July 25, 2008

Blogging for Leads

Lately, I've been quite interested in the potential for using blogging for lead generation. I've prepared this brief guide of my research, thoughts and ideas.

Let me start by saying my views on blogging is pragmatic. Unlike many quite enthusiastic bloggers that think blogging is the next best thing since sliced bread, my current perspective is that it's definitely very interesting, worth exploring, but is by no means a proven, consistent, and highly scalable medium for lead generation. There are definitely other very good reasons to blog, but this post is specific to the topic of lead generation.

I come from a direct response background. That is to say, I believe marketing is only good if it produces a desirable action,such as a sale, and it's bad if it doesn't. I also believe in counting your numbers so that you can objectively and numerically determine if your marketing is any good.

In looking at a number of prominent direct marketers who have historically used print ads, direct mail and Internet advertising to generate leads, I've found that most are using blogs as a way to communicate with their existing lists of customers and leads generated from non-blog sources. The most common model seems to be using the blog as a way to archive communications that would be normally sent via email.

From what I gather, the thinking is that some people are email people, while others are blog people. Blog readers typically use something called an RSS reader that essentially pulls posts off of a blog and puts them into a sort of an inbox for blog posts. Google Reader is one example of a fairly common RSS reader.

Here's how blog readers would typically use an RSS reader. They would set up a Google Reader account, and then click a button on a blog titled "RSS" or "Add to Google." By clicking on the link, all subsequent posts from the blog would be "sent" to the RSS reader inbox.

While many direct response marketers that I know are using blogs to communicate with their house lists, few to none are interacting with the blogosphere. The blogosphere is the name given to the community of interrelated blogs on a particular topic.

Typically, interaction with the blogosphere involves more than just posting content on your blog. You do things such as link to other blogs as a way to get other blogs to link to yours, or to comment on other people's blogs.

This is a very different approach to the idea that you should put a fence around your customers/audience and prevent them from discovering other bloggers/vendors in your market. When you interact with the blogosphere, you deliberately send your visitors to other related websites and blogs. The general idea is that by referring readers to other great resources and blogs, they will be appreciative and you will generate goodwill in the process.

What's important to understand about blogging is that all blog software platforms are designed to facilitate links from one person's blog to another. For example, if you put a link from your blog to this post and mark your post with the trackback link at the bottom of this post, it automatically sends a message from your blog to mine that such a link exists. This appears in my alerts and I will know that you thought enough of me/my post to link to it. In short, by doing so I'll notice you and your blog. This interconnectedness is the nature of the blogosphere which is different than just positing on your own blog as if it were some web archive of sending email to some email list.

Here's a simple example. I just finished reading a post from Debbie Weil who is the author of The Corporate Blogging Book. Notice that I just linked to her blog and to her book on amazon.com. These are unpaid referrals and I do so for two reasons. First, she does know her stuff and her book is quite a good guide for people new to blogging. So if you want to learn more about blogging, you'll find her book useful. I'm betting that if you decide to buy the book, you'll think to yourself, "Hey, that Victor Cheng guy was spot on" and remember that you got the recommendation from me.

Ideally this builds goodwill between us and you may refer others to my blog, refer potential clients to me or tell others to read my blog–all good things and indirectly beneficial to me.

Now getting back to what I was saying, I was reading a blog post that Debbie wrote titled Million Dollar Consultant Alan Weiss Says Social Media Is a Waste of Time for Consultants. (Yes, that's a link to her post). In creating the link, I put a reference in my blog post called a trackback URL, the thingy I mentioned earlier. This means that an excerpt of a post you're reading now will appear on Debbie's blog.

This has two consequences. First, the readers of her blog may now discover my blog (for free). And second, since my link to her blog post will appear in her alerts, Debbie may notice me and my blog. She of course can approve or disapprove this cross reference and whether or not an excerpt of this post appears on her blog, but my guess is she won't disapprove. Why? Because my post explains to the reader that she's a fantastic resource to learn more about blogging. It's a compliment.

In this post I've told the world how good she is and plugged her book because I do genuinely think it is a very useful guide for employees in the marketing department of a corporation who want to figure out this blogging thing.

In the blogosphere Debbie is a prominent blogger. Her audience consists of CEOs and marketers in medium and big size companies–hey that's my audience too. Perhaps through this link she might notice my blog and my book Bookmercial Marketing: Why Books Replace Brochures in the Credibility Age. Perhaps someday she might mention my blog or my book on her blog.

Of course, I'm being unusually transparent about this and typically none of what I explained is ever expressed explicitly. Being completely open and transparent IS part of the culture of the blogosphere. Being overtly commercial such as "buy here, buy now" is still somewhat looked down upon. (More on this later This is the collaborative marketing nature of the blogosphere. I raise my own profile in the blogosphere by referencing or complimenting the posts of other blogosphere bloggers.

