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Five years ago, the Internet resembled watching television. You surfed Web sites as you might channels. When you settled on a site or program, you sat back and absorbed the information. Now, what many call Web 2.0 reflects how the Web is changing from being watched to "being involved in."

Many content (communication) management systems (CMS) and applications simplify adding interactive tools, to let businesses easily interact with customers and prospects. Blogs, wikis, and forums (also known as bulletin boards, discussion boards, discussion groups, and message boards) bring people together for conversations, documentation, interactions, and more.

Although other tools and applications exist to help companies do more with their Web sites, these three tools can support your business strategy and are easy to get up and running with relatively little time and cost.

Furthermore, regularly adding new content keeps the search engines happy, and they reward your Web site with good results. Communities exchange vast amounts of information on diverse topics, and companies engage readers, which builds relationships with clients and prospects.

Marketing Challenge

Time to get into blogging, wikis, newsletters or what?

Our company has finally agreed to implement more online/electronic marketing strategies. We're aware that we need to evaluate every tool to see if it aligns with our strategy and our target market. We're a little overwhelmed with all the possibilities. I'm sure many readers have gone through this. Which electronic marketing applications did you select, why and how have they worked out?

— Joan, Marketing Manager

People use blogs, wikis, and forums for different applications, but generally they are used as follows:

  • Blog: An online journal that is frequently updated

  • Wiki: An online resource where participants collaborate, add and edit content, even if they didn't create the content

  • Forum: An online resource where participants post, reply, and discuss topics; but, unlike in a wiki, they can't edit each others' entries

Next Marketing Challenge

Get more referrals.

Click here to offer your advice or here to ask a question.

Blogs

Blogs provide businesses with the opportunity to engage in conversations with customers, the industry, and the blogosphere (world of blogs). They also help businesses establish themselves as thought leaders and address issues that might come up about your product, service, or industry.

Blogs do more than just give the blogger to a place to share thoughts in a public forum where anyone can read it. Businesses use blogs for internal communications, such as when a CEO keeps employees informed on the company's direction, goals, and plans; project team members update each other; and a group communicates about creating documentation and processes.

Marketers need to take care not to use a blog as an overt publicity tool. Blog readers and bloggers easily sniff promotion and sales. A good question to ask before blogging is, "If I read this, would I benefit from this information as a customer, or is it more about the company thumping its chest?"

External company blogs can have one or more bloggers who represent the company (Starwood Hotels and Resorts, for example), or set up a system so anyone in the company can start a blog (Microsoft, for example). Companies allowing employees to blog must have a policy that clearly explains the rules, but without too many restrictions.

People proclaim that every business needs a blog. That's not true. If it were, then every company needs to advertise on TV, radio, newspapers, and billboards. In other words, a blog needs evaluating like any other marketing strategy. Blogging needs to be a part of your company's marketing strategy and have a defined purpose and goals.

Even if your company decides that starting a blog wouldn't benefit it, it's still good to understand blogging and how to track conversations in other blogs because your company could be the subject that bloggers write about.

The Web now contains plenty of resources on business blogging. Good books on the topic: The Corporate Blogging Book by Debbie Weil, Naked Conversations by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, and Blogging for Business by Shel Holtz and Ted Demopoulous. In addition, Social Text lists businesses that blog, and actually this resource is a wiki—which brings us to our next topic.

Wikis

Wikipedia, a colossal wiki, boasts over 1,300,000 articles in English. Users can add content and edit others' works, making wikis a good source for sharing knowledge. For example, a person could create a new article in Wikipedia, and another person who knows more about the topic can add onto the original article and make changes.

Even though the idea of anyone editing anything sounds like a nightmare, it doesn't happen often. The site addresses this issue, called "edit-warring," in the help section. Businesses can easily protect wikis by requiring a login ID and password as one way to prevent wiki vandalism or going "off topic." Departments, teams, and project team members use wikis to manage information, documentation, processes, to-do lists, agreed-upon items, rules, anything the team can think of.

From a marketing standpoint, wikis won't connect a business with the public. Rather, they help a business interact with employees or other industry players. Perhaps, like Wikipedia, a business could start a resource for its industry and earn respect from the public for putting it together. For more info, see the ultimate wiki info page and a comparison chart of wiki software.

Forums

In forums, users discuss every topic that comes to mind, from hobbies and tech support to industry and news. Like blogs and wikis, participants don't have to be on at the same time to get involved in discussions. Most forums require registration, but some allow anonymous posts without registration. To use a forum, all a user need have is a Web browser, a login ID, and a password.

Forums come with features for formatting messages, receiving email notification whenever someone replies to your post or a discussion of interest occurs, and creating profiles so users share information about themselves. Unlike wikis, users can't edit or delete other users' messages—unless they're moderators or administrators, who ensure that discussions and users stay on track and are respectful. Unlike a blog, where only the blogger can start a discussion, anyone can start a new discussion in a forum and add comments to continue the discussion.

Many businesses provide forums as a resource for product information, how-tos, help, and tech support. Businesses use forums for internal and external purposes, to build relationships with customers as well as employees. Internally, teams create their own forums so that only assigned team members have access and can post information. Your company could have an intranet-only forum and allow all of your employees to access it.

Businesses that do not moderate forums send a message that they want users to (1) figure out their own problems with the company's product or service and (2) not to bother the company. That said, it's important that your business assign an employee to monitor the forums rather than leave users on their own. When a company takes an active role in the forum, it earns brownie points.

Small companies might have access to forum software through their Web host, which provides it as part of its services. Large companies either create their own or implement third-party software. For more information, see Wikipedia's entry on forums and a comparison of software.

Organizations that develop and provide software for creating and maintaining forums, blogs, and wikis list the features on their Web sites. Check them out to help figure out what you need. Before diving into all of this, figure out how your business would use the application and then build a strategy around that.

Next Marketing Challenge: Can You Help?

How do I get more referrals?

Our management consulting firm has a great track record. Our clients appreciate our efforts, as well as the results and improvements we help them achieve. We get repeat engagements.

What we don't get are many referrals. We ask and we get "head nods" but little else. Sometimes, I think that our clients don't want to admit they needed consultant help.

Would you ask your readers what strategies they use to get referrals? Do they ask clients for testimonials, letters or phone calls of introduction, Web site case studies featuring the client—what do they ask for and how?

—Ray

If you have a situation or question needing a few hundred brains for ideas, 180,000 MarketingProfs readers are ready to deliver their thoughts to resolve your challenge. Share your question and you'll get a chance to win a complimentary copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.

Continue reading "Marketing Challenge: Three Ways to Engage Employees and Customers" ... Read the full article

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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.