Making the Most of your Blog

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Even the loneliest blog can lure more readers and make a bigger impact with these simple tips and free tools that build community and add interactivity.

Some elite blogs attract more readers than the New York Times. But as blogging has become more popular, even the best-crafted blog post may be about as effective as shouting beneath a helicopter.

Blogging is the cheapest form of publishing in human history, and it’s only beginning to change the world. A blog can build your brand and social network, getting the attention of reporters on the prowl for sources.

Once you get the hang of it, writing a blog or “nanoblog” entry is no harder than sending an e-mail message. Yet the key to building a buzz and making an impact involves more than merely writing. Every blog entry that you publish should have these key ingredients.

Make the connection

On the Internet, the conversation is not one-way or two-way; it’s every which way. Just like finding a good job, the key to succeeding is in making connections with people, expanding a community and enabling news to spread organically. Think of this as shaking hands, without the sweaty palms or awkward silences of in-person networking.

Swaporama: Google and other search engines are more likely to rank websites highly when they link generously to other websites, because that’s a sign of a healthy community. Don’t be stingy. Go ahead, set up a list of links, known as a linkroll or a blogroll, that names other blogs. These lists can snowball, so set up distinct linkrolls for different categories, perhaps broken up by region or subject.

Comments: Blogging allows people to interact more casually, and fiercely, from the safety of their keyboard. If you don’t let people comment on your blog, they might think you’re hiding from something. Be open and let the dialog flow, even if it means potential public criticism.

Still, it’s wise to require that everyone who comments leave a name at least, and–if you want to get in touch–their e-mail address and website as well. If you don’t ask people to identify themselves, your blog can become overrun by comment spam. Nobody wants  ads for “V1agra”–or worse–in their blog comments.

Make it a practice to comment on other blogs in your area of expertise. It’s considered rude to blatantly promote a product or company in a comment, but if you make a valid point and add a link to your blog in the process, people may click over to your site and check it out.

Socialize: Social networking websites aren’t just for college students. Many businesses and nonprofits have established profiles on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com) or MySpace (http://www.myspace.com), collecting “friends” and posting news on virtual bulletin boards. You might invite people who comment on your blog to your social networking website. Applications on Facebook might even help collect money and corral people to support your nonprofit.

Social networks also exist for niche interests, such as Riverwired (http://www.riverwired.com/) for environmentalists. Share events by posting them to Upcoming.org (http://upcoming.org) or to a public Google Calendar (http://calendar.google.com), linking those calendars to your blog or other website.

Cookie crumbs: Most blog services show you how readers arrived on your page. Check the traffic to your blog daily. If 3,000 people are suddenly clicking on your story about, say, a new mentoring program for middle schoolers, you might see that most readers are being sent to your website from the website of a nearby parents’ group.

And if someone writes inappropriate or harassing comments, you can banish them by blocking their IP address—as easy as clicking a button, once you find it within your blogging tool’s layout.

You can also add a tiny map from ClustrMaps (http://clustrmaps.com) to your blog that will displays where in the world your readers are.

Can you Digg it?: Digg.com lets people mark noteworthy stories for other readers to find. Newsvine (http://newsvine.com)  and Reddit (http://reddit.com) are similar to Digg but broader in focus. However, Digg has more users. You can add buttons to your blog that enable readers to instantly mark your story on Digg or other services. PopURLS (http://popurls.com) shows the most popular stories of the moment at Digg and other social media websites.

Beware that some companies desperate for attention pay people to Digg their stories, a big no-no.

Know the company you keep: Don’t assume that you’re the first person to blog about, say, the need for affordable day care. Do your research. If you’re the only person in Chicago tackling that subject, then get experts who blog from Boston and Austin, Tex., to link to your blog, and vice versa. Voila, you have a national network.

Easy updates

In the inbox: A good method for driving traffic to a blog is a periodic e-mail message or newsletter pointing out the latest updates to your website. Just offer an obvious way for people to unsubscribe, so they don’t think of your messages as spam.

You can also add a box to your blog that lets visitors sign up for updates via e-mail, via FeedBlitz (http://www.feedblitz.com).

Sending out an RSS: Your blog should allow people to subscribe for updates in a news reader. Many people don’t even visit blog web pages, but they’ll subscribe in an RSS news reader such as Bloglines (http://bloglines.com) or Google Reader (http://reader.google.com). Check the RSS options offered by your blogging service. E-mail tech support if you don’t understand.

