This blogging beginner's guide is intended for people who want to incorporate blogs into their organization’s social media efforts but aren’t sure where or how to begin. Individuals interested in blogging for personal/career management reasons, as well as folks aspiring to be professional bloggers, may also find the guide useful in helping them get started. The guide focuses on external blogs, but many of the concepts apply to internal blogs as well.
This guide has now been updated.
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To many professionals blogging is still a foreign concept. Although virtually everyone’s read them and some people may even comment and subscribe, when it comes to thinking about how to leverage the tool themselves, people often freeze. They feel intimidated because they think their writing skills aren’t good enough, pressured by the prospect of having to create fresh content on a regular basis, and/or uncertain of how they’re going to manage the time commitment.
Cyberspace is full of blogging “best practices,” rules and tips. Many of these guides are great, but they’re not necessarily comprehensive and/or designed for people who are just getting started. Therefore, I thought I’d create my own guide based on my interactions with social media rookies over the past two years, as well as my own experience as a relatively new blogger (since March 2010).
The guide is divided into the following sections:
- Putting Blogging in Perspective
- Getting Started
- Addressing Blogging Elements
- Creating Content
- Sharing Content
- Monitoring and Adjusting
NOTE: At first, some of the advice will not make sense, and many of the terms may sound foreign, but don’t let any initial confusion you may experience deter you. Accept that you’ll have a fairly steep learning curve to climb in the beginning, but trust me when I tell you the steep part is shorter than you think and it’ll all start to make sense more quickly than you realize. Your patience and persistence will be rewarded in due time.
As always, I welcome feedback. If you disagree with one of my recommendations, have a tip to add, and/or feel something was unclear, please feel don’t hesitate to add a comment or question. Thanks!
Putting Blogging in Perspective
Most people tend to think of blogging as a relatively recent social media phenomenon, and perhaps as an activity that relatively few individuals/organizations engage in. According to Wikipedia, however blogging’s origins can be traced back to 1994, and as of February 2011, there were 156 million public blogs.
Despite their longevity and ubiquity, however, people have been speculating about the “demise” of blogging for at least the past four years. One of the latest speculative entries was a February article in the New York Times (NYT), which was based on a recent Pew research report noting the decline of blogging activity among younger generations and a general leveling off in terms of usage. Although the NYT used the term “wane” in their headline, “morph” is probably a more apt description. Individual blog hobbyists may be on the decline, but the underlying principles and technology will live on and expand, especially in organizations. In fact, when you consider that many digital news articles and columns function effectively the same way a blog does (i.e., a writer shares a story and/or a perspective, and readers have the ability to comment and engage in dialogue about the post), the total number of de facto blogs is actually on the rise.
Based on my own reading, it seems the most active bloggers in the professional sphere are journalists and individuals/organizations that are immersed in digital technologies. Although there are a number of non-tech organizations that have fairly sophisticated blog sites (e.g., Sears, American Red Cross, William & Mary), active organizational blogs are far from commonplace.
The decision to establish and maintain a blog is not an easy one to make, especially for organizations that have limited resources. Reframing your perspective on blogs, however, can highlight their potential value. Here are a few points that might help:
- You can blog without being a blogger. We have evolved past the point where blogs are online diaries, places for the expression of individual perspectives and/or (over)sharing the details of our personal or professional lives. They don’t have to be chatty and informal … or fun or funny … or snarky … they can be whatever we need/want them to be.
- Blogs can (and should) be thought of as long-form news feeds (whereas Twitter streams and status updates on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are short-form news feeds). Although it’s great to offer personal perspectives, share ideas and solicit feedback, or initiate dialogue, there’s nothing wrong with simply relaying information, offering insights and/or demonstrating expertise.
- Blogs provide another channel through which to attract and engage clients, prospects, and other stakeholders. They should be viewed as an integral part of an overall communications strategy that complements other outreach efforts rather than a new effort that gets layered on top of them. (Check out Part 7 of the Social Media Primer for guidance on developing a social media strategy.)
