Thursday, April 26, 2007

How to succeed in blogging without really caring

[This may be the only post I ever wrote with MBAs in mind]
Here, in only a vaguely sorted and orderly array are a set of things to think about if you plan to be the next Atrios or start the next Pandagon.

You Don't need the Venture Capital Arianna Huffington has at her disposal to pull this off but you need something even harder to come by this late in the land rush: a new angle and a demographic that has not yet found its own voice. The formulaic way to do this is to identify a group that is self selected by their feeling of anger toward group P or issue Q. Perceived powerlessness is a sure fire fountain of angers. It helps insure heightened interest if you choose your P's and Q's from the set of matters that do not have simple, politely definitive and universal consensus positions. Sex, religion and politics were the P's and Q's our parents used to advise us to avoid. But in the era of Rhetoric 2.0 and anonymous communication and confrontation by proxy, the hotter the better. DO consider what use your demographic makes of the web. For instance, while centenarians are a new and rapidly growing demo, few of them are on the web.

It will be hard to single handedly write half a dozen good posts per day...sharing the revenue is a zero sum process but enraged/engaged readers will visit several times a day if the content is ever fresh. That is not linear. Hosting costs are the most predictable if you pay nothing [] or $5/month [ e.g.] and least predictable if you roll your own [backups and service contracts and the fading neutrality of the net are NOT your friends]. The equation to solve, from a financial perspective, includes the empirically obtained H=Hits-Per-Day-Per-Post and a conservative productivity estimation of A=Average-Posts-Per-Day-Per-Blog-Author. Due to the bandwidth of the consumer there is an upper bound or a point of diminishing returns for adding yet more authors: just ask the big print media houses if you don't think that is so. If you are only in it for the money, consider working at a carwash. Part time. Buy the right domain even if you use Blogger or other free tool/host arrangements. Open source tools like Drupal can cut your entry costs down to the price of two server-grade PCs and a contract for a business Internet connection if Blogger is not customizable enough for your tastes. Spend a week with a book on CSS and HTML and you can probably knock together a free blog that has a signature logo and color scheme. When you have taken off into the 10000 hits per day stratosphere where it is hard to get hosted for zero bucks, you can pay a web designer to apply your signature features to your new home with your old domain if you don't have the chops or think Flash would make your pages .ORGasmic. If you know what the hooks are for your demographic, use them in a few one-week or one-month spots on the highest traffic sites that you can afford and that overlap in readership with the group whose interest and loyalty you hope to attract.

Choose your blog authors carefully and set up the teaming arrangements clearly: there must be a clear decision process, be it one honcho or something more collaborative, for deciding what is and what is not consistent with the issues list, the voice and the attitude of the blog: you have to have some consistency or you have no clear product and consequently very little audience retention. You are, in effect, making a brand name for a certain timbre of outrage on a certain selection of issues that you think will appeal to some under served demographic. Your writers must be expressive, concise, very good in an argument and truly "get it" about their issues...that means get it on both an intuitive level and the more academic way of knowing well the current literature, the important players and the back stories on their topics...its a lot like being a good reporter combined with being a sharp but not abusive editorial columnist. No accident that journalism majors and English majors have a leg up when they start and are well represented in the ranks of bloggers. Most likely there will be some big egos. The candidates with the most relevant experience and visibility may bring readers from their personal blogging or a previous stint. When they have the goods you want, they will have baggage too. Don't just survey the posts of a prospective blog mate, dig up their comments: do they tend to lose their cool? Unless parody or humor is their only shtick and the reason to take them on, are they basically self confident and intellectually honest? Deficiencies in these areas will be pounced upon by readers because the readers are also writers if your blog is succeeding.

There is a critical mass or "the rich get richer" sort of phenomenon that is hard to break through. It may be so psychically taxing on a good writer with a good idea making little headway in the race for readers that it is their strongest reason to write as a contributor on some other blog that has gotten onto this high ground. Readers sometimes RTFP clear through but often, especially for a familiar news item and a familiar writer, they skim and then look for a chance to one-up the last commenter or polish some point they think relevant. And sometimes they just want to say "me too!" All of that is entirely normal and what tends to make a loosely bonded community out of an audience. But the one thing you can count on them reading is anything they themselves wrote or which anyone else wrote in response. The end result of all this is reading frenzies in the comment section of some posts: people want to go where the action is and trade words with the smart people about the important causes. A frenzy in one place leaves a silence somewhere else. That differential in traffic is a herd phenomenon and not always proportional to the difference in quality or relevance in the writing. I know of no sure fire cure for that problem. But you can always make it worse by ignoring the commenters you do get.

Each writer will have their own "process" but for the blog to have some kind of stylistic cohesion that promotes reader recognition of a "product-like" consistency, some guidelines may need to be set. For instance, there may be a daily quota on "oddball human interest" posts. Scouring the entire web, tedious and not entirely automatable, is one of the best foundations of a writer's process: the more common sources of interesting news are already under your reader's bookmarks. The touch that the most popular writers appear to have is an ability to capture, harness and project anger without too much damage to logical thinking. It is a sign of some success if the members of the offensive group P stray onto a blogger's turf and think they are "hated". Mistaking anger for hate is the mark of one who does not "get it" and the fans pile on. Its not a pretty pattern but it generates clicks quite reliably. The process that is easy to do badly and a hackneyed yet successful formula is to be the first blogger of the day to come across some fresh outrage from a big mouthed member of group P or an insider report of the government's latest mendacious butchering of issue Q and write a few tart witness-leading sentences or turn the matter in an unusual light for a few paragraphs and let the fans tear into it for the rest of the day. Once posted, comments can be steered back onto topic and party lines on the issues can be illuminated by remarks from the author or others. Anger sells. It sells better to the right wing if fully formed in the mouth of the author. On the left just give'em the ball, they know how to kick. But it sells well on just about any turf.


Alicia Morgan said...

What a fascinating post! I've never seen it laid out in quite such an organized fashion! Good job, greensmile!

GreenSmile said...

Its a slightly snarky view, Alicia. But I think the "reading frenzy" or critical mass of commenters phenomenon is a real issue, a wall that a lot of good bloggers never get over. I have as of this morning tried to go cold turkey for a while even though I finally figured out a way to keep the hit counter over 100 per day and get people reading my stuff. The pleasure has too high a price.