What did I learn from a day with the UN’s bloggers?

October 20, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Had a fun day earlier this week running a blogging workshop for Unicef researchers in their wonderful centre in Florence (I know, tough gig etc). I ran through what is rapidly becoming my standard powerpoint (here you go, feel free to steal or comment), but the most interesting (and exhausting) session was working through nine draft blogs with their authors in a group: it was a mini marathon: read the post for 5 minutes, 10 minutes of editorial discussion, then on to the next one, for two and a half hours.

First thing to note was the team work – a stable of experienced writers and researchers working through their drafts together, showing excellent judgement (and kindness) in their advice and suggestions for improvements, and coming up with several new ideas for blogs and themes to explore together. They want to repeat the exercise (without me – I rapidly became redundant!) every few months as a way to support each other and generate content for the Unicef Connect research blog. One of those attending dashed off an excellent post on the pros and cons of RCTs (great title too). I’m really interested to see if they can maintain that kind of energy – do other organizations run blogging teams along similar lines?

To improve my own ‘blogging for beginners’ advice, I kept a note of some of the new (and not so new, but still worth reinforcing) ideas the emerged:

It’s all in the title: people need to spend far longer finding a title that strikes the right balance between boring platitude and blatant clickbait. Kick different options around, and ask colleagues. Questions are good; so are listicles (‘5 things you should know about X’). ‘Report back from interesting meeting’ is not. This really matters because unless people click on the title, you’ll never even get the chance to dazzle them with your prose and insights. Here’s a screengrab of my RSS feed to show what you’re up against – will your title be one of the 10-20% I click on?

RSS Feeds side-by-side
My RSS feed – which titles am I going to click on?

One Big Idea: several of the draft posts tried to convey three or more big ideas, meaning they were either way too long, or failed to do any of them justice. If you feel unclear what your one big idea/message is, show the draft to a colleague, or sleep on it and reread, and then be brutal about dropping the other stuff, or turning it into a separate post.

Man Bites Dog: a basic rule of journalism: dog bites man = no story; man bites dog = story. If you have some element of surprise in your piece, the title and lead should major on it. If there is absolutely nothing surprising, then think about leading with a human interest story (about your own life or someone else’s) to at least evoke empathy. ‘The SDGs are really important’ is just not going to get people clicking. What Harry Potter can tell us about multi-dimensional poverty probably will.

Linked to that was an interesting discussion on the best direction of ‘the funnel’ – whether posts work better if they start general (‘cash transfers are the new silver bullet’) and then go down into the specifics (‘our research in Kenya shows CTs work best when they are delivered on mobile phones’) or vice versa. Linking up to the previous point, my tentative conclusion was that if you have some man bites dog, then lead on the general, but if not, then go with the specific.

Hand holding: the more you can hold the reader’s hand with in-post commentary to engage and lure them on to the next para, the better. ‘So why should we be worried about X?’ ‘Let’s start with the upside’ rather than just plough straight into your next point.

Lose the first two paras? It was surprising how often, on reading a first draft, the group’s advice was ‘why not start with para 3?’ The first two were often ‘throat clearing’ of various kinds: saying something is important, telling us what we already know etc, before getting into the substance 3 paras in. So just start there instead.

That is particularly true because every second counts – Google Analytics is a brutal witness to how quickly readers click off your post to the next thing (so far today, 1500 visitors to FP2P have stayed for an average of 83 seconds….), so you need to get the best stuff into the title and first para.

The problem of generalization: authors often panic at how little space they have to discuss something, so try and cram in lots of wisdom by using broad and often pretty obvious generalizations ‘advocacy is important to improve services’; ‘we must be more innovative’. More than a couple of those in a row, and your post is dead in the water, I reckon. Try nailing them down with a quick example, either real or hypothetical. ‘In Chile, a combined campaign by social movements and academics persuaded the government to do X’.

Links are your friend: blog readers like links to further reading, which give them the option of digging deeper or not. Links allow you to cover old ground quickly, and then get on to the new stuff rather than lose readers by rehearsing familiar arguments.

How to write about specialist stuff: a lot of the UNICEF staff are working on technically sophisticated stuff, with lots of statistics etc. The preference often seems to be to say ‘tough’ and write difficult stuff for your peers. But even your peers could be reading this in some bleary early morning befogged state and would prefer some clear writing and chunky examples to ground the discussion. I defer to my fellow Oxfam bloggers on the Real Geek blog for advice on this one

Remember it’s a diary: ‘blog’ is a shortening of ‘weblog’, so it’s meant to be first person, even if every fibre of your institutional being prefers to remain anonymous. Several people at UNICEF quoted from papers, and we only found out in discussion that they had actually written them!

Do I need to understand SEO? Webheads say that it’s essential to understand how Google’s algorithms search and rank content (Search Engine Optimization), and write your piece accordingly. Eg we were told that the first 3 words in the title must appear in the first para, in the same order, and with the same distribution of capital letters. Is this true? I’ve never taken any notice of this stuff, but that may be why so little traffic comes to the blog via Google. Should I start taking it seriously? If so, what’s the best guide to quick and dirty SEO?

Over to you, including those Unicefers present, to add any further top tips

October 20, 2017
Duncan Green