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Imagine a press conference; any one will do. Behind the bank of microphones stands Generic Q. Politician, who spends 30 solid minutes filling your ears with bureaucratic jargon and political mush. When he's done, you don't know any more about the issue he spoke about than you did when he started, but you're certain of his position. Maybe. Depending on how he couched the meaning of "yes" or "no" or "misspoke" or "support" or "oppose", he might not have meant anything he said.
To whom do you think G.Q. Politician was speaking? If you didn't come away from his presser with a clear understanding of what he said, can you really say he spoke to you? Who was his intended audience if not you? The assembled reporters? His campaign donors? The other members of Congress? Maybe he wasn't really speaking to anyone at all. Maybe he gave the press conference so his communications office could put out a press release announcing his press conference, complete with the least-obscured lines that might show up in a newspaper article the next day.
Let's face it, folks, politicians are rotten communicators. They are taught, by their handlers nearly from the first time they run for office, to be vague and evasive so their opponents can't actually pin them down on any particular issue. Most of them, by the time they get important enough to get on national television, have spent decades in politics, where they learned the bizarre jargon of the profession. They spend most of their day around people who speak that same language, so they think it's natural.
Then they try to speak to you and it seems as if they're speaking another language.
You, as an activist, don't have the luxury they do. You need to get your point across quickly, accurately, and with enough bang that it stirs people to action right away. Still, the same question we asked of our imaginary politician we can ask ourselves.
When you write a blog post, to whom do you write it? Do you have a specific person in mind before you click the "Publish" button? (tweetable)
If you don't, you should. More, you should have a good idea who that person is and tailor your post (or tweet or Facebook post or podcast episode or YouTube video) to that person. Kurt Vonnegut, who knew a thing or three about writing, laid down 8 tips for writing short stories. Several of those tips apply to writing for a blog as well, but the one that is most important is the seventh:
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.(Tweetable)
Here are a few reasons his advice works.
1) Your writing will be more conversational. I tend to write like I talk. If I write as if I'm having a conversation with you (yes, you, right there!), my posts flow better and are much more understandable. I use less jargon, my sentences tend to be shorter (try reading a long sentence in one breath), and I use smaller words. My articles read less like boring speeches or academic papers and more like something you'd want to share with your friends. If you want your work shared more, write conversationally.
2) Your writing will be more accessible. Most of us don't hang around nothing but Mensa members and giant brains in vats. We spend our days with normal people, who are more likely to have read a Harry Potter novel than the latest 20-page economic paper from a highbrow think tank. In fact, most of us prefer to read a good potboiler novel than, say, the entire text of Obamacare. When you write, keep those people in mind. Write something those people would find easy to understand. You, like me, may be a political junkie but most people aren't. Find ways to boil the complicated issues down to essential simplicity and folks will flock to your blog. (tweetable)
3) Funny beats angry. I know it feels good to rail on the latest progressive outrage. Goodness knows the current administration has committed plenty of them over the past few years. You get angry when you read another story about Fast and Furious or Obamacare or Benghazi. So do I. Just remember, no one in the world wants to spend their time with someone who is always angry and too much anger blurs into a dull hum most people quickly ignore. (tweetable) You have to leaven your anger with humor. Find a funny graphic (or make one yourself) that gets your point across. Poke fun at the pretentious Mr. President, or the sullen Harry Reid. Mock the outrageous and imagine your reader laughing along with you. Then, when you do unleash your righteous anger, it'll have greater impact.
(Photo Credit: Alan Turkus on Twitter)
If you've spent any time at all working in social media, you've heard the aphorism "Content is King". Every social media "guru" I've ever read or heard has devoted a corner of their web page and at least one presentation talk on why your social media platform will become a wasteland of electronic tumbleweeds and the mournful howl of coyotes, unless you pack it full of content often.
The advice is sound. You do need content -- pictures, posts, videos and funny GIFs -- and you do need to post that content on a regular schedule. You have to be diligent. You have to work hard. You have to shop your stuff around to your friends and associates for them to share, tweet out your links, or send them to your Facebook timeline. What happens, though, when you've spend countless hours over a couple or three years for King Content and you find yourself without much to show for it? What happens when your site traffic has barely moved for months (or years), despite all the content you've created? (tweetable)
Discouragement, that's what. You slack off posting, maybe from daily to weekly. You "mail in" a post here or there. You grab a stock photo off Google to head up your posts or maybe you don't even bother with a picture. Does that sound familiar? Hey, that's where I was not all that long ago. I spent years diligently posting every day -- sometimes several times a day. Then I'd get tired or something else would come up and I'd miss a couple days but I'd get right back to it because Content is King and who can build a strong online kingdom without the King?
Despite all that, though, my traffic numbers stunk. I don't mean they were a little bit short of where I thought they should be. I mean they were a solid order of magnitude worse than they should have been. I had churned out a lot of content, but I hadn't taken a lot of care to make sure the content was good.
What is good content? That's the question asked in a tweet from Sean Hackbarth.
Most important thing to know about being successful on Twitter: Produce good content. But that's the rub. What's good/compelling?
I've thought about that same question for a few months and have come up with three qualities by which I'd call a piece of content "good". Take a look and tell me what you think.
1) Is it different? Not everything you create will be a unique and special snowflake but your work shouldn't look like everyone else's. (tweetable) I touched on this briefly in this post last week, but let's go just a bit farther. Say you want to write a story about the manifold failures of your state's health care exchange. You could write a basic ranty post with a link to a news article, a quote from the article, and a paragraph that's a variant on "Obamacare LOL". Of course, that's exactly the same sort of article a couple or few dozen other bloggers will write too. What will distinguish your work from theirs? A better angle might be to use that news article as a springboard to find quotes from the person who headed up the exchange over time. You could show how the promise that the exchange would work well has slowly slipped to where it is today. You could do a little math and figure out how much money per uninsured person in your state was spent on the site or advertising for the site. You have plenty of choices to give your readers something they won't find anywhere else. That's the trick: give people content they won't get from all the other sites.
