Post 27

Addicted to Statistics:
Reflections on Increasing Blog Readership

So the truth is, I don’t actually know how to post any of my posts.  I write my own stuff, of course, and I have opinions about the appearance of things too, but when it comes to anything the slightest bit technical, well, that’s a place where I don’t want to go.  You have heard how a horse will stop at the edge of a cliff when it senses danger and refuse to go any further?  That’s me when it comes to technology.  I love how SympatheticOne put it: “I am roadkill on the Information Super-Highway.”

I don’t know how to change my words into the WordPress format where certain things are <strong> and certain things are <em> and then </em>.  Instead, I do my documents in Word and then I email them to EfficientOne who translates them from English into HTML and makes WordPress happy.

So it’s probably no surprise that I also didn’t know how to check my statistics nor how to see if anyone was subscribing to the blog.  I wasn’t all that curious about these things either, being convinced that I was probably writing to myself.  I had submitted a link to my blog to one Catholic site and sent links to only a smattering of people.  But just recently, I got curious about these things and I asked EfficientOne to show me how to see them.

Well, this is very interesting!  I see that I’m not alone; I see that you’re reading, along with other Americans, Romanians, Poles and a bunch of people from other countries.  Hello!  I wish I could meet you!

There are three effects of seeing your statistics for the first time:

  1. You’re happy that people have enough interest in the blog to come back once in a while,
  2. You’re surprised – “How on earth did these people find my blog in the first place?” “Who has time to read blogs on a regular basis?” and,
  3. You start to care about your statistics.

It’s this last aspect that I’ve been puzzling over.

Is it good for me to think about my statistics?   And connected to that, to what extent should I try to improve them by publicizing my blog?

I have always disliked the work of self-promotion, whether it’s the promotion of a professional service or an artistic endeavor.  Some people like sales and marketing, but I don’t.  And unfortunately, the way life works is that so many professions and businesses require you to ‘drum up business’ in order to be able to do what you’ve learned to do.   You can’t just start fixing teeth; you need patients.  You can’t just start medical research; you need a grant.  You need clients before you can litigate and customers before you can work as a plumber. So then the marketing begins, and how many professionals have unhappily realized that, whether they like it or not, they need to throw themselves wholeheartedly into issues of sales and marketing!

I think the same thing happens to many bloggers.  They start writing and they enjoy it but their statistics show them that they’re the only one reading what they’ve written.  They get concerned, and try to figure out how to change this.  They begin to self-promote, using all the ways that they know of: Twitter, Facebook, etc.  Soon, just as much time is spent marketing as is spent writing in the first place!

I have looked into how to promote my blog, with the idea that I probably should, and I see that I am doing everything wrong.  In the first place, my posts are too long for the modern attention span and pace of life.  Mind you, this is something I knew even before I read any articles, but now I have the terminology to describe what I should do: I am supposed to ‘format my blog posts to facilitate consumption’ and I should ‘structure my content so that it can be consumed quickly.’  Blogs should be written so that people can ‘snack’ on them while they quickly check their mobile device.

Beyond that, I am supposed to have many links in each of my posts, linking to other posts that I have written even though they are in the same blog.  For some reason, if I make my readers swim in circles all over my blog, that’s better.   I am supposed to set things up so that you can’t see more than the first few lines of any post; it’s better if I require you to click, “Read More . . .” because that reduces a blog’s ‘bounce rate.’  I am supposed to have photos with each post.  I should give you a Site Map.  I should ‘leverage my blog’s real estate,’ by having at least one sidebar, so that while you’re reading the post, you’ll notice the nifty distraction on the side, and you’ll start clicking on it too. Basically, I am supposed to bombard you with data inside the blog so that you can’t stop clicking. Even links that take you completely outside the blog are good for my statistics too, from what I can tell.  Click, click and keep clicking.  Of course, it’s blog-popularity-suicide to not have a comment section, because comment sections will keep readers on the site even longer, even though most comment sections of blogs are mainly (I know, not entirely), ‘Great post!  Really enjoyed it!’ once the blogger has pre-screened and deleted all the blog spam and the nasty remarks.   The point is that I’m basically supposed to keep all readers on the blog for as long as possible, and keep them clicking.  And that’s just the site design.

But the advice gets worse, because I also came across the idea that went like this: you may think that you are saying what you want to say, and you may think that blogging is about “lovingly crafting each post,” (do I detect a sneer?) but the practical reality is that you must think about what your readers want, and write the kind of content that they want.  So instead of thinking what I think, and writing what I think, I’m supposed to figure out what you want me to think, and how you want me to think about it, and then think and write like that.  I am supposed to know – or quickly find out – what your “hot buttons” are and create a “marketing persona” to understand your “needs and priorities.”  I should evaluate my statistics and notice which types of posts are the most popular and which generate the most comments, and then write more just like that.

It reminds me of my school days, when I would write precisely what the instructor wanted to hear, and I wasn’t the only one.  All over the world, students are using their brain cells not to figure out the subject, but to figure out what the teacher or professor’s opinions are.  You never learn to develop and defend your own ideas because you’re so busy analyzing someone else’s and figuring out how you’re going to gather them together, rearrange them, season them, garnish them and then serve them back to the professor as an entirely new dish: voila!  (Yes I know that’s supposed to have an accent but I’m not good with my symbols either.)  It also reminds me of the Catholic priests who are so petrified of alienating their worldly parishioners that they never tell them the truth about what the Church teaches, so they wind up talking in such generalities that the homilies don’t influence anyone’s behaviour.  As a matter of fact, it’s those priests who boldly preach the real message who are able to change hearts.

