Why Startups Need to Blog (and what to talk about …)

Was surfing around and found this fantastic article about the benefits of blogging even if you have nothing to blog about.  It also talks about how to find content that is relevant to your potential clients and what to do about getting them back to your website.  This is marketing gold to anyone who doesnt understand social networking, blogging or much of the online small business opportunities there are now.  Of course, if your company doesnt have a blog on their website, give us a call... we take care of everything!

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Suster (@msuster), a 2x entrepreneur, now VC at GRP Partners. Read more about Suster at Bothsidesofthetable

This post originally ran on TechCrunch.

Blogs. We all read them to get a sense of what is going on in the world, peeling back layers of the old world in which media was too scripted.  By definition, you read blogs. But should you actually write one if you’re a startup, an industry figure (lawyer, banker) or VC? Absofuckinglutely.

This is a post to help you figure out why you should write and what you should talk about.

 

1. Why
If you care about accessing customers, reaching an audience, communicating your vision, influencing people in your industry, marketing your services or just plain engaging in a dialog with others in your industry a blog is a great way to achieve this.

People often ask me why I started blogging. It really started simply enough. I was meeting regularly with entrepreneurs and offering (for better or for worse) advice on how to run a startup and how to raise venture capital from my experience in doing so at two companies. I was having the same conversations over-and-over again (JFDIDon’t Roll Out the Red Carpet when Employees are on the Way Out the DoorDon’t Drink Your Own Kool Aid, etc) and I figured I might as well just write them up and make them available for future people who might be interested. I never really expected a big audience or ever thought about it.

I had been reading Brad Feld’s blogFred Wilson’s blog for a couple of years and found them very helpful to my thinking so I honestly just thought I was giving back to the community.

The results have been both unexpected and astounding. Within 2 years I was getting 400,000 views / month and had been voted the 2nd most respected VC in the country by an independent survey of entrepreneurs, The Funded and sentiment analysis. I know that I have not yet earned these kudos based on investment returns (although my partners have. GRP Partners last fund is the single best performing VC fund in the US (prequin data) for its vintage year). But it speaks volumes to what people want from our industry:

  • transparency
  • accessibility
  • authenticity
  • thought leadership
  • advice
I’ll bet your customers, business partners or suppliers would love similar.

2. What

I often get the question from people, “I’d like to blog, but I don’t really know what to talk about?” Or “I’m a new entrepreneur, why would I offer advice on how to run a startup?”

You wouldn’t. You shouldn’t.

Not only would it be less authentic but if you’re a startup it’s not immediately clear that other startup CEOs are your target market. They’re mine because I’m a VC. I care about having a steady stream of talented startup people who want to raise money thinking that they should talk to me in addition to the top others whom they’re targeting.

Whom do you want to target? Who are your customers, partners or suppliers?
My suggestion is to blog about your industry. Think Mint.com. In their early days they had an enormously effective blog on the topic of personal financial management. They created a reason for their customers to aggregate on their site on a regular basis. They became both a thought leader in the space as well as a beautifully designed product. They created inbound link juice on topics that drove more traffic to their site. Type “personal financial management” into Google.  Mint.com is the second result. Smart.
Think Magento. They are an open-source & SaaS provider of eCommerce solutions. They are the fastest growing player in the world in this space. They achieved all of this before they raised even a penny of venture capital. eCommerce is an enormously competitive search term. Yet type it into Google and the third result (behind the Wikipedia entry and ecommerce.com) is Magento. Magic. They did it by creating a blog, discussion board and hub for eCommerce advice and information.
So you developed a product for the mommy community? Blog on that topic. Do you have an application that helps mobile developers build HTML5 apps? You know your blog topic. Do you have sales productivity software? Obvious. Check out SalesCrunch posts. Blog to your community. Be a thought leader. Don’t blog to your friend (that might be a separate Tumblog or something) but blog to your community.
If you’re going to pump out regular content that is meaningful, you obviously need to blog about a topic in which you’re knowledgeable, thoughtful and passionate. If you’re not all three of these things in your industry then I guess you’ve got a broader problem. Honestly.
So my biggest recommendation of “what” to blog is a series of articles that will be helpful to your community. If you’re a lawyer, blog on a topic that would be helpful to potential customers. Show that you’re a thought leader. Scott Edward Walker does an excellent job at this. It’s the only reason I know who he is. I had seen his blog & his Tweets and then was interested to meet him IRL.
Do a brainstorming session and create a list of 40-50 topics that interest you. Write out the topic and maybe even the blog title. Keep the list electronically. .
Struggling to come up with enough topics? Take one topic and break it up into 10 bite-sized articles. It’s probably better that way anyways. I wanted to write about the top 10 attributes of an entrepreneur. I wrote it all in one sitting and then broke it up into 10 separate posts. It kept me busy for 3 weeks! Each one ended up taking on a life of its own as the comments flowed in for post 1 I had more thoughts to add to post 2 and so on.

