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How to Start Your Own Weblog And Make the Most of It

The blogosphere—the universe of all the blogs on the Web—contains everything from adolescent gossip to academic philosophizing. It also contains many excellent law-related blogs (or blawgs) that are generating great PR and buzz for the lawyers who write them.

FROM: July / August 2005 , PAGE 40 BY: David W. Opderbeck

If you’ve been intrigued by the possibility of starting a blog, what’s the holdup? Perhaps you’re worried that blogging may be just a fad. Or maybe you’re nervous about the technical issues that blogging might present. In either case, no need to fear. Here we’ll demystify blogging by explaining how to set one up, drive consistent traffic to it, and use it to enhance your marketing efforts.

The Basics: How Hard Is the Setup?

For the uninitiated, a blog is a Web site that has information contained in posts arranged in reverse chronological order. Blog posts often incorporate hypertext links to articles, other blogs or other sources that relate to the post. Also, many blogs allow readers to comment on the author’s entries or to link back to those entries from the reader’s own blog. In this sense, a blog resembles a series of journal entries in a notebook, with added dynamic features made possible by the Web.

Good blogs also have an editorial point of view that tells the reader something about the blogger’s personality. There’s a certain style typical of strong blogs—crisp and pithy, with plenty of relevant hyperlinks. Over time, blogs on related topics form virtual communities of bloggers.

It’s easy to get started in blogging. With free tools such as Blogger ( www.blogger.com), you can set up a simple blog in less than 15 minutes, even if you have no programming experience. Posting to your blog is simply a matter of opening the Blogger interface and starting to type. Blogger will also host your blog on its servers. However, if you want a unique address for your blog, or if you want your blog to exist as a page within your firm Web site, you’ll need your own Web host.

Other blogging tools, such as Movable Type ( www.movabletype.org), Radio Userland ( www.userland.org) and TypePad ( www.sixapart.com/typepad) also provide excellent interfaces and support.

From there, how do you learn blogging style? It can help to read other blogs. (See the sidebar on “Finding and Monitoring Law-Related Blogs.”) Beyond that, just do it, and you’ll soon find your own unique voice.

Good Traffic: Directing in Three Stages

Once you’ve established a blog, you will want to publicize it. But before looking at specific tools for blog publicity, it’s helpful to identify what you should hope to accomplish with your blog. Although every blog is different, blogs tend to progress through a common set of stages: (1) traffic building, (2) network building and
(3) community building.

  • Stage 1. Traffic building is simply getting people to visit your site. Ideally, you want clients and potential clients to become readers. At first, however, any traffic is good traffic. As more people visit your blog, it will become more visible in search engine listings that rate sites partly based on popularity. And, if a visitor has a positive experience, she is likely to mention you in her own blog and perhaps to provide an inbound link, which results in even more visitors. Eventually, your blog will find its way to your direct target audience.
  • Stage 2. Once you’ve developed some critical mass of regular visitors, the next stage is to build a blogging network. Blogging is not a static medium. Bloggers regularly leave comments on each other’s sites and cross-reference each other’s posts. As you become a more active blogger, you will likely identify five or six blogs you enjoy reading every day, and other bloggers will likely make your site a regular stop. You’ll develop a virtual network of people with common interests.
  • Stage 3. At its most mature stage, a solid blogging network will develop into a blogging community. At this point, the “thought leaders” among bloggers in your field may regularly reference your blog. Perhaps you will even become one of the thought leaders. Traditional media outlets may also pay attention to your posts. At its best, a mature blogging community affects change both inside and outside cyberspace.

Template Tweaking

Ideally, readers will be attracted to your blog because of the wit and incisiveness of your posts. But realistically, your blog needs more than just a “good personality.” It also needs to look good.

A well-designed blog is simple and clean. Usually there is space along the left or right side for your “blogroll”—a list of links to other blogs you find interesting—as well as a personal profile, links to your archived posts and a link to your syndication feed (discussed in the next section). Posts are generally listed toward the center of the page.

