This is the first column of my two-part series on business blogging. Today: pros and cons. May 18: getting started.
I own a small service firm, and I've been advised to create a blog as a marketing tool. What are the pros and cons of this new medium, and how would I get started?
--C.A., Portland, Ore.
There's no doubt about it, blogs are hot. With their interactivity and their ability to position even micro-business owners as niche experts, blogs are the "it" marketing trend (see BW Online, 5/22/06, "Into the Wild Blog Yonder"). There are more than 39 million blogs in existence and 75,000 new blogs being created every day, according to Technorati, a resource Web site with a search engine that covers the universe of blogs, known as the blogosphere (see BW Online, 4/18/06, "Blogs Multiply. Our Heads Explode").
Some definitions for the uninitiated: A blog (the term comes from a slurring of the phrase "web log") is an online journal. The blog owner regularly posts journal entries, usually fairly short essays including links to relevant information, that readers can react to in a comments section. Additional readers comment on the comments, and the blog owner may or may not weigh in with some follow-up thoughts.
In a real sense, a blog is like an ongoing conversation led and shaped by the blogger. This is in contrast to a newsletter or static Web site that conveys one-way information. Bloggers write about anything and everything, from the personal to the professional, and the successful ones attract loyal communities of readers (see BW Online, Fall/2005, "Blogging For Fun And Profit ").
THE REAL YOU. Business owners sometimes establish blogs alongside their existing Web sites, but blogs can also substitute for Web sites, says author and blogger Patricia Gundry. "A blog will give you a Web presence that is much more reader- and user-friendly than any ordinary Web site can be. It will also be much less expensive for you to create and maintain," she says. "It will do almost everything a regular Web site can do, and more, and one of the best things is that it can create a more personal relationship with your customer."
Blogger Susan Kitchens, a technical writer, agrees: "It's a way of sharing yourself as yourself -- a human, not a marketing droid. You establish trust and build a relationship with an audience." As a blog catches on, it can develop a wider audience and potential customer base for your business. But first you must have something to say. What are the issues surrounding your business that are worth discussing? "If yours is a swiftly-changing business -- like technology -- then your blog can follow the trends," Kitchens notes.
A business blogger could also review industry-specific books, conferences, and organizations and point out relevant articles and Web sites -- a service that engenders gratitude and loyalty. "The more you send them away, the more they come back," Kitchens says (see BW Online, 4/14/06, "Want to Keep Customers? Set Them Free").
TIME INVESTMENT. Josh Hallett, a business consultant who specializes in blogs, says that small-business owners can benefit from the fact that blogging has a low entry barrier in terms of technology and cost. "There are plenty of free and low-cost blogging tools, and publishing is very easy," he says.
Many of his clients start off establishing their own simple blogs, he says, and quickly recognize their potential as marketing vehicles. That's when they contact him and invest a small amount of money to take their blogs to the next level in terms of professional appearance and content.
What are some of the drawbacks to blogging? The major one is time. Blogs must be updated frequently -- several times a week, if not daily or even several times a day -- in order to hold readers' attention. "Depending on the situation, small-business owners either have [no time] because they're constantly working on their businesses, or it's the only resource they have since there are no hard dollars associated with it," Hallett says.
KEEPING SECRETS. Chellie Campbell, an author and financial management consultant, does not blog primarily because of the time commitment involved. "I'm already failing the time-management portion of my own seminar," she says. "I don't need another daily, time-consuming 'to-do' every day. I have a monthly e-zine which I think is enough." She also wonders who has time to read blogs, especially those aimed at other small-business owners. "I can't even read all the monthly newsletters I get, let alone everyone's daily blog," she comments.
Campbell has another objection to blogging that many service providers may share: "Giving free samples is great in small doses, but small-business owners need to watch the bottom line, too. The temptation is that we love our work so much and so enjoy helping people that we can make the mistake of giving it all away for free," she says.
PROFESSIONAL TOOLS. In deciding whether to start a blog, you should also consider your market, Hallett says. "If you are trying to market only in a finite geographical area, then you need to consider how 'bloggy' that area is," he notes. "For example, many of the major markets in Florida have very few bloggers as compared to major urban centers." Not a good thing, he says, since there will be few local blogs for you to link to and interact with.
If you decide to start a blog, you'll probably have to deal with naysayers who don't understand the concept, Gundry says. "They think [blogs] are mostly online journals where people talk about their dogs and their knitting. They aren't. Blogs are the means by which businesses keep contact with their customers, professors with their students, specialists with their field of expertise, and much, much more."
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