What's the biggest benefit to starting a small business blog? You might be surprised by the answer: Improved search engine optimization.
Internet search engines view every entry on a blog as a unique Web page, explains blogger Debbie Weil, author of The Corporate Blogging Book. The more posts, or individual entries, your blog has, the better its chances of ranking highly in relevant keyword search engine results. And the greater your search engine ranking, the more likely potential customers will find you. What's more, blogs are more frequently updated than typical Web sites, which also helps boost search engine rankings.
A blog is shorthand for Web log. In essence, a small business blog is a Web site that serves as a frequently updated, online journal of news and commentary on topics of interest to your customers. A number of different people can author a small business blog, usually the owner, chief executive, other employeesor all of the above. For example, Conference Calls Unlimited, a Web-based conference call service provider with eight employees, features an official company blog by CEO Zane Safrit, plus links to blogs written by other people in the company.
The blogosphere continues to grow rapidly. Technorati, a service firm that tracks and organizes independent, user-generated Web content, was recently tracking 99.2 million blogs and counting, up from 72.7 million just four months earlier.
Search engine optimization is reason number one to start a small business blog. Here are four other reasons to consider, plus tips on avoiding potential pitfalls.
Number 2: A blog is an inexpensive form of public relations and marketing.
"A blog is a do-it-yourself way of accomplishing public relations and corporate communications functions that would normally require a bigger staff and more money," said Weil. The press is always looking for experts to interview for their reports, she said. Increasingly, reporters are searching blogs on the Internet to find opinionated experts to quote.
Being quoted in one article or news report could lead to other journalists contacting you for their stories. Along with the increased exposure for your company, being interviewed in the press helps you become known as a "thought leader" in your field, Weil said, which can help boost your branding, reputation and sales.
Number 3: A blog can be more effective than traditional methods of turning prospects into customers.
Conference Calls Unlimited CEO Safrit launched his blog in 2004 out of "sheer desperation and fear," he said. "No ad or marketing campaign of ours had generated any results for over a year." The company abandoned its existing marketing and advertising efforts to focus instead on its Web site and blog. The result: About 70 percent of prospects are now converted into customers, Safrit said, compared to about 50 percent before the company blog launched.
Number 4: Blogs can help you receive immediate customer feedback.
A blog should serve as a community forum, said Weil, allowing visitors to comment on any blog posting, including comments left by other visitors. The interactive give-and-take nature of a blog lets you communicate directly with your customers and receive instant feedback from them on your products, services, marketing efforts, customer support, and other topics. It's more immediate -- and certainly far less expensive -- than doing surveys, focus groups or other ways in which customer input is often solicited. "I get immediate and honest feedback" from customers, Safrit said, which he counts among blogging's many benefits. The potential downside: Negative feedback posted on your blog, for all to see.
Number 5: Blogs are easier and less expensive to manage than full-fledged Web sites.
Many small businesses pay designers hundreds or thousands of dollars to design their Web sites, Weil said. All too often, the small business depends on the designer to update the Web site, too, by adding information about a new product or service. That's not the case with blogs.
For starters, you don't need a designer to create your blog, Weil adds. Blogging services such as TypePad and Google's Blogger offer a variety of blog templates that you can customize depending on your level of skill. With these services, you can build an attractive blog for under $100 a year or, in the case of Blogger, for free.
Updating a blog is easy, too, using the blogging service's online tools. Depending upon the service, you can even post blog updates from your Web-enabled cell phone. For example, TypePad offers a downloadable application that lets you post photo and text entries from a Treo, Windows Mobile or Symbian Series 60-based handheld.
Adding photos and video to blogs is easy, too, Weil pointed out. "You don't even have to create your own video clips. Just embed a clip from YouTube in your blog post."
The Downsides to Blogging
The biggest hurdle to blogging is the commitment to keep it going. Though "writing a blog post is as easy as sending an e-mail, the real obstacle is actually sitting down and doing it," said Brian Brown of Pajama Market, a small business blogging consultant. "A business blog needs at least two-to-three posts every week so that it maintains search engine growth and keeps bringing readers coming back to read what's new." Brown added that blog posts don't have to be and in fact, shouldn't be long. "You can easily do it in 15 minutes a day," he said.
Another potential challenge: keeping the blog fresh and authentic. "Be yourself," advised Safrit. "Being yourself has helped you achieve a position of leadership in your industry, helped your customers trust you, helped your employees to invest their entire day with you." Likewise, being yourself will make your blog more interesting and relatable.
But being too honest can work against you, too. "If your company deals with confidentiality issues, a blog may be tough to write, because blogging is ultimately about company transparency," noted Brown. Use your best judgment when blogging, he advised, and be careful what you disclose.
Also, observe copyright laws, said Weil. Educate yourself about fair use the doctrine in U.S. copyright law that allows limited copying without permission under certain conditions. For example, quoting a few successive paragraphs of a book is often considered fair use, Weil said, while reproducing entire chapters of a book without permission is copyright infringement.
The Most Important Thing to Remember
Ultimately, to be successful, your small business blog should be all about your customers, said Brown. The best small business blogs highlight their customers, answer their questions, provide them with a forum and offer premium customer service.
James A. Martin has decades of experience covering technology, and he's also the author of Traveler 2.0, a blog that provides technology news and views for travelers.
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