Yesterday morning (at an ungodly hour I have to say!) I headed to Paris on the train to join Loic Le Meur and Niall Cook on a panel moderated by Neville Hobson. We were the opening session for the annual IABC Eurocomm Conference. Over (multiple cups of) coffee and yummy pains au chocolat, we shared our thoughts on the "giant global focus group" represented by the online world.
Neville kicked things off by doing a quick audience poll. I was happy to discover that a good 5-6 people (out of 70 or so by my eyeballs) were already blogging, that roughly a quarter of the audience was subscribing to RSS feeds, that more than 10 were podcasting and many more were listening to podcasts. And I'd say that absolutely eveyone raised their hands when asked if they knew what a blog was.
This is great news, considering that the room was filled with senior-level communications people from a variety of large companies, international non-profit organizations and so forth. I'd venture to guess that the majority of these people communicated across a wide number of national and continental borders every day.
All of us sitting on stage are pragmatists when it comes to using participatory communications tools. That means we didn't sit there saying, "Blog or Die!" and "Press releases are dead!" Even Loic, who probably wishes everyone on the planet would blog (he sells the platforms after all), acknowledges that the CEO isn't always the best person to be the designated blogger of a company (if you want such a thing).
As usual, the ROI question came up. I reproduced my answer, in part, over on the Plenary Panel weblog, but I am putting it here as well:
My point (and I have written about this elsewhere) is that our task as communicators is network building. Participatory communications tools are particularly powerful for this task. This means that by commenting on other people's blogs, by blogging yourself, by participating in a wiki, and so forth, you are building a network of connections between you, your organisation, and your audiences.
My argument is that these connections, or links, are stronger than the links you form when you meet someone on a plane or at a conference and exchange business cards, because they are material and visible. Unless you are a fantastic and motivated networker, you may never use that business card. But by commenting on a blog, that link can be more easily followed up on and, perhaps more importantly, others can see it, and follow it.
All of the links you build are investments in the future. You never know when you might need to call on the person you linked to to become an ally. By contributing to a conversation, by acknowledging someone's existence, they just may see you as trustworthy - or at least worth the benefit of the doubt. They might defend you when you need it, even if they don't always agree with you because they feel like you make an effort to communicate with your customers.
As I mentioned, we communicators sit in front of potentially millions of people who could comment about us. There are no budgets big enough to enable you to handle that number of people individually. That is why we need networks of allies to help us. And when that network kicks in, you have just experienced your ROI.
The conversation was great, the audience asked lots of good questions, and I greatly enjoyed sharing my views with my fellow panelists. It was the first time I had meet Niall, which was a distinct pleasure, as I really like what he is doing at Hill & Knowlton.