Friday, January 18, 2008

Company Blog Checkup: Stonyfield Farm

Stonyfield Farm was one of the first companies to jump into the blogosphere, having blogged in one form or another since 2004. The yogurt company has constantly experimented with the blogs, at one time having several, but for the time the company only has two, one of which is The Bovine Bugle. In what seems to be a growing trend, Stonyfield Farm has handed the reins of The Bovine Bugle over to a non-employee, letting organic farmer Jonathan Gates focus on his organic farm, and some of the ingredients that go into Stonyfield Farm's products.

As always, let's start with content. The Bovine Bugle gets off to a good start, by focusing not on promoting Stonyfield Farm's products, but instead Gates tells us about his everyday life on his organic farm. Gates also makes excellent use of pictures on the blog, not only adding pictures of the farm and cows in almost every post, but frequently adding slide shows as well. In this post, entitled 'Cold enough for ya?', Gates makes his point with a picture of a cow with an icicle hanging from its mouth. That's cold!

Now let's move to the comments section, and our first signs of trouble. At the end of several posts, this request is made:"Want to ask farmer Jonathan a question about his organic dairy farm? Click onto "comments" below and leave your question. We'll be sure he gets it soon."

That's a great move to encourage comments on the blog, but the problem is, there doesn't seem to be any follow-through. In checking the past few month's posts, I noticed that several readers had taken up the blog on its offer, and were leaving questions for Gates in the comments. But none of the questions that I saw had been answered in the comments. Perhaps Gates is answering the comments via email, but to the readers, it sends the message that their questions are being ignored. Not a good sign. And my guess is that this is also contributing to the low comment count. Most posts don't have any comments, and those that do only have one or two. And yes, those comments usually include unanswered questions. Simply answering the questions that readers ask in the comments, on the blog, would likely double or even triple the number of comments.

Finally, let's tackle the sidebar. First, Stonyfield Farm does a good job of telling us who Jonathan is, and includes a picture right at the top of the blog. Good move that many blogs don't include. There's an unwritten rule about company blogs from the reader's point of view, and that is the more we know about the company and its bloggers, the more likely we are to trust what they write. Having a clear and easily identifiable bio and picture for every writer is a must.

One thing that I find interesting is that The Bovine Bugle makes it painfully easy to subscribe to its blog, via RSS, email, or it's e-newsletters. All the information is up top on the blog, and I would guess that the blog has very decent subscriber numbers, as a result.

Further down the sidebar, we see the usual suspects; archives, recent posts, search. But the blog does add several links associated with environmental topics, which should resonate with Stonyfield's likely audience.

And then moving down to the bottom of the blog, I am pleased to see that The Bovine Bugle has a link to its SiteMeter stats, which it thankfully makes public. I say thankfully, because by examining the site's traffic patterns and referrals, we may get a better idea of the blog's success as a communication tool for Stonyfield Farms.

First, SiteMeter says that the blog is averaging 161 visitors a day over the last week. That's not bad at all for a company/small business blog. Looking at the last year's traffic, it seems to have been fairly flat for much of the year, but has been rising since October, and it looks like this month The Bovine Bugle is on pace for its best traffic and page views total in at least a year.

But there's more information we can gleam from SiteMeter. Remember earlier when I addressed the low number of comments? That's a bit confusing, since the content is pretty good. I am guessing that the fact that most of the questions asked in the comments are going unanswered, could be making the other readers less likely to comment. But I also have a hunch that The Bovine Bugle isn't drawing much traffic from other blogs. A quick check of the blog's traffic referrals shows this to be the case. Looking over the last 100 referrals to The Bovine Bugle, not a single one is coming from another blog, according to SiteMeter.

This tells me that Jonathan likely isn't leaving comments on other blogs, and also that not too many other blogs are linking to The Bovine Bugle. We can't really see if Gates has been commenting on other blogs, but a quick Technorati check verifies that The Bovine Bugle has only had 7 sites link to it in the last 6 months. And only two sites have linked there within the last 100 days (good news, this will be the third link).

Now I want to make it clear that I'm not picking on Gates and saying that he's doing a bad job. I would be willing to guess that he has never been coached on any of these topics, and these are areas that I would expect a blogger to understand, but not an organic farmer that blogs. And it's quite possible that no one at Stonyfield Farm knows to coach him on any of these areas. And to be fair, the value of commenting on other blogs and responding to your own comments are ideas that are still lost to many bloggers as well.

But my suggestion to Gates would be to first start participating in the comments section. From the comments the blog has received, it appears that readers are enjoying the content he is producing, and also appear to want to 'talk' to him via the comments. Second, I would make a point to visit readers on their blogs. If a reader that leave a comment has a blog, follow them back to their blog, and leave a comment. Even if it's nothing more than 'Thank you for the comment you left at The Bovine Bugle!'. Knowing that their comment is appreciated makes a HUGE impact on readers!

Finally, if there's any time left, join Twitter. There, you could promote The Bovine Bugle's posts, but also talk to your readers. Also promote your Twitter account on The Bovine Bugle, and encourage your readers to follow you there, and follow them back. If Gates were to spend more time replying to comments, leaving comments on his readers' blogs, and possibly some time on Twitter, I would not be surprised to see The Bovine Bugle's traffic double within 6 months. If not sooner.

