August 2007

Blog Consultant questions: Ask the Blog CoachAsk the Blog Coach: Business Blogging FAQs

Question: Who should be the main author of a corporate blog? Should it always be the MD or CEO?

The Blog Coach’s Reply: Firstly, it’s important to stress that, even in corporate blogs, whoever does the writing, it needs to retain a personal tone and not drift towards corporate “marketing speak”. This personal aspect is one of the key business benefits that blogs offer. A personal writing style helps companies to put a human perspective on an often austere external corporate image and differentiate themselves by doing so. This is particularly effective for Professional Services companies where a key selling point has to be the people (as well as their expertise) carrying out the work a corporate site can state their qualifications but, unlike a blog, cannot give an insight as to who the people really are.

Should only CEOs blog?
As for whether CEOs should always blog no, not at all. I would certainly not recommend that all CEOs consider blogging themselves and nor should it generally be the CEO who blogs on a corporate blog. It’s important to remember that corporate blogs do not have a single purpose or format – rather it’s an umbrella term for many different types. For instance, a blog intended to help provide better customer service will be different to one aimed at helping to develop a brand and both will be different to a product focused blog.

The so called “CEO Blog” is a different type again, I believe. As you would expect, an MD or CEO is going to write about the company in a very different way to someone in the Customer Services department because they have a different perspective on the issues and the industry. It is that perspective which is of interest to readers. A CEO is more likely to do a weekly State of the Nation type of post which looks at the industry, the company and factors affecting it from a helicopter perspective. Good examples are Jonathan Schwartz (CEO of Sun Microsystems) or Richard Edelman (Edelman PR).

However, a product focused blog or a detailed information blog are more likely to be written by people specialist in those areas. In that way, the knowledge and the enthusiasm that they have for the subject they are writing about can really shine through.

How to identify a potential company blogger
In deciding who should blog, I would probably suggest that you consider someone who :

  • has a passion for what they are writing about

  • ideally enjoys writing (also it helps if they are good at it)

  • has expertise in the area (and ideally a good general knowledge base)

  • is a good listener and is open to feedback (including criticism)

  • is familiar with blogs and how to present yourself in them

As you go through the planning process for your blog and identify what your goals are for it and who it is targeted at, you will find that there will be some ideal candidates who will be most appropriate to take on the role. You might also consider an internal blog as a good place to identify those people with a natural affinity for the medium.

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As I have been catching up on some reading over the past few days and browsing through links in the articles as is my wont, I found a nice reference by Roy Greenslade in the Guardian Unlimited to an Oslo based blogger called Kristine Lowe.

In her post earlier this month regarding Andrew Keen’s book, there was a sentence which I felt summed up not only a really important aspect of my own attitude to blogs but also a sound piece of advice to both companies and individuals using the blogosphere, whether they are bloggers themselves or not.

If the blogosphere has taught me one thing, it is to become a better listener: I love letting the links of blogs I trust or appreciate take me into unknown territory introduce me to new and interesting takes, angles, voices…

Yes indeed.

Although important from a personal point of view, it’s also a key element from a business perspective and you may remember that “The Onlooker” (or “The Listener“) was one of the Corporate Blogging Profiles I mentioned, as well as being an important phase when preparing and planning a corporate blog.

It’s also something which we should continue to do, whether it’s for pleasure or for work, just as we might flip through books or magazines until we find something which catches our eye and we fold over the corner of the page so we can find it again later.

So I’m going to cut this short today and go back to my RSS Reader – the electronic equivalent of folding the page corner – and indulge in a little bit of listening of my own for a while.

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Use graphics to help your Business BlogsThere is a lot of talk about what you write on your blog being all important … and of course it is! The title of your posts should entice people to read the post itself and the content itself will do a lot of the work in determining if your blog finds its way into the RSS reader, the favourites file or the proverbial dustbin.

However, its also important to make sure that the look and feel of your blog (including the individual posts) support and promote the information you’re providing. It’s just like when you’re selling a house – you make sure that you do a “House Doctor” on it and present it in a way that will appeal to potential buyers. It doesn’t actually change the physical structure but it does show it off to best effect. We can do the same with a blog and influence the way in which people react to it as well as how they take on board what we are writing about.