Most blogging software comes with ready-made templates that facilitate an attractive design out of the box. It can be helpful, and fun, however, to learn how design templates work. Most use a language known as CSS, which stands for cascading style sheets. With a little practice, you can tweak CSS to accommodate different color schemes, graphics and layouts.

Syndication Power

Beyond good looks, how do you begin to build traffic? A first essential step is to syndicate your blog. Syndication means that your blog is accessible through news reader or aggregator software. This software, powered by a technology known as RSS (for Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary), automatically delivers new posts to the reader’s desktop. This means the reader doesn’t exert any effort to find your new posts—they’re automatically delivered as soon as they’re posted.

Syndicating your site requires adding code that renders the site accessible to news reader software. Fortunately, this is much easier than it sounds. Major blogging software such as

Blogger and Movable Type enable you to activate the necessary code through a user-friendly software interface.

The second step is publicizing the fact that your site has the code a news reader needs. By convention, this is done through adding links to your site with the terms “XML” (XML is the coding language read by most news readers) or “Syndicate This Site.” It’s important to feature this link prominently so that users can take advantage of it.

Comments and Linking

Another key to building traffic, and developing a blogging network and community, is encouraging comments on your site and commenting on and linking to other blogs. Most blogging software allows readers to comment on individual posts. In a strong blog, comments allow readers to feel engaged in the interactive, iterative blogging experience.

Usually it isn’t enough simply to enable the commenting feature in your blogging software. You attract comments by giving comments. Visit blogs you find interesting, comment on some posts, and leave the URL of your blog in the comment. You’ll soon find that other bloggers are visiting and commenting on your site.

Linking is as important, if not more important, than commenting. There are two types of links, both of which are useful: (1) a link from another blogger’s blogroll and (2) a link from a specific post on another blog.

Once you have a few weeks of posts published, send an e-mail to the owners of other law-related blogs and let them know about your new blog. Most other bloggers will be happy to notify their readers about it, and many will include you on their blogrolls. This increases the number of your inbound links—an important factor in many search engine rankings—and helps others find your site.

The best way to generate post-specific links, though, is to link to other blogs in your own posts. There’s an informal convention called “link love” by which a blogger to whom you’ve linked in a post usually will link back to you in a post of his or her own. The more-sophisticated blogging software, such as Movable Type, includes a feature called “trackback” that notifies the owner of the blog to which you’ve linked that you’ve made an “inbound” link and that causes your post to appear in the comments section of the linked site.

This benefits the other blogger because volume of inbound links is one way search engines rank pages and so can boost rankings. It benefits you because the other blogger and his or her readers are likely to visit, comment on and link to your site.

Is It Working? Tracking Traffic

Every blogger eventually wants to answer former New York Mayor Ed Koch’s famous question: “How am I doing?” So it’s important to monitor your blog traffic regularly. Your Web host may allow you to access such statistical data. Or, you may want to use the free tracking service offered by Sitemeter ( www.sitemeter.com).

Sitemeter provides statistics on how many people visited your blog each day, what domain (Web address) they visited from, and whether they were referred to your site through a search engine, another site or a direct query. This allows you to gauge the success of your efforts and determine whether your layout or content might benefit from some tweaking.

Like most worthwhile things, it takes some time and effort to develop a meaningful blogging presence. If you keep at it, you’ll find that your blogging community will grow and eventually produce business returns as well as the satisfaction of lively conversation and debate.

Managing the Blogosphere: Good Buzz vs. Blog Swarms

Lastly, some words of advice on the negative side of the blogosphere. Remember, blogs are no longer only the province of cybergeeks. Millions of ordinary people are blogging, and they are not only writing about what they had for breakfast. They are writing about companies, products, policy interests and maybe even your firm. Therefore, you need to know how to assess and manage the tide of public opinion in the blogosphere lest it threaten to sweep you or your firm away.

It might seem that blogs are unlikely to affect a company’s or firm’s reputation or bottom line. Most blogs are written by individuals as a hobby and attract only a handful of readers each day. Even influential blogs, which might have daily readerships in the thousands, attract far smaller audiences than any television or radio news show.