2) Is it easy to share? Your blog post may be the greatest thing to hit the blogosphere but if it's not easy to share, no one will care. (tweetable) Make sure you have plenty of "handles" for folks to grab so they can share your good work with their friends and family. Make sure your "impact" sentences are short enough to tweet (and set up a tweetable for them, to make sharing even easier). Write a lede that people can easily quote in blog posts of their own. Pick images (or better, create your own) for your post that'll work on Facebook or Pinterest. Give your readers as many ways to share your post as you can. Yes, you'll have to spend more than a few minutes on your content, but the rewards will be worth the effort.
3) Does it provoke action? I want to be careful here because "action" can mean a lot of things. I'm not talking about the sort of action provoked by trolls and cheap mob rousers. Does your content provoke a positive and constructive reaction from your audience? What that reaction is depends on what call to action you put into it. Sometimes you'll only get likes or retweets. Sometimes you'll get comments on your blog post that advance and enrich the conversation you started. Sometimes you'll get signatures on a petition or phone calls to the office of a legislator or business. You have a whole world of possible actions as your disposal. As a creator of good content, your job is to provoke the right ones. (tweetable)
It's not enough to merely produce content. Anyone can churn out boring, same-as-everyone-else stuff all day long. You're better than that. (tweetable) You can produce good content, content that is different, sharable, and provokes action. Right? Right! Now get to creating!
(Photo Credit: skittledog on Flickr)
If you've spent any time at all working in social media, you've heard the aphorism "Content is King".
In “What You Need to Know About Pictures and Blog Posts, Part I”, we reviewed why your blog posts should have good pictures. If you haven’t read that post, go right here and take a few minutes to do so, please. This post will get into how to best feature photos and where you can get great ones, but it won’t be much help unless you’re sold out to including good photos in your posts.
Back in Part I, I mentioned that blogging helps build other skills, like an eye for layout. Well, layout is every bit as crucial to your use of pictures in your blog posts as the pictures themselves. If your picture is too big or too small, if it’s badly-cropped or put in a place that breaks your readers’ “flow”, you have trouble. Remember the days of Geocities or Angelfire websites, with haphazardly-placed pictures and dancing babies and flashing marquees? While most blog templates keep things in fairly good order so those horrid eyesores no longer reign o’er the web, you can still commit plenty of layout atrocities. I know. I have more than my share in the archives of my blog*.
Let’s not do those.*
1) Mind your size. You may be tempted to use all of that wonderful full-screen panoramic picture you’ve found, but wait. Most blog templates will break badly if you try to squeeze in a photo that’s bigger than the section in which you want it. What you’ll get is a picture that pushes into other sections -- your sidebar, most likely -- and shoves everything else out of the way. Not only will it “break” your blog column, it’ll also break sections around it and you’ll have a crazy hot mess with a lovely photo in the middle of it all. You can usually find the size information you need in the .css file for your template. If you’re not sure, and you like to push the edges, look up what you need and keep it handy.
As well, make sure your pictures don’t overwhelm your text. Avoid BIG photos, if you can help it, even if the photo fits. Some readers (and by “some”, I include myself), when presented with a BIG photo and no obvious text under it because we don’t have our browsers open to full-screen size, will assume your photo is all there is and move on. If you mean for your reader to scroll down, don’t give them a picture that hides the text to which you want them to scroll. There are, of course, obvious exceptions (io9 and Fast Company are notable), but as a general rule, bigger is not always better. Besides, if you really want to show off a big beautiful photo, you can link it behind a smaller version and give your readers the option to click on it and get the full-resolution version (Shorpy is the exemplar of this technique).
The counter-argument is, sites like Pinterest and Facebook have gotten everyone used to scrolling, even when scrolling isn’t apparent, so that you can get away with bigger pictures. I say don’t push it right now. Unless your point is a long string of photos (more on that in a bit), let your text be the main attraction and the photos play the valued role of tasty garnish.
2) Location, location, location. As a general rule, the top of your post is always a good place for a good photo. Of course, your template will determine whether the top left or right is best. At my personal blog, I preferred the top right because I often used a blockquote early in the post and the picture looked better when it slightly broke the line and formatting of the quote. On the left, it looked askew. Study how your post looks, especially at the top, and use the one that looks best.
However, the top won't always be the best place for your photo. If you lead off with a lengthy quote that sets up your article, you may not want to break the “mood” with a picture. So don’t. Drop the photo down a bit farther in your article, closer to the text with which the photo ties in best. One word of caution here. If you do put a photo farther down in your article, do your best to keep it on the right side. We like an unbroken left margin; it keeps us in the flow of what we’re reading. If we have to find the beginning of the next line, our attention will waver and we'll have to refocus. Every time you force a reader to refocus on your post, you run the risk of losing them. (tweetable)
The one big exception you may want to consider (Hey, I promised more, right?) is a post where the pictures are the feature, such as a how-to or an event chronology. For those, centered pictures are pretty much the only way to go. Every rule has an exception, right?
3) Play with shapes and sizes. Sometimes, you'll have a longer post in which you'll want to use more than one picture. Good idea. Consider changing the sizes of the photos, though, to give your readers a little change of pace. Add 50 pixels to one picture, shrink another by 75 pixels or use a vertical rectangle and a horizontal rectangle and post away. Boom! Done! Collect your applause and cash those huge blogging checks, my friend.