Make your Blog stand out from the crowd

So, the way your blog is presented plays a key role in differentiating not only your blog, but also you and your business. After all, thats what we are looking to achieve in business, being noticed so, any way which helps us to stand out from our competitors has to be positive.

I dont know about you, but when I see blogs which, for example, run WordPress but just use the basic template – you know the one with the blue box at the top my first reaction is that there cant be anything of value there. In fact, I probably write it off as a splog (spam blog).

Irrational and quite possibly untrue. Nevertheless I just think that someone who cannot be bothered to spend a bit of effort (or a few pounds) to spruce up their blog probably hasnt spent much time on the content either. Others have told me that I’m not alone in this respect. So spend a little time on the design of your blog and your posts, and help the information that you are carefully putting together get read.

Caveat: try not to get too carried away. Remember that any graphics you include should not be there to distract your readers but rather to help them focus on the information and ideally encourage them to comment.

Some Graphics Sites to try

So where can I find good images to support the information in my blog, I hear you ask! Well, at one end of the spectrum, there are the files that come free with programs such as PowerPoint which offer both clipart and some photos which can be used.

However, these can often be a little bit samey or not in keeping with what you want to communicate with your blog. There are, however, a number of excellent sites where you can find quality images covering a whole range of topics. Most of the good stock photos sites charge a small fee now, but the images are well worth it if you choose carefully.

Some sites worth a look are:

A word of caution: as with all images that you use off the net, do make sure that you follow any copyright requirements the last think you want is to have issues with companies claiming ownership of images which you have used legitimately.

Other ways to break up posts

In addition to the use of images, there are of course many other ways in which you can help to make a blog more readable. Some you might like to consider are:

  • break up the posts into manageable chunks

  • keep paragraphs shorter than you might do in a written document

  • use subheadings so that people can skim to the place and the information they want if required (better than them leaving the blog)

  • use bullets where appropriate or indeed create a whole blog comprising of a list – while Im personally not a great fan of these posts, they do work well

If you mix in some of these and incorporate images which help your blog’s look and feel, then you’ll be taking a big step towards encouraging people to read your blog and take on board the information that the posts contain.

Then of course, it’s just a case of writing something valuable …! :)

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Firstly, a thousand apologies for being a little quiet of late – I wish that I could blame it on a long summer break but alas it’s been a case of catching up on work having over stretched myself over the past weeks on a number of fronts. I guess there’s always a balancing act in managing all the elements of running a small business world and sometimes the seesaw just tips too far one way or the other.

I’ve also been taking the time to catch up on some reading as well as planning some of the elements that I want to write about here. So I thought that I would share those with you.

In amongst the other posts, there will be two short series over the coming weeks focusing on Specific small business uses for Blogs and also on RSS.

Specifically, for the Small Business series, I’ll be trying to look at:

  • Blog websites rather than simple blogs for small businesses

  • Blogs as a Search engine optimisation aid for local search

  • Blogs complementing a small business’s online shop

  • Internal blogs as intranet alternative

The RSS series will address:

  • RSS made simple

  • Benefits of RSS for the publisher

  • Benefits of RSS for the subscriber

  • RSS working for small businesses

  • Marketing with RSS

Hopefully both will have elements which will be of interest. I’m certainly looking forward to getting back to the blog this week and starting the series next week, so hope you’ll tag along!

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A second post about Sony and their Playstation blog so soon after my blog review post on the two Sony blogs, I hear you cry? Well, yes, but it’s a great example of dealing with a situation that has arisen on the blog, so I just had to. (And no, I’m not angling for a free game!)

As you might expect, Sony’s Playstation blog has been attracting a lot of comments, a situation that most of us no doubt view with a tinge of envy. However, it seems that a lot of the comments have been rather too off topic and the “noise” factor has been deafening, drowning out relevant comments on the posts. Effectively it’s been creating a free for all ‘bulletin board’ type of feel which isn’t great in a blog environment.

Following a number of requests from their readers, Sony have decided to take steps to reduce this, and they announced what they were intending to do about it in a post from Patrick Seybold which stated:

Since we launched the blog we have been extremely liberal in our monitoring policies because we wanted you guys and gals to get to know each other and share ideas. Lately, however, we have been getting complaints that there is so much noise accompanying each post that people cant separate the good meat from the chatter. We definitely hear you. So, we are going to step up our moderation of off-topic, nonsensical posts or posts on topics that we have already addressed (Yes, we hear you on wanting more demos consider that box suitably checked). If you have suggestions not related to the particular topic of a post, please use our comment form.

