According to Entrepreneur magazine, 2005 was the year of the "blog explosion" on the Internet. The number of blogs (short for Web logs) more than doubled between June and December last year, and is expected to double again this year. You! the Brand helps home-based agents start and maintain their own travel blogs.
A simple way for anyone to post content on the Web, loaded so that the newest material always rises to the top, blogs are also ridiculously easy to start and maintain. With some blogging services, you can just sit down, write a letter and e-mail it to your blog address, where it basically posts itself.
Scott Ahlsmith, president and CEO of Magellan 360 and chairman of the Travel Institute, launched his own blog last year and has since gone on to develop a blogging service for Magellan 360's member agencies, called You! the Brand.
"Blogging is a good, inexpensive tool for branding," says Ahlsmith. "One unique thing is they tend to have higher page rankings with Google than Web sites do." That means your blog will come up more often than a similar site when a consumer (or even one of your preferred suppliers) conducts a key word search on a search engine.
The reason for this, according to Ahlsmith, is "[t]here's a lot more text on a blog—to be effective, a blog has to have at least one posting every day." And as visitors to your blog add comments, the fresh new content draws search engines' eyes, in a cycle of self-perpetuating Internet motion and publicity for you.
Home-based agents who want to start their own blogs can easily hook up with a company that provides blog software, Ahlsmith says. "It can be an ISP like GoDaddy.com, where you get a domain name and a free blog. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles, but it's free." Another option is Eblogger.com. Other services can run $4.95 to $19.95 a month, depending on the features. "To get started," Ahlsmith says, "you can do it for almost nothing. You find free blogs almost everywhere, but it often has an ad of some kind on it."
The second decision is whether to use the domain name the service provides, such as [email protected], or to create your own. "We ought to brand 'peggycopectc.com', that's what has value," says Ahlsmith. "The e-mail would be [email protected]—then, everything starts to look like a very pointed reference to Peggy Cope, CTC. Domain names cost less than $10 a year, so there's no reason not to have them."
The beauty of blogging is it gives you credentials a simple Web site won't achieve. Says Ahlsmith: "You can put up experiences and comments on a daily basis on what's going on in the world of travel—that's much more impressive" than a Web site where the content is allowed to grow stale.
When you are building a better blog, keep a couple of things in mind:
- 1. Post short, succinct messages. Anything more than a couple of paragraphs is going to get lost.
- 2. Second, make it controversial. "People don't go to a blog to be safe, they go to be a little edgy," says Ahlsmith. "Don't be outrageous or untruthful, but don't be afraid to be a little bit 'out there.'"
- 3. The third thing is to stay away from any kind of blatant advertising or self-serving endorsement. You have to be non-partisan, even generic. If you promote something, do it without compensation, and make it clear you aren't getting paid for it. Ahlsmith's site has an entry about his coffee maker (yes, really), but he stresses he wasn't paid to do it. "If you mention something by name, make sure they know it's not a paid promotion," he says. "You promote product by promoting ancillary experiences, but not directly."
For the average person, simply going out and getting a domain name and building a blog is easier said than done, and the maintenance involved to keep the content fresh and compelling might not be worth the time and effort, for a busy home-based travel agent. Enter You! the Brand.
"Out of millions of new blogs created every week, millions are abandoned," says Ahlsmith. "You! the Brand is designed to get the domain name, set it up with everything that goes bump in the night, and then, in addition, we post a message every day to the blogs."
That message is something that will be of interest to any visitors, with the goal of being interesting and far-reaching. On a weekly basis, You! the Brand also does a podcast. "It's kind of like a syndicated news column," says Ahlsmith, "only it's appearing all over the country, and the overlap isn't there. Each travel pro has 200 to 300 really good clients, and we can get their attention on a regular basis with the blogs. For travel pros, we put up content—their job is to tell clients about it and get them to leave comments. They can answer the comments just as they answer e-mails, so they aren't challenged with having to come up with new ideas for content all the time. But they can do that, too, if they want to."
Magellan is marketing You! the Brand at $49.95 a month, but Magellan affiliates get it for $20 a month. By the end of the year, Ahlsmith anticipates the organization should have several thousand of them. The potential reach is tremendous. "If each had 200 readers, that would be 200,000 consumers," he notes.
Launched at the start of March, You! the Brand had just a little over a hundred blogs by the middle of the month. "It's fun," says Ahlsmith, "and delivers a service that's needed."
He notes, "having a Web presence is good...but if Google is more friendly to blogs than Web sites, and it's less expensive, you can engage the consumer in conversation about something without just putting up a price and assuming they want that product at that price."