However, the blogosphere’s statistical tail—those “average” blogs that attract small audiences—is quite long, numbering in the millions, which in the aggregate reach tens of millions of readers. Moreover, bloggers tend to be passionate about the subjects on which they blog. As a result, if an issue becomes hot in the blogosphere, the public profile of that issue can mushroom, and the repercussions can spill over into the mainstream media and affect the bottom line.

In his book Blog (Nelson Books, 2004), Hugh Hewitt calls this a “blog swarm,” which is what happens “[w]hen many blogs pick up a theme or begin to pursue a story.” Blog swarms develop organically as a story is passed among, and dissected by, bloggers with related interests. Among the most high-profile examples of how a blog swarm can affect an organization was the furor over memos concerning President Bush’s National Guard service, which were the focus of a 60 Minutes story reported by Dan Rather. Bloggers who had examined the memos broke the story that they were forgeries, a blog swarm developed, and the rest, well, you know.

How will you avoid a blog swarm? The best strategy is to monitor, understand and participate in the blogosphere. For starters, you, or a designated “blog guru” within your organization, must have a strong understanding of the blogosphere and, consequently, know how to find relevant blogs, craft intelligent blog posts and comments, and sense when a blog swarm is starting to buzz.

It also requires becoming proficient with tools like news readers in order to organize and sort through the many blogs that need to be monitored. In addition, it calls for knowing how to use resources such as Technorati ( www.technorati.com) and Daypop ( www.daypop.com) that facilitate real-time monitoring of topics being discussed in blogs and elsewhere on the Web. You might also consider regular reports of blog traffic relating to your organizational interests.

Finally, you can actively develop original posts containing news and commentary supporting your practice’s interests. Plus, maintaining contact with bloggers and posting comments on their sites will encourage good reporting, let you correct the record when necessary, and help to spread the word about your firm’s positive achievements.

Although the long tail of the blogosphere carries a sting during blog swarms, it can also help spread good publicity in the same way bees spread pollen. As Hugh Hewitt writes, “Understand that bloggers love traffic, and they are sensitive about their reputations as bloggers. There is one more thing: they are very easily co-opted. All it requires is genuine appreciation for genuine talent.”

In other words, it pays to cultivate good relationships in the blogosphere, just as it does with traditional print and broadcast media. A thoughtful blog post, or a good comment on someone else’s blog, can exponentially increase your ability to build goodwill and credibility.

Of course, you can only manage the blogosphere by becoming part of it. If you are not systematically participating in it, you are missing an enormous public relations and marketing opportunity.

SideBar

Finding and Monitoring Law-Related Blogs

You can find law-related blogs through a simple Google search using the search string “law blogs.” In addition, there are Web sites called “aggregators” that collect headlines from blogs on related topics. Some excellent blawg aggregators include The Daily Whirl ( www.dailywhirl.com) and the Detod Blawg Watch ( http://blawgs.detod.com). By
running a search and reviewing these aggregators, you’ll quickly find blogs of interest to your practice.

Once you find an interesting blog, there are several ways to keep current with its content. The old-fashioned way is to bookmark the site in the Favorites section of your browser. Some blogs also provide free e-mail subscriptions. The best way to keep current, though, is to use news reader software to capture the blog’s news feed, which is simply a bit of code that delivers new content to the news reader software. A news reader allows you to scan headlines from multiple blogs and to review only the posts you find intriguing.

There are many excellent free or cheap news readers available, including BottomFeeder ( www.cincomsmalltalk.com/bottomfeeder) and Feedreader ( www.feedreader.com).

Publicity in Real Space

Syndication, commenting and linking are ways to promote your blog in cyberspace. But you should also promote it in real space. Put your blog address on your business cards. When you write articles for print publications or give presentations at bar events or CLE seminars, include your blog address with your materials. In short, whenever you are marketing, let your audience know about your blog. For many people, a dynamic, interactive blog is a far more effective “leave behind” than a traditional glossy firm brochure or static Web site URL.


David W. Opderbeck ( david_opderbeck@baruch.cuny.edu) is Assistant Professor of Business Law at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is also principal of Becke Consulting Group, LLC, which provides new media consulting services for professional services firms.