AppsLab FAQ: How Do I Start a Blog?

Here’s the second installment in my AppsLab FAQ series. The first was a huge success, 0 comments.

This installment focuses on another question I get asked a lot, “How do I start a blog?” or some variant. Typically, I answer with a question like “Why do you need a blog?” to get into the motivation behind blogging.

David has blogged a few installments on why product development should blog, which is a nice companion piece. I frequently point product development types to him as a good resource for tips and tricks.

Last year, I spent a lot of time explaining the benefits of blogging to people.  This year, people feel blogging is important and want guidance, more evidence to support the trend for 2008 so far.

Blogging is harder than it looks. There are no right or wrong answers, and I try to emphasize the negatives as much as possible to ensure people are prepared.

The first thing I need to know is the intended audience. Most of the people asking me this question are Oracle employees, so is the audience internal or external?

Like many large organizations, wikis and blogs have sprung up organically within the firewall over the past few years. If the audience is internal, my answer is pretty easy. I point to the three or so blogging software instances that I know of managed inside the firewall and say have at it.

Some groups are starting to see how blogs are a good way to share information persistently within a team, something Sagar promoted about a year ago among his team.

External blogging gets tricky.

Who’s your audience, seriously?
It’s key to know: 1) what topic area will the blog generally cover and 2) the ideal consumer, e.g. customers, other bloggers, etc. You may point out (correctly) that this blog’s content is poorly targeted as is its audience. This is true, and we kicked around what we would say a lot before launching a blog.

Suffice to say, we’re constantly evolving 🙂

But enough about us. If you know your audience, you’ll be able to target your content better. The tricky part is does your audience get blogs? If not, you’ll have your work cut out for you, evangelizing your content.

Comment early and often
One very key point that a lot people skip is becoming a commenter. Blogging is conversation, not broadcast. I advise people to find 5-10 blogs that fit their target audience or interest area and start commenting, as themselves, not anonymously, natch.

It helps to lurk at the very least. Read the posts and the comments to get a sense of the conversation. This helps you get what blogging really is, and it will show when you start posting. Commenting helps introduce you to people you may eventually want to read your blog. If you’ve established a presence on someone’s blog, that person will be much more likely to promote you and your blog in the future.

Cross the t’s, dot the i’s
Read any blogging guidelines your company has before any of this. Most people do this before asking me questions, so I generally take it for granted. It’s good to know, since you’ll want to know it for commenting as well.

When you’re ready to make the jump, make sure you are in compliance with and understand what Legal, HR and Security expect from you. This isn’t one of the those situations where asking for permission is harder than asking for forgiveness.

Figure out all the operational stuff: where will your blog live, what software will you use, who will manage and support it, etc. I’m glossing over this because the details vary, and based on your team’s technical chops, you may want more or less control.

Crank out the content
Successful blogs are fresh, and they have a lot of archived content. As a new blog, your blog has neither.

So before you run off and promote your blog, write some posts. Take a couple weeks or a month and commit yourself to blogging at a pace you think you can handle. This will be a go/no-go test because once you’ve got a blog going, it’s work to keep it going. If the workload seems high, this is also a good time to engage some co-authors.

Some bloggers, like Marian and David, have amassed a range of topics from questions they’re frequently asked or from work experience. These are gold mine areas because chances are very good that you’ll find readers quickly. Plus, it’s good to get this stuff out of your head and into usable format, indexable by Google et al.

And then wait
Your content should sell itself, but in most cases, it won’t. You’ll need some help. You should leverage any relationships you have with existing bloggers, preferably by linking to them in your brand new blog. Tweeting about your blog may be effective. Emailing is typically least effective.

Bloggers love trackbacks (or pingbacks) because it means someone out there likes you. So, make sure you turn those on and link to other blogs early and often.

Blogging software tracks when your permalinks are included in other places around the Intertubes. Personally, I don’t like to see self-trackbacks; usually the comments on any given post include mentions in other places (unless you’ve switched over to Disqus to manage comments, fail). I think it’s weird to count all the references you make to your own blog posts as comments, but major blogs like TechCrunch do it.

And permalinks should be human readable style, e.g. human-readable-style-links, instead of randomly generated sequence numbers. This makes it easier to link to you. It’s typically an option in your blogging administration somewhere.

