Be a Data Driven Blogger

Is your approach to blogging and social media data driven, or intuitive? Mine’s generally been a spotty combination of intuition, common sense, intuition, and wishful thinking. When we say things like, “Don’t be a spammy spammer” or “never use those nasty pop-ups” and “be real, be vulnerable, be a people person” we are, to some degree, just expressing how we want to be treated online – and maybe our way would make the Internet a nicer place, but it doesn’t always work that way. Don’t think this means I’m giving up, giving in, and not trying. I’ve got nothing to lose by urging bloggers to read Emily Post’s Etiquette or never to use all caps in a heading (no one likes to be shouted at) or never to install one of those creepy, off-putting, stalkerish pop-ups that chase you out the door to give you “one more chance” to change your mind and buy something before allowing you to close a tab. But is what I’m suggesting driven by data and scientific research, or wishful thinking – me, trying to shape the Internet in a way I think would make it a more enjoyable experience for all?

For someone who isn’t mathematically inclined – who gets instant brain-freeze when viewing a column of numbers – it’s amazing how entertaining I find some metrics. When I was a kid, my grandparents had this long-necked bottle of Chianti. Nobody ever opened or drank a drop of it, but we all watched in fascination as the level rose and fell. That bottle, it turned out, was a barometer. It was quite fun, guessing the weather from the height of the Chianti in the bottleneck. Or predicting the height of the wine based on the weather forecast. Of course, the purpose of measuring anything isn’t simply to be entertained. It’s to learn something and to improve performance, in furtherance of your goals.

Don’t Rely Solely on Common Sense and Intuition

There’s a lot of advice “out there” on blogging. Much of it is common sense; much of it is nonsense. There’s probably a healthy mix of the two, right here on my blog. But sometimes, what seems obvious – and well rooted in common sense – turns out to be bunk. This is why it’s important to gather hard data and measure the effectiveness of your efforts in reaching your goals. If your goal is to “have fun,” it’s fairly easy to figure out if you’re meeting the goal. But are you having fun? Measure the amount of time spent on blogging-related activities that are not fun for you: troubleshooting technical issues, thinking up new things to write about (rather than writing your novel), not doing other things you find fun because you’re busy worrying about the blog – keep a log for a week, or a month, and ask yourself, “Am I really having fun?” In my case, the answer is still “Yes.” But I ask the question often, and when the answer is “No, ” I take a break. When the answer is consistently “No,” more often than it’s “Yes,” I’ll quit and do something else. In a sense, that’s data driven as well as intuitive.

Watch this presentation from Dan Zarella, former Hubspot data scientist (it’s long, but I promise it’s not boring):

Although this book is now “old” in Internet years and specific site usage varies fairly rapidly, many of the principles still apply – particularly those having to do with human psychology and behavior. We don’t change as fast as we think we do. Unicorns and rainbows, as Dan demonstrates, are not part of a sound and purposeful business strategy – they know nothing about marketing or selling books. Don’t kill the unicorns or eradicate the rainbows entirely – because everyone loves unicorns and rainbows. Let those unicorns nibble in the garden, but don’t let them run the farm.

While you’re delving into the scientific data, check out the Pew Research Center’s reports on social media usage.

SMART Goal Setting

What are your goals for blogging? Write them down. Are they SMART goals? I know you’re intelligent, and all, but your goals need to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Aspirational, Realistic, and Time-Bound.

Specific: “Increase traffic to my blog” is a common, but very vague goal. Consider your target audience. Perhaps you could write: “Increase the number of mystery fans who regularly read my blog.”

Measurable: How many mystery fans do you currently have reading your blog? What’s a reasonable expectation when it comes to “increasing” their number? 10%? 50%? Set a target.

Aspirational (but Achievable): Is the measurable target you set raising the bar, or is it just under the current trend? It should be a challenging goal, but not frustratingly impossible. A 10% increase may be too low; 99% may be too high.

