This past weekend’s Mblog 2012 Conference was full of some great information and inspiration for budding bloggers. I figured that it should prompt at least one post from yours truly. If you missed the live-tweeting, you should check the summary, which gives a good feel for the event and some of the advice that was floating around. Following the event, I thought it might be good to record a few notes, recap some highlights, and to point out a few things I thought might have done with some clarification.
First, a caveat and an aside. As Erika Glasier rightly pointed out, as an experienced blogger I was not really the market for this event. I didn’t quite get that from New Media Manitoba’s promo description, but I would likely still have gone — though with slightly adjusted expectations. For the record, before I started ignoring this blog, I ran a technology blog (primarily Linux advocacy) from 2000-2003, starting out when blogging was still in its infancy and had yet to evolve into a significant phenomenon. From 2004-2009 I ran a successful niche blog that ranked in the top 10 on Technorati for its niche and was accepted for membership in 9 Rules, and in 2008 was recognized with a Millennia Award and nominated for a Canadian Blog Award (not the same as Elan’s CWAs, the CBAs are vote-based instead of judged and though longer-running, frankly, they have a goofy badge). Most of these accomplishments came about by accident, but not without some effort — during those years I posted daily or near-daily content. As I’ve quipped several times, I still blog – just 140 characters at a time. I’ve been engaged in web development during all that time, and have used WordPress since it was called b2. So no, you couldn’t call me a “beginning” blogger… but definitely one who needs some inspiration to take up the virtual pen again from time to time.
Addenda, Notes, & Errata
There were a few points during the day which I felt might do with some clarification or further comment.
I asked this question, and in response, the practice was strongly discouraged: “I think there’s a couple places where stock photography is appropriate, I’ve just never seen them.” I actually have seen them. In fact, I was sitting beside someone who works alone (no images of cubicles or coworkers) in a business environment (no kid photos) where client confidentiality (no client photos) is important. I have professional clients for whom these same or similar considerations exist, so these would be examples where stock photography is acceptable.
Remember, stock photos are better than no photos. Sometimes the deadline for a timely piece only leaves time for stock photos, and in some cases (pop culture) you may need to use stock photos for images of public people, brands, and so forth. Big media does this all the time, but your cost for Getty Images can be much lower than theirs.
To the comment that “stock photography on a blog is disengaging”, I would say this is definitely true of bad stock photography, or poorly-chosen stock photos. As was mentioned, you can do a photo shoot to gather a batch of on-topic images for yourself. Assuming you can find models who will work for the price of lunch and work experience, a professional photographer will run you $800-1,000 for the day — and in a business context, your time isn’t free either. Yes, you could skip the photographer and snap your own photos with a model, but be aware that the photographer will have experience directing models. Further, if you’re shooting photos for a business environment, you want to make sure that the end result meets a minimum standard of quality. At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a batch of photos with the same models repeated, so it’s probable that their continued use on your site look more like stock photos than actual stock photos.
To be clear, your own original photos are always preferable, but don’t be too quick to dismiss stock photography. Corporate photography has less room for amateurish-looking photos than does lifestyle blogging, and you’ll want to gauge your own abilities when considering whether to take your own photos. If you’re taking photos of smaller products, crafts, or other objects, I recommend building a DIY photo box for the purpose.
I believe the information provided in this regard was essentially correct, but would recommend erring on the side of caution when your subject is personally identifiable. If you use a model release, make sure it’s worded for your jurisdiction (e.g., Canada and not the USA), and do ask permission. You never know when you’ll stumble across a response like, “God, no — my ex is a whack job and I moved here to get away from him, please don’t post that!” Then again, some people just don’t like having their picture taken. Generally though, you will usually be able to post the image, with or without permission, if the person is in public. The general test is whether they are in a place or situation in which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There is good information available online for this, and I’d recommend a bit of research when in doubt.
Great advice about having your camera along. In the old days of film photography, there used to be a saying that the secret to taking good photographs was “F8 and be there!” Digital photography makes this a lot easier. In photography, it’s shoot first, and ask questions later.
Blog Templates & Responsive Design
It’s true that there are thousands of blog templates out there, for free or at minimal cost. I recommend against them for one of the same reasons that was given for not using stock photography… you aren’t getting exclusive use of the template. If you think it bad to have a photo on one of your blog posts that someone may recognize as appearing elsewhere, how much worse is it when your entire blog site looks the same as any number of other sites?
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for this. If you can’t have a template custom-designed for you and hosted on your own website for one reason or another, you will want to start with a free theme and modify it. It’s actually quite a bit easier than it sounds. Start with a theme the provides you with a few key options — you don’t need a hundred options, just a few important ones. Being able to upload your own banner or header image and background are the top two, followed closely by the ability to change the sidebar configuration (number and position). Being able to change the colours and fonts is next. If your theme doesn’t support some or all of these options, you may still be able to override them. For example, WordPress.com makes available a Custom CSS option that allows you to change all of these design elements and more. You’ll be editing CSS code, but there are some good resources and tutorials available on how to do that.
