Friday, I gave a Lunch and Learn presentation to my colleagues about personal blogging, focused on creating community around a pet topic. I was going to expand my brief notes to post on our SharePoint so I figured why not blog about blogging too? So this a condensation of my speech without all the ummms and you knows and personal stories, and with a bit of added info about how I maintain TV, eh?
I was asked to present on the topic by someone who’s long thought about launching a blog but didn’t know where to start, or felt barriers to putting her thoughts online. So my purpose was to encourage others who felt the same.
I start with the caveat that I’m no expert, and my blogs aren’t ideal representations of blogging by any means, but – corny alert – blogging has enriched my life in a lot of unexpected ways. It’s not for everyone, and the world won’t be the poorer for having one less blog, but I’m a cheerleader to say you can do it and if you are considering it, you should do it.
There are blogs on pretty much any topic you can think of … which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more. There were a million cat blogs on the internet before Grumpy Cat, and a million parent blogs before Reasons My Son Is Crying. Most blogs won’t go viral like those. But if you start with your own passion, you’re already bringing your own unique take on it. If you find a fun angle, all the better. Through blogging it’s not difficult to become part of a community of like-minded people, and to me that’s the best part of the Internet. That and the cat videos.
I wasn’t an early adopter; I started writing reviews online for other sites in about 2003, and blogging in 2005 when I’d started to realize it wasn’t all about putting your diary online. It was the perfect way to bring together all these interests I had in one package.
If you love writing, blogging is a way to put a purpose to it. It can be easier to stay motivated to make writing a regular part of your life if you have a fun venue that’s yours. I don’t have a client with specific needs, or an editor giving me a word count, or chopping up my convoluted sentence that I loved because it was so convoluted, or unmixing my metaphors, or rolling eyes at my silly wordplay.
Initially my goal was to not be Googleable – as in, I didn’t want a future employers to be able to find my blog by searching my name, or my friends and family to know — so I wrote under only my first and middle names, mostly because I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about then. That made my brother, the first person in my “real life” to know about my blogging, say: “What did you think you were going to write about, porn?”
It gets better
The more I wrote, the more comfortable I felt sharing my writing and my opinions. I imagined myself writing to one person, and that helped me define my writing voice and to filter out the intimidation of “the internet” reading what I wrote. I was writing to my friend. Someone I knew fairly well, so I could be myself, but not so well that I’d be spilling all my deepest darkest secrets. And someone I wanted to impress just a little, which pushed me to try to be more entertaining, funnier, without crossing that line into trying too hard, because there’s nothing less impressive than desperation.
Another thing that helped? Realizing, at least at the beginning, that only one person (and not my friend) would likely read it anyway. I’ll get into this later, but people won’t just flock to your blog magically. And by the time you build much of an audience, I promise you, you’ll feel more comfortable in your blogging skin.
The internet has changed a lot since I started – twitter wasn’t around then, YouTube wasn’t around then, most people I knew didn’t have a blog. I use my full name now and I much prefer not feeling like I have a secret online life.
But I tell you all that to say: consider the fact that if fear of being found out is a barrier to you starting a blog, you don’t have to fully disclose your identity. I wouldn’t advise being a nameless entity who reveals no personal characteristics – it’s hard to feel engaged on social media with an unsocial entity — but you can still be you without using your full name.
Finding a niche
My personal blog had (and still has) no focus – I just started writing about all the things I loved, because a love of writing was my motivation, not building an audience or making money. But some of those things I loved happened to find a larger audience. One was writing regular episode reviews about the TV show House, which were cross-posted to a group blog called Blogcritics.org.
Talking about House online led to me being fascinated with how television was made, which led to me interviewing TV writers, which led me to the blogs of some Canadian TV writers which led me to realize they were talking about Canadian shows that were already cancelled by the time I’d heard of them. So I wrote a post called Invisible Networks about Canadian shows getting drowned out by the US marketing machine, where I talked about not being able to find a website with information on Canadian TV. In the comments discussion I added this:
“Who’s going to put a lot of effort into a pop culture publication focused solely on Canadian TV when there isn’t a big enough population base, never mind viewer base, to make money off it?”
And someone responded to me with this.
“A website promoting Canadian Television! Well…you’ve identified something that we need, and it seems to bother you that there is no such thing….Why not be the one to create it?! … Be part of the solution. Take action. Too many Canadians whine instead of being proactive. … Put your action where your complaints are.”
There’s a bit more to the story – like me instantly responding saying “why would it be me?” “I don’t have time” and attending the Banff TV Festival where Canadian networks seemed to be ignoring the Canadian audience – but to cut to the chase… a month later, in June 2006, I started a website to promote Canadian television. I’m very suggestible.
I do some writing for it, and I do a weekly podcast, but mostly it’s an aggregator of information and articles about homegrown series. So that’s another lesson: a blog can be as personal or impersonal as you choose. But in either case I do think you need to express some of your personality for people to interact with.
When I launched TV, eh? I was posting under my full name, but people don’t often just stumble across your name on the internet. And I hadn’t told anyone at work about my blogging life. Then an article came out in Macleans magazine that quoted me about Canadian Idol, criticizing the producer.
One of the managers at work saw the article, yellow highlighted the quotes from me, and taped it to the wall so I’d see it when I came in. I was outed. And the world didn’t end.
