This is most definately not a customer-focused blog. Why? Because essentially none of you want to buy Bingo Card Creator, nor am I hoping to convince you otherwise. My typical reader is, I think, either running a uISV or thinking about doing so, or someone who is in general interested in the business of software. You know who Joel Spolsky is, can provide a pronunciation that goes with “/.” , and have at least some idea of what AJAX is. My typical customer, on the other hand, has no clue who Joel Spolsky is. She thinks “/.” is what happens when her kitty or 6 year old start banging away on the keyboard. AJAX is either a cleaning product or, if she is of a literary bent, a hero of the Trojan War (my typical customer is quite intelligent, she’s just not technical, and woe unto the uISV who thinks this is a contradiction in terms).
Why did I just belabour that point for a paragraph? Because I’m about to tell you that despite my total lack of experience doing it, you can write a customer-focused blog, and it can be a great marketing tool. And better than tell you, I’m going to show you. I was inspired to do this by a post on the Business of Software earlier today. I think the general tone of that thread is mistaken: in the first place, I think the majority of the advice you’ll find on that forum is excellent or at least good to hear even if I wouldn’t follow it myself. In the second place, there is a lot of tension between people who want “specific” answers to their questions who won’t put out specific statements about what they’re doing. Many people have their reasons for not being very detailed about their own situations, and I respect that choice, as I respect the choice of folks to ask vague questions like “My software isn’t selling enough. How can I fix this?” as long as they understand that the answers they get are going to be vague, too, like “Try blogging.”
But, seriously, try blogging. Writing a bog about and for your customers, as opposed to about and for your business, is a great marketing investment. It humanizes you, it gives you “street cred” within your community (people above the age of 25 call this “goodwill”, which I don’t use because its defined in the dictionary as “Money spent on marketing which we can’t prove was wasted and so want to claim as a success to the boss”), it drives qualified traffic straight to your website, and it is mana from heaven in the Search Engine optimization game.
How blogging works: Yeah yeah, I know, you know how blogging works. You’re here, after all. In fact, I’d give 50-50 odds that you got here from either a feed reader or a blog or other information gatherer you read every single day, the same way my father reads the Wall Street Journal. But indulge me as I present to you the Pyramid of Participation, a concept which has been done to death before by smarter people and so which is perfect to hold off on.
This artistic masterpiece represents sort of the Power Law of Blogging: of any given blogging community, 1% of the population actually blogs. Those are the creators. 10% of the population contributes to the blogs — they comment, they tag, they submit their favorite stories to Digg/Slashdot/Reddit, yadda yadda. And the rest of the folks have lives.
Why is this critically important for you to understand? Because most bloggers consistently pitch their blog to Creators or Contributors, because most bloggers want links and recognition and those folks contribute that in spades. You, however, want cash money for your blogging efforts and as a result you’re going to want to pull a Seth Godin and invert the pyramid (he calls it “inverting the funnel”). Fear my massive Paint.NET skills:
Basically, what you really want to do is encourage those folks who are really only passively engaged with your blog to become actively engaged in it. How do you do this? You give the people what they want. What do the people want? Your call, you know your audience far better that I do or ever will. In the vast majority of cases. There is exactly one uISV out there I feel qualified to comment on besides a certain outfit that makes bingo cards. Its Declan Software, which as a fraction of their business produces resources to help Japanese students study. Been there, still there, done that, still doing that, got the battle scars to prove it. And conviniently Ethan, the owner, wonders if blogging would work for all markets. Well, lets talk about that.
Blogging is for bloggers. Ever noticed how poetry is for poets? Really, if you find anyone who has even a passing interest in poetry these days, I guarantee you they have a scrapbook somewhere where they’ve got some free verse just waiting to see a publishing offer if they only had the time. This is because the poetry community is insular and inbreeds intellectually far more often than is healthy — and if the connection to blogging doesn’t immediately jump out at you, you need to develop more of an ability to laugh at yourself (yes, I’m talking to YOU, Mr. I Only Have 15 Feeds In My RSS Reader).
Anyhow, blogging is traditionally for bloggers. And this is bad, because unless you’re pitching products to the 53,651 members of the Silicon Valley echo chamber, who probably run an average of 16 blogs apiece, not counting the Squidoo Lenses and other “I can’t believe its not blog” innovations which I haven’t heard about in rural Japan yet. Because it means lots of people who would buy from you, but don’t blog, won’t hear about you. Unless you give people an incentive to tell their friends about you, or let them find you on search engines.
