August 2006


Well, a timely reminder for myself this week on two fronts – maybe even more.

I was reading a post about “astroturfing” yesterday in Into PR by Owen Lystrup where Owen commented on a video he had been watching of Seth Godin talking at Google (Aside: well worth a look by the way).

I was confused.

While I enjoy listening to Seth Godin and have come to expect the unexpected when he talks, I was still bemused about why he wanted to talk about artificial lawns and how it related to a “permissions business model”. It was only on my third reading that the reality finally dawned that when he referred to “astroturfing”, he wasn’t talking about his artificial grass replacement options, but rather something else. After a little checking, this “something else” turned out to be the dubious PR practice of orchestrating PR activities to make them look like spontaneous “public initiated” events. (Check out Wikipedia or Answers.com for a fuller explanation).

Aha! The fog suddenly clears.

So why this post? Well, I consider myself to be fairly well informed, certainly interested in marketing & PR and generally up to date with what’s going on in the online marketing arena as a whole – and yet I had never heard the term “Astroturfing” before or, as I now discover, that there is an “Anti Astroturfing” campaign and who knows what else.

It has therefore been a timely reminder to me not to presume levels of knowledge and understanding based on my own experiences, either in my blogging or my workshops. We all have our own areas of expertise. The business people I work with are all very knowledgeable in their own fields, but as we examine the “benefits of corporate blogging” or “the potential of RSS”, it’s important for me to remember that these will be totally new areas for some which need to be explained properly before delving into their many business benefits. Hopefully, my “Astroturfing” experience will remind me of this.

So two notes to myself:

Right – now I’m off to the park where there’s definitely no artificial grass or lurking PR groupies to confuse me!

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Better Business Blogging - Quick Bloggers Guide

As you start to post you want to set out your stall early on, both for yourself and also for your readers. You can do this by giving a clear indication of what subject areas you are going to be covering, how often you are going to be posting and what your approach is going to be.

Getting the first posts in place is always a telling time and you will probably spend longer on these than on any of the others. Dont worry though, the more you write, the easier it will become, and you will find that you soon settle into a rhythm and develop your own approach to the Blog.

Some elements that you should remember and which will help you in this are:

a) Plan out your first posts
As you start, map out what you want to cover during the first few days and weeks, and note down the topics that you feel comfortable with. This will provide you with a framework to work with and will allow you to concentrate on your writing.

b) Decide how often you want to / can post
There is no set timescale as to how often you should post though, in general, the more frequently you can post the better. The one caveat is that you need to maintain the quality of your posts, because this is what you will be primarily judged on. You may find this post on How often should I blog? useful.

c) Try to define your style
One of the reasons that blogs work so well is the personal style you add to it which differentiates them from the sanitised marketing speak of some corporate websites. While you can develop your own style and tone as you go along, try to settle on one you are comfortable with early on.

d) Write some “Foundation” Posts
In the first month, try to write and include 3-4 key “Foundation” articles, ones that sum up some of the areas and concepts that you will be focusing on in your blog as a whole. These could be simply instructive in nature or could contain a number of different key concepts that you will expand on in later posts over time.

e) Plan a Series
Writing a series of posts on a subject which is important to your overall subject area is a good method of getting you going and establishing a relevant area of focus in your Business blog. It will allow you to write on a topic you are particularly comfortable with which will help give you some momentum and, as they will be themed around a single topic, they will also be nicely attractive to Search Engines.

f) Keep abreast of what is happening in your chosen area
If you are going to be a primary source of information for your readers in your industry or niche then you will need to keep up to date with developments in it and be prepared to give your opinion on them. In any case, this will not only help you to add relevant content to your site but will also add value to your readers and build their trust and confidence in you and what you have to say.

g) Avoid trying to directly sell or directly market
As a word of warning, avoid the temptation to use your Blog to sell directly. A blog is not a tool for direct selling or direct advertising and trying to use it as such is likely to be counter productive. Your readers will come to your Blog because they are interested in what you are writing about and want to find out more about the subject this will allow you start to engage with them.

h) Make sure you have key elements in place
There are some key structural elements in your blog that you want to make sure you have such as a profile to help your readers easily identify whose blog they are reading and a way to contact you, and a prominent positioning of your RSS feed to allow them to subscribe. (Check out some mistakes in blog design.)

If you can concentrate on making sure that these elements are in place over the first few weeks of writing your blog, then you will have an excellent foundation on which to build.

