Ethics and the $500 Gift Card

chris_broganSuper-blogger Chris Brogan has been embroiled in a debate over paid blogging that raises important issues about not just blogger credibility but the changing mechanics of trust in a democratized media world.

A recap: Brogan was one of a handful of bloggers targeted by Kmart in an unusual holiday promotion. The bloggers were each sent a $500 gift card to spend at Kmart with the request that they write about their experiences.  They were also asked to invite their readers to enter a contest to win a comparable giveaway.

Brogan did as asked. He was favorably surprised by the changes he found. However, he also identifed some shortcomings, such as messy shelves and limited selection, that he commented upon.  He disclosed prominently that this was a paid promotion.

Disclosure apparently wasn’t enough for some critics, who charged Brogan with selling his credibility for a gift card.  A vigorous discussion on Twitter debated the ethics of his decision to accept the incentive and of Kmart and partner Izea to stage it.  Brogan posted a detailed and thoughtful defense over the weekend, and prominent bloggers like Jeremiah Owyang have acknowledged that this is hardly a black-and-white case.

They’re right about that.  This case is about nothing less than the challenge of determining credibility in the media world that is being ripped apart at the seams.  For many years, we’ve had the luxury of taking for granted that media organizations could fund consumer advocacy reporters to act in our interests.  With the ongoing crisis in print media now spreading into the broadcast world, it’s clear that this kind of reporting will begin to fade.  It will be up to the emerging class of new influencers to figure out the rules.

In mainstream media, the standards were clear, at least in the US. Organizations like the American Society of Magazine Editors maintain suggested ethical guidelines that are broadly observed. However, there are no governing standards organizations or regulations, and professional journalists have to make their own choices about what is right. These decisions often enter a gray zone.

During my days in mainstream media, offers constantly came in from vendors and economic development organizations that exceeded in value our $25 or $50 limit on gifts. It was rarely a simple decision whether to accept these offers. For example, I once returned a lavish food basket sent to me as a congratulatory gift by a leading software company. My benefactors were so offended by my action that they never treated me the same way again.  It would have been better for everyone if I had simply accepted the gift and distributed it around the office. That’s a case where doing the ethical thing didn’t really help anyone.

Of even bigger concern were the trips.  Government economic development agencies frequently dangled all-expense-paid tours of their countries as an incentive to generate coverage.  I only went on one of these excursions — back in 1984 — and it was clear that I was no less virtuous than my competitors, who also came out in force (in reality, the trip was rather grueling and not much fun).

To compound this complexity, different cultures have different rules. For example, European media organizations had few ethical problems with these junkets.  In fact, vendor marketers have told me in the past that the only way to convince European journalists to cover their events was to pay all expenses. I don’t know if that’s still the case.

Making it Up

There are no broadly accepted standards in the blogosphere, so the community is making them up as they go along.  For the most part, it’s doing a fantastic job.  In fact, the debate over the Brogan incident testifies to the high ethical standards that bloggers are embracing. Mainstream media could learn from this.

It’s important that this debate be heard, because the collapse of our media institutions will increasingly leave influence in the hands of individuals whose biases and motivations are unknown.  I know Chris Brogan personally, and his integrity is beyond question.  In fact, I’d argue that someone in his position can’t afford to be anything but genuine.  He has one of the largest followings of any blogger on earth, and it would be foolhardy for him to violate the trust they place in him for a few hundred dollars’ worth of graft.

But for less prominent bloggers, the distinctions aren’t so clear.  With media institutions crumbling, the onus is shifting to the consumer to exercise healthy suspicion about their information sources.  They must increasingly put their trust in people, not institutions, and this makes things more complex.

Track Records

In my view, the two most important criteria for judging credibility are track record and disclosure.  A respected blogger is no less a brand than a respected media institution. In both cases, I give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has demonstrated over time that her word can be trusted.

Disclosure is the baseline for credibility.  Anyone who attempts to influence opinion without disclosing potential conflicts of interest is doing a disservice to himself and his community.  Had Brogan not disclosed prominently his financial relationship with Kmart, it would have cost him some of my trust.  The fact that he did so, combined with his track record, gives me complete faith in the integrity of his opinions.

