My Blog: If I Build It, Will They Come?
I’m writing a quick post tonight in response to a question I received today. I actually intended to address this later, but I have a number of posts about what Michael O Church calls CS666 in various stages of readiness, and I’m trying to juggle not offering rabble-rousing cynicism without solutions, avoiding a stream-of-consciousness brain dump of material for my book, and having interesting material to post. My opinions on the flaws of modern corporate structure will have to wait, and I don’t have my Visual Studio setup with me, so there’s no Chess TDD to be had tonight, either.
The question(s) I’m answering, paraphrased: “there seems to be little point to blogging if no one is reading, so how do you get readers?”
On Low Readership and Blogging Nihilism
There’s really only one question that was being asked, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the premise that if a blog post drops in the woods and no one is around to hear it doesn’t make a sound. I think it’s entirely possible to find purpose in a low-to-no-readership blog. As the first and probably least convincing argument, consider my own success story, such as it is. I started out with no readership for a long time and now, some years later, I have readers, career opportunities, and revenue to show for it. But I’m far from the most impressive delayed gratification story. Consider Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame, who said, “now, after 10 years, I am finally an overnight success.” He started in 2004, with a pretty pedestrian post that was basically “here are some books to read.” Nobody commented for 8 months. And now, 10 years later, he seems to be doing alright.
But “stick with it and it’ll pay off eventually” is not especially compelling since it’s asking for a lot of faith and a lot of effort. There are practical benefits to a reader-less blog that start right now, particularly if you’re strategic about not advertising that it’s reader-less (e.g. if you have no readers, don’t put the little feedly widget on there that advertises that you have 1 reader, which people clearly know is just you). The most clear-cut benefit is that your blog/site is your way to say to the internet, “Brooks was here” (assuming your name is Brooks). You might argue that you could do this with Github or LinkedIn or whatever, but you don’t own those things, and your site will remain dedicated to you through thick and thin, social media fads notwithstanding.
When you think of a blog, the natural tendency is to imagine yourself publishing and interested folks reading. But what if you think of your blog as an online portfolio of your opinions? What if you think of the blog as a series of articles in which you explain how to do things (as if, say, to a junior developer)? What if you think of the blog as a place to quickly document how you did “annoying work-around X” so that next time you need to do it, in six months, instead of saying, “crap, what did I do,” you can go to google and type “myblogname horrible IDE hack where I…” and be reminded? Well, if you think of your blog this way, you’ll have a handy reference for explaining your views on things, proof that you’re mentor material, and a searchable dev-journal, respectively.
All of these are benefits that require zero readers.
Some Is Better Than None, And I Still Want Some
But, interestingly, all of the benefits I just mentioned are things that attract readers. The most obvious way that readers start to show up is when they google “horrible IDE hack where” and land on your site. There are two key ways that people arrive at your blog — they show up to see you, or they show up looking for a solution to some specific problem. These latter readers are valuable early on because they help you climb in search engine rankings, even if they’re unlikely to stick around and become regular readers. So a good initial strategy is to make a post every time you hit some nasty problem and have to do a lot of googling. If you’ve hit it, so have others, so pick a title that captures the problem nicely, create a clear explanation of the solution, and you’ll have grateful readers and you’ll have traffic.
This is a nice, starter way to get some inbound traffic, and if you find that you’re starting to solve a lot of fairly specific problems, you might have discovered a blogging niche. But, most likely, that’s just an initial way to build some blogging traction, and you’ll need to get deliberate about building readership, which is a different beast. It requires that people find your posts valuable (or at least interesting) on a serial basis. A lot of neophyte bloggers make the understandable mistake of thinking, “I know, I’ll just start having opinions, and people will be super-excited to read them.” This type of thing may be cathartic and fun (and, frankly, a motivation to blog even if no one will read), but right out of the gate, it tends to come off as if you were worked up reading reddit one day and that your blog was born out of passing fury. In other words, readers will see that you have a strong opinion, few posts, and no readers, and think, “oh, great, a youtube comment expanded into a website.” Opinion posts are good, but use sparingly at first, and we’ll get back to them.
Once you’ve got your rankings up a bit, it’s time for the “here’s how to do some stuff around a common theme” posts. These are great for showcasing your skills to prospective employers or clients, and they’re great for serving as references to your coworkers. And, be honest, what would impress you more if you said, “how do I setup Framework X in environment Y” — the person who said, “let’s get together after lunch and I’ll show you” or the person who says, “I’ve written about that before and here’s a link?” Being published, however informally, gives you a certain kind of cachet in a lot of people’s eyes. And, best of all, you’re starting to add value for prospective readers. Some have found you via google, and you’ve referred others to your blog in passing, and you’re establishing a common pattern of “I have a series of solutions to problems you may have.”
Once your readership starts to grow and you’ve established some cred, you can start to throw in opinion/advice posts a little more liberally. These are still fine if no one is reading. For instance, if someone interviewing asks you about the Singleton pattern, you can say that you’re not a huge fan, and offer them a link explaining your rationale in detail, if they’re interested in further reading. You could also throw in that you’ve done a similar analysis on various other patterns. That starts to impress even more (unless you’re somehow making it obvious that no one is reading). Now, if you’ve established somewhat of a readership by starting out with posts that solve problems, offer code, and generally help, people are going to be more inclined to actually listen and value your opinions. Some may chime in with agreement, others may offer nuanced critiques, and some may flat out debate you, but if this happens, you’re in good shape. People respect you enough to engage in a healthy back and forth. If they didn’t, they’d just scoff at you and close the browser window half a paragraph in.
That’s a long-view framework for building up a readership while tolerating a lack of one in the short term. A blog without readers isn’t a blog without value. Imagine that you’re writing a really long, detailed, much better version of a resume. Now, there are, of course, more specific and detailed hacks and tidbits I could offer for upping your readership, but I can distill it down to this: get people to read a post or a part of a post without being annoying about it.
When discussing something with a coworker, if it’s relevant, say, “oh, you know, I wrote about that once.” Coworker will most likely ask a question like, “oh, you have a blog? Send me the link.” The most likely outcome of this conversation is that you email the link, and the coworker reads a paragraph or two to be polite and then never comes back. Bummer, but it’s a numbers game, and you always have a chance of the person becoming a regular, as long as you weren’t obtrusive about it. Do that 5 times, and one might read with interest and read a few back posts. Do it 20 times, and you might gain a regular reader or RSS subscriber. And why put effort into writing posts before any of these things happens? Because when you do get someone to check out your blog, there’s a lot more chance they’ll find something they like in 100 posts over the last year than if you have 2 rants about your boss and a post called “So, I’m starting a blog.”
Remember, if you build it, they may come, but if you don’t build it, they won’t.