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Blogging to Drive Business -- How to Do It Responsibly

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Blogging for your business can be a great way to reach your customers -- if it's done responsibly. The authors of Blogging to Drive Business show you what to do and, more importantly, what not to do.
  • In the online and offline worlds, people chat and share opinions about businesses, products, and services. Whether it is a word of mouth endorsement, written on a Facebook wall, or a quick chat with a colleague over lunch, chances are, the public is already discussing your company in some form or another.
  • By learning how to engage the talkers through open, online channels, you can truly connect with your customers. With a business blog, you not only get your messaging out to your audience, but you also bring your audience's comments in, making your blog the home base for these online conversations.

Listen to Your Audience

Listening to your audience and enabling it to speak builds a trust that can motivate your readers to help you spread the word. When your audience members are ambassadors for your blog (and as a result, your brand), the impact of what you write can extend far beyond your own existing reach. Audience members will carry a message about your blog or brand.

The following sections discuss the importance of "listening," covering topics such as two-way discussions, listening by sharing, tools to help you listen, and listening to what is being said.

Two-Way Discussions

Often, news blasts and company updates are one-way transmissions from a business to a recipient list or client base. With blogging, everything becomes more personal, creating more intimate and specialized discussions through content sharing. Opening up your blog to facilitate two-way discussion can help build and maintain your audience through acknowledgment of and encouragement of their input.

A comment form lets your readers know that you value their input, feedback, and commentary. These audiences of readers, clients, and potential customers want to be engaged in discussions and know that their opinions matter to your business.

According to Technorati's State of the Blogosphere 2008 (see Figure 4.1), when bloggers are online engaging in Web 2.0 activities, 84% comment on articles or blog posts. These bloggers also have commenting enabled on their blogs, which allows readers to add to what they have just read, make suggestions, or answer a question posed in the entry. Bloggers are social beings. Conversational bloggers, whether on their own blog or others, open entire sites to various audiences.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Technorati's State of the Blogosphere 2008.

A blog with a conversational tone, while still being professional, welcomes the audience to become a part of what you are creating and broadcasting. Through comments and feedback, you can get a feel for what makes your audience and customers tick, and you can tailor your posts to meet their needs. By requesting feedback, polling your audience, or asking a question at the end of your blog post, you put out the welcome mat for readers to add their two cents to the discussion you started. By responding to these comments, or even updating your post if they provided new information for your topic, it helps you engage in a blog-hosted conversation with your readers.

In the professional blogging realm, comments are highly regarded. When a reader feels moved enough by your content to write a message, you can use this to measure your blog's success. Comments show that your blog has achieved a valuable bidirectional communications platform.

The purpose of a business blog is to connect with existing or potential clients or customers, so it's important to make sure your blog achieves this open, two-way discussion. Without a two-way communications platform, readers aren't free to elaborate and share information, which is a key element to growing your site's visibility and audience. Two-way discussion lets readers know you are open to hearing their thoughts and opinions, and it lets them know your business values information sharing.

The information you share is not the final word. Instead, it should encourage comments and conversation from your readers. This "dialogue" creates a community feeling that makes readers comfortable with your online space.

Listening by Sharing

You can also reach your audience through listening by "sharing." The following subsections tell you how.

Getting Feedback Through Polls and Contests

One way to encourage discussion and feedback is through polls that enable readers to vote for their favorite options or picks.

In a web poll you can give your audience multiple choices or a chance to select their favorite options. Polls could be used for the blog itself, such as "Would you like to see more photos on this blog? Yes, No, Other (please leave a comment)". They can also be used to get product feedback; for example, "Do you like our company's new logo?" or "What color should the logo be?"

Since polls are limited to pre-set responses you'll often find even more feedback or expanded answers in the comments section of your post.

Contests are also a great crowd pleaser. When readers' opinions are considered with regard to a new ad campaign or perhaps a logo for a business, those readers feel a sense of ownership, knowing their opinions truly matter to the company. People love seeing something they've created being used online (when credited appropriately), so hosting a contest is a great way to show your readers that you appreciate their input while showcasing their talents.

For Super Bowl XLIII, Doritos sponsored a contest that solicited audience-submitted commercials that were then added to its Web site, crashthesuperbowl.com. Those ads then went through several rounds of voting before a winner was selected. The ad that ended up running during the Super Bowl, created by ad-making amateur readers of the Doritos site, was hailed by many as the best Super Bowl commercial of 2009. The ad was also the TiVO "stop watch" winner for the first half of the game, meaning more people went back on their TiVOs to view this ad than any other during the broadcast. Doritos was grateful to the two unemployed brothers from Batesville, Indiana, who created the popular commercial.

