Blogging Success Factors

Blogs, short for web logs, are the heavy trend in a revolution that the media has been facing in the past couple of years. Blog posts, are to newspaper columns what Joe-submitted 10-minute YouTube shows are to 45-minute Soap Operas.

They’ve become mainstream. They’re here to stay. Everyone and his dog is blogging nowadays, including genuinely smart people who teach Princeton and MIT students (Paul Krugman‘s readership is massive).

The real questions are why, and how.

Why Blog?

Why is answered easily enough. Most bloggers belong to one or more of several groups:

  • Those who are write about their every day life. (They should probably twitter instead.)
  • Those who are run a rumor mill. (A few do this very successfully, e.g., Boing Boing.)
  • Those who like express their opinion on this, that and everything.
  • Those who blog to get their site indexed — search engines love blogs.

The two latter groups, to which you probably belong, includes individuals that range from genuine experts who run a site or two on their field of interest, to marketers who run large numbers of sites on topics that they don’t always fully grasp.

They blog to drive more traffic to their site. Depending on their revenue model, more traffic can mean more ad or affiliate revenue; or more prospects. It also means that, in a way, they’re gaining celebrity. More than experts, they’re becoming opinion leaders.

Setting aside those who breed armies of low quality sites, I’ve yet to bump into an internet marketer who isn’t — at least to an extent — blogging to position himself as an opinion leader in his field. As a result, I’ll be assuming your goal is no different in what follows.

Key Success Factors

The difference between an expert and a non-expert goes down to four points:

  1. Celebrity
  2. Looks
  3. Consistency
  4. Use Of Jargon

Celebrity

When you’re a celebrity, no matter what you write, do, or say, someone out there will mention you, and contribute further press to what you’re writing, doing, or saying. It’s that simple. And there is no such thing as bad press — it’s still press.

From a social psychologist’s standpoint, celebrity goes down to labeling and conformism. In broad terms, Joe labeled you as worth watching. Jack assumes you are because Joe told him you were. Things then conveniently snowball once you beat a certain threshold.

But this is a goal. Probably not an asset you’re starting with. It’s nice to have it in mind, though, because as your site grows, so will your celebrity. Plus, the blogosphere tends to exacerbate the way you gain celebrity.

Looks

Research supports that, when it comes to looks, even trivial points count.

The guy on TV who selling you toothpaste is just an actor with a bright smile. Yet, he is dressed up like a dentist. He conveys his message with more authority as a result. Closer to our topic, you’ll find a coder tip on rentacoder.com that goes: Choose a photo of yourself in a business suit rather than one from your last vacation; you’ll get 25% more business.

A professional-looking site is good enough. Perfect-looking is arguably better, but you’ll quickly have more important things to be spending your energy on. In particular, generating new streams of traffic, and increasing your conversion rate.

When it comes to a web site, professional-looking means things like minding your copy, removing animated gizmos, and making your site navigable. Running a mailing list will also help. As might having a few advertisements around.

As you create your site, ask yourself two questions:

If you were a visitor who landed on the site for the first time, would you want to stay on it for more than a few seconds? One sec’… Look at your competition’s web sites. Now answer. (That’s why professional is good enough for our sake.)

Next, consider what else that visitor could possibly be looking for. Can he immediately spot where you’ve hidden it? If not, you might be missing a web page. Or a section. Or some related links within — or immediately after — your content. Or a proper search function. In short, your site could be made more navigable.

Navigability conveys trust. Related Widgets, Silo Widgets and Nav Menu Widgets all contribute towards this. If you’ve a site with moderate traffic, you’ve certainly spotted those exceptional visitors that read 10 pages upon landing on it. Their number is a good indicator of your site’s quality and navigability.

Consistency

Social psychological research on consistency is both abundant and entertaining.

Of interest to us is that you do not want to be writing everything and its opposite on your site. No expert in his right mind can afford to be inconsistent. If his audience comes to suspect he has a doubt, he looses his status (credible expert) on the spot.

Thus, pick a topic. Try to stay focused as a rule. Pick a position. Stick to it. And write authoritatively.

