Blogging is going mainstream. Just ask the California Library Association. CLA recently started a weblog, or blog, to update members on upcoming events, encourage action on important issues, send news about changes in policies and procedures, and help create community between CLA staff and its membership.
CLA is just one among a growing number of associations turning to blogging — online journals, usually written in reverse chronological order and in a much more conversational tone than other association publications — to pump up interest in their events, and in their organizations. Is blogging right for you?
The Upside of Blogging
A blog is a chance to showcase your event as the place to go for expert information. “You can open a debate about any of the sessions being offered, or discuss the market impact of different products being showcased,” says Rich Westerfield, who manages The Westerfield Group, a marketing consulting company in Pittsburgh. “You can discuss trends, and legal and other issues that interest your audience.”
Blogs “make an association's Web site more informal, friendly, energetic, and even funny,” says Lori Bowen Ayre, president of the Galecia Group, based in Petaluma, Calif., who developed the blog for the California Library Association. “They get more people involved in the association, and they show how active and exciting the organization is based on what's going on in its blog.”
Susan Negreen, the Sacramento, Calif.-based CLAs executive director, says, “Our members were really excited about the blog, and now that we're using it, I am too.” She says that CLA's blog (www.cla-net.org/weblog), which uses blogging software Moveable Type, is integrated seamlessly with the rest of the Web site. It is so easy to use that the association now is using it in a pilot project to allow the information-technology section leaders to post their own updates, rather than sending them in to headquarters for staff to deal with. “If the pilot works out well, we might do it for other sections, too,” she says.
Because they usually contain many outbound links, and they tend to link to each other, blogs also tend to bound to the top of searches on link-loving search engines like Google and Yahoo!. This means you will be extending your reach far beyond your usual promotional mailing list to others who will find you through a keyword search for topics you just so happen to be blogging about.
Negreen isn't sure yet what impact it may have on membership — she thinks it might have the potential to catch the attention of the younger generations — but the blog, started in January 2005, already has saved printing and mailing costs. It also has given CLA a faster way to communicate with its members than a newsletter, since it can be updated instantly. Negreen, who has been tracking Web traffic on the CLA site, also noticed another plus: “We never had any dramatic spikes on our site previously. But when we put the blog up, the number of hits on our site skyrocketed.”
Some Cautionary Notes
Blogs can be set up and maintained for free through sites like Google's Blogger.com, or for more features, they can be done for less than $100 per year through sites including Typepad.com. There also are inexpensive software programs, including WordPress and Moveable Type, that you can use to host a blog on your own servers. But blogs do require a serious investment of time and energy, both in the research and writing of posts, and in making sure no one says anything inappropriate in the comments area. Many associations choose to not allow readers to comment in order to have more control over the content, and fewer worries over legal liabilities.
“Who knows what members will say? What if they started attacking your event sponsors, or suggesting a boycott, or defaming someone on the board?” queries James Seely, an attorney with Association Legal Services in San Francisco. He also cautions about antitrust issues for trade associations, and all the other issues that go hand in hand with any type of publication, online or off, such as intellectual property infringement, copyright infringement, and trade libel. “If you control all the content on the blog by not allowing others to comment, you cut out a lot of potential legal problems,” he says.
And there can be other issues as well, as the American Marketers Association found out last fall when it did a blog for a seminar it was holding on making money from blogs. Westerfield says that one person's comments on the speakers' lack of qualifications to talk on the subject got widely circulated. “But the speakers rallied around the event through their blogs, mitigating the negatives,” he says.
Most blogging software and hosting sites allow you the option of moderating comments so you can review them before they go live on the blog. Ayre doesn't recommend it, though. “Blogging is labor-intensive enough, because it's important to have a new entry several times a week. Adding the headache of moderating comments, which can be full of spam, could be overwhelming.”
Bear in mind, though, that your constituency may just not be ready for it yet. Blogging is still very much in its infancy. According to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, only one in four Americans are either very familiar or somewhat familiar with blogs, and 56 percent don't know a blog from a bootstrap. But since a quarter of all blog readers are 18 to 29 (an age bracket that makes up just 17 percent of the public), if your audience is young and/or tech-savvy, you just might find that blogging reaches them in a way other efforts don't.
