Donna Lynes-Miller was looking to create some buzz for GourmetStation, her
Web-based retailer of high-end food, and jumping on the blog bandwagon seemed
like the perfect way to do it. The medium, after all, thrives on voice and
attitude. And GourmetStation--which ships fine food, including four-course
meals made from recipes by the world's top chefs--has plenty of both.
The Atlanta-based company's unofficial mascot is a fictional character called
T. Alexander, an oh-so-sophisticated epicurean and an expert on everything
from the best Bordeaux to serve with rabbit pâté to how to cook
for vegans. The character had proved so popular with GourmetStation's customers
that Lynes-Miller and her marketing consultant Toby Bloomberg decided that
the blog, Delicious Destinations, would be written in T. Alexander's voice.
With a disclosure that Alexander was indeed a fictional character, the blog
launched last March. But the response was not what the women had hoped for.
Robert French, a communications instructor at Auburn University who blogs
about marketing on a site called Blogthenticity, was the first to notice.
Delicious Destinations, he wrote, was a prime example of so-called character
blogging, something that has become increasingly popular on business blogs. "What
value do you find in this tactic?" he asked his readers. "Is it
authentic?" The blogosphere responded. Hugh MacLeod, who runs Gapingvoid,
a highly regarded and often scathingly critical site for marketing professionals,
decided that GourmetStation's new blog merited special recognition--the Beyond
Lame Award. Soon, GourmetStation was the talk of all the marketing blogs. "Horrible.
Stupid. Insane. Worthless. Ineffective," wrote one person. "The
ultimate in false advertising."
Welcome to the blogosphere. Sixteen percent of the U.S. population reads
blogs, according to a May 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life
Project. The blog search engine Technorati estimates that the number of blogs
doubles every five and a half months--with many of the new ones started by
entrepreneurs. Blogs, after all, are inexpensive and easy to set up. They're
heavily viral--one blogger links to another who links to another, and soon
enough you've attracted a vast community to your company. A well-trafficked
blog also can help generate better results on search engines.
But as Lynes-Miller learned, there's a dark side to the blogosphere. Bloggers,
and those who frequent blogs, can be a prickly lot. They live by a code of
their own, and you offend them at your peril. Come into the club wearing
the wrong thing--something that screams "notice me" but offers
little substance, or pretending to be someone you're not--and there's a good
chance you'll find yourself, and your brand, publicly ridiculed.
Even those who know the rules can get burned. Bloomberg, who writes a blog
called Diva Marketing, knows how sensitive people can be to false representations.
That's why she insisted on disclosing the fictional nature of T. Alexander's
identity from the get-go. In an attempt at full transparency, she even blogged
herself about the development of the character. But it didn't help much.
Indeed, things hit a nadir when the controversy caught the eye of marketing
guru Steve Rubel, who blogs at Micro Persuasion, one of the top 250 most
trafficked blogs on the Web, according to Technorati. "Here comes another
fake blog," Rubel announced.
"I was taken aback," says Lynes-Miller. Her instincts told her
to ignore the uproar and forge ahead. But Bloomberg had other ideas. As a
marketing pro, she'd seen plenty of PR flare-ups on the Web. Do nothing,
and the fire likely will continue to burn on its own. Respond with anger,
she knew, and you risk fanning the flames even more. The best way to douse
them, Bloomberg says, is to join the conversation.
So Bloomberg began writing to the commentators. She kept the tone cool and
respectful, and explained what GourmetStation was trying to accomplish with
its blog. That led even some of its most bitter critics to take a second
look at the site and even change their minds, says Bloomberg. "I may
have overreacted and not understood the entire idea of this particular fictional
character," admitted one.
Lynes-Miller, meanwhile, posted a comment on the blog of her greatest detractor,
Hugh MacLeod, and tried to explain the strategy behind T. Alexander and Delicious
Destinations. "We are a small pioneering food company and we see the
blog and its content as a way of adding value to our patron's experience," she
wrote. "What T. Alexander has to say about food is not as important
as what our patrons have to share about their culinary adventures." MacLeod
was impressed with Lynes-Miller's note. "Thanks for stopping by and
telling your side of the story," he responded on his blog. Of course,
he still professed deep loathing for T. Alexander. "A great food brand
or a great food blogger is no different than a great chef," he said. "She
needs passion and authority. Methinks your T. Alexander has little of either." Some
on the site rose to Lynes-Miller's defense, and, in any case, MacLeod soon
directed his ire elsewhere.
Lynes-Miller has no regrets. For one thing, traffic at her site almost doubled
as a result of the controversy. Besides, blogging is just one part of the
company's marketing plan. In May, for example, GourmetStation was touted
on Good Morning America as a great place to shop for Mother's Day gifts,
which helped send second-quarter sales up 158%.
Meanwhile, T. Alexander's culinary adventures continue uninterrupted. "I
didn't expect the negative feedback we initially received," Lynes-Miller
says. "Though there was no negative feedback from customers--and that's
the feedback I'm most concerned about."