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Jun 1, 2007
by Alfred Branch, Jr.
The two most common ways that businesses interact with customers on the web are with websites and emails. Websites give companies global reach because anyone, anywhere can easily log onto a site to gather information. As for emails, they are the less expensive, electronic equivalent to direct mail, where with a few mouse clicks, a retailer can reach many customers with promotions, sales or other information.
Both are viable ways for companies to communicate with customers. In fact, a business without a website is rare these days. The issue with these types of marketing efforts, however, is that both can be rather static. Most ecommerce websites offer only product information and an online shopping cart for purchases.
What if there was a way to keep customers informed more quickly, and offer value beyond the shopping experience? Three ways to do that online are though the use of blogs, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and with social networking sites. These Internet interaction options may sound a bit daunting for wholesalers, but if handled right, the three have distinct advantages over regular websites and email blasts, by giving customers a more memorable, ongoing experience with a company. This story looks at some of the elements that wholesalers can use to launch marketing efforts using these communication tools.
Blogging As Marketing
Blogs, short for weblogs, are running dialogs that people share with the world. They can possess whatever the author has on their mind, or specific news and information that readers should know. Blogs are literally everywhere on the Internet and give authors and their audiences a more informal and intimate opportunity for discourse. Through blogs, people are empowered to share their expertise and observations, and in essence, it gives the author a voice on the vast, and often times chaotic, Internet.
In the case of blog marketing, companies can use blogs in any number of ways. For example, to offer advice, create a running journal of occurrences at a convention, or simply to keep customers current on new products.
"The first thing anyone needs to know as it relates to business blogging is to be as clear as possible on who your audience is," said Sage Lewis, founder and president of SageRock.com, an online marketing firm.
Lewis suggests that to begin blog marketing, write about familiar things and offer expert advice on various topics of interest in the industry. To that end, you should write a mission statement of what the blog is about. For example, give insider information on your business to help buyers navigate their category. Or, to archive special offers, press releases, product announcements and promotions.
"Decide what things are important to your audience and become an expert in them," Lewis said. "Point of sale, distribution, EDI (electronic data interchange), these are all things that a wholesaler could write about."
You might also consider blogging about the lifestyle surrounding the industry, or how specific merchandise can be used. A blog could even contain fun, gossipy items of interest, but avoid using real names of people unless they agree to be mentioned and if they are discussed in a positive way. The last thing a merchant would want is a potential lawsuit from a disgruntled competitor.
"When you start a blog, or any kind of marketing campaign, think of it as a mini business and fully understand what it is you are trying to achieve," Lewis said.
Lee Odden, founder of the blog marketing firm, TopRank Online Marketing, said becoming a reader of blogs, whether business, politics or any topic, is the best way to learn what other people are writing about and how they present it. Blogs often utilize an informal writing style that reads like a conversation. Odden suggests signing up at one of the free blogging websites such as Bloglines.com or Google's Blogger.com to not only begin writing a blog but to see how others are doing it. Other examples of blogging sites include the $50 per year TypePad.com and the free WordPress.com.
There is software you can use to directly set up a blog on your website, but a cheaper alternative is using one of the free blog sites and linking to it from your company's website. However you decide to set up a blog, make sure it is something you enjoy writing. Blogs do not create content by themselves, so you have to be realistic about the amount of time it will take to maintain the blog. Decide on how frequently the blog will be updated, and then stick to that schedule, because a marketing blog that is not updated in a few weeks loses its effectiveness.
"You will be investing a lot of time in it, so incorporating your blog into your daily routine is important," Lewis said, emphasizing that this is particularly crucial for the one to three person company, because owners and employees already have a lot of responsibilities. "If your schedule is already maxed out then do not look to start a blog." Odden agreed, but also said starting a blog quickly and early will help with its popularity. "If you are one of the first blogs to produce robust content on specific aspects of the industry, you will have an advantage."
The sooner a business establishes a unique blog, the more visitors it will generate over time, thus improving its ranking among search engines. Odden used the example of a neurosurgeon he worked with who started a blog about learning and improving a person's intelligence.
One of the surgeon's posts was submitted to Digg.com, a popular user driven news site and online community. The blog received a few hundred positive votes from Digg members who found the piece interesting, and that led to the surgeon's blog receiving more than 20,000 visitors per month.
Another feature of blogs is the ability to allow visitors to leave comments on what a wholesaler writes. The two main things people use the web for are gathering information or being entertained, so a visitor might want to let you know how they felt about the blog. Comments can be risky because people tend to feel bolder when commenting anonymously and might leave some nasty notes.
"When you blog, you are opening yourself up to the possibility of being on the other end of some extreme frankness. The thing to remember is that you can clarify or correct a situation quickly," Lewis said. "Do not have a blog that does not allow comments, because commenting is very tied into the informal, social aspects of what blogs are about." Blogs can be set up so that the author has to approve each comment before it is posted, so visitors never have to see the bad messages.
Businesses should also compile a list of blogs with similar themes or interests, and post comments there. Such a move increases exposure for their own blog. "At the end of the day, making a blog interesting and useful is what counts," said Brandon Cornett, publisher of CEOBlogWatch.com, which pulls together business blogs from corporate CEOs. "It is a great way of breaking down barriers and speaking directly to your customers. It allows you to tell your story."
The RSS Advantage
Ever wonder what those little orange buttons are on some websites? They are RSS feeds. Wikipedia offers the following definition: "A family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated digital content, such as blogs, news feeds or podcasts." Using a software program referred to as a "feed reader" or "feed aggregator," a person can subscribe to an information feed, most typically a website, by entering the site's address. Once a user has subscribed to a feed, they can receive notification of when that site has been updated, which can save a person from having to visit the site and scrolling through lots of pages to see if there is any new information.
Think of an RSS feed as a way of receiving only the new bits from a blog. "RSS is still rather new, so the main thing now is just educating people on how it can be used," Cornett said.
Published reports estimate that 27 million people regularly use RSS feeds, and as more people learn how to use them, that number will grow. Part of the beauty of RSS feeds is that they can reach subscribers in an instant and are less intrusive than email blasts.
Only those who subscribe to the RSS feed will be notified when there is new content, or a blog, that a wholesaler wants to share. Users are generally more interested in the website or blog because they have to subscribe. Lewis said that blogs and RSS feeds present a paradigm shift in the way traditional businesses can interact with their customers, but he admitted that RSS had yet to catch on to the extent experts thought it would. Therefore, he says the application is not yet, "An email killer."
RSS eliminates the need for spam filters because the users control when and how they access the new information. "Think of RSS as pushing out a message that a business wants to highlight," Odden said. "That is not to say that email is bad. Email is always good, especially when companies cultivate and maintain their lists; not simply buy a list."
Say a company's email blast reaches 20,000 people, but less than a quarter of them might be interested in the product or service the business is selling. At the same time, another company's RSS feed only reaches 10,000 people. The RSS feed will yield the better potential customer because all 10,000 subscribers did so specifically because they wanted information on a particular company.
Cornett suggests that for now, those who plan to use RSS feeds place a page on their company's website, or section in a blog, that explains what RSS is. You might also use the page to gather the RSS feeds of other websites and blogs that might be useful to the audience.
Whatever the channel a business uses to market to customers, the overriding theme is simplicity, for both you and your buyers. "When it comes to any online marketing initiative, accessibility and ease of use are two things that potential customers will relate to," Cornett said.
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Topic: Business Strategies
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