Jumping on the Blog Bandwagon: Is It Worth the Effort?

Is the blogging honeymoon over or is it just the beginning of a beautiful relationship with your customers? We talked to three e-biz owners who agree that onsite blogs truly are excellent marketing and SEO tools.

More and more Web sites, particularly e-commerce sites, are adding onsite blogs. Some, like the blog for the 24 Hour Secretary, offer visitors helpful tips and advice. Others, like blogs.sun.com, the home page for Sun Microsystems' many blogs, are sounding boards for the company's CEO and employees.

Still others, like American Apparel's Daily Update, are more like social networking sites, allowing just about anyone to chime in with an entry or comment. And there are some sites, such as The Poppe Law Firm, a small Kentucky legal practice, that use their blog to discuss issues (or in this case, cases) that are important to them and, perhaps, their customers.


While having a blog can make a site appear to be "cool" or "hip," or at least au currant, do blogs actually add value to a Web site, particularly an e-commerce site? Even more important, does having a blog help you improve sales?


To find out if having an onsite blog makes good business sense, as well as money, ECommerce-Guide.com spoke with executives at three different online businesses as well as an online marketing expert.


Etsy Garden: News, views and free publicity
Etsy.com describes itself as "Your place to buy & sell all things handmade." Quirky and hip, the site is an online marketplace for 55,000 artisans to sell their handmade wares as well as one-stop shopping for customers looking for something unique or unusual, be it clothing, jewelry, toys, housewares or something else.


Etsy.com's current blog, (a new, expanded blog, which will resemble an e-zine and be called "The Storque," is scheduled to replace the current blog at the end of July) Etsy Garden, could also be described as a bit quirky, but that's probably because most people aren't used to dealing with companies that conduct themselves in a very open manner.


"We're very transparent about our stats, our business, our ideas, and we actively involve the community in all of our decisions," explained Matthew Stinchcomb, Etsy.com's vice president of communications. And Etsy Garden adds to that feeling of transparency. It is also the company's primary vehicle for promoting pet causes as well some of the people who sell on the site.


"We wanted to create a place where we could keep people informed of what we're doing as a company," said Stinchcomb. "We also want to help as many people as we can make a living making things. If we feature someone or an event in our blog, it's great publicity." Etsy Garden does both.


And, per Stinchcomb, the blog is a great success, not only serving as a forum for ideas and news but driving traffic to Etsy.com and individual seller's sites.


As for the company's new blog, The Storque, it will be an expansion of Etsy.com's original mission to inform and enlighten visitors, providing news as well as helpful resources, such as how to get healthcare if you're self employed and how to market your independent business. It will also play a more prominent role on the main site and, no doubt, help Etsy.com garner more attention.


Ice Blog and Just Ask Leslie: Blogs with bling — as well as tips and celebrity gossip
For e-tailer Ice.com, having a blog (in this case, two blogs) just made good marketing sense. In 2006, the company's owners were dissatisfied with the advertising options available to them and saw a blog as having the potential to be a better return on investment.


Before launching its official Ice Blog, however, Vice President of Marketing Pinny Gniwisch became actively involved on a number of third-party blogs having to do with jewelry and fashion, so people would recognize him as an authority on those subjects when Ice.com launched its own blog.


"When you're talking about, say, jewelry, [though he says the subject could be anything] you need to go out and search the popular jewelry blogs and you need to comment on those blogs," he said. "If you don't get involved, people won't recognize you and your blog won't get picked up. I got involved in the community, and people started to recognize me as someone who cared about the world of jewelry and fashion. Then, when we put up our blog, they took our links and trackbacks, all the things search engines love, and that helped fuel our growth."


Another thing that fueled the popularity of Ice.com's official blog was Gniwisch's "aha" moment of linking it to the jewelry celebrities were wearing to awards shows and big events.


"We put up 'Sparkle like the Stars' and within a month our traffic grew," said Gniwisch. "Today, you type in 'Celebrity Jewelry' [on a major search engine] and we're number two. You type in anything out there that has to do with jewelry and movie stars and we're up there, because our content is relevant and it's updated very frequently, at least three times a week."