Yeah, like that will work: It will, if you can convince twenty people that your blog has something useful to say. Plus or minus two. Twenty people all tell a couple of friends, and then one of their friends posts you to a message board, and then five people on the message board tell your friends, and you get picked up on another message board, and then somebody posts you to #INFLUENTIAL_SITE_IN_YOUR_COMMUNITY, and then suddenly BOOM your blog is popular and you have to feed the beastie every day.
Yeah, heard it before, its a pipe dream: Well, I only know what I know, but I’ve got a pretty amusing graph sitting somewhere on my WordPress interface showing a trickle of hits, then me hitting about twenty visitors, then sustained (and pretty spiky) growth until I hit 20k uniques a month. In, hmm, two months. While I was writing as an idle hobby about a business I run as a mostly-idle hobby on top of holding down a day job. For folks who are serious about using your blog as a promotional tool, I think you can make my 20,000 hits a month look like chicken feed. You just have to give people what did they want.
So what did we want? Well, I’m guessing most of you came in because I had a combination of something almost nobody else did (a transparent business — not a big business, not a successful business, just a transparent business) and a few articles which folks actually found genuinely useful. Maybe, oh, I don’t know, a dozen over two months. About 20 people were intrigued enough by the initial concept to keep coming, blogrolling and linking followed, and with just a tad of promotion on my part I started ending up on the front page of WordPress a couple times a week. Now, I’m helped by the fact that my blog is interesting to a community which has a lot of mechanisms for getting the word out (the Business of Software boards, lots of blogs, joel.reddit.com, Digg, Slashdot, yadda yadda), but the Internet is a very wide open place nowadays. I get hits to my actual business site from sites with x0,000 users whose common interest is teaching elementary school English: its like Dick Slashdot Jane in their community, everybody who is online knows somebody who makes it a daily routine to check the buzz on that site. (Do you know where your user base hangs out? Because if you don’t, I’m worried for you.)
So how do you get folks on that really large site to come visit your site and buy from you? Well, an introduction from somebody they trust helps wonders. Ah, problem is, they don’t trust you and you don’t know anybody they do trust. So start up a blog, and give folks a reason to start trusting you. One way to do this is by giving them stuff.
Folks love getting stuff for free: You’ve got a trial version so you understand this concept: have pain, have widget which partially alleviates pain, induced to spend money to buy Premium Registered Widget which completes the promised pain relief. Guess what, information can be a widget, too. If you write stuff of use to your target audience, how-to’s, things they are genuinely interested in hearing, etc, they will beat a path to your door. I have taken the liberty (without permission — mea maxima culpa) of writing two articles plugging Declan Software’s product, in the course of providing stuff which is genuinely useful to people, like me, who are studying for a very difficult exam this December. (I do use their software, and I like it, and I’ve plugged software I liked before here, so might as well have an ulterior motive for the plug). These could just as easily have come from a clearly marked staff blog — not saying that Declan Software should have a blog, but saying that if they thought it would make sense for them I bet it would turn out well.
Here’s one reason: Google loves blogs. Can’t get enough of them. WordPress shows me what search engine queries hit my blog every day, and I end up on the first page for random, high-value queries sometimes shockingly fast even when not trying to do so. e.g. “teach yourself kanji” after writing a post tangentially about the Japanese language some weeks ago, back when this blog had no reason to be Google-ranked for anything and certainly not that. Somebody searching for “teach yourself kanji” is a pretty good prospect getting to know Declan Software, or at least their Japanese department. You don’t have to get him to buy in that browser session — just try to get him to take a positive action to you. Maybe induce him to come back tomorrow, by promising a Kanji of the Day, or answer a burning question he has, like “What do I need to do to pass the JLPT this December?” (The second of these is a much harder sell than Kanji of the Day — I think you should probably have a mix of both on your blog.) You start ranking for queries quickly, too — less than 48 hours ago I started talking about registration systems and now I’m getting rather more hits for “how do I break shareware time limit” than I rather care to think about.
