Here’s a question I’ve been curious about lately, in light of my researching and writing of a report into the business use of Social Media for the Ark Group: should businesses add blogging to their arsenal of marketing tactics?
Will blogging help sell more products and services?
Or is it – as I suspect for most companies — an utter waste of time?
First, a definition.
As Debbie Weil says in her Business Blogging Starter Kit,
“A blog is an online journal. It’s called a journal because every entry is time and date stamped and always presented in reverse chronological order.”
The theory is that if you are an information marketer – or, if you publish information to establish your expertise in a niche industry or field – blogging should be part of your publishing arsenal. No argument from me there.
According to Deb, a business blog is,
“a platform from which to lobby, network, and influence sales. It’s a way to circumvent traditional media and analysts. And blogging can be done instantly, in real time, at a fraction of the cost of using traditional channels.”
Now here’s my hesitancy in recommending blogs as a business marketing tool: I have yet to find more than a tiny handful of marketers who say that a business blog has given them a direct, positive ROI, or return on investment.
I know plenty of online marketers who make millions of dollars a year from their Web sites and e-zines, for instance. But apart from those like Darren Rowse (who, let’s face it, is an uber-smart marketer) I’ve not seen a blog whose creator says that the time and effort spent on their blog has directly put money into their pockets. Indirectly perhaps – increased consultancy, exposure to greater markets, more speaking opportunities. But as a direct ROI marketing asset, blogs suck, imho. Time invested does not equal dollars directly returned. Even legendary social mediarist Jeremiah Owyang (whose market is online marketing professionals) recently said that Twitter (the current evangelists tool of choice and replacement for blogs) was mostly noise and he was cutting back on it.
Blogging authority Paul Chaney says,
“I would say that, with few exceptions, blogs are not yet direct income producing resources in and of themselves. Their value lies in the fact that they help raise one’s stature relative to their respective field.”
In my observation, there are two major problems with blogging as a business-building tool.
The first is that most of the blogs I encounter are rambling, streams-of-consciousness musings about a particular topic of interest to the author, largely bereft of the kind of practical, pithy tips that e-zines, Web sites, and white papers offer. Obviously, examples of bloggers that DO get it right include folks like Amit Agarwal; but even Amit and Darren and other full-time bloggers have their sites stuffed full of Google Adsense and other ad-service providers’ content. They make their money from the click-throughs, not from the products or services they are selling.
And most importantly, they are individuals, not businesses!
Okay, don’t get picky with me – yes, they are also ‘businesses’ in that they are registered for tax, use bookkeepers and accountants, etc., maybe even have an assistant or two to help with copywriting or admin stuff, but they are not your average SME: Small to Medium Sized Enterprise (or Small to Medium Sized Business, SMB, in the US). An SME is usually any business with between 11 and 250 employees that turns over anything from €2 million to €50 million (this is the European definition, by the way; the US definition varies from this, but not substantially).
They are not representative of 99% of the business community in any major country and also globally: “Globally SMEs account for 99% of business numbers and 40% to 50% of GDP.” [source: Wikipedia]
As Deb says, reading someone’s blog is like reading the author’s journal or diary. And unless you are a guru or celebrity whom others worship from afar, people are simply not going to flock in major numbers to your business blog to discover your latest thoughts on life.
The second problem with blogs is one of distribution.
With an e-zine, once the reader subscribes, he gets the e-zine delivered to him electronically every week or every month — or however often you send it.
But with a blog, the reader has to go out and proactively look for it (since most ‘Joe Average-Countryman’ readers haven’t yet figured out rss readers). And since your contributions to your blog may be irregular and unscheduled, he has no way of knowing when something new of interest has been added unless you add a way of subscribing via email, which most blogs don’t but the more enlightened individual and micro-business (aka SOHO) bloggers do.
One big advantage of blogs, according to Paul Chaney, is that having a blog can help pull traffic to your Web site:
“The search engines, especially Google, love blogs. You’d be amazed at how many of your posts will end up in the top ten returns. If search engine optimization is a concern to you, blogs are the best way I know to move up the ladder as well as increase your page rank.”
Debbie Weil adds,
“I confidently predict that blogs will soon be a key piece of an effective online marketing strategy. Ultimately, they’re nothing more than an instant publishing tool, one that makes posting fresh content to the Web within anyone’s reach. No tech skill or knowledge required.”
And that’s another one of my complaints with blogs in particular and the Web in general: the ease with which people can post and disseminate content.
“The best thing about the Web is that anyone can publish on it; the worst thing about the Web is that anyone can publish on it,” a computer magazine columnist once observed.
The problem is that there is already too much content, and we don’t want or need more. Analysis
, wisdom, insight, advice, strategies, ideas – yes. But raw information, data, or content – no. And from what I can see, blogs serve up almost none of the former, and tons of the latter.
Blogs are, by virtue of being a form of online diary, like diaries: rambling, incoherent, and very often more suited for private thoughts than public consumption.
If you have something of value to share, there are many better formats for doing it online than by blogging, including white papers, e-zines, and Web sites. Why do you think Trevor Cook and I invested time and energy in our white paper on social media (now, in its third edition, the Social Media Report)? Because it was something that was far easier to ‘sell’ to corporate communicators and their managers than printouts of a post/article from our blogs.
Even bulletin boards are interactive, so they have value by virtue of shared opinions, dialogue, and engaging conversation which may be listened to openly and publicly.
But most blogs seem to be the private idiosyncratic musings of an individual, without censure or editing of any kind. And the result is like porridge made with water, not milk, and without any sugar on top: a sloppy mess, tasteless, and not very satisfying.
Where businesses have set up blogs, those blogs are usually full of content that has been nagged to death by a committee, in much the same way that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The words are homogenised, the life being choked out of them; they are the words of risk-averse lawyers and bean counters, hesitant and job-dependent middle managers, and people who ‘just don’t get it’. The people who usually do ‘get it’ are very often not in positions of power, either because of their age, or their slightly rebellious and/or unorthodox manner.
Sure, some blogs generate swag loads of comments, but the blogs that do are very often run by individuals (Chris Brogan springs immediately to mind as a damn fine read, of both his posts and the comments he generates) or a small team (think Gawker sites such as Gizmodo), NOT a business with 50+ employees.
There are far better ways of managing a business’ contribution to the global conversation than through setting up a blog. For the average SME they are expensive to maintain (writing content, following up comments, removing spam), they are a distraction from the core business of the company, and they are seen as a cost, not an investment, by the bean counters and C-level team.
If you are a SOHO or individual, then you ABSOLUTELY MUST be blogging, so that you can show thought leadership, an understanding of your industry, and the ability to communicate effectively. If you are B2C SME you REALLY SHOULD be considering blogging, so that you can engage directly with your customers.
As Tapscott and Williams say in Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, only the “smartest and most sincere companies” will stand a chance of prevailing in the new world order that the social media revolution has brought to us, via the Cluetrain Manifesto.
But if you are an SME that has limited resources, has a hesitant management, and allows the lawyers to vet all and any copy so that “nothing can bite us on the bum” you are not the sort of company yet ready to benefit from blogging.
Yes, this is different from what I’ve previously been evangelising.
And yes, I might just be ‘testing’ you to see if you are paying any attention.
p.s. Yes, the wise amongst you might also be wondering if I am sorting out the ‘tyre kickers’ from the potential clients who are actually serious about engaging in the new communication landscape.