5 key questions (you've been dying) to ask about business blogs

By Debbie Weil
Publisher WordBiz Report

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 three 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 may have 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 hundreds) use tools like Blogrolling's Top 100 and Technorati's Link Cosmos to measure popularity. Two of the most respected and longtime bloggers are Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble, aka Scobleizer, and Doc Searls.

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.

A business blog doesn't need to be "cool." As blogger and consultant Rick Bruner puts it: "A blog doesn't have to be a ranting screed. Personality is important. But a blog can be utilitarian by contextualizing and aggregating information."

In addition, a number of companies (including Microsoft and Google) are using blogs as a content management tool for Web-based collaboration. Of course, these Weblogs are behind firewalls.

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 or RSS tags on Weblog pages? They mean that the page is available in RSS or Really Simple Syndication. To simplify, 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. 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 RSS feed the news aggregator automatically collects updates that include the URL of your page along with a summary description of the new content.

In order to subscribe, 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.

Useful article: What is RSS and Why Should You Care?

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 Weblog his "email to everyone." Anyone who reads his blog can see what everyone else is commenting about it.

I predict that blogs will co-exist with e-newsletters and static sites. They'll 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 ten 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.

Thanks to Chris Pirillo, Bill French, Tara Calishain, Derek Scruggs, Dave Taylor, and Greg Reinacker for helping me explain RSS in plain English.

This article was updated on Oct. 12, 2004. It was first published in the June 25, 2003 issue of WordBiz Report.


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