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Spotlight on UK Blogs - all postsEach week, I will be highlighting some of the Business Blogs which exist in the UK. The aim is to show a cross section of what people and businesses are writing about and how they are approaching the task of using blogs in their business activities. As a result, you’ll find that these posts will contain a mix of Blogs displaying a range of topics and styles.

In addition to this weekly selection, I am working with others to build a comprehensive list of Business Blogs in the UK. So if there are UK blogs which you have visited and would recommend (including your own!), then please let me know by leaving a comment or sending me a message. Thanks!

Bad Language
Contrary to what you might think, this is Matthew Stibbe writing about Business, Technology and Marketing without a four letter word in sight.

BT Business Blog
BT’s new Business Blog covers a range of topics to do with online businesses and how to make best use of your internet connection … particularly when it’s through BT! :)

Travel the Home Exchange Way
Lois Sealey gives an engaging and compelling insight into the area of home exchange and all you should consider when holidaying by swapping homes.

Luxury Travel Blog
Following the holiday theme, Paul Johnson at the Luxury Travel blog gives us some ideas on locations, hotels and expensive cocktails!

Teblog
David Tebbutt on the 3C’s of cooperation, collaboration and communication from the perspective of a writer, trainer/mentor, software designer, husband, father & grandfather. Phew! Lots of perspectives and lots of good opinion too.

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Blog Consultant questions: Ask the Blog CoachBusiness Blogging Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

“How often should I blog?” is a question which always crops up in the first conversation I have with anyone about Business Blogging and one to which I know that they are desperate for a simple answer, whether it is “once an hour”, “once a day”, “once a week” or just “once”.

However, as you might have already guessed, there are no hard and fast rules for this Jonathan Schwartz posts on his blog at Sun once a week more or less, whereas Darren Rowse at Problogger serves up several posts on a daily basis. Both are well read, well respected and successful.

What has made each of them so successful is that they have focused in on what their readers want from their individual blogs and provided them with it. They are intrinsically very different but perfectly in tune with the reason why they are blogging, the audience they are writing for and what that readership expects.

If I were to offer some guidelines, then these are the ones that I would pass on:

  • Post as often as you can without compromising the quality
    Quality beats quantity every time in my opinion. Quality will get you noticed and is more likely to encourage people to develop relationships with you. Granted, a single post in a month had better be really really good, but you get my drift.

  • Post when you have something relevant/interesting/significant to say
    There is a lot of information being pumped out onto the web and much of it fails to make any sort of impact or contribution. So, when you post something, do all you can to ensure that it is worth reading and won’t just be making up the numbers.

  • Post as regularly as you have told your readers you are going to
    If you have made a commitment to your readers then try to stick to it if you need to change it then inform them and then stick to your new commitment. Its all about communication.

  • Post as regularly as your subject area / topic requires
    There are some subject areas where a constant flow of information is highly valued; other topics require fewer posts and more in depth analysis. When you write on your specialist area, judge your own rhythm of posting accordingly.

Remember that one of the main benefits of a blog is the interaction it allows you with your readers – so use it and talk to them! Actually ask for their opinion on how often you should post and be guided by them (within reason!). Let them know what you are going to be doing and, if that changes, communicate that as well. If you won’t be posting for a while (and we all need a break from time to time), then let your readers know rather than just leaving the last post hanging unceremoniously.

And dont forget that writing does not have to mean publishing you can write and then edit your posts over a number of days before ultimately pressing the publish button. Give yourself the time to hone and refine certain posts if you feel so inclined; alternatively, if you are feeling particularly creative, write a number of posts at one sitting and then schedule them to be published in line with your normal rhythm.

Does this lose a little bit of the spontaneity of blogging? Perhaps … but better that and keeping the quality of your content high than pumping out average posts for the sake of publishing daily.

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Better Business Blogging - Quick Bloggers GuideFirst a little bit of background

When you first create a website, one of your main concerns is how to get it indexed by the main Search Engines so that it is included in their searches. Later, when you update your site or add pages to it, you want those included too and as quickly as possible.

The trouble is that you have no control over the process and no way to tell Google, Yahoo and the rest that your website has new information on it even submitting it again just puts it in a queue and effectively on hold. This is because Search Engines find websites by following links and then index them in a generally sporadic way. The more regularly you change the content, the more often Search Engines will return to index your site however, for most, it is still rather hit and miss.

Blog Search Engines work in a different way. With Search Engines like Technorati, you can let them know that you have posted new content and that they should come along and index it immediately! This is done by Pinging.

What is Posting and Pinging and why is it important?

