Blogs are a trendy way to publish online, and if done right, they can be an effective way to maintain solid relationships with internet customers.
While blogs may be used regularly by the techno-savvy, only 38 percent of all internet users know what blogs are, according to a January 2005 Pew Research Center survey. And their use as a marketing tool is still in its infancy.
What's more, the stats on blogs indicate they have yet to make a real difference with prospective customers. In its report "Seven Practical Tactics to Turn Your Blog Into a Sales Machine," MarketingSherpa estimates that only 0.03 percent of the 34.5 million existing blogs are driving sales or getting customers to contact companies. While the figures might sound discouraging, those actually using blogs to reach out to customers would say you shouldn't let that stop you.
Daniel Thralow, founder and president of Thralow Inc., believes in the effectiveness of blogs. His Duluth, Minnesota, company operates more than 20 e-tailing sites and expects sales of $21 million this year. One of his websites, Binoculars.com, which sells binoculars and related accessories, started a blog in January called Birderblog.com. Targeted at bird-watchers, the blog was designed and programmed in-house. Well-known ornithologist Laura Erickson writes a daily entry about birds, bird-watching and tools of the trade--including binoculars.
Thralow uses the blog to direct people to Binoculars.com (and vice versa). When binoculars are mentioned in the blog's text, the reference is hyperlinked to a page featuring the product on Binoculars.com. The blog also includes banner ads promoting Binoculars.com.
So far, Thralow has spent $60,000 on Birderblog.com. With additional development costs, he anticipates spending another $50,000 on the blog during its second year. Costs include the salaries of the blogger and tech staff to create and maintain the site, hosting costs for the site and ancillary costs. While Thralow--who doesn't expect a return on his investment for at least a year--chose to spend thousands of dollars on his blog, it can be done for less money.
"If the passionate blogger is also the business owner, the labor could be free," says Thralow, 40. And community blogs, which have free or practically free hosting and software, are a popular and cheap option to consider. The trade-off, though, is not being able to control the advertising.
Susannah Gardner, author of Buzz Marketing With Blogs for Dummies, agrees that businesses should install solid blogging solutions on their own servers: "Hosted blog software is an easy way to get started, but independent blog software gives much better flexibility in branding, design and functionality customization."
Thralow has done many things right while launching his blog. First, he uses a qualified expert who is honest in her opinions to write the blog. Sometimes, her reviews about products sold on Binoculars.com are negative. "The goal is that it's honest," he says. "People can sense when someone's been bought."
Gardner agrees that an unbiased approach is important. "I generally don't recommend that marketing and PR people write the blog posts for a business blog," she says. "Instead, find someone who the public doesn't usually have access to, someone with real experience and knowledge, who can write personably and directly to the audience. Blogs aren't about spin or marketing-speak."
There's also a contact e-mail address on every page of Birderblog.com, and the blogger answers incoming questions and leads very quickly.
Third, Birderblog.com is updated daily, which can be time-consuming for an entrepreneur trying to handle the entries on his or her own. Says Thralow, "You have to have a certain consistency, or it will die."
Gardner adds: "Be flexible, and above all, post when there is something of value to say."
At the moment, Thralow's blog enjoys modest success. Only about 400 people per day visit Birderblog.com, compared to the more than 10,000 per day who visit Binoculars.com. "However, the point is that it is continuing to grow," says Thralow. He makes sure to measure qualified prospects by keeping tabs on click-throughs to the e-commerce site and any sales that result directly from Birderblog.com.
Publishing a blog won't necessarily guarantee more sales, but if it takes off, it can be a powerful way to connect with prospects and customers. And the best part is, blogs can work for any kind of business. "Any product can align itself with a blog; there is no limit," Thralow says. "Everybody has a hobby of some sort."
Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in New York City.