The Struggle to Find your Niche

One of the keys to a successful blog is to find your niche. Original content is what makes a blog unique and worthwhile. It is what makes a blog a ‘must read’. It is what makes someone subscribe to your RSS feed.

Bloggers who get to ‘break stories’ or have the ‘first scoop’ on the latest news have incredibly large audiences. The same holds true for bloggers with name recognition who provide original opinion or analysis pieces. Both types of bloggers are the movers-and-shakers of the blogosphere, often shaping what others blog about (as I mentioned on Friday).

Fortunately, businesses, organizations, and a good number of individuals can avoid this blogosphere struggle because many of them already have found their niche – they already have captivated audiences in the real world.

For example, a health and wellness business with a relatively established customer base could use a blog to speak about the benefits of new products or tips for healthy living.  A pastor of a church could connect with his congregation throughout the week and not solely on Sunday mornings. Authors could also make the ideas behind their books much more ‘alive’.

This struggle really boils down to how you add value to your readers. There is no better way to find that out than to ask them. Their feedback should help you fine tune your content strategy and ensure that your blog maintains relevance in an ever growing blogosphere.

Blogging Isn't Always Blissful at Microsoft

Following an exposé in BusinessWeek, mystery blogger Mini-Microsoft, who is openly critical (far more than Scoble and other Microsoft bloggers) of what’s going on inside Microsoft, leapt into the spotlight, adding fuel to corporate concerns about blogging.

I certainly understand why any public company would be concerned about an anonymous employee writing a post that starts, Hey Shareholders!. On the other hand, as a shareholder, I’d want to hear this. Where’s the line? I don’t know, but I suspect this blog may be a major part of determining where it’s drawn.

"Blog" Is Still Jargon

Jonathan Carson of BuzzMetrics and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association reports on new findings from Nielson regarding blog readership, confirming something we conjectured in The Virtual Handshake.

According to the Nielsen study, only 6% of the general population report that they read blogs occasionally or every day, and 60% say they’ve never even heard of a blog. The shocker, though (not to me), is that when they looked at the sites survey respondents were visiting, 13% of the people who visit blogs regularly reported that they “had never heard of blogs”. Fully 50% of blog visitors reported that they knew what a blog is, or have heard of them, but don’t read them. That means that almost 2/3 of blog readers have no idea that they’re reading this thing called a blog.

That, my friends, is why the market for blogs and the ecosystem around them is still wide open.

Forbes Blasts Blogs

Forbes’ Attack of the Blogs article is definitely the hot topic in the blogosphere this week. A Google search on “Attack of the Blogs” will provide you with ample reading material, mostly well-deserved vitriolic rants against the article.

I do, though, think that Dave Taylor’s take on it is worth reading – a contrarian view from most of the rest of the bloggers who have commented on this. I also recommend the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Free Speech vs. Bad Advice and Attack of the Printing Press to help put it in a broader context.

My take on it is best summed up by Pat, one of the commenters on Dvorak Uncensored:

The Forbes article does take a slanted view and commits the same wrong that it accuses bloggers of. The facts might be accurate in themselves, but between the lines there was a lot of missing information. That missing information does slant the article into an anti-blog statement. The opinions garnered from this article will then be re-told as heinous facts, citing only the negative.

The Blogging Enterprise – Character Blogs

The general consensus from the conference seems to be that character blogs (fake blogs created by marketing departments that are supposedly written by the company’s mascot or other character) are, at least usually, lame. They are missing a key attribute of blogs: authenticity.

