12 blogging mistakes made by researchers and evaluators

Blogging is like everything else, when you first start you’re going to make a lot of mistakes.  Eventually, if you want to improve, you’re going to need to stop making the same mistakes over and over.

I’ve been working with fellow bloggers for years now, here are some of the mistakes I see repeated time and time again.  Before you call me out, I’ve made all of these mistakes at one point or another.

Evaluation 2013

I’ll be giving a presentation on blogging with Ann Emery, Sheila Robinson, and Susan Kistler at this year’s American Evaluation Association conference.  With that in mind, I thought I would share some of my thoughts preconference.

This post starts a small tweak to the format of this site.  I spend a lot of my time helping research and evaluation colleagues with the web.  I love it as much as I love the cartoons, so I’m going to try to mix the two.

Anatomy of a Blog

1. Putting design before content

This is usually the first mistake any new blogger makes.  You spend a ton of time tweaking widgets, changing templates, coming up with tag lines, and writing ‘about’ pages.  Then you run out of steam before you even write a post.

Your content (the blog posts that you write) will define your blog.  Everything else is just window dressing, keep it as simple as possible.  Once you have your content figured out, then you can revisit your site design.

First post next year

2. Making it all about you

I’m a big believer in that blog posts should be written from the blogger’s point of view on a topic they have the expertise to present.  But when it comes to the actual content, the focus should be on the audience.

If your blog is just a collection of things you want to say don’t be surprised if you are the only reader.  Think instead about how can you serve your audience and what would be appreciated?

Me Me Me Me Me

3. Focusing on vanity measures

Think about it, does it really matter how many hits your blog receives?  How about Twitter followers?

Most of the research and evaluation bloggers I know go into it without any specific goals.  Often they just want to make a contribution.  But it’s really easy to become obsessed with increasing site traffic, as if getting more pageviews has some kind of higher meaning.  It doesn’t.

If your target audience is small, or not particularly active on the web, having a lot of site traffic can just prove you’re writing for the wrong audience.  Only when you know what you’re trying to accomplish do analytics mean anything.

Twitter high score

4. Not changing your style for the web

Before you start in with the, “these kids these days with their lack of attention span and twittering…,” the truth is that the kind of writing style you are used to using with reports and journal articles doesn’t work well on the web.

Writing a post with several long paragraphs and no headers sends the following message,  “read me in my entirety or move along.”  Much of the time the decision will be to move along.  There is a lot of competition for eyes on the web, you need to serve your content in a way that works with the format.

Here is a basic rule of thumb.  Keep most of your paragraphs to no more than 3 sentences and use lots of subheaders, multimedia content, and quotes to separate ideas.

Also, hyperlinks trump citations.  Why list out a source when you can just directly link your audience to the article?

Smart phone blowout

5. Too many “blah” posts, not enough “wow” posts

I used to think it was ok to just write consistently good stuff.  I don’t really think that anymore.  The goal should be to ‘wow.’

You ‘wow’ by being so comprehensive or so honest in your posts that your audience can’t help but read and share everything you write.  Shoot for the stars with every post and don’t hold back.  ‘Blah’ content might have worked at one point, not anymore.

Longwinded share

6. Being too generic

Generic content is ‘blah’ content.  You might be able to get more people to click a link but will what you write matter?  Probably not.

Let wikipedia provide an overview of your field and its basic concepts.  If wikipedia doesn’t currently do that, go write the wikipedia page.

Don’t think about the web as a chance to reach billions.  Think of the web as your chance to reach the ten people who can follow you into the weeds when you talk about incredibly specific insider stuff.

Small audience

7. Waiting for people to find you

Everyone starts with at least a little blogger insecurity.  You hit that publish button then wait for the hits to come.  You don’t tell your close colleagues and friends, just sit there hoping Google and Twitter will do all the work.

The best way to reach an audience is to reach out to your audience.  They live on the web in LinkedIn groups, on listservs, around Twitter hashtags, and Facebook pages.  You probably participate in these communities, use them.

Sometimes the best way to get an audience rolling is to just reach out to people you know personally.  If you write stuff that is focused on generating value for your audience it’s your mission to see that they get the chance to read what you’ve written.

