The Online Journal – a Direct Line to Your Customers

Martin Röll
Martin Röll

Mr. Röll, how long has the means of communication known as the “weblog” been around, how did it come about, and how has it evolved since then?

Röll: Weblogs have been around for about five years. In the US, they experienced a boom after 9/11. At the time, New Yorkers used weblogs to report on events in the city, and sometimes these were the only available sources of information. After that, many people started to write about the wider political changes taking place in the US. Weblogs have existed in Germany for about three years. There are about 40,000 weblogs in German, and a good 350 new ones spring up every month.

Weblogs originated as tools for creating annotated bookmark collections. Just like a log book, they were intended to record what the user had found on the web and make this available to others – in this way links, quotes, comments, etc., could be posted easily on the web. The collections are always sorted chronologically so you can see the latest information at first glance, and older stuff remains retrievable. All weblog forms we know today evolved from this original application.

What function do weblogs fulfil in society?

Röll: Weblogs add to the diversity of the media landscape. News isn’t just broken and commented on by a select group of publicists, rather thousands of voices enrich the debate on a topic. Topics or opinions that are marginalized in the traditional media can find an audience – provided they are accepted by the online community. After all, simply publishing a message is no guarantee that it will be read! A blogger can only reach a wider circle of people if other weblogs link to the blog and guide the attention of other readers to it. In this way, the medium contains a kind of democratic check. What’s important is that everybody can express themselves regardless of their power and status, and everyone has the chance to be heard.

Is there such a thing as a typical blogger? What is the blogger scene like?

Röll: The blogger scene has become as diverse as society itself. From journal-writing adolescents via IT specialists through to university professors – all kinds of people blog. There is no such thing as “the” blogger scene as such, rather there are a large number of groups or clusters of weblogs that are centered around particular topics, regions, or software platforms. These groups are highly interlinked in themselves, but only loosely connected with each other. If you ever wander into the niche where the programmers’ weblogs are, you might think that that’s the lot, until you discovered the knitting bloggers’ group or the Lawblogs − lawyers’ weblogs. There’s also the so-called “A list”: very well-known weblogs that are read by more or less everybody and have a connecting function between the clusters.

In the US, more and more IT companies are using weblogs as a channel to communicate with their customers. How do you explain this boom?

Röll: Communication with their customers is a very high priority for a lot of American companies. However, in the past it was always quite a complex process communicating with customers via the Internet. Weblogs satisfy a need that was always there − the need for an uncomplicated, cheap yet effective solution for publishing online.

In contrast to the USA, German companies hardly use weblogs at all. Why is that?

Röll: In Germany, communication with customers via media has a long tradition. Companies employ press teams and marketing departments to do this, and the technical departments don’t feel that communication is their responsibility. This means that direct, personal contact with the customer often falls by the wayside. Companies in the US recognized early on that the Internet combines the benefits of mass communication with personal contact.

What potential benefits do online journals offer companies in comparison to other media? Are there any differences between industries?

Röll: Weblogs enable you to reach very specific target groups, which means they are particularly suitable for highly specialized publications. Interesting weblogs usually attract a community of competent readers and other bloggers who can give feedback and act as information distributors. The IT industry offers the biggest potential at the moment, which is why companies like Microsoft and Sun and analysts like Jupiter Research were the first to use weblogs to communicate with their customers and partners.

In which parts of a company can weblogs be used particularly effectively?

Röll: Any part of the company that wants to communicate with customers and partners, or even just with other parts of the company, can use weblogs. Weblogs can often be more effective than e-mail newsletters, for example, particularly in areas where you don’t just want one side of an issue to be presented, but you want feedback and discussion.

Weblogs are interesting in PR terms because they address special target groups and get feedback straight from the market. However, marketing and PR shouldn’t make the mistake of simply transferring their old communication habits to the new medium − weblogs have their own culture that should be respected if you want to be successful. Newcomers should start be taking small steps, experimenting and learning.

Shouldn’t companies be afraid that they’ll lose control over the things that are getting into the public domain if their technical departments start communicating via weblogs?

Röll: Does this control exist at all any more? Employees from technical departments express themselves publicly every day in forums, communities, mailing lists, and elsewhere. With a weblog, this communication remains within the sphere of the individual company, which actually improves control rather than hindering it!

What technology do you need to get a weblog going?

Röll: You need a web server, a database, and some weblog software. Many weblog systems are available as free software. There are also service providers who supply weblogs in their Application Service Providing (ASP), meaning you don’t have to invest in your own technology at all.

Do you have a vision of how weblogs may look in five years?

Röll: Weblogs will be a central feature of the Internet, just as websites, newsgroups, and e-mail are today. Many entrepreneurs, managers, and companies will run weblogs. Market research departments will systematically search weblogs for information about their industry and their company, and press departments will communicate via weblogs. Plus, weblogs will be established personal information and knowledge management tools within companies.

Weblogs at SAP: Managers publish their information and experiences in the SAP Community, and developers do so in the SAP Developer Network.