|image courtesy of Threadless|
Essentially, creating an online communications strategy for your research involves two activities: creating a space online that tells a story about yourself and your research, and driving traffic to this location.
This blog post will provide a guide to choosing a content platform that will bring your research to life in the limited time you have available. My next blog post will outline how to drive traffic to this content platform.
Step 1. What’s your strategy?Starting a blog without a strategy is like commencing a research project without a proposal. A great way to waste your valuable time. What outcomes do you want to achieve as a result of this activity? What specific audience are you writing for? Do you want to build an academic community around your work, engage practitioners who will apply your research, or communicate with public audiences? Focus is essential. These audiences have very different concerns. How will you measure success? Blogs and social media are not low cost communication channels. While they may cost very little to set up, the opportunity costs are enormous. In fact - thinking strategically about online reputation building is so important I have written an entire blog post about it: read this first.
Step 2. Choose a domain name.Think carefully about your website domain name because changing it later is not easy. Blogging involves spending years and months growing an active, engaged community around a specific topic. Changing your blog name, target audience or topic area should be avoided.
Confession time! Guilty as charged. I initially started Historypunk in 2010 as a public facing blog to share stories about Australian history. Two years later, I made the decision to change direction and build an academic community around my research interests instead. I was lucky to be able to keep my blog name the same, but I (initially) lost some readers.
Tips for choosing a domain name
- Your blog name should be unique, easy to remember, and easy to spell (avoid hyphens).
- Aim for consistency. Your blog title and domain name (URL) should match. If possible, your social media accounts should match too.
- Do you want to include key words in the domain name? These can help communicate the topic clearly and also boost search engine rankings. Academic blogs that use topic key words in their titles include the brilliant Early Modern John blog by historian John Gallagher, Feminist Frequency by pop culture critic Anita Sakeesan and Georgian London by the wonderful Lucy Inglis.
- Do you want to invent something new? You might wish to invent a unique domain name that you can define in your own way (a bit like a brand name). This is the approach I chose. Being less specific can also allow you more flexibility when it comes to content. For example, Ryan Hunt’s digital humanities blog IvryTwr, Tim Sheratts’ Discontents, and medical history blog - Wonders and Marvels.
- Think carefully about the future. How quickly will you outgrow your blog name? What would happen if you changed your field of research? To avoid these kind of issues, many scholars choose to blog under their own name. This includes digital humanist Dan Cohen and urban historian Katrina Gulliver. Historian Fred Gibbs recently wrote a wonderful post on this subject - outlining the reasons why he changed his blog name from Historyproef to Fredgibs.net.
"I’ve got a couple of ideas for a domain name. What should I do next?"
- Google them! Before you decide on a name you should explore the search landscape. Eventually you want your blog to appear at the top of Google search rankings. Are there any major competitors that will prevent this? For example, if you share your name with a well known celebrity. When I first googled ‘Jo Hawkins’ and ‘Historypunk’ I discovered a search landscape dominated by ‘Betty Jo Hawkins’, a female wrestler who toured the USA in the 1950s*, and several websites that explored the history of punk music. After a few years blogging my site now appears above these topics in search rankings.
- Check if the URL is available
- Are corresponding Twitter and Facebook accounts available?
Step 3. Purchase your domain name.If you have come up with a good domain name, purchase it as soon as you can. You can set up the website later. They are fairly cheap so if you have a few potential names, perhaps secure a couple of them.
I purchased both www.historypunk.com and www.historypunk.com.au. In Australia, you need to have an ABN to purchase a .com.au domain name but can register for a sole trader ABN for free online in a couple of minutes. I also own www.johawkins.com.au but don't use it right now (www.johawkins.com had already been purchased by someone else).
A word of caution. If there is any chance - any chance at all - that you will use these domain names in the future, do not let them lapse. Make sure you renew them each year. The web is full of pirates who will buy a recently lapsed domain name and try to sell it back to you at a hefty profit.
Step 4. Choose a content platform.
Traditional blogsWordpress and Blogger are both open source blogging platforms that are easy to use and come with plenty of design options. Most academics who blog use one of these platforms. Think carefully about which blogging platform you choose as it is complicated to change it later. I created my blog using ‘Blogger’ but, in hindsight, I think Wordpress has a larger range of design options. It is too much work to change it so it is staying like it is!
Social blogsYou've probably heard of Tumblr. This content platform is based on the insight that people don't just want to create new content - they want to share existing content. Tumblr makes it easy to do just that. You can choose to write an original blog post - or 're-blog' a post from another Tumblr blog on your own platform. The design has been optimised for those who share lots of images and multimedia. Due its visual nature and the ease of creating and sharing content I think Tumbr is a particularly good platform for blogs aimed at bridging academic and public audiences. Popular Tumblr blogs include scientist Joe Hanson's It’s Ok to Be Smart, the interdisciplinary Explore blog and Today’s Document - a fascinating blog updated daily by the US national archives
Don’t have time to blog?If you don’t have time to author a blog you have a few options. You could choose to create a static website to bring your research to life - a strategy employed to great effect by historian Peter Stanley and UWA digital humanist Brett Hirsch. However, static sites are updated less frequently and thus likely to receive less traffic - especially if you are not building upon an already established reputation. Blogging is powerful because Google will rank your site higher in search results if (1) they see you update it regularly, (2) people visit it often and, (3) they notice other sites linking to it.
Another option is to direct traffic to your Linked In or Academia.edu account. Just remember, while these sites are strongly optimised for search rankings, you don’t ‘own’ these platforms. You are essentially creating a community on someone else’s site - one which they can change or monetise as they see fit. The same goes for directing traffic to the staff profile on your university website. If you leave this workplace, you can't take this with you.
"Hang on, how do I redirect my blog to the domain name/s I have purchased?"Website hosting describes the service of storing the text, images and design of your blog. When you create a website using Wordpress or Blogger they automatically host it for you. For example, when I first created this site using Blogger it was hosted under the name www.historypunksociety.blogspot.com. It didn't really matter what I called the site on Blogger as I knew I wanted to redirect the site to my own URL - www.historypunk.com. You just need to contact a third party provider to arrange this. My site is hosted by Crazy Domains for under $20 per year. I simply called them and they talked me through the process - it took about 20 minutes.
Step 5. Design your site.Don’t get too hung up on design at the start. Keep it simple. It is not practical for me to build a bespoke site so I use (free) templates provided by my blogging platform. My blog uses the ‘Simple’ template from Blogger which I customised it using fonts and colours. Nothing fancy! Just clean, classic design.
Step 6: Write your first post.The fun begins! A few tips for creating powerful content:
- Make the title of each blog post work hard
- The headline should be descriptive and catchy. Check out some great advice here on how to write eye-catching blog headlines.
- Include topic keywords where possible as they will assist SEO
- Avoid jargon. Embrace plain English.
- You need to catch a reader's attention so a journalistic style works well. Get to the point quickly. State your findings early, rather than stripping away layers of meaning and concluding with the findings.
- Use headings and subheadings to make your posts easy to scan.
- Use multimedia and images where possible to bring content to life.
- Remember that people have different ways of learning and decision-making so experiment with different communication styles.
- Check out Problogger for lots of useful advice to help you write engaging blog content.