How to Win Friends and Influence People

An old friend of mine asked me for some advice about how to increase readership for his blog. I was going to write him a long email, but I thought if I put it here other people can chime in as well.

The conventional wisdom about how to make your blog successful is “write great content.” Of course, that’s very self-serving for established bloggers to say, since it implies that they write great content. I think Felix Salmon is more accurate: write a lot of content.

Should you write more, with lower quality, or less, with higher quality? Fortunately, the blogosphere has been around for long enough that we have a simple empirical answer to this question: given the choice, go for quantity over quality. You might not like it — I certainly don’t — but I defy you to name a really good blogger who doesn’t blog frequently. . . .

Mostly, blogging is a lottery on the individual-blog-entry level — and if you want to win the lottery, your best chance of doing so is to maximize the number of lottery tickets you buy.

(Of course, we at The Baseline Scenario don’t follow this rule, but if I had more time I would.) I recommend Felix’s whole post, most of which I agree with. But I’ll add a few thoughts of my own.

The first thing I should say is that I could be completely wrong about everything that follows. Apart from my dog’s blog, and the personal blog I no longer have time for, and my internal company blog, I’ve only been doing this for ten months. And it’s possible that our readership is based entirely on two things: (a) Simon’s popularity with the media; and (b) luck (being noticed by Paul Krugman). Also, I have no data to back up anything I say. With that in mind . . .

For any blog, the primary source of traffic is other blogs. That means your immediate goal is to write posts that will be linked to by other bloggers. First, you should be aware of who those other bloggers are. In my world, that would be Calculated Risk, Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma, Econbrowser, Felix Salmon, Tyler Durden, Ezra Klein, Rortybomb, etc. Obviously, some of them are bigger than others; one link from Krugman is worth one hundred links from most other people. But you can’t pin your hopes solely on Krugman or Andrew Sullivan or Atrios. In particular, I imagine that those guys use other blogs as filters to decide what they should read; for example, I recall Krugman saying that he reads Mark Thoma because Thoma is a great way to find out what lots of different people are saying. So you should be aware of the whole community, or as much of it as you can keep track of.

You should read these other blogs so you can be aware of the issues people care about. It’s good to write about issues that other people are interested in at the moment – right now in the economic policy world, that would be financial regulation, health care, energy policy, and increasingly the debate over a second stimulus – but it’s also important to have an original perspective on those issues. Because if Krugman makes an argument on Monday, and you make the same argument on Tuesday, even if your post is better, it’s unlikely be to be cited (unless Krugman triggered an ongoing debate). It’s even better to have a unique voice – a point of view that people will recognize as distinctively yours and that they can’t get anyplace else. This is pretty hard, and I’m not sure we’ve accomplished it. But it’s important, because almost without exception, any information on your blog can be found elsewhere; people will only come back because they want to hear you.

How do you get your blog noticed by other blogs? One simple way is to just email them and introduce yourself. There is no downside to this approach, even though it may not work all the time. But all the bloggers I know do read their email, even if they don’t have time to respond to all of it.

It is also somewhat common to email people and ask for a link on their blogroll. I don’t particularly recommend this, because I think blogroll links have little value; if I read Blog A, I will follow links in posts on Blog A, but I am unlikely to click over to another blog just because it’s in Blog A’s blogroll. (My perspective may be skewed because I do most of my reading in Google Reader, so I don’t even see the blogrolls.) But there’s no real harm in asking, although I suspect some bloggers may be annoyed by it.

Another way is through the comments. Most bloggers read their comments, and if you have insightful things to say, they will notice you. Some people will write a post on their own blog, then go to Big Blog and write a comment that links back to their own post. I used to do this on occasion. My feeling is that if your post really does address the issues in the original post on Big Blog, that’s fine, but you have to put more than just a link or no one will follow it. What matters is not your post, but what you write in that comment. If I am impressed by a comment, I will follow the link; if I’m not impressed by the comment, I won’t bother. Whether there is a link or not really doesn’t matter; most blog comment systems (like WordPress.com, which we use) allow you to link a URL to your name, and if I find myself reading your comments repeatedly, I will check out your blog. There are at least three blogs that I became aware of and have linked to (here or in Twitter) because their authors commented here: Nemo, Rortybomb, and Taunter. (And once when I put a link to Nemo in our Twitter feed, it led to a chain of events that eventually brought his server down.) I also list the blogs of some of our more loyal commenters in the sidebar, but that’s relatively unusual as far as I can tell.