Some not-so-shining examples cited by today’s keynoters Steve Rubel and Shel Israel include:

  • Captain Morgan – Oh, come on. A blog from a 19th-century pirate? The biggest problem here, though, is not the basic concept, but the fact that the character just isn’t strong enough. With no hard liquor ads on TV and radio, they just haven’t been able to breathe enough life into the Captain to make him believable. Frankly, I think the whole ad campaign sucks.
  • Moosetopia, a blog about a moose traveling around the world, which supposedly relates somehow to Denali Flavors, a wholesaler of gourmet ice cream flavors. You know, their corporate blog is really good – exactly what a small business blog should be. But I just don’t get the moose thing either. Apparently some people do.
  • Delicious Destinations – Fictitious “T. Alexander” and occasional real-life guests share ideas about food, gift giving, entertaining and culture. Does it suck? No, certainly not nearly as badly as the above two do. But the fictitious character just doesn’t add anything.
  • The Lincoln Fry Blog – McDonald’s created an ill-fated ad campaign about two people discovering a french fry that looks like Abraham Lincoln. Actually, I found this one pretty amusing as satire. But effective marketing for McDonald’s? I don’t think so. If anything, it’s just a little too real, right up to the trackback spam from porn sites.

So are character blogs just completely lame? Steve Rubel thinks so, but Shel Israel is on the fence. He likes, for example, the Darth Vader blog, although it is (best guess) written by a fan, not a corporate marketing department.

My take on it, though, is that it’s not that there’s an inherent problem with character blogs, so much as that the examples above just aren’t based on a strong enough character to begin with.

What characters would I like to see blog?

  • Jack – maybe even a group blog from the antenna balls – “Jack in the Blog”? (Choice quote from Shel: “How do people at that company ever think outside the box?”)
  • Jiminy Glick could podcast behind-the-scenes stuff and outtakes.
  • Ali G – Frankly, it would be far more entertaining than one from Sacha Baron Cohen.
  • Dame Edna – Do you want to read a blog from Barry Humphries?
  • Harvey Birdman – Can you imagine his blawg?
  • Mickey Mouse – for kids – I wouldn’t read it (I’m not too sure about this one, but it’s a possibility)

Those would be purely for entertainment value, and I recognize that they (obviously) wouldn’t be “authentic”, but I think they could be done in a way that wouldn’t suck if there were a strong enough character as a foundation.

Apparently I’m not alone:

I’m of very like mind to Dave, who says in his article on fake blogs:

[T]he real reason that story blogs aren’t better and therefore more popular is because it’s just darn hard to produce material week after week as a fictitious character.

And in his critique of the Panasonic blog:

That’s the fundamental problem with the “Tosh Bilowski” weblog effort from Panasonic and its PR agency in my eyes, not that it’s “fake” or that they’ve pretty clearly created a fictional ‘video geek’ to write about their product line, but that it’s just boring and unengaging.

What’s your take?
– What about the examples above? Do they work for you or no?
– Are character blogs inherently lame, or is there any possibility of a good one?
– If so, what character(s) would you like to see blog?

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P.S. – It’s almost 3:00am here and I have a client on Thursday, my About.com weekly deadline Thursday night, and a meeting Friday morning, so it will be late Friday before I get the three or four other post-conference posts done that I’m planning.

The Blogging Enterprise – Who's Winning with Blogs?

I see and hear blogging success stories all the time from small businesses and solo practitioners, and there are well-known success stories from tech industry giants like Microsoft’s Channel 9 and Macromedia’s blogs. Todays’s panelists Todd Watson and Tom Parish also talked about IBM developerWorks blogs and Steve Rubel and Shel Israel told of several who have:

  • GM FastLane from GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz
  • BlogMaverick from Dallas Mavericks owner and serial entrepreneur Mark Cuban
  • Association of National Advertisers, whose blog posts frequently get picked up directly by Advertising Age and other media
  • Stonyfield Farm, who provides an inside look at the company, plus three topical blogs on the issues their customers are interested in
  • Vespa is supporting Vespa-related blogs with early looks at Vespa products and services, free accessory merchandise and media exposure
  • Boeing, with their sponsorship of inFlightHQ and their ground-breaking 777 Flight Test Journal (though Shel also blasted their Marketing VP Randy Baseler’s blog for being a smarmy whitewash job)
  • Richard Edelman, head of the world’s largest PR firm (Shel: “He gives me access to conversations which I could otherwise never be a part of.”)
  • Vichy, a French cosmetics firm that, after a major faux pas with a fake blog, redeemed itself with a blog led by one of France’s top women bloggers recounting the stories of several real women as they go through the process of peel microabrasion

Rubel says that companies need to connect directly with their customers in the online world by:
1. Find
2. Listen
3. Engage
4. Empower

Shel Israel says that the winning attributes for a blog are:
– Authenticity
– Passion
– Authority
– Human fallibility
– Frequency
– Integrity

John Moore said (one of my favorite sound bites from the conference), “With blogs, small can look big and big can get small.”

What’s your take?
– What other large corporations outside of the tech industry are using blogs effectively?
– What are effective strategies for corporate blogs?
– How can corporations “join the conversation”?

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The Blogging Enterprise – The Death of Old Media?

Steve Rubel kicked off the day with a moment of silence for “old media”. OK, that may be a bit over the top, but as Austin American-Statesman Managing Editor Fred Zipp and Washington Post Opinion and Blogs Editor Hal Straus readily admitted, traditional newspaper readership is down (Washington Post was down 3% last year). According to panel moderator Lorraine Branham, a recent study reported that 44% of college students get news daily from internet portals vs. just 19% from newspapers.

That may signal a major shift in media, but the general consensus is that although citizen journalism may be a major new force to be reckoned with, blogging and journalism are not one and the same. As Jon Lebkowsky put it, many journalists are bloggers, and some bloggers may be journalists, but they each have their own set of rules.

Fortunately, everyone seemed to agree that there’s a place for both, and a potential symbiotic relationship between them. There’s simply too much going on in politics, corporations and other organizations for mainstream media to play the role of watchdog for everyone. Bloggers, who may focus on a very specific niche, help in that coverage. In the case of the Slidell Hurricane Blog, blogger Brian Oberkirchs quickly developed a working relationship with CNN and other major media, sharing information as soon as it was available, often before it ran. Bloggers can also help keep a story alive, providing continuing coverage that a mainstream journalist may not be able to do due to time and space constraints, but then come back to for a follow-up.

Straus said that for many years, the Washington Post ignored blogs. They saw blogs that weren’t “relevant, accurate and balanced” and avoided the topic. But the 2004 presidential campaign, particularly Howard Dean’s use of blogs, Meetup and other tools was a major turning point. By December 2004 they had decided to implement blogs and launched within six months. They have since noticed measurable increases in traffic and search engine rankings. They are also now looking at ways to embrace community journalism by opening up their platform to high schools and other community organizations.

The Austin American-Statesman have been some of the early adopters of blogging among traditional newspapers, first experimenting with blogs two years ago as a way to expand the types of information they could display to the public. The most successful have been the entertainment beat writers and the UT football blog, Bevo Beat. In September 2005, they became one of the first major-market newspapers to launch reader blogs. The motivation? While I was kind of hoping for some lofty vision of embracing consumer journalism, Zipp’s answer was much more practical: recouping some of that readership and traffic that was being sucked away by all this new media. Hey — it’s a business.

This topic is particularly hot right now, particularly in light of the recent debate over the controversial Forbes article and the current debate over whether bloggers should have the same rights as journalists regarding protected sources.

So what’s your take?
– Is old media dead? Or just going through a metamorphosis?
– Are bloggers journalists? And does it matter?
– Should bloggers be afforded the same right to protect sources that journalists are?
– How can mainstream media and bloggers best work together symbiotically rather than adversarially?

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Blog Ads Offer Bang for the Buck

In spite of the comparatively low reach compared to traditional media, blog advertising delivers great bang for the buck because of the higher click-through rates, according to panelists at the Online Media, Marketing and Advertising (OMMA) Conference last week, as reported by MediaPost.

Brian Clark of GMD Studios reported that in a campaign that his agency ran for Audi, just one-half of one percent of the media buy budget was spent on BlogAds, but they contributed 29 percent of the traffic to the campaign’s landing page. According to McKinney, the creative agency behind the campaign:

The media cost for the entire blog ad buy was less than the cost of one banner ad on a mainstream site such as Yahoo. The blog ad appeared on sites such as Metafilter, Lockergnome and Daily Kos.

The panelists also said, though, that many advertisers are hesitant about advertising on blogs and other social media because of the possibility of negative comments. They just don’t get it. Clark had this to say:

If you’re afraid of what users are going to say, there are two strategies: You get involved in the discussion, or you stick your fingers in your ears and pretend it doesn’t exist. People are talking about you whether you’re listening or not.

via AdRants via BlogAds via MediaPost

Get Paid to Blog

Ever wondered how you could get to paid to blog, but you weren’t quite ready to set up your own blog from scratch?

Or maybe you have your own blog, but you’re having a hard time getting enough traffic to it to make any money at it?

Or maybe you have a blog that’s about one particular topic, and you’d occasionally like to write about other topics, but don’t think it’s a good fit for your existing blog?

If any of these describes you, then you’ll definitely want to check out Creative Reporter. The deal is simple — sign up, post to any of Creative Weblogging‘s blogs and you get paid $10 per 1,000 page views (FYI, that’s a very good pay rate). They do have some basic guidelines – they’re looking for original posts, not just links and summaries (those won’t usually attract as much traffic anyway).

In case you’re not familiar with it, Creative Weblogging is a blog network similar to Weblogs Inc., Corante or AllBusiness.com’s Business Blogs. The big difference is that all of these only have one blogger per topic, with occasional guest bloggers by invitation only. With Creative Reporter, anybody can contribute to any of Creative Weblogging’s 40+ blogs, including topics ranging from aviation to VOIP.

I think this is a really smart move on Creative Weblogging’s part from a business standpoint. Not only will it increase the amount of content on their site, it should also increase their readership because of the network effect from new contributors, who will have a vested interested in helping promote the site to their friends and acquaintances. Since they apparently have enough advertisers paying per impression to cover this, it’s a no-lose proposition for them. And it couldn’t be easier for bloggers, since there’s nothing to set up. Just register and start posting.

Monitoring the Conversation

I recently wrote about how the online conversation is real. The basics of that post is that blogging fosters interaction. No surprise, to be a successful blogger, reading, writing, and responding to others within the larger community is an absolute must.

There are a growing number of ways that users can keep track of online conversations. David Teten spoke to one of them in the previous post- PubSub. PubSub is a prospective (forward looking) matching service that provides new information to users as it becomes available. So, for example, if you want news or information on social software, you would create a PubSub subscription with keywords “social software”. You can view a subscription like social software on PubSub or simply by copying the feed they provide into your favorite news aggregator.

Other ways to monitor the conversation include keeping track of “tags” that interest you. Tagging is a growing trend in the social software world and is closely related to “social bookmarking”. I’ll first speak to social bookmarking because it is similar to a word most people are familiar with – bookmarks.

Social bookmarking builds upon collaborative efforts, in that an individual’s bookmarks (or “favorites”) are no longer just their own. Rather, they are shared with the larger community. Unlike storing a bookmark under a particular folder in your browser, social bookmarks are saved online and are not categorized by folders, but are instead “tagged” by keywords. Users (and not computers) select appropriate tags for articles or sites of interest, as they come across them through their surfing of the web.

This post, for example, might be tagged with the word “socialsoftware” on any number of social bookmark sites. The most popular social bookmarking tool to this point is del.icio.us. Take a look at the socialsoftware tag or at my social bookmarks. Each tag also has an RSS feed, so that you can keep track of them in your favorite news aggregator (I’ll provide some more info on how to actually do that in my next post).

Tags can help you stay informed and introduce to information you might not have found otherwise. For a more advanced use of tags, take a look at what I am doing with my first blogoposium.

update: a good reference on social bookmarking basics (via Jyri Engeström) by Tony Hammond, Timo Hannay, Ben Lund, and Joanna Scott; and a very academic piece by Clay Shirky entitled Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags (via David Teten’s suggestion)