Is a Blog Right For Your Business?

Lemmings are cute, but dumb. If you tell them to jump off a cliff, they will. Just like the people who start blogs because everyone is doing it. Guess what happens after a little while? The blogs die.

In managing a list of many Web sites, most of which are blogs, I deleted countless sites from the list because the sites and blogs no longer existed. The people ran out of steam or had no reason to start them in the first place.

How do you know when a blog is right for your business? Learn why people start blogs, how they find their niche and how blogging tools can be used for more than blogs.

Some people like to read blogs, others like to read newsletters, still others like to rely on feeds and some read a few or all of them. No matter the method the information is distributed, each medium has one thing in common: content. Having a blog connects your newsletter and your business with all of these readers and delivers important content in a particular style.

I’ve been blogging since June 2000. If you review my early blog entries in meryl’s notes, you’ll notice they’re more personal. When blogs first hit the scene in the late ’90s, they were personal diaries and journals. Like the blog business, my blog has transformed from personal to business speak, although I still add personal notes here and there.

A few bloggers tend to talk about their work, their products and their little world. That might work for celebrities where fans want to know everything about them, but it doesn’t work for the average business person. Other business people want information on how to succeed and when a blog spends time hawking products offering information of no value, few people will return. The people whose products sell well are the ones who provide valuable information. Readers already know what kind of information they’re getting, so they trust that when they buy something, it will be of the same or better quality. This value must be reflected in their blog. It’s much like people who only sign up for a newsletter after first seeing an example.

No one wants to be a lemming (I would hope). How do you decide whether or not to set up a blog? The answer isn’t black or white (what did you expect?). Ask these questions:

  • Can you regularly update it — at least five times a week?
  • Do you have something to say other than just linking to others?
  • Do you read other blogs or feeds?
  • Can you provide information of value to others not just to yourself?
  • How large is your newsletter subscriber list?
  • How many unique visitors do you get on an average day, week or month?

The big decider is whether or not you can write in the blog almost daily. The people behind the high traffic blogs post multiple times a day. Though resourceful, merely linking to other sites doesn’t give visitors much reason to make the effort to come to yours. Reading other blogs or feeds is a great way to learn how to carry a discussion. Find other blogs covering topics similar to yours and check them out. Disagree with their opinions? Write about it and explain your reasons. Cross-blog discussions are common, and that’s where trackback comes in handy.

Trackback is a blog feature. If you decide to comment on another blog posting in your blog instead of in that blog’s comments page, then you link to the conversation through the trackback link. Trackback is similar to the permalink, the permanent URL for the blog entry, but it has a different URL for copying and pasting in your blog’s trackback box.

Aside from the technical aspects of operating a blog on a daily basis, subscriber list size and Web site traffic are good indicators of what kind of reaction you’ll get when opening a blog. Starting from scratch with little traffic means you have a long road ahead and lots of work to do. There is no magic formula anyone can sell you for $97 to make your blog an overnight success. But with some perseverance and ingenuity, your blog can engage many prospects and clients.

Considering there are numerous blogs out there, pick a niche topic when starting a blog for a better shot at attracting and keeping an audience. meryl’s notes focuses on three areas: webby, geeky and wordy. In reality, this is too much. What I need to do for my readers is create three separate blog entry points, so those interested in writing, newsletters and Internet marketing get nothing but the wordy entries. Those interested in Web design get the webby stuff and the technophiles receive the geeky content.

I also manage a personal blog separate from meryl’s notes. It’s about cochlear implants and deafness. This could fall under the geeky category, but it’s a personal blog and doesn’t belong in meryl’s notes. This blog is written for a different audience.

The blogging tools for both of my blogs come with syndication capabilities so those using feed readers or aggregators can read the content through the software. When sending a new issue of a newsletter, comment on it or link to it in the blog, that way the blog and feed readers will get the goods, so all three bases are covered.

