Trying Blogging On For Size
by Dale Buss
Publishers and editors remain split on the value of blogs to their readers, their publications and their brands, and they're even divided on what makes a good blog. But many agree it isn't too risky or costly to find out whether their prejudices are correct.
Blogs have grown haltingly in the magazine-publishing arena, while other communications media are pursuing them much more aggressively, and the practice in general is exploding. Simple blogs cost only hundreds of dollars to set up in the worst-case scenario, usually require less staff and technical expertise and, some publishers say, aren't complicated enough to demand outsourcing.
Still, more editors and publishers are pushing past their misgivings and experimenting with blogs. Business Week, Fast Company, Adweek, Information Week and eWeek are among the publications that enthusiasts mention as accomplished blogging trailblazers in the industry.
On the consumer side, Meredith Interactive recently launched a handful of blogs, including a decorating blog under its Better Homes & Gardens brand and a weight-loss blog under Ladies' Home Journal. In January, the company even experimented with a one-week blog stemming from its coverage of the International Builders Show in Orlando. "We're trying to explore a new content form and find out how it's best used," says Dave Kurns, editor-in-chief of Meredith Interactive.
Advertising Age is experimenting, too, but less enthusiastically. It now publishes one blog, aimed at small advertising agencies;and written by executives of such agencies;"because it's a place that gives us a new coverage area," says Scott Donaton, editor. "There's just no place in Ad Age itself that we're going to be able to offer service information on the challenges of running a small agency. This expands what we normally do."
The Crain Communications weekly doesn't plan to add blogs that would comment on the large brands and agencies that are its main coverage areas. "What I don't necessarily agree with is when mainstream media outlets start blogs that essentially are a way for them to get across opinions on topics that they're covering in their news pages," Donaton says. "For a beat reporter to be covering an industry objectively, and also be passing judgment on it in their blog is a conflict of their core duties."
Falling by the Wayside
Some trade magazines are finding blogs perilous. Packaging World, for example, has a reader blog, but the newest posting is November 30, and the blog gets little feedback from visitors to the Summit Publishing title's Web site. "Nobody in packaging knows how to blog," explains Dave Newcorn, Summit's vice president of new media. "You have to have a market for which there is a passion related to it. We're pretty disappointed so far."
The keys to success with blogs begin, of course, with a willingness to consider that they might have value. One way that Newcorn tries to sway his doubting editors is to suggest that their blogs are really just an extension of the messages that many editors already write for their editor's notes in print.
Compelling content is the most important requisite of an interesting blog, written by a staff editor or reporter, a qualified freelancer, or an engaging player in the industry. The most interesting blogs are well informed, infused with an evident personality and point of view. "It doesn't have to be opinionated, but a voice has to come out;that's the magic," says Rafat Ali, editor of PaidContent.org, a Los Angeles-based site that reports on the media industry.
Updating frequently, at least two or three times a week, is crucial as well. Nearly as important is providing a mechanism for feedback to the blogger that is clear and easy for readers to use.
Among other things, says David Shaw, president and managing partner of Grid Media, both practices tend to draw repeat visitors, build traffic, and buttress a Web site's usage ranking on Google and other search-engine sites. And just as in the printed format, building readership is the objective.
Some magazines employ freelancers for blogging to save money and to keep this experimental form of communication away from their editorial nerve center. But bringing the blog content in-house can save on even that cost, and give weary edit staffs a much-needed diversion. And the importance of maintaining the viewpoint and real-time quality of a blog generally reduces the amount of editing time that is required.
Magazines can use either free software, such as Blogger.com provided by Google, or pay as little as $100 a month to use more sophisticated programs such as Movable Type. Blog entries stream out onto a Web site as relatively small additions to the content that already is being handled by a publisher's servers. Consequently, there's little call for third parties to handle any aspect of blogging.
"It hasn't been a sizeable investment at all for us," says Kurns.
Newcorn puts it another way: "It costs pennies."