Readers of the Ipso Facto blog may not be aware that my writing appears in many other blog locations. In addition to two active personal blogs (one of which has been running since 2004), my old Harvard Extension blog (2005-2008), various employer and school-related blogs from 2005-2012 (Computerworld, The Industry Standard, MIT, and my first startup), and a 2007 guest-blogging gig on a site dedicated to virtual worlds, I have been very active on my current company’s blog. But there is a lot more blogging activity on the individual product sites for books like Twitter In 30 Minutes and the recently released book about the iPhone 6 and 6S. It’s hard, but I have developed a strategy for frequent posting on the blogs. It helps give the books a higher online profile, and in the case of several of the books, the posts prompt feedback from readers which I can use for follow-up editions of the books.
How is it possible for me to write so many blog posts? There are several answers. First, I am an extremely prolific writer. In 10 years I have written well over 1,000 blog posts across all blogs. More than 450 posts appear on my old Harvard blog alone, and a few others are above 200 posts. I am just one of those people who likes to write, and when I get the urge I have to sit down in front of my keyboard and get it out there, as I did yesterday morning on Ipso Facto with my blog post about the Fessenden School and St. George’s.
Second, for the book blogs, I have started to excerpt sections from the manuscripts. It’s a great way to showcase the quality of the books while getting some additional online attention. I am also using draft chapters from my forthcoming Lean Media book to get feedback which I can use to improve the manuscript.
I have also begun to leverage other types of content — chiefly videos — upon which to base blog posts. This is especially true of the books about browser-based software, which are easy to screencast. I have created scores of short YouTube videos on topics such as how to do something in Twitter or Excel or LinkedIn. It’s not hard to take the embed code from one of the videos, put it on the blog, write up a summary or additional instructions, and then post it.
Earlier this year I published a short “how-to” blog post titled How to renew a Blogger custom domain through Google Apps. I’m mentioning it here, not only because it’s a useful resource for anyone who purchased a custom domain through Google’s Blogger service in recent years, but also because it points to a problem with Google support.
Google has a myriad of wonderful products, ranging from basic search to advanced tools such as Google Earth. I use many of them every day, and even wrote a Google Docs for Dummies substitute. But the fact that I even had to write such a title indicates that Google’s interface design and online support resources don’t work well for everyone.
For instance, Google Blogger has thousands of support articles and forum posts scattered all over the net, as well as related resources from Google Apps and other tools that interface with Blogger. But when it came time for me to renew a Blogger custom domain that I had purchased through Google in 2012, these help resources were useless. I simply couldn’t find what I was looking for to help me access the control panel for my domain.
Contacting a live Google employee for Blogger custom domains support
As described in my blog post, I eventually found a contact form and asked how I could proceed with the renewal. To my surprise (Google has a reputation for limiting contact with actual Google employees) someone responded within 12 hours, with an answer for my problem. It worked! I posted the solution on my blog, so other people in the same predicament could help themselves.
Some people might say that the fact I got a response from a real Google employee so quickly is a sign that Google support is actually quite strong. But I suspect the only reason I got any support was because I was A) using a paid feature (custom domain purchase) and B) it was tied to Google Apps, a premium service aimed at small businesses. The New York Times summed up Google’s attitude toward human support in this 2012 article:
Google, which at 14 years old is a relative ancient in Silicon Valley, is one of the few companies that publishes phone numbers on its Web site. Its phone system sends callers back to the Web no less than 11 times. Its lengthy messages contain basic Internet education in a tone that might be used with an aging relative, explaining, slowly and gently, “There’s nothing Google can do to remove information from Web sites.”
Company blogs often get a bad rap, and for good reason. They can come across as awkward and unnatural as the cross-functional teams that oversee their existence (“Susan, check with marketing and legal before putting that up on the blog, m’kay?”). A few firms simply reprint press releases on their “blogs”. Others severely restrict the topics that staff can blog about, or deliberately hobble discussions with the outside world (including with their customers) by turning off comments.