As you know from watching politicians on TV, you’re allowed to contradict yourself. Just, not on the same web page — and preferably not on the same web site.

While we’re on the topic of consistency, keep our fondness for familiar things in mind. The more visitors read your site, the more familiar they are with the points you’re making. Eventually, they’ll take them for granted. They’ll even find them likable; and, as the conveyor of a likable message, they’ll find you likable.

Also, keep in mind that your visitors — like you and I — are generally consistent with their commitments. The implication for you is tremendous. As a visitor starts reading your site; clicks a link; subscribes to your feed or list; he commits himself to thinking you’ve with some level of credibility.

From that point onwards, the question no longer is “How do I convince this visitor that I might be a credible authority?”. You’ve just succeeded. The question is “How do I convince this visitor that he made the right decision by assuming I am?”.

Surely you’re aware that a TV ad’s purpose has as much to do with reassuring existing customers that they made the right decision than with acquiring new ones. The same holds for web sites. And this is where the quality of your message comes in.

Use Of Jargon

I once came across a surprising research finding. It held that court experts who made the effort to explain their point in layman’s terms were dismissed as less credible than those who didn’t. I found the finding unintuitive, so proceeded to investigate further.

It turned out that other research supports the opposite. When experts use jargon, jurors make less efforts to understand them. Worse, jurors become more susceptible to counterfactual arguments, because the latter offer relief from the burden of having tried to understand incomprehensible garbage.

So the question remains open. Especially given the amusing cases where completely unintelligible copy, generated using SciGen for instance, made it into scientific journals.

My own take on the topic is that the use of jargon will serve you if your audience makes no effort to properly analyze what you’re saying or writing. Research evidence comforts me in this view, too.

Incidentally, that’s exactly what most web visitors do. Research suggests that web pages are scanned more than they’re read.

There is a twist. When you write copy for your web site, you’re not merely seeking to gain the recognition of Joe users. You’re also seeking to gain the recognition of other experts in your field. After all, the more experts link to your site, the more credible you become.

For this, your use of jargon is crucial. Experts use it for two reasons. On the one hand side, it helps them exchange ideas using specialized vocabulary. On the other, it allows them to recognize their peers on the spot. Enter posers.

Posers tend to overrate the use of jargon, because they need to compensate for their lack of expertise. This serves them well, because laymen will assume you’re an expert in a field if you use that field’s jargon. The trouble for these posers is that… so do they! Fact is, posers are probably more impressed by other posers than by real experts. There’s your chance to quickly rise above the crowd.

As you investigate your competition, spot those who know what they’re talking about; and the obvious posers. Go after the latter first. They’ll drive less traffic to your site; but they’re a lot easier impress. As you do, keep Joe users in mind. They’ll stay around if you enunciate your conclusions in terms that everyone and his dog can understand. Things will snowball thereafter.

How To Write Blog Posts

If what they do is any indicator, successful bloggers tend to keep posts personal, granular, and to the point. It’s not uncommon to see little analysis and argumentation. You’ll find quoted material, images, links to other sites, and cosmetic thoughts on the latter.

There’s arguably nothing wrong with this. It’s a web log, after all; not a newspaper column run by high profile journalists and academics. There are smarter ways to do it, however.

Here’s a list of things to keep in mind when you write blog posts (and static pages):

  1. Good usability guidelines related to writing for the web exist. They apply to blog posts too.
  2. In today’s world of RSS feeds, you’ve a single line to convince your readers. That line is your post’s title; not its excerpt or its meta description tag.
  3. Generating volume works if you’re breeding armies of sites for AdSense clicks; if not, keep in mind that all good writing is rewritten.
  4. Keeping a well-maintained list of quality material in your link manager (use Link widgets) is a great way to generate loyal visitors. Take Bob Bly‘s blog as a great example.
  5. Using static pages to publish in-depth content on your site (or maintaining a separate, legacy site with quality material) is another great way to do so. This is good SEO practice, too. Don’t miss the Silo Widgets feature in Semiologic Pro if you do.

Then again, you may be less interested in generating a regular readership than you are in getting a low quality site indexed. In this case, there is only one guideline: use keywords, keywords, and keywords!