Businesses will increasingly use creative incentives in the future to gain the visibility they are losing with the decline of mainstream media.  We’re out of our comfort zone and we will have to invent new standards of accountability.  Perhaps an organization will come up with a rating system of some kind, but I think it’s more likely that we will figure these things out communally.  Word-of-mouth has a remarkable power to identify credible sources.

Chris Brogan deserves our thanks for taking the heat and for responding so constructively.  His critics deserve our thanks for raising the issue in the first place.


I’ve recently conducted a couple of online seminars about social media topics. The Q&A sessions at these events are almost always too short to get to the issues that are on people’s minds. So over the next few issues of this newsletter, I’ll run down a few of the best questions I didn’t get to. For a good, free webcast on this topic, check out the recent event sponsored by Listrak.

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Q: What is the best way to find blogs that are applicable to your business?

A: I have half-day seminars that address this question, but I’ll try to be succinct! First of all, remember that a blog is simply a way to display information.  There is no industry standard definition of a blog, so the only way to identify one is by looking at it.  Even the search engines that specialize in blog search don’t always get it right.

That said, you should start with search.  The blog search tools I use are Google Blog Search, Technorati, IceRocket, Bloglines and Blogpulse. There are others, but I’m less familiar with them. Tip: Use advanced search; it will save you time and better refine your results.

When you find bloggers who look important to you, look in their blogrolls, which are lists of other bloggers that they pay attention to. Blogrolls can usually be found on the home page.  This can save you a lot of time because the bloggers have already done the searching for you.

I also recommend searching social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Reddit. People share and comment upon favorite bookmarked pages there. Very often you’ll find sites on social bookmarking services that don’t show up prominently in search engines.

Q: Can you review the different social media for different communication goals?

A: Chapter 2 of my latest book, Secrets of Social Media Marketing, goes into quite a bit of detail about this, but here’s a synopsis:

Blogs: Easy, fast and flexible. Think of them as a podium. You’re the speaker and you can say your peace and invite commentary. Blogs are good for telling a story, but not very good for interaction or conversation.

Podcasts: These are basically audio blogs. They’re very good for communicating a message but have almost zero interactivity. Podcasts are very popular with busy executives who like the efficiency of being able to learn when they can’t read. They’re basically a one-way medium, however.

Video podcasts: Good for telling a story visually, but people tire of them quickly if the content isn’t compelling. Video podcasts are excellent vehicles for humor or offbeat content. They have almost no interactivity. Think of them as TV commercials that viewers can easily share with each other.

Social networks: These are great places to listen to ongoing conversations and to gain insight on customers and markets. You can also use them to pose general questions about you market. Don’t be too specific, though; social networks are public forums. Popular topics can yield insight into new product possibilities.

Private Communities (for example, Communispace and Passenger): These are next-generation focus groups. Usually run by firms that specialize in community management, the members are hand-selected, carefully nurtured and often bound by confidentiality agreements. Private communities are a great way to get advice from a lot of perspectives in a hurry. The downside: high cost

Microblogs (for example, Twitter and a host of others): Very fast, targeted and responsive, they’re a great way to ask questions and get quick answers or to promote a timely idea or service. Interactivity is excellent, but content is limited to short messages and it’s difficult to integrate multimedia.

Virtual worlds (for example, Second Life and others): These venues may be good for real-time events, but the software is still too clunky for most people to use. Virtual worlds fare best with techie audiences. They’re unique in that you can observe group dynamics, such as facial expressions and body language. They’re also good for events with a strong visual component.

Q: We run a lodging resort and saw negative comments someone had posted about their experience here on their blog. How do you turn a negative blogger into a positive blogger?

A: The tactics that work in the physical world also work online: invite feedback, listen, confirm what you heard and offer some kind of relief or explanation.  In 80% to 90% of these situations, the naysayers can be neutralized or even turned into advocates with these tactics.  Since bloggers can’t see their audience, they tend to write in strong terms, sort of like shouting into the wilderness.  Once you personalize the interaction, they usually back down.  Start by commenting on the blog and also by sending a private e-mail.  It may even be worth picking up the phone.  The more you humanize the interaction, the quicker you’ll bring them around.