 

3. Where

You need a blog. Duh. If you’re a company and if hanging it off of your company website makes sense for the link traffic – go for it. If you’re head of marketing at a company and keeping a more generalized blog (in addition to your company blog) so that you can influence brands & agencies – it can be separate.

I chose for my blog to be independent of my firm, GRP Partners.  The reason is that I wanted to be free to say what I was thinking independently of my partners. My views don’t always represent theirs and vice-versa even though we’re pretty like-minded (we’ve worked together for 10+ years).  I chose a title that represented a brand that I wanted to emphasize – Both Sides of the Table. I chose it because I thought it would represent who I am – mostly an entrepreneur but somebody with investment chops. I wanted to differentiate.

So. People keep asking me, “why would you write on TechCrunch?” I guess I would have thought it was obvious. Apparently not. People say, “aren’t you driving traffic away from your own blog?”

Facts:

  • I don’t really care about total page views or uniques other than as a measure of whether I’m improving. I don’t sell ads.
  • I DO care about “share of mind,” which means that I want fish in the pond where the people whom I want to speak with hang out. I know a certain number hit my blog. But I’m not so arrogant (or successful) as to think they come all the time. So I take my show on the road. If I can write about a topic for which I’m passionate about and double or triple the number of people who read it – that’s gold dust. That’s why I never stopped anybody from taking my feed and republishing.
  • As it happens, since I began writing at TechCrunch my viewership has continued to go up, not down. I always publish on my own blog the day after it runs on TC. I want the historical post there. A large number of readers on my site get it from Feedburner or newsletter feed.
  • I also get a lot of inbound links from writing here. I try to make any inbound links to my blog authentic to the story. But each story has driven 1,000′s of views.
  • The majority of my traffic still comes from Twitter. TC posts = more Twitter followers = more conversion when I do write on my own blog = more Feedburner / newsletter subs = more traffic. It’s an ecosystem. Simple.

And to prove the point I have the analytics from this post. It ran today (Sunday, a slow day for tech blogs) on TechCrunch. My logs as of 10.30pm show that nearly 5,000 of the 21,000 visits to my blog today came from TechCrunch. Tomorrow another 2,500 or more will come. I’ll bet that 20% of these at least had never heard of my blog. If only 20% of those come back again that’s an additional 300 relevant readers / month I wouldn’t have had.

So once you have a blog, a voice and a small following – don’t be shy about writing some guest posts for target blogs. Remember – for you that’s likely not TC – it’s the place your community hangs out.

4. How

Be authentic. Don’t try to sound too smart or too funny.  Just be yourself.  People will see who you are in your words.  If you try to make everything too perfect you’ll never hit publish.  If you try to sound too intelligent you’ll likely be boring as shit.  Most blogs are.  I hate reading blow hards who try to sound like they’re smarter than the rest of us. Be open and transparent.  Get inside your reader’s minds.  Try to think about what they would want to know from you.  In fact, ask them!

Don’t be offensive – it’s never worth it to offend great masses of people.  But that doesn’t mean sitting on the fence.  I have a point of view and I’m sure sometimes it rankles.  But I try to be respectful about it.  Sitting on the fence on all issues is also pretty boring.  And don’t blog drunk.  Or at least don’t hit publish ;-) Mostly, have fun.  If you can’t do that you won’t last very long.

How do I get started? First, you’ll need a platform.  I use WordPress.  Some people swear bySquareSpace. There are the new tools like Tumblr and Posterous.  I’ve played with both and they’re pretty cool. They’re more light weight and easier to use. Importantly, they’re more social. It’s much easier to build an audience in social blogging platforms the way you do in Twitter or Facebook.  T

hen  you need to decide whether to use the “hosted” version or the “installed” version.  At least that’s true in WordPress.  The advantage of the hosted version is that it’s easier to get started.  The disadvantage is that you can’t install a lot of additional tools that use Javascript. I started with the hosted version and then migrated to an installed version so I could use Google Analytics and some other products.

You then need a URL.  It’s true you can be something like msuster.typepad.com but that’s kind of lame so I wouldn’t recommend it.  Just get a real URL.  I think it’s important to think about what image you want to portray when you pick your URL name.  It doesn’t need to be short.  You’re not trying to build a consumer website.  My website is a pretty long URL but people manage to find it.  Much of my traffic is through referring websites and/or social media. Some search. What are YOU trying to convey?  What will be your unique positioning?  Don’t just write a carbon copy of what somebody else is doing.  That’s boring.

So I wrote a post, now what? Don’t blow your load on your first post.  Slice it up enough to do many posts.  I think most blogs are between 600-1000 words / post.  Once you’re written a few posts don’t try to make the flood gates open at once.  Slowly build your audience.  Make it organic.  If you write good content and consistently you’ll build an audience over time.

The number one thing that kills 95% of blogs is that they do 5 or 6 posts in rapid succession and then peter out. It’s lame to go to a blog where this happens. And then 8 months later they do the obligatory post saying, “OK, I’m going to be more committed to blogging now!” and then another 4 months go by. If you’re really not going to write that often at least don’t put dates on your posts.

But if you write good stuff, but in an effort and keep going – it’s a marathon – you will see results over time.

How do I build an audience? If you build it, will they come? No. A blog post is just like a product. First it needs to be good. And then you need to market it. It doesn’t just happen. You should be subtle about how you market it, but market it nonetheless. If you’re too squeamish to ask for help in promoting it or to do so yourself then you’ll never build an audience (you’ll also likely not make it as an entrepreneur. Sorry. But that’s true.)

The obvious starting point is to email a few friends and let them know you have a new blog.  Don’t be overbearing – just an email saying, “wanted to let you know about my new blog.”  I also recommend you put a link to it under your email signature (in a color other than black).  You also should have it be what your Twitter bio links to.

Every time I write a post I send it out on Twitter.  I try to send out the Twitter link when more people are online.  Over time I’ve found out that I get better clicks at 8.30-9.30am Mon-Fri so that’s when I Tweet a lot of my stuff.  I’ll frequently send two Tweets – East Coast & West Coast. If you want to know why I’ve outlined it here.  Not everybody sees the first one.  Social media is ephemeral.

Because I’ve built my Twitter following slowly but steadily and authentically over time I get very high click-through rates (and thus a high Klout score – currently 74). I get about 4% CTR (click-through rate) on every Tweet in the AM) and it’s actually higher because if I assume only 33% of my followers on online the CTR is closer to 12%.  Interestingly if I had sent one Tweet at 5.30am (to get East Coast time) and another at 8.30am I get 4% CTR both times. So it’s hard to argue you shouldn’t Tweet twice if you have a geographically distributed following.

How do I know my stats? I use awe.sm (disclosure, I’m an investor) which is the best tool I know of for tracking: each individual share behavior (it creates unique URLs for each Tweet) plus it also separates out Tweets from Facebook shares, from “Retweets” that come from somebody clicking on my blog, etc. It also tracks who Tweeted the link so you will know who your most influential social followers are.