But a blog “will not take the place of anything else you're doing, not even e-mail newsletters,” says Westerfield. Negreen agrees: “Not all of our members are on the technology bandwagon, and for those who aren't, we publish a magazine. It's important not to forget those who aren't there yet.”
Something to Blog About
Despite the potential risks, associations are jumping on the blogwagon in growing numbers. For example:
The Air Conditioning Contractors of America, based in Arlington, Va., not only runs the ACCABuzz blog (acca.blogs.com), but developed a separate blog just for its ACCA Conference and Expo, held in March in Austin, Texas, (acca.blogs.com/conference), which highlighted news from the conference and awards announcements, among other things.
The American Society of Association Executives, based in Washington, D.C., ran a similar blog for its 2004 meeting, which many members found to be a refreshing addition to the conference coverage (blogs.centeronline.org/ASAE Minneapolis2004). Some used the comments area to suggest improvements for the 2005 conference. One said, “I hope this becomes a tradition.”
The Chicago-based American Bar Association's Business Law Section also is going wild blogging its meetings (aba-cyberspace.blogspot.com), with separate blogs for each of its meetings linked to its home page.
The American Association for Pediatrics, Elk Grove Village, Ill., uses its BloggingBaby site to convey tips, advice, and facts about child care to parents everywhere (www.bloggingbaby.com).
The Online News Association (www.journalists.org), based in Bethesda, Md., doesn't allow comments — but it does goes one step further by inviting attendees to post directly to the blog for its 2004 conference. It even invites attendees to keep the conversation going after the event by continuing to post “interesting ideas you've heard or discussions you've had at the conference … or any other ideas or opinions related to the subjects discussed at the conference.”
Ayre suggests taking the blogging concept for a test-drive on Blogger.com or one of the other free blog host sites “to see how much time it takes, to get a feeling about what you're going to blog about, so when it comes time to have it more tightly integrated into your Web site, you have an idea of what it's all about.
Then if you decide it's too hard, you've invested nothing but a little time. She adds, “There are so few things you can do freely and easily, and have fun doing — blogs are one. Do it, and have fun!”
EVEN IF YOU DON'T THINK BLOGGING is for you, keep in mind that, chances are, your attendees are blogging about your expo — and your association. Fortunately, it's easy these days to keep track of what they're saying, whether it's to do damage control or just to improve customer service by responding to their requests even before they officially make them known to you.
Among the online tools available are Technorati, PubSub, Blogpulse, Feedster, NewsGator, and Bloglines. Each allows you to track keywords, phrases, and even your meeting's name, almost in real time, so you know exactly when people are talking about your conference, and what they're saying. Most of these sites also offer RSS news readers (see sidebar, page 24), in case you'd like to track a few blogs on your own. It's important to see what's going on because, while you may not want to pay attention to the world of blogs, chances are it's paying attention to you.
Blogs Aren't Just for Conferences
Because many blog hosts allow you to password-protect the site, you can use them for all kinds of internal meetings as well as for your annual conference. Just imagine what it would be like if…
Your section leaders were blogging the latest tips, techniques, and strategies of their topic areas, educating all the members on how to better perform their tasks.
Remote team members — perhaps from international offices, and those spread around the country — were communicating regularly through a blog, with no time zone barriers or e-mail glitches to contend with. The information would be up and ready to view for all members, all the time, and they could keep each other updated on their project's progress. Instead of meeting once a quarter or once a year, they'd be meeting regularly online, and becoming a smoothly functioning team by working together virtually.
Your board members were communicating regularly through a blog, hashing out ideas and brainstorming new ways to improve the organization.
You may not have heard about RSS yet, but before long, it could change the way you do business. RSS stands for Rich Site Summary, an XML format for distributing news headlines on the Web, also known as Real Simple Syndication. Most blogs, and increasingly, some other Web sites, are starting to incorporate RSS feed into their sites. Blog visitors can plug the RSS feed into their news reader, which can reside either on their computers or on Web sites like bloglines.com, and the news reader will regularly check the site and let the person know when something new has been posted to the sites they're monitoring.
This means that, once their audience has caught on to the RSS phenomenon, conference organizers can stop worrying about their e-mail marketing messages getting blocked by spam filters, inadvertently deleted, or otherwise misplaced. If someone wants to keep up-to-date on what's happening with your event, they just subscribe to your RSS feed on the event Web site.