When I shared the news that I’ve given my blog a makeover, it led to a short conversation with Barbara, one of my LinkedIn connections. I asked if she has a blog and she replied, “No, but I’d love to start one for Emergency Management and Public Safety issues.” Well, I happen to be hunkered down in New York City while we wait to see if the forecast blizzard turns out to be the apocalypse they’re forecasting, so I’m going to use my time to share some suggestions for new bloggers.
If it seems like everyone and his brother already has a blog, it may be close; but there are a few who still haven’t joined the party. There’s still room!
I started blogging on a whim–and my goal wasn’t really to have a blog of my own but to help a writer friend start a blog of her own. As I played around with it, I got interested in building a better blog of my own. Most of what I know is self-taught, learned by experimentation and looking at what other bloggers do. In retrospect, that’s a very good way to do it–the online world changes so frequently that any print book you may find on blogging will be slightly out of date. (Though having a print reference at hand might be helpful at first, so if it works for you go ahead–just remember that what you find on your new blogging platform might be a little different than what’s in the book.)
You have a few decisions to make as your start your first blog:
- What topic(s) do you want to blog about? This is probably the most important decision you’ll make, but don’t let that scare you off–especially if it’s a personal blog you can cover a range of subjects and tweak it as you go along.
- What kind of medium do you want to focus on? Early blogs (from “web logs”) were exclusively text-based, but with more sophisticated platforms you can now use photographs, illustrations, videos, or podcasts.
- Choose a blogging platform. This is the host site where your blog will live online. For a company blog, you’d want a URL of your own; but if you’re starting out with a personal blog there are two excellent host sites where you can blog for free, Blogger and WordPress. I’ve used both and can recommend them.
What do you know well? It might be your profession or an avocation, but I’m willing to bet there’s something you know better than most people. Maybe there’s some topic for which your friends call on you when they have a question.
Perhaps it’s something you’re still learning yourself. In her LinkedIn updates I see that Barbara is taking emergency management classes with the American Red Cross and other organizations, so she has a lot to share about that. If you’re a college student you might want to blog about your major, sharing with your readers as you learn and discovering fellow bloggers who share your interest. When I worked in the Career Services department of a college, we recommended that all Digital Media Arts majors have an online portfolio of their work. And if I were majoring in English now, I’d have a blog to share some of my writing. Which brings me to one of the best reasons to have a personal blog: it’s a great way to show prospective employers what you know.
A Practical Tip: As you think about what topic(s) you want to cover in your blog, make a list of possible tags you’d use. Tags are not absolutely necessary but they are a useful way to help your readers navigate your posts and find information useful or interesting to them.
Once you have a topic you can decide on a name for your blog. Some people use their name in the URL and then create a blog name to appear on the banner at the top of the page, or you can use the blog’s name in the URL.
Choose a (Primary) Medium
Do you have an itch to be a writer? Or do you have a collection of digital photographs or video that you want to share? Perhaps, in an earlier age, you’d be broadcasting from an underground radio station. In addition to written blogs (like mine) you can create a blog that uses photos, video, podcasts, graphs, illustrations… Whatever you can create and post online can be fodder for your blog.
As you browse the web you’ll notice that most blogs and websites use more than one media. I have a BA in English and am comfortable with writing, but I also use photos taken with my tablet computer and am experimenting with Google Draw.
No matter what media you choose, you’ll need a little written content–captions for your photos, short descriptions of the audio and video content you embed or link to–but don’t panic. Readers aren’t looking for deathless prose, just simple language to guide them. And you can probably find a friend who is willing to proofread for you if you need it. (Consider swapping favors with someone who has a different skill set–one of you might be a writer, the other a graphic designer.)
Choose a Blogging Platform
If you’re a programmer or graphic designer, you may want to display your tech skills by building a website from scratch. For the rest of us, there’s WordPress and Blogger. Both allow you to sign up for a free account, which will give you a URL like https://circleofignorance.wordpress.com (my URL before I ponied up a small fee for a custom one). Both platforms are considered respectable enough for personal use and you’ll be able to jump right in and start blogging without a steep learning curve.
Blogger has a reputation for being easier than WordPress, but I’ve learned both and if you are reasonably tech savvy either should be fine. As with other sophisticated software (Microsoft Office, Open Office, and desktop publishing), there are many functions available but you can get started with a few essential tools and learn the rest when (and if) you need them.
The best way to choose is probably to browse several blogs you like and see if there’s one that stands out as a favorite.
So you’ve chosen a blogging platform, a name for your blog, and you’ve signed up. You probably have a list of topics, and maybe a few specific ideas for posts. You’re almost there, but take a little more time to do this right.
Both WordPress and Blogger allow you to choose from a variety of ready-made themes. It’s a matter of personal taste, but I recommend a theme with plenty of white space so it’s easy to read, but one sidebar that you’ll use for widgets. Some themes allow you to put a photo or graphic at the top of the first page, while others use a text-only title at the top. All of this is up to you and again the best way to decide is to look at other blogs and get a feel for what you like. Then browse the available themes on your chosen platform.
