Six years ago, 48-year-old Steve Sando started a business growing heirloom beans that he purchased in Mexico and Central America. Working in Rancho Gordo, in Napa, Calif., Sando found success selling his beans at farmers’ markets and to niche customers. And then one day, a loyal customer suggested Sando start blogging about his… beans.
In the year since Sando launched his bean blog, business at Rancho Gordo has increased some 300 percent. “We literally see results,” Sando says. After he writes about certain varietals, “sometimes I’ll get five orders a day and then sometimes it will go crazy and I’ll get 24 orders.”
Clearly, blogging can go a long way toward building your business or career. It’s nothing short of free global advertising. Whether you are writing about your own company, or on behalf of the company you work for, a blog is a powerful tool that demonstrates your business reputation to potential customers, partners and employers.
And with the stakes so high, it’s critical to watch out for potential pitfalls. Here’s how to blog smart and take full advantage of opportunities to advance your career and business goals:
1. Set an objective for the blog
Don’t just blog because everyone else is doing it. Set an objective. Most business bloggers are seeking to attract and keep customers. Familiarity breeds good business. “If you have two suppliers with exactly the same products, the customer is going to go with the one they know,” says Anil Dash, vice president of evangelism for Six Apart, which makes TypePad, Movable Type and Vox, some of the most popular blogging tools around. Blogging becomes a very personal way for a businessperson to connect with customers. Sando explains the magic this way: “People feel as if they’ve discovered you.”
2. Create a winning concept
Why would anyone want to read your business blog? What do you have to say about your career or business that’s unique or interesting? Once you answer these questions, you can develop your concept. One winnable concept is to use the blog format to tell the story of you or your company. “This is where the voice of your company can come out,” says Dash. “It’s a real chance for you to show that there are people on the other side of the business.”
3. Choose your platform wisely
There are scores of blogging services and software products. In addition to Six Apart’s products, some of the popular ones are Blogger, LiveJournal and WordPress. Investigate your options. Some companies offer a free monthlong trial, so this might be a good way to test the platform before committing to one. “Go with one of the big ones and try it out first,” advises Paul Gillen, a social media consultant and author of The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to Social Media (Quill Driver Books). “It can be hard to move your blog if you’re not happy with the platform.”
4. Confirm appropriateness of all content
Many blog tools have add-ons, such as music, book reading lists, trivia quizzes and so on. Avoid any content that is not business-appropriate. Understand the impression you want to convey to visitors. “Nothing is more embarrassing in a business environment than having loud music play when you go to a Web site,” Gillin says. “I don’t think polls are a bad idea. I don’t think some trivia games are a bad idea. Just make sure it’s relevant to who you are or what you are writing about.”
5. Establish credibility
Be smart and double-check all facts before publishing them on your business blog. The content you post is a permanent public record. A good rule of thumb to follow is this: Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to a newspaper reporter. If you work for a larger organization, there might be constraints on what you can say due to company policies or government regulations. Understand those rules.
Dash points to Boeing as a large company that blogs smart. The airplane manufacturer is building a giant commercial plane, the Dreamliner 787. After Boeing let a Dreamliner team member blog about the plane and post interior drawings, other blogs and frequent flyers took note. It ultimately helped Boeing book orders by showing passenger interest.
6. Fess up to mistakes
If you make a mistake, admit it. “Other bloggers will pick on you if you don’t get things right,” warns Dash. “Start with something human and humble and explain that you made a mistake,” Dash advises. “You should be fine.”
7. Drive traffic to your blog
If no one reads your blog, it defeats the purpose of writing one. Come up with a marketing plan. “Talk to customers,” Dash says. “If you send out email newsletters, put a line at the bottom that says, ‘check out our blog.’ While someone waits on your switchboard, have the hold message give the address of your blog.” You can put the blog Web address on your product packaging, your business cards and your email signature.
8. Engage your audience
Post often, even if it’s just a sentence or two. Posting frequently helps your blog rank higher on search engines, Dash advises. Also, ask your audience for input. Sando asks his readers for recipes or feedback on topics such as whether serving acidic food in ceramic bowls will expose diners to lead. “The comments people leave are amazing,” Sando says .
Elizabeth Wasserman is a freelance writer and editor based in Fairfax, Va. She writes for a variety of publications, including Congressional Quarterly, Inc. magazine, and she edits the online publication CIO Strategy Center.