Blogging is part of who I am

Rain on window

Blogging is more than just a side project. It has become part of who I am. The pages of this blog act as a diary documenting a student life, entry-level PR experience, and now as a senior practitioner. Past articles can make for awkward or difficult reading, but it’s history.

So it’s disappointing to reach the end of a successful professional and personal year, to then reflect on a blog that at times did feel abandoned, at least in comparison to other years. Visits to this blog peaked at 50,000 in 2014, but this year it has dropped. Whilst posts may show quality, blogging still requires constant feeding to grow and create community.

Despite only publishing 32 posts throughout the whole of 2016 (around 2 a month) the benefits of blogging still shine through. Through my everyday work I’m always pleased to hear how often this blog is read, especially when it contributes to new business efforts and talking about Lansons initiatives.

The challenge is balancing the responsibilities of a more senior role in a busy London consultancy, being mentally available after work (rather than an exhausted husk) to feed a personal life, and then blogging. This year practical work in my career took priority over the blog as I adapted to an account director role after promotion end of 2015. It was the right decision.

Still, it’s been a wonderful year and here are the top five posts of 2016.

SEO is no longer a discipline, it’s a skillset

After attending the well-known BrightonSEO conference, I reflected on how Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is an integral skillset for PR practitioners.

See beyond your age: 26 life lessons at age 26

A very personal post that attempted to explain some life lessons and reaffirm parts of my personality on this blog.

UK Blogger Survey 2016: It’s all about fashion and poor PR pitches

Good old Vuelio conducted a survey with 500 UK bloggers revealing the pitches they receive and ways of working.

Britain’s best PR student bloggers 2016 #bestPRblogs

There are so many talented student PR bloggers worth keeping your eye on, this post ranks the best based on Behind the Spin’s #bestPRblogs competition.

The Independent: where print declines, online soars

The title of this post is not true, online clearly does not guarantee success. However, online does provide opportunity and more immersive ways to engage readership.

Looking to 2017, it is clear that blogging needs to come back onto the agenda in a big way. I’ve continued to feel the benefits this year and if I refocus, then this may lead to even more opportunities.

 

Britain’s best PR student bloggers 2016 #bestPRblogs

Best PR Student blogs

It’s been a student blogging competition like none other! 43 students from 14 universities have together created 174 posts dripping with PR-goodness in a competition to win the title of Britain’s best PR student blogger 2016.

Last year Stephen Waddington announced that Livi Wilkes won the 2015 title. Today it’s time for a new winner and I’m honored to have been given the final decision in judging the shortlist set out in PR student magazine Behind the Spin. The magazine is supported by the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), spearheaded by PR academic and teacher Richard Bailey.

The 2016 competition started with the new academic year in October 2015, with the aim to encourage more PR students to blog. Well, it worked! The competition has been running strong since 2013 and has built an active #bestPRblogs social media community.

If you’re interested in a career in PR then building up your digital knowledge and skills is critical, as clients are increasingly looking for agencies that can deliver integrated PR campaigns. The job market is fiercely competitive and students that make an effort to build up their own personal brand online and example their expertise through blogging often make it to the top of the CV pile.

With that in mind all the bloggers I’ve reviewed today are PR superstars. They have all demonstrated their blogging passion by making it to Richard Bailey’s shortlist. So this isn’t just about finding Britain’s best PR blogger, but instead showing Britain’s best PR bloggers.

What was the judging criteria?

Without a proper judging criteria it would have been near impossible to pick the winner of this competition. After much careful thought, each blogger was reviewed considering the below aspects:

  • The quality of blog posts, thought-leadership, and style
  • Types of post formats used or experimented with
  • The design of the blog, readability, and structure
  • Any Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) worth noting
  • Integration with social media and wider personal branding

This isn’t the standard 60-point checklist that an SEO professional will use to judge the performance of a website. It’s a subjective rank based on what I would choose if hiring.

