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  • Warren: Blogging and Social Media definitely go hand in hand. Having a successful social presence can do a lot for a...
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    Building a Network: here are all the key posts


    Market research with Focus GroupsIn a post called Using Blogs as Communities for Research and Development back in Sept 2006, I mentioned that one of the lesser known yet still ideal uses for business blogs is as a vehicle for conducting market research and product development. Why? Simply because your blog will create a community around itself containing exactly the type of people that you would love to get opinions and feedback from.

    I noticed that last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article called “The New Focus Groups: Online Networks“. Ah, yes indeed! Their focus was it seems prompted by the rise in Social Networks but as I pointed out in “Who owns YOUR Social Network?” the best type of network that you can possibly have as a business, and the one which will endure longest, is one that you run yourself. Essentially, your business blog.

    So with a blog as your best way to develop your own network, social or business, this is a ringing endorsement for using blogs in a market research capacity. It also brings the benefits of targeted market research within the reach of companies of all sizes, not just those with a budget of thousands to spend on external market research providers.

    The benefits of using the type of private community that a specially created blog can give you are clear. As the article points out:

    Companies use them to administer polls, chat in real time with consumers and even ask members to go to the store to try out specific products. The rapid back-and-forth between the company and the online community can help substantially shorten the product development cycle.

    Real interaction with customers, shorter product development cycles? Sounds just what the doctor ordered! And with blog consultants :) able to help you to develop these environments in double quick time (should you require it), you can concentrate your efforts on preparing the research you want to carry out, listening to what your customers tell you they are looking for and then delivering it to them.

    Almost sounds like joined up marketing to me!

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    Over the past couple of weeks, Ive had a number of enquiries from different social networks, or rather from certain of their members, asking me to join their networks. Granted, many of these are automated – which amounts to spamming by the website owners in my view, but thats another story – but this has nevertheless been a clear demonstration to me of the continuing growth and proliferation of social networks.

    Networks and networking in general are hugely important to businesses of all sizes and small businesses in particular. Therefore joining these social networks or business networks is undeniably useful to a point – although I feel that it is nigh impossible to maintain a useful presence in more than a few before you spread yourself too thinly and get lost in the crowd.

    The problem as I see it though, is that when we talk about social networks, we are usually merely refering to a website or platform. All the new social networks that keep appearing are in fact just different websites whose main focus is to create their own network environments (with associated revenue potential) rather than really help us to create our own personal network.

    This is potentially in conflict with what we are all actually interested in, which is our own network (whether that be social or business), made up of people that we want to communicate, interact and deal with.

    As individuals or as businesses, what we really need to do is create our own network, a network which exactly matches the interests, goals and requirements that we have. In fact, a blog is an excellent way to achieve this and to create not only a network but, where possible, a community focused on a specific area. It allows people who just want to network and connect with you to do so, and it gives you the means and opportunity to develop those relationships.

    At the end of the day, by all means join as many networks as you can realistically participate in but chose them according to the goals that you have for your business and use them for the benefits they bring at the time. However, if you truly want to participate in a network which will endure and will best serve your networking goals, then set up a business blog where you can create and develop your own.

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    Unless we are in a very fortunate position, then when we start a business blog we are likely to be faced with the challenge of how to attract visitors to it, how to encourage them to become readers and then how to build their trust and confidence in us and our blog over time.

    This comes through building, developing and of course maintaining a relationship with our blog readers and it’s a process that Ive been trying to represent visually for a while. Recently, I came across something that I feel comes very close while flicking through some books at home and one in particular called How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant which is written by Timothy RV Foster.

    In it, I found a diagram and section entitled the ‘Ladder of Goodwill’ which the author had developed to explain the developing relationship a supplier has with its clients. The various rungs on the ladder were described as ranging from ‘Nowhere’ at the start where a customer has no knowledge of you or indeed that you even exist, through to ‘In Position’ where you have the total trust of the customer and you are the primary supplier in your area or field. The goal of course is climb as high as possible up the ladder in your relationship with each of your clients.

    For me, I can see a lot of similarities with the way that we have to develop a business blog as well, particularly in the case of a small business or individual where there is not already a significant offline or online presence to act as a springboard.

    First of all, it is a case of creating awareness that the blog exists and developing its visibility through marketing or word of mouth, Then you need to get people to come to read it and have their first experience of what you are writing about and what topics you cover. To get a positive first reaction you need to make sure you deliver, ideally every time. Follow up on this by providing something (perhaps a newsletter or white paper) so you have the opportunity to reinforce the first positive experience. Building on this means being consistent in your writing and content thereby encouraging people to recommend your blog to others and share their experience. From there the positive experience can be developed further over time resulting in a loyal reader and, from a business perspective, perhaps a potential future customer as well.

