CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- By now, most small businesses realize that having a Web site is a necessity, not a luxury. But owners don't always know what to do with a site once it's up and running. Maybe that's why so many Web sites sit unchanged, month after month.
While flashy animation or video feeds might make sense for tech-minded companies, creating an appealing Web site doesn't require a lot of bells and whistles. A blog is an easy, cost-effective way to engage customers by providing content that's timely and informative.
Done right, it can also help customers connect to you on a more personal level, which builds loyalty. While setting up a blog on an existing Web site is relatively easy, you need to think through your approach before getting started. Here are three basic models to consider:
Think of your blog as a supplement to your existing Web site, an online version of a company newsletter. This is the place you can introduce new employees, announce special products or sales, and share behind-the-scenes anecdotes. If your business is a team effort, employees can take turns writing blog entries so all their voices are represented.
This type of blog works especially well for places that regularly change their product lineup and schedule special events, such as stores and restaurants. For example, Tom and Patty Erd, owners of
, a chain of spice stores in Milwaukee and the Chicago area, use their blog to post recipes, share local culinary news and even discuss the occasional small-business topic (such as whether it's worth it for Patty to answer all the company e-mail personally).
Newsletter-type blogs can even work for non-retail businesses. Take master plumber Brian Spurlin of Modern Plumbing Systems in Severn, Md. He started his own blog,
Brian the Plumber
, to give customers an inside look at his work and some of the challenges of his business. Recent entries included an explanation of why it never pays to scrimp on a bathroom remodeling (using the example of his own parents), as well as water-saving maintenance tips for homeowners.
The good news: You don't have to post every day to create an effective blog. What makes it work is the right tone and content: make sure it sounds like you're having a conversation with customers, rather than just trying to sell them something.
If you're up for a challenge -- and have always secretly fancied yourself a writer -- a blog can boost your name and reputation within your industry. With the right expertise and experience, you can position yourself as the ultimate insider, writing about hot topics in your field and giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at how your industry operates.
As an example, take Kim Stare Wallace, vice president of Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County, Calif., a second-generation family business. Although the vineyard has its own Web site, she decided to write a more informal blog giving what she calls "an insider's look at the wine country life."
, Wallace (whose nickname is Wilma) shares memories of her father, who started the vineyard in the 1970s, gives rundowns of her wine-related travels, and admits to being not-so-adventurous when dining in New York's Chinatown ("The gooey duck, chicken toes and fish heads paired seamlessly with the Endeavour Cabernet, which I found myself drinking in larger-than-normal quantities that evening.").
While good writing is important, you've also got to be enthusiastic enough to keep this kind of content-rich blog going. And be prepared to get feedback, good and bad, from others in your industry.
If writing paragraph after paragraph fills you with fear or dread, never fear. The simplest blogs need hardly any text to make an impression.
For inspiration, consider the blog maintained by
, chef of McCrady's Restaurant in Charleston, S.C. A strong supporter of local food purveyors, he crafts his menus from whatever produce and meats arrive each day. His blog isn't much more than a series of pictures: recent food deliveries, dishes he's served, even an arrangement of garnishes. More photo album than blog, it proves you don't have to be a writer to make a personal statement.
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Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.