And as for knowing your audience, I’m wondering whether my readers have anything in common with each other which is so easily traceable or lump-togetherable in the first place.  Are you all Catholic?  Are you all religious?  (All questions on a blog that doesn’t take comments are rhetorical, right?)  I kind of hope you’re not, because I’ve always been interested in engaging with those with active minds who are good-willed and interested in thinking about bigger things, regardless of religious background.   For this reason, I liked how Chesterton began his biography of St. Francis.  He said that he was writing to a secular audience, the “ordinary modern outsider and enquirer,” which is what he himself used to be:

This is the only controversial condition that I shall here assume; that I am dealing with the sympathetic outsider . . . A materialist may not care whether the inconsistencies are reconciled or not.  A Catholic may not see any inconsistencies to reconcile.  But I am here addressing the ordinary modern man, sympathetic but skeptical . . .

G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter 1

And if that’s the kind of person I’m thinking of too, then where do I start?  Where are these people?  Are you all hanging out at the same bar?  Do you all wear the same kind of cologne or use the same toaster oven?  According to the experts, I better find out!  I better create a “social media persona” (not the same as the “marketing persona”) so that I can figure out ‘where you congregate and interact on social media.’  That’s the first step – once I know that, I should go to these places myself and entice you to my blog.  One suggestion is to go and interact on these forums or on these blogs by leaving supportive comments for a while, and then casually mention that I have my own blog and here’s the link, by the way.

And that’s just the beginning.  I am supposed to tweet three or four times a day (after all, as they point out, the readers are in different time zones) when I have written a new post, telling you that I have written a new post.  And – this one I think is the best of all – I am supposed to go on Facebook and ‘like’ my own posts!

Sigh.  I’m already exhausted.  But there’s more.

I am supposed to stay aware of ‘what my competitors are doing.’  I didn’t realize I had competitors.  If they have a new way to promote their blog, I should keep up by doing the same thing.  One website declares that ‘being famous is the new rich.’  I am supposed to aim for fame.  Yeah, I’m going to be this really famous mostly-anonymous person.

So I wonder.  If I believe that my message is good, then do I have an obligation to promote it?  You know, in sort of an evangelical sense?  After all, I must admit that if people like Fr. Robert Barron didn’t work to get his message out, then I might never have found the things that he has produced.  And for that matter, so many of the good products and books that I enjoy have come into my hands due to promotional work being done, and being done well by those whose talents lie in that direction.  I’m also aware of the notion that you can’t sit back and wait for good things to happen without effort.   So initially, I thought I should hold my nose and try to do this, you know, as sort of the yucky side of blogging.  But on the other hand . . .

The fact is, this isn’t my livelihood.  It’s an avocation (I just learned that word, so I’m happy to use it), and to be totally honest, it’s something which I am enjoying even more than I thought I would (I’m ‘into it’) and which (therefore) takes more time than I thought it would.  Am I to increase the amount of time spent on it by devoting additional hours to the sub-project of maximizing my readership?  And as for the notion of spreading a good message, well, that’s kind of tricky, but isn’t it the case that I can’t control the ultimate effectiveness of anything good that I try to do anyway?  Mother Teresa said that God calls us to be faithful, but not necessarily to be successful.   If I go as far as I can go, based on my abilities and available time, then certainly that’s enough.

And then there’s the advice of Chesterton.  Have I ever mentioned that I really like Chesterton?  He was a journalist.  In his autobiography, completed a few weeks before his death, he talks about his success:

On the whole, I think I owe my success (as the millionaires say) to having listened respectfully and rather bashfully to the very best advice, given by all the best journalists who had achieved the best sort of success in journalism; and then going away and doing the exact opposite.  For what they all told me was that the secret of success in journalism was to study the particular journal and write what was suitable to it.  And, partly by accident and ignorance and partly through the real rabid certainties of youth, I cannot remember that I ever wrote any article that was at all suitable to any paper.

On the contrary, I think I became sort of a comic success by contrast.  I have a notion that the real advice I could give to a young journalist, now that I am myself an old journalist, is simply this: to write an article for the Sporting Times and another for the Church Times, and put them into the wrong envelopes . . .

G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 8


Of course, Chesterton’s success derived from more than this – it didn’t hurt that he was brilliant and that he could separate what was true from what was false.  We don’t know the names of all the advice-givers that talked to Chesterton, but now it’s Chesterton’s voice and not theirs that thunders down through the years, becoming more popular with each passing year.  (And I’m not saying I’m like Chesterton either; I’m smart enough to know when others are light years ahead of me.)

So anyway, I’ve learned that a blogger is often more than a blogger; they’re often also salespeople, who are thinking (more than you’d ever know) about their target audience.  I understand this; after doing the work of writing an article or an essay and choosing pretty photographs or whatever, it’s natural to want a reader.  And having access to statistics heightens this preoccupation.  In the short time that I’ve had access to statistics, I’ve been mesmerized by them too.  These statistics are fascinating, and they are as powerful as any other addiction, because they seem to quantify, with charts and numbers, how interesting or appreciated you are.

Accordingly, between the time of beginning this article and finishing it, I have asked EfficientOne to hide the statistics for MinedGems somewhere where I can’t find them.   The deal is that I have to deliberately request to see them, and he’ll reveal them, but I won’t ask for them often, if at all.  I know that I can’t trust myself to have easy access to them and not peek.  Like any addiction, you’re only in control when you start; after that, you find yourself drawn like a moth to the flame.  So I asked him to put them up on a high shelf out of reach for me.  A few moments later, he emailed me: “Please try now.”  So I went to the Dashboard and attempted to check my stats.  Guess what?  I couldn’t find them.