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Is it time to start a blog?

A few months ago, a friend and I found some wild bamboo and thought we’d bring a cutting home to try and raise some ourselves. After several weeks of inactivity and what seemed like complete drying (or dying) of the stalk, I concluded that my attempt had failed. But recently, thanks to Darryl Salerno’s presentation at the HOW: Mind Your Own Business conference, I found out some information that would have changed everything. Did you know that, once it has been planted, bamboo takes up to four years to break the soil and begin to visibly grow? It needs all that time just to properly root in the earth. But once it has surfaced, it can grow up to six inches per day! With growth that rapid, the wait seems well worthwhile to me. If only I had done a little research and been a bit more patient!

Just like growing bamboo, maintaining a blog is really a long-term investment. In order to make the investment pay off, you’ll need to identify the purpose of your blog, do some initial research in order to formulate a plan, and of course, be patient and diligent in your efforts.

This month, with these principles in mind, I want to answer a question that I am sure you have either asked yourself, or been asked by your clients: Is it time to start a blog?

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For a professional services firm, there are really only two good reasons to blog: expertise and search engine optimization. Sure, there’s tons of hype around the idea of connecting people and building a community around brands, but those are much more compelling motivations for business to consumer companies. Let’s be honest- an individual is much more likely to identify themselves with their Mac than the agency that created the Mac banner ad.

So let me explain what I mean by expertise. I am assuming that your firm has a focused and clear positioning, or in other words, that you do a particular thing well, you know it, and you say so. If this is the case, you probably have a lot to say about what you do well. This is what your blog should be about; your expertise. If you’re trying to do a little bit of everything at your firm, your blog will reflect that. Think about it: If you were interested in getting some culinary arts expertise, would you rather read a blog by Ferran Adrià, or by the line cook at Applebees?

Your first step should be to write a mission statement for your blog. Again, if you know what you do, and are able to articulate it clearly, this shouldn’t be hard. In fact, the first question I always ask when doing a strategic consultation with a client is, “can you articulate your positioning in one sentence?” Creating a cogent strategy, whether for marketing, website content, or a blog, is much easier if supported by a clear positioning. Your mission statement doesn’t need to be published anywhere; it exists solely to serve as the purpose to which you hold yourself accountable as you write.

Once you’ve accumulated a strong body of content on your blog, provided you’ve taken the additional time to craft strong meta data for each article, you should start to see an increase in traffic to your site. Every word you write will increase your authority on those subjects relevant to your expertise.

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Before I began writing this newsletter, I posted the question above on LinkedIn. I wasn’t surprised when several of the responses I received noted that monetization is often overemphasized when proposing and evaluating a corporate blogging strategy. I completely agree. In general, I would say that too much has been said and written to over-hype the business benefits of blogging, especially when it comes to direct monetization and the idea of building community.

I mentioned above that the two compelling reasons to blog for a professional services firm are expertise and SEO. Naturally, it would stand to reason, then, that expecting to make money directly from the blog would be inappropriate. However, if your blog continues to grow with rich and relevant content, you should expect to gain more and more search-generated traffic, which could easily be converted into valuable leads. I also noted that building a community around your brand is an inappropriate expectation; this kind of thing rarely happens around services like it does with products. However, if your expertise and thought leadership becomes evident in your blog, you might slowly start to assemble a “community” of regular readers, and they may even start to comment on your posts. But a quick word about that…

Revered PR blogger Brian Solis says that lack of comments means lack of influence, but I say don’t expect a ton of comments unless you are approaching A-list (or even B-list) status. In fairness, Solis also says that “measuring the success of a blog based on the amount of comments is just lame,” and I completely agree. It is lame. Very, very lame. In fact, according to Jakob Nielsen’s study, 90% of online community users are lurkers, meaning they read but don’t comment, while only 9% contribute a ‘little’ and 1% contribute actively. While this study is not specific to blog comment participation, it’s likely that the principle is applicable though the numbers may have a “+ or -” factor. This means that the majority of those regular readers will probably not be commenting on your posts anytime soon.

