Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Building a Blog Audience

In response to my recent post on the lifespan of political blogs, Andy Newman ponders "why some blogs manage to build an audience, and why some do not." Good question. How is it this blog, for example, manages to attract 300 or so uniques a day while others, including some blogs of long standing, do not? I've pondered on this for a bit and come up with four reasons why I think AVPS has built up a respectable audience - and it has nothing to do with my seductive personality or excellent taste in music.

1) A pre-existing "interested" public: A great deal of Britain-based far left (and some not-so-left) bloggers are alumni of the good old yahoo group,
UK Left Network, which sees its 10th anniversary in April next year. For all its faults (and they are legion) it did establish networks of familiarity between a pretty disparate group of comrades from all kinds of backgrounds. So when anyone from the forum set off to write a blog, there was a small audience who were guaranteed to drop in to see what was being written and perhaps leave a comment.

To demonstrate how small this audience was, here's the stats for the first month of this blog's life (running from 12th-31st December, 2006):

Of course these numbers aren't massive by any means, but without that pre-existing relationship to the internet-traveling left chances are the initial audience would have been much lower. Knowing there was an audience was enough to convince me I wasn't simply crowing into the void, which is a powerful impetus for any new blogger. So, who you are can matter.

2) Self-promotion: It may have worked for Kevin Costner, but blogging is never a case of 'build it and they will come'. Again drawing on my patience as UKLN mod and (once upon a time)
Weekly Worker spammer of promoting both on a wide variety of forums, I spent a long time identifying and adding other left blogs to my blogroll. Whenever I'd rattled off a post I would systematically go through comrades' blogs and leave one or two comments, which in turn would drive some traffic my way. And if I was hanging about a particularly benevolent comrade's blog, they would stick me on their blogroll.

While we're talking about blogrolls, being added to them can have a self-sustaining dynamic. New entrants to the field invariably look to established writers to see who's worth adding to their own rolls, so if you're included on enough chances are you'll be linked to by new comrades. Ubiquity pays.

3) Regular posting: This cannot be emphasised enough. I've come across plenty of bloggers who bemoan the lack of audience or comments for a particularly well-crafted post, but when you look at their archives they rarely post from one month to the next. One reason why
Socialist Unity, Liberal Conspiracy, Iain Dale and the awful Tory Bear get decent audiences is because there's nearly always something new every time you visit. Of course, most bloggers don't have the time to post two or three times a day but regularity is what will keep an audience. For example, after an initial flurry of posts I got bored with blogging in 2007 and wrote very little most of that year. Here's the figures from January to mid-September to illustrate:

When posting was, in some cases, down to once a month it's unsurprising so few swung by the blog to see what was happening. For all intents and purposes by the time I started blogging regularly again in late October it was like starting out again from scratch. Therefore, if you want to hang on to an audience you've got to keep them supplied with product.

4) Originality: I don't claim to be a creative genius, but I write the bulk of material posted on here and I do occasionally offer original think pieces or slightly different takes on things. The
recent post on porn falls into this category, as do old posts such as Marxism and Chicken Sheds, The Perfect Vagina, and Marxism and Michael Jackson's Death. Also, as unofficial Socialist Party internet correspondent for Stoke I like to think the blog offers a glimpse of the SP (and Stoke!) others cannot. And the extended blog commentaries on Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness and JS Mill's On Liberty help bring in the numbers, especially around the time undergrads have to start handing their essays in. Pure coincidence, of course.

It's worth bearing in mind originality can catch the eye of bigger bloggers, who might then give your post a plug and drive audiences your way.

In sum, a pre-existing internet "clique", plenty of self-promotion, regularity of posts and a bit of a dose of originality explain, to me at least, why I've managed to build an audience. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and I'd be interested to hear readers' thoughts on how you've built and retained viewers and where (if anywhere) you think you've gone wrong.


raincoatoptimism said...

5) you're a bloody famous chap

Rob Marrs said...

This is a really great post.


Rob Marrs said...

PS - I have absolutely no idea how to find out my blog stats?


splinteredsunrise said...

I'd largely agree with that. The best advertising is word of mouth, of course.

Getting to know your audience, in terms of what they want to read, or alternatively what will wind them up. And with originality goes unpredictability. Finding a distinctive voice, too.

