If you're marketing to a niche or need an online forum for fresh ideas, Web logs could be the new killer app
Dave Pell has a split personality. By day he's the hard-driving managing partner of Arba Seed Investment Group of San Francisco, an angel-investment firm that funds Internet start-ups. But by night -- or whenever he's got a free hour or so -- he's posting new stuff on his Web site, acting as "chief dotconomist" and scribe of Davenetics, a daily E-mail newsletter that has become required reading for some 12,000 followers of the new economy. "I call Davenetics 'the official newsletter of the next five minutes," he jokes.
Pell's nether life as an online Mark Twain is just one example of a growing trend among Netheads called Web logging, or "blogging" for short. Web loggers use their Web sites to show off their insight and expertise; as a broadcast medium for customers, clients, and acquaintances; and even as a company intranet. And as entrepreneurs like Pell are discovering, Web logs can be invaluable for building their businesses and brands.
At its most fundamental level, a Web log is a Web site, or a section of a Web site, whose overriding characteristic is its ever-changing list of links. But Web logs are also Internet-age gardens. Bloggers add new links -- like so many new seeds -- to the top of their Web page, and older, staler items drop to the bottom and are later composted in archives. Web loggers can organize their sites in threaded topic areas, bulletin-board style, and visitors can use Web-logging tools -- such as those available at GrokSoup (www.groksoup.com) -- to easily add their own responses to articles and ideas posted on the site.
As a communications and loyalty-building tool, a Web log provides both a news filter and a freewheeling forum that can enhance a company's reputation and encourage customers to come back to the site. Web logs can also be used as a kind of company intranet to keep employees in the loop. And because Web-logging tools are free and require no programming knowledge to operate, they might just be the hottest thing since E-mail.
Fame in Internet Time
Of course, news digests predate Walter Cronkite. And surfers have passed around links to one another since the birth of the Internet. Plenty of Web sites, such as Slashdot.com and the Drudge Report, are fundamentally little more than Web logs. But thanks to a slew of relatively new, free, downloadable, and look-Ma-no-programming Web-logging tools, creating a Web log is easier than ever. (See "Blog Me, Baby," below.)
Web-logging tools have already turned thousands of Netheads into self-styled news filters and critics. The vast majority of Web loggers are cyberspace hobbyists and subversives, who publish their own daily stream-of-consciousness wanderings using the Internet's vanity press. They pick and choose articles of interest, respond to them, and invite others to contribute their own views on a continuously evolving basis.
Pell, for instance, surfs dozens of Web sites -- ranging from the New York Times online to a gossip site called Techdirt.com -- for the latest Web-related news of interest to entrepreneurs, investors, journalists, and the merely curious. Using a set of easy-to-use Web-logging tools, he creates pithy headlines and descriptions of the articles along with links to the full articles at their original sites.
Call Davenetics an electronic news service with attitude. The mix of news and views that Pell serves up shields his devoted readers from the informational tsunami of the hundreds of conventional news sources that threaten to engulf them. "In this fast-paced E-biz world, time's not merely money, it's survival," says Rik Myslewski, longtime Davenetics fan and editorial director of Productopia.com, a San Francisco-based consumer-information site. " Davenetics' timely updates save me and my troops the precious hours it would take to sift critical news from background noise."
Pell insists that blogging doesn't interfere with his work at Arba Seed Investment. In fact, he says, it's really a part of his job. His newsletter has attracted the interest of publications like Forbes, which now invite Pell (who previously hesitated to approach publications through the usual front door of pitch letters) to contribute articles on seed investments and the Net in general. The publicity "has added a lot of value to my brand," he says, squelching a smile. "I get invited to a lot of nice dinners with smart people offering new business opportunities."
Rebecca Blood, a Web developer and consultant who formerly managed a departmental site at the University of Washington, uses her Web log, www.rebeccablood.net, as an outlet for her creative expression. But her skill at Web logging also subtly promotes her skills as a Web designer and manager, and demonstrates her knowledge of the Internet itself. "A Web log offers an easy platform for self-expression, and it's easier to set up than an elaborate Web site," Blood says. "And it's much more effective than setting up a mailing list where you're just pushing out E-mail at people about the links you find."
Blood's site is dear to the large, growing, and endlessly creative Web-logging community, the vast majority of which fiercely opposes the notion that businesses could exploit Web logs for their own capitalist purposes. "I've never seen a business do Web logging, and frankly, I hope I never do," says journalist Jim Romenesko, who operates two news-filtering Web logs, www.obscurestore.com and www.medianews.org. "There's a certain resentment among independent writers who feel businesses will try to co-opt them."
Nevertheless, it's happening. Businesspeople like Terry Yelmene see great potential in using a Web log to tout their own expertise. Yelmene, a consultant with 3C3 Applied Research and Technology, a four-person company based in Boulder, Colo., is an expert in knowledge management. Large businesses in the Boston area hire Yelmene and his colleagues to help them find out which employees know what and to develop ways of sharing that knowledge.