Probably the most common to get attention from other bloggers is to link to them. Most of us have some way of seeing who is linking to us. And though it isn’t logically necessary, if you link to other people, they are more likely to link to you. It’s just human nature. It’s also good form in the blogging community; if you read about a good idea, you should give credit to the person you got it from. Put another way, if you write a “blog,” but you only write standalone essays that have nothing to do with the rest of the blogging community, then from our standpoint you’re not a blogger; you’re just like an op-ed writer for a newspaper. And while we do cite newspaper op-eds, we cite other blogs more often.

Once you have some bloggers reading your blog, then ideally things will snowball. As I said, Krugman may not read your blog, but he reads Thoma, and Thoma reads everything. There is certainly a herd mentality among bloggers; if your name starts popping up on a few different blogs, then all the other bloggers will come looking. But there’s no way to estimate how long this will take; as Salmon said, whether a particular post gets noticed is largely a lottery, and I certainly can’t predict which of my posts will become popular.

One thing that follows from this is that it’s important to make it easy for other bloggers to read your blog. Here I (again) agree with Felix Salmon: publish a full RSS feed. The short reason is that I suspect most bloggers read other blogs in their RSS readers, and if I have to click on a link to read a full post, then those first few lines have to be really interesting, or I won’t make the click. Speaking for myself, I am much more likely to read a post on a blog that gives me a full feed than one that doesn’t, even though the latter category includes Krugman, FT Alphaville, Economix, and many other worthwhile blogs.

(Dave Winer, however, disagrees in a comment on my earlier post; he prefers that the RSS feed include a summary rather than full text. And Dave Winer is one of the fathers of RSS, so he knows whereof he speaks.)

Another thing that follows, though perhaps a little less obviously: be polite. Bloggers are a community, and how you behave matters. If you disagree strongly with someone, express your disagreement through superior logic or mountains of evidence, not by calling the other person an idiot. There are a few bloggers out there who not only like to show that they are smarter than other people (most of us fall victim to this temptation), but come out and say that they are smarter than other people, and judging from their traffic (Alexa can show this for you) that strategy has not been successful for them. I am on good terms with some of the people whom I have disagreed with most strongly; some of them send me emails pointing out posts they think I may find interesting. Bloggers are people like everyone else; whether they will help you depends largely on whether they like you.

Besides building credibility and relationships with other blogs, my other big piece of advice is to make your blog as sticky and as easy to find as possible. Someday you may get a link from Krugman or Sullivan, and your page views will skyrocket. But you want those people to come back again and again, so when they show up, your blog should make that as easy as possible. That’s why we try to make it as obvious and easy as possible for people to sign up for emails or to subscribe to our RSS feed (we use Feedburner). You should also assume that your readers don’t know what RSS is and tell them why they should use it. Because if they don’t subscribe, they probably won’t be back. If you can put the box for people to enter their emails and click submit on your blog’s template (so it appears on every page), that’s even better.

Being easy to find also means putting it where people want it. That may mean Facebook or Twitter, no matter what you personally think of Facebook or Twitter. It can also mean republishing your blog on aggregator sites, such as Seeking Alpha or RGE Monitor (although the latter may be by invitation only). The important thing is to get your name and your articles out there so people (especially other bloggers) can find them.

And if you are ever on the radio, make sure to ask the host to give out your blog’s address over the air. It can’t hurt.

As I said, other people are welcome to add their suggestions below.

By James Kwak

27 responses to “How to Win Friends and Influence People

  1. If you are interested in building a blog, you should definitely check out Darren Rowse’s blog:

    http://www.problogger.net/

    He has over 100k subscribers and writes about building blogs. And I think this is just one of his blogs and not even the most popular one. He has a photography one that has over 200k subscribers.

