Should You Blog? (yes, and here’s how …)

Posted on Mar 8, 2010 | 111 comments


Summary notes and then I’ll extend:

Should you blog? Yes.  As Brian Solis is fond of saying, “PR stands for public relations, not press release.”  That’s right.  In the era of two-way communications people expect an authentic voice and not the Wizard of Oz pulling levels behind the curtains.  Blogging is an important way to build an audience and also drive SEO traffic.  It’s also a great way to build relationships with people interested in your topic area.

What should you blog about? Define your customers, partners and other relevant people to your organization (e.g. analysts, journalists, potential employees) and blog about what you want to communication with them.  Don’t blog about what you think would be “cool.”  I don’t think that most startup blogs should be about how to build a startup.  That’s blogging to the echo chamber unless they’re your target customers.  And if they are I suggest your revenue stream is likely to look a bit skinny.  If you’re a financial services firm blog about personal finance.

How to find your “voice”? Be authentic.  Don’t try to sound too smart or too funny.  Just be yourself.  People will see who you are in your words.  If you try to make everything too perfect you’ll never hit publish.  If you try to sound too intelligent you’ll likely be boring as shite.  Most blogs are.  Be open and transparent.  Get inside your reader’s minds.  Try to think about what they would want to know from you.  In fact, ask them!  Don’t be offensive – it’s never worth it to offend great masses of people.  But that doesn’t mean sitting on the fence.  I have a point of view and I’m sure sometimes it rankles.  But I try to be respectful about it.  Sitting on the fence on all issues is also pretty boring.  But unless you’re a political or religious blog stay out of all the stuff that you were taught not to talk about at cocktail parties.  And don’t blog drunk.  Mostly, have fun.  If you can’t do that you won’t last very long.

OK, that’s my summary and I don’t want to violate my terms with the people at Mashable who were very generous with me so I’m now into new territory.  But if you like this topic please consider reading the Mashable article.  I put much time into it.

The new stuff:

How do I get started? First, you’ll need a platform.  I use WordPress and am very happy.  In this genre there is also Typepad although I find less people using it these days.  Blogger kinda sucks IMHO.  There are the new tools like Tumblr and Posterous.  I’ve played with both and they’re pretty cool.  They’re more light weight, easier to use and more social.  But for my “professional” blog I’m quite happy with WordPress for now.  Then you need to decide whether to use the “hosted” version or the “installed” version.  At least that’s true in WordPress.  The advantage of the hosted version is that it’s easier to get started.  The disadvantage is that you can’t install a lot of additional tools that use Javascript.  Actually, that’s kind of lame.  I started with the hosted version and then migrated to an installed version so I could use Google Analytics and some other products.

You then need a URL.  It’s true you can be msuster.typepad.com or similar ut that’s kind of lame so I wouldn’t recommend it.  Just get a real URL.  I think it’s important to think about what image you want to portray when you pick your URL name.  It doesn’t need to be short.  You’re not trying to build a consumer website like Mint.com.  My website is a pretty long URL but people manage to find it.  Much of my traffic is through referring websites and/or social media. Some search.  But I chose the URL of the brand that I want to portray.  Both Sides of the Table.  I was an entrepreneur.  Now I’m a VC.  Not rocket science.  What are you trying to convey?  What will be your unique positioning?  Don’t just write a carbon copy of what somebody else is doing.  That’s boring.

So I wrote a post, now what? OK, well, actually the first thing I did is come up with a list of 50 posts that I wanted to write.  I planned it out a bit.  I didn’t want to run out of things to write about in the first 6 months.  So I created a “series” that I could talk about in a theme.  My first series was the slides that go into a PowerPoint presentation.  Since there are 10-12 slides this gave me my first few weeks.  Don’t blow your load on your first post.  Slice it up enough to do many posts.  I think most blogs are between 600-1000 words / post.  I’m long winded – usually 2,000 words.  I know.  I know.  Once you’re written a few posts don’t try to make the flood gates open at once.  Slowly build your audience.  Make it organic.  If you write good content and consistently you’ll build an audience over time.  I’m now at about 70k monthly uniques put the growth has been gradual over the past 9 months – not one great spurt.