Visual variety is a great weapon in a blogger’s arsenal. It is why sites often use pull quotes with lovely typographical design. They serve the same purpose as a photo does for your eyes. They not only break up the wall of text but give your eyes a different shape on which to focus for a while.
That's the now. Now, let’s get on to where you an get great photos! Back in Part I (which you read, right?), I recommended against stock photos and gave a couple of reasons why. If you’re bound and determined to use them, though, try iStockPhoto or Shutterstock. If you want better -- you do want better, right? -- try these:
1) Free and fabulous. Wikimedia Commons and Flickr are, hands down, the best places to find good, free photos. Other good sites are Morguefile and official government sites like the Library of Congress (photos "owned" by the government are free for you to use). On Flickr, use the “advanced search”, scroll to the bottom, and check the box to search for Creative Common-licensed pictures.
It's always a good idea, even when you use “commons” photos, to read the user guidelines for each site. If you aren't sure you have the right to use a photograph, don't use it. Theft isn’t a conservative value. (tweetable) Almost all of the photos you find on "commons" sites have some requirements for use, even if just an attribution link. Please brush up on the pertinent copyright rules (start with this post and for goodness' sake, don't use Google Images). Free photos aren't hard to find and the limits creators put on them aren't onerous. Be a good person and respect others' work.
2) Phone a friend. Do you have friends who are good photographers? Why not ask them if you can use their pictures? I know very few amateur photographers who won’t let you, so long as you give them credit for their work. I have one friend whose work I’ve used on my site and even in a couple “remix” graphics I’ve posted on Pinterest. I put credit on the photograph (PicMonkey is your free and easy-to-use-friend here) and we all end up happy.
3) DIY. You have a smartphone, yes? Then you have all you need to fill your blog with good photos. (tweetable) Nowadays, most smartphone cameras are as good as, if not better than, the point-and-click digital cameras you might otherwise use. You have access to a vast array of inexpensive apps (I like Camera+ and Snapseed, but don’t sleep on Instagram’s basic crop and filter functions). You can learn quite a bit about how to take good photographs with your phone from people like Alli Worthington, who have done a ton of trial and error on their own and whose expertise you can borrow (or buy). Seriously, I recommend Alli’s e-book on the subject. Remember that bit in Part I about exercising your other artistic skills? Here’s one of those skills. Exercise away!
Good photos, used well, can make your blog look as good as any professionally-produced web site. (tweetable) The playing field is more even than it’s ever been and you can beat the big guys before they know they’ve lost. Let’s make good art!
*I hang my head. Seriously. They’re horrible.
In “What You Need to Know About Pictures and Blog Posts, Part I”, we reviewed why your blog posts should have good pictures.
Approximately ten bajillion people have written about why you, intrepid blogger, need to include pictures in your blog posts. I know this because a quick Google search on "why should I put pictures in blog posts" will give you more results than the grains of sand on the beach or the number of alien brain parasites that inhabit the skulls of the MSNBC prime time roster.
These articles (blog posts, posts, what have you) exist for one simple reason: People are more likely to click on a post with a picture than one without a picture. Smart people have done or commissioned studies on this point and, though none of the studies agree on the exact number, they all agree that posts with pictures get more clicks.
As nice as clicks are, though, your goal as an activist probably isn't to draw a herd of indiscriminate readers who happened to like the cute cat picture you stuck at the top of your post [Ahem...]. If it is, God bless you. Grab an inexpensive membership to a stock photo site and go to town. However, if your goals are to bring people to your site who want to engage usefully with what you write, share your posts with their family and friends, and bring others to your site, you need more.
Not just any photos will do. You need good photos.
Fortunately, good photos aren't as difficult to find as you may think (I'll give you a couple great places to look in Part II, which will post here soon). Here are three things that differentiate a good photo from the average.
1) Good photos create resonance. In their book The Impact Equation, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith wrote about Echo, which they defined the connection between you, the writer, and an individual reader. The more Echo you can build with each of your readers, the more emotional resonance you create and the greater the connection. All of us prefer to get our news and opinion from people we not only trust but like. Echo builds both, and pictures go a very long way toward creating a strong connection between you and the people you want to reach.
Consider an article about the effect the federal deficit will have on the next generation. You could use a stock chart that shows the increase every year or a graphic of a large pile of cash. How much Echo does that create, though? On the other hand, you could use a picture that better suits the tone of your article (funny for a snarky article, for instance) or one that makes an emotional point to reinforce the facts of your article (perhaps an old photo of poor children during the Great Depression). Either choice would resonate more directly with a reader. Remember, the more resonance you create, the more you're likely to have engaged readers who will share your material. (tweetable)*
2) Good photos make your posts more shareable. These days, you can share one piece of new media content on several different platforms with the same ease Miley Cyrus gets a headline in the Daily Mail. Indeed, most bloggers have their "go-to" platforms on which they repurpose their blog posts with little more than an extra click or two. Mine are Twitter and Pinterest. Others prefer Facebook, Tumblr, or Google+**. Everyone has their favorites and a clever blogger will make sure their posts are easy to share in as many places as possible. (tweetable) Good photos makes your blog posts more easy to share. They also make your photos more easily noticed on other platforms, thanks to a clever little innovation called the "social snippet". Notice how prominent the photo is on each snippet (and how close that photo is to the means to share it elsewhere).
Remember, though, we're talking about good photos, so let me belabor this point just a bit longer. No one will pin a boring stock photo to their "Most Incredible Photos I Ever Seen" Pinterest board. Generic Money Bag Guy up there is not going to get you a bazillion upvotes on imgur or Reddit. To paraphrase King David, a blogger that wants to be shared must make his work sharable. (tweetable) Find a good picture to bring your post home and your readers will make sure it gets shared far and wide.