  2. one answer is to borrow topics from felix salmon — he writes more or less in the middle of the topicsphere and so following him puts you in the middle as well.

  3. Disagree about primary source of a blog’s inbound traffic being from other blogs. Can you provide a citation that proves this assertion, or is it a guess?

    I know of several blogs (some of them my own) that get far more traffic from Google than they do from other blogs.

  4. I’m glad you brought this up. In this day and age I keep hearing people talk about the death of blogging, or how commenting is being replaced by other social media services. But I still see the blog as the cornerstone of our online worlds, and I see blog commenting as the way to connect to our peers.

    Yes, I Tweet links to interesting articles and share them via Google Reader, Friendfeed, etc. But when you comment on a blog directly, it becomes part of the dialog. It is there today and in the future as part of the original discussion. When people follow a link to a blog entry from Digg or StumbleUpon, those comments will still be there, as will be the links to the writer’s own blog.

    This is very helpful. If you happen to write a useful comment, other readers might click through. But no matter what you say, the blog owner will click through. If they find your comment and blog useful, this could be the beginning of a new conversation/friendship/etc. (And if they find you lame, you may not see the light of day.)

    Over the years I’ve made some great connections through blog commenting. Some of this has naturally brought more traffic to my blog. But it’s also created friendships with people I’d never have met otherwise. And now I know people, met through blogs, with whom I can share ideas not only between our blogs, but also via Twitter, StumbleUpon, Facebook, etc.

    So for me at least, a combo of blogging, commenting, RSS and social media is win-win for all involved.

  5. I’m not at all sure I’d agree that most traffic, comments or interest comes from other blogs. I’ve been blogging actively (pretty much daily) in multiple places for almost ten years. Aggregated I’d say about 35% of traffic comes from other blogs at most, and I’ve been active in my sector…even prolific. Content, the value we add is still the key to attention, traffic, buzz, karma or whatever you call it. I’ve seen far more traffic from search engines, RSS feeds and lifestreams like Twitter and FriendFeed for the past two years. Very significantly more.

    I think traffic comes from conversation, substance and adding value. I don’t think it’s content, but value added content.

  6. Interesting. I read my own blog, and that’s enough for me. It’s more of a diary really, a way to go back and see just how wrong and FOS I have been, especially in light of subsequent developments. If others want to read it, fine. It’s out there.

    But if I want my ideas to be noted, I’ll comment on the more successful blogs that are more widey read. I believe you economists call that the ‘free rider’ effect. Of course, you’re deriving enormous value from my oh-so-insightful comments (except when I’m FOS). The more free riders, the better. Or, at least, the more readers the better, I suppose.

    This was a very nice and thoughtful post and I don’t mean to be mocking.

  7. please don’t pay attention to the RSS summary only opinion, imo it’s quite incorrect. as you’ve surmised, and posted on previously, a full feed is more friendly and efficient for the reader, and will thus be more successful. any blog whose tactic is to drive ad views will be quickly rejected.

    for example, it seems zero hedge is moving to a very brief summary format; if so it will result in at least one lost reader.

  8. Thanks James, really appreciate the information. I’m the old friend looking for advice about my new blog. Interesting discussion in the comments about where blogging traffic comes from. Our site is written by and for physicians interested in palliative and end-of-life care for older adults (www.geripal.org). A very niche group. I think one of our issues is that we’re used to writing journal articles, not blog posts, and thus come across as somewhat stiff. Some of our posts read like letters to the editor, not blog entries (granted, sample size is less than 10). If anyone has other thoughts about our blog, suggestions are welcome, either to keliimoeanu@yahoo.com or at geripal. Thanks again James and community!

  9. Yet another reason why I hate the word “blog” (it’s only still in our name because that’s how we’re known after I made a bad decision long ago), the term “blogger” and the verb “blogging.” It’s insane to lump together everyone who writes in blog format, when their topics and styles are so different. To say they’re a community just because they all publish in the same format makes no sense.

