencers.

Why Social Networks Work

Last fall, I shared a lunch table with a group of Twitter enthusiasts at a social media event. One of them said something that crystallized perfectly the reason that social networks have taken the world by storm.

My lunchtime companion was a career public relations professional who had grown up reading an assortment of daily newspapers. They were his principal news source. Since adopting Twitter, however, he had stopped reading newspapers almost entirely. The service they had historically provided — directing him to the most important stories of the day — had shifted to his network of online friends. He now relied upon his contacts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sources to tell him what was interesting and what should matter.

Bolt From the Blue
This insight was a bolt from the blue for me because it summed up the reasons people are shifting so rapidly to friends networks and away from conventional media. Think of your own reading habits. Chances are you get several newsletters each day from various trusted sources. You also probably get the occasional e-mail from your friends pointing you to interesting stories on the Web. Which of these messages are you likely to open first? Which are you faster to click on? If you’re like most people, the message from the friend is always going to get your most immediate attention.

We trust our friends because we know them and they know us. Whether we’ve shared a workplace, a living space or some other experience with them, we have given them insight into our interests and motivations that no institution can match. Professional editors are very good at assessing relevance, determining importance and creating hierarchies of information, but they don’t know us as people. We’ll never let them in like we let in our friends.

Life Feeds
Facebook pioneered a concept called the News Feed that has been widely adopted by other networks. When you log on to Facebook, you’re treated to an immediate stream of information about other people in your network. You immediately know about changes in their lives, where they’ve gone on vacation and what project they’re working on. You also know what they’re reading, what conferences they’re attending and what they think you should be reading and attending. By virtue of their familiarity with you, they have a higher priority in your life. Other services like FriendFeed have expanded this idea to a broad range of online services. Twitter adds immediacy and certain intimacy that the other services don’t.

The “friending” feature of social networks is the single most important factor underlying their success. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for marketers. The challenge is to get behind the many walls that people have thrown up around themselves to screen out marketing messages. The opportunity is to find a way to connect with them at a level that grants us admission to their inner circle. As we know instinctively, that’s a very good place to be.

Podcasting’s Quiet Power

Last week I participated in a B-to-B magazine webcast about social media marketing. Editor-in-chief Ellis Booker kicked things off by asking the audience which Web 2.0 applications they were using. To my surprise, podcasts came out on top, narrowly beating out blogs. In fact, some 60% of the b-to-b marketers in attendance said they’re using podcasts in some capacity.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Podcasts are one of the most useful and least appreciated social media tools. They were the subject of intense interest in 2006, but podcasting’s popularity was eclipsed by the arrival of sexier technology like YouTube video. But they’ve quietly built a head of steam in b-to-b markets in particular that can’t be denied.

Emarketer reported early this year that the audience of active podcast listeners will grow from 10 million this year to 25 million in 2012. More importantly, the demographics are compelling. The research revealed that twice as many podcast listeners have advanced degrees as non-listeners and that podcast users are twice as likely to have incomes over $100,000.

Search engine Podnova lists 90,000 podcast programs in its directory and Podcast Alley lists more than 37,000. More important than the numbers, however, is the names of businesses that are using the medium for point purposes. They include General Motors, Purina, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Kodak, Wells Fargo and many others. Nearly every major information technology companies is now using podcasts in some capacity.

Why is this channel so popular? In my opinion, it’s all about time-efficiency. Podcasts are talk radio for your portable media device. People can download educational and informational programs and listen to them when they want. This may not be all that exciting in the consumer world, but for busy corporate executives, podcasts are a godsend.

Last year, I worked with a client that was launching a social network for chief information officers (CIOs). In the course of our research, we spoke to many CIOs about their information needs. Almost everyone we interviewed was a regular podcast listener. The reason? CIOs are busy people with voracious appetites for information. They need to learn constantly, and podcasts are a way for them to absorb information when they’re commuting, flying, mowing the lawn or disconnected in some other way.

This doesn’t mean podcasting is a no-brainer for snagging CIOs. Good podcasts are scripted, tightly edited and optimized for the target listener. I’ve produced more than 150 podcasts over the last three years and have learned that listeners have little tolerance for irrelevant chatter and marketing messages. They want useful content and they’re quick to tune out when they don’t get it.

If you’re a b-to-b marketer, you should be looking seriously at podcasting. As my B-to-B webcast experience demonstrated, your competitors are already there. This is one of our core areas of expertise. Let me know if we can help.