Eurobloggers are not the Brussels press corp

This entry is prompted by a recent post by Julien on his mistrust of Brussels PA/PR agencies and their attempts to connect with him; and an even more recent conversation I had with a consultant who asked how to best “harness” Eurobloggers (p.s. I told him to not hold his breath.) Yes, Brussels communicators are trying to engage with Eurobloggers to push their stories. Will it work? No. Eurobloggers aren’t journalists. They blog because they’re into politics. If pitching journalists is hard, pitching bloggers is much harder because they usually only have a personal, not a professional stake.

Lost opportunity? No, blogging is important, but for Brussels communicators, it shouldn’t be about the Eurobloggers, at least when it comes to a blogger relations strategy. It should be about getting clients to dip their toes into blogging etc. themselves and then trying to tentatively build relationships with people who write about their issue, not those most likely to be read by MEPs. As a consultant or communications adviser, your role should be guidance, not doing the blogging yourself.

Here’s an extract of the comment I wrote in reply to Julien’s post in which I describe in brief how best practice blogger relations should be carried out (and in turn how it should mean Brussels agencies won’t be pestering him for much longer!)

I work on social media strategies for clients… I can honestly say that my approach to blogging, Twitter et al (and ZN’s too) centres on how I can best help clients use the tools themselves… Why? Frankly, it works better… you’re far better off helping clients build constructive relationships themselves, and generally not with eurobloggers but preferably with issue or sector experts…(.)

Although some agencies no doubt make the mistake of simply transferring media relations to the web and seeking out people most likely to be read by legislators, I suspect this practice will fizzle out. Why? Because an article in the FT is undoubtedly worth more in “PR dollars” than a far better article in a relevant trade publication, whereas online, impact can be determined more by quality than by reach because of search, hyperlinking and aggregation.

To spell it out, here’s two (very simplified!) scenarios I could propose to clients (no prizes for which one I think is most likely to work.)

1) We’ll write a post on our blog saying you’re great. We’ve hooked up with Julien Frisch and the other 30 popular eurobloggers – maybe one of them will pick up your story (but don’t hold your breath, none of them have ever written about your issue.)

2) Your 3 experts could blog or tweet (assuming they want to.) We’ll help them out with the dos and don’ts, but they have to do the writing and it has to be honest. We’ll do some research to identify other people (academics, scientists, companies, pressure groups, students etc.) writing good content on your issue (whether for or against) and run them by your experts. In due time, we can add them to our blogroll, your experts could link to them in posts or comment on their blogs, and maybe we can build relationships with them if they’re interested, and hyperlink to their content or maybe even get them to be guest bloggers.

The difference is obviously that it’s the organisation’s experts and not the agency that is telling the story, and you’re promoting good quality content and interaction rather than throwing a story at someone who happens to have MEPs amongst his/her readers and hoping that it will stick… (.)

Blogging as literature

Short post. I was in a meeting recently talking about blogging. The client, a literature buff, digressed a little and said he thought blogging was all well but a blog could never be truly “great” because the nature of the medium is such that the writing is fragmented, or lacks structure and flow.

I agreed with him. Not that it’s an issue of concern of course – the nature of the medium might not be suited to fine works of literature – but it’s extremely well suited to much else.

However, my colleague Jesus last week told me of a project called Cómo cazar un dragón which he’s working on with a Spanish writer. It’s a work of literature written as a blog, with the writer posting a chapter a week. Here’s the really interesting bit. Each new entry is influenced by readers’ comments following the previous post: people who leave comments can even subsequently become characters in the story. Brilliant concept, I think, and one that will soon result in a masterpiece no doubt!

How this blog isn't a blogging benchmark

I suppose I am an expert on how organisations and individuals who wish to write about their sector or core expertise should approach blogging; and I often post about blogging. However, there are plenty of things I don’t do right. So if you want to succeed as a blogger and/or follow blog etiquette, here’s a few things you should do which I always/usually don’t:

