Ten corporate blogging mistakes

Wrench

Business blog not working the way you had hoped? You can fix it. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/899403)

If you’ve started a blog for your business, but it’s not taking off the way you wished, you might be making one or more of these mistakes.

1. You use anonymous authors instead of real people as your writers. You can use multiple writers, you can appoint a single chief blogging officer or you can just assign it to the right person in the public relations or marketing department. But posts without a real human face and name behind them probably won’t appeal as much to readers.

2. You post mostly press releases and product announcements. I think it’s fine to write a post about what’s happening in your company, or what new products you’re launching. But you’ll have more success if more of your content solves problems, entertains and otherwise engages the interests of your target audience.

3. You post infrequently. A blog post once a month is not often enough. If I can post several times a week here, in my spare time, than most corporate blogs ought to be able to manage regular updates. This can be challenging for small businesses. The key is to develop an editorial calendar, make writing assignments and decide blogging is a priority.

4. You post only one kind of content. I’m a writer, and I love text. But videos, slide shows, photos and podcasts are also good. Mix up the kind of content you post (yes, I need to do that here, too).

5. Your blog doesn’t have any personality. Every company I’ve ever been in has a personality, and has personalities working for it. Show them. Blogs are an intimate, engaging medium, not a place for news release-style writing by committee. If you “personality” is too frivolous for you, then think of this as demonstrating your character or brand.

6.You don’t encourage visitors to subscribe and you don’t capture email addresses. You should make your RSS feed highly visible, and also make it easy for people to subscribe via email. You’ve got a much better chance of getting repeat visitors if you encourage people to sign up to receive notifications of new posts. Self promotional alert: Please subscribe to this blog — the email form is over on the right.

7. You don’t provide clear links to other parts of the corporate web site. That is why you’re doing this, right? Don’t make it hard for me to learn more about your company, your people and your products and services. Make those links clear and prominent.

8. You don’t encourage employees, vendors and other stakeholders to read the blog. Those people are probably not your primary audience, but they can help spread the word to your real audience.

9. You’re not using social media to spread your content. People are not hanging around waiting for your next blog post – they’re too busy. So use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and whatever else makes sense to push your blog content out to the web. Some people who see it at those sites will visit your blog.

10. You don’t have a clear purpose and metrics. I believe in the value of social media and online marketing tools, but I also believe they need to be used strategically. That means you need to have clear goals for your blog, tied to your company goals, and you need to measure those over time.

What other mistakes do you see corporate blogs making? Please share them in the comments below.

How to counter 11 common arguments against corporate blogs

Stop signs

Have you been told to stop the corporate blogging project? (Image by ColinBroug via stock.xchng - http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1219058)

At many companies, if you propose a blog you will get a lot of resistance. It may come from older, senior executives who don’t read  — or think they don’t — blogs. It may come from traditional marketers who don’t believe you can demonstrate ROI from a blog. It may come from lawyers who are worried about compliance issues and new risks. It may even come from some completely unexpected source. Here are some common arguments against corporate blogs, and some suggestions for countering those arguments.

“Our target audiences don’t read blogs”

That’s probably only true if you’re target audience isn’t online at all. The estimates vary, but in the U.S. tens of millions of people read blogs, with the estimates ranging from roughly 50 to 75 percent of all Internet users. Blogs are now commonly published on larger web sites for media outlets, universities, companies and other organizations that it’s unlikely that a typical Internet user doesn’t read at least from time to time.

And the numbers may even be higher than the statistics indicate. It is possible, that people read blogs and don’t realize it. Lots of news now gets published first on blogs, but I have heard even web-savvy people identify those blog posts as articles. Your target audience doesn’t read blogs? Only if they’re not online at all.

“We would be subject to comments we can’t control”

Many people in corporate environments associate blogs with unfettered criticism and comments — conversation they don’t want to publicize further. But the truth is the Internet is a bastion of free and unfettered conversation, and offline and online your organization is already subject to comments you can’t control. If you think you’re not, it probably means you’re just not aware of it. If those comments are on your blog, you can monitor what people say about you more closely. You can respond more quickly and more aggressively to correct untrue assertions and make a case for your viewpoint.

On your own blog, you also control if, when and how comments are left on your blog. While it’s not considered good form for most, some high profile bloggers have even shut off comments entirely on their sites. In many cases that’s probably not the best solution for a corporate blog, but if you get libelous, untrue or other problematic content showing up in comments, it’s easy to prevent that from showing up on your site.

“We wouldn’t have control of where the blog content ended up on the Internet”

As with comments, you already don’t have control of where your web content shows up on the Internet. Blogs are no different. The nature of information online is that it spreads. If you are publishing content that you think is worthwhile, important and relevant — why would you want to limit its spread? If you don’t want people to be familiar with your brand, to know what kind of expertise you have and to be exposed to your ideas, then you probably shouldn’t have a blog. But if you don’t want those things, you probably shouldn’t have a business, either.

