In the first three years of Journalistics, we published 236 posts. In the following four years, we only published 34 posts. While I’m tempted to convince you the past four years were simply a sabbatical (why should professors have all the fun?), it’s hard to justify such a dramatic decline in post volume.
As part of my effort to get the blog back on track in 2016, I spent the past month doing some quantitative and qualitative analysis to better understand how this happened. I’m a firm believer in using historical performance data to guide or inform strategy development (more on that topic in a future post).
For the quantitative input – because numbers don’t lie – I did a thorough review of our Google Analytics data going back to 2009 when we launched. I’ve shared my findings from this exercise, along with some recommendations for action in the form of “lessons learned,” for each insight in the second half of this post (starting with my first insight, “You Can Increase Traffic By NOT Blogging”).
For qualitative input – to add color and context to what actions (or inaction) produced the numbers – I conducted an objective self-assessment. I forced myself to be honest and to take responsibility for the past decisions I made which led me to post less. I’ve shared the results from this exercise in the first half of this post below (“Why I Was Not Blogging”).
Why am I admitting this publicly? I know I’m not the only one to find themselves in a slump. I’m openly sharing this experience, what I’ve learned, and how I plan to use this information to fix things – because I want to help anyone who’s been here, is here, gets here, or wants to avoid getting here all together.
I hope you find this post helpful – if not now, at some point down the road. If that happens, please share your story (it will help me feel like this Jerry Maguire moment I’m having was worth the effort).
And with that, let’s get into the first part of my analysis… the dreaded self-assessment.
Why I Was NOT Blogging
I didn’t wake up one morning and consciously decide to stop blogging (denial?). It happened over time, as you’ll see in the numbers I share in the second half of this post. As I mentioned in the intro, I was surprised to learn how much I was NOT blogging compared to my first few years. In doing the self-assessment, I asked myself a lot of questions. Questions like, “Do I enjoy writing for Journalistics?” and “What would I rather be spending my time on?” I do enjoy writing for you, and there’s not something else I’d rather be doing with this time.
If I like it and want to do it, why was I not doing it more? This is the area I spent the most time thinking and reflecting on, and I ultimately came up with the following list (in order of priority):
No Clear Strategy for the Blog
I didn’t have a formal strategy for Journalistics when we launched, but I knew what I wanted to write about. I started Journalistics to provide me with a medium where I could address the issues of “PR spam” – or spray-and-pray media relations, where less-experienced PR professionals would mass-distribute pitches in hopes of getting coverage.
I was upset by the damage these lazy PR tactics were inflicting on the PR profession – but more upset about the problems these tactics created for journalists (who were facing enough problems at the time). As both a journalism and PR purist, I was passionate about exploring topics from both sides of the table (a byproduct of my education in PR and Journalism).
My passion for journalism and media relations fueled my publishing for a while, but as my interests shifted, I had a harder time coming up with topics I felt were unique and compelling enough to share with our growing audience.
It would have been much easier to stay on task if I had created a clearly-defined editorial strategy for the blog – including my vision, mission, purpose and goals – along with an editorial calendar that would have translated that strategy into specific categories or topics I was committed to writing about to make the strategy a reality.
I believe not having a strategy for Journalistics was the most-significant factor limiting my production over the past few years, which is why I’ve decided to dedicate a separate post on the importance of having an editorial strategy for your blog, how to create one, and how to translate that strategy into action through the disciplined use of an editorial calendar.
Adapting to Change
When I started Journalistics, I had much better schedule than I keep these days. I had time carved out for the blog each day – and I typically knew what I was going to write about next, because the topics were front and center in my work as a public relations professional.
I’m on my fifth job since starting the blog, and each role has been slightly different than the one before – and the percentage of time I spent on PR-related activities continued to decline. The list of post ideas shifted from PR/journalism topics, to social media, SEO, demand generation or strategy and planning work – areas I was focused on at the time.
Each job provided me with a reservoir of new topics to write about, but as editor I killed a lot of those ideas for not being relevant for Journalistics’ readers. At the same time, each job brought expanded responsibilities, which led to me working more on work than the blog during my free time.
The time factor is also significant, as it takes a considerable amount of time to manage a blog. There’s all the work that goes into writing posts, including brainstorming, selecting and researching topics, as well as drafting, revising, formatting, optimizing, publishing and promoting posts. And then there’s the administrative aspects, from keeping the backend up-to-date, updating and tweaking plug-ins and themes, to reviewing and responding to reader feedback.
