State of the entrepreneurial blogosphere 2011.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project has conducted an ongoing series of research projects and published reports on Internet usage. In a summary memorandum released in January 2005 it was stated that "62% of internet users do not know what a blog is" (Rainie, 2005). However, as this paper will discuss: that landscape has changed significantly over the years with an explosive growth in the number of blogs, bloggers, and users. Perhaps the relevance to small business and entrepreneurship scholars can be suggested by a quote in Entrepreneur magazine that stated "[blogging has] gone beyond fad to become a full-fledged Internet phenomenon" (Kooser, 2002). Blogging has been further characterized as a "paradigm shift of how we disseminate and communicate" (Cunningham, 2005). "[Blogs] can be started with very little, and very inexpensive, editorial content yet are capable of exerting extraordinary influence" (Madden, 2005).
Early blogs, also called Web logs, or by the shortened term, "weblogs" were primarily used as online diaries for sharing content and commentary of a personal nature (Blog, 2010). In keeping with the social impact and immense sphere of influence that has developed in connection with blogs and blogging, the term "blogosphere," has arisen, defined as a "collective term encompassing all weblogs or blogs as a community or social network"(Blogosphere, 2011; Sobel, 2010). As observed by Madden (2005) an MIT Technology Review article: "Several factors have contributed to the emergence of blogs.... Blogging software is inexpensive--or often free--and easy to use. Low bandwidth requirements and Web-hosting fees keep the ongoing infrastructure costs of maintaining a blog very low" (p. 36).
Because bandwidth and access continues to increase, and technologies such as "Flip" video cameras and smartphones (Barbierri, 2010; Smartphone Futures, 2010) have arisen (providing instant connectivity for uploads) blogs can now enable any individual, or small business to leverage what amounts to a publishing (broadcasting, etc.) platform.
Most present day blogs have begun to supersede mere text and photos and many incorporate richer media including audio, video, and screencasts (Udell, 2005) as part of their content. Scholarly research on blogging or the "blogosphere" in the discipline of entrepreneurship is limited, despite the fact that the software that makes blogs work is designed for the primary purpose of allowing non-programmers an easy-to-use (Chung, Eunseong, Trammell, & Porter, 2007) means to communicate any message they want to a world-wide audience, on the Web, and therefore blogs can be a powerful marketing tool for small businesses.
REVIEW OF EXISTING LITERATURE ON BLOGGING
After a series of searches in the scholarly literature using library databases it was revealed that the topic of the "entrepreneurial blogosphere" has received little attention from academic researchers within the discipline of entrepreneurship. Search attempts conducted on Academic Search Premier demonstrated a dearth of scholarly research on "entrepreneurial blogging," for instance. This search resulted in only one result, published in the trade publication EContent magazine (Levack, 2004). This particular article focused on blogging as a business unto itself. Upon expanding this same search to also include the database Business Source Complete, a total of five "hits" were found: the aforementioned article, a Harvard Business School case (HubSpot: Inbound Marketing and Web 2.0, 2009), a 2003 two-page article reviewing "'blogs' kept by entrepreneurs," and one article published in the Serbian language (listed as a duplicate result in the search results--thus, the actual overall result from the search effort was four hits).
Another search using the databases Academic Search Premier, Business Source Complete, and Business Source Premier, concurrently, using the term "entrepreneurial blogosphere" (in "SmartText Searching" mode, which allows for searching on text strings and phrases) produced the result "No results were found." Other related searches using additional databases also showed sparse results. For instance, the databases Communication & Mass Media Complete, MLA Directory of Periodicals, Regional Business News, and TOPICsearch were all used concurrently in a search using the terms "blogosphere" and "small business" (in combination); this resulted in one newspaper article published in 2005.
It should be mentioned that other desirable limiters from the point of view of conducting a review of scholarly literature for the searches described above were not set; specifically, check boxes to select only results for "full text" and "scholarly" articles were not selected in these searches. Another search on the term "blogosphere" by itself using the databases Communication & Mass Media Complete, and SocINDEX returned 129 and 29 results from these two databases, respectively. However, upon scanning the titles and abstracts, they reflected that scholarly attention had been paid to topics such as fashion, democracy, political and other discourse, religion, journalism and news media, and virtually anything "blogosphere related," except for small business and entrepreneurship.