- As a dynamic internet element, blogs can make a significant contribution to a website’s search engine optimization (SEO) results, which can increase the flow of inbound traffic. Blog posts create more pages that are linked to a website, and those pages have keywords and tags that increase the likelihood they will be found via a search query. As static elements, most web pages aren’t going to be huge traffic drivers, even if they contain the same key words and/or tags. SEO via organic search is a nice complement to – or substitute for – paid search results.
Your biggest investment in blogging successfully will be time, so you shouldn’t start one until you feel confident you can commit to a reasonable schedule for content updates and maintenance. Once you’ve decided to incorporate blogging into your communication activities, you’ll want to:
- Pick a blogging platform. Blogging platforms are either free or low cost. You can investigate different options (just search on “top blogging platforms 2011” to access various assessments), but for most people the choices will boil down to WordPress, TypePad (which is what I use), or Blogger. Do your due diligence, but there’s no need to make the decision process unnecessarily complicated. Note: if you choose WordPress, make sure you understand the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
- Determine the number of blogs/contributors. Even if you’re planning to have multiple bloggers, it’s probably better to start with a single blog that has multiple contributors rather than separate blogs. Depending on the platform you choose, it’s easy enough to add new blogs later.
- Integrate your blog and website. You can build a web presence around your blog, but even if the two are separate it’s easy to link them. If possible, add custom design elements to your blog to match the look and feel of your website. If you already have a website you plan to keep, make sure you upgrade it before you start blogging. You don’t want to drive traffic to a site that doesn’t represent you/your organization in the best possible way.
- Integrate your blog with other communication channels. Develop a basic plan for how your blog posts will be integrated with other communication platforms and channels you may be using, especially digital tools/sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and SlideShare. This plan will identify the where/when/what/how of content sharing and communication flows.
Addressing Blogging Elements
You can find many online resources that address various blogging elements, and I encourage you to check them out to gather different perspectives. But don’t let yourself get overwhelmed trying to understand the different options and determine which practices you should follow, especially in the beginning. You need to learn to walk before you can run … keep things simple at first and develop more sophisticated practices as you gain experience and expertise.
To help get you started, here are my thoughts on the main blogging elements besides content:
- Posting frequency. It is best to develop a regular schedule for posting, but there are no hard-and-fast rules about how often to post. Remember that quality is more important than quantity and don’t feel pressure to post more frequently than you can manage.
- Post length. Many people will advise that shorter posts are better. I personally find posts that are too short to be a waste of my time. If I make the effort to follow a link, I want to read something of substance. Of course, I appear to be incapable of writing a short blog post, so perhaps I’m biased! Again, the key is quality – regardless of length, make sure your posts are valuable to your readers.
- Post title. This is another aspect on which there are lots of “how-to” tricks: use numbers, be dramatic, provide checklists… There is some value in these recommendations, but I wouldn’t take them too literally. I’ve read too many “headlines” that misrepresented the post’s content and/or were unnecessarily inflammatory. Accuracy is more important than excitement.
- Lead paragraph. I almost never read recommendations about this, but I think the lead paragraph is critically important. In addition to drawing the reader in, it should succinctly summarize what the post is all about. That summary is what gets listed in search results and when the post is shared via channels like LinkedIn and Facebook, so it needs to be really tight.
- Images and videos. Some people will recommend having image-rich posts to break up the monotony of the text, but images can be slow to load and may not be worth the effort of trying to include. Videos are similarly appealing and resource intensive. At a minimum, you should aim for one representative image for each post, and include that in the beginning of the post. Like the lead paragraph, this image will show up when the post is shared in certain places, and it’s worth having something that captures the post’s content.
- Structure. It’s a good idea to make use of headings and other means to highlight key points as much as possible. Readability is also enhanced by short paragraphs and bulleted lists. If the post is long, provide a roadmap or guide in the introduction that gives people a sense of what’s coming.
