Finding ideas, getting it right [Blogging 101]

This is part of our occasional series of posts covering the aspects of starting a blog. See Blogging 101 for the full list.

You you’ve worked out what you want to blog about, and you’ve set up a blog. But what do you write about? Being knowledgeable about a subject might deliver you some great starting posts, but there is only so many times you can write about the same thing over and over again. Ultimately, you’re going to need to put in place a system for sourcing posts ideas and content, and you’ll need to know how to get your delivery of that content right.

Read hard, read well

There’s a good argument around bloggers living in an echo chamber, and I’m not about to debunk that premise, nor argue against the problems that can cause, at least in this post. Blogging though is a reflection of life; if we have an interest or passion, we’re likely to interact with people who share out interests. In blogging, that might mean reading people who think the same way you do, or blog on the same topics, even when they are your competitors, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. You should be aware what your competitors are writing about, and you should be aware what others are blogging about in your space, even if you don’t always follow that lead, because there is value in doing so. There’s value in seeing how others do it, there’s value in keeping up to date, and there’s value in sourcing content ideas when others write about topics that interest you, that you believe you may wish to cover on your blog because they are of interest to you and/ or your readers. Even in the age of social aggregation and customized delivery, nothing will ultimately substitute reading other blogs regularly.

Love your Feedreader

Reading multiple blogs and heritage media sites doesn’t need to be a burden. Long gone at the days of having to hit every website for your fresh daily read. Feedreaders are a godsend to the time challenged and reading lovers alike, by delivering all the benefits of reading many sites from the one private point. My particular preference is Google Reader, but others are available, including Bloglines and Regator.

Adding blogs and websites to a feedreader is as simple as clicking the RSS icon in your browser or on the site. Follow the instructions and add to suit. Within the reader itself, you can prioritize your reading experience throw folders. For example, I break down my feeds from a Web 2.0 folder at the top, a b and c list folder, all the way down to a general folder (with another dozen in between with various labels), this way I can prioritize the topics and/ or blogs I want to read first or later. This way, I read hundreds of sites every day, and it works well, where as I’d never have a chance of doing the same if I was hitting every site individually.

Look wide, give sites a try

Subscription as a word may imply payment to some, but with feeds, syndication is a free service and you can always unsubscribe if you don’t like the content. Particularly when you’re starting out, don’t be shy in adding feeds to your list, because there’s no other way of building a base reading list. You can always revise it, but regularly you will also find that those feeds stay as well because they offer something you may not have seen when you first visited the site. Just don’t be shy in trying.

Beware the ides of social groupthink

It’s easy to follow the lead of others and write about what ever the big stories are each day. There are numerous sites you can use in every vertical space, and it’s simpler to simply follow. If your goal is to simply document the big news of the day, and you’re not to worried about creating a break out blog, go for it. But if your blogging goal is to become a leader in your space, you have to lead. You have to break stories, and you have to lead conversations, because there are thousands out there who aren’t and are looking for that very leadership.

Some social sites are bigger traps than others. The new wave of social sharing sites such as FriendFeed, Strands and SocialMedium aren’t too bad, although I know with FriendFeed that I’m more likely to see “popular” stories as more and more people join the service. While it worked great for me earlier on as a source and information tool, it is slowly becoming more of a traditional social group think site that still offers great value to me personally (both as a networking and fun sharing tool), but it doesn’t so much as a tool I can use in my blogging to find new or fresh ideas.

The worst sites are the established players, with Digg at the top of the list. Not only is the news on Digg unquestionably old by the time it hits the front page, it’s a terrible source for ideas. You can use Digg as a tool to assess the sort of content that might work on your blog, but you should never use it in your idea mix. Reddit, although I get more personal enjoyment out of it, shouldn’t be in your mix either. Both sites can be used as a way to measure your success in finding fresh ideas and getting it right, but only AFTER the event.

Sometimes the best ideas are the stories that come to you

If you’re starting blogging for the first time, and presuming you weren’t previously a journalist in the same vertical, you’re going to have to go digging for news. And yet, despite the noise and a pile of junk, the best news for established bloggers often finds them. My inbox is regularly full of PR pitches, and although I don’t write about all of them (and I don’t think I could if I wanted to anyway), some of the stuff I break comes via email from a source.

As a new blogger the challenge is building those sources. Sometimes they will naturally find you, and more so than in the past PR professionals scope wider now when pitching story ideas to bloggers, and yet without an established presence nor a lot of traffic, you’re not always going to be on the radar. What I recommend is simple: if you see a company you like, but want to know more, contact them. Send an email, or pick up the phone. Sometimes they won’t respond, and there are companies out there who still don’t take blogging seriously. But the smart ones, the ones you’ll want to work with, will. You’ll start to establish a list of contacts within the company, be it PR folk or actual employees. Some might not place you on their lists, but others will. You should always add something like “don’t forget to drop me a line if you have any news stories you want some coverage on” or something similar when concluding any correspondence on a story so you’re asking to be put on any distribution lists they have. Startups in particular want exposure, and they’re usually more than happy to give stories to bloggers who have shown an interest in them in the past.

Context

There are times where you’ll want to write about a story others are writing about. It may be a personal interest, it may fit in the mix of your blog, or you may be seeking to cover every story in the vertical. But how do you cover it, how do you get it right? Here’s the three ways I’d divide using an existing story on your site

The key point remix

There’s a story you want to cover but you’ve got nothing much to add to it. The end goal is relaying the story to your readers. Find a source, then remix what they are saying in a form that suits your blog and relays the key points to your readers. Where required, find someone else talking about it and quote them with a link if and when it adds value. This isn’t the ideal post, but sometimes you need to use it.

Differing opinions

There’s a story in an area of interest and you don’t agree with the conclusion made by the original writer. So say you don’t agree, and argue your case. Where possible, try to separate the argument from the writer, something the best of us can struggle with at times. And most of all, argue your case well, and back it up. Don’t be afraid to quote others, and reference your points.

Market context

If the story has a place within a broader context of an area you’ve been writing, explain how it fits in while covering the story itself. Link to previous stuff, draw some conclusions, and even make a value call for or against on the story.

Know what works

From reading blogs through to following social sharing and voting sites, you’re going to paint a mental picture for yourself about what works and what doesn’t by seeing what works for others. Sometimes when you cover a story others have written about, you’ll get no traffic, or you’ll see a big spike. Original ideas may take you days to write, and minutes to see that people aren’t interested in it.

Here’s the bad news: after 7 years of blogging, I can’t give you a definite answer as to what works and doesn’t. However, given enough data and understanding of any blog and vertical, I could certainly identify things that are more likely to work than others. You can do the same as well. The best way of getting to that point is to experiment. You won’t know if it works if you don’t try it, and just because it doesn’t work for others doesn’t mean that it won’t work for you.

Like with blog goal setting, working out what is more likely to work is simply a case of setting a way in which to measure success. For a blog post, it might be comments, traffic or links in to the site. It might be feed subscribers after a post, or even likes and comments on FriendFeed. There are lots of ways you can measure if something works, and you can use a mix of these things, or other ideas to work this out.

Getting it right

You’ll never always get it right, but if you’re aiming big, you’ll need to get it right more times than you get it wrong. Getting to this point takes time, and this site in itself if walking proof of that. The important points to remember is that you need to be patient, you need to experiment, and you need to try new things and not be shy in changing things when they aren’t going right. There’s no rewards for blogs full of good intentions and bad ideas.

Conclusion

We’ve gone deep on ways you can improve your blogging experience in this post, and it may sound a little daunting, and yet most of this advice is really quite logical if you think about it. We learn to read and write by reading others, we improve our knowledge of the world by reading others. We get a hot story to tell our friends after being told by others. As humans we regularly argue a point, and sometimes we get things wrong, in business and in our personal lives. Blogging is really in many ways an extension of life, with the same challenges and hurdles, and yet with the same opportunities. Learn from others, experiment, have some fun, retain your focus, and there is hope.