Numerous other searches have been conducted for purposes of this literature review. Searches on terms like "blogs" and "blogging" in business related library databases did indeed yield numerous results. However, once limiters such as "scholarly publications" were applied, it was clear that the popular business press has recognized the relevance of blogging, blogs, et cetera, in association with the entrepreneurial blogosphere, but entrepreneurship scholars have not.
For instance, using the databases Business Source Complete and Business Source Premier (together) and the search term "blogosphere," 902 results were returned with reported publication dates between 2003 to 2011; once the limiter "Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals" was applied, results dwindled to 64 (and publication years automatically changed to reflect the period between 2004 and 2010); a perusal of these remaining 64 results demonstrated some scholarly attention to the "blogosphere" among all disciplines has been paid, but in contexts that are wide-ranging. For instance, article descriptions included health blogs, corporate social responsibility, ethical issues, employee issues (e.g., employees' blogging rights, or not), blogging in association with specific industries, blogging as an effective PR/marketing tool--relevant to this particular research--and the like, but a lack of concentrated and sustained research efforts on the part of entrepreneurship scholars was demonstrated (at least as far as these two databases were concerned).
Consequently, an expanded search beyond library databases ensued using Google Scholar in advanced search mode for the exact phrase "entrepreneurial blogosphere" yielded a very specific result related to the topic associated with this present paper, entitled "State of the Entrepreneurial Blogosphere" (Lahm, 2006).
Since five years has passed since the publication of the aforementioned article, it is evident that much has changed in terms of the world economy, technology, adoption rates, connectivity (e.g., smartphones), access, and the Internet as a whole. Yet, as observed by Lahm in 2006, one condition remains the same: "rigorous study of blogging as a variable under study in entrepreneurial research has been minimal." As such, while this present paper will build upon the aforementioned work from 2006, it too should be regarded as exploratory in nature, and will review the "State of Entrepreneurial Blogosphere" in 2011 using data and source material not available in the academic literature.
Notwithstanding the limited findings discussed above in terms of a review of scholarly literature, search results from Internet search engines produced millions (or billions) of results. Using Google, for instance, a search on the term "blogosphere" returned 10,900,000 results; and one using the term "blog" returned the results statement "about 5,570,000,000 results" (Google search results retrieved March 6, 2011). It might be noted that in the literature review in the aforementioned "State of the Entrepreneurial Blogosphere" article described the same Google search using the term "blog" conducted approximately five years earlier: "A Google search on the term "blog" returned the results statement: "about 2,070,000,000 for blog" (retrieved March 16, 2006)."
Since 2004 Technorati.com has been actively tracking statistics and providing reports regarding the "State of the Blogosphere [year here, 2004 to 2010]" (Sobel, 2010). As such, the site widely is quoted in mainstream media articles (and by scholarly researchers) as a seminal source. In the Technorati "State of the Blogosphere, February 2006 Part 1: On Blogosphere Growth" report, it was stated that the site "currently tracks 27.2 Million weblogs, and the blogosphere we track continues to double about every 5.5 months" (Sifry, 2006). For the sake of comparison, according to BlogPulse.com (a site operated by The Nielsen Company), it tracked the existence of 157,023,658 blogs (retrieved March 6, 2011), with 77,414 "New blogs in last 24 hours" (BlogPulse Stats, 2011).
LOOKING "UNDER THE HOOD" AT BLOGGING SOFTWARE
Although early blogs may have been as easy-to-use and widely adopted platform for personal diaries and other uses by individuals, the software that makes blogs work, "under the hood," is actually a type of content management system (CMS) (Peterson, 2009). As such, most popular blogging platforms have evolved over time. WordPress (see WordPress.org) is an example of one of the most popular and widely adopted, and it supports multiple authors with varying roles (Rapoza, 2008) as well as RSS (real simple syndication) feeds (Janelle, 2008; Joly, 2007; Tebbutt, 2007) as built in features. Typical content management systems work by using scripts to connect to a database; a script is basically a set of instructions written in a language that a computer server can execute.
