Thoughts on the Brussels blogosphere debate

The debate around the Brussels’ blogosphere has tended to centre on the relative lack of good quality blogs, especially within the policy realm. Over the last couple of weeks, the debate, spearheaded by Ron Patz and elaborated by others such as Bruegel, has been about the shortage of interaction within the Brussels blogosphere, especially the paltry number of links that eurobloggers seem to include to each other in their posts.

My (very belated) two pence worth:

Obviously, the premise is correct: when a blogger engages on subject matter that is being debated more widely, they should aim to reference and respond as far as possible. However, at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, looking at the Editor’s Choice posts, it appears that a fair number of the bloggers in question wrote in isolation i.e. on topics which were not being debated very widely in other euroblogs at that moment in time. Not always, but often.

In a sense, the “Brussels” or “EU” blogosphere is irrelevent to many eurobloggers. Given the nature of the beast, people’s core area of interest is often a specific issue or policy area, say energy, ICT, financial services and so forth. Generalists who work across various sectors or even just regular citizens interested in the EU, but not a specific issue or policy area per se, are relatively limited. So rather than the Brussels blogosphere, their real interest is a niche e.g. the EU energy stakeholders’ blogoshere, the EU ICT stakeholders’ blogoshere etc.

Ideally, this is where the national-EU factor should come into play: creating communities that connect national and EU-level niches on specific issues or policies is where we want to go, but it’s fair to say we’re not quite there yet. The language conundrum and the splendid isolation which the Brussels bubble has grown accustomed to play a part and I for one admit candidly that I should make more of an effort to connect Brussels based clients looking to engage online with players in the national sphere.

Ultimately, although many bloggers should no doubt make more of an effort to avoid operating in splendid isolation, the issue of critical mass is no doubt rearing its head. Sure, there are a fair few euroblogs in absolute terms (+900 on Blogginportal) but within each niche, there may only be a handful that hit the sweet-spot i.e. regular, relevant, good quality posts (and in a language others understand!) I’d candidly admit that as a blogger I don’t link enough, but arguably I fall into a niche as well i.e. Brussels, the practice of Public Affairs and digital comms is an odd mix and not widely debated (an excuse on par with “my dog ate my homework..?”)

Is this state of affairs indicative of the failure of the EU blogosphere? Hardly. I know purists will disagree vehemently, but there’s still room for well written blogs even if they don’t connect to a wider blogosphere especially well: if the relevance and quality of content in a blog means it is read and appreciated by lots of people who matter, then that’s a good first step. “Then it’s just a website,” I hear. Not really, the nature of the blog allows for greater flexibility of style and formats i.e. short post vs. long post, reference vs. original content, more personal vs. less personal and so forth.

Where will we be ten years from now? My somewhat rosy vision is as follows. The EU blogosphere for generalists will probably still be whinging about the lack of an EU blogosphere for generalists, as the EU as a general construct will still not have captured the public imagination. More critical mass overall will have resulted in niches interested in EU related stuff, such as specific policy areas, accruing critical mass too: the EU blogosphere will be larger, but it will be made up of lots of smaller communities i.e. the EU energy stakeholders’ blogosphere etc. that are more connected than at present, and yes, link to each other more so than at present.

And the EU itself? It’ll be part of the mix, but at niche level i.e. Commission officials who work on energy related stuff will be part of the EU energy stakeholders’ blogosphere and so forth. Communications generalists at the EU will no longer communicate on behalf of the EU, but will merely act as evangelists and advisers to the subject matter experts, who themselves will be doing the communicating.

Brussels policy blogging: don’t bother if…

There’s a real shortage of blogs that deal with a specific policy area, written by experts in that same area operating in Brussels. Given this dearth, given that policy-makers use the web to inform themselves on policy issues, that a blog is a highly flexible medium that allows for anything from a short two-liner to a full-on analysis, that a blog can allow for an ongoing narrative that no other medium could allow for, lots of organisations trying to communicate their views on a variety of issues are losing out by relying only on tried and tested position papers, meetings and the like (I’ve previously written about the reasons for the shortage of policy blogs in Brussels over on Public Affairs 2.0 – if you click through, I recommend that you read the comments too.)

Still, some blogs do get launched, and in this post, rather than argue for more policy blogs, I’d like to make another point, possibly born out of the frustration at seeing a number of valiant efforts fail. Despite the undoubted value of blogging – if done well – don’t even bother if:

  • You aren’t allowed to talk about anything interesting (or don’t want to, or can’t legally do so.) You work on topical and/or contentious issues and have views, so EXPRESS THEM: that’s what people care about. Blogging about your CEO’s pet CSR initiative and about how useful your product or service is a waste of time. It’s not going to “educate policy-makers and their influencers” – it’s going to make them never ever visit your blog again.
  • No one can really be bothered to write. Blogging sounds like a good idea, you sort of see the value, but you sure as hell aren’t going to write; nor are any of your colleagues. A blog needs to be fed regularly and requires an author (or authors) who are real people and who represent the organisation. Yes it’s an effort; yes it’s a commitment. If you see it as an add-on which your agency can run for you, don’t bother.
  • You’re going to write in a vacuum. A blog offers an opportunity to connect to other people and sources. Whether you just link through to lots of good 3rd party content, or even better, connect to others writing about the same issues in Brussels or (more likely) at national level by linking to their content, you’ll add credibility to your blog, drive traffic and hopefully even build relationships. Just writing about your own stuff is a wasted opportunity.
  • You aren’t going to market it properly. Don’t think people will magically show up. Sure, good content is the clincher, but you need to constantly promote your blog. That can mean anything from advertising to SEO to everyone within the organisation simply just referring to it whenever they can.