“We can’t measure the ROI on a blog”

There’s an old joke in advertising: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. Trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Actually, things are a lot better now than when John Wanamaker, an early department store entrepreneur, tossed off that comment. Many big companies measure how effective and efficient their advertising, public relations and other marketing-communications efforts are (small companies should, but are often reluctant to spend a little more on measurement). Blogs are no different than any other marketing-communications tool, and you can measure the ROI on a blog just like anything else.

If you want to measure how many people you reach, track unique visitors to the blog. If you want to measure your influence in the industry, track how many people comment on your posts and share your content on other web sites. If you want to measure how a blog affects your sales, track how many people click through to your e-commerce site or how many customers cite “blog” when asked where they heard of you. If you want to do this formally (a good idea in a big organization), you might start with Katie Delahaye Paine’s excellent social media measurement checklist.

“A blog is not really the most important priority right now for the company”

The blog itself may not be a priority, but like many communications tools, a blog may be able to support whatever the company’s current priorities are. No one should start a blog just for the sake of having a blog, but tying in your blogging (and other communications activities) to overall organizational goals ought to be the first thing you do.

“Blogs are good for B2C marketing, but we’re a B2B company”

Blogs are designed for communicating to other people — period. B2B communications are aimed at real people, and there is little evidence that people buying for businesses make decisions differently than people buying for themselves. In fact, given the existence of services like business class airfare, I’d say there’s an argument that people buying for businesses are sometimes less rational than people buying for themselves. (Note — I’m in favor of business class airfare, but not because it saves anyone money. It makes business travel, which can be unpleasant, a little less arduous, and happy employees are worth a lot.)

We don’t have the resources to create content for a blog and then spend all that time monitoring comments”

If a blog fits your communication goals, it might actually be less costly than other channels. While it takes time to run a blog, just as it takes time to run an advertising campaign, the primary cost of a blog is time. Other communications channels frequently have additional costs beyond time — advertising spend, printing, postage, etc.

If the concern is only about employee time (which is now, more than ever, in short supply), there are plenty of freelancers, consultants and agencies (like my employer) who would be happy to help.

“No one takes blogs seriously”

Really? Do people still say this? Yes, I suppose some do. Dell didn’t take a blog too seriously, until complaints about its product quality and warranty service became endemic and threatened the company’s reputation. Microsoft hired blogger Robert Scoble a few years ago, and he helped give the not-so-loved software giant a human face and an improved reputation. A few years ago Apple sued bloggers about confidential information they published. Turns out that these very large, very successful companies took bloggers very seriously. You should, too.

“We really need to be putting our efforts into Facebook, Twitter and social media”

Yes, you probably should be putting some effort into the newer social media platforms, which are becoming centers for conversation by your customers about your products and services (if not now, then eventually). But blogs were among the first of the “social media” channels, and still play a central role in many social media strategies. They allow you to publish more content, and have more control over it, than shorter-form sites such as Facebook and Twitter do. If your company is on Twitter or Facebook or other sites (or wants to be), than your company should be considering a blog as part of that strategy.

“IT can’t/won’t support a blog”

No problem. Host the blog on an outside server, with a separate domain if necessary, and hire a consultant who specializes in blogs to support it. Plus, many web hosting companies, including my hosting provider Dreamhost (affiliate link), make it easy even for people with few or no technical skills to set up a blog.

Don’t like the DIY solution? Well, why won’t IT support a blog? Chances are your IT staff support email, spreadsheets, smart phones and other applications and services. Chances are the IT staff has the skills to support a blog (whether they want to admit it or not). If IT won’t support your blog, that probably means you haven’t gotten true buy-in from all the executives you need to.

“Blogs are amateurish and embarrassing, and don’t match our brand”

Some blogs are amateurish and embarrassing, but your blog can be whatever you want to make of it. Many blogs are well designed, well written and popular; yours can be, too. All you have to do is make the effort, commit the resources and sit back and reap the rewards.

What arguments have you heard against blogs? How have you responded? Please share in the comments.

How and why you should get your own domain name

I’m always surprised by the number of businesses, large organizations and professionals I see using someone else’s domain name for a blog. Often this takes the form of hosting a blog on one of the major hosting sites — wordpress.com or blogspot.com, for instance. I suspect this is because many people don’t understand how inexpensive and easy it use to use one of those services with a domain name of your choosing. ­­­Why bother at all?

1. Portability. Even if you’re using a hosting service such wordpress.com now, so long as you own your own domain it’s easy to transfer your blog to a self-hosted service down the road (more on this in another post). Once you have a domain name registered, you can “point” it to whatever hosting service you like.