    Each rung of the ladder represents another building block as you build a sense of confidence and trust in what you do and, at the same time, you are gaining the active involvement of your readers in your blog and your business.

    Of course, for a really active blog, youll be looking to have readers at all levels, hopefully all moving upwards! So how many readers do YOU have on each rung on the ladder?

    Ladder of Goodwill diagram is copyright to Timothy R. V. Foster

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    At the end of 2006 and perhaps prompted by Time’s lead article declaring “Person of the Year: You“, there was a lot of talk about user generated content, thats to say information on sites being supplied by those using the site rather than those who set it up and run it.

    There are many good examples of websites which work primarily on content which has been generated by the users themselves. Sites such as YouTube and MySpace are ones which have attracted a great deal of press coverage at the social end of the spectrum.

    Business and Networking Examples

    In business, there are equally impressive examples. Amazon contains a huge amount of product information but arguably more valuable are the reviews written by people who have read the books. Similarly, sites such as TripAdvisor contain lots of information but the dynamic part comes from guests who leave their own opinions on the hotels and holidays mentioned.

    In social and business networking, many sites are primarily online structures or shells which allow their members to post articles, share information and advice or generally interact in forums. Their challenge lies in creating something which is appealing and then attracting users with similar interests who will use them and participate. Many do this very well and it shows in their success and their growth.

    Collaboration on Business Blogs

    But it is not only sites of this size which can benefit from this trend towards online collaboration and sharing of information. Your company blog offers the ideal place for exactly this type of cooperation and community building after all, it is targeted at a specific group

    So, for your own business, look at the benefit that you can accrue by getting some of the stakeholders in your company working with you:

    • Sales & Partner Networks: companies with non competing sales or distribution networks can use their blogs as a central source of information that their partners can use to increase their sales and coverage, as well as share their own experiences

    • Internal Communications: from a company perspective, tap into the collective ideas that bounce around inside of a company with nowhere to go. Give them an outlet and a chance to be expressed. Using an internal blog, you allow them not only to be put forward but also developed as others add to the initial idea

    • Market Research: tap into the combined ideas of your most valuable assets your customers. Give them a place (open or private) where they can suggest new ideas or show how they are using your products and services already. It may be quite eye opening

    • Product Development: in certain industries, particularly in hi-tech, allowing developers and customers to put forward new ideas extends the type of research and product marketing that you can achieve 100 fold. You also increase the chances of developing a group of product evangelists into the bargain

    As you can see, you don’t need a site the size of Amazon to enjoy the benefits that collaboration can bring – your business blog has all the elements that you need provided that you focus it correctly.

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    Last week, I wrote – granted, tongue in cheek – a post called How to avoid negative comments which looked at the problem of companies which are reluctant to blog because they feel that they will open themselves up to an avalanche of negative comments.

    Another concern that I often experience (rather than hear expressed) is a reluctance to link to other websites and blogs from posts. Creating links which go away from your blog somehow seems contradictory in many peoples minds. I think that this comes from the idea that linking out means losing something, whether that be visitors (and by implication potential customers) or Search Engine Power! as it were, in terms of Page Rank.

    Difference of Approach

    Its true that perceived wisdom online has always suggested that once you have a potential customer on your site, you should direct them to do one thing and one thing only get them onto the page where they can buy from you! This is exactly the right approach on sites which are set up with direct selling in mind however, that isnt the case with most blogs.

    Personally, I consider that there are 4 key things we are looking to encourage visitors to our blog to do Read, Reply, Return & Recommend as I explained in The 5 Rs of Better Business Blogging. If I had to pick a single goal for a blog, I think that it would probably be to get visitors to return and become regular readers. By fostering and developing these relationships, sales will still be the likely result if that is your end goal.

    Informing and Supporting

    The blogosphere works on different parametres from most other websites. It thrives on links & connections and those blogs which create those outbound links will tend to thrive with it.

    Linking is carried out for three principal reasons:

    1. referencing and connecting to sources of information as part of the support and corroboration that you are providing for one of your posts;

    2. as a general recommendation of other blogs as excellent sources of information;

    3. as a way to help readers follow an ongoing discussion or topic by following the links between blogs carrying on that “conversation”.

    So, as you link out to other blogs, you lend greater relevance and credence to your own. At the same time, you are encouraging others to look at and hopefully reference your own blog – trackbacks in addition to links in the body of your posts will help this.

    Creating Community / Network and Value

    Every time that you link out, instead of giving away or losing value, you are in fact gaining it. In the process, you are creating a mini resource in your area of expertise which will in turn help to generate a community or network around it with you and your blog at its centre.