Blogging tools aren’t just for, well, blogging. Such tools are an excellent way to help you update your Web site more often than you otherwise would. I use it to manage the list of tableless Web sites. Using blogging tools is much easier than the way I managed it before, updating the HTML files by hand. Though using a blog tool, it isn’t a blog. In this case, the blog tool has become a content management system (CMS).

Small business owners don’t have a need for the fancy and pricey CMSes out there. They find it easier to use blogging software to manage their sites or hire someone to adapt the tool for their site.

Blogs have found a place in businesses and people are finding creative ways to use them. Some companies have a blog on the intranet for communicating project status, jeopardies and metrics. They’re used for knowledge management. With information pouring in, blog tools provide a way to share, organize and process the information.

Being a follower can be good or bad. No one wants to walk off a cliff with the lemmings, but everyone wants to succeed. Best practices won’t help, since the decision to blog is based on the organization’s mission, needs and goals along with its target market’s desires and needs. A blog about lemmings? There is one, sort of. Or maybe you’d like to start your own and talk about dumb business moves.

Information Systems Theory 101

“The first on-line, real-time, interactive, data base system was double-entry bookkeeping which was developed by the merchants of Venice in 1200 A.D.”

– Bryce’s Law

Systems work is not as hard as you might think. However, we have a tendency in this business to complicate things by changing the vocabulary of systems work and introducing convoluted concepts and techniques, all of which makes it difficult to produce systems in a consistent manner. Consequently, there is a tendency to reinvent the wheel with each systems development project. I believe I owe it to my predecessors and the industry overall to describe basic systems theory, so that people can find the common ground needed to communicate and work. Fortunately, there are only four easy, yet important, concepts to grasp which I will try to define as succinctly as possible.

1. THERE ARE THREE INHERENT PROPERTIES TO ANY SYSTEM

Regardless of the type of system, be it an irrigation system, a communications relay system, an information system, or whatever, all systems have three basic properties:

A. A system has a purpose – such as to distribute water to plant life, bouncing a communications signal around the country to consumers, or producing information for people to use in conducting business.

B. A system is a grouping of two or more components which are held together through some common and cohesive bond. The bond may be water as in the irrigation system, a microwave signal as used in communications, or, as we will see, data in an information system.

C. A system operates routinely and, as such, it is predictable in terms of how it works and what it will produce.

All systems embrace these simple properties. Without any one of them, it is, by definition, not a system.

For our purposes, the remainder of this paper will focus on “information systems” as this is what we are normally trying to produce for business. In other words, the development of an orderly arrangement or grouping of components dedicated to producing information to support the actions and decisions of a particular business. Information Systems are used to pay employees, manage finances, manufacture products, monitor and control production, forecast trends, process customer orders, etc.

If the intent of the system is to produce information, we should have a good understanding of what it is…

2. INFORMATION = DATA + PROCESSING

Information is not synonymous with data. Data is the raw material needed to produce information. Data by itself is meaningless. It is simply a single element used to identify, describe or quantify an object used in a business, such as a product, an order, an employee, a purchase, a shipment, etc. A data element can also be generated based on a formula as used in a calculation; for example:

Net-Pay = Gross-Pay – FICA – Insurance – City-Tax – Union-Dues – (etc.)

Only when data is presented in a specific arrangement for use by the human being does it become information. If the human being cannot act on it or base a decision from it, it is nothing more than raw data. This implies data is stored, and information is produced. It is also dependent on the wants and needs of the human being (the consumer of information). Information, therefore, can be defined as “the intelligence or insight gained from the processing and/or analysis of data.”

The other variable in our formula is “processing” which specifies how data is to be collected, as well as its retrieval in order to produce information. This is ultimately driven by when the human being needs to make certain actions and decisions. Information is not always needed “upon request” (aka “on demand”); sometimes it is needed once daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, etc. These timing nuances will ultimately dictate how data is collected, stored, and retrieved. To illustrate, assume we collect data once a week. No matter how many times during the week we make a query of the data base, the data will only be valid as of the last weekly update. In other words, we will see the same results every day for one week. However, if we were to collect the data more frequently, such as periodically throughout the day, our query will produce different results throughout the week.

