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Holiday sales are held not only before Christmas but also around Valentine's Day, President's Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day and other holidays. In fact, the power of marketing is so strong that sales begin before Halloween for events that don't happen until late December.

But what if you're not a retailer? Maybe you're selling a service or a product to businesses. The retailers who put ads in the paper and on TV are using a holiday as an excuse for a sale. However, this holiday-style marketing may not be the best approach for your offerings.

Even though Christmas most likely has the highest success, since it's at the end of the year when businesses are closing out the fiscal year, what other holidays work well for a marketing campaign? What holiday marketing programs have worked for you?

Do you prefer to enjoy the holidays rather than use them for business promotions? 200,000 "MarketingProfs Today" await your challenge so they can provide star-spangled solutions. Share a marketing challenge and receive a complimentary copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.

This Week's Dilemma

Marketing worth celebrating

I'm a small service-oriented business and I've read many articles suggesting sending cards and whatnot for holidays other than Christmas. I'd like to do something like this as a way to stay in touch with clients and potential clients. What approaches for holiday campaigns work? Are some holidays better than others to reach customers and prospects?

—Nathan, principal

Previous Dilemma

Hopping on the blog train

Our business is medium-sized and offers a line of products. We're considering adding a blog to our marketing repertoire. However, we're not sure what things to consider in our decision-making process on whether or not to do a blog. We'd like to know about others' experiences and what topics to cover in the blog. Based on requests from customers and seeing what others do, I suggested we look into developing a marketing/media kit. I have done research, but it isn't clear what makes an effective kit and whether they should go to anyone else besides prospects. How do you decide whether or not a blog is right for your business?

—Abby, marketing manager

Summary of Advice Received

Like everything in business, do research to determine whether a blog is right for your business. No marketer just jumps in TV, radio or newspaper advertising without looking at the target market, cost and effectiveness of such a campaign. Consider a blog another tool in your marketing toolbox:

  1. Look at the pros and cons.
  2. Consider your target market.
  3. Determine how it'll be maintained.

1. Look at the pros and cons

A blog is great for some businesses but not cool for others. Review the good and bad when making a decision. Mal Watlington, president of City Square Consulting, Inc., discusses the advantages and the issues:

Compared with other media, blogs have the advantage of freshness, personality, less-rigid publishing date expectations and the ability to jump past spam filters. However, blogs are hungry, and must be fed regularly with high-quality food (copy) if they are to be of value to visitors and sponsors.

A second issue that surrounds blogs and business is the opinion of a number of A-list bloggers that commercialization of blogs is not what they see as the best use of the blogosphere (world of blogs). Expect to deal with comment spam (comments that have nothing to do with the blog and everything to do with raising another Web site's search engine ranking) if you intend to blog, particularly if you are going commercial.

Finally, be upfront about who sponsors the blog. I've tried to be clear about this on my business blog. There are several emerging codes of ethics in the blogosphere, and transparency (of intent and sponsorship) has been a central tenet.

Several companies have taken a controversial approach to blogging and have succeeded. One of Nick Denton's Gawker blogs has a sponsor who pays $25,000 a month. Marqui pays bloggers to write about the company on a weekly basis. Their bloggers have free reign in what they say, positive or negative.

Jeffrey Phillips, vice-president of marketing with NetCentrics, says, "We've found that a blog can be a good way to demonstrate understanding of a problem and promote some knowledge capital or a different way of looking at a problem. Don't worry so much about 'marketing' your firm but instead share your ideas and the things that make you interesting and unique."

Robert Hopkins Jr., president of Weblations, says a blog is nothing more than an online publishing tool for regularly updating content:

The content can be anything, so it is critical to define it before you start. At our Web site, we thought about the pros and cons of blogging for a couple of months before we finally made the plunge. As the president, I write the content personally.

Here are the decisions I made before going ahead:

  • Use a personal voice, but without sounding like it was written by a neurotic 16-year-old.
  • Take positions and liberties, and be quite distinct from our corporate marketing material.
  • Update it frequently.
  • Meet a pressing business need, or else it isn't worth finding the time and motivation to maintain it.

I saw an article somewhere about corporate blogs that cited HP as an example, so I visited those blogs. They only had one entry each! That's not a blog. I want to show that the boss actually lives and breathes the daily business process. So I write about a mix of linguistic, technical and business issues that matter to our clients.

Denis Du Bois, partner with P5 Group, Inc., recommends against starting a blog if you don't know why you want one. He says, "Blogging is time consuming. They're getting a reputation for being self-referential, proliferating inbred thinking and misinformation. It's hard to get a blog to rise above the commotion. Just having a blog is no longer all that cool. Like putting your president in your TV spots, running an opinion blog can be a liability."

Chris Biber, director of marketing with Pronexus Inc., provides things to consider before blogging:

  • What's your company's expertise?

  • Does anyone else already cover this particular area of expertise with a blog?

  • Can you commit the necessary time? Time requirements vary, but for a daily blog, assume at least half an hour per day.

Yoel Ben-Avraham, principal with ePublicist.ca, says, "If there is any interaction between the contents of your proposed site and other sites (especially blogs) online, you will get more 'bang-for-your-buck' in terms of exposure and visibility with a blog than a conventional Web site."

Samuel Kariuki says that a blog is very useful if you have a big market on the Net. It provides you with a channel of communication with this market.

Richard Armytage, pro blogger with Armytage & Mason, explains that blogs are unique in the way they can connect with existing/potential customers and other stakeholders in your business (suppliers, for instance). Tread carefully: the blogosphere can be an inhospitable place for anyone for disrespecting blogging "rules."