2. It’s more professional. It just looks more professional, and thus is better marketing, to have your own domain name. It suggests to visitors that you have put more time and energy into the site, and that it’s more legitimate.

3. Your domain name will probably be shorter. When you’re putting that URL on business cards, in emails or giving it out to people over the phone or in person, shorter is better. Generally yourdomain.com will be shorter than yourdomain.somehostingservice.com. This also means there’s less chance people will make a mistake and fail to actually get to your site if they type the domain name into a web browser.

That said, choosing a domain name is something you should spend some time on. Here are some factors to consider:

1. If at all possible, choose a .com domain name. The .com extension is the one that people often assume a domain name has. Other extensions, such as .net or .biz, simply aren’t as intuitive for most web users.

2. Choose something that’s as short as possible and as easy to spell as possible.
Although I own the domain name marktosczak.com, I don’t use it here because my last name is difficult to spell. Instead, I’ve chosen marktzk, which is easy to give out over the phone and easy to spell (and roughly, phonetically equivalent to my name).

3. For SEO, choose relevant keywords. If you’re a dentist, you might want to choose a domain name with the word ‘dentist’ or ‘dentistry’ or something similar in it. People may search for those terms, and you’ll have a better chance of coming up higher in the rankings if search terms are actually used in your URL. (In case you’re wondering why, it’s because links to your site are more likely to include that search term in the display text, which is one of the criteria Google uses in ranking web site search results.)

4. Pick a name that is relevant to your brand or what your web site will be about. If your web site is about you, or you want to brand based on your name or personal identity, then a name-based site is fine. If your web site is about fitness, then choose a domain name that somehow references that idea.

So, what are the mechanics of finding and buying a great domain name? Here’s a process that has worked for me over the years.

1. Brainstorm lots of domain name ideas. For each one, go to a domain name registrar and type it in to see if it is taken. If you’re hunting for .com domains, chances are many of your ideas will already be registered. But, if you keep at this long enough you’ll eventually find a list of domain names that you like reasonably well and that are available. Here’s a tip if you’re having trouble finding good names: Take your preferred terms (ex. “dentist” or “fitness”) and add a common word on to the end of it – “hq” or “book”, for example. So you might end up with a domain such as “fitnesshq.com.” (Though, that particular name is already taken.)

2. Go to the domain name registrar of your choice and register the name.
You ought to be able to get a domain from a reliable registrar for about $10 a year, often less. I’m surprised that there are still people paying $35 a year, though for many businesses this is not a significant expense. I use Namecheap.com (affiliate link) for most of my domains. It’s inexpensive, reliable and has a range of free extras included.

If this is a personal domain, such as for a blog, I would recommend also getting a privacy guard feature installed. Namecheap uses a service called “WhoisGuard.” When you register a domain, you’re required to provide a valid mailing address and other information. This information is available publicly via searches. So if you give your home address, anybody who knows your domain name can find your home address. But privacy services insert a third-party company address into this record, hiding your personal information.

3. If you’re using a hosting service, such as wordpress.com (which I recommend if you are going to use such a service), enable “URL forwarding” on your domain. Your domain name registrar basically sets your domain information so that it points to your website, and when people enter your domain in a browser they are sent to whatever site you have it forwarded to.

That’s it. What other tips and resources do you have for choosing a domain name? Please share them in the comments below.

How to overcome blogger’s block (aka writer’s block)

Broken Laptop

Sometimes your mind goes blank — like a busted laptop. Don't let that stop you. (Photo by winjohn @ stock.xchng - http://www.sxc.hu/photo/529107)

It happened to me this week. I was cruising along, had a good list of blog post ideas and had written four of seven posts for the week. But I knew I had some very busy days coming up, and I needed to get three more written to meet my self-imposed quota of posts for the week. And I got blocked.

None of my blog post ideas seemed interesting. Or the ones that were interesting seemed too challenging — I wasn’t sure I knew enough to credibly write about the topic. Or I could write about the topic, but it would take too long, and I was tired. In other words, I was blocked. Call it blogger’s block or writer’s block, it happens to all of us from time to time.

But for bloggers, who rely on the ability to consistently publish new content, this can be fatal. It can murder your momentum, drown your enthusiasm and kill your creativity. However, I’ve been getting paid to string words together for almost 20 years. I’ve faced this demon before, I know a few tricks to get past him.

1. Write partial posts. Instead of trying to put together perfectly formed posts, open up your text editor, word processor or blogging software and write partial posts. Write in bullet points and just put down a few key ideas. Do this for two or three different post ideas, and often something will light your interest and get those blogging fires burning again.

2. Write something that you promise yourself you won’t publish. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good, just write it. You can change your mind later if it turns out it’s worth sharing. If it’s not, you can trash it.

3. Write a links post. Go out and find half a dozen really good links to stuff other people have written or created, and write a links post. For each link hammer out a couple of sentences about why you like it. This is a low creativity task, but it’ll give you a blog post you can use, and the discipline of writing this sort of thing is good for you.

