The Anatomy of a Blog Post

I frequently receive questions about how I blog.  Where do I get the ideas?  How long does it take?  Where do I come up with the graphics?

The process I went through to create my previous post on “content engineering” was pretty typical so I thought I would dissect it as a way to illustrate a few set-by-step tips that might help you with your own blogging efforts.  Let’s start from the beginning …

Four weeks before publishing

While doing research for a content marketing project, it occurred to me that much of what is taking place today is not necessarily “marketing,” but “engineering” content to produce a certain business result. This term stuck in my head and I thought this observation could be a potential blog topic.  I went into WordPress and simply created that headline — “content engineering” — and a few sentences to remember what I meant by that.  Key point: Write down a lot of ideas as they come to you. For me, about a fourth of them turn into posts.

Two weeks before publishing

I usually carve out a few quiet hours on Sunday afternoons to review the ideas that I’ve captured and write a few posts.  The content engineering topic caught my eye and I decided to do some additional research and riff on that topic.  Once I started writing, I had the framework for a post in about 15 minutes. Key point: Create quiet time and JUST WRITE.  Don’t spend a lot of time trying to be perfect right off the bat. Editing and refining can come later.

Three days before publishing

I saw a post by Lee Odden that crystallized my idea that content engineering could be a contributing factor to a lot of blog posts sounding alike.  Adding the quote and beginning to refine the original post took about another 30 minutes. Now, you might think that seeing Lee’s post while I was working on this ideas was pure luck, but I don’t think so because:   Key point: To be an effective blogger, you have to be an active reader too.

Two days before publishing

Now I was sure I had an interesting post but there was a problem. Half-way through the original post it became humorous. I had started riffing on what it would be like if I slid keywords like <send me money> into my posts. I thought it was funny but it didn’t fit any more.  So I took out the buzz saw and cut the article length by half — might be a stand-alone post some day?  Key point: Have the courage to edit your post to make it succinct and relevant. Don’t write to show off. Write to make it a great experience for your reader.

One day before publishing

I shoot for one well-written “pillar post” per week and I decided this would be the one so I got serious about editing and making the post interesting and fun to read.  I spent another 15 minutes finalizing the post. I was still not happy about the way the post started out but after several attempts, had to decide it was “good enough!” Key point: If you strive for perfection, you will probably never publish a single post.

Four hours before “publish”

I always do the illustration and headline last. I think both are important to the reader experience and I try to come up with something catchy without spending too much time on it.

My original headline was “Is content engineering killing blogging — or saving it?”  Then I read Danny Brown’s article about how he is tired of everybody writing about the “death” of this or that. Crap. So I challenged myself to do better and the final headline was “Should you write your blog or engineer it?”

Sometimes the idea for a graphic is easy but I was really stuck this time.  I try to come up with something fanciful, something to make my readers think or smile, but nothing was coming to me. How do you illustrate “content engineering?”  Then the blueprint image came to me. I found a generic blueprint picture and added my own words on top of it — I do this all in Powerpoint — crude, yes, but simple and speedy. If I can’t conjure an imaginative graphic in less than 10 minutes, I just use a piece of clip art of some kind.

Key point: Don’t overlook the importance of headlines and illustrations to make the post more interesting.

PUBLISH

When I finally published, I had invested about 1.5 hours in the post.  Still not totally happy with it, but if you’re going to have balance in your life you can’t keep second-guessing and editing forever.

The time and day I publish is somewhat determined by my work schedule. I don’t like publishing before a day I have a lot of meetings because then I won’t have an appropriate amount of time to respond to comments. On some posts, hosting the resulting dialogue takes more time that it took to write the original post. But that’s what it’s all about, right?

It was also shortly before I published that I had the idea for this post so I cranked out most of this in a few minutes while I had the thought fresh in my mind.

COMMENTS

The best part of the blog is the community commentary. I feel very honored and humbled that people take the time to comment on something I’ve written so I try to acknowledge as many comments as I can. Key point:  Celebrate the people in your community and their comments.

Jeremy Victor is a respected marketer and he pointed out in a very direct way that my opening paragraph implied a generalization about content marketing that I did not intend. I knew there was something about that opening paragraph that I didn’t like!  I frequently admit I’m wrong on the blog and this was one of those times to eat humble pie.  I admitted that my writing was unclear and corrected the problem. Key point: Offer humility to your community. They’re smarter than you are.