Yelmene's Web site, www.3C3art.com, will soon feature a link to a personal Web log called "Knowledgeer at Large," which will include constantly updated links to new articles of use to his company's clients and anyone else interested in the wide world of knowledge management. "I'm taking content about knowledge management and publishing my opinions within the framework of a Web log that can be read by my clients and the knowledge-management community," says Yelmene. "It will be great for my business, because it's a mechanism for demonstrating what I can do."
If your Web log is successful, your electronic community will grow, which can be both good and bad.
Dave Winer also uses his Web log to opine. The CEO of UserLand Software Inc., an eight-person software company in San Francisco, Winer holds forth on content-management software for the Web on UserLand's public site. Each of the company's development-team members keeps a public Web log -- using tools the company has developed -- on the UserLand site, where they share their technical knowledge with the Web-development community and ask for public feedback.
Winer and his far-flung colleagues -- who work in Seattle and Los Angeles and even in Germany -- also use their Web logs as a corporate intranet. After entering the password-protected private site, they follow links to get information on employees, projects, sales numbers, milestones, and more. Winer is able to oversee the private site, post information to it, monitor bugs, and track project deliverables using specific software. "Our Web log is our management process," says Winer. "It's remarkable how much more productive we've become using it."
To Blog or Not to Blog
Although Web logging has valid applications for many kinds of companies, it isn't practical for every small business, says Jakob Nielsen, principal of Norman Nielsen Group, a consulting company in Mountain View, Calif., and author of Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. "You have to be able to say something reasonably new every day about what's happening in your field," Nielsen says. "If you have a static site and an irregular publishing schedule, you will turn people off."
And while self-expression may be the main goal of individual Web loggers, a company's Web log has a different raison d'Ãªtre. As a marketing tool, it's the organization's public and professional face. Thus, anyone who regards word-mongering as more of a struggle than a pleasure should probably avoid Web logging, Nielsen says, noting that there's nothing worse than reading someone's bad content. (Hint: If you don't have the requisite writing skills, find someone who does and put them on daily Web-log duty.) Stretch yourself too thin, and your lack of energy will show in the poor quality of your Web log, he says. "Companies that lack the resources to commit to a daily Web log would be better off publishing a semimonthly E-mail newsletter, containing some fresh insight and links to interesting articles," Nielsen advises.
Another key factor is commitment, veteran Web loggers say. "Doing a good Web log takes a lot of time," says journalist Romenesko. "Some people have a hard time sitting down and working on them for a few hours a day." And a fledgling blogger shouldn't expect any kind of immediate return on the labor investment. "It took me months and months to develop an audience," Romenesko notes.
Even more challenging is the notion of building credibility by swallowing your pride and linking to the other guy's site. To be a credible Web logger, "you have to have the guts to point to things that are of interest, even if they are considered competitors," Nielsen insists.
Linking to competitors' sites poses no problem for Brent Holliday, a partner with Greenstone Venture Partners (www.greenstonevc.com), a four-person venture-capital firm in Vancouver, British Columbia. Like Terry Yelmene and Dave Pell, Holliday uses Greenstone's Web log (the Greenstone Grok) to show off his company's expertise. The site provides links to news items of interest to entrepreneurs and the high-tech community in the Pacific Northwest -- regardless of the parties involved.
"Other venture capitalists will come to me and ask, 'Why did you put the news of our deal on your Web site?" says Holliday. "They don't notice that people come to us first -- and every day -- as a source of intelligence. It increases our credibility to talk about what's going on, no matter who's doing the deals."
Size is a factor, too. If your Web log is successful, your electronic community will grow, which can be both good and bad. Instead of being an adjunct to your business, your Web log could threaten to consume it. You might find yourself needing to add hardware, bandwidth, and more resources, and gradually morphing into a publisher. "This is a long-term marketing tool," says Nielsen. "You have to cost everything out and think about how you will deal with it over time."
Caveats aside, dedicated Web loggers can find themselves basking in their 15 minutes of fame, not to mention the loyalty of their customers. "Blogging is the platform for a new meritocracy," says Pell. "It removes the barriers to creative performance. You don't have to have the leverage of a major media corporation, but you can prove to the reader that you are smart and good at what you do."
Blog Me, Baby
The cool thing about the Internet is that as soon as something becomes popular, someone's going to find a way to make it easier to participate.
And Web logging is no different. The tools listed here are free and easy to use, and help automate (and greatly accelerate) the blog publishing process. You don't need to know how to write any code, and you don't need to install any server software or scripts. Yet you can still fully control the look and location of your blog. To use these tools, however, you will need to have either a Web site or access to a Web server. (You can get Web-server access through your Internet service provider.)
|Web Site||What It Does|
|Blogger provides a template for your page that indicates where you want your information posts to appear. When you make a new post, you'll get "Post" and "Publish" buttons that will automatically send your new page to your Web server. No programming is required, though Blogger asks that you link your page back to its site.|
|UserLand's downloadable software comes with "Edit This Page" buttons that let you update your Web log easily without having to worry about programming.|
|GrokSoup is a classy, supersimple tool with a very straightforward interface for building a Web log. Registration and a password are required.|
Please e-mail your comments to email@example.com.