February 15, 2006
How To

How Network Appliance Launched a Public C-Level Blog (Hint: Delicately)

SUMMARY: Do you wish your company followed the likes of Sun and Cisco and allowed employees to blog? Then you'll enjoy Sherpa's behind-the-scenes interview with Network Appliance's Sr. Manager of Corporate PR. Jody Baumann reveals the year-long journey from concept to launch date, including internal politics and technology. (We never guessed great PowerPoint skills could make or break your Blog launch.) Plus, discover why Baumann's been careful *not* to market the C-level blog yet, even though it launched last September.
When a $1.6 billion, publicly traded company such as Network Appliance wants to start a blog -- not just any blog, but one written by a C-level executive -- certain obstacles must be overcome, says Jody Baumann, Senior Manager, Corporate PR, for Network Appliance.

The PR team started batting the idea around in late 2004. "We were trying to come up with nontraditional PR vehicles to get our message out," says Baumann.

In order to get a blog up and running, Baumann needed to achieve approval from the legal department and investor relations and find the right person to author the blog. She also wanted to keep it from being overly marketed.

Almost exactly a year later, despite these challenges, Network Appliance had a corporate, C-level blog in place. It launched on September 12, 2005 (hotlink below).

By the end of the month, 4,600 people had visited. By the end of October, 19,000 people had visited, and since then, the blog has leveled out with between 17,000 and 19,000 visitors per month.

"We're really happy about that," says Baumann. She shared the steps she took to launch the blog and to ensure that it runs smoothly and serves its purpose.

Step #1. Finding the right top executive

"First we thought we'd have our CEO blog, but then we thought about his time constraints," explains Baumann. She and her team didn't want to end up in a position of having to write the blog for him, and with the amount of time he spends traveling, he didn't ultimately make sense.

Baumann considered top executives based on the ability to take technology ideas and translate them into everyday language. She also wanted someone who could be "short and sweet" and get to the point and who could toss in occasional controversy to spice things up.

She tapped Dave Hitz, company founder & EVP. He is well-respected in the technology field and is able to talk to both techies and non-techies alike, helpful when talking to an editor who is covering storage for the first time, for example.

"He also tends to talk in analogies. People like little stories," notes Baumann.

Getting Hitz to agree to do the blog wasn't a problem, though Baumann had put together a presentation for him, titled "Why Dave?" He has the personality and vision and was eager to be involved, she says.

Step #2. Putting together a plan and presenting it to higher-ups

You need someone at the VP-level or above who's your champion. In that, Baumann got lucky: her company hired a new VP of worldwide integrated marketing, and happily, that marketer came from Sun, one of the companies that first embraced corporate blogging. "We had used them as a model," says Baumann.

When the new VP came onboard, Baumann and her team presented their idea, and she helped "march it up the food chain." With her support, Baumann set up a meeting with the executive team and presented the idea, via a "huge" PowerPoint presentation.

The presentation focused on information about corporate blogging, including points from a 'BusinessWeek' article about business and blogging, quotes on blogging from industry experts, and other companies (Cisco, Sun, Microsoft, etc.) that have embraced corporate blogging.

She also included a breakdown of the entire program: who would blog, length of time from writing to the time it would post, potential topics, where ideas would come from, how the blogs would be posted, and who would post them.

The executive team decided to let Baumann's team move forward. However, Baumann had to make a concession: investor relations and legal didn't want the blog to accept comments. Instead, readers can email Hitz, and he responds to them either privately via email or via the blog.

Step #3. Launching the blog

Hitz writes his blog post and then sends it to both Baumann and the director of messaging. "She's worked with Dave for years and gets his voice," says Baumann. The director of messaging reads the post for content, asks questions, and sends it back to Hitz for re-working if need be.

Baumann reads it to be sure they don't violate rules from the SEC. She also adds relevant links.

They have about 24 hours to edit and make comments, then Baumann sends it to her IT team to post (though she sometimes posts them herself).

This system ensures the blog is always seen by at least two people before going out. "Dave doesn't even know how to post his own blogs, and there's a reason for that," says Baumann.

Hitz is supposed to post at least twice a week, though recently, because of travel, once a week has been more realistic. If Thursday arrives and Baumann hasn't seen his post, she sends him a reminder. She has asked him to keep his posts to 500 words, "and he's religious about that," she says.

Before the blog launched, Baumann gave Hitz a list of about five blogs to read as homework. She told him he should be comfortable voicing his opinion. "It's your blog. Yes, it's Network Appliance, but it's Dave's Blog, and you need to be able to be Dave." He has strong opinions and adds just enough controversy to be interesting.

Once a week, Baumann sends ideas to Hitz for his blog posts -- articles she's read that he might want to respond to, for example -- but he writes about his own ideas more often. "We let him talk about whatever he wants," she says.

In coming months, they hope to use his posts as a PR vehicle for when the company has a new launch. "Maybe a day or two later he'll write, 'Here's why this makes sense.' It will be an after-the-fact voice that doesn't look like a press release."

When people email in response to the blog, Baumann reads them as well. When Hitz responds, he cc's her "about 90% of the time," she says.

Step #4. Technical issues

As expected, Baumann had several meetings with the IT department. A useful development was that the company's PR vendor uses blogs, and that company sent one of their resident bloggers to talk to the IT group.

IT evaluated and shortlisted different tools, finally choosing the one they thought would work best. Were they a difficult bunch to work with? No, says Baumann. "They were actually pretty good. At first, it was, 'Well, this will cost a lot of money, it will take at least six months.'" But once they knew there was buy-in from the top they moved forward.

In fact, IT appointed a go-between to help Baumann. "He takes my questions and translates them into tech talk, and vice versa." The go-between began coming to meetings, and now Baumann works primarily with him.

Step #5. Moving forward

Because Baumann doesn't want the blog to be seen as a marketing tool, they haven't pushed it, so it has been slow in building.

Occasionally, Hitz sends an email to employees, telling them about a particular blog post and suggesting they check it out. And last week he wrote about a particular topic and suggested to the sales force that if customers had questions about the topic, they could visit the blog.

There has been no formal announcement about the blog to the sales team.

In May, however, Baumann's team will do a 30-second "infomercial" about the blog during the annual sales conference, which will help them understand how they can use it to aid relations with customers and potential customers.

It is also a helpful tool for employee relations. "We didn't realize how many employees would be reading it and responding and saying, 'Hey, thanks for explaining that,'" she says.

Interestingly, when Baumann speaks on a public panel, she is often told that what she and her team have developed is not actually a blog because it doesn't accept comments.

Useful links related to this article:

Blojsom, Network Appliance's blogging technology backend: http://wiki.blojsom.com/wiki/display/blojsom/About+blojsom

Voce Communications, Network Appliance's PR company: http://www.vocecommunications.com/

Past MarketingSherpa Case Study: 'Software Company President's Blog Proves a Publicity & Search Optimization Bonanza' http://www.marketingsherpa.com/article.php?ident=23655

Dave's Blog: http://blogs.netapp.com/dave

Network Appliance: http://www.netapp.com

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