How To Be Heard
Every man is the hero of his own story - Dylan Hunt
Writing a blog can be a lonely business. How many blogs have been started to languish with no readers day after day, week after week? Others, seemingly inexplicably, attract thousands of readers, hundreds of links.
What's the difference between them? After all, when you look at these popular blogs, you see nothing that you couldn't write yourself, would write yourself (if only you had some readers). Is it really just a matter of being part of the 'in group'?
The short answer is, partially, yes. People link to people they read, and they read people they know. Popular blogs build up a following over time, establish a level of trust (or at least a reputation for being interesting). Creating a popular blog is, for better or worse, like being popular at a party. It's pretty easy to be on the outside, a wallflower, wanting but never able to be a part of the conversation.
This guide will help you change that. It won't turn you into Instapudit or Scripting News. These are special cases; they got to their position by virtue of a push not available to most of us. But it will get you started. It will get you some readers, and make you a part of the conversation.
It is possible to launch a blog without a plan. But the probability of success is much lower.
It may not appear to be so because of my informal style, but OLDaily was in planning for months before it actually launched. My first abortive attempt actually failed miserably, though it taught me some lessons. In the end I draw from another project I was working on, the the MuniMall newsletter.
Why do you want to write a blog? No, seriously! If you don't know why you're doing something, you won't know what you're doing.
The MuniMall Newsletter had a very clear sense of purpose. It was down-to-earth and pragmatic. It was a means to an end; the purpose wasn't merely altruistic, but rather, was in response to some specific corporate goals.
This will be true for you too (and you may as well be honest about it, at least with yourself). The purpose of your blog may be to make your name known, to attract people to your web site, and to show what you can do.
Most blogs display a certain amount of self-interest. Some blogs promote a social or political agenda. Other blogs are designed to promote a product or service. What you will notice is that, in all successful blogs, there's something in it for the author.
At the same time, there does need to be some altruistic purpose, some element of the blog that exists not to serve the author's interests but rather to serve the readers' interests. For, after all, if the reader gets nothing out of the blog, why would they read it?
Write out the purpose of your blog. This will be the core of your blog's About page. This should be the first page you write, and easily accessible from every page on your blog.
What are you going to write about?
If you are not clear about what to write about, then your blog will be forever a blank page staring at you, challenging you to be creative, but resisting form or definition.
Many people start a blog thinking that they will simply write about whatever is important to them, and then after weeks of non-activity, find that nothing is so important that it deserves to be written.
OLDaily, for example, focuses very clearly not only on the topic area of interest - online learning - but also on the type of content that will be covered: "it reflects a rising trend, it describes a new approach to online learning, it recenters our thinking. Only items which look forward are included in OLDaily."
What are you going to write about? The best answer to this question is found in the question: what do you read? Check your bookmarks (if you don't have bookmarks, start bookmarking things that you have read and enjoyed). What's on your bookshelf? Make a list (no, really, make a list). What do you listen to, what do you watch on television, what types of movies to you watch, what do you talk about when you're with friends?
Collect all of this information and organize it - find not only the topic of the material, but also the type of material. When I look at my bookshelf, I find not only philosophy and programming texts but also a lot of science fiction, some political writing, historical non-fiction and essays on the mind. My bookmarks, meanwhile, reveal more technology sites and (not surprisingly) quite a few education technology and e-learning sites. Is it any wonder that my focus is, not merely on learning, but on the future of learning with technology?
The point here is that it is better not to focus on some specific topic, the way a university course does, but rather, to aim at some sort of intersection that touches on all of your interests. Anybody can write about e-learning, but only you can write about themes found in e-learning, romance fiction and skydiving. What would that look like? I haven't a clue - that's why I would need to ready your blog.
Don't just pick something and say "I'm going to write about that." Study yourself, and write about the things you're already thinking about.
You are probably thinking, as you start your blog, that you can get your ideas, like Neil Gaiman, out of your head. But Neil Gaiman is a liar (I mean that in the fondest and most respectful way). Your ideas don't spring from your brain fully formed like Pallas from the forehead of Zeus. A lot goes into the creation of an idea (even short half-baked ones like the ones in OLDaily).
When you look at a blogger's website you'll find a lot of what I call support: on the side there may be a blogroll, on another page there may be a list of links and useful resources, after each post there will be a space for comments, and more. These supports aren't so much for the reader as for the blogger: they are the sources for his or her ideas. Look at the blogger's desktop and you'll find more supports: newsletter subscriptions, mailing lists, and more.
