Not longer just a plaything for lonely techies on the fringes, blogging is now one of the most valuable marketing and communication tools a company can possess
BY IVOR TOSSELL
Not everybody who read the blog at Industrial Brand Creative, a Vancouver marketing firm, was impressed by last year's holiday video. Over grainy footage reminiscent of a kidnapping flick, a crank caller makes telephone inquiries into how much duct tape it would take to securely bind a large man dressed in white and red. Within two weeks, the video had been viewed more than 20,000 times, and since it had been posted on the company's blog, those viewers started posting comments in return.
"Maybe I have a different sense of humour, but this is not something I would be proud of posting on a professional's site," wrote the first commenter. But the 31 other people who left messages on the blog seemed to love it, and, for better or for worse, everybody learned something about the minds behind the company.
In a few short years, blogs have gone from self-indulgent soapboxes to implements of political power and staples of the news media. And now, the online journals that encourage readers to chime in with feedback are becoming badges of marketing acumen. Already, corporations like Microsoft have demonstrated that giving an employee free rein to discuss the issues of the day on the company's website (without, of course, giving away any secrets) can put a human face on a giant corporation; you can find Microsoft employees blogging about everything from designing the user interface of Office to creating their new Train Simulator game (See: www.microsoft.com/communities/blogs/PortalHome.mspx)
But what about small business? Can transforming your firm's website into a chatty back-and-forth offer an effective-and almost free-way of making new contacts, and solidifying current ones? Or will a blog waste precious staff time, reveal sensitive information, and provide no real return? A growing chorus of blogging advocates thinks it's the former-not the latter-and they're beginning to be heard around the web.
"Our blog provides a deeper look into the company, its personality, its thinking, its people," says Ben Garfinkel, a partner at Industrial Brand. The eight-employee firm specialises in on-line marketing, and have produced advertising materials for clients that range from Future Shop to the singer Neko Case. The insider perspective a blog provides, he says, is especially important in industries where clients' subjective evaluation of a firm is important, and being seen as a "thought leader" can make you stand out.
Industrial Brand's blog (www.blog.industrialbrand.com) contains musings from its staff that aren't necessarily universal in their appeal-posts range from reports from design conferences to news on fonts-but are designed to interest a specific crowd, keeping the blog from getting lost amongst millions of others clamouring for attention. "There's nothing wrong whatsoever with having a blog that's targeted towards 150 people, especially if you're in a business that has high-value, low-volume transactions," says Garfinkel.
Firms that maintaing strong relationships with a limited number of clients will benefit most from maintaining a blog, says Garfinkel; businesses like home-cinema sales boutiques, architecture practices, and law firms.
In cases like these, a successful blog can be a place where a community of clients can gather around a firm. The blogging world is becoming "a place where businesses will interact with their customers, their suppliers, everybody in their sphere," says Roland Tanglao, a co-founder of Bryght, a Vancouver-based software services firm that builds and hosts community websites.
"It's really helped us. We don't do marketing; we get a lot of business from people who find us through the blog." (Indeed, Tanglao has more reason than most to be enthusiastic: his 10-person firm got started after an angel investor read his blog and made contact.)
All the same, business blogging is still in its infancy. So far, it's been adopted by more large companies than small ones, and not every small firm has the means to provide a continuous stream of written content, above and beyond the day-to-day burdens of running a business.
"We certainly hear the hype stories of someone launching a blog, and it turning into something much larger than they anticipated," says David Senf, an analyst with IDC Canada. But Senf says that the hype stories are just that. While its advocates say no business is too small to blog effectively, Senf thinks it's best suited to companies who have the marketing resources to "go beyond delivering on the next month's revenue."
So what can prospective business bloggers expect if they take the plunge?
The good news is that the material cost of starting up a blog is almost nil. A blog can easily be set up for free through a service like Google's Blogger (www.blogger.com), or for a small monthly payment at services like Typepad (www.typepad.com), which also hosts blogs for large corporate clients like the Times of London. If you want to integrate a blog with your existing website, free blogging software like Moveable Type (www.moveabletype.org) will do the trick, though you'll need some web-server expertise to set it up. If you go for a service like Blogger, you can have a blog online in half an hour.
Then comes the catch: blogging requires a substantial investment of time, effort, and commitment. To be successful, a blog needs a fresh content and regular responses to the comments and e-mail it generates. According to a survey of 74 business bloggers, conducted by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth's Center for Marketing Research, nearly two thirds of respondents spent about an hour a day maintaining their blogs-and others spent even more.
Judging the return on that investment can be trickier. Most blogs won't attract enough visitors to generate significant advertising revenue; their effect will more likely be to boost your advertising strategy. A report by Forrester analyst Charlene Li (which, naturally, is blogged about at http://forrester.typepad.com/charleneli) suggests measuring a blog's return in comparison to similar expenses.
For instance, if a blog succeeds in getting media coverage, its return can be linked to the cost of advertising in a similar publication. A blog can generate buzz, improve a business' ranking on search engines like Google, and act as a focus group by soliciting valuable feedback from clients-all tasks that cost money otherwise. And a blog can bring more ephemeral returns as a morale-builder.
"Think about blogging as opening a window to your house in the summer," says Prof. Nora Barnes, who authored the Dartmouth study of business bloggers. "It lets in a different element; it lets in fresh air."
Of course, the Internet is just as often cruel to businesses as it is kind, and tales of poor service or faulty products can spread like wildfire. And a poorly-written blog can backfire badly.
Last year, Wal-Mart faced a fierce on-line backlash when a blog called "Wal-Marting Across America"-in which a couple and their RV approvingly toured that nation's superstores-turned out to have been bankrolled by its PR firm. The exercise only re-enforced the image of detachment and untrustworthiness that the retailer had been trying to escape. If transparency and openness are the keys to a good business blog, then any hint of dishonesty is a recipe for disaster.
Prof. Barnes says that businesses exclude themselves from the on-line conversation at their own peril. "While you might not be ready to go into the blogosphere and have that discussion, they're already talking, and probably already talking about you," she says, urging business owners to visit a blog search engine like Technorati.com, and punch in their company's names.
"If you're not going to talk," she says, "at least listen."