  • Write about your core expertise and avoid other topics. You want to become a resource by adding value in the area you know best, not by waffling about things you know little about. My utter revulsion for Berlusconi, everything he stands for and what he’s doing to a wonderful country should NOT be the subject of a blog post per month.
  • Don’t become too personal. Again, my Berlusconi posts are a case in point. It’s off-putting. I should only write about him if it’s in the context of communications i.e. the confluence of politics and communications, one of the core themes of my blog. Same with you. If you’re an expert on origami don’t suddenly write a post about Greco-Roman wrestling unless there’s a really good reason.
  • Engage with other bloggers. I read 10s of posts on other blogs every day but I don’t often enough quote them on my own blog and give my take on their musings. I should. It’s a way of building relationships and it’ll drive traffic via trackbacks and other bloggers taking notice.
  • Don’t be too lengthy. A good, long analytical post once in a while is good. Mostly long posts is less good. Average 3-4 paragraphs but don’t worry if one post is just a picture and the next is 10 paragraphs.
  • Always credit photos. I find mine by Googling a key term then don’t give credit where credit is due. It’s probably illegal. It’s certainly bad etiquette.
  • Reply to all comments (unless you’re a top-tier blogger and get 10+ per day.) I read all comments (there aren’t that many..) And I appreciate all comments. Then I sometimes forget to respond and once I remember it’s too late to bother. Not good. Just saying “thanks for your comment” is often good enough.
  • Follow up on key posts. I write about blogging a lot. But I often write one post on another topic which requires follow up a week or month later, but then end up not doing it and writing about Berlusconi instead.

There may very well be more. Feel free to let me know if you think of any, I’m pretty thick-skinned.

Measuring blog success: not necessarily in the comments

nocommentmugCompanies that blog for marketing purposes fret about ROI: so we blog, how do we link to sales? Same with companies or other organisations who engage as part of their online advocacy efforts: OK it’s another medium, and we see how it’s different, but are we getting to legislators and other people who matter?

Sure, as a marketer you can connect your blog directly to sales channels (although I’d usually steer clear of this) while if you’re a campaigner, having a Google Analytics setup will allow tracking of domains such as the European Commission or Parliament, meaning you know exactly how much traffic you get from either. You won’t know if you’re reaching the most relevant people (you might just be preaching to the converted) but it’s a start nonetheless.

However, the measurements aren’t scientific by any stretch, so both groups often look at quantity and quality of comments as a measure of success, the logic being (rightly) that if people are reading but then also engaging in a constructive manner, the material you’re showcasing is having an effect.

However, to organisations who are producing top-tier content and getting loads of traffic but no comments, don’t worry about it too much: it’s presumably down to your target audience. Although we’re always hearing that unexpected demographics are going web-crazy, the fact remains that certain people might read blogs but will never comment, simply because they are still a little unsure of the medium. And if you work in truly traditional industries (say textiles, heavy machinery and chemicals) chances are that the people interested in your material are not the most avid web users, at least on average.

If I compare blogs I’ve worked on for clients, I can assure you that excellent blogs that are getting obscene amounts of traffic can get as little as one to five comments per month, despite plenty of efforts on our side to encourage commenting e.g. via questions or provocative remarks in posts. At the same time, blogs where the content is less interesting and the traffic less impressive are kick-starting week-long conversations via comments. Trust me, it’s not a reflection of the blog itself, but of your readership.

So what’s the best measure of success? I think it’s the “time spent on site” metric. Blogging is an element of content marketing i.e. the concept of guiding consumer action or shifting consumer perceptions via top-tier content which they buy into. Surely the ability to keep people on your site for a long time is the best testimony to this?

Want a fancy online press centre?

press-room1957-ike-strokeWhether you’re a pressure group strapped for funds or a multinational, you’ll want an excellent online press centre where journalists can easily find your latest news and other relevant material they might use for a story. But it should not just contain a long list of press releases: with everything the web has to offer in terms of showcasing content, it’d be a wasted opportunity. Ideally, your press centre would also do some of the following:

  • Allow journalists to subscribe to news updates at the click of a button
  • Contain material in multimedia formats i.e. especially video (which journalists increasingly appreciate and make use of)
  • Allow for commenting so journalists can get an idea of public reaction to your news
  • Enable journalists to find content very easily via keywords or tags rather than searching through a whole list in chronological order
  • And not to be forgotten, be SEO friendly so your content helps boost your site’s search engine ranking

Looking at that list, it sounds an awful lot like the features of a blog. And herein lies the answer to the “how do I build an excellent press room that makes the best use of all the tools available to me” conundrum. Just set up your press page like a blog: present all your newsworthy content, whether a press release or the 2-minute video interview with the CEO you filmed on your iPhone, as blog posts. Have categories and tags so users can easily find material. All your newsworthy material will be presented in one place rather than scattered around your newroom, which I suspect journalists will appreciate (although do be careful to not deem too much material as newsworthy); and you won’t feel restricted by the press release standards e.g. you can publish a very short post or a post just containing a video.

Result? More varied content + far better accessibility = happy jounalists.