The point here is that all writing - even fiction writing - is to a large degree reactive. It has its origins in the prompts and stimuli that inform a person's everyday life. Readers that want to be writers recognize this, and organize and cultivate these supports. Dave Pollard writes that we need to learn how to observe the world. This means opening our eyes.
And then what? As Gaiman says, "You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if...? ... Another important question is, If only... And then there are the others: I wonder... ('I wonder what she does when she's alone...') and If This Goes On... ('If this goes on telephones are going to start talking to each other, and cut out the middleman...') and Wouldn't it be interesting if... ('Wouldn't it be interesting if the world used to be ruled by cats?')..."
Me? I have a vision of what the wourld will be like (or should be like - it's hard for me to distinguish). And I look at things as they are, and I ask, "How does this lead to that future world?" or "From the point of view of that future world, what's wrong with this?" My future world isn't fully formed either - but bit by bit through a thousand reflections, it is slowly being constructed in my mind and reflected in my writing.
When are you going to write? A common complaint of would-be bloggers is that they have no time. Strictly speaking, of course, this is false: they have no less time than any of us, but they choose to spend it doing something other than blogging.
Sure, you could write a blog post whenever the feeling strikes you - that's how I write my articles, like this one. But without some discipline, one day will slide into a week, one week will slide into two, and then you'll have no readers because you aren't writing anything.
No good writing exists without a process (it is arguable that publishers create great writing not by the promise of a paycheque (which most writers disdain) but by the imposition of deadlines, which forces the writer to write something, anything, in order to avoid their wrath).
The Mu niMall newsletter publishes once a week, whether or not there is any news. OLDaily publishes five days a week, taking week-ends off. Look at Dave Pollard's site and you'll see something every day - sometimes the content is a bit of a stretch, like yesterday's conversation with a mushroom. But the point here isn't to create something great every day - the point here is to create every day, and through that very process, in time, something great will emerge.
If you don't give yourself a schedule, you won't be successful. It's as simple as that. So plan ahead - what will your schedule be? How much time (and when) will you allocate every day (or nearly every day, or at the very least, every week) to write and publish?
Now you have a plan.
This isn't really the place for a long thesis on design. Nonetheless, some words are in order, as the quality of a blog's design has an impact on readership. People don't read what they can't read, or find difficult to read. Design makes your content accessible, and that increases your readership.
Services like Blogger have taken almost all of the work out of design, offering as the service does a selection of quality templates for your blog. Other blogging services do much the same thing. Most blogs these days look more or less the same. That's good for you. It gives you a starting point. It also gives you thousands of examples to draw from.
Almost every blog out there uses one of the default designs from Blogger or some other blogging service, but if you look at the most popular blogs on the web, almost none of them do. This is not a coincidence. The predesigned templates are good, but good designers can do better.
What do the designs of popular blogs have in common?
- They are easy to read. That is probably the most crucil aspect. You will never get eyestrain reading them - the fonts are big and clear, and there's lots of white space.
- They load quickly. A slow page load is death for a blog. Web readers are notorious for their lack of patience. More than a second or two delay and you've lost half your readership.
- They are light. Unless you are the best page in the universe you cannot get away with a black background and yellow text.
- They are simple. Most of the top blogs have a simpler design than any of the Blogger themes (and the Blogger themes are pretty minimal). Look at Davenetics. It's hard to be much simpler than that.
- They use font sizes well. Not only is their body text large and easy to read, their headlines and page breaks stand out. Look at Gizmodo. Large, clear (and short!) headlines, for quick and easy recognition.
When you plan your own blog design, you need to take each of these things into account. It is worth drawing some sketches on paper to see what it will look like (and if you can't design your own blog, it will be essential).
The font is the typestyle used in the text of your blog.
With very few exceptions, you want your font to be sans-serif - fonts like Helvetica or Arial. They are a lot easier to read. Eight of the top ten blogs on Technorati use sans-serif fonts.
If you absolutely must use serif font, then you will have to pay attention to readability. Your font size will have to be larger, and you will have to provide extra leading between the lines (the way Davenetics does.
In your CSS, fonts should be defined in point sizes, not pixels or inches. A font of 11pt will look pretty much the same on every computer monitor, while a font of 11px will look too large on some and tiny on others.