    The links that you provide help your readers to discover more about the subject matter as well as follow and track discussions that are going on. They will use your blog as their start point for their investigations because they trust the information and the links that you provide effectively you become their online directory and general resource in your specialism. You become THE person to go go to for them.

    And, if you are worried that you are making it easy for them to find other authors on the subject, then dont. With Search Engines, they would find these articles anyway – however, by helping them, you are in fact strengthening your position, as you are providing them with a resouce and network which they will keep returning to.

    Conclusion

    So should you just link to everyone? Well, no. The quality of links that you provide and the sources that you refer to reflect on you. Equally, there is no point linking just for the sake of it – your blogroll of sites is likely to show your general recommendations so keep the links in your posts relevant to the subject that you are writing about.

    Above all, never worry about linking to other sites that you wish to recommend or refer to – you will find that just as you link to other blogs, others will link to you because your writing and blogging ethos merits it. What goes around, comes around – in a good sense!

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    Theres been lots of talk about Edelman and the WalMarting across America fake blog (or flog) episode across the blogosphere over the past two weeks as you’d expect – lots of accusations and finger wagging, most of it justified. (In case you are blisssfully unaware of this then this, this, this or this will fill you in on the background).

    My own issue isn’t so much with the initial action (naive as it was) or the delay in Edelmans reply but the impact this type of action has. This impact is felt not only by those already blogging and using the blogosphere, but is even more telling on those companies still examining it and deciding if it is something they should get involved in. An episode like this can have a huge impact in terms of trust, something which is essential if people and companies are to consider blogs as a source of reliable information and hence worthy of their attention.

    A survey run by Globescan earlier this year indicated that the blogosphere still suffers from an image problem with only 25% of those polled indicating that they trust of the information they provide, less than other types of media. This is clearly an issue yet is one that can only be changed over time – episodes like this will only serve to set back that process.

    The need to be whiter than whiter at this stage of the blogospheres growth is critical. To many, the blogosphere seems to have a more of a reputation for outing information like a tabloid reporter rather than providing critical updates and valued opinion. This isnt necessarily true but thats not the point – its perception that counts.

    But like anything, there are differences. Trust in online sources has to be earned – not just for blogs as a whole but individual blogs within that. Those blogs which have shown themselves to be reliable and informative will build an audience which trusts and values the information that they provide, though it is all too easy to lose that trust.

    Episodes like this one with Wal-Mart and Edelman are embarrassing for the companies involved and also potentially damaging for the image of the blogging in general. If it gets tarnished by so called spin then it loses credibility and that could impact us all.

    I find it slightly ironic that blogs, which are such a perfect tool to help build trust and reputation, can result in such a public loss of both when misused. At the same time, I also find it reassuring that the reaction this has provoked shows that there is a self-regulatory force at play which will I hope dissuade others from attempting something similar.

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    As reported last week, Google has decided that spending $1.65bn would be a good idea to acquire You Tube.

    Clearly, Google thinks this is a good idea, I would imagine that the founders of You Tube would agree and no doubt there are some copyright lawyers rubbing their hands in glee that they have a target with remarkably deep pockets to go after on behalf of all the copyrighted videos that somehow find their way onto the You Tube site.

    But just what makes You Tube so attractive when Google, along with the other major players in the sector, have their own products. Well, clearly the visitor levels to the site are a major part of this together with their spending potential for online advertising which is, let’s face it, Google’s primary source of income. But is that it?

    Personally, I’m tempted by the argument that the major players are showing that they realise that the social communities and social networks on the web are going to be the places which will continue to grow and where people will “congregate”. Where there are people, there is of course also value.

    And this is why I feel that it is particularly worthy of mention here. Blogs can also develop into a type of combined social and business network, albeit on a micro scale. The topics discussed and the type of people attracted will depend on the subject matter of the blog and will therefore be broadly led by the author who also imbues its , but it is the participation of the readers of the blog which really give it its character over time.

    Why are blogs particularly suited to this? Primarily because, when developed well, they embody the ethos of sharing and of community that social networks display. In successful blogs, information is freely shared and linking to other sources is generally done on a merit basis rather than because of a shared desire to belong to a “link farm of two”.

    In doing so, good individual and business blogs put themselves at the heart of a network or a community which forms around a blog. This happens because it attracts and draws together people with similar interests and allows them to communicate with each other. And that of course is great for business too!

    We may not all be able to create a community which we can sell on for a 10 figure sum (!), but in our own ways we are trying to do just the same as You Tube. We are creating an environment where not only the author, but all the participants can share ideas and opinions on a diverse range of subjects and learn from each other.

