MORE AND MORE HIGHER ED institutions have started using blogs to engage prospective students or alums; inform current students, faculty, and staff ; promote events, and even communicate with project stakeholders. Blogs can be powerful channels for institutions, but it's not always the case.
There is a big problem with blogs: They are too easy to create. It takes only 30 seconds to set up a blog using Google's blogging platform, Blogger. No more is necessary to launch a blog with the free, hosted solution of the popular blogging software WordPress. No technical skills required.
Thanks to the user-friendliness of these applications, it has never been easier to set up a basic interactive website for geeks and nongeeks alike. That's also a problem. When you are going to spend countless hours on designing, programming, and setting up a web presence, having a well-thought plan isn't an option. When the whole process is shrunk to a few clicks, it's tempting to implement the technical solution first and then define the strategy.
That's why it's also so easy to miss what makes a great blog. While good blogs are made of many things-from original and frequently updated content to RSS feeds, among others-all great blogs share a single characteristic. They are reader-friendly. Readers are what make a great blog. This 10-step plan will help in designing, writing, and maintaining your first (or next) blog with that in mind.
Whether you have been charged to create and maintain a blog for your admissions office, your own team, or as a special project, adopt a basic strategic approach. Just take a piece of paper and write down the topic(s) of your blog, identify its main target audience(s), and define its goal(s). Do this before anything else. The choices you'll make at this stage will inform all your future decisions for your blog.
Put your blog on automatic pilot for search engine optimization.
Once you have defined the blog's strategic backbone, wait a bit more before playing with the available blogging platforms. Visitors might be impressed by the blog's design or widgets, but they won't become readers unless you offer engaging content. Now is the best time to define basic rules of engagement for your blog by answering the following questions: What will be the tone, the voice, of your blog? How often will you post? How long will your posts be?
Now it's time to play with the cool toys-the blogging applications. As the poster child of the Web 2.0 era, blogging software is user-friendly by design. However, it's wise to weigh in a few criteria before choosing a platform for your blog. First, talk to the professionals in charge of web servers on campus. The most popular blogging applications require a web server supporting PHP (a programming language) and MySQL (a database system). If the institution is a Windows shop, the free hosted solutions offered by Blogger, TypePad, and WordPress could be the way to go unless you choose to pay for a license of .NET based Community Server solution. Other important criteria include the available anti-spam features and the template customization options offered by the platform.
If you build it, they will come, right? Not automatically, unless you make sure readers can find your content easily in search engines. Put your blog on automatic pilot, so it handles most of the search engine optimization work for you. By making the most out of the following built-in SEO elements of your blogging platform, you can ensure higher ranks in search engine results for your content: keyword-rich web address structure based on post titles for post permanent links-usually called permalinks; topical tags or categories; and internal search engine and category archives lists. If set properly, all these will help search engines crawl, index, and rank your content for its associated keywords.
Depending on your topics and goals, once the initial setup is completed, just focus on what you write, pick meaningful keyword-rich post titles, and assign the right categories. Your blogging platform will automatically take care of the rest.
If they can't comment, it's not a blog. While allowing blog comments might be equal to navigating unchartered waters for an institution, comments are really crucial in building a community of blog readers. Th at doesn't mean it should be a free-for-all, especially with the comment spam plague. Most blogging platforms will let you set up some simple rules to filter and automatically delete spam comments. Other available options to monitor and weed through unwanted comments include mandatory commenter registration, a CAPTCHA-based comment online form, and a moderation comment queue.
Blog comments are crucial in building a blog reader community.
There is definitely more you can do to help your readers engage with your content than to publish their comments. Go a step further and acknowledge reader participation by posting your response in a comment of your own. Another way to encourage readers to take an active part in your blog community is to use some of their comments as starting points for your next posts.
They found your blog. They even posted a comment or two. Now you need to make sure that these engaged readers come back and check out your blog, and do so often. With so much to read online and so little time, don't expect most of your potential regular readers to type your blog address in their internet browser every day to see whether you've posted anything new. That's the whole idea behind Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds available by default in blogging platforms. Offer the option to subscribe using the most popular RSS readers (GoogleReader, Bloglines,etc.) and via e-mail as well. Don't hide your subscription options. Make them as visible as possible on your blog home page. The free, browser-friendly RSS feed feature offered by FeedBurner, recently acquired by Google, can help in easily providing as many subscription options-including e-mail-as necessary.
With the advent of Web 2.0, the conversation is the message. Unless you have set up a group blog with several authors, it's very easy to fall prey to the "Dear Diary" syndrome and turn your blog-even one created on behalf of an institution-into a boring monologue about you, yourself, and your thoughts without even noticing it. The best way to prevent this is to bring other voices in to your posts: analyze a blog post you've just seen, quote an article you've recently read, profile an expert in your field, interview another blogger or a reader, and include YouTube videos, audio files, or photos in your posts. With these other perspectives, the blog will never become an intimate garden.
Once the blog is up and running, it's time to promote it. How might you best reach your target audience? That might include creating a homepage for missions-sponsored blogs or using your intranet for a team blog. Don't limit yourself to online venues. Postcards, print magazines, press releases, and even business cards including an invitation to visit your blog can all help in attracting new readers.
While the comments from your readers will give you some insights, it's very important to check often your blog and RSS feed statistics. Whether you use a statistics plug-in, a web server statistics package, or the reports offered by FeedBurner for the blog and its RSS feed, this information will help you understand what brings your readers to your blog. Identify and analyze the most visited posts, the most popular search keywords, and the biggest referring websites. Use this information to decide the topics of your future posts. By performing this constant analysis, you will keep your blog in tune with its readers.
Respect your readers; keep up the blogging. Don't start a blog if you can't keep it up. Great blogging takes time, so make sure you can walk the walk before asking readers to engage with your blog. If you can't spend some of your time updating your blog, why should readers waste theirs reading it?
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.