While I had less time, I think this is a weak excuse. The true limiting factor was not having a plan for what to do in the limited time I had (which the strategy and plan would have provided).
While my interests and intentions for Journalistics shifted over this time, and I had less time to commit to the blog, I stand by my position that a strategy would have helped keep me on track. As I mentioned in the intro, I wanted to be as objective as possible in my self-assessment and to provide you with the most transparency possible. If there was a third factor at play the past couple of years, it could have been self-destruction.
I have a tendency to lose interest in things that are working. I like to solve problems, that’s what makes me such a good strategist and communicator (so I’ve been told). My passion, enthusiasm and energy are at peak levels at the beginning of something new, which is why I like starting things (and probably why I’ve worked with so many startups).
I’m not 100% convinced on this one, but because I’ve done this before, I’m choosing to include it in my hypothesis. Everything was excited early on, as I started to gain readers, was featured on “top blog” lists, or met people in the real world that had heard of the blog. As things became more consistent and predictable, and new problems to solve arrived with each new job, it’s entirely possible that the blog became less and less of a priority. I don’t feel like that was this was the case, but as I mentioned above, the numbers don’t lie.
And speaking of numbers, it’s time to explore the quantitative side of the assessment. In the following section, I share a variety of observations I made through reviewing our Google Analytics data. For each example, I’ve also included a “lesson learned.”
While the section above focused on why I think didn’t post as much, the remainder of the post focuses on the impact NOT blogging had on the blog – with a few surprises I encountered along the way. I’ll kick things off with the biggest surprise to me…
You Can Increase Traffic by NOT Blogging
It may sound crazy, but traffic increased by 42.29% on Journalistics in 2015. But I only published six posts this year. How can this be? Well, as I mentioned, we’ve published more than 270 posts since launching in 2009. And a lot of those posts came in the first couple of years. We now have a healthy supply of contextual, Google-friendly content on the blog that is consistently discovered by new readers on a regular basis.
In addition to increasing traffic this year, visitors (users) increased by 41.54% and pageviews increased by 38.25%. Granted, Journalistics isn’t pulling in millions of visitors – in fact, we had approximately 200,000 visitors in 2015. This might be laughable for some professional bloggers out there, but for a casual blog about communications topics, it’s not too shabby.
Lesson Learned: Slow and Steady Wins the Publishing Race
This brings me to my first ‘lesson learned’ for the post. If you write a bunch of great content, and then stop publishing, you may still be able to grow your audience from year-to-year. Unfortunately, you’ll be growing an audience around old content, and I don’t believe that to be a sustainable long-term model. I should also point out that 87.5% of our visitors in 2015 were “new” – which means a lot of you didn’t come back for a second or third read. That’s a problem that can only be solved by publishing consistently over time. Which is the second part to this lesson.
Despite only publishing six posts in 2015, we actually increased Traffic by 42.29%, Visitors by 41.54% and Pageviews by 38.25%. How can this be? It’s all those posts that came before 2015. In fact, the 10 most-popular posts for 2015 were posts from 2009, 2010 and 2013 respectively.
I was surprised to see an increase in Traffic, Visitors and Pageviews for 2015. I wasn’t surprised to see that 87.5% of visitors were “new” to the site – as most of you didn’t have a reason to return on a regular basis. I’m not happy about this performance, as we would have had a much better year had I published more frequently.
Bonus Lesson: Relevant Content Stays Relevant Longer
If you invest the time and energy to write high-quality, relevant posts with long shelf life, you can continue to attract new readers regardless of how frequently you post. Blogging is like making regular deposits into a savings account. The more you deposit, the more interest you will earn over time. While I made less deposits in 2015, I continued to earn interest on the posts I’ve published in the past. As the second part to this lesson, it’s obvious that I’ve lost or alienated valuable segments of my audience – a group I’ll need to earn back in 2016 by making new deposits into the account.
Google is Our Best Friend
So how exactly can a blogger stop blogging and still generate nearly 200,000 visits for the year? It’s all about those past deposits I mentioned above. Well, technically it’s 1/2 high-quality content, and 1/2 knowing how to help users find that content. And there’s no better place for people to find high-quality content than Google, right?