I recommend choosing a theme with responsive design, which is increasingly the way sites are being developed for the web in order to address the various screen sizes on which the site will be viewed, to say nothing of the various platforms on which it will be displayed. Developers can completely rearrange the site layout, fonts, and navigation elements to suit the platform. If your template doesn’t do this effectively, a fallback solution is to look for a plugin that shows a different version of your site to mobile browsers. Typically these have a fairly generic look to them.
Some blogs contain information that people will want to print. In the same way that the content is dynamically rearranged for different screen sizes (mobile), your template should automatically rearrange its output for print, and even change what is shown. For example, your site navigation is irrelevant, as will be most of the information in your sidebar. No online forms should be shown since they can’t be filled out, and your printed page should include a footer with the url of the page being viewed and any applicable copyright information. As well, you can programatically ensure that a heading doesn’t occur on its own at the bottom of a page, and links in the body of the page should be displayed in full since they can’t be clicked on when printed. For one client, I replaced an online form at the bottom of a displayed page with his full contact information along with the page url and a QR code for it. If your blog entry is a product listing, recipe, or other information that people may want to view while away from a computer, this feature can become fairly important despite the increasingly wired nature of our culture.
As was mentioned, I encourage the use of an editorial calendar. For WordPress, I recommend the excellent Editorial Calendar plugin, especially for multi-author blogs. Even if you’re the only contributor, this plugin will show you at a glance what content you’ve got scheduled for specific days, and lets you rearrange it with a simple drag-n-drop interface. This is great when you’re planning ahead for a vacation or busy season and want to make sure that your blog still has fresh content even when you know you won’t have the time to post it.
The CommentLuv plugin for WordPress was mentioned as well for building blog traffic. This plugin is useful in a fairly specific way that bears a bit of explanation. Essentially, if you add it to your blog, it links to your commenters’ latest post if they’ve provided a blog url, which they can do with or without the plugin. What the plugin provides is the link to their most recent post. In that respect, it helps encourage other bloggers to comment on your site, which will work over time to build readership among other bloggers: the very people who can most help you by linking to your content. The traffic and SEO benefit from this plugin will take time to show up, but it’s an excellent way to work toward organic inbound links to your content.
On the subject of comments, comment spam is a huge issue, especially as people dislike the captchas that are often used to thwart various spambots. WordPress users have easy access to Akismet, but note that it’s only free for personal use, so there may be a cost for some blogs. I also recommend Bad Behavior, which has several layers of anti-spam protection, including the Project Honeypot blacklist. The single biggest thing you can do to cut comment spam is a simple one: automatically close your comments after a set period of time, like 30 days. (In WordPress, it’s under Settings > Discussion.) Most comment spam will land on your older posts, and by only keeping your current posts available for comments when the discussion will be most active, you nip a huge amount of spam right in the bud.
For SEO, I suggest you won’t do any better than WordPress SEO by Yoast, which was recommended. Even if you work with a professional SEO, you want to give them the best tools for your blog, and this is at the top of the list. In addition to covering the basics really well, it makes it easy to integrate Google authorship as well as lets you edit your meta description on a per-page or per-post basis. Also on the same basis, it provides you with a ranking of that page against specific keywords with suggestions on how to improve rankings for that particular page. In the background, it updates your site map every time you post and pings the search engines for you. For good measure, it also adds support for Twitter card meta data, Facebook OpenGraph, and Webmaster Tools from Google, Bing, and Alexa.
For Google Analytics, I always remember a quote from another marketing pro: “If you’re not using Google Analytics, you’re doing it wrong.” It can’t be any clearer than that! It’s not difficult to set up (many plugins are available). On WordPress, I like to add in the Google Analytics Dashboard plugin, which displays select analytics data right in your WordPress dashboard for easy reference.
Recommended Tools & Services
For me personally, the event was quite enjoyable and I had opportunity to connect with a number of new people that I’d known only online or not at all, and I always enjoy doing that. Overall, there seemed to be a fairly heavy bias toward mommybloggers or lifestyle blogging rather than business blogging, on which I’d have liked to hear more perspectives. There was a discussion thread on Twitter about how few men were in attendance, but I don’t think the organizers need apologize for that in any way. I took it to be a function of the event’s cosponsor being the WECM and the fact that all but one of the speakers were women. Would I have liked to see just one more male speaker? Sure. But to be fair, technology conferences are normally skewed as far or farther in the other direction, so I really don’t feel hard done by.
Two things I will say about the gender bias is that the mix seems to have skewed the focus from business blogging to lifestyle blogging. Not 100%, but more than I had hoped. That, and with the exception of the iPad mini, all the door prizes and schwag were the female-oriented counterpart to gift cards for Princess Auto. (Shoes?) More than the speaker lineup or topics, this is what made me feel as though the organizers hadn’t really anticipated that any men might show up at all. On the plus side, there were no lineups for the mens’ room, and I don’t recall any negative comment on this subject from any of the men who did attend. It takes a something a little extra to put on a “first” event, so kudos to Kathy Driscoll at New Media Manitoba for putting on a great first blogging conference in Winnipeg.
The event was well-run and well received, and I expect we can (thankfully) look forward to more events of this type in the coming year. From this inaugural one, I’m taking away a bit of inspiration to blog more often — something I’ve known I should be doing, but just haven’t been making the time. I’ve always been a long-form blogger though, so I’m going to try and learn the art of shorter-form blog posts. Must be more pithy.