How do I build an audience? So you have a few posts live and want some readers.  The obvious starting point is to email a few friends and let them know you have a new blog.  Don’t be overbearing – just an email saying, wanted to let you know about my new blog.  I also recommend you put it under your email signature in a color other than black.  You also should have it be what your Twitter page links to.

Every time I write a post I send it out on Twitter.  I try to send out the Twitter link when more people are online.  I currently do this using CoTweet, which allows me to schedule when the Tweet goes out.  I’ll frequently send two Tweets – one in the morning and one in the evening.  Not everybody sees the first one.  I try to vary the copy sometimes so that it isn’t boring if somebody sees it twice.  Make sure your blog has Tweetmeme or similar.  This means if somebody likes your post and wants to Retweet it they can by simply clicking a button.  To add a post to Facebook button I use a tool called fbShare.me.  You can also sign up for Tweetpost to have your Twitter account automatically update Twitter.  Also, make sure to sign up with Feedburner.  That way people who want to get your blog by RSS and/or email can do so. Make sure your blog also has a Follow Me on Twitter button so people who find you can easily follow you.

The great thing is that the more compelling content you write the more people Retweet you, which drive more traffic to your blog.  Twitter is, after all, about link sharing.  The more they go to your blog and like it, the more will follow you on Twitter.  As you build up that following you have more people to drive to your blog going forward.  Virtuous circle.  That’s the basics.  I’ll write about some more advanced “hacks” at the end of the post.

How much time will it take? If you plan out what you want to write about in advance then it’s really about writing.  I tend to write an outline before I write the actual post so that my writing will have some structure.  I write for about 45 minutes to an hour in the first pass.  I usually then re-read, edit, spell check and add links.  This usually takes another 20-30 minutes.  I then always add an image.  I think this is a nice touch.  Just staring at text is a bit boring and I find that the image can add humor and/or drive people in.  I used to add 2-3 images but that proved too time consuming.

I get most of my images from iStockPhoto.  There are placed to get free images but I don’t like to deal with the creative commons wording and linking and potential that I got it wrong.  I’m fine paying $1-2 / picture.  I know the free option would work well so if you’re on a budget go down that road.  I’ve often thought about trying to crowd-source a copy editor.  I think I would improve my posts if somebody could edit them and make them shorter.  For now, I hope it’s good enough.

Then there’s comments.  You HAVE TO respond to comments.  First, it’s the most fun part of blogging.  It’s addicting like Twitter.  It’s where you exchange ideas with other people.  It’s where your community gets to know you.  It’s where you build loyalty and relationships.  I have met many people in person who were first commenters on my blog.  I find it frustrating if I leave comments on somebody’s blog and they never respond.  I don’t expect responses to each and every comment but there should be some interaction.  Unless, of course, I’m posting comments on a blog like TechCrunch or the Washington Post.  But I remember in the early days Michael Arrington used to respond to comments on his blog a lot.

I’m very particular to Disqus as my commenting platform.  I like the interactivity and ability to have nested responses.  I like being able to have authenticated responders and images.  It helps to get to know people better.  Native commenting systems mostly suck.  Use Disqus.

How frequently should I write? Tough question.  I’m going to assume that like me you have a day job.  If you’re a full time blogger and reading this then you need to go get a real book on how to blog.  This is directed at part time people who are building a blog to support their real business.  I think you should commit to one post per week.  I recommend writing 8-10 before you get started so that you have a backlog in case you get busy.  Sometimes I write 4 or 5 on a weekend when I get time so that I have them for weeks where I’m busy.  One time I set my alarm for 5am and blasted through 12 posts in two mornings and I had fodder for weeks.  That was my “Entrepreneurial DNA” series.  I wrote it on two mornings during Thanksgiving holiday.  Then later I just added images and edited.  Right now I’m writing about 3-4 times / week.  I can’t commit to every day like some bloggers.  And I reserve the right to drop back to 1-2 posts some weeks if I feel busy or burned out.  But my personal SLA right now is once / week minimum.

FWIW, It’s 11:41PM right now.  I wrote this post at about 6:30PM.  I’m editing in bed.  Probably shouldn’t be.  I’m sure if I bought my WakeMate already they’d be telling me not to!