Advice to an MEP blogger

I’m currently working with an MEP who is looking to launch a blog within the next few months. Here’s a summary of a few of my recommendations.

Define an editorial approach

You may have 20+ years’ experience. You may have your very distinct writing style and feel you have Shakespearean abilities. Perhaps, but you still need to define an editorial approach, write it down and stick to it. This includes type of language you’ll use (colloquial or formal), how often you’ll post (at least once a week), how you’ll address readers, length of posts, and if and how you’ll interact with other bloggers. What’s the point? It’ll help maintain consistency, which you need to keep readers coming back: they’ll grow accustomed to your style and get to know the “real you” more than if you were to serve up a hotchpotch of posts.

Decide on your themes and stick to them

Similar argument here. You don’t want to risk the blog going all over the place, so stick to 4-7 core themes which you know about, you know your readers will be interested in, you can write about well, and then stick to them. In this way you’ll establish yourself as an expert and a resource on certain policy areas, rather than the MEP who writes about scores of topics but does not really believe in any wholeheartedly. By all means, if something out of the ordinary is taking place that doesn’t fit within the themes – the upcoming EP elections, a natural disaster, crisis, etc. – which people would expect you to write about and where you feel you can contribute to the debate, feel free, but then get back to your core themes asap.

Develop an editorial plan

To help stick to your approach and themes, develop an editorial plan which is at all times updated for the upcoming three months. You don’t need to stick to this religiously, but it will help to ensure that you maintain focus and consistency.

Don’t campaign!

Granted, a politician blogging is by nature campaigning you could say, but what I mean here is: don’t make it all about you and your party and how you’re far better suited to govern than the opposition. Blogging is about building relationships with readers over time, so it’s much better to establish yourself as a good writer who provides insights and expertise in his/her chosen subject-matter. If you’re seen to just be campaigning, you’ll only be preaching to the converted rather than utilising your blog to engage in issues and trying to shift the debate towards your views in the long-run. Political blogging tends to be a bit more partisan and cut-throat than average, you might say, but so what, this highlights my point all the more: stand out from the crowd by talking about the issues in depth as you see them, not how your view is inherently superior to the opposition’s. Just two “disclaimers” on this point though: 1) this works if the politician in question is moderate. If he/she could be described as straying fairly far from the centre, like say a Dan Hannan, there’s probably more political capital to be won by being highly opinionated rather than engaging; and 2) with the EP elections coming up it’s fair for MEPs to campaign just a tad bit!

Don’t stray from blogging too soon

If you like blogging and get into it, hang on a moment before you jump on the Twitter bandwagon, set up a Facebook group, a YouTube channel and so on. It’s tempting to spread your tentacles far and thin, like Swedish MEP Åsa Westlund has done, but I think it’s important to get the blog just right first before starting to worry about when next to tweet or post a video. By all means, all tools can play a part, but none more so than a high-quality blog.

The Hannan viral phenomenon: not that big a deal

As everyone in Brussels and the UK by now certainly must be aware, a YouTube video of  Dan Hannan MEP slating/skewing/roasting/panning Gordon Brown, who was present at the time and simply had to sit, listen and endure, has become an internet phenomenon, with over two million views to date.

A little late to be writing about this perhaps, seeing as the event in question took place a couple of weeks ago. However, I’ve just read yet another post or article by a political commentator claiming that the success of the video must imply that common folk, greatly perturbed by the current state of affairs in the UK, have watched the video in droves because it sums up their anger and frustration with the current administration, and that the mainstream media has not reported on it because they are out of touch with what people are feeling at this time.

I disagree somewhat. I’m sure lots of people think Hannan is right. And I’m sure lots of people are angry. That does not explain 2 million hits though! What does? In my view, mainly people’s thirst for sensationalism and the nature of viral. An extremely articulate young man laying into the PM for three minutes as he just sits there makes truly awesome and unique viewing. The manner in which it was delivered had something Hollywood’esque about it: it seemed almost too scripted to be true. And that’s why most people wanted to share the link, I’m sure: it’s a sensational story which does what a good tabloid does i.e. it entertains, surprises and opines.

Maybe I’m wrong, but do you think most people’s thinking when they sent the link to friends was (something along the lines of): “gosh I’m fuming, Brown and his cronies have really sent us down s*** creak without a paddle, I’m sure Rob and Jane will agree wholeheartedly so I’m sending this link to them.” I think it’s more likely their thinking was: “look at Gordon squirm as the posh young whippersnapper lays into him! Ha that’s great viewing! I’m going to send it to Rob and Jane, I’m sure they’ll think it’s fun.”