What J&J Could Have Done

It wasn’t exactly a repeat of the 1982 poisoned Tylenol disaster, but Johnson & Johnson was struggling with a minor crisis this week after some vocal critics derided an edgy ad that implied that new moms could suffer back pain from carrying their infants. What can we learn from this episode and was J&J’s rapid apology really the best response?

The video had actually been online for more than six weeks before a few vocal moms on Twitter began trashing it this past weekend. The ad suggests, with tongue in cheek, that new moms who bond with their babies by carrying them in slings and chest packs may be inadvertently giving themselves back pain. The message wasn’t that moms shouldn’t bond with their children but that they should be ready for the consequences.

Seems innocuous enough, but a few vocal mommy bloggers didn’t see it that way. They thought the ad was insulting to mothers and they Twittered their criticism, calling for a boycott of Motrin. Bloggers picked up on the controversy and posted more than 100 opinions about the ad, J&J’s reaction and the media frenzy that surrounded it. There were even parody ads making fun of the whole affair. Forrester’s Josh Bernoff has a good account of the controversy with links to background material.

A chastened J&J pulled the ad off its website and issued an apology on its corporate blog. The promotion “was meant to engender sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their kids, but did so through an attempt at humor that missed the mark and many moms found offensive,” wrote Kathy Widmer, Vice President of Marketing at McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

J&J probably had no choice but to withdraw the ad, since the criticism was threatening to swamp any benefit the company had hoped to receive. But you also have to wonder if the company hurt itself by buckling to political correctness due to pressure from a minority of critics. After all, the ad hadn’t seemed to offend anyone in particular during the first six weeks it was posted. It was only after a few outraged mommy bloggers began drawing attention to it that the criticism spiraled out of control. At that point, it was too late for J&J to explain its motives. Its critics had taken control of the conversation and anything the company did would look defensive and stubborn.

The incident quickly created a lot of soul-searching on both sides. A backlash against #motrinmoms developed, with some people criticizing the critics for practicing mob rule. Even one of the most vocal motrinmoms, Jessica Gottlieb, suggested that J&J overreacted in pulling down the ad. In fact most of the recent blogger activity has focused more on untangling what happened than debating whether J&J was right or wrong.

Here’s my take. J&J’s choice of language in the ad was arrogant and dismissive. The ad talked down to mothers and was begging for a backlash. However, that wasn’t necessarily a reason not to run it. J&J could have mitigated the criticism, or even turned it to its advantage, by using social media channels more effectively:

  • The company could have invited a select group of mommy bloggers to preview the campaign privately and offer feedback. Even if the company had elected to go ahead without making changes, it would have been able to argue that it had sought guidance from its target group. And if the moms had blessed the video, it would have been the ultimate defense for J&J.
  • The ad could have been presented in a humorous context on the Motrin site. A message like, “We know your babies aren’t a fashion accessory, but since this is International Baby-Wearing Week, we thought you’d appreciate this good-natured parody,” would have gone a long way toward heading off criticism.
  • J&J could have listened. When a blogger tracked down the head of corporate communications for J&J’s ad agency for a comment on the firestorm on Sunday afternoon, the woman professed to know nothing about the controversy. This is despite the fact that more than 2,000 Twitter messages had already been posted. Take note: the blogosphere doesn’t take weekends off.
  • The company could have jumped into the Twitterstream and engaged. It didn’t, preferring to post a rather brief statement on the blog and issue a press release. Kathy Widmer should have responded on the critics’ own turf. Her message was constructive, but a little too disconnected.
  • J&J could have been more profuse in its apologies. A big donation to Babywearing International would have been a start. Or it could have taken Jessica Gottlieb’s advice and distributed baby slings in maternity awards around the country. I’m not sure I agree that branding them with the Motrin logo would have been such a good idea.

In today’s networked world, there is no excuse for a corporation to be surprised by negative response to a controversial message. Social networks and the blogosphere offer a cheap and speedy way to anticipate criticism. Ironically, J&J is one of only two pharmaceutical companies to host a corporate blog (Glaxo’s alliConnect is the only other one I’m familiar with). This company gets new media more than most of its peers, which makes this online ambush particularly ironic.

