Lois C. Ambash, PhD, is President and Chief Infomaven of Metaforix Incorporated. Metaforix offers Information-Age organizational assessment and planning, online content development, and training for businesses and nonprofits – including blog-development services. Lois publishes the [email protected] blog, a potpourri of news, notes, tips, and opinions on how information technologies are changing your world. Contact Lois (aka Infomaven) at [email protected]. Lois is also author of the LLRX column [email protected].
More and more experts are saying that I need a business blog. According to them, business blogging will put my company on the cutting edge of online communications in a spam-clogged Internet universe.
Blogging obviously works for some businesses and it certainly has worked for political junkies this election season. But I’m still not convinced it will work for me. My schedule is packed, my budget is tight, and my tech skills are next to nonexistent.
Why should I feel confident that I can start a blog and make it worth my investment? And if blogs are so cutting edge, why have so few people heard of them?
— Clueless in Cyberspace
Infomaven has confidence in your ability to start and maintain a blog with a minimum of time and technical skills. She also believes that not far down the road, you’ll thank yourself for becoming an early adopter of this practical, flexible instant-publishing medium.
1. Learning to feel comfortable with blogs is easy, with so many free and reasonably-priced learning resources available.
Don’t succumb to Fear of Blogging just because you first learned the word “blog” two weeks ago. Plenty of handholding is available in the form of plain-English introductions and tutorials. More beginner-oriented guides are popping up every day, as more non-techie business and professional people realize the benefits of blogging.
Debbie Weil has compiled a list of useful resources on RSS on RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, the most commonly used blog-publishing technology. Amy Gahran has created a valuable 12-part tutorial , “What Are Webfeeds (RSS), And Why Should You Care?” Amy also maintains an ongoing compilation of excellent business blogging resources, here, for example. If you feel more comfortable with a book at your side, two guides I recommend are We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs, by Paul Bausch and colleagues, and Blog On, by Todd Stauffer.
A number of online publishers offer commercial PDFs, audio recordings, and web seminars, along with free tips incorporated into their own blogs and e-letters. Infomaven won’t single out commercial publishers here, but suggests instead that you check the blogrolls – that is, the lists of links to favorite blogs that many authors post on their blogs – as you scan the resources suggested above. In addition, your regular online professional reading will often point you toward other useful blogs and e-letters that you can subscribe to by e-mail or read using your newsreader.
You don’t have a newsreader? Not to worry. Read on.
2. You don’t need a newsreader to read blogs, and neither do your customers. But once you try newsreaders, you’ll reap the benefits – now and later.
You can read a blog in a number of different ways that make the technology “invisible.” For example, you can go directly to the website where the blog pages reside. You can click on a link in an e-mail or on another web page to get to the blog. You can visit a blog search engine – or a general search engine like Google – and search for blog postings on a particular topic.
Or you can use a newsreader – also called a news aggregator or a feed reader.
A newsreader is a piece of software that automatically finds the blogs you want to read and brings the most recent postings to your desktop. For a terrific plain-English primer on newsreaders, see Bob Stepno’s article, “ News on Demand ,” in the July issue of PC World magazine.
Some newsreaders – like NewsGator, FeedDemon, and Pluck — must be downloaded from the Internet, while others – like Bloglines and Kinja – work within your web browser. Some are free, others have software or subscription fees. Their interfaces, speed, and capabilities vary.
But all newsreaders share the capacity to introduce you to the “blogosphere” – the world of blogs and bloggers. Some newsreaders come pre-populated with a selection of blogs on a variety of topics, making it easy for you to sample postings in your areas of interest. Other newsreaders are accompanied by topic indexes that let you choose titles that intrigue you.
Either way, you’ll access the ideas of real and self-appointed experts. (You’ll soon decide which is which.) Many blogs allow users to post comments, a feature that lets you contribute to discussions. It’s a good way to network or to become better known in your field.
Even better, many newsreaders and blog search engines make it easy to add your own blog to their collections. This means that your blog site will be “pinged,” or accessed, on a regular basis to find your latest postings. Any visitor can find your posting when seeking information about your product, service, or area of expertise – especially if you use accurate keywords in your titles.
Not only don’t you need a newsreader to read blogs. You don’t even need a newsreader to write them.
But the biggest payoff for familiarizing yourself with newsreaders will come later. You’ll be a font of information when everyone else decides to hop on the bandwagon.
If you’ve also been writing a blog, you’ll have a valuable, searchable archive of postings, to boot.
