Business Blog Primer

If you’re a business these days, you’re supposed to have a blog to go along with your company website. The reasons why?

Well, it can keep your customers informed, for one. It can provide a great platform for your customers to interact with the company, for two. Third, it’s a great way to keep talking about the company in a positive way. Fourth, it’s a good way for the company viewpoint on issues to be delineated, if that is important to the business. Fifth, people may actually come to your site just to read your blog, or, some other site may find something interesting on your blog and link to it, thereby driving potential customers to your site. Sixth, each new blog post (and each new comment, if you allow comments) is yet another reason for the search engine bots to crawl your site, thereby moving you up in the search engine rankings, which is always good for business.

Okay, so a lot of good reasons to have a company blog. The problem is, of course, just as with other things, the execution. Apropos of that execution, how do you get a blog, how do you get good, relevant content for the blog, and how do you keep it going?

If you determine that your business needs a blog, you should decide what the goals of the blog are. Do you want your blog for all the reasons laid out here, or just some of those reasons? There is also a practical technological consequence to the decision to have a blog – can your current website accommodate a blog platform or will you need to pay for website development work to add a blog module? If you have no website, and you want a business blog, then you should make sure whatever website platform/theme/template you get can support a full-feature blog. Just for the record, a full-feature blog will have the ability to customize frames, colors, pages, fonts, etc., and will enable you to offer video, podcasts, images, PDF files and more to your blog readers. It will also have SEO (search engine optimization) tools built into the blog architecture. That’s at a minimum. You may wish to have other, extra features like flash animation, etc.

There are free blog platforms that are good, like WordPress, and there are other good free blog platforms that can cost a fair amount of money in development costs, like Drupal and Joomla. What’s the difference? You generally get more features and more control over those features with the platforms that cost money. There are also platforms like SQL, SQLServer, ASP.net, Flash, PHP and JavaScript, which can get very expensive in a hurry, but these are almost always used for more robust websites, and would be considered overkill just for a blog application. However, if your existing site is on one of these more expensive platforms, you will either need to build the blog on that same platform or switch over to something else.

That brings us to the next stage of this decision process. Who will build the blog? Who will maintain the blog and put new posts, photos, video, etc. in every week or every month?

Good question, right?

The most obvious answer is someone at your company. For instance, a WordPress blog is free, is fairly easy to build out, and offers an intuitive CMS (Content Management System) utility. But, it looks generic (because it is). As noted, there are other blog platforms that require more (or much more) technological expertise, but offer more features and more customization potential. Still, you may have the in-house capabilities to build your blog, and, to manage the maintenance thereof.

Or, you may be the best company in the world and not have those skills in-house. In this instance, you can hire a web developer, who will design, develop and code your site for you, whether that site is in Drupal, Joomla or WordPress (all open-source platforms), or, one of the other site technologies. They will also provide the CMS services after the install and launch, if you wish, although I strongly suggest you have the web development company build a site for you that has an easy and intuitive CMS functionality. That way, someone at your company can control the look and feel of the site, as well as text, photos, etc. There are hundreds of website development companies that do this sort of work; in fact, one of these types of companies is one of our clients – they do wonderful, innovative work, do it worldwide, and their rates are quite reasonable. Clients really do love their work. But, there are many companies that do custom website development design and finding one shouldn’t be a problem.

Now, on to the challenge of content. Who will write the blog posts, who will embed the video files or the podcasts, who will edit the site, and so forth?

Again, the most obvious answer is someone at your company. If there are people at your company that can write well in an entertaining manner, and can produce content on a consistent basis, then you’re set. Of course, you’ll still need an editor.

Why is consistent output a requirement? Why is an editor of the blog a requirement?

It’s important to have consistent output because you don’t want a “ghost blog” where the blog has, say, 10 posts in the first two months, and then, no new posts for the last year. It reflects badly on the company, it makes the blog look forlorn and abandoned, and makes the company look careless for leaving it up. There is also no reason whatsoever for people to visit the blog if there is never any new content, or, the new posts are so infrequent that people get tired of waiting for something new.

