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The March 15 issue of the AMA Marketing News—usually a weekly time capsule of conventional wisdom from a decade ago—had a cover story concerning how agencies and companies are using blogs to promote brands and site visits. But the story was actually a case study in what not to do, plus it failed to even mention wikis as an emerging branding tool.

To promote a new flavored-milk product called Raging Cow, Dr Pepper/Seven Up had a “cow” post random comments about a cross-country trip. Although the target audience was 18- to 24-year-olds, the comments appealed more to third-graders.

A sample: “‘How would a cow know diddly about the phases of the moon?' Good question, but ever since that whole jumping over the moon incident, we cows and yonder moon have been TIGHT.”

So, recognizing that this is an emerging area, here are 10 rules for using blogs and wikis to achieve your branding goals:

1. Be authentic

Brands are about trust, and authenticity is the foundation of trust. Blogs should be written as if close friends were sharing observations over a beer. It's easy to tell when PR or legal vampires have sucked the life out of content. By making up phony posts, Dr Pepper/Seven Up was guilty of “astro-turfing”—creating the perception of a grassroots movement where none exists. To promote Raging Cow, it would have been more effective—and honest—to record the actual observations of a diary farmer or Gen Y-ers on a cross-country trek to find the ultimate milkshake.

2. Be an unmatched resource

Politicians have perfected the art of the “trial balloon.” An idea is leaked, and the resultant reaction signals whether it's politically safe to proceed. Use your blog to provide heads-up information unavailable elsewhere, like a forthcoming product or marketing blitz. Any feedback represents invaluable market research.

3. Once you start, don't stop

Blogs are like marriage. Once you start one, you are committed. Otherwise, you risk the wrath of those who link to your blogs or tune in regularly. Dr Pepper/Seven Up pulled the plug on its blog after four months.

4. Keep it relevant

What makes the corporate blogs of Macromedia, Microsoft and others so interesting is that they provide insights about the software and related industry issues such as standards. They don't talk about breakfast menus or the inevitable US deficit disaster. Help ensure relevance with links to other appropriate blogs or Web sites. And be sure to link to your latest press release, article or commercial.

5. Measure your effectiveness

See where you rank on Google, which tends to rank blogs higher than Web sites (in fact, one wit defined a blog as “better location on Google”). Establish an RSS feed and see how many link to you. Keep tabs on your rankings on Daypop, Feedster or Technorati.

6. Monitor other blogs

Most blog entries are just a paragraph or two. You can easily read 200 blogs in an hour. This keeps you in front of the emerging issues in your market and improves your own blog. Link to other blogs, even if they are critical—but be sure to answer their claims in your own blog.

7. Trust your employees

Employees generate the most credible blogs, but there is always the risk of unveiling corporate secrets. Encourage your employees to blog, but set reasonable ground rules. Groove Networks has a good model. Policies should also address how much corporate time employees can spend blogging.

8. Use blogs for knowledge management

Despite its critics, knowledge management (KM) has not been over-promised; rather, vendors have under-delivered. Blogs can address the gap between KM promise and requirements by letting local expertise emerge. Here's a good background on blogs and how Lucent is using them in KM. Other companies using blogs effectively include DaimlerChrysler, Hartford Financial Services Group, IBM and ESPN.

9. Use wikis for employee and customer collaboration

Wikis (based on the Hawaiian word for quick) use open-source principles to transform KM and even the centuries-old relationship between reader and author. Wikis have a link at the bottom of the page that allows anyone to add, change or delete the text. Authoring tools, passwords or permission are not required. (To prevent disasters, older versions of each page are easily restored.) Changes are flagged via RSS alerts.

As a result, wikis represent an ideal medium for collaborative brainstorming. Imagine putting a plan for a new product on a wiki, and have it be modified to precisely reflect the requirements of potential customers! Think wikis can't work? One favorite resource is the Wikipedia. It has more than 237,000 informative articles on a wide variety of topics (ranging from Bush to dumpster diving), all with numerous links back to source material. All the articles can be changed by anyone at any time, which means that the great content results from survival of the fittest. The only downside of wikis is that they are text-based, but considering the way many abuse HTML, that is not always bad.

10. Develop an organizational content strategy now

Email, blogs, wikis, Web, voice mail, faxes, newsletters, advertising, PR. No wonder it is so hard for organizations to speak with the consistent voice that is so critical for branding. An organizational content strategy can ensure consistency, vibrancy and value for employees, customers, suppliers and others.

Although it seems like a natural fit, responsibility for an organizational strategy should lie outside the marketing department, lest it be corrupted by “positioning,” corporatespeak or other relics of the mass economy.

For other insights, see the Corporate Weblogger's Manifesto.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Wreden is the author of ProfitBrand: How to Increase the Profitability, Accountability and Sustainability of Brands (named "Best Business Book of 2005" by strategy+business) and FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future. Reach him at nick@fusionbrand.com.