Having a blog is like having a tattoo – lessons from a year’s blogging

Having a blog is a bit like having a tattoo. Everyone you talk to has thought about having one, wants to know whether it’s painful and feels the need to tell you about the best one they ever saw (which, disappointingly, is never yours).

It’s a year since I started this blog.  I’ve posted 169 times.  I’ve written more about advertising than I anticipated, but less about clothes.  I’ve made contact with some unexpected, and utterly delightful, people. On occasion I’ve been pleased with my work. At least as often I’ve been shamed by my own indulgence.  And a number of people have, very kindly, asked for my advice on getting a blog started.  So, never one to let an anniversary go uncommemorated, this seemed like an appropriate time to share that advice.

Starting is hard. Writing your first post feels as big as school on your first day. I wrote about ten before I posted anything.  I tried to trick myself, writing stuff that might have been for any purpose, rather than specifically starting a blog.  Then I posted them all at the same time and, hey wordpressto, I had a blog.

Kicking off from a standing start is significantly harder.  You finish one post and the empty space in front of you is paralysing.  It feels like it’ll take forever for what you’re doing to become anything real (which probably explains why 95% of the world’s blogs are inactive).  So my advice is to give yourself a running start. Momentum, even if it’s artificial, is invaluable.

A watched blog is never viewed. If you exclude things involving Anne Hathaway, there’s nothing more exciting than the first time you see your blog stats counter tick over.  Real people, somewhere, are reading what you’ve written. But those stats are dangerous information.  I’ve posted something I thought was interesting and found myself petulantly indignant when an hour later no one has read it.  I’ve had quite prolific periods during which hardly anyone has visited the site.  And then I’ve written almost nothing (as with the last month) and inexplicably had fifty visits inside half an hour.  My point is that you quickly learn that when people visit has very little to do with what you’re doing.

In a similar vein, micro-measurement is a really bad thing.  If you look at who visits, from where, how many pages they view etc, it’s entirely random.  On a micro-level it makes no sense.  But if you look at it by month, it’s entirely predictable.  It’s a small increase in the number of visitors each month.  That’s it.  That’s the measure that’s useful.

Blogging has a natural ebb and flow.  Unless you do it professionally, to blog is a choice. When I started I thought it was a choice of priority. I could prioritise blogging or I could prioritise doing other things.  And while that’s obviously true, over time you start to realise that that’s not the real choice you make. It’s really a choice of conviction. Do I have enough conviction in what I’m writing that I believe it justifies someone’s time and effort in reading it? And it amazes me how this comes and goes.  Some weeks I believe everything is worth writing about. And some weeks I don’t believe I’ll ever make an interesting observation (again).

A provocative post brings readers. Once.  This post on the Toyota Yaris scandal generated a huge spike in visitors, thanks to Tim @ Mumbrella quoting it in his story.  But I wish I’d written it now, or at least I wish that I’d had my blog setup properly when I wrote it.  Because if you have aspirations to grow your readership, you need to make it easy. Your RSS subscription goes at the top of the page. Your email subscription comes next.  Then you ask again at the end of a post for people to subscribe, or as Mr Zuckerberg would prefer it, to Like. You create a section that contains your best posts (mine’s here). You can’t be backward about it. If you can get someone to your blog once, you need to make it easier than a game of Connect Two for them to come back.

If like me, your blog’s core subject is your field of employment, you will confront a dilemma.  There will be issues you want to write about that will require you to be critical of people who might one day employ you, or clients who might one day hire you.  On the one hand, you’d like to think that sharing a point of view that is balanced, considered and well-reasoned (if perhaps legitimately critical) is a positive expression of your capacity for rigourous analysis and willingness to speak truth.  On the other hand, that’s not actually how the world works.

Don’t read David Mitchell, Charlie Brooker or the Ad Contrarian. It will become immediately obvious that you are a talentless hack who has no business dallying with this writing lark.

Something unexpectedly good will happen.  If you’re lucky, someone you haven’t spoken to in years will realise they’ve just read something quite interesting and be astonished to find that you were its author. Or someone very clever will reference your blog in something they write and make you appear clever by association. Or, and I don’t mind admitting I’m rather proud of this, you might get quoted in the Times.  (That’s the London Times.  My dad would have liked that.)

Silence is the loudest feedback. You write every post hoping that people will have a view on it. When they don’t, you can’t help but assume that it’s because what you wrote wasn’t interesting.  Pretty quickly you get to the point where you’d trade 100 views for one comment.  Silence, as all children know, is the greatest punishment.

So go on, don’t be shy.

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Having a blog is like having a tattoo – lessons from a year’s blogging

4 thoughts on “Having a blog is like having a tattoo – lessons from a year’s blogging

  1. Thank you Mr O’Neill that was jolly helpful. As a blog toddler (bloddler?), I’ve just read every word with relish. And you’re right, you’re Dad would have been very proud.

  2. GQ, nice to find you again after all these years! Love your work as always. In typical style I am about to start my own blog at least a decade after it became fashionable. First step in my journey from strategist to writer, wish me luck. Will be back. Kelster

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