Bathroom locked

8. Following the crowd

Who doesn’t love a good model?  Everyone else is writing about <insert flavor of the month>, I should too.

If you can, write about something nobody else is writing about.  This is what will set you apart.

Lemming bloggers

9. Failing to collaborate

Collaboration helps you build an audience.  Because it’s likely they will reach others that you currently do not.

Collaboration helps you build authority.  Authority by association.

From an academic standpoint I often think about these two separately.  A lot of the Academic superstars are not currently Social Media superstars.  A lot of the Social Media superstars are not Academic superstars.

So mix it up, don’t just collaborate based on someone’s Twitter following.  I like to collaborate with people I like and respect, because working together ends up being fun and mutually beneficial.

Social media stardom

10. Posting every day

This is a great style if you’re shooting for exhaustion and plan to quit blogging sometime in the next month.

“But it works for Seth Godin!”

Sure, do you also have hordes of people hanging on your every word?  Are you planning to use the blog to write series of mini segments for your next book?  Do you have the kind of stamina to stay on the same topic post after post after post?

I’m not saying it can’t work.  But from my experience, it often leads to blogger burnout.  Quality trumps quantity.

Godin tell a story

11. Not using mainstream blogging platforms

“Well, the guy I pay to do my web stuff said this is fine”

Basically blogs are just updating websites that make it easy to share posts.  I’ve worked with folks who thought they had a blog but it turns out they just had a page on their site labeled “blog.”

The easiest way to ensure your blog is up to snuff is to just use a mainstream service like WordPress, Blogger, or Tumblr.  This is also one of those places where you can go in a different direction than would be suggested by most social media experts on the business side, you don’t need to spend the extra bucks on self-hosting.

He says it is worth the cost

12. Not blogging

Looking at the program for Evaluation 2013 I found 3,862 listed presenters.

How many of them have blogged about evaluation at some point in the past year?

Let’s estimate; maybe a couple hundred will have posted on AEA365, about 80 on blogs connected through Eval Central, then maybe another 100 in other places (foundation blogs, company blogs, etc.).   Basically we’re talking 10%, defining blogger at a very low threshold (at least 1 post/year) and making a bad assumption that they are all part of the 3,862.

This always seems crazy to me.  Knowing the size of the audiences most presenters will see at the conference, you can reach a larger one sitting at home in your pajamas.   You don’t even have to submit a proposal.

Proposal accepted

What Else?

Are you a blogger, what mistakes am I missing here?

Are you guilty of anything on this list? (I’m looking at you non-bloggers)

Comments

  1. says

    Is anyone reading this thinking about starting a blog? I’ll have another post coming up about styles. I’m also working on a step by step “how to blog” tutorial/course.

    Let me know what struggles you’re facing/what’s keeping you from starting.

  2. Sheila B Robinson says

    Guilty as charged…of probably all 12! Although I have overcome #12. :-) Fabulous post and cartoons that really drive your points home! I find #5 and #8 difficult. How to “wow” and how to find something that no one else is writing about. Perhaps I spend too much time reading and exploring, but I find that when I have an idea, I go looking for supporting or supplemental information, and then find that what I’m thinking is already “out there”. Then I get discouraged and fail to move forward with the post. I have a collection of incomplete orphan ideas that have never made it to “press.” How does a blogger move past the insecurity of thinking, “So many other people are writing about this stuff. I have nothing new to offer, so I’ll wait for an original idea to hit me?” One way I try to overcome this phenomenon is by combining ideas in novel ways and believing that combination is perhaps the true foundation of originality.

    • says

      Thanks Sheila,
      About #5. I’d say the easiest way to wow is by being really comprehensive and hitting a lot of points. We get in this habit of writing series of individual short posts but it’s usually better for everyone to just write one huge post.

      Take all the ideas you were going to put out in a series and create one mega-post under the common theme. Then use subheaders and multimedia to split up all the individual points.

      About #8. If the point of the post is “so and so said this” then it would be better to just go read so and so’s blog. Now if you combine the ideas of multiple others and apply your own experience you can create something unique.

      One of the things I like to do is think about a specific person while writing each and every post. Then write the post with the idea that you are helping that person. What would that person find useful? This can help develop a unique post.

