Friday, March 16, 2007

How to write a successful blog

Blogs are serious now. I have been thinking about what advice I would give someone who wanted to write a "successful" blog from scratch. By "successful" I mean a blog that has influence and readership.

What not to do

There are many "random musings of random man" blogs. This blog is one of them. Such blogs can never be successful. They are fine if their purpose is just to be a kind of private/personal diary and a way of staying touch with people close to you but that is it.

What to do

1. Focus
Your blog must have an identity. Think "subject" and "group". Blog in a particular area in which you have expertise or great interest or blog for a particular social group in which you have some stake. The "random musings of an aeronautical engineer" might work if there are a lot of aeronautical engineers out there wanting to read blogs. Don't worry if the focus seems small or trivial. All the big slots are taken up anyway.

2. Socialise
Successful bloggers socialise with other bloggers online. This web social life will grow out of your focus subject or readership. You will find other blogs with the same or connected focuses. You need to build a relationship with the authors of these blogs. As in real life, socialising is usually best done in a genuine way. People can quickly spot falseness. Just make friends. Be genuine. Comment on their postings. Link to them. Oh, and never ever fail to give proper credit to other bloggers' ideas. Never try to pass other people's stuff off as your own. A proper link to another blog's interesting content is at least as beneficial to your blog as your original content.

3. Aggregate
Try to build your blog as a place where people go to read about your subject or group focus. This is a sort of extension of the web social life. Eventually, really successful blogs reach a tipping point where they become the place to be in their focus area. All other bloggers read them, link to them regularly and want to be linked to by them. From that extremely hard to reach point on, the blog is in a virtuous circle. It is successful because it is successful.

4. Be search friendly
This is really beside the central point of building a successful blog. You are trying to get to a point where people are reading your stuff as soon as it is posted. However, for the less ambitious among us, who just want some of their stuff to be useful to someone sometime, it is worth knowing that some blog postings are like time bombs. They get little readership at the outset but hundreds of people eventually see them via web searches. I occasionally post "resource posts" with the intention of serving this type of readership. For instance, I have a post on Buyo with the full text of Barack Obama's speech in 2002 warning against the Iraq war. I thought people should be able to read this speech but it was difficult to find on the web so I posted it. It wasn't even on the front page of Buyo but lots of people have since accessed it. Think about search terms that people might use to find out about the subject you are writing on (Barack Obama, October 2002, Iraq War) and, if it can be done naturally, try to include these terms in the text. Perhaps I should have put this under a separate heading but it is not a bad touchstone to try to be "useful" with your blog. If a posting is likely to be useful to someone, on however obscure a topic, then it is worth writing. By the way, lots of people come to blogs via image searches, so label your images with their general subject not just random numbers; ie. barackobamaspeaks.jpg not o214.jpg). Also, use your blog's categories/tags function, if it has one.

5. Have some sort of style
What is your style? Some blogs develop a strong narrative, others don't. You can be successful with either approach but have a clear idea of what your approach is. Most blogs develop characters to some extent, if only by mentioning people close to the author (I know, for instance, that I am a character on a reasonably successful Japanese blog) , but some blogs do this self consciously as a central part of their message. In "I-blogs" of this style, the author is usually the main character and other personalities are introduced to drive the narrative. On blog design, I am not really qualified to advise but make it possible to read the content. Reduce clutter. Accept that the main focus is the latest post, not navigation gumph. The visitor is not there to read your entire blog in one sitting. Use images to break up the text.

Web logs... lots of them

6. Get into the offline world
Not many top bloggers would want to admit it but the holy grail of any really successful blog is being mentioned, however briefly in the boring old , Reality 1.0 media. If you can do that you exist, you are real, you've made it!

7. Get Tracksy
Study your readership. Get some sort of analytics software so you can learn where your visitors come from and why. I use Google Analytics, because it has pretty maps, and because it gives really detailed information on what exactly individual users did when they were on my site. This may seem intrusive but it helps clear the fuzzy thinking about what is going on on the blog. It also informed me that I am like the king of Google Image searches for "africa naked breasts" with safe search accidentally switched on and a major player in the "shrew" market.

8. Write often

9. Write well
Last and I do think least, write good stuff. Incisive, funny, original and brief. Unlike this post.

Thanks to Iangbl for the photo. He bears no
responsibility for the abominable pun.

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