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Welcome to the blogosphere: get the skinny on Web logs from an association's perspective.

WHEN CBS ANNOUNCED THAT news anchor Dan Rather would retire several months earlier than the network had originally planned, it did not come as a total shock. The reason behind the decision could be traced not only to the controversial news reports that CBS broadcast about President Bush's National Guard service but also to the individuals who had ferreted out the problems with the story and forced the issue onto the front pages of newspapers everywhere.

These investigators were not journalists in the traditional sense. They were bloggers--individuals using the Web to post their own thoughts and commentary on the issues of the day. The Dan Rather controversy was a capstone to a year in which this new medium became a focal point of the rest of the media, playing a significant role in everything from the unexpected surge of the Howard Dean presidential campaign to Trent Lott's decision to step down as Senate majority leader.

Blog is short for Web log, and while this particular use of the Internet is as old as the World Wide Web, its use has accelerated rapidly in the past few years, moving from the realm of quirky personal diaries to that of influence-wielding (and frequently money-making), high-traffic Web sites.

As blogs have grown in audience and influence, businesses have begun entering the blogosphere (as the world of blogs is frequently termed) in search of new ways to reach target markets, communicate with hard-to-reach audiences, and monitor discussions about their brands and products.

Associations have been launching similar initiatives for these and other purposes. The experience of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), Arlington, Virginia, in launching its blog may give you some ideas as to how to apply this new medium to your organization's activities. But first, a bit of history.

Entering the blogosphere

Back in 2003, I sent an e-mail to an ASAE listserver asking if any associations had experimented with blogging. One of the best responses: "What's blogging? Sounds painful!"

Chances are that the term is a lot less obscure now than it was then. And a beauty of blogs is that they are much less painful than many other communication methods. In terms of ease of use, they may be the most painless of all.

Here's the 10-second definition: A blog is really nothing more than a continually updated Web site listing posts (articles) arranged in order from newest to oldest.

Now, here's the 30-second history lesson: Back in the mid-90s, during the initial Web boom, online diaries became popular among students and technical workers. Because of their popularity, a host of software programs (mostly free of charge) were created to make these diaries easy to produce. As a result, people with no knowledge of HTML or capability in Web design were suddenly given the tools to express themselves online.

From its perch in the technology world where geek logs proliferated, the blog quickly expanded into the political realm. Political pundits and established writers such as Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com) and Mickey Kaus (www.kausfiles.com), embraced the new platform as a quick and simple way to reach their readers without the filter of an editor or dependence on a publication schedule.

Because of the ease with which Web logs can be created, though, it was not long before self-proclaimed pundits jumped into the fray. A positive of blogging is that anyone can do it. Of course, that can be a negative, as well.

Minding the message not the medium

In January 2004, ACCA quietly launched its first Web log, ACCAbuzz (acca.blogs.com). We weren't trying to be hip, had no political ax to grind, and were unaware at the time that we were one of the first associations to do it. We simply had a problem we were trying to fix.

The problem: We had no effective way to distribute the vast amount of information we receive from our many state and local chapters, member companies, and industry partners. Our solution: ACCAbuzz, a blog containing regularly updated news items related to the air conditioning industry and our association. We started out using the externally hosted Type-Pad service, with links tied in from our Web site.

We promoted the launch of the blog through our regular communication channels: our weekly members-only newsletter, news releases to our industry trade press, and our weekly opt-in e-mail newsletter. Additionally, we added links to the blog to our Web site to encourage traffic.

Our marketing efforts were successful. Our chapters and members liked the concept. And our overall Web traffic immediately spiked.

Once launched, however, we realized that we would have to be careful about how we publicized the blog to our constituents. For one thing, much of our market had never heard the word blog before--and those few who had probably had an impression of blogs as something unusual or quirky. Not necessarily the positive association we wanted our target audience to make.

So we looked at the blog and realized that what we really had created was something we decided to call a "daily newsletter on steroids." And that's exactly how we promoted it to our membership.