How many organisations actually have the will and flexibility to avoid all of the above? Sadly, not that many (unless they’re facing a crisis.)

“Social media is all very well but should we not first make sure our website is up to scratch?”

I’ve heard this uttered a few times now, and to be blunt, I strongly disagree with the premise. Sure, your website should be decent, but ignoring social media because your website is ugly (or whatever else denotes a bad website) represents one of those cardinal communications sins that people are all to eager to forgive in the Internet age: being channel-centric rather than goal and audience-centric.

Off the top of my head, here are two hypotheses:

1. You’re a trade association: your site is ugly AND you’re feeling the pinch on one of your five core issues

  • The issue is making news in Brussels and beyond.
  • You have lots to say on it: your side of the story is excellent; you’ve got plenty of third party support.
  • As a key player on the issue, you know many people in Brussels are going to be interested in your position.

What would you do:

  1. Not have one because your site’s a mess and it’d be too time-consuming to fix?
  2. Add more content on your ugly site in the one section out of five that’s important now?
  3. Have a strategy that includes: a far from ugly blog in which you publish the output from your content strategy and traffic driving tactics to ensure that anyone looking up you or the issue finds it?

2. You’re a company: your site is ugly AND you’ve invented a brilliant energy efficient product that will revolutionise your industry

  • You want to let a variety of government bodies know how much more efficient your product is and get them on your side.
  • However, the government bodies aren’t paying attention because everyone seems fine with the status quo.
  • You figure you need to drum up support and apply pressure from below: you think you can do it with the help of lots of eager product champions within and outside your company.

What would you do:

  1. Not have one because your site’s ugly?
  2. Fix your ugly site and until then try to drum up support without a web presence?
  3. Develop great content featuring your product champions (video, ideally) and have a detailed, attractive page on a social networking platform where you know the vast majority of your audience will be (Facebook?) on which you feature the content and engage with potential or real supporters?

Moral of the story? Don’t get me wrong, in many cases, unless you have something specific to be talking about, it’d be odd to have a really good blog and a dire website if you know your audiences are looking up both. BUT, in terms of channels, there’s no right or wrong order to how you build up your web presence i.e. we must have a nice site, then we can blog, then we can tweet. Do what’s right for you, for your circumstances, and for your audiences, always.

Engaging with bloggers: start with a humble caveat

To anyone dipping a toe in the blogosphere for the first time, the one thing I’d advise above anything is humility. Meaning what? If you’re not 100% sure what to expect but you’re keen to give it a go, lay down a massive caveat when you start. Something along the lines of: “I’m just getting started, I’m not sure what to expect, I might make mistakes, bear with me, please feel free to offer me some advice along the way.” You may still screw up here or there, but you’ll be forgiven.

Policy blogging in Brussels: more of it please

I wrote a post on Fleishman-Hillard’s Public Affairs 2.0 blog last week on the shortage of policy-specific blogs in Brussels. My point in short was this: plenty of good quality blogs are being written about the EU at large which cover a wide array of issues and often result in decent conversations. Movers and shakers in Brussels read these blogs, and yet the scores of organisations present here whose remit is to engage with policy makers and other stakeholders on issues key to their sectors are virtually non-existent in the blogosphere. Why?! They’ll write position papers, engage in face-to-face meetings, develop alliances, work with the media, and yet they won’t blog. What a wasted opportunity to present their views in an ongoing narrative, engage with other stakeholders and build relationships, all while showcasing people in the most open and transparent medium imaginable rather than just presenting a faceless organisation through the same age-old tactics.

Anyway, no point in paraphrasing the post when you can read it here (note the good comments too.) Further comments very welcome (here or on PA 2.0.)

Thou shalt not speak funny… Instead, write like Bono and you’ll be fine

I met Kattebel at the recent Web2EU event and she remarked on my recent post in which I state that communicators tend to write in an “over-the-top, pompous, formulaic manner.” A real no-go on the web in particular.

She (rightly!) said that I should perhaps have given some pointers on how to best write for the web rather than merely criticise others for being dull. Instead of producing a list I’ll do so by pointing to a post I found amongst long-lost items I have saved on Delicious: click here to read it. It’s a dazzling tribute to how to best write for the web (although it probably wasn’t really written for the web specifically, but never mind.) Love it: personal, from the heart, direct and honest (and by Bono no less.) OK sure, most people would get the boot if they were to adopt his style on their company blogs, but you get the gist.

p.s. Looking through some of my own posts, I found a few in which I touch upon best practice for producing content for the web. Not quite Bono-like but hopefully helpful to someone out there: