Building Better Blog Networks

Blog networks can be powerful tools, but they’re only as good as the support they offer their bloggers, and there’s plenty of room for improvement there.
Light Pulses
(Robert Kraus)

There are several reasons why a blogging network could appeal to bloggers out there. Networks can promote bloggers and get them more traffic: if the network in question has a couple of superstar bloggers, their popularity can, in theory, trickle down to the network’s other members. A network can also provide bloggers with a solid technical foundation, freeing them from worrying about hosting and other “nerdy” concerns.

There is, of course, the almighty dollar: because blogging networks can draw a lot of traffic due to their wide range of authors and topics, they can be attractive to advertisers, which in turn can lead to bloggers getting paid. And finally, belonging to a network can offer a sense of validation, belonging, and community, which, while not as quantifiable as the aforementioned reasons, are still valuable in and of themselves.

However, even a cursory look at blogging networks out there can reveal ways to make things better. So, as an exercise, I thought I’d write down some of things that I, Jason Morehead, would do were I to start a blogging network of my own. A few caveats, though. First, I’m going to dream big and assume that money is less of a concern than it certainly would be in reality. Second, I’m going to avoid discussing any specific technologies and instead, keep things rather conceptual and high level.

If you’re wondering what I mean by a “blogging network,” then look at Patheos, ScienceBlogs, BlogHer, and Svbtle. These networks feature a large number of authors writing independently of one another, on a wide variety of topics. Individual blogs may be organized by some sort of taxonomy (e.g., professional focus, area of interest).

1. Promote Your Bloggers’ Brands

A blogging network ought to do as much as possible to promote its individual bloggers’ brands, and that includes their own personal branding and design.

This seems like a no-brainer: without bloggers, there’d be no blog networks. But what I see in a lot of networks is a balancing act between preserving the identity of the network and promoting the identities of its bloggers. Or, to put it another way, the brand of the network often trumps the brand of its bloggers. This precarious balance is particularly noticeable when you look at the design of network blogs.

The individual blogs that make up the network are often virtually indistinguishable from one another, visually speaking. Each blog may have some customization — like a masthead image that contains the blog’s name and maybe the blogger’s photo and/or some clever tagline — but that’s about as far as personal branding goes. It seems rather ironic to join a network to give your unique blogging voice a greater audience, only to have your content wrapped in a fairly generic and common design. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

A blogging network ought to do as much as possible to promote its individual bloggers’ brands, and that includes their own personal branding and design. That doesn’t mean each blog gets a completely custom design, but surely it’s possible to have a handful of aesthetically unified themes that bloggers can pick from and then reasonably customize. Great writers don’t necessarily make for great designers, so you’d definitely want to enforce some standards to prevent bloggers from uglifying their sites, but having blogs that are a better visual match for their subject matter makes a lot of sense — and having a space more uniquely their own can give bloggers a greater sense of identity and ownership.

This, of course, doesn’t mean you throw the network’s brand and identity under the bus. But far too often, I see networks protecting their brands at the expense of their bloggers, which can be frustrating for bloggers striving to carve out a unique space for their content.

2. Be Thoughtful About Advertising

If advertising is a necessity — and the sad reality is that it probably will be for the foreseeable future — be thoughtful about its integration.

You know it, I know it: web advertising is fundamentally broken, everybody hates it, etc. That’s especially true for bloggers who find their content obscured by pop-ups and/or find their sites littered with advertising that is, at best, irrelevant to their content and much of their audience.

Unfortunately, advertising is still the default when it comes to paying the bills, though there are other revenue models out there that people are experimenting with like sponsorships and memberships, and even micro-targeted advertising (like what you see on Daring Fireball via The Deck).

If advertising is a necessity — and the sad reality is that it probably will be for the foreseeable future — then be thoughtful about its integration. Use it wisely, and don’t just slap it all over member blogs. This goes back to #1 — respecting individual bloggers’ brands — but it’s also not worth aggravating readers with pointless, senseless, and irrelevant banner ads that just get in the way of the awesome content you’re trying to promote in the first place.

3. Invest In Infrastructure

I said I wasn’t going to focus too much on technical details, but I’m going to backtrack a bit on that. Running a blogging network that contains even a handful of successful bloggers presents significant technical challenges. For example:

  • How do you ensure that blogger set-ups are as secure and updated as possible?
  • How do you ensure that content, including images and other assets, loads as quickly as possible (especially since page speed has become an important part of SEO)?
  • How do you ensure that your network can handle large traffic spikes if one of your bloggers (hopefully) publishes something that goes viral?
  • How do you ensure that your content is accessible by as wide a range of readers and devices as possible?
  • How do you handle the inevitable requests from bloggers to present their content in new and interesting ways?

Fortunately, in this day and age, there exist a multitude of solutions for ensuring that websites load quickly, are secure, etc. There are hosting providers that do nothing but specialize in addressing high-level needs like these. Also, I’ve seen some pretty inventive systems for managing content in a very flexible, presentation-agnostic manner. Make sure you do your homework, research your options, and make the necessary investment to ensure your content isn’t hindered by poor performance or any other technical reason.

4. Invest In Your Bloggers

One of the best ways to make writers better is to pair them with a good editor.

If you have a stable of bloggers, then you’ve probably gathered them because you thought they were great writers that wrote great content. As great as they are, though, they can always be better. Indeed, most writers probably appreciate opportunities to improve their skills. (I know I certainly do.)

One of the best ways to make writers better is to pair them with a good editor. This is the approach we’ve taken at Christ and Pop Culture, where every single piece is reviewed by at least one editor before it’s published. And even here on Opus, many of my pieces are given the editor treatment by my lovely wife — and I definitely appreciate it when she corrects something that would’ve made me look pretty foolish had it been published.

Of course, you could try something similar and have every single piece on your blogs go past an editor before it’s posted, but that adds a lot of overhead. However, you could offer editorial services as a value add-on for your bloggers. It could even be something you charge a nominal fee for. (Yet another revenue stream!) A stable of editors can ensure that not only is your bloggers’ content free from egregious spelling and grammatical errors, but also that it makes sense, is free from flaws in logic, etc.

Also, encourage your bloggers to collaborate, bounce ideas off each other, and so on. This is another approach we’ve taken at Christ and Pop Culture. We have a private writers’ group where writers can submit ideas for articles, receive feedback and encouragement, and even let off some steam in the event their latest piece gets some particularly facepalm-worthy comments.

5. Leverage Your Diversity

Ask your bloggers to contribute to roundtables” where they submit articles about larger topics in the culture.

Many blogging networks organize their blogs by topic, area of interest, and so on. Patheos, for example, organizes their blogs into “channels” for different religions and sects (e.g., atheist, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical). This “vertical” approach makes a lot of sense, and makes it easy for people looking for general types of content. This isn’t the only way to approach organizing and presenting your bloggers’ content, though.

If your network gets large enough, you’ll eventually have a wide diversity of voices and opinions (even if your network is ostensibly about a single topic). It only makes sense to leverage that diversity and encourage your bloggers to step out of their vertical silos. For instance, ask your bloggers to contribute to “roundtables” where they submit articles about larger topics in the culture, and yet topics that are still relevant to their niche.

This can also be as simple as encouraging them to respond to each other’s articles on their own respective blogs (hopefully in a gracious and thoughtful way, of course), or engage in some group conversation like a podcast or Google Hangout. (Again, something we’ve done at Christ and Pop Culture.) Finally, depending on your network’s architecture, CMS, etc., you might be able to programmatically aggregate related content in an approach similar to Vox’s card stacks or manually curate them à la Medium’s publications.

These approaches encourage conversation and discussion, and stretch your bloggers by having them write and interact outside their comfort zones. And best of all, it has the potential to attract new readers to your bloggers by exposing their content to some who might otherwise have only been interested in other blogs in your network.

6. Set Standards & Expectations

This is a potential quagmire because some might consider it censorship, but having some established guidelines about what is expected of bloggers (and the network), what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and so forth can be beneficial because it ensures everyone knows where they stand. Scientific American recently instituted a set of guidelines for their blog network that, among other things:

  • Requires each blogger to post biographical information (presumably for accountability and transparency)
  • Encourages each blogger to “maintain a strong subject focus in support of their blog’s agreed upon scope and mission”
  • Sets expectations regarding guest authors
  • Lists the editorial standards that bloggers should follow

Again, this sort of document is a good thing because it manages expectations with regards to writing and editorial oversight, spells out possible infractions and disciplinary tactics, and describes the relationship between the blogger and the network. This type of transparency can help build trust in the eyes of readers, as well.

Obviously, the above only scratches the surface of what’s involved in running a successful blog network. (For instance, I’ve largely glossed over the business side of things.) However, I wanted to focus on aspects most pertinent to bloggers — since that’s what I am.

I enjoy working with fellow bloggers to create a wealth of content that’s much greater than our individual efforts. And it can be even greater when there’s an infrastructure backing, promoting, and supporting our efforts. Blog networks can be powerful tools, but they’re only as good as the support they offer their bloggers, and there’s plenty of room for improvement there.

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