An internet search reveals the rapid growth in online blogging - web and marketing consultants, politicians, journalists, media companies, authors, academics and students are all heavily into blogs (or web logs - online diaries). But it is difficult to find small firms that blog outside of those in the internet and media industries.
While chief executives of many US giants - such as GM and Sun - blog regularly, it remains unusual for a British company to have a blog. Recent research found only two FTSE 100 companies running blogs. This reluctance is backed-up by a survey published in September 2006 by web hosting company Fasthosts, which found only 3 per cent of UK SMEs intending to start blogs. This is despite there being 54 million blogs on the web, with another 75,000 created daily.
GRS Sign Company - which produces commercial signs - is therefore unusual. It started its blog in June. "It allows us to talk among ourselves, about our business," says Richard Dows, a signwriter at GRS with responsibility for its web, having previously been a web designer. The target audience is "anyone who reads blogs," he says.
As a new blog, it is still building its hits and responses from customers, suppliers and the public. But - unlike some blogs - it seeks comments. Recent blogs have included a discussion on alcohol-related accidents at work, the challenge of disposing of old computers, conducting fire risk assessments, the design of braille signs and, of course, the growing demand for no smoking signs.
The blog was added to the GRS website when it was redesigned to make it more appealing to people new to the company, who come across it only through its web presence. "We wanted to get people interested from the online world, " says Dows. "We are getting some work from this and several queries." As a small firm with 25 staff, the limited commitment involved has already been paid back. "There was not much cost or time and effort involved," explains Dows. "It involves a couple of hours a week."
While it is early days yet for GRS, businesses with longer exposure have found they can increase turnover by as much as two-fold through a good blog. "It is quite popular in the States and it has developed as a business tool, not just a personal one," says Mark White, who runs blog consultants Rosetta Alba Services. "It is taking off here, now." While recognition is growing, White says that a large proportion of people who visit his website (www.betterbusiness blogging.com) do so asking a search engine the question, "what is blogging?".
With larger companies, blogs may be aimed at staff as a better system for employee communication than posters stuck on a wall. They also have the benefit of allowing employees to respond with comments and suggestions. "Blogs are interactive, build a community and are participatory, which is much better than just being given something to read," says White. "In the US, it's small businesses that are leading the way, because they are looking for ways to find their voice."
While corporations can pay for TV, radio, press and online advertising, SMEs look for distinctive but cheaper messages - and blogs can provide these. A blog can significantly improve a company's website search engine profile - sending far more online visitors to the website. Assuming that it is well written and relevant, a blog should also improve the firm's image as a source of reliable knowledge, presented in an accessible fashion. This in itself is likely to generate new business.
Craig Killick, managing director of web consultancy The Escape, says: " Setting up a blog is very easy and quick and enables you to add new information on your website. It allows you to talk to your customers about things happening on a day-to-day basis in your industry. The benefit from the small firms' point of view is that it gives you access to speak to the market."
Killick adds that small firms without a website can use blog technology to create a cheap and easy web presence, that is directly under the firm's own control. While it would cost £2,000 to £3,000 to get a consultant like The Escape to design and set-up a website, a firm can run a blog with associated basic website for just £80 a year.
What is more, technological developments will increasingly favour blogs. There is a strong move to RSS - a form of data feed, sometimes called Really Simple Syndication - through which each new blog will automatically be e-mailed to all people who have registered for updates. This will provide a much cheaper system for sending information to customers and other stakeholders than through a newsletter or other mailing, and will be more reliable and less time-consuming than e-mails.
RSS could be the spark that ignites blogging as a real commercial force in Britain. But before starting, firms should remember that blogs come with risks as well as potential rewards. Libel can be committed online, as can copyright theft. If staff are permitted to lodge their own comments, these need to be carefully monitored for such things as inadvertent disclosure of trade secrets. And blogs should be moderated. One of the most positive aspects of blogs is to find out what customers say about you and your products - but you need to carefully observe these comments and you may not even want them to be posted if they are too critical.
But perhaps most important of all, it is important to monitor what people say about your business on other blogs. Some consumer complaint blogs contain devastating criticisms of businesses. Are you certain you know what people are saying about you online?
There are a number of websites which host blogs for reasonable fees and which provide simple software to enable a blog to get started.
***www.wordpress.org was formed in 2001 and provides free software for blogging and hosts blogs.
***www.typepad.com hosts blogs, with software provided, at prices starting at £2.66 a month.
***www.blogger.com provides free blogs software and hosting.
***www.technorati.com and www.search.blogger.com will tell you what other people are saying about you in their blogs.