How can I track my performance? First, most blogging tools have analytics built in.  Wordpress does.  Then you can install Google Analytics to your website.  This will give you more realistic stats.  When you Tweet you should use a URL shortener tied to an analytics platform.  The most common is Bit.ly.  I use awe.sm.  Awe.sm allows me to track more granular details about my campaigns than I can currently on Bit.ly and it’s where I got my custom URL’s grp.vc and bothsid.es.  You can also track how many people sign up on Feedburner.  I try not to obsess too much about the ins-and-outs of daily or weekly performance.  I just want to know that I’m building up a slow and steady audience. It’s a marathon and not a sprint.

Appendix: Traffic Hacks:

  • Commenting on other blogs – you need to comment on other people’s blogs.  First, it is a place where your comment will often link back to your blog (such as on TechCrunch) where it can drive traffic.  Occasionally, and not overtly, and only if relevant you can provide a comment with a link back to an article in your blog.  Don’t do this often, don’t be blatant and make sure it’s relevant.
  • Linking to other blogs – For example, many people know that I love VentureHacks because it’s a great resource for entrepreneurs and I finally met Babak Nivi (aka Nivi).  Notice I’ve linked to his website.  If he tracks his blog (which I’m sure he does) he’ll see this link.  If he has a Google Alert on his name (everyone does) then he’ll also get that.  Don’t stalk people and link all the time.  If you do link make it relevant.  Don’t be over the top gushing and creepy.  Be subtle.  Link to different blogs.  Don’t overtly tell everyone you link to, “I linked to you, check out my article!”  Assume that over time if you write compelling content they’ll eventually check you out.  I do notice when people link to me or write about stuff I’ve written about.  I try to check out most of them.  Sometimes I get busy.  Every few I try to stop by and leave a comment so that they’ll know I’ve been there and I appreciate the coverage.  Sometimes I just read the blog and file it away in memory to check out another time.
  • Covering relevant people in your blog in an authentic way – If your blog covers topics in your industry it’s likely that you’ll be able to write about some people and companies that you want to be aware of your blog.  Yesterday I wrote about Plancast.  I love their product.  I don’t have any reason to drive Mark Hendrickson to my blog but using him as an example, writing a story about Plancast would make it more likely that the founder would find his way to my blog.  I chose not to write about companies for a long time on my blog.  My strategy was to keep it advice based for the first 6 months so I never really employed this as a strategy to drive traffic.  But I know it works.
  • Tweet support - What I DID do in the early days is enlist Tweet support.  I would occasionally ask people that I was close with to retweet my posts.  I tried to mix it up in order to not ask the same people often.  I would send out emails with the Tweet text already written so that they just had to cut-and-paste.  As my blog started getting authentic traffic I stopped asking for this help.
  • Guest authoring – Once you have a bit of credibility as a writer a great strategy to drive traffic is to write guest posts for relevant bloggers in your sphere of influence.   If you run BakeSpace and blog about food why not contact some of the local food blogs and see whether you could submit guest articles.  Most people are delighted to have the free content.  In return all you ask for are links back to your blog and to your Twitter account.  Slowly and surely these will add users, of which some will come back on a regular basis.

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSHall Brian S Hall

    Solid, informative article on the how and why of blogging. I will recommend this.
    Thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Michael, I don't know the specifics but my point of view is … it's always great to get your name out there – especially if they'll give you links back. I've given my feed to any reputable person who asks. So for it's Cloud Ave, Silicon Angle and Silicon Alley Insider. This syndication has served me well.

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSHall Brian S Hall

    Solid, informative article on the how and why of blogging. I will recommend this.
    Thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Michael, I don't know the specifics but my point of view is … it's always great to get your name out there – especially if they'll give you links back. I've given my feed to any reputable person who asks. So for it's Cloud Ave, Silicon Angle and Silicon Alley Insider. This syndication has served me well.

  • http://twitter.com/nowlink Kyle Nowlin

    I'm a new reader/follower and I'm so glad I was recommended your blog by a good friend. This is an exceptional post!!! I've just recently started a (small) blog about the Startup Community in Cleveland, OH (http://www.clevelandstartup.com) and have used video a couple times. The feedback has been great. I do need to read and re-read your suggestions here to ensure I'm putting my best foot forward. Looking forward to reading more. Thank you for putting this stuff out there!!!