Inviting conversation

Web log readers expect to get the gist of what you're writing in quick, bite-sized nuggets. Informal. Short sentences. Sometimes even fragments. Sometimes even funny.

Because of their informal tone, blogs have been described as a conversation between the blogger and his or her readers. In some cases, that description is especially accurate because many blogs allow readers to comment on individual posts.

Dialogue between frequent readers can build up interest in the blog within your constituency, drive readership toward your posts, and perhaps more important, enable those within your industry or profession to grapple with and debate issues of real importance to your community.

That said, not all blogs allow commenting. For example, ACCAbuzz typically does not allow comments. As a news-gathering blog, it has little in the way of actual commentary. And we found that the comments function was not well used nor was it integral to the success of our blog.

Another factor to consider when deciding whether to enable comments on your blog is comment management. You'll need to keep an eye on your comments because

* Comment spam is prevalent. Spam is not just for e-mail anymore. Lots of spammers clog blogs with random messages (and links to their Web sites, of course) with the help of automated systems.

* You're not offering free advertising space. You don't want companies trying to reach your audience to use comment space to advertise their wares any more than you would want them to use your list-servers for the same reason.

* Antitrust guidelines come into play. Associations must be mindful of antitrust law and watch for unlawful comments. Set up some brief but friendly guidelines for commenting and follow them. These might include some standard antitrust topic bans, such as pricing, supplier boycotting, and salary information. You should also make it clear that comments should be civil and that you reserve the right to delete comments. Be sure to run your guidelines by your attorney.

For easier comment management, most systems can be set up to send you an e-mail when you get a new comment, along with the contents of the comment.

Linking for content

In addition to their conversation with their readers, most successful bloggers are engaged in a conversation with the entire World Wide Web. It all comes down to links. In the good old days of the Web (a mere few years ago), links were something you devoted a page of your Web site to, as in "Here is a list of other Web sites you might find interesting...."

With blogs, linking has become a much more organic way of producing content. Linking to articles, downloads, and other resources is fundamental to the nature of blogging. In fact, read through the most popular blogs, and you will see that the majority of the posts are little more than a link to a news article or another blog, followed by the blogger's brief opinion on what the link points to.

Within the blogosphere, some discussions cross multiple blogs for lengthy periods of time, with bloggers commenting on each others' posts ad nauseam. Within certain sectors, where a group of bloggers may be devoted to the most arcane of subjects, the continuous back-and-forth between blogs can seem perplexing to outsiders--even incestuous. However, a subject that seems arcane to most people may well be central to your organization's mission--so you should keep an eye on all blogs related to your industry or profession.

Providing links in a blog is an instant added value, as a blog can become a frequently visited gateway for important Web links related to your area. From a more practical perspective, these links make it easier to produce content--and blogs need content.

Another reason for links: Google loves link-rich Web pages. A frequently maintained blog can act as a lure for Web traffic to your primary site because the more links you provide and the more blogs that link to yours, the higher your page ranks in the search engine.

ACCAbuzz now gets on average the equivalent of 30 percent of our overall Web site traffic and draws in hundreds of new readers a month through search engines.

Blogging options

Here are several ways that associations are using the blog concept.

Thought leadership. Association CEOs or other senior executives can cement their reputation as thought leaders within their industries or professions by blogging. This is probably one of the trickiest blogs to pull off, but it can pay dividends in a number of ways for an association. Offering your opinion on matters large and small can establish an ongoing relationship with your membership that is hard to build otherwise. For example, Patrick Cleary, senior vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C., maintains a blog at blog.nam.org. And Robert Liodice, president and CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, New York City, maintains a blog at ana.blogs.com/liodice.

News gathering. Whether it's trade news, government affairs issues, or other items of industry interest, an association can use a blog as a filter to provide links to news items of real importance to the organization's audience. In many cases, you're already tracking this information anyway. ACCAbuzz is an example of this sort of Web log.

