Rachel Held Evans, one of the best conversation-starting bloggers out there, has posted on the subject of blog traffic and how to become a popular blogger. This is a subject that has interested me for some time, and I thought that I might post a few thoughts of my own on the subject.
I have been blogging on and off (generally on) since about 2003, and was following and engaging with blogs long before then. I have never had a huge following, nor have I courted one. However, I do have a very committed following: a significant number of my followers have been following me since I first began blogging. My daily hits are generally somewhere in the region of 200-1000.
I blog primarily as an aid to thinking through subjects – I think by writing down my thoughts – and secondarily to engage with my core audience. However, as I blog in several different styles, on numerous different subjects, it is interesting to observe the varying reactions to different posts. Sometimes a post will be spread widely on Facebook and Twitter and bring in a large audience for a few days, hardly any of whom stay to engage with future posts. Experience has taught me that it is easy to double my hits when I blog on particular subjects or in particular styles.
Watching other people’s blogs, and blogging myself, the following are the general things that I think mark out the most popular blogs from the rest of us:
1. Consistency, Predictability, and Reliability. The most popular bloggers blog regularly and consistently. It may not be daily, it might even be once a week, but you usually know when to expect something from them. The most popular bloggers also have a fairly clear and representative stance on a range of issues, and will generally fall down fairly clearly on one side or another of particular debates. In this way popular bloggers come to stand for particular positions in ongoing debates and discussions. Audiences like bloggers who are thought-provoking and stimulating, but who don’t throw them too many curve balls. If your audience feels betrayed by you, they won’t stick around.
The most popular bloggers also tend to show consistency in their post’s characteristics of style and length. Their blogs usually have a relatively well defined range of subject matter. People will read a particular blog for exegetical insight, another for observations about the life and character of the church and popular and relevant theological commentary, and yet another for deep theological commentary or creative writing. If you want a committed audience, it might be worth focusing your output, and not try to write about everything in the same place.
2. Engagement. The most popular bloggers engage with live issues, news, and debates that are widely relevant and topical. They make good use of social media to publicize their posts, often linking the same post three or four times. The most popular bloggers engage heavily with other popular bloggers and tend to publicize other people by having them as guests, or promoting their work. They encourage an engaged audience by posting things that are designed to spark conversation and facilitating that conversation with active comment sections. In other words, the most popular bloggers are people who are gifted conversation starters and formers, generous in making space for others, and not monologuers. They may not necessarily be the most stimulating voices in their own right, but the conversations that they create tend to be the liveliest. Most of the hits on a blog will come for the conversation that follows the post, not the post itself: one only needs to read the original post once, but the conversation constantly continues. Engagement is about creating a place for other people to say things, which generally means saying less yourself. It also means that, while responding to other people’s comments is great, the most popular bloggers tend to be fairly sparing on this front. They are trying to keep a good conversation going, not have the final or definitive word.
3. Emotion. This is perhaps the most important thing of all. The most popular bloggers write on subjects about which people feel strongly. They have an emotionally aroused readership. The primary criterion of sharing and engagement is the evoking of an elevated emotional response (sadness or contentment don’t really work in this regard). It doesn’t matter how much you make your readers think if you can’t make them feel. In my experience, by far the most popular and widely shared posts on my blogs have been the ones that provoke feelings of excited agreement (often coloured by moral or intellectual superiority – we never feel so right as when another party is so wrong), anger, a eureka moment, outrage, joy, shock, slam-dunk point-scoring over others, etc. In several cases, these have been posts of which I have been quite ashamed, more rants than careful and thoughtful responses, which leads to our next point…
The Pitfalls and Benefits of Popularity
Looking at these criteria for popularity, it seems to me that popularity has its dangers and pitfalls. The behaviours that bring popularity are not always the ones that will bring out the best in you as a thinker, a writer, and, most importantly, as a Christian. Seeking to be popular can lead you to conform to your principal audience, tickling their prejudices, failing to address issues that might polarize or alienate them, and losing integrity in the process. Seeking to be popular can lead you to focus on controversy and outrage in a manner that is reactive and unhelpful. Seeking to be popular can lead you to start conversations that are unedifying and fail to take a principled stand on certain issues in a way that would end conversations.
On the other hand, seeking to write a popular blog can encourage a generosity of spirit and speech, whereby you create space for other people to speak and to share. It can teach you self-control, learning when to be quiet or stop writing and leave words unsaid for the sake of others, resisting the urge to have the final word. It can teach you the art of conversation starting and hosting. Seeking to write a popular blog can make you a more engaged and receptive person, someone actively listening and responding to a range of valued interlocutors. It can make you more consistent and considered in your writing style. It can attune you to the issues about which people care and feel strongly.
The Importance of Knowing Why You are Blogging
I believe that much comes down to the question of why you are blogging in the first place. If engaging with a large audience and with issues that a wide readership cares about is a primary goal for you, then it is worth considering how to be more popular. If you believe that you can start conversations worth having, resist the pitfalls of popularity, edify many, and encourage mature engagement, popularity is worth pursuing. However, popularity is not necessarily a worthy end in itself. Much depends upon how you handle it.
If you blog primarily as an aid to your own thinking processes, or for a small and clearly defined core audience, seeking popularity would most likely hinder your chief aims, rather than help them. Consistency, predictability, and regularity can be constraining and unhelpful, and it may not be worth sacrificing the benefits of greater freedom in these areas for the sake of a larger audience.
The potential influence of your writing should also not be confused with the number of hits that you receive. Thought leadership is quite hierarchical. The most significant writers are often read only by a small readership. The most important minds in the world are usually people who are unknown to the general public, while public intellectuals can often be lightweights, lacking great influence within their own fields. Striving to reach an elite and very informed audience brings different benefits and popularity may not be the most meaningful sort of influence for you to strive for.
As this blog’s primary purpose is that of a thought tool, it is less oriented to a clearly defined audience, whether popular or elite, than many other blogs may be. Of course, I always have an audience – a highly valued one, not least because the audience’s engagement is one of the reasons why this blog helps me think certain issues through so well – in mind as I write, more or less the same audience as has been following me since I first started blogging. However, as my blog is primarily author or subject-driven, rather than audience-driven and having a clear sense of what I want to achieve through my blog, I feel freer to break the supposed ‘rules’, which almost invariably presume that popularity must be the goal of blogging. It ain’t necessarily so.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject of blogging. What are the key characteristics of your favourite blogs? What do you believe to be the keys to blogging popularity? If you blog, why do you blog? Is your blog primarily audience, author, or subject-driven? Or is it driven by something else?