July 22, 2008

Bloggers' Interactions With Readers Decrease With Prominence

Guest post by Hutch Carpenter of I'm Not Actually a Geek (FriendFeed/Twitter).

I had an interesting discussion with Robert Seidman on FriendFeed about whether bloggers need to actually interact with their readers. Here are two comments Robert made on the subject:
Hutch: here's one for you to ponder. If Seth [Godin] is the smartest guy on the Internet (and I think he is), why isn't he on FriendFeed? : ) He also doesn't allow conversation on his blog posts!
Interactions aren't really ever needed when the content by itself is really valuable. But why do so many people make such a big deal about "the conversation" then? So on the one hand you want to say it is a big huge honking deal, but on the other hand not so much?
Robert is right about this. Interactions really aren't a requirement for bloggers. Think about the core essence of blogging: things that you care about. Whether you get anyone else caring is secondary.

But of course, it's really not that simple, is it? You blog because you feel like you've something of value to impart, be it telling the world about feeding your cats or nailing the next trend in technology. A point I made to Robert was that interactions are important for learning. Assuming you are a student of life, you will need interactions with others to test out ideas and to learn different facts and perspectives.

Interactions with readers, wherever they occur, are also an important part of maintaining "presence" on the Web. No beginning blogger should have the conceit that people will just show up to read his or her blog. You've got to establish yourself out there by making your blog posts, and thinking, visible to a wider audience.

But at some point, bloggers seem to move into a different point in their blogging career. They no longer need the interactions with readers so much. They've arrived. And in the case of Jason Calacanis, after arriving, they leave.

One observation to make is this: the level of interaction seems to vary by the blogger's level of established reputation. As a blogger gets more well-known on the Web, the level of interaction declines.

In fact, I'd wager that blogger interactions follow a predictable curve.

Bloggers' Interactions Vary by Blogging Stage

The chart below graphs the level of blogger interaction with different levels of being "established":

Four stages are depicted along the X axis. Left-to-right, the stages indicate increasing degrees of success in blogging. "Success" in this case being defined as establishing a voice that resonates with the audience you want.

And what are "interactions"?
  • Allowing blog comments
  • Responding to blog comments
  • Commenting on FriendFeed about your blog
  • Tweeting links to your blog posts
  • Digging your blog
  • Stumbling your blog
  • Pimping your blog on others' blogs
With that, let's run through the four stages of the blogger.

1. Blogger n00b

When you start out blogging, you don't know much. Most likely, you're somewhat sheepish about your writing, but you press on because you know that's the only to get better. No one leaves comments on your blog. And you're too embarrassed to try or don't even know the different ways to raise awareness of your blog.

You're not interacting a lot. But that's a good thing. You need the time to get some seasoning.
2. Figuring Things Out

OK, you're through the n00b stage. People occasionally leave a comment on your blog. Someone actually linked to a blog post of yours. You've noticed those "digg this" buttons on blogs. You're gaining confidence. "Hey - I actually can put two sentences together!"And it appears at least some people care about what you write. This is the stage where interactions are ascendant. You're carving out your piece of the webscape, and finding fellow travelers. You're learning who the A-Listers are, and how Techmeme works.

In this stage, bloggers do a ton of interacting. It's a wonderful time. The trial and error of it is liberating. You post crazy stuff, and see how it plays. You'll find surprising success every so often, as some site picks up your blog posts. As you rise up the curve in this stage, you find success by being out there. The more you interact with readers everywhere, the more established you become.

It's in this stage where you really discover your blogging voice. Discussions with others, and seeing what plays out there really help you in this process.

3. Established Voice

When you hit this stage, congratulations. You are now a bona fide figure on the scene. And there's a change in posture when it comes to interactions. Stage 3 bloggers still interact with their readers. But you're not going to see them doing all the other types of interactions: tweeting blog posts, digging them, etc.

Fred Wilson strikes me as a blogger in this stage. He has certainly achieved a wide following with his blog A VC. And he replies to commenters on his blog. So he's maintaining a decent level of interaction. But do you think he's digging his posts? Leaving comments elsewhere with links to his blog?

Fred is a solid Stage 3 blogger. He knows his voice, he delivers quality content and he's become something of a household name among the digerati. He gains new readers based on those qualities, not his interactions. But he's also an ongoing student, trying out ideas to help make him a stronger venture capitalist.

Two characteristics of Stage 3 bloggers also emerge:
  • The sheer volume of readers makes keeping up with all of them impossible.
  • A new kind of reader shows up, people who exhibit troll-like behavior.
It's these two dynamics that cause some bloggers to head onto the next stage.

4. Industry Legend

Go to Seth Godin's blog and try to leave a comment. Or comment on Marc Andreessen's blog. Robert Seidman's comment at the top of this post mentioned that he thought Seth is the smartest guy on the Internet. I personally am very impressed with Marc Andreessen, both for his entrepreneurial accomplishments and his blogging.

In Stage 4, the blogger is less a student of life, and more a professor.

You're also going to come under fire for your lack of interaction. A lot of people question the lack of interaction by top bloggers. Duncan Riley wrote this comment on FriendFeed in response to Louis Gray's post about rules for social following:
Louis, I still think you're the exception to the rule, maybe Scoble to, because you interact with people even if you don't follow them. I still think though that many in the so-called A-List don't care about their followers aside from bragging rights, which is why reciprocity isn't unreasonable as a mark of respect.
The blogger really is playing a different game at Stage 4. At this point, you've become established in the market, you're busy with a lot of non-blogging endeavors, you've got too many readers to count, the trolls love to come at you and you've become expert in a field.

Not surprisingly, your interactions decline. Jason Calacanis folds up his blogging tent. Seth Godin and Marc Andreessen don't accept comments. Even Robert Scoble feels it.

Robert Scoble is a Stage 4 blogger who interacts more than anyone on earth. He is truly the exception that proves the rule. But the limits of his interaction have been tested as well. In a post entered this morning, he decries the types of comments he receives on his blog as those from people "with an axe to grind". Digg readers' comments "are simply disgusting cesspools."

In a post I wrote a couple months ago, How Do Solo Bloggers Break into the Techmeme 100?, I noted that stars in the non-blogging world would immediately have a huge following. Assuming any blogging skill, they would pretty quickly have a presence on the web. Their star power would carry into blogging.

I would expect them to immediately go to Stage 4 on the blogging cycle as well. If Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang decides to start blogging, don't expect him to have any "conversations" with his readers.

What Do You Think?

The blogger lifecycle is not a perfect description. Many bloggers don't ride the edge of the curve (or in the case of Robert Scoble, sit above it). But as general framework for considering when blogger interactions are more likely, I think it does the job.

As a Stage 2 blogger myself, I'd love to hear your thoughts! You can find me regularly posting at http://bhc3.wordpress.com/ and interacting on FriendFeed.