Blogging about development: some tips for NGOs and would-be bloggers

Blogging about blogging – the ultimate in cyber-narcissism. Last week Twaweza invited me in to their office to pick my brains on their impending launchblogging-out-loud into the blogosphere, so I thought I’d turn my notes into a quick post (and cribsheet for future talks). I’ll try to avoid duplication with my last post on ‘why blog’ – this is more about the ‘how’ and is aimed at NGOs and the people who work for them.

First it’s worth remembering that talking about ‘blogging’ as a single thing is like talking about ‘writing books’ – pretty unhelpful. The largest number of different kinds of blog I have yet seen described in one place is 52 – worth a skim.

On with the show, first some general organizational advice:

Who should blog in your organization? A good place to start is to find out who is already blogging, in a private capacity (one hyperactive Twaweza staffer confessed to running 5 separate blogs in her spare time….). They are the ones who actually like the medium. Forcing reluctant staff to blog is very unlikely to produce anything worthwhile.

People v institutions: NGOs have a default preference for anonymity. The authorship of papers, if acknowledged at all, is buried in the small print. Egotism is anathema. All too often sentences begin with ‘Oxfam believes’…… Well it doesn’t work for blogging – personality, a face, a voice, doubt, ambiguity etc are infinitely preferable to finger-wagging corporate press releases full of ‘must’ and ‘should’.  If you don’t have egomaniacs willing and able to post several times a week, think of a stable of authors with names, faces etc, along the lines of Global Dashboard.

Sign off: A big issue. Blogs need to be authentic (no ghost writing permitted, ever), personal and quirky, which may mean departing from agreed institutional messaging, whether in tone or content. On the other hand, letting your in-house nutters off the leash could do serious damage to your reputation, get you chucked out of entire countries etc. How to manage the risk? One option, which I followed with FP2P, was a probation period, during which all posts have to be signed off in advance. After a few months, if you haven’t messed up, you move from ‘asking permission’ to occasionally ‘asking forgiveness’ when you overstep the mark. Do so too often, and you will get closed down; don’t ever do it, and your blog is probably too boring.

And now some advice to individual bloggers:

Style: Try and write like you talk (one of the participants in the Twaweza seminar said ‘wow, you talk just like you blog!’ – had to put them straight on that). It’s hard to keep simultaneously in your mind the often complex and subtle message you want to convey and the likely level of interest and knowledge of your intended reader, but navigating that cognitive dissonance is essential for any writer. It’s also surprisingly difficult to unlearn all the women bloggersconstipated styles of non-communication we accumulate in academia, NGO campaigning etc, but well worth it, if you want to blog for (roughly) normal people. And this does not mean patronise, talk down etc – explaining something to an intelligent, but non-aid-mafia friend is not a bad image to keep in your head. As in conversation, humour is great if it comes naturally.

Format: Standard blog advice here – lots of links, graphics, videos etc to break up the text. Try and keep posts short and mobile phone-readable (I’m a total failure on that).

The Title: I often rewrite the title several times – it’s crucial. When I open up my RSS feed in the morning, there are often about 100 entries, all giving only the title of the blog or article concerned. I click on maybe 10, based entirely on the title. You don’t have to use linkbait terms, but you do have to pique your intended reader’s interest – questions are good, as are odd juxtapositions. Predictable/worthy NGO speak is not. Who’s going to click on something that says ‘Good Governance is a really important issue’?

Promotion: This is really difficult, especially at the beginning before traffic builds up, when a lot of stamina is required to establish a blog without much in the way of reward. Blogging works by word of mouth and recommendation, so there are some pretty sharp limits to more traditional marketing. Twitter is good (in moderation – don’t tweet a link to your blog more than twice). I’m not sure getting onto other people’s blogrolls does much good – any evidence on that? If you have the time, leave comments on relevant posts on more visited blogs, with links back to your own posts. People always love a fight, so organize debates etc. Both twitter and blogging are like constant streams of information – think when people in your target timezone are likely to dip in, and schedule accordingly (I use tweetdeck to schedule tweets for UK lunchtime/US early morning)

Polls: I’m surprised how few blogs run polls to get reader input – it’s fun, interactive, and informative (I’m regularly surprised by the poll results)

Guest posts: Tricky issue this. It’s great to make the platform available to would-be bloggers in your organization or beyond, who can improve the quality, fill in gaps, add variety etc at the same time as learning the trade. Here’s my standard guidance to would-be guest bloggers (keep clicking). On the other hand, too many guest bloggers and you risk diluting the personality of the blog. I’m struggling with this at the minute, as I am getting 3 or 4 offers of guest posts per day, many of them really interesting. Any advice?

