Divergent Thoughts

How to take what you know and share it…

Are blogs still relevant in our insta-world?

BlogBack in 2009, I spoke of “the blog” as if it were a magical conduit that could connect a lone researcher working in isolation to the masses. Ten years on, I still hold the blog in good stead despite the mushrooming of other social media tools that threaten to overshadow it. I may not share the naive sentiment that “if you build it, they will come” anymore, but more on this below.

First, for the basics, feel free to click on Blogging for Impact, my 2009 post, which provides an overview of blogging and how to use it in the non-profit development setting.

Introduced in the 1990s, the weblog has evolved so much that even the more traditional development organizations recognize its value. Having said that, just as many developmental blogs have fizzled out over the years because of staff changes, organizational restructuring or shifting priorities. (Most recent being DFID, which still maintains an archive of blogs)

social mediaThe way people communicate or share information has also changed since the blog appeared almost 30 years ago. These days, people use social media  and expect instant gratification. Got a complaint? Reach out via Twitter. Someone behaving badly? Whip out your smartphone, click record and share widely. It’s not all self-serving though. A video platform like Vimeo or YouTube that enables us to highlight an issue or showcase a success story quickly, with minimal cost, is powerful. Similarly Twitter takes the cake for pointing out news and event highlights, acting much like the pulse of social media.

Where instant sharing platforms dominate communications, do blogs still have a place?

As seasoned agricultural research blogger, Luigi Guarino is quick to point out, Twitter threads aren’t useful in the long term, and should really be blog posts. How true indeed – try looking for a twitter conversation you had with someone from a long ago tweet. He further adds that competing formats like podcasts are often very poor in quality. Luigi is half of the successful blog site that is the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog maintained by him and Jeremy Cherfas, who both work in the area of agricultural research.

A quick poll of my peers confirms my suspicion that aid workers still rely on blogs for content. These are the novel ideas, opinions, reviews, distillation of abstract articles, among others. In changing geographical and political landscapes, they routinely follow blogs that share tips and tricks of the trade. These insights are rarely available in project reports and make all the difference between why one grassroots project succeeds and the other, doesn’t. Such context-driven content fills the gap between theory and practical application; Blogs enable knowledge sharing. 

While one may argue that their website is knowledge-driven and a useful resource, most are sensory overload. Impersonal, static websites do not enjoy much traffic. Visitors typically do not stay too long on a website unless you can offer them something extra. Blogs have the ability to breathe life into a website, keeping it dynamic, relevant and up-to-date.  Some good examples include Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog , International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and World Vision.

Keeping it Real

As mentioned earlier, the ‘if you build it…’ approach no longer works. There are over 500 million blogs, with an average of 2 million posts a day   and many of them, not getting the readership they deserve. The challenge of blogging today is in bringing traffic to your site and not just those who randomly find it, but people who feel motivated enough to share with others.

The target audience for a blog is one who wants more than a two-sentence Twitter story. It should be easy-to-digest, yet sufficiently explore the point you are trying to make, whether it is to share a new idea, clarify a hot topic or provoke action. A ‘cut and paste’ job will not do. Successful blogs tend to follow this formula:

  • It answers questions like “How can this information help me (the reader)?” “Why is it important for me to know?”
  • Takes key information and gives it a personalized spin.
  • The tone is conversational (informal).


Search engine optimization (SEO) can give your blog some mileage

How a website is ranked is most dependent on the keywords in your content, how often it is referenced in other sites and how ‘unique’ it is. (To know more, here is a simplified explanation of search engine ranking and how it works)

There are several layers here too. Those in-the-know may tell you to tweak the metadata of your blog post to match popular search terms related to it, to increase the chance of Google picking up your post.

These days, it’s not that simple. The algorithms used are not entirely visible. The system has been abused by some in efforts to make money off their sites with advertising. Monetizing a blog is a personal preference, and is fine if you feature good quality content. It’s when content is shortchanged that it becomes an issue. (Pet peeve: one-page blogs with all the right keywords but no substance or those that just point to other web links, all aimed at boosting traffic for ad revenue)

To counter this, search engines have become more creative at sifting through web content in order to serve the user better. Keywords are still important. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes to figure out the right keywords for your blog post. What search terms would you use to look for your post online? Use that to generate your keywords. Ideally it should describe the main topic of your post and its’ scope. These days, you have the additional choice of using keyword generators like KWFinder or Google Ads (keyword planner).