Noteworthy observations

Throughout the judging process (now three coffees in) I did observe a few things about this year’s competition:

  • We once again have an all-female shortlist. This is deeply refreshing but also makes me think that male bloggers need to up their game!
  • Several more universities took part in this year’s competition, but we had less students overall.
  • Hosting a blog on wordpress.com still remains a popular choice. This is also a smart decision, as the high domain authority from WordPress can quickly pass onto the blog setup.

Anyway, I’ve waffled on long enough… it’s time to announce the results.

Runners-up

The runners-up are Claudia Barnett (@claudiaharriet_) and Natalie Szczepanek (@Nat_Szczepanek).

Lipstick Theory

Claudia not only blogs about PR, but her other passions in life such as design and beauty. In many ways her blog goes exactly to what the heart of blogging is about; a personal online diary that really allows readers to connect with the author. Blog posts are usually a mixture of text and images, broken up for easier reading on mobile devices.

The blog also demonstrates good connectivity with social media sites. Whilst PR and business related posts were in abundance in 2015, the blog feels like it may be edging towards more of a beauty and fashion focus, even through its name of Lipstick Theory – it feels like there is a lot of potential.

Nat's PR Scribbles

Natalie balances updates about her professional life with thoughts and advice about the PR industry. She uses a mix of images, YouTube embeds, and gifs to write her posts; a smart move, as it allows you to use other peoples’ rich media content and provide extra resources for readers.

She clearly puts a lot of thought into her updates and could potentially be using the blog as a vehicle to hone her analysis skills for university essays. It’s an enjoyable read and look forward to reading her next updates.

Third place

In third place is Hannah Lennox (@HLennox_PR).

Just a PR girl in a PR world

Hannah is one of the more prolific PR student bloggers and still manages to keep posts interesting and varied. In many cases she uses key events in her life to link back to points and debates happening in the PR industry. It’s a genuinely helpful resource that not only helps you tackle writer’s block, but will also give you an overview of emotional intelligence.

Social media integration in posts is great but it would have been nice to have more post filter options on the blog, even an email subscribe box – help me digest your content! 

Second place

In second place is Laura Bradley (@LauraBradleyPR).

The PR Girl

Laura is the only PR student shortlisted who has chosen to not host her website on wordpress.com but to instead use a website building site. It’s a refreshing change and does mean that the design of her website looks different from the blogging competition – it’s not a WordPress standard template.

Beyond the design of her website I’ve been very impressed with Laura’s varied blog posts from how to handle a PR crisis to a day in the life of a PR intern. The layout of her website means I can easily find my next post to read, she has featured posts on the sidebar, and has even played around with adding a photo gallery to the blog. She has also used a mix of post styles to present her stories, including more gifs!

Whilst moving away from WordPress is a refreshing change, it does mean the website isn’t gaining SEO benefits from the WordPress domain.

Winner

The winner and Britain’s best PR student blogger 2016 is Arianne Williams (@ariannewills)!

PR Professional in Training

Arianne is a serious PR blogger who has gained 47 email subscribers to her blog, built a Twitter following of 700+ and already contributes to industry initiatives. She is also one of the only bloggers in the competition that has built up an impressive amount of backlinks to her work, helping her in Google Search. Arianne’s blog is well presented, has plenty of social media integration (and it all works!), and filters for finding her latest posts.

Her post formats are varied such as using a BuzzFeed style, but she does this whilst also having articles that present modern industry debates. In my mind she is a clear winner and a shining example of someone who lives and breaths the industry she is entering. Very well done.

Thank you

Congratulations to everyone who took part in #bestPRblogs 2016, especially those shortlisted and Arianne – keep blogging! You all have bright futures ahead of you.

Later this week I’ll be writing about how blogging helped my career in PR.

