It's been widely covered that weblogs are a viable way to build brand awareness and establish an individual's expertise in a particular area. "For a small business, [a weblog] is a perfect low-cost positioning-yourself-as-an-expert tool," notes Debbie Weil, the publisher of WordBizReport and Debbie's Blog, as well as author of an upcoming book on corporate blogging for Penguin Portfolio (2006). But what hasn't been covered is how to actually take the leap?
In essence, when you begin to blog, you're publishing your own work. You're making a statement to an enormous audience that will shine a spotlight on your company and your credibility as an expert. With so much at stake, building a weblog into your marketing arsenal can seem intimidating.
To help lessen the anxiety you might feel about blogging, we went out to three experts in the field to uncover the top 10 things you should know before you blog. These tips should help better prepare you for writing and maintaining a weblog for your business.
- A weblog is a two-way conversation, not a top-down communication medium.
As a boss, you're in a natural leadership role -- generally, you talk and people associated with your company listen. When you're blogging, the dynamic is different. Your audience is infinitely larger, and the conversation you start will take on a life of its own. "You need to ask yourself, 'Am I willing to engage people without controlling the conversation in a top-down kind of way?" says Paul Chaney, president of Radiant Marketing Group, a business blog consulting firm. Readers will build on your thoughts, and, gasp, may even criticize them. You need to be able to accept feedback in stride. Besides, a little criticism might lead to a topic you might want to discuss in a future posting. Even better, it could lead to such tangible outcomes as better solutions, products, and strategies for your business.
- It takes time to blog, maybe more than you're willing to devote.
Consistency and frequency are the keys to building an audience on the Web. If you're using a weblog to build brand recognition or establish yourself as an expert, you need to be sure that you're blogging frequently. "I advise business owners to blog at least twice a week," says Anita Campbell, a former CEO and editor of the daily blog Small Business Trends. "If you don't do it at least twice a week, the blog can quickly look stale," she adds. This is not to say you have to sit down to write 500-word posts two or three times a week. "Better a couple of sentences three times a week than one blog a week," suggests Weil.
- Find out what others are saying about you and your business.
Get a head start on your weblog by first discovering what others, maybe even competitors, are saying about your industry, your business, even you. "Get the pulse of what is being said to determine whether you can speak to that particular issue or put forth a message that can set you apart," suggest Chaney. "If you're in a competitive space where other companies are blogging, you can monitor that and then come up with a strategy that's more intelligent than just throwing stuff out there," he adds. Chaney suggests using blogpulse to search the most up-to-date listings of weblog postings about your company and industry.
- Yes, you do need to be able to write.
But you don't have to be Ernest Hemingway. "If you can write a coherent e-mail, you can write a blog entry," Weil says. Pay attention to proper grammar -- you don't want to sound illiterate, and try to have fun with it. "The writing style should be informal, as if you're speaking to someone in an e-mail," Weil suggests. And if you don't feel like you have a distinctive voice, just give it some time. It will emerge eventually.
- Practice can make perfect. Or, at least make you more comfortable with blogging.
Some owners might shudder at the thought of writing so publicly. But it doesn't have to be "show time" right out of the gate. You can experiment before you go public. Put comments on others' weblogs or do a weblog behind the scenes. "Open up a Typepad account, use it for free, and don't make it public," suggests Weil. Keep it private for a while or put it behind a firewall. "Get at least ten entries in there and have colleagues comment on them," she adds. Feedback from people you trust can help build your confidence. Likewise, the exercise could reveal you just don't like doing it. Better to learn this now rather than after you've made your blog intentions public.
- Some topics are verboten.
Remember, you're blogging for your business, so stay away from anything that could throw prospective and current customers into a tirade. Campbell generally advises against blogging about the following topics: sex, race/ethnic bias, religion, politics, and too much patriotism. The patriotism one is especially sensitive because of the global nature of the Internet, according to Campbell. "Anyone can come to your website from any country," reminds Campbell. "While you can be patriotic, you don't want to do it at the expense of someone else's nationality."
- Be sure to know your keywords.
Blogs can help customers find your business when they are searching on Google or other sites. Therefore, it's important to know: What words do customers most often use to find you via the search engines? What words show up in competitor or industry blogs on a regular basis that help place them high in Google's index? Knowing which words to drop into your posts on a regular basis will help boost your search rankings. "Small businesses get more search engine benefit from blogs than larger businesses," Campbell says. After all, your marketing budget probably is a fraction of what GE will spend this year. Writing frequently and dropping keywords into your posts to help boost your search standings can go a long way for a business owner on a tight marketing budget. But don't overdo it. Readers will see right through any obvious attempts at self-promotion.
- It will take longer than you think to build awareness -- and a following.
Don't expect your weblog to be an instant hit. Traffic to it and building a following will take a while to develop. "You will find you need to give at least a three- to six-month commitment, updating routinely [to get noticed]," Chaney says. And Weil suggests at least one year. Whether its three months or a year, you need to be committed for the long haul, regardless of feedback, or lack thereof, from readers. "You're not going to be found after a couple of weeks," says Weil. It will take at least several months before the major search engines and other bloggers and websites find you.
- Know your confidentiality limits.
"Don't write anything you don't want your competition to know about," Campbell says. When you're blogging, it's easy to get caught in the moment and share your coolest ideas and best strategies. But you need to think of your weblog as any other writing communication you do for your business. Before you write, ask yourself whether your topic will compromise your position in the market, or compromise your position as leader of your company. If an employee or competitor shouldn't hear it, then it shouldn't be in your weblog.
- Know why you're blogging.
Sounds like common sense, but stating why you've decided to start a weblog can quickly put into perspective what you expect to get from it. "You shouldn't be doing it just because it's the latest trend," Chaney says. You need to determine how the weblog will serve your organization: Will its primary purpose be to build brand awareness? Do you want to establish yourself as an expert in a field to better highlight your company's expertise? Will it be used to simply alert people to company news and information? Are you more interested in using it as an internal vehicle for updating employees? Knowing what you're setting out to do with your weblog will help define what you'll write about -- and keep you focused on your primary effort.
Once you know the ropes, blogging is easy -- and fun. It's an opportunity for you to establish meaningful conversations with potential and existing customers. And it offers you a instant platform to share your knowledge and expertise with the world at large.