Internal communication. Blogs don't have to be focused on reaching an external audience. In fact, many large organizations are embracing the blog as a way to promote internal discussion and collaboration. For example, you can establish a private blog as your intranet. In large organizations, different divisions or teams can collaborate on blogs as a way to track projects or engage in frank conversation.

Advocacy. A blog devoted to a specific public policy issue in which your organization has a stake can play a valuable role in reaching interested parties who might not otherwise find you. The personal nature of blogs can be used to demonstrate the depth to which a policy issue impacts individuals (not just the organization and its members).

Event promotion. Web logs centered around a specific event, such as an annual conference, can promote attendance at the event, promote discussion during the event, and promote the following year's event. These temporary blogs act as sort of a rolling hype before, during, and after the meeting.

No matter how small your organization, a blog is a viable option. In fact, a small organization with limited Web site needs could feasibly use a blog as its Web site. For example, for a few bucks a month and a small amount of time, a TypePad blog could be set up with categories (such as news, events, and so forth) and used to distribute information to members and other interested parties.

The year of the blog

Someone said to me last December that he expected 2005 to be the "Year of the Blog," to which I replied: If that's the case, then look for 2006 to be the "Year of the Blog Backlash." Blogs in and of themselves are not anything special. They are not a communication mecca. They are, instead, an alternative distribution method that should not be ignored.

At the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, ACCAbuzz was created to solve a specific problem. We've found it to be a solution that works well and one that paid unexpected dividends in terms of overall Web site traffic--all while being extremely easy to use and inexpensive to implement.

In fact, we have launched two blogs since ACCAbuzz. One was a blog devoted to our 2005 annual conference and exposition. The other is a new blog, HVAC StateWatch, which posts links on legally operating heating, ventilation, and air conditioning businesses in every state in the nation.

We are also preparing for the day when RSS (really simple syndication) becomes prevalent among computer users in the nontechie world. RSS allows Web content, such as that produced within a blog, to be delivered straight to a subscriber's desktop.

When the time is right for our market, we will take advantage of RSS, as well. Because communication methods continually change, if we want to reach our audience with our mission and marketing messages, we will have to change, too.

Want more information on this topic? Check out the "Outtakes and Exclusives" and "Link to Learn" areas at www.amonline.org.

RELATED ARTICLE: Best of the Blogs

Here are some good examples of blogs being published by associations.

* blog.nam.org: Patrick Cleary, senior vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C., maintains a blog on legislative and political matters. His blog is concise, informal, and has a well-defined voice of aggressive advocacy on behalf of the organization's members.

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* www.nsba.org/boardbuzz: BoardBuzz, published by the National School Boards Association, Alexandria, Virginia, is one of my favorite blog examples. It does more than gather news items and links on a daily basis for the association's members--it does it with a personality. Plus, it's well written.

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* covermississippi.blogspot.com: The Mississippi Hospital Association, Jackson, publishes this blog as part of its health insurance advocacy program, "Cover Mississippi." MHA also published a blog of election news during the 2004 campaign and has launched a new blog on health careers.

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* www.cmta.net/weblog_daily.php: Published by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, Sacramento, this Web log brings together external news links of interest to the association's members with concise summaries of the content.

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* forum.typepad.com: An anonymous association CEO maintains View From a Corner Office for the Association Forum of Chicagoland.

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RELATED ARTICLE: Outsourcing Options

So your association has decided to start a blog? Now, who's going to write it? At the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, we do it in-house, but a growing number of professional bloggers provide a range of services--from consulting on the start-up to writing it outright for a freelance fee. (Note: Depending on the type of blog, outsourcing may not be an option.) Here are a few resources:

* The Pro-Bloggers Association (www.probloggers.org) is in its formative stages, with a membership of several dozen bloggers.