In 2009, for the upcoming Super Bowl XLIV, Doritos has been using the public video-sharing website Vimeo (http://www.vimeo.com/user2312887) to promote the contest using the previous year's winners in the videos. These videos can be embedded and shared on other blogs so that viewers can spread the message or enter the contest for 2010.

Using Images or Photos

To complement the text on your blog, you should also use images. Many bloggers use popular photo-sharing sites such as Flickr.com to showcase their images or host the photos they then add to their blogs. With Flickr.com, you can create public groups, through which readers can share photos with the group. Companies can create Flickr accounts and start groups (composed of their prospective audiences) to encourage photo sharing.

If your company sells blue jeans, you could set up the group so that anyone with photos of themselves or others in blue jeans can add their images. Your audience is then showcased in your group. Flickr group images can be made into slideshows that can be embedded into your blog. Suddenly your blog content is populated by readers' submitted images. You aren't simply putting your images and your message out but you're showcasing your audience.

You may also want to consider using submitted photos on your own blog (only with permission, of course). If you do so, remember to link to the original blogger's Web site. Doing so showcases their images and reminds them that you value how your customers use your products. Flickr.com also enables you create slideshows of images currently submitted to the group.

Consider the example of Libre Tea, makers of loof-leaf tea containers (http://libretea.com). Libre Tea's Flickr group allows anyone to share what they call "tea moments." They encourage you to take a photo when you are enjoying a cup of tea, whether on the go or at home. They then highlight these photos on their Web site. These pictures show how versatile the Libre Tea containers are, and they also inspire ideas about how to unwind and enjoy the product.

As you can understand from this example, two-way blogging discussions occur not only with text but with other forms of content, too. When you encourage readers to share their content with you (instead of just you sharing your information with them), you create a different level of interaction and engagement for the audience, making your blog a two-way street of information.

Tools to Help You Listen

On most platforms, when you open your site to comments, you can request a commenter's URL (for a blog or Web site, for example). This is another way to gauge your audience, such as whether they work in a similar business, write similar blogs, or do not have Web sites of their own. For example, if you discover your readers are predominantly other bloggers or more Internet-savvy, you can formulate specific ways to interact with them on your blog.

Publishers can use standard blog comment forms that come with their platforms or they can use tools to follow conversations about their site across the Web. The following subsections discuss various tools that enable you to listen to what people are saying about your blog.

Tracking Mentions

Google Alerts is the most basic way to find mentions of your site online. You can create custom alerts so that every time your brand, product, service, or company name is mentioned on the Internet, Google will send you an email alert. Figure 4.2 shows the Google Alerts Setup page.

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 Google Alerts Setup page.

ChatCatcher (http://chatcatcher.com) is a service that enables blog publishers to find links from other blogs to their posts and any Twitter updates that include the link to the post. After they are installed, the services crawl the Internet to find mentions of your links; they add them at the bottom of your posts as regular comments, citing sources.

Visit http://search.twitter.com to search the Twitter service for instant mentions. The popular microblogging service is used by millions worldwide, and it enables 140-character updates that can include anything from links to favorite sites to comments about what the user had for lunch that afternoon. Twitter's brief character limit enables short conversations to lead to expanded discussions online and offline.

Because the Twitter service is fully searchable, you can use the search function to find any user in the world who is including any word in their updates at any time. All words posted in updates on Twitter are searchable and the Twitter search archive keeps this documented for several weeks.

Often, popular words and phrases are tracked using hash tags (pound signs). This hash tag feature comes in handy when you want to track specific events, such as a conference. For example, if you are an attendee at the 123 Conference, you can include #123Conference in a Twitter update and encourage other attendees to do the same. You can then track all #123Conference updates with ease using the http://search.twitter.com page and typing in the keywords in the search box. The search results will then display all mentions of #123Conference, from all Twitter users.

Twitter also lists its top 10 trending topics on the sidebar of all profile pages. These are words or hashtagged topics that have been posted in Twitter updates the most frequently.

Using this intuitive search feature, you can enter your search terms and find those on Twitter who are currently discussing a topic pertaining to your business.

