Creative Blogging Class 1

Your Voice is Your Brand: An Overview of Creative Blogging

The Online Bazaar

The democratization and DIY-ization online tools have brought us as a culture is fantastic and almost mind-boggling. To put this into immediate perspective, flash back to ten years ago—when Mark Zuckerberg was still playing Solitaire online while he snacked on a bag of Cheetos. 

You're an entrepreneur, artist or freelance writer trying to gain exposure for your work.

First, you'd need a specialist to help you with every aspect of your project you didn't have the skills or resources to manage yourself. That costs. You'd probably be working with print-based media, like flyers, business cards, posters (and God forbid personalized pens.) And you'd be working out of a brick-and-mortar office, not a café, park or your own apartment. Assuming you could even find the money to get it all rolling. 

Now flash forward to 2017.  

Today you've got a single customizable “domain," or virtual space, that's connected to unlimited social utilities (many free) and the services they bring you at the touch of a button. Utilities that allow you to do whatever you want to do in terms of creative, business or personal ventures. You can very literally be your own marketers and content strategists (Facebook, Google, Mail Chimp, Twitter), archivists (Medium, Instagram, Sound Cloud, You Tube), graphic designers (Canva, Pixabay, Pexels), web designers (Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix, etc.), content producers (blogs), cashiers (PayPal) and shop managers (Shopify). You can do this from a laptop, and you can do it with very little money. 

The possibilities are truly wonderful and exhilarating. But they can also be baffling. And the last thing we want is to lose our minds before we even press publish on our first post. If you did that, the world would be minus one more beautiful idea.

“The term ‘Professional Blogger’ is no longer an oxymoron.”
— Luke Langford

Questions?

You're not alone. Here are some concerns anyone setting out on the blog, portfolio or website road for the first time will be thinking about.

•    How do I turn my blog entries into a newsletter and get people to subscribe?
•    How do I draw people back to my blog using Facebook, Twitter or Medium?
•    How do I design visuals if I have no experience with typography, color pairing or visual language?
•    How do I find content for my project on a limited budget?
•    How do I even set up a website?
•    How do I engage people in my idea, product, project, brand, service or mission? 

I've got some good news.


 Visit Jamaica

Visit Jamaica

The Good News

My father once took a business trip to Kingstown, Jamaica. This was back in the 80s, when advertising executives and creative directors typically did this, leaving their wives at home for a few days. My father was a creative director for Time Life Books. He was in charge of convincing Americans to buy sets of garishly made books on any number of subjects that might appeal to people who didn't really read: Dangerous Animals, Ancient Japan, The History of Espionage, The Wild West, etc. These business vacations were usually thin excuses to drink and snort cocaine outside US maritime control.

One night, after an epic bacchanal, the young Jamaican waiter brought my father a particularly nasty bill. He laid it on the table in a silver butter tray with the lid on.

My father said, "What's this?"

The man said, "Sir, this is the good news."   

So, do you want the good news?

The good news is the first five questions on that list above can be explained in a few classes.

And there's even more good news for the sixth.

Engaging people in your ideas just means using your voice in a way that connects you to your audience. This is really the only way to attract and keep the attention of the vast sea of potential digital guests out there who may end up checking in at your virtual space. 

And it's just a matter of practice.

This course will focus primarily on showing you ways to engage your online audience with your writing, while introducing you to a number of the best user-friendly online tools out there to complement your writing.

“Writing is thinking out loud. Blogging is thinking out loud where other folks think back.”
— Liz Strauss

Tip of the Trade

CHOOSING YOUR PLATFORM

A website or virtual space is really an extension of your personality. When choosing a platform, think hard about what you’re trying to say and what you need from it. Does your blog/website rely heavily on visuals and multi-media, or are you looking for a comfortable, stylish reading experience? Is your blog part of a website or portfolio or is that your only project?

If you’ve got a stand-alone blog, you’ll be looking for a platform or theme with good blog functionality, which may mean an engaging set-up for visitors to maneuver around between posts and access material with a solid post tagging/categorizing system.