Even companies which “get” digital media sometimes can’t do it right. Google’s official blog posts tend to come across as milquetoast missives that have gone through multiple layers of editing and approval, and commenting is frequently disabled. Microsoft is usually more open to blogging by staff, especially when it comes to reaching out to its development partners or customers of specific product lines, but a lot of its messaging is still communicated via press release and the news media. Apple doesn’t even bother with blogs.
But the examples above refer to corporate blogs, or blogs written by employees who work for large companies. In this post, I’d like to talk about startup blogs and small company blogs, as well as a big problem that afflicts a growing number of startup blogs.
Startup blogs vs. corporate blogs
Before I get to the problem, it’s important to understand a few things about startup blogs. They are different animals than their corporate cousins. Although startup blogs are sometimes written by a marketing director, they are frequently handled by the CEO or co-founders, or by a rotating cast of bloggers on staff. The blogging for In 30 Minutes guides is handled by yours truly, as well as the authors of Online Content Marketing In 30 Minutes and our new LinkedIn book. Posts vary in terms of length and target audience, but you can get an idea of the blogging style by looking at these posts about Google Docs new documents and Google Drive shortcuts.
Further, I generally find startup blogs to be far more informative than big company blogs. While corporate blogs will sometimes switch to show-and-tell mode with videos or step-by-step instructions, more often than not the big boys like to keep the explanations short and send prospective customers to support sites, product pages, and lead generation forms.
For readers, this makes a big difference. Startup blogs tend to have an authentic voice. They will often address market concerns in a direct way or give advice/share knowledge to attract and help new customers. There aren’t layers of editors and approvals to get something published.
Sometimes the voice on a startup blog can be brutally honest. Check out this post by Kinvey CEO Sravish Sridhar in which he gives a frank discussion of whether or not to talk about the competition. He lists his competitors — something that corporate bloggers almost never do — and further uses the opportunity to sell to potential customers of the Kinvey Backend-As-A-Service offering for mobile and tablet developers.
But startup blogs can be done poorly, too. A few years ago, as I was conducting research on startup accelerator programs, I noticed a big problem with certain startup blogs from the companies that had gone through various accelerator programs in the past: The blogs were abandoned. They hadn’t been updated in months, and in some cases, a year or more. I dug a little deeper, and found that there were various causes:
The startup is so swamped that no one has time to blog
The person who handled blogging left
The company doesn’t appreciate the value of the blog (even though people may still be visiting from Google)
The startup failed
To anyone who has founded or worked for a startup, the first reason is very understandable. If you’re getting by on just four hours of sleep per night taking care of the business, blogging usually ends up on the back burner until you can find the time to do it. The typical pattern is to see spurts of activity (especially early in the life of the blog) and then long periods of inaction.
I suspect that the second and third reasons are often accompanied by a feeling that someone will eventually get around to updating the blog, so for the time being just leave it dangling.
The fourth reason may seem strange, until you consider that startups have a high chance of failure. If the hosting is still paid for and the CMS is on autopilot, the old posts will continue to face the world, like the facade of an abandoned business.
The problem with abandoned startup blogs
Regardless of the reason, leaving an untended or derelict blog is a major mistake. An abandoned blog not only looks bad. It can actually call the credibility of the company into question, if the firm is still in business. It tells customers and users that the startup doesn’t care about keeping them up to date, can’t handle the workload, or maybe is distracted by something else, such as consulting, school, or another company. If it’s been more than a year since the last update, prospective customers or users may even wonder if the company is still in operation. Any doubt about the status of the company will of course result in a lower conversion rate, lost sales, or a wasted chance for building partnerships or prestige. In addition, because older content has more prominence, users and prospective customers may be left unaware of the company’s current products, features, pricing, or vision.
What are the solutions to this problem? I have suggestions tailored to the following scenarios:
Consider a company which is still in operation and understands the importance of blogging as a way to connect with customers and serve as an inbound marketing channel (among other uses). But there simply aren’t enough resources to devote to blogging. In this case, the most important thing to do is let people know what’s going on and point them to resources that can help them. Create a short post apologizing to readers and explaining that the blog won’t be updated as you work on the beta/feature X/migration/whatever.
