Tuesday, April 26, 2005

So you wanna start a blog?

Okay. You're a nonprofit decision-maker.You've read the what's-a-blog articles (1,2, 3, 4). You saw the cover of this week's Business Week. And now you've decided to take the plunge. What are your next steps?

  1. Choose your tool.
    Are you wavering in your commitment and love of the form? Not sure if it'll work for your organization? You want this to be in "beta"? Beta like it might not work. Like you might decide not to go forward with it. Then blogger is the tool for you. Even the hosting can be free. And it's stable. Google owns it and they're not going away.

    You feel more sure? You know that you want to do this and you've assigned someone to keep the blog up-to-date but you don't want to invest heavily in a technology infrastructure? Go Typepad. Typepad provides a few more options -- notably trackbacks and categories -- that adds to the managability and conversationality of your blog.

    Feel strongly that you want this on your own servers? You want to be able to build and customize as you see fit? Two good options for you, both open source: WordPress or drupal, specifically the CivicSpace fork. WordPress can give be a good light-weight Content Management System. Drupal/CivicSpace is a big box of legos but gives you a powerful tool for organizing your website. I don't recommend either of these options if you don't have good, confident technology assistance (though, volunteers can be had).

  2. Name your weblog.
    Don't spend too much time on this but do spend some. Give it a name that you like, that fits somehow with your organization. You also have the opportunity to provide a description. Think of this like a title and a subtitle. Don't call it "My Blog" or something else similarly vague. I've named my own blog after my phone extension -- it's mine but still linked to my job. The name you choose for your weblog can help your position in Google (I haven't done a very good job of this). Including a word or phrase that you'd like to own -- something that, when plugged into Google, returns your site -- can be a good idea but don't get too artificial or too long.

  3. Turn on RSS.
    Don't worry about what it stands for. Don't even worry about what it is. Okay, worry a little bit. It stands for Really Simple Syndication. And you will need to use it. But don't worry about what it is technically. When you are setting up your weblog, one of the options will be to set up a web feed. This may also be referred to as a subscription option. Make it available. All you need to do is check the box and -- automagically! -- the weblog software will generate an additional page of code based on your weblog which will allow people to use third party aggregators to subscribe to your site.

    When you do this, you will be presented with some options for your subscription. The wording will vary but typically these options are: headlines, headlines plus a few words, or the full posting. This refers to the content that people will receive in their aggregator. Only want them to know what you titled your post? Choose headline. Want them to get the first little bit of text or a few descriptive sentences that you provide? Choose the second option. Or do you want them to get all of your posted goodness straight into their aggregator? Choose the third.

    I say: pick the third. Yes, I know. The first two force people to click-thru to your site. There, not only will they get your posted words of wisdom, they will also have the chance to prowl around. Heck, they may even decide to give you some money. Except you better be really good at writing those headlines because they may not decide to click. They may not link to you because they don't have enough information. They may even be using RSS to read weblogs while offline. In which case, they need to like what you gave them enough to fire up their computer later, when connected, and go back to your headline, click and see what's on your site.

  4. Permalinks, permalinks, permalinks.
    Permalinks are built into the weblog software that I recommend above. In fact, you'd have to make a bigger effort to turn then off then to use them. Essentially, these provide an individual URL for each post. They keep people from having to say, when forwarding your weblog URL, Okay, go to this page and then scroll down. Under the picture of the yak. It's the third headline. Permalinks give an individual URL to a chunk of your content. Folks can forward this and link to it as they desire.

  5. Make it easy for people to share your content.
    Okay. This is really just reinforcing the last two points. Full-feed RSS and permalinks make it very easy to share your content. People can email it, they can link to it. They can save it. They can even reprint parts of it. None of this is bad. It's allowing the power of the web to work in your favor.

  6. Link.
    Don't be afraid of links. Include them -- link to other organizations, weblogs, news articles -- in your weblog posts. Sure, some people will click on the first one and never come back. For other readers, though, you are providing a valuable service by pointing them to important information in your area of expertise. They may leave, but they'll come back. And they will come back because you will become a source of information for them.

    But linking isn't just about providing a clipping service for your readers. It's also about sharing your wealth -- readers and web real estate -- with others. This sharing can increase their readership and some of those folks will share right back.

  7. Read your referrer logs.
    Website metrics are a tricky business (even more so for weblogs where, I'd argue, some of the traditional notions of stickiness don't apply and where RSS can obscure the number of viewers). I'm not talking about knowing how many people hit your site today, though that can be seductive. I'm talking about knowing who is linking to you. If you can't get at a referrer log easily, add a counter to the bottom of your site.

    I recommend Site Meter and Stat Counter. Both are free. Both can be displayed in various ways and are very easy to insert into a page. And both will provide information on where your web traffic is coming from. Click through. Look at the pages.

  8. Comment on other weblogs.
    You can comment on other weblogs in two ways: on their site and yours. Both have value.

    Comment on their site when you are really just adding a little bit to their post. When you want to say, Hey, I found this interesting and here's a little tidbit that I can add to that. You bring value to their site but you also show them that you are paying attention. And that you are willing to contribute to the web wide conversation -- not just the conversation happening on your own weblog.

    Comment on your site if you have something really substantial to say and you think that it would be of benefit to your audience. If someone else's posts or thoughts are really just a jumping off place for you, make a post to your own site being certain to link to the site provided the catalyst. Not only does this give your readers a fuller sense of where you are coming from, it creates the links necessary for a wider conversation.

  9. Use trackback if your software supports it.
    Trackback provides a mechanism for others to -- automagically! -- alert and update your site when they make a post based on one of yours. This will show up in your referrer logs.

  10. Turn on your own comments..
    Let it be anonymous or not. Moderated or don't. But give people a chance to chime in. Just like your comments add value to their website, their comments add value to yours. And be prepared for people to disagree with you, to ask you for things, to express their opinions. That means you've hit something in them and it's not bad.

    Delete the profane and spam as you will but leave everything else. If someone is harsh or rude, others will recognize it and they will recognize you for allowing conversations to take place rather than just accepting me-too comments.

  11. Archives.
    This implies that you are posting. Obvious? Maybe. But you've got to do it. Don't wait until you've perfected and polished that 1,000 word treatise. Post early and often. A little link will do you. Show up, on your weblog, every day. Ask for thoughts and then respond. Pay attention, both to your corner and the weblog world in general.

    Archives, by month, provide a history. As such, they develop your credibility and show your investment.

[I just put this post up in ConsultantCommons.org. I made it available in book form which means you can edit it. As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome]
(in: blog, npech)