Blogs have mostly died over the last 10 years.
Of course, if you’re reading this, that must be false?
Sure. Yes, there are 600 million blogs and WordPress is the world’s most popular content platform. Technically these are blogs, but not in the way that the word was originally used. If you want to reach and retain an audience, blogs are the worst.
I say this as someone who has blogged on and off for almost 20 years. From an author standpoint, it’s meant to be more than just a publishing platform but a way to maintain, inform and manage an audience. For such a platform to be a success, I believe it needs four things:
- Content – easy to publish
- Discovery – easy to find
- Subscription – easy to follow
- Engagement – easy to stay engaged
Most blogs have one of these, maybe two. Sure, you’re reading this content, but how did you find it?
Looking at traffic discovery is driven through other channels. Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Google, HackerNews, etc. The people who discover content this way are readers looking to be entertained, or they are looking for an answer to a specific question.
When content is found this way, it’s still useful, but it’s not building or retaining an audience. The discovery is very short-lived. A typical tweet, post or social article is gone in 24 hours, scrolled off the infinite scroll, never to be seen again.
If your content is discovered, it’s the content itself, not the blog or the author. Google often goes further by simply showing the answers to common questions directly on its result page, limiting the traffic going to the blogs that sourced or provided the answer, without the story or the context. Apple takes over RSS links in Safari and tries to bring you into Apple News that doesn’t respect open RSS feeds.
In the Web 1.0 days, each blog you discover would recommend other like-minded content. This was before SEO was much of a thing. People would have links to others and you could actually discover and surf around the web finding topics and authors of interest. The majority of personal blogs today don’t link to any other site at all.
In terms of discovery, there’s also no way to search for a blog. Contrast that with Podcasts. I can go to numerous apps and discover and subscribe to podcasts on almost any topic. Want to discover photographers, search on Instagram. Love cooking videos? YouTube’s got you covered. Where do I go to search and discover great independent writers?
The Web 1.0 days had a call-to-action with each article you discovered. You’d find an author through social discovery but then you could easily subscribe. While the underpinnings of RSS are still there, very few people use these tools.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others would rather have AI “suggest” and re-sort what I should read, rather than letting me subscribe to the things I care about.
The common solution to blog subscriptions is email. This is bad for a lot of reasons:
- Privacy – do you want each blogs to have your email
- Spam – is your inbox the right place to read articles?
- Format – email is notorious for screwing up images and format
- Analytics – hard to tell if people read your content unless you pixel track them. Bad, bad, bad.
- Sharing – Once it’s in email, it’s harder for people to share it without clipping, re-posting or forwarding the email… More spam.
Authors write to create engagement, conversation, and reaction. They want to put forward interesting ideas and discuss them. Outside of news-publications, there are very few independent blogs that have vibrant and healthy discussions.
In reviewing some of my favorite online writers and many that I discovered from “social” discovery sites, the majority have comments turned off or have them turned on with few if any comments.
But wait, there’s more…
Great content platforms should make it possible for content creators to make a living. Not everything is about money but if an author wants to make money off of their writing, the platform should support it.
Banner ads are mostly dead. Paid subscriptions don’t work well for micro-publishers. Twenty years into blogging and there’s still no great solution.
My own experience
I started blogging around 2001-2002. I managed to build an audience and a mailing list and after 10 years I had around 2000 email subscribers. Some of the articles were very popular with hundreds of thousands of views. Not bad perhaps, but also not great when you consider the time invested. When I sold the business that particular blog went away as did that audience.
That’s ok, because I create content for the value that it brings me. This isn’t a direct monetary return. Through my writing I’ve been able to meet lots of interesting people, open many doors of opportunity and those have expanded my critical thinking and my personal network.
When I started this new blog in 2020 it was clear that blogs would be unlikely to provide a good return on my investment in time relative to the blogs of 2001. Rather than writing I decided to turn my thoughts into videos and publish them on YouTube. This came with a lot of hesitation because I consider myself an introvert.
When I looked at options for long-form content, there were few. I could write a book, but all the authors I talked to said this wasn’t a good way to build long-term audience. You’d have to focus on writing and publish many books to build an audience. The social platforms are good for short-form content and TikTok is interesting but lacks maturity as a platform.
Podcasts were a consideration but Discovery and Engagement are low in comparison. Less people in the US listen to podcasts than YouTube and the engagement in terms of total number of podcasts is also low. People tend to listen to a handful of podcasts but organic discovery is very low.
I choose YouTube because it had a large and growing audience and in my research there were very few content creators in my niche. In fact, this seems to be true across many different fields and areas. Within a specific niche, there are often less than a hundred creators and often less than a dozen with any substantial audience.
I believe this is true because creating content on YouTube is much harder than on other platforms. While I can compose a tweet in less than a minute, or snap a photo in a few seconds, creating and editing a video takes substantially longer. The result is a high ratio of people interested in consuming content relative to those willing to create it.
So after 8 months, I’m at 5000+ subscribers. Audience growth was very slow at first but it seems to be self-reinforcing. Apart from a traffic bump in July, from a more popular video, the subscriber/day growth appears to be logarithmic.
Unlike blogging, each viewer has multiple ways that they influence future traffic.
- First is the obvious. Each viewer can directly engage in content: watch, subscribe, like, dislike or comment.
- Secondly each viewer influences the recommendations of other viewers passively. This is done because YouTube calculates the mutual overlap of both videos and viewers. Said another way, if many people watch videos A, B & C and you’ve watched A & C, it’s very likely that video B will be recommended.
- The recommendations appear to also be true around creators. So if many people follow creators X, Y & Z and you’ve only been exposed to creator Z & Y, it’s likely that YouTube will recommend popular videos from creator X.
- Individual searches and watch time also influence YouTube’s understanding of the videos relevance. So engagement has a re-enforcing impact on search and discovery.
So let’s go back to the list:
- Content – While content isn’t easy to create, it’s very easy to consume and travels well to mobile devices.
- Discovery – Google is the largest search engine and YouTube is the second largest search engine. Combined from a traffic and discovery standpoint this is a huge advantage.
- Subscription – Yes, mostly. You still have to compete for attention from organically suggested content. Even subscribers may not always see your content. While this has some drawbacks it does help ensure that one terrible video doesn’t tank your entire audience.
- Engagement – While comments on YouTube had been very toxic in the past the trend to better moderation, filtering and engagement appears to be working.
At the start I was using this blog as a place to drop my video scripts. After a few months it became clear that almost no-one was reading or finding this content. Going forward I want to explore content that is complementary to the videos or unique in other ways.
I’d love to see blogs have a resurgence but I don’t see that as likely without a major shift from either Google or Apple. Instead I think that having an omni-channel approach with some elements in text and others in video will allow people to discover and follow along in a more personalized way.
I hope you’ll follow along on the journey.