Recommended Reading, 11/18/08

This 49-minute podcast from iMediaConnection’s Brand Summit interested me not so much for the marketing case study (although it’s a very good example of viral marketing) as for the honest description of the barriers these two Kraft brand managers confronted in selling their word-of-mouth marketing campaign. You won’t often hear corporate marketers speak so frankly about internal politics.

Adam and Tyler had to repeatedly sell the concept of giving up control over the message to skeptical colleagues, corporate lawyers and top management. Even after the campaign had successfully concluded, they still faced opposition. In some cases, they dealt with it by simply ignoring it or telling people what they wanted to hear. There’s also a good account around minute 40 of how they entered the blogosphere to engage with online critics when the guidance from management and legal was to remain silent. Here’s a link to a written interview, but you’ll get a fuller story from the podcast.

Josh Bernoff has a nice wrap-up of the blog/Twitter/Facebook storm that erupted this past weekend over J&J’s ill-considered “Motrin Moms” ad. The company could have avoided the whole mess by testing the ad with a group of moms, who are some of the most active online networkers. Such a simple way to avoid embarrassment and the cost would have been minimal. Now J&J’s smarting from the whole experience. McNeiil’s VP of marketing has the mea culpa here.

The credit company is experimenting with a Facebook community that offers small business owners a way to connect with each other and to get business management advice from Visa. More than 21,000 members have joined and the repeat-visit rate is twice the industry norm.

Here’s a novel promotion for the forthcoming movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” 20th Century Fox is creating a global participation campaign that enables people to vote on what they would save if the earth truly stood still. From the press release:

Earth’s Vital List, which launches today, poses the question, If the earth was under attack what would you save? Consumers are asked to build a “Vital List” of 12 items (people, places or things) they would save on “the day the earth stands still.” Vital lists can be shared with friends encouraging feedback and votes on which items are truly vital. The world’s most vital items will be tabulated on a global microsite. The site also provides visitors with a view on how items are being ranked around the globe.

I recently criticized corporate bloggers for spewing happy talk while the financial world melted down. So it was nice to see this profile of Marcy Shinder, VP of brand marketing and stategy for American Express OPEN. Amex responded quickly to the Wall Street crisis with a series of articles and multimedia messages aimed at small-to-medium businesses and outlining what the crisis means to them as well as steps they can take to survive the downturn.

Metrics expert Mark Ghuneim suggests that we still have a long way to go in evolving our thinking about viral video metrics beyond view counts. Marketers are beginning to think more holistically about how to measure success. Quoting:

According to a recent FEED Company study, some 70% of ad-agency and media-buying executives plan to increase budgets for viral video marketing in 2009. In addition, 72% of ad-agency executives and media buyers say their clients are “interested” or “very interested” in using viral video as an integral part of their marketing campaigns….

“Favoriting,” commenting, linking to, embedding, social network amplification and other action all constitute a level of user attention that must somehow be accounted for and given appropriate value.

In addition, a marketing executive would also want to know how users were discovering their video, as well as how quickly the view counts were growing. The velocity of consumption and adoption is an important indicator as well as factors beyond the standard impression and stream data. For example, are bloggers talking about the video? Are users micro-blogging about the video?

With an average member earning about $110,000 a year and more than $100 million in investment capital in the bank, you’d think LinkedIn would be sitting pretty. Yet the company is laying off about 36 people. Smart move. Don’t let VC love make you fat and happy.

Om Malik has little nice to say about Jerry Yang’s stewardship of Yahoo. Yang now basically admits he should have sold to Microsoft when he had the chance and the collapse of a partnership with Google is particularly painful. With the economy now in the tank, what’s next?

BusinessWeek is all breathless about the energy that social networks brought to election day, and there are some good stories/examples here. However, listen to NPR’s story on turnout levels for a more sobering view. Turnout was good for the US, but we still lag far behind other democracies.

Privacy advocates may blanch, but I think this is a totally cool way to mine patterns from search behavior that contributes to the common good. What an innovative idea!

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 a half-dozen 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.

Web ≠ Print

chainsThe 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 any prolific blogger 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 and 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.

Personal Productivity

I personally maintain four blogs —,, and – 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.