A very simple example of a script is one that queries a server (the computer where a website's files are stored and "served" to visitors) as to the current date, and then displays the date to the visiting public (thereby creating the impression that the site is current and "tended to"). Another similar example is when a site owner uses a script to keep a copyright year current; for instance a message on the footer of a page might say "[name of site] and all of its contents copyright [script--go check the server and display the current year]." There are numerous scripting languages, and although writing code in these languages requires the expertise of a programmer who is versed in a given language, the whole point of a content management system is to provide a web-based platform that does not require a blog owner, authors, or guests to have such expertise.
Whatever the content of a site may be, scripts are used to fetch and assemble components such as a site's header and footer, navigational sidebars, along with editorial content (and perhaps advertisements). Because, "content management systems are able to capture and present for either private (through password protected access to certain information, for instance) or public view, the expressed knowledge and experiences of individuals or organizations, or whatever other content is placed within a given system" (Lahm, 2006), the applications to which the may be put to use far transcend those that are personal (diaries, et al).
"Roles," as mentioned above are assigned to users, giving them various levels of access and authority over a site. Even if the terminology is different with various kinds of systems, this notion of using roles is an important one both in the context of Internet sites that are visible to visitors on the World Wide Web, and on internal company/organizational sites (intranets). For example, a blog might have the roles "Administrator" (one who can make fundamental changes to the site, how it looks, and how it operates, and what functions and/or privileges are available to others); "Editor" (one who can approve the public posting of content authored by others, disapprove that content, change it, etc.); "Author" (one who can write content but may not have the authority to approve the work for public display); and "Subscriber" (one who can see and comment regarding content on a site, but may have his/her comments held in a moderation queue for approval first, usually by an editor or administrator).
In effect, a content management system serves as technology that allows for the entry, storage, retrieval, and reporting of data (i.e., displaying specific types of information to users and/or visitors, depending on their assigned role or status as a visitor); owners/users needn't have a sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of these systems (Peterson, 2009; Rapoza, 2008). Furthermore, many of the leading website hosting sites provide for nearly instant installation of popular blogging software platforms (and other content management systems, bulletin boards, etc.). For example, the hosting company Hostgator.com provides "Fantastico," which is an icon-driven user interface for clients to install "Instant Shopping Carts, Blogs, Portals, Forums, Counters, Formmail" (Hostgator.com hosting plans, 2011).
BLOGS AS A TOOL FOR ENTREPRENEURIAL MARKETING
"Blogging may have started as a channel for people to start conversations and build virtual communities, but more and more companies are using blogging as marketing tools" (Battenberg, 2008). Business oriented blogs have been created for myriad purposes and they are used to cater to the interests of a wide variety of audiences. For instance, professionals such as CPAs (Blogging for Business, 2008; Copeland, 2010) and attorneys (McDonough & Randag, 2010; O'Keefe, 2006) may find them to be a very useful communications and outreach tool. As an example, according to LexBlog.com (a service that assists lawyers with developing, creating and deploying lawyer-specificblogs--3000 at the time of this writing), "typical brochure-style law firm Websites are quickly outdated, static, neutral and passive. Blogs are timely, dynamic, personal and interactive--an agile practice development tool that focuses directly on your target audience" (Why Blog?, 2011).
Regardless of specialty or practice area, writing about topics that are associated with one's own expertise is a recognized way of gaining recognition (Klein, 2009; Pellet, 2008). Within this context of businesses using blogs, an "entrepreneurial blogosphere" (Lahm, 2006) has also arisen, wherein:
For a number of reasons, but particularly because blogs are relatively inexpensive and easy to set up, small businesses have found that they can represent themselves through blogging platforms. Because blogs are updated dynamically, as compared to what might be described as predecessor Web site technology, which was static in nature.... [blogs] are rapidly becoming if not already recognized as a superior platform for small business marketing communications. (p. 27)
Blogging allows for an entirely different "conversational marketing" (Karpinski, 2008) relationship between consumers (customers, clients, and so forth) and an organization's constituencies. Numerous large corporations have embraced blogs for this reason. As Karpinski also observed, "about 12% of Fortune 500 corporations run a corporate blog. Yet companies that have made a commitment--including Dell, Eastman Kodak Co., IBM Corp., Intel Corp. and SAP--are now deep into blogging programs with multiple weblogs, dozens of bloggers and a wealth of expertise and best practices to share."