That’s the answer to my question above. Google is how you generate all that traffic in a year when you published less than once per month. A whopping 76.65% of traffic to Journalistics in 2015 came from Google Organic (Search). Google Organic has always been the top source of traffic for Journalistics, but it typically hovers in the 50-60% range. We saw an increase in Organic traffic (total organic traffic was 81.99% of traffic this year) because we published less. There were less posts to share via social media or to link to from other websites and blogs. For example, we saw a 20% decline in total referral traffic in 2015. Not good. Referral traffic is one of the best indicators of the quality of the content you produce – as it directly correlates to how relevant and interesting (a.k.a. worth sharing) the content is.
Similarly, Direct traffic (people coming directly to Journalistics looking for content) represented 12.03% of traffic in 2015. This would typically be closer to 30% in a year with a more active publishing schedule.
Lesson Learned: New and Relevant is Better Than Old and Relevant
Anyone publishing to the Web should understand Google’s standards for a Google-friendly site. Understanding how Google evaluates the quality of your content (as well as the structure of your blog or website) is the primary reason I’ve been able to get away with taking a break for blogging without seeing traffic plummet significantly. Ensuring Google can find your great content is only half the battle of course, as your content will eventually fall out of favor if you don’t add anything new to the mix.
As a supplemental lesson here, by not publishing fresh content, I’m not providing anything new for our readers to share outside of the blog. Inbound links and social signals (people sharing your content via social media) remain an important element for ranking the authority of your content for search engines. In other words, I might have gotten away with things this time, but I need to increase our publishing in 2016 if I want to maintain our authority as a credible source for the topics I write about.
We Get By With a Little Help From Our (Other) Friends
While Google might be a blogger’s best friend, referrers should also be invited to your birthday party. In review of our referral sources for 2015, I was surprised to learn that nearly 20% of referrals came from SkilledUp.com – a site I hadn’t heard of before reviewing the analytics. Apparently SkilledUp.com has linked to several Journalistics posts over the course of the past couple of years – and the site has apparently become a go-to resource for content about journalism-related training and development.
Despite not publishing much fresh content in 2015, readers still shared the older content pretty regularly – as Twitter and Facebook were the 2nd and 3rd most-popular referral sources for the blog in 2015. Finally, I need to give a shout-out to long-time readers ThePRCoach.com (another great PR-related blog) and InkyBee.com (a company specializing in blogger outreach) – the 4th and 5th referral sources for 2015. In all, these top five sources represented one third of all referral traffic to Journalistics in 2015.
Lesson Learned: Know Thy Influencers
Experienced bloggers know this, but it’s still worth sharing this lesson for anyone that might not know this. It’s important to review who is sending traffic to your site each month – as pingbacks don’t always catch all the inbound links to your content. I regularly monitor our referral sources on Journalistics, and then go out and read the content the referrer wrote (so important). If it’s a great post, I comment or share any additional thoughts.
As a bonus lesson here, consider sharing your referrers’ content with your fans as well. A little reciprocity goes a long way in the blogging world. If somebody else has written an interesting post that your readers would enjoy, it’s up to you to connect the dots. I wouldn’t have nearly as much traffic on Journalistics without the link-love referrers have given us over the years. I thoroughly enjoy returning the favor (or being the initiator). You just might learn some new things along the way too.
Tell Me What I Want to Hear (Read?)
This is a tricky one, as people don’t go out of their way to tell you what they want you to write about (I ask all the time, but rarely receive suggestions). Then again, people do actually tell you what they want you to write about if you look at the analytics. When I look at our most-popular content for the year, I see that some of my original posts from 2009, 2010 and 2013 have held onto their spots as the ‘greatest hits’ for the blog. I regularly look at our most-popular content over different data ranges to see how audience interests have shifted (or how users discovered that content – as I mentioned above).
In addition to reviewing the most-popular content, it’s also important to look at search engine data. There are three categories I find valuable for homing in on what people want me to write about:
- What keywords did they search to find a specific post on the blog?
- What keywords did they search on the blog to find a post? And if they searched for a post we haven’t written yet, that’s the same as a post suggestion.
- What specific keywords are people using to find posts on other blogs? Looking at search volume data is a great way to understand what people are actually looking for.
- As a bonus forth suggestion on this list, consider looking at Google Trends data for basic insights on how interest in a topic may be increasing/decreasing over time.
