August 27, 2008, 12:00 AM

Education and entertainment

Inexpensive to launch and maintain, blogs can help retailers forge tighter bonds with customers.

Pet supplies retailer Muttropolis knows animal lovers love viewing and sharing online videos showing the madcap antics of pets. It also knows it needs to foster a tight relationship with customers. So it decided to use the power of online video and social media to accomplish this goal, disseminating entertaining video through its blog.

Last month, Muttropolis introduced blog readers to its new quality control associate, Zazou-a dog with a talent for testing squeaky toys. The video shows the Vizsla supervising a Muttropolis employee squeaking toys. At the end of the test, the employee asks Zazou his opinions, and Zazou communicates his opinions vociferously.

The brief video gives blog readers a few laughs while reinforcing the Muttropolis brand and showing off new products. It also helps make the blog, launched five months ago as part of the Muttropolis Online Dog Park community site, a destination for online shoppers, a source they can rely on for regular posts that entertain with pet stories as well as educate with the latest animal news and tips.

A blog can help retailers create meaningful connections with customers and potential customers, educating and entertaining them, ultimately turning them into regular readers and regular customers, says Janet McCulley, co-founder and chief barketing (yes, barketing) officer at Muttropolis.

“There’s a lot of content out there, and people can Google something they’re looking for. When you create a blog and provide credible, concise, easily digestible information, as well as entertaining items, you’re establishing yourself as an authority people can turn to,” McCulley says. “We make our blog meaningful to pet parents.”

A simple recipe

The recipe some retailers are using to create blogs is simple: One part education, one part entertainment, and just a sprinkling of selling mixed in. Their goal is not to push products or provide hidden (or overt) marketing messages, it’s to become an online destination shoppers routinely visit for ideas, tips, education and fun.

A blog enables interactivity through posts by bloggers and comments by readers. They’re simple to launch because of the numerous free or low-cost blog services on the web that provide easy-to-use templates and all the necessary blogging tools, along with some bells and whistles.

For example, (previously known as Blogspot) is a free offering from Google. And TypePad, from Six Apart Ltd., costs only $98 a year. A retailer can set up a blog in a day, link it to promotional copy on the home page of its e-commerce site, dedicate staff in house to write posts (typically daily), and it’s ready to go.

Retailers successful with blogs tend to be sellers in categories with enthusiastic consumers. Muttropolis has pet parents. Garmin International Inc., another blogging retailer, has technology buffs into GPS navigation and games. And Vans, a brand of VF Corp., has a dedicated cult following of its 42-year-old brand of wildly designed and custom shoes.

Muttropolis has loyal customers in its stores, people who regularly come in to buy food and toys and chat with staff and fellow pet owners about their pets’ latest tricks or fiascos. The retailer wanted to translate this vibe to its e-commerce operation, and it decided the best way to do so was to create a community site that featured a blog.

“People telling stories and sharing information in our stores is a really unique experience,” McCulley says. “The blog gives online customers a snapshot of what the Muttropolis culture is all about.”

Satellite junkies

Garmin’s customers are GPS junkies, the kind who will buy not just navigational devices for their cars or boats but hand-held units to play global-positioning hide-and-seek games, known as geocaching, with fellow enthusiasts around the world. So Garmin launched a blog two years ago to bring these fans together to talk technology and confab about adventures with satellite guidance.

Using TypePad technology and templates and a list of features and functions, it created a small left-hand column divided into sections: a calendar, links to recent posts, search by category, archives, company links, site search and RSS feed subscription. The blogging system automatically generates and places features and functions. The main column displays the posts accompanied by pictures or videos, which staff upload through the blogging system.

Garmin promotes the blog with a link on the home page, blog content integrated into its market pages on the e-commerce site, and e-mail marketing. The blog registered 123,000 unique visitors in July.

Writing one blog post, finding an image or video to accompany it, and posting the item on the blog takes from 30 to 60 minutes, says Kyle Johnston, web and digital creative director at Garmin. Retailer staff members write two to five posts nearly daily. The payoff is generating interest in GPS and Garmin that stimulates shoppers.

“What you get with a blog is more engaged and higher value customers who are likely to click on store links in blog posts,” Johnston says. “If I’m buying a digital camera or GPS device, I’m going to do a lot of research and learn what other people are saying. And if I can see through a blog a lot of positive customer feedback and a company backing up a product with all this additional content, then I’ll be more likely to buy.”

The blog also helps with natural search results, Johnston adds, because of the constantly updated content that attracts search engine spiders.

Creating and promoting

Muttropolis also uses TypePad to create and host its blog. The retailer promotes the blog via a prominent link on the home page, e-mail marketing and in-store kiosks. It also has created a blog profile used by blog search engine Technorati and Google’s blog promotion service FeedBurner, both for free.

McCulley estimates it costs about $500 a month in staff time to maintain the blog. She and a colleague, the company’s marketing manager, write the posts. As with Garmin, the return is highly engaged customers.

“The end game here is building and enhancing brand loyalty,” McCulley says. “The blog is a way to engage customers further and be a resource.”

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