Small business blog basics
Regardless of whether you have a local cafe, run a catering business, own a printing business, fix cars, edit manuscripts, sell gift baskets, walk dogs, or any other small business, you can enhance your business's value by using a weblog, better known as a Blog.
What is a Blog?
(Main entry: Blog)
A blog (a contraction of the term "web log") is a type of website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. "Blog" can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.
A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, Web pages, and other media related to its topic. The ability for readers to leave comments in an interactive format is an important part of many blogs. Most blogs are primarily textual, although some focus on art, photographs , videos (Video blogging), music and audio (podcasting). Microblogging is another type of blogging, featuring very short posts, most typically, using the service Twitter.
Ways small business can use a blog
Many small business owners have a few misconceptions about blogs. Some think that blogs are for journalists, political pundits, and techno-geeks. Others think that blogging is for kids and college students to vent their angst with their parents and "the man." Another misconception more commonly held by small businesses is that blogs are strictly for companies selling products online.
If your company sells local services and goods, does that mean you don't need a blog? These same local companies may even have a website, but don't feel that a blog would provide value to their customers or employees.
There are many ways to use blogs for both internal and customer-oriented activities. It is arguably the simplest Content Management System (CMS). Once it is set up, all you need to know how to do is type. Multiple contributors can easily collaborate.
A blog will allow you to inform and educate the public and your customers about your company and products; it will encourage dialogue with current and potential customers, and it can drive customers to take action. The potential uses are limited only by ones imagination.
Some examples are:
- A blog can be your entire website for your company
- Build "Buzz" with a product-specific blog
- Create an ecommerce storefront
- Create a customer service desk to provide FAQs, Q&A, and post a knowledgebase.
- Create a corporate intranet portal to update employees and collaborate with partners
- Use a blog as a project management tool for large projects
How to get started blogging
- Domain Name
If you are an established business then you may already have a domain name. If not, you should choose a name and register it using a domain registration service. The cost runs about $6 to $8 per year. You should purchase it for at least two years, and can consider as long as ten years. While not a requirement for having a weblog, having your own web address is a good strategy for linking your blog's brand with you company's brand.
If you have been in business for any length of time, you probably already have a logo for your letterhead and business cards. This logo can be transferred to your blog.
- Photos and illustrations
Using photos and illustration will make your blog more attractive and professional looking (if done properly). There are many places to obtain stock photography that can be used for commercial purposes for a small fee (or even free). Here are a few places to look:
Adding content to your weblog
Keeping your weblog up to date with fresh content is important. You or your employees should add new "posts" as often as possible and on a regular basis. Make sure that if multiple people are adding to a company blog where the writer is not identified, that the voice is consistent with the style the company wants to express. Establish a regular frequency is key to getting people to come back and read your blog. If you post sporadically, people will not know when to expect fresh content. Frequency should be at a minimum, once per week and try to make it on the same day.
Weblog software (see below) makes adding new content easy to do. In some instances, a freelance writer can be engaged to help maintain fresh content on your weblog. If you plan on hiring freelance help, there are a few places where you can put a request for bids to have the content created: craigslist.com, Elance.com, and Rent-A-Coder.com.
You can also enlist a guest blogger. Guest bloggers write the content and are labeled as a guest blogger so that the folks reading your blog know that you didn't write it. It's a great way to get back links to your blog and to help with promotion of your blog.
Selecting a weblog platform
Managing a weblog requires a specialized software program. There are many choices today then ever - and not all are created equal. The first big question is whether you should use a *hosted solution* or a solution that runs on a server you maintain.
A hosted blog solution refers to the many available providers that allow anyone to build a blog online - and they host it on their servers, using their domain name (although many of these services offer options that will allow you to use your own URL or domain name). Some of the most popular providers of hosted web solutions include:
Each of these service is similar in basic features and many are free for the basic service with upgrades available for a fee.
- Advantages of a hosted solution:
- Speed: You can be up and running in about ten minutes. A
- Technical support: Very little maintenance required since the provider maintains the site.
- Ease of use: The popular blog-hosting services have easy-to-understand content-management features.
- Disadvantages of a hosted solution:
- Domain name: While you can redirect a URL to a hosted weblog, it still will have a domain name that includes the name of hosting service: yourblog.hostingservice.com For a premium price, some hosted services offer a "domain mapping" feature that will solve this problem. Some technical skills will be required to set up this feature.
- Analytics: Many of the free platforms don't give you useful data about your visitors, for instance where they are coming from and if they are visiting your main website and becoming a lead or customer of your business.
- Limited eCommerce Options: Very few, if any, of the hosted solutions will allow you to add products, Google Adsense code or other eCommerce options to your blog.
- Design Limitations: You have less control over the appearance of your blog.
- Functional Limitations: You may be limited to only using the plugins that the host supports.
A big advantage of using an independent solution is the control over every aspect of your blog, in particular the templates which are used to change the look and feel of the blog. The templates are also modified when using plug-ins and integrating the blog into your overall website. The downside is that you have to be more technically inclined (or hire someone) than in the case of the hosted solution. You also need to find a host provider that will support the solution you choose.
- Server solutions include:
- b2 Evolution
- Movable Type
- pMachine Expression Engine
A side-by-side comparison of blogging software can be found on this comparison chart at Online Journalism Review.
How to Blog
Here are some general blogging guidelines for entries that your customers will want to read:
- Keep posts relatively short, informative and to the point
- Write in first person; use a conversational style
- Include links to other sites, blogs, resources, and news articles
- Keep on topic
- Read other blogs on a similar topic and learn from others
- Use humor where possible
Promoting Your Blog
Do not neglect traditional marketing methods when promoting a website or blog. The URL for your blog should appear on all of your materials including:
- Blog Directories
- Business Cards
- Boxes and Printed Receipts (if applicable)
- Email Correspondence as a Signature
Using the web to promote your weblog:
- Use links in your posts to other pertinent content
- Allow comments on your posts (where applicable)
- Use meta-tags for each post
- Use permalinks with keywords
Syndication: When you update your weblog, most hosted weblog solutions "alert" certain services that communicate to those who have subscribed to your blog content using an RSS "newsreader" or service like MyYahoo or Bloglines.
Tracking Weblog Statistics
So now that your blog is up and running, you will probably want to track your visitors and which content is popular. Note that the success of your blog is purely how you define success. Some companies use blogs to promote and advertise their products/services, others it is purely a forum for getting feedback, some do it to generate side revenue (e.g., AdSense), while for others it is to provide hints & tips or provide support and build a solid user community. The nature of the blog will determine how you define success. You may decide success is based upon the number of subscribers (e.g., RSS, you have, or how many comments are entered, or how many sales conversions it brings.
So how can you track visits to your blog? There are several tools and services that can be used in conjunction with your blog, most are free (with fee-based enhancements), while others provide higher-end services for a fee. Some blogging applications, such as HubSpot, pMachine, and others, have these capabilities built-in.
Here is a rundown of some of the more popular services:
- Google Analytics
These tools work by inserting some code (that the sites will give you) into your blog template.