How to Blog Like a Publisher

Greg SatellToday’s guest post is from the inimitable Greg Satell (and yes, I meant to use that word). If you aren’t already reading Greg’s blog, you should be!

I started blogging about a year and a half ago and have been incredibly enriched by the experience. Maintaining a blog not only helps me frame and develop my ideas, it gives me a valuable record of my thoughts on a variety of topics that I often use later for reference.

I started my blog on a whim and, to be honest, I never thought it would amount to much. So I was pleasantly surprised when I quickly gained a following and soon was getting links from major sites, like Forbes.com, Politico, FT.com and even Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab!

Another surprise was that, while my experience running large scale digital businesses didn’t help me much, my background as a magazine publisher proved invaluable. Here are some basic principles that I borrowed from the print world that are easy to apply and make a big difference.

5 Old Publishing Rules That Every Blogger Should Know

Print publishers have an advantage over web guys. They’ve been doing it a lot longer. While that doesn’t ensure success on the web (as many excellent magazines have demonstrated with notoriously poor online efforts), it does give us some sound principles that we can put to good use.

1. Build a reserve: Publishers of lifestyle titles learned long ago that it is essential to keep a healthy reserve of articles, photo shoots and other content. It not only provides a safety net for when things go wrong, it also helps to ensure that what goes into print is highly polished. The same idea works for blogging.

You should keep a minimum of four posts in reserve (I’m a nervous type, so I usually have far more). This, of course, helps you through the inevitable dry spells. It also gives you the luxury of allowing your posts to sit for a while so that you can look at them with a fresh eye before you put them up.

Another benefit is that it helps you sequence your posts more effectively. It’s natural for posts to bunch up around the same train of thought as you write them, so a reserve will help you keep a diverse mix on your front page and provide a richer user experience.

2. Keep to a schedule: Print titles are defined by periodicity. There are weeklies, monthlies and so on. Consumers learn to anticipate when to expect a new issue.

I generally post on Sundays and Wednesdays. I doubt many of my readers know this, but they do feel that my site has a rhythm and that if they check in every few days they will see something new. I make sure to never disappoint them.

Of course, this is relatively easy to do if you maintain a reserve. Sometimes you write more, sometimes you write less, but your product always stays consistent.

3. Structure and Pacing: Open any magazine and you know what to expect. There are some departments with short features in the beginning leading to a “feature well” in the middle. The end tends to be a hodgepodge (advertisers don’t want to be put there so not much effort goes into the last third).

Each magazine also has a characteristic pace. Weeklies tend to try to put lots of content into small spaces. Monthlies highlight longer articles and big, impressive photo spreads. Editors put a lot of effort into keeping the pace consistent with the experience they want to create for the reader.

Your blog should also have a characteristic structure and pace that accentuates your content. My posts tend to be informationally dense, so I work hard to break up the text with frequent sub-heads. The Ad Contrarian, whose content somewhat overlaps with mine, has a much more chatty style and hardly any sub-heads.

Figure out what structure and pace works for you and stick to it (but generally, on the web the pace should be fast and the text scanable).

4. Consistency and Surprise: Dick Stolley, the editorial guru of Time Inc. likes to say that there are two things that every great media product needs: consistency and surprise. He means that you should be sure to set and meet readers expectations, but you need to shake things up every now and then.

As an example, think of the hit TV show “Law and Order.” It had a very clear structure: The crime, the investigation and then the prosecution of the case. They did, every once in a while alter that formula and you could immediately notice it. It was jarring! Those were episodes viewers remembered.

I would, however, add some caveats to changing up. First, it’s dangerous, so you should have a clear reason for doing it (and your own boredom is not a good reason!). Second, it should be done rarely. If there is no consistency, there is no surprise; just a jumbled mess.

5. Break Some Rules: You’re product will be defined by the rules you break. If you’ve ever read The Economist, you’ll immediately notice how the basic structure differs from that of other news magazines. It’s how the content is organized, more than how the articles are written, that makes The Economist unique.

You should therefore be very clear on which rules you tend to follow and which rules you want to break. My posts, for instance, are much longer than on most blogs (1000-1500 words). That gives me the possibility of developing fairly complex concepts, while keeping to a strict structure makes them readable.

Again, the key is to be very clear about the experience you want to engineer for your readers. If that breaks some rules, fine. Just be consistent and know why you’re breaking them.

Some New Blogging Tricks Learned Along the Way

By this time, you are probably thinking, “Okay, this stuff makes some sense, but why are print people so often crap on the web?”

You have a point.  The web is truly different and print publishers often fail to make the changes needed to adapt.  While web publishing rules are not nearly as well established and are subject to change as new technology develops, here’s a few simple tips that are specific to blogging:

Get Your Own URL: While you might be tempted to post on a ready-to-go platform such as Blogger, you are probably better off getting your own website address. It takes a bit more work, but building your own site is probably easier than you think and there are lots of important long term benefits.

I was lucky enough to choose Blue Host to register my URL and host my site and I have to say I’ve been very happy with them. They are not expensive and their service people have been fantastic whenever I’ve needed help with any problems.

I also recommend WordPress as a content management platform (the software you use to manage your blog). You can download it right from most hosting providers and there is a huge community which produces an enormous amount of themes and plug-ins for you to choose from.

Don’t Clutter the Column: One very common mistake is to load the column with too many links. Every link represents a choice that takes up reader’s attention span. Try to limit yourself to three blocks of five links, in addition to any basic utilities (i.e. newsletter, search, etc.) and social media badges.

More specifically, don’t bother with link clouds (they draw attention, but are rarely clicked on). Also, for some reason, “best posts” links tend to do very poorly. I don’t know why, but it seems to be the case. So if you want to experiment with it, go ahead. But monitor it and take it down if it’s not being utilized.

Build Content Clusters & Anchor Posts: While magazine publishing is about leading the reader through the edition, web publishing is about building relationships between content. When I’ve trained print editors to work on the web, this is the hardest thing to get them to understand (many never quite get it).

There are a couple of ways to take advantage of this. One is to build content clusters, a bunch of posts around similar topics. Then you can link the posts within the text and through “related posts” links. Another good idea is to create “anchor posts.” These are general posts on a topic that link to more specific posts in the cluster.

Both techniques will give your blog a deeper, richer feel and have serious SEO benefits.

Sweet Revenge

Back in my days as a magazine publisher, I worked with a very talented editor that runs a major news title and is something of a national figure.  In our long whiskey-drinking sessions, he used to enjoy teasing me by saying that he told his editors to write so simply that “the sales and marketing people can understand it.”

Having come up through the business side, I didn’t find that nearly as funny as he did.  So now that my blog has gained a following among journalists, I relish telling him:

“Writing?  Even I can do that…”

- Greg

Greg Satell is a Media Consultant based in Kiev, Ukraine.  He blogs at Digital Tonto and you can find him on Twitter at @digitaltonto.

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