May 9, 2005

the porous membrane: why corporate blogging works.


The other day somebody asked me to explain why corporate blogging works. Sure, we know it's the hot new thing and people are paying attention to it (including big media)... but why?

Why does it work? Seriously.

So I drew the diagram above.

1. In Cluetrain parlance, we say "markets are conversations". So the diagram above represents your market, or "The Conversation". That is demarkated by the outer circle "y".

2. There is a smaller, inner circle "x".

3. So the entire market, the "conversation" is seperated into two distinct parts, the inner area "A" and the outer area "B".

4. Area "A" represents your company, the people supplying the market. We call that "The Internal Conversation".

5. Area "B" represents the people in the market who are not making, but buying. Otherwise know as the customers. We call that "The External Conversation".

6. So each market from a corporate point of view has an internal and external conversation. What seperates the two is a membrane, otherwise known as "x".

7. Every company's membrane is different, and controlled by a host of different technical and cultural factors.

8. Ideally, you want A and B to be identical as possible, or at least, in sync. The things that A is passionate about, B should also be passionate about. This we call "alignment". A good example would be Apple. The people at Apple think the iPod is cool, and so do their customers. They are aligned.

9. When A and B are no longer aligned is when the company starts getting into trouble. When A starts saying their gizmo is great and B is telling everybody it sucks, then you have serious misalignment.

10. So how do you keep misalignment from happening?

11. The answer lies in "x", the membrane that seperates A from B. The more porous the membrane, the easier it is for conversations between A and B, the internal and external, to happen. The easier for the conversations on both side of membrane "x" to adjust to the other, to become like the other.

12. And nothing, and I do mean nothing, pokes holes in the membrane better than blogs. You want porous? You got porous. Blogs punch holes in membranes like like it was Swiss cheese.

13. The more porous your membrane ("x"), the easier it is for the internal conversation to inform and align with the external conversation, and vice versa.

14. Not to mention it makes misalignment, if it happens, a lot easier to repair.

15. Of course this begs the question, why have a membrane "x" at all? Why bother with such a hierarchy? But that's another story.

[AFTERTHOUGHT:] And yes, this works with internal blogs as well, poking holes in the membranes that seperate people within a corporate culture; aligning "the conversation" internally etc.

The other advantage of internal blogging is that it organises conversation into a long-term manageable form. Two people sharing ideas via blogs is a lot more permanent, viral and useful for the company than two people sharing the same information over by the watercooler.

[AFTERTHOUGHT:] Poking holes in membranes subverts hierarchies. Avast, ye scurvies etc.

[UPDATE:] Just added this post to The Hughtrain.

Posted by hugh macleod at May 9, 2005 6:44 PM | TrackBack

Beautiful, absolutely perfect.

Posted by: Gary Potter at May 9, 2005 8:53 PM

Great provocative post .. and here's a guy who's put some meat on those bones.

Using Blogs and Wikis for Customer Support

Posted by: Jon Husband at May 9, 2005 9:43 PM

whereas pr and marketing types have historically referred to various assimilation and perception strategies as optics, these emergent cominglings will henceforth be known osmotics.

I'm not sure why that diagram reminds me of grade seven sex ed. You know the sperm and egg thing. But still, that's my peculiar brain misalignment. No biggie. Good point all the same.

Posted by: brian moffatt at May 9, 2005 10:32 PM

You forgot to draw the line representing all the lawsuits brought by A against B for talking about their products in ways that didn't suit them. A good example would be Apple. (And Microsoft).

Posted by: Thom Lawrence at May 9, 2005 10:54 PM

Ahh, now I know what I do: poke holes in the membrane! By the way, it only takes a $350 camcorder to blow some pretty big holes in it. Doing that daily over at

Posted by: Robert Scoble at May 10, 2005 12:47 AM

Great explanation!

Posted by: Stephen at May 10, 2005 2:55 AM

Though not anything near "corporate", Ray-Way Products gets it:

Posted by: Marc at May 10, 2005 6:21 AM

Nice one, I call it 'Outside>In' instead of 'Inside>Out'...more here...

