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