Write an “About” page for yourself. This is a common feature on both blogs and websites to tell your readers about the person or company who maintains the site. A couple of paragraphs should be enough; it is not a full resume, nor a dating site profile, so keep it short and simple. (If you want to use your blog to find a job or a date, put in a link to your LinkedIn or dating profile.) You will probably want to include some of your social network accounts, like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. so readers can connect with you elsewhere on the Internet.
Write a few posts and have a list of ideas for more. When I started each of my blogs I published four posts right away. A blog with only one or two posts looks kind of sad! Readers who find you may want to explore a little and you want them to find something interesting. And having a few more ideas in draft or outline form will get you off to a flying start, and will help you choose tags to use for your posts.
Install a few simple widgets from the administrator dashboard. Tag cloud is a good one, along with an archive list (probably by month) or a short list of popular posts. These are good ways to help visitors navigate your blog and find posts that interest them. If you’re an active Twitter user, try the widget that scrolls recent tweets from your account in the sidebar.
WordPress has a widget called Publicize that automatically sends status updates to select social media accounts whenever you publish a post. I’ve been using it and it makes getting the word out very easy. (But you’ll still want to manually post share links.)
Interacting with Your Audience
One of the coolest things about blogging is the opportunity to interact with your readers though comments. The downside, of course, is spam. I recommend turning on comments with a low barrier (please don’t make people create an account just to comment on a post) but using a spam filter if available. Again, WordPress has a good one. Blogger added one, too.
I’ve no idea why people think that posting unrelated comments advertising counterfeit designer goods or Facebook “likes” for sale on my blog is a good idea, but some do it. The spam filter catches most of them. Unfortunately, even when personal circumstances kept me from actively posting, spam piled up. Late in 2014 I tweaked my administrative settings so that comments are turned off on each post one month after it’s published. Although I kind of regret having to do it, it’s made cleaning out my spam filter much easier.
Another interactive function you can turn on in the administrative dashboard is share buttons. You can put buttons at the bottom (usually) of each post to share a link to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, etc., etc., etc. “Print” and “e-mail” are other options. You can choose which share buttons you want to appear on your blog.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Other Metrics
If you read about blogging online (and you should), you’ll come across many mentions of SEO and other metrics for tracking the “success” of your blog. “Success” in this context usually means sales, and you may not be selling anything, so it doesn’t matter. Anyway, if you’ve only just started blogging you have no data to measure.
Most blogging platforms, including WordPress and Blogger, have some built-in statistics in their dashboards that show you the number of views your blog has had each day, a historic chart (by day, week or month), number of views for the most popular (maybe all) posts each day, and referrers–the sites or pages viewers came from. This will give you some simple stats to guide your posting and sharing, but remember you’re still acting on limited data.
Even so, if you see that most of your visitors found your blog from Twitter, then you need to pay attention to Twitter. Obviously your audience does! After a few weeks you may (or may not) notice that you get more views if you post on certain days–or that you get the most views on the day you publish a new post or maybe the day after. (I’m not the New York Times website–it takes a day or two to get the word out!)
One of my most popular posts over time is a recipe for a Swedish cucumber salad. Circle of Ignorance isn’t a food blog, and over the years I’ve only shared two or three other recipes, but for some reason this one caught on. Sometimes readers are just unpredictable.
Use your dashboard statistics as a guide but don’t be a slave to them. A personal or small business blog won’t have enough data (“sample size” in statisticians’ lingo) to be meaningful for a few months. Write what you want to write. See what the reaction is.
One of the best metrics for your blog’s success is the number and quality of comments. Number can be mentioned, quality can’t. A thoughtful comment from someone in your field or a fellow blogger can be worth more than 20 people who read without commenting. (Hint: Be that thoughtful comment from a fellow blogger for someone else.)
I hate that I need to tell you this, but the Internet can be a scary place. There are trolls, stalkers, spammers…. Just like in the real world, some people are idiots. When you’re online your location is your URL. Inevitably you’ll mention things that tell people what city or country you live in, but don’t give away too much personal information.
I live in New York City, which is all anybody needs to know. My close friends know where I live without checking my blog, and my virtual friends can find me in any of several online locations without knowing which borough I live in. Yes, most of them are nice people and I trust them, but I don’t want to publish too much information that less scrupulous web surfers could use against me.
Congratulations! You have a blog! It’s pretty simple, but enough to get started. Write, edit, publish… or photograph, or record, or sketch…. You’re blogging!
Start by sharing to some friends and asking them to take a look. As you publish new posts, share the link to your social media sites. Visit other blogs, leave the occasional comment, and begin to build a community.
Don’t expect to become a rock star blogger any time soon–or maybe ever–just to find an audience. Most importantly, having a blog or website is one of the best ways to control what search engines turn up when people search for you. (Seriously, you can’t keep your name off the Internet, so you’d better make sure you have some control over what’s there.)
You are taking a big step into the virtual world and it’s time to show what you’ve got!
If you’re a new blogger or blogger-to-be, I’d love to hear about your experiences and answer your questions. If you’re a veteran blogger, we’d love to know what early advice helped you–or what you wish you’d known. Please leave comments below.