    Example — For the hundreds of neighborhood news websites like ours that publish in blog format, by far the largest source of traffic is direct – either bookmarks, direct nav or people navigating by typing the site’s name into Google. And we have more in common with conventional-media writers than with people who might consider themselves “bloggers” because they write, say, an opinion site in blog format, or a personal site, etc.

    So having said all that, I have to wonder, who are these blog-format writers (and what genre are they writing? another reason why the word “blog” is meaningless – are you talking about journal writers? news writers? advocacy writers? opinion/commentary writers?) who are mostly only getting traffic from other writers in the same format? Is it that their work is really not of much interest to the general public?

  10. Thanks for this interesting overview and advice.

    (And thanks for putting my link on your sidebar. I’ve gotten quite a few hits through here, though I guess by your measure I fall more into the op-ed writer category, at least so far. I still haven’t decided on what’s my best mode of expression.)

    I did originally come to this blog via Krugman. I’ve read him for years, and when I decided last year I wanted to read some finance blogs, I let him be my recommender.)

  11. markets.aurelius

    Great writing, informative analysis, and genuinely making an effort to understand and question the prevailing policy debates are critical. You guys are at the top of the list when judged on those criteria.

    You’re performing a necessary public service. And you’re doing it very well.

  12. I couldn’t agree more with Aurelius. I found “baseline” through Simon’s Appearance on Bill Moyers. And I’ve been addicted ever since. This is the first Econ/Finance blog I go to everyday. And it is very much a public service. TV is 99% garbage. I check this site, a few other Econ sites, read the NYT website, and listen to NPR. Those 3 things (and the Bible) help me keep what’s left of my sanity. If I watched daytime TV to view humanity, I would have shot myself a long time ago.

    BASELINESCENARIO IS A GREAT PUBLIC SERVICE. A breath of fresh air in a confusing world.

  13. I, too, have been adicted to this website. It has given me excellent backround information. It has provided substantial information, in an otherwise wasteland of propaganda produced on the financial TV networks. This is a fine public service, and and thank you guys a million times.

    Keep it up!!

  14. James,
    Its great that you’re willing to take the time to help other people coming along. I posted these questions at Felix’s site but if you want to take a whack at them, it would be great:

    When and how much should you quote someone vs. a simple link? How much context do you need to give vs. expecting that people are following the conversation?

    When responding to someone do you just focus on the persons best points or address the entirety of their argument?

    How worthwhile is it to link and/or quote something you agree with. It seems boring to say “yeah what she said” but if you never agree with anyone are you a douche?

    On that same note s it arrogant to aggregate or have link dumps when you are obviously small time and most of your readers have probably seen this stuff already?

    What’s the etiquette if people much more established than you link to you. Should you thank them? Is that kosher?

    On that same subject should you make a concerted effort to link to people who link to you? Or, should you focus on the stuff you read the most?

    Thanks

  15. I just have one thing to say. I find that about 80# of what you and Simon have to say to be interesting, and usually significantly different from other somewhat similar posts. I like a pragmatic, albeit fairly libertarian viewpoint, so your opinion crafting is right up my alley. You’re kind of the PBS of blogs, tough and fair. The emphasis here, and with most of your responders is appropriate emotionality combined with reasoning.

    I will admit that I also follow those that you (more or less) recommend by reference or citation, but have yet to find anyone as consistant. Thank you for your clear hard-line thinking. It’s very refereshing from what I can get in most other information sources.

  16. Humility, balance, intelligence, thoughtful prose. That’s why your readership is loyal. Personally, I find the blogrolls at Calculated Risk and economistsview worthwhile. When you get tired of economics and seek diverting science and art, the blogroll at bibliodyssey is world-class, one of the very best.

  17. Alex, maybe the physician’s group you speak of is a niche group, but there many consumers out here who are dying to find physicians who care about end-of-life and palliative care. Perhaps you could get AARP to run a little story about what you’re doing and mention your blog. I bet that would stir things up…:-)

  18. More power to you bloggers out there as thoughtful posts and comments are always appreciated. As a reader and only occasional commenter, I can’t conceive of the amount of time and effort that must go into what you do, let alone the pressure to come up with material on a frequent and never-ending basis.