People were interested, and thought it was funny, and went on with their lives. Since then I’ve even put the site on my resume because part of why I still enjoy doing it is that I can experiment with some web-based communications skills that I can’t often do at work.
You can do it
Which brings me to … you can get a lot techier if you want, but if you can use Word, you can use one of the free blogging platforms. They’re designed to be used by people with no technical background. There’s no cost to entry. If my mom can blog, you can blog.
Just do it
I have a friend who meant to start a blog and agonized over the blog title and the initial post so long that she never did. She was paralysed by the idea of perfection. For me, blogging was about finding peace with posting a first draft, because I don’t have the time or will to spend hours sweating over each post.
So get over yourself. Just do it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You’ll want it to be good, but regular posting can be just as important, if not more, in building an audience if that’s your goal, and certainly in making writing a regular part of your life, if that’s a goal.
If you build it, they won’t necessarily come
You can have the best blog ever and not have readers or advertisers flock to you. And if all you want it a venue for your writing, that’s ok. I don’t care if anyone looks at my personal blog. That’s for me. Posting online makes me frame my arguments better, and challenge myself to write more entertainingly, and the bonus is that whatever audience there is becomes a supportive community. But when I created a blog with a mandate to promote Canadian television, I wanted more than one friend to read it. And the Internet’s a big place.
I’ve given this advice to other people over the years who ask about growing an audience, always with the same caveat that I’m not an expert, I can only offer my own experience to say what worked well for me. And the biggest reason my site found an audience was that I was already part of that online community, and it filled a niche that no one else was in. For good reason.
There are sites on television in Canada – including US shows – and sites on the Canadian industry, but even now mine is the only site solely focused on Canadian TV shows. Because as I said in May 2006, who the hell would do a website with that focus? But the niche means what audience exists is easy to find.
Think community, think conversation
I launched the site fairly quietly because I wasn’t sure I was going to keep at it, but when I “went public” the most effective marketing I did was let the Canadian TV blogging community know about it and link to as many of them as I could. Since they “knew” me as a commenter and someone who posted elsewhere, I had a supportive group to help spread the word and help me work through how to make this venture work better.
Building community and an audience can even be easier today with Twitter and Pinterest, for example. I’ve been encouraging a friend who has an idea for a site she hopes to make money from to start tweeting about the topic now, and finding others talking about it to follow and have conversations with. Not with a marketing message, but as a person finding other people to talk to about a common interest. Please don’t be that person on twitter (or real life) who’s all “read my blog!” and no “hi, I’m a human being who wants to talk to other human beings.”
When I launched TV, eh?, I also touched base with journalists who report on Canadian TV to let them know about it, as well as networks and industry organizations (unions, funding agencies, etc). I didn’t get much coverage out of that but between the online visibility and those emails, some journalists started using the site and sending me their stories to put up, and industry groups and networks added me to their media release distribution lists. And because of the links and traffic, the site’s Google juice helped “normal people” stumble on it. For some shows, a TV, eh? post will come first in a Google search … because there’s so little else out there.
I should also say I hate some of the accepted SEO practices and tend to ignore them. Search and you’ll find all kinds of hints about increasing your search engine results. Some are fairly obvious and I use them without it being really for SEO purposes – using key words in titles, having lots of links, etc. – but I find a lot of those SEO tips lead to unnatural writing and link exchange requests that come across as spam. And work.
Work versus fun
There’s a lot more I could do with TV, eh? to monetize it, but Google AdSense, text links, and a donation link is the extent of my time and energy to do it. I have a few people helping me with the site, but I don’t want to have to hire and manage staff, and I don’t want to have to worry about the ROI of my efforts.
I do the site for fun. The instant it becomes more work than fun, I’m out of here. As evidenced by my on and off personal blogging.
I’ve been asked how much time TV, eh? takes, and the answer is an unhelpful: “It depends.” The workload is scalable, which is why I was able to maintain it (barely) when I was crazy busy with the Olympics, and why some features come and go (goodbye “Canadian TV person of the week” video, hello email interviews).
The aggregated information mostly comes to me in the form of media releases, Google News alerts and twitter feeds, so when I’m busy that’s pretty much all the site consists off, and with fewer pictures accompanying posts. I take some time on the weekend to schedule posts, and the Facebook and Twitter feeds of site posts are automated. When I have more time, I do more Google News searches and scanning of RSS and twitter feeds, and reach out to more contributors to write reviews and interviews, and write/rant more myself.
I have some people helping out – Anthony Marco as podcast cohost and Rachel Langer as contributor are two stalwarts, and I’m always hoping for more contributors who will:
- be honest, fair and accurate
- not be fangirly/boy-y
- not lose interest quickly.
The more contributors I get, the more original content the site has, but also the more editing and managing emails and people I need to do. Other sites have a more decentralized model, with groups of editors and administrators, and I’d consider that if I ever found myself with a fleet of committed, willing and able contributors, and only if it would not mean more administration for me.
Which sounds like a lot of work. For me, blogging has been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot. I write the kinds of things I’d never have written otherwise. I’ve gotten opportunities, professional and personal, because of the site and the podcast. I’ve gotten to meet, virtually and in person, people I admire. Some of my best friends are people I’ve met through blogging. And some who are my best friends only in my head.