And people love the blog, he said, with the site attracting between 50,000 to 60,000 unique visitors every two weeks.


"It's definitely an amazing marketing tool. There's no question about it," said Gniwisch. "The blogosphere has a certain level of cache that a Web site doesn't give you, because it's more authentic, more real. And people who read blogs are not your regular Joes. They're further along the curve when it comes to shopping online," which makes them more inclined to buy from a site such as Ice.com.


In addition to its official blog, Ice.com also features a blog called Just Ask Leslie, basically a customer service/educational tool. The blog is named afer Ice.com's merchandiser and resident jewelry guru, Leslie, who is a regular contributor, though other people at the company post and respond to queries. It provides the answers to questions often asked by customers to the company's customer service reps.


Both blogs have helped propel Ice.com up the search engine rankings and helped establish Ice.com as a jewelry "maven." They have also improved the company's online sales with a minimal capital outlay, which greatly pleases Gniwisch and his partners.


Loosely Speaking: Combining the personal with the professional
Katie Baird, a virtual assistant whose business, Loose Ends, helps small business owners create Web sites and graphics, started her onsite blog, Loosely Speaking, back in 2003 when blogging was in its infancy. She used it as "a chatty way to keep my personal family and family of clients up to date." Over the years, though, the blog has evolved, becoming more of a business tool.


Indeed, Baird, who still writes the occasional personal entry, is a big fan of blogging for business. "My blog has definitely helped me to market my business," she said. "With links from my two business sites [she has another site about living and working in Prescott, Arizona] both to and from my blog, visits to all three have increased, and I commonly receive the comment that a prospect found me via my blog.


"Plenty of other superb VA blogs outrank mine," continued Baird. "But mine does very well in terms of pulling in traffic from specific key search terms that I target. And as of today [July 5] on Google, it's 25th out 1,950,000 for the term 'virtual assistant blog,' 21st out of 2,110,000 for 'virtual assistants blog,' and 21st out of 2,790,000 for 'virtual assistance blog.' That level of visibility is a boon to my business."


Successful Blogging
"The best blogs are the ones that sound the most genuine," said Stefan Tornquist, the research director at MarketingSherpa. "And the person writing the blog has to be passionate about what they're writing about," added Ice.com's Gniwisch. Tornquist also advocates having a blog with an educational component, particularly if you are a niche site or are selling a complex product or service. Other stand out blogs, he said, focus on what makes that company's brand, products or services unique.


Allowing visitors to comment on blog entries is universally considered a good thing, too, but all those interviewed advised moderation, that is, monitoring comments and approving them before they make it onto the blog.


Another important issue, one that is often overlooked, according to Tornquist, is maintaining your blog. "We know that after 90 days the majority of blogs go fallow," he said. The problem: people get all fired up about creating a blog, then once they get all their initial ideas out there and other things become more important, they blog less and less or not at all.


To prevent this, Tornquist offered the following four options:

  1. Appoint someone internally to be in charge of the blog — and make sure that person has enough time to properly maintain it (i.e., make blogging a top responsibility not just one of 100);
  2. Hire someone to be in charge of the blog (which is what Ice.com did with its official blog);
  3. Ask someone who is a regular commenter on your blog, who has clearly shown he or she is passionate about your business, to maintain the site as a volunteer (though, cautions Tornquist, that can be risky); and
  4. Make your blog more like a social network, like American Apparel's Daily Update, where pretty much anyone can post or respond, or like Sun's blogs, where pretty much any employee can post (though in both cases it's probably a good idea to find someone to serve as a moderator or watchdog, to make sure the content is appropriate).


If your onsite blog "is going to be successful," said Tornquist, "there needs to be a good reason for it to exist. You need to constantly update it. And you need to make a vigorous effort to keep the thing interesting enough to compel people to return regularly. Often we see blogs devolve from featuring unique writing to simply collecting links to relevant content from around the Net. There's a place for that, but it's already being done at a high level for most niches, so it's going to be tough for a blog like that to attract attention or keep it."


Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to Ecommerce-Guide.com and writes a blog for small business owners and managers that she has been neglecting.


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