It’s important to have an editor because you want the blog to be well-written, with excellent spelling, grammar and continuity in the text; you want the subject matter (including photo, videos, etc.) to be appropriate, you want the company to be well-represented by the content, and you want a single person responsible for the look and feel of the site, so that there is central authority concerning the blog.

What if you don’t have those resources in-house? What if you’re a successful SaaS company and the only thing anyone can write is code? Which also makes sourcing an editor in-house out of the question? Or, what if you can have some content produced in house, but it’s not enough? Or, you can produce enough content, but there is no one that can be an editor? Or, you have an editor, but no content?

Then the company will need to hire a writer (or writers), or an editor, or both. Many companies hire an editor (full-time, part-time, or contract employee), who also contributes as a writer, and coordinates the purchase of content from external freelancers, which seems to work out well. In fact, there are so many business-related blogs, that it is not out of the question for your editor to obtain some content for free. Some blog owners will allow free reprints of their content as long as you attach a blurb to the post about the author, the blog, and provide a live link back to the originating blog. The blurb usually looks something like the one at the bottom of this post. In fact, when I get a reprint request from a business blog after I publish this piece, the tag below will be the blurb they will put at the end of the post when they publish it on their site.

So, free is always good, but you can’t rely on getting enough good content for your blog for free; you’re going to have to either have employees do it, hire someone to write your content, or buy content by the piece from freelancers. And you need good content on a consistent, frequent basis or there isn’t much point in having a blog. You need fresh content, you need well-written content, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a variety of authors, so that different writing styles are offered to your readers. That is the way to keep your blog relevant and vital, and to keep your readers coming back for more.

Which segues nicely into the last question regarding company blogs, and one I get asked all the time when we’re helping our clients with their business blogs:

“Should we allow comments on the blog articles?”

That question, by the way, is usually asked with some trepidation. Businesses are wary of letting people comment on their blogs because there is always the risk of some unhappy customer with an axe to grind poisoning the well for other customers (or potential customers) with his or her vitriolic commentary about the company, company personnel or products. There is also the more general issue of incivility so rampant on the internet; people say the worst sort of things to each other in the comments section, and companies don’t want to be part of such a hostile environment. And, then, of course, there is spam.

The obverse side of the coin is:

Companies tend to learn things about their products, service levels and personnel pretty quickly through comments on their blogs. And, people like the interaction with other people through comments, and they like the perceived interaction with the company through comments, and that is a very positive thing and makes return visits to the blog more likely. Also, customers do say nice things about the company in the comments – it’s not just negative. Lastly, all blog platforms allow moderation of comments before the comments are published; you don’t have to worry too much about profanity, spam and craziness slipping through, since you get to review all comments before publication.

That wraps up this primer about business blogs, and remember, you don’t have to figure all of this out by yourself, or, get it done by yourself. There are hundreds of vendors ready to help you with setting up and maintaining your business blog. The only hard part is shaking off the inertia and getting started.

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in marketing, sales, front-end operations, and strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.


What is Your Social Media Content Strategy?

It usually works like this with content, tooA common complaint from businesses, large and small, is that they have a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, a website, a blog, they’re on LinkedIn and YouTube, etc. and they’re doing everything right in terms of being present in social media, but nothing is happening.

Upon inspection of their customer source data and other metrics, it turns out that they called that pretty accurately; there is nothing happening as a result of their presence in the digital online world.

Then you look at what is on their Facebook page, or their blog, or their Twitter feed, and it becomes obvious why nothing is happening. They have little or no content, and/or the content is awful and boring.

As we mentioned in this piece titled, Business Blog Primer, having smart or funny or informative or engaging or thought-provoking content is key to making social media work for your company, whether that’s on a blog, or on YouTube, or on Facebook, or even if you’re simply participating in a discussion on LinkedIn. And it needs to be consistent, as we mentioned in that same piece from a few months ago. There is nothing more pathetic than a business blog that has three posts in the past 12 months.