When I was traveling and looking for a hotel, I wrote the following Twitter update: "Looking for hotel recommendations for San Francisco #WordCamp in the Union Square Area." Another Twitter user replied with the following: "@Miss604 Check out the Kimpton Hotels www.kimptonhotels.com". Within a few hours, Kimpton found the Twitter conversation and replied, "@Miss604 we hope you'll let us take care of u in SF. We have 9 hotels here. DM if you would like insider info on any." As you can guess, I ended up staying at a Kimpton hotel because of this attention to my conversation. The person running their Twitter account was searching Twitter for specific keywords, perhaps "hotels" or their company name "Kimpton," and my conversations appeared.

Site Statistics

The same type of tracking can be used to find mentions of your specific blog posts. By locating these links, you can get an idea of your reach and your audience. You can see who is listening, who is responding, and who thought your content valuable enough to expand upon or link in their own post. This also creates the opportunity for you to leave comments on other sites. You can thank the author for linking your site, or comment on the content they have written in their post. The simplest way to find incoming links is to use a statistics tracking program. These tools, mostly online, enable you to set up an account after which you can paste specifically generated code into your Web site so that it can begin tracking your statistics.

Google offers Google Analytics, which produces detailed statistical data after 23 hours, or you can use instant trackers such at SiteMeter (http://sitemeter.com) or StatCounter (http://statcounter.com). There are also platform-specific tracking systems available, such as Mint (http://haveamint.com) for WordPress users (see Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 Mint: Statistics for your Web site or blog.

Most statistic-tracking systems show you who is coming to your site and their origin online, such as a link from another site or a search engine result. You can also see the readers' IP addresses, and which browser they are using to view your blog. By using these statistic-tracking applications on your site, you can see data such as the geographical location of your audience and what type of computer they are using to access your content.

Using this statistical data, you can determine whether your audience is using outdated browsers (an understanding that will come in handy in terms of your blog's design specs), if they are on a Mac of PC, and if they are mostly mobile readers.

Your Mobile Audience

You want to make sure that your blog is viewable across any platform (browser or computer type).

The popularity of mobile devices is growing, so including tests to make sure your blog is compatible with these tools is beneficial. To test, simply access your blog from a mobile device and see if it displays the same way as when you look at it from a web browser on your computer. Sometimes blogs optimized for larger viewing might not be able to fit all information onto a tiny mobile screen. To help with this, you can use applications or services that will display your blog's post and/or pages in a way that is optimized for mobile viewing.

Some applications, such as Mobify.me (http://mobify.me) and plug-ins for blogging platforms such as WordPress, directly target mobile audiences.

WordPress users can download the WPtouch plug-in to convert their blog for reading in mobile devices (see Figure 4.4). After the plug-in has been activated on the blog, it requires a few tweaks to the settings before your site is ready to go mobile.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 WPtouch for WordPress by BraveNewCode.

By knowing how your audience is accessing your content and by listening from behind the scenes to their viewing needs, you can optimize their reading experience on your site.

Listen to What's Being Said

Although your goal is not purely to encourage comments, it's definitely a factor in the success of your blog. You need to post something that readers find worth expanding on, or better yet, that they reference in their own blog posts.

When your work is referenced (with a link) in another's post, that reference is called a trackback. A trackback shows up as a comment; however it's simply a message notifying the author that someone has linked to their blog post. Your commenting system should be set up to allow trackbacks. After all, trackbacks notify you when someone has expanded on your thoughts or deemed them worthy of reference, and it enables the conversation you started to be expanded on in other blogs, ultimately expanding your reach. Others will see your openness to the conversation, and through mentions on blogs or sharing on social bookmarking sites, your work will be passed along organically.

People are talking about your company, its services, and its products, and you can't stop that. However, you can make yourself aware of these conversations. By using tools to track links and mentions, you can then engage in these outside discussions to record new feedback, clarify data, or just to show appreciation for the writer's interest in your business. Suppose, for instance, that you run an amusement park and find a blog post online about someone's experience on your roller coaster. That is a prime opportunity to show you are listening. If the roller coaster ride was a positive experience, you can leave a comment and thank them for their patronage, or perhaps encourage them to stop by again in the future. You could even link their post on your own blog, either in a blog post or on your blogroll or link list. In a blog post, you could showcase the positive experience the author had at your establishment and let others know that you truly value the patronage. Suddenly, a blog post becomes a fantastic marketing tool to highlight your business. Should the post have a negative tone, use your discretion to escalate the feedback to client services or drop a comment to let the author know you are looking into the matter (and be sure to follow up).

With negative feedback published online, your goal should not be to control the message by demanding the author remove the content (unless it is defamatory and in need of escalation). Your mission should be to embrace the feedback and handle it with care and tact. Letting authors know you are listening and that you value their opinion can go a long way in terms of a customer's impression of your company.

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