There is another thing that I know Andy has mentioned before. The Tory blogs all link to each other, with Iain and Guido being the twin suns the satellites orbit round. There is this tendency of left blogs - especially some of the bigger ones - to studiously ignore each other, very often for sectarian reasons. If left bloggers want to build up audiences, more linkage lifts all boats... sorry, metaphor fail there.

Derek Wall said...

thought I better leave a comment!

the spanish prisoner said...

This is good advice. I've found that linking to many blogs is very helpful.

Phil BC said...

Rob, you'll have to sign up with a stats package. There are several that are available, but the one I use is Statcounter. The basic features are free and give you info on traffic, popular posts, geographical locations of visitors, keyword activity and so on. There are more advanced packages available but it suits me down to the ground.

Old Holborn said...

Also, swear a lot.


Phil BC said...

Re: audiences, there's possibly a slightly different experience of building an audience according to party loyalties, and with it come a set of different challenges too. For instance if you're an aspiring Labour or Tory blogger, you have the advantage of larger mainstream audience potential plus the possibility of linky love from other mainstream bloggers. But on the other hand Tory and Labour blogging is a crowded market - here frequency and unique selling points are a must.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Mostly true but it also depends upon what words to write and topics you cover, that draws traffic and readers as does labelling images correctly so that you get google image search traffic.

subrosa said...

Don't listen to OH Craig. If you blog in Scotland swearing is forbidden. :)

I agree it's not always easy to post a few times a day but you can still do it. Because I'm a night owl, I do maybe one or two posts once the papers have come online then publish them using the timer. Maybe that will help others.

Hannah M said...

Good post!

I think networking and promotion is so important - of course you're bound to end up with more traffic if your posts catch the eye of some of the big players. My hits go up and down a lot but due to being busy i sometimes go weeks without a post which doesn't help, plus i am aware that my blog is a bit of mishmash of topics so some people will be interested in certain posts but not others. My post on fashion blogging got a lot of hits for example, but many of these were from people who don't usually read my blog and haven't really since.

Luna17 said...

V useful advice - thanks. It all tallies with what I've observed elsewhere and with my own still relatively limited experience (started blogging 9 months ago). Frequent posting is definitely vital.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I forgot to wish you a very merry christmas/happy holidays type thang.


ModernityBlog said...


You're correct, regular posting is a must.

There are some sites I like but they tended to post too infrequently in the past few months, so I didn't read them much.

I think also sticking with topics you know and like, is best, when people put out worthy but half hearted posts it is obvious (I know I've done it).

Again, Wordpress has all the stats etc built in, no need to fart around with add-ons.

PS: Unity is strength doesn't apply to Lefty blogs, mostly!

Paul said...

I reckon regular engagement with commenters also helps. People don't want to comment into avoid, and will come back for more if they get a response.

At TCF we have an informal rule, not always kept up by myself under time pressures, but seemingly always adhered to by Dave) that any comment deserves some kind of response, and this does lead to some posts where the comment threads are actually more interesting than the OP itself.

It seems to be working at TCF anyway.

Phil BC said...

Yes, the quality of comments are absolutely essential. I always try and respond if someone's written something that requires a reply - though this might not be straight away (which is where I fall down).

I think Socialist Unity is the finest example of this. Andy is a very provocative writer and does an excellent getting socialists to examine many of their taken for granted assumptions - as a result the long debates in the comments boxes are essential reading for thinking about socialist strategy today.

Phil BC said...

Mod, I couldn't agree with you more. I often blog on stuff I know very little about, but am able to do so because I make it clear I'm presenting the ideas of others (for instance, the recent post on CCS). Compare this with the ignorant crowing that takes place on many Tory blogs (particularly on climate change, but also economics, social policy, etc.) But yes, I do think bloggers should publish when they've got a grip on an issue rather than expose themselves to ridicule or dismissal.

Another potential (but negative) route to building an audience quickly is picking a fight with another blogger. Obviously this isn't open to everyone - I doubt Paul Staines would give a shit if this blog piled in with sustained criticisms of his weekly output. But, as Derek Draper demonstrated in the early days of Labour List, if you have enough pull to begin with you can draw in an initial audience by forcing established bloggers to respond to you.

Southpawpunch said...

I agree with the reasons listed but I think there are some more, maybe sometimes cynical, reasons, for success in blogs.

- The content. - I would go to an obscure blog if I thought it provided me with something unique and interesting that I didn’t get elsewhere.

