June 2007

Business Connection and Business BlogsBusiness blogs cant be considered to be just about conversations, naked or otherwise.

For me, a conversation in business which doesn’t have an impact or an outcome is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Therefore, I consider that when it comes to business blogs, its important that we focus on the idea of connections rather than simply conversations.

Conversations are great for personal blogs, that’s really what they are looking to achieve: dialogue with people, interaction or a sense of community. Thats not to say that business blogs dont work at this conversational level too – they do. We still want those same personal elements in our business dealings as the Cluetrain Manifesto so succinctly put it, markets are conversations and we need to be participating.

But with business blogs, we need to go further.

Meaningful dialogue on a business blog, I believe, is different. It is about taking that one step extra. Its still built on the basis that people prefer to do business with people they like and trust, but surely that means going above and beyond a simple conversation. In business, it’s only when these conversations lead somewhere that they become truly useful in commercial terms. For me, that is about creating connections.

But, what are connections?

Well, its not the so called connection that people make on networking sites such as LinkedIn or eCademy, where the number of connections tends to be linked with an individual’s popularity or networking prowess. Many of these are often nothing more than an exchange of pleasantries online (if that!), much less the interaction that a conversation on a business blog achieves. I’m also not thinking about achieving immediate sales or signed agreements – that comes later still and, while perhaps initiated by a connection through the blog, should never be the immediate goal.

Instead, a connection is when communication on business blogs makes an impact or really strikes a chord with those reading them. The type of connection when something clicks as you talk with someone … at whatever level. Ideas, commitment, personality, integrity, presentation perhaps. Its the type of link up which actually signifies something because of the mutual interest it creates. It’s this which indicates an intention to make contact with that person again rather than a conversational exchange and then a parting of ways.

To give an example. If you are using your business blog for customer service purposes then the conversation it provides is valid – it reassures and it informs. However, it is the connection you make with the customer by way of the action that you take as a result of it which is the key. It is that which will validate or change your customers opinion of you and encourage them to take action in terms of recommending you or developing the relationship.

In the same way, I have mentioned elsewhere that I am a fan of Jonathan Schwarzs blog at Sun Microsystems to couch what he does in pure blogging terms, I would have to say that he writes a CEO blog with both passion and authority in a way which comes across as very authentic. By doing so, I feel that he connects with his readers, myself included. He’s not just engaging in a conversation somehow he has taken it a step further because of the way that he presents himself.

Two very different types of connection, yet both producing results. And both, from a referral or networking perspective, likely to give much better results by focusing our efforts on developing conversations into connections, rather than concentrating simply on encouraging the conversation.

So, as we develop our business blogs, keep the faith with the main principles that underlay blogging in general but stretch them! Certainly, blogs are viewed as great communication tools (which they are) which are ideal for creating opportunities for conversations (which is also true). But for business blogs, I believe that we should be looking one step further – we should be focusing on developing connections.

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Blog database backupIn the digital based world in which we live, if there’s one thing that we can be certain of, it’s that from time to time computers will break and data will be lost. Granted, hardware and memory is becoming ever more secure so information loss no longer happens with quite the same frequency as it did during my days at Psion during the 90s (now that ages me) when I recall people losing their agendas and address books on a fairly regular basis.

Nevertheless, we hold more and more company critical information in digital form on PCs and servers which we would we lost without – as no doubt some of us have already discovered to our cost! :(

Well, in your blog, you have another key business tool whose information needs taking care of, just like any other. For this reason, a word of advice – and one that I give to all of my business blog clients – remember to back up your database on a regular basis. Furthermore, just as you should be doing with the information on your PC, keep a copy yourself rather than solely relying on your host to do it for you.

For WordPress users, there used to be a plugin bundled with the application code but this is no longer the case in recent versions. Luckily, the same WordPress Database Backup plugin has been taken on by Il Filosofo and updated as well. The most recent version has an added feature which is a godsend for someone like me that has good intentions on backups but all too often a memory like a sieve for them – you can set it to automatically create a backup on a regular basis and have it saved or sent to you. Great!

If you prefer not to use a plugin or have a masochistic streak a mile wide in you (or for non WordPress users), then you might find this blow by blow account of how to back up your database in the WordPress Codex to be fun reading.