Posted by: James Cherkoff at May 10, 2005 8:09 AM

"nothing, pokes holes in the membrane better than blogs", of course other channels that create communication through the membrane (like Scoble's video camera) also help create even more holes, the more the merrier!

Posted by: Ross at May 10, 2005 9:17 AM

Cool - the hokey-cokey theory of corporate blogging. Look forward to seeing further unbundling of these ideas

Posted by: Tim Aldrich at May 10, 2005 10:17 AM

Hi Hugh,

Agree wholeheartedly with the idea of internal/external blogs - Ideascape - to promote more conversations. I think enterprise blogs will help create candor in the workplace and help more organizations move to a loose hierarchy.

On the other hand, businesses have too many so-called experts that fear the dissemination of ideas.

Posted by: Jim Wilde at May 10, 2005 11:25 AM

Hugh, this the most succinct explanation I have ever come across. It's a thing of beauty.

It's not hard to understand why many corporate people feel threatened by this way of thinking. It's just too flat, too direct. It will be very interesting to be part of the muckracking...

Posted by: Peter Flaschner at May 10, 2005 1:59 PM

Customer feedback, 1 to 1 marketing, Customer relationship management, expectation management. For all of these things Blogs can be a tremendous addition to a company’s ability to respond well to its markets. This has been called a dialogue for many years.


I can’t help feeling that this misses out about 90% of the purpose of marketing. We are talking here about a relatively small part of Marketing Communications (itself only about 40% of Marketing costs), and specifically marketing communications for a large company having a large, connected, interested, consumer market for high volume technological goods.

First it would be good if the company understood what it was trying to achieve and agreed that internally. Yes Blogs can help, especially if the company is large, but direct one to one communication works instantly and with the advantage of non verbal communication, so don't replace this.

Second the company has to create a product which is good enough or interesting enough to be reacted to.

Third it has to get it to market at a price which is affordable and profitable.

To do this Marketing will use all the tools that it has traditionally used in its marketing communications role, advertising (where effective), PR (where effective), Tradeshows, Direct Mail etc. It should go where the market already is, not where it isn’t. “Nothing pokes holes in a membrane better than a blog”? Not if the market doesn’t use Blogs.

Once a brand is established, or a single product is famous, and it is one which has a market which can use Blogging, (Milk substitute for the East African market?), blogging becomes a powerful tool for inbound and outbound communication. Very powerful and (now here’s a killer point for someone like me) cost effective. At my last company I spent vast amounts of money identifying and paying for the ‘players’ in our customer set (existing market) to come to a meeting at which we could show them what we were planning so they could comment. Maybe I could have avoided that, although having spoken to some of them recently they simply don’t have enough interest to look at a corporate Blog for ANY of their IT suppliers. Hopefully that will change.

My point is this - I “get it”: Blogging is a great idea, a powerful tool for new ideas and at the very least an enjoyable way of interacting with people.

It is not the end of Marketing, Journalism, Megalithic political structures nor has it overnight reduced my baldness and made me incredibly attractive. (sigh).

We’re in danger of hyping something without explaining to the uninitiated some of the limits. “Corporate Blogging Works”… when you use it well.

Posted by: David Topping at May 10, 2005 2:15 PM

[AFTERTHOUGHT:] Poking holes in membranes subverts hierarchies. Avast, ye scurvies etc.

Corporate blogging is not a disruptive, chaotic act. It is a filter. The company controls what escapes. Unless you are talking about a supposedly unsanctioned blog like minimicrosoft.

How can information purposefully disseminated by an organization subvert any heirarchies inherent in that corporate structure?

Posted by: George Coles at May 10, 2005 3:08 PM

Wow. So 15 points crammed full of trendy jargon to basically say that it improves the flow of information between companies and customers? Riveting stuff...

Or have I missed the irony?

