April 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

A Marketing Geyser

E-retailer blogs aid branding, marketing and search, as long as they stay on message.

When Steve Spangler created a blog to boost search engine rankings for online store SteveSpanglerScience.com, he had no idea it would set off an amusing fad that would substantially boost sales of a popular mint candy and generate a question on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

Spangler, a Denver-based science educator and entrepreneur, has sold science-related toys and equipment online since 2002 and operated the blog since 2004. By choosing to launch a blog as a tool to better educate and relate with customers, he created a marketing platform that has led to increased sales, enhanced branding and elevated status as an expert in the field. And it all started with the blog serving as the launching pad for more Web 2.0 technology-social networking and online video-that propelled SteveSpanglerScience.com into the stratosphere.

Here’s how it happened. In addition to the blog, Spangler also has a weekly segment on a local news show demonstrating cool science stuff. One fateful day in September 2005, he showed up at 9News with four two-liter bottles of soda and several boxes of Mentos to enact the now-famous Mentos geyser. His unwary co-anchor didn’t step back fast enough and was drenched with Diet Pepsi and root beer in the process.

Spangler posted the comical video on his blog, SteveSpangler.com. It made its way to YouTube. And by the time 9News lawyers stepped in to protest copyright infringement, hundreds of people had posted their own Mentos geysers, making the original all but superfluous. YouTube now has more than 15,000 Mentos geyser-related videos.

Viral marketing magic
The soda-and-mints experiment has been around for decades (wintergreen Lifesavers were the original candy of choice), and Spangler himself had performed it numerous times with Mentos at science education conventions. But the magical combination of TV-blog-YouTube set off a viral phenomenon that has the Mentos folks laughing all the way to the bank-and to a licensing agreement with Spangler’s company to develop a line of co-branded toys that take advantage of the explosive relationship between chalky mints and carbon dioxide.

Spangler’s original blog post still attracts comments more than a year later, and he was asked to write a question about the Mentos geyser for TV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (answered correctly by a contestant, who had done the experiment himself).

Perhaps the most immediate effect of a good blog is improved search results, says Stephan Spencer, president of Netconcepts LLC, Madison, Wis., who advises Spangler and other retailers on blog strategy. “Search engines, and Google in particular, love blogs,” he says. “So anything you have to say or sell, if done as a blog, will rank better in the search engines, all else being equal.”

While most retailers can’t hope to set off a pop culture explosion, they can use blogs to enhance their business for not much more expense than the time of a blogger. To develop a blog, retailers can go the hard coding in-house route. Another option does not require a resident programmer or much time or expense: hosting.

Done right, a blog can cement relationships with customers, enhance a retailer’s status, snare longed-for top spots in natural search and measurably boost sales, experts say. Done wrong, though, a blog can be anything from a waste of time to a downright embarrassment.

Blogs aren’t exactly pervasive among retailers: Shop.org and Forrester Research Inc.’s report The State of Retailing Online 2006 showed about 6% of respondents in 2005 (down from 9% in 2004) offering either blogs or community forums (a similar customer-relations tool).

Mad cow
As the blogosphere has expanded, it has become more obvious what blogs can and cannot do for marketers: witness the well-publicized 2003 flub when Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up Inc. tried to co-opt several teen bloggers to say nice things about its new Raging Cow milk drink without mentioning any affiliation with the company. While the teens were game, the rest of the Internet community was outraged, and a boycott ensued that left Raging Cow a steaming pile of hamburger.

But if a retailer is honest with customers and the blogging community and has something of interest to say, blogs can be a useful marketing tool, as Spangler’s experience has shown. Spangler says he’s sold on the power of blogging. Customers are almost as likely to come to the site through a blog post as through Google directly, he says. And the blog has increased sales at SteveSpanglerScience.com by at least 25%, he estimates.

“We want to incorporate blogging more into our e-commerce site,” he says. Though it has plenty of links to the store, the blog occupies a separate domain. “We want to post product reviews and engage in dialog with customers. We want to know if the Insta-Snow or Carpet Skates worked for them.”

GourmetStation, a merchant whose stock-in-trade is gourmet dinners delivered to the home, dramatically improved its search rankings after launching its blog “Delicious Destinations” more than a year ago, says founder Donna Lynes-Miller.

“If you search ‘dinner of the month’ on Google, you’ll see as many as four different GourmetStation links on the first page,” she says. “Some of the links go to our site and some to blog posts. Suddenly we’re king of ‘dinner of the month.’” Other search terms yield similar pay dirt. Not coincidentally, GourmetStation’s December 2006 sales were double those of December 2005, she says.

“As we started getting page dominance, the revenue followed,” Lynes-Miller adds. “An innocent branding strategy turned into something much more vital to our business.”

How to get rid of popcorn
Homevisions.com, which sells furniture, bedding, lighting and other home-related items, started its DesignTalk blog expecting mainly to post articles on trends in decorating, says Marylynne Tosyali, director of online marketing. But that kind of content was readily available at many other sites, and DesignTalk quickly morphed into a place where people could submit quirky decorating dilemmas and get solutions.

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