- Tagging, keywords, and categories. Tagging and keywords are important from an SEO perspective, but you shouldn’t try to “game” search results by forcing certain words and/or adding loosely related tags. Focus on the content and allow search engines to uncover the post organically. It works better than many people lead you to believe it does. Categories can also be very useful in terms of content management. By creating topical categories, linking your posts to them, and including a category cloud on your blog page, you provide readers with a way to access similar content. That exposes them to older blog posts, which reinforces and increases the value of your focus and expertise, in addition to contributing to your SEO results.
- Post timing. I’m very wary of any advice about timing. In spite of the scientific claims some people make, it’s really more of an art, and individual results can vary widely. Plus, although it’s nice to see a spike in web visits after a blog post is published, your focus for sharing content should probably be on the traffic it can drive over the long term rather than the short term. At least initially, timing shouldn’t be a high priority.
- Post URLs. This is another important topic I don’t see addressed much. I try to create a shortened URL for posts I think I’ll be sharing via email, through commenting on other blog posts, etc. I use the tiny.cc site to create custom URLs that I can remember (e.g., my post about social media policies is http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsPolicyPost), but there are other services available as well. You can also create your own custom shortener that can help reinforce your brand.
- Sharing capabilities. Make sure your blog posts are easy to share by including a widget/plug-in like ShareThis or AddThis to your blog page, in an easy-to-spy-and-use spot.
- Comments. Yes, you should enable readers to share their thoughts and you probably don’t need to pre-moderate them. You’re not likely to be overwhelmed by comments, and the risks from trolls and spammers are pretty low. You may want to create a set of posting guidelines that enable you to manage comments after they’re shared, but for most individuals/organizations, developing guidelines is not critical in the beginning. (See this blog post for more on managing comments in online communities.)
Creating content on a regular schedule is one of the most challenging (and daunting) aspects of blogging, but it’s more manageable than many people realize. Here are some ideas than can help:
- Think expansively about the content you can share through the blog. Some of it can and should be original, but much of it can be repurposed and/or re-leveraged content originating from other sources. You can also repurpose some of your static website content to make it more dynamic.
- Examples of repurposed content include:
- Press releases
- Links to traditional media news stories about your organization and/or in which someone from your organization was interviewed/quoted
- Organization news
- Share “State of” summaries from organizational leaders (e.g., the President’s letter)
- Announce the latest newsletter and provide a link to it and/or (re)share individual articles
- Welcome new employees, members, clients, partners, suppliers and/or other stakeholders, and/or share relevant news about them
- Share relevant operational statistics that you would normally provide publicly (e.g., efficiency improvements, sales milestones, donor thanks)
- Product and/or facility videos
- Client testimonials
- Case studies
- White papers
- Examples of original content include:
- Insights from organizational leaders and other experts about industry trends, client challenges, and other topics related to the products/services you offer (without directly pitching a solution).
- News digests that contain organizationally-relevant or industry-related content, edited to offer your unique insights (here’s a page that explains how SMinOrgs does it and provides links to examples).
- Guest posts from industry leaders and experts outside of your organization.
- When creating original content, remember that quality and integrity matter as much in a blog as they do in any other means of communication you may use. A few critical points:
- Don’t plagiarize content.
- Don’t try to “game” the blogging process just to get a post out. I lose a lot of respect for bloggers whose posts regularly just summarize news/research reports without adding substantive commentary.
- Be careful about using ghost writers to represent organizational leaders. In blogs especially, people expect a post “from the President” to in fact be from the president…
- When you use guest bloggers, make sure their work meets your editorial/brand/ethical standards.