Most people use the internet to find information and whenever they are doing research for anything from local florists to the Big Bang theory, Search Engines are their first port of call. If you want to be found when they do this research, then your Blog first needs to be indexed by the Blog Search Engines. You can do this by first creating your post and then pinging.

As soon as you have written and published your new post on your blog then you should ping the various Blog Search Engines to let them know that they should come and index it. Posting and Pinging! In fact, the concept of posting and pinging is something we would all love to have for our websites as well – it is effectively a way to ensure that your new content is indexed and available as soon as you post it.

What exactly is Pinging?

Pinging is in fact a generic computer term that has come to mean something more specific in the world of blogging. A ping is commonly used to check the connection of a server/computer on a network – its like a very short test message and if the computer responds then you know the connection is okay.

[A quick too much information moment: the word ping comes from the name of the utility that sends out this test message called a Packet INternet Groper.]

In blogging, this idea of pinging is used for a specific purposes: we ping the server of a Blog Search Engine to let it know that there is a new post which they need to come and look at Technorati reacts to the ping by visiting the blog and registering the post, immediately updating its index. The ping is merely the prompt to do these things, its the blogging system set-up that then carries out the actions. Result – no more waiting and wondering when your new page of content will be found as you have to with the main Search Engines.

How do you ping?

In an ideal world, you should not need to worry about pinging, you should set your blog up so that the software does it for you. In WordPress, you will find this in the Administration section in Options > Writing; at the bottom of the page there is a box called Update Services and this is where you put the ping address.

If you need to do it yourself, then rather than doing each one independently, there are some services which will ping a number of different servers for you free. The best known are probably Pingomatic, Pingoat and PingShot which is part of the Feedburner services.

Where should you ping?

Ideally you want to ping as many of the major Blog Search Engines as possible to ensure that they have indexed your new post. The pinging services mentioned above will help but I have gathered a list of places to ping from a number of different sources which I will be keeping updated. Just add these addresses to the Update Services area in your Blogging platform and let the software work for you.

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Spam Blogs or Splogs
Following in the footsteps of other successful communication media such as email, Blogs have also suffered at the hands of spammers wanting to use them for their own ends without consideration of the detrimental impact this can have on others.

As a result we have seen the rise of Spam Blogs (otherwise known as Splogs) which have partly clouded the real business benefits on offer from genuine Business Blogs. While not yet the menace that email spam has become, they are both annoying and potentially damaging as they clutter the blogosphere and search engines with valueless content. However, they do warrant further explanation as to what they are and why they exist at all.

What are Spam Blogs and why do people use them?

Spam Blogs or Splogs are generally created by automated software robots and are created solely to tap into a blogs appeal to Search Engines, rather than to provide new or even useful content for their readers. This is done for one of two main reasons:

  • to gain higher Search Engine rankings for the pages which then display numerous links to a target website in order to boost the target’s apparent popularity and Google PageRank;

  • to gain higher Search Engine rankings in order to then benefit from AdSense or other onsite ad based marketing and create revenue for the splog originator;

NB This second sort should not be confused with the many thousands of real blogs which offer great information and insight which also contain AdSense to legitimately create potential revenue sources.

The reason for using Blog technology is that, since companies such as Blogger offer free set up and hosting, they are both easy and cheap to establish. It should be said, however, that Blogger has cracked down strongly on Splogs (with unfortunately other genuine bloggers getting caught up in the fallout) particularly after a wave of splogging at the end of 2005.

What form do Spam Blogs take?

Spam Blogs, from what I have seen, take one of two main formats.

  • The first is simply a series of pages which are filled with keywords through a string of meaningless posts in order to achieve pages which are heavily focused on a small set of keywords.
  • The second is one which uses a series of randomly posted articles which have either been illegally taken from real blogs or websites (either via “scraping” or using RSS) or which use legitimately published articles from one of the many articles directories which exist.

Why are they bad?

From a Business Blogging point of view, they have a negative impact primarily because they add no real value and so muddy the waters by creating prejudice against real blogs. Over time, this has the possibility of devaluing the use of blogs as a marketing and communications tool, and alienating new potential users of the blogosphere.

In addition, they can skew Search Engine results (which is in no-one’s interest), are likely to cause issues in the world of Search Advertising and may cause more general problems in blogosphere if the Blog Search Engines are not able to keep them out of their indexes. Clearly, there is also the issue of plagiarism and splogs which illegally using other peoples articles may well be contravening copyright law.

Can we do anything to stop them?

