Blogging for Business

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted February 28, 2006

Jim Coudal has been blogging so long that when he started, they didn't even call it blogging, he says. They just called it keeping your Web site up to date.

Coudal, president of Coudal Partners Inc. , an eight-person Chicago design firm that specializes in creating corporate identities and logos, admits his approach to blogging is a little unusual. "Our perspective on the question — 'Should your business have a blog?' — is, 'Should your blog have a business?'" he says. "We built an audience long before we had anything to sell them."

His first blog, Coudal.com, launched in 1999 as the firm's Web site and became a huge success — it now attracts 10,000 to 20,000 discrete visitors daily. The site is "a living, breathing diary of a creative organization on the Web — and it doesn't take us all day to update," Coudal says. "Blogging allows a small team to do big things."

Having attracted a surprisingly large and loyal audience — mostly other design and creative professionals — Coudal asked himself what he could sell them. So far he's spun off two small enterprises, now promoted on the original blog. Jewelboxing.com sells materials that designers and crafters use to create distinctive custom CD or DVD jewel boxes. The Show provides recording, production and marketing/design services to bands interested in producing hand-made concert recordings.

Coudal markets the Jewelboxing product almost exclusively with the blog. He also spun off another blog just for Jewelboxing. "The day we launched the Jewelboxing site, we launched the blog," he says. That blog has also been like a diary — of how he built the business, created the brand, worked through the problems that came up. "We've always tried to be very transparent with it," Coudal says. "We figured it generated loyalty and built awareness of and loyalty for the brand."

The two new businesses today generate about half of Coudal Partners' revenues. This means Coudal can be a lot more "choosy" about which client work the firm takes on. "The original blog made it easier," he says. "A lot of people who thought like us [who were regular visitors to Coudal.com] were willing to give our new products a look."

Could other small businesses emulate what Coudal has done? Maybe, but it would probably require a major change of mindset.

Industry Networking
Before Jewelboxing and The Show, Coudal.com was really not about promoting the firm or its services to customers and prospects — or at least not in the usual sense. "The last priority is promotion," Coudal insists. The site's audience instead was, and is, "people like us," as he puts it — students, designers, writers, publishers, film makers and music people. "Clients do read it as well," he hastens to add. "And sometimes they ask us, 'Can you build a site like yours for us?' Once in awhile we even take one of those projects."

But the blog was really an exercise in industry networking — and only later about building an audience for the spin-off businesses. Coudal.com talks about the things design and creative professionals care about. All eight firm members write to it, posting as many as 25 usually short entries a day, often simply pointing visitors to something interesting spotted elsewhere on the Web, along with a brief comment.

It's not just the daily entries, though. Coudal.com also includes cool ongoing features, such as a contest in which the firm invited site visitors to call in and read a poem. Many of the recordings are published at the site. Verse by Voice was so successful it attracted calls from far afield, including one from Man Booker Prize-nominated British novelist, Zadie Smith.

You'll also find a link at the site to a streamed version of the sly, ironic 11-minute film, Copy Goes Here, made ostensibly about Coudal Partners. It was a project undertaken for no other reason, apparently, than to show that the firm could make a film.

None of this is entirely altruistic, of course — as Coudal is first to admit. As well as promoting the new products and services, the site also generates advertising revenue thanks to its phenomenal audience numbers. And however much Coudal might want to downplay it, the site does communicate with customers. It's Coudal Partners only Web presence. The firm has deliberately avoided doing what most design firms do at their sites, which is brag about client successes and show samples of its work.

"We thought it was more important that customers and prospects find out what kind of people we are than to find out we've done," Coudal says. Like others, he recognized early on that blogging provides a unique way to communicate with an audience — to make, as he puts it, "a personal connection." Not that there is really anything new or special about blogging, Coudal insists. "It's just a tool that fosters quick communication from one to many," he says.

Google Juice
D.L. Byron, another designer and alpha blogger, puts it slightly differently. Blogging, he says, "gives you the ability to talk to people in a one-to-one conversation." Byron is also principal and inventor at Clipnseal, a small company that manufactures and sells a plastic bag sealing system.

He markets the business exclusively through a blog that, like Coudal's Jewelboxing.com, was a spin-off from an earlier design firm blog. Also like Jewelboxing.com, Byron's Clipnseal blog was a diary that allowed visitors to follow the process of building the business.

The power of blogging for business according to Byron is that it creates what he calls "Google juice." The Google search engine, he says, "loves" blogs and indexes them assiduously. Many of his highest-profile Clipnseal customers, such as NASA, the space agency, and the British Antarctic Survey, found him through speculative Google searches. They didn't know such a product existed but needed it. They found the Clipnseal site while casting about on Google.

Byron has become a blogging evangelist as a result of his success with Clipnseal. He runs seminars, maintains a Web site, Blog Business Summit and is currently working on a book, Publish and Prosper: Blogging for your Business, to be released later this year by Peachpit Press.

Byron tells his consulting clients, which include Boeing, the aircraft maker, that blogging for business is "an opportunity to have a conversation with the market without all the marketing speak and the press releases." He admits this may not be easy or comfortable for many companies.

For one thing, customers and denizens of the blogosphere can be unkind to company blogs they deem to be less than open and sincere. When Boeing started its first blog, it didn't allow comments from readers (a blogging no-no) and didn't implement RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which lets visitors have the blog or its headlines automatically sent to them whenever it's updated. The site also read too much like a press release. Readers flamed the company, i.e., sent e-mails critiquing the site in strong language.

Under Byron's tutelage, Boeing quickly corrected the problems and now has a couple of successful and well-regarded blogs, including Flight Test Journal. "Imagine a company that big being able to be that nimble." It's part of the power of blogging, he says.

Byron also advises business bloggers not to shy away from confrontation if visitors become critical of a post or of the company. "It's better to be up front and engage or be one step ahead of them." If visitors are being critical in a feedback thread at your site, jump in and defend yourself. Readers will be impressed just that you're paying attention, he says.

Byron and Coudal agree that the essence of blogging is keeping the site up to date — "posting" regularly, daily if possible. It's something all blogs must do. "Traffic will drop off precipitously if you don't," Byron says. "At least daily is what we usually talk about. Three times a day and you're really rolling, five times a days and you're in the big leagues." Some small business blogs might be able to get away with posting less frequently, he says.

Coudal Partners, on the other hand, often posts even more frequently. "If visitors see a post from earlier today, it makes them think there's actually somebody at the other end of the wire," Coudal says. And that's what it's all about. Of course, it helps that his firm has eight people posting — as well as "guest editors" — and that they're talented writers and designers.

Coudal and Byron both use Movable Type, the premiere blogging tool from Six Apart. Prices for commercial licenses start at $200. It's a mini-content management system and also gives you a lot more power over customizing the presentation than do most blogging tools. It may be overkill for some small businesses, Coudal concedes, and it does require somebody with a nodding familiarity with HTML, the Web page design language.

As an alternative, Six Apart offers a hosted service called TypePad, which is much easier to use and costs as little as $5 a month. One downside is that you have to use a .typepad address for your blog site. That would be a deal-breaker for a firm like Coudal Partners that wants to control every aspect of the way it presents itself, Coudal says. Still, TypePad a good place for small businesses to start experimenting with blogging, Byron suggests.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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