With regard to smaller entrepreneurial firms, according to an article in Home Business Magazine "customers like blogs better because they feel they are having a conversation with the entrepreneur" (O'Neill, 2008); they also allow businesses to transcend geographic borders (globally). "Because blogs and other social media forums constitute a (semi) permanent archive of consumers' WOM [word of mouth], managers can mine the conversations for consumer insights into their products" (Kozinets, de Valck, Wojnicki, & Wilner, 2010). As observed by Blackshaw and Nazzaro in a white paper from Intelliseek (2004):
Although influenced or stimulated by traditional marketers and marketing activities, online word of mouth is nonetheless owned and controlled by consumers, and it often carries far higher credibility and trust than traditional media, especially as media channels become more fragmented and less trusted. The growth of its influence poses challenges and opportunities for marketers. (p. 2)
Trust and believability are of extreme importance in advertising. In the early days of photography (before the advent of digital editing software like Photoshop that could manipulate images), the use of photographs in ads was a major step forward in aiding advertisers' ability to convey a realistic preview of a product, service or user experience. Moving pictures, commonly called videos today, can be photographed, edited, and shared via digital hardware and software products that are widely available at low cost. Once these videos are uploaded, they can become powerful marketing communications tools (Bender, 2006; Sapienza, 2007).
Because blogs are inherently designed to be dynamic they can be "attractive to both frequent visitors as audience members who wish to stay current with the content addressed on one or more blogs, and to Internet search engines" (Lahm, 2006; Why Blog?, 2011). "Blogging supports search engine optimization, where each blog post becomes its own Web page for search terms" (Halligan, 2008). This is because Search engines are designed by their nature to index "content" (Baker, 2005; Why Blog?, 2011), and blogs--assuming they have fresh content (Saeks, 2010) are therefore regularly visited by search engines. According to an article in Public Relations Tactics (published by the Public Relations Society of America): "Among the top 200 blogs on the Web, ranked by unique visitors per month, those that average at least three posts per day have two and a half times as many visitors as those that post less frequently" (Sullivan & Krall, 2008).
"Blogs are increasingly becoming an integral part of news consumption and have the potential to influence journalism practice" (Chung, et al., 2007). A study conducted by the Society for New Communications Research regarding journalists' adoption of new social media tools and technologies found that "2009 data shows explosive growth in the adoption of social media tools and technologies across all data sets" (McClure & Middleberg, 2009); overall the study found that nearly 70 percent of journalists are using social networking sites (which include blogs--66 percent use blogs). Thus, it follows that to maximize the effectiveness of their marketing efforts, "small businesses need to incorporate current social media tools and strategies that build traffic, engage with customers and give people something to remember--and talk about--online" (Manfield, 2010).
The "entrepreneurial blogosphere" provides a forum for small businesses to leverage audience communication and participation for marketing outreach. As such, scholars within the discipline of entrepreneurship should embrace the importance of the blogosphere within the practical community, and aggressively pursue the topics of blogging and the blogosphere as subjects under study in their future research efforts.
It is widely recognized by practitioners and media/PR experts that static websites are no longer the most effective means by which entrepreneurs can attract an audience, as blogs (i.e., content management systems) have evolved to serve as a robust software platform which allows businesses and consumers to be fully engaged with one another. The software for creating blogs is readily available, and does not require the user (e.g., small business owner) to have programming expertise. To users, blogs are like many other technologies; one sees the "shiny outside," but not "under the hood," and much like a car--to employ an analogy--one does not necessary have to know exactly how the technology works to arrive at his or her destination. Ease-of-use or low cost alone does not necessarily justify the use of blogs. However, when used as a means to deliver audio, video, screencast, photographic and textual content, as well as to receive two-way communications and feedback from customers, blogs are unique in their suitability as a means to foster a dynamic and interactive relationship with customers.
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Robert J. Lahm, Jr., Western Carolina University