There’s been some healthy discussion lately about how to build up a blog community, mostly in the context of encouraging more diversity within the progressive online movement. Jenifer Fernandez-Arcona wrote a good diary here, and Matt Stoller identified some best practices for using an online platform to build power here.
I’d like to jump in with some things I think we’ve learned here at FDL about how to build a successful online community and platform, with the caveat that this is just my point of view, and I’m not saying everyone has to do it the way we have. I’m also not saying that our model would apply directly to all communities, for example, to communities who traditionally remain excluded from widespread Internet usage due to economic pressures and structural lack of access. So, grab your salt, and keep the grains handy as you read. Successful case studies are helpful, but they’re not the end of the conversation.
Tip #1: Post Fresh Content Every Day, Multiple Times Per Day
If you want to generate a pretty highly trafficked blog community, then the “physics” of the online audience and medium demand fresh content all the time, multiple times per day. People will come when they feel they might be missing something good if they don’t stop by. That doesn’t really happen with just daily content, because people can scan and absorb in one quick sitting a few blog posts at once. That means, if you post content daily, they can surf through your blog once or twice a week.
That can become a vicious cycle. There is a lot of competition for eyeballs out there. With other sites doing more content than you do, you risk falling behind, and people may fall out of the habit of checking your site. Blogs can have a shopping mall effect: everyone goes there because everyone goes there, and your specialty shop may have great stuff, but if it’s in an out of the way location, people may just miss it.
Tip #2: Enlist a Group of Writers
Because of the incredible demands involved on your time for Tip #1, you really should get help. Even Atrios, the Cal Ripken, Jr. of the blogosphere, has people with keys to the site like Attaturk or Thers who jump in when he’s busy. If it takes you an hour or half an hour to write a post, expect to do two or three times as much time in reading before you write, because the only value you have to a reader is the ability to bring a fresh perspective. That means reading so you can connect some dots or do some digging and research. That might mean reporting, as TPM does through its network of sites, or it could mean higher level commentary and the provision of insight, the way Steve Gilliard, Digby or Taylor Marsh do, to name a very few.
Tip #3: Build a Brand and Exploit a Niche
In the business world, more than one company can exploit a given niche. For example, both Borders and Barnes and Noble sell books in retail stores. There are many frozen food companies. But in the blogosphere, it seems to me that each successful blog does something unique, and once that territory is claimed, there’s no real opportunity to grab that audience by doing more or less the same thing, unless the first mover retires from blogging.
For example, Jane Hamsher saw a niche for a strong woman’s voice in politics whose point of view was rather broad in terms of progressive politics. Steve Gilliard has a niche that combines journalistic critique, great historical knowledge (especially military history) and an African American perspective. Glenn Greenwald brought an incredibly focused and knowledgeable voice on civil liberties issues to break out in a timely fashion on the NSA wiretapping story, and now he’s broadened that brand to include devastation of right wing arguments and trenchant media critique. (By the way, he also posted more than once per day, in the form of updates to the main post throughout the day, when he was at his old site before joining the Salon team). John Amato at CrooksandLiars does self-hosted video content mixed with pop culture, especially music (he’s a former professional musician).
Your brand has to be a genuine reflection of your passions. You can’t fake passion in this medium, and the demands of writing so much content require you to have a lot of fire in the belly to keep after the kinds of stories and issues that animate you. When you recruit people to join your blog as a group, as in Tip #2, be sure you don’t dilute your brand/voice, but bring in people whose style and perspective complements it. If you create a site where people can post their own content, such as DailyKos, you can open up the doors a bit to all kinds of ideas, but some process for sustaining the brand by having a system to give the most front page real estate to people you select should be in place, otherwise, your brand will be a muddle. This creates dissonance and mush, and flame wars tend to drive people away. This is why no one really reads message boards any more.
Tip #4: Cultivate Reader Participation
It’s impossible to create a community blog without a comments section. If you want a wide audience without that, you have to be a celebrity of sorts in your own right. In politics, this pretty much means being a right winger, as Hugh Hewitt, Matt Drudge and Andrew Sullivan have long been quoted, promoted and courted by establishment media outlets. On the progressive side, we have to build our audiences organically. How?
Interact with your commenters. When you post, hang around to respond to comments and questions. People like to react to what you’ve written, so engage with them. This is another great time demand, because time you invest in reading through comments is time taken away from all the reading and writing you need to do to keep your audience. On the other hand, once your little community begins to take root, some of your best story ideas and the links you need to research them will come from your commenters.
The other part of this is you need to have some community standards for discourse. Whatever your rules are for community discussion, be consistent with them. Over at Steve Gilliard’s site, people do a bit more smashmouth give and take than they do here, but people there know the inherent rules. DailyKos has a pretty well running community process for weeding out those who behave destructively, though even there, things get a bit more raucous than they do here, or at MyDD, for that matter.
I think the gender branding of the main part of the community has something to do with it: FDL is fronted by strong women, attracts more women as readers, relative to most other sites, and therefore may reinforce a bit more emphasis on relationship building, and not just the competitive winner versus loser debate dynamic. Some comments should be removed: for example, here at FDL we have a standard that content we deem to be bigoted or racist is not acceptable here, which is part of our dedication to create a safe community for commenters as best we can.
Tip #5: Do Consistently Great Writing
You can’t be great all the time, but you can try.