You should still be out there commenting, and now, you’ll have a blog URL to include. I always click through on a URL when I get a new commenter. As a serial consumer of information, I keep my eyes peeled for new content.

If any aggregators exist for your topic area, e.g. Eddie’s OraNA.info, or there are aggregated pages of blogs on a certain topic, e.g. Justin’s blogs.oracle.com, make sure to get your blog included.

And then be yourself
The more you write, the more you’ll develop a voice. If you don’t think you’re developing one, you probably already have one. Be yourself, whomever that may be.

Blogging is opinion, which is why it’s so popular. Everyone has opinions. That said, your analysis isn’t always your own, and you can’t possibly find every little nugget of information. So, cite your sources if you have any, with a happy little trackback.

Expect that you will be challenged, and not always in a nice way. Perspective is difficult to maintain, but it’s generally pretty easy to tell when someone is trolling vs. when someone has a legitimate argument with what you’ve said. Ask for clarification, if you get none, move on to the next thing.

Track your subscribers through Feedburner or something similar and get an analytics package like Google Analytics, but don’t obsess about numbers. Reading blogs is like manning a booth at a trade show, lots of people check it out and move on, a few people hang out to converse.

So, spend time with the people who want to converse. I like to answer all comments to make it more like a conversation.  It helps me find new blogs and introduces me to new people, virtually at least. I also like to get feedback about the content, etc. to make sure people are satisfied. I use that term loosely.

And then?
Once you’re rolling, you may want to adjust your audience a bit. Frequently, you’ll find an unexpected demographic likes to read your blog. Aim your content at the people who like to read and comment.

Prepare to be surprised too. Some posts you expect people to be interested in will get no comments. Other posts you thought were dull will get a ton of comments.

I like to check in with readers sometimes to see what they want to hear, and ironically, those posts draw fewer comments than you’d expect. Just be more interesting.

That’s all?
I’ve left out major bits that just don’t apply to my experience, e.g. SEO and advertising, and as with a lot of things, your mileage may vary. Of course, the Intertubes has loads of content about how to be a successful blogger. Contacting bloggers you respect and enjoy reading yields good tips, especially in person.

Did I miss anything obvious? Do you agree, disagree? Sound off in comments and expect a reply 🙂

AboutJake

a.k.a.:jkuramot

20 comments

  1. Blogging is so last year. If I was starting a blog, it would probably be a Tumblelog – sorry – it would probably be a 'micro-blog' (Twitter/Pownce/Jaiku) – whoops sorry – it would probably be links, comments, shared items and likes left on FriendFeed.

    The conversation is well and truly fragmented (TM).

  2. Agreed for early adopter types, and fragmentation is a function of what you follow and what interests you.

    Blogs are still very much in the now for a lot of the enterprise folks who ask me for advice. The content locked away in people's heads should get out into the world, for Google to find and distribute to users.

  3. @Andy: Twitter is for people who can't blog. Blogging requires a flair for writing and not many people have that natural skill.

    @Jake: Sometimes a little encouragement helps too. I was prodded into blogging by Jake and Sagar. I am not as prolific a blogger as Jake is, but that is just because Blogging Is Hard.

  4. @Puneet: Originally I didn't get blogging but then I didn't get Twitter, del.ici.ous, FriendFeed, IM and something as fundamental as commenting.

    However, after a while I realised the reason I enjoyed blogging was precisely because I enjoyed writing. It helped that a handful of people enjoyed reading it but that was almost secondary.

    As a weirdo who has multiple blogs, Twitter (recently deceased) and accounts on Tumblr, Reader, Disqus Jaiku and FriendFeed (all active), I dispute your asssertion that 'Twitter is for people who can't blog'.

    They are all valid outlets. Anyone is free to choose to use one, many, none or all.

  5. This is a weird discussion. On the one hand, blogging to early adopters is mature. TechCrunch reports news, others try to trump TC, and everyone else has a spin.

    As blogs become mature as sources for information for everyone else, it becomes much harder to know what will be successful, which is why knowing your audience is critical. Poorly written posts that have great technical content can succeed, but so can interesting posts with very little content. As more people read, the success factors are not as predictable anymore.

    I think you're both onto something about Twitter. The 140 character limit makes it impossible to tell who can and can't write, assuming you get to it at all.

  6. Great post Jake, blogging is certainly a journey. I especially agree with the fact that the comments are what make the exercise interesting.

  7. I can only speak for myself but Twitter definitely reduced my blogging output.

    Much to my surprise, I was converted from the occasional considered blog post to a stream of < 140 character, inane drivel.

    Twitter/FriendFeed/gReader has consumed me almost completely so my blog is almost forgotten now although I still get the occasional inspiration for decent content that doesn't fit (i.e. too long) for FF/Twitter/Jaiku.

    But my point is that I am (almost always) now merely reacting to other content rather than creating original content.

    It is now a real effort to compose a blog post. And that is a real shame.

  8. Exactly what I meant by mature as seen by early adopters. Original content exists in the heads of people who don't get blogging, are wary of social networks, and have no freaking idea what Twitter is.

    I want to tap that keg.

    +1 on consumption by Reader and Twitter. I've dropped out of FF completely due to noise, and I use Twitter for messaging more than information anymore. It's seriously hard to filter out the noise.

  9. Nice post Jake!
    I have found that pacing yourself with what you can cope with is the most important thing. I burnt out twice until I found a 'blog rhythm' Over the last two years I think I have developed as a writer – its not a pure techy 'how-to' blog anymore but I hope I inject some of myself and my 'passion' for my product into the articles along with the techy knowledge Im trying to impart to the reader.

  10. I tend to point to David b/c I like to take some measure of credit for pushing him into blogging.

    However, you and your blog deserve more credit for being there way before we got there. Your XMLP/BIP blog is probably the longest running and most successful Oracle product development blog as far as as I know. You've been around so long that we're taking you for granted.

    So, good on ya. We're all in your shadow.

  11. Your blog rocks Tim. You warned me about burnout when I first mentioned starting a blog and you were spot on. After an initial flood of posts I have slowed down and am trying to find the pace I can maintain long term. You need to factor in time for writing posts but also replying to comments, reading other related blogs and getting distracted by interesting stuff you find.

  12. When I read your headline “How Do I Start A Blog?” I initially was thinking of the technical aspects like using choosing WordPress vs. TypePad vs. Blogger, etc. But truthfully, the topics you covered are far more important.

    I think the most significant consideration is the motivation aspection you mentioned: *why* you want to blog. I'm finding many people (myself included) do it for ill-conceived reasons like “a quick way to make money.”

    My other thought is that while it's possible any single post has the potential to generate a lot of traffic, the best blogs are ones that have endured over time so patience is needed. A blog won't be remembered by a single post or even several posts; it's the overall body of work that's important, it's kind of like a comic strip in that sense.

    That's how I see it, anyway.

  13. Yeah, blogging software is boring. People don't usually ask about that anyway. Honestly, I'm not sure it even occurs to them until they login the first time and then try to post something.

    As for “why”, most people I talk to want to spread knowledge about Oracle, so making money isn't a thought. Frankly, it's way to hard to make money blogging anymore b/c of longstanding blogs like TC.

    You're right about the body of work. Traffic is fickle and so are readers. If you can keep it up over time and build a loyal audience, you win.

  14. I've been blogging internally in Oracle now for almost 7 months. Started on the Lunch 2.0 UK Blog (http://blog.us.oracle.com/lunch20-UK/) and then in Jan'08 started my own internal blog (http://blog.us.oracle.com/infrastructure/). @Jake I see you mention 3 Oracle internal Blogging Software instances. I'm aware of 1 (http://blog.us.oracle.com) could you point us to the other 2 so we could compare.

    Also have recently started my first external (non-tech/work related) blog – http://goingtobeadaddy.blogspot.com/. Early days, but using this to try and develop my writing skills before attempting on other topics.

  15. I'll drop a note with the other internal blogging s/w instances.
    Congrats on your new blog and your upcoming baby. Methinks the new baby will either provide loads of blog-fodder or kill it off due to lack of time.

  16.  Poorly written posts that have great technical content can succeed, but so can interesting posts with very little content. As more people read, the success factors are not as predictable anymore. 

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