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Open Letter to the Would-Be CEO Blogger

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Dear CEO,

I am really happy to hear that you're getting excited by the concept of social media. There's no question that the principles of social media—in short, embracing a candid and ongoing dialogue with users—constitute an unstoppable trend.

Meanwhile, the tools of social media (blogs, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, etc.) are becoming ever more important components to the marketing mix.

The fact that you want to get personally involved bodes well for your company's chances of successfully navigating these unknown waters.

I can understand why you, as a CEO, would be interested in "joining the conversation." It's an interesting conversation: After all, it's a conversation about topics of interest to you and to your company, and the people you'll interact with will self-identify themselves as being interested in what you've got to say.


And, for what it's worth, here's some more good news: It takes a lot of talent to rise to the CEO spot; you need to be confident, charming, smart, and articulate—and these are excellent qualities in a blogger, too! Done well, your foray into blogging will afford you both personal satisfaction and bottom-line results. So we're off to a good start.

So, umm, how do you really start? How do you get started blogging, and do it well? Let's avoid the technical requirements (you're the CEO, you've got people who can figure that stuff out!) Instead, let's focus on creating the right mindset.

First off, you need to explore your motivations and time commitments before you consider a dual career as a CEO-blogger.

Too many would-be CEO bloggers treat their new toy as little more than a weekly newsletter: a way to broadcast their thoughts, rather than a way to create a dialogue. These execs expect that simply because they are the CEO, people will be magnetically drawn to their words. But then they are crushed to see "Comments: (0)" after each post and their acknowledged industry expertise in the "real world" not reflected in their wan "Technorati Authority" ranking.

And then they give up, pooh-poohing the ballyhooed blogosphere as they munch on sour grapes. Because they couldn't tame the blogosphere, they lose interest.

Now, all other blog-related projects at the company become suspect—after all, if the CEO couldn't hack it, who dares think that they could do better? And thus a company loses a golden opportunity to engage with its customers and prospects.

But you're not like that? You are one of those rare CEOs who not only will make the time to do it right but truly wants to engage?

Cool. Start by not blogging.

Don't blog for at least one full month following your decision to start blogging. Instead, spend that time finding other blogs in your industry. Read them. Comment judiciously. Leave your "agenda" on the coat rack. Just get to know a few folks. Introduce yourself.

Who's doing a good job? Whom should you emulate? There's a great list of CEO bloggers from companies worldwide at the NewPR Wiki, and you should feel free to peruse this list. Some of my personal favorites:

  • The Video Professor himself (he's ubiquitous via CNN commercials), John Scherer, whose long-running blog is quite candid and not nearly as salesy as you'd expect. 
  • Jonathan Schwartz, Sun Microsystems CEO, is also a well-known blogger. His posts tend to be long and very Sun-specific, but you can feel his passion. 
  • Craigslist's Craig Newmark clearly is just being himself at his low-key but always-interesting blog. 
  • Ross Mayfield of SocialText is also a terrific blogger; his posts are unique and his overall presence online is impressive. 
  • Likewise, Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe-seller Zappos.com, is all over the place online. In addition to his candid and thoughtful blogging, Tony's a big presence on Twitter, as well. (CEOs on Twitter? That's a whole other article!) 

One thing you'll likely notice about these blogs is their personality. Each of these CEOs comes across as a humble soul. That seems to run contrary to our collective version of a hard-charging CEO, but you get the sense that these are "nice guys."

As the CEO, regardless of whether you're as nice or famous as the CEOs listed above, you're probably accustomed to being noticed when you walk into an industry function. You may even have handlers to squire you to the centers of power in a conference hall.

But, even while social media contains millions of people interacting each day, the overall climate in these channels is far more intimate than in a conference hall. A better analogy suggests that you think about the process of moving into a new house. You wouldn't presume that level of recognition and clout if you walked into a block party in your new neighborhood. You'd hang back a little, wedge yourself mildly into a conversation, and try to fit in. You'd be a gentleman.

And yet there might still be moments of awkwardness. All the neighbors already know each other. There are cliques. There's context, politics, and in-jokes to figure out. You wouldn't expect to be the life of the party right away. But, you knew that going in... so, to help grease the skids, you brought some nice bottles of wine and some of your killer BBQ ribs.

Same with blogging, Chief. Think of blogging as an extended block party. You're certainly invited, but please don't expect to be Mr. (or Ms.) Popular right away. Giving freely of your attention in the form of commenting and linking liberally to your peers' blogs is the equivalent of handing out your BBQ goodies.

It could take years, but sooner or later your neighbors will come to respect, expect, and love your contributions.

Up for it? Awesome. Cover up the keyboard, lay aside your ambitions, start reading, and join the fun.

Eager to learn more? Wrestling with the best approaches to integrating social media into your Marketing plans? Download this e-book (pdf) by SHIFT Communications chief Todd Defren for a comprehensive perspective covering basic principles to advanced techniques.


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Todd Defren is a principal at SHIFT Communications (www.shiftcomm.com), where he leads client service efforts. He created the first templates for Social Media News Releases (2006) and Social Media Newsrooms (2007). He blogs at PR Squared (www.pr-squared.com).