4. Use a different writing tool. If you normally type up your blog posts on your computer, try writing one by hand on paper. If you normally write in your blogging software’s built-in editor, try using Word, or a text editor, or Google Docs instead. You could even try recording it instead of writing it.

5. Take a photo, shoot a video or record a podcast. I admit, I’m very focused on text. I’ve always been a writer who wrote for print, and I love the power of words well put together. But if you have the ability, you might want to try a different kind of content. So maybe that means shooting a photo or a video, or recording a short podcast. It could even mean a slide show you publish with Slideshare.

6. Write in a different place. I usually write at my desk at home. But if that’s not working, I might move to another room or even sit outside (if weather allows). Anything that gets me out of my habitual, unconscious patterns habits might also shake loose a little creativity.

7. Write about something totally different. This blog is generally about topics related to social media, blogging and online marketing. But what if I took a break from that and instead wrote about the earthquake in Haiti, or my challenges in balancing a number of volunteer activities on top of my job and family, or something else entirely? Maybe you’ll publish this entirely different post, maybe you won’t. But maybe it’ll loosen up your writing muscles enough to get some more content created.

8. Just push through. Sometimes the best way to overcome the demon of writer’s block is to just push on through. Ignore those voices in your head telling you your ideas aren’t good enough, or not interesting enough, or that you’re not qualified, or that you don’t have enough energy. Write anyway. Just put some words down. This was ultimately the tactic I picked this week – and I got two more blog posts out of it. I’ve faced this demon before, and I know that sometimes I just need to shove him aside, keep on moving and ignore his taunts and insults.

If you’ve got tips for overcoming writer’s block, please share them in the comments below. (Hey, a comment can be just a couple sentences — it doesn’t need to be War and Peace. Push on through that resistance and tell me what you think.)

Four easy tips for making your business card and email signature more social

Business card

Is your business card social media savvy? (Photo by blary54 at stock.xchng - http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1022838)

So you’re a social media maven. You tweet, you blog, you have accounts on all the major social media sites, and a few of the minor ones, too. You know how Digg works, understand URL shorteners and subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds from social media rock stars like Chris Brogan and probloggers like Darren Rowse.

But, do your business card and email signature reflect these facts? Or are they mired in the ’90s, when a fax number was just as important as an email address?

Here are some ideas to bring these two common identity tools up to date:

1. Add the address for the social media service you use most commonly. For me, that’s Twitter (@marktzk, in case you want to follow me).

2. Instead of a company web address, how about a blog web address? This may not be feasible if you are part of a company and have a business card and email signature that follow a standard, prescribed format. But if you are self-employed, have personal business cards and use a personal email account, why not add the blog address to those?

Tip: You can get free business cards at VistaPrint and Bizcard.com.

3. You may be writing brilliant, useful content on your blog, but are you letting people know? How about adding the three most recent blog posts you’ve written under your email signature? If that seems strange or too narcissistic, it’s certainly not any worse than the quotes and song lyrics I see regularly in email sigs. Firefox add-on WiseStamp can help you do this for your free webmail (i.e. Gmail, Yahoo, etc.) accounts.

4. Are you promoting a free offer on your blog to get people to sign up for your email newsletter? For instance, perhaps your offering a free report or PDF when people join your email list. Consider putting this on the back of your business card or, again, in your email signature. (While we’re at it — is this information included in your major social media profiles? Some people who review these profiles will probbly be interested in your email list.)

I’m sure there are other things you could do with your business card and email signature to make them more social. What are your ideas? Please share them in the comments below.

Eight steps to launching a corporate blog

Team shoes photo

Developing the right team is an important step in launching a corporate blog (Photo by alemjusic at stock.xchng - http://www.sxc.hu/photo/693414)

A lot of what I write about here applies to individuals — individual blogs, personal branding and personal use of social media. But businesses, large and small, can also use blogs and social media to strengthen their brand, reach new customers and grow sales. And some kind of corporate or organizational blog is often an important part of the social media strategy.

So, let me suggest a few tips on ways to ensure your corporate blog is effective.

1. Get buy-in.

Make sure your executive leadership, including the corporate counsel and the CFO’s office. At large companies this process could require months. Nonetheless, getting buy-in on the benefits of having a corporate blog (and the risks, and a plan to manage the risks) is a lot easier to get ahead of the time then to ask for later.

Chances are blogging is actually not the riskiest thing your company does — far from it. But to many senior executives it may sound risky, so educating them is important.

2. Develop a strategy.

Identify your audience (investors, employees, current customers, potential customers or maybe all of these?) and get clear about what the goal of the blog is. What are you trying to achieve by having a corporate blog? Are you trying to drive leads to sales? Increase awareness? Foster conversation with key influencers (such as analysts and journalists)? Figure that out.

