Relic of social media?
Transportation companies, 3PLs still see value in maintaining, growing their blogs.
Before Twitter, and even Facebook and LinkedIn, there was a revolutionary new way that people and companies communicated using the Internet as a connective thread: blogs.
Often obscured by society’s headlong leap into newer, more immediate social media platforms, blogs have persisted, and in some cases thrived, as a tool for longer format online dialogue.
But in a world where people seek shorter, staccato bits of information, and attempt to network with as many people as possible as quickly as possible, is there really a role for blogs in the transportation and logistics industry? Or are they becoming the dinosaurs of the digital communication age, quaint reminders of the very beginnings of what we now understand to be social media?
How a transportation or logistics services provider sees the value of a blog today depends largely on its goals. A mid-market freight forwarder, for instance, may see a blog as a way to educate its existing and potential customers about service offerings or market developments. That ability to reach the masses replaces communication that ordinarily would have to take place on a one-to-one basis.
Another forwarder might decide that regular commentary on the industry shows thought leadership – in this case, the blog is used to build awareness of the deep expertise to be found within the company.
Of course, it’s not only logistics services providers that maintain blogs – technology vendors, carriers, and analysts still see value in blogging regularly.
Yet questions remain: have blogs become one of those expected communication tools that would be conspicuous if absent, but not all that useful? Does the information and sense of community fostered by blogs merit the work that goes into them?
These are tough-to-measure, return-on-investment questions. Many companies wrestle with how much time and effort to dedicate to their various communication platforms. The newer platforms, such as Twitter or LinkedIn, necessarily have absorbed more resources as they become an increasingly prevalent part of marketing and strategic campaigns for companies across the transportation and logistics landscape.
If you think about blogs as a piece of living room furniture, the dilemma is whether the blog is that chair in the corner that sits unoccupied most of the time, or whether it’s a useful sofa in a prime spot in front of the TV.
Blogging can be an unremitting task, and while there are tools to gauge readership and page views, it’s much tougher to measure the effectiveness of blog entries toward a specific goal. Is the blog designed to attract business from potential customers, or build a sense of community among current customers? Is it designed to elicit more business from current customers? Or designed to just exist?
In speaking to a number of companies about the role blogs play today, it is clear that all still see them as a worthy tool to build thought leadership, brand awareness, and a sense of community among their partners and customers.
“Blogging needs to serve a company in a couple different ways,” explained Scott Case, founder of the logistics marketing consulting firm Position : Global. “It needs to be a place to put your brand forward and also to show your thought leadership. In terms of engagement, for companies where their people are a key part of what they do, it’s a chance to promote or familiarize and put those people forth.”
Transplace is one such company. The 3PL and technology provider has two blogs – one in which various contributors discuss hot button issues in the industries (called Logistically Speaking), and the company’s primary blog, which essentially provides a vehicle for Transplace Chief Executive Officer Tom Sanderson to communicate with the industry.
“The Transplace blog is Tom Sanderson’s voice,” said Kecia Gray, the company’s director of corporate communications. “The main purpose of the blog was thought leadership.”
Gray called Logistically Speaking “more of a village, another avenue to read, learn, and understand the industry.”
C.H. Robinson, another 3PL that blends services and technology offerings, operates three blogs: Transportfolio, Connect and On The Road.
“(Transportfolio is) a weekly blog, so as a thought leader, we’re able to put out timely, relevant content that viewers appreciate and find valuable,” said Mark Derks, director of marketing at C.H. Robinson. “Most of the blogs are 400-500 words, so the reader doesn’t need to set aside a portion of their day to read an entire newsletter. Much of the blog content is linked to more intensive materials, such as whitepapers, research briefs, and news for those interested in a deeper dive.”
C.H. Robinson has actually been publishing Transportfolio since 1988, but it was a physical newsletter until 2011, when the company transitioned it into blog form.
The other two blogs are targeted at specific audiences within C.H. Robinson’s ecosystem, Connect focusing on the company’s TMC transportation management system/managed services offering, and On the Road intended for the domestic carrier and driver communities.
All three blogs are authored by C.H. Robinson employees, along with industry expert guest bloggers. C.H. Robinson has more than 280 offices worldwide that service 42,000 customers and 56,000 contract carriers.
“That’s a lot of touch points in the social media space,” Derks said. “The blogs help create a community for all those touch points to learn and interact through comments or sharing through social networks. All this wasn’t possible with a printed quarterly newsletter.”
