• Blogs, Facebook and business (from 2nd September’s Computers in Business, Sunday Business Post)

    I forgot to post these up on Sunday but here are my two articles from The Sunday Business Post’s Computers in Business suppliment. They’re about using blogs, facebook and other social networking sites to network, make yourself available to your existing audience and promote yourself to your potential one.

    The main piece is quite long so I’ll make it available below the fold – article one was the cover story for this issue of Computers in Business while article two was a panel piece complimenting it. Links to both pieces are also available below.

    Article One:

    Plug into the Network
    Networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook are becoming extremely effective marketing tools in the hands of small Irish businesses and start-ups, reports Adam Maguire.

    Offering access to ready-made networking tools, cheap marketing and an ever-increasing audience, popular online applications like Facebook and Bebo as well as the humble blog are being used by an increasing number of small Irish companies and start-ups as part of their overall business strategy.

    Largely known for their personal and social applications, online tools such as US-based Facebook.com along with blogs have become extremely popular in Ireland in recent years. In March Bebo.com claimed to be the most visited site in Ireland, while Facebook’s Irish network has well over 30,000 users signed up to date.

    Sites like MySpace, Bebo and Facebook al low individuals and organisations to create their own profiles, personalise their pages and add information about themselves. A blog also allows people to publish just about anything without requiring a knowledge of detailed HTML code to do so.

    What has made both types of media so popular is their ability to al low users to easily connect with other people, organisations, events and networks, through built-in networks or syndication feeds.

    This means that any new information coming from a user’s connections is automatically collated and delivered to their own profile, so there is no need to visit numerous websites and pages to keep up to speed on what is going on.

    However these easy-to-use communication features mean that sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace have huge potential for uses above and beyond social interaction including professional networking, promotion and direct marketing.

    It’s al l about cost-effective marketing. Because they cost nothing to set up, blogs and social media sites are being used more and more by companies as cheap ways to promote their product online.

    While the population of social networking sites like Facebook is quite young, the growth in the use of it for professional purposes has made it an ideal starting point for companies to network with peers, potential clients and even possible employees.

    In Ireland alone a number of networks and groups have sprung up which are aimed exclusively at the business community including Ireland Inc, which focuses on Irish internet, mobile and TV media; HPSU, which is a place for those involved in Enterprise Ireland’s High Performance Start Up programme; and Paddy’s Valley, an organisation looking to gather Irish tech companies together for a tour of Silicon Valley in California.

    “The question I usually put to clients is: can you afford not to be on these sites?” said Krishna De, an executive coach and branding consultant.

    “Especially when you consider that sites like these are free, so there’s no reason not to use them.”

    The business potential of social networking models is so strong that a number of professional-focused sites have been set up in recent years, including LinkedIn.com and Ecademy.com.

    Sites like these are aimed purely at individuals and businesses looking to further their careers and expand their contact books. They allow people to search for past colleagues and fellow students, as well as to be introduced to those connected to their contacts, and vice versa.

    “It’s vital nowadays for people to have an online presence of some form, so they can be found and their work can be displayed. If you can type an e-mail you can maintain a blog,” said De.

    “Just like with everything else now, people want to do a bit of research before they buy into a product or service – having a meeting with someone can be a commitment in itself so it’s useful for them to be able to look you up and see what you’re about before they make that leap.”

    De added that it was important for a new business to be constantly writing, speaking and networking to improve its visibility and blogging. Podcasting and social networking allow people to do all of these things online at their own pace.

    Because of the structure of sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, it is easy for people to search and network with those working in a similar field. Users with accounts can detail their interests, education and the companies they have worked or still work for.

    They can also create or connect to networks and groups set up specifically for discussion around a certain theme. This way, people searching in these areas of expertise or interest can find like-minded people or valuable connections easily.

    LinkedIn even allows users to specify what kind of business they are interested in doing; for example if they want approaches for new jobs or business ventures or if they just want to connect and expand their network.

    “Many large companies aren’t embracing this at the moment, but it is growing in Ireland,” said De. “The Enterprise boards and the Irish Internet Association have started to pick up doing events about blogging, and I think they’re starting to realise how useful it is.”

    Almost al l Irish businesses using blogs and social networking sites to promote and connect their companies are small and relatively new.

    De said she thought bigger companies were more hesitant because they were unsure about the cost benefits of moving into blogs and social networking, whereas smaller companies were less concerned about the exact benefits and more keen to improve their networks and visibility.

    However in most cases, it costs nothing to set up an account, although services like LinkedIn do offer more features to “premium’‘ users. Blog software is also free to download for people who already own domain names and hosting services, or free to set up directly online through the likes of Blogger.com and WordPress.com.

    For someone looking to create a blog as well as a profile on Facebook and LinkedIn to attract customers, follow their audience or network with other businesspeople, in reality it would cost nothing more than a little bit of time and a willingness to update on a regular basis.

    While sites like these are unlikely to replace traditional forms of face-to-face networking, they do help to level the playing field for start-ups and small companies who might otherwise be poorly connected.

    Blogs by their nature are extremely search engine-friendly, so a regularly updated blog will quickly find itself with a strong ranking for any number of relevant search terms.

    Kieran Murphy of Murphy’s Ice Cream, which is based in Kilkenny and Dingle, started up his IceCreamIreland.com blog in February 2006, and has used it to publish his recipes, discuss ice cream and reference events in Kerry and Kilkenny since then.

    While the site has gained the attention of locals as well as ice cream fans, its greatest benefit has come from the people drawn in through Google and Yahoo! searches.

    “I’ve ended up on Ryan Tubridy’s radio show because of it – one of their researchers looked up’ Irish chocoholics’ and ended up on the blog. Next thing I know, I’m on Tubridy’s show,” said Murphy, who has also been writing a weekly column for the Irish Times during August after being discovered by one of the newspaper’s editors in a similar way.

    “One of the main reasons I set up the blog was to increase our presence on the web, and that has worked out very well – even the name we chose for the blog was intentional, so it would draw people in who were looking for ice cream in Ireland!”

    Having a good search engine ranking ensures that you attract viewers more inclined to be interested in what you are offering, as opposed to the more general range of viewers that a radio, TV or magazine advert might attract.

    AGoogle.com search for just “ice cream’‘ shows just how effective a blog can be in terms of search engine optimisation – the Ice Cream Ireland blog is on the first page of results alongside Haagen-Dazs, Ben and Jerry’s and Baskin Roberts. Similarly a Google.ie search for ‘ice cream’ brings the Murphy’s Ice Cream website back as the first result – above HB’s site.

    “One of the most important things in setting up a service business is to differencitate yourself from your competitors and become a place for credible information so you’re seen as a resource,” said Krishna De. “It’s important to set yourself apart like that and become trustworthy – that’s something a blog can do for you.”

    Murphy agreed and said it was important for his company to become a “conduit’‘ for information in its given field – that way people would come to him when they wanted to know more about ice cream, chocolate and coffee.

    A regular complaint De hears is around the difficulty in creating a strong showing on search engines – where Murphy’s Ice Cream was able to take a simple name to make itself more visible many individuals might have trouble if their name is reasonably common.

    “There might be 100 John O’Sheas out there and it may seem hard to become the highest ranking one but premium services like Ziggs.com can boost your ranking automatically,” she said. “When I first came online I had to compete with a Hindu God so I know just how difficult it can be, but if people Google my name now I’m the first result!”

    From its roots in Dingle Murphy’s Ice Cream has expanded its availability across the country, with shops up and down Ireland stocking the brand. Murphy said this was another key factor in making the move online, as it was difficult to interact with customers in other counties in the same way that they could with people who came into their two outlets.

    “As we’ve grown, it’s be come harder and harder to keep in touch with our customer base. Anyway, for a company to encourage feedback and get customers talking to them is a good thing,” he said. “It’s also good to give something back to customers, and that’s why we always put recipes up, so they can try them at home.”

    In the past, Murphy has used the blog to get both feedback from readers as well as input on some of their business decisions.

    “One example: we were planning on giving away a chocolate with each coffee but had to buy in bulk, so the question was: should we go for milk chocolate or dark chocolate?” he said.

    “We were able to put a little poll up on the site and get an idea of what people preferred within a day – it’s not something you can do any other way.”

    In terms of direct sales, Murphy said the blog had undoubtedly made a difference, albeit one that was hard to quantify. His decision to post local news as well as company information had helped to draw in new customers too, such as tourists who had found the site while researching the area online.

    “We often have customers who come in and say they’ve been reading it in the US or Dublin and wanted to drop in while here, but I suppose the blog is really just all part of the overall puzzle for us,” he said.

    “One thing we struggle with, and I’m sure others do too, is how to make your company personal to people, Murphy said.

    “How do you make your story real ? It’s hard on a conventional website, but on something like a blog, it becomes a much more personal approach.

    “You can give details of what a day in production involves, or what challenges you’re facing at that time.”

    “For that reason, I would think that big companies would have even more of a reason to blog if they’re trying to personalise their service or stay in touch with their customers. Or even if it’s just to keep abreast of the internet, and be able to respond quickly and directly should anything negative get out about them from time to time.”

    But a presence on a social network is not just about drawing the right people in – it’s also about taking advantage of the audience that uses these types of sites.

    For the most part, social networking sites are populated by young, computer-literate consumers who are spending an increasing amount of time in front of their computers, as opposed to their televisions, and who make up a market segment that is traditionally rich in disposable income but near-impossible to effectively target.

    For them, social networking sites are quickly becoming the first port of call when they go online, even overtaking e-mail, and a well-connected profile would gather in one place al l the information a user needs to stay up to date on their friends, hobbies and personal interests.

