Blogging is the latest innovation to take the web by storm. According to blog tracking firm Technorati, there are currently 14 million blogs with 80,000 more being added every day. And 30 percent of all 50 million internet users are blog readers. In short, a lot of people are reading and writing blogs.

Yet despite their popularity, you may be one of those people who doesn't really know what a blog is or what relevance blogging has to your business. In this article, I hope to answer those questions and cover the basics of using blogging to deliver favorable business results.

So just what is a blog and why should you care? Basically, the word "blog" is short for web log, a frequently updated web-based journal that's intended for general public consumption. So what do people write about? Anything from personal stories (from the mundane to the bizarre) to theme-centered creations (finance, politics, parenthood) to businesses (philosophies; updates; branding methods) to...you name it!

And while writing a personal blog can be fun, business blogging can be a powerful tool, allowing you to communicate with a significant number of consumers and achieve many of your business objectives. And best of all, these results can be delivered in a very cost-effective manner.

Let me give you an example. Scobleizer is a blog written by Microsoft middle manager Robert Scoble. Scoble's openness and responsiveness to comments--both good and bad--have helped put a personal touch on a company that many previously saw as an evil empire. Not that the blog has changed everyone's perceptions, but it's certainly giving a human face to Microsoft and helping to soften its image a bit, something that will ultimately impact business results.

Here are some additional advantages for businesses that blog:

  • Word-of-mouse. Because so many people have access to electronic forms of communication, it's easy for information to spread quickly. If you have a great new product, an innovative idea or an exciting marketing strategy, you can be sure your blog readers will pass it along via e-mail to others who will pass it along, too. Soon, your marketing message has reached hundreds if not thousands or millions of people.
  • Speed. If something goes wrong or if you have quick-breaking news, a blog can get the word--or your response--out immediately, much faster than any other form of media.
  • Awareness and loyalty. Purchasers of your product can read about it, post comments and engage in discussion. You can respond. Others can comment. This personal communication can create an open, honest, trust-building dialog that will make consumers more aware, more willing to try your products and more loyal to your brand.
  • Feedback. Businesses can find out immediately what people think of their company, products and ideas. But be warned: This takes a thick skin, as all feedback is not positive. But if you're really willing to listen, this information can be invaluable. Better yet, feedback can be generated quickly--over days, if not hours. A blog can act like a never-ending focus group that gives a company great insights into their consumers' thoughts, likes and actions.
  • Community halo-effect. Overall, most bloggers are friendly, helpful (by linking to each other's sites), and eager to cooperate to make the blogosphere--the collective group of blogs--a better place. By simply being an active part of the culture, you get the benefit of the doubt and your product becomes one that bloggers will consider purchasing.

How Blogs Can Deliver Business Results

Let me provide you with a personal case study that shows the power of blogs. Moose Tracks, one of the ice cream flavors produced by my employer, Denali Flavors, is a top-seller and very popular with consumers who've tasted it. Yet there's still a large percentage of the population that's never heard of the product. As such, one of Denali's business objectives is to generate awareness of Moose Tracks, an awareness that would lead to trial. Once tried, our experience has shown that the product's taste will drive repeat business.

The company decided to accomplish this objective by creating a series of blogs aimed at different consumer groups. The blogs would link to the Moose Tracks websiteand be designed to funnel visitors to the site. This way, awareness of the product would happen naturally. In addition, the advertising and promotion costs would be low compared to a traditional media effort.