Comments are not going to be the best judge of the current success of a blog. You’ll also need to look at the number of readers, knowing that many of them will remain lurkers for some time to come. As with anything, there is always room for improvement, so as readership increases, commenting should also. There is no magic wand to use to instantly get lots of traffic to your blog; it just takes time.

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If you already have a website that gets some traffic, your blog should be integrated into your existing site’s structure. By doing this, any SEO benefit derived from the content of your blog will be applied to your site… you know, the place where you have all kinds of opportunities to generate leads, right? You may be tempted to save money by setting up your blog at another URL, using a free blogging tool, but this will not be worth the effort. If your blog is at a different URL, any search generated traffic driven to your blog will, in effect, be taking away from your main website.

Read Other Blogs to Stay Informed

Writing isn’t the only work you’ll have to do to maintain a blog. You’ll also need to find and start reading other blogs that deal with the same topics that you write about. Being familiar with the larger conversation is crucial to both gaining readers and being properly informed on those subjects that you plan to write about. Use a feed reader (we like Google Reader) to subscribe to the RSS feeds for these blogs and get into the habit of reading through your feeds daily. If you’ve come to the determination that blogging is important enough to your web strategy to actually create one, you’ll also need to realize the importance for making time to read other blogs. Once you’ve done that, you’ll probably find yourself asking how anyone could possibly keep up with the amount of information delivered via RSS to their computer every day… (Here’s how.)

Leave Comments, but don’t spam.

Regularly reading other blogs will help you stay informed, but it won’t help you to get noticed. Remember, at this point, you’re just lurking (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). However, at some point you’ll probably have something to add to the conversation that’s happening in the comment threads of the blogs you’re reading. That’s a good thing, and you should do it. Most blogs allow you to add links to your comment, so if you have a blog post or webpage that is relevant to your comment, this is your chance to share it with the community. The more you participate by sharing insightful and valuable comments, the more you’ll be able to share links without spamming the other readers of the blog. Participating in this way is crucial for developing recognized authority in regard to your area of expertise.

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In my recent newsletter, Developing an Effective Content Strategy, I quoted Lee Erickson, co-founder of Erickson Barnett, who said this about content strategy, “It has to come from the top down. If management doesn’t believe in it, then client work will always come first.” Blogging is a critical part of their content strategy, to which they have dedicated both time and resources.

One of the toughest aspects of blogging is doing it consistently. Because blogging is not likely to be anyone’s primary job function, writing won’t take priority over production. However, you need to be as committed to maintaining your blog as Lee and her team is. This means finding a way to post regularly without compromising your main thing, even if it means making writing a part of someone’s job description on your team.

One concept that most of my LinkedIn question respondents brought up was relevance. As Denice MacDonald, President at MacDonald Consulting Services, put it, “Relevance is the key to blog success – I need to be informed, amused or entertained or the blog has no value.” So, how do you make your posts relevant?

We decided that setting up an “editorial calendar” for each blog would be an effective way to ensure consistency and relevance in our writing. This doesn’t mean being as rigid as scheduling specific topics for specific days. Rather, it’s a way to identify different formats in advance and plan an overall schedule in which they recur. This could include ideas like monthly interviews, weekly reviews of websites or software, occasional employee profiles, or case studies after important projects are completed. Building your blog around a schedule will create consistency for you, as the author, and for your readers, who will learn to expect particular kinds of posts and content. Once you have a structure in place, you can fill in gaps with ideas for particular posts as they occur to you.

Some “Straight Talk”
The bottom line is that blogging is no easy task. Great bloggers may make it look easy, but you can trust that they work very hard to do it. Above all, don’t rush in to blogging. However, if you are ready to do each thing I’ve described in this newsletter, then a blog could be a great boost to your web strategy.

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