Once you’ve created a blog post, the additional investment of time to share it is relatively minimal. Here are my suggestions for the main channels through which you might push content out in an effort to pull people back to your website:
- Twitter: tweet out a link at least once. You can schedule multiple tweets if you like, but I would only do that if you have an active Twitter account and/or a lot of followers and are concerned someone might miss a single tweet. If that’s not the case, too many repeated tweets can turn people away (see this post for more Twitter tips). If individual employees also regularly tweet on behalf of the organization, they can tweet out links as well.
- Facebook: post a link to your fan page if you have one. Individual employees can also share on their own news feeds, but I would only do that if your content is potentially interesting to a wide audience. You may also be able to link your blog posts to your fan page via an automatic feed mechanism, but you’ll still need to share each post to ensure it shows up in people’s news feeds.
- LinkedIn: You can include an RSS feed on your company profile so that anyone who visits it can link back to your blog. You can also have key individuals share blog posts via their own status updates, by messaging people in their networks, and by sharing them with relevant group.
- Email blasts. You can include a section in your email blasts with links to your latest blog posts. And when you’ve generated enough posts on a specific topic, you could create an email blast that’s focused on them.
- Newsletters. As with email blasts, you can include a separate section in your newsletters that has links to specific blog posts. You can also repurpose content originally created for the blog as a newsletter article.
- Other channels. You can leverage a wide variety of general news and blogging platforms, as well as digital professional communities, for driving traffic. This form of distribution can fall into two categories:
- There are sites such as BusinessWeek’s Business Exchange, Social Media Today, and American Express Open Forum that individuals can join and use to share their own content. Professional communities on sites like Ning provide similar capabilities.
- You can comment on related FB posts, LI discussion items, blog posts, and news articles written by others, including links back to your own blog posts (this is where the short urls can really come in handy).
A few words of caution on sharing:
- Be careful when you have multiple people sharing the same content. If they have overlapping networks, that could result in “oversharing,” which could be viewed as spammy. It’s better to stagger their shares, just as you should try to stagger all sharing across different platforms whenever possible.
- Only share relevant content on news/blogging platforms and via digital communities. If your sharing appears to be indiscriminate, you’ll turn people off and defeat your own purposes.
- Be respectful of other people’s blogs and articles. In addition to making sure your links are related to the post on which you’re commenting, say a few words that draws the connection rather than simply posting a “read my post – here’s the link” comment.
Monitoring and Adjusting
After you’ve created/shared your content, you should pay attention to what happens and be prepared to respond accordingly. As with other aspects of blogging, however, you don’t need to over-engineer the process. Here are a few tips on the main things to pay attention to:
- Analytics. Whether you set up Google analytics or use an analytics tool offered by your blogging platform provider, you should pay regular attention to the quantity and quality of traffic to your blog/website. That feedback is invaluable in letting you know which posts resonated with folks, which outlets drove the most visitors, and other metrics that will help you refine your future blogging activity.
- Search engine results. These results are important not just from a straight analytics perspective (i.e., how much traffic am I getting from searches), but examining the searches can provide information on important issues like the key words people are using to look for content and where your content is ranked on various results.
- Number of shares. When you add a sharing feature to your blog posts, you should be able to get statistics about how many times your content is shared by readers. Those counts provide another gauge of popularity, over both the short and long terms.
- Comments. I’m not a fan of pre-moderation, but many people still do it. Regardless, you’ll want to make sure you regularly monitor comments and weed out the spam and any other posts that don’t conform to guidelines you may have developed. It’s also good form to respond to readers’ comments, either individually or in groups. (See this blog post for more on managing comments in online communities.)
- Grading your blog and website. Hubspot offers free tools for grading your blog and your website. It’s a good idea to take pre- and post-blog website measures, and to regularly monitor your grades. They’re not perfectly scientific and you shouldn’t necessarily strive for perfect scores, but they can be very useful in measuring progress.
As always, I welcome feedback. If you disagree with one of my recommendations, have a tip to add, and/or feel something was unclear, please feel don’t hesitate to add a comment or question. Thanks!
- Courtney Hunt