Or you may want podcast integration (Sound Cloud or iTunes) or video embedding functionality (pretty standard).

You'll definitely need a platform or theme with a lot of flexibility and features just for blogs. Will you be integrating a mailing list? Do you want a sidebar? Do you code or do you just use out-of-the-box templates? Do you want your own domain?

These are all good questions to ask. It’s advisable to consider making a list of “must-have” features for your virtual space. Wordpress actually allows you to search by functionality.

The most most popular website builders for blogs are: Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix and Weebly. Wix and Weebly are both drop and drag editing platforms. Squarespace is designed according to a responsive grid of blocks, which it takes its name from.


Blog or Website?

There are a few functional differences between blogs and websites that will help you decide on a platform. But, generally speaking, you can think of the difference as building a house versus setting up a café.

The house is going to have more rooms and more functionality—sleeping, cooking, working. It's also going to need a lot more work to get it into the shape you want. Once you've designed and built it, you can sit back and reap the rewards. (Until the toilet starts whistling and the roof springs a link.)

A coffee shop is less space and and it's more streamlined in terms of functionality—people come there to sit at a table with a cup of coffee and talk or work on their laptops. To keep them coming back, you'll have to offer new products and keep your menu up-to-date. Every day you'll have to get rid of old food and bring in the fresh stuff. You'll have to deal with distributors and customers and managers. In a word, there's a lot more upkeep.

To reel this tenuous analogy back in: a website is generally a multi-page venture, whereas a blog is most often one scrolling page.

I can hear you saying: Wait. Do I have to choose between a website and a blog?

Actually, no. You can have a website where your projects, commerce pages, links, and other dedicated pages live, and a blog. Your blog would just be a separate page accessible by a tab on your navigation menu. This option will be appealing to creatives and entrepreneurs who have portfolios or products to showcase alongside their writing.

Here are some broad technical distinctions you may remember from class:

WEBSITE

  • STATIC CONTENT
  • ONE-WAY COMMUNICATION
  • TRANSACTIONAL , I.E. YOU WANT TO SELL SOMETHING, HOWEVER YOU DEFINE THAT

Blog

  • UPDATED CONTENT
  • INTERACTIVE
  • PERSONAL, INFORMATIVE, EDUCATIONAL

The bottom line: once you set up your website, you're good to go. Your content is available for visitors to view and it's there to draw attention to your brand. (Don't be afraid, once you say it a few times, it'll sound better.) You, your project, idea, mission, service or product are the subject of your website, whether you're selling something outright or just gaining awareness for what you do.

Blogs are there to interface with people who you may or may not convert into repeat visitors.

Blogs are your ongoing PR campaign with the outside world. They are there so you can interact with your readers and fans, or to show them what you know about your subject or to bring attention to what others are doing or writing on your subject. You can curate the work of others here, invite guest bloggers to participate, and exchange ideas with your visitors. The more lively that interaction, the more lively your blog.

“No one cares about your blog unless you are adding value to their lives in some way.”
— Jonathan Milligan

Thinking through your mission

I know, thinking of what you want your website or blog to achieve is a bit like sitting down and thinking about the meaning of life.

  • What am I doing here?
  • What do I want out of my existence?
  • Who am I trying to communicate with?

The short answer is: you're embarking on a creative project that is meaningful for you and others. You're going to connect with other people and make a difference to some of them. You're going to meet new people and maybe even get in touch with old names you've long respected using the power of your words alone. You're going to be writing about something you love.

I told you it was the short answer.

Now you've got to think.

What are the goals or targets of your online venture? Do you want to make history more accessible to the average web surfer? (This has probably been done before, but maybe not in the language or country you're writing in.) Do you want to write about extreme sports? Fine. What's your take on extreme sports? How are you different from the hundreds of other extreme sports blogs out there? Why should I read you?