    For a company with a very young, niche target audience like Dublin radio station Phantom105.2, the need to move towards social networking was an obvious one.

    “We’ve traditionally been very pro-active in terms of what we do online – we were one of the first radio stations to start online streaming in Ireland, long before we had got our full licence, ’”said Derek Byrne, a presenter and producer at the station who helps maintain the station’s networking accounts.

    “Our audience were the ones who went to these sites first, and if we didn’t follow them, we’d be left behind. It’s vital that we go where they go.

    “FM radio is a very old medium in one sense, and it’s important that we have a presence in other areas, especially online, to keep up with our listeners.”

    Phantom has set up accounts on the three most popular networking sites at the moment; Facebook, Bebo and MySpace.

    All the accounts are regularly updated with station news and information on events being held across the city – they also bring viewers to the personal accounts and blogs of Phantom presenters, who use them to deliver additional information.

    “Rather than just putting your event information on your own site or saying it on air, having it on a network like this means that people will see it when they log onto their own profile. All the information is brought to them so they don’t have to remember to visit loads of individual sites every day,” said Byrne.

    “As well as this, MySpace has become the Wikipedia of music – when people are looking to find out about a band, that’s now the first place they’ll search. For a music station like ours, it’s not something you want to be left out of.

    “The show I present is more like a documentary, so I use my own blog [album-archive.blogspot.com] to tell readers what album we’ll be discussing the following week,” said Byrne.

    “I might ask for any information people have in relation to it that we can add to the show, and I also put up the playlists afterwards.”

    Of course, Phantom is not alone in terms of radio stations using blogs and social networking sites – DJs and programmes alike from local and national stations are now using social networking accounts to publish programme information, take in requests and add more depth to what they do on air.

    “2FM’s Rick O’Shea is a good example of a DJ using these sites well,” said Byrne. “He logs onto them every day, and his listeners know he’ll be there every day, so they know where to find him.”

    Byrne said some shows on Phantom, like arts and entertainment programme The Kiosk, would soon have their own blogs where information on events mentioned in the programmes could be posted afterwards, as well as images and video relating to some of the more visual items discussed.

    In terms of marketing and reaching the consumer, the migration of audiences to the internet has made its importance unmistakable, especially for companies trying to attract younger people.

    As well as this, most people looking for a product, service or individual nowadays will start and often end their search online now – the more visible you can make yourself and the more diverse your online platform base is, the more likely you are to catch their eye, and quite possibly their business.

    Article Two

    Blogs add value and boost profile
    Blogs can be a low-cost option for people looking to develop their company’s reputation, according to two Irish business bloggers who are using the medium to enhance their online presence.

    “As an IT company we’re trying to put it across that we are experts in the field of technology, but from a commercial perspective that’s what people expect to hear; they expect a company to pat itself on the back,” said Bryan Corden, managing director of Deycom Computer Services.

    “I looked at blogging instead as a way of putting out some tips and information, which helps give you credibility and is practical proof that you’re good at what you do.”

    The Deycom blog (www.it-business.ie) focuses on IT issues and is a mixture of news and opinion. Corden said that, while there are posts about services offered by the company, he is keen to make it much more than a company promotion site.

    “It just being a commercial entity would make it a little faceless, so we’re trying to give people a sense of who’s behind it and what our thinking would be on certain issues,” said Corden.

    Julian Alubaidy of Cork-based wine company Bubble Brothers echoes this when explaining why he set up his company’s blog in June 2006,which was one of, if not the first, Irish business blog at the time.

    “We want to try and replicate the experience that people get when they come into the shop, which is all about customer service,” he said. “We can’t compete in terms of price with big players like Tesco, so it’s important that we offer something different and customer service is a big part of that.”

    The Bubble Brothers blog (www.bubblebrothers.com/blog) covers topics including the tasks involved in wine importation and distribution, general discussion on food and drink and information on tasting events among other things.

    Alubaidy says the blog allows for greater interaction with wine drinkers and he hopes it can act as a resource to the increasing number of Irish people who are taking an interest in wine. He said once the audience was there he hoped to replicate the virtual tastings done on international wine blogs, where a wine is chosen in advance, readers buy a bottle themselves and then all publish comments or with their opinion of it.

    Bryan Corden’s Deycom blog has been running since late May but has already begun to gain some traction online. It recently got a comment from a Dell worker within a day of posting about the company’s pricing structure.

    “That was a bit of an eye-opener for me and it made me realise just how visible your blog is,” he said. “It’s something you have to be careful of as any opinion, even if it’s intended in a good way, could offend someone and would be taken as the company’s opinion.”

    Both bloggers point out that the way a blog is used is the key to making it successful – it should be regularly updated and the posts should be relevant to the business in some way, so it is no good having someone who knows little about the company doing all the typing. It’s also important to avoid using the site for pure self-promotion such as rehashed press releases as this will just turn readers away.