And then get him to tell other people. Japanese language learners and enthusiasts (the anime crowd) are typically young, high-school to college, and they congregate online in all sorts of places. Chat rooms, Facebook, what have you. They practically live on instant messenger and the word “hyperlink” does not scare them. And everybody who is studying for the JLPT knows somebody else who is, probably several someones (misery loves company). So when you produce things which are genuinely of use to somebody, like answering “Hey, how many points do I need to pass this test?” (come on, you were a college student once, do you give good odds that you would have found your application packet and hunted for the answer or would you take the shortcut and ask Google or a buddy?), they might pass it around to other folks they know. Who might stick around for other interesting things you’ve got on the page. And pretty soon, you’ve got your twenty.
Speak your customers language: You blog needs to have a voice, and it needs to sound like your customers. The easy explanation for why this is important is “Because Google is scarily good at long-tail queries, and you’re much, much more likely to rank on these if you write like your customers write than if you don’t”. The other reason is because people are much more likely to introduce their peer group to people who they know are already peers. On this blog, I can occasionally be jocular and I sling the tech jargon with the best of them. On my actual website, I speak like an elementary English teacher (note: I hope I authentically sound like an elementary English teacher, because I was one for a couple of years). Your customer likely does not care about the technology you are using, the difficulties of porting your code to .NET, the bug that nearly wiped out your version control system. Your customer likes to hear about themselves, and their interests, and every once in a while how your product helps them further their interests. Which is why my test-postings for ReadWrite Kanji barely mention the product at all, except at the end.
Have a goal in mind for every post: You can tell my blog isn’t that much more than a hobby because I definately don’t do this. A lot of my posts are like “Here, I have something to say. Alright, I said it. Well, tata, see you later.” If you are writing a customer focused blog, “Tata, see you later” is a waste of your customer’s time unless its the sort of “See you later” that means “I will pick you up at 7:00 this Friday and I hope you like Pirates of the Carribean because thats the movie we’ll be seeing”. The sample posts have clear goals: Kanji of the Day wants to be Japanese blogging crack. I want a portion of the readers who see it to be enlightened and intrigued by that post, and to make a note to themselves “Wow, I want to come back tomorrow, when I will get another kanji to master”. Studying for the JLPT wants to generate a trial download for ReadWrite Kanji and, perhaps, an authorative mention to a friend or community the reader is a part of: “I saw this post earlier about the 2-kyuu. Good stuff here! Check it out. God I hope I pass. What was the assignment for tomorrow?” Notice how I end both posts with a call to action and include relatively little extraneous stuff that could draw folks away from my site. (Now, one place I’d suggest a link is near the top — folks who are just getting into your article don’t want to click away from it quite yet, so might as well send a kickback to whatever source you’re using and just as imporantly end up on their list of Trackbacks so that they can see this nice person who Cares About What They Have To Say. Bloggers love that. I’ve got a soft spot for this, too — probably 70% of the incoming links I get in an article get me to respond to the article in some fashion.)
Offer a mix of content: You don’t limit yourself to one type of pitch on your AdWords, and you don’t have just one take on your product page, why have a blog which is a one-trick pony? Experiment, and let people know you’re doing it and offer to engage them in a conversation about what they find useful. More short posts? More long posts? More link roundups from their community? More “original reporting”/punditry? Whatever the answer to the question is, the fact that someone is answering means they have an investment in you that they will protect by coming back — you just have to invest in them so that they feel inclined to join the 10% of the world that will ever post a comment, etc. A regular schedule of content lots of folks find regularly useful with occasional change-ups keeps folks coming back for more, too: Instapundit, for example, is 99% “I find a good article my readers will like and give a pithy 2 sentence summary” and 1%, sporadically, “I demonstrate the penetrating insight that makes folks really love my 2 sentences of pithy commentary enough so that they follow me for years and learn what in-jokes like ‘Heh’ and ‘Indeed’ mean.” I’m sure if you think about it you can identify the things in any random community you belong to that are the familiar sights of home: “+1 for X” on Business of Software, hot grits, yadda yadda.
And some percentage of the folks who come to your blog every day or every week to check up on what you’ve got to say will read the tasteful, clearly marked ads you’ve got interspersed with the content (maybe thats not the right way to say it — the ads are content by then, because your blog is about things your customers like and find useful and your customers are obviously interested in what you have to sell), and then you get to print money hats.
Or there is the distinct possibility that I have no clue what I’m talking about. It wouldn’t be the first time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, got some studying to do. (P.S. Look, ma, no call to action! Yep, this blog is going to remain happily unmonetized.)