A friend of mine who is an experienced corporate marketer started a new business. The store just opened and being the good pal that I am, I was able to provide some advice regarding marketing on the web – specifically regarding blog marketing.
This is a new small business, so considerations for what to do about a web site included: cost, functionality, flexibility, ease of maintenance and marketability. The web site needed to serve as both an online representation of the business, but without transactional functionality, as well as a host for landing pages used with email and PPC campaigns.
My recommendation for a low cost, easy to use and search engine friendly content management system? Blog software.
What often happens when friends ask for advice regarding web marketing is that I’ll make some recommendations in a casual setting or email links to a few resources like this one on blog marketing tips, then a few weeks or months later, the conversation will turn to, “So, how is your blog or web site doing?”, and I find out that the site/blog was either not started at all, it was created in a way that blows away any chance of SEO or marketability outside of advertising or it was built using resources with no cost of entry but without the capabilities to scale if successful.
Something along those lines happened with my friend’s blog.
What was the issue? The blog was started using Blogger.com, which by itself is not a problem, but the blog address selected was: nameofstore.blogspot.com. This is understandable because it’s the default URL selection when you create a blog with Blogger.com.
However, picking a third party domain for the blog address violates one of the most important rules in sustainable blogging: Always host the blog address with a domain name you control. That means yourdomainname.com/blog or blog.yourdomainname.com or yourdomainnameblog.com.
Otherwise, you give up control. How so? What if the blog host goes down? Free services rarely provide support. Also, what if the service does not support the functionality you need? You can’t change their entire platform to suit your individual needs.
There are other reasons for keeping the blog address as part of your own domain name including the ability to change blog software services without having to change your blog address.
Of course there’s also a benefit for search engine optimization if you host the blog as a sub directory of your main company domain name such as yourdomainname.com/blog. Blogs are very linkable entities and other blogs tend to be enthusiastic about linking, so any links to your blog can be perceived as a vote of credibility to your main web site since the blog and the web site share the same domain name.
Now back to our tale of the small business blog. My friend had only made one post on the blogspot.com URL so nothing would be lost by moving to a dedicated domain name. My own experience with Online Marketing Blog was different. After blogging for nearly 2 years at a blogspot.com address, I decided to move to a dedicated domain name and WordPress. It took some talented optimization and 6 months of aggressive promotion to recoup the linking footprint (100,000+ inbound links) that was lost. Of course, now our traffic is multiple times more than what it was.
What my friend decided to do was register a domain name and setup a hosting account. Since there was no main company web site to attach the blog to, this makes the most sense. Essentially, the blog became the company web site. With more and more businesses, this is becoming a very practical, cost effective and functionally efficient way to manage web site content: Using blog software as a content management system.
As my friend asked what to do next, writing everything down in a notebook, it became clear that there’s a litany of things you COULD do with setting up a blog. Even if we filtered it down to what one SHOULD do, the list was amazingly long. As someone new to the whole idea of blogging and this not being a formal consulting arrangement, I decided to create what I think, is a short list of what a small businesses CAN do when starting a blog.
1. Decide the purpose of the blog.
Do this before going out and registering a domain name or anything else. Is the blog going to serve as a journal for starting the business? Is it a search marketing tool? Is it to be used to demonstrate thought leadership and create credibility? Will it be a communication tool for customers? Will it also serve as the main company web site? Is the purpose some or all of the above?
I could elaborate on setting up each of these types of blogs if I ever decided to write that book, but for now, we’ll stick with a blog that serves as a company web site, hosts landing pages, serves as a small business resource and marketing tool.
2. Pick a URL.
If the purpose of the blog is to support company brand and audience, then the URL should be part of the company web site. Ideally, the blog hosting situation allows for a sub directory such as companysite.com/blog. Otherwise, a sub-domain such as blog.companysite.com will work and you can can host the blog elsewhere, separate from the company web servers. IT will like that.
If the purpose of the blog is independent of the primary company brand, or messaging, then a dedicated domain name such as topicgoeshereblog.com might work better.
It’s tempting to use a keyword only domain name, but those keywords will not be a silver bullet for search engine rankings. A catchy, meaningul brand name for the blog will go much farther as content can always be optimized for search engine rankings.
3. Pick blog software.
In most cases, WordPress is the way to go. An inexpensive Linux platform hosting account that supports PHP and mySQL can be secured for $10-$20 per month. However, should the blog get really popular, expect to upgrade to support increased demand. It’s entirely worth it.
The blog software will need to be installed on the server that will host it and the database will also need to be set up. This is fairly straightforward, but in all honesty, it’s best to have someone that knows what they’re doing help. As an example, I do very little of the technical work on our blog and prefer to have a specialist (Thomas McMahon) take care of maintenance, adding plugins, design and functionality updates. We have outside programmers do any heavy lifting in the application development department.
WordPress software is open source, ie free, so if you are code/technically savvy and you have the time to figure it out, it’s certainly doable. There is no one “right way” to setup a blog. There are literally hundreds of shades of gray.
It can cost a hundreds to thousand of dollars for a blog consultant to install, setup and customize the design of your blog. You’re not paying for the software, you’re paying for expertise that will save you MONTHS of time and allow you to get to market more quickly and efficiently.
4. Customize the blog.
After installation of the core blog software, there are a number of customization tasks.
