These days, it's no longer enough to have an inviting storefront and amazing products on your shelves, whether physical or digital. Fueled by social media, with which even the search engines scrambling to keep up, the Web is now happening in real time. How can a small company stay competitive?
One critical component of the answer to that question is something that most businesses have never had to consider doing in the past: become a publisher.
Your Site Needs a Blog
Having somebody design and build your website is only half the battle. That site needs regularly updated content and the easiest way to make that happen is with a blog.
First, you'll need a blog content management system (CMS) like Wordpress.org or Movable Type. For best results, you should work with your Web guru to set up a self-hosted blogging engine on your own server, rather than going with a hosted solution like Blogger, TypePad or Wordpress.com, since a self-hosted blog will be easier to customize and can integrate more seamlessly into your site's existing architecture and design.
When you first start out, your company blog should be set up as a subdirectory (www.company.com/blog) rather than a subdomain (blog.company.com). This way, Google will view your blog as part of your site, as opposed to a separate entity with its own PageRank.
From a design standpoint, the blog should be visually consistent with the rest of your site, at least as far as the header and navigation are concerned. This will undoubtedly require some custom-coding, and there are ample resources online for Wordpress and Movable Type theme development. One approach might be to find a pre-built theme that comes relatively close to your site's general layout and then have a Web ninja dig into the code to customize the color scheme and branding.
While you're at it, it's worth considering moving the rest of your site onto the CMS as well to make updating that content easier. Any static pages (About, Products, Contact, etc) can be carried over as static pages on Wordpress or Movable Type with relative ease.
Once the nitty gritty technical stuff is taken care of and your blog is set up, you'll be ready for the fun part: creating content.
Not a Writer? Hire Somebody.
I know what you're saying: Hey, I'm an entrepreneur, not a writer. You don't have to be a prize-winning novelist to blog effectively, but you should be pretty good with grammar and be able to write in a readable voice. If blogging is not something you have the time or background to get into right now, you can hire somebody pretty easily.
Job boards like those found on Freelance Switch and CrowdSPRING are great places to find writers at an affordable rate. Craigslist is ubiquitous and inexpensive, but be prepared to wade through numerous responses of varied quality, including a few from Nigerian princes.
Another place to look is your closest journalism school. College journalism programs are brimming with talented writers who need writing samples to help them build their budding careers. Reach out to the head of the school's journalism department to ask how to go about posting a job to the department's list serv or website.
Starting out at $10-15 per post is reasonable, but consider increasing your budget for a writer who has a couple years of experience under their belt, especially if they have a solid background in research and reporting.
Develop a Content Mission
Your site should ideally be updated with fresh content at least once a week, and certainly more frequently if you can swing it. Before you (or your writer) can get started you need to forge a content mission: What is the blog going to cover? It can be the end-all-be-all, one-stop-shop for information about your entire industry, or it can be a series of press releases about your products. The ideal solution for most blogs is probably somewhere in the middle.
As awesome and innovative as your company is, let's face it: Most people won't want to subscribe to information strictly about your company's latest offerings. It has to be relevant and useful to them. By including news, how-to's and other informative posts about your particular industry, you'll gain the trust of readers, who will be much more attentive when you're ready to make that next big product announcement.
This approach will also help with audience development. The more timely, useful information you can publish, the more traffic your site will get from search engines and social media referrals.
Getting Exposure From SEO, Social Media and Other Sites
One of the benefits of using a CMS is that, with the help of plug-ins, it can take much of the heavy lifting out of search engine optimization (SEO). That said, you'll stilll want to ensure posts are written with SEO principles in mind, especially when it comes to headlines, which should be straight forward and include keywords. To snag a couple page views from image search engines, any images included in your blog posts should have concise, descriptive file names and ALT tags that clearly describe the image is of.
Once SEO is taken care of, the next crucial aspect of building an audience is, of course, social media. Use Twitter and Facebook to post links to your latest blog posts, as well as to converse with your readers and customers. Tools like HootSuite, CoTweet and plug-ins like Twitter Tools for Wordpress will let you automate your social media updates, but be careful not to become a bot-like firehose with no personality.
Finally, you'll want to get the word out among relevant blogs and news sites that cover your industry. Use analytics sites like Alexa or Compete.com to identify 3-5 relevant sites with significantly-sized audiences. Email the editors of these sites to introduce your new blog or notify them of a big announcement you're hoping to get press coverage for, but as with social media, be mindful not to become too overbearing or impersonal or your emails will end up in the spam folder.
A Few Examples of Great Company Blogs
There are thousands of company blogs out there, many of which are excellent. Here is a handful of particularly effective ones.
Yelp Official Blog
The official company blog maintained by Yelp keeps users up-to-date with product releases and upgrades, but also gets personal with Q&A profiles of Yelp staffers in their ongoing "Day in the Life" series.
Email marketing platform Campaign Monitor is a good example of a company with a well-written blog that not only covers product announcements but also serves as all-encompassing resource for email marketing in general. In fact, of the six categories on their blog, the one with the most posts is "Tips & Resources," a repository of information about everything from email subscriber management to how to get images to display properly in Gmail.
Conversation Marketing is a blog about SEO, social media and Web marketing in general written by Ian Lurie, the president of Seattle-based SEO firm Portent Interactive. While it's technically not a company blog for Portent Interactive, Conversation Marketing does a great job of selling Lurie's expertise and, by extension, the services offered by his company. Indeed, Portent Interactive is rarely mentioned in his posts, which are typically how-to's, analysis and rants about everything related to Web marketing and SEO.