Developing a conversation with Bob Bly

Last week, copywriter Bob Bly became the target for highly critical comment all over the blogosphere following an article he wrote in DM News that said blogging is a complete waste of time.

As other bloggers did I posted commentary about Bly’s article, under the title The story of the copywriter who didn’t get it. That post was the most visited page on my blog from Thursday night to early on Monday.

On Monday night, I received an email from Bob Bly in relation to my post, with a question. I’ve replied. It’s a good question, one I can’t directly answer. So I told Bly that I’m posting the entire content of my email here. Please add any opinions, different views, answers, additional points, etc, by making a comment here or on your own blog.

Maybe Bly can be persuaded of the business benefits of blogging. Here’s to developing conversations and relationships!

9 November 2004
Bob, thanks for your note.

You asked whether I can show you a company that generates 1% of the $40 million annual sales your #1 client generates through email marketing, but as a direct result of blogging.

Well, the short answer is that I can’t. I’d be surprised if anyone can, in fact. Does this mean that blogs are therefore a complete waste of time as you articulated in your article in DM News? Far from it.

Your question is about making a comparison between two communication tools or channels that (currently) behave in very different ways and have different objectives. Your question might have been better if we were comparing email marketing with RSS – that’s a subject that’s been a discussion topic recently (like other blogs, I’ve commented about that as well) and is one that will become more talked about as RSS becomes more prevalent and starts to carry advertising content. But that’s another topic.

I imagine each of your email marketing campaigns has specific and measurable goals to achieve, eg, a certain level of direct sales, or requests for information, set up meetings, order products, etc. All part of the traditional marketing mix that’s worked well for many years.

Can blogs do this? I believe they can – which isn’t the same as saying they should – but not yet on a scale such as illustrated by your question. There are already examples of smaller-scale successes, though, as Rick Bruner of Business Blog Consulting pointed out in his post commenting on your article. I’ve also written about how blogs can be a real business benefit: Clip-n-Seal, for example.

The embracing of blogs in the business context is still in its start-up phase. Yet just look around you. It seems that everyone is talking about blogs. Not just those who blog, I should add, although there are plenty of those including me. Mainstream media are commenting on the business benefits: in the past few months, there have been such articles in publications as diverse as Business Week, Financial Times and CFO Magazine.

More evidence is starting to emerge about the benefits to companies of blogging as illustrated by clear statements from Jupiter Research on how their analyst blogs are driving sales leads and a research report on business blogging just published by Forrester Research which includes recommendations that use of blogs should vary based on business goals.

I don’t disagree with some of the comments you made in your article. Many blogs are indeed rambling musings. There is little or no censure or editing. But that’s the nature of many blogs. According to Technorati, there are nearly 5 million blogs out there. Of that figure, they categorize about 5,000 as business blogs. A drop in the ocean at the moment. Inevitably, there are blogs that don’t have a general interest. Others that are just poorly done. And yet others that might have good content but not well presented. So what’s different between this and ‘normal’ media, print and online? Just pay attention to the ones that meet your criteria. There is plenty of choice.

But to dismiss all of this by saying blogs are a complete waste of time doesn’t make any sense at all. As a communication medium, blogs today have clear credibility and increasing business influence. Haven’t you heard about the Kryptonite fiasco?

Your article is actually a very good illustration of how blogs have depth and breadth of reach and influence that many other media just don’t any longer.

You wrote your article in a publication that published it on its website on 2 November. It was picked up by, among others, bloggers who commented on it on 3 November. I saw two such blog posts in my RSS feed on 4 November. One click later, I was reading your article. I then wrote my commentary about it on 4 November. Others, including other media sites, picked up on the various blogger comments and, before you know it, you’re suddenly a big focus of attention by the weekend.

You really did set yourself up for online vilification with your sweeping negative statement!

Do you still have the same opinions about blogs? Other than the proof of ROI that you’re seeking, what else will help you see the business benefits? In particular, from the marketing perspective?

It’s a pity you didn’t ask your question in a post on my blog, or on one of the other blogs, as it would demonstrate to you one of the ways in which blogs work as a means of developing conversations and building relationships. So I’m posting the content of this email message on my blog. If you’d like to develop a discussion, one in which others can also get involved, please do.

It may also be that someone else actually does have an example to share that will answer your question!

Best regards

UPDATE 12 November: See new post Getting an education.

17 thoughts on “Developing a conversation with Bob Bly

  1. Neville:
    Like you, I sent an e-mail response to Bly’s piece and engaged with him in an offline discussion. I think, in part, he really doesn’t get it but I have come to realize that he feels he is writing for a very distinct Direct Marketing crowd that is less interested in the potential for blogs than in the here-and-now ROI blogs might (or might not, in this case) be able to provide.
    I don’t care to argue the merits of this sort of short-term mypoia but it does cast some light on how an apparently intelligent marketing pro could be so obtuse. He thinks bashing blogs universally is OK because they haven’t become a viable channel for spamming huge lists of folks in the hopes that a tiny percentage will actually respond. Sad… but typical of the DM industry.