Social media is all about conversation, albeit in a digital vein. And just like regular conversation, if you don’t have something interesting or humorous or thought-provoking or relevant to say, people lose interest and don’t want to talk to you anymore, and they also don’t want to talk about you. And just like regular conversation, if it is interesting or humorous or thought-provoking, etc, then people will want to repeat it to others, in this case online. It will be tweeted, or re-tweeted, quoted, linked to, etc.

Can you create your own content? Should you create your own content? The answers to these questions are, in the order they were asked: “Yes”, and, “Probably not”.

Time for some brutal honesty here – most people cannot write very well. And most people are not skilled and creative enough to make good videos or podcasts. You might be one of those people in the minority that can create good (and hopefully, occasionally) great content, but you’re probably not.

Which is okay; most people that can create good/great content are really awful at calculating P&L costs or managing a call center or doing statistical modeling around account acquisition. Or, for that matter, leading a company or a business unit.

So, if you are truly skilled in the area of creating content, then you should do it. If you’re not, then you should get as much content as you can for free (legally!), and pay someone to create the rest.

Why is this worth the money you’re going to spend?

Because it’s important to your company’s brand and to the bottom line, and the online competition for eyeballs is fierce. Remember this when you’re thinking about social media: When you are competing for someone’s attention online, you’re not just competing with other providers of your product or service (your market competition), you’re competing with everything a person has available to them online. You’re competing with tweets they’re getting from their friends, tweets they’re getting from famous people, visits to the CNN.com website, all the posts and links they’re getting on Facebook, that website about sports they go to every day, emails their friends have sent them that have a link enclosed and text in the email saying, “You HAVE to read this”, dating sites, and on and on and on. There is a finite amount of things any person can look at online every day, and everyone makes an unconscious calculation of just how much time is going to be allocated to whatever single item they’re reading or viewing online. You’re competing with all of that other digital stimuli.

Furthermore, there are millions of teenagers and young adults that now rely solely on Twitter links or Facebook links to get whatever information or news they receive on a daily basis. They don’t visit news sites or blogs on a recurring basis, they merely respond when something is “pushed” to them by someone they know, with perhaps a descriptive four or five word blurb attached, and then they will follow the link to something on a blog or The New York Times website. Those of you with teenagers still around probably know that some teens visit Facebook dozens of times per day. All done while receiving texts from their friends, by the way.

If your social media content isn’t good in some way, it will be ignored. Period. You’ll never get anyone’s attention. And, if it is good and you get someone’s attention, and then don’t follow up with consistently good content, they will simply flutter away to some other distraction in the social media universe, like a butterfly that you cannot catch, and will never see again.

Good content is paramount to effective marketing via social media. Here are the ways to get good content on a consistent basis:

1)    Create your own.

2)    Get some for free – reprint articles from other sites AFTER getting permission from the owners of the content, link to other content, have guest writers, podcasters, videographers, etc.

3)    Hire talent to create content – either as a full-time employee or hire freelancers.

4)    Allow comments on your blog, Facebook page, etc. so that people can talk to you and each other about your company and its products, people, etc. When someone asks you a question, respond immediately and in a thoughtful way. This is all content as well, in case you’re wondering.

Don’t skimp. Don’t become lackadaisical and ignore putting out new content. Don’t expect immediate results. Don’t set up a blog or a Facebook page or a Twitter profile until you have first determined where your content is coming from and how often it can be generated. And, finally don’t get discouraged. This is not as daunting as it seems.

But it is necessary. If you’re going to play in the social media sandbox, you need a strategy for content.

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in marketing and strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.


What’s Your “Hook”? If You Don’t Know, How Will Your Customers?

by Red Slice on October 7, 2010 – Reprinted here by express permission of Red Slice

Telling your brand story is sort of like a newspaper article: it’s all about the lead. Some folks may call this the “lead offer.” What does your business hang its hat on? When customers have that certain need or desire that certain experience, is it your company that comes to mind first?

