“So you wanna start a blog?”

“So you wanna start a blog?”.

Since it’s now possible for newcomers to the blogging world to set up a Blogger or WordPress.com account in mere minutes without the slightest idea about what one is doing or why, it seems like 98% of the blogs on the Web boast but a half-dozen erratic posts before going dormant forever. Of those that are left, most offer only simple “my link for the day” posts, which of course are fine for friends or people of very similar interests, but not so much for the world at large.

Now that I’m in the process of starting a new blog (on Sherlock Holmes), I figured it was about time to write down and share a few of my wildly-scrawled ideas concerning how exactly I go about such a thing (or, how I occasionally help others in a consulting capacity to do the same).

Like most other things, I conceive of a blog as a project, to be given due consideration, planning and effort. As such, I brainstorm, write notes, prepare a vision, gather resources, construct initial timelines, experiment with form, evaluate delivery options, and so on, before I even think of doing that magic little incantation which causes the blog to appear. I’m not going to get into all of these here. What follows are rough notes, not a course. But first and foremost to keep in mind is the approach: a lacklustre preparation usually leads to a lacklustre site. On the other hand, all the preparatory time in the world won’t mean squat if you don’t have the discipline or wherewithal (or –*ahem*– ego) to keep it up.

A clear vision is the primary thing to keep in mind. Vision leads to purpose, purpose leads to motivation, motivation leads to regular posts, regular posts lead to regular readers. So what’s this thing of yours going to be? Is it going to be a site to explore or exploit a niche interest of yours? Is it going to help develop commercial opportunities? Is it a playground to learn new technologies or methods? Is it to provide feedback for a project or cause you’re involved with? Or is it an ego thing, where you’re going to post idle thoughts as you feel like it? If the latter, pay attention: remember the 98% of dormant blogs? Almost all of them fall into this category. Repeat after me: “I want this blog to ….” Fill in the blank. If you don’t have a coherent point or two, then you lack a vision with focus.

Now, a lack of focus doesn’t necessarily mean that the blog won’t be a success, but it sure makes it a lot more difficult to maintain. For example, this blog doesn’t have a strong focus. That explains the erratic posting, the subject matter covering no particular ground, and the wide variations on quality. However, this blog does have a purpose: it’s an outlet for me to practise my writing skills, especially on those topics that don’t fit into my other, more specialised sites. Practice is necessary for a writer, of course, and it helps to have actual readers as motivation. Don’t believe me? — try joining a writing club where you have to produce materials to read aloud each week, and enjoy a newfound discipline. (Private material is obviously kept offline, since I figure no one needs to know about my Sturm und Drang, or my sex life either, for that matter.)

For the new Holmes blog, I have a vision with two primary purposes: to learn more about my subject matter by exploring a new facet each day; and to help others explore the character of Sherlock Holmes not only as a cultural phenomenon, but as something far beyond the stereotypical cartoonish figure with deerstalker and magnifying glass. Secondary purposes: to indulge in a relaxing pastime each day; to provide a hub or lens to focus on all the rich sites scattered throughout the web; to introduce the joys of old time radio shows to the iPod generation; and –last but not least– to provide a little fresh Sherlock to fans every day.

Ultimately, a blog faces two great dangers: boredom and degree of effort. Boredom is almost always inevitable, at some point. Having a purpose can get you past these dry spells and recharge your batteries when necessary. At times, the topic of productivity can get quite stale for me; having a clear purpose for DIYPlanner.com means that I know my goals and can work towards reaching them, which means writing with an end in mind. Then there are some people who love their subject matter so much, and have so much free time, that they may write copious amounts of text each and every day. It’s a very rare individual that possesses this degree of commitment and time — I’m afraid that isn’t me. Ask yourself why you’re starting a blog. Do you have a good answer? If so, you can overcome these obstacles, as long as you possess enough discipline, passion or ego.

Vision also leads to the type, frequency and angle of the posts. Who are you writing for, how often, and what sort of material will you be providing? For this blog, my material is almost always original, and therefore tends to be rather irregular: things are posted as they’re done. For DIYPlanner.com, each volunteer writer has a slated day for posting an original article, usually concerned with a particular subject matter (although personal and professional issues sometimes mean that the posts may be postponed). Deadlines can work, as long as one is strict about them. For the Holmes blog, I’m intending a daily post each weekday. Some of these will be original writings, some will be graphics or advertisements, some will be radio shows, and some will feature links with quotes from other sites. This variation is important to me — it means that I don’t feel the pressure of having to write entirely new text each day, and yet I can still keep to a daily schedule of providing interesting material. If you wander into a blog with no idea of your target audience, frequency, or type of posts, statistics dictate that the blog may not last long.

