Robert Scoble's decision to leave Microsoft for a podcasting start-up generates a lot of comment today in the blogosphere. Scoble, an intelligent guy and a fine writer who conveys a winning personality in his blog Scobleizer, was characterized as the guy who "put a human face" on Microsoft. His departure from Microsoft was amicable, but from the media reaction, one would think this is a grievous loss for the software behemoth. From FT.com:
The internet was buzzing on Monday as bloggers digested news that Robert Scoble, the technical evangelist” whose Scobleizer weblog made him one of the foremost ambassadors for the world’s biggest software group, is to leave the company to join a Silicon Valley start-up.
The move, reported at the weekend, raises fresh questions about the importance of high-profile bloggers to companies that encourage employees to talk about work in their online journals.
The move illustrates the challenge facing companies as they try to get to grips with a world in which the reputation of individual bloggers can come to be closely associated with – or have a big impact on – the reputation of a company’s own brand.
This is pretty silly. Scoble was an alternative source of information about Microsoft, and it spoke well of the company that it didn't fire him for filing posts that had a candid tone to them. But he was not Microsoft's "human" face. That honor still belongs to founder Bill Gates, one of the most recognized humans on the planet, and Steve Ballmer, the current CEO whose utterings are carefully parsed in the business and technology press.
Robert Scoble's left pinky was warmer, fuzzier and more "human" than Gates and Ballmer combined, but that doesn't change their relative impact on Microsoft. If Scoble's job was to take the focus off these two gentlemen, he failed. But I don't think that was the idea.
I think Scoble was driven to blog because he genuinely loved Microsoft and the people who worked there, and had a knack for articulating his passion about his company–and about his life. When I think about Scobleizer, I think about his incredibly honest posts about his mother, who died recently, and how the experience affected his view of his family and his life. I enjoyed his dispatches from the tech-conference circuit. They were human and humorous.
Frankly, I tended to discount whatever Scoble said about Microsoft, for two reasons. He was a marketing guy. You can't sell a product you don't believe in, and part of the psychology of salespersons is the ability to auto-generate the kind of belief needed to sell. Secondly, I'm not obsessed with Microsoft. I know Vista's coming, for example. But I won't be the first to try it. I realize I live in Microsoft's world, but I don't think about it much.
I want to see more businesses–big, small, and not-for-profit–hosting blogs. But over-reliance on one individual — and a lower-level employee at that — doesn't make much sense as a strategy.
To me, one point of a company blog is to dramatize the firm's expertise; to take its potential customers on an intellectual journey that parallels the company's growth, evolution, and new offerings. Another point is to demonstrate the commitment to transparent decision-making that companies' stakeholders increasingly demand — as Elizabeth Albrycht discussed in this required-reading post, and this follow-up. (I wrote about her ideas here.)
Scoble did some of the first, although it was mostly his intellectual journey. He wasn't in a position to do the second, because he wasn't a decision-maker.
The kind of blog I would envision as helpful to a company would be highly customized. There is no off-the-shelf strategy, and never will be, for this kind of communication. It must be flexible — a place where conversation about a new product could comfortably share space with responses to a crisis, or outlines of a decision-making process underway in real time.
I would look at a company blog as a cyberspace auditorium — a place targeted readers will want to go to hear from, and interact with, interesting people with relevant information to offer, whether they were executives, academics, customers or employees. Sometimes it might be an arena, where adversaries debate. The blog would become an essential experience for anyone who envisioned themselves as a potential customer, or who had any significant relationship with the company in question.
Above all, a company blog has to give its audience a reason to come back frequently — a hook. Robert Scoble's hook was: "How honest is he really going to be?" After awhile, the hook became Scoble himself — a guy we liked and rooted for. But as he said himself many times, he was just one person at Microsoft. For businesses, non-profits, public-sector agencies and others, the trick will be to create your own blog format, one that allows us to read and hear the many voices that make up your universe — and help us figure out how you fit into our lives.