Denali developed the following four blogs to address various consumer interests:

  • Moosetopia. This is the fun "entertainment" blog written by the Moose Tracks moose. This blog reinforces the fun nature of the product, and every post is an awareness-generating effort for the brand because of the author. (He doesn't even need to talk about the product!)
  • Free Money Finance. This blog deals with personal finance with a tagline of "free and simple advice on money and finance designed to maximize your net worth." As Denali's top-rated blog because of the popularity of the subject matter, this site is "sponsored by" Moose Tracks ice cream, a graphic of which is positioned prominently in the top right-hand corner of the blog.
  • Team Moose Tracks. This blog details the efforts of Denali's cycling team to raise money for an orphanage in Latvia. It contains biking tips as well as details on the fundraising. This blog serves several purposes: It gains brand exposure for Moose Tracks and links back to the main site; it reflects positively on the company's--and the brand's--efforts to help a charity; and it's raising a significant sum of money to help the orphanage (more than $47,000 as of August).
  • Denali Flavors. Denali's most recent blog, this one offers an inside glimpse at what goes on in the company. In the future, this site will serve to get comments and feedback directly from consumers on a wide range of topics.

As each site was developed, it was promoted using guerrilla marketing tactics, such as by posting comments on other blogs with links back to the Denali blog, trading links with other sites, asking other sites for referrals, and writing articles for other sites that would include a link back to the blog. All these tactics drove traffic to the blogs which, in turn, drove traffic to the Moose Tracks' site.

Since Denali's main objective is to drive people to the Moose Tracks' website, we measure the impact of the blogs by the effects on the main site. To date, the blogs have helped Denali achieve the following results:

  • Site visits are up 25.7 percent.
  • Hits to the site are up 21 percent.
  • Total time on the site is up 23.4 percent.

These initial results are very positive, and the costs to get these results has been very low: Other than our blogger's time, the company has spent less than $700 on these four blogs.

Time to Start Blogging

Want to get in on the action? Before you start blogging, be sure to review your main business objectives and determine if blogging could help achieve one or more of these goals. If you think it can, then you're ready to jump into blogging by doing the following:

Start reading blogs that teach you how to blog. As you might imagine, there are several blogs dedicated to teaching people the dos and don'ts of blogging. Here are ones I'd recommend:

  • ProBloggeris one of the best resources out there on how to become a great blogger.
  • The Blog Heraldoffers news about blogging. It often links to information or to-dos that any blogger should know.
  • Radiant Marketing Groupoffers expertise on how blogs can be used by businesses.
  • BlogWrite for CEOsis designed for higher-level executives, but it still contains a lot of good, basic information for someone just starting out--after all, many high-level executives are beginning bloggers.
  • In the Denali Flavors blog, I regularly post articles on blogging that I think are among the best available. It's an easy way for you to get educated on blogging without having to sort through all the articles that aren't worth your time.

Get the book, Buzz Marketing with Blogs for Dummiesby Susannah Gardner. Though the title suggests the book is about marketing, this is really a complete "how to blog successfully" manual. I've read several books on blogging, and this one is by far the best. It offers more specific details on everything I've covered in this series.

Read blogs that are consumer-based, too. You can get a list of all the top blogs at Truth Laid Bear. This site tracks traffic for blogs and makes the stats available to the public. After visiting the top blogs--which are most likely to be political blogs--at Truth Laid Bear, you'll need to branch out a bit. Some of my favorite nonpolitical blogs include:

  • Boing Boing.This is one of the most popular blogs around--and for good reason. Its tagline is "a directory of wonderful things," and this blog delivers. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be amazed. Boing Boing has it all.
  • PostSecret.People write their secrets on a postcard and send them in. You won't believe what they say--very eye-opening.
  • Luxist.OK, so most of us will never be able to afford the stuff the ultra-rich buy. But it's fun to look! This site highlights things only money--lots of it--can buy.
  • TV Squadand Cinematical. If you're a fan of television or the movies (or both!), you'll love the articles, insights and gossip found at these sites.

Or, if you want to find blogs on your own, search Google for blogs with the topic you have in mind. Poke around the results a bit, and you're sure to find several you like.

Start several test blogs almost right away. Start blogs about whatever interests you: your rose-growing hobby, your son's soccer training, news in your town, pro football. It really doesn't matter. Then test out different blog systems to see what you like best and what works for you. My suggestions:

  • Blogger.It's totally free, though it has limited functions.
  • TypePad.It's what I use and has great features and service.
  • BlogHarbor.This is also a great choice. It was a close second to TypePad for me.

Setting Up a Blog

Study blog design. I must admit, I know nothing about design. Fortunately, blog services come with pre-designed templates. Still, you'll need an eye for color, placement and web design. If you don't have these skills, find someone who does.

Select a topic. Obviously, the topic you choose needs to tie back to your business objective and be developed to drive results against that objective. But be open-minded: We never would have started Free Money Finance if we were just considering ice cream or small-business topics. Instead, we thought out of the box and now have a blog that's generated more than 30,000 visits in a few months.

Decide who's going to be allowed to blog and set policies. Choose someone to oversee the blog and be the primary blogger; also decide if anyone else will be allowed to blog. Then decide what they can and can't say. Parameters should be few and limit the bloggers only when it could harm the company, such as by restricting them from releasing confidential information. Of course, it's okay to be honest about not being "up to par" in every area of your business as long as the blogger isn't vindictive or demoralizing. Microsoft's Scoble's admissions that "we stink in this area" have endeared the company to people who thought Microsoft was a "know it all."

Begin blogging. Complete 20 posts (entries) or so before marketing. This gives you time to work out the kinks, mess with the design a bit, and look like you've been around for more than two days when someone stops by.

Start marketing. If you've read Buzz Marketing with Blogs for Dummies, you have a list a mile long of great things you can do to market your blog.

Measure your results. Whether it's traffic to your main website, customer satisfaction, trial rates or product awareness, it's important that you get a pre-blogging benchmark. Then regularly get data updates to see how you're doing.

Adjust as needed. Cover different topics, market in different ways, modify your design a bit here and there, and see what the reaction is. You'll quickly learn what does and doesn't work for you. At Denali, we realized that Team Moose Tracks and Moosetopia just weren't popular enough to drive traffic on their own, so we recently moved them and now they're part of the Denali Flavors blog.

As you start to get some experience under your belt, you'll learn what works best for you by trial and error. But here are a few suggestions based on my experience that should give you a head start:

Be consistent with your topic at all times. Know your audience, and be sure to deliver the goods with every article. If you get off topic, your readers will give you some grace, but they won't hang around long if you consistently go down a bunny trail.

Try topics unrelated to your business that have broad appeal. As mentioned before, Denali Flavors isn't a personal finance company, but finances are a popular topic. And since writing on money has been a hobby of mine for years, it seemed natural for us to create a financial blog. As a result, Free Money Finance has become our most popular blog.

Develop a schedule for updates. Set a schedule so your audience will know when to look for something new. I suggest starting with a Monday-Wednesday-Thursday schedule and see how it goes from there. Friday is generally a light reader day, and traffic really drops off on the weekends.

Make it easy to meet your objectives. Our objective was to drive traffic to the Moose Tracks site, so we made it easy for people to get there by putting a picture of the moose and "visit Moose Tracks" on the top part of every blog. If your objective is to get customer feedback, ask for it and make it accessible. If your objective is to reveal a charitable side of your company, keep people updated on what you're doing.

Use e-mail to kick-start your traffic. If you have an e-mail list, e-mail everyone on it and introduce your new blog. Also have all your employees include a signature on their out-going e-mails that lists your blog's URL and a short description of what it's about. That way, every e-mail sent out is a subtle marketing message.

Blogging can be an innovative way to meet your business objectives in a cost-effective way. But because the blogosphere is relatively new, you may still have questions. I'm willing to help you get started and offer my thoughts and feedback as needed. We'll both likely learn from each other and make our sites even better. Simply e-mail me if you need help. If you don't need any advice, please drop me a note anyway if you set up your blog. I'd love to stop by and say "hi."

John Nardini is the executive vice president of marketing at Denali Flavorsand is responsible for developing strategic and tactical marketing plans designed to increase awareness, trial and sales of Denali Flavors' brands.