When his PR guy asked him to write a blog, CoreSteet President Phil Libin said no.
"Chuck was kicking around the idea of using a blog as a corporate communication device. I never got that excited about it being an official thing because a lot of corporate blogs are thinly disguised press releases dressed up to look hip," Libin explains. "We have better resources to get out press releases."
But, PR guy Chuck Tanowitz persisted. "What better way to position Phil as an industry thought leader than to create a body of work that would continually grow?"
Plus, Tanowitz shared a frustration common to many PR pros. Libin had lots of insights into the state of the security industry and its place in 21st century life, but scheduling time to meet with him during working hours or getting him to write formal columns was nearly impossible. When you're running a quickly growing company, and jetting around the globe for meetings, think piece ideas aren't at the top of your to-do list.
Tanowitz says, "Phil will come up with big ideas at 11:30 at night when I can't be there. I hoped a blog would be a place that's out there to help us get his concentrated thoughts. Then we can flesh something out."
Egged on by Tanowitz, Libin decided to surf the world of non-corporate blogs to see if anything appealed. Perhaps he could find a format that would suit both their needs.CAMPAIGN
As you can guess, Libin definitely didn't want to post marketing notes about CoreStreet, not matter how bloggily-disguised.
He wanted church and state separation between the blog and the company.
To make it obvious, he give the blog its own URL and posted the following under his photo:
This is a personal journal.
My employers do not endorse
or necessarily agree with my
He also decided the blog should not be too personal.
"I might put up little anecdotes to illustrate a point, but this isn't my diary. I don't write about what I had for dinner. That's no great loss to the world of online literature. There are plenty more interesting people out there who make better reading."
Instead, the blog would fill a public role that complemented CoreStreet's official communications.
"I wanted to talk about the themes that made me want to start this company in the first place -- how does security fit into the world in general. In CoreStreet communications we're limited to mentioning specific products. We can occasionally mention the whole vision, but too much and our investors would want to know how much is abstract punditry and how much is return on investment?"
Libin also realized he'd be walking a humor tightrope when blogging. On one hand, if your blog isn't enjoyable, people won't read it. Plus, as Libin puts it, "you have to attempt humor with a topic that can be depressing in many ways."
But he fretted over what his investors and customers might think. When you're selling security software to people like the US military, you don't want them to think you take it lightly. "It's a very serious, straightlaced market."
He decided to take a chance, and named the blog with self-deprecating wit "VastlyImportant.com" to let readers know they were at a site that wouldn't be too boringly pompous or ego-driven.
Libin also made a rule to only post once a day at most, and never to hotlink to articles unless he had something genuinely useful to say about them. "I do a lot of self-censorship. I have a day job. It starts to look a little sad if you're blogging five-six times a day."
He often wrote his blogs late at night just before going to bed, or during long plane flights. If he had more than one great idea, he'd dash off both, but used delayed posting so new items didn't appear online at the same time. Hopefully, this flow would train readers to return every few days for new posts.
As his enthusiasm grew, Libin began to mention the blog whenever he was being interviewed by a reporter as a CoreStreet executive. "You have to be pretty shameless about talking about it."
In the meantime, Tanowitz surfed Libin's entries looking for potential article ideas he could pitch to the press. When he found one, he'd "clean it up" removing the bloggish aspects of the writing (i.e. humor) before pitching it.
Launched in January 2004, VastlyImportant.com is already a bigger success than anyone expected, and in more ways than expected. The blog averages about 1,000 visitors a week, with roughly 120 uniques per day. (Note: this doesn't include CoreStreet staff.)
"There's a growing core of a few hundred people who repeatedly come back every few days," says Libin. "Occasionally I get huge spikes, several thousand readers, and out of the thousands 10, 20, 30 get added to that permanent base."
Where do the spikes come from? A viral surprise. As he was discussing ideas in his blog with a reporter one afternoon this spring, Libin was inspired to invent a new free downloadable program to help consumers safeguard against phishing attacks. It only took a few hours to program (such are the advantages of having power over an IT department).
Libin launched the program, named SpoofStick, as a hotlink in the blog only. He figured he'd get a few downloads. So far he's gotten more than 35,000 and a heap of press attention from dozens of media outlets, including USAToday and WashingtonPost.com.
Spoofstick aside, Libin gets most of his other traffic from search engines.
"For technical reasons, blogs tend to get links in Google very quickly, differently from other sites. If you're searching for my name or other keywords, there's a high chance you'll see something I've written in the blog."
Sometimes this means Libin gets visitors who are transparently not interested in security-related topics. For example, one of his most visited posts is about a toy robot he recently bought.
On the other hand, sometimes this Google prominence is an invaluable tool for business meetings with key prospects and potential partners. Libin explains, "I very often find myself going into a meeting where obviously a person intentionally Googled me five minutes before on the chance they'd find something. It's maybe 25% of the new people I meet."
So, in 25% of his first-time meetings, the person on the other side of the table is freshly aware of Libin as a thought-leader. (Or at least a witty guy who owns a toy robot ... "it helps break the ice.")
On the PR-front, Tanowitz has been able to plant opinion pieces that are cleaned-up versions of Libin's original blog posts in both ZDNET and CNET (sample below). Libin says, "It's great - something I thought 100 people would see was seen by closer to 100,000."
Last but not least, Libin has gotten a great deal of personal satisfaction from the blog. "It's therapeutic to sit down for an hour at the end of the day, collect my thoughts, and maybe write something. It's a good way to clear my head about stuff."
Luckily he's discovered his investors and customers don't seem to mind at all. So you can expect VastlyImportant.com to be around for a while.Useful links related to this article:
Before-and-after samples a Blog item and how it appeared cleaned up in CNET
2. CNET Version:
Moveable Type - the tech Libin chose to power his blog:
Schwartz Communications, Inc. - the PR firm Tanowitz works for: