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.
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.
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.
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 🙂