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    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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    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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    The use of Business Blogging by small businesses is a topic that has been covered by many but is certainly important enough to be revisited here. I am convinced, given the wide range of potential benefits and the different ways in which a small business can use a Business Blog, that the discussion should not be if a blog is worthwhile but rather where its focus should lie.

    A blog can play a central role in the marketing activity of a Small Business but, like all forms of marketing, it needs to be planned, targeted and measured. Consequently, a key phase in creating a successful Small Business blog happens ahead of its launch when you plan out how you want to use your Blog, who your target audience is and what you want to achieve with it. All three of these elements are key to its success.

    If we now take a look at some of the potential types of focus that a small business Blog can take, then you will see what a powerful tool it can be.

    Demonstrate and communicate your expertise
    Most small businesses offer specialist knowledge and skills – it’s what differentiates them – but what they often lack is a way to demonstrate them to potential customers. A Business Blog offers the ability to do this and much more beside. By what you write in your posts and also how you write them, you can show your expertise without overtly selling to your readers this gives you the chance to build up a positive reputation and a degree of trust with potential clients and partners alike.

    Build individual networks and foster collaboration
    Small businesses may be specialists but they also need a strong support structure and partners around them. Business blogging is not only an ideal way to start to engage with customers, as we have seen, but also to foster partnerships, collaborations and joint ventures with others in your industry. As you attract other players in your marketplace to your blog, opportunities for collaboration and networking will develop naturally through the conversations taking place.

    Communicate with a local, national or global audience
    While Business Blogs are most often used to communicate with a targeted, but geographically widespread, audience, they can also allow you to focus in on a local customer base, primarily by changing the emphasis of the posts and the structure. This flexibility of approach means that small businesses of all types and with all types of customer base can use blogs to promote their business and develop relationships with their customers.

    Developing reputation and trust
    We all need to get closer to our customers and a Business Blog is an excellent way to achieve that. It allows us to engage customers and readers of our blog in a way that no other online method can achieve. This in turn gives us the time and the opportunity to develop our reputation in their eyes and foster a high level of trust between ourselves and our customers.

    Great Search Engine rankings
    With so many people using the internet to research products and services before they buy, small businesses need to achieve a prominent position and high ranking in Search Engine Results for their chosen key phrases. Business Blogs can help immeasurably in this. The structure of a blog combined with the focused nature of the posts, regular updates and the interlinking which is part and parcel of blogs, will all push you towards to the top of the rankings. This makes a Business Blog ideal for small businesses looking for greater visibility and enquiries.

    Dominate a Niche Market
    Small businesses usually have a set of services or products which are designed to answer the needs of a specific, and often, niche market. Getting exposure in that market is key to being able to dominate it and ensure that your business is the one that the market itself recommends. Using a Business Blog, you can raise your profile and lead the discussions on any aspect affecting that market. Talk about it and get talked about!

    Project your personality
    As a small business, you will tend to work very closely with your customers. Your expertise is highly important but so are you as a person and how you get on with your customer – a strong relationship will help to ensure that the project develops well. Blogs can let your personality shine through before you enter the relationship and may give you the edge in being selected.

    Easy Web Publishing no webmaster required!
    While we rightly focus on external benefits, we should not forget that there are also solid internal reasons for using a blog in a small business and ease of use is right at the top of that list. Blogs can be used in addition to a business website or as part of it they can also be used instead of a website. In all of these cases, once established, you can publish new content or change pages on your site without relying on a web designer or webmaster. Reader friendly, user friendly and cost effective.

    Research your Market
    Your Business Blog provides you with a two way communication tool, and the information that you can get from your readers may be highly important. By participating in the discussions that your posts will generate, you should be able to get a clearer idea of what the up to the minute interests of your clients are. Surveys and focus groups can achieve this to a certain level but open conversations on your Blog will achieve much more, both in terms of depth and breadth.

    Finally a word of advice: dont get hung up about the word blog a blog is a tool and its what you do with it that counts. Many people use Microsoft Word but the documents that they produce are as varied as the author. The same is true with Blogs for small businesses. So, evaluate what you need as a business and then focus strongly on using the Blog for that purpose and it will be successful for you.

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