* InsideBlogging (www.insideblogging.com) is a consulting company formed by two well-known bloggers, Jeremy Wright and Darren Barefoot, that helps companies establish and write blogs.

* Debbie Weil (www.debbieweil.com) is a frequent speaker and consultant on business blogging. She also writes "BlogWrite," a Web log for CEOs engaged in thought leadership blogging.

* Paul Chaney, principal, Radiant Marketing Group (www.radiantmarketing.biz), is the founding board president of the ProBloggers Association and performs consulting work in setting up and writing blogs for businesses and organizations.

RELATED ARTICLE: Get Blogging

Blogs are not only easy to administer, they are also fairly easy to implement. If your needs are not too specialized, a blog can be created with free online tools in, literally, less than 30 seconds. Creating blogs that more readily integrate into your Web site design, however, can be a little more complex.

There are two basic ways to create a blog: 1) use a hosted software system or 2) host your own software on your own Web server.

HOSTED BLOGS

This is the easiest way to do it. Blogs have taken off so rapidly that lots of services offer inexpensive or free ways to start blogging. These services enable you to sign up online, use a template, and start posting right away. The two best-known examples:

Blogger.com. This tool, which is owned by Google, is the easiest way to begin blogging--and it's free. If you are still experimenting with the possibility of blogging, go here first to get used to the concept. Just point your browser to www.blogger.com, fill out a couple of fields, pick a template, and start posting.

No doubt, Blogger.com is way easy. But it has its limitations. First, it doesn't allow you to group posts by category for easier archiving. Second, it offers no statistics on visits or page views, so you have to use a third-party service or else fly blind. Third, commenting is clumsy. Fourth, it has only a few template choices, and modifying a template (to, for example, add links to the sidebar) requires you to know HTML. And if you want to modify an entire template to match the look of your Web site, you'll need someone with good programming skills.

All that said, if you need a quick and free blog, it works great. My personal blog, Blogging for Associations, is hosted on Blogger.com at associationblog.blogspot.com.

TypePad.com. TypePad is a paid hosting service, with costs ranging from a few bucks a month to $14.95 or so, depending on the features you want. TypePad resolves a lot of the limitations mentioned previously, allowing for simpler commenting, a relatively simple way to add items to the sidebar, a drag-and-drop templating interface, limited statistics, and a design interface that allows you to change certain template items. You can also use domain masking so that the URL of the blog doesn't look like it's on someone else's server. However, if you want to completely customize a template--so that it fully integrates with your site's look and feel--the template programming required is extensive.

At the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, the ACCAbuzz blog is hosted on the TypePad service.

HOST YOUR OWN BLOG

If you want complete control over your blog, with total customization in application and design (so that it fully integrates with your primary site), then look into hosting your own blog program. If you don't care if the blog looks like the rest of your site, but you want a completely free blog and have the resources and expertise to set up blog software on your own Web server, this is also an avenue to consider. There are tons of free or inexpensive blogging platforms out there. Some of the well-known ones are

* Movable Type (www.movabletype.org)--the individual version of TypePad;

* WordPress (www.wordpress.org)--an open-source blog that's rapidly gaining in popularity; and

* Nucleus (www.nucleuscms.org).

Some larger organizations with more specialized needs, such as the National Association of Manufacturers (blogs.nam.org) have had blogging platforms built into their content management systems. Setting up a self-hosted blog is, undoubtedly, more complicated from an information technology perspective. But once implemented, maintenance is usually minimal.

In any event, there's a blogging solution available for organizations of all sizes, staff levels, and expertise. And they all pretty much do the same thing. The only differences lie in the features or customizations you want.

Kevin W. Holland is vice president for communications, membership, and corporate development, Air Conditioning Contractors of America, Arlington, Virginia. He also maintains Blogging for Associations at associationblog.blogspot.com. E-mail: kevin.holland@acca.org.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK FINKENSTAEDT
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Author:Holland, Kevin W.
Publication:Association Management
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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