A friend and I used to play a sad game, when we met over dinner every few months. We would swap stories, competing to see who had worked the crappiest job or for the worst boss. (The game started while we were both working with a man seething with so much anger that management suggested he be isolated in a room with just one other person. Inevitably, the other person had to be removed after the two wound up in a little-girl screaming match followed by a flurry of punches.)
My friend usually won our contest, but, unfortunately, I managed to hold my own. One job that kept me in the running was a year I spent as a proposal writer for a large insurance company. My boss sprung straight from a Dickens novel—a hunched-over, hamstser-faced man with a comb-over, who had been relegated to managing a unit he detested in the hope he would resign. (A few years earlier, the president of the company had thought it would be a funny practical joke to have a fake headstone placed outside of this man’s office window, with RIP in big letters. That company was just a laugh a minute.) Alas, the human spirit is unfathomable, and my boss clung to his hated job with grim determination.
Even though he made a failed attempt to fire me based on imaginary offenses cooked up in a paranoid alternate reality, that man was not the worst part of the job. The worst part was that I spent all day, every day writing rote answers to tedious requests for proposals from high-priced consulting firms, knowing full well that no one ever read what I wrote. Decisions were never made based on my answers. We were all just going through the motions.
I’ve have seen some nonprofit blogs over the past few years that have a similar feel to them. There are some great nonprofit blogs out there. But there are still those that plod along without grabbing the reader. You don’t want to produce one of those blogs. You want people reading your organization’s work. You want comments by the hundreds. A shelf lined with Webby Awards. So, I’m hear to help. Below are 10 principles for writing a blog that people will want to read.
- Think like an editor. When you pitch a story idea to editors at newspapers, magazines and other media outlets, you have to pass the “so what” test. It has become cliche, but it is a useful test. Ask yourself if this would this tear your reader away from his or her busy day. If not, rethink it. You don’t want to spend time producing something no one will read. No question a lot of blogs are about esoteric topics that are tough to make exciting, but there in lies your challenge. And we know you are the sort who always rises to a good challenge. Find a way to turn your fruit-fly covered, brown-spotted lemons into lemonade. Bottom line: If the Transportation Security Administration can grab your attention with a blog entry about curling irons – you can make your subject downright fascinating.
- Let some personality come through. Admittedly, this is a bit easier if you are the sole or main face of the blog, but it can be done even when a blog draws on numerous authors and a variety of voices. Whoever is writing, he or she should work to remain conversational and inviting. Make sure the author writes in the first person, with personal anecdotes when appropriate. Check out how master blogger Penelope Trunk turns personal stories into lessons and lists. I know what you are thinking. That sort of writing is not going to work at the National Academy of Extraordinarily High-Minded Research where you slog through your day. If you work with a lot of guest bloggers who are not exactly turning the world upside down with their prose, send them examples of what you like. Encourage them when they let a little personality show through. Help them lighten up a little. Ask them upfront if they have any colorful stories or descriptions to weave in. Give them entertaining introductions. You may not be able to pull this off to the extreme that Trunk does, but adding even a little color and personality will make a difference.
- Tell stories. People crave a good tale. It is how we are wired. Stories help us understand abstract concepts. They help us connect emotionally with others. They move us to action. Pepper your blog entries with anecdotes that illustrate your points. Share moments that people can understand. Try to offer stories that grab people. Story-telling expert Andy Goodman argues that you don’t need a lot of space to tell a powerful story, just the right elements. Even if you can’t dredge up killer stories that reach into your readers’ chests and rip their hearts from their moorings, you can add some anecdotes or descriptions that help put the reader on the scene with you. Adding stories and descriptive color will bring your blog entries to life, drive your points home more effectively and create an emotional connection with the reader.
- Offer variety. Some nonprofit blogs make the mistake of simply posting one commentary piece after another. Or, God help us, endless personal musings on the minutiae that makes up the editor’s tedious existence. (When these people call home, their parents pretend to be out for the evening.) Thoughtful commentaries can be a valuable means of generating discussion and sharing thoughts now and then, but you and your readers crave variety. Your readers want you to help them navigate the topic that is central to your blog. They want you to identify interesting work at your organization and elsewhere. They want some insight from others working on the same challenges. They want you to pull back the curtain on the inner workings of your organization. They want stories of your successes and failures. You can do short updates, long thoughtful pieces, photos from the office holiday party, Q&As with interesting people, profiles of constituents. Mix it up. Keep your readers on their toes with a lively menu of offerings. Look at the approach Charity: Water takes, mixing birthday wishes with videos, photos of staff at work, stories from the field, organizational updates. The blog makes you feel like you’re part of the action.
- Get people talking. Blogs are not just another publishing platform aimed at broadcasting news. At heart, they are about starting good discussions where people learn from each other. If you want to establish lively conversation at a dinner party, you generally don’t ask one of the guests to lecture for an hour. Instead, you seed conversations by putting interesting people next to each other, pointing out intriguing items you read recently, telling stories, posing questions. Blogs are at their best when they move away from pontificating and into seeding conversation. One of the most effective blog approaches, by the way, is to admit up front that you don’t have all the answers. Offering what wisdom you do have and then asking for feedback is a great way to get conversation rolling.
- Encourage feedback. A few years back, I was helping shape a blog for an organization and a senior manager suggested the blog avoid touching on any of the more controversial work the group was doing. Not surprisingly, months later the same group was wondering why there was little traffic to the blog. I’m not suggesting you be deliberately provocative. I am suggesting that you write in a way that encourages comments and feedback, and sometimes touches on the topics that are generating heated discussion in your world. One easy approach is to end most blog entries with an appropriate question to readers. Social media whiz Chris Brogan lives by this rule. If people do comment, make sure you respond to them. If they don’t feel as though they are being heard, they will stop talking. And you will learn from what they have to say.
- Use different media. A strength of blogs is that they are not limited to one format. The blog should tap into all forms of media from photo essays, to audio and video interviews, to story-telling videos. It is important to touch on all of those mediums, when appropriate. Blog readers tend to be particularly responsive to photos and videos. Again, the Charity: Water blog is a great example of using mixed media.
- Remain transparent. A blog is a wonderful tool for creating a genuine feeling of connection and trust with your constituents, but that only works if you are authentic and open in your dealings at every level. Sharing news—good and bad, being upfront about challenges and concerns, making the public aware of the inner workings of your organization all will strengthen the organization’s relationship with the field and donors. Look at how Southwest Airlines handled the situation on its blog when director Kevin Smith told the world he was kicked off a flight for being too fat. That’s what transparency can do for you.
- Spread the word. A generosity of spirit is key with a blog. You don’t want to be known strictly for self-promotion. Point out the work of others in the field, even those who may disagree with you. You want a reputation for providing a platform to air thoughtful work. That will lead to more guest blogs and comments, and provide more value to your readers. Which brings us to the final, and perhaps most important guideline …
- Provide value. The number one goal of any blog is to provide content that the readers will feel is useful. The best blogs focus on helping inform the reader. While a blog is certainly a good platform for sharing your work with the world, it should not be solely dedicated to talking about yourself. You should continually produce content that will educate readers and drawn them into discussion and, maybe, action. Being informative and helpful to readers should always be at the forefront.
Life is too short to spend it toiling away at something that will never see the light of day. I lost a year of my life doing just that. You deserve better.
What about you? Any thoughts on how to produce a blog that people want to read? Success stories to share? Favorite nonprofit blogs?
Photo credit: University of Washington Libraries.