Why’s it good to have done it like this? Well, I reckon there’s a few good reasons why:

  • Listening: they’ve been listening to what their readers have been telling them, in this case that there is too much “noise” in the comments section – they’ve listened and have adapted accordingly. When you are running a business blog, it’s important to remember that it is written for the readers, not for the authors.

  • Clarity and openness: they’ve explained clearly what is happening, why the actions have been taken and what they hope will happen in the future. The more open (and authentic) you can be in how you deal with your readers the more successful your blog is likely to be.

  • Forward Thinking: they’ve kept in mind the audience that they wish to attract and wish to participate on their blog – in this case, it was an audience which seemed to be alienated by the “noise” factor in the comments section. Making the changes allows them to focus back on their target audience.
  • Developing: a blog is always going to be developing. While it shouldn’t be seen as an unfinished development project, it’s important that we learn as we go along and change accordingly. Therefore it’s encouraging to see a large corporation both willing and able to address an issue and ring the changes.

  • Giving Options: it’s important not to shut down the channels of communication and if people want to ask or comment about other topics (as had been the case)then they still need to be able to. Here, readers have been offered a specific way to post their other comments using a alternative method.

There is of course the possibility of this swinging too far in the other direction with over zealous moderation of comments, but I think the likelihood of that is small – personally, I’d prefer to focus on (and learn from) the way in which it was handled which I think has been spot on.

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Better Business Blogging - Quick Bloggers GuideWriting a business blog can be time consuming but it is also an excellent and successful way to develop your business and to connect with your customers as well.

Here are some suggestions of things that you might consider keeping in mind as you get into writing your posts and start to develop your blog.

a) Publish on a regular basis
You should aim to publish posts on a regular basis – this doesnt mean that you need to post every day, although it’s better to post more frequently than not. Aim to post two to three times a week and then keep to that regular rhythm. If you leave it a long time between posts then people will tend to wander in and out rather than become dedicated followers, but if you are going to be away or know you won’t be able to post for a while then simply let your readers know in a post! However, one last reminder dont post for the sake of it. Better not to post than sacrifice quality!

b) Stay on planned topics
Try to avoid mixing lots of different subject areas in your blog: as a business blog you want to keep the content as targeted as possible to your niche market area which will help you to get more exposure and build your reputation in that area. Focusing on your main topics is likely to bring you much more success than if you start to stray onto a number of different areas. If you decide that you do want to cover them and the area warrants it, then you might consider setting up a new separate (focused) blog.

c) Always keep your readers in mind
Whether you post twice a day or twice a month, always bear in mind who is going to be reading your posts. Then make sure that you write about things that will be of use to them, inform them, amuse them, inspire them, encourage them or any mixture of the above. As Seth Godin commented, “The mistake most blogs and books make: they are about the writer, not the reader” – try to avoid falling into this trap.

d) Make your titles attractive (in all senses)
When you write your posts, spend time on the titles that you give them. You need to use them to attract your readers’ attention (in RSS feeds or Search Engine Results) but ideally they should also include your post’s main keyword so that it helps on the Search Engine front as well. [No-one said it was easy! ;)] The title will often form part of the posts permalink as well as the Title Tag which makes it doubly important to get the keywords in there if possible.

e) Reference other sites and any sources
If you write a post which references other articles then you should ensure that you state where the reference comes from and add a link back to that article where possible. Its akin to good manners in blogging, adds credibility to your own work and benefits your readers. If the article is on a blog then add a trackback this creates a link back to your post from the original, as well as informing the author that you are developing the themes of their post.

f) Spelling and Grammar
While Blogs may be slightly less formal in terms of writing style, you should still try to avoid spelling and grammar errors in your posts, partly because it displays professionalism and partly because mistakes can distract people from the content they are reading.

g) Check back to your planning document
From time to time, check back to your original planning document where you outlined the aims of your blog and what you wanted to achieve with it. It’s always good to make sure that you are still maintaining those aims and that you are both measuring and achieving the results you were working towards. If you are not, then take a good hard look at your blog … or at your plan.

h) Reference your Foundation articles
When you started your business blog, hopefully you created a number of Foundation articles which put down a solid base for your blog in the key subject areas that you would be dealing with. It’s good, as you write, to reference back to them in your posts on a regular basis to encourage new readers to your blog to review them. Make sure that you have links back to these key articles elsewhere on your blog as well.

i) Encourage comments and follow up
Since the first step in establishing a conversation with your readers is going to be through the comments that they leave, encourage them to do so. Try leaving an open ended question at the and of your posts or simply ask them to comment – nothing ventured, nothing gained! Remember when they do leave comments, make sure that you respond to them wherever possible – a conversation is two way after all!