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    Joshua Schachter over at Del.icio.us announced this week that they had registered their 1 millionth user while TechCrunch in their own summary also reminded us that Digg recently reported they had just passed the half million mark.

    While the numbers arent enormous in internet terms, they are by no means insignificant and they are growing. So, along with the other social bookmarking (and indeed social networking) sites, they are certainly worth paying attention to as we look to promote our blogs and raise the visibility and profile of the information we provide.

    Why in particular? Because social bookmarking provides an additional way for your readers to save your site or an individual post as one of their favourites which allows them to share it with others – this creates an additional route for people to find and potentially write about your site. In this sense, you could look at it as a sort of online version of refer a friend on steroids. Not forgetting that, as with all networking, even if the person they tell is not directly interested, they may well pass it on to others who are.

    So, who might use this as a promotional tool? Effectively anyone with something (preferably interesting!) to say or share. It could be an article or a set of useful hints and tips, it could be a drawing, photo or picture (using Flickr for example) or perhaps a podcast or video clip. Whatever the content is, the key element is the sharing and the community aspect if someone has it in their favourites then they are effectively endorsing it and recommending it to others. Best type of recommendation – from a friend or colleague. And by extension, best type of business – referral business.

    For this reason, I have added social bookmarking to my list of Marketing and Promotional techniques, in particular for blogs though it should also be considered for websites. It is an added way to gain additional exposure which in turn translates into additional visitors which you can then turn into additional revenue. Definitely worthwhile.

    So what do I have to do to take advantage of this? Well, ideally it should be as easy as possible for visitors to save your content to the social bookmarking sites and the best way to do this is with a simple link or icon which does this automatically. If you are using WordPress, then there are a number of plug-ins which will help you to do just this. Two that you might like to look at are Sociable and Social Bookmark Bar, both of which achieve it well.

    People talk about social bookmarking as the way that Search Engines in general will need to go in the future, relying less on mathematical calculations and more on individual and personal recommendations. While this may or may not come to fruition, there is no doubt that it is a developing area and one that as Business blog owners we should both be aware of and catering to.

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    It seems to me that, while most businesses could benefit from using a Business Blog as part of their marketing and business development activities, there are some types of companies which would find them particularly beneficial.

    Companies which need to present a human face to their activities: some professional services organisations have been known to suffer from a bland image. Using a blog, you can break down some of these preconceptions and reveal some of the personalities carrying out the work which will help to engender greater trust in what is a customer focused environment.

    Companies which rely on their specialist knowledge to attract clients: consistently demonstrating expertise in a chosen field can quickly help to build a positive reputation and encourage potential clients to gravitate towards you. Client case studies go part of the way, but displaying both your general and specialised knowledge over a period of time in a Business blog helps more than a sanitised case study can ever do. Think of it as multiple case studies on steroids if you like. This is particularly relevant for independent consultants and specialist consultancies.

    Companies which have progressed beyond the hard sell approach: direct advertising and the hard sell has become less and less successful as an approach. However, an educational marketing approach, where you provide potential clients with information on which to make their own informed decision on their purchase, has gone from strength to strength.

    Companies wanting to become more of a partner than a supplier: as you engage potential clients through your Business Blog, you develop trust and a relationship which can position you as a partner rather than a simple supplier. People prefer to work with and buy from people and companies that they trust and a blog will help to achieve this.

    Companies wishing to be THE information resource for their market niche: most of the information that your prospective clients are looking for is available on the web, it is just a case of finding it. So rather than let potential clients find it on a competitors site, provide it yourself or provide links to it on your Blog. You will become the preferred place to go for this type of information and so attract anyone interested in your niche to your blog. This is turn provides you with the ideal opportunity to open a dialogue with them.

    Companies organising conferences, seminars and exhibitions: blogs are the ideal focal point for collating and distributing information to attendees pre-Conference and for gathering feedback from them during and after the Event. You can update the conference details and add new information yourself, and you automatically develop a powerful online Search Engine marketing tool as well.

    Companies looking to develop a network or community around themselves: as a networking tool, a business blog can help in many different ways but one of its most powerful is when it allows the creation of a network of like minded people interested in a particular area. It is particularly positive for the company setting this up and running it because they find themselves at the centre of this network and therefore in a high profile position.

    Companies developing new products or services: customer feedback and input is essential in the product development process. By taking the step to allow this feedback to take place on a Blog, you are allowing discussions and generating ideas which can be invaluable to the process. Added to this, you have a group of people who have contributed to the product and so are likely to be its strongest evangelists and advocates.

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