Blogging Builds Brands

October 18th, 2005

by

Originally published in All About Branding.com

Blogging is one of the hottest trends on the net. A blog (short for “web log”) is a web-based diary where the author can ruminate on whatever strikes his or her fancy. The blogger may share photos, poetry, political views, gossip, industry trends, business advice, or the latest on their personal life. By definition, blogs are organized in reverse chronological order. Many are updated daily. They can have one or multiple authors, such as a community blog.

One in five teens between 12 and 17 maintains a blog, according to a US survey. But blogs aren’t just for idiosyncratic rants by awkward adolescents. Seemingly everybody is getting into blogging – celebrities like William Shatner, gurus like Tom Peters, and world-renowned journalists like Dave Barry. And yes, the business world too is embracing blogs – from corporate giants like General Motors to small but stand-out businesses like the Savile Row tailor Thomas Mahon. I’ve caught the bug too; I blog on emarketing and search engine optimization at www.StephanSpencer.com.

Why are people reading blogs?
A new blog is created every 5.8 seconds (Source: Pew). Not surprisingly, many of the millions of blogs littering the Web are not meant for public consumption beyond a small circle of friends or colleagues. Business bloggers, on the other hand, target a wider audience consisting of current and prospective customers, catering to their wants and needs with useful info or insightful commentary on a regular basis. Readers grow to depend on the blogger’s observations and wisdom.

Marketing guru and celebrated business blogger Seth Godin reckons there are three types of business blogs: “news blogs” which follow the latest happenings in a particular topic area, “writer’s blogs” where the blogger mostly riffs and pontificates, and “our blogs” which are merely fire-starters for conversations carried on within the blog by the community of blog readers.

News blogs keep readers up to date with news and current events in their areas of expertise or interest, only pointing out the best or most interesting stuff. Thus, bloggers whom you trust and resonate with can be a real timesaver by acting as a personal filter, cutting through the information glut. Writers’ blogs stimulate the reader’s thinking and challenge his or her preconceptions. “Our blogs” provide the reader with the impetus to join a conversation on issues that the reader cares about. In effect, it’s participatory journalism.

To blog, or not to blog?
Curiously, brands are notably absent from the “blogosphere” – the blogging world online. By lagging behind on this new trend, they miss a key opportunity to actively participate in the global online conversation that is currently happening without them.

Consider, for example, Pepsi’s “Pop the Music” Superbowl ad. The commercial inadvertently made a star out of Mandy Amano, a woman who appeared in the commercial for only a few seconds. Geeks the world over swooned over her. One of them rose to the occasion and started a blog in her honor, called That Pepsi Girl (http://thatpepsigirl.blogspot.com/). The blog is a testament to the power of the consumer to initiate fads and influence their spread. Where was Pepsi through all this? Not in the blogosphere, that’s for sure. But they should have been.

How about dotcom brands? They too seem reticent to join in. For instance, wine.com does not have a blog. Therefore, wine enthusiasts flock to wine blogs like Vinography for their daily dose of news and opinion, rather than a wine.com blog. Where does wine.com figure in to Vinography’s many hundreds of posts? Unfortunately, a mere four times, and those few mentions aren’t all favorable. A wine.com blog, full of passion for wine and devoid of disguised advertorial, would over time develop a loyal following and be in a position to influence their readers’ buying decisions.

Here are three reasons to add blogging to your own marketing arsenal:

  • You’ll be seen as an expert in your niche. If your blog is a good one, you build credibility with your readers and they come to rely on you for the latest thinking, news and trends in your field of expertise or interest. It’s as if you become the lens with which the reader views the greater Web. Then, as their thought leader, you can influence the reader through a soft sell approach. Furthermore, a blog draws in the visitor, making him or her want to return again and again to see what new stuff has been posted.
  • People regard you as a human being they can relate to. The personal voice of your blog is more “real” than the voice of your company’s site; it’s more disarming and makes your company seem more approachable. People buy from people, not from some faceless corporate entity. It also gives customers an inside-view of how you think, your unadulterated opinions and point of view.
  • Search engines love blogs. Links are the currency of the Web as far as the search engines are concerned. A good blog garners links – in quantity and quality – yielding higher search engine rankings. No links equals no visibility in the natural (unpaid) search results, so links really are critical. Bloggers link extensively to each other within their blog posts, within their “blogrolls” (i.e. favorite blogs that they read regularly), and through a blogging feature called “trackbacks.” Blog posts are also syndicated onto other sites via a technology called RSS (for Really Simple Syndication).

But can blogging have a positive impact on your bottom line? Absolutely, if it’s done right! Just consider the success story of the Voltaic Backpack, as described in an article in Fortune magazine earlier this year. Entrepreneur Shayne McQuade received an early sample of his company’s solar-powered backpack that can charge the wearer’s cell phone and other gadgets. He asked a friend – a blogger who runs a blog called Treehugger – to blog about it, and he did. The mention on Treehugger, being just a small blog with a small readership, didn’t by itself cause a huge word-of-mouth epidemic to spread. However, another blogger higher up the blogging “ecosystem” picked up the story from Treehugger and blogged about the backpack on his Cool Hunting blog, which was then read by Gizmodo, one of the most popular blogs on the Internet for cool stuff and gadgets. Once the backpack was featured on Gizmodo, the orders literally poured in!

