Thoughts On Blogging
Robin Barratt from the Bahrain Writer’s Circle was good enough to ask me to share some thoughts with Circle members on blogging. This was a dangerous move on his part. Firstly because he was asking this of someone who is very fond of the sound of his own voice, and when in full flow can come over as a cross between Fidel Castro and the speaking clock. Secondly because blogging is one of my favourite occupations. Not a good mix for a 15 minute chat.
So here’s an expanded version of that talk – more in Castro mode than would have been appropriate when addressing a small gathering.
I’ll start by managing some expectations.
I have only been blogging for about a year. I’m not what you would call a professional blogger. I don’t have an audience of thousands. I have no desire to make money from my blog, although money has come my way as a result of it.
I am not an expert on the subject, and I doubt if I ever will be. The point, for me, has always been the writing. So I can only talk about blogging from a personal perspective, and share some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
I originally started to blog for one specific reason. I run a business here in Bahrain. When I started, very few people knew about my company, and fewer still about me. I saw blogging as a good way to project myself – what I believe in, what I know, the way I think. Why? Because in the Middle East, personal relationships are even more critical than in any other part of the world – anything you can do to make yourself appear less anodyne has to be an advantage.
So I thought that a good way to reach out to people beyond the bullshit they may or may not read in brochures and websites was to write about subjects that might interest them. I would then email them a link to the piece and follow up on the phone.
This worked to an extent, but not as much as I hoped, because you still to get people to follow the link and read the piece. Also people don’t like being bombarded with emails, so the lesson here is that this is a technique that works, but you need to use it sparingly, and make sure that you pack a punch in your writing. And it’s very important to give them a very good reason in the email as to why they should read your stuff.
As time went on, I started expanding the scope of my writing. I moved from blogging on a company website to starting my own blog. The agenda moved from a specific business focus to a wider, more personal look at the world around me. And that’s when the fun really started
Let’s now look at some of the practicalities. Remember, I’m not a guru. I can only talk about what works for me. There are many people that know far more about blogging than me. You can find them on the web, and you can buy their books on Amazon.com
Choosing a Host
The two most common ways of getting your blog site up and running are to use a hosting site, or doing it yourself – in other words building your own website.
I chose the former. Why? Because it costs nothing and you can have a site in minutes. I use WordPress. It’s easy to set up, and you can select from a wide range of pre-built templates. I went for a template that was clean and sober – rather like me, I like to think!
But there are some weird and wonderful alternatives. The only problem is that your template will be shared by many others. If you have a few dollars and some basic technical skills, you can pay for the right to customise the template. But I don’t bother. The only thing I care about is the words.
There are several other popular hosts – Blogspot is WordPress’s major competitor. Also, if you really want to impress with the visuals and functionality, you can build your own site. There are many companies selling web sites out of the box. If your intention is for your blog to be part of a larger site that, say, sells books or training, this might be a better option for you than a one-size-fits-all host like WordPress.
Developing a Focus
Depending on what you want to achieve with your blog, I think it’s important to have a focus.
I defined my audience as educated, open-minded people both from the Middle East and beyond. Particularly people who, like me, have an interest in politics, history and social issues. I have tried to write about the Middle East from an international perspective. I have also tried to be balanced and objective, but not to be afraid to express my own feelings and emotions on issues I feel strongly about.
The tension between personal feelings and clarity of opinion has been one of the most stimulating aspects of writing the 59steps blog – especially in a region where untrammelled opinion is not always encouraged.
So I have a focus that works for me. If you’re thinking of starting a blog, you too might find it useful to think about what, why and for whom. But don’t be surprised if your focus changes over time.
There are many reasons why that might happen. Changes in your life and personal priorities. Interaction with your audience. Striking a balance between what interests you and what seems to strike a chord with your audience. But in the end, it’s your journey and your choice.
If you want to make money, you need to find a formula that drives as much traffic to your site as possible. You can earn royalties on referrals to e-businesses such as Amazon.com. You can also make money with paid advertisements through sites like Google Adsense. A good source of advice for commercialising your blog is Dailyblogtips.com. Check out this article: http://www.dailyblogtips.com/ways-to-make-money-online-with-website/.
For me, blogging is more about providing perspectives on current events and trends – what the newspapers call “op-ed”, or opinion editorials. I do care about gaining traffic, but largely because I have a big ego, and it can be soul-destroying to pour your thoughts into words and be read by one man and his dog.
So let’s now look at how you can attract traffic to your shiny new site.
Once I got to the point where I didn’t really care about winning friends and influencing people, I set about finding an audience.
Here are the ten techniques I have used:
- I use the social media. Every time I post a piece, a taster automatically comes up on my Facebook page. Also, the piece gets posted to my Twitter site. Both Facebook and Twitter have substantially increased my traffic.
- I use an email list – not one bought commercially, but a list of friends and associates. Occasionally, if I write a piece that I think is particularly powerful, I send a specific email to my list alerting them. The creates a big spike in traffic whenever I do it, but again, it’s a technique to be used sparingly unless you’re prepared to piss people off, or unless your list consists of a lot of people you don’t know.
- I try to form relationships with other bloggers. I have links to other blogs on my site, and they reciprocate. So traffic comes to my site from theirs.