However you decide to go about it, do remember to do it! Or a least keep a large swear box handy for when something goes wrong.

EDIT: Hat tip to Graham Jones for this: it seems there is a new service called Blog Backup Online from Techrigy which offers automated database backups. Caveat – not tried it yet myself but might be worth a look.

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Blogging in the News - UK BlogsSome articles which have appeared in the UK online press over the past week which looks at blogging (primarily business blogging) and its uses. If you find any good articles that could be highlighted here, then please post the links below or send them to me directly at mark[at]betterbusinessblogging[dot]com and I’ll do the rest.

The 50 best business blogs
I’d have to take issue with the title of this blog but there are some excellent ones in there along with at leastone that probably doesn’t even deserve the name “blog”, but there that’s probably me being fractious. If you spot them, leave me a comment! :0

The best business blogs – the readers strike back
Clearly had comments back about their original list but we really need to be getting a few more from the UK in here – also I have issues with semantics about what a business blog really is. Looks like some people want it to be a blog about business topics such as leadership, productivity etc. Absolutely not a pre-requisite for a business blog in my opinion.

Blogging smashes job prospects
Comes back to being sensible – in a business world, if you are not prepared to stand by what you say, then you’re better off not saying it at all. Surely that’s an important rule on or off line?

Buyers look to blogs for advice
It seems that both blogs and their social media partner, podcasts, are having a larger impact on buyers of HR services than traditional forms of advertising.

Pupils lead the way with blogging
... and who are tomorrow’s consumers and corporate employees?

Blog lets you hone business ideas
Another interesting way of using blogs in business, I feel.

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Business Blog Design Series[This is part of a series following on from a post called “Business Blog Design“]

Being able to open up a dialogue between author and readers by leaving comments is one of the key aspects of a blog and one of the elements that make them as effective as they are. They open a door onto the interactive side of the web and give the opportunity to engage with people, start conversations and create connections.

However, just as in the real world, its important to show that you are willing to talk with people rather than turning your back on them (proverbially or otherwise) or give the impression that you are unapproachable and arent looking to engage with them.

Allow and learn to love comments
You should always allow people to comment on your blog, unless you have very specific reasons why not at the same time, you should make sure that you have the ability to deal with the comments that come back. I dont just mean in terms of time (for most that will not be an issue – and if it is, it’s often a good one to have!), but also in terms of responding appropriately.

Whether the comments you receive contain information, praise or criticism, you need to deal with them openly and correctly. You can achieve a huge amount by doing this, gaining respect in the process, especially when responding to negative comments. You will also encourage additional comments by the way that you have dealt with previous ones, so take the time to do so.

Actively encourage comments
Creating dialogue through getting responses is a key element to a successful blog, so dont sit back and wait for comments help to initiate them, either on your own blog or on those of others. Dont be afraid to openly ask for comments you should feel comfortable enough to encourage or challenge people to reply, or ask them for information. Basically, start that conversation!

You can also encourage comments simply by the way that you write, either through inspiring people to respond, goading them or by opening up a discussion on an area that you know people will have an opinion that that they want to express. Some other ways might include:

  • Asking for opinions in general or asking a direct question at the end of your posts;

  • Challenging people to put their point of view forward on the topic;

  • Writing in an open ended style which allows people to add further thoughts on the topic rather than consider you’ve covered all aspects of it;

  • asking for additional information to help build up a bigger collection of thoughts and ideas on the subject

  • Running a competition (prizes help encourage participation!)

  • Starting group writing projects such as a Metaphor for Blogging

  • Drawing attention to comments made either by referencing them or by displaying “Latest Comments” in your sidebar

Make it easy to comment
We want people to comment, so make it easy for your readers to do so and don’t put barriers in their way which may put them off. Probably the biggest barrier in this regard is where you ask people to register before they can leave a comment – while I recognise that comment spam is a very real issue, there are other ways around this which will not impact on the relationship between author and reader.

How to deal with them
You should try to respond to the comments that your readers leave where appropriate – in most cases, you are looking to engage with the people who leave comments, so if they respond and ask a question then make sure that you reply to it.

