The shift in the balance of power

It was quite an eye opener to read this comment by Steve O’Keefe to Elizabeth Albrycht’s post on Monday that kicked-off this week-long IAOC blog fest:

Most blogs that are truly open don’t work, because most people don’t want to participate in a discussion – they want to push an agenda or advertise. Most blogs I’ve seen are *not* open forums – they’re more geared to pushing a message than hearing one.

I took Steve’s comment on its face value – he did end it with the phrase ‘Monday morning grump.’ Hey, Steve, we all have similar great start-the-week experiences at times!

Is Steve’s view right or wrong? By their very nature, blogs are open and and provide a framework for communication transparency, don’t they? They’re vehicles which we can employ to develop dynamic communication and stimulate conversations with and between people, aren’t they? And, they’re channels via which we will see massive social change, won’t we?

Such statements are among those you see being bandied about by many people who blog as part of the evangelism and often-emotive commentaries about blogging. As a business communicator, I frequently use variants of the first two in my conversations with companies about using such channels in organizational communication. I’m a little leery of the third one, whether it’s valid or not, as it tends to make business people a bit nervous – they don’t want to hear about social change; they want to know what the business benefits are.

But during this week, I’ve been thinking more about what Steve said – especially "most blogs that are truly open don’t work" – and decided that my contribution to this discussion would be focused on seeing what conclusion(s), if any, I could present here as part of the overall discussion about a new communications model.

Let’s start with this statement:

New communication tools like blogs represent a fundamental shift in the balance of power in how information is created, communicated and shared. That power increasingly resides with the consumers of information – what we’d call ‘the audience’ – rather than the creators (more on this in a minute).

Consider this:

  • Blogs provide the potential to significantly change how an organization interacts with its customers/employees/shareholders/partners, etc, as they provide an opportunity for more and informal voices to enter into the business debate with little cost or effort.
  • Blogs breaks down formal barriers between public and privates spaces and enable organizations to share their individuality and personality, and informally engage with others.
  • The availability of low-cost, low maintenance authoring software and hosting services mean blogs are far easier to create and maintain than conventional, centralized static websites, and can be done by literally anyone, anywhere.
  • Blogs have the potential to be of enormous benefit to organizations primarily as a listening device rather than as simply a means to promote products or services.

Everywhere I look, I see more and more business-related blogs that, in one way or another, are attempting to achieve all of these things. Some have high degrees of success while others haven’t quite got all the elements right yet and stumble in their efforts. In all cases, though, there is a common characteristic:

  • The most appealing and successful blogs are those which provide an informal platform for genuine debate – a conversation – between the blog author and visitors to the blog. Blogs without such interactivity give visitors little incentive to return and, in a sort of Catch-22 way, would give little incentive to the blog author to develop the platform.

What this characteristic means is quite simple – a collective desire, a will, on the part of the blogger and of the visitor to engage. To do that, you have to have openness, which starts with the blogger. At the most basic level, that openness (or transparency) is shown by the ease with which blog visitors can access the blog content, can navigate the blog, can easily identity the author and communicate with him or her, and – most importantly – can provide feedback (comments) on the blog itself on what the blog author has written or made available on the blog.

In other words, the easier you make it for people to engage with you, the easier it will be to develop conversations.

How does this relate to my earlier point on the fundamental shift in the balance of power to the audience?

Well, just think about it. With blogs and the closely-related RSS distribution system, information is more openly available and accessible than ever before. As a result, it is creating a different information and communication environment, one where you (the audience) decide what information you want and how you want to obtain or receive it. You (the creator) realize that making information available in ways that the audience wants to obtain or receive it is in your own self interest.

What’s also changed is that now, your audience can choose from where they obtain or receive their information, and how they want to interact with it. If you can’t (or won’t) provide the information they want in the ways they want it, they will go elsewhere for it. And there is now more choice than ever.

My firm conclusion is that blogs which are open do work. Indeed, it’s blogs which aren’t open that don’t work. But this is just 50% of the overall picture – to achieve 100%, you must add the other essential ingredient, which is people’s willingness to engage. And there lies the wild card – how people behave (for some insight in this area, read Dan Forbush’s post yesterday on the neurology of PR). And to see signs of how the 100% mix actually is achievable, read Robin Stavisky’s post about Cisco, posted on Wednesday.

[This post is cross-posted from the IAOC blog – it is my contribution to a week-long discussion on that blog on ‘Towards a New Communications Model,’ initiated by Elizabeth Albrycht.]