There are three major things that slow down page loads:
- Amount of content. Do not put your life's work on your home page. Put the last week's work (or maybe the last month's work) on your home page. Sites like Blogger will manage this automatically (but not always well).
- Images. You should have images - they add a lot to your website. But remember that if an image is 28K then it will take a full second to load for someone with a 28K modem. And if it's 149K then the person will go to some other site long before your image loads.
- Doodads. Things like Java applets or Flash animations, content from remote sites (like Blogroller or Technorati), and other things that require a special action by your browser slow down page loads. Avoid these like the plague.
You are going to have a light background, a dark text colour, and a limited set of highlight colours. Live with it.
That said, you can have a distinctive look and feel. Begin by designing the graphical elements of your blog, and most especially, the blog banner. Note that the blog banner need not occupy the entire top of the page. It typically contains a distinctive image or graphic, and the name of the blog.
Then draw your site colours from your graphical element. The text should correspond to the darkest colour in the image - black, or close to attack. The background should be almost the lightest (not pure white, if you can avoid it). Headlines and links comprise mid-range colours. Choose only two or three colours; more, and the sense of a colour scheme is lost.
Web pages are typically designed in columns, and unless you are an avant garde artist, your decisions come down to:
- How many columns, two or three?
- Liquid layout or static layour?
The number of columns usually depends on your website as a whole. Typically, the large main column contains the weblog content, that is, the daily posts and (maybe) images. A smaller column contains links to the About page, archives, the RSS feed, and the blogroll. Thus, for most blogs, two columns is sufficient. However, if you have a large number of pages on your website containing articles, links and other resources, then you should have three columns: one for internal navigation, one for external navigation, and one for main content.
'Liquid layout' is layout that expands or shrinks with the browser window. Static layout stays the same size all the time. The advantage of liquid layout is that the blog does not look tiny on very large screens. However, it is difficult to design and some elements (such as photos) do not resize well. Consequently, many bloggers use a minimum static page width (usually about 760 pixels, just enough to fit the browser window on a typican 800x600 screen.
If You Can't Design Web Pages...
Then you are at a disadvantage. Fortunately the default templates in Blogger and other weblog engines are acceptable, if not outstanding.
If you can, get a friend of colleague who can design your site to do so for you; typically, site design is something that can be done once and then left alone for a while.
At the very least, you can start with a Blogger template and experiment with it. Or you can look at the source of a website you like and see how they designed it. Or you can draw from generic templates that are already out there - glish is an extraordinarily useful website.
Because, the nice thing about the web is, you can do anything you want with the simplest of tools. You can design your entire website from scratch with little more than Notepad (and maybe a beer). The web is, at its very core, accessible to anyone to design as they please.
Unless you have very good reasons for doing otherwise, use a blogging or content management tool of some sort.
This is not because it will make your blog easier to implement. In fact, if you are using your own custom design, and not the default templates, it can actually make it a bit harder. It means you will have to adapt your design to the templates supplied by the tool, which can be a time-consuming process.
Rather, it is because the tools will offer better integration with the blogosphere as a whole than your custom-made website. It is beyond the ability of most people to program these themselves (not because they can't do it, but because it takes a certain amount of time to write these programs, and most people don't have that kind of time).
For example, when you create a new post, you want it to be picked up by a blog aggregation service. These services are searched by many people, and they also offer topical feeds, places where your content might stand out. Many services need to be pinged, as described here. You can write this code yourself, or you can let your blogging tool do it for you.
In addition, many weblogs support a service called trackback. Basically, what happens is that if you write a post about someone else's post, trackback sends a message to the other person, allowing that person's software to provide a link to your post.
These tools (and there are many of them) are constantly growing and changing. So unless you want to get involved in blog programming in a big way, use a tool.
But what tool? That depends on what you want to do and how important your blog is going to be to you.
Ideally, what you want to do is set up an account with an internet service provider (ISP), get your own domain name, and use a blogging or content management package provided by the ISP. Why?
- you will get a URL that people can remember - like www.downes.ca (and a matching email, like stephen @downes.ca)
- when you change schools, jobs, or whatever, your website address will not change
- you will have more control over the content of your website
- you will be able to add features that might not be supported by your institution or a blog hosting service
Do your homework. Ask people who you know about website hosting services (for those who wonder: my news website, NewsTrolls, is hosted by Jaguar LLC for the last few years and I've been very happy with them; OLDaily, which attracts much more traffic, is self-hosted at NRC).
