Andy Beal was about to announce some new features for his online reputation monitoring software Trackur. “I considered sending out a press release, or a mass announcement,” he says. Instead, he decided to try a different tactic. “I carefully picked blogs I knew had a significant audience and might be interested, and offered each of them an exclusive, one by one.”

The first two bloggers didn’t respond to Beal’s offer, but the third was very enthusiastic, so Beal decided to up the ante: He told the blogger he would forego a press release and hold of mentioning the new features even on his own blog until after the other blog had published the news. “That gave them the assurance they could invest the time to really explore the announcement and put together an in-depth article.”

After that blog post came out, Beal continued his campaign, approaching other prominent bloggers. “I couldn’t offer an exclusive, but I provided a tailored pitch and offered myself for an interview. It got picked up by a number of other blogs.” The end result, he says, was more coverage than he could have gotten from a traditional press release.

The power of the blog

A growing number of companies, especially small companies, are learning to use the power of widely-read blogs. “As a startup, you don’t have much money for marketing, so we’ve always found PR was the best way to do it,” explains Anna Yen, co-founder of PacketTrap Networks, which provides network management software. “Around 2007 and 2008, the dynamic changed dramatically as bloggers proliferated on the Internet. We knew we needed a strategy to reach them because they’re really in tune with the IT community, which is our audience.” In fact, PacketTrap considers bloggers so important that it has a full-time employee whose job is to read blogs, comment on blogs, and contact bloggers.

Even without going that far, there are many things a small company can do to harness the power of the blogosphere, where a well-thought-out pitch for a truly innovative product can level the playing field between large and small competitors. Begin by identifying the blogs that are important within your industry -- the ones your customers and colleagues probably read every day. Then, try the following approaches:

1. Craft a pitch specific to the blog. Though he created Trackur, Beal is best known as the editor of the popular blog Marketing Pilgrim, so he knows from experience how to approach another blogger -- and how not to. “I get a lot of e-mail pitches, and the ones that get my attention are those where it’s obvious someone took the time to read Marketing Pilgrim and get an understanding of what we cover,” Beal says. “On the flip side, it’s the kiss of death if I get a templated pitch that doesn’t address me by name, where it’s clearly going to a mass distribution list. That instantly tells me the story will get picked up by everybody.”

2. Offer information as an exclusive. Today’s bloggers compete to “scoop” each other, just as daily newspapers did before the days of television and the Internet. Beal explains why: “Any time I can be the first to break a news story of any substance -- a new product announcement or new features to an existing product -- I know that’ll lead to other bloggers and online publications linking to me as the source of the story. That establishes credibility in the minds of those who haven’t heard of Marketing Pilgrim.”

3. Provide information ahead of its release.Beal also appreciates the opportunity to get “embargoed” information ahead of time. It allows him to manage his work better, and he can have a post ready to go as soon as the embargo is lifted.

4. Make yourself available. “Give me the opportunity to get more information by e-mail, or schedule a conference call,” Beal says. “Sometimes I have the time to do an in-depth interview about a new announcement.”

5. Comment on relevant blogs. “I create personal comments as much as I can, and my comments are pretty short,” says Elizabeth Buford, marketing manager at PacketTrap, and the company’s full-time blog outreach professional. “Sometimes the blogger will get back to me.” But, she warns, be careful to avoid comments that only tout your product. “You never want to sound as if you’re doing a product pitch. The audience is very unforgiving, and they will discount what you say, and in fact punish you.”

6. Respond to bad information. On the other hand, you should respond to negative or incorrect information about your company or your product, particularly if a blogger writes something positive about you and receives negative comments to the blog. “Please join the conversation, and if there are questions about your product or service, please answer them for me,” Beal says. “Don’t let it be a one-way monologue.”

Things get a bit trickier if the blogger him or herself makes untrue comments about your product. In that situation, it’s best to contact the blogger privately via e-mail, if you can. “You’ll get a better success rate if you educate them, either gracefully pointing out any mistakes or giving them more information they might find interesting,” Yen says.

7. Be sensitive -- popular bloggers get overwhelmed. Remember that if you’re sending a pitch to a well-known blogger, yours is one of dozens or even hundreds of pitches received that day. Joel Spolsky, who writes the widely-read blog Joel on Software, claims pitches have the opposite of the desired effect on him -- the harder a company tries to get into his blog, the likelier he is to ignore it.

And, he says, the best way to get his attention -- and that of any blogger -- is to offer a truly exceptional product. “Do not overestimate what bloggers can do for you,” he says. “If you make a good product, it’ll get talked about by everyone, including bloggers. If it’s not a good product, all the bloggers in the world won’t help you.”