Posted by: Russell at May 10, 2005 4:39 PM

You missed the irony, Dilbert.

Posted by: Tom L at May 10, 2005 5:19 PM

the X membrane not pourous, but porous. Just trying to make communication easier...

Posted by: steve at May 10, 2005 7:29 PM

Thanks Steve. Yeah, my spelling sucks.

[NOTE TO SELF:] When is MT going to introduce a damn spell checker?

Posted by: hugh macleod at May 10, 2005 7:46 PM

Excellent post - but in light of my reading of Sherky prompted by one of your earlier posts, I question whether it's possible for the conversations to be actively "organised into a more manageable form." This is what fake corporate blogs try to do and for which they are rightly decried.

Secondly, doesn't the location and porousness of the corporate membrane vary according to the particular conversation that is occurring.

Posted by: john at May 10, 2005 9:07 PM

Nice, memorable illustration and interesting posts... clearly a blog is a tool that lends itself to more than just Corporations.

Request: regarding the after thought... would anyone share pointers/bkms for the novice org that has an intranet but no internal blogs... interested in exploring the viral watercooler conversation approach

Posted by: Al Dean at May 10, 2005 11:26 PM

I recently picked up the whole blog thing and really had a hard time trying to figure out how it works. To me it still seemed pretty vague and dangerous to experiment without being sure of the possible implications the audience and the tranprency of the bloggers emotions. A recent experiment ended up with as a preliminary trial to get response from the neprhology community (our marketing target audience) and the general public.

To keep the kind of conversation between A and B as consistent as can be, both have to be equally transparent and frank especially from the corporate bloggers. It is also important for the corporate blogger to be open and honest instead of using blogs as another form of publicity to reiterate the company's sales speech. Trying to be politically correct and diplomatic about critical issues brings rise to controversy and attacks by the rest of the blogosphere after which the company loses credibility in this realm. Yet it is hard to find the balance point between transparency and confidentiality. This issue has probably been discussed a million times over yet I seem to find no panacea for it. the explanation using porosity gives a clear picture of this yet seems vague on its actual application. One comment I would like to make however is that porosity is both ways... the less you reveal or less truthful to the public, probably the less accurate the response as well... after all... we have all been trained how objective marketing messages and even news nowadays can be...

As for the success of my little blogging adventure, I should be updating its progress and results on gaining closer communication and feedback again. Perhaps after blogging the next thing is to figure how to publicise my blog to the right target audience. After all, no eyeballs means no feedback...

Posted by: Cristan Yang at May 10, 2005 11:37 PM

Responding to:

Request: regarding the after thought... would anyone share pointers/bkms for the novice org that has an intranet but no internal blogs... interested in exploring the viral watercooler conversation approach

Al, in my opinion, the approach(es), architecture of the blogs and the dynamics that you might *coach* towards would depend upon the purpose of the internal blogs and the issues being addressed by blogging internally (beyond what might already be addressed by the intranet).

But that's just one person's opinion.

Posted by: Jon Husband at May 11, 2005 2:25 AM

couple of things...better term for this may be "blogmosis" - the sharing of information between a customer/corp blog. pr and marketing types can have osmotics.

secondly, these membranes are not one size fits all. different customers will need different conversation/sharing. that's the beauty of a great corp blogging strategy...there can be a multitude of blogs for various customers. blogs can be the ultimate in customer personalization. depending on the business, each customer will have a blog specific to their needs and more importantly, the people who need to converse with them. any good enterprise blog software package will allow for multiple blogs that can only be accessed by "subscribed" customers.

this may be a bit too nuts and bolts, but it seems an important distinction. a corporate blog is unlikely to be a single site dedicated to all customers. there will be a wide variety of blogs reflecting the needs of various customers. at least, that's my view from within the corporate confines....

Posted by: jbr at May 11, 2005 5:31 AM

Having spent a good chunk o' my life studying strategic management theory and how it works or doesn't in real life...