And now let's get to the scoring:

Content: 32 (Out of a possible 35) - The blog does an excellent job of showing how the organic farm functions, and how its animals are treated.

Comments: 22 (Out of a possible 35) - Many posts get comments, but very few get replies from Jonathan, even though many comments specifically ask for him to reply.

Posting Schedule: 9 (Out of a possible 15) - About 2-3 new posts a week. Which is about average.

Sidebars: 11 (Out of a possible 15) - Love the pic and bio of Jonathan at the top of the blog. But none of the links in the top header actually go anywhere.

Total Score: 74 (Out of a possible 100)

If anyone from Stonyfield Farm wants to discuss this Company Blog Checkup with me, feel free to leave a comment here, or email me. If you're a company that would like to hire me to do an extensive checkup of your blog, you can click here for more information on my blogging and social media consulting services. And if anyone can think of a company blog that they want me to do a checkup on, feel free to email me!

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Anonymous said...

Nice rundown, Mack. I'm finding these very helpful.

I'm intrigued by your comment about having a picture of the author in the sidebar. Is there any instance where you would not think this a good idea?


Anonymous said...

Great advice here, Mack. I happen to be a huge Stonyfield yogurt fan, so it's cool to see you focus on its blog. I think its other blog focuses on parenting, right? Wonder if the same issues persist there?

That being said, I think Stonyfield is a progressive company in a lot of ways, and I'm glad to see a company take a creative approach to the content. Too many companies decide to launch a blog to talk about themselves and their products -- it's great that Stonyfield looks at the bigger picture.

Mack Collier said...

Cam, the only situation I can think of would be if a blog has several writers, and adding a pic/bio for each would take up the entire sidebar. In a case where there are 3+ active writers, I think it's completely acceptable to have a 'Meet the Writers' section, that includes a link to the blogger's bio and page, on a separate page.

But the lesson is, more information is good. And it applies to all of us, CK and others nagged me for over a year that I needed a pic and bio up before I finally listened. And they were right.

Mack Collier said...

Ann check out this link for a review of Stonyfield Farm's blogging history.

What would be interesting would be a case study of the effectiveness of Stonyfield Farm's marketing efforts, versus those of say its two biggest competitors. IOW, what advantage if any is blogging giving the company? I would bet it's significant, especially if its competitors aren't blogging. The Bovine Bugle is a solid blogging effort.

Kathyrn Milette said...

Hey Mack,

I like the blow by blow analysis you did for this blog. And I like seeing a bio - I look at it as a qualifier for any blog.

I am mixed about posting stats, though. I don't know what advantage it is to the company to post their site stats, or if a user suffers for not having access to them. What do you think?

Mack Collier said...

Kathy good question about stats. It might simply be that when Stonyfield Farm set up the blog, they made it so anyone could view the stats just so they wouldn't have to log-in every time they wanted to check their stats. Or with many blogs that get high traffic, they like to make their stats available as I guess a way to attempt to show that they have a well-read blog. As I said in the post, getting 150-200 people a day is good for a company blog, so it could simply be that Stonyfield Farm is proud of their stats ;)

Anonymous said...

Hello to you all from Stonyfield Farm's "chief blogger"--Christine Halvorson. I just now stumbled upon your analysis of our Bovine Bugle blog. Thank you for doing such a detailed account.

I want to take issue with one of your issues--whether or not Jonathan responds to comments and questions. (I actually manage the blog for him--he writes and takes photos, I upload them and do the techie stuff.) Jonathan usually does INDEED respond to questions, as you'll see on some recent posts around Feb. 12. He usually answers a question sometime in the next week, as an entirely new blog entry. He always refers to the commenter by name, so that person, if she is an avid reader, will see she's being addressed.

We don't get a lot of these questions, but I think we get quality questions and Jonathan does a great job answering them. We get so many "nice job" comments that it is not time-effective to respond to them all.

Likewise, Jonathan certainly does not have time to read and comment on other blogs. That would be my job, but, ditto. No time!

As to the stats--well, there's egg on my face. I never did intend for those to be seen live. "My bad," as my kid would say to me. Thanks for the heads up on that!

The Bovine Bugle is, very soon, entering our fifth year of blogging. We began this little experiment long before ANY other non-tech companies had tip-toed into the blog world. On April 1, 2008, we celebrate our fourth anniversary of The Bovine Bugle!

Mack Collier said...

"Likewise, Jonathan certainly does not have time to read and comment on other blogs. That would be my job, but, ditto. No time!"

Gig thanks for stopping by! Always love to hear the perspective of the company that's blogging!

As for not having enough time to read and comment on other blogs, well it's one of those things that you have to make time for. Last year I didn't think I had time to spend every day on Twitter and Plurk. But now I see the value (personal AND professional) from the connections I have made there that I can't afford NOT to spend time on these sites!

I think if you could commit to reaching out to your readers and/or customers via other social sites, you'll soon see that the time investment quickly pays for itself. As I have always said, the best way to grow your blog, is to leave it!