Lesson Learned: Know What Your Readers Want and Give It To Them (More Often)
Understand what content is driving all the activity on your blog. If you consistently see content from previous years in the “top ten,” it’s a sign that you need some fresh, interesting content for your audience (this was the case for Journalistics this past year). It’s also VERY important to understand what people are looking for that you don’t yet provide for them (this is where the keyword or trend research comes in). And if there’s a final nugget of wisdom to share here, it’s to ditch the analytics approach all together and to use your brain, your years of experience, and your understanding of your audience to anticipate what they will be interested in, but just don’t know it yet (write those posts first).
Where In The World Are You?
We’re living in a global world (is there another type of world?). It’s easy to assume the only people interested in your content are people from your country. Any traffic outside the U.S. must be an accident or spam or something, right? While I write through the lens of a U.S.-based marketing professional, my posts were read by people from more than 200 countries last year. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could list out 200 countries if you asked me to – let alone adapt my content to be relevant for all of them. At the same time, you can’t ignore the data. Understanding where (as in the geographic “where”) your traffic is coming from will be increasingly valuable over the years to come. Is there anything we can do to better appeal to audience segments outside the U.S.? That question deserves some more thought – for now, I encourage you to take a closer look where in the world people are enjoying your content.
Lesson Learned: Get to Know Your (Global) Neighbors
Don’t assume your audience is across the street or down the road. You might be surprised to learn how popular your content is in other countries. While most of our traffic is from English-speaking countries – primarily the U.S., United Kingdom and Canada, we also receive a large percentage of our traffic from Australia (and as an interesting side note, our Australian readers tend to share posts and comment more than readers from other countries). Take some time to understand the global footprint of your readers and evaluate ways you can make your content more relevant for all of your readers. I’m still trying to figure this one out, but armed with the data, I’m in a better spot to evaluate the opportunities.
Are You Talkin’ to Me?
I have a love/hate relationship with comments, I’ll admit. For every quality comment I receive, I have to sift through thousands of spam comments (even with some decent filters in place). While I always respond to a well thought out comment, I’ve been guilty of responding months later in the past. I’m embarrassed most about admitting this one, but I also suspect I’m not alone. This was one discovery I made in looking through the analytics that quickly became a top priority for 2016. I’ve made some changes to the comment review process to ensure I respond in a more timely manner (ideally less than 24 hours). I consider this to be one of our resolutions for the blog in 2015.
Lesson Learned: Listen, Learn and Interact
This is an obvious one, but it’s critical to monitor what people are saying about the posts you publish. Most of the time they are reaching out to say something nice or to let you know how much they appreciate you. If somebody gave you a compliment at a cocktail party, would you simply smile? No, you’d at least thank them. When somebody takes the time to write you a comment on your blog, you should take things a step further (more than just a “thanks”). Have an authentic conversation with them. If your post was good enough to make somebody want to reach out, you’re doing something right. This is a high-priority for me in 2016. I didn’t have our comment system setup to alert me as comments happen. I’ve made the adjustment to help me respond faster to anyone that takes the time to write a comment.
Speaking of which, how are you feeling about this post? If you’ve made it this far into the post, you might as well take a couple of minutes to share your thoughts in the comments below. You can test my follow-through on wanting to respond faster in 2016.
All is Well That Ends Well (Conclusion)
There is a lot more I could share in review or our analytics from the past year(s), but I think this list sufficiently arms me with some complementary data points to go with my self-assessment. The net-net to all of this is that while my editorial strategy – the overall vision and mission of the blog – may have shifted slightly since 2009, I still care about creating great content that you’ll want to read and share.
Like any area of our lives, we can learn a lot from where we’ve been, but dwelling in the past is a recipe for even more disappointment down the road. This exercise has been a wake-up call of sorts for me, as I lost a lot of the momentum we had earned coming out of the gate our first couple of years. I’m excited and optimistic about 2016 being the reset year for the blog – and part of my strategy is sharing my intentions with you for increased visibility and accountability.
I hope you have big plans for 2016 too! If there’s a particular topic you’d like me to write about this year, please share your suggestions below. Similarly, if you have any suggestions for improving the blog overall, I’d love to hear from you. I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks for your continued support of Journalistics. And Happy New Year!
(Image Credit: “To Do List Chalkboard” by Mufidah Kassalias / Flickr Creative Commons)