    As a reader only, the content gets overwhelming so concise writing on a blog is a must for me to stick with one and that’s what would make me think twice about removing one with my occasional culls.

    A feeling of being indispensable to readers is a risk of blogging. Just want to say to all, don’t let it drive you nuts. Limit the stress if it gets overwhelming. Take a good walk daily to get a break from hearing yourself think! Readers may not want to lose you, but you don’t want to lose you even more! :)

  19. It’s like buying a yacht, if you have to ask how to do it….you can’t.

  20. being a blogger myself, i have learnt over the past two years that traffic can eventuate in predominately two forms – the first is writing quality content reiterated by James. If popular, this will lead you to a diverse range of traffic sources, of which, fellow bloggers will form a significant portion of your traffic source. The second is essentially ‘organized manipulation’ which is SEO. For those who don’t know what SEO is (it stands for Search engine optimization), there are numerous websites, books and bloggers that can fill you in on the details but in essence, it is the art of writing your content to get ranked in search engines – which these days is a monopoly of google. Write for google and write for the world. … Just a thought.

  21. James….thanks for another great post. One bit of color I would add. I agree that blogroll links aren’t the best way to drive direct traffic, but they are a great way to boost Google pagerank.

    For instance, did you know BaselineScenario.com has a blowout ranking of 8 out of 10? That ranks you near NYT.com, which is 9/10, and above Drudge, which gets a 7. Anything above five is very good for a blog.

    (If you want to see the pagerank of any site you visit, and you use Firefox, I recommend downloading “SearchStatus” add-on)

    Higher pagerank means Google gives you more credit for being an expert regarding the keywords discussed on your site, so you will appear more prominently in a search for “TARP warrants,” for instance than a blog with a pagerank of 5.

    The best way to build pagerank is to get links from other, highly ranked pages.

    Blogrolls aren’t great at driving direct traffic, but they ARE great at helping boost search engine traffic.

    Keep up the great work!

    -RW

  22. Joshua M Brown

    you missed one other key piece of advice…be the wittiest SOB in your niche…lol

    good post, tons of great advice here

    The Reformed Broker

  23. And make sure to follow a few rules while you are at it . . . . Thanks for the opportunity to articulate one of my pet peeves.

  24. Great information here & I’d also like to harp on the fact that interacting with the ‘blog’ community is key. Post on others blogs, email them, post your opinion on their pieces, elaborate on some of their topics, get a dialogue started for co-op projects, etc. It’s a great community out there and the main thing is to just put yourself out there and make the effort.

    I’m a firm believer that if you put out useful or niche content, someone will notice it and will pass it on. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. However, you just have to take that first step and volunteer it. If no one out there is really filling a topic you’re an expert on, that’s an immediate niche for you to fall into.

    By the way, pleased to make the acquaintance, I’m Jay from http://www.marketfolly.com where we track hedge fund portfolios and post up some financial market commentary as well. Me commenting here is the perfect illustration of what one can do to reach out and to expand the community. Thanks for your posts!

    Jay

  25. I’m one of those who found you through your bout of “luck”. However, thanks to your great articles, I still come back (although I haven’t been commenting as much as I used to). Yours is nowadays one of 4 economics blogs I find time for (Krugman, Mankiw and DeLong being the others).
    Sadly, my comments here are a reflection of my own posting (ie not much of late – but I will return).

  26. Alex, for what it is worth, I had a peek at your blog site and first impressions were that it was far too textual and rather visually off-putting. I wonder if others agree. Being old (I’m heading up to 65 years young) doesn’t mean that we don’t crave visual stimulation.
    I started my own blog 2 days ago using a standard template from WordPress (Baseline Scenario also use WordPress). Impressed with the themes and flexibility offered. In the end, the clean style that BS use won over the day for me. Just a few thoughts, Paul

  27. this article very usefull for anybody that want to build a website. And about great content off course this is one option that they have think about.
    as my experience. have a great content it enough without more traffic and how to get the traffic, we have to learn and pratice seo, and lucky factor its not enough we need serious work. by the way this article is very helpfull for me too.

    i will save yout link for my next visit. thank for sharing :)