      Also, try not to take your own experiences for granted. You can write about the things that come up over and over again with your students and their grasp of evaluation. Your experiences as an evaluator, lessons you’ve learned, and the people you’ve learned from.

      While it may seem like a lot, very few evaluators are actively blogging. There is a whole field of specialty knowledge just waiting to find its way onto the web.

      • Ann Emery says

        It sounds like you should simply stop doing any background research. ;-) (P.S. Sheila your posts are awesome!)

        • says

          Totally, Sheila I was just strolling through your posts. It’s all good stuff; now I feel like you’re holding back on us for fear of covering something already covered :)

          • Sheila B Robinson says

            Awww, you guys are too much! Thanks to you both! I just recently replied to someone who posted on EvalTalk about being a first-time AEA Conference goer this coming fall and wondering how to connect with people. I told him that evaluators are the friendliest, most approachable, most supportive, most collaborative people I know! You two are among the shining examples! :-)

      • Sheila B Robinson says

        Thanks for your reply Chris. I’m wondering about this thought: “it’s usually better for everyone to just write one huge post.” This is a bit surprising to me and I’d love to know more about your thinking (or anyone else who wishes to chime in) on this. I tend to think of blog posts as shorter “bursts” of ideas (200-600 words or so), and in my head, label lengthier posts of more than say, 800-900 words, as “articles.” I’m not sure which I think is “better” necessarily. I just sort of categorize them in that way, and in a sense, prepare my brain to read one or the other.

        • says

          My view, blogs are just updating websites, posts can be any length. For something like aea365, shorter posts work because the whole point is a daily burst.

          When I go big, I get more traffic, both when the post is published and long after. The shelf life is much longer. I also see higher subscriber rates and it’s easier to generate discussion.

          When I was posting in smaller bursts it tended to split the audience. You’re only going to get so many shares, comments, and RTs. Now if you make each post epic, you can make posting an event and get a much wider release.

          For the reader, I don’t make them wait with the promise of slow doses of content. I just share a whole lot at once. Making my audience wait doesn’t seem to have any benefit for me communicating ideas, I just have less little bumps on my analytics page.

          • Sheila B Robinson says

            Interesting! I wouldn’t have guessed that about traffic. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Much appreciated!

  3. Tamara says

    I am trying to start blogging. I’m afraid I am guilty of #12, since I have a registered domain but don’t blog yet. I am going to make mistakes but as yet, I haven’t done the kind of research that would show the gaps and boundaries of my subfields.

    • says

      If you’re guilty of #12 (this goes for anyone) the first step is to not focus on any of the other mistakes. Just write something.

      My suggestion: Grab some paper and write out a few topics that you know something about and think you could explain to others. Maybe it’s something you’ve given a presentation on, or maybe just something you’re interested in knowing more about. Then write a blog post or two in Word or Google Docs.

      Now that you have a couple posts written, start your blog and post them.

      If you’re an evaluator and would like to get hooked into Eval Central, let me know. Sometimes the loneliest time is right when you begin, Eval Central can help get through that stretch quickly.

    • says

      I’d definitely recommend following http://evalcentral.com. Follow by email and you get a single email with a daily newsletter with posts from 53 bloggers (usually 1 – 3 posts/day). I’m partial though as I run that site too. But it’s filled with a lot of great evaluators and the quality of posts is getting better all the time.

  4. Brian Hoessler says

    Awesome post! Like Sheila I’ve been guilty of all 12 at some point in time, but my current challenge is creating engaging content that is unique (#6), “wow”-worthy (#5) and true to my own experiences without being all about me (#2).

    Regarding the discussion around length of post, I’m a bit torn. I can see the benefit of creating one really comprehensive and powerful piece versus 3 or 4 “meh” posts, but I’ve found that a regular schedule of shorter posts helps me stay motivated and on the blogging bandwagon (as a side note maybe that should be #13 – Failing to get back on the blogging bandwagon when you fall off!). Right now I’m writing my Seeds for Thoughts every week and a slightly longer and more comprehensive post every two weeks or so, though that may not be sustainable once I hit the fall: I’m thinking about moving to a twice-monthly schedule for Seeds, which should give me more time and energy to write something really great every month.

