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

October 15, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

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.

October 15, 2013
Duncan Green