While you’re at it, start using an RSS reader yourself so you can streamroll through news about topics that matter to your cause.

Ping everything: Every time you write something on your blog, make sure to fill out the “ping” field. This will update services such as Technorati and IceRocket to the latest updates on your blog.

Content is king

Take no prisoners: Blogging should empower your work. Don’t diminish your blog right off the bat by labeling it as “musings” or “random thoughts.” Commit to your voice, and stick with it with a confident, catchy title.

Pick your subjects wisely: If your area of expertise is in the news lately, make sure to blog about it. People are pressed for time, so grab their attention while a topic is hot. A one-paragraph blog post with a few links to other websites usually gets more attention than a 2,000 word essay. If your nonprofit builds playground equipment using recycled plastic bottles, which were just featured on a national talk show, then quickly mention that in your blog, and link to the TV program’s website too.

Tags: Tags are words that describe what’s in your blog. When you publish a post, most blogging services provide a blank box to type in tags. Some tags combine words. Is your specialty human rights, for instance? Then tag all of your posts as “human rights” as well as “humanrights.” Are you posting about a presidential candidate? Then type her or his last name in the tag field. That politician’s press secretary is probably going to take notice, because these tags can be found by search engines.

Podcast: Podcasts are essentially your own low-budget radio show. The Lazy Environmentalist (http://www.lazyenvironmentalist.com) started as a terrific podcast.  Now it’s crossing over as a radio show on a bigger network. Free Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) software steps you through recording podcasts. If you use a Mac, the iLife software suite provides every tool needed in GarageBand.

Your tube: Add videos, shake, and stir. The YouTube effect has everyone and their brother shooting and uploading footage online, whether from a high-definition camera or an $80 cell phone. If someone on staff likes to make movies, then use their tech talents to add videos to YouTube (http://www.youtube.com). Tag each video with the name of your organization and relevant subjects. You can embed each video in your blog, too. The Revver (http://one.revver.com) video-sharing site lets you earn money when people watch your work. Vimeo (http://vimeo.com) is known for high-quality, high-definition videos. HeySpread (http://heyspread.com/) publishes your videos to more than a dozen sites simultaneously. Read our “Recording power for the people” for more about using video on the go.

Picture pages: You can use any number of photo-sharing websites to s–no need to build a photographer’s fancy gallery website from scratch.Qualifying nonprofits can get a free annual account with unlimited uploads at <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/good”>Flickr.com, a photo-sharing Web site</a> owned by Yahoo. People can subscribe to your stream of Flickr photos, which you can embed on a blog. And you can tag pictures by subject and create subject-based photo pools to which others can contribute. Does your nonprofit use PowerPoint presentations as a tool of the trade? Slideshare (http://www.slideshare.net) lets you share your PowerPoints with other users, who put their slide shows up for all to see.

Nanoblogging

Services such as Twitter  (http://www.twitter.com) enable you to write a line or two about anything that’s happening right now, and share it with other users within your network. You can make these messages from a computer or cell phone. For example, you might read a news story that mentions your organization. Before you dart to the next meeting, you could alert your Twitter friends with a heads-up note that shares the link to the story. Nanoblogging offers nonprofits potential for sharing bigger news immediately.

For a great example of a nonprofit nanoblogging, check out the Twitter account of AIDG (http://twitter.com/aidg), which works on solar power and clean water projects in Haiti and Guatemala. AIDG stands for Appropriate Infrastructure Design Group.

You could also check out Twitter updates from TechSoup of San Francisco (https://twitter.com/Techsoup) for ongoing tips about using this and other “Web 2.0” or “social media” tools. The Nonprofit Technology Network uses Twitter too (http://twitter.com/08NTC).

<a href=”http://www.commoncraft.com/Twitter“>This video explains Twitter</a> in simple terms. This blog post from 2007 is still a good starting point to see the do-gooder potential of the technology:

http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2007/03/twitter_waste_o.html

FriendFeed is similar to Twitter but offers more features. Plurk is a Twitter clone with a wacky interface that confounds some users but delights others. <a href=”http://www.twhirl.org“>Twhirl</a> helps you use Twitter and rival services, such as <a href=”http://www.friendfeed.com“>FriendFeed</a>, all at once. The Twitter rivals don’t turn up frustrating encounters with the “Fail Whale,” a cartoon graphic that appears all too often when Twitter fails to work. However, Twitter loyalists hope that the service, flush with new funding, will rise to the occasion and resolve its glitches. “To twitter” or “to tweet” has already become a verb in geek circles.