The medium demands you get to the point with style and wit as quickly as you can (this blog post notwithstanding!). Long or academic type meta-reflections on whatever interests you are not likely to be popular except with a narrow band of readers. Get to the point. Reread The Elements of Style. Omit needless words.
There are plenty of really bright people out there whom I would like to read more, but they make it hard for me to find their point. Very, very few people (like, almost no one) can write longer posts like Digby and get away with it, because Digby’s clarity of thought and depth of insight are so legendary that a whole subgenre of posts has emerged, called, “What Digby said.” I confess there are a few people where I just jump to the last paragraph and then read paragraph by paragraph backwards if they catch my interest once I find their main point. Don’t take a long time to wind up.
You can write a bit longer if you have a real flair, with wit and imagery that entertain, or if you’re telling a great story interspersed with blockquotes and tidbits that break up the page for the eye (TRex here at FDL does this really well), especially if you are offering content outside of the rush of the news cycle during business hours. But shorter is almost always better. This post could be shorter if I had time to edit it better, but I don’t. The value in a longer post like this is that it’s offering fresh, original content that is action oriented, so for its core audience, the people I want to reach, it hopefully has value.
This illustrates another writing tip: help people discover what they can do to change their worlds or improve their lives. People want hope, and they can take more control of their lives with encouragement. If your message is persistently pessimistic or fatalistic, don’t be surprised if it’s hard to build an audience.
I almost think I should have put this tip first, because without this, you will have no opportunity at all to do any of the rest. What’s more, you have to keep this up. This is a ticket to admission item for building and keeping an audience.
Tip #6: Make Online Friends
A lot of people talk about promoting your blog, and that’s important. But gratuitous blog whoring can hurt your reputation. The real issue I think is making friends. How do you do this?
Go to other people’s comment sections. Become known in other blogging communities. Chat. As you chat, you will find opportunities to share with people content you’ve created that fits the interests of people in that community. Again, this takes time, but it has to be done. That’s how you make friends.
Notice this is different from an effort to pressure others to link to your post, particularly if you accuse someone of being racist or sexist just because they don’t know what you’re up to. Look how much time it takes to do this stuff. If people aren’t linking to you, it’s much more likely that the reason is because they don’t know what you’re up to, assuming your writing is really good and your stories and issues seem to be appealing to the larger blogger’s audience. It is true that people tend to find most easily those with whom they have the most in common, but online or off, building bridges means making friends.
Please note, I’m not saying progressive bloggers who value diversity and who understand the marginalization of traditionally disempowered communities should not make an extra effort (in the context of all of the above) to look around to see what else is out there, but I am saying that this is a two way street, and making friends works a lot better than launching attacks. Attacks, in fact, are more likely to backfire, as any human being is going to be a little cautious about sharing an audience with someone who has made a big point of attacking the potential referring person’s character.
Bringing new ideas is good. Everyone needs accountability. I’ve learned from people who have criticized me even when I have not believed their criticisms to be fair or fully informed. In general, people can learn more from critics who share new ideas in a spirit of friendship or potential friendship, and certainly, that’s the approach most likely to lead to the kind of links you want to help build your community and site.
Tip #7: Know Yourself and Why You Want to Blog
This is all a lot of work. It’s a helluva lot of work. It’s consuming, invigorating, exhausting work, and so far, very, very few people have been able to support themselves doing it (and even at a site like this, with our audience and track record, you won’t yet find any here). A number of bloggers are working together to help bring more resources into the blogopshere so that even smaller blog site hosts can gain more financial support for what they’re doing. This is an effort designed to help build a movement, and not just to help a few already big blogs or bloggers. I can’t say much more than that, but there are efforts underway, so we’ll see what happens.
If you don’t want to do all that work, or you can’t afford to, that’s fine. Know yourself. I could not have done what Jane did writing new content all day every day for more than a year, doing all the things I’ve described above, even before Christy joined the site. I ended up here by being a community member who, through my content and banter, made friends with people here, and when Jane and Christy, exhausted, needed front page help, they asked me. I do politics part time around the edges of running my own business. I know my limits.
If you like to do what you do as a blogger, and recognize that it’s not going to generate anything more than a loyal, small following, that’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I had a conversation recently with a blogger who had come to that realization for himself and was accepting it, even finding the acceptance a bit liberating. Not everyone should be doing this stuff, because there are many more ways to lead a fulfilling meaningful life, and many more ways to do your part to promote change in our society.
Blogging is not the be all and end all: it’s just one activity among many. For those who can make a go of it, it does become addicting and thrilling to feel as if you’re having an impact on our society, touching people’s lives and giving people hope by helping them find their own collective power. I’m always learning as I do this, and that’s extremely satisfying in its own right. So, know yourself. This can be a great ride, but the demands of building a highly trafficked site are great. Do what’s best for you, because if you have a passion for promoting progressive change in America, we need you for the long haul. Don’t burn yourself out.
I hope people accept this post in the spirit in which it’s intended. These are just some thoughts meant to be helpful to anyone who wants to build a successful online community or power base. I’d like nothing better than to see more progressive online communities emerge, especially those that can give voice to the needs and concerns of traditionally marginalized people. No site can be all things to all people, and that’s a good thing, though we can all work to collaborate and support each other when we share common values. This post is one such attempt by us here at this site.