3) Good photos help you flex other creative skills. I bet you thought all you really needed to be a good blogger is writing talent. I sure did when I started my blog over 9 years ago. I was wrong. Blog readers have developed more sophisticated palates and the proliferation of blogs (100,000+ new blogs every day using WordPress alone) mean you're a small fish in an immense pond. Good bloggers must bring a plethora of skills to the table, including art and layout skills and an eye for an arresting visual image. (tweetable) Those skills come only with practice and, as with any skill, the more practice you get the better you will be. A one-dimensional blogger is a blogger who will soon be without readers - as starved for traffic as the town of Radiator Springs after the highway went through.
You also get a bonus with practice, in the form of other skills that will also improve. The ability to see what makes a good picture can also empower you to take good pictures of your own. You can learn how to enhance or "remix" pictures. You can learn good captioning skills, (or, in the case of LOLCat captions, you can haz skilz) but I'll cover more on all of that in Part II. What's important to remember is that choosing good photos to match your good blog posts will work out creative muscles you don't even know you have right now, but you'll be glad are strong later on.
Pictures and blog posts are natural buddies. They go together like a former child actor and crazy. Your job as a blogger is to match a good photo with your good blog post. How do you do that? Where do you find good photos? Stay tuned. Part II is right around the corner.
*Ever wonder what that (tweetable) thing is? Click the link. You'll get a separate tab with a tweet populated with a quote and a link to this article. Like the quote? Just click and tweet. Easy-peasy!
**Yes, G+ fans exist. Lots of them. Ask Guy Kawasaki.
Approximately ten bajillion people have written about why you, intrepid blogger, need to include pictures in your blog posts. I know this because a quick Google search on "why should I put pictures in blog posts" will give you more results than the grains of sand on the beach or the number of alien brain parasites that inhabit the skulls of the MSNBC prime time roster.
The world of social media is packed to the gills with places you can hang your shingle. You can probably think of a dozen different platforms right now off the top of your head and another half-dozen with just a couple Google searches. Each of those platforms has its strengths and weaknesses and a small horde of people who want you to use them. Indeed, you can read over the agendas of the various social media conferences and find panels on Twitter; Facebook; blogs; podcasts; YouTube, Vimeo, and Vine; picture-based platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat; and a few you'd probably never heard of until you read about them on the agenda.
Of course, these conference panels say, you need to be on all of them. How else will you grow your organization? How will you spread your message to the millions who are eager to hear if you're not plugged in online? Some answers are coming, in bullet-point form (because BuzzFeed told me bullet points are TEH HAWTNESS and goodness knows, we all want to be on the cutting edge, don't we?) but first let's tackle one big point. I like to be as positive as I can, but I need to start with one very large negative.You don't have to be everywhere.
Some social media experts, like Gary Vaynerchuk, teach that you need to have a presence on as many platforms as you can. As much as I love what Gary V. does, and how he does it, this isn't a great idea for most of us. Too many people (and organizations) stretch themselves too thin because they believe they have to have a blog, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, a Pinterest account, an Instagram account, hang out on Reddit, a podcast, a videocast, and a newsletter all at the same time. Do you have the time to keep up on all of those accounts in a way that's anything but cursory and fake? I sure don't, and unless an organization is willing to invest heavily in the staff and resources to properly manage these platforms, they won't be able to keep up either.
If you spread yourself too thin, you trade authenticity for visibility, which is a bad deal. If links are the currency of social media, authenticity is the vault full of gold that underpins their worth. (tweetable) It is far better to have a real presence on just a couple or three platforms than an automated, broadcast-only, talk to people every few weeks presence on five or six.
So how do you pick those platforms? Here are three guidelines you can use to establish where you ought to be in social media to get your message out the best way possible.
1) Go where your people are. Who are "your people"? They are the folks to whom you want to converse with the most. Depending on what you want to do, you may want to go where you can find fellow-travelers or you may want to introduce yourself to strangers. Your message may be best-suited for a younger audience or an older one, which will help determine where you want to be. Did you know that older users are swarming to Facebook and Twitter and younger users are discovering Tumblr? Regardless, you need to identify who those folks are and where they are, then get there.
2) Give them what they want. Everyone has expectations for what they want from the people they follow on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, or what have you. Often times those expectations are built by the strengths and weaknesses of the platforms themselves. Very few people follow a Tumblr account to get long posts, like you'd find on a more conventional blog. Pinterest users are there for the photos that link to cool and useful things while Instagrammers are there for the pictures themselves. Tweeters dig short and pithy. Get my point? You can get clues about what people want by where they are and who they follow. Once you know that, give them what they want. Simple, right? You'd be surprised. Read through the Twitter timelines of a few political organizations and see how many folks truly don't get what people want.
3) Listen, listen, listen, talk, listen. Connections forged from conversation are the key to every successful social media account. (tweetable) Even if you're just posting pictures to Pinterest or Instagram, listen to what people there are saying and talk back to them. Let them know you value their time and attention by sharing some of yours with them directly. Conversations don't take up much time, at least not compared to a blizzard of broadcast posts, and they carry a lot of weight later. Listen a lot to what your audience tells you, then talk back with them. Share some of their content to draw them into conversations with others. Feature some of the best conversations on your platform (Look! Free content for you!). Listen a lot and talk "strategically".
We live in an age of wonders, when one person with an internet connection and hustle can reach more people than a giant newspaper company. That doesn't mean, though, that you have to use every tool in the online arsenal. Do online outreach the right way, on the the platforms that are right for you, and you'll get the audience you want without sacrificing an ounce of authenticity. That's a win.
The world of social media is packed to the gills with places you can hang your shingle. You can probably think of a dozen different platforms right now off the top of your head and another half-dozen with just a couple Google searches. Each of those platforms has its strengths and weaknesses and a small horde of people who want you to use them.