The second set of customization tasks involves plug-ins to improve the adminstration, front end functionality and the SEO friendliness of the blog. Thanks to Twitter and Thomas for this recommended minimum list of plug-ins:
- Google XML sitemaps
- Gravity forms
- All In One SEO
- ACE WP Plug
- Members only
- Cookies for comments
- Section widget
- Page order
- Related posts
- FeedSmith FeedBurner Plugin
- Askimet or WP-SpamFree
- Post Teaser
5. Create a content plan.
In concert with the purpose of the blog, it’s important to generate a basic editorial guideline for creating content. The easiest way to manage this is by creating categories for the kinds of content you plan on posting.
Before you create those categories, it’s a good idea to do some keyword research as the categories will become excellent repositories of related content. Why not make it even easier for search engines to understand and rank them?
Common keyword research tools include: Google’s Keyword Planner and Ubersuggest. Paid keyword tools include WordStream.com, WordTracker and KeywordDiscovery.com
Once you identify which keyword phrases best represent the content you’ll be publishing, use them to name your content categories. Each time you make a blog post, that entry will be associated with one or more categories, creating a very search engine friendly repository of content.
Create an editorial calendar or schedule of posts to keep you on topic for your audience and true to the purpose of the blog. Leverage interactions with blog readers as well as your analytics to know if your content and keyword picks are productive or not.
6. Pick your blogging team.
In the case of most small businesses, the blogging team is a team of one. That’s fine, just be sure to document what’s working and what’s not so when the time comes, you can get your blogging team mate up to speed quickly.
Since blogger’s block (like writer’s block) can really dampen a good thing for a small business blog, go ahead and keep a good number of posts in draft mode. Add to them as you get new ideas and inspiration. Or facts and examples. That way, you’ll have a steady stream of blog posts ready to publish in advance. In fact, you can schedule blog posts in advance using WordPress.
7. Make it easy to share.
Blogging in a vaccum is inevitable blogging death. It’s essential that you solicit comments in your posts, respond to comments quickly, create and enforce a commenting policy. Being responsive is an essential part of attracting subscribers.
Don’t covet the comments either. Visit other blogs in your industry and write useful comments. Those bloggers may notice you and it can become something more, like an invite for a guest post, collaboration or simply a new online friend.
Make it easy for readers of your blog to save and share your content with sharing buttons or widgets. It pays to create accounts on the more popular services and develop social networks there. Your contacts on Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon and similar services will watch for your next post and vote for the good stuff, which can drive your content to be exposed on more popular areas of those web sites. More exposure can mean more traffic. The social bookmarks tool is handy for adding such functionality to any web page and Thomas offered several new blog promotion tips last week.
8. Get your social on.
RSS feeds come with blogs and it’s worth taking the time to make sure the RSS feed is readily available and obvious for people to subscribe. Submit your blog and RSS feed to our HUGE list of blog and RSS directories.
Set up social profiles on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as appropriate and automate the sharing of links from your blog posts to those services. In other words, you could use a service like TwitterFeed to publish your latest blog post to Twitter and Facebook automatically.
Be sure to publish your blog URL everywhere you publish your web site address.
9. Make static.
If you’re using the blog as a CMS for a small business web site, then make your static web pages such as those for About our Company, Product/Service pages, Contact Forms, etc. The blog can be customized to have a home page like any other web site as well. That way, visitors arriving on your site can see what they expect from a company selling products/services. At the same time, blogging creates a rich and frequent source of useful content that’s syndicated via RSS, promoted automatically to relevant social channels and leaves the door open for interaction via comments.
10. Measure. Test – Test. Measure.
It’s important that you set goals for the blog, a plan to execute tactics and most of all, measure progress. Most web site measurement is focused on web analytics and metrics specific to different types of marketing such as with email, SEO or PPC. Standard web analytics software such as Google Analytics will address the vast majority of your needs.
I would also recommend social media monitoring and analytics. Monitoring can be as simple as the RSS feed from search.twitter.com combined with the RSS feed from the results of a search on Google’s blog search. You could also use services like socialmention.com or more robust social media monitoring tools such as Techrigy SM2, ScoutLabs or Radian6.
Social monitoring tools will help you understand what your customers are saying about you on the social web as well as uncover new interaction opportiunities with influentials. Real time search means real time marketing and social monitoring can facilitate that. One example would be if a competitor Tweets a deal on a product. Your Twitter search on that competitor or product would create an alert. You could then decide to offer a deal at a lower price or some other counter offer.
Another example is if a customer complains about your company. Before others jump on the bandwagon, your social monitoring tools would alert you and you can then qualify and address the situation quickly.
As web analytics and social media monitoring tools become increasingly intertwined, you’ll be able to identify many other key metrics for the effect of your social participation on bottom line business goals.
There you go. Ten tips for starting a small business blog.
This was a long post and yet, it’s nowhere near a comprehensive guide to create a small business blog. Even though there is plenty of free blog software and advice available online, many companies would benefit from having professional help with a business blog.
The funny thing is, my friend will look at this post and say, “This is the SHORT list?” Blogging can be simple to start, but no one said it wasn’t hard work.
If you’ve created a blog for your small business, what has your experience been? Did you do it yourself? Do you get expert help? Have you set up a small business web site using blog software? We’d love to hear about your experiences, challenges and successes.