Today, I am attending a special workshop on academic writing and social media, that is being held at my university. So I thought that while I am listening to the current advice, I would share some of my own thoughts about blogging that I have gleaned over the last 3 years of writing and cartooning. These are based both on my experience writing blogs, as well as comments from other bloggers I know and work with from time to time.
But if you are just starting out or even thinking about starting out, then hopefully some of these notes will help focus what you want to do and inform your expectations. Or they’ll just be funny to read. Either way, enjoy!
Know your reasons
There are two kinds of blog on the internet: ones people want to be read and ones that are really just a public exercise in keeping a diary. Keeping an online diary is good but slightly baffling to me, however I have met plenty of people who want to have their private thoughts out there. As they don’t want people to read it, comment on it or interact with it in anyway, I slightly don’t get why it’s on the internet but hey, each to their own…
However, if you are running a blog that you’d quite like people to read, then get prepared to care a lot about clicks and readers, because like it or not they are the lifeblood of a blog.
For me, I’m pretty okay with people reading or not reading things. My content is mostly aimed at a specific audience and I like that I have a niche. But what I do like is feedback and discussion. Posting up content and not even getting a internet-esk nod in its direction is a bit soul crushing. And the only way people are going to like, share, talk about or comment on your blog is if they actually look at it in the first place.
One of the massive benefits in blogging is the discussions and connections you form, and like it or not the chance of these connections only comes from people applying their eyeballs to your blog. But it’s okay, you’re you and you’re writing a blog, people will totally come to see you opine about why open access ferret farming is the future of science…
If you write it, they will come
Except, no – they wont. The internet is big – really, really, REALLY big. If you think you understand how big the internet is then you have clearly not read enough to realise that it’s actually bigger than that. The choice available to someone browsing is mind-bogglingly huge – for example, in 30 seconds I found three blogs specifically devoted to Boggle strategy. Getting people to click on your links and actually come to see even just the front page of your blog is no simple feat. I mean, why would they – you’re not the Guardian or Buzzfeed, they have no idea what they might see, and just below your entry is a link to cat-bounce.com OMG *click*.
Social media helps – it gives you an audience to self-publicise to without just randomly posting links to YouTube comments. But even that is not a font of clicks. The first blog I ran (pre-Facebook) enjoyed a pretty steady readership of 5 clicks a day – 6, if my boss was feeling nosey. When I started ErrantScience in 2013, it did better but it was still really, really hard to get anyone to come read my content without resorting to “7 ferrets that actually have superpowers” titles.
(admit it, you’d click that…)
Putting something online isn’t enough. You need to go out there and engage with people, persuade them that your blog is worth clicking on. If you’re lucky, then you’ll find a magic formula then suddenly, BadAstronomer shares your post and the clicks come rolling in…
Viral ≠ readers
I’ve been really lucky to have a few of my posts/cartoons go ‘viral’. They’ve been picked up and shared and re-shared thousands of times. They are fantastic because the little stats monitor I use for the site always has a mini heart attack and gets all excited (it e-mails me and uses several exclamation marks). And it’s fantastic because all those people are reading and sharing that piece of content, which is really gratifying.
However, just because you have something picked up doesn’t mean those people will ever come back again. They enjoyed your random ramblings once but they have moved on to the next viral blog post and forgotten all about you. Having a viral post rarely seems to mean that the next post does any better or worse than before your viral hit.
That’s not to say there isn’t a small effect. Every post that goes viral tends to result in more social media followers (normally a handful at most) which over time, does help a little. Just don’t expect going viral to be the thing that launches your blog in to the stratosphere of blogs. Building a blog and a readership takes time and hard work.
Amount of work ≠ readers
This is by far the most depressing of all my notes. The amount you work on something doesn’t generally correlate in any way with the number of people who read it. This post on The Concordat took me hours and hours to research and put together, it got a pretty pathetic amount of readers and shares. This post on being ill with kids that I threw together at the last second because I had a scheduling issue and had to half arse something, is one of my most popular posts to date.
I’m not going to lie – it’s really, really difficult to see something you poured you heart into not do well. For the first 4 hours of a post going live, I will be checking all social media furiously, trying to see how well it’s doing. And trust me, my little heart sinks when the retweet or share count is still in low numbers after an hour. Which for someone who really doesn’t mind about viewers (allegedly) is a bit strange. But I know that that lack of shares means I now don’t get to talk to people about my thoughts on ferret husbandry. And I really wanted to talk about ferret husbandry.
You probably suck and you won’t know why
Feedback online is like getting blood out of a stone that is still clutching a free cookie from recently having given all of its blood at the donation centre. If you write something really controversial (like “Ferrets are horrible rat-like creatures and everyone hates them!”) then you are going to get lots of feedback telling you what an idiot you are. But if you write a blog post that is just not that engaging or interesting, no-one is going to spend time writing you a detailed breakdown of what you did wrong.
So you are left writing blog posts, essentially to the void, with no real way of knowing if people like them or dislike them or what in particular they like or dislike. The only real measure you have is the number of clicks and readers, which is a pretty poor guide – but it’s basically all you have. Which is why so many bloggers end up getting a bit obsessed with the number of clicks!
Personally, I try to treat them with a pinch of salt. They are a guide to what is popular, not what is ‘good’. However, I do try to pay attention to what succeeds and what doesn’t, and shape my future content loosely around those ideas. It’s not perfect but reflecting on what’s good and bad is worth doing, and this is really the only measurable metric to do that.
I love it
I felt I had to add this section in as the above all seems a bit (ED: *entirely)… err negative. I really, really enjoy blogging! And it’s crazy rewarding to do it. Even in my first few months, when I had only a handful of friends and followers it was awesome. Now that I have thousands, it’s exponentially more awesome!
The above advice and thoughts are really my list of things I wish I had known when I started. If I’d known all that at the start I would have been a lot more relaxed about my writing and worried a lot less about it, surprisingly. Figuring all that out took a lot of experiments (yes, readers – I do blog-based experiments on you…) and a lot of thought. But if I had my time again, I’d just relax and write and see what happened.
And despite all my fairly depressing/scary sounding comments, that is exactly what I’d still recommend any blogger does. Just write stuff you like writing, and if you like writing stuff that people engage with, do more of that.
As I’ve said many, many times about blogging, it’s worth trying – and when you do try it, try and stick with it for a while. It’s not a quick route to communicating your work but slowly, you’ll get better at it and you’ll build an audience who will want to hear about your work, and might even help you with parts of it.
Now, I must go, the city needs me… *thwip*