The standard way of thinking about corporate communications is that it is a carefully planned and crafted one-way street of getting your message out to your stakeholders. With the arrival of the web in mainstream of corporate marketing programs in the mid 90’s, there was speculation that the opaque walls of the corporation might finally come down and lead to a transparency and cooperation that centered on the web.
In 2000, Doc Searls and three other authors released the book the cluetrain manifesto, where they argue that the web will change the way the businesses work because of the ability to create bi-directional conversations. These conversations would allow customers to be part of corporate product planning and would remove the need for corporate spin. The web would allow customers in and make corporations transparent.
Seven years later, corporate communications has changed little compared to 2000. Today, some leading edge corporations are looking at adding corporate-endorsed blogs as part of their public relations and communications campaigns and product launches. But that is still very far from the utopia that Doc set out in 2000.
2007 might be the year that ushers in a new era in corporate communications though. There are signs everywhere if you know what to look for. In May, at this year’s MESH conference, there were lots of marketing agencies pushing social websites as another tool for corporation to use for their marketing campaigns. In June, my colleague, Colin Smillie wrote about building brands in Facebook.com, where he outlines how corporations can use Facebook for marketing campaigns. Then at the last CaseCamp5 Toronto, there were several examples of how corporations today are using social web concepts. While most merely described the usage of a blog to push a new product and create a sense of community, Specialized Bicycles went further and created their own social site.
Specialized Riders Club is a combination of Facebook and MySpace, according to Chris Matthews, product manager at Specialized. It wasn't cheap for them to create it from scratch, but this community web site now allows its members to share stories, upload photos, discuss and plan rides, and make new friends all around the central theme of their Specialized bicycle(s). Yes, it has a corporate blog, but that isn't the central hub of the site. By allowing its members, many of whom are very devoted fans of the company’s bicycles, to not only converse with one another, but also to converse with the staff at Specialized, the company has basically ‘hit two birds with one stone’. Their customers become part of their product planning and marketing processes as well as become more devoted to the company.
The Specialized Riders Club would never have been built if it wasn't for the social website frenzy that is happening now and the brilliantly executed Facebook site. While some social web savvy marketing agencies are talking about marketing on Facebook, Specialized is way ahead of the curve by mimicking Facebook's benefits, but completely within their corporate brand and their control.
I expect that other corporations will move towards a similar model. Getting the corporate message to the die-hard customers (i.e. influencers) and allowing them to actually shape that message and future product features will make corporations much more successful in today’s marketplace. Customers appreciate the bi-directional conversations that they have with real employees, because conversations are really about people talking to people, not faceless corporations spinning to target demographics.
Move over corporate blogs, corporate social sites are going to revolutionize how customers interact with corporations. Either the corporation accepts the new reality and joins in the conversation, or that conversation will be taking place without them and will not be in their best interest.