To blog or not to blog?

There are plenty of blogs and articles out there with advice on how to blog but not many that answer the most important question – Why should you blog? Blogs have become as ubiquitous as websites but in all the hype, blogging is losing its purpose, which is to provide a medium for two-way communication and engagement (via comments).

It’s very easy to set up a blog and therein lies the problem. If it was complex and expensive to set one up, then everyone would think long and hard about whether they should invest  resources in it. New bloggers underestimate the time and effort it takes to consistently churn out great content. Without interesting content, you can’t keep your audience engaged and if there’s no engagement, then we’re back to my original question - why have a blog? Why not just have a static website and keep it updated with content?

Here are some good reasons, why having company blog/s is valuable:
- To provide unique insights on the company and connect with external stakeholders. Ex: J&J – Interviews with employees
- Provide unique point of view that your users would find interesting. Ex: Sun Microsystems - CEO blog
- Get product feedback,  feature suggestions, and test new product ideas. Ex: Tweetdeck – Product updates and feedback
- Engage users by sharing expertise and information on some interesting and relevant topic. Ex: Intel – Software Network blogs
- Answer questions related to the company’s products and explain service disruptions. Ex: WordPress - Product blog

What I haven’t called out explicitly is that all these are also good reasons for your community to engage with you. Of course, you can start  a blog just because you want to or everyone else is doing it. While that might be a good reason for a personal blog, that’s not a valid justification for a business decision.

Before launching a new blog, start by ‘listening’ and ‘participating’ in your target community. Evaluate if your blog will add value or just add to the noise in the blogosphere. Let’s take my favorite and most commonly used analogy, say you’re at a cocktail party, do you want to join some ongoing conversation or do you want to start a new one in the corner, even if it means you end up talking to yourself? Chances are that as you start listening to your audience, you’ll know the right way to engage with them. You may soon find that some have started conversing with you directly because what you are talking about topics that are interesting and relevant to them. 

Here are some ways to listen and participate:
- Follow discussions that are relevant to your users
- Start sharing interesting content with your community
- Contribute to discussions on social aggregators and blogs
- Participate in Q&As on professional forums

These are just a few ways, but the bottomline is that there are many other ways to engage with your community without setting up a blog. Also, thanks to social networks like LinkedIn, micro-blogging sites like Twitter and social aggregators like Friendfeed, two-way engagement has become so much more easier and efficient. While you can build a sizeable Twitter community in a month, it can take years to build a loyal subscriber base  of comparable size for your blog. 

Given that there are only so many working hours in a day, do you want to spend it engaging in a meaningful discussion with your users on their preferred forum or would you rather spend that time working on a blog post that only a handful of people might actually read. A bit more introspection and some research on your target audience, you may even find that some other social channel might be a better fit for your company’s needs.

However, if you find that blogging is the way to go, then extra effort upfront will help guide your blog in the right direction and get it off to a good start.

What do bloggers owe their audience?

It’s usually the blog posts that get my attention but this weekend, it was the fracas in the comment section on Guy Kawasaki’s blog post that got me thinking. Guy posted on how Houston has the "funniest Web 2.0 babes" and he went on to share this hilarious introduction by Jenny Lawson of Good Mom/Bad Mom.

… What does matter though is that Guy Kawasaki kicks ass. That Guy Kawasaki is totally famous. That Guy Kawasaki is a genius who looks a little like Jackie Chan and could probably take you out with a roundhouse kick if he wanted to. And, most importantly, that Guy Kawasaki is here with us tonight.

So without further ado, I give you…Guy Kawasaki.

You can read the full introduction on Guy’s blog. For sure, it’s very funny stuff and and I am glad he shared it. But I think the verbal free-for-all that ensued in the audience ie. the comments section is worth a mention. Here’s what I am talking about:

…This post had nothing to do with changing the world and everything to do with Guy telling us how great his is. No feed reader in the world can sniff that out. You read a para or two to see what’s up. Nobody was trying to be rude. Nobody died. You dn’t have to defend Guy. Read the blog and appreciate the fact that it’s free. We’re just asking for some consistency.

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Wow – if you hate Guy’s blog – why stick around and complain? Move on! …I like this blog and regularly read it. I am thankful for the free gift. I pay no money to read this blog. If I don’t find a particular post useful, I can move on. That’s why they invented feed readers – or come to think of it – Alltop!

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….Self-serving and off-topic posts are Ok once I a while, in the same way occasional contextual advertising is acceptabl. However a balance must be maintained.

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Denis says -  "when one posts to a blog he should largely post for the benefit of the readers."

I say BS to that! The question begging to be asked and answered is – what if anything, do bloggers owe their audience? When an author writes anything it’s going to be self-serving. That’s the point of self expression. Do you think that every great writer in history wrote to please everyone? No, one writes about what one wants to write about. Period. End of story. Get over it.

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Wow, that’s some debate! The question at the heart of this fracas is – what if anything do bloggers owe their audience? Wikipedia’s definition of blog(ging) is,

A blog (an abridgment of the term web log) is a website, usually maintained by an individual, with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video.

In other words, a blog is supposed to be personal. But as blogging has evolved, there has been an emergence of ‘blogberties’ and professional mega-blog sites like the Technorati, GigaOM, Mashable, Huffington Post who have turned these ‘personal musings’ into a lucrative business. These professional blogs have an uncanny resemblance to the traditional news media networks. The emphasis is on constantly spewing content or being the first one with breaking news. But aside from the behemoth blogs and small select group of professional/B-List bloggers, blogging still largely remains an individual endeavor.   

Bendy3008 blogged about the relative unimportance of blogging and social networks based on Edelman’s Trust Barometer survey, which shows that consumers still find traditional news media, business magazine and newspaper articles to be the most credible sources of information on a company and/or product while blogging and social networks rank very low.

While individually, some blogs and bloggers have tremendous influence and credibility, it hasn’t translated to the blogosphere in general. Technorati claims to be tracking over 100million blogs and there are 175K  new blogs coming up everyday. That’s heck-of-a-lot of content out there and it’s challenging to separate the good ones from the bad. Not only is the volume of content staggering, blogging still remains a highly unstructured media. Bloggers control the format, content, frequency of their blog posts but there is no standard format or consistency.

On the other hand, traditional media has a very structured format, you typically don’t hear the news anchors or talk show hosts veering off-topic or devoting an entire episode to a discussion of their personal life. If that happens, how long do you think you’ll stick around before you flick the channel? So, while you get a very narrow view of things, traditional media still continues to be a much more credible source than most of the blogs out there and for a good reason.

I truly believe that the essence of blogging is keeping it human and keeping it conversational. Rankings do matter, but there’s a fine line between being ‘customer-oriented’ and pandering. As an avid consumer of blogs and a newbie blogger myself, I am acutely aware of the time, effort, and dedication it takes to churn out quality content. The advantage of blogs vs. traditional media is that there’s a great deal of value in getting unadulterated content from someone’s who’s not trying to pander to the masses or obsessed with ratings.

I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this debate. As blogs evolve, so will the audience and the expectations will go higher rather than lower. The blog audience has many choices, if they find that a blog doesn’t meet their expectations, they will vote with their feet or in this case… their mouse.

Blogging metrics gone wild

There’s yet another Top (insert some blogging metric here) list out this week and this time it’s Techcrunch with its Top 100 tech bloggers list based on headlines in Techmeme, which Mathew Ingram has described as ‘trolling for links’ on a slow weekend. There are plenty of other top blogs lists out there and everyone has their own metrics on how to measure a blog and/or blogger’s popularity.

Some like Alexa use the same metrics to measure social media like page views and traffic rankings, which are used to measure the popularity of static websites. Rating Burner relies on number of RSS subscribers to compile its list of popular blogs, which isn’t all that different from traditional media, which uses viewership or circulation numbers to measure a network’s or print media popularity.

Technorati has its own set of metrics – ‘authority’ and ‘ranking’. Technorati Authority refers to the number of blogs linking to your website in the last six months, while Ranking is based on how far your blog is from the top. I think Technorati’s methodology stays true to the spirit of ‘fractured conversations’, which in essence is what blogging is all about.

The recent discussion on the loss of control (and revenue) to content creators, highlights the critical often-overlooked question which is – how can bloggers monetize their content across the gazillion new social aggegators that are cropping up everyday, especially ones like Friendfeed?  If blogging is all about ‘conversations’ and engaging the audience, how can a blogger track (and monetize) those ‘conversations’ when they are happening unbeknown to the blogger on a different platform?

This where I think the popularity metrics propogated by social media tools are sorely lacking. It’s still unclear how valuable are Stumbles or Diggs to a blogger’s revenue-generating potential. I mean, what impact do ‘Like’ or comments through Friendfeed have on a professional blogger’s ability to attract advertisers? There’s no easy aggregation of social ‘popularity’ metrics and that’s a huge gaping hole that the social sites and feed aggregators need to fix.

Blogging and social media in general, needs its own set of metrics and new social media tools should provide analytic support to capture those metrics within and across various platforms. I don’t think mega-blog sites like Techcrunch or GigaOM (which are eerily similar to traditional news media) have any cause to worry but the smaller professional bloggers could benefit from some much-needed changes. Especially, if the conversations they spark around the Internet are a true measure of their influence in the blogosphere.

Blogging – It's about the conversations everywhere, stupid.

There’s an interesting debate going on in the blogosphere and at the center is Shyftr, yet another content aggregator. (I think my next post should be on ‘How many content aggregators do we really need?’)

Tony Hung’s railing against ‘content scrapers’ and Robert Scoble’s proclaiming that "Era of blogger’s control is over’. There are two issues here, one is about content plagiarism that Tony is most concerned about ,

However, in my mind, when a service cannot exist *without* republishing others content in its entirety, and directly profits from that republishing without the original consent of the author, there’s something that isn’t right.

I see Tony’s point, but bloggers can limit or block their feeds from being published in their entirety, thereby forcing folks to come to their blogs for the whole content. However, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I don’t condone plagiarism, but isn’t this is the same argument that traditional news media used when blogging was in its infancy? As I recall, there was a huge hue and cry about how bloggers were taking content from the news media and reposting with some comments on their own blogs, thereby driving traffic away from the traditional news media sites and to their own blog. Ironic, that bloggers have now started complaining about others ‘stealing’ their content.

The second and much bigger issue is around ‘fractured conversations’ that have proliferated due to feed readers like Friendfeed that allow comments. Louis Gray says,

The Web as a whole has clamored for full RSS feeds, not partial, so we don’t have to return to the originating site. Some of us have just as loudly asked for comments and conversations to enter the world of the RSS feed reader. Now that we’re starting to see what it’s like, maybe it’s not what we had fully anticipated.

That’s a great point, Louis. I can’t help but wonder if bloggers ever had control over the conversations in the first place?! Blogging has always been about distributed content (and conversation). The reason blogging took off the way it did, was because discussions were no longer monopolized by a few individuals/media networks. Some Joe Schmoe in Idaho could start a conversation around organic potatoes and get a gazillion people participating in that conversation. That’s true democratization of content and communication, thanks to the Internet and social media, blogging included.

I really liked Alexander van Elsa’s thoughts on this,

Conversation takes place everywhere. On the web, at home, in a restaurant, with family, friends, work, you name it. There is no controlling that, but we shouldn’t want to either.

To be honest. If a blog post of mine leads to discussion anywhere on the web I would be very satisfied with it. I’m not in it for the traffic, the amount of readers, the number of pageviews. I blog because I believe that I might be able to give something to the people that want to take the time to read my stuff. …It tells me that the things I have written could perhaps inspire others to do something with it, completing and starting new circles.

Say, you’re at a cocktail party and you start a conversation with one person. If it’s an interesting conversation, more folks will join in and the conversation will happen around you, with you. But if you (your conversation) aren’t engaging, folks may very well take that discussion elsewhere. I think the same theory applies to blogs, if you aren’t engaging the reader, they will move on and take their conversation with them. It doesn’t matter if you were the ‘original’ initiator of that conversation or just a passerby.

Here’s the thing, if someone picks up my feed through Friendfeed, and starts a conversation around it, I am okay with it. But you can’t force conversation and you can’t control where conversations happen, that’s true offline and that’s even more true online, where it is becoming easier to ‘move’ conversations.

That being said, would I love to have some type of ‘comment aggregator’ to help me track my ‘popularity’? You betcha. For folks who blog for a living, the lack of trackability (and measurement) is a real issue and needs to be resolved. I think that the social media tools like feed readers have evolved so fast that the players/bloggers haven’t been able to keep up. Now we are scrambling to control the conversation, instead of enhancing the tools that caused this ‘fracturization’ of conversation in the first place.

Last year, Washington Post reported on how RIAA was suing music fans. I saw many commonalities between that debate and this current one. Here’s an interesting insight,

As technologies evolve, old media companies tend not to be the source of the innovation that allows them to survive. Even so, new technologies don’t usually kill off old media: That’s the good news for the recording industry, as for the TV, movie, newspaper and magazine businesses. But for those old media to survive, they must adapt, finding new business models and new, compelling content to offer.

I think blogging is slowly turning into the ‘old media’ and the same advice holds true. I don’t think the question is about ‘picking sides’ as Scoble would have us do, it’s more about the fact that the Internet is constantly evolving and blogging, bloggers, and blogging metrics also need to evolve. It’s Darwinism, pure and simple, you can’t stop change, the only choice we have is to adapt.

Wow, I got Louisgrayed today! :-)

Wowza, what a day!

I got up this morning and out of sheer habit, the first thing I did was to look at my feedstats (yes, I know it’s a disease). I noticed byteloads of traffic coming to my blog, so I was surprised..pleasantly :-)  

That’s when I realized that Louis Gray, one of my fav bloggers, whom I’ve been following on Friendfeed, added my name to 5 blogs that he recommends. Holy Guacamole!! How neat is that?! Here are the other 4 blogs on his list.

Charlie Anzman / SEO and Tech Daily (anzman.blogspot.com)
Focus: SEO, Analytics, Web 2.0
Recent Highlight: The A-list just changed and you’re on it
RSS Feed: Subscribe Now

Hutch Carpenter / I’m Not Actually a Geek (bhc3.wordpress.com)
Focus: RSS, Facebook, Social Networking
Recent Highlight: The Best Blogs You’re Not Reading? Toluu Knows
RSS Feed: Subscribe Now

Eric Berlin / Online Media Cultist ( onlinemediacultist.com)
Focus: Twitter, TechMeme, Online Media
Recent Highlight: What I Learned Friday Night on Twitter
RSS Feed: Subscribe Now

Carlo Maglinao / TechBays (techbays.com)
Focus: Google, RSS, LinkedIn
Recent Highlight: Ten Power Tips on Facebook Usage
RSS Feed: Subscribe Now

The blogosphere is chockfull of amazing folks that I probably will never meet, but it’s great to have your work noticed by someone you actually admire. So, thanks for making my day, Louis!

Blogging is a 'killer' business, says NY Times

The NY times reports on the intensity of blogging and how the 24/7 Internet world is taking an emotional and physical toll on bloggers’ health. The web workers are apparently,

"…toiling under great physical and emotional stress created by the around-the-clock Internet economy that demands a constant stream of news and comment."

It also cites how some prominent bloggers have had either died of heart disease or are at serious health risk.

"Two weeks ago in North Lauderdale, Fla., funeral services were held for Russell Shaw, a prolific blogger on technology subjects who died at 60 of a heart attack. In December, another tech blogger, Marc Orchant, died at 50 of a massive coronary. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack in December."

I agree that blogging is intense but give me a break, how is this different or even as stressful as some journalist reporting from Iraq or Afghanistan? Now that’s intense.

There are some like Michael Arrington, the popular Techcrunch founder and co-editor/blogger, who NY Times says is close to a nervous breakdown.

Mr. Arrington says he has gained 30 pounds in the last three years, developed a severe sleeping disorder and turned his home into an office for him and four employees. “At some point, I’ll have a nervous breakdown and be admitted to the hospital, or something else will happen.”

Given that 13-15hr workdays are becoming typical (even outside the Silicon Valley), I would say blogging is probably no different than any other high-stress profession. The blogging community hardly has a monopoly on stressed-out, workalcholics with less-than ideal fitness and diet routines. I blog (infrequently) in addition to my 13hr-work day at my day job and it’s not easy. If I weren’t smart about it, I probably wouldn’t have a life. That doesn’t help my blog ranking either, but that’s just how it goes. No matter, what your profession, if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.

That being said, I completely agree that frenetic pace of the Internet makes the madness more so. The proliferation of social sites and tools like Twitter, Facebook, and feed aggregators have made incessant communication and consumption so easy. Constant demand for information has created extreme competition in the online world. Now that the blogs are competing with the traditional news media for content, bloggers have to keep running (blogging) to stay in the same place. The computer and the blogger/bloggee(?) have become the modern-day versions of television and the couch potato. If you don’t have something interesting to say all the time, you’re irrelevant.

And that reminds me, gentle readers… it’s time to go work out :-)

Want to drive more traffic to your blog?

Here’s one neat way to drive more traffic to your blog, become a guest blogger on another blog that already has the traffic. One of my favorite bloggers, Tony of Deepjiveinterests is planning a brief hiatus and is looking for guest bloggers.

This morning, I noticed a post on Patrick Curl’s blog inviting guest bloggers ie. aspiring bloggers looking to drive traffic to their blogs. I’ve never read this blog before but it offers interesting content for aspiring bloggers including "7 ways to be best buds with an A-list blogger".

Here’s his offer in a brief, write a (guest) blog post for him and he might publish it with a link to your blog and also give you an "Intense Blog Review" (apparently worth $40). If your post doesn’t make the cut, he’ll still give you some coverage through a 1-paragraph review of your post. Why should you write for him? Here’s what he has to say,

This blog is about to break the 100 subscribers mark. I have 1400 followers on twitter, and 600 friends on friendfeed who will see each post. This blog gets 1000 hits per day(at least it has been for the past 2 weeks.) My alexa ranking hasn’t caught up since the traffic is new, but it will catch up, very quick.

For the curious and the aspiring, check out rest of his offer on his blog. Good luck! :-)