Over the last twelve to eighteen months, a new kind of website has emerged - the web log (or blog, as they are often called). If blogging has a father, it would be Dave Winer, of Scripting News. Dave started Scripting News back in'97, before anyone had really coined the term blog. Over the next few years, blog syndication (RSS), news aggregation tools, and blog servers were born. This field is still in its early days - there are lots of small companies (such as Six Apart) creating tools, but no offerings (yet) from any of the large vendors, such as Microsoft, Oracle, etc. The questions I'll try to answer here are:
- What is a weblog?
- Why would you be interested in running one, or allowing employees to run one?
Briefly, a weblog is an online journal, typically focused on some topic. Most weblogs are authored by one person, although there are collaborative efforts. Most weblogs focus on a topic or set of topics - i.e., politics, some aspect of technology, marketing, etc. The main visible difference between a web log and a "normal" website is that the web log will get updated much more regularly - often more than once per day. Additionally, most web logs use an XML format (either RSS or Atom, or both) to syndicate their content. What does that mean? It means that you can use a news aggregator (there's a nice list of available ones at http://www.hebig.org/blogs/archives/main/000877.php) to subscribe to the content being produced. The aggregator will check for new updates in the background, allowing you to keep track of content you care about without having to keep an enormous list of bookmarks in your browser. Ultimately, a web log is like a journal, and there are tools that allow you to subscribe to the journal. Some web logs are interactive (allowing comments from readers) - but an up tick in spam comments is shutting a lot of that down.
That gives you an idea of what a web log is. The question then becomes, why should you care? I'm going to limit my answer to the realm of product and services companies here - blogging on politics, religion, philosophy (any non-business topic) is outside the scope of this article. With that in mind, why you should care is fairly simple - marketing and outreach. It's nearly always the case that you could stand more interest in, and more knowledge of, your products and services. As the Product Manager for Cincom Smalltalk, I'm certainly in that position. I'm responsible for a niche product in a fairly crowded space (application development and delivery platforms), and getting more awareness of Cincom Smalltalk out is clearly a good thing. There are standard marketing answers for some of that - advertising, speaking at trade shows, customer success stories, etc. You still need to do all of those things, but everyone else is doing them as well, and many of your competitors - like mine - have bigger budgets for these things. Having a web log presence is one way to route around that.
How does creating a public blog help in that regard? Well, that depends on how you run the blog. Simply creating a thing that looks like a blog and filling it with marketing press releases isn't going to cut it. Blog readers are looking for authentic voices - they can find pre-processed marketing fluff anywhere. There are also (literally) millions of blogs; I subscribe to over 200 of them myself. When I look at new content to subscribe to, I'm not interested in press releases; I'm interested in actual viewpoints from real people. As it turns out, there are many to choose from - some in (seemingly) the least likely places. Microsoft has taken to blogging in a big way, and many of their project managers and product managers are online now - have a look here:
It's instructive as well to look at Robert Scoble's blog
Scoble was hired by Microsoft as a marketing evangelist - and a large part of his pull that way is his blog. While he doesn't limit himself to MS topics, he posts about MS a lot. The impact of that (and of his fellow MS bloggers) is huge - it's placing a human face on the borg image of Microsoft.
Now, not all (or even most) companies have a need to modify parts of their public image to the same extent as Microsoft does. On the other hand, getting the word out to an interested audience is something we could all use. Let's go to my blog as an example. I started running the blog in the summer of 2002. At the time, I had no idea whether it would lead to anything useful. Over the first few months, I was getting on the order of a dozen visits a day - in other words, it was having no impact. Now, in January of 2004, I'm getting between 1000 and 3000 visitors a day - how did I manage that without any marketing budget?
- I added an RSS feed. This allowed the growing number of news aggregator users to subscribe to my blog
- I started notifying sites like weblogs.com whenever I posted new content
Those two things alone started driving the number of visitors up tremendously. That's a good thing, but - how is it helping the Cincom Smalltalk business? Well, we offer Cincom Smalltalk as a free download (for non-commercial purposes). I've promoted that fact on my blog, and have promoted the free BottomFeeder tool as an example of a Cincom Smalltalk application. I've been receiving a steady (and increasing) number of inquiries about Cincom Smalltalk in my email as a result, as well as an increase in the number of downloads of the product. There have been a few sales of the product that I can trace back to conversations started on my blog. In other words, my blog has become a low cost marketing channel for the product.
It's important to keep in mind that this requires work. Coming up with interesting content on a regular basis is not easy. It's part of my job as product manager - blogging (and reading other blogs and journals) helps keep me current, and gives me plenty of fodder for posting. Creating original content to post is hard work, and it's something you need to do on an ongoing basis. Another important thing is focus - your blog should not wander over too wide a stream of topics. What you are looking for is an audience that will be interested in what you have to say - and as a side effect - interested in your products and/or services. That doesn't mean that every post needs to be specifically about your product, but it does mean that you should limit yourself to a few areas. I avoid politics and religion, for instance - it's hard enough to evangelize a product without trying to be a spokesman for a political point of view. Not to mention the fact that some of your customers are likely to have different political views than you - their money will still pay the bills.
Should you start a blog, or allow employees to run them? I think you want to jump into the water on this one soon. It's easy to get started - blog serving software can be had free or cheap (take a look at Blogger or at MovableType), for example. You can either host a blog, or start out with a free Blogger account. There's something to keep in mind though:
- Like email (but more so), anything you post will live forever. It will get cached by Google and Feedster (a service like Google, but for blogs) and archived. People will be able to find your words even if you delete them
This is already true, of course - a document on your website will be cached by Google (et. al.) eventually. The difference with a blog is the notification. If you use the various notification schemes (like the weblogs.com one that I alluded to above) in order to increase awareness of your blog, the caching will be immediate. The upside of this is that your words will spread far and wide quickly. Yes, you have to be careful - but there's no reward without risk. Can you afford to have everyone else blabbing about their products while you keep yours in the shadows?