Lee Odden also dropped by to comment. This was a nice surprise and I was delighted that this respected authority took time to contribute for the first time on {grow}.  Some unexpected fireworks erupted when we could not see eye-to-eye. Unfortunately his comments and tweets degraded into personal barbs.   This presents a difficult situation but it’s probably going to happen to every blogger at some point. If you put yourself out there, you’re not going to connect with every person, every time, even in a community of well-intentioned professionals.  It’s a part of human diversity and the challenge of trying to communicate only though the written word.  Key point: Don’t be thrown off-center by criticism. It’s a sign that you took risks. Take the high rode, stay positive.

Ironically, I did not expect this post to be especially controversial. The idea seemed straight-forward to me.  In hindsight the tone of the post was probably a little smarmy. Perhaps my point got lost behind the smarm. Key point: Learn from your mistakes and keep on plugging. Your next post will be better for it!

Thanks for hanging in there through what turned out to be one of my longer posts. Can you connect with any of this?  What works for you?

Should you write your blog or engineer it?

I think I figured out why nearly every social media blogger sounds exactly the same – commonly referred to as the “echo chamber.”  I’m learning that copying and pasting can be profitable.

To unpack my point, allow me a brief explanation of content marketing.**  One hot concept is using statistical methods to determine optimal “keywords” that, when used strategically in your content, result in “inbound leads.” In plain English this means embedding words about hot social media topics in your blog to snare sales prospects.  People are charging for webinars on this topic so I’ll save you a few dollars/euros/dinero by providing the theory in a nutshell:

  • Conduct research into the “keywords” that are leading people to your, or your competitor’s, website.
  • Seed these keywords liberally and systematically into strategic places like blog headlines to fool the search engines into thinking you are the premier destination for those search terms.
  • Employ “outposts” like Twitter and other social platforms to become vessels for your keywords and links.
  • Attract backlinks from places also laden with keywords.
  • Focus your content plan, headlines, tweetstream, etc., precisely on these key words.
  • Rinse.  Repeat as needed.

So within this theory, original content is secondary and it’s not really about marketing either.  You identify hot topics and then engineer your content to perform a precise and technical function. The ultimate goal in this new age of content engineering is not necessarily to engage, inform or entertain. It’s to pump up your search engine results.

Let’s get back to the echo chamber.  One of the master purveyors of content engineering (my term, not his) is a guy named Lee Odden. He’s pretty much the Elvis of SEO and has done some outstanding work in this field.  I don’t know Lee but I read most of his posts because I think it’s important to keep on top of the latest tactics in this arena. Here is his advice from last week:

Social conversations influence search behaviors and if you can identify relevant concepts that are emerging in popularity on the social web, why not create and optimize content around those topics so you’re easily found via search engines?

So the big idea here is to simply copy what everyone else is doing and ride the wave of sameness to SEO glory. This may explain why my blog reader sounds like there’s a scratch in the record.

I have mixed feelings about this. I can’t deny there is a certain ruthless beauty about using statistical analysis to turn your content into those tentacled robots that tunneled through the rock and chased everybody on the Matrix movies.  I’m a capitalist pig-dog and the idea of using data to annihilate your competition appeals to me.

But I also have a soul and I’m in love with the idea of building an audience through content that is profound, beautiful and entertaining.  I think it’s possible to fight through the clutter, engage a meaningful audience and realize business benefits without pre-determining my subject matter through a statistical analysis.

On the other hand, the whole keyword thing seems a lot easier! : )

I’m really interested in your ideas on this important and fascinating trend. Will content engineering kill the soul of blogging or finally drive the measurable results effective business people demand?

** It was correctly pointed out by community member Jeremy Victor that this sentence reads as if  I am fully describing the discipline of content marketing. I was not attempting to do that, I was only exploring this one “keyword engineering” aspect.  Jeremy provides a more thorough explanation of content marketing in his comment on this post. Rather than re-write the original article I decided to address my insufficient description with this annotation. Thanks for keeping me honest, Jeremy.

Why I blog (nearly live and in-person)

This is my first video blog.

I hate it.

But we all need to push ourselves and experiment, right?  This is WAY out of my comfort zone.

I intended to edit out the turning on and off parts (why doesn’t this camera have a remote?), add a title etc.  but the video editing software is too complicated and I just don’t have the time or patience to mess with it. If somebody wants to make a title with a scorching rock theme and teach me how to paste it on there, I will gladly pay you to do it.  Also show me where the “make it look like he lost 10 pounds” button is.

In the end I decided just to post it as-is — one-take, mistakes and all — because it was just turning into more excuses to not  do it. I’m trying to encourage you to stretch yourselves and {grow} so I’m taking my own medicine on this one.

I appreciate all of you who have encouraged (pestered) me to finally do this.  Sort of.

