Blogging is one of the hottest trends on the Web. A blog (short for “Web log”) is a Web-based diary where the author can ruminate on whatever strikes his fancy. The blogger may share photos, poetry, political views, gossip, industry trends, business advice, or the latest on his personal life. By definition, blogs are organized in reverse chronological order. Many are updated daily. They can have one or multiple authors, such as a community blog.
Seemingly everybody is getting into blogging — celebrities such as William Shatner, gurus like Tom Peters, and journalists like Dave Barry. And yes, the business world too is embracing blogs — from corporate giants like General Motors to small but standout businesses like the Savile Row tailor Thomas Mahon. (I’ve caught the bug too; I blog on e-marketing and SEO at www.StephanSpencer.com.)
WHY ARE PEOPLE READING BLOGS?
A new blog is created every 5.8 seconds, according to the Washington-based Pew Internet and American Life Project research center. Not surprisingly, many of the millions of blogs littering the Web are not meant for public consumption beyond a small circle of friends or colleagues. Business bloggers, on the other hand, target a wider audience consisting of current and prospective customers, catering to their wants and needs with useful info or insightful commentary on a regular basis.
According to marketing guru and celebrated blogger Seth Godin, there are three types of business blogs: “news blogs,” which follow the latest happenings in a particular topic area; “writers’ blogs,” where the blogger mostly riffs and pontificates; and “our blogs,” which are merely firestarters for conversations carried on within the blog by the community of blog readers.
News blogs keep readers up to date with events in their areas of expertise or interest, only pointing out the best or most interesting stuff. Thus, bloggers whom you trust and resonate with can save you time by acting as a personal filter, cutting through the information glut.
Writers’ blogs stimulate the reader’s thinking and challenge his preconceptions. “Our blogs” provide the reader with the impetus to join a conversation on issues that he cares about. In effect, it’s participatory journalism.
TO BLOG, OR NOT TO BLOG?
Curiously, catalogers and retailers are notably absent from the “blogosphere” — the online blogging world. By lagging behind on this new trend, they’re missing a key opportunity to actively participate in the global online conversation that’s now happening without them.
Consider, for example, the fact that wine merchant Wine.com does not have a blog. Wine enthusiasts flock to wine blogs such as Vinography (www.vinography.com) for their daily dose of news and opinion, rather than a Wine.com blog. Yet where does Wine.com figure in to Vinography’s many hundreds of posts? Unfortunately, a mere four times, and those few mentions aren’t all favorable. A Wine.com blog, full of passion for wine and devoid of disguised advertorial, would over time develop a loyal following and be in a position to influence its readers’ buying decisions.
THREE REASONS TO ADD BLOGGING TO YOUR OWN MARKETING ARSENAL
- You’ll be seen as an expert in your niche
If your blog is a good one, you build credibility with your readers, and they come to rely on you for the latest thinking, news, and trends in your field of expertise or interest. It’s as if you become the lens through which the readers view the greater Web. Then, as their thought leader, you can influence the readers through a soft-sell approach. Furthermore, a blog draws in visitors, making them want to return again and again to see what new stuff has been posted.
- People regard you as a human being they can relate to
The personal voice of your blog is more “real” than the voice of your company’s site; it is more disarming and makes your company seem more approachable. People buy from people, not from some faceless corporate entity. It also gives customers an inside view of how you think, your unadulterated opinions, and your point of view.
- Search engines love blogs
Links are the currency of the Web as far as the search engines are concerned. A good blog garners links — in quantity and quality — yielding higher search engine rankings. No links equals no visibility in the natural (unpaid) search results, so links really are critical. Bloggers link extensively to each other within their blog posts, within their “blogrolls” (favorite blogs that they read regularly), and through trackbacks, which create links between a blog and its respondents. Blog posts are also syndicated onto other sites via a technology called Really Simple Syndication (RSS).
But can blogging have a positive impact on your bottom line? Absolutely, if it’s done right. Consider the success story of the Voltaic Backpack, as described in an article in Fortune magazine earlier this year. Entrepreneur Shayne McQuade received an early sample of his company’s solar-powered backpack, which can charge the wearer’s cell phone and other gadgets. He asked a friend — who runs a blog with a niche audience called Treehugger — to blog about it, and he did. The mention on Treehugger didn’t by itself produce a huge word-of-mouth epidemic. But another blogger higher up the blogging ecosystem picked up the story from Treehugger and blogged about the backpack on his Cool Hunting blog, which was then read by Gizmodo, one of the most popular blogs on the Internet for cool stuff and gadgets. Once the backpack was featured on Gizmodo, the orders poured in!
Last year Steve Spangler, founder/CEO of Steve Spangler Science, a catalog selling educational and entertaining science products, launched a blog at www.stevespangler.com. The blog already has a Google PageRank importance score on par with that of the company Website’s home page. The blog is effectively driving traffic and sales into the online store and further positioning Steve as a thought leader in childhood education.
James Robertson, managing director of Website design agency Step Two Designs, writes a blog called Column Two (http://steptwo.com.au/columntwo/), which has become his company’s top client referral source. The blog, along with a compendium of his articles, accounts for 75% of new leads. Over the course of the blog’s first year (the blog was launched in April 2002), Web traffic went from 200 visitors a day to more than 1,500. Repeat visits per month quadrupled. Robertson reckons blogging has been “the best online marketing I’ve ever done.”