  • http://twitter.com/nowlink Kyle Nowlin

    I'm a new reader/follower and I'm so glad I was recommended your blog by a good friend. This is an exceptional post!!! I've just recently started a (small) blog about the Startup Community in Cleveland, OH (http://www.clevelandstartup.com) and have used video a couple times. The feedback has been great. I do need to read and re-read your suggestions here to ensure I'm putting my best foot forward. Looking forward to reading more. Thank you for putting this stuff out there!!!

  • teslaman2003

    Great article Mark! I think your advice is relevant even for a personal blog.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Good post. About Blogger.

    I like “minimalist” blogs without lots of icons, widgets, and other clutter. Your blog is a good example of this. In Blogger, it is possible to create a style like that by tweaking the available templates (taking out dominant colors, etc.) and taking it easy on what you put in the side bar.

    Google has not really invested in the platform, but something might be coming up. I get hassled all the time to migrate my family blog (still posted using FTP since I started it 4 years ago), because of some major changes to the Blogger platform. I am hoping for the best, because a cutting edge blogging platform should be a corner stone of Google's product offering.

  • Donelle Gan

    Great article Mark! I think your advice is relevant even for a personal blog.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Good post. About Blogger.

    I like “minimalist” blogs without lots of icons, widgets, and other clutter. Your blog is a good example of this. In Blogger, it is possible to create a style like that by tweaking the available templates (taking out dominant colors, etc.) and taking it easy on what you put in the side bar.

    Google has not really invested in the platform, but something might be coming up. I get hassled all the time to migrate my family blog (still posted using FTP since I started it 4 years ago), because of some major changes to the Blogger platform. I am hoping for the best, because a cutting edge blogging platform should be a corner stone of Google's product offering.

  • sferguson

    Super helpful post, but hope you can help with a delayed followup question: how do you recommend company blogs balance product-related updates for users with building a broader audience by posting about topics related to their industry? To use your financial services example, a personal finance startup should be blogging about personal finance topics, but is it ok to mix those with feature updates, iPhone app launches etc? I know some companies who split the product and industry posts into 2 streams, but that seems awkward to me? Any advice appreciated!

  • http://blog.silentale.com/ Shannon Ferguson

    Super helpful post, but hope you can help with a delayed followup question: how do you recommend company blogs balance product-related updates for users with building a broader audience by posting about topics related to their industry? To use your financial services example, a personal finance startup should be blogging about personal finance topics, but is it ok to mix those with feature updates, iPhone app launches etc? I know some companies who split the product and industry posts into 2 streams, but that seems awkward to me? Any advice appreciated!

  • http://blog.silentale.com/ Shannon Ferguson

    Super helpful post, but hope you can help with a delayed followup question: how do you recommend company blogs balance product-related updates for users with building a broader audience by posting about topics related to their industry? To use your financial services example, a personal finance startup should be blogging about personal finance topics, but is it ok to mix those with feature updates, iPhone app launches etc? I know some companies who split the product and industry posts into 2 streams, but that seems awkward to me? Any advice appreciated!

  • Sriram

    i have started blogging just now, i am a part time blogger and after reading this i feel i am in the correct path. i felt this article was like a eye opener for me..

  • http://www.samueljohns.com/ Samuel Johns

    Great post with some great tips to really take on board for the part time blogger. Just this past weekend I relaunched my personal site with a plan to start blogging again. This has given me a few tips to consider on top of my previous lame attempt.

    What are you thoughts on having the blog Url be a vanity url using personal name versus creating a unique name around the focus of the blog?

    Currently I use my personal name with a tag line on the page.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/annmariastat annmariastat

    I think an OCCASIONAL off-topic post is fine. Most of my blog is about statistics and statistical software but, as I own a small consulting company some of my posts are about running a small business.

  • http://www.mireportaje.com Fotos

    Thanks for the post, it let me o step back and evaluate what I am doing on my blogs. Somehow, I am writing 3 now so staying true to me is important, otherwise I have to make sure I use a different “voice” on each one, which would be hard. I love CoTweet too, some people say that timing tweets defeats the purpose of Twitter, but I agree with you on this subject.