These days, you can’t go online without encountering a blog. The user-generated websites, typically a series of journal-like entries listed in chronological order, turn political gaffes into big news stories, help new writers land book deals and display a glut of personal information. But blogs aren’t strictly for hobbyists. Many businesses are using the online forums as marketing tools to accomplish a variety of tasks, from shaping a company’s image to testing the viability of new products.
How can you determine if a blog will benefit your business? Take a look at the big picture, especially your overall marketing strategy. Blogs should never stand alone as a tool, says Jim Olson, senior vice president of the Digital Strategies Group at the public relations firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, but as a companion to other marketing campaigns.
Just as many of your marketing decisions are based on connecting with a specific audience, so should your strategy when it comes to blogging. “We always ask our clients, ‘who’s your target audience and how do they consume information?’” Olson says. “Where are the online conversations about your company taking place and what’s being said?”
For example, if you’re a startup working with new technology, your audience might be more web savvy and expect your blog to be updated regularly and have an in-the-know tone. Or, if you’re a restaurateur, the way local foodie bloggers discuss new restaurants might help your chef craft a buzz-worthy personal blog of her own.
How to get startedYou can find plenty of free blog software online, including WordPress, Moveable Type and Textpattern. Or consult a web designer, who can help create a blog format that works with your company’s established website.
If you’re curiousCheck out the most popular blogs on the web, as determined by Technorati. technorati.com/pop
Also think about what you want to say and how you’ll say it, now and years from now. Some of the most successful blogs provide fresh insights and, most importantly, relevant information. Posting that kind of material may require going well beyond promoting the company line. “Companies think they should be out there in blog form, so they take material that may not be pertinent and just shove it out there,” says Mike Heiser, president of YRG Communications, a Portland marketing and communications agency. “When material is pushed out like that, it sits, nobody posts new stuff, and the blog dies.”
Heiser frequently recommends blogging to clients because of the “communities” that form online. In lieu of traditional one-to-one marketing, blogs can reach a large group of people who share common interests. And thanks to the comment feature that most blogs employ, one-way dialogue is replaced by informal discussion — a valuable environment for taking the pulse of new ideas or products long before release dates.
Notice how your intended audience interacts online so you know what to expect before you begin. If you’re not prepared to have a real, open dialogue with those people, you may not be ready to have a blog, Heiser says.
But what if a rogue community member decides to pan every single one of your posts? While blogging might seem unpredictable in comparison to traditional marketing approaches, most types of marketing involve risk, says Jim Olson. “Think about taking your CEO out to lunch with someone from The Wall Street Journal,” he says. “You don’t have total control over the final story.” In the blogosphere, that lack of control can establish credibility and trust among readers. “The people you may be trying to reach might trust the information on blogs much more than in a paid advertisement,” Olson says.
Frank Shaw, president of Waggener Edstrom, has been writing a blog called Glass House (http://glasshouse.waggeneredstrom.com/blogs/frankshaw) since April 2003. Shaw covers business and communication issues by linking to news stories and other blogs. Glass House helps increase Waggener Edstrom’s visibility with a large online audience, give the company a face and show clients how a business blog can function by example.
While the direct results of a blog may be difficult to determine (did that rise in sales really happen because the company blog got 50,000 hits last month?), the low cost of entry makes blogging a good option for startups hoping to increase their Google ranking and companies willing to invest time into a burgeoning medium.
— Lucy Burningham
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