Here are a few more examples of blogs that have driven customers, interest and sales:

  • Last year Steve Spangler, founder and CEO of specialty catalog company Steve Spangler Science, launched an entertaining and educational blog at www.stevespangler.com which already has a Google PageRank importance score on par with the home page of the company’s online retail site. The blog is effectively driving traffic and sales into the online store and is further positioning Steve as a thought leader in childhood education.
  • The Carter Center garnered significant increases in visits to their site after a short blogging stint in 2003 by President Jimmy Carter (instigated on my suggestion). The Center enjoyed, on average, quadruple their normal daily visitors and have sustained significant increase in Web traffic since then.
  • Step Two Designs’ managing director James Robertson writes a blog called Column Two, which has become his company’s top client referral source. The blog, along with a compendium of his articles, accounts for 75% of new leads. Over the course of the first year of the blog’s existence (the blog was launched in April 2002), web traffic went from 200 visitors a day to over 1500. Repeat visits per month quadrupled. Robertson reckons blogging has been “the best online marketing I’ve ever done”.

A key point for brand marketers: word-of-mouth plays a critical role in people’s purchase decisions both online and offline. People look to mavens that they trust for product recommendations. If you could be in that influential position of one of those mavens that they trust because they follow your blog, then you can influence their positions/choices.

But also there is a real risk in not being part of the conversation. Case in point: Kryptonite Locks. It was discovered that their bike locks could be picked with an ordinary Bic pen, and this discovery made its way through the blogosphere while Kryptonite remained silent. The negative word-of-mouth continued to escalate until finally Kryptonite was forced to act, albeit too late to effectively contain the damage. By the end of it, it cost the Ingersoll-Rand subsidiary $10 million in recall costs – over a third of its annual revenue.

Seth Godin said at a recent MarketingProfs’ Thought Leaders Summit on business blogging: “What I think blogs can do that’s really powerful, is change the culture of an idea and the way a corporate sees itself. It’s about very specific vertical groups listening to a human being within a company so that they can hear the story behind that company – the story that the corporate needs and wants to tell. And if the stories are good and the ideas are worth spreading, they’ll spread.” Do you have a story to tell?

Getting started
Now that I have your attention, if you plan on writing a blog, follow these tips:

  • Write blog posts as interesting links augmented with your own brief commentary, not in-depth articles or bland corporate-speak or, heaven forbid, press releases. Employ a conversational tone. Let your opinion shine through.
  • Encourage audience participation by allowing readers to comment on blog posts.
  • Update your blog frequently. Aim for at least a few posts per week. The more the better. This garners repeat visits and improved search engine visibility. Search engines like recent content.
  • Use a blogging service or software. Hosted services abound, like Blogger.com, LiveJournal.com and Typepad.com. Or you can install blogging software on your web server, such as WordPress or Moveable Type, integrating it within the rest of your site. A blogging tool makes maintaining your blog a breeze. Most of them by default provide an “RSS feed” so people can siphon off your blog updates automatically using news aggregator software. On the road? Many of these tools also allow you to post audio messages and photos to your blog from your cell phone.
  • Provide multiple paths to your posts. Offer a search engine so people can dig through old posts, and categories so people can see all the topics that interest them. Even consider adding a Top 10 list of your all-time best blog posts on your home page.
  • Register with various blog directories and participate in blogger communities. The sooner you get into sites like Technorati, Daypop, and Blog Universe, is the sooner they start referring traffic to your blog and increasing its search engine visibility through links.
  • Have an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed. In fact, have multiple feeds, for each category. With RSS, people are not just subscribed to your blog. In many cases they’re subscribed to searches (e.g. through a free service like PubSub or Feedster). And so, if they’re subscribed to a search about a topic, all of a sudden, anybody who is interested in that topic can read your blog, as long as the keywords they are searching for appear in your blog post. Be sure to track subscribers, reads and click-throughs on the RSS feed. More on RSS in a future article.
  • Allow readers to subscribe to blog updates via email. Many people are still not very savvy about RSS, so email provides a mechanism for them to follow your blog in a way they understand.
  • Don’t be afraid to enlist some help. It takes skill as a writer and a storyteller to be an effective blogger. Consider engaging a blog consultant to help you find your right voice and learn blogging best practices. You may even want to engage a professional blogger to help you research topics and draft posts. Whatever you do, be transparent. Don’t try to fool your readers into thinking you are writing when it’s actually the voice of a ghostwriter.
  • Exercise good judgment. Obviously the rules of business propriety apply just as much in the blogosphere as elsewhere. Don’t leak confidential information, misrepresent your company, say anything libelous or slanderous, and so on. Credit your sources and link to them.

Blogging is a tool, one that requires skill and practice to be wielded effectively. Debbie Weil described blogging well when she said at the above-mentioned Thought Leaders Summit: “It’s a way to tell a story with a voice, with an opinion, with context, with links to others. It’s immediate. It’s fresh. It’s happening now. A lot of this is not obvious to companies getting into blogging for the first time.”

Exciting times ahead
Blogging isn’t just a passing fad; it’s here to stay. Nothing underlines that more than Google’s acquisition of Blogger.com, a service that hosts over 200,000 active blogs and claims over 1,000,000 users.

Blogging is becoming an established communications channel in business. Business blogger and author Shel Israel predicts that the power of people to reach real humans inside the corporation will have a liberating effect. In the end, he says, marketing departments as we know them will be reconfigured to some degree.

Steve Rubel, PR guru and author of the Micropersuasion blog, predicts that blogging will eventually bring the end of corporate-speak because it whets people’s appetite for things that are written in a human voice. The heavy corporate style – like “such-and-such a company today announced.” is going to disappear because people want a human voice with credibility.

BL Ochman, of whatsnextonline.com, points out that one of the things so annoying about the Internet today is going to websites and you can’t find a human anywhere. In the blogosphere, you find humans. And while a lot of retailers may pull back, asking “what would we do with all that feedback” or “what are we going to do when all those people start responding to our blogs”, some may seize this opportunity and discover something very exciting and powerful – namely, that their words really can have an impact. BL says, “That’s going to be one of the bigger changes that companies will have to deal with, and it’s a very positive change that’s going to come about, all because of blogging!”