If you look at the demo Jaguar control panel you'll notice (in the right hand column) that several self-installing scripts (such as PHP-Nuke) are offered. These are quite literally one-click installations. This is typical for internet service providers, and you can shop around for a service that offers the blogging or content management system you want.
People in the field of educational technology may want to look at James Farmer's incorporated subversion hosting service. Like Jaguar, it offers a range of auto-loading software, not just blogging tools but also Tikiwiki for collaborative authoring and Moodle, a learfning management system.
If you choose to go this route, then I would recommend one of the following:
- WordPress - this is a straightforward blogging tool, very similar to Blogger or Moveable Type, simple, reliable and (these days) widely supported.
- Drupal - use this if you want more than just a blog, but also something like an online community with various resource pages, membership, and the link (note: most people won't become members of your site; they already have their own site - use Drupal for a collaborative project or if you want much more flexibility than a blogging tool).
What About Blogger?
Blogger is a great tool. Though there are many blog hosting services - MSN Spaces, Salon Blogs, LiveJournal, TypePad and more, Blogger is far ahead of them (in my opinion) for one simple reason: speed.
Getting a Blogger account isn't as good as getting your own hosted service, because you are now completely dependent on the range of services offered by Blogger, and because your blog identity is now subsumed (to a degree) under Blogger's. But:
- It is free
- it is easy to use
- it is excellent for beginners
Honestly, though, survey the landscape (I've provided enough links here to get you started) and pick something you're comfortable with. Take the time; you'll be spending a lot of time on your site, so you should be comfortable with it.
Set Up Your Site
Once you've chosen your service, set up your template, create your 'About' page and any background pages you want to add, then try a few test posts to see what they look like.
Try to view your design on several systems and using several browsers (at the very minimum, test your design on both Internet Explorer and Firefox, and on Windows, Linux and Apple).
Go to a local cybercafe and test viewing your blog. While you're at the cybercafe, try entering a blog post (after all, you need to be sure you can post to your blog while you're travelling).
You are now ready to begin blogging.
For readers wondering how (as the title suggested) to be heard, it may have seemed like it took a long time to get to this point, three sections and hundreds of words to be precise.
And if you have followed the suggestions above, it will seem like you've done a lot of work with no return at all thus far - after all, you haven't even written your first blog post yet, much less generated any readers.
But it is important to emphasize here that the work you've done to get ready will be reflected in every post, every word, that you type in the future. Your blog will look like the work of someone who has thought through what he or she wants to do and who has implemented that plan in a professional manner.
And your blog posts will not only seem better, they will be better.
But now you are ready to blog. It's time to get into the daily routine.
Generate an Information Flow
Set up an account in Bloglines (or some other RSS aggregator) and input the RSS feeds from sites you already read (here is the list of sites I read to get you started - if you click on the export you can generate the list as OPML, which you can import into your own Bloglines account).
Go to Yahoo! Groups, set up an account, and search for groups that interest you (Google Groups too, though honestly, I don't use Google groups). Do a Google search for mailing lists in your areas of interest (use phrases from your About page in your search). Check major publications such as newspapers and magazines who may offer topic-specific email newsletters or RSS feeds.
The idea here is to set up a constant flow of information into your computer. Don't worry about being overwhelmed; you can always cull the useless sources later. Be ready, though, to read ruthlessly and aggressively. Scan headings and subject lines, immediately delete those that don't catch your interest. Linger only on items that definitely interest you.
Write Your Post
And pick one (at least one - I generally write six to eight short items, but my style is very different from most bloggers) to write about.
Keep in mind that you are not merely restating what the other person has already said. Your readers already have access to that content; they may already subscribe to that RSS feed (though if you cast your net widely enough, you will be able to introduce new things to readers, which always increases your value).
What you want to do now is to add value to the item you are writing about.
How? Well, you might want to consider the methodology outlined in one of my other papers, Principles for Evaluating Websites. Read the article and offer an assessment of the resource. Is it reliable? Can it be trusted? Does your experience support what the author is saying?
Or, as suggested above, you can ask one of the 'what if' questions listed by Neil Gaiman. Suppose you read an announcement of a new product: what if every teacher used that product in the classroom? Would it work? Suppose you read about an educational theory. What if we taught children that way. Would they learn?
As time goes by, and as you consider more items, you will settle into your own style. Some people relate resources to their personal experience in the classroom, other people evaluate developments according to whether they contribute to open source, still others assess resources for empirical support, theoretical soundness, or consistency with government policy.