Reasonable: “Get all the mystery fans in the world to read my blog and buy my book on the first visit” is probably not a reasonable goal. Besides, how are you going to measure “all the mystery fans in the world”? You might look at “Enticing people who normally wouldn’t buy a mystery novel to reconsider” as one of your blog’s goals. That way, you’d not only increase the number of mystery fans reading your blog, you’d be creating a whole new group of buyers for everyone who writes in that genre!

Time-Bound: We writers need and love our deadlines, so this step is just perfect – right? Break big, aspirational, long-term goals down into smaller goals that can be achieved more quickly. “By 12/1/2016, increase the number of mystery fans who regularly read my blog by 10% quarterly; convince 2% of readers who claim they dislike mysteries to give them another chance.”

Before we know what to measure or how to measure it, we need to know what success might look like and where we are right now – today – in relation to that. Is success to be measured in more unique visitors and pageviews? Clicks? Alexa rank, page authority, or domain trust according to MOZ? I’ve always valued comments and sharing more. I also love having some idea where in the world my visitors come from, and over time, I’ve come to appreciate having a low bounce rate and high average time spent on the site.

Bounce rate tells you what percentage of your visitors “bounced,” or left after viewing just one page. The lower the percentage, the better. High bounce means they weren’t interested enough to follow any of the internal links or explore the rest of your site. Of course, it could also mean they’re regular readers and they’re all caught up – they just came to read the most recent post and leave. Time spent on the site means that they’re really reading your posts; those one-second visits are depressing, because you know they’re not reading. In fact, you suspect maybe they’re just scraper bots, come to steal your precious content. You almost hope that’s the case, because the alternative means real people took a quick look and backed out fast. That said, a low bounce rate could mean they simply forgot to close the browser tab…and went to sleep. Sometimes, it’s important to dig deeper and understand whether it’s worth getting excited – or worried.

Unique visitors matter, too. If you watched Dan Zarella’s video, you know that quantity matters. That’s not to say you should buy your Twitter followers, but if there’s a bot out there that retweets posts based on keywords, and that bot is followed by 13,000 people, and 1,000 of them are real people, and 100 of those see your post  – if just 25 of those 100 retweet it to their real followers – you’ve just increased your “reach.” So, much as it pains me to say it, numbers matter when you’re trying to gain exposure. Pay attention to Dan’s points on exposure, awareness, and motivation.

Tools to Measure Your Blog’s Performance

In order to use some of the available tools, you’ll need to be comfortable adding a snippet of code, using HTML, to the header (or <head>) section of your blog. Most have instructions, but if you’re not comfortable editing HTML, get help from someone who is. Click the headings to sign up and learn more about the services and tools, below:

Google Analytics

This is just one of many reports you can run in Google Analytics, comparing February’s blog stats to March’s:

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As my grandmother used to say, “You’ve got to write posts to get readers.” Actually, she said, “You’ve got to write letters to get letters,” but that applies to blogging, too. You have to write more to get more visitors and comments. Google Analytics offers in depth stats, and it’s fairly easy to use, though not as clear, in my opinion, as StatCounter. Google Analytics is one of the “gold standards” for measuring a blog’s effectiveness.

MOZ

“Free tools for link building and analysis, keyword research, webpage performance, Twitter analytics, local listing audits, and more.” The first I heard of MOZ was shortly after I learned about the death of PageRank – which is to say, about two years after the death of PageRank. An advertiser was looking for blogs with a “Page Authority of 30 or more.” How embarrassing is it to have to ask, “What’s ‘Page Authority’?” The good news is, MOZ takes some specific optimization efforts and a lot less time to see results. Here’s a sample of their links report:

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Where advertisers used to look for Alexa ranking, they now appear to be more interested in MOZ stats like Domain Authority, Page Authority, and Domain Trust.