Our formula of “I = D + P” makes an important point: if the data is changed, yet the processing remains the same, the information will change. Conversely, if the data remains the same, yet the processing changes, the information will also change. This leads to a compelling argument to manage data and processing as separate by equal resources which can be manipulated and reused to produce information as needed.

3. SYSTEMS ARE LOGICAL IN NATURE AND CAN BE PHYSICALLY IMPLEMENTED MANY DIFFERENT WAYS

An information system is a collection of processes (aka, “sub-systems”) to either collect and store data, to retrieve data and produce information, or a combination of both. The cohesive bond between these components is the data which should be shared and reused throughout the system (as well as other systems). You will observe we have not yet discussed the most suitable way to physically implement the processes, such as through the use of manual processes, computer programs, or other office technology. In other words, at this stage, the sub-systems of the system simply define logically WHAT data must be processed, WHEN it must be processed, and who will consume the information (aka “end-users”), but it most definitely does not specify HOW the sub-system is to be implemented.

Following this, developers determine a suitable approach for physically implementing each sub-system. This decision should ultimately be based on practicality and cost effectiveness. Sub-systems can be implemented using manual procedures, computer procedures (software), office automation procedures, or combinations of all three. Depending on the complexity of the sub-system, several procedures may be involved. Regardless of the procedures selected, developers must establish the precedent relationships in the execution of the procedures, either sequentially, iteratively, of choice (thereby allowing divergent paths). By defining the procedures in this manner, from start to end, the developers are defining the “work flow” of the sub-system, which specifies HOW the data will be physically processed (including how it is to be created, updated, or referenced).

Defining information systems logically is beneficial for two reasons:

* It provides for the consideration of alternative physical implementations. How one developer designs it may very well be different than the next developer. It also provides the means to effectively determine how a purchased software package may satisfy the needs. Again, the decision to select a specific implementation should be based on practicality and cost justification.

* It provides independence from physical equipment, thereby simplifying the migration to a new computer platform. It also opens the door for system portability, for example; our consulting firm helped a large Fortune 500 conglomerate design a single logical payroll system which was implemented on at least three different computer platforms as used by their various operating units; although they physically worked differently, it was all the same basic system producing the same information.

These logical and physical considerations leads to our final concept…

4. A SYSTEM IS A PRODUCT THAT CAN BE ENGINEERED AND MANUFACTURED LIKE ANY OTHER PRODUCT.

An information system can be depicted as a four level hierarchy (aka, “standard system structure”):

LEVEL 1 – System

LEVEL 2 – Sub-systems (aka “business processes”) – 2 or more

LEVEL 3 – Procedures (manual, computer, office automation) – 1 or more for each sub-system

LEVEL 4 – Programs (for computer procedures), and Steps (for all others) – 1 or more for each procedure

Each level represents a different level of abstraction of the system, from general to specific (aka, “Stepwise Refinement” as found in blueprinting). This means design is a top-down effort. As designers move down the hierarchy, they finalize design decisions. So much so, by the time they finish designing Level 4 for a computer procedure, they should be ready to write program source code based on thorough specifications, thereby taking the guesswork out of programming.

The hierarchical structure of an information system is essentially no different than any other common product; to illustrate:

LEVEL 1 – Product

LEVEL 2 – Assembly – 2 or more

LEVEL 3 – Sub-assembly – 1 or more for each assembly

LEVEL 4 – Operation – 1 or more for each sub-assembly

Again, the product is designed top-down and assembled bottom-up (as found in assembly lines). This process is commonly referred to as design by “explosion” (top-down), and implementation by “implosion” (bottom-up). An information system is no different in that it is designed top-down, and tested and installed bottom-up. In engineering terms, this concept of a system/product is commonly referred to as a “four level bill of materials” where the various components of the system/product are defined and related to each other in various levels of abstraction (from general to specific).

