In this next instalment of hands-on articles, creative business consultant, Sinead Mac Manus, covers the basics of setting up a blog, some benefits and pitfalls, advice on staying on top of developments in the blogosphere and looks towards the future of blogging.
Blogging: The Basics
The term ‘blog’ comes from the amalgamation of ‘Web’ and ‘log’. The original Weblogs were literally ‘Web logs’ or lists of sites gathered together by an author, published using HTML and shared with a web audience.
Today, blogs are essentially easily-updatable websites that use open source or low cost software, and allow an author to publish frequently on the web. Most blogs are primarily text based but there has been a surge in recent years of multi-media blogs incorporating audio and video. Blogs contain ‘posts’ – usually time-stamped articles or snippets of information posted in reverse chronological order, allowing the most recent content to appear at the top.
Blogs can be categorised by type of audience interaction, by genre (such as education blogs or travel blogs), by media type (video blogs or vlogs, audio blogs, and written blogs) and by device (a mblog) is a blog written on and for a mobile phone. Blogs can also be defined by professional distinction i.e. ‘hobby’ blogs and professional blogs.
Most of the early blogs were simply online journals or web-based diaries which authors used to publish their thoughts and experiences. Motivated by the need for self-expression, some blogs built a captive audience such as the infamous ‘diary of a London call girl’ – Belle de Jour, that recently made UK newspaper headlines.
Setting up a blog has never been easier: using free programmes such as WordPress.com and Blogger, you can set up a blog and start publishing content within a matter of minutes. If you wish to have a blog hosted on your own domain name, you can follow the steps in the previous articles on WordPress. For creative people, a Tumblr blog or a posterous blog can be a great way of blogging about individual projects with the tools to post snippets of text, photos, quotes, links, dialogues, audio, video and slideshows from the web or direct from your smart phone. See the Wellcome Trust funded art project Exploring the Invisible for a look at Tumblr in action.
The Benefits of Blogging
Blogging can be a great way of building your personal or company brand and profile. Theatre companies such as Frantic Assembly and Hoi Polloi are harnessing video blogging to provide insight into company working practices and in doing so, they are building on their approachable and ‘young’ profiles. The new non-building based National Theatre Wales is using blogging to allow members of their online community to share information and debate and discuss the future potential of the theatre for the community.
Writing a blog can be a powerful learning tool, it can promote critical and analytical thinking, both with regard to your artistic process and to issues at stake in the wider world. A blog can allow you as a practitioner to reflect and comment on the artistic process of making work which can also be a powerful audience development and marketing tool. The dance company Ludus Dance have embraced the multi-media nature of blogging and use this to share the devising and rehearsal process with their audience.
One of the key elements of blogs is the ability to link from one blog to another. In the early stages of blogging, this took the form of a ‘Blogroll’ – a list of your favourite blogs. Today linking to other blogs and websites is a key part of the ‘conversation’ of blogging. If others link to your blog posts, this can drive traffic to your blog and increase your audience. A ‘trackback’ is an automatic link to a blog that commented on your post allowing your readers (and you) to see who else is talking about your posts. Harnessing the interactive nature of blogs, including commenting and linking can be a great means of collaboration and networking.
In a practical sense, a blog can be the ‘hub’ to which you drive traffic from other online media such as social networking sites. WordPress is particularly good at integrating feeds and content from other sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Blogs are loved by search engines for three practical reasons; firstly they love new content which blogs deliver regularly; secondly, the ‘permalink’ structure of blog posts (see previous articles on WordPress) allows for relevant content to be found and indexed easily; and thirdly, search engines rate your site based on the aggregate of other sites that link to it.
Making a Great Blog
Space here does not permit a step-by-step guide to the ‘perfect blog’. Many well-known commentators in the ‘blogosphere’ have excellent articles on how to make a great blog. A good place to start is with the ‘pro bloggers’ such as Darren Rowse, Chris Guillebeau, Seth Godin, Brian Clark and Chris Brogan.
Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a few moments to recap some basic points about successful blogging.