Alexa

Now owned by Amazon, Alexa provides comparative rankings of the top million or so sites on the Internet. While the free account is not as valuable as it used to be, it still gives a quick snapshot of your blog’s place among competitors. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I’m in last place, but I’m gaining steadily on J.K. Rowling. We’ll look at this again at the end of the month.

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One issue with Alexa rank: It only counts visits from people who have the Alexa toolbar or extension installed. That skews it in favor of more technical posts and posts aimed at bloggers, since that’s the audience most likely to have the toolbar installed.

StatCounter

I love StatCounter – I’ve been using it since back when we all thought “hits” meant something. If you still think “hits” mean anything other than that your pages are bloated and probably slow to load, please see me after class. StatCounter is easy to use, there’s a plug-in for WordPress.org so you can see it right in your dashboard, and it provides some of the most interesting and actionable insights on your visitors. Oh, don’t worry – it’s all anonymous. But I was able to guess, once, that the head of customer relations for a major national company was sitting on my blog post, on his Blackberry, trying to decide how to respond to my complaints.

With Google Webmaster Tools (click the link to sign up and learn more) integrated into it, StatCounter can give you insights to the most popular queries and keywords that bring visitors to your site. Apparently, for this blog, it’s Costco Chocolate Cake and healthcare as a human right. Go figure. What did I say about common sense – conventional wisdom – versus data and evidence? Yep, the majority of visitors to this site are coming in search of healthcare for all – and chocolate cake. The challenge, now, is to use that without scrapping all my writing aspirations to become a cake selling affiliate for Costco who moonlights for a discount health insurance company by night.

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WordPress Stats

I’d be remiss to leave out the built-in WordPress stats. These will give you a good idea of how many visitors you’ve got, what they’re reading, where they’re coming from, and where they go – which of your links they click on, while reading. If you have JetPack installed, you can view some stats right in your dashboard. Otherwise, go to your WordPress.com dashboard and click Stats. Among other things, it will tell you the best time and day of the week to post, based on your past averages. If your blog is on Blogger, you’ll probably want to focus on Google Analytics. (See above.)

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Survey Monkey

Remember our goal, earlier? “By 12/1/2016, increase the number of mystery fans who regularly read my blog by 10% quarterly; convince 2% of readers who claim they dislike mysteries to give them another chance.” None of the analytics tools, above, are going to tell you how many of your readers are mystery fans. You’ll have to ask – and there are many polls and surveys you can create and run on your blog. Survey Monkey is one. Sometimes, the best data is simply an answer to a direct question – or better yet, 100 answers to that same question. You could ask people to tell you, in comments – but some readers are shy. Try a survey.

Next, in support of the second part of that goal, write purposeful content designed to appeal to mystery fans – and readers who aren’t yet mystery fans, but might yet be persuaded.

Then, in December, do a follow-up survey. Or write a mystery story and offer to send it out by email to anyone who asks – then count the number of requests. Have the numbers increased? If not, think about why that might be. Did you not promote that carefully crafted content to enough people? Work to increase your reach and your visitor count. Work to reduce bounce rate. Take notes on what seems to work and what doesn’t.

Marketing insanity is doing the same old thing, expecting it to work – this time. It’s like running an ad in the newspaper, when all your customers get their news from Twitter – then, when that doesn’t work, running that ad on TV, not realizing those customers ditched their cable provider and now only watch Hulu and Netflix on their smartphones. Get to know your readers, what they’re into, and where they play.

Your Turn

What are your blogging goals?

What kinds of data do you currently gather to measure the effectiveness of your blog?

Has this post given you any new info or ideas?

 

HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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7 thoughts on “Be a Data Driven Blogger”

  1. I’m wondering if blogging isn’t a phase for me; I have a lot of posts under construction – but then something makes me not post them because there something too personal buried in the fibers.

    Before, I posted about the writing of Pride’s Children, Book 1. This time, since I won’t be posting the scenes as polished, and I’ve basically used up most writing topics, I’m wondering whether I will keep blogging. And then something pops up from the marketing side – and I get ONE post.