What other suggestions would you give on ‘Writing your Blog’?

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Anyone working with organisations on corporate blogging will have noticed the different ways in which they approach the medium, ranging from indifference, to dipping their toe politely in the blogosphere’s water or jumping in with both feet in the hope of making as big a splash as possible.

As I look around, I also see organisations using the blogosphere in different ways – some content to be passive observers and use blogs primarily for research, while others making use of their full potential and developing their own ‘community’ around their own corporate blog.

Here are some of the organisation types that I’ve identified and the way they approach blogs and the blogosphere – no doubt there are more, but these are some that I have come across.

The Sleeper
This is an organisation which is aware of what business blogs are but decides not to participate at all in the blogosphere. This could simply be because it doesnt see a need to do so and is content with using other methods to engage with its customers, prospects and other stakeholders. Equally, it might be that they are not aware of the benefits available or it may be that the openness of blogging does not sit comfortably with their company culture. Whatever the reason, for the moment, the Sleeper is content to close its eyes and pretend that blogs dont exist.

The Onlooker
Also known as “The Listener”, this organisation is not actively engaging with the blogosphere but does have an interest in what is going on. It browses blogs to look at and listen to what others are saying, across a wide variety of subjects but particularly about the industry or marketplace in which it is active. Being an Onlooker is always a good start point for any company intending to get involved with blogging because it offers an insight to which topics are viewed as important and gives a better feel for what works. Using an RSS reader, it is also now very easy to follow a number of blogs once you have found them.

The Researcher
Although similar to the Onlooker, the Researcher has a specific purpose in mind when checking the content of the blogs it reads. In some cases, this may be to monitor what is being said about the organisation itself (akin to the press cuttings file of days gone by) in which case the research could be done internally (perhaps using Technorati and Google Alerts) or by using a 3rd party specialist. However, in many more cases, this research is a key phase in planning and launching its own corporate blog and provides invaluable information on who the key bloggers are and what conversations are currently taking place.

The Contributor
The Contributor is an organisation which has taken its first steps in interacting with the blogosphere, by leaving comments on other blogs and thereby participating in the conversations already taking place. This should always be done transparently and individuals posting should state that they work for and are representing the company when commenting. Contributing to the conversations is not the only benefit – leaving comments is a good way to practise ones own blogging style as well as promote the organisations own blog if it is to be set up.

The Builder
The Builder has done the research, taken advice and planned the blog accordingly and is now in a position to start and build up a company blog. Having its own blog is an important step for a company because it can now initiate the conversations, spread its own message and attract and communicate with people interested in the area. It also gives a place to direct people as you continue to comment on their blogs. The Builder is now in control of what is being said rather than simply reading or reacting to others posts, allowing them to guide the conversation and the topics to meet with the requirements of the company.

The Host
Finally, there is a full immersion in the blogosphere with an active blog and an active community around it which the organisation engages with at all levels. Here the Host, through the blog, is facilitating not just a two way conversation with readers but a multidirectional conversation with a number of participants. Using the blog as a key central marketing and communications tool, the Host can develop the relationships it has with the blogs readers and, in doing so, build up both its own reputation and trust.

In some cases, organisations are content with the way they use the blogosphere and have no great desire to change. Perhaps they want to use it for research but prefer not to use it proactively. Others progress from one type to the next, a bit like climbing the rungs of a ladder. Each step up the ladder means the organisation is taking a greater and more active participation in using blogging and increasing the number and depth of conversations that they have with those in their market.

Of course, as the conversations develop so does the level of trust which is created between the parties giving an ever greater chance for business connections to prosper. Exactly what any organisation considering blogging is looking to achieve. So go on, don’t be a Sleeper – get on the first rung and see where it takes you!

Images from Photographer:Scott Maxwell | Agency:

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