This approach also suggests parallel development. After the system has been designed into sub-systems, separate teams of developers can independently design the sub-systems into procedures, programs, and steps. This is made possible by the fact that all of the data requirements were identified as the system was logically subdivided into sub-systems. Data is the cohesive bond that holds the system together. From an engineering/manufacturing perspective it is the “parts” used in the “product.” As such, management of the data should be relegated to a separate group of people to control in the same manner as a “materials management” function (inventory) in a manufacturing company. This is commonly referred to as “data resource management.”

This process allows parallel development, which is a more effective use of human resources on project work as opposed to the bottleneck of a sequential development process. Whole sections of the system (sub-systems) can be tested and delivered before others, and, because data is being managed separately, we have the assurance it will all fit together cohesively in the end.

The standard system structure is also useful from a Project Management perspective. First, it is used to determine the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) for a project complete with precedent relationships. The project network is then used to estimate and schedule the project in part and in full. For example, each sub-system can be separately priced and scheduled, thereby giving the project sponsors the ability to pick and chose which parts of the system they want early in the project.

The standard system structure also simplifies implementing modification/improvements to the system. Instead of redesigning and reconstructing whole systems, sections of the system hierarchy can be identified and redesigned, thereby saving considerable time and money.

This analogy between a system and a product is highly credible and truly remarkable. Here we can take a time-proven concept derived from engineering and manufacturing and apply it to the design and development of something much less tangible, namely, information systems.

CONCLUSION

Well, that’s it, the four cardinal concepts of Information Systems theory. I have deliberately tried to keep this dissertation concise and to the point. I have also avoided the introduction of any cryptic vocabulary, thereby demonstrating that systems theory can be easily explained and taught so that anyone can understand and implement it.

Systems theory need not be any more complicated than it truly is.

Two-Sided Business Cards – The Pros and Cons

Two-sided business cards have their fans and their vigorous opponents. Some people love filling the extra space on the back of a business card with more information, while others swear by leaving it blank for people to write notes on. So how are you to decide which to go with when you are designing your new business cards?

Here are the pros and the cons for printing on both sides of your cards.

Pros

  • By printing on both sides you can fit in more information about your business without crowding the front. These days there are so many contact details and useful urls to share and you might want to add your Facebook page and Twitter handle. Keep the front of the card streamlined to the most essential information and tuck the rest on the back
  • You can print fun, useful or inspiring stuff on the back of your card that will make people want to keep your cards handy for reference. Value added cards are more likely to have a longer lifespan, keeping your name in front of potential customers.
  • More room for enhanced brand-building. Using the back of your card allows more room for graphics or photos that build on your brand.
  • You can print current special offers, add QR codes linking to a special offer page and any more relevant information, on the back of your cards without cluttering up the front.

Cons

  • At networking events many people like to scribble notes on the back of cards to help them remember your conversation, or to note down follow-up points. When the card is printed on both sides with no white space, they can’t.
  • When cards are filed away in Rolodexes or card filing systems, only the front of the card can be seen. Similarly people only tend to scan in one side of a card. So all the information on the back is lost as soon as the card is filed. Make sure all the essential contact information is on the front of the card if you do decide to print on both sides.
  • It does cost more to print double-sided business cards and it takes slightly longer, as the ink has to dry on one side before the second side is printed. However check with your printer on the additional cost. In some cases it won’t be a great deal more and it may well be worth it to you.

Despite the cons, many people do go with double-sided cards, as they tend to look more sophisticated and allow for more creative graphics. Just avoid the pitfalls mentioned in the cons list: try to leave some white or light coloured space on the back that can be written over (i.e. without a glossy varnish); make sure that all the vital contact information is listed on the front of the card. That way you can have the best of both sides of the debate.