Of course, there will be cases where the comments will not be favourable this is to be expected. You cannot please all the people all of the time. You should still try to respond to their points and present your point of view – its best not to ignore this type of comment because at least on your blog you have the chance to put forward your side. Elsewhere, negative comments will go unanswered. You will also often gain greater respect by handling objections with grace and tact by doing it this way.

How to avoid Spam Comments
Spam comments appearing in our comment section doesn’t give a good impression, but luckily there are a number of ways to avoid this. So what are our options – other than turning off comments all together, which I don’t advocate.

The main ones you might consider are:

  • Specialist Software: like email, there are providers of specialist software which can help us and here, in my opinion, the leader in this respect is called Akismet. It identifies the comments that it believes are spam and impounds them – free of charge, except for commercial use and very good.

  • Comment Moderation: moderating out spam by looking at each comment which has been left and allow genuine ones to appear on your blog while deleting the spam comments. This can become very time consuming (not to mention frustrating!)

  • CAPTCHA methods: this is the distorted series of letters and numbers which appear on the page and that you have to type in to prove that you are a human and not an automated visitor. Good but a bit of a barrier to readers.

  • Registration: only accept comments from people that have already logged in to a registration system which you run on your blog secure but can dissuade people from commenting.

Designing your business blog to encourage and display comments appropriately will hopefully help to develop more and more feedback, thereby developing an ongoing dialogue or relationship with your readers. This in turn should have a positive effect in terms of both reputation and trust.

Learn to love comments (positive and negative), encourage readers to leave them and make it easy for them to do so!

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Over the weekend, I was chatting with a friend who used to work for one of the larger pharmaceutical companies here in the UK and, as you do, I mentioned my professional involvement with corporate blogging. Having given her a brief overview of how the business world is using blogs, she commented that she felt it was unlikely that there would be many blogs from the main pharma companies, and I agreed … in part.

My own thoughts were that, on the drug side of the business, the legal elements would be too stifling and would never allow the openness and free comment that a blog requires. However, I felt that on the consumer side of the business, product blogs would be the perfect vehicle for some product lines – the example I gave her was from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) where I felt the Lucozade line would benefit immensely from a product based blog linked with their other online and offline marketing activities.

Well, I decided to do a little investigating today, what did I find? Not one but two pharmaceutical companies have in fact recently launched blogs – GSK and Johnson & Johnson – so, of course I had to have a closer look.

From GSK has come AlliConnect which is focused on the Alli Weight Loss product line which apparently is “the only FDA approved weight loss product available over the counter” – in the US, I presume. From a blog perspective, clean look (if a touch bland) with clear branding and has all the main components in place, as I guess you would hope since they have been working with Debbie Weil on this, who is also named as one of the authors. Wide subject matter from a small team with a lot of potential for development and some innovative uses of this product blog, and so one that will be interesting to follow from a professional perspective.

The other from Johnson & Johnson is called JNJ BTW and has a little bit further to go, to be honest. It is written by one of the media relations team which rather sets the tone, and it seems to have a much less well defined remit in terms of what it is looking to achieve. With very little corporate branding, there are certain elements of the set-up which need to be dealt with (non friendly URLs, ‘Uncategorised” category, RSS all but hidden) and I don’t get the same feel of focus which concerns me when considering the impact it will make. I believe that they would have been better placed if they had focused on a single product area (and they have enough to choose from) rather than a wide ranging corporate blog which seems to be what they are attempting here.

All in all, GSK have certainly the better starting position here and it does make me wonder whether engaging a blog consultant would have avoided a lot of the early pain that I foresee for the J&J blog – though, I admit that I might be biased here, given that it is what I do for a living. It’s good to see large corporates embracing blogs, of course, but I think that the public already has certain standards they expect and so therefore the planning and delivery of blogs is going to need more and more attention if they are to make the right impact from the start.

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Liz Strauss of Successful Blog fame has recently been running another wildly successful Group Writing exercise where she asked her readers to define their own metaphor for blogging, ideally to help explain it to those coming to blogging for the first time.

A huge range of really good and incredibly diverse metaphors were forthcoming which it seems appropriate to share here so that you can peruse them at your leisure.