Do you want to be a superstar blogger? Do you want your posts read at the highest levels by the rich and powerful? Do you want to drive fast sports cars and elicit squeals of recognition from legions of fans? Do you want to give the keynote speech at CPAC while "Welcome to the Jungle" thunders from the speakers and the assembled conservative world rises to its feet to greet you? Then this post is for you!
If you follow these four easy steps, you too can be a Superstar Blogger!** I have spent almost a decade in the blogosphere and I'm willing to share with you -- yes YOU! -- the secret knowledge, the inner mysteries, the THINGS THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW.***
1) Fact-check ruthlessly. Nothing will kill your credibility faster than being flat-out wrong because you didn't check your facts. (tweetable) If your blog post contains math, check it twice. If you have a fact that seems too good to be true, spend a little extra time and verify it. If that means you have to make a phone call or two, then make the phone call. Get the facts right and what happened with this story won't happen to you. Of course, there's a chance you can post a lot of barely-sourced and speculative junk and folks will forgive you. Plenty of bloggers have built reputations on posting quickly instead of being accurate, but you really don't want to be one of those bloggers. Eventually their stars fade. Quality endures and a good reputation, as a wise man once wrote, is rather to be chosen than great riches. If you can't verify a fact, leave it out.
2) Link often; share relentlessly. Even now in new media, links are valuable currency. Unlike money, though, you can create limitless amounts of link currency (unless you happen to run the Fed, in which case you can create limitless amounts of money, too, eh Ben Bernanke?). If you can link to another blogger, do it. In fact, it's not a bad idea to link to bloggers more than you link to MSM outlets. Why should they get all the traffic? Help your fellow bloggers out. Even if you only get a few readers a day, you'll send a little traffic out and those bloggers will notice. Most of them will return the favor. Links grease the Wheel of Online Karma. Keep it turning in the direction of happiness and goodwill.
3) Push yourself. Did you know you have writing muscles? You do. They exists inside your brain and, like any other muscle, they get stronger with exercise. You won't become a stronger, more versatile writer if you only tackle the subjects you know well with the kind of posts you write well. Creative exercise is good for the brain. If you're not a great long-form essay writer, make a point to write one or two a month. If you aren't strong on economics, learn something new about the subject, then write about it. The stronger a writer you become, the more useful you'll be to your readers and the more folks will want to read your blog.
4) Write killer headlines. Did the title of this post get your attention? I sure hope so. I wrote it to get you here. The average reader (of blogs or newspapers or magazines, they all work the same way in this regard) when confronted with several choices, will always click on the headline that interests them most. Have you seen those "4 Ways Broccoli Can Help You Lose Weight" or "19 Chinchillas that Look Like the 1932 New York Yankees" posts? Very often, they're written from the headline down, meaning the author picks an attention-getting headline (or gets a good idea of a headline) then writes the post. In fact, I used that method to write this post. I had a rough idea of what I wanted in the post but I picked the headline first, then worked the idea to fit into the headline. Sneaky, huh? You can do just what I did (though if you steal this headline, link back to me. Remember your blogging manners!).
*This post won't make you the Greatest Blogger in the World. It will help you be a better blogger, and give you plenty of ways to share your Awesome with the world. All in all, that's not bad.
**Not really. There aren't any shortcuts to becoming a high-quality blogger. The tips in this post will save you some time and they are useful, but they aren't magic. There is no magic to blogging. If there were, I'd be headlining panels at CPAC and driving an Aston-Martin.**** (tweetable)
***Actually, they don't mind if you know. Heck, they'll help teach you if you ask nicely. They're pretty cool like that.
****I'm not. I drive a Mitsubishi.
Do you want to be a superstar blogger? Do you want your posts read at the highest levels by the rich and powerful? Do you want to drive fast sports cars and elicit squeals of recognition from legions of fans?
If you spent any time on Twitter last week, you heard about a movie called Sharknado, a low-budget affair made for the SyFy Network. I wouldn't dare spoil the intricate and gripping plot of the movie but the climax of the picture involves former Beverly Hills 90210 heart-throb Ian Ziering, a giant flying shark, and a chainsaw.
Casablanca it was not.
It was, however, an absolute smash on Twitter, where the tweets flew like, well, sharks from a freak tornado. According to Patrick Ruffini, users of that social media platform mentioned the movie well over 5,000 times a minute. No one expected it. I'm absolutely sure the network didn't plan for that much success. The director of the picture was flabbergasted.
Five. Thousand. A minute. A Game of Thrones territory.
That's the kind of excitement you'd like for your rally or town-hall meeting, right? Right. RIGHT!
Naysayers have pointed out those tweets didn't exactly translate into viewers. Sharknado drew roughly 1.4 million viewers, respectable for one of SyFy's original movies (and more people than watched the return of Derek Jeter to the Yankees' lineup), but certainly not the numbers you would expect from a 5,000 tweets-per-minute event. The obvious lesson here is that Twitter fame does not transfer easily to "the real world", right?
Wrong. Very, very wrong.
As usually happens, the story of TwitterNado needed a couple more days to sit before we saw the real story. Indeed, the Twitter buzz didn't bring viewers flocking (though 1.4 million viewers is nothing to sneeze at), but that's not what social media buzz during an event does. You don't tweet about an event to bring people to the event -- that's what pre-event publicity and marketing does -- but to build a community inside the event. Or, as Moe Lane tweeted after the movie, "[p]eople kept doing it because it's fun to hang with each other online". Community is the best end result of any social media campaign. (Tweetable). Community is what brings people back to you after you've made that one big splash. Community is what brought in latecomers to the party like Kathleen Sebelius, the National Weather Service, and the EPA. Community is what will bring people back to the SyFy network to check out one of their other horribly-goofy original movies.
