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Blogs are continuing to grow in popularity, and they are no longer merely a way for angst-ridden teenagers to express themselves. Today, progressive companies are communicating with bloggers in their industries—and even creating their own blogs as marketing communications tools.

A weblog is a wonderful tool for not only better serving your community of customers but also improving your bottom line. But that can only happen if you are willing to enter this space after due diligence and with the commitment necessary for your blog to achieve its full potential.

These 10 steps will help walk you through that process before you jump into the blogosphere and start setting up your company's blog:

1. Decide whether your company should blog at all

Running a company blog requires a pretty big time commitment. You'll have to post regularly to your blog, or the blog won't build a readership. Ideally, your blog should have at least three new posts a week, and more if possible. You'll have to invest time in writing your posts.

Monitoring and replying to comments requires a big time commitment as well. Replying to readers' comments is vital to establishing a community of readers for your blog.

Moreover, you'll want to spend as much time as possible reading other blogs and leaving comments on them, especially the blogs of those who comment on your blog. This is a wonderful way to not only build community for your blog but also gain a greater understanding of your customers.

Key action point: View blogging as a long-term investment in your company. Plan up front on making a daily two-hour commitment to blogging, including posting and commenting on your blog as well as reading and commenting on other blogs. If your company cannot commit two hours a day, stop the process. Do not pass Go.

2. Why are you considering a company blog?

What are the goals for your blog? Keep in mind that readers do not want your blog to simply be a selling mechanism; they want you to use it as a portal for interacting with them. Visitors to your blog can go to your Web site to learn more about your products, but they will come to your blog to communicate with you.

This doesn't mean that you can't use your company blog to promote your company and its products; you definitely can, and should. But, at the same time, you also have to consider your audience; they want more than an online brochure. They want to know how what you are posting can benefit them.

Key action point: Though a blog is a marketing tool for your company, you also have to present visitors with information that they can find useful. Give visitors a reason to come back and to invest time reading and commenting on your blog. Position your blog with the wants and needs of your audience in mind.

3. Research the blogosphere

Before starting your blog, do some research and discover what bloggers are already saying about your company. Tools such as Technorati and Google Blog Search are great ways to quickly find out what your customers are saying about you.

Next, do a similar search—but for your competitors. Find out what bloggers have to say about the competition, what they like and dislike. Also check and see which, if any, of your competitors are already blogging. With any luck, you'll be able to start the first blog for a company in your industry, and gain first-mover advantage!

Key action point: Do your homework. Commit to spending the time necessary to learn all you can about blogging and how your competitors are using blogs, before you start your own. Expending this effort can also help your company decide whether a blog is a viable option in its marketing plan.

4. Develop a comment policy

This could very well be the most important step in setting up your company blog, because it will determine how you interact with your community. If you are unwilling to let visitors to your blog comment on your posts, then don't start a company blog. If you do not let your customers communicate with you and give feedback on your posts, your blog will do your company more harm than good. Other bloggers and readers want and demand as much communication as possible with companies that start a blog, and will accept nothing less.

If you do plan to accept comments, you then need to decide whether comments should be moderated. The big advantage to moderating comments is that it lets you delete spam comments and malicious ones before they are ever seen. However, bloggers expect their comments to appear quickly, so you will need to constantly monitor the comments that come in. Comments are vital to a blog's success, and visitors won't leave comments if the blog owner/comment moderator takes more than a few hours to post them.

You also need to decide how to handle negative comments. If you start a blog, you have to accept the fact that you will receive comments from readers that you will disagree with. You also have to accept the fact that bloggers pay extremely close attention to how companies handle negative comments. Bloggers expect to be able to make their point and not be censored.

Finally, decide whether anonymous comments will be accepted. Spammers usually use anonymous comments, but blocking anonymous comments will also block comments from non-spammers who for some reason cannot or don't want to identify themselves. A conservative approach would be to allow anonymous comments at first, and then monitor how many you receive and whether they are legitimate comments. Your settings for accepting anonymous comments can always be changed.

Key action point: Do everything possible to allow as many comments, as quickly as possible, to be posted to your blog. Also, whenever you encounter a negative comment, consider whether your response will address the readers' concerns and defuse the situation, or provoke the reader and others to leave negative comments as well. As a general rule, readers will tend to side with a fellow reader who leaves a comment, so keep that in mind. And keep in mind that once you leave a comment, it's available for all to see. Choose your words carefully.

5. Know your audience

Figure out who your blog is aimed at, and tailor your content to their wants and needs. Remember to give them information that they will find useful. For example, if your company produces nutritional products, instead of focusing on your products you could have your company blog focus on healthy living. With this approach, you shift the focus from satisfying your company's wants and needs (selling more products) to your customers' needs (healthy living). This way, you can give your customers information that benefits them—but at the same time tells them how your products can help them achieve their goal of healthy living.

Key action point: Again, research is key. Know as much as possible about your intended audience, and tailor your blog's content to provide information that helps satisfy their wants and needs. The advantage is that doing so will create positive word of mouth for your blog, as these readers will tell others to read your blog.

6. Who will be the voice of your company?

There are several considerations when determining who the writer(s) for your company blog will be. Some of the major ones include these:

  • Group or individual? The big advantage to the group approach is that it becomes easier to post new content regularly to your blog, which is key. Blogging can be very time-consuming, and readers will expect regular updates as well as regular responses to comments. On the other hand, not every company has several good writers who both understand your company's story and have a passion to tell it. If you are considering a group blog, consider only employees who are excited about the possibility to write for a company blog; those who aren't excited with the idea won't have the passion necessary to maintain the blog, especially when it first launches and needs to gain momentum.

