By now you've heard about blogs or Weblogs. They're the next new thing. They're cool. The blogosphere (the community of active bloggers) has grown from a dozen or so Weblogs in 1999 to an estimated half million today.
And, just maybe, blogs are the next killer app of online marketing. Technology evangelists like Chris Pirillo are saying that “email marketing is dead.” Killed by spam and clogged inboxes.
Will business blogs replace e-newsletters as the most powerful, cost-effective tool for communicating with customers? Should every company be adding a blog to its site—or replacing a static site with an ever changing Weblog?
Don't be shy. Let me pose five questions you've probably been dying to ask. Then you decide whether business blogs are the new new thing.
What Is a Blog?
It's a Web-based journal powered by a self-publishing tool that enables the author(s) to regularly and easily update the content. The log consists of commentary along with links to other blogs or online resources. Blog posts are always presented in reverse chronological order. Each entry is time and date-stamped.
Wait! There's more!
What's the Definition of a Good Blog?
Blogs are usually written by one person and in a style that is candid, authentic, even raw. Miles from corporate marketing speak.
The voice of a blog is sometimes edgy; usually opinionated; often smart. Bloggers are not journalists but they comment, analyze and report in real-time on politics, culture and all things Internet. The coolness quotient of a blog is based on how many other Weblogs link to it. And what kind of buzz it stirs up in the blogosphere.
A-list bloggers (of which there are only several hundred) use tools like Blogrolling's Top 100 and Technorati's Link Cosmos to measure popularity. Two longtime bloggers well-known in the blogosphere are Dave Winer (now a fellow at Harvard Law School) and Doc Searls. (Serious bloggers reading this will pounce on me for not including a longer list.)
By this definition, blogs don't sound like a natural business tool. “Coolness” is not a measure of success these days. Web traffic, click-throughs and conversion are what count, along with open rates for an email newsletter.
Why Should Businesses Blog?
Simple. No one listens anymore to sanitized marketing messages. If you find the right person in your organization to “blog” about your products or services you'll brand your company as authentic and knowledgeable. Every company has a closet writer, whether or not that's part of his or her job title.
In addition, a number of companies (including Microsoft and Google) are using blogs as Web-based collaboration and knowledge management tools. These Weblogs are behind firewalls.
A business blog doesn't need to be “cool.” As blogger and consultant Rick Bruner put it in his presentation at the ClickZ Weblog conference, “A blog doesn't have to be a ranting screed. Personality is important. But a bog can be utilitarian by contextualizing and aggregating information.”
I predict that a new set of best practices for business blogs will evolve. A successful corporate blog may ape the "raw" and "unedited" style of a personal blog. But it will most likely be reviewed by a savvy in-house editor who knows what crosses the line into trade secrets and what doesn't. Just keep it out of the hands of your in-house corporate counsel if you want to preserve any semblance of “voice.”
Do I Really Need to Know About Rss?
Yes, but it's pretty simple. Have you noticed those little orange XML tags on Weblog pages? They mean that the page is available in RSS or Rich Site Summary. RSS is the “code” that underlies a blog. It includes a headline, a short summary and the URL of the page.
Just as a Web browser can “read” a page of HTML (hypertext markup language), a news reader or aggregator can “read” RSS. Thus RSS is a way of organizing and publishing the content on your Web pages.
The beauty of it is that no email delivery is required. No overflowing inboxes to contend with if you're a publisher. No spam filters that block your e-newsletter. When someone “subscribes” to your blog or RSS feed he gets automatic updates that include the URL of your page along with a summary description of the new content.
In order to subscribe to RSS, you need to download a news aggregator, a piece of software that decodes an RSS feed. A number of news aggregators are available. I like NewsGator, which works seamlessly with Outlook.
Will Blogs Replace e-Newsletters?
Too soon to tell. What's clear is that it's all about the content. Repeat, a blog is not a blog unless it's a great read. Good writing, useful references, interesting connections.
This is a tall order. If you're already publishing an e-newsletter as a marketing communications tool, you know how much work it is to consistently create good content.
Think of a blog as an always-on e-newsletter with more interactivity built into it. There is an immediacy and realness to the interaction between blog writer and blog reader that you don't get with an e-newsletter. Readers can add comments to any blog post for all to see. Doc Searls call his blog his “email to everyone.” Anyone who reads his blog can see what everyone else is commenting about it.
Confused? Click on “Comments” under Why Businesses Should Blog.
I predict that blogs will co-exist with e-newsletters and static sites. They'll cross pollinate and feed off one another. The push of an e-newsletter is hard to beat. But the pull of a blog can be a lot more interesting.
Put it this way: scarcely 10 years ago you might have asked, “Will email replace the phone, fax and postal mail as the preferred means of business communication?” Of course, we exclaim in hindsight.
So might it go with blogs.