Growing a Community
Yesterday’s post offered advice to potential writers about starting a weblog of your own. This post addresses the next question: once your site is established, how do you get noticed and build up a readership?
Be a good citizen of the blogosphere. To make yourself known, it’s essential to participate in the blogosphere at large. Leave intelligent comments on other sites; contribute to and host carnivals; and don’t be afraid to e-mail popular bloggers when you’ve written something they may be interested in. By reaching out beyond your site to participate in others’, you establish yourself as someone who’s involved with the community and worth listening to.
Social bookmarking sites are your friends. In my experience, blog directories and post aggregators don’t contribute much to your traffic. But social bookmarking sites like Digg, Reddit and Stumbleupon do help, a lot, and they’re an essential way for curious visitors to find your site and become regular readers. Submit to them often, and provide links so that your readers can do so as well.
Build a corpus of work. Although social bookmarking sites help your site grow, I think that in the long run, your greatest friends are the search engines. They’re the most reliable source of organic growth, rather than transient spikes. Of course, this means that you have to build up a substantial archive of written material so that search engine queries have a greater chance of coming across your site.
This also helps in another way: whenever writing something new, you can link to your own past posts discussing other aspects of the same issue. Anecdotally, I can say that this improves the “stickiness” of your site and encourages chance visitors to stay around and keep reading.
Nourish your commenting community. Comments make your site a thriving community rather than a monologue, and the presence of a friendly, insightful group of commenters can be the key factor in encouraging occasional visitors to become regular readers. Comments are your blog’s lifeblood, and you want to encourage them as much as possible.
With that in mind, I think it’s important to remove as many barriers to commenting as possible. If you require new commenters to register or solve convoluted CAPTCHAs, or hold up all comments for moderation, you’ll stifle your own site’s growth. (There are several minimally burdensome alternatives to keep out the scourge of all blogs, comment spammers.) You want commenting to be as open as possible so that anyone who might be tempted to leave a comment can do so. And be sure to join in your own comment threads! Answer questions, elaborate on your points, and address objections.
Be in control of the discussion. Of course, every site eventually has to deal with trolls and troublemakers. I see it as like maintaining a garden. On the whole it does best if left to itself, but every so often, you have to pull up some weeds. But it pays to have a light touch: be too zealous in your weeding and you’ll pull up the good plants with the bad; be too lax and the weeds will strangle everything else.
On Daylight Atheism, I institute moderation for all first-time commenters. Once you’ve had one comment approved, you can comment freely in the future. This keeps out people whose only goal is to preach or stir up trouble. For troublemakers who do get past that hurdle, the next line of defense is to close down threads that turn into pointless flame wars. If the same people are repeatedly provoking fights and dragging threads off-topic, I give them a warning, and if that’s not enough, I require all their comments to pass manual moderation. Only when people refuse to stop their bad behavior do I ban them. As a blog owner, banning is your ultimate weapon, and I advise against heavy-handed or indiscriminate use. It’s harmful to your site’s community and your wider reputation to give the impression that you ban people simply for disagreeing with you. It’s best to institute a clear comment policy that sets out what is and is not allowed, and then stick to those rules.
Lastly, and most importantly of all…
Have patience and dedication. There’s no royal road to popularity, and in blogging, as in anything else, acclaim never comes overnight. If you want a truly popular site, you have to expect that it can take anywhere from several months to several years to establish yourself. The internet is a crowded place, which means that new sites take time to gain a following. But it’s not so crowded that merit doesn’t win out! On the contrary, the uniquely open and democratic nature of the medium make it more of a level playing field than any other form of communication. If you routinely produce insightful, high-quality writing, your site will flourish and grow.