Thursday, January 8, 2015

So you want to start your own blog

This was written for The Asexual Agenda, and cross-posted here.  It's primarily geared to people looking to start ace blogs, which means I will refer repeatedly to the current state of the ace blogosphere.  But most of the advice is generalizable.

It says on our about page, we're not just here to talk about asexuality, we're also here to stimulate blogging.  Lately I've seen a number of people starting their own blogs.  (For purposes of this post, I'm referring to non-Tumblr blogs only.)  Since I'm possibly the most experienced blogger in the ace blogosphere, having blogged consistently for over seven years, I'd like to offer a bunch of miscellaneous tips.

What do you want out of your blog?

When I first started blogging, I dreamt big.  I wanted all the readers, and I wanted to influence the conversations I saw on other blogs with lots of readers.  Naturally, none of that happened, and at first I felt very disappointed.  But I continued writing because I discovered there were other things I got out of blogging in the short-term.

The fact of the matter is that most blogs don't get a significant number of readers, and those that do acquire them over many years.  If you really just wanted attention you could probably do better by being a troll on tumblr.  There must be something else you want, so what is it?

I asked this question in an earlier question of the week. Some of the answers provided:
  • To talk about things that you can't talk about offline
  • To reach people
  • To order your thoughts
  • To spend time
  • To connect with readers
  • To get reader's thoughts
  • To find communities with shared interests
The thing you should be asking yourself is, how essential is it to have lots of readers?  Having some readers helps to distinguish a blog from a personal diary.  And certainly I want to see more popular ace blogs.  But what do you want?  Would you be satisfied if only a few people read your blog?

Most of this post will focus on acquiring readers, since that's the main thing I can give advice for.  There's not much I can say to help your venting be more cathartic or your analysis be more exacting.  But keep in mind what you really want, and recognize that you are not failing just because you don't have many readers.

Where do readers come from?

Let's get into the nitty gritty of blog readership.  Take a look at these site statistics from the past month of my personal blog.

Blog statistics

Here's a brief explanation of the pieces of pie:
  • Referrals - People follow links to your blog, often from tumblr, other blogs, or forums.  Site statistics will track incoming links, which is very useful to know your audience.
  • Organic search - People find your site by search engines.  Site statistics will track search terms, and it's often hilariously obvious that people won't find what they're looking for on your blog.
  • Direct - People go directly to your blog by bookmark or typing in the url.  These are probably regular readers.
  • Social - Mostly Facebook.  Facebook makes it impossible to tell what people are saying about you.
One of the reasons I stopped caring about getting lots of page views is because I realized that I really only value regular readers.  Page views tend to be dominated by search engine hits.1,2  The vast majority of visitors who come by search engine never return.  It's also hilariously clear based on the people's search terms that most people aren't getting what they wanted from my blog.

But of course, every regular reader used to be a one-time visitor.  So if you want regulars, the main issue is how to "hook" those one-time visitors.  When I consider reading a blog, it's usually after seeing a link to an essay I like.  Then I look at the "about" page to see what kind of perspective is offered, and then I browse the front page or tags for anything interesting.  If I like what I see, I look around for a subscription service.3

Writing a blog for readers

Writing well simply requires practice, and there's very little advice I can give to help you write better.  I can, however, say what readers generally want:
  • Consistency in the long term - Good writing can acquire more readers, but it won't matter if people have forgotten about your blog by the time you post another update.  Basically, quantity can be more important than quality.
  • Unique personality - Your individual voice will distinguish you from just another essay we found on the internet.  You can adopt a particular tone, a particular writing style, or format.  You can tell personal stories, bring up new issues, or think about old issues in new ways.  Even attaching pictures to your posts can go a long way to adding character.
  • Shorter is better - I'm a very verbose writer, and I understand how long-form writing can be essential to my personal goals in blogging.  But as far as the goal of acquiring readers goes, new readers generally don't want to invest a lot of time in a blog they just met.
  • One small issue at a time - It's tempting to write big manifestos that say everything you ever wanted to say about asexuality.  But this tends to lead to big sprawling posts that take forever to write, and of course the next week you remember something else you forgot to add.  Having a web of many posts is easier, and encourages people to follow the web as it grows.
Wordpress, Blogger, and Tumblr

Outside of Tumblr and Livejournal, it really doesn't matter what blogging software you use.  Where Tumblr can connect you with a "Tumblr community", using Wordpress doesn't really connect you with a "Wordpress community", and using Blogger doesn't connect you with a "Blogspot community".  You make your own connections with old-fashioned links and search engines.  So the playing field is pretty much level.

That said, I think Wordpress looks a little more "professional" than Blogger.  But unless you get the paid version of Wordpress, Blogger gives you more freedom to tinker with its code.  For example, he reader statistics above come from Google Analytics, which I can install on Blogger but not on Wordpress.

 The state of the ace blogosphere

The Asexual Agenda is currently the biggest asexual blog around.  That means that one of the ways to attract readers is by getting us to link to you.  We're aware of our power to direct eyeballs, and we try not to abuse it.  This is all to say, ask us nicely and we'll link you.  Of course, making readers stick around is up to you.

You might ask, where do our readers come from?  Most of our referrals come from Tumblr--links from AVEN and Reddit are much less fruitful.  You can always go to the source and try to plug your blog on Tumblr.  There's a fairly common Tumblr/Wordpress hybrid model, where people get readers from Tumblr and have structured discussions on Wordpress.  This is an easy way to get the best of both worlds.

Of course, the current state of the ace blogosphere can change.  Why should The Asexual Agenda be the most popular?  There should be many popular blogs.  I hope to see more in the coming years.


1. I think it takes a while for Google to notice that a new blog exists, so this might not be true for brand new blogs.

2. Depending on what you're doing, you might actually cater to search engines.  For example, Asexuality Archive is aimed at providing resources, and so search engine hits are important.  But I think this is true of very few blogs.

3. I'm not sure how many people use subscription services or what kinds.  I use RSS feed, but I read lots of blogs and webcomics so I'm probably unusual in this regard.  You can add widgets to advertise subscription services, although experienced users might figure out how to subscribe regardless.