Daily Reading 10/7/08

  • The Word of Mouth Marketing Association has come up with a compact and useful set of guidelines for marketing to social media influencers. It’s available for review and comment through Oct. 20, after which it will be published.

    tags: daily_reading

  • Here is a passionate argument for a new form of engagement marketing in which the marketer’s task is to find where the customers are already going and to meet them there. Unlike a lot of social media enthusiasts, Tobaccowala sees a need for conventional as well as conversational marketing. The trick is to achieve a blend that invites interaction that enables customers to market to each other.

    tags: daily_reading

  • More than 20% of US companies have investigated “the exposure of confidential, sensitive or private information via a blog or message board posting in the past 12 months,” according to Forrester Research. Data is leaking out of companies at increasing rates as Web 2.0 tools spread and media becomes more portable.

    tags: daily_reading, security

  • My Podcast partner, David Strom, has some practical insight on the limitations of social networks. The problem of separately work and personal identities is particularly annoying for marketers.

    tags: daily_reading

  • Doug Kaye, the innovator who came up with the IT Conversations podcast site, continues to pursue his goal of capturing important events in audio. What’s “important?” Well, in true Web 2.0 spirit, Doug leaves that in the eye of the beholder. is a new effort to catalog all kinds of spoken content.

    tags: daily_reading, podcasting

  • In this fast-paced and hilarious audio keynote from the O’Reilly Open Source Conference, Nat Torkington contrasts the major components of the open source stack to teenage children at various stages of development. It’s 15 minutes well spent.

    tags: daily_reading, open_source

  • Cool maps mashup site that lets you combine two maps; for example, a map of the London underground overlaid on a map of the city of London.

    tags: daily_reading, mashups

  • Sound advice from a blog in India about how to make your story heard amid media noise

    tags: daily_reading, blog_business

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. The knee-jerk reaction to criticism is usually “How dare they!”, but reacting defensively rarely works. Critics are inclined to be blunt when they think they’re shouting into an empty well, but they’re more civil when confronting a real person. Use their anger to reinforce your rationality. Count to 100 before responding, maybe take a walk around the block and then consider if there is any validity to the critic’s comments. Conceding that someone has a point — even if you don’t plan to do anything about it — is the fastest way to disarm him. Simply saying that you heard his comments will go miles toward soothing his anger.

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. One client got so flustered by unanticipated negativity that he began deleting critical comments. NEVER DO THIS. Censorship won’t silence your critics; it will only send them to other forums you don’t control. It’s okay to edit obscene or inappropriate remarks, but don’t delete them just because you don’t like what they say. Once you have created a public forum, you must live with the consequences.

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. Your most vociferous critics may stoop to character assassination to dramatize their case. Don’t go there. Address issues, but leave the name-calling to the amateurs.

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.

Cast a Vote for "Down the Avenue"

My good friend and PR pro Renee Blodgett is in the finals of the PR Week Blog Competition. The winner is chosen by popular vote and Renee’s creativity and impressive contact list have enabled her to overcome some very large agencies to get this far. Please do her a favor: go to the voting page and click on “Down the Avenue” where it says “Vote Here.” It takes two seconds. Hurry, because the competition ends Friday. And then check out Down the Avenue, because we could all learn a few tricks from it.

Secrets of Blogger Relations

From my weekly newsletter. Subscribe using the sign-up box to the right.

Since embracing social media two years ago, Dell Computer has learned a few lessons. One of its key blogger relations people shared some secrets last week in a keynote interview at the New Communications Forum in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Richard Binhammer is charged with monitoring and engaging with the active ecosystem of people who blog about Dell. In a keynote interview with John Cass, Binhammer talked about negativity, a concern often voiced by PR people. Dell has had its share of blogger criticism, going back to the famous Dell Hell incident of three years ago. But by methodically reaching out to complainers, the company reduced negativity from nearly half of all online posts to about 20% in a little less than a year. The secret? “Just talk to people,” Binhammer said. Most of the time, all they want is to be heard. Demonstrate that you’re listening and you can resolve most complaints.

But here’s an interesting fact: After reducing that negativity factor to 20%, the Dell team has been unable to bring it consistently below that level. Binhammer, whose background is in politics, theorizes that 20% is a natural floor, in the same way that 20% of the population always votes for the same political party, regardless of who runs.

