Updated January, 2011
Blogs, one-time sweet darlings of the political internet world. I can still remember the first time I figured out what a blog WAS, back in the spring of 2003 (I was at South by Southwest, listening to a presentation and no doubt recovering from a hangover).
Okay, so what IS a blog? At one level, blogs are just websites that are easy to update — and simply because blogs are such convenient publishing tools, people use blogging software for all kinds of applications that don’t involve sharing body parts or secrets with strangers,. But the more common conception of a blog is a site that’s frequently updated and that is the personal product of one or more authors. It can be a diary, an op-ed column, a corporate house organ, a community center, an outlet for art, photography, fiction or investigative journalism, a place of philosophical musing or a venue for shameless self-promotion (hello, e.politics!).
Most political blogs function as opinion columns, though some do feature what looks suspiciously like original journalism. The biggest, like Daily Kos or RedState.org, particularly if they have a variety of columnists and allow comments from readers, become the center of entire online communities. A common approach is for a blogger to discuss a story from the mainstream media or from another blog, with readers contributing their own opinions as comments.
Though they often lack access to sources and documents themselves, blogs can still be news sources even when they can’t indulge in their own investigative journalism: they certainly can help promote a story that’s getting lost in the shuffle or keep a fading story alive long after it’s disappeared from cable news. And, acting in concert or in competition, they can also leverage the collective intelligence of widely scattered sources to discover truth faster than traditional journalists ever could.
Bloggers’ opinions have certainly become a major part of the political discussion — an issue raised by Instapundit or Josh Marshall can reach tens or hundreds of thousands of politically active people in a day. Daily Kos and several other of the leading progressive blogs have also worked very hard to raise money for candidates whose opinions and approach they favor.
Working With Blogs
First, should campaigns start blogs? Most bloggers would say yes — they would argue that anyone trying to influence politics should participate in what they see as the collective conversation about politics. But of course they’d say that, since if they didn’t think that blogs mattered, why would they have one?
My answer would be a qualified “yes” — a blog can be a useful tool for just about any kind of political campaign. For one thing, because of the tools that have grown up to allow bloggers to communicate with each other (trackbacks and rss, for example), a blog allows you to respond quickly and effectively to bloggers in their own sphere and using their methods, both to promote your ideas and to answer criticism.
And here’s the qualification to my “yes” — you definitely CAN become part of the conversation…assuming you have something to say. A blog that’s obvious hackery or clearly an afterthought isn’t going to do much good and may do a lot of harm, particularly if it’s so bad that people make fun of you (the blogosphere can be a tough playground). Politicians and political candidates should be particularly careful, since few will have time to write their own blogs, just as few write their own speeches. A good candidate blog can help connect with voters, but a bad one will make you look phony. An out-of-date one just looks flat-out bad. Advocacy blogs seem to work best for organizations that have either a very strong policy side (and hence a good stream of content) or a particularly strong voice or personality.
Even if you don’t feel comfortable starting your own blog, you may be able to find a place on the big “community” sites that are increasingly common and popular. HuffingtonPost is a great example on the Left, since it features literally thousands of authors and is updated constantly throughout the day. Starting a HuffPo account usually requires a blogging track record of some kind, or at least a prominent presence or big name, so those on the Left may want to consider starting a “diary” first on a site like Daily Kos that takes all comers (though be careful about what you post — these sites’ readers are typically viciously protective of their online homes, and blatantly promotional posts can get flamed fast). If you do start a blog of your own and are publishing consistently, cross-posting on a HuffPo account can be a great asset, in part because it has a large and active audience and also since it ranks highly in search engines.
Interestingly, many corporations and corporate trade associations have used blogs successfully — they’re very sensitive to how their brand is perceived by customers and by opinion leaders, and they see blogs as a way to respond to criticism quickly. Also, to the extent that blogs can help put a personal face on a corporation or industry, they can help build an emotional connection with customers.
Working with Bloggers — Blogger-Relations Programs
Whether or not you start a blog, you can certainly work with bloggers to promote your ideas or your candidate. The basic rule: treat bloggers as journalists because they ARE journalists — they just happen to have a particularly cheap printing press. A good blog relations program is a whole lot like a good press relations program. Let’s look at the basic levels.