There's more. The Twitter feeding frenzy gave the network enough confidence to re-air the movie this week -- something I don't believe it's ever done as quickly with its other original movies such as Mansquito, Sharktopus, or Mega Croc vs. Gatoroid (with Debbie Gibson and Tiffany! Giant CGI monsters and 80s pop stars!). As well, the network is in talks with the filmmakers to make a sequel, which I believe is another first for the "original pictures" brand. Let's not forget that dozens of news articles that introduced hundreds of thousands of people to SyFy original movies, The Asylum, Thunder Levin (the writer and yes, that's his real name). Social media made all that happen, for the price of, what, a few in-house commercials and Tweets from the network?
SyFy walked into an accidental cult movie hit that will generate more jobs and more money for more people than anyone ever expected thanks to a humongous social media community that sprang up unplanned and unasked for. Should we ignore the Sharknado-nado as a freak event? I wouldn't if I were you, because there are elements of what SyFy did to prepare for the movie that we can use ourselves. No matter if you're a local activist who wants to get a bit of attention for your petition drive or a candidate who wants to get a little momentum behind you, the Sharknado Effect is something you can try to replicate yourself. I say "try" because the social media storms are as unpredictable as their real-life counterparts, but you can seed the clouds, so to speak, to increase your chances. Here are four things to consider.
1) Make it easy to share. SyFy capped its tweets with the #Sharknado hashtag then let the hashtag go free. If you didn't know about the movie, you at least knew about sharks and tornados. Hopefully, mashing the two together in one odd word would make you wonder what the heck it was all about. I saw plenty of tweets a day or two before the movie aired asking what the heck #Sharknado was. Lots of them who were not regular SyFy viewers took part on Thursday night because #Sharknado was ridiculously easy to share. Had a bad day at work? Blame it on #Sharknado. Weather looking a bit shady this afternoon? Look out for the #Sharknado! Don't like #Sharknado? Come up with your own mashup movie (Blizzaardvark anyone?) and slap the hashtag on it. Sharable. Easy.
2) Make it fun. Folks tweeted about Sharknado because what's not fun about the concept of downtown Los Angeles menaced by a sky full of tornado-flung sharks? People embraced the inherent silliness of the premise, amplified it, spun it into all sorts of silly (and sharable) permutations, and generally went to town. You may not want the enthusiasm for your event to go that far over the top (but maybe you will) and a good chunk of politics is serious business, but serious does not have to mean boring. Find the fun element in what you're doing, or create that element if none exists, and make sure people see it. Fun has a way of pulling people toward it, even if its small.
3) Make it something around which a spontaneous community can form easily. It's tricky to know what will attract people on social media and harder yet to predict exactly what will go "viral" and pull hundreds or thousands tweets a minute. You have a better chance of getting that little viral moment, though, if you give people a "place" around which they can gather friends. A television show, a movie premiere, a short conference, a speech -- all can serve as places around which people can gather for a couple of hours. Put together a hashtag, perhaps have a few people live-tweeting the event, broadcast it if at all possible, and give people a ready place to share what they see with their friends. That's all you can do. The community will form or it won't, but it surely won't form if you don't give it a place to form. But once it does, it'll only hold together for a little while, so watch it while it's there so you can...
4) Follow up. SyFy didn't sit back and bask in the warmth of Sharknado afterglow. Its marketing and programming departments jumped on the success they created over the weekend. They announced a re-broadcast date (Sharknado viewing parties, anyone?) and put out word about the sequel talks. The director and writer jumped on interview opportunities early. Everyone involved knew it was important to tell folks more about who they are and what they are doing while everyone was looking in their direction. When your event goes Full Sharknado, you can be sure the excitement won't last, so don't lose the opportunity to burrow a little bit deeper into peoples' memories with a few well-places news items or interviews.
Now, go forth and create your own Sharknado. But leave Blizzaardvark alone. That's my baby.
If you spent any time on Twitter last week, you heard about a movie called Sharknado, a low-budget affair made for the SyFy Network.
When I started my blog, The Suburban Sundries Shack*, on blogger back in 2004**, there weren't a lot of "how to blog" guides floating around on the internet. Mostly, bloggers swapped e-mails or met up with each other if they lived close by and kicked around stories and ideas about what worked for them and what blew up like Michael Corleone's car in The Godfather. We made mistakes and spent a lot of time as bad bloggers, learning what it took to be good at the craft. My bad blogging years lasted a lot longer than I wanted. In some ways, I'm still a bad blogger because I don't always keep my own advice.
But this isn't one of those "back in my day" posts where I talk about wearing onions on my belt and use words like "dickety".*** I only mention the good old days and my bad blogging to say that over the years I had to learn a few hard lessons that I want to pass on to you in the hopes that you'll avoid some of the really big mistakes I made. After all, what use is learning things if you can't share them, right?
Here are four things that, if I could go back and start my blogging career anew, I'd do differently.
1) Be consistent and transparent. Imagine a television show that aired once a week for a couple months, suddenly jumped to twice a week for a while, then fell back to one new show a month. How long would you stick with that show? I'd wager you'd give up on it somewhere around the second capricious schedule change. We humans are wired to fall into routines (even the crazy, maverick creative types have routines, though often only they know what it is) and we tend to use consistency as a measure of how serious someone is about what they're doing. You want folks to know you are serious about your blog, why else should they spend their precious time with you? The easiest way to show your resolve is to settle into a posting schedule as soon as you are able and stick to it. If you have to change it, let your readers know what thechange will entail and why.
2) Under-promise and over-deliver. Oh goodness how guilty I've been of the sin of promising every crazy cool idea that came to mind only to find out later that what seemed awesome when I wrote it in a blog post was either beyond my ken or simply too crazy to work. I would have been much better off to keep those ideas to myself, or talk them over with a couple trusted friends or family members to bleed off my excitement, then unveil the ones I could bring to fruition. Don't be the blogger who promises a long series and only comes through with one or two posts. Be the one who delivers a pleasant surprise treat.