This is why you’re a social media loser

I’m pleased to offer this entertaining guest post from {grow} community member John White, a marketing communications writer for technology companies. I think you’re going to love this romp from John’s offbeat and creative mind!

This week, I phoned my neighbor and favorite instructional designer, Gail Dana, to tell her about yet another social media presentation (YASMP) I’d seen advertised.

“Gail, do you get social media?” I asked her, italicizing the verb.

“Sort of,” she replied, “but I think it’s worthless. Or at least, I hope it is.”

“I know what you mean. A lot of us don’t know quite what to do with it. Anyway, wanna go listen to another young person try to explain it to us?”

Gail was up for that, so we drove across town to attend Melodie Tao‘s presentation here in San Diego, “Social Media Design Techniques to Engage your Customer.”

Melodie gave a breathlessly energetic performance describing Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and even Foursquare, outlining design ideas for your presence in social media.  She described using social tools to enhance traveling, studying, spending time with friends, and accomplishing work tasks. I figured I must have done a lot of the same things at her age, but without recourse to social media. In fact, I traveled the world for four years and made only two phone calls home in all that time (one was a wrong number because my parents had moved).

It got me thinking about my blogs and my newsletter and my LinkedIn profile and the time I spend wrapped around the Twitter axle when suddenly I had … 

My Social Media Epiphany

I figured out why my social media efforts include so much head-scratching after all this time:  I’m in Category 4!

While Melodie paused for a hurried gulp of water during her speech, I managed to wrap my brain around the factors that go into social media winning and losing. Four categories occurred to me in the space of about 2.5 seconds, and whenever I can think that fast, I’m usually right.

Category 1: The Natural Networkers. We all know people like this, people with a seemingly boundless circle of friends. Attracting and retaining this circle is second nature to them. They don’t even call it “interaction;” it’s just what happens when they’re awake. They’re drawn to polls, giveaways, contests, coupons, comments and retweeting in their offline life, so doing it in a browser or on a phone provides an extra channel of exhilaration.

Social media is an online extension of their innate ability to connect to and build relationships with other people.

Category 2: The Geeks. Not strictly geeks, but left-brain, analytical personalities who see the patterns in keywords, practice SEO copywriting to apply them and understand the science behind building an audience and moving it from one point of engagement to the next. The tools of social media resonate with and challenge them. They figure out how to make money using these tools to build and distribute the right content.

Social media is an online extension of their innate ability to figure out how the lawn mower works, then turn it into a mini-bike, then a go-cart, then a fishing boat. (And get us to pay a nickel to ride along.)

Category 3: The Hemingways. These people are the ultimate raconteurs. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing online; if we stumble onto something they’ve written, we drop everything and read it. They write crisply, then infuse their writing with the story of their own interesting life, they make us stop and think and actually click on the link to the story they refer to. They write the posts that make the young girls cry… They don’t need SEO techniques; people retweet and forward their stuff because it’s just such damned valuable content.

Social media is an online extension of their innate ability to tell a story that resonates with us, the kind nobody interrupts with, “Yeah, well that’s just like the time I…”

Adrift in the Long Tail …

Now, if you’re fortunate enough to live in more than one of the preceding categories, you knock the cover off the ball. Long may you run. But let’s not forget the rest of us in …

Category 4: Social Media Purgatory. We start a blog, stick with it, and do as much as we can to promote it, considering we’re not in the other three categories. We have a Facebook and LinkedIn profile, we tweet from time to time, we have between a few dozen and a few hundred followers, and we’re adrift in the long tail. We read the advice and attend the webinars of people in the other three categories. We see how people turn tweets into interaction, and interaction into relationships, and some relationships into a career, but it’s a long way off for us, and besides, we have our day job.

Social media is an online extension of our innate ability to lean out on the carousel and reach for the brass ring. We don’t quite grab it, but we congratulate ourselves for staying on the painted pony and trying hard.

Of course, it’s entirely up to us to spend the rest of this life (and maybe a couple more) in social-media purgatory. But social media and its tools will nudge some of us out of Category 4 and into one of the other categories, in the same way that the Harry Potter series inspired hardened non-readers to get through 3400 pages, or that Microsoft PowerPoint has instilled in timid people the nerve to present in front of an audience.

So, on the way home from Melodie’s presentation I bounced my newly found taxonomy off of Gail. In doing so, I recalled a line uttered by the hapless Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, scratching his head at the difficulty that rich people find in connecting to one another:

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”

Pick whichever set of categories makes the most sense to you, and stop being a social media loser.

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it. He also publishes a newsletter with more tips on working with your writers.

Illustration: Photobucket
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