Tip: Think about how you source information online. Perhaps you type one or two words into a search engine like Google – producing a long list of webpages that contain keywords/ tags to match your search terms. Add another keyword and the list gets filtered further. This filtering process presents more specific webpages that Google thinks are a match to your search.

In a nutshell

Pixabay_learningPeople read blogs to see through another’s eyes. They don’t just want hard facts, they want the insights and opinions too. They want to learn and be entertained. In the end, even with all the SEO we do, it is the content that counts. Original, unique content. The best bloggers are those who write about things that are close to their hearts. It is the passion they put in words that grabs our attention and keeps us going back for more.  IMHO such blogs aren’t going away anytime soon.

Till next time…

Microblogging today

Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/OpenClipart-Vectors-30363/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=155281">OpenClipart-Vectors</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=155281">Pixabay</a>Twitter is currently the most widely used social networking platform for sharing short posts, which includes photos and videos. With over 336 million active users every month, at least 500 million tweets are sent out daily into the ether.

Yammer, while similar to Twitter, is a closed network platform, used widely in the CGIAR and various UN agencies to keep them connected. The subscription of Office 365 from Microsoft for the 15 Centers in the CGIAR includes Yammer in the bundle, so adoption of the tool has been streamlined. Ideally, all staff within each Center, whether they share an office space or are geographically dispersed, can connect with each other internally in a direct and informal manner.

For the basics on Twitter and Yammer, please see my 2009 post on Microblogging.  Whether you use Yammer to connect with colleagues or use Twitter to engage with people externally, here’s a rehash of the benefits of microblogging:

  • Great for informal communications. No mass emailing required. Your target group needs to be part of your online community though, i.e., they need to ‘follow’ you on Twitter or be part of your Yammer group.
  • Anyone can write and share short posts. Now we have the luxury of 280 characters, with the option to add photos or videos. Perfect for people who don’t enjoy writing or don’t have enough time. In our information overload culture, microblogs also offer just the right bait to capture interest.
  • Real-time social reporting during events. Using appropriate hashtags, people can follow your event even if they are unable to attend.


How well do we use microblogging to our advantage?

A 2012 study on how non-profits use Twitter revealed that most tweets tend to fall into three rough categories:

  • Information (58.6%): news, event announcements, updates
  • Community (25.8%): recognition, self-validation, acknowledgement
  • Action (15.6%): event promotion, donation drives, calls to volunteer and advocacy.

Most of the tweets observed were informational and the writers argued, did not encourage much dialogue. They added that non-profits needed more interaction especially from call-to-action tweets.

In recent times, there have been conscious efforts by non-profits to engage their followers. In the last decade alone, there has been more clarity in how people give and why some don’t; the social networks they prefer; and what encourages them to commit.

It is no surprise then, that United Nations and UNICEF are the most followed development organizations with 10 million and 7 million followers respectively. The most effective organizations, as in most retweeted or liked, are the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) and UNICEF. These organizations which include UNHCR, WHO, FAO and IFAD are using Twitter in creative ways to engage their followers. Twitter has created an avenue for such organizations to tap into a previously unavailable segment, the people-at-large, and share the voices of downtrodden individuals – refugees, fishers, farmers, vulnerable women and children.

In addition, a 2018 report by Blackbaud on fundraising in the UK showed that 79% of charities found social media to be a successful method for fundraising and communications. Twitter is a great tool to reach potentially anyone from a large base of 336 million users. How many of them actually follow you or read your post however, is a different story.


Yammer away…

With all the brevity of Twitter, within a smaller, more secure network, Yammer is a boon for people who work in dispersed teams or travel on-the-job as development workers often do.

  • KM on a dollar a day’s Ian Thorpe (UNICEF Chief, Learning and Knowledge Exchange) provides some great tips on how to use Yammer at work. Use it to promote your work and reach out to others in your field. Many of the pointers are tried and tested.
  • Build an organizational culture. Dan Pontefract speaks of flattening hierarchy in the corporate environ by increasing the number and quality of relationships between employees. This is easily the best argument for Yammer. Knowledge sharing does not happen in silos.
  • Create online groups/ communities around a specific focus or theme. Provide guidance on the type of conversations expected.