UK Blogger Survey 2016: It’s all about fashion and poor PR pitches

It’s all about lipstick, dresses, and fancy underwear when it comes to the UK blogging community. This is one conclusion that can be drawn from the biggest ever survey of UK bloggers, conducted by communications software company Vuelio, in conjunction with Canterbury Christ Church University.

The survey of more than 500 UK bloggers found that over three quarters were female and that they tended to concentrate on traditionally female interests such as beauty and fashion. Blogs written by men covered a broader range of topics, ranging from stereotypically male pursuits such as sports and gaming to traditionally gender-neutral areas such as food (there are twice as many male food bloggers as female), and health.

MaleandFemalebloggers

Those interests were further reflected in the social media UK bloggers use to promote their sites. While Twitter was ubiquitous for both genders, female bloggers were much more likely than their male counterparts to be found on Pinterest and Instagram, while men were twice as likely as women to use LinkedIn and, perhaps surprisingly, more frequent users of Facebook.

Although a third of respondents described blogging as a hobby, more than a third said they blogged either professionally or with a view to commercialising their efforts in future.  Most said that, while they had good relationships with PRs and brand managers, they often felt second-class when compared with journalists working in traditional media.

How should brands work with bloggers?

This is the big questions for PR practitioners taking their skills beyond media relations to engage with blogging communities instead. Being a blogger myself, I contributed to these survey results and could understand some of the frustrations bloggers have with PR pitches.

PRpitches

Some are atrociously bad, often without regard of what the blogger gets in return; especially in terms of the value of content, bloggers are not second-class to journalists. The results revealed that more than two-thirds of bloggers agreed that they were all-too-often asked to support brands for very little in return.

“It’s clear from the number of pitches our respondents said they received that PRs and brand managers recognise the enormous potential of UK bloggers,” said Kristine Pole, programme director at Canterbury Christ Church University and co-author of the research. “But there also seems to be a fundamental disconnect, when you look at the efforts PRs are putting in compared with what they’re getting out, and the often mismatched expectations of each side.”

Almost two fifths of respondents received six or more pitches from brands every week – but only 30 per cent of bloggers said that more than one post a week was the result of brands coming to them.

“When you think about the subjects that occupy the majority of UK bloggers, such as fashion and beauty, and then look at the enormous audiences for their sites, and finally consider the extent to which traditional media relies on PR in these areas, it’s hard to see anything other than a huge opportunity,” said Vuelio’s Head of Content, Chris Wheeler. “The bloggers want to make the effort to improve their relationships with brands.  If brands can better understand bloggers’ expectations of these relationships, it has to be a win-win.”

If you work with bloggers or are tempted to start, I highly recommend you download the full UK Blogger Survey 2016 here.

Domain deed poll: this blog is now michaelwhite.online

One of the flaws of being a geek is registering website addresses late at night whilst intoxicated; that’s how thoughtsymposium.com was born. That, and a lost blogging focus at the time. Over two years later it’s time for something new, something me; literally me .online.

The name of this blog may have changed, but that’s it. I’ve just returned to self-branding; welcome to michaelwhite.online. That’s right, no .com or .co.uk, it’s a new breed of domain name. If you access old links that point to thoughtsymposium.com they will automatically redirect to the new name.

A couple of years ago The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organisation in charge of registering domain names, went a little nuts. They came up with a whole bunch of generic top-level domains (equal to .com’s etc.) to reinvigorate the domain name market.

The move was also a solution to a growing problem, the internet is running out of older top-level domains (.com, .org, .net, .gov, etc.) Not helped by domain resellers; people and organisations who register domain names and resell for thousands, even millions.

So why .online? Of all the new domain names that have been registered, .online has been the most popular. A day after its launch in August 2015 over 35,000 registrations were recorded, with companies such as Microsoft and Bank of America catching a piece of the geek action. Of course, resellers also snapped up thousands of domains. As michaelwhite.com remains hostage to a domain reseller, .online was the obvious modern option.