A key point for online marketers: Word-of-mouth plays a critical role in consumer purchase decisions both online and offline. People look to mavens they trust for product recommendations. If a blog positions you as one of those mavens, you can influence the positions and choices of those who follow your blog.
But also there is a real risk in not being part of the conversation. Case in point: Kryptonite Locks (referenced in the Editor’s Note of the May 1 issue). It was discovered that the company’s bike locks could be picked with a Bic pen, and this discovery made its way through the blogosphere while Kryptonite remained silent. The negative word-of-mouth continued to escalate until finally Kryptonite was forced to act, albeit too late to effectively contain the damage. The hubbub eventually cost the Ingersoll-Rand subsidiary $10 million in recall costs — more than a third of its annual revenue.
Godin said at a recent MarketingProfs’ Thought Leaders Summit on business blogging: “What I think blogs can do that’s really powerful is change the culture of an idea and the way a [corporation] sees itself. It’s about very specific vertical groups listening to a human being within a company so that they can hear the story behind that company — the story that the [corporation] needs and wants to tell. And if the stories are good and the ideas are worth spreading, they’ll spread.” Do you have a story to tell?
Now that I have your attention, if you plan on writing a blog, follow these tips:
Write blog posts as interesting links augmented with your own brief commentary, not in-depth articles or bland corporate-speak or, heaven forbid, press releases. Use a conversational tone. Let your opinion shine through.
Encourage audience participation by allowing readers to comment on blog posts.
Update your blog frequently. Aim for at least a few posts each week — the more the better. This garners repeat visits and improved search engine visibility. Search engines like recent content.
Use a blogging service or software. Hosted services abound, among them Blogger.com, LiveJournal.com, and Typepad.com. Or you can install blogging software, such as WordPress or Moveable Type, on your Web server, integrating it within the rest of your site. A blogging tool makes maintaining your blog a breeze. Most of them provide an “RSS feed” so that people can siphon off your blog updates automatically using news aggregator software. On the road? Many of these tools also allow you to post audio messages and photos from your cell phone. A blog hosting service such as TypePad may cost around $15/month. Some, such as Blogger.com, are free. Some software — WordPress, for one — is free too. Movable Type costs $200-$1,300 depending on the number of users (blog authors).
Provide multiple paths to your posts. Offer a search engine so that people can dig through old posts, and categories so that people can see all the topics that interest them. Even consider adding a top-10 list of your all-time best blog posts on your home page.
Register with various blog directories and participate in blogger communities. The sooner you get into sites such as Technorati, Daypop, and Blog Universe, the sooner they’ll start referring traffic to your blog and increasing its search engine visibility through links.
Have an RSS feed. Offering an RSS feed is easy, because it’s built right into most blogs — there’s no extra charge. An RSS feed is just a file hosted on the blog’s Web server. In many cases they’re subscribed to searches (often through a free service such as PubSub or Feedster). And so, if you sell widgets, all of a sudden, all subscribers to searches for “widgets” can read your blog, as long as the keywords they are searching for appear in your blog post. Be sure to track subscribers, reads, and click-throughs on the RSS feed.
Allow readers to subscribe to blog updates via e-mail. Many people are still not very savvy about RSS, so e-mail provides a mechanism for them to follow your blog in a way they understand.
Don’t be afraid to enlist some help. It takes skill as a writer and a storyteller to be an effective blogger. Consider engaging a blog consultant to help you find your right voice and learn best practices. You may even want to engage a professional blogger to help you research topics and draft posts. Whatever you do, be transparent. Don’t try to fool your readers into thinking you are writing when it’s actually a ghostwriter.
Exercise good judgment. Obviously the rules of business propriety apply just as much in the blogosphere as elsewhere. Don’t leak confidential information, misrepresent your company, say anything libelous or slanderous, and so on. Credit your sources, and link to them.
EXCITING TIMES AHEAD
Blogging isn’t a passing fad; it’s here to stay. Nothing underlines that more than Google’s acquisition of Blogger.com, a service that hosts more than 200,000 active blogs and claims more than 1 million users.
Blogging is becoming an established communications channel in business. Business blogger and author Shel Israel predicts that the power of people to reach real humans inside the corporation will have a liberating effect. In the end, he says, marketing departments as we know them will be reconfigured to some degree.
Steve Rubel, PR guru and author of the Micropersuasion blog, predicts that blogging will eventually bring the end of corporate-speak because it whets people’s appetite for things that are written in a human voice. The heavy corporate communications style — “such-and-such a company today announced…” — is going to disappear because people want a human voice with credibility.
BL Ochman, of whatsnextonline.com, points out that one of the things so annoying about the Internet today is going to Websites where you can’t find a human anywhere. In the blogosphere, you find humans. And while a lot of retailers may pull back, asking “What would we do with all that feedback?” or “What are we going to do when all those people start responding to our blogs?” some may seize this opportunity and discover something exciting and powerful: that their words really can have an impact. Ochman says, “That’s going to be one of the bigger changes that companies will have to deal with, and it’s a very positive change that’s going to come about, all because of blogging!”
Stephan Spencer is founder/president of Netconcepts, a Madison, WI-based Web development and marketing agency.