The idea here is that you will over time develop a critical stance with respect to the material you read, a frame of reference that assists you in understanding, putting into context, and assessing resources. This is a good thing, and you should watch for it as it develops in your writing. Don't force it; just let it flow as you respond to individual items.
You may be thinking, "Well, that's not very original. All I'm doing is responding to things." That may be, but if you can't respond well, you have no hope of creating from scratch. In order to create even one thing worth reading, you need to establish a frame, and there's no shortcut to establishing a frame; you have to assemble it atom by atom over weeks, months and years of blogging.
Nobody said this would be quick.
Eventually, you should acquire something like the following habit: if it needs to be written, blog it.
Taking notes at a lecture or seminar? Blog it. Responding to an email? Blog it (assuming you aren't giving away trade secrets). Got kudos for or a complaint against some product or service? Blog it. Don't just react to content online - use your entire life as raw materials for your blog. Always keeping in mind, of course, the purpose and content of your blog you designed at the outset.
This article, for example, didn't just spring up out of the blue because I felt one day like advising people how to be heard. It is the result of an email request asking the question, "How do I join the blog conversation?" Only, instead of writing a quick and not very good email response to one person, I decided to write a longer and more detailed article that would help many people.
Well, at least, I assume it will help (but as a blogger, you can't worry about that).
Even if you do everything I've described above, nobody will read your blog.
Well, not nobody. You may get the occasional visitor from an aggregator search. But you won't really be participating in a community because, for the most part, the community will not know you exist.
Your Blog Is Your Identity
If you have followed the advice above, you have a good blog address, a URL that in some way expresses your name or who you are. A URL like downes.ca or internettime.com or incsub.org.
As a rule: every place you would put your name, include your blog address.
- If you have business cards, put your blog address on your card (and if you don't have cards, get some)
- If you send an email, make sure you have a proper signature that includes both your email address (because Outlook often hides them) and your blog address
- If you publish an article or essay, ask the publisher to include your blog address in the byline
- If you go to a conference, put your blog address on your nametag
And don't forget: put your name on your blog. Blog posts that cannot be attributed are much less likely to be cited by anyone (and if they're not cited, they're not read).
When you register your blog, make sure you enter complete information. For example, some sites will want to know the location of your RSS or Atom feed (using Blogger? Your feed address is your website address plus 'atom.xml' - for example, http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/atom.xml). Create your description from your About page. Don't be wordy, but don't leave stuff out.
Robin good has a good list of places to submit your blog. http://www.masternewmedia.org/rss/top55/.
You only get to launch once, so do it right.
Make sure you have some good content ready for people to read - a couple week's worth of posts (you may already be attracting readers, so put a note on your site making it clear that you are in "prelaunch mode").
Pick a day that will be the actual launch of your blog.
On that day, creaqte a 'launch' post that will introduce your blog to new readers. explain why you've created a blog and what readers can expect tgo find in it (this post will be a summary of your About page).
Write a short email announcing the launch of your blog. Describe the purpose and content of the blog, identify yourself clearly, and make sure the blog address is in the email (don't forget the 'http://' - otherwise, people won't be able to click on it).
Send this email to everyone you know. Apologize at the top of your email for "duplicate postings", and send it to every mailing list you subscribe to. Make it clear that this is a launch.
Is this spamming?
First of all, you are sending personal emails to people you know, not a machine generated advertisement to a bunch of people you've never heard of.
Secondly, because they are your friends (or at least, people who read the same mailing list you do), they will want to know that you've started a blog.
Any possible lingering resentment will be tempered by the fact that you've sent your email only once.
To get people to visit your blog home, you have to visit them and leave some sort of calling card.
- When you read someone's blog, if you have something to add, leave a comment. Most blogs require that you include your email and blog address (and even if they don't, make sure you leave your address). But note: don't add a comment unless you have something to add. Think of a comment as a gift to the author, something nice you leave as a way of thanking them for their work. Even criticisms should be written this way.
- As you read posts in mailing lists, send a response from time to time. Don't just say, "Read my blog for a comment." Put your full comment in email (unless it's 20 pages long - but as a rule, you should not be writing many things that are 20 pages long). Your comment establishes your credibility, and if people find you credible, some (though by no means all) will follow the tactful link in your signature. Remember, your purpose here is to add to the discussion, not to promote yourself.