OK I could go on (and doubtless will do at some point), but have already massively overshot the correct length for a blog, so will stop there.

Previous posts: Blogging at the World Bank; (not) blogging at the UN; FP2P Reader Survey; Why do NGOs find blogging so hard? Is blogging a guy thing? Evidence on impact of economics blogs.

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10 Responses to “Blogging about development: some tips for NGOs and would-be bloggers”
  1. Anna Roche

    Hi Duncan
    Re Blogrolls: I have been doing a bit of research around this sort of area in the last few weeks since your visit and I think there is not much evidence out there in the academic world. The one academic paper I have found (Political Blogs and Blogrolls in Canada: Forums for Democratic Deliberation? : Koop and Jansen in Social Science Computer Review 2009:27) suggests that the links are all within a partisan community. So one might suspect that most readers would be in the loop of that community anyway, and linked in to the other blogs. Presumably bloggers think it is worthwhile, but it seems to be more accepted wisdom than evidenced, as far as I can see. But I’d be interested if anyone else has evidence on this – preferably before 4 November when research project has to be submitted! Anna

  2. Interesting point about blogrolls, Duncan and Anna – sorry I can’t add to your evidence-based, Anna, but I can say as an editor/moderator of a number of IDS blogs that blogrools make a useful substitute for a feed (if you format them to show latest posts)! I always check our own blogrolls when updating blog posts, and often find at least one interesting post I want to read. Good way of keeping up with the wider blogging community.

    Duncan – can you say more about how the Word of Mouth aspect worked for F2P – did you try to get/enroll particularly chatty or influential people to (commit to)reading your blog and thus hope that they would spread the word about it? Was there are particularly controversial blog you wrote that proved to be the tipping point? Thanks! Emilie

  3. Dave

    If Twaweza is still nervous about social media conversations then – guaranteed – whatever blog they come up will flop.

    If Twaweza starts a blog and it is not all Rakesh all the time, nobody will bother reading it.

    Possible internal contradiction there, but that’s all they need to hear.

  4. Hi Duncan and everybody – great stuff here!

    It’s a big, groaning shift for people in a bureaucratic organization to open up and blog. And it happens one person at a time.

    After editing almost 600 posts from around 200 UNDP bloggers on Voices of Eurasia , I’ve found that some are star bloggers right out of the gate, and others are open and interested but entirely new to blogging.

    And as you say, posts absolutely need to be authentic, with individual styles and opinions – but for some, this takes a little bit of time to develop.

    I think that coaching, feedback, examples, and editing support are necessary for organizations that want to start blogging – and worth the investment. I noticed some patterns, and put together a list of 10 tips for UNDP bloggers
    – notice the shout out in the the first sentence 🙂

  5. On guest posts, I am a big fan. If they are good, accept them. They add variety and let you get to 2-3x publication a week with over taxing yourself.

    Just be sure to be clear they are guest posts. I find starting the first sentance of the post as, “I’m so and so, and…” and then fishing the post with a formal “So and so is with X company” reference.

    Oh and Twaweza has great voices in addition to Rakesh. Open it up to Elvis, the woman blogging, and others.

  6. Devaki Monani

    I am keen and interested to learn more about developing a blog.

    The way I would like to blog is to weave untold stories of communities that are not usually known or heard about in the media.

    I find it extremely boring to read blogs where bloggers seem to churn out their own opinions on popular news items.

    From down under,
    Lecturer in Social Policy
    Devaki Monani( Ph.D.)