    Another idea for a common mistake (though it connects to #7 and #9) – not engaging with other bloggers! If you’re looking for support and affirmation for your own blogging, be the first to reach out such as by commenting on someone else’s post. Beyond good karma, it could spark some new ideas or a conversation – as an example, check out the thread between Sheila and me a few months back: http://www.strongrootsconsulting.ca/2013/04/word-counts/

    • says

      Thanks Brian!

      Finding motivation can definitely be tough. Especially after you hit that wall. I’ve tried all sorts of schedules (daily, weekly, biweekly) but ultimately, they don’t seem to work for me.

      Lately I’ve been going with the post when I have a solid post written. It’s been a month since the last one but the lag hasn’t seemed to have a negative impact on site traffic. Now if you’re goal is to stay in the minds of your readers/clients, having a schedule could be paramount.

      Love it when I see posts and comments lead to posts and comments across different sites. That’s really how you dive into taking advantage of the “social media” benefits. Successful blogging does involve recognizing there is a community behind everything.

      • Sheila B Robinson says

        Ditto on the “thanks Brian!” Brian raises some excellent points. Blogging is not competitive, and in fact, it behooves us to cooperate and collaborate with one another. Kim Firth Leonard of Actionable Data (http://actionabledata.wordpress.com) and I co-authored 2 posts and cross-posted them on both of our blogs. Not only was it fun to collaborate (it was a hoot when twin posts appeared on evalcentral.com), and a great opportunity to learn from each other, but it drove traffic to both of our sites. After all, how many people do you know that only read one blog?
        And kudos to you Chris, for composing a blog that inspired such a great and lively conversation! That is what I aspire to, much more than just generating traffic.

      • Brian Hoessler says

        Group hug! :p I definitely agree that there’s a good sense of community and support in the evaluation blogosphere, as demonstrated through conversations like this one here. Of course, as with any program or initiative the views of active participants may differ from those who aren’t engaged – it will be interesting to see what kind of feedback comes up at your AEA session on blogging, particularly from those who are interested but haven’t made the leap yet.

        Chris – your reply got me thinking about goals in blogging, particularly for independent consultants. Part of the reason I blog is to participate in conversations like this one with others in the field (broadly defined) around the world, but another reason is, to use your words, to “stay in the minds of readers/clients” locally. Usually those two goals don’t conflict, but at times they require different approaches such as around scheduling and length/depth of content. Something to ponder …

  5. Ann Emery says

    So my nerdy evaluator brain can’t help but make a mental logic model about why evaluators do (and should!) blog! I’m sure our desired outcomes are all a little different, but I’d love to see a simple cartoon version of this, hint hint nudge nudge… ;-)

    • says

      Well, I may just have another blog post in development for next week that could help address this very question. It will, of course, be filled with lots of cartoons so you might not have to wait too long ;)

    • Sheila B Robinson says

      Phew! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who pictures logic models in my head for weird stuff!

    • Paul says

      Excellent tips here!
      Regarding web style: I personally find it exciting to experiment with paragraph length, form, and challenging “formal” writing conventions. This leads me to wonder what my role is as a English teacher/writing instructor with traditional essay writing versus blogging. Of course, at the heart of many great blogs is a thesis of some sorts and also a strong writing voice, but most great blog writing certainly doesn’t take the form of a five paragraph essay!

      • says

        Thanks Paul,

        For so many (self included) blogging at least starts out as a bit of a journey for self-discovery. I wouldn’t have even imagined that several years after I started I would be churning out cartoons on a regular basis.

        Sometimes you start with a thesis, many times you find one on your way. I sometimes like to go back through old archives from popular blogs. Lots of times the ones who seem to have it all together started out with little direction.

        • Ann Emery says

          Chris and Paul, these are really great points.!

          When talking with bloggers, it seems that it’s natural for blogs to evolve over time as we find our niche. When I started blogging (about a year and a half ago), I was simply chronicling my work and sharing an assortment of insights. Now I’m focused on sharing practical, tangible tips to help evaluators do their work better – focus group checklists, tips for better charts, how-to guides for data analysis, etc. It took a year to realize this was my niche, but it fits me, and, I really enjoy it (<— often overlooked value of blogging).

          Who knows what the next few years will bring! Maybe a larger focus on slideshares, maybe a return to videos? My blog will change as my evaluation work changes.

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