On Tuesday, April 13, 2010, I will be giving a presentation to the Toledo Intellectual Property Law Association. Once upon a time I was a member of TIPLA, back when I was a Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Toledo College of Law, which was during the 2001-2002 Academic year. My presentation will focus on the law, ethics and business of blogging as it specifically pertains to attorneys. As I contemplated how to approach this presentation I decided to spend at least some time discussing how one gets started blogging, hence this article.
My plan is to follow up this article, which is really the second in the blogging business series. The first article, The Business of Blogging: A Tutorial for Would-be Bloggers, primarily focused on business models in existence on the Internet. This present article focuses on getting started from a conceptual or philosophical standpoint, and future articles in the blogging business series will address legal issues associated with blogging, as well as the mechanics of blogging.
It is my believe that there are several considerations that every blogger should spend some time grappling with prior to jumping into the blogosphere. It is also my belief that experienced bloggers would do themselves good if they periodically grapple with these questions as well, and yes, I do practice what I preach. So, without further ado, here are the 7 critical questions for a blogging business plan.
1. What are you hoping to achieve?
As with any journey, having a sense of where you want to take your writing and blog will be helpful. What I am suggesting is not unlike the advice given to new businesses, you know — start with a business plan. We all know that most businesses do not start with a business plan, choosing to circumvent that process and jump straight into business. That is a mistake in business, and it would be a mistake for new bloggers who wish to turn their blogging into a business, or businesses who are going to start a blog.
It is certainly true that the minute you finish a business plan it is outdated and irrelevant. Unforeseeable changes will occur, sometimes almost immediately. Unforeseen opportunities will present themselves. Costs will be higher than anticipated, never lower it seems. Everything will take longer and be harder than you anticipated. So the goal here is not to marry yourself to a particular plan or destination, but rather to go through the paces to consider what you want to achieve. The thought journey is far more important than the conclusions you reach, and far more important than actually writing something down on paper, although for most the act of writing something down can and will channel your global thinking and force you to be more precise and likely more realistic.
So what is it that you seek to achieve as the result of having a blog? Any answer is fine, but knowing the ultimate objective will make obtaining success all the more likely, and all the more measurable.
2.Who is your audience?
I bet you have had the experience of finding a website that seemed to directly relate to your search and then quickly realized, for one reason or another, that this website was not for you. Whether it was because of the manner in which the material was conveyed, the use of inappropriate language, the juvenile or unprofessional nature of the writings, or whatever. That website or blog lost a reader or potential customer, and you can’t afford to do that to those you are trying to attract. Who cares if you alienate someone who would never be a reader or customer, but if you alienate your audience that is a problem.
In order to make sure you are not alienating your audience, and more specifically that you are capturing their attention and interest, you absolutely must consider who you are writing to and what they are looking for. What is the education level of your audience? Are they likely to be familiar with topics and issues, or will they need to start learning from ground zero? Why is your audience coming to your website? These and other associated questions are critical because they will provide direction to you, influence your writing and make it more likely you will achieve your goals.
3. What content will you provide?
Once you determine your objectives and audience you really need to consider what content you want to provide. Now stop! I know what you are thinking, and it is likely that you want to provide content your audience will read and find helpful, and you will likely also say that you want to strike an appropriately professional tone. Blah blah blah blah.
These types of generalizations are not at all helpful. If you have crossed the bridge and decided that a blog is right for you personally, professionally and/or appropriate for your business you have already decided that you want to write things people will read and find useful. Be more specific — much more specific!
If you are a professional in a field where you need to attract clients, you almost certainly have prospective clients ask you all kinds of questions. Have you ever noticed how those questions are similar to the questions other prospective clients ask you? The truth is that whether you are an attorney, an accountant, business consultant or whatever, new clients frequently have the same questions. On top of that, if prospective clients have these questions how many others do you think who might need your services have those same questions? Now think back. How many times have you searched the Web for answers and found websites that provide generic information that is hardly useful? If you found someone who had thoughtful writings on those topics were you more or less likely to use their service or buy their product? I suspect the answer is universally that you were more likely to become a customer or client.
4. What is your self censoring plan?
After you have determined what content you plan on providing your audience it will be helpful to give some thought to the manner in which you plan on conveying that. The first step in this “manner two step” relates to biting your tongue. In other words, you should spend some time considering what, if any, restrictions or filters you want to place on yourself and your presentation of the material . Still another way to conceptualize this is to ask yourself how you plan to censor yourself.
The word censorship has all kinds of negative connotations, but most individuals self censor all the time. Whether it be the family member who asks “do I look fat in this outfit?” or the boss who you disagree with on politics. Some of us, on the other hand, do not censor ourselves in the same way. Friends of mine know that I have violated the common sense approach of disagreeing with a boss about politics, but that is who I am and I wouldn’t change that for a minute. If you have never given thought to whether and how you plan on censoring yourself you will likely find that you will “step in it” from time to time. Even if you do give it some thought you will likely step in it from time to time, but the hope is it will be less frequent.