- The writing. - There is a noticeable difference between the writing style of, say, Dave Osler (a professional journalist) and others who may be writing similar Left Labour stuff as he does. Given the choice, you often gravitate towards the better written text.

- The arguing & trainspotter tendency. - Lefts like nothing better than verbal punch up and also have an unhealthy interest in the minutiae of others groups to-ings and fro-ings.

So if a cynical blogger wanted to boost their stats then they would just post something, even a minor detail, about say Israel/Palestine; stuff on a large strike amongst Portuguese transport workers just wouldn’t compete.

I recall that not long ago Socialist Unity was a fairly small blog, e.g. with far fewer posts than Dave’s Part but they printed lots of inside stuff on the Respect split and the trainspotters flocked there - and there remain

- The comments - Harry’s Place is a dreadful right wing blog but one of the things that makes it worse are the comments. Not their unremitting right-wing nature but also the style. One liners. Very short witticisms. In-jokes. And the number of comments - a lot of the aforementioned but interleaved so that they can follow a very hard to discern order

Lenin’s Tomb can also suffer from that a little but also from a fault grounded in the amount of time we have; there may be 50 or 100 comments, many of them good, but who has time to read-through all of that?

I'm not so sure about frequent posting. Sure, it is necessary because if people visit a few times and find nothing new, they won't return but there are ways round that.

For about a year I did a post every Monday (a column) and built up quite high numbers most who I could see would regularly visit just on Monday (or Tuesday) knowing there would be something new to read. So if you find the posting hard to keep up with, a regular weekly, or monthly post, may be an alternative for you.

Whilst who knows where the world of news papers is headed I think some of their rules apply to blogs. If you read like you have little distinctive to say and that most of your content could be just copied from the BBC news website (minus any liberal bits) your long term future is bleak. When Express readers finally get online (or die of old age) they will be finished.

But if you print stuff that is pretty unique to you and needed by people you can survive but only be the size of that market of interest. Long will the FT thrive and probably so the Morning Star.

And likewise the Weekly Worker. I think it grew to a prominence bigger than its size (about 10 years ago or so) because, before the net, it was the only left source of gossip and outlet for internal debate in groups.

It has lost that USP now (to blogs) and unless it continues to be able to get exclusives (e.g. the latest bunfight details from the SWP), then the brand will decline.

I mean it’s not as though any blog success is about the politics argued.

Otherwise the Southpawpunch site would be bigger than the BBC.

Pete Shield said...

Good article, if I can add a few more ideas from, ahem(deep clearing of the throat), a professional point of view.

Blogs are increasingly featuring in Google/search engine key word searches as well as drawing traffic from other blogs.

While Google, and other search engines, keep their exact algorithms to themselves there are a few tried and trusted rules of thumb that help to get your articles and blogs higher up the ranking tables, and therefore more likely to be read.

1) The higher number of links to your blog/article the better- Google sees a link from one website to another as a sort of vote.

However not all votes are equal, a link from a highly ranked site such as The Guardian, which according to Alexa is the 240th most popular site in the world, is counted as a much more important than say a link from my blog on life in Les Corbieres(ranked out well above the 2,000,000 or so most popular site).

Another issue appears contextual, so a link from a site about Stoke to an article about socialist politics in Stoke is counted higher than say one from a site about knitting.(Thats why blog roles are good as well)

2. Titles, tags and content. Again Google has some textual bots that look at the title of an article, and then analyse the text to see how 'relevant' the artcle is. Despite their claims to sophistication this calculation is actually really basic. Say the title of an article is 'Mass student protest awakens working class militancy in Iran', the more often the words in the title are used the more 'relevant'
Google will see the article to key word searches that use, for example, 'Iran+student+protest'. This means that when you are writing an article avoid short cuts like 'country', always use Iran, avoid 'they' and use 'students', etc etc. Tags are also a way of the engines checking relevance, so in this case Iran, Student, Protest, Working class are all appropriate tags to use.

3. If you have an RSS functionality on the blog then register it as a new feed with Google news, and then they will treat you as a news feed- very useful for appearing in e-mail alerts for keywords.

None of this means of course that a badly written, infrequent blog can gain traffic it doesn't deserve, but every bit helps.

Good article Phil, all the best

Everyones Favourite Comrade said...

very useful post to read, as the readership of my blog is inevitably low at the moment, hopefully that will change though