There were also some “winners” chosen – randomly I might add, since my own Blogging Metaphor was one of them – who will be receiving a copy of Lorelles book “Blogging Tips What Bloggers Wont Tell You About Blogging“. The ten winners were:

The complete list is given below. Enjoy!

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Avis Blog: We try Harder - Blog ReviewI mentioned Avis’ new blog in the News items recently and so I was particularly interested to see that e-Consultancy have published an interview today with Xavier Vallee who is Avis’ UK Head of Marketing and presumably the person responsible for the Avis blog.

I was glad to read that Avis has been adopting the methodology I recommend in the Green Cross Code of Blogging. They have taken the time to examine and listen to the conversations which have been taking place about Avis around the internet / blogosphere before starting their own blog and have clearly thought through their own goals for creating a blog.

Equally, judging from the interview, Avis have defined what they want to achieve from the blog and presumably the criteria which they intend to use. The aims are quite wide covering “branding, PR, customer service and product development” so keeping track of responses will be important though they appear to be working with Market Sentinel here which is good.

Critically, they also seem to be doing the right things internally. The queries are streamed to relevant departments to be answered properly and presumably this is then followed up offline where appropriate, as well as on the blog itself. The blog also seems to have the backing at board level which will no doubt help those running it to maintain its impetus and development.

Avis Blog Review

The Avis blog has a very clean look, lots of white space (in a good way) and is in line with Avis’ corporate branding from what I can see. The “We Try Harder” domain name and imagery comes from corporate Avis, though it is more apparent on the global site rather than the UK one. It is running on WordPress which gives it excellent functionality and future proofing.

The “We Try Harder” name is good though the .com version, although owned by Avis, is used for different corporate purposes – it may be appropriate to make sure that there is a link through to the blog area on that page in case of people typing the name directly into their browser and getting the .com rather than the .co.uk

Writing – the content seems to have consistency and yet is varied enough to hold interest. It does reflect the multiple aims of the blog, covering corporate fundraising activities together with advice and tips when hiring a car as well as comments on motoring in general. I think that, in particular, the posts looking at overseas destinations has the making of a good mini series.

Navigation and Linking – the main navigation is a little confusing with some links going back to the main site and others linking to static pages on the blog itself. While it might be work in progress, it’s a little disappointing to see the blog homepage and “go to avis.co.uk” links below the main navigation rather than built into it or placed in the sidebar. This may be in the process of being changed though as there is currently duplication of some of the links and one is pointing to the wrong page.

The sidebar has a relatively standard set-up and could be used more effectively, perhaps by using the prime “real estate” to highlight particular points of interest either within the blog or in terms of what Avis is doing in general. Showing different elements in the sidebar on the single post pages might be positive as well, though they should retain the “Topics” (ie. categories) for the sake of consistency.

Conversely, is there a link to it from the main Avis UK site? I couldn’t find one. If there isn’t, then that’s a big opportunity missed from a basic marketing perspective.

Permalinks – currently the permalinks use the default format which is a real pity (though simple to change) – therefore the page and post IDs are currently being used rather than using a customised and “friendly” permalink which would display, for example, the post names. Friendly URLs will be better both for readers and Search Engines alike.

RSS subscriptionRSS is getting much better known but still a bit of a mystery to many, so therefore with such a prominent placement of the RSS logo and subscription link, I would have included a link to some sort of explanation as to what RSS can offer to encourage users to subscribe. Since the RSS feed is through Feedburner, I would have also incorporated an option to sign up via email using one of the services that Feedburner integrates with. That way, all bases are covered and you are giving your readers the choice.

Title Tags and Meta Tags – while it may not be seeking out Search Engine rankings as a primary goal, there would be no harm in changing the Title Tags’ format and wording in particular to make them more useful and relevant. I think that I would also include the word “Avis” at the end to help the individual posts.

Summary – overall, a positive feel to the blog which I have no doubt will develop over time. The branding is consistent without being in your face and the writing so far has variety without veering towards selling which is the portent of doom for any blog. The writers seem to work well together and the writing styles don’t obviously clash.

I would certainly look at working at the blog based marketing activities which could help enhance the visitor rates and also use the sidebar areas to better effect. However, these will come with time and in the meantime the challenge will remain keeping the posts consistent and interesting.