Sallie Goetsch, principal at The FileSlinger, says setting up a blog is easy:

I'm a sole proprietor and recently started a blog on my business Web site as a simple way to archive newsletters issues and as a place to post related information that appeared in between issues. It was easy to set up (and free); customizing the layout took a few hours, mostly because I'm no expert in CSS. It was another few hours to list it in the blog search engines.

I have already been invited to review and possibly become a distributor for a product related to my subject area, so I can tell it's getting out there and starting to attract wider interest.

Kathy Herrmann, director of marketing and channel sales with CMS Consultants, works for a company that is a small software developer with a small marketing budget to match. She launched a blog as an inexpensive way to reach prospects, partners and customers:

Blogging provides good exposure in search engines that can bring in some prospects you might not otherwise reach. We have almost doubled visits to our Web site.

Blogging is an almost daily opportunity to discuss the value of your product(s). You can do a lot with blog content—use mini case studies, compare your product to others and highlight customers.

You can also use blogs as an opportunity to set yourself up as an industry expert or a clearinghouse of news for your industry. None of our competitors are blogging, so my doing so helps us stand out. I also think it will give us more credibility.

Good blogging requires a minimum of about two hours a day, depending on your content focus. I spend about an hour surfing for industry news and an hour writing articles. I could spend longer, but there's no time. If you don't have the time, then don't blog. Learn to pace yourself because you're doing this every day. I sometimes hold back an article that isn't time sensitive so I have something to release when I'm feeling creatively dry or busy.

2. Consider your target market

The good-old target market is as important in blogging as in all other marketing efforts. Samuel Kariuki says, "A blog is not right for your company if your target market, employees and other stakeholders are rarely found on the Net, and you have nothing of interest to acquire any new customers. A blog is a communication tool, and your audience will determine whether the tool is appropriate."

Alexandru Costin, president of InterAKT Online, says his audience consists of many online-addicted guys because his company creates Web development software. He writes about the company, new projects and internal stuff:

Many read it and get in close contact with what we do. I think blogs are perfect for companies that target online clients. For example, our partners, EdgeModern.com (they sell modern furniture online), are keeping a blog about furniture design, trends and expos. I'm sure their clients read this blog or at least browse it before buying.

Successful blogs do revolutionary things (create new products, offer some kind of unique, value-added proposition); the blog is a peek inside the future for early adopters, and those are critical to adoption of your company's products. Just keep your early adopters informed, and they will surely buy earlier and spread the word to the vast majority.

3. Determine how it'll be maintained

Before starting a blog, review and answer questions to ensure a successful kickoff. Sally Hodge, president of Hodge Communications, Inc., shares the things she weighs:

Upfront strategy: Who's going to write it? What kind of voice is it going to have? How is that voice going to support your brand? How are you going to set it up? Will it discuss products (kind of salesy) or discuss common issues your buyers face that your products (discreetly positioned) may be able to solve? What kind of links sprinkled in your blog will provide further food for thought? (The more links, the better, I understand.)

Maintenance: Who's going to maintain it over time? Ideally, blogs should be updated frequently. Do you have the manpower to keep up the pace, and monitor feedback? What do you plan to do with the customer intelligence you gain from it? How do you plan to measure its effectiveness?

Preparation: Is the rest of your marketing house in order? A blog may be something to phase in over time. If you don't even have a marketing/media kit, it may be premature to consider a blog.

Chris Biber recommends ensuring that the person who does the blogging is knowledgeable, has good writing skills, integrity, a sense of humor and the ability to continuously scan for worthwhile developments/angles to cover in the blog. He/she should also be adept at networking with other blogs, as the popularity of a blog is directly influenced by links/mentions from other bloggers, news sites etc.

Biber asks, "Do you want to retain editorial control over content and comments? Comments in particular have become a target for spammers and should, at minimum, be monitored on an ongoing basis. Where will the blog be located?"

Alexandru Costin recommends including an RSS feed. That's mandatory to help your clients stay up to date without forcing them to browse your blog site every day. "Separate your blog from the company site layout. Allow your visitors to post comments without registering—you want to get feedback from them. Make this process as easy as possible," says Costin.

Richard Armytage says to define its purpose before starting the blog. For example, will it be about research and development, or customer service?

Don't let the role of blogger be passed around; nominate your blogger and provide a job description. Never blog for the sake of it. Be honest, but be tactful and respectful. Don't diss competitors or moan about difficult customers, it does no good.

Market your blog. Don't hide it deep inside the nether regions of your Web site. Register your blog with blog directories (such as Bloglines or Blog Explosion), and market your blog as you would your Web site.

Brent Bonine, director of sales and marketing with Buffini & Company, says, "A blog is an excellent option to invite customers into a discussion about potential uses for your products or services. A community of users could be developed to share their insights on the use of those products and services."

Kathy Herrmann shares her experience:

It's best if you can have multiple voices blogging, including executives. I missed the mark here and had too high an expectation and am the only blogger in my company. Our employees are stretched too thin to blog. If I had to do it over again, I'd get commitment from key execs to contribute at least once per week. It would help blog content and give me a periodic breather.

Like any time-sensitive writing, sometimes it's challenging to come up with a daily topic. As a workaround, I'm now encouraging some of our resellers to contribute. Make sure your management understands what a blog is. My boss, the company owner, originally thought of a blog as a glorified message board, put lots of constraints around content, and is only now loosening up.

Do not to depend on readers to help you generate article ideas through their commentary. The good news, though, is that through Web stats I can see much of who comes to the site and what they read, and that's helping me focus content.

Herrmann closes the topic: "My recommendation: Blogging is a powerful tool if you have the right mindset regarding content and have the time to devote to it. If you have the time to do a blog well, then it's well worth it. Don't, don't, don't do it, though, if you don't have the time to devote to it."

Before diving into a blog, look at the pros and cons, its target market and how it will be maintained.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.