Every now and then I use Google Reader’s recommend function to find me a list of blogs I might add to my feeds. My list of regular feeds changes over time so it’s good to reach out for new content based on what I’ve been reading lately. When I did that today, Google Reader recommended the Puffin Blog.

I hadn’t come across this one before but, despite my interest in young adult fiction, I will not be adding the Puffin Blog to my feeds. This is an example of the all-too common “blog as marketing channel”. Most companies fail dismally at this, and publishers are no exception.

You can spot a “blog as marketing channel” a mile away. Firstly, there are no comments.  A blog is a social media platform. You know it’s achieving its purpose when you can see evidence of social behaviour, of conversation, of engagement. Regardless of how many people may be subscribed to your RSS feed, if you’ve got zero comments your readers don’t care enough to engage with your content or with you. That’s bad news for a company hoping to use a blog to reach out to customers. It’s also a waste of time and resources.

Another telling feature of the blog as marketing channel is the ubiquityof product mentions. On publisher blogs, this means almost every post is a book plug. Sometimes this is dressed up with witty banter or disguised within a personal anecdote by a company executive. Sometimes, in an attempt to show that the organisation is staffed by real, flesh and blood humans, you’ll see a variety of employees posting, everyone from the book designer to the receptionist. You’ll rarely see real analysis or opinion, or a sense of the company’s understanding of its place within a community of customers, readers, authors, and industry players. The result is pervasive sense of PR fluff and lightweight content.

It used to be common wisdom that content is king. But the popularity of social media has demonstrated that what internet users are really seeking is connection. A blog may be a cheap and easy way of publishing web content but its biggest strength is that it is a platform for conversation.

Are there publisher blogs that get it? Over at the 26th Story, I think HarperStudio has understood the opportunity and challenge of a company blog very well. There is real opinion, meaningful engagement with issues relevant to the HarperStudio brand and active encouragement of community discussion. The same is true of Soft Skull News and Abbeville Manual of Style.

These are blogs that still manage to showcase their authors and upcoming titles, but also maintain a place in a lively community of readers and other bloggers. Most importantly, these bloggers realise that conversation is taking place everywhere simultaneously. There’s no way to control it, only to participate in it.  I don’t need to take a sneaky-peek at these blogs’ Google Analytics results to know they’re more effective than a “blog as marketing channel” promo site.

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