In a recent Microsoft Techcommunity post, Paola Storchi who leads online communities in UNICEF shared their Yammer success story. UNICEF began using Yammer in 2008, and participation grew organically, albeit slowly. In 2016, they made a conscious move and revitalized the use of Yammer for online engagement and knowledge sharing. She states in her post, “Our network grew from 1,000 participating members per month to more than 5,600 per month during that time – representing more than 46% of all UNICEF staff. There wasn’t a magic overnight change, but rather a slow and steady effort that facilitated this growth.”


You may love Twitter but why should it love you back?

As individuals, Twitter has changed the way we now read the news and look for up-to-date information. With 80% of Twitter users on mobile phones, it is literally on-the-go access. It has proven to be the instrument of choice for organizing large groups of people together, whether it is to protest a policy or overthrow your local dictator. But that’s another story and there are enough people who critique its validity.

Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/Conmongt-1226108/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=2616203">Christian Dorn</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=2616203">Pixabay</a>

Strategies are so overused!

While you may not be planning a revolution any day soon, you need a plan. Remember you are competing with 500 million tweets a day. This may sound overwhelming, and perhaps explains some of the complaints I’ve heard from people who stopped using Twitter, such as “too much white noise”, “feels impersonal”, “does anyone read my tweets?”


Here are some questions worth considering if you want the best out of your microblogging experience:


Conscious Tweeting

Decide on what kind of information you would like to send out. Well-crafted, unique posts with photos get read and retweeted. Think about how reputable news agencies push out their stories. Study the type of posts @UNICEF or the CGIAR centers share. They often have dedicated staff to handle social media who are savvy techno-communicators. A quick guide:

  • Write short blog posts and link them on Twitter/ Yammer.
  • Share interesting photos. Caption sparingly.
  • Share meaningful quotes that strike a nerve.


Guerrilla Gardening

If there is one thing to remember, it is that your Twitter feed is entirely in your control. You probably started using Twitter by adding friends and colleagues then went on to add people that Twitter kindly recommended to you. Then you find yourself obliged to follow people who followed you. Why? Because that’s what a nice person does. Before you know it, you have twitter-mayhem.


Careful now…

Manage your Twitter feed! Follow people, groups or organizations based on your needs. Be selective. Make sure their postings interest you. Give it time. If it does not work out, you can ‘unfollow’ them as needed. Remember, ‘following’ a person is not the same as becoming their friend online. You are under no obligation to keep following a person or organization if their posts no longer reflect your interests.

Weeding is important in social media, your sanity depends on it.


Hashtag Minimalism

There have been many posts lamenting the overuse of hashtags in Twitter, Instagram etc. And #it #can #be #a #nightmare. We need to be clear on why we use hashtags in the first place. (What is a hashtag, you ask? This blog explains simply.)

Getting people to read your post is like fishing. Your hashtags are your bait. Twitter users look for content by typing specific keywords, i.e., bait. How do you search for information on Twitter, what keywords do you look up?

Put too many in and you risk spreading yourself too thin. Too many general, wide-scope keywords and your post gets drowned in a sea of a hundred posts. Keep it simple, specific and short.

The use of hashtags is a contentious one, almost everyone thinks its overdone unless you’re a pop celebrity. Many still recommend 3, some say no more than one. I would use 2 at most, so decide carefully. This blog shares some tips on how to use hashtags.

In a nutshell:

Social media tools can be overwhelming. In the end, we use them to help us work better. In the last ten years alone, it is heartwarming to see that organizations like UNHCR and UNICEF have become Twitter superstars. Yammer, too, has become an integral part of informal communications within UNICEF and some CG Centers (e.g. ILRI). As for individual Twitter users in the development world, I’d wager there’s nowhere to go but up. Being able to connect with knowledgeable people anywhere in the world is just too good an opportunity to miss. For those who are a little overwhelmed and would like to give it another go, choose to be…a conscious tweeter, a guerrilla gardener and a hashtag minimalist.

Till next time…