3. There’s more than one way to skin a blog. Networking with other bloggers and sampling the available tools — along with their associated support systems — are great ways to build both your skills and your confidence.
Like newsreaders, blog publishing tools vary, and you’ll want to find the tool whose features best match your preferences, your time constraints, and your budget. If you don’t have IT staff (or kind, geeky relatives) and you would prefer to avoid technical consulting expenses, you’ll want a blog publishing tool that is easy to configure and has robust technical support.
Neil Rubenking’s December 2003 article, “Blog Tools,” published in PC Magazine, is a great starting point. Following an overview of the typical blog page, Rubenking goes on to review seven products ranging in price from free to $39.95 per month. The reviews and the appended comparison chart (the chart requires free registration) are reasonably devoid of jargon. They will help you begin to sort out key features, even if the product you’re considering is not included in this roundup.
If the free tools don’t meet your needs, look for a free trial period or a paid trial with a money-back guarantee. It helps to think of your blog publishing tool as a system in which technical support plays a critical role. As you experiment with the mechanics of blogging, give tech support a good workout. If the main source of support is user forums, check to see that most of the posts are written in language you can understand.
As a novice blogger, Infomaven chose TypePad for her own blog, and she couldn’t be happier. The e-mail technical support is prompt and friendly and has actually improved over time. (For the newbie, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of accurate, genuinely supportive tech support. Brenna, who responds to most [email protected] help tickets, is the very model of a modern support technician. Infomaven has threatened to clone her and send her twin to the cell phone company.) TypePad’s excellent online user manual is continuously updated and is supplemented by a great new user forum.
Best of all, using the basic $4.95-a-month service and your choice of standard templates, you can set up a highly professional blog in half an hour or less. If you have some tech support and want to get fancy, the Plus or Pro versions provide options as extensive as those in Movable Type, the full-featured geek-friendly platform on which TypePad is based. TypePad’s site offers a free 30-trial, but the Movable Type homepage promises a 90-day free trial of TypePad with the promo code “movable.”
Infomaven’s enthusiasm for TypePad in no way reflects on products she hasn’t used. But you can and should feel as comfortable with your blog publishing system as Infomaven does with hers.
Once you start telling people “Read my blog!” you’re guaranteed to hear the question you, yourself, were asking two weeks ago: “What’s a blog?” Then you can clue others in to this publishing and marketing phenomenon – displaying your cutting-edge sophistication and drawing visitors to your website in the bargain.
All right. I’m convinced that I need to start a business blog. But once I do, how will I attract traffic to my blog? And what’s the most effective way to get people to subscribe to my newsfeed?
— Traffic Cop
Here are some overall strategies:
Take every opportunity to link to your blog. Your website (if you have one), your e-letter (ditto), the sig file, or signature, on your outgoing business e-mails, and your comments posted to others’ blogs, chat rooms, or listservs – all offer opportunities to boost your blog traffic. (You DO have a sig file, don’t you? If not, here’s a quick start on what sig files are and some protocols for using them.) . Make sure the titles of your blog posts include descriptive keywords. That gives you the best opportunity for high placement in search query results. Write about, and link to, others’ blog posts of interest to you and your readers. Others like attention just as much as you do. When they see referrals coming from your blog, they’re very likely to check it out. When you blog, or write about, an article that is not part of blog, notify the author by sending a brief e-mail with the link to your post. Set your blog software to accept “trackbacks,” or notifications that another blogger is talking about you. Then, if appropriate, post a response. Register your blog with as many blog search engines and tracking services as possible. Here are two somewhat dated but nevertheless useful lists for a start: one from search guru Danny Sullivan and another from Search Engine Journal. The payoff for your time is that the sites will “ping,” or contact, your site on a regular basis to check for new posts. Also check out Ping-O-Matic, a service that allows you to initiate pings to a dozen different blog services with a single click.
As for getting people to subscribe to your newsfeed (also called an RSS feed or webfeed): People who know about newsreaders and RSS feeds are likely to be attracted by the same strategies discussed above. But Infomaven has found that many people don’t appreciate the value of newsreaders or mistakenly believe that learning to use them is difficult or time-consuming.
This means that you need to become a business blogging evangelist: Use newsreaders yourself. Be able to explain to others how they work and how they increase your productivity. And keep a file of succinct, jargon-lite articles on the topic so you can send a link or two to anyone who asks. For more specifics about these and other strategies, send your questions to [email protected].
This Advice to the Bloglorn column will continue, in a venue to be announced.
Wishing you happy and profitable blogging –
This material is adapted from a column originally published in Wordbiz Report.