Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Taking a blog from zero to 60: 5 lessons from @GuideStarUSA

(Editor's note: When Lindsay J.K. Nichols shared the good news that GuideStar’s blog was cited as a top nonprofit blog, I asked her to write about how she took that blog from zero to 60, because that arc is an important one to keep in mind when you are starting a blog--or starting over with one. Nichols is communications director and curator of GuideStar’s BlogTwitter, Facebook, Google+, and Pinterest pages, among other social media channels. You may reach her at lnichols@guidestar.org.) 

It took me three years to get the hang of blogging for a brand. A couple of weeks ago, the blog that I poured so much blood, sweat, and tears into—the GuideStar Blog—was ranked by Top Nonprofits as #15 among the top 150 nonprofit blogs, giving me a reason to jump for joy. This recognition gave me a moment to pause and reflect on what worked – and what didn’t – when building a successful organizational blog. I thought I’d share with you the five things I learned along the way:
  1. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole. When I came to GuideStar, I inherited two blogs, and the disparate missions of each. I spent a year pulling my hair out trying to make them work before I decided to give up and start over. And that’s the nugget I want to share here: sometimes it’s just better to abandon ship than to throw water overboard bucket by bucket. I decided to close the blogs and create a new and targeted blog with a clear mission, purpose, audience, and editorial calendar. That doesn’t mean that everything on the former blogs were unhelpful or worth wasting. I used WordPress to create the new blog, and there is a helpful export/import feature that allowed me to bring in the old content that was relevant and worth saving. But the new blog helped me rethink everything, and that was vital to getting it right. 
  2. Know your audience. As in all things communications-related, you have to know who you’re writing for, speaking to, learning from, etc. We all know that, right? Then why is it so hard to remember that when we’re blogging? Frankly, I think it’s because we (or the powers that be) want to be all things to all people. Most of us don’t just have just one target audience for our organizations; we try to reach multiple groups with one channel, like a blog. I found out quickly that this approach doesn’t work. When I created the GuideStar Blog, I focused on one clear audience: nonprofit professionals. Sure, there is a lot of range within that audience—there are people who work at nonprofits that just graduated from college, and there are people who lead nonprofits who have 40 year careers. But the crux is that they all have the same goal: to be more effective and efficient. And that’s the mission I have in mind when I tailor the content for this audience. 
  3. Curate quality content. What is content curation? As social guru Beth Kanter has said, content curation is the process of sorting through the vast amounts of content on the web and presenting it in a meaningful and organized way around a specific theme. That was really important for the success of the new GuideStar Blog. The two blogs I had inherited were meant to focus on GuideStar expert-written content solely. I spent a year begging, stalking, and pleading with my colleagues to give me content about their various work. That didn’t work: people are busy, and blogging is often seen as a distraction rather than important to their bottom-line. So – I decided to look outward, and that has helped me immensely. There is so much content out there that can help nonprofit professionals, and when I first launched the GuideStar Blog, I spent a lot of time seeking these experts out to give me content. It has been so successful that now I rarely have to proactively search for that content. People understand GuideStar Blog’s purpose, and they deluge to me with content—a good problem to have. I spend a lot of time sorting through what’s coming in to make sure that content is helpful to GuideStar Blog’s target audience, and shareable. And, it should be noted, my internal experts now see the value of the GuideStar Blog and they come to me with their own content that I had begged for earlier. A total win, in my book. 
  4. It’s simple: If you don’t build it, they won’t come. After launching the GuideStar blog and spending so much time finding quality content, I was only posting sporadically, and while that was appropriate at the time – because I would be damned if I posted something that didn’t fit the blog’s mission and context – it didn’t help grow my audience. The fact is, the more you post, the more people have a chance to understand your blog’s role in the field, and the more the target audience can rely on the blog to get the information they need. It’s important to find good content, but it’s also really important to post consistently – I usually post at least three times each work week, if not five days. 
  5. Use images: There are endless amount of articles out there proclaiming that images make content inherently more interesting, and that’s doubly true with blog content. There are so many blogs out there, and if you want to be able to break through the clutter, you need to be visually appealing to catch their eye. At the minimum, I include photos of the author, because I think it helps people connect a real person with the words. If I can include another image – an infographic, photo, or even a video screen shot – I will. The important thing is to use the images purposefully so the overall look is clean and fresh rather than cluttered or confusing. 
These aren’t the only lessons I learned along my way, but they are the most salient points I wanted to share with you. These tips helped me move the GuideStar Blog from relative obscurity to #15 out of the top 150 blogs, and I hope that they help you decide the right course of action for your own organization’s blog. I’d love to hear from you. What did you find helpful when creating a blog? What is holding you back from creating one? Please let me know in the comments below!

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