22 April 2013

Some not entirely unsolicited advice for science blogging success (for a given value of "success")

good advice Advice. Photo by cornflakegirl_.
Recently I recieved a very nice e-mail asking for advice about blogging, and after I'd written up a response I realized I was most of the way to a blog post. So, waste not, want not. First, the original question, then my response, which I've edited to protect the innocent (i.e., not me), and also to turn up the snark a bit more than I care to in an actual personal interaction:

... as a highly successful blogger maintaining and contributing to multiple well-followed blogs, we were wondering if you had any tips for us on a. how to better promote our blog and b. get more people commenting?

First, let me take a moment to bask in the phrase "highly successful blogger," which: hahahahaHaHA. John Scalzi is a highly successful blogger. When I can pull down pageviews within an order of magnitude of his, we'll talk about "highly successful." (I'm not bitter—John Scalzi is, objectively, at least that much more awesome than me. Seriously, did you read this short story he wrote on Twitter over the course of a flight last week?)

But more seriously: now that I've been writing online since midway through grad school (since, eek, 2006), there are some people who care what I have to say, and come by to read it; I've had some writers who I deeply, deeply respect say some nice things about some of my work; and I've even been asked to go to other online places to do the kinds of things I used to do entirely on my own site. And that does make me happy, and I consider it's a pretty great outcome from just writing about whatever I wanted to here in my own little corner of the Internet.

But yeah, I do more than just the writing.

Getting people to notice your blog takes a certain mix of (usually metaphorical) jumping up and down and saying "hey, look at this thing I wrote" and also "hey, I like this thing you wrote"—and really, quite a bit more of the latter than the former. Which is to say social media is where it's at, you probably don't need me to tell you. Consider setting up a Facebook page and a dedicated Twitter feed for your blog. If you discuss peer-reviewed journal articles, you might also register with ScienceSeeker.org, which aggregates blog posts that do exactly that. These provide lots of ways to say, "hey, look at this thing I wrote."

But, to make social networks work, you have to actually be social. Regularly putting up new original posts is a starting point, but it's just as important to interact with sites that you consider (or want) to be your "peers." Link to other people's posts about papers you're discussing; comment on their sites and include a link to your own work, if it's appropriate. Tweet and re-tweet links to things other people have written that you like. Write posts that just round up links to other things you like. Write posts that respond, in depth, to things you've read at other sites.

Also, regardless of your audience, layout and formatting and illustration matter. The front page should be friendly to a new arrival—set it up so she doesn't need to scroll through the entire text of each post to get to the next, and provide options to search the site or navigate the archives, browse a list of post topics, or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Posts should be illustrated, whenever possible, to attract attention to the specific topics discussed. When you're discussing scientific papers, you might use figures from the paper discussed, which is pretty clearly okay under U.S. copyright law, anyway, via the "fair use" doctrine, so long as you're not making a profit off the posts involved. There are lots of Creative Commons-licensed images on Flickr, most of which are free to use as long as you provide attribution to the source, with a link—though, again, these are often restricted to not-for-profit uses.

More generally: Decide what your goals are, in terms of audience and traffic, and think about how they align with what you're interested in doing with your blog. In-depth technical discussion of scientific papers necessarily has a smaller audience than posts written with (maybe) less detail but more attention to broad implications.

In terms of the sites where I write regularly, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! has a potential audience of anyone interested in science, plus people who like snarky takedowns and scientific illustrations made of attractive, shirtless men. In comparison The Molecular Ecologist is pitched mostly at working biologists, the same folks who read the journal Molecular Ecology. Accordingly, NiB has (I would say) a bigger potential audience; though in practice The Molecular Ecologist attracts rather steadier traffic, especially to posts that provide useful technical information.

That's more or less the whole of my advice. For the moment, anyway. Go forth, and write well in online venues!◼

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