    For me, the ultimate goal as a writer is finding my tribe, the people who like my fiction writing.

    I don’t know if I’ve done that because most readers are not also writers.

    And until I have more work, the site for the fiction is also rather boring: an occasional sale or marketing post – and no new fiction because I’m so slow.

    Interesting topics: who you want to attract, and then how to do that, and ultimately what do you want them to do?
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt recently posted…Pride’s Children is on Kindle Countdown SALE!My Profile

  2. Wow, my brain just pretty much freezes when analytics enter the picture. But I’ve read through your post and am saving it for later reference.
    Thank you.
    Happy A to Z.

    1. Hahaha…I totally get that. But think about it this way: Could you make a dress without taking measurements? (You could, sure, but would it fit?) If you knew you wanted to lose weight, how would you know how much to lose if you didn’t know what a “healthy weight” was or how far you were from it? Same with most things. You don’t think of weight and measurement as math or analytics, really – it’s something you’ve been doing since grade school, weighing and measuring things. So think of blog and social media analytics the same way: Figure out where you want to be, where you are, and how to measure progress from A to Z.

  3. What are your blogging goals?

    When I began blogging, it was the middle of winter, on the cusp of 2014/2015 and in January, since I did already have a wordpress account, I came across the Blogging U info that a new 101 class was just beginning. It had the REGISTER button there, and it said it was for free. So I clicked. Thus began a whirlwind journey into blogging. I was truly thrilled by the experience. It led to Blogging 201 (which didn’t pan out due to Internet issues), and then Writing 101, and on to a try at signing up for A to Z 2015, but being one day late. Then I found myself in Story A Day for 30 days. When June rolled around, and I had to begin thinking of what I really wanted to do with my blog, I created The Monday Music Medicine Show, and also joined the Sandbox Writing Challenge, and Mundane Monday Photos. That carried me through the rest of the year.

    My goals were something I had not considered, because it was all falling into my lap. I’d considered one or two other ‘goals’ but those did not pan out, at least not yet.

    I don’t think it’s ever too late to consider new goals. I’m not sure, though what they would be. I think, strangely, that I like the structure of other people running events, rather than having one of my own. I’m still having fun. I, in fact, have enjoyed the process of commenting on other people’s blogs. Some have become quite interesting evolutions from a simple comment to an on-going conversation.

    What kinds of data do you currently gather to measure the effectiveness of your blog?

    I admit openly, I don’t currently gather data. I can’t say why, because I’m not sure.

    Has this post given you any new info or ideas?

    Most definitely, this post has brought me back to the basics which I may have lost track of until a year and some months post beginning.

    Thank you, Holly, for always giving me food for thought!

    1. Hi, Fim! I’m not entirely sure that any of the things you’ve mentioned are really “goals.” They’re fun activities (we met in Blogging 101, I think?) but are they GOALS? The goals might be: develop a habit of writing daily; alleviate boredom; get to know more people; learn to blog… and it might be good to dig a bit deeper into they “why?” To have fun is, I think, a perfectly valid goal. Honestly, that’s why I’ve done it since around 1998 or 1999 (whenever it was that Blogger first hit the scene and piqued my curiosity). I’ve added to that, of course, since publishing books. But if it weren’t fun or weren’t supporting and furthering other goals, I wouldn’t do it just to do it.

      It helps to “go back to the basics” every now and then. I like to look at my theme, my writing, what I’m doing once a year or so and see if it still makes sense to me or it’s just habit.

      Do you NEED to gather data? I went to a conference, once, and one of the speakers basically drove home the point that there’s no reason to measure something if it’s not going to influence a decision. If your blog is purely a plaground and you enjoy it exactly as it is – why would you bother with a lot of data gathering and metrics? While I definitely advocate using them if you have a specific goal (e.g., “sell more books” would require knowing how many you sell today and tracking that over time to see if it’s increasing) it only really MATTERS if you’re going to do something about it.

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