I've concluded that most organizations: a) don't *really* want to get the feedback that would show them that their current strategy isn't working (perhaps more precise: don't really want to *work* to to get that feedback); and, b) don't know what to do with it if they do get that feedback.

It's the same old story... this is why CEO's have "Yes Men."

I prefer the metaphor that the firm's strategy should be seen as a theory, and that theory should be as rigorously tested as any hypothesis a scientist would test.

Posted by: Rockster at May 11, 2005 5:58 AM

Rockster, could not agree more to "strategy should be seen as a theory, and that theory should be as rigorously tested"!

Add the Business Model to that and "every day, every minute" and dynamics would be required all over - just like real life should be :-)

Static is boring and deadly, dynamic is life itself.

Posted by: sig at May 11, 2005 7:10 AM

Blogging really works!

Posted by: Andreas Markessinis at May 11, 2005 9:47 AM

We had realized the importance of this "osmosis" in our organization and have in place the "membranes" for the "conversation".

Please feel free to visit.

Markets are indeed converations.

Posted by: Aj at May 11, 2005 10:43 AM

I can't help but notice... one of the leading business purposes of blogs these days seems to be to attract the attention of Mainstream Media so that MSM will write about your blog. See Hugh's comment in the previous post about getting the Danish media interested in English Cut.

Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, but it's an obviously limited strategy. When was the last time anyone cared about a corporate web page redesign? Or a telephone installation?

It's much more interesting to me to think about how a company can use blogs effectively in markets where everyone already has one. It's about the conversations, not the tools (phone/email/wiki/blog).

Posted by: Katherine at May 11, 2005 5:04 PM

If the maon point of your blog is to to get media attention, Katherine, I would say you're in trouble ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at May 11, 2005 5:52 PM

"Static is boring and deadly, dynamic is life itself." - sig

Love it. It's all about the energy and intent. If there is a corporate toe-the-line blog, as a customer you'll know it, feel it.

If there is action, response, change and exchange your going to be drawn into to where the good energy is. Great corporate blogs give authentic energy to the "conversation".

Excellent post Hugh. Thank you.

Posted by: James Clark at May 11, 2005 7:52 PM

Very insightful post, Hugh. As an organizational psychologist my major focus is on increasing business literacy within the inner circle (A on your diagram). This is a prerequisite for increasing the effectiveness of the "conversation" between A and B. I used to recommend "Stakeholder Conferences" as the way of improving business literacy. I'm just beginning to appreciate the power of internal corporate blogs to accomplish this goal. My next blog at will elaborate on this theme...and I'll give appropriate credit to you, Hugh, for the insights provided.
Ed Deevy.

Posted by: Edward Deevy at May 11, 2005 8:39 PM

One good diagram deservers another, hence Mentograph Of A Value Function at my blog ... thanks for the inspiration !

Posted by: Seth Russell at May 11, 2005 9:31 PM

>If the main point of your blog is to to get media >attention, Katherine, I would say you're in >trouble ;-)

Nope. The media I care about already know who I am. They've been publishing and/or reading me for years.

Posted by: Katherine at May 12, 2005 1:47 AM

Then obviously you're not in trouble, Katherine ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at May 12, 2005 6:40 PM

Blogs go far beyond most peoples wildest dreams. Before the end of 2006 Corporate blogs identified by a recognisable name, ie nike, will the most sought after commodity for any business that spends more than $1,000 on marketing. There will only be three blog sources of any commercial significance, with Google being the major player.

A Commercial Blog if not owned by the business, opens up an external complaints department that any disgruntled customer can post complains onto.

This is the fast track method for a customer to gain power and get attention. How fast would a business react to a complaint if all the customer base was aware of it?

Once big business realises this fact, there will be a stampeed to secure original name blogs before they get into the wrong hands.

Many companies will make overnight fortunes renting out the blogs under a maintenance fee for either redirecting blog sites to the clients main web site or to simply sanitise postings.

Watch business move!

Posted by: antwis at May 18, 2005 11:22 PM