You may also want to direct customers to resources where they can find answers (such as a support forum or customer service). Consider pointing them to alternative communications channels — such as a Twitter feed (much easier to update) or some other social networking resource that is regularly updated and/or monitored. Another trick: Start video blogging, either with a Web cam or smartphone camera. It takes less than ten minutes to create a clip, upload it/record directly to YouTube, and then embed the clip on your blog (or refer people to your YouTube channel). It’s not as fast as Twitter and may require some prep to make your office look presentable, but it’s much more efficient than blogging.
Startup blogs as part of a communications strategy
Longer term, you’ll need to figure out how blogging fits into your company’s communication and content strategies. Some companies with actual budgets bring in consultants to help them talk through these issues, or go out and get a hired gun to handle regular posts. Whatever you end up doing, don’t put off these discussions or plans for too long. It’s important for serving your customers and users, and attracting new customers/users. Schedule some time to talk about this internally or with advisors.
If the company is still in operation and doesn’t think blogging is important or necessary, my first suggestion is to reconsider. Talk with people who do it, start Googling around, or find someone who knows what they’re talking about. If blogging is still not a good fit for your startup, I see two paths:
If the blog has lots of posts or useful content, do not kill the blog. The content may still be useful to users, some customers and prospective customers, and may still be indexed by Google, which gives your site important visibility to prospective users and customers. Do this instead: Write a final post saying that the blog is being archived at the same location, and current news and information can be found at (other linked resource). But do remove the blog from site navigation, even though the URL stays the same. This will result in less traffic to the blog, but in my opinion it’s better to lose a little traffic than to send people to a resource that hasn’t been updated for months or years.
What if the blog has only a few posts? A typical scenario is the startup launched the blog because everyone else did it. After a handful of posts, there was no enthusiasm and the blog was abandoned. In this case, I would consider removing the posts and the navigation links, but only after someone has evaluated how the site has been indexed by Google and linked to by external sites. If you have just five posts, but one of them gets hundreds of referrals per month through links from Hacker News and Google, I would archive it at the same URL per the instructions above.
Lastly, if the company is dead and you’ve got a derelict site on your hands that for whatever reason you do not want to turn off, be courteous to the people who stumble upon the blog. Don’t let them believe that you are still in operation, and might still help them with whatever problem they have. Assuming you have already told your paying customers what happened, post a message or redirect that lets prospective customers, stragglers and other users know what happened and perhaps how you can be reached. Notifo’s final post from September 2011 (sorry, link no longer available) is a good example, and goes one step further by recommending some alternative services:
Hi Notifo users,
This is Chad, founder of Notifo.
I am reaching out today to announce some sad news. Over the past 20 months, Notifo has tried to be the best notification platform for multiple endpoints including iPhone, Android, Growl, Email, and a few more. Notifo has been my full-time job during this time.
However, Notifo never gained enough traction with publishers or consumers to make enough revenue to pay the bills and sustain it as a company. As such, I have had to seek full-time employment elsewhere in order to pay my own living expenses. What does this mean for you and Notifo? Practically, it means that I will no longer be working on Notifo. For now, Notifo will continue to run as-is with no further plans for development but will probably be shut down as a result. I will try to keep it alive as long as possible, but please know that it could go away at any moment. I will do my best to provide at least 30 days notice before Notifo is officially shut down.
While Notifo will continue to run in the interim, I encourage you to find alternative methods to accomplish your notification needs. Some alternatives include:
Boxcar for iPhone/iPad
Prowl for iPhone/iPad
SMS with Twilio
I want to thank all of you for using Notifo. I’m deeply sorry about this result. There may be a few more posts regarding this situation. Please feel free to email me at [chad at notifo dot com] with any questions you may have.
Thanks for all your support,
One last thing I would like to make clear: Untended blogs aren’t just a startup problem. I see established companies making the same mistakes. But established companies tend to have staff resources and budgets that makes it far easier to handle updates. And in almost all cases, they should know better than to let a product or company blog gather dust.
I realize that other startup bloggers and consultants with expertise in content strategy may have different ideas about how to deal with some of the problems I have described above. Feel free to add your opinion in the comments at the bottom of this page.
Image: C3, Cambridge Innovation Center. Photo by Ian Lamont.