Apart from the name, the site exists as it was. It’s had a little bit of a minor facelift (still not happy with it!) but functionality remains the same. If anything, changing the domain name has given me time to tweak some technical elements in the code, hopefully seeing better gains in Google Search.

Now, onto writing a blogging content calendar for 2016…

What’s it like being a blogger?

Writing table

On a blogger panel last week, I admitted my number one pet hate – bad Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) agencies. You know, the ones who constantly peddle meaningless backlinks in return for cold cash. If you blog, then it’s common to receive poorly targeted emails from such agencies.

It’s one aspect that comes with the territory of ‘being a blogger’ and on a panel discussion at Lansons I explained what’s it like being a blogger for the last 9 years. Despite all working in completely different sectors, Gourmet Mum, Lifestyle Maven, Luisa Porritt, and I all had similar experiences.

A proper write-up of the panel discussion is due on the Lansons blog soon, below were some of the answers I supplied. It’s incredibly honest and I hope not too narcissistic to repeat them here.

How did you become a blogger?

Whilst my current blog has an archive dating back to 2009, my first blogging steps happened in 2005 when I set up an atheism based blog called ‘A Superfluous Ramble’. This quickly got me involved with numerous online atheism/humanist/philosophy communities and even angered a few churches! Receiving invitations to church services or choir practices was not uncommon.

As I have dyslexia, blogging allowed me to perfect my writing style – a deeply personal achievement as I wouldn’t be able to live without writing (paraphrasing the words of the late Christopher Hitchens). Today I’m known as a PR blogger, which only began after one of my lecturers at University recommended I start a PR based blog in 2008.

The blog has had a few reiterations but today stands as thoughtsymposium.com (crap name); audience tends to tread a line between seasoned practitioners and students. In reality though, the growth of the blog was a complete accident and exists merely as a hobby. My income comes from full-time PR consultancy.

Do you make money from your blog?

I would argue that the peak of this blog existed at University when I had spare time! It was then that agencies were willing to pay me between £100 – £150 to publish sponsored posts on this blog. Often these posts were completely unrelated to the topics I was writing about, as a result this paid content probably lost me a few visitors. Still, being a student meant money was tight.

As well as accepting sponsored posts I was involved with a couple of affiliated marketing programmes, receiving small amounts of commission for referral links. Whilst I’ve always had some form of advertising on the blog, this has typically been a low money earner – many bloggers can’t generate enough page views to keep blogging as a full-time occupation.

Today I’m less focused about monetising the traffic on my blog, it’s much better for me to use my content as a hook for new business and building personal profile.

What is your experience like of working with businesses/agencies?

Bad email pitches come with the territory of blogging; I suppose I should be thankful that people want to pitch in the first place! On the day of the blogger panel I read out a few of the terrible pitches I’ve received and the agency who sent it – I’ll be kind online and not mention by name.

The best pitches have all been book review based ones. For instance, a new book surprising me at my work address by post and a note from a publisher/author requesting that I review it on my blog. These sorts of pitches feel good and I always review the book in detail (I’m a relatively fast reader). Once I was invited to a mansion for a blogger party – it’s amazing what this little blog has done for me.

How do you find the time to blog?

I’m currently writing this post very late at night! This tends to be a trend, writing at the unsociable hours of the day – perhaps that’s because I can be completely focused on the task. However, balancing a demanding full-time job with keeping a blog going is difficult.

This month alone I’ve had 10 day publishing gaps which is not good enough to maintain high levels of web traffic. The sad truth about blogging is that we’re technically in competition with news sites for Google Search positions; for one person to rival professional industry publications is not possible (for most).

Give us your final tip about blogging

The best tip is start a blog! It’s amazing how many PR professionals don’t blog.

What’s it like being a blogger?

Busy. It’s a commitment for some of the reasons I’ve outlined above, but incredibly rewarding. Blogging over the last 9 years has allowed me to experiment with different writing styles and experiment with web hosting.