3) Opinion is fine; support for your opinion is better; action based on both is best. I started blogging because I had things I wanted to say. Chances are, that's why you started your blog, too (or are thinking of starting one). Remember, though, you're competing with approximately one bazillion other people and plenty of them have the same opinions on the issues as you. You can be one of the bazillion or you can distinguish yourself. When you write about the latest administration outrage or about a pending city council vote, go beyond pontification into persuasion. Bring a few links to the game to back up what you say. Show why your opinion ought to be heeded. Once you've done that, end with an action item -- a way for the people you've persuaded to act on the issue.
4) Write about what matters to you. "Oh, come on, Jimmie", I can hear you saying right now. "Is that really necessary? Of course I'll write about what matters to me!" Let me tell you that the pull to write about the hot issue of the day, to jump into the debate du jour in order to draw in more readers is pernicious. I spend most of my blogging career writing posts I really didn't want to write, but felt I had to in order to stay relevant in the blogging community. As a result, my archives are full of banal posts of which I'm not particularly proud. Don't fall into the trap that you must write about a subject because everyone else is. If today's topic isn't your thing, let it be. If it is, then jump into it with both feet and with all the white-hot passion you can muster. That is what will bring readers to your site in droves. Anything else is merely average. Don't be average. Be awesome.
* It went through a name change. Now it's The Sundries Shack. I still live in the suburbs, though, so there's that.
** Insert grainy black and white footage of yours truly slaving over a primitive manual blogging machine.
*** We had to use that word. The Kaiser stole our word "twenty"! I chased him, but gave up after dickety-six miles.
When I started my blog, The Suburban Sundries Shack*, on blogger back in 2004**, there weren't a lot of "how to blog" guides floating around on the internet.
The most earnest desire for any blogger, no matter if they're a big-time political writer on a national website or a lone hobbyist writing about his love for miniature wargaming, is more traffic. Wait, I mean MOAR TRAFFIC! I have to be "pop-culturally relevant" here or you'll all stop reading and I'll be cast into outer darkness, which for us new media folks means a horrid land where no one visits your blog and millenials walk by and laugh at you until you grab your handy cane, shake it furiously, and demand they get of your lawn....err, where was I?
Right. Web traffic. Visitors. Hits. The sweet, sweet manna of the online world. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, like checking your site traffic one afternoon to find a traffic spike soaring upward like the Burj Dubai thanks to a link from Professor Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit. Known also as The Blogfather, because his blogging inspired quite literally dozens if not hundreds to take up the keyboard. Reynolds' blog is one of the most widely-read on the Internet. A link from him, also called an Instalanche or 'Lanche' if you want to sound cool, can crash a website. I know because he's crashed mine a couple times.
In short, attention from Professor Reynolds is something you want. Thousands of bloggers every day write in the hopes of seeing that glorious traffic spike. Reynolds gets e-mail and Twitter tips like Clifford the Big Red Feral Dog gets fleas. But how do you catch his eye? Let's start with what you don't want to do. You don't email him a link to every blog post you write. You don't hector him on Twitter with links. You don't fire off an email more emo than a Sad Panda owned by Morrissey and Lydia Deetz. The last thing you want is to be the blogging version of the Overly Attached Girlfriend.
Two notes before I go on. These tips aren't exclusive to Professor Reynolds. They work on just about every blogger on the planet, but you can substitute the name of your favorite writer as you wish. Also, these tips will take time to develop. Blogging is not the pursuit for someone who wants immediate gratification, at least at the beginning. Getting the attention of someone who hears from hundreds of people a day takes calm persistence.
Do Your Homework. Every blogger who writes mostly about politics has interests that have nothing to do with politics about which they'll write once in a while. Glenn Reynolds loves science stories (especially stories about future tech), Ed Driscoll of Pajamas Media is a movie and music history aficionado, Ed Morrissey of HotAir is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Duane Lester of the Missouri Torch is (like me) a social media buff and a videographer. If you pay attention to what a blogger writes, you can learn what a blogger likes, which means you'll also learn what a blogger is more likely to link and share with their readers.
It's also just polite to learn a bit about someone before you ask them to do you a solid, isn't it? Good manners get links, and if you can show a blogger like Professor Reynolds that you've paid attention to the work he does and send him something that works with what he's already doing, he'll be a lot more inclined to link to you.
So first, read, then...
Share without Expectations. Once you know what that blogger from whom you want links likes and what their style is, send them interesting links now and again. Note I didn't say to send them your interesting links. Send them interesting stories and articles, along with a little note like, "I saw your post yesterday on [X] and thought you would enjoy this article I found on [some aspect of X]." Don't wait for a return reply -- you may or may not get one -- but share because you think they'll like what you found.
Bloggers notice when someone is being useful to them without asking anything in return. That sort of behavior stands out in an email box stuffed full of pitches from consultants, PR firms, press offices, and other bloggers hawking their latest posts. The person who gives without asking anything in return is, sadly, an aberration these days. It may take time, but you will be noticed. Then you can send the occasional link request with the confidence it won't be treated like spam.
Serve Only the Best. Over the years, I've gotten e-mails from bloggers who had the nasty habit of sending me a link to every post they wrote. Do you know where those emails ended up? Yup, that's right. I sent them right to my spam filter and now I don't see them anymore. Not every post you write will be a gem and you should resist the urge to send more than one link request a day. I'd even suggest that one a day is too much.
