The Chill Factor is a new R&FF blog. Watch this space for updates and additional blogs!

Food. There are few topics that spark more discussions infused with loyalty, emotion and passion.

Today, these conversations have moved from dinner tables and water coolers to blogs, microblogs, social media networks and private online discussion groups. As I noted in myBack Pagecolumn this month, food companies and marketing executives are paying attention to these conversations and in some cases, leading them.

“It’s too early to tell how effective [blogs] are. We know how to measure traditional marketing, but there aren’t measurement criteria for blogs yet,” says Paul Gillin, a long-time technology journalist who advises marketers and business executives on “strategies to optimize their use of social media and online channels to reach buyers cost-effectively.”

In order to gain a better understanding of how, where, why and among whom online conversations about food brands are taking place, I recently spoke with Gillin. In addition to his current consulting gig, he also is the founding editor of TechTarget, editor-in-chief of ComputerWorld and the author ofThe New Influencers,a book about the news generation of bloggers and podcasters.

“There is a shift from top-down to bottom-up marketing,” Gillin says. “As media outlets are downsizing, companies need new ways to influence people.”

One important way they are reaching out directly is through corporate blogs.

“Corporate blogs have had mixed results,” Gillin says. “Sometimes marketers use them as adjunct PR services. They’re not really taking advantage of the medium.”

Gillin cites McDonald’s Corporate ResponsibilityBlogas one example of a food company using a corporate blog in an interesting way. In this case, McDonald’s uses the blog to address criticism and communicate its sustainable initiatives directly to the public.

Londonderry, N.H.-based yogurt processor Stonyfield Farm has been blogging for more than five years in order to communicate its sustainable farming methods and green initiatives. Yogurt consumers who visit the company’s The Bovine Bugle blogcommunicate directly with one of the farmers who produces milk for its yogurt. On the blog, visitors can view the farmer’s family photos, read about the livestock and even watch videos of the very cows that product the product. Perhaps even more importantly, visitors can offer feedback. Parents who feed their children YoBaby yogurt, the company’s kids’ brand, can exchange information with the company and one another at Baby Babble, a child-health focused blog on the company’s Web site.

Appealing to a specific consumer niche, such as parents, may be a good strategy for corporate bloggers, Gillin says.  “The idea is to give people a social group to discuss something that their passionate about,” he says. “It can be woven into different stages of their lives – teens, young mothers, etc. The point is for people to share with each other.”

In other words, creating social media groups for your consumers -- whether through your own corporate blog or through social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter -- means you have a group of people who are passionate about your products at your finger tips.

A recent article that appeared on (“Yes, CEOS Should Facebook and Twitter”) sums up the potential behind creating these niche groups: “Many corporations spend large sums trying to find out what people think of them. Plugging into the blogosphere and listening to feedback on Twitter offers a more effective and cost-efficient way of learning how to approach customer relations.”

A recent Nielsen study, “Global Faces and Networked Places,” found that online participation in "member communities" now exceeds e-mail by 67 percent to 65 percent. And these types of Web site now account for one of every 11 minutes users spend online.I know that some of you already are blogging on your Web sites, or have created Facebook pages for your brands. I’d love to hear about them and your opinions on what they do for your brand. Keep me updated.