Let's get straight down to business - there has been a lot of talk of 'blogs' recently and how they can help small businesses. But what are blogs, what can they do to help business, and can anyone take advantage?
The word blog comes from a shortening of the term 'web log' and was coined in the 1990s. In essence, it's a type of diary that is written on the internet and accessible to anyone with internet access. Blogs have developed since the early days of being simply words written on the screen to include graphics, pictures, videos and links to other websites. They are used by famous people, large companies, campaigners, charities and local communities to connect with other individuals with shared interests. Recent estimates have put the number of blogs in existence at more than 20 million.

Why blog?

Blogs can help retailers in two ways: in marketing and campaigning. Retailers can market themselves by posting basic information such as location, opening times, special offers and available lines on a website. Specialist shops have been among the first to take advantage of the internet, as the rarer the goods traded the more useful the internet is.
Campaigns can also be driven through blogs. The best example of this is Supermarket Sweep-Up, which is dedicated to highlighting the negative impact of Tesco.
The beauty of blogs is that they are simple to set up and require no knowledge of computer language. Where a website with fancy graphics and functions will need to be set up by a website designer and is difficult to change regularly, a blog offers the user a choice of backgrounds, formats and features, and all the blogger has to do is provide the words and pictures.

Who is blogging?

Perhaps the most impressive blog by a retailer comes from Australia and is penned by newsagent Mark Fletcher. Called the 'Australian Newsagency Blog', Mark Fletcher sums it up as "comments about matters relating to Australia's 4,600 newsagents", and it has gained considerable importance in the Australian retailing and news industries.
Mark says he set up the blog in January 2005 to publicise the challenges Australian newsagents were facing. "We're a small retail channel of 4,600 stores and recently deregulated by the government. Supermarkets are our big competitors and they are winning the media race. I saw the blog as a way of getting our stories out."
Mark posts daily, usually early in the morning, with posts being either bits of relevant news or his own analysis or comment. "Initially, I did not expect the blog to influence anything. The reality is that suppliers read the blog and they respond - usually privately. Their contact is proof of influence and this has changed what I blog over time.
"Retailers can use blogs to market themselves. A good blog humanises the business. It prepares prospective customers for the business they are about to deal with. I see it as building capital even though I didn't go into it expecting this."
Although not strictly a blog, a good example of what can be achieved comes from Londis retailer Ken Arkwright's website. It includes a forum that encourages people to get in touch and write down their thoughts and ideas, alongside publicity for his off licence and convenience store. His shop in Swindon actually has two other websites - one for homebrewing and one for rare wine and whiskies - which he sells through the websites.

When to start blogging?

There is no time like the present, which is just the approach Alan Wyle has taken. Alan helps rural retailers market their stores as part of his job as Village Shops Advisor for Surrey Community Action. He has recently set up his own blog, and despite initial misgivings he can now see real advantages.
"I had heard about blogs, but thought they were some sort of computer virus! I then went to a ruralnet|uk seminar in London - they give free advice on how to set up websites, blogs and so on," says Alan. Ruralnet|uk is a charity that "finds ways to help rural communities improve and strengthen their local economies," according to its website, ruralnetuk.org.
Alan's job is to help village shops to market themselves locally, but he says it is hard to get these messages across nationally and too expensive to launch a national advertising campaign. "I thought maybe we can do something by looking at the press and writing things about the negative stories on supermarkets while putting forward positive messages about rural shops. We need to make village shops the best they can be and tell everyone about it," he says.
The good thing about blogs such as Mark Fletcher's is that they highlight injustices that do not usually see the light of day in traditional media. Furthermore, blogs give retailers a competitive edge over multiple operators. Communities are at the heart of all the benefits blogs can offer small retailers, and are where supermarkets simply cannot hope to compete.

Bluffer's guide

Still confused about blogs? Here's a blagger's guide to blogs and all things internet:
E-commerce: short for 'electronic commerce'. This term applies to any business done over the internet, such as buying books, wine, CDs or second-hand goods on websites such as ebay.
Blog: a shortened term for 'web log'. This is a website on which items are posted and displayed with the newest at the top, often in the form of a diary. It can take the form of a forum, or simply a list of articles.
Podcast: this is the distribution of either sound or video on the internet, such as radio programs or music videos. The easiest way to understand it is like a radio programme that you can listen to any time on a computer or portable music (MP3) player.
RSS: There is some debate as to what RSS actually stands for, with 'Real-time Simple Syndication' one of the favourites. Basically, it allows people to track changes to their favourite websites every time they add something.

Case study

Londis seems to be leading the way with at least two of its retailers blogging. The Londis store in St Buryan in Cornwall has a posting on a local community site through which it advertises its delivery service, newspaper and magazine offer, off licence and tobacco range by simply writing something on the local blog.
A more sophisticated example is Ken Arkwright's websites for his off licence and homebrew shop in Swindon, Wiltshire. The homebrew website is now more than three years old and Ken runs a forum - an early type of blog - for the whisky and wine shop. Says Ken: "The homebrew site was set up first, in February 2003. The purpose was to provide another outlet for this specialist aspect of the business and to help promote the shop to homebrewers within a 50-mile radius as there are very few other homebrew shops in the area."
He adds: "A local homebrew customer is expert on web design and hosting and he redesigned the site to great effect and provides web support. A good relationship with the web designer is essential to produce an effective site that gets results. The whisky and wine site was set up in May 2005 - the basic package allows us to add and update stock, administer orders and so on, but being able to make changes to the front page means we can run regular special offers or articles without incurring extra costs.
Ken also sells papers (including home delivery) and convenience goods, and he says the sites have helped the business in terms of sales and PR, although retailers need to balance additional sales with the costs of employing a web designer.
However, the fact that blogging is free means that this is a low-cost, potentially high-impact way to advertise a business to new people who could spend big in a store that delivers what they want.


http://www.supermarket-sweep-up.com/ Excellent blog that is anti-Tesco and pro-independent retailer
http://www.towersystems.com.au/fhn_blog/ Mark Fletcher's influential newsagent blog
http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/dog/ A good example of up-to-date publishing news that can influence newspaper and magazine sales
http://yourvillageshopisgoodforyou.wordpress.com/ Alan Wyle's new blog for rural shops
http://www.whiskyandwines.com - Ken Arkwright's e-commerce website