While you’re at it, develop some metrics to go along with your goals. Is it merely traffic, the level of interaction, or the profit from new customers?

3. Decide on the team.

Having a blog team makes it much more likely that your organizational blog will keep going, even during times when other stuff crops up and threatens to take your focus away from your blog (I speak from experience on this). Choose team members with the right skills, an interest in blogging and social media, and the ability to get the job done. Your team might include an editor/team leader, one or two contributing writers, someone from IT to help with the technical side of things and a designer to ensure the blog looks good.

4. Establish an approval process.

The quickest way to slow down posting on a blog is to have an unclear approval process. Or worse yet, no approval process at all. The first time some dumb error slips through the blog will also be the time when the CEO just happens to be reading it. You want an approval process — a system — in place, or else you run the risk of having one imposed on you.

Who on the team writes the draft of a blog post? Who edits it? Does anybody outside the blog team need to review it? If so, who sends it to that person? Do outside reviewers understand your blog deadlines?

5. Brainstorm blog post ideas.

Get your team, get your plan and go hole up in a conference room. Then come up with lots and lots of ideas for blog posts. If you want to prime the pump for this exercise, consider my post yesterday on 10 ways to generate ideas for blog posts.

You may only have to do this once, because often the act of writing a blog post results in more ideas for future posts. However, if you find your bank of blog post ideas getting a little thin, you may want to schedule a new brainstorming session periodically. Also consider the value of bringing others into these sessions — other employees, business partners and vendors, and perhaps even members of your target audience (for example, potential customers).

Once you’ve done your brainstorming session you’ll probably need to go back and winnow the list down, picking out the best, strongest ideas for blog posts. But brainstorm first; it’s easier to pull out strong ideas from a really long list produced by a good brainstorming session.

6. Create an editorial calendar.

Once you have a bunch of blog post topics, schedule them and assign them to members of your team (including yourself). Make sure everyone understands who’s writing what, who’s editing what, and when blog posts are scheduled to be published. Having a clear schedule with blog posts already plugged in ensures that you won’t be scrambling around for a post when you realize the entire blog team is going on vacation at the same time.

It’s OK to add things to the editorial calendar at the last minute, based on new announcements or developments in your company’s business. But in case you don’t have news to fuel the blog, an editorial calendar will help you keep it on track.

7. Train people on the software.

Whatever blogging software you use (I recommend WordPress, but Movable Type is also an option, and there are a host of other robust content management systems available), train your team on it. If there’s only one person on the team who knows how to actually post content, then you’re blog is going to grind to a halt whenever that person is away.

At their heart, blogs and social media are all about empowering people. So empower your team, even the blog virgins who have never used blogging software below and need some training.

8. Decide on a comments policy.

Decide on how you’ll handle comments. And in particular, decide on how you’ll handle negative comments. If your blog is at all successful, you will get negative comments. So will you publish those? If you publish them, will you respond to them? This is the hardest part for most traditional companies to figure out. Businesses are usually just not comfortable with the idea of responding to negative comments in a forum that’s visible to everyone.

But, not allowing negative comments may make your blog appear less transparent and less credible. And not responding to negative comments may allow false perceptions to take hold in your audience. Nonetheless, this is tricky for businesses. As I said in step No. 1, getting buy-in from senior executives is the most important part of this process.

There’s a lot more corporate bloggers can and should do, of course. But if you’re just launching a blog, going through these steps will give you a strong foundation for a successful blog. What are your tips for launching a corporate blog? Please share them in the comments below.

10 ways to generate ideas for blog posts

Ideas

How do you come up with ideas for blog posts? (Illustration by raja4u at stock.xchng - http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1156284)

Here’s the problem most bloggers, and anyone doing content marketing, faces: how to come up with ideas for posts.

I’ve got a list of about 30 potential blog post topics for this blog, right now, and I add to that list each day.

There’s lots of ways to come up with ideas. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that if you consistently work out at these techniques below, you’ll soon have more ideas for blog posts than you have time.

1. Wordtracker

SEO software maker Wordtracker’s free keyword questions tool allows you to enter a keyword and see the questions that people have actually typed into search engines related to those keywords. As with many of these online question tools, I always assume that if some people asked these questions online (through a search engine or another forum) than many others are probably also looking for the answer and interested in the topic.

2. LinkedIn Answers

Go to LinkedIn Answers and you can drill down, by various industry categories, and find questions that people have asked related to that. As above, I am assuming that if someone on LinkedIn asked the question, may more are interested in the answer. I’m not suggesting you should copy the answers, by the way. To produce good content you need to come up with your own original, meaningful, useful way of answering these questions.

3. Yahoo! Answers

Just like LinkedIn, Yahoo! Answers is a compendium of people’s questions, categorized by topic. You can use these just like you use LinkedIn Answers.