The irony of this particular approach is that Debbie herself did this in her post. In her post, Million Dollar Consultant Alan Weiss Says Social Media Is a Waste of Time for Consultants she linked to two other prominent bloggers Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting (also a very good book on selling value in consulting engagements) and Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends and Friends Into Customers (the seminal book on the whole opt-in marketing approach that's essentially THE standard for online email marketing) and too many other good marketing books to mention.

In Debbie's post she references and links to Alan Weiss' post titled Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Chance. Unfortunately, Alan's blog doesn't provide something called a trackback URL so this post will not automatically appear on his blog as a related item.

The only way to appear on Alan's blog is to leave a comment on it. This is what Debbie did when she essentially said, Alan, you're wrong. Corporate people do read blogs. (See her comment in response to Alan's post)

Notice how Debbie lists her name as "Debbie Weil author of the Corporate Blogging Book" (nice plug and socially acceptable too). I do the same thing when I post, Victor Cheng author of Bookmercial Marketing (see another excuse to plug myself without being overly overt about it… damn, my secret's out now… sorry Debbie, but I out'ed you.)

While one strategy is to link to others in the blogosphere and identity it as interesting reading or a useful resource, the other approach is to create controversy. This is exactly what Alan Weiss did in his post Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Chance. In his post, he says blogs are a waste of time unless you've already established a brand… OMG (Oh My God)… this is like heresy in the blogosphere. All the other bloggers out there go absolutely nuts. You'll notice there are some 70 comments in response to Alan's post.

Leading the charge in response is none other that A-list blogger Seth Godin. An A-list is sort of a like a celebrity blogger that's widely read and extremely influential. For example, reporters at Time Magazine, Newsweek, Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Business Week that cover online marketing all read Seth Godin's blog to see what he's talking about… betcha didn't know that… starting to see how this thing works?

Seth responds to Alan's post by saying that he is wrong, wrong, wrong (read Seth's comment on Alan's blog here). He cites a few examples and says he started blogging well before he was known as a marketing guru.

This controversy of course gets Alan Weiss all riled up and he decides to create another blog post as a follow-up. See Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Chance Redux. More controversy, more comments, more readership.

How's that for a case study?

Okay, now back to blogging as a lead generation tool.

I've been looking for blogger success stories and found one example of a company growing from $1 million to $10 million in sales in two years. I found this case study in the book Groundswell a bestseller by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff about Stormhoek Winery and how blogging delivers five-fold increase in stormhoek sales in less than two years.

But I have yet to find any case studies of companies generating more than say $20 million a year just from blogging. In virtually every other advertising medium (and perhaps its not right to call blogging an advertising medium) you can find endless examples of companies making $20+ million. This is true for pay per click advertising, print advertising, direct mail, telemarketing, infomercials, but not blogging.

What does this mean?

I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps it's too early. Perhaps there are limitations to how scalable blogging is as a lead generation medium. Perhaps blogging isn't a great lead generation medium, but a better thought leadership medium (probably).

I have seen numerous examples of very large companies that have ignored the world of social media and blogs and paid dearly for it. Just google "Dell Hell" and "Kryptonite Locks" and you'll see what I mean–tons of negative publicity that's forever carved in "digital granite" on the Internet.

(Here's one lesson especially for a big company: Never, ever tell an A list blogger to f***off…. they get mad, and boy do they get even.)

The prevailing notion seems to be that blogs are best for disseminating a big, new idea (think: 4-hr work week by Tim Ferriss who incidentally had a hilariously funny blog post on Warren Buffet) and for building market awareness, establishing thought leadership, and indirectly generating the potential for business.

The general idea is that reporters read blogs to get ideas for stories (think Lewinski), and bloggers read other blogs (and press release from prweb.com) to get ideas about what to blog about.

The blogging culture remains a bit noncommercial (the capitalist in me hates that), so participating in the blogosphere is more of a "everyone at the bar talking shop" rather than someone listening to someone give a sales presentation. It is peers talking amongst peers and occasionally referring one another to other resources, vendors, etc.

In case you haven't noticed, the main currency you play with in the blogosphere is links. If I want a top blogger to notice me, I link to his/her blog and say he's a genius or a moron. Instant presto, I get noticed. The blogger might link back in response, retaliation, or to remind readers how brilliant he/she is because someone else put him/her on a pedestal.

An example of this is Google "1000 true fans". It's a very insightful blog post by Kevin Kelly about online niches that were linked to be a number of prominent bloggers including Seth Godin. In fact 1,400 web sites link to kk.org (the site that hosts the blog). The 1000 true fans post has a Google Page Rank of 7, which is a rank of its importance in the Google search engines (which incidentally is the same Page Rank rating as the home page of borders.com). All this is from one really, really good blog post. Amazing!