Well, as consumers, when we spot them we can avoid clicking on any of the Adverts which generally proliferate on the splogs if they are not generating income then they are worthless to the originator. If you want to take it a step further then you could click on the ‘Ads by Goooogle’ link and then ‘Send Google your thoughts on the Ads you just saw’ to make a spam report.

A more active process is to report them to the Search Engine which has them in their index, but this is ultimately going to be a thankless task. It is really the Search Engines and the free Blog providers themselves which need to keep their own houses in order and close the loopholes which allow Splogs to be created automatically.

Other types of spam on blogs

There are two other ways of spamming on blogs, the most common of which is Comment Spam. This is where comments are left on the posts which merely contain links back to a target website or use the link embedded in the author’s name. The other is Trackback spam which has the same aim but using trackbacks rather than comments.

Many Bloggers have negated this by making the comment links no-follow which means that the Search Engine linking benefit no longer exists. However, most comment spam is automated so this does not stop the comments some might also say that it penalises people leaving real comments by breaking some of the social linking which blogging is based on.

Much more effective against this is to use comment spam software such as that which is provided by Akismet (free to non commercial bloggers) which is excellent. It will also save you having to moderate large amounts of spam comments if your blog is set up that way.

At the end of the day, Spam Blogs offer no value to anyone except (possibly) the spammer – this is not the way we want things to go, so it is in all our interests to do what we can to help stop this from getting out of hand.

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Better Business Blogging - Quick Bloggers Guide

Whether you are a large corporate organisation or an independent consultant or small business, as you start a Business Blog, there are a number of elements that you need to consider in order to ensure that you give it every opportunity to be a success.

While the exact requirements will differ according to the goals and expectations, you should be able to answer the following questions from the start:

a) What do you want to do with your Business Blog?
Make sure that you have a clear vision of what you want to do with your Business Blog it should have focus and you need to ensure that it does not become a jack of all trades and master of none – the more focused it is, the more successful it is likely to be.

b) Who is your target audience for your Business Blog?

Avoid trying to make it be all things to all people it isnt possible. Once again focus is important, so decide on your target audience and write the blog for them with content they are looking for and a style that they will warm to. If you have lots of different audiences that you wish to appeal to then you might like to consider setting up separate blogs to cater for each area.

c) What results are you looking to achieve?
What goals do you have for your Business Blog and just as importantly, how are you going to measure them? There is going to be time and effort involved and you need to show results at the end of it – therefore, from the start, you should know what results you are looking for. So decide on the criteria you want to work with and how you wish to measure them.

d) How will it integrate with your other marketing activities?
Blogging is an excellent marketing tool, as well as having being strong in other areas. However, it is not a magic wand to cure all marketing ills, so it is necessary to decide how to best use it in conjunction with your other marketing, business development and customer service activities. (Check Marketing and Promoting your Business Blog.

e) What Blogging software to choose?
There are a number of options available each with different benefits by deciding what you wish to do with it, what it will be integrated with (if anything) and what degree or control or customisation you require, you will be able to focus in on which would be best for your needs. The best advice is to choose one which will grow and develop with you as well as fitting with your current business and technical requirements. Free hosted software (such as Blogger) will seldom do this or give you sufficient control, so look at WordPress (full version) or Typepad as good starter points.

f) What to call your Business Blog?
Rule of Thumb: choose something which you are still going to feel comfortable with in a year’s time. Either let it reflect your company and branding, or make sure it contains your keywords … or preferably both. You might like to check some additional ideas on choosing a Business Blog name here.

g) Host it on your website or on a different domain
As a general rule, if it sits comfortably alongside your website and complements the information on it, then integrate it into your website. If, on the other hand, you are looking to present an objective view on your industry or want a separate identity for branding purposes then choose a separate domain name.

h) What domain name or subdirectory name to use?
Try to use something descriptive – if you are using a separate domain, then choose a domain name which either reflects the branding you wish to achieve or contains your main keyword (or preferably both!). If it is a subdirectory then describe the purpose it will be serving such as Information Centre for example.

i) Look and Feel of the Blog
If you are using it as part of your website, then integrate the look and feel with that. There’s no need for your visitors to really know that they are on a blog – remember it’s the benefits that blogs offer that is important, not the technology. If it is on a separate domain, then design your Business Blog with the image you want to portray but don’t use the default template = zero differentiation!

With all of these elements in place then you are starting off on the right track and should have the foundations in place to create a successful Business Blog. By doing so, you will find that it will save you a lot of time and inconvenience in the future and will make the blog that much more effective in what you are looking to achieve.

