Bloggers send a warning shot to corporate America

9 februari 2005, 17:24

It started with a simplegripe posted on a weblog – the blogger was unhappy that his new mobile phone did not work as advertised.

It was not long before other angry bloggers chimed in with their own stories, flooding the “blogosphere” with a stream of complaints that culminated last month in a class action lawsuit against the second-largest wireless network operator in the US.

The lawsuit against Verizon Wireless – and the way it came about – highlights the challenges that weblogs pose to corporations.

Weblogs – popularly known as blogs – are online journals that people create to share their thoughts and opinions. Internet experts say some blogs are adept at synthesising public opinion and can be a powerful force that companies ignore at their peril.

Tech-savvy people have for years shared their views through obscure internet chatrooms and bulletin boards. But easy-to-use blogging software and powerful search engines are now creating vast and efficient “word of mouth networks” on which tens of millions can compare information.

“If companies don’t understand that and don’t learn how to track what people are saying, they are going to be hit violently with PR problems that they don’t understand or know where they are coming from,” says Robert Scoble, a Microsoft employee who writes a popular tech blog.

Verizon Wireless learned this the hard way when customers began to complain about Motorola’s high-end V710 mobile phone.

The network operator advertised it as Bluetooth-enabled, meaning it contains the wireless technology to connect to computers, headsets and hands-free car kits.

But Verizon Wireless had disabled a key Bluetooth function that would have enabled customers to transfer files between their phones and computers.

That meant customers needed to pay extra to use the company’s network to transfer files. Verizon Wireless said it did so to protect its network from viruses.

Hundreds of disgruntled Verizon Wireless customers took to the blogosphere to trade stories, swap hints about ways to adapt their phones and tell of their efforts to make the carrier correct the problem.

Several posted letters in which the company tried unsuccessfully to mollify its angry customers.

Verizon Wireless, which declined to discuss the lawsuit, found itself conducting a crisis-management exercise in full public view.

The northern Californian man who filed the lawsuit last month was one of those angry customers. He decided to sue after reviewing numerous blog entries and realising that many others had already unsuccessfully appealed to the company.

“Blogs were very instrumental in him being able to, in arelatively short time, determine that nobody was going to give him any relief,” said Michael Kelly of Kirtland & Packard, the law firm representing the plain tiff. It was certainly not the first time blogs have created headaches for corporate America.

Apple Computer is suing a student for allegedly posting details of products before they were launched. Others have fired staff who used their blogs to attack their employers.

Microsoft got a taste of the blogosphere in December when it unveiled its new blogging software. Bloggers slammed Microsoft’s crude filters, which would not let someone launch a blog entitled Pornography and the Law, yet permit the creation of an “educational” site showing teens how to smoke crack cocaine. There are sure to be many more instances.

Some executives have started their own blogs to proselytise about their companies, while others are responding by hiring one of an increasing number of intelligence firms that monitor online traffic.

But Mike Masnick, chief executive of Techdirt, one such firm, says most companies are oblivious to blogs and those that are aware do not know how to respond.

He believes the best strategy is to engage bloggers openly and honestly in their realm. Any whiff of insincerity will be picked up and turned against a company.

That is exactly how Microsoft managed to defuse criticism about its blogging software. Mr Scoble, “a software evangelist” at Microsoft, acknowledged criticism about MSN Spaces in real time and let the bloggers know the company was listening to their complaints.

The simple gesture showed bloggers that Microsoft, widely seen as anti-competitive and arrogant, was reaching out in a personal and responsive way.

“It’s the new world and you want to be part of the conversation,” says Mr Scoble. Mr Masnick is quick to agree. “Companies that don’t recognise this are going to get bitten,” he says. It is a lesson that Verizon Wireless is learning the hard way.

Marco Derksen
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