Blogging can be a useful way to update customers, keep staff informed and to differentiate yourself from competitors. But is it right for your business? In this four-part series, we'll examine the businesses that are doing it right, provide you with a checklist of goals to achieve and outline the tools you'll need to get started.
Part Three: The economical and effortless way to build a blog
Blogging has been around, in one form or another, for more than a decade. But what was once a platform for broadcasting one's personal diary thoughts to the digital world has become a mainstay of the Web. And for small and medium-sized businesses looking to start their own blogs today, the sheer number of tools, products and services out there may prove overwhelming.
When sifting through the mind-boggling number of blog options out there, start small - or rather, start free.
One of the reasons blogging continues to thrive today is thanks to the number of high-quality, free-to-use blogging platforms available to users. With just a few clicks, anyone, including a small business, can start a blog based on a pre-made design theme. Such sites make a great starting point because the entire set-up process is painless and costs nothing.
But there's another reason to use such services.
One of the biggest advantages of sites such as TypePad is the ability to take your content and leave at any point. Essentially, the sites allow users to migrate their blog content to any other host, so if the blog becomes too elaborate for the TypePad defaults, a user can switch to a more customizable Web host without losing all their previous posts.
For businesses that already have their own Web hosts, one of the most popular blog creation tools is WordPress, a free piece of software that basically lets users build a blog from scratch and host it almost anywhere on the Web.
What makes a platform like WordPress so powerful is its large collection of plug-ins. Basically, plug-ins are additional tools that provide new functionality - for example, bookmark organizers and spell-checkers are popular plug-ins for Web browsers. In the blogging world, some of the most popular plug-ins include software that displays the most recent user comments in a sidebar on the main page, and tools to add and display "tags" from various posts - tags are words used to describe what a post is about, so a blog post about cooking with spinach may have "cooking" and "spinach" as its tags, to make it easier to find the post in a Web search.
One of the most important plug-ins for small business blogs looking to reach an international audience is the translation tool. Many companies, including Google offer such services, which essentially let users translate the entire contents of a blog into one of several supported languages. The result isn't nearly as professional-looking as a Web site designed by someone who speaks the native tongue - there are plenty of grammar errors to be found in most automatic translation - but at least the service is free.
Another important class of plug-ins relates to controlling spam. Because most blogs make it easy for users to comment on posts, a lot of them end up flooded in auto-generated spam comments - usually, these are one-sentence posts urging users to visit some (possibly malicious) link.
To control spam, many blogs use "captchas," which basically require a user to re-type a couple of words that appear on the screen in front of them, usually in strange-looking font. The idea is that automated spam-commenters will have a hard time reading the words, whereas human beings will not. Such tools are especially useful for small business blogs, because the topics of their posts - often related to selling products - tend to attract spam.
Once a small-business site is up and running, it's fairly simple to integrate almost all other aspects of the business' social media strategy. Both Facebook and Twitter provide simple code to embed their feeds into a blog. For example, a blog's front-page side-bar may contain a box linking to the blog's Facebook page and showing some of the page's fans, as well as another box showing the most recent Tweets from the blog's Twitter accounts.
The same is true with multimedia content. Most of the Web's most popular video sites, such as Youtube and Vimeo, generally allow users to embed video on their own sites. This means a blog's readers can view video posts without having to leave the blog. Many photo Web sites, including Flickr, also allow embedding.
But for many small and medium-sized businesses, bells and whistles aren't nearly as important as knowing just how well your blog is actually doing. That's where the complex world of analytics comes in. Analytics tools basically monitor a Web site and tell its owner exactly which pages users are viewing, where they're coming from and how long they're staying, among many, many other metrics. There are plenty of analytics tools out there ( Google offers one for free). But for a small business blog, the highest-end analytics software will probably produce far more data than is necessary. Indeed, the built-in visitor counters available with many blogging services may be enough for many businesses, at least until the blog takes off and it becomes important to know exactly who is visiting, and why.