BrightKite (http://www.brightkite.com) integrates with Twitter. The service enables you to snap a photo from a mobile phone and then post that within a map of your location, all inside a Twitter message. Seesmic (http://seesmic.com) does what Twitter does for short videos.

Flesh it out

A thirst to search: You can get the latest scoop about anything on nearly any subject just by typing in some keywords on a news search engine, such as Google News (http://news.google.com) or Yahoo News (http://news.yahoo.com), which connect you to stories from known publishers around the Internet.

Rather hear what other bloggers are gabbing about? Blog search engines, such as Technorati (http://technorati.com) and IceRocket (http://www.icerocket.com) will show what’s said on millions of blogs. These tools can put your ear to the ground and hear what’s being said at the grassroots level outside the mainstream media.

Make sure to do your research about what is said about your organization. Sign up to ask Google Alerts (http://www.google.com/alerts)  to send you an e-mail any time whenever another website mentions the name of your nonprofit.

Note, however, that these searches don’t catch everything that’s published. Sometimes creative page designs, such as those with lovely-looking Adobe Flash animations, can obscure the text on your website and prevent search engines from finding the meaty content, although that’s changing in the coming years.

Widgets: You can add snazzy new tools to your website and blog, just by copying and pasting some text. Widgets are little boxes that contain content that comes from somewhere else. For instance, you can add a widget that displays news feeds representing a narrow range of interests, or add a reader poll with a widget.

You don’t have to do any programming or coding, although you might have to copy and paste some code into a text box to get started. Popular blogging tools including Google’s Blogger, Typepad, Yahoo 360, Windows Live Spaces will step you through adding widgets.

Put yourself on the map: Internet mapping is changing the way we see the world. Suddenly, the globe spins at our fingertips inviting us to zoom in, draw connections, and add our own landmarks. Like the first picture of Earth snapped from space, the possibilities of these new views can show us more about how the world works, its ecosystems and communities threaded together.

Local search services from Google (http://local.google.com), Yahoo (http://local.yahoo.com), and Microsoft (http://local.live.com) enable people to get driving directions to your organization while viewing it from a satellite image or sometimes even a street-level photograph. People can also add comments and ratings at those services.

You can visit each service to fill in data about your organization, including a link to your blog. Yelp (http://www.yelp.com) is another popular business-rating site. When people look up your organization online, a listing on these services is often on the first page of search results.

The My Maps tool (http://maps.google.com/maps ) within Google Maps, as well as Microsoft’s Windows Live Local (http://live.local.com) maps let users flag specific points, take notes, save routes for later use, and e-mail your markups to others. Chicago Crime Maps (http://www.chicagocrime.org) was one of the first services to put local events on a Google map. You could create custom maps that show where your group has done good deeds throughout the city or the world.

If you’re lucky enough to have some super tech-savvy staff members, encourage them to build a presence for your organization on Google Earth, a free 3D program where people can add their own points of interest. Nonprofits are using maps to trace the scars in the earth from mountaintop mining, for instance.

For example, the End Mountaintop Removal campaign (http://www.ilovemountains.org/) offers downloadable, digital views of peaks decapitated by coal mining. With free Google Earth software installed, you can fly over these images for close inspection of the craters.

Make it obvious: If you have a website other than your blog, make sure all of its main pages link to the blog. The more often you update your blog, the more curious people will travel to your main website.

Diagnostic tools: Look up your organization on Technorati (http://technorati.com) to see how your blog ranks. Don’t be discouraged. Once you follow some of the suggestions in the article for a few months, you’ll see you rank climb, slowly yet surely, as more blogs link to yours.

Elsa Wenzel is an associate editor at CNET Networks in San Francisco, where she writes about green technology and software. Before finishing a Masters degree in Journalism from Medill, she enjoyed working as the Community Media Workshop’s new media manager. Elsa has also written for the Associated Press, PC World, and Mother Jones online.

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