Even if you already have a blog with an “about me” section or a whole website with a mission statement or “about me” page, re-identifying and overhauling those goals is a good idea.

Are you married? You can think of it as “renewing your vows.” You should have a list of at least three.

Keep in mind that what you write about has to be general enough not to only appeal to the five-person subredit dedicated to "dirty dwarves."

On the other hand, it shouldn't be too general either. For instance, I can tell you right here and now that blogs devoted to "air-breathing mammals" or "men with mustaches" probably won't take off. 

Tweak it a little and you might end up with something more engaging, like: "Hollywood Shaving Fetishes: A Blog Dedicated to Celebrities Who Groom their Mustaches More Than Three Times a Day."

No promises on that one either. 

“Only on the Internet can a person be lonely and popular at the same time.”
— Allison Burnett, Undiscovered Gyrl

Weekly Assignment

Every week we'll be working on one assignment at home that will build off what we started in class. These assignments will also be building off each other. The goal is to set up a blog or website and start using it. The first step, after you find your platform, is to prepare a mission statement or about page. And that's our Week 1 assignment.

Week 1

Take the goals or targets you thought up for your project and weave them into a compelling mission statement or "about me" page of no more than 250 words. The statement should get who you (and your blog or website) are across to visitors. Statements/pages should:

  •   get brand identity across clearly and succinctly, i.e. who you are and what your blog or site is about
  • write “to” your audience, not to the Mighty Spirit of the Internet
  • include key words (i.e. if your product is selling á la carte gym subscriptions to 20-40 working mothers, you should have something in there about “á la carte,” “gym” and “20-40-year-old mothers." This is called SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which is a fancy way of saying "words my potential visitors would use in Google searches that would lead them back to my site or blog."

If you were selling á  la carte gym subscriptions to working moms, your mission statement might look like this.

(Pay attention to the "friendliness" of American web writing. We're actually not that friendly. Unless we're serving you in a store or restaurant. Then you'll see more teeth than a Mako shark shows when he's swallowing an ironing board.) I call this, possibly monetizable concept, GYMMOM.COM, a service/commerce website dedicated to, well...working moms with kids who want to go to the gym but don't want to be guilt-tripped into doing it.)

GYM MOM

Gymmom.com was actually the result of a problem I needed a solution for. Like many 20-40 something mothers with full-time jobs, I loved to exercise daily but couldn’t make it to the gym everyday.

And like you, I really hated paying for monthly subscriptions that I couldn’t take advantage of, and the guilt that went along with it!

So I got to together with another Gym Mom—co-founder Mina Murphy—and we created gymmom.com, a fun, simple, pay-as-you-go way for working moms with busy schedules to stay fit on their own terms.


That wraps up Week 1.

I leave you with this pretty well put summation of the benefits to be had from blogging (at the expense of our meditative selves) and the balance we need to strike as socially connected animals.

Writer Andrew Sullivan on Blogging

I'm a writer by profession and it's totally clear to me that since I started blogging, the amount I write has increased exponentially, my daily interactions with the views of others have never been so frequent, the diversity of voices I engage with is far higher than in the pre-Internet age—and all this has helped me become more modest as a thinker, more open to error, less fixated on what I do know, and more respectful of what I don't. If this is a deterioration in my brain, then more, please.

The problem is finding the space and time when this engagement stops, and calm, quiet, thinking and reading of longer-form arguments, novels, essays can begin. Worse, this also needs time for the mind to transition out of an instant gratification mode to me a more long-term, thoughtful calm. I find this takes at least a day of detox. Getting weekends back has helped. But if there were a way to channel the amazing insights of blogging into the longer, calmer modes of thinking... we'd be getting somewhere.

I'm working on it.

Andrew Sullivan

Like what you saw? Register for the next Creative Blogging course at Write CY.


© 2018 Max Sheridan

This text is the property of Max Sheridan and he will find you and make you start a celebrity mustache fetish blog if you print it elsewhere, (unless you ask him nicely first.) Photos are public domain unless otherwise indicated.