Make sure your blog has Tweetmeme or similar to make it easier for readers to Retweet.  Also, make sure to sign up with Feedburner.  That way people who want to get your blog by RSS and/or email can do so. Make sure your blog also has a Follow Me on Twitter button so people who find you can easily follow you.

5. When

People often ask how I blog so much and don’t think they can do it themselves. If you write about something for which you’re both knowledgeable and passionate I’ll bet you can pump out more than you think.

I usually blog at 10pm or on airplane flights. I never blog at work. Like you, I don’t have the time. I have board meetings, company pitches, internal partner meetings, etc. Hell, I often can’t even get to email during the day. So it comes out of TV time, which means I’m not missing anything. Occasionally if I really want to blog and I have a date or too much work I just set my alarm for 5.30am. Yup. It’s not that hard if you make a commitment to it.

What would it mean to you and your business if you could: increase your inbound traffic, enhance your company & personal brand, meet new influential people who suddenly know who you are. If you want these things they are available to you for the cost of some time & effort.

If you plan out what you want to write about in advance (create topics then to headings to structure your article. You’ll notice on this one I started with mine … Why, What, Where, How and then I later added When & What Next) then it’s really about writing.  Structure helps enormously.  If you need some help with the creative process read this.

I write for about 45 minutes to an hour in the first pass.  I usually then re-read, edit, spell check and add links.  This usually takes another 20-30 minutes.  I then always add an image.  I think this is a nice touch.  Just staring at text is a bit boring and I find that the image can add humor and/or drive people in.

6. What Next?

Then there’s comments.  You HAVE TO respond to comments.  Do yourself a favor and installDisqus. It makes a huge difference in driving a comment community.  If you want the details on why I covered it here.

First, it’s the most fun part of blogging.  It’s addicting like Twitter.  It’s where you exchange ideas with other people.  It’s where your community gets to know you.  It’s where you build loyalty and relationships.  I have met many people in person who were first commenters on my blog.  I find it frustrating if I leave comments on somebody’s blog and they never respond.  If somebody found your blog and took the time to comment then they’re like a customer who should be cherished. Responses to them are like customer retention. It’s also where you’ll learn. People will tell you when you’re full of shit.

Appendix: Traffic Hacks:

  • Commenting on other blogs – you need to comment on other people’s blogs.  First, it is a place where your comment will often link back to your blog where it can drive traffic.  Occasionally, and not overtly, and only if relevant you can provide a comment with a link back to an article in your blog.  Don’t do this often, don’t be blatant and make sure it’s relevant.
  • Linking to other blogs – For example, many people know that I love VentureHacks because it’s a great resource for entrepreneurs and I think that Babak Nivi is a star.  Notice I’ve linked to his website.  If he tracks his blog (which I’m sure he does) he’ll see this link.  If he has a Google Alert on his name (everyone does) then he’ll also get that.  Don’t be over the top gushing and creepy.  Be subtle.  Don’t overtly tell everyone you link to, “I linked to you, check out my article!”  Assume that over time if you write compelling content they’ll eventually check you out.
  • Covering relevant people in your blog in an authentic way – If your blog covers topics in your industry it’s likely that you’ll be able to write about some people and companies that you want to be aware of your blog.  Don’t Tweet @ them telling them you covered them. Don’t email them saying you covered them. Just talk about their company. If you write good articles over time and do this often enough people will notice.
  • Tweet support - What I did in the early days was to enlist Tweet support.  I would occasionally ask people that I was close with to retweet my posts.  I tried to mix it up in order to not ask the same people often.  I would send out emails with the Tweet text already written so that they just had to cut-and-paste.  As my blog started getting authentic traffic I stopped asking for this help very often.
  • Guest authoring – Once you have a bit of credibility as a writer a great strategy to drive traffic is to write guest posts for relevant bloggers in your sphere of influence.   If you run BakeSpace and blog about food why not contact some of the local food blogs and see whether you could submit guest articles.  Most people are delighted to have the free content.  In return all you ask for are links back to your blog and to your Twitter account.  Slowly and surely these will add users, of which some will come back on a regular basis.

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