December 27, 2010

HOW TO: Create a Successful Company Blog

I’m often asked by entrepreneurs and business owners whether it is worth blogging, and if so, what they should blog about. On the first question, the answer is obvious to me — you must blog as an entrepreneur.

In this post I’ll cover why you need to blog, how to determine what to blog about, and finding your blog’s voice.

Why You Must Blog

I believe that blogging in your business is vital to creating a public personae and making your company more accessible. In an era where companies like Zappos have differentiated themselves based on service, it is important to be public and accessible.

My industry of venture capital, for example, has been shrouded in secrecy for 30 years, making the process of raising funds opaque for most entrepreneurs. When I started my first company in 1999, there were almost no public sources of venture capital fund raising information. Years later I discovered the blog of VC Brad Feld, then later VentureHacks, and Fred Wilson’s technology & VC blog, each of which clarified and demystified the venture capital process.

So when I started blogging, I mainly viewed it as “earned media,” or a chance to let entrepreneurs get to know me by sharing my thoughts online with complete transparency; a concept that is repeatable for any business.

In less than a year I’ve attracted a large monthly following of readers who come to my blog to discuss how to build startups, how to raise money, and to get my thoughts on technology markets. By publicly sharing my thoughts, I’ve been able to engage in online discussions with people all over the world, and though it was an unintended consequence, my deal flow has gone up dramatically. In other words, blogging can be a valuable networking tool and help the bottom line.

What Should You Blog About?

Start by defining the audience with whom you want to have a relationship. Presumably they are your customers, partners, suppliers and your broader industry as a whole. You should think about what kind of information they would find valuable. You should also try to talk about something that is differentiated from what other blogs in your field cover, even if your approach is just slightly different or new.

Make sure the topic is something that you’ll have a passion for writing about on a regular basis. If you’re not going to keep up with your blog, you shouldn’t start one in the first place. It’s a commitment, believe me. If you pick a topic that relates to your customers, but you’re not that passionate about it, then you may have a bigger problem on your hands!

The Right and Wrong Way to Blog

Let me give some examples of the right and wrong approach to blogging.

Right: I always liked the blog. Even in the early days when they were relatively unknown, they blogged about personal finance. They talked about how to manage credit and balance your bank account — obvious topics for a startup focused on managing personal money. They were able to take a leadership role in talking about managing your money in a way that supported their brand and created a community around their product.

Wrong: A friend of mine has a company in the personal finance space also. His blog was all about how to run a startup and raise venture capital. He was outrageous, brash and crass in his style, and I told him so. I said, “Your goal isn’t to be the cool kid in the venture capital circles. Your job is to build a great company and you’ll be a hero in entrepreneurial circles as a result of your success. Speak to your customers — that is what a blog is for.”


Finding Your Blog’s Voice

So you know you need to blog, and you’re convinced you ought to write about something you’re passionate about and that speaks to your customers. How can you create something that people will want to come and read every day?

1. Be authentic

The thing that kills most blogs, in my view, is when you can tell that the writer is just going through the motions. You need to find a “voice” that is authentically yours. People will get used to your style and your style will become your signature.

2. Be transparent

The “old school” way of getting media attention was to submit press releases. These were artificially crafted documents that were filled with glowing reviews of your company. In short, they felt fake. The best way to establish your voice is to be transparent.

Be willing to talk like a human being. Be willing to show feelings and a point of view. Let your inner self come out rather than your “inner bullet point.” Don’t use too much lingo. Don’t feel like your prose has to sound like it was crafted by a university professor. Just speak!

3. Get inside your readers’ minds

I give this advice often and in many scenarios, including public speaking. When people speak to many audiences, they sometimes get into a canned routine. They give the same presentation no matter which crowd they’re addressing. The key is that each time you present, you need to think about who is in the audience and what they want to hear. The same is true for blogging.

On my blog, my audience is made of startup entrepreneurs and probably other VCs. When I write I try to be mindful of who these people are, the knowledge I assume they have, and what I believe they want to know.

4. Solicit feedback

I ask people what they want to read about. I regularly ask for feedback on what I’m writing. When people give me good suggestions, I try to cover those topics.

When community members write awesome comments, I’ll sometimes write a post about what they said to highlight them and their contributions. In my opinion, the best way to build an audience over time is to engage with them and to highlight those that really contribute positively to you.

5. Don’t be offensive or take big public risks

I sometimes read blogs that get extreme. I read a blog once that jokingly suggested “offering your angels cocaine if that would get them to invest.” It was intended to be funny. It wasn’t. And comments like this run the risk of offending people. This was a blog about personal finance, and I found the comment totally irresponsible and at odds with the brand image the blogger was trying to project.

I read a blog yesterday where the author was trying to make fun of a negative comment he got on his product. The blogger highlighted him and called him “retarded,” which I, and I’m sure many others, find offensive. There’s no upside to this type of comment, but there’s a big downside. My esteem for him went down.

Further, unless your company revolves around taking stands on controversial issues, it’s best to leave your political commentary at home. Statements like these stand to upset or anger half of your potential customers no matter what side you take.

6. Have fun

This may be obvious, but if writing a blog becomes a chore for you it will show. Try to make your writing fun and it will be easier to stick to. It will also reflect in your voice.

Happy blogging!

Article By Mark Suster is a Partner at GRP Partners, a Venture Capital firm in Los Angeles. He blogs at Both Sides of the Table and can be found on Twitter at @msuster.
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