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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 One: What is a blog?

It was supposed to be ancient history by now: a relic of a previous Internet age, what with Twitter and microblogging and all that. And yet blogging survives.

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Even as companies struggle to maintain an ever-expanding Web presence - Web sites, Twitter accounts, Facebook fan pages - the corporate blog remains a stubborn component of the Internet media strategy. Indeed, even as other media outlets emerge, more companies are turning back to blogs as a means of differentiating themselves from the competition - offering something less boring than a press release and less fleeting than a Twitter post.

"It did feel for a while that you needed a blog to be a serious organization," says Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University. "As people start to feel that it's optional, there's more clarity about what a blog is for."

In the virtual world, the very definition of a blog is amorphous. Depending on what estimate you go with, there were between 100-million and 130-million blogs on the Web as of 2009. However it's almost impossible to sort out those blogs carrying useful information from the myriad spam sites, or the wasteland of long-deserted, un-updated blogs. Technorati, which tracks millions of blogs, rates political Web site The Huffington Post as its number-one blog. However that site has long since expanded into a full-fledged news and commentary hub, rather than the traditional notion of a blog as a series of short posts or online diary.

Setting up a corporate blog

But the vast majority of blogs remain true to the original term - shorthand for Web log, a virtual diary of events. But while that's fitting for a personal Web site, it's trickier in the context of a business: what purpose should a corporate blog serve: to update customers? To update staff? To promote new products? To entertain? All of the above?

As such, the gamut of corporate blogs is wide in tone, frequency and content. Cloud backup firm Asigra, for example, runs a blog that, while personal in tone, tends to focus almost entirely on cloud computing-related issues. SocialDeck, a small mobile game developer that was recently bought by Google, kept a blog on their corporate Web site since just after the company's inception in 2008. Today, the blog archive reads as a sort of virtual time-lapse of the company's rise from a few lines of code to a million-download app-maker, with posts on various milestones and video from their old elevator pitches to venture capital firms. Evernote, makers of software that lets computer and smart phone users keep notes on just about everything, run an extensive blog that covers everything from new and novel uses for the product to full-on podcasts. On at least one occasion, after the company had built a loyal following, the head of Evernote essentially used the medium to answer a flood of reader questions.

"A lot of companies launch blogs thinking they're going to have a conversation with their customers, but if your customer doesn't care enough about your company to wear your logo on their t-shirt, they don't care enough to want to be part of a conversation," says Ms. Samuel. "You have to build the conversation from the ground up, you have to reach out to people, reach out to other bloggers."

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Indeed, Ms. Samuel points out that company blogs which simply serve as updates on the company's various products don't tend to generate much user interest (there are exceptions: Google's various arms and divisions have dozens of blogs). For example, she notes that McDonald's wouldn't necessarily get much positive traction running a blog about its new menu items. Instead, the fast-food chain runs a corporate social responsibility blog, trying to improve its image. Southwest airlines has also invested heavily in its blog, posting audio, video, Flickr image collections and posts that range from serious to quirky, many of which take readers behind the scenes at the airline.

Take it for a test drive

But for small and medium-sized businesses, assigning massive resources into a blog may not be an option. Ms. Samuel recommends trying out a sort of limited-duration test blog first. For example, if a company's employees are gearing up for a fun run, the company could commission a blog covering just the months or weeks leading up to the event. If user response is good and the amount of resources needed isn't too great, the business can continue the blog beyond the event; if not, there's a good excuse to shut the whole thing down.

"Assigning someone to a blogging role is a really big commitment," Ms. Samuel says. "If you have somebody whose job is to update the blog, you have to take something off their desk."

The blogging sereis continues every Thursday on the Web Strategy section of Your Business.

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