Is now the perfect time to quit blogging?

A dangerous thought has been running through my mind recently; is it time to quit blogging? It’s not through lack of ideas, but fun. If you have never run a blog before then let me tell you this, it’s bloody difficult. A burden of time and mental resource, a commitment that must become habitual otherwise a blog will quickly fall into disrepair.

When I began blogging 10 years ago the social media landscape looked entirely different, and with that, an entirely different culture. Blogging was a community experience where online ‘blog carnivals’ took place (essentially a monthly newsletter populated by bloggers and hosted by different authors each month), commenting was rife and it was easier building a social media following.

Through a range of external factors, these ‘old’ days of the Internet are now over. Perhaps it was inevitable that though the commercialisation of digital marketing that the original authors of the Internet have been left forgotten? Blogging is now an activity pitched up against mainstream media outlets, needing time and monetary investment to cut through the social noise. This noise itself also poses another challenge, creating original content that matters rather than joining in with the masses; regurgitating statistics, videos and images that have already made the digital rounds.

Sadly, the day of blogging may soon be over for individual authors, especially for these reasons:

Fragmentation of community
When I ran a blog on atheism/humanism I was very young, but still my ideas were heard. As part of a bigger community my followers were shared between likeminded publications and debates in comment sections were huge. Blogs or forums were the go to places for debate but that changed with Facebook in 2006. The community moved, forums became ghost towns and comments were left on Facebook rather than on blogs. User behaviour had changed due to new social media sites, and today the social media landscape has never been bigger. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn have become popular places to host your social personality. Standalone blogs are not as relevant as user experience has fragmented across a number of social sites.

Cutting through noise
Changes in search engine optimisation have meant that blogs ideally need to be updated daily with fresh content, contain a mixture of image and video, and are of a decent length (800 – 1200 words). This is to show Google that a site has fresh, digestible, shareable and in depth content. Along with some technical factors, these are basic rules of climbing search engine rankings.

Where is the best place to hide a body? On page 2 of Google Search results. Blogs need to be read by people and it’s likely that the majority of this traffic will come from search engines. Without traffic, a blog is unable to grow, and you may as well spend time writing articles using LinkedIn Pulse where posts are publicised in a contained social site. The big bad SEO world has got tougher due to the abusive influences of people and organisations changing rankings. We’ve all suffered as a result, especially bloggers.

The ‘why?’ Factor
When I first began blogging it was fairly easy to make money from banner advertising, it at least covered my hosting costs, sometimes more. Then sponsored posts came along and at times this helped pay for my University expenses. Today monetising a blog has never been harder. The fact that gaining traffic is harder, means banner advertising is a slow and unreliable revenue source. Alongside this is the decline in sponsored posts due to changes that have taken place in the SEO industry. Who wants to pay for content? More importantly, who needs to pay for content? Online competition has sapped the bank balances of bloggers and it’s no longer a reliable living. Selling consultancy really is the better option for bloggers in my position today.

Scheduling the blog into life
From all the bloggers I’ve spoken to there is a great deal of guilt in the community about worrying about traffic levels, the stats of individual posts, how many subscribers… The list really does go on forever. Decent blog posts take time to consider, research and produce – a commitment that’s a real challenge alongside everyday life. To the point above, to what end? If full time work provides the money, then how is a blog’s success being measured? Running a blog means thinking all the time about what the next post is going to be, who could be the next guest author, when will I have time to write my next 800 words? It’s a hamster wheel of repetition and I have to be honest, after 10 years of doing this, it’s almost enough.

All of these concerns are ones of a more ‘professional’ blogger, rather than a hobbyist. As an amateur (meaning lover in French), merely to love the act of blogging is enough. In the real world though, the purpose of blogging really deserves questioning. The digital landscape has changed immensely over the last 10 years; is it time to live life instead?

What is the health of blogging in 2015?