Think of the 1,400 links as 1,400 lead generation ads on the Internet that are for free for a long time to this site. It seems terribly seductive to the direct marketer in me that's used to paying a lot for advertising.

The one glaring weakness I've seen so far is few bloggers have built a good linkage between getting traffic via a blog and putting them into a sales pipeline of some sort. If you look at income surveys of
bloggers, it's incredible low–like 95% make less than $4k a month kind of low.

This is by no means to disparage bloggers or place value judgment on income levels. It's just that, having worked at McKinsey & Company and given speeches at Harvard Business School on marketing, I'm accustomed to big business.

Even the A list bloggers, who have extensive readership and are followed by reporters from Time, Newsweek  and the trade mags, don't do a good job at converting blog viewers into buyers.

Many don't even try.

I'm not sure if this is just the culture of the blogosphere or if the bloggers are blogging for psychic benefits
(e.g., fame, respect, notoriety). Many A list bloggers are New York Times bestselling authors, reporters for major magazines, and have a "day job" separate from blogging.

I do think a potentially reasonable blend of blogging and direct response lead generation is to participate in the blogosphere and from time to time embed free offers in your blog posts. For example from time to time, I could give away a few dozen copies of my book, Bookmercial Marketing, as a freebie to start what Seth Godin calls the permission marketing process.

So long as the majority of the posts or of each post are insightful and useful, I think the approach might be able to work. However, this is still a theory and I'd feel a lot better about it if I saw some more people pulling this off–doing the commercial stuff extremely well from a revenue standpoint, but still playing nice within the culture of the blogosphere.

Two books worth reading on this, in priority order: Groundswell by Charlene Li and The Long Tail by Chris Andersen (get the paperback version, read the additional last chapter on marketing in The Long
Tail
, and especially pay attention to the discussion of links as the ultimate in online currency.) These books explain a very, very different way of thinking about business and lead generation online.

Blogging to a house list seems to make sense if that's how they prefer to read your stuff. In these cases, you've already generated the lead and the blog is just to communicate with a lead, rather than using blogging as way to generate leads.

Blogging as a way to prevent a major crisis that brings down a Fortune 500 company makes sense as a disaster prevention type of communication tool. However, from a revenue generation standpoint, there are a few success stories, but by no means is lead generation from blogging (via the blogosphere) a slam dunk.

Most people who cite success stories, can only point to a small handful of examples, perhaps a dozen. I'd certainly like to see hundreds, if not thousands, of success stories. All the other major advertising media have these examples.

Finally, the last major drawback is it's incredibly time consuming. In order to participate in the blogosphere, you have to keep tabs on everyone else's blogs. That takes time. As another example, I'm finishing this blog post at 5:49 a.m., and it has just dawned on me that I've been up all night and essentially pulled an all-nighter. That was certainly not my intention. I thought I'd just write out a quick little post, but it clearly took more time that I thought.

I'm not looking forward to explaining to my wife why I'm a zombie tomorrow morning (okay, like in an hour). Um honey, I was writing on my blog tons and tons of stuff about blogging so that others can figure out what to do with it, and this was after spending weeks reading everything I can on blogs, immersing myself in this thing called the blogosphere.

She'll of course ask, "And exactly how does this produce more business?"

And my answer will probably be, "That's a very good question!"

Spread the Word!

Filed under Lead Generation by Victor Cheng

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Comments on Blogging for Leads »

July 26, 2008

Alan Weiss @ 6:38 am

Hey, someone mentioned that they checked Google Alerts and found my name all over here, which I guess is illustrative of what you're talking about! Anyway, thanks for the reference, and one correction: I DO think most blogs are crap, unreadable and dumb. BUT I was never "riled up." My blog is contrarianconsulting.com, where I usually question the mainstream (bloggers think they are not mainstream, but they are as conformist as you can get, hence, the cult-like behavior) and I stirred up just the hornet's next I had hoped.

There are some fine blogs if you're discriminatory, and look where I'm posting!

Best,

Alan Weiss
http://www.summitconsulting.com

Victor Cheng @ 12:20 pm

Cool… it worked!

And Alan nice job on stirring up the hornet's nest, it clearly worked. And thanks for commenting.

Elizabeth Adams @ 10:17 pm

Hello, Victor …

Just a note to say …

I came over here from your post on Bob Bly's blog.

This is such a great post you have here …

Only …

Well, do you think you could bigger up the font a little?

It's really, *really* hard to read.

Thanks a bunch …

Elizabeth

:)

July 28, 2008

Victor Cheng @ 2:51 pm

Elizabeth,

Thanks for the suggestion (didn't realize it was a problem). I has now been fixed.

-Victor

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