As for serious media not reporting on it: well why should they? To them, the story is “politician lays into Brown” which happens hundreds of times every day. So what? To do their job properly they should report on the content of a number of Hannan’s fine speeches, as well as the scores of other bright young politicians expressing a view on either side of the political divide. Simply feeding the public’s hunger for sensationalism by reporting on Hannan’s speech and little else should be left to the Daily Mails of this world. And although I’m sure Hannan’s pleased with the exposure this has given him, I’m sure he is also concerned that he might become “typecast” as the politician who slated Brown, while the numerous very well articulated views on other matters expressed in his blog and elsewhere take second fiddle.

As for the nature of viral, I think it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge what makes things go viral i.e. what makes people decide to forward links to people they know. Frankly, not much. It’s not as if it’s an arduous process: see something interesting or fun, hey presto, and you’ve sent it to a hundred friends. It does not mean that you wholeheartedly endorse it or think it’s earth-shatteringly interesting. Hence the 10 million plus views of dancing hamsters and the like and why 2 million hits doesn’t mean you’ve got 2 million people who think Hannan should be made PM while Brown should be lynched.

By no means am I denying that 2 million hits shows Hannan has hit a raw nerve; that some people have watched the speech and agreed wholeheartedly with it. However, at the same time I think it’s important to not over-emphasise the two million hits or what it siginifies in the broader political debate. Instead why not praise Hannan for writing thought-provoking posts showcasing real expertise, strong views and a fair share of brilliance every day in his blog (although I agree with about 0.1% of what he says?) That’s what shifts opinions and mobilises people in the long-run, not a one-off viral sensation.

Why blog?

blog_comics_4The answer to “why blog?” really does depend on who is asking it. A young budding poet might want to show the world his or her mastery of alliterative verse while a tech geek might want to engage in a global community that spends its time developing a certain kind of code.

Here’s a few of my answers to the “why blog?” question to companies, associations, pressure groups or even individuals operating in Brussels and trying to show their take on issues that affect them and which they want to influence.

Authority and expertise

As with any type of communications, blogging is a platform to showcase your side of the story and your expertise, and again, as with any type of communications, if you have a good story, solid arguments, and you communicate effectively, you become engaged in a debate that you may very well influence and indeed shift.

However, in this respect, blogging does not really differ from an article or a position paper. What makes blogging different? It’s the format, and what that entails for the type of content you can publish, the frequency with which you can publish, and how it allows you to engage with your readership

The format: post length

Although you do want to adopt an editorial approach so as to ensure some consistency, posts can be whatever you want them to be. Five lines referring to an article elsewhere online or a far longer opinion piece. This really does expand your options when communicating, as you’re not restricted by the length and format that memos, press releases or position papers are expected to have. What’s more, you don’t have to rely so much on journalists and whatever their twist on your story might be.

It’s probably the ability to publish short posts that’s most novel. In the past, say someone published a report that backs up your side of the story, but you’d just sent a press release (or didn’t think it really warranted one), it would be difficult for you to inform your audience of the report. With a blog though, you write a short post with a link leading to it, no questions asked.

The format: immediacy

Linked to this is the immediacy of blogging. Crisis? Communicate as soon as you’ve sorted out your strategy to deal with it. Your opposition has published something that you strongly disagree with or distorts the truth? Get your take out within minutes rather than days.

The format: the “real” you

Perhaps most importantly though, is how you can communicate in a blog (if you know what you’re doing.) You can drop the corporate speak. A typo doesn’t make you appear incompetent. You can ask questions if you like. Result? Blogging makes the blogger appear less detached, or more human if you will (the “human” factor is the biggest cliché in social media, but it’s true – read a post by Tom Watson MP and ask yourself if your impression of the man is the same as it would be if you were reading a quote in a paper). This is really important in an age where everyone from a politician to a CEO is expected to be patently open, honest and transparent.

The format: engagement

Strongly linked to the above point is interaction, or engagement. If you blog as you’re meant to, people will be able to comment on your content and ask questions. This stokes fear in many traditionalists: “but we’ll get inundated with negative comments and people will realise that we’re not that popular!” Wake up. They know you’re not popular already (if that’s the case), and allowing people to voice their opinions, developing relationships with them and actually answering their questions is a fantastic opportunity, not a threat.

Reach the press

Under no circumstance am I saying that press relations and getting your stories published in traditional media is not important. It is important, but even in this respect too, blogging matters, as journalists increasingly look to blogs when researching stories and looking out for opinions and soundbites. Just google journalists+blogs (or even journalists+twitter) and you’ll see what I mean. Think a journalist that might write about you will only read your press release when you’ve got a good blog with plenty of top-tier material? Think again.