4. Ask MeFi

Same as above. There are some really interesting questions, by the way, if you dig into the Ask MetaFilter archives.

5. Everyday Conversations

What do people ask you? What do they wonder about? What conversations do you have that make you think about ideas related to your blog? For example, I had a conversation recently with a personal trainer who’s really trying to grow his business — he’s only got two clients at the moment. He mentioned being on Facebook, but obviously there’s a lot more he could do. Maybe there’s a blog post there, don’t you think?

6. Magazines in Your Niche

Go to a news stand or library and look at the magazines in your niche or industry. What cover blurbs do the latest issues have? What are their stories this month? Could you write your own take on some of these subjects or ideas? I’m not suggesting copying or stealing their stories, I’m saying that chances are, sometimes you’ll have your own ideas that are different from the ones in the magazine. Turn those into a blog posts.

7. Read Other Blogs in Your Niche

Has someone write a post that you have strong feelings about — maybe you think it’s brilliant, maybe you think it’s terrible. Either way, write a post in response. You can even link the original post that prompted the idea. (Although, even if you think the original post is horrible, be polite and diplomatic.)

Also look at the ideas that other bloggers in your niche are using. Could you do your own version of some of these posts? If someone does “10 tips for doing better” in your niche or industry, could you come up with 10 different tips? If so, you’ve got a blog post. I’m a big fan of giving credit where credit is due, so linking to these inspiring posts is a good idea.

9. Ask Your Community

Run a poll on your blog about possible future topics, or just put out a call “What should I write about next?” You can also ask these questions on your social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. If you have an email newsletter (which you should), you can put out a call on that channel, too. This probably won’t work so well for start-up blogs, but if you have a reasonably active community of people tied to your blog and social media presence, this could yield some good ideas.

10. Timed Brainstorming

Set yourself a deadline and simply come up with a certain number of ideas — say 10 in the next hour. The trick to this is to write down anything and everything that comes out, even if a lot of those ideas are not terribly good or original. With all the unusable ideas you get out of brainstorming, you’ll also get some usable ones. I did this recently on a plane trip when I didn’t have anything to read, and I added 10 new ideas in the last hour of the flight.

How do you come up with ideas for blog posts? Please share your tips in the comments below.

Four keys to improving any web site

Chart illustration

What have you done lately to improve your blog or web site? (Photo by ilco at stock.xchng - http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1198416)

When I look at this blog or almost any other web site, I always see things that could be done better. And I know that there are things that could be improved that I’m not seeing, because I’m simply not aware of all the shortcomings of a particular web site.

Since you can’t do everything at once, you might try tweaking and improving your web site one area at a time. Here are some ideas to help you do that:

1. Analytics.

Web analytics can help you understand who’s coming to your site, how often and how they’re using your site. Fortunately, this need not be expensive. Google Analytics is a powerful, robust tool that’s completely free. And it’s getting better all the time.

Analytics bonus tip: It’s not just what people are doing on your site, but what links they’re clicking on that take them off your site. Google Analytics can help you do that.

2. Conversion.

In case you’re not a marketer, conversion is basically what you want somebody to do on your site. In the context of your blog or another web site, conversion could mean buying something, but it could also be the number of people who sign up for your email newsletter, who subscribe to your RSS feed, who click to other pages on your site or who download a white paper. Figure out what conversion means to you, and then start tracking it. (And yes, once again Google Analytics can help and some of Big G’s other tools, such as Website Optimizer.

Conversion bonus tip: If you’re wondering why people aren’t clicking on your buttons or signingup for your newsletter, take a look at this cool tool from Google. Browser Size allows you to see how much content on your site readers see in their browser window. It may be that you’ve got a lot of readers who simple don’t see all your shiny buttons and enticing graphics at first glance.

3. Stickiness.

One of the things your analytics package (Google’s or something else) should be able to tell you is the bounce rate. That’s the percentage of visitors to your site who leave after viewing just one page. Generally the lower this number the better. Chances are that in order to engage people, and certainly in order to convert them, you need people to visit other pages on your site.

The more pages people typically visit on your site, than the “stickier” your web site is. How do you increase stickiness? One way is to make sure that links to your best content (your most popular blog posts, articles, photos or whatever) are clearly visible on every page of your site. That’s why I hae the “Popular Posts” navigation menu on the right hand side of this page. The WordPress plugin Yet Another Related Post Plugin, which I run here, gives you a list of other posts that should have be related in topic to this one.

To increase stickiness, make sure readers see your best stuff, no matter what page they’re on.

4. Speed.

The slower your web site, the more likely it is that people will get tired of waiting for it to finish loading and then leave (and your chances of achieving any conversion goals you might have will go to zero). So what do you do about it? Figure out how fast (or slow) your site is, diagnose the speed bottlenecks and then fix them. Here’s a couple tools that can help.