Consistency. If you’re serious about engaging an audience through your blog, using it as your ‘hub’ to disseminate your work and build an audience related to your business or artistic practice, then you will need to establish a rhythm. If you write once a week, then let your audience know when you post (Monday mornings tend to be good posting days) and make sure you deliver.
Quality. You don’t have to write the next War and Peace, but you do have to make sure that you’re passionate about what you’re writing and that you’ve done your ‘homework’ on the topic you’re blogging, vlogging or audio-blogging about.
Variety. They say that variety is the spice of life, and there’s nothing better as a reader than being surprised by a blog that you follow. So once in a while step out of the mould and try something completely different. If you run a written blog, why not try doing a podcast or a short video? You could also invite someone to post a ‘guest article’ on your blog. You might want to interview someone or you might just change your approach to the way your write and present material.
Audience. It should be quite clear from the paragraphs above and from previous articles that social media in general is a dialogue between you and the people your work seeks to engage. If that is the case then why not address your audience directly? Ask questions. Run competitions. Create opinion polls (insert polldaddy link) and most importantly respond to comments on your blog and across your social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr etc.).
The Pitfalls of Blogging
Since anyone with an Internet connection can be a publisher and promoter of their own work, the key issue is no longer one of distribution, but one of authority and relevance. If you don’t have anything worthwhile to say that will engage your audience and keep them reading, blogging on a regular basis will be a chore. One of the hardest things about blogging, and why many blogs fail, is the constant need for new content. As mentioned in my Introduction to Social Media article, any forays into social media, including blogging, should be accompanied by a well thought out strategy. It is pointless to start a blog with no clear idea of the strategic reasons behind it.
It is important to recognise that blogging has changed the landscape in which we interact with our audiences – we now need to talk and listen. Traditionally, marketing has been one-sided – we talk, our audience listens. Through blogging and social media, audiences want to be part of the conversation: this needs to be considered when setting up a blog.
Staying on Top of Other Blogs
With so many interesting blogs to read, how can we stay on top of developments without having to visit 30 websites everyday? RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is one solution that allows you to subscribe to any blog or website that supports RSS (look for the orange square). If there is new content on the blog, this gets sent to your RSS Reader. For a free RSS Reader try Google Reader. Many blogs will also allow you to subscribe by email enabling new blog posts to pop up in your inbox. A third, and increasingly common option, is using Twitter. Many professional bloggers will ‘tweet’ a link to their new blog post enabling you to quickly scan your Twitter feed for any new items. And since Twitter now allows you to create ‘lists’, you could set up a list of your favourite theatre bloggers or tech bloggers etc.
The Future of Blogging
Despite recent musings in the online world that the rise of blogs is coming to an end, the statistics appear to suggest the opposite. In its annual State of the Blogosphere report, Technorati revealed that it had indexed 133 million blog records since 2002. However, the rise of microblogging using services such as Twitter and Tumblr is providing a popular alternative to blogs based on immediacy and minimal content input. Delivering bite-sized pieces of information and valuable links, these services appear to be drawing readers away from commenting and engaging with blogs.
Susan Mernit, co-founder, People’s Software Company disagrees and comments that:
“Although new ‘right-now’ web tools like twitter and lifestreaming aggregators like friendfeed have shifted some attention from classic blogging, they’ve actually deepened the conversation and made the blog, as a place to comment, reflect, and analyze, more central than ever. Blogging has become part of the daily discourse within many communities, and more and more essential is a growing number of disciplines outside of the technosphere.” (Source)
In my opinion, the urge to publish content and communicate with the world is stronger than ever. Whether through a blog or Tumblr page, Twitter or Facebook updates, the potential is there for all. Marketing guru Seth Godin sums this up more eloquently than I can when he concludes that:
“The word blog is irrelevant, what’s important is that it is now common, and will soon be expected, that every intelligent person (and quite a few unintelligent ones) will have a media platform where they share what they care about with the world.” (Source)
Blogging is dead. Long live the blog!
In the next article, I will look at microblogging platform Twitter and its many applications in a business context.