  • Should your CEO blog? There are two schools of thought here. The first is that your CEO should definitely blog, because no one in the company understands the company's message and vision more than the CEO. The other side of the coin is that the CEO simply does not have time to devote to blogging regularly. In general, a company blog written by a CEO carries more credibility with bloggers, but a well-written blog is even more desirable, so don't feel a need to have your CEO blog.

  • Should your CMO blog? Having your chief marketing officer blog may be a viable alternative if your CEO cannot or does not wish to blog.

Above all else, no matter how you choose your writers, make sure that they are good writers who have a passion to tell your company's story and understand the importance of giving value back to your community of customers.

Key action point: Pick your writers based on passion first. Blogging is a long-term commitment, and writers who aren't passionate about growing the blog could cause the content to suffer as they lose interest, especially at first, as the blog tries to create and grow its audience.

7. Choose the style/frequency/content of your company blog

You'll want to consider both how your blog is presented and your posting frequency. Again, consider the point of view of your readers and find ways to give them content they'll find useful.

Develop a guideline for the number of posts in a week. In general, blog readership is highest on Monday through Thursday, with Friday through Sunday much less active. Ideally, you'll want at least three posts a week on your blog. If you have three writers, have each commit to at least one post a week.

Avoid leaving multiple posts on one day, with none the next. Try to space the posts out so that readers see something new on your blog each time they visit.

Key action point: Most blogs develop their own voice and style over time. But from the start, establish a policy for how many posts will be left in a week. If your blog will have multiple writers, give each a number of posts they are required to leave, and have them work with each other to ensure that the posts are spaced out. Don't write three posts on Monday, and then none on Tuesday and Wednesday.

8. Choose your blog hosting service

In a business setting, the most popular blog hosting services are TypePad, Blogger, WordPress.com, and Movable Type. Blogger and Wordpress.com both offer free blog hosting services as well as a free domain name. TypePad offers a free domain name, with services starting at $4.95 a month; it also offers a 30-day trial.

As with everything else in the blog startup process, it's best to do your homework. A few searches with Technorati and Google Blog Search, will quickly give you numerous reviews from bloggers who use these services.

In general, Blogger is probably the most popular service, mainly because it is free and very easy to set up. But that doesn't necessarily mean it is the best option, as the service frequently experiences outages. If after doing your research you still aren't sure, consider starting a blog with one or more services for a short period of time as a trial run. Again, Blogger and WordPress.com both offer free services, and TypePad offers a 30-day trial.

Key action point: Yet again, research is key. Though it is possible to change your hosting service after you begin blogging, keep in mind that doing so will mean that all existing links to your old address/service will not update to your new blog address/service. So each blog that linked to your blog under the old hosting format would have to update its links, and not everyone will take the time to do so. Consider whether making the move would be worth the short-term disruption.

9. Decide whether your blog should be hosted on-site, or at its own domain

There are three main issues to consider when making the choice to make your blog part of your main website, or to give it its own domain name:

  • Difficulty of setup. In general, hosting a blog on your own Web site, or to a specified domain name, is a bit more difficult. If you have a dedicated IT department, this shouldn't be a problem.

  • Search engine optimization. Search engines such as Google absolutely love blogs! Since blogs publish new content regularly, and generally have higher traffic than static Web sites, posts from blogs are usually listed higher in search results. This means more traffic to your blog, and more traffic to your Web site.

  • Credibility with fellow bloggers. In general, most bloggers are a bit leery of company blogs hosted on a company Web site. They assume that if a blog is published as part of a company's main site, there is greater scrutiny of the content being published to the blog. If a company blog is hosted on its own domain name (or the domain name assigned to it by the hosting service, such as Blogger or TypePad), the blog carries a more "independent" tone with bloggers, which will make it easier to establish credibility with bloggers.

As with anything associated with setting up a blog, consider the long-term implications, rather than short-term ones. A company blog that's set up on your company's Web site will definitely benefit from a traffic and SEO standpoint. But setting up a company blog on a separate domain name will make it easier for the blog to become accepted as credible; and if the blog remains active, it will still generate the SEO and traffic benefits.

Key action point: Each company must decide for itself to host a blog on or off the company's main Web site. Keep in mind that if you decide to host your blog on a separate domain, you can easily link back to your main Web site from your blog.

10. Re-examine whether the company is able or willing to make the effort to launch and maintain a blog

Launching a blog is a long-term commitment. It's a communication tool that you will share with your community. It won't yield short-term results, but it will help you better understand your customers, and also help them better understand you. Starting a blog gives your company a valuable advantage over competitors that aren't willing to communicate with their customers on the customers' terms.

Key action point: At this point, you should have a much greater knowledge of the blogging environment, and a better idea of the time commitment required to not only start a blog but also maintain it. While consumers are beginning to expect companies to have a blog, it is better to not create a blog for your company if you cannot maintain it.

Lessons learned

Ultimately, all companies want to sell more products or services and make more money. But if you present your company's blog to your customers as a tool for making more money and selling more products or services, customers will be turned off.

Instead, view your blog as a medium for two-way communication. Your blog gives your customers the chance to communicate with you, and it let's your company better address their concerns; increased communication from both sides leads to greater understanding.

And, ultimately, it leads to your company's making more money and selling more products. This is the new marketing reality: You satisfy your company's goals by first satisfying the goals of your customers.

Customers are incredibly passionate about companies that do so, and tend to avoid those that do not.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Mack Collier

Mack Collier is a social-media strategist based in Alabama. He helps companies build programs and initiatives that let them better connect with their customers and advocates. His podcast, The Fan-Damn-Tastic Marketing Show, discusses ways that brands can turn customers into fans. His first book, Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies That Turn Customers Into Fans, was published in April 2013 by McGraw-Hill.

Twitter: @MackCollier

LinkedIn: Mack Collier