This free web site optimization tool allows you to plug in any site address and see how long the site will load at various speeds. It will also give you all sorts of tips on how on how to speed up your site.

Google also has a free browser plugin, Page Speed, that can help you diagnose and fix your web site speed problems.

Caution: Some of this information is technical, so if you’re not sure what a CSS file, you might be better off leaving this kind of optimization to a professional web developer.

Work on these four things and I can practically guarantee you will get more of the results you want out of your web site.

Do you have some tips on how to improve a web site? Please share them in the comments below.

19 tips from (almost) 10 years of blogging

I’ve been blogging for almost 10 years now (not always here, though, in case you’re wondering). I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I know a thing or two. I’ve also picked up what I like to think of as a few best practices and good ideas along the way. Here’s some:

  1. Use WordPress. It’s not perfect, but it’s still the best out there as far as I’m concerned. There’s a free hosted version if you don’t want to mess with installing it yourself.
  2. Give credit where credit is due — for photos, ideas, whatever. Whether it’s required by law or not. That’s what links are for.
  3. If you’re linking to anything other than an HTML page (for example, a PDF), tell the reader in the link text. Put “[pdf]” or something similar
  4. Use a spell checker. I’m a good speller — a really good speller — but everyone makes mistakes. So double-check.
  5. Be consistent. This is something I’ve been very inconsistent about, especially since I became a parent (’cause, in case you didn’t know, kids take up a huge amount of time and energy). And I’ve paid for that with fewer readers and less traffic. So be consistent — blog regularly, and you’ll get and retain more readers.
  6. Don’t get paralyzed by trying to make things perfect. Do the best you can, hit publish, and then go on to the next post.
  7. Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your boss, spouse/partner, parents or children to see. Because they will. Discretion is the better part of valor.
  8. Do post about things that you find interesting and helpful. There’s a lot of other people in this world, chances are some of them are going to find the same things interesting that you do, and they’ll read your blog.
  9. Publish an RSS feed, and also provide an email subscription. There are lots of options to do this, and most of them require little or no knowledge of actual code.
  10. Use Feedburner for your RSS feed.
  11. Subscribe to your own RSS feed and your own email subscription (yes — both!). See what your readers are getting from you, so you can fix it if it’s bad and so you know if it stops working.
  12. Don’t blog on your employer’s time (unless you really are getting paid to do that).
  13. It’s OK to make a little money with ads, affiliate links or whatever, really. Being a blogger does not require a vow of poverty. Just don’t be the kind of smarmy marketer we all hate (for more on this I suggest Copyblogger’s excellent post on the ‘Third Tribe’).
  14. Write interesting headlines. One very basic, easy place to start: Put verbs in your headlines.
  15. Periodically go back and read your old blog posts. If you’ve been blogging for a while, it’s good to remind yourself what you’ve already done. You may also find some posts that could be updated or added to — in other words, a new post!
  16. Look at your blog through a different browser than the one you’re using sometimes — other people are, so you should, too.
  17. It’s OK to post a collection of links to other interesting stuff occasionally. Just don’t do it everyday. That’s what Digg and StumbleUpon are for.
  18. Get a Twitter account. OK, there are a few very successful bloggers who don’t have Twitter accounts. But really, if you’re one of them you don’t need my tips. So if you don’t have one, get a Twitter account.
  19. Be inspired. This post was inspired by David Risley’s 50 Rapid Fire Tips for Power Blogging. You’ll note we share many ideas about best practices. He does have a longer list than me, though.

Have some tips yourself? Please share them in the comments below.

How bloggers are handling the new FTC affiliate disclosure rules

It’s been almost two months since the U.S. Federal Trade Commission implemented new rules about how affiliate links can be used (or not) in blogs and social media. The rules went into effect Dec. 1, and since then I’ve been seeing bloggers and online marketers use a variety of strategies for complying. At the same time, the FTC itself is still trying to figure out how it’s going to enforce these rules, especially for bloggers.

For those who may not be familiar with this issue, here’s the basics.

Affiliate links. Affiliate links are hyperlinks, often inserted into blog posts or other social media channels, that pay the writer a commission if someone clicks through that link and makes a purchase. These were originally pioneered by Amazon and other major online retailers, and have become a valuable marketing tool for all sorts of online merchants and publishers, and a major source of income for lots of bloggers.

The FTC rules. The FTC’s new rules [pdf] essentially say that if you are get a free sample, or if have some kind of link to a seller (for example, you’re an employee) or you have an affiliation that could bring you income, you have to disclose it you review, endorse or otherwise give a testimonial. The new rules also put new restrictions on the use of testimonials and endorsements in all kinds of advertisers, but I won’t go into that here — I’m focusing on how bloggers are handling the affiliate disclosure rule.

