Institutional Blogging: Do You Really Want To Do This?

4 August 2014 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

So you want to start a blog... (Photo credit: Osorio family album, via Wikimedia commons.)

So you want to start a blog... (Photo credit: Osorio family album, via Wikimedia commons.)

Someone where you work (maybe it’s you), says: “Maybe we should start a blog.” Why not? Lots of people have blogs, and some of them are really popular. So maybe your office should start a blog about all of the stuff going on at your university, research lab, department, or whatever. After all, you’re doing stuff that’s really cool and you want people to know about it.

But then the questions start.

How much would it cost? Who would write it? What would we put on the blog? How often should we post stuff on the blog? Who would actually read the blog? Would anyone actually read the blog? What, exactly, are we trying to accomplish here?

Those are all good questions, and there are no right or wrong answers.

In 2010, I helped launch a research blog called The Abstract for my employer, NC State University. People seem to like it. As a result, I’m occasionally contacted by folks from other universities, colleges, and academic departments who have questions about starting their own institutional blogs. I can’t answer the questions for them, but I can talk about our experiences and walk them through related issues. I often answer their questions with my own questions.

It’s kind of like a therapy session.

Because so many of these questions are the same from institution to institution, I thought I’d address them here.

Can We Start A Blog?

Before we talk about whether you should start a blog, let’s talk about whether you can start a blog.

Are you sure this is a good idea? (Photo courtesy of the German Federal Archive, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Are you sure this is a good idea? (Photo courtesy of the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia Commons.)

Starting a blog is relatively inexpensive. There’s a lot of cheap (or free) blogging software out there, such as WordPress. Plus, if you’ve gotten approval from your employer to launch an institutional blog, you should have the support of your institution’s web/IT team. As a result, actually creating the blog itself is not a significant obstacle. (Questions about blog design, etc., are another matter, but I’m not a designer, so I have nothing productive to say about that – other than that you should talk to someone who is a designer.)

But creating the blog is one thing. Populating the blog with posts is something else.

Do you have a good writer, or good writers, to write posts? Will they be able to spend time writing for the blog? If the answer to this question is not “yes,” you probably shouldn’t start a blog.

But you probably don’t want your blog to be made up solely of big blocks of text. You need images. Do you have access to good photographs, infographics, videos, or related art? Do you have a staff photographer, or designer, or at least have access to a good stock photography site?

You don’t need all of these things, but you need at least some of them. For The Abstract, we have access to a large institutional photo library, which we use very often. We also occasionally take our own photographs. We rarely have the ability to make our own video or to come up with custom art. Similarly, we rarely have a budget for getting stock images, though we do make use of free stock images. (You can check out an earlier post on using stock images ethically, Creative Commons, and a list of stock image sites.)

Should We Start A Blog?

Once you’ve established whether you have the resources to create a blog, you need to figure out whether you should start a blog and, if so, what that blog should look like.

Blogs are a lot of work. But they’re also a lot of fun, and they can be very effective communication tools. Should you start one? Only if you are willing and able to put in the effort and to adjust course as needed in order to accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourself (or that your institution has set for you).

This brings us to Communication 101: Who is your audience? What do you want from that audience?

For example, you may want to create a blog that will allow researchers in your institution to keep track of what their colleagues are doing. Depending on the nature of your institution, an internal, researcher-focused blog could use fairly technical language, wouldn’t need to explain who the researchers are, etc. That would be very different from a university research blog designed to keep university alumni abreast of what’s happening at the school, which would need to spend more time explaining the research and introducing the researchers.

Odds are good that you may want to reach multiple audiences and accomplish multiple goals (we certainly do with The Abstract).

When we launched The Abstract, we had a laundry list of goals. We wanted to: help internal audiences stay abreast of research within the university; keep alumni informed of the neat work our researchers were doing; give the public a glimpse into the variety of research initiatives at NC State; help researchers comply with the outreach terms associated with their federal grants; and provide a platform for stories that we could pitch to reporters. We probably had other goals as well, but I can’t remember what all of them were.

As a result, our de facto mission statement is kind of loosey goosey: “Our goal is to make our readers say, ‘I didn’t know NC State did that,’ ‘Gee whiz’ or ‘Wow,’ and then to smile (not necessarily in that order).”

Cute, right? But we didn’t necessarily do ourselves any favors by taking such a broad approach.

Do you want to experiment? (Photo of Margaret Foster, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Do you want to experiment? (Photo of Margaret Foster, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives via Wikimedia Commons.)

