Newspaper columnists ought to be the perfect bloggers – the best write in a lively voice and forge a strong connection with their readers. Their work build an ongoing conversation with the communities they cover. Frankly, they’ve been blogging (in print) since long before anyone other than academics and soldiers went online.
So why aren’t more making a successful transition to online publishing? Why are so many columnists living under the same fear and uncertainty that’s consuming their newsroom coworkers? Those are a couple of the questions that I sought to address last weekend when I spoke to the annual gathering of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
This year’s conference theme was “Survive and Thrive.” (Well, we’ve drilled down to the basics now, haven’t we?) My talk was “Tips on Branding Yourself,” and I was joined by Erika Stalder of ABC Family.
I told the group that your brand in the Internet era is the public’s perception of its relationship with you, a sentiment that Erika concurred with, citing a similar quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.”
Anyone writing online needs to come to this understanding: That what matters most in determining your online success is how your work is understood and acted upon by its audience – more than what your intention with the work was or the process that you used to create it. You can do work you believe to be great, but if no one reads it or no one who does cares, what was the point?
We talked during the session about Twitter, Facebook, discussion forums and website comments. Several columnists expressed their frustration with the number of tools that they’re now being asked to wield – and the the time that’s taking away from reporting and writing.
“Why should I spend half my time updating a Twitter feed if all that’s reaching is, like, 27 readers?” one columnist asked. “I’ve reached hundreds of thousands of readers in print. Has my audience shrunk to this?”
If you have fewer than 100 Twitter followers, you have a problem. But it’s not with having too many social media tools to manage. You’ve not developed your audience into an online community, one that can sustain your “brand” online even if your print gig fails.
You’ve got to start where you are at. And the same principles that apply for print columnists apply to all online and offline writers, as well. Start by explicitly inviting your readers into an ongoing conversation – then give them multiple avenues through which to contact you. These can include a Facebook page, e-mail account, blog comments and Twitter account. Your columns should include the URLs of your blog (if your column appears elsewhere, such as in print), Facebook page and Twitter feed. (Alternate them to keep the shirttail fresh, and short.) If you haven’t registered yourfirstnameyourlastname.com and made it the home of your blog, do it now.
But simply asking readers to a conversation won’t be enough to engage them. You must initiate the conversation with engaging questions. Smart columnists have been doing this for years, so it shouldn’t take much effort to get these flowing. Ask your readers questions about their own lives – what are they doing and seeing that affects the community around them?
I warned the audience against asking readers what they think. The Web has more then enough places for folks to vent their opinions. What you want to elicit are experiences – first-person accounts that other readers might relate with, drawing them into the conversation as well.
Another columnist asked about time management – a very valid concern for anyone writing online. Heck, I almost never watch TV anymore, and can’t imagine having to give up an hour or two each day to the commute I made when I didn’t work at home. I held up my iPhone and told the audience how I use it to check e-mail, read Tweets and monitor comments in every down moment I get, whether I be waiting to pick up the kids from school or in line at the grocery. True downtime is a scheduled luxury in the online publishing business.
So, I said, you’ve got to be writing about a passion. Find issues within all those in your community about which you are most passionate, and write about them. Solicit first-person accounts from your readers, and reward the best of them with a personal public response and follow-up questions. Soon, your audience, which craves your attention, will learn to deliver the quality and insight that you want. Only writing about a passion will elicit the energy and stamina that you will need to remain relevant in a hyper-competitive online information marketplace. And only your passion will animate your voice to level required to help your work stand ahead of others’.
Finally, don’t be reticent about joining other, established online communities in order to expand your audience beyond what you’ve attracted via your existing newspaper or website. One audience member commented about the trouble of getting health insurance as an independent writer (one that I share). Given the current politics around that issue, I responded that a great place to write about that would be in a political community such as DailyKos. A following developed in those communities eventually can be lead to follow you on other sites and in other forums, as well.
Social media tools are just that… tools. Don’t become so obsessed with learning the latest and most fashionable that you forget the job you’re trying to do with those tools – to build your audience into an online community.
Once you’ve engaged a few readers in a meaningful conversation on a topic about which you are passionate, you’ll find continuing that conversation across multiple media a engaging pleasure, not a time-sucking chore. Readers will see that, and want to jump in themselves, if only just to watch. Your success will elicit more success and your online community will grow.
That’s how to brand yourself online. Share your passion, and ask your readers to share theirs with you.