Derks’ point about the blog serving other social media platforms acknowledges how their role has changed over time. At one point, a blog was the end-all, be-all. Now, it can be the destination or the launching point to find out more about a company’s offerings, or an industry development.
“Blogs were more singular in topic five years ago,” Transplace’s Gray said. “Now it’s more aggregated information. If you need to go a level deeper, blogs are where it’s at.”
Where many in the logistics and transportation space go for that deeper level is dedicated blogs authored by industry analysts. A particularly noted set are the sister blogs Logistics Viewpoints and Talking Logistics, started by former ARC Advisory Group transportation analyst Adrian Gonzalez.
Through the blogs, Gonzalez has carved a unique consultative niche that largely didn’t exist before. Many of the large technology consulting groups that serve the transportation and logistics industries maintain blogs, but those blogs are ancillary tools designed to foster thought leadership. Gonzalez’s blogs, updated daily, stand on their own merit as go-to sources of deep analysis.
Gonzalez and his co-contributors (ARC’s Steve Banker, among others, now write most of the content on the blog, with guest commentary from software vendors), also use other social media platforms to drive home their expertise, which further underscores the point that blogs rarely are standalone tools anymore, particularly in a business-to-business context.
“You could call the blog a predecessor to social media,” Case said. “It was really the first tool of electronic engagement.”
Yet, blogs are not seen as arcane in comparison to Twitter or Facebook – on the contrary, the companies that American Shipper spoke to said blog readership is steadily increasing month to month and year to year. The blogs no doubt benefit from being linked repeatedly on Twitter and Facebook.
In many ways, modern social media tools have breathed new life into what was becoming a fairly stale format. Blogs never really engendered the communities they were initially meant to foster. The information was always unidirectional, and now blog operators understand those mechanics better. Twitter and Facebook and forums are places where online conversation and collaboration take place. Blogs are where people go to get deeper information than a Tweet but not as deep as a white paper.
But the beauty of the interconnectedness of these tools is that a blog can as easily link to a Tweet as to a white paper – none of these formats are obsolete; their uses are just more defined than in the early days of blogging.
“It’s a way to keep current on trends, local and global markets, and it’s an overall learning platform that provides an opportunity to converse and network with experts who can help impact their business and competitive advantage in the marketplace,” Derks said. “The blogs are non-advertorial – however, they allow us to effectively communicate important industry information in hopes of generating conversations.”
But managing these media is a challenge, particularly for companies strapped for time and with limited human resources to allocate. Feeding social media platforms to drive thought leadership and brand awareness requires consistent effort. Case phrased it as the “importance of constantly generating content.”
“Anything you do, even if it’s a fun thing, can be a chore,” Gray said. “Take me to the amusement park every day and it could become a chore. But there’s a responsibility as a 3PL to keep people informed about this. Our leadership team thinks this is something they have a responsibility to do. They totally understand that’s our responsibility.
“From my perspective, with all these channels and mediums, how do we manage this and bring it all to the surface at the same time?” Gray said. “I want to share this information where the customer wants to go, not where I want to go.”
It’s also helpful to know what blogs do and don’t do.
“A blog is part of a multi-channel strategy to drive someone to a Website,” Case said. “You’re giving someone the opportunity to roll around in your brand.”
But many companies, aside from tracking page views and readership, don’t get much deeper in terms of measuring the impact of their blogs and other social media endeavors.
“Everything in this industry is measured, and yet they won’t measure their marketing performance,” Case said. “They’re losing out on ways to maximize the analytics, because they don’t have people in-house to do it.”
Case emphasized that blogs are part of a portfolio of communications platforms, and the “importance of constantly generating content” is that a company never knows what’s going to pique the audience’s interest.
“It might be FedEx transporting an elephant, or a forwarder transporting some crazy piece of equipment, or Maersk tweeting about each new port its Triple-E ships arrive at. It’s a chance to tell a narrative,” he said.
Gonzalez, interestingly enough, addressed the issue of what return on investment that companies get from dedicated time and effort to social media, of which blogging has to be a part.
“The bottom line: Stop wasting time trying to figure out the ROI of social networking,” he wrote. “You’re wasting enough time already with email, meetings, and water-cooler conversations. If you really want to know the ROI of social networking, you won’t find it in a spreadsheet or blog posting. You just need to start using it.”