Blogging PreCourse and Blogging101

Blogging For National Geographic…Meet Sarah Jane Caban

Blogging takes so many forms, shapes, and sizes.  You have mom-bloggers, college-bloggers, non-profit bloggers, teen bloggers, entertainment bloggers, news bloggers, and business bloggers.  Some write for fun, some to provide information, and some to promote a subject they are passionate wonderful world

Today, we are going to meet a blogger who would fall in the latter category by writing a  blog about the importance of geography in our daily lives. Let me introduce you to: Sarah Jane Caban.  Sarah writes the My Wonderful World blog for National Geographic.

Sarah, other than the MWW blog, have you had/do you have any other blogs? What got you started blogging?

I started blogging in the summer of 2007 as part of my internship with National Geographic Education’s My Wonderful World campaign. To date, MWW is the only blog I’ve written for consistently.

Bloggers can definitely be victims of writer’s block, at times. Where do you get inspiration for your posts?

The purpose of the My Wonderful World blog is to demonstrate the relevance of geography every day and engage our audience in discussion about geographic topics. While that may seem like a challenging, “niche” subject, it’s actually remarkably easy to find material—which I guess speaks to its relevance! The news serves as my primary source of inspiration; I listen to NPR every morning before work. I regularly read other geographically-oriented blogs for additional ideas, and I have Google alerts set up for several geographic terms. With Google alerts, I’m notified every time there’s new content on the web related to the key words I choose. I highly recommend this tool; it’s also a great way to track who’s talking about your blog!

I’ve developed recurring features such as “Five for Friday” that help structure my editorial planning by topical categories; it also creates a positive sense of expectation among the readers. I’m lucky to have the help of National Geographic Education staffers who regularly send me interesting links and articles they come across, and I keep a repository of any ideas that I can’t get to in a given week for future use. Another strategy I use is to read old posts for inspiration and opportunities for elaboration. Finally, I enlist interns and guest bloggers to share their own unique perspectives on the blog.

Did you start to get a loyal following of readers right away, or did it take awhile?

In order to establish a loyal following of readers you have to write often (2+ times per week), write interestingly, and write to your audience–more on that later! I was lucky enough to start writing for a blog that already had an established audience, but I also do a significant amount of outreach to grow my readership, with the help of my interns. We regularly comment on other blogs, ask bloggers to add us to their blogrolls and offer to reciprocate, engage in collaborative blogging projects such as “blog-a-thons” and blog “carnivals,” and promote our content on social networking sites. We try to include lots of links to other sources and blogs, and we notify those parties directly when we reference them.

As mentioned, I also enlist guest bloggers and offer to guest write for other blogs. This is valuable networking, and it helps to establish me as an expert on my topic.  To share an example of the fruits of this sort of outreach: Last year, I invited several geography bloggers to guest post on the My Wonderful World blog during Geography Awareness Week. Now, a fellow geography blogger has decided to edit a book about popular geography, and he has enlisted several people in his network–including me–to contribute. This coming November, I’ll organize an even more ambitious GAWeek Blog-a-thon.

What do you like most about blogging? Dislike most?

My favorite thing about blogging is my role in starting a conversation. I love my topic—geography—and I like to think that I have some unique perspectives to share. I try to get my audience to use the lens of geography to think about the world around them in new ways, and I hope that by doing so I can spark a dialogue about geographic issues. I’ve always liked writing, and blogging is a great creative outlet. I also enjoy networking with other bloggers, and doing research for the blog helps me stay on top of the news. The only thing I dislike about blogging is the time it takes, which can be a real challenge with other job responsibilities demanding my attention. Oh, and the occasional spam. Luckily, I have interns to help out!

How much time do you invest in your blog each week? What makes it worth the investment?

Between writing and editing, I probably spend about 4-6 hours a week blogging. From a pure consideration of return on investment, it’s hard to say whether that time might be better spent on a diverse range of other projects. However, I believe that I am providing a valuable, relatively unique contribution to the millions of conversations online and advancing the cause for geography, which is the mission of my organization. To the extent that blogs, which are maximized for search engine optimization (SEO) due to their constantly refreshed content, have the potential to disseminate your message to wide audiences, I think that it’s well worth the investment—provided you have something interesting to say, that is!

What types of blogs do you enjoy reading yourself? What makes you keep coming back to particular blogs?

Personally, I like blogs that are like my favorite friends: honest, witty, and a bit quirky.  It can be a challenge to achieve this with my own writing for an organizational blog–I am somewhat limited in the boldness of opinions I am free to express and the extent to which I can get personal or quirky. Whatever the context of your writing, though, keep in mind that there are millions of bloggers and sources of news out there; a good blog offers a unique perspective, whether through a particular area of expertise or an interesting approach—or both! My best advice is to write about what you know and think about what you can add to the conversation. Try putting a new spin on an old topic, or aggregating existing information in a novel way. “Gimmicky” tactics like “top 10 lists” are always a hit. Analyzing quotes, excerpts, and statistics from other sources is another proven tactic. Here are some other pieces of advice I’ve learned along the way:

Keep it short

Almost every source I come across is unanimous in stressing brevity. While blog writing should be relatively informal and conversational, plan what you’ll write in advance so that you can communicate clearly and concisely. Try to avoid rambling, pure stream-of-consciousness writing—save the random thoughts for Twitter. In general, stick to one topic per post. Not only will this keep your posts shorter, but it will also help achieve SEO: the more focused each post is on a particular topic, the more it will be valued as a resource for that topic and optimized for associated search terms. Keep paragraphs short and try to keep sentences generally short, too. Break up longer posts with headings and separate sections; if a post starts to get really long, consider dividing it into multiple posts.

Finally, if you’re working with a blogging platform that allows it, create a “jump” to continue posts on a second, embedded page—include no more than the first couple paragraphs (and an image) on your blog home page. This will keep your home page fresh with a diverse range of content and will help guide readers to the posts they’re most interested in.

Know your audience

Consider posting a survey on your blog to learn more about your audience (there are plenty of tools like that can help you do this). Which posts have been their favorites? What issues do they care about? What would they like to see on the blog in the future? You can learn valuable information through surveys that will help guide future content and enable you to better cater to readers’ interests. Surveys are also fun and engaging, and they help your readers feel like valued members of your community.

Of course, another way to learn about your audience is by using readily available statistical tools, like Google Analytics, to see who’s coming to your site from where and how they’re interacting with the content.

Engage your audience

Pose provocative questions in your posts whenever possible to encourage readers to comment—even if you don’t get many responses, questions are a good rhetorical tool to get people thinking and guide your own writing. When you do get comments, respond to them as often as possible, and find ways to highlight especially articulate or thought-provoking comments. NY Times blogger Andy Revkin uses “Editor’s Selections”—I love this idea. For my own part, I occasionally turn my responses to comments into new blog posts. Hosting contests and soliciting user-generated-content are additional tactics that are useful for engaging readers.

In general: experiment and have fun!

If you’re having fun, your readers will likely be entertained–just like a smile, passion is contagious! Of course, yawning is also contagious–if you’re bored, your readers will be, too. So, experiment with different writing techniques and blogging tactics, watch the impacts on your traffic, and ask readers what they think. Blogging can be an undertaking, but with careful planning it is well worth the time and energy. At the very least, you’ll improve your written communication skills, connect with some new folks, and learn more about yourself and your chosen topic than you ever imagined!

Sarah Jane Caban is a public engagement specialist for National Geographic Education. She has been a contributing writer/editor for the My Wonderful World Blog since June 2007. Sarah Jane holds bachelor’s degrees in Geography and Psychology from Colgate University.

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