Tell Me About It: How Business Blogs Work for You

By now you’ve heard of blogs, or Web logs, and you think: blah, blah, blah. Digeratti diaries, mommy memoirs and political punditry abound. Who cares?

You should, because small business owners can use the same inexpensive, low-maintenance technology to market their companies &#151 with no HTML coding required. By creating a blog, you can boost buzz for your brand in ways advertising can’t, and do it for as little as $15 a month.

“Blogs are a new marketing tool we can add to our box of traditional marketing strategies,” says Susannah Gardner, author of Buzz Marketing with Blogs for Dummies due out March 21st. “You have the ability to communicate one-on-one with customers in a casual way, and you can respond to timely events and maintain that community interaction on a weekly, or even daily basis. You can’t do that with an established ad campaign.”

Maxwell Gillynham-Ryan, co-owner and one of two Apartment Therapy employees, is an interior decorator specializing in small spaces, namely New York City apartments. He’s celebrating the one-year anniversary of his successful site.

“Blogs are niche publications, so whether writing about sea life or home decorating, people in the media recognize you as an ‘expert’ and suddenly you’re getting a lot of mentions in the press,” he said. “It opens up opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have, even though there are lots of other people out there doing what you do, and just as well.”

In addition, Gillynham-Ryan says it boosts the bottom line. “It also translates into more business. You get a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations and some people will visit the site regularly for a while, then finally pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m ready to get some help. What can you do for me?'”

But before you begin blogging, you have to decide what type of program you want to use. There are two choices: you can pay a service provider such as Blogware‘s Blogtex, or TypePad to host your site on their Internet servers, or you can use independent blog software such as Movable Type, Expression Engine or Word Press installed on your own Web servers.

Prices for hosted sites depend on the amount of bandwidth and disk space you use, but generally cost about $4.95 to $15.95 a month. Software packages cost up to about $200, but there’s no monthly fee.

Hosted Versus Host-Your-Own Blogs
For most small business owners, using a hosted site is the way to go because you can set one up in minutes, and you won’t need all the bells and whistles that come with other packages. Still, Gardner says there are advantages to non-hosted solutions. “They’re more customizable, and if it’s on your server, you maintain it, so you don’t run the risk that if their site goes down, so do you,” says Gardner. “If the hosting company goes out of business, you could lose everything, but if it’s on your own servers you don’t have that risk.”

Another reason to think big: scalability. Gillynham-Ryan uses Movable Type, but says his site, actually four separate blogs “smushed together,” may be outgrowing the software. “It’s flexible, there’re lots of plug-ins, but it really was made with personal Web use in mind.”

Business Blogging 101
Once you decide to enter the blogosphere, though, think before you post. “Because you can literally be up and running in minutes, one of the big mistakes people make is not setting goals or discussing how to measure success,” says Gardner. “The blog needs to be treated like any new venture.”

Service Providers &#151 Companies like Blogtex and Blogware host customer blogs on their servers for a low monthly fee.

For instance, when setting up a blog on TypePad, you register, pick a plan and pay for it by entering your credit card number. Next you name your site, choose a design from a menu of layout templates, and then simply type in your entry and hit the post button. The process is similar no matter what hosted-blog software you use.

When it comes time to choose the blog’s writer, Gardner suggests that the person should have the time to update it regularly, and that he or she should be comfortable with the writing process.

“You don’t automatically want to go with the marketing person,” she says. “It’s a chance to introduce someone in the company who usually doesn’t have direct exposure to the customers &#151 and customers like that.” Other considerations include whether you will allow comments, and if so, under what circumstances you will edit or remove them, though this usually isn’t a big concern for smaller businesses. Another topic to discuss: will you let the blogger include anecdotes or details from his or her personal life.

Next, you need to decide what the content should be and how often to update it, since a stale blog won’t create traffic. A good way to start is by reading as many blogs as you can &#151 Gardner recommends 50 &#151 before you start so you can get a feel for what you think might work in your particular case. For some businesses, an insider’s look into the process may be interesting, while for other companies the blog could work as a resource, linking customers to other pertinent discussions and sites on the Web.

Everyone agrees that a casual tone works best on blogs, and that this is not the place for the “hard sell.” Kim Phelan, product manager for Tucows, the company that distributes Blogware to re-sellers including Blogtex, says, “Be honest. Blogging is not an advertising vehicle, it is a conversation. A blog’s credibility comes from the honesty of the medium. Allow disagreements because blogging has an interactive aspect to it, and allowing this dialogue lends credibility to the site. ”

Blog Your Way to Terrific Traffic
Gillynham-Ryan says popular features that increased traffic at his site include new product announcements, house tours and a “question of the day.” The tours include photos of other people’s apartments, something every New Yorker secretly wants to see. Questions offer a forum to discuss a typical dilemma, such as how to decorate a tiny bedroom that has a queen-size bed taking up most of the space or what plants work well in low-light areas.

Blogware’s centralized control panel features a dashboard where you can post an article, post a picture or change your blog’s layout.

Blogs aren’t just a big-city phenomenon, either. Just ask Todd Jagger who runs Blogtex in Fort Davis, Texas, a rural area with small businesses that rely on a Web presence to do business. “I’ll tell you how remote we are, the nearest Wal-Mart is 150 miles away,” says Jagger. His customers aren’t computer savvy, and yet they’re having great success with their blogs.

Kelly Williams, owner of Davis Mountain Realty said, “Being so remote, we get almost half our business through the Internet. Because a lot of our clients come from out of town, they might not find us as they drive through. So it’s important that we have a site that’s easy to maintain and use. We get compliments on how easy the site is to maneuver, and for us, it’s reliable, it’s stress free, it’s affordable.”

Another Blogtex customer, the Desert-Mountain Times newspaper, uses blog software simply as a publishing tool because it’s such a good fit for their goals. “It’s a natural tool for publishing small newspapers online,” says Jagger. “They don’t have to hire an IT guy, and yet they immediately get a searchable data base by date and key word, so people can go through back issues. It’s perfect for archiving without getting into data bases.”

Regardless of the type of business or the goals of the site, it’s clear that with little investment small business blogging brings big returns. And, better to be on the cutting edge than left behind to catch up, as far as a Web presence is concerned. As Jagger says, “It’s a great tool for any business, whether Fortune 500 company or not because so many companies exist in a vacuum and don’t take time to listen to customers. People don’t like to shovel their money into a black hole; they like to communicate, see what’s going on, have some interaction. You can even make a blog entry from your cell phone. You don’t get any more connected than that.”

When Michelle Megna began covering technology for computer magazines, the CD-ROM and AOL didn’t yet exist. Since then, she’s been on the byte beat for FamilyPC, Time Inc. and the New York Daily News. She’s still waiting to see a pair of 3-D goggles that actually work.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the Forums. Join the discussion today!

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