I liked this short and sweet article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this morning that highlights the importance of using social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to develop a personality for your business.

The concepts presented are realistic, particularly the notion that blogging helps to develop deeper customer relationships, thus building a stronger emotional commitment to your brand. Blogging will not by itself bring a flood of new customers to your door, but as Stone Creek Coffee Operations VP Steve Hawthorne is quoted as saying, “…it gets people to come in more often.” I agree.

Everybody, it seems, is blogging – from homemakers to college students to corporate executives.

Now, small-business owners and entrepreneurs are feeling the pressure to blog in hopes it will make their companies more visible and bring them more customers.

When done effectively, blogging has the potential to help entrepreneurs improve sales, increase traffic to company Web sites, communicate one on one with customers, and network with colleagues and industry experts. A blog, which essentially is an online journal, also can be a starting point for ideas that can be developed over time.

Blogging is one of the least expensive ways to get your message across and can be one of the most cost-effective ways to market a business. There are many free blog creation tools available – TypePad, WordPress and Movable Type, to name a few.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are good places to get the word out about a blog. It’s also critical to get your blog on search engines.

“The idea is to get your blog seen. You have to market that blog as if you’re marketing your business,” says Rieva Lesonsky, former editor of Entrepreneur Magazine. Lesonsky is now editor of AllBusiness.com and CEO of SMB Connects, a California company that provides articles, blogs and columns for corporations. “Can you build a personal brand and then tie that brand back into your business?”

A blog may not be for everyone. Lesonsky urges entrepreneurs to consider the return on investment – whether it’s worth the time and effort – before jumping into a blog.

“Don’t do it because someone says it’s hot,” she says. “If it’s not going to pay off, then save yourself time and energy.”

Blogging bandwagon

Even so, many metro Milwaukee companies have jumped on the blogging bandwagon. MerchantCircle, a free Internet marketing site, lists 183 business owners in Milwaukee as having blogs, joining a universe of 112 million blogs tracked by Internet search engine Technorati.

One business that has used blogging to build customer relationships and its brand is Stone Creek Coffee, a downtown coffee roaster and retailer of specialty coffees. Founded in 1993, Stone Creek has 100 employees and operates eight stores in the Milwaukee area. Its blog was launched in 2005.

Among the most challenging aspects of a blog is writing it consistently and keeping ideas fresh and authentic. Stone Creek solved this challenge by making its employees responsible for maintaining its blog.

Employees discuss store happenings, community projects and everyday work experiences as well as offer their thoughts and insights on coffee.

“We wanted this blog to be the voice of our company,” says Steve Hawthorne, Stone Creek’s vice president of operations. “We set up accounts for all of our store managers and all of our corporate staff has access to post entries.

“We’ve never had anything inappropriate posted on the blog. It makes our voice authentic because it comes from our staff.”

The blog has increased traffic at its stores, Hawthorne said. “It helps to create awareness that we’re here. It gets people to come in more often,” he said.

Building relationships

Stone Creek’s success with blogging was highlighted in a 2006 study by Northeastern University that looked at conditions and factors that make a blog successful.

The study, which examined 20 corporate blogs, identified five factors as important to the success of a business blog: company culture, transparency, time, dialogue, and entertaining writing style and personality of the blogger.

John Cass, the study’s co-author and author of “Strategies & Tools for Corporate Blogging,” says Stone Creek was effective in using its blog to converse with its customers and the blogging community.

“It’s this dialogue that you’re having about a particular subject and the feedback from your audience that, over time, helps you to build a relationship with them,” Cass says. “As a part of building relationships, you can get direct sales out of it.”

Before taking the plunge, entrepreneurs should keep in mind that a blog is another resource. But without a strategy, it can be a waste of time, says Ramon Ray, editor of Smallbiztechnology .com.

“A blog can be a good tool for growing a business, but if you don’t have a decent Web site, if you don’t have a marketing strategy, if you don’t have some sense of growth, it’s not going to work for you,” Ray says.