I just stopped by the Word of Sport weblog. Sports books aren't my passion but I love to see how clients are doing with the blog we leave them with. Word of Sport kept me reading and reading. A nice surprise. My visit prompted all sorts of thoughts about writing for the web that have been bubbling around in the background, some of which I thought worthy of sharing.
Blogging has so much press these days it’s hard not to pick up a broadsheet or hit a newswire without coming across references to a blog, blog–style writing or web sites with blog like interfaces. The range of styles is rightly vast, just like the subject topics. The quality of the writing is also vast. It ranges from badly thought out but entertaining rants to stale pseudo-journalistic commentary. For organisations this can be confusing. So what makes a good web log for organisations? Or more accurately, what makes good writing on the web? You'll no doubt all have thoughts with keywords in them like ‘entertaining’, ‘informative’ and ‘accurate’. I'm going to throw my thoughts out in to the wild, and because it’s always easier to start with what not to do, that’s where I'll begin.
Organisations often stumble when they write for the web. Copywriting generally is not an easy business. House style is often non existent. There’s often not even a copywriter to hand. The temptation is to fall back on corporate–speak. Dry, anonymous copy that smacks of self-promotion in the most formal tones. When an organisation starts to speak of itself in the third person many people run for the hills (click away). If they don’t, it’s often a task to make it to the end of the article without gasping for breath, crying out for a dose of personality or breaking in to a wry smile.
Why is this so bad? Well, if the click away isn’t reason enough, there’s a more commercial reason that may stimulate you more: Brand.
Brands have personality. The world’s favourite brands have such a well developed personality we can almost predict what kind of underwear they would don if they were able to wonder down the high street on a weekend.
Nike would be wearing a jock strap or sports bra and running, not walking. Apple would be wearing boxers with cherries on them and nodding away with an ipod. Microsoft would be wearing y–fronts and muttering in to a mobile phone. The need to attach a personality to a brand is almost unconscious; intuitive. In this day and age we do it for ourselves, but that doesn’t stop the marketing bods trying their hardest to give us strong clues. The written word is part of that.
So, if the pursuit of being professional makes you start writing in the third person it’s time to show a little leg and trust your audience with your personality. The audience knows when the hyperbole is too overt, so what can help avoid being obviously self–promoting? A house style will help. Professional copywriting for the web will help. Depth and quality of information about the topic, not just the organisation will help. Writing in the first person will help. Your organisation is probably quite likable and writing in the first person plural will only help your audience discover that for themselves.
Word of Sport does it well. The opinions are those of the staff. They write in the first person and yet still manage to represent their stakeholders, audience and themselves wonderfully well. It’s confident, knowledgeable and definitely not dry. Wonder over there to read for yourself. The objective is to inform the audience about news and events in the sports book publishing world. An erudite insight in to forthcoming and previous titles that you can buy. The point is though, that by giving away high quality information and opinion they help their audience with depth and detail, not just pontificate at them with sparse self–promoting facts. An interesting, and decisive difference between traditional corporate news articles and modern informative blog entries.
Too much personality can be a bad thing. Organisations are expected to have an agenda. That could be selling something, changing something or promoting something. However, if that agenda sprouts too much personality it can get in the way of the message. This is much more rare than third-person corporate speak but can be just as dangerous. An example could be articles that are too informal and trying too hard to be cool or funky or hip. It’s uncomfortable reading and often ends up with the audience disliking the author purely on principle, like the guy in the pub who’s always grabbing people’s shoulders like a long lost friend when really he’s just angling for a free beer.
The principle that corrects an overly-large dose of personality in organisational blogging is prioritisation. Opinion should come after information. The primary focus of an organisational blog is to provide information not ordinarily available to the audience in contexts that they may not have considered. Editorial should always come after, if at all. Audiences are sophisticated enough to filter the agenda from the data. Conclusions should always be considered, balanced and based on evidence, never vitriolic or lambasting without cause.
This is a cornerstone of the success of blogging. Expert knowledge and opinion, from a personality we trust based on who they are and how they write on a given subject. Word of Sport does this well. It’s a mixture of factual information and properly thought out opinion. All with the weight and depth of some solid research and interest in the subject behind it. Sounds like a big ask? Perhaps, but this is what organisations do for their clients everyday; advise, provide options and alternatives, give perspective and guidance. That’s what makes a good organisational blog. It’s really like having a friend in the business.
The very best blogs are the ones the audience trusts to present most of the facts in one place, summarise them well and provide opinions based on those facts.
Organisations should give away their knowledge freely and comprehensively.
That way, a high percentage of the audience will see the quality of that information and the skill with which it is interpreted. They are then more likely to employ the organisation to use it on their behalf. It’s just that simple.
Without a multi-million pound marketing and communications budget most organisations rely on personal referrals and recommendations to give personality to their brand and provide consistent revenue. We all guard our relationships with our clients closely. The referral economy on the web acts in a similar way as it does everywhere else. Even though organisations have not met them in person, the web audience should still be looked after in the same way as any other client.
High quality information counts. Qualitative opinion counts. The referral economy is often indirect — especially as people publish more and more in personal blogs that often contains links and references to quality information the author may have found. If an organisation develops a reputation for good solid information and high quality opinion then they will be linked to, discussed and recommended, even by people that they have never talked to directly. So reputation counts just as heavily on the web as it does in everyday life. To speak in corporate nomenclature for a moment:
If you want to leverage the full potential of the web, guard your audience well, empower them with information and help them with opinion. Don't just sell to them.
What it all comes down to is time, confidence and courage. The time to gather the information together, present it in a usable way to the audience and actually write the article. Then the confidence to come out from behind the facade and talk to the audience in person, offering an opinion or interpretation that is useful to them based on what you know. Sometimes that opinion may be challenged but then you are talking on a subject you know well. So finally, the courage to enter the debate may be required too. Some erudite discussion in comments or other blogs can never be a bad thing for your audience if it is offered with the same consideration you wrote the article in the first place.
Blogging is more complex than just publishing news, but ultimately much more rewarding, on every level. Word of Sport do it well. Take a peek and have fun!
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