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Blogging is all about engaging people.

Granted, you need to attract them to your blog in the first place and, in this respect, the promotion and marketing of your blog plays an important role. However, to maintain their interest and develop the relationship, then you must engage with them.

There are many ways in which you can do this with your writing and some of the best are outlined below – combined, they can give you a real edge in developing your readership and hence your customer base.

  • Content: the most basic element is good content. The quality of what you write will form the basis of all of the other elements – so, provide quality content and do it consistently.
  • Passion: deliver what you have to say with passion. If you are not passionate about what you are writing then how can you expect your readers to be?
  • Ideas: don’t simply regurgitate other people’s ideas, bring some of your own into the mix. Simply copying things that you have read elsewhere will do you no favours and ultimately deter long-term readers.
  • Actions: as the old adage goes, “actions speak louder than words” so make sure that you practise what you preach. If you believe that something works, then don’t just say it, do it!
  • Delivery: How you write about the subjects that you cover will influence your readers. You could use humour, reasoned argument, confrontation or a number of delivery methods, so pick one which will appeal to your intended audience.
  • Look and Feel: the quality of what you write should be high, but we all respond on many different levels, so ensure that the design of your blog supports the content and displays it to best effect.
  • Focus: in writing your blog, focus on a particular area, industry or issue. By maintaining the focus you decided upon when planning your blog, you will successfully reach the people you want to target.
  • Information: give your readers useful and accurate information. Adding your own analysis to this by presenting differing opinions and then expressing your own opinion would be ideal.
  • Communication: blogs are all about communication and interaction so try to create a two-way discussion by the way you present your posts and by asking for feedback.
  • Relate: the best type of writing will talk about subject areas that your readers can relate to, so always try to give examples that your readers will be able to identify with.

If you can combine a number of these elements in your posts then the chances of being able to engage your readers and getting them to return on a regular basis will be greatly increased.

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Edinburgh Festival FringeAt the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, blogging has been brought to the fore and making an impact through two shows which focus on blogging in two very different environments.

The two shows in question are:

Girl Blog From Iraq which is a theatrical recreation of the very poignant blog Baghdad Burning written by Riverbend, a 24 year old Iraqi woman living in Baghdad, about the war going on around her and its impact.

Bloggers: Real Internet Diaries excerpts taken from real blogs which have been combined into a play about 10 bloggers who bare all in public. In all senses, I believe.

Putting to one side the theatrical merits of the productions, which I cannot comment on, I ask myself whether the fact that these plays are appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe is good for people like myself, who are trying to introduce organisations to the business opportunities which blogs offer them.

The answer, I believe, is both yes and no.

On the positive side, it certainly adds visibility to the concept of blogging and indicates that blogging is reaching a level in the UK where it is becoming understood, talked about and used. I have also noticed an increasing number of articles and news items talking about blogging from TV News reports to mainstream newspaper articles.

However, on the downside, the vast majority of these mentions, including of course the plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, start with the premise that a blog is an online diary and blogging is purely a personal activity. This is the case with personal blogs but of course is very far from the truth when it comes to the corporate use of business blogs.

So, while it’s good to see the additional publicity for blogging, I find that it has also re-inforced the notion that blogging is purely a social activity and so leaves the same barriers to overcome when explaining to companies where the business benefits of blogging lie.

Nevertheless, the same was true in the US which is now taking the lead in terms of using Business blogging as an external and internal communications tool. The same will certainly happen in the UK and what we need to do is help companies successfully use it and so take it from The Fringe and into the mainstream.

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Spotlight on UK Blogs - all postsEach week, I will be highlighting some of the Business Blogs which exist in the UK. The aim is to show a cross section of what people and businesses are writing about and how they are approaching the task of using blogs in their business activities. As a result, you’ll find that these posts will contain a mix of Blogs displaying a range of topics and styles.

In addition to this weekly selection, I am working with others to build a comprehensive list of Business Blogs in the UK. So if there are UK blogs which you have visited and would recommend (including your own!), then please let me know by leaving a comment or sending me a message. Thanks!

The Dental Business School
More Profit in Less Time is what Business Coach, Chris Barrow, provides from his Dental Business School blog to great effect.

Podcasts from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Blog, podcasts and the Fringe all mixed into one entertaining blend.

Modern Marketing
A blog from Collaborate Marketing, lead and edited by James Cherkoff.

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Vanessa & Baukjen
Vanessa Knox-Brien and Baukjen de Swaan Arons come together in the form of Isabella Oliver with designs for pregnant women who love clothes.

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