The Internet can be a wonderful place to exchange ideas and share philosophy. But as with e-mail, it can be enormously easy to click “publish” and have a blog entry go live without giving it enough thought. So rules of thumb to save you from yourself include: (1) never publish a blog article or posting when you are hot under the collar; (2) if you have to think more than 3 seconds about whether to post then don’t , at least not without appropriate time to reflect; (3) talk to people whose judgment you trust; and (4) make sure that everything you post forwards your objectives. Setting up some kind of decision tree or fail safe mechanism will at the very least minimize problems and potentially embarrassing situations.
5. What viewpoint do you plan on providing?
You now know your objectives, your audience, some basic information about content and have a plan to censor yourself. But what, if any, viewpoint are you going to provide? Are you going to write about topical issues and current events to attract an audience? Are you going to stick with the facts, or are you going to offer opinions and analysis? Are you going to write tutorials and educational articles? You don’t have to pick one particular genre or style and do that and only that, but giving some thought and picking a starting point from which you will organically grow will help you enormously.
Many professionals will want to steer clear of opinion writing, but I think those who also stay away from analysis are likely to condemn themselves to boring writing that will likely not get read on the Internet, or anywhere these days. I know many attorneys, for example, don’t want to say too much because they may unwittingly create a problem for a client, or they may write something that will come back to haunt them in another case. In my opinion that is naive and misguided, at least on some level. All of your arguments, whether in briefs, motions or made orally, are far easier to find today than ever before, so whenever you advocate you will take a position and that in and of itself can be used against you later to demonstrate you are arguing the opposite.
If you want to stay away from pure opinion, that is fine, but no one wants to read “this case could go either way” or “the defendant has good arguments, but so does the plaintiff.” That is wishy-washy. No one wants to read wishy-washy and no one wants wishy-washy representing them. At the very least explain why cases and events are important, what they could mean and provide actionable information. For example, if you are a patent attorney you should have been writing to clients telling them that after the Federal Circuit issued its decision in Egyptian Goddess (see article1 and article 2) design patents are much stronger and should be considered an important part of an overall patent portfolio for those who have tangible products. They are cheap, easy to get, quick to issue and now much stronger. Just providing the facts, good information, a little analysis and the truth might have resulted in more work for you and a better and strong patent portfolio for your client.
6. How will you establish yourself as an authority?
How do you plan to convey to readers that you have a viewpoint that is worthy of their time to read? How do you plan to get readers to appreciate that you are an authority or expert? Do you even feel like you are an authority or expert?
You need to establish through your writings that you know what you are talking about, but you need to write in a way that addresses the audience in a way that is most likely to reach them. No one wants to hear “I am the world’s leading expert” or “I am extremely knowledgeable” or “I have studied X for years and have tremendous insights.” That type of self aggrandizing comes across as conceited and arrogant. It also seems to me that it is characteristic of those who do infomercials and are selling get rich quick schemes or convincing you that you can lose 50 pounds in 10 days while drinking milk shakes. If is sounds too good to be true it likely is too good to be true, so you need to make sure your presentation is appropriate, will be read and doesn’t turn people away. It is far too easy to click the back button on a browser, don’t make it any easier for readers or potential clients.
What I try and do is let the reader come to the conclusion that I know what I am talking about without telling the reader I know what I am talking about. Proper presentation, thoughtful analysis, insight, tips and actionable intelligence can all convey that you know what you are talking about in a subtle way and is far more powerful than saying it yourself. Staying within your wheel-house is also enormously helpful, whether that is as the result of experience or study, write what you know and stay away from those things you don’t.
7. Who do you plan to be? How many masks will you wear?
Unless you are writing as a particular persona, an alter-ego or pseudonym, you absolutely, positively need to be yourself. The overwhelming majority of people are very good about figuring out when you are not being yourself, when you are saying things you don’t believe or when you are not giving the effort. They might not be able to pinpoint identify it, but they will notice something is not quite right and that can be a major turn-off.
When you are yourself you will also notice that there are an awful lot of people out there that are like you in many ways. You will speak to them through your genuineness, point of view, common experiences and ideology.
I don’t hide who I am, I am who I am in all of its glory (and for better or for worse). I have made the decision to lay things on the line, say what I mean, write what I feel and to embrace who I am. I have a particular point of view (i.e., I am a Republican patent attorney that believes innovation creates jobs, government should get out of the way and that we have not been told the truth about who shot JFK.) I am not afraid to speak my mind, interject humor, poke fun at myself and be a little confrontational. What I have discovered is the more true to myself I am the more readers I get, the more fun I have and the better my business goes and grows. As it turns out parents everywhere are right! Be yourself, don’t worry about others and have fun. Then everything will sort itself out.
Please don’t under estimate the importance of fun. Like everything in life, if you don’t like it you will almost certainly do less of it than you would if you liked it. For me blogging is fun and I keep it that way, always finding new things to write about that I find interesting. Even on an intellectual property, patent heavy blog I find ways to weave in politics (I am a junkie and wonk), sports (I love the NFL) and science fiction. Keeping it fun will show a personal side without sacrificing privacy, and if it is fun to write it will likely be fun to read, at least by those who share your idiosyncrasies.