It doesn’t seem like it’s been long enough for the collaborative hyperlocal blog I edit, Avant Greensboro, to be one year old. Were we successful? Wildly, in some areas, and not at all, in others. While we were able to attain enviable traffic stats for a local blog while building stellar brand awareness, we didn’t monetize the site to the extent we had hoped. Looking back on a year of blog management and the numerous lessons that manifested along the way, there are a few moments of victories (and several cuts for the blooper reel!) that trigger warm-fuzzies; there are also clear lapses in judgment and plain-old omissions that I’ll be sure never to let happen again.
A little back story: our blog theme sprouted from painfully obvious holes in the local news & blogging niche in our town, Greensboro NC. Sure, you could find a lot of basic information, but if you’re looking for music calendars at dive bars, hubbub from neighborhood list-serves, and visual art exhibits not found in formal galleries, you were out of luck. There was a lot to be covered and it was ours for the taking. Coming from a group of online marketers and content specialists, how could we fail? We were about to command massive attention in our hometown and amass a waiting list of advertisers to boot. Or so we thought.
Win: Loving our niche
Quality content – most of it, anyway – came easy. We all shared a strong desire to see local culture and locally-owned businesses thrive. If you aren’t driven by or active in a niche, how can you write sustainably? You cannot, and if you try, you’ll quickly learn that research is too painstaking, the narrative too uninteresting, and the social shares too disappointing. Having a team steeped in artistic talent, civic pundits, and activists took us a long way in terms of tapping our target demographic. It’s not always easy to reach your core audience, especially for blogs written by one person.
- Tip: Inviting guest authors to post relevant articles can add a new dynamic to your content, as well as your engagement on-site and in social channels. If you’re a hyper-local blogger, you’ll have a much easier (if not effortless) time finding passionate writers and quality perspectives.
Loss: Adjusting the content calendar
As the editor, I’ll admit: this loss stings a little bit. After constructing our chosen categories, I built an editorial calendar to keep the content rolling. When Tuesdays came along without any Sports articles coming to me, I’d be frustrated in a way I couldn’t do anything about. You see, I am not a Sports person. In fact, no one on my team was. The traffic going to articles in the Sports category was embarrassingly underwhelming. It had to be killed.
- Tip 1: Don’t try to force depth for the sake of all-inclusiveness. Having an “everything to everyone” mentality leaves little time to give your specialties definition and market them as part of your brand. This is especially important to local bloggers.
- Tip 2: Attempting to adhere to an unnecessarily strict content calendar won’t work for writers who contribute on a volunteer-basis. Once you’re able to comfortably monetize your site and can compensate writers for their articles, I recommend implementing a project management system, such as ClientSpot or Podio, from which you can supervise post deadlines, compensation invoices, and advertising income.
Win: Extending our brand via social media and creating relationships
The first off-site extensions of our brand were Facebook and Twitter, naturally. There are a multitude of social WordPress plug-ins that automatically update your social media accounts whenever a new article is published. This saves a lot of time. Within a couple of months of launching, we met with a potential advertiser whose budget was so tiny that we decided to cross-promote in lieu of payment. Instead of ads, we made an arrangement that included social media sharing and hanging vinyl banners at local events. It was a win/win situation, even if it wasn’t ideal. Six months post-launch, we were offered a large time-slot for a radio show at a college radio station. Some of these blog extensions were actively pursued, some fell in our lap. All of it was organic.
- Tip 1: When approached by potential advertisers, especially local businesses, work with them! Make something mutually beneficial happen. If a local business is approaching you and not the other way around, they are an invaluable connection to others in your community. Don’t forget to apply the same principle to your blog. Seek out other blog owners, establish a friendly relationship with them, and talk about possible collaborations and cross-promotions. Become a connection locally and on the web.
- Tip 2: Always be on the lookout for opportunities to flex your brand and present new media, whether it’s by reaching out to other bloggers in your niche, creating weekly podcasts, or hosting giveaways. What is everyone else in your niche doing? What about locally? Go beyond that and offer something fresh to capture their attention.
Loss: Spreading ourselves too thin
By taking on a lot of brand extensions, there were times when the content on the site played second fiddle, even though we were spiritedly promoting it around town. Our ad program had a couple of biters here and there, but so few in fact that I’ve been asked if our blog was aiming to become a local “non-profit organization”. Thanks for rubbing it in. This failure was largely due to time constraints, although I have to wonder if anything could have come of visiting local businesses, just dropping in to meet people face to face and giving out press kits, and if it would have been worth printing all of that paper.
- Tip: Don’t spread yourself too thin with promotional work. Your blog is the mothership; it’s the bread to all of your promotional butter. Even if you’re not making money yet, you have to scale your efforts somehow. Find out which brand extensions work (checking out your traffic referrals and your most popular posts can help inform you here) and pursue those within reason.
If there’s one single piece of advice that I could give to anyone beginning a collaborative blog, it’s this: give a darn. Give a darn about the subject matter. Give a darn about your writers and meet with them regularly. Give a darn about the technical side of your blog and educate yourself about Google analytics, SEO, and basic HTML. Give a darn about your readers and do your best to give them novelty content. Do this, and you’ll semi-succeed, too.
Guest author Rae Alton edits the cultural news blog mentioned in this post, Avant Greensboro. In addition to writing and supporting the local scene, she enjoys making pop-up books about unicorns with her daughter.