- I use a technique called guest blogging. I have a good relationship with www.mideastposts.com. They are a blog of blogs for the region. They have a number of contributors, and I am lucky enough to be one of them. The arrangement I have with them is that they can use any post from my site. They don’t pay me, but they do provide a link to my site and rather a flattering profile of me with each article they publish. Their model is the Huffington Post, the mega-site that AOL recently acquired. I get a lot of traffic from this source. I like being associated with them because they have a variety of lively content both from Arab and expatriate writers that you would otherwise need hours of browsing to find.
- I encourage people to subscribe to my site. This way, subscribers get an automatic email that alerts them to a new post. I have a number of subscribers, and as a result each post usually has a minimum number of readers.
- I post regularly. The more you post, the more you get picked up by search engines like Google. If you search for 59steps in Google, you will probably find my site as Number One.
- I include a lot of links on the site. The search engines raise you up their rankings if you do this. Including links is one of the techniques used in Search Engine Optimisation, a dark art designed to make your site more likely to be picked up by searches.
- I am fairly careful to include a number of categories and tags with each post. These are the words and phrases that the search engines pick up on when they deliver search results. So if I was writing about Egypt, for example, I would include tags like “Tahrir Square”, “Hosni Mubarak”, “Egypt uprising”, and categories like “Politics”, and “Middle East”. Google and the other search engines then use a combination of these terms to match search criteria.
- I find it useful to reserve my heavyweight posts for days when people surf the internet most. So I tend to post long pieces on a Wednesday or Thursday. There’s often a tipping point when people pick up on a post by re-tweeting it or “liking” it on Facebook. This can happen a day or so after the original posting. So by the time the post does the rounds, you’re into the weekend both for the Middle East and the rest of the world.
- Finally, I set myself an schedule for posting. Regular posting is not just a matter of attracting the search engines. You will not build an audience if you post one piece a month, even if it’s a stunning revelation about the sex life of your least favourite politician.
There are other “rules” you should be aware of for driving traffic to your site. I mostly ignore them.
The first is that you should use images to back up your posts. I do this occasionally, but only if they are my photos, or they are specifically selected to make a point. Frankly, I’m not sure if an article about Tahrir Square really benefits from yet another photo of protesters with banners. But if I’m reviewing a rustic restaurant in Bahrain, then yes, it definitely helps to have a photo of the unfortunate fish you’re about to consume.
The second rule is that you should pander to the supposed limited attention span of the average web reader by keeping your post relatively short and sweet. I write frequently write columns and articles for newspapers and magazines. Naturally, the editor sets a desired word count – usually between 600 and 1000 words. I’m happy to write within those constraints, and it’s good discipline to be able to do so.
But for my blog, the inner Fidel Castro often emerges – like the alien exploding from John Hurt’s chest. The joy of blogging for me is that I have no constraints. If I wish to drone on for pages, I do so. If you, the reader, give up on me after a thousand words, that’s fine by me. If I end up boring people to death, that will be reflected in the traffic to the site and a dwindling number of subscribers.
One “rule” I do abide by is to encourage comments, and then always to acknowledge them. If someone has the interest to comment on something you have written, then the least you can do is to have the courtesy to respond. If I ever get to the point when hundreds of people are commenting on each post, perhaps I’ll have to review that policy. But at the moment I might get five or six comments per post, and often those comments add a lot of value to the subject, so why not start a dialogue?
What’s in it for me?
Since I started writing the 59steps blog, I have posted over 150 articles on subjects ranging from politics, religion, culture, education, business, books, media and even the odd restaurant review.
So, you might ask, what’s in it for me?
Well, I’ve spent the past 50 years absorbing stuff. Reading newspapers and books, watching movies and TV, travelling, meeting people – good, bad and ugly. For the past thirty years I’ve been in one business or another, mostly as a manager or owner. Although writing has been central to my career, it’s always been for a specific purpose – marketing communications, proposals, business plans, email.
About three years ago I decided it was time to make some sense of some of the stuff I’ve absorbed in my life before it turns into a formless mush. So I started writing about what I see, hear and read about. And I found that writing about the subjects closest to my heart is a good opportunity to weave my knowledge and personal experience into articles that are potentially of interest to others.
For example, you will find in many of my pieces – particularly those about politics – historical parallels to current events. You will also find me quoting conversations with friends – most of them much wiser than me – to illustrate a point I am making. And you will find references to episodes in my life – stories in other words – that serve a similar purpose.
There’s nothing special about this. It’s what millions of writers do. And there’s nothing special about my life.
But for me, the joy of blogging is that it gives me a disciplined framework for writing. I force myself to write at least four pieces a week, and in order to do that I have had to acquire a writer’s mentality.
Instead of watching the world go by, sighing, and returning to a business and social agenda, I find myself taking a much more critical view of events as they unfold, of what people tell me and of what I experience personally. And that’s because I know I have at least four articles to write every week, and they had better be interesting – at least to someone!
Another major reason for blogging is that you can do it for as long as your brain works – in fact, writing is one of those things that keeps your brain working well into old age
So you could say that I’ve now entered my next career. Not a hobby – because I do earn money from my writing – but an activity in which the input and output is entirely under my control, and in which money is not the prime motivation.
And that’s a good place to be.