- From time to time, as appropriate, send emails to people who write magazine or newspeper article. Again, your purpose is to give them something they can use. Even a criticism should be worded in such a way as to suggest that, if they looked at something from a different point of view, they may find something new to say about it (and hence, be able to write a new article - after all, writers are looking for ideas too).
- After having written a few posts, new bloggers should send an introductory email to those bloggers they perceive to be leaders in the field. Your responses will vary, depending on the blogger, but don't take the responses (or lack of a response) personally. The more popular a blog, the more impact a link has. As a result, the most popular bloggers (the ones in the Technorati Top 100, say) get hundreds of such emails a day (people like me get a dozen a day).
- Go to conferences. I get more readers from conferences than anywhere else. Bring your (possibly new) business cards. Give them to vendors (who will read your blog, if only in the hope of finding a new customer). Give them to people you talk to at socials and parties. Participate in the discussions at conferences. If you give a presentation, put your blog address on the first and last pages of your slides, in big text (and leave the last page up while you are answering questions).
In your own blog, be generous to your sources.
You may not hear from readers if you are merely posting content without acknowledgement, but you can be sure there are bloggers out there saying, "Why doesn't he credit his sources?"
If you look at my blog, you will see the notation, "Via some blog. This is to indicate, and credit, the source of the information. Credit the actual source, not the source you think you would have, or should have, gotten it from. Sure, you may read Wired News every day, but if you learned of a Wired News article first from Abject Learning, give them credit.
Always link to any post you are discussing.
Why is this important? People who blog - the people you are trying to engage with, to get to hear you - typically scan blog aggregators for mentions of their own name. It's a bit like surveying the room in a party to see who's looking at you. And - just like at a party - when someone looks at you, don't look away, look back (and maybe smile, to show that you're a friend).
If you look at my Bloglines subscriptions, you will see a section called 'me and mine'. Here is where I scan the blogosphere for references to my own blog - PubSub, Technorati, Feedster, Blogdigger and more. If you link to me, that means that (eventually) I'll find you.
Now the point here is, I'm not being egotistical (much) when I search for references to my own name and my own blog. Nor either will you be when you do the same. There is a very pragmatic purpose: people who link to me are more likely to be talking about things that interest me. They are good potential sources of content and ideas, blogs I might want to subscribe to, perhaps even write a post in response to.
Note that I won't link to everything, nor subscribe to everything. Neither will you; nobody has the time nor the energy for that. You may read dozens of things in a day and link to one. So you should be surprised - or hurt - if other people demonstrate the same common sense.
The main point here: if you are generous in acknowledging the (genuine) contributions other people make to your work, they are more likely to find you.
Highlight Certain Content
From time to time you will produce something of extraordinary importance or value. When this happens (and only when this happens) make a special effort to ensure people are able to find it.
After all, most people in the world don't read your blog and aren't so interested in your daily posts. But they will be interested in something extraordinary.
- Send an email to some prominent bloggers in your field advising that you have something of extra value. Keep the email short, offering a clickable link directly to the item and a short paragraph describing the content.
- Send an email to mailing lists in your field. For example, after writing this item, I sent an email to the WWWEDU mailing list. Why this list? because it is made up of more educators than, say, the RSS developers list (to which I did not send a notice) and more likely to find this article useful.
- If appropriate, make sure the people in your own organization are aware of your accomplishment. Send a similar email to 'all staff' in your division or department. This not only provides them with access, it gives management the information they need to market your department (or even better, you).
Things You Can't Help
I said at the outset that the advice in this article won't make you another Instapundit. You may have observed, as well, that I don't follow some of my own advice (I don't ping, for example, and I don't use trackback).
Blogging is a network phenomenon, and that means that it is subject to the principles of network dynamics. And one of the major principles is: the first people in the network have an unfair advantage. Because they were first, when other people search for things to read, they are more likely to be found. And as they are found by more people, the more likely they are to be found by other people.
Moreover, some bloggers can improve their position by getting a push. Wil Wheaton, for example, isn't a great blogger; by any standards, he's average, maybe even less than average. But Wil Wheaton played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. That's exposure (and built-in popularity) that most of us can't hope to get.
Indeed, if you look at the bloggers at the top of the Top 100, all of them got some sort of external push. Some of them have converted their popularity as magazine writers or authors into some blog goodness. Others (such as Dave Winer) created popular internet applications and became the default selection for many readers. Still others (such as PowerLine) used a political organization to gain popularity. Some married well. Some belong to professional blogging networks that leverage each other.