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  • by Brent Billock Tue Feb 3, 2009 via web

    Great article, Todd.

    I have a small client who I think could really benefit from blogging. Even though this is written for an executive at a larger firm, I'l be sure to direct him here first to follow your recommendations.

  • by Todd Defren Tue Feb 3, 2009 via web

    Thanks for the kind words, Brent. In my experience, "small company CEOs" can be just as ... ummmm ... "hard charging" as big-time company chiefs. Hope it helps!

  • by Chuck Hemann Tue Feb 3, 2009 via web

    Todd - thanks a lot for this post. Similar to Brent, we have a lot of small clients who would like to venture into the blogosphere but find it intimidating or, better yet, aren't terribly sure where to begin. We will definitely be passing this around. Thanks again

  • by Todd Defren Tue Feb 3, 2009 via web

    My pleasure, Chuck! Let me know if it helps?

  • by Mike Keliher Tue Feb 3, 2009 via web

    A good read and, certainly, good advice. When you cut to the chase, the bottom line is: Think, learn more and then act. Tough to argue with knowing what's in the lake before diving off the dock.

    But I have one nit to pick.

    I don't directly disagree with "Start by not blogging," but I do think, if a CEO is going around the digital town, getting a lay of the land and introducing herself at the digital block party, she needs to bring *something* to that block party.

    To continue the metaphor, "Giving freely of your attention in the form of commenting and linking liberally to your peers' blogs is the equivalent of handing out your BBQ goodies" is 100 percent spot on. But in this example, a CEO is supposed to be a modest but eager block party attendee with no ribs and wine to share?

    Let's say the CEO introduces herself via a series of blog comments on some relevant, related blogs. She's digitally meeting some good folks, and it's only natural for them to want to connect with her in a social Web way: connect via LinkedIn, follow on Twitter, subscribe to a blog -- something.

    A CEO need not start by blogging for the sake of having some "wine and BBQ" to share, but a CEO should have something to share besides her presence at the block party known as the comments section.

    Does that make sense? It's been a long day, and I clearly am not averse to rambling.

  • by Todd Defren Tue Feb 3, 2009 via web

    Yea, Mike, that makes sense; I am not trying to present a hard-and-fast rule; there is no ONE RIGHT WAY. The CEO might just point to their corporate website in the interim, or, sure, start a blog that doesn't become too "serious" until they know the lay of the land...

  • by Mike Keliher Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    ...or have a Twitter account, or at least a LinkedIn profile, or something. That's all I'm saying. Although, you mentioned just using the company Web site. That's not a bad idea, depending on the quality of the site, of course!

  • by Kevin Horne Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    Do you really mean the "CEO"? Or is this a stand in for "corporate blogging"?

    If the former, I believe the jury has come back on this one with a "guilty" verdict.

  • by Todd Defren Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    I disagree Kevin, though I'll certainly admit that good CEO bloggers are relatively rare thus far!

  • by Mandy Vavrinak Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    Todd,
    Thanks for a great post... I'd add that perhaps this is a great rule (listen first) for all would-be bloggers. Getting to know the world you'll be blogging in just seems to make sense, regardless of your position at a company (or AS the company if you're a company of one).

    And your point about bringing something to the party is well-made... I believe listening, and contributing as you suggest, IS bringing something of value. If no audience is around to appreciate the star (life of the party), who will reflect the brilliance? Ok... pained metaphor, perhaps... :)

    I'm saying that the world is full of people who are speaking. More listening in general would be a very, very good thing!

  • by Brandon R Allen Thu Feb 5, 2009 via web

    Todd,

    Enjoyed the post. I like the recommendation to get out there and start having conversations. The only part that gave me pause was in watching what other CEOs are doing and emulating. Emulation in some ways is sound advice but my fear is that some would take this advice too far and forget that part of blogging is speaking in your voice and revealing who you are. Too much emulation and you are just like everyone else and not being true which is what you want to avoid. It's certainly a fine line and maybe something I recommend for high profile individuals to make sure they have help.

    Thanks for the article.

  • by Todd Defren Thu Feb 5, 2009 via web

    A fair point, Brandon - though in my experience, most CEOs are determined to craft their own unique approach!

  • by kimberly mccabe Thu Feb 19, 2009 via web

    This article made me think of Randy Pausch - there's an earnest quality that is cool to read in some blogs. It's great to read posts from C-suite officers when they have something compelling to say. When they can really lead or inspire...they become memorable and worth following: it breaks through the clutter. The best part of this article was the instruction not to blog, but to stop and think about what you really have to say. I am really excited to see Oshyn, Inc's CEO on Twitter-sometimes you have to jump in the social media world to really begin to understand it's value.

  • by Michelle Lamar Sat Feb 21, 2009 via web

    Can I please just paste this on my forehead and wear it to the next meeting with a CEO that wants to blog? Would you mind?

  • by Teresa Caldwell Thu Apr 2, 2009 via web

    I really appreciated the article and all the comments as well. Thanks. Very helpful!

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