When you share your work, share the very best you have, the post you polished until it gleamed, the one that took hours of research. Give the Professor (or Malkin, Jim Geraghty or Greg Pollowitz) your very best work. Impress them. Give them reason to believe that when you do recommend one of your posts to them, it'll be something they can share with confidence and pride. Believe me, bloggers take pride in the posts they link; their reputations are on the line. If they share junk, they'll lose readers. Give them your best and they'll be far more likely to link you more often than they won't.
Mind Your Manners. So you've done your homework, shared good stuff, served up your best, and BOOM! Instalanche! What do you do now? Of course, you do a victory dance, catch a screen shot of your web traffic so you can show all your friends, and call your parents/spouse/best friend/blogging buddy. But after that? Send a "thank you" e-mail (Tweets work just fine, too). Keep it short and sweet, but don't forget to do it. You spent all that time establishing yourself as considerate and attentive, it wouldn't do to blow it with a touch of ingratitude. Who knows? They might just answer your note with a note of their own. Next thing you know, you'll be in an e-mail conversation and you might just make a new and fine friend.
There is no guaranteed method to get an Instalanche (or Twitchalanche or FreedomWorkalanche), but the four steps I just outlined will make it a lot more likely you'll stand out among the crowd in the way you want. There's a verse in the Book of Proverbs that says, "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold." If you establish a good name among bloggers like Professor Reynolds, not only will the links come, but you'll have respect, which is far more valuable.
(Photo Credit: Screenshot of an actual Instalanche by Lance Burri)
The most earnest desire for any blogger, no matter if they're a big-time political writer on a national website or a lone hobbyist writing about his love for miniature wargaming, is more traffic. Wait, I mean MOAR TRAFFIC!
When I started my blog 9 years ago, I knew I would have a bit of a learning curve. Even though I started on Blogspot, I knew exactly nothing about PHP, CSS, Akismet, trackbacks, outlinks, Google juice (what the cool kids now call SEO), landing pages, and all the other things that have nothing at all to do with writing but with which a blogger has to contend if he wants to get more readers than the average episode of "So You Want to be an MSNBC Host".
Blogging is a bit easier these days. Free platforms like Blogger and Wordpress do much of the hard work for you (and for free), but keeping a blog with fresh content and an appealing design still takes more time than most of us have. We're all busy, right? We have family obligations, work, church, hobbies, friends, pets, a second job because the Obama economy has been such a smashing success, the occasional long detour to shake the NSA surveillance van because we accidentally typed "tea party" in an e-mail about grocery shopping…you get the idea. Lots of stuff to do and little time to do it so forget trying to keep up a blog full-time.
Still, blogging is a valuable tool for any activist, whether you work on the national level or inside your own neighborhood. Fortunately, there are a few ways to blog without having to maintain your own site. Each of them work in different ways, so you may want to take a look at a couple or three of them to see which of them suits your style and gives you the tools you want to reach the people you want.
1) Tumblr. I bet you thought Tumblr was just for animated gifs, sexy Paul Ryan pictures, and shots of a certain politician judging you. Nope. Tumblr is a powerful and versatile platform that can handle not only a quick re-blog of a picture or quote but also a full-blown blog posts with links and pictures and all. Take a look at how Pejman Yousefzadeh uses Tumblr as a link "outpost". He links to his own blog posts, but you can link to other posts you find interesting or useful and add your own commentary. Just pick a template (most of them free, some of them for sale for as little as $5), set up the links to your social media accounts and go!
2) Storify. This platform is a little trickier to use, but if you are active in a couple different social media areas (let's say Twitter and Facebook), Storify could be the most useful platform you've ever seen. Here's how it works: you create stories by dragging links -- individual tweets, links to Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, web links, etc. -- into a story. Storify then arranges them in the order you choose, so you can create a chronology, collect a "Twitter rant", or aggregate a bunch of reporting on one story into one place. Take a look at my Storify page to see a couple different things you can do, then go on to see what others have done there. Several major news services use Storify to collect stories on a particular event like a natural disaster or other big story. You can do the same thing. The bonus here is that Storify publishes easily to both Twitter and Facebook so you can share your story with everyone as soon as you hit the "publish" button.
3) User blogs at "community" web sites. If you want to write standard blog posts (that is, a couple paragraphs with plenty of links and block quotes), you can do that at a "community blog" like Red State or Ricochet or even at FreedomWorks' hosted community site, Freedom Connector.
The upside to such a blog is that you don't have to worry about maintaining anything and you can build an audience inside a community with which you're already familiar. As well, many sites will promote member posts to the front page if the administrators think the post is particularly good. The downside is that some membership sites only let other members view member posts (such as Ricochet, which requires a membership fee) and a more popular site can get so busy your post can get lost in the shuffle. Still, these sites are great places for you to learn what makes for a "promotable" post and give you a stable place where you can work out your writing style.
4) Guest posting. Do you have a blogger friend or family member? You may just have a place to write once in a while. I'll let you in on a little secret about bloggers; we're often on the lookout for new content for our blog, especially content that comes to us already written, with links, proofread, and polished to a brilliant shine. If you have something that fits into the style of our blog and we can pretty much put it right up on the site, chances are we'll do just that. This isn't necessarily an option for everyday or even once a week blogging, but if you only write once every couple of weeks or once a month, reaching out to other bloggers might be a good option for you. Actually, if you know a couple bloggers and they're amenable to publishing your posts, you may be able to alternate posts with them, one on one week and one on another. In time, you may even end up as a co-blogger on their site -- bonus!
There you have them; four ways you can blog without starting a blog of your own! As with anything in new media, you should experiment to see which, if any, work for you. Once you do start something, drop me a line on Twitter. I'd be more than happy to share your new venture into new media.
(Photo Credit: Kristina B on Flickr)
When I started my blog 9 years ago, I knew I would have a bit of a learning curve.
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