  2. Bob Bly responded quickly to my email to him. I told him I’ll post his comments here with my reply.
    Bob’s response:
    You make some good points, but I don’t buy all your arguments.
    I think what you and others in the blogging community miss is that there is this huge portion of the world that isn’t “into” your stuff.
    We don’t read blogs, make posts, visit chat rooms, or buy into the Cluetrain Manifesto. That’s why the only Kryptonite I know about makes Superman sick!
    I still have largely the same opinion about blogs, and nod my head in vigorous agreement when you talk about “rambling musings” with “little or no
    As a direct marketer, if I spend a dollar on marketing and don’t get at least $2 to $3 back, I am wasting my time and the client’s money.
    A columnist for Maximum PC once wrote, “The best thing about the Internet is that anyone can publish to it. The worst thing about the Internet is that anyone can publish to it.”
    That about sums it up for me.
    My reply:
    Bob, I think you’ve pinpiointed the issue that’s driving your views – you don’t read blogs, make posts or visit chatrooms. As a marketer, you’re missing phenomenal opportunities to see at first hand what’s really going on in the marketplace. And re the Cluetrain Manifesto, well, that’s a whole other topic we could spend a long time discussing.
    I have to say that you do hold some extremely Luddite views. You’re a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide! This isn’t about two different communities: those into blogging and those who aren’t. It’s about clear and credible business benefits where blogs are just another tool to use.
    And I for one am not advocating, by any means, that you should use blogs instead of, say, tried and tested means for direct email marketing. But you need to consider them. You might then dismiss them as not the appropriate tool for your need. That’s fine – no doubt you do that for any marketing planning: set your objectives and then, as part of your planning, determine which are the most effective means to achieve those objectives. Dismissing blogs out of hand, though, is not very smart.
    So what will you say to your #1 client when he/she asks you: Bob, I think we should consider blogs as part of our marketing strategy. ?

  3. Marc, you may well be right. I do encounter similar views among some in the PR community.
    What’s the real issue? It’s all about change – change in the traditional way of doing things. Similar thinking when desktop publishing emerged in the 80s, and with email and the web in the 90s.
    But I’d like to help Bob Bly, though, and see if his myopia is curable.

  4. Thanks for that example, Christopher. It’s another very good one. I’m going to quote the last paragraph from the article, says it all really:
    “[Blogs have] huge potential and many applications that are just beginning to be implemented,” concludes Broadbent. “A great example is companies that use blogs to keep customers up to date on new products or services. The blog becomes much more than a company billboard; it opens up discussions and allows for critics and suggestions,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind that 10 to 20 years from now most companies will be using blogs as a standard business tool.”
    Of course, this addresses the broad business perspective rather than the very specific issue of email marketing. Nevertheless, it’s part of the overall picture that’s important for Bly to try to grasp.

  5. The other point that really hit home for me was that Bill Broadbent had *400,000* folks to whom he was opt-in direct marketing, and he realized that due to spam filters and such that there was going to be a sea change. It’ll take a while, maybe five years, maybe a generation, but it *is* happening.

  6. I am asked:
    “So what will you say to your #1 client when he/she asks you: Bob, I think we should consider blogs as part of our marketing strategy?”
    Here would be my answer:
    “Do one if you like. It may be very worthwhile, or it may generate nothing for you. We don’t know.”
    The problem is that ALL my clients are DIRECT MARKETERS … and if we don’t see an immediate ROI from a marketing effort, we tend to get cranky and disillusioned quickly.
    Bloggers seem to have more patience for non-revenue-generating marketing activity. Is that wisdom or foolishness? Truthfully, I don’t know….

  7. Bob, you might have hit the nail on the head here.
    I’m not an expert in direct marketing. But I can understand the point you make re if you don’t see an immediate ROI from a marketing effort.
    It’s all about picking the most effective tool for the job. To achieve a specific ROI goal that you look for as a direct marketer, a blog would probably not be that tool – at least, not yet.
    A blog as part of your overall marketing activity – that’s what we should be discussing. In such a case, a blog could support your direct marketing activity, as would all the others things a company will have within its marketing mix. A blog can be an excellent lead generator, for instance.
    There is clear evidence of the effectiveness of blogs when used in such ways.
    Incidentally, I don’t know whether you’ve seen the commentary by Bob Cargill of Yellowfin Direct Marketing on his blog. Worth taking look:

  8. Your comment: “Bob, I think you’ve pinpiointed the issue that’s driving your views – you don’t read blogs, make posts or visit chatrooms. As a marketer, you’re missing phenomenal opportunities to see at first hand what’s really going on in the marketplace.”
    This indicates to me that you do not understand direct marketing. Anyone can get a quick grasp of what’s really going on in the marketplace by studying the controls — the best-performing direct mail promotions in a given market or industry.
    These tell us what the market will buy based on the only meaningful criteria — money actually spent on products! Much more accurate and valuable than chatter and opinion whether on a blog or anywhere else, right?