When weblogs (shortened to blog) first launched innovators in the media industry began predicting a restructuring of the media landscape that would see mass job losses and the displacement of trust in journalists, going to citizen journalists instead. No needs for communication intermediaries, blogs give laymen the voice that outsmarts the ‘professionals’.

In reality, the change has been more complex.

In 2015 we know that:

  • Organisations use blogs to communicate with customers and journalists;
  • Newspapers use blogs as opinion sections;
  • It’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify a blog from a mainstream media source (e.g. How would you categorise the Huffington Post?);
  • Blogging communities exist (such as travel bloggers) but they broadly work with or in competition with mainstream journalists.

What does this mean for the health of blogging in 2015? Ofcom’s report on “Adults’ media use and attitudes” gives us some answers.

Key insights around the health of blogging

  1. The proportion of internet users who have ever set up a website or a blog has increased slightly, but only slightly (21% in 2005 to 27% in 2014);
  1. The majority of online activities have increased over the last ten years. However, maintaining a website or blog has maintained around the same levels since 2005;
  1. There has been a decrease since 2013 in the number of people doing creative things on the internet (making a blog, sharing photos, producing videos). This is attributed to internet users having less confidence in their abilities;
  1. In terms of online activities, on a weekly basis: 30% of internet users link to websites or online articles, 22% upload photos or videos, 22% make or receive telephone or video calls, 19% contribute comments to a website or blog.
  1. Interestingly (through the lens of blogging): 60% of adults believe that some websites will be accurate and unbiased, whilst 23% say that if a website (or blog) appears in a search engine result then the content must be accurate. These figures have remained similar to results in 2009.

Cash-strapped newspapers choose sponsored content

When it comes to sponsoring articles, bloggers have been leading the way for at least the last five years (in my experience). The message from the Financial Times’ article ‘Newspaper groups ‘go native’ to win revenues’ paints a bleak picture of how the interests of readers may become less relevant for cash-strapped newspapers.

In the article that could have ironically been sponsored by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Digital Media Correspondent Robert Cookson mentions,

“The problem is that publishers label sponsored content in different ways, some of them much more obvious than others. And even when an article is clearly branded, readers often struggle to interpret exactly what terms such as “sponsored” mean.”

Only last week the ASA warned video bloggers (vloggers) to make it clearer when they are paid to promote products. A warning that in turn was listened to by all the major members of the blogging community who rely on sponsored posts to generate revenue.

There is in reality a mass of confusion to what sponsored content really is. Social media is personal recommendation. Therefore it’s not uncommon for a blogger to recommend a product for absolutely no cash. Due to this it would be impossible for the ASA in practice to identify bloggers for breaking the rules – it’s just social dude.

On other occasions money may pass hands, but here is the truth. The successful bloggers have usually built an audience through their own ‘bloggeristic’ integrity – any hollow sponsored posts could lose an audience built over a number of years in seconds. Because the reality is most sponsored content is complete rubbish.

It is a lesson I learnt three years ago, when I agreed to publish an insurance-based blog post for the sum of £50. It had no relevance. Utterly out of keeping with the blog’s industry focus. For that I lost readership, rendering the £50 a cold reminder of how not to do sponsored content.

The Financial Times article reminds me that in the digital world ‘natives’ have already made these mistakes. Whilst traditional newspapers beckon audiences of millions, their knowledge of handling digital content can still be in its infancy. This is a PR issue – their reputation is at risk.

As Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP rightly mentions in the article, “If you mislead the consumer, it’s dangerous”. The best bloggers will always make it clear if content is sponsored, either in the footer of the article or in the title. It is still a difficult balance though. Unless it is high-quality relevant content, then you will inevitably put some readers off.

This is the skill of the PR person, to organise or produce content that has value in its own right. Something a blogger or journalist would want to cover. Anything else is advertising. A dull drum of repetitive thuds that only lessens a readers’ experience.