There are two down sides to having such a general mission statement for a blog. First, it’s difficult to create a specific tool – and a blog is a tool – to accomplish so many different goals (which weren’t specifically outlined in the statement). Second, it can be difficult to develop meaningful metrics when your mission statement is so vague and your goals are so varied (which is what initially inspired my thoughts regarding unconventional metrics).

But there are also benefits to taking such a broad approach.

A broad mission statement gives you enormous flexibility in regard to both what you write about and how you write about it. And that flexibility gives you the opportunity to experiment.

On The Abstract, we’ve run straight-up news stories, human interest-y features, guest posts by researchers, explanatory pieces, a serialized science fiction story, profiles of researchers to highlight on-campus diversity, and, well, you get the idea. We like trying new things.

Not all of those ideas were successful. I thought the serialized science fiction idea was a great idea, and could draw in sci-fi fans who would also be interested in the research we write about – but no one else seemed to notice or care (and it was written by a two-time Nebula winner!).

However, some of the ideas worked extremely well. We’ve had a lot of success pitching reporters via the blog, landing stories in outlets from The Economist to the L.A. Times. We also found that our explanatory posts are popular with readers, even though they rarely have anything approaching a conventional news hook.

Experimenting with our posts is fun, but it’s also helped us make the blog more effective as a communication tool. When something works, we keep doing it. When something doesn’t work, we stop doing it. It’s not exactly rocket science (apologies to Ed).

So, do I recommend a broad mission statement or a focused one? This is what I was talking about when I said there are no right or wrong answers. Both approaches have advantages and drawbacks. You have to figure out what would work best for you and your institution.

More Questions I Get About Institutional Blogs

Here are some other questions I get fairly often about institutional blogs.

Question: How do you find ideas and topics to write about?

Answer: Sometimes we come up with them on our own, and sometimes researchers come to us with ideas. Most often, I touch base with people to see what they’re working on, whether they have any forthcoming papers, etc. Blogs give you a lot of narrative flexibility, so you can take neat stories you hear, or cool projects people are working on, and find ways to write stories about them. You can also take advantage of things you see on the news that you know a researcher can weigh in on, using their expertise to offer additional insight. I also like to answer questions that people have (like questions my kids ask me), address popular myths and misconceptions, etc.

Question: What are some ways you engage the public with the blog?

Answer: See the previous answer. How can you apply your institution’s expertise? Are there common questions that people have about health/nature/whatever that you can address? Are there common misconceptions you can clear up? Find stories that are interesting or exciting or useful to the audience you want to reach.

Question: How important do you think frequency of posting is?

Answer: It depends. If you’ll be using social media, etc., to drive traffic to the blog (or if you plan to pitch stories to reporters by sending them links to blog posts), frequency isn’t particularly important. But if you want people to visit the blog on a regular basis to see what’s new, frequency matters. Our initial goal for The Abstract was to post new content three times a week. We often miss that goal.

Question: How much time does a blog take?

Answer: It depends on the blog. If you want to post new content daily, or to focus on in-depth features, the blog will take a lot of time. If you’ll be posting occasionally, and your posts are of the shorter “quick hits” variety, it shouldn’t be too time-consuming. I realize this answer isn’t particularly helpful, but it’s honest.

So, that’s my overview on institutional blogging. And as long as the post is, I’m sure I didn’t address everything people are curious about. What do you think? Any additional questions or ideas?


7 Responses to “Institutional Blogging: Do You Really Want To Do This?”

  1. Jaclyn Jansen Reply | Permalink

    This is a great post! Another question for you: how do you promote the blog? I know you said your numbers aren't great, but they are sooo much better than what I see on our institutional blog.

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Hi Jaclyn,
    over the past 30 days we've had ~14K unique visitors, which isn't great. We use social media to promote individual posts, which can be effective. In terms of sheer numbers, our most effective approach has been to use blog posts as background information when pitching reporters. E.g., "Hi John, I thought you'd be interested in XYZ. Here's a link to more information [insert blog link here]." That's led to quite a few stories that *do* get a lot of traffic. Make sense?

  3. Jaclyn Jansen Reply | Permalink

    We almost never use the blog for back stories - that's a great idea. Our blog is more for stories that have no where else to live. We use social media too but it generates hundreds of unique visitors - I would be ecstatic to get a thousand! Your post has got me thinking about how to seriously improve. Thanks!

  4. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    We don't use it for back stories either -- it's where we put stories that don't fit into a conventional news release, for whatever reason. Usually it's a blog post, rather than a release, because the narrative flexibility of the blog lets us present the information in a more compelling way. Does that make sense?

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