SEO

Dull but important. A blog is great for SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, meaning you’ll appear fairly high in google search rankings if you do a few things right. Does this matter? YES. +90% of people surf via google and never look beyond the first page of search results. Appearing there is absolutely paramount.

Further reading

Here are a few good old and new eBooks and posts on blogging best practice and blogger relations:

If you’re keen on seeing how other organisations blog, have a look at the Fortune 500 blogging wiki:

Comparing the EU blogging platforms

EUobserver have taken a leaf out of Euractiv‘s book and launched a blogging platform. It looks nice, but I’m not sure they’re going about it the right way. As I’ve written before, Blogactiv is a great resource, but I believe it could be even better if it was an aggregator that took in posts from blogs set up elsewhere rather than forcing bloggers to set up shop on the Blogactiv platform, as this no doubt alienates some bloggers (established ones in particular). EUobserver have actually gone one step further by having a by invitation only policy i.e. not even allowing people to set up a blog (unless it’s really well hidden – in which case, sorry EUobserver). This approach, plus the fact that they’re not doing anything differently from Blogactiv, I think will mean that their effort won’t take off.

Not convinced? Blogginportal.eu is an aggregator that pulls in material from blogs that in some way cover EU related affairs. It was set up in people’s spare time, it’s still in beta, and doesn’t get any traffic via established news portals like EUobserver and Euractiv. Nonetheless, it’s been linkedblogging-platforms to 300+ times although it was launched less than a month ago (see left). EUoberserver has no link:tos yet (guess I may be first with this post – and credit, they’ve just started) and Blogactiv have managed just 1,570 in over a year.

Sure, links referring to a site isn’t a scientific measure of a site’s success, plus the bloggers whose own content is fed to blogginportal.eu (me included) will probably provide the bulk of links in the google search.

Nonetheless, I strongly believe that the aggregator approach will win hands down in the long run.

Improving Blogactiv, the EU blog platform

Blogactiv is a blogging platform set up by EurActiv, Brussels’ foremost online news provider. On its homepage, Blogactiv states that: “complementing EurActiv’s independent and neutral coverage of EU Affairs, Blogactiv will become the premier source of content on the future of Europe”. I genuinely hope so. The lovely chaps behind Blogactiv deserve it, but more pertinently, having one platform that showcases the best that the European blogosphere has to offer is a very enticing proposition indeed. Done well, it will help readers search through the clutter, improve bloggers’ outreach, and facilitate dialogue across multiple blogs. However, there are a couple of things that I think they should develop.

1. They should focus on being an aggregator – i.e. allow people to write their blog on any platform, and at the flick of a switch, post the same content on Blogactiv as well – rather than be a platform where people create their blogs from scratch. This will help attract existing bloggers, those who prefer other platforms; or those who want their own URL, or want to be able to choose their own plugins (applications that allow users to add functionalities to their blogs – anything from a calendar, picture album, to a connection with Facebook or Google Maps). Take a look at Nosemonkey’s must read EU blogs Universe, and it’s clear that plenty of good blogs are being written on European themes and that these are not on Blogactiv. If it was really easy to connect to Blogactiv, and the bloggers in question could perceive added value in connecting, I’m sure most would. Eventually, the goal could even be for Blogactiv to be so popular that bloggers could connect by invitation only (or in the spirit of the web, if selected by fellow bloggers).

2. Blogactiv should have more traffic by now, given its favourable circumstances (namely, being linked to Euractiv, which has hundreds of thousands of visitors). In a recent entry, Nosemonkey mentioned that posting content on Blogactiv has not brought him much traffic. I had a similar experience: I set up a mirror of a client’s blog on Blogactiv, and only got about 10% of the traffic. Indeed, a quick look at compete.com (see image below) shows that traffic is pretty blogactivstatic at a few thousand, which spread over a number of blogs is not very much. How could the figures be improved? First and foremost, by having more high-quality content, and here, again, the aggregator approach could be key. Also, the EurActiv connection should be leveraged far more: good blog posts should link to relevant news stories on EurActiv and vice-versa (and to Blogactiv’s credit, they said at a recent lunch they hosted that this is in the pipeline); and I’d not insist so much on keeping EurActiv and Blogactiv separate – if I were EurActiv, I’d be loud and proud, and mention Blogactiv in all outgoing material (from newsletters to business cards).

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