Small Business Blogging
After the August 8, 2002, Trellix blogging announcement was made, it was interesting to see the difference in coverage in the press vs. on weblogs. Webloggers were interested in the integration story and the fact that there is a new player to give more options in the market. The non-blogging press on the other hand, especially in their questions during interviews, was very interested in the idea that blogs could be useful to small and other businesses. To me, this potential use is obvious, and has been written about more than once by Dave Winer and others. (There are some who concentrate on blogging use in large businesses for internal use. I'm talking here about small businesses with as few as one owner/employee.) Here is how I've been presenting it:

A reverse-chronological list of postings, with a managed archive, is a general function that can be used for many things. That's why there is a "blind men and the elephant" aspect to coverage about blogging. (For example, some articles only see warblogs, some concentrate on personal adolescent diaries, some talk mainly about lists of links to recent news, etc.) From my experience, small business people are very clever and will figure out (or copy) all sorts of ways to take advantage of things. Blogging will be no different.

There has been an impediment to widespread business blogging. Since traditionally blogging has been done with separate tools from those used to create small business web sites, you had to explicitly decide to add blogging and learn something new. Most of the web sites were created with simple tools or with the help of outside consultants. Many of these consultants were more used to traditional marketing, like brochures and direct mail. Blogging wasn't in the inexpensive package. Making any changes to a web site, especially something like adding blogging with a look that fits in with the rest of the web site, would add to the cost. The techie answer of "just do a little HTML programming, it's easy, just copy this and change that" doesn't go over well with the majority of this crowd. With integrated products like that announced by Trellix, hopefully that impediment will be reduced.

Businesses are very varied. Each has its own needs and way of serving customers. How each could make use of a blog can be very individual. In many cases, it is the intimate person-to-person nature of a blog that helps establish and maintain a relationship with an existing or potential customer. For many small businesses a personal relationship is their main difference from a "faceless" large organization.

Here are some general examples I've discussed:

One type of small business is the "consultant". This covers a wide range of areas, from engineers, to marketers, to event planners, to freelance writers and designers, and more. Consultants are already very common users of blogs. A normal part of the job of many consultants entails going to meetings and conferences and being active in trade associations where they "network", show off their expertise, appear on panels, etc. A blog is a way of showing your expertise and establishing yourself as a trustworthy authority without doing the travel. The time necessary to maintain the blog comes out of the time that would have been spent at some of the meetings. (A blog is an excellent way to build up your "authority" to move up politically in a trade association, too. Your readers would be others in your field, not customers.)

There is the "bed and breakfast" example. Almost all B&B's need to have a web site. They often depend upon repeat business. Some send out newsletters to try to keep old contacts alive. A blog can be very effective, especially given the attachment some people have to the areas where they vacation. The blog could be about the lake nearby ("The ice just melted enough for the water to show through -- here's a picture" and "The marina is starting a new fee structure so sign up before June") peppered with news of the B&B ("We've added a new room with a stall shower"). People are known to regularly check a site that does as little as post the daily weather or pictures of lakes or ski areas. Of course, this is not just for B&B's. It also applies to guides, fishing charters, rafting companies, etc. In some of these cases showing your expertise can be crucial to getting first-time customers. There is a related area of summer camps where the blog during the year would be different than that during the sessions. Another related area is a blog by a neighborhood merchant or restaurant owner whose topic is just about the neighborhood -- like a very local paper.

Many specialty retail stores rely on regular customers coming in to talk and see what's new in the field as well as in the store. Customers just want to get a "fix" of their area of interest from a face they know. While they don't usually buy anything (or just a low margin consumable) during these visits, the visits are crucial to loyalty that leads to major purchases. The blog can serve a similar purpose. Imagine a store specializing in small sailboats or another sporting good. A blog could cover trade shows, trips, and competitions that the owner attended, with coverage tuned to the local interests ("Jill and Jonah's boat came in first in their class using that new sail we sold them"). New items that are coming in could be previewed. Trade-ins could be profiled. There could be discussion of relevant news with links to articles. The news could be from obscure trade publications or about local zoning issues that could effect the sport.

Support is another area that can be aided with a blog. Frequently asked questions and tips can covered ("At this time of year everybody seems to have problems with their gutters..." or "With the continuing city drought regulations here's the best way to deal with those plants we sold in the spring...").

A blog can be used as a web site (or anything else) "change log". A list of changes is tedious to maintain, and blog technology simplifies things by doing the date/time stamping and automatically taking items off the bottom of the "most recent" list while maintaining the complete list.

Blogs don't have to be "forever". There are many instances where a temporary blog is very valuable. For example:

For organizations of all sorts -- small, nonprofit, or large -- project status and coordination is an area where blogs can improve communication within a group. In this case, it is often desirable to have a password protected or other "secured" blog (yes, Trellix's offering can do this...). The readers can be members, customers who have already placed deposits, employees, or other stake holders. (The Blogroots web site has a copy of the chapter in the upcoming "We Blog" book about using blogs in business, though it is mainly focused on larger businesses, not the tiny organizations I'm addressing here.)

An area where blogs can really shine is in crisis management. In addition to internal communications like normal project management, a public blog can be a major way to conduct effective communication with the public and press. Remember the Tylenol package tampering years back? Frequent forthright communication from a senior executive was crucial for maintaining public trust -- it is the "textbook" case. Small businesses and organizations can't rely on press conferences and local media to tell their story the way a large national company can. (They also don't have some of the legal restrictions of publicly held companies to muzzle them.) A blog can be used to instantly respond to local news coverage, provide information to all interested parties, and have explicit written material for the press and others to refer to. What is a "crisis"? It could be a local disaster, public problem (health, accident, criminal, etc.) involving an employee or ex-employee, accusations from local press or politicians, defective product, isolation because of street construction, etc. A blog can have statements and links to backup or corroborating material. It can have alternative temporary telephone numbers or addresses, etc.

In all cases, various forms of email and other notifications can enhance and complement a blog.

The purpose of most blogging tools is to make posting as simple and efficient an operation as possible. In many cases, creating a blog post takes up just as little or less effort than sending an email. Establishing a concise and informal style can keep the time to craft what you want to say low.

It is important to understand that the purpose of a blog is not always to get the largest and widest readership possible. The purpose is usually to communicate with interested individuals. Even in business, the number of those individuals may be very few, but the impact of the communications can have economic impact far beyond its cost. For example, for a business selling high-ticket items or services, one sale can make up for the time cost of a whole year of frequent blogging.

Discussing ideas like this seems to be of interest (and surprising) to many people. As blogging moves more and more into the mainstream, it will eventually be surprising when you don't use a blog.

- Dan Bricklin, 12 August 2002

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