The reason this has become such a big issue is, to put it bluntly, that a lot of people were inserting affiliate links into reviews and not disclosing that they were getting paid when people purchased through those links. I think a lot of people using affiliate links to make money were concerned that once they began to disclose the relationship, people would stop clicking and they would make less money. It’s a reasonable fear. After all, if someone is being paid when you buy a product through them, aren’t you likely to take their endorsement more skeptically, and also less likely to make that purchase?

I’m not going to go into whether or not the FTC should be regulating this, and I’m not going to go into whether or not bloggers should disclose the relationships in the absence of regulations that force them to. However, suffice it to say that a lot of bloggers are now disclosing these relationships in a variety of ways.

Now, on to some examples.

Jonathan Fields – Awake @ the Wheel

Blogger Jonathan Fields, the original career renegade, is using a very short disclosure next to the affiliate link.

Jonathan Fields discloses an Amazon affiliate link

I like this approach because the minimal (aff link) doesn’t get in the way of the writing. I don’t know, however, if this is enough disclosure to satisfy the FTC’s requirements. Fields is a lawyer by training, so I assume his reading of the FTC guidelines is a bit more rigorous than mine. But, what one lawyer does isn’t legal advice per se.

World’s Strongest Librarian – Josh Hanagarne

Over at World’s Strongest Librarian (a wonderfully written blog, by the way) Josh Hanagarne inserted affiliate links into his review post, and then disclosed them near the end.

Affiliate disclosure near the end of the post

I like this disclosure because it fits in so well with Josh’s writing style and his flow. Does it meet the FTC’s legal requirements? I have no idea. He is clearly trying, though, so that should count for something.

Michael Hyatt

Christian publishing house executive Michael Hyatt has come up with a standard set of disclosures to insert at the end of blog posts (in small gray text), depending on what he needs to disclose (an affiliate link or having received a free review copy, for example).

Michael Hyatt affiliate disclosure

Disclosure text - even when it's not needed

I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure there is no requirement that you disclose that you don’t have any kind of material disclosure. Hyatt does have others (click on the link above to read his post), so I’m not sure if I think the disclosure of no relationship is overkill, or if it’s clever. If readers get used to seeing that small block of gray disclaimer text at the bottom of every post – even when it’s not necessary — after a while they’re likely to start ignoring it. In effect, it becomes invisible — at least to regular readers.

I’m NOT, by the way, saying that’s Hyatt’s intention. His reading of the FTC guidelines (or his lawyer’s) may lead him to believe that’s required, or he may feel that it’s the best thing to do in the spirit of full disclosure for his readers. I don’t know. But I suspect that the effect over time is to cause a sort of “disclosure blindness.”

Other options

There are certainly lots of other disclosure options out there. If you haven’t seen them yet, start looking. I guarantee you’ll start to notice them all over the place. I included an affiliate disclosure in my review of Beyond Blogging last week. I think my disclosure meets the FTC’s guidelines, but I’ll say it again — I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on this blog.

One web site that’s trying to create a standard set of disclosures anyone can use is Cmp.ly. The idea of short links to a compliance statement is tempting. But the badges the site offers to provide disclosure with the blog posts seem, well, ugly. I suppose that’s the point — to make an prominent disclosure, but it’s not very elegant or satisfying.

All of this raises a bunch of questions that, as far as I know, there aren’t really any good answers for. Including:

  • Are any or all of these affiliate disclosure methods adequate for the FTC? I guess we won’t know until the agency goes after someone for a perceived violation. In fairness, FTC officials have said it’s not their intention to be heavy handed with enforcement and go after a lot of individual bloggers.
  • Is just saying “affiliate link” enough? I know we (me and all of my charming, intelligent and well-informed readers) know what an affiliate link is. But does everybody? That’s basically the disclosure the myself and a lot of others are using right now, but I don’t know if those two words by themselves will meet this still-undefined FTC standard.
  • If there are old affiliate links on your blog that were published before the FTC’s rules took effect, do you have to go back and add disclosure to all of those? I am guessing that most lawyers would say yes — erring on the side of caution. But again, I really don’t know.

The bottom line is you should probably disclose something in some fashion. How much and how you disclose seems very much up in the air. There’s an attorney in Texas, Mike Young,  who apparently provides legal services for Internet marketing businesses. He’s got some blog posts and some ebooks on his site that might be worth checking out. In full disclosure – I don’t know much about him so I can’t say if his advice is good or not.

Bonus tip: Businesses considering how to comply with these rules should take a look at these suggestions from my RLF Communications colleague Aleasha Vuncannon. These aren’t legal advice, but they are based on solid, ethical public relations principles.

Are you using affiliate links on your blog? How are you disclosing them? As a reader of blogs, what kinds of disclosures would you like to see? And would those make you more or less likely to trust what a blogger is saying, and click on the link? Please share your thoughts below.