This is worth remembering. Even the best businesses have a few unhappy customers. Your mileage may vary, but you should never expect to achieve 100% satisfaction. It’s more likely that your blogger relations program will get you to a manageable yet stubborn base level. That’s your floor, and you probably can’t do much to break through it.

Finding Resources
Binhammer also shed some light on how Dell allocates its communications resources. With so many tech bloggers out there, you’d think the company would have a small army of communications folks monitoring and responding to conversations. In fact, it has just two people sharing the job. The reason? Dell is lining up the whole company behind the effort to get more engaged with customers. PR monitors the airwaves, but doesn’t try to resolve every issue. Most comments are forwarded to the appropriate group for response.

I wish more companies would do this. Bloggers tend to be well-informed and passionate, which means that their inquiries and comments demand knowledgeable responses. Companies that simply delegate the response to PR are failing to benefit from the really rich conversations they can have with their most informed customers. Everyone from sales to engineering should want to speak to customers whenever possible. Why let marketing have all the fun?

How New Influencers are Reinventing Journalism

From my weekly newsletter. Subscribe using the sign-up box to the right.

Meet Ben Popken. You’ve probably never heard of him, but I recommend you learn what he’s all about. He and others like him are rewriting the rules of journalism and, with it, the practice of media relations.

Ben sits atop the editorial pyramid at the blog The Consumerist. In conventional media terms, that pyramid isn’t very big – only seven people – but Consumerist’s reach far outweighs its small staff. The site gets 15 million unique visitors per month, a number that has roughly doubled in the past year. Perhaps more importantly, it’s closely watched by mainstream media outlets. For example, The New York Times has referenced Consumerist 381 times, The Wall Street Journal 114 times and BusinessWeek 37 times. Consumerist gets picked up on the popular social bookmarking site constantly — 34,000 citations and counting. Popken was recently featured in a cover story in BusinessWeek and just wrote a 2,300-word article for Reader’s Digest. All without a day of formal journalism training.

That’s right, no journalism background; at least not as that concept is traditionally defined. Prior to joining Consumerist two years ago, Popken’s professional career had consisted of a variety of entrepreneurial sales ventures and odd jobs. He worked as a delivery man not long before joining Consumerist. He only got the job because the previous editor’s mother read his blog.

What’s even more interesting than his background is the way his staff reports the news. Consumerist gets about 100 e-mails a day from consumers talking about their horrible encounters with businesses of all kinds. Big box retailers, banks, cell phone providers, cable companies and airlines are popular targets. Editors read and respond to each and every e-mail and write up about 30 of those submissions each day for the site. They also monitor a variety of news services looking for important stories that affect consumers.

The New Journalism?
Consumerist editors do little fact-checking. They don’t have time with the volume of material they process. If something is wrong, they expect readers to quickly correct it. This direct reader input is the heart and soul of the Consumerist model, which Popken describes as “to empower consumers by informing and entertaining them about the top consumer issues of the day. We give them a voice by directly publishing their tips and e-mails and then following up on them as warranted.”

A lot of journalists shudder when they read words like these. No editorial oversight? No verification of facts? It sounds like an invitation to disaster. But so far it’s worked. Consumerist gets the occasional legal threat, but it’s never amounted to much. And its laser focus on reader interests has won it a fanatical following. Have you ever sent a letter to a newspaper about a story you read and failed to get a response? At The Consumerist, you are the story.

With his site having already passed the venerable Consumer Reports in traffic, by some accounts, you’d think marketers would be beating down the door trying to get Popken’s opinion. Yet surprisingly, he told me he gets few invitations to speak or consult. Some companies that the blog has repeatedly spotlighted have taken proactive measures. Sprint, for example, set up a dedicated support line for Consumerist readers, but only after the site published direct phone numbers for many of its executives.

With no formal journalism training, no editorial oversight and none of the trappings of conventional media, Ben Popken is becoming one of the most powerful voices in consumer journalism. And what’s funny is that if you ask him about the secret of Consumerist’s success, he uses the same words that any good editor uses: “The secret is to be reader-centric in a fundamental way. The content is driven by the readers and reacted to by the readers. We’re really just a curator of consumer-generated content.”

Get used to this. It’s the online journalism model of the future.