Since we’re on the topic of readers, figure out what part these people play in your blog. I’ve always believed in the idea of fostering feedback and community, so I prefer to hear from readers as much as possible. Other bloggers don’t allow comments to be left on their blogs; this strikes me as a old-style schoolteacher who lectures at the podium without interacting with a class, or a politician who refuses to field calls from constituents except at election time. How do you know what people want, unless you allow them a voice? Allow them to be publicly heard, and you show them a greater respect, not to mention a willingness to involve yourself in honest discourse. This has the added effect of building loyalty, as well as traffic between your site and others.

Another thing I keep in mind while planning: alternate ways of providing material, besides your own posts. These commonly tend to fall under certain categories (although others do exist):

  • Other posters, either regular or as guests
  • Constantly changing links, with comments (such as a del.icio.us roll or two)
  • Syndicated material from other sites (lists of recent posts, pointing to the articles and updated automatically)
  • Shoutboxes and comment feeds, where people can leave messages on your site that appear as a scroll or feed of some type (great for sites fostering heavy discussion)
  • Information fed from other sites that you may have contributed to, such as a series of thumbnails from your recent Flickr posts

My blogs already have several of these, and my Holmes site is no exception. For example, I often come across interesting pages about Holmes or Conan Doyle at other sites. I can simple post it to del.icio.us with a “sherlock” tag, and have all those links appear automatically in a box on the new blog. News, I tag with “shscandal”, and it will show up in my Scandal Sheet section. There’s something to be said for automating as much of your content as possible. On the other hand, some people take it to the extreme: their blogs are no more than simple portals, taking others’ information and posts, and simply displaying it within their own pages. From time to time, I actually find my AMMT or DIYPlanner posts copied in full on other sites, sometimes without even an acknowledgement of my name or site! Needless to say, this is a way to upset others. Don’t do it.

If you have a somewhat personal blog and only foresee low traffic numbers, then the idea of financial support probably doesn’t strike you as important. But even fledgeling blogs stand a change at covering basic hosting charges through Google ads and an Amazon Associates account, both of which are very easy to set up. The former means pasting a little chunk of code into your blog for an ad to appear, and the latter means constructing links that, if followed, snatch you a small percentage for each book sold. If your traffic picks up due to your growing technical and/or marketing know-how, your amazing content, or perhaps even a random fortuitous link, it means you have a shot at getting dedicated advertisers or special types of ads, such as in RSS feeds, which can bring in even more pocket change.

Be aware, though, that blogging is a hard thing to do for a living. Many have tried, carefully plotting their business model and putting in endless hours of content creation, and have ultimately failed. All is not lost: there’s always publicity, financial opportunities (chiefly job offers and freelance contracts), networking, a reputation as an expert, and other outcomes to keep in mind. Many people have turned hobbies into occupations or legitimate businesses; a blog is no different. Just don’t toss out a few words here and there and expect the world to come knocking at your door with fistfuls of cash. The dot-com era is over, and it’s unlikely that VCs are going to want to pay for you to post stories about Fluffy and his big honkin’ furballs, complete with a flashing Purina advert.

Getting the word out is not easy, either, unless you’re “tapped in” to a number of blogs or discussion sites where people will probably want to read your material. In my case, AMMT and the D*I*Y Planner got a good start when I mentioned my (then rather primitive) little templates on some productivity sites and mailing lists I frequented (read: was obsessed with). This, I believe, is a good example of what to do: if you have a particular subject matter in mind, announce it in those places where people with a similar interest can be found. It sounds logical, and it is. But try not to appear out of the blue and start promoting yourself. Hang out, discuss, leave your URL in your signature, say profound things, and people will learn to respect you and actually want to hear your thoughts. Being a lurker counts against you in such cases, as it will when you start posting. People want to read the opinions of someone with something to say.

Of course, one can get an immediate traffic boost by writing something sensational that caters to the audiences of a major site like SlashDot or bOINGbOING, then submitting the link. But you’ll be one among hundreds, if not thousands, that submit their wares that day, so don’t count on being picked up. And even if you are, once the hordes come (and possibly bring your server and spam filters to their knees), they had better find other materials on your site that they want to read, or else you’ll not be bookmarked, or have your feed taken, and in a few days you’ll be sitting in your big ole’ empty room again, like the aftermath of the proverbial party that wrecked your house and went off to other, more popular hosts with better booze.

And lastly, stay away from “link exchange sites”, as these rarely work. Why? Because the only people who exchange links with them are newbies with oft-lacklustre content, and whom few people read. In the mathematical voodoo of search engines, this generally racks up very few points, and you’ll definitely loose those points with net-savvy people who visit your site, only to find scores of random links to furball Fluffy and obsoleted blogs with smatterings of “I found this cool link today: link”. Yup, these are like the unpopular kids in the schoolyard that try anything to become accepted. Rise above that, become an individual, and speak your mind. That’s why people will listen to you, and visit again and again. Once they find you in the first place, of course. (And that’s the hard part.)

Well, that concludes my few pages of wild and woolly notes. Hopes this helps someone out there…. 
[a million monkeys typing]

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