  9. Well, one thing has changed: you are reading blogs and leaving comments :))
    I have the feeling that we actually agree about a topic that we’re discussing from slightly different angles.
    I mentioned in my previous comment that, from a direct marketing point of view (emphasis on the word ‘direct’), to achieve a specific ROI goal that you look for as a direct marketer, a blog would probably not be that tool. But as one of the means by which you would support those direct marketing activities, a blog should be considered among all the means you’d consider.
    For example, a blog could be a generator of leads for your direct marketing activity.
    As for your last point, I’d argue that if you visit blogs, chatrooms, etc, that are focused on a particular industry, or even a particular product or service, you will get a sense of what consumers of that product or service are talking about in relation to it. So that could provide you with useful data, in addition to your more formal tracking and measurement activities.
    So, would it be fair to say that we are in agreement that blogs can have value as part of the overall marketing mix?

  10. One point of confusion: A direct mail package is written to meet specific, short-term sales goals. Most blogs are written to build long-term relationships and increase visibility. The two can’t be directly compared.
    Blogs are best at building brands and increasing credibility and visibility. They encourage dialog, which increases customers’ involvement and commitment. Their goal isn’t to immediately increase sales–that’s what direct mail is for. Blogs are more likely to have a long-term effect, such as increased customer loyalty.
    Here’s another difference that might be affecting this conversation: As I understand it, Bob writes for medium and large companies. Most bloggers are solopreneurs. For the solo business owner, reputation and visibility are everything. A good blog can provide those, while direct mail from a consultant is increasingly seen as scammy.

  11. Cathy, I think you’re absolutely right in pointing out that direct mail and blogs are two different tools that shouldn’t be compared directly.
    The original point Bob Bly made in his DM News article was a very sweeping statement that blogs are a waste of time. I think some of the commentaries that stemmed from that on a number of blogs strayed away from that base point and got into areas like using a blog as a direct marketing tool.
    If someone asked me the direct question, “Would you use a blog as a direct marketing tool?” I’d say, no, it is not the most effective tool for the purpose. To support direct marekting activity, yes, along with other communication tools.
    Your comparison comments are good and I generally agree with you. Not sure, though, that I’d agree with your comment that most bloggers are solopreneurs. A lot are, no doubt (I count myself in that group now, having recently moved out of the corporate world). Is there any real measure? What about the 1,000+ Microsoft employees who run blogs. Or people working for just about any company and who blog. I suppose it depends how you clearly define that label.

  12. You’re right, my statement about most bloggers being solopreneurs was a generalization based on zero actual research. It’s a tempting generalization because blogs so powerfully communicate individual personalities. Successful blogs have unique, genuine voices–a feature that is unfortunately not something we associate with big business.

  13. Unique voices, that’s true. I think a great deal of it is to do with how effective the individual is at communicating.
    The best examples I can think of in a ‘corporate blogger’ who exhibits such attributes are Jonathan Schwartz, the COO of Sun Microsystems (big corporation), and Rex Hammock, the CEO of Hammock Publishing (small business). Both write content that not only is about things that are interesting but also in a way that you really want to read what they write and get their opinions.
    As with all communication, content is king. How you say it is important, too. You’re a writer, so you know that!

  14. We are definitely on a different wavelength than Bob Bly.
    In a recent email I wrote, “two-way communication trumps continuous outflow when it comes to developing relationships.”
    Bob replied, “Really? Care to put a wager on who makes more sales … us old-fashioned direct marketers vs. you New Age touchy feely Cluetrain obsessed bloggers?” 🙂
    Bob Bly, Copywriter
    His focus on sales is admirable, and I am sure it works fine for breakfast cereal, and lots of consumer goods, even one time purchases of automobiles. Relationships become important in big ticket sales, long term business contracts, and in political alliances.
    Blogs and direct mail do not seem to relate to the same market segments. Comparing the business role of blogs to direct marketing vehicles can only be done with respect to a specific market segment. Anything else is a waste of time.
    Blogs have another unsuspected strength. They are ideal for guerrila marketing and ambush tactics. From the safepoint of a weblog, a single blogger can hurl caltrops in the path of a poorly thought out marketing campaign and bring it to a virtual halt. This works best when the missiles contain truth, but it is another indication that blogs and DM occupy entirely different roles in the future of marketing.

  15. David, I agree with you that blogs and DM (currently) occupy entirely different roles, but they are complementary roles.
    Bob Bly is solely focused on the ROI that he wants to measure from a specific activity without considering how any other element of the marketing mix (blogs, in this case) supports that specific activity.
    That’s not much different to, say, someone in PR whose only concern is how many column inches result from issuing a press release and sees that as her ROI (actually, far too many senior executives in companies still see the ROI of PR this way).
    In my view, you just cannot afford to look at only one activity, no matter what your goal is.

  16. How Direct Marketers Think

    Bob Bly has started a new blog, from the perspective of a direct marketer. I want to provide the blogosphere with a view from my side of the fence as a member of another “sphere” – old-fashioned direct marketers who…

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