For a guy who runs an ad agency, Jim Coudal doesn't spend much on marketing. His 13-year-old Chicago company, Coudal Partners Inc., has never purchased a print ad, mounted a direct-mail campaign, or produced an infomercial. Yet each week, some 12,000 people -- many of them potential customers -- flock to the company's website.

How does Coudal Partners do it? By blogging.

You've probably heard of weblogs, or blogs. They're regularly updated online journals, usually packed with short snappy commentary and links to related content on the Web, and they've become one of the Internet's fastest-growing features. Blogs have long been popular with mopey teens looking to share their angst and political pundits eager for an online soapbox. But they are increasingly being put to commercial use by entrepreneurs.

That's because blogging is perfect for small businesses -- a cheap and easy way to communicate directly with customers, partners, and clients, craft a strong, outspoken online personality, and escape the doldrums of static homepages. "Before blogs, it was difficult for small companies to afford a way to stay in touch with their customers. Now they can," says marketing consultant Jack Trout. "It's a great marketing tool."

Consider Coudal, who's been blogging since 1999. While most blogs are simple text diaries laced with hyperlinks to other websites, is something else entirely: a richly designed site with eye-popping photography and links to articles on everything from advertising history to famous film directors. Coudal's eight employees take turns posting to the blog, which is updated twice a day. The blog has transformed a small, eight-person ad boutique into a hub for design aficionados worldwide. "It's been great for our reputation," says Coudal.

But weblogs don't need to be as flashy as Coudal's to be effective. Primal Records, a record store and label in Berkeley, Calif., fills its blog with inventory updates, company news, special offers, and in-store events. Primal's blog also has a message board, which lets customers leave feedback on everything from store policy to news about local parties.

The result? Primal learns what its customers want -- and that helps it stay on the cutting edge. "Since we deal with more underground styles of music, the message board is where you first hear about what's new," says Norman Arenas, who runs Primal's blog.

Perhaps the best thing about blogs is how easy they are to create. Leading software providers like Blogger (which was recently acquired by Google), Movable Type, Trellix, and Userland make it easy to set one up. And updating usually requires little more than typing into a field and hitting "Send."

You'll be surprised at how fast word travels in the blogosphere.

Once it's up and running, let your customers know about your blog and what it offers. Strangers will generally stumble onto a blog through word of mouth or search engines such as Google. You can also make contact with other bloggers and arrange to share links. If your blog is regularly updated and entertaining, you'll be surprised at how fast word travels in the blogosphere. Design-oriented blogs, for example, love linking to, providing the company a steady stream of new visitors.

Still, blogs aren't for everyone. Unless your clients spend a lot of time online, it may not be worth the trouble. What's more, blogs get stale fast and require frequent upkeep to be effective. They also require a certain amount of personality; after all, the whole point is to give a company a distinct voice. But if you and your employees are committed, you may be surprised at the results. "It's an exciting experiment," says Coudal. "And it helps us run a great website."

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