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Swiss Army Knife - Blogging AnalogyRecently, Liz Strauss set out a challenge to those of us who blog – write a blog post using a metaphor to describe blogging to help introduce or explain what blogging is to others.

In taking up this challenge, I decided to do so looking at business blogs which is where both my interest and my professional focus lies. From this perspective, I would liken a business blog to a Swiss Army Knife (SAK).

Like the Swiss Army Knife, I consider a Business Blog to be a tool which has 101 possible uses. All self contained, it gives the owner a range of options as to how to use it which will vary according to the situation that they find themselves in at the time. Often, the trouble is understanding all of the possible uses and then deciding which is the most appropriate for a given situation.

It is something which is easy to use at a basic level but if you want to use it properly then it demands time and attention. When someone has taken the trouble to explore and understand the tool, has discovered how best to use it and has learned from the experience of others, then the results can be excellent. However, in the wrong hands, it could be considered as a dangerous tool to “play about” with.

But remember, while it is a tool which can do all of these things, it cannot do them all at once. If you try to pull all of the tools out of the knife at the same time, then the result will be chaos and you wont be able to use any of them properly. Likewise, an individual blog should not try to be all things to all people it is at its best when it has focus and is used for a specific purpose.

And how do I feel about it? Well, like the SAK, whatever it does and whatever I use it for, it remains personal to me – I feel a sense of pride in owning it, using it and maintaining it. I make sure that it is fit for purpose so that it works for me in the way that I want it to and the way that it was designed to. It works for me and it’s personal to me at the same time, and I hope that that comes through in the way that I use it.

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Blogging in the News - UK Blogs
Some articles which have appeared in the UK online press over the past week which looks at blogging (primarily business blogging) and its uses. If you find any good articles that could be highlighted here, then please post the links below or send them to me directly at mark[at]betterbusinessblogging[dot]com and I’ll do the rest.

Six Apart turns blogs into full Business Web Sites
A part of the recent Six Apart PR offensive – we have been able to do this for a while with WordPress though. An example is the Heal Naturally website here.

Third of Bloggers “risk the sack”
Rather provocative headline – work with your employees and have blogging policies in place and you can worry about email again as the biggest security issue, rather than blogs.

Six Apart scales up Movable Type Blogging
Good to see Six Apart continuing their development of their main corporate blogging platform – now all you need to do is try our Blogging Workshops and in-house training to see how best to use of blogging in business! Anyone notice the blatant plug? :)

Blog is but a list of names
A case in point – to write a successful blog, you need to find out what interests your readers and it seems that a list of dinner parties just isn’t cutting it for this councillor.

Google buys blog and RSS tool Feedburner
One of my favourite tools, Feedburner, has been bought by Google – another big player getting heavily involved in RSS following Microsoft with the IE7 and others.

Telegraph launches RSS reader
The Telegraph seems intent on adding to their online offering and an RSS ensuring that they keep readers onsite even when they are reading others’ news is a very sensible step.

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BT Web Seminar and London Social Networking EventAs you may be aware, I have started doing some blogging for British Telecom on their BT Business Blog which is aimed at providing small and medium sized companies with online information and news which will help their businesses.

In addition, I’m taking part in two linked events which are happening this Thursday – one online and the other offline in London – both of which I hope will be of interest to you!

Firstly, there is a Web Seminar on Online communities, Social Networking and Blogging which is just one of a series of web seminars that BT run as part of their Business Club activities. It’s free to particpate in and you can find a summary and how to register on their website.

As part of the web seminar, you will also have the chance to learn more about the BT Tradespace service which is an online community that brings small businesses and individual sellers together with potential customers to do business. Basic membership of Tradespace is also free so it is certainly worthwhile finding out more about it and setting up an account.

On the same day, BT are also holding a small social networking evening in London, partly to follow up on the topics raised in the Web Seminar as myself and other participants from the seminar will be attending. Apparently, there are still some places available, so if you are in London then you should consider coming along to chat with other like-minded business people, learn about blogs and online communities for business … oh, and there’s some light refreshments too!

The event is taking place in the private Royale room of RubyBlue, Leicester Square, London from 6pm. If you would like to come along, just complete the short registration form on the BT Business Blog and hopefully I’ll see you there.

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