Having a lead offer doesn’t mean you can’t have secondary messages. I often use the example of Nordstrom and Walmart. Nordstrom leads with a customer service and quality offer; Walmart with one about lowest prices. Does this mean Walmart is rude to their customers? Heck no. It just means that when you are looking for low prices, they want you to think of them. If you are thinking of a good customer service experience first, then maybe you should go elsewhere.Recently, Delta announced they were going to start leading their brand story with “service” not “size.” After acquiring Northwest Airlines, they became the largest player by traffic – until United recently merged with Continental. So now Delta is switching stories and focusing their budget on service: new flat-bed seats, video on demand and upgraded facilities in key markets.

United may decide to focus on size for a while in terms of the benefits it provides to customers: more routes, more convenience to get where you want to go, a larger network, etc. (Sidenote: big is only a relevant claim if it benefits a customer in some way and makes their life better, offers them more access, etc. Big for “big’s sake” just becomes chest-thumping.) We will have to see how the United-Continental brand story shakes out.

What do you lead with? Can you articulate the main offer you want to be known for? Service? Selection? Style? Convenient locations? Cutting-edge technology solutions? You can’t be everything so pick the main offer, the main place where do you want to “fit” inside your customers’ brains and build up from there.

Maria Ross is the founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, a branding and marketing consultancy based in Seattle. Her passion is storytelling and she has advised start-ups, solopreneurs, non-profits and large enterprises on how to craft their brand story to engage, inform and delight customers. Maria is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget (2010, Norlights Press).


Product Pricing: Avoiding the Dead Zone

I was talking to an entrepreneur-friend recently about product pricing for business products, and the fact that there’s a dead zone between the $1000 and $5000 price range that most successful products avoid. That dead zone exists for a reason and it’s important to avoid it, as I will explain here.

For most businesses – even large ones – a purchase under a $1000 can typically be made by a first-level manager and even by a staffer. In some cases, they put it on a corporate credit card and in others they use a discretionary budget, but when the user wants your product, the sale is usually pretty quick and simple.

In contrast, a sale of $1000 or more often requires a mid-to-senior level manager’s approval, a signature from purchasing and even a formal purchase order and invoice. In some cases, I’ve even seen $1000 plus sales rise to the VP level for approval, so this can become heck of a hurdle to clear to close a sale.

As a result of these restrictions, it makes sense to stay below $1000 if possible. But, why might your product need to be priced at $5000-plus instead of, say, $1500? The answer is the sales person. Over the $1000 price range, you not only have more hurdles to clear before closing a sale, you often have to use a one-on-one selling approach to close the deal, which requires a sales person. This sales person earns a small salary, makes commissions, generates expenses and only closes a portion of their leads, so suddenly a $1000 sale becomes very unprofitable.

It turns out that, in most cases, a sale through a salesperson is not profitable until the price reaches over $5000. Hence, the dead zone between $1000 and $5000.

So, if your business product or service is priced in the dead zone, there are things you can do about it.

  1. If possible, move your product below the dead zone. Find a way to lower the price just below the $1000 threshold, break the purchase up in to multiple payments across multiple months, or sell a service-based subscription that generates monthly revenue.
  2. If going lower is not possible, rise above it. Consider ways to bundle your product with others so that you can charge more and justify a salesperson, sell maintenance or support along with the product, or sell your product to someone else who can bundle it.
  3. Stay in the zone. While this is the least appealing option, this option can work. Instead of using an outside salesperson, consider online ad campaigns with inside sales representatives at lower costs. Or, consider a multi-tiered marketing approach that allows for slack labor (college students, work-at-homes) to sell your product. Or, a viable option for a small business may be to sell the product yourself.  (Hey, I already said it wasn’t very appealing).

Interestingly, a dead zone exists to some degree for consumer products and services just as it does for business products, though the zone for consumer products is a good deal lower and it doesn’t appear to be quite so “dead” – it’s probably between $100 and ending at $500. It may be coincidental, but $100 is about the point at which I start running purchases by my wife and she runs purchases by me. Hmmhh.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he assists organizations in applying Lean and Agile to develop new products and services as well as improve organizational performance.and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.