These are rare things. They are distortions in the network. The bloggers that have benefitted from such assistance aren't better bloggers, or somehow uniquely qualified.
Audio and Video Blogging
The principles described above apply equally to audio and video blogs. However, there are some guidelines specific to audio and video related to content, production and length.
For example, one of the best video blogs I have seen is Andy Carvin's recent video Strolling Through Kumasi Central Market. Why? Not only is the length reasonable, the content is much more than a head-and-shoulders shot of someone speaking. It is of lively and interesting content and, importantly, content most people can't see anywhere else (you will *never* see a video like this on the news, for example).
I read once ages ago (on a crusty typewritten sheet of paper) guidelines distributed by Canada's CBC for freelance radio documentary producers. It doesn't seem to be online but I remember large chunks of it:
- use a script, especially for intros and outros - the time it takes to think of what to say *really* shows up in audio and video
- background is important - try to capture not just the voices but the sounds expressive of the story
- don't use your 'radio announcer' voice -- use the 'talking to a friend about something interesting' voice
- use many voices -- interview people and capture recordings of people saying things (announcers, etc)
- watch sound levels -- ensure that the volume is the same throughout
- organize your tape into 'scenes' -- allow for a fade between scenes (in order to prevent jarring jumps in background noice)
Some other things about quality podcasts that I've noted:
- you need to create an audio 'look and feel' -- if you look at Adam Curry's Daily Source Code, for example, you'll notice he has regular opening and closing dialogue and music. This is harder to do with video, but just as necessary. Note how Andy Carvin took time to add an opening title and credits
- use - and mix - multiple media - I recommend using the Creative Commons music library to best effect.
Similar guidelines apply to video, as well as some guidance for the visual aspect of it. For example:
- frame an object or central scene (the 2:1 rule for visual content applies)
- capture motion, both on the part of the subject and on the part of thye viewer (ie., the camera)
These aren't so much rules for promotion as rules for content. But that is part of what I was trying to say with this article - that paying attention to planning and quality content will make a big difference in how widely read and circulated your blog post is.
With respect to promotion specifically:
- podcast and vlog content is effectively invisible to search engines, therefore, provide a *good* text-based summary of the content -- the podcast or vlog should be *in addition* to a blog post rather than instead of it
- send email to people or organizations featured in the podcast or video to let them know it exists, as they are unlikely to know about it otherwise.
As time goes by, if you have followed the suggestions listed above, you will gain readers. I guarantee it. How many readers will vary depending on your choice of topics (let's face it: football is more popular than philosophy) and how well you express yourself. But you can pretty well count on a reasonable readership.
But don't kid yourself. After a year or so you may have dozens, maybe hundreds, of readers.
That may not seem like much. But keep in mind, these are people who are reading what you write every day. And more importantly, these are people who will take what you have written and pass it on to their readers.
To put this in perspective: I have (about) five thousand readers (this is after being on the web for more than ten years, and blogging more than seven years). But any given article that I write (perhaps even this one!) can reach an audience of a hundred thousand readers - some of my works have reached such a large audience.
How? Well, simply, having a local network of even a few hundred regular readers is enough to get your content to spread into the blogosphere as a whole. Because people link, and those links are passed along, and so forth.
The size of your readership is not the size of your audience. Your footprint reaches well beyond the people who check in on you every day or every few days.
As you progress with your blogging, your readers will pull you along. When I first started, a couple hundred people signed up right away when I launched my blog. It was hard to write every day. But it's amazing how much easier it is to get motivated when you have many more readers.
Listen to your readers. Respect your readers. If they send you email, respond (even if it takes you 46 days, as it did for me to a New Zealand reader recently - I really am sorry about that). If they put comments in your blog, read their comments, and as appropriate, answer them. Always thank them - they are giving you something.
Listen to their suggestions. When a substantial number of readers say that maple brown is a bad background colour, plan to change it. If they complain that the font is too small, make it bigger. Don't change things reactively - wait for at least more than one complaint, because there's always someone who will complain. Plan your changes before you implement them. If you use new software, amke sure it works before you implement it (I learned this first-hand).
That said - don't lose sight of who you are and why you're writing. Stay true to your purpose. You are not a commercial publication, that needs to pander in order to gain a wide audience. There is no reward to being the Simple Life of blogging.
And if it ever stops being fun, quit. Life is too short to do things you don't like doing.
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