I have an old friend from grad school whom I haven't really seen much since then - although these days we are connected, inevitably, via Facebook.
An author and university professor now, my friend teaches undergraduates somewhere in the middle of the country. Lately on Facebook she has been sharing long form posts about her life and passion as a teacher, reader, and writer. She muses on writer's block. On John Updike, whom we were lucky enough to meet, as students way back when. (She wrote about that, too). On what to expect from an MFA Creative Writing program. On the technicalities of being a good writer (or at least trying to be one). On developing crushes for authors of great books.
What's interesting to me is that my friend Stephanie's writing on these matters - serious, funny, personal, informative - is a form of blogging, but it does not actually appear on a blog, per se. Instead, it appears on what once might have been called a blog but today is so much more than that: The Huffington Post.
Stephanie could have chosen to start her own blog. It would have been easy to do on one of the usual suspects: Tumblr, Wordpress, Blogger, etc. But she didn't. Rather, she became one of the numerous professional and amateur subject experts lately to start publishing their writings ("user generated content") on a branded media platform, like HuffPo, or Forbes, or the Yahoo! Contributor Network - or even here on Social Media Today, for that matter.
Whenever she has something to say, she still sits before a web-hosted, HTML-enabled text editor to do her writing. But Stephanie traded a series of concerns for just one. Instead of wondering what to call her blog, whether to customize the URL, how it should look and feel, how to optimize for visibility in search engines, when to upgrade widgets, where to host her files, and (most importantly) how to build an audience of readers for her posts, Stephanie has just one question: what should I write today? The Huffington Post takes care of the rest, including the question of audience.
I see this as a growing trend. Daily I read posts on all matters, in all fields, written by "guest contributors" who, in some fashion, after a simple process, have been given the keys to what is ostensibly a blog - it just happens to be on a larger media platform, where "brand" is already established and readers (often lots of them) await.
In many respects, I see this not just as a trend but the future of blogging. I suspect that the companies who provide such platforms see it as part of the future of media ("citizen-expert journalists, empowered by technology") - and definitely they see it as a way to generate much more content than they might with just an in-house staff of reporters and editors. Why else would Forbes offer blogs?
I certainly see it as the future of blogging for those many service professionals who understand the value of using written work to showcase talent, expertise, and experience in front of a target audience.
Why? Because, for one thing, having a blog is in no way the same thing as having an audience. Time and again in my field (the legal profession; I am not a lawyer but my company serves them), I see marketers confuse the two. And they're not alone, so I think it bears repeating: having a blog is not the same thing as having an audience.
The version of "blogging" offered these days by branded media platforms - again, the likes of Forbes, HuffPo, Yahoo! Voices (formerly Associated Content), Social Media Today, and others - comes with a built-in audience and, more often than not, built-in trust and credibility. Would you be reading this if it wasn't hosted on Social Media Today?
(I have seen Yahoo! contributor content on the site's homepage, in Yahoo!'s featured news section. That is about as close to a fire hydrant as any one blogger might get.)
The confusion between blogging (an easy form of publishing) and audience (actual readers) dates back to one of the early false promises of self-publishing on the web: "If you build it they will come." True for some; not true for most. Was that way in 1995; still that way today.
Consider: for any given search you conduct today, really only ten websites out of hundreds of thousands if not millions are noticed by you. That leaves a rather large raft load of websites for whom the visitors did not, and will not, come.
Back in the early days, self-publishing still held promise and excitement, but a personal web page/online journal (one precursor to blogs) required HTML skills and FTP. It was a pain. Better web geeks than me can hold forth on the finer details of the rise of blogging, but in short: the text editor as hosted tool solved those problems. Suddenly, it became so much easier to write something and - in the click of a button, without even a thought about HTML coding - publish it. FTP be damned.
Fast forward to today and that's pretty much how it still stands. We write something. We click the Publish button. We don't code in HTML, we don't FTP our files. It has never been easier to self-publish, whether you are kid writing about school lunch, or a lawyer writing about Dodd-Frank. Besides the abundance of information available today, perhaps the biggest difference between then an now is this: the marketers have noticed. That's not a bad thing if value is being created. "Content is King."
But the problem of audience still remains. Yes, apparently Google favors a site that updates frequently, with meaningful content that provides value to readers. But there are a lot of sites that update frequently with meaningful content that provides value to readers. Good luck with that.
Interestingly, the problem of audience appears to exist for everyone. Including media outlets. It fascinates me that Yahoo! bought Associated Content, that HuffPo and Forbes allow you to start blogging under their rubric in your field of expertise, that CNN launched a citizen journalist service called iReport. It fascinates me that Social Media Today offers content communities in so many other fields, too, beyond social media: entrepreneurship, climate change and energy policy, healthcare, corporate responsibility. It makes sense. It's a natural step in the evolution of the Web's self-publishing promise, which has always required three distinct things: the means to publish (technology), something to say (content), and visibility (an audience).
I see more and more individuals, usually professionals who understand the power and reach of good content, establish a presence through the written word on branded platforms. (Used to be called "guest columnist" back before it scaled as well as it does today.)
In my own profession, I hear clients (law firms) more and more often say: it doesn't matter how we publish our blogs, what really matters is where we publish them. That's a big shift in thinking for a field that tends to be behind the curve in most matters of tech adoption.
My point is simply this: as the big media players compete for readers and audience, we all stand to benefit.
Publishing your work on a branded media platform solves the next problem, the more important problem - which is not "how to publish?" but "how to be read?"
Plenty of folks will disagree with this point of view. To be expected. Some might say that blogs aren't publishing platforms at all, but rather online venues to build relationships (by quoting people you admire and allowing for comments and conversations, linking in blogrolls etc.). Fine, but - ignoring for the moment how inane most comments seem to be - Forbes, HuffPo, and all the rest allow for commenting in their platforms as well. And besides, Social has, to my mind, replaced the bulk of conversations that in the late 1990s and early 2000s took place in blog comments. Your social network is the new blogroll; conversations now take place on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
For those who insist that our own branded sites still matter the most, that our web presence resembles a hub and spoke and most efforts should be in the hub … I'd like to know why?
At a time when your activities on other websites can shine a spotlight on your expertise quickly, brightly, andcredibly, why continue to measure ROI by traffic to your website? Are you selling ads?
On this site, you know my name, the name of my company (with a link back to my website in my bio), and how to reach me on Twitter and LinkedIn should you want to keep talking. Isn't that enough?
If you agree that the audience you are trying to reach does not ultimately care about you or your brand - and that content is one of the best ways to connect with them on their terms, about the things they do care about - surely the best thing, the only thing, to do is this: go where your audience gathers?
What say you?