First, you should have an RSS feed for your site if at all possible (we’ll cover the specifics of RSS later). Many bloggers (and journalists) use RSS feed aggregating software or web pages such as Google Reader to keep track of articles from many sources from a single place, and having your own feed lets them add your content as well.
You should definitely be using blog-specific search tools (Google’s Blog search is a good place to start) to keep an eye on your issues and to look out for any mentions of your group, candidate or campaign. It’s far better to catch an emerging rumble of approval or disapproval THIS way than when those blog stories have led to New York Times coverage and a call from your funders. Google (email) Alerts can be a great way of finding stories in blogs (and publications) you don’t normally follow.
The basic way to work directly with bloggers is to contact them personally to promote your issues, just as your press team works with the reporters who cover your beat at major newspapers and the tv networks. Like most writers, bloggers are hungry for fresh topics, particularly if they’re among the first (or absolutely the first) to write about them, and a good number will be eager to hear from you.
To contact blogs, you’ll need to find them first. Google’s a good place to start, both through the specialized blog search and through the main search function — try googling your topic or topics along with the word “blog” and begin reading sites and keeping notes. Not every blog will have contact info, but grab email addresses where you can. I’ve found that a big spreadsheet can be very useful for keeping track of sites and for breaking them down by the topics they tend to cover. Be glad you got that intern for the summer.
Once you build your list, you can start pitching stories. You’ll want to reach the most influential blogs first (more bang for your buck), but which sites those are isn’t always obvious. You can try to use Technorati.com or some other tool to rank the sites you’re tracking by the number of other blogs that link to them (ranking them by authority), but these aren’t always as helpful as one would hope. Another tactic: identify a few blogs in the space you’re targeting and then see who THEY link to frequently — that’ll help you find the sites that are actually driving the conversation.
Some cautionary notes: before you contact a blog, make sure you’ve read enough posts to know that the author actually might be open to your story — he or she’s going to ignore off-topic pitches and may think you’re an idiot for making them. Craft your messages carefully, since you want each email to be a personal contact and not a form letter. ANY time you contact a blogger, write professionally and keep in mind that your message may end up in front of his or her entire audience verbatim.
Also, ALWAYS let bloggers know that you’re with a group or campaign. You may get away with hiding your affiliation for a while, but if you’re found out, your credibility and that of your campaign will be shot — and often skinned alive in public. Paying bloggers to post stories is completely out of bounds.
Once you get coverage, you’ll want to keep track of it, both to help fine-tune your blog-relations project and to justify its existence to higher-ups. Again, Google and a spreadsheet can be useful tools. As you work with bloggers, you’ll begin to build the kind of journalist-source relationships that good P.R. people treasure. Note that a serious blog-relations project can take an enormous amount of time, as you’ve probably already guessed.
As of this writing, many bloggers are also using the social network/micro-blogging site Twitter, a good reason to start a Twitter feed and use it to promote your content and actions. As we’ll discuss in more detail in the chapter on Twitter, “retweeting” bloggers and using “@replies” can help bring you to their attention, and if you happen to have a blogger following your feed, you can also send him or her a Direct Message. As Twitter’s usage grows, it may lose some of its effectiveness as a blogger-outreach tool (more @replies and DMs = more chaff in which your wheat can hide), but for now many online communicators have found it to be a good back-channel into the blogosphere.
If you’re promoting an issue or candidate, consider advertising on blogs. Blogads are usually quite inexpensive for the number of people they allow you to reach (though prices on popular blogs have gone up significantly in the past few years), and they’re putting you before a targeted audience: activists on a red-meat wave-the-bloody-flag political blog, pacifists on a peace-oriented site, enviros on a green energy blog, and so on. Candidates have used blogads for fundraising, advocacy groups to build their email lists, authors and publishers to promote books, and campaigns of all stripes to publicize their positions and to help launch viral campaigns.
Sites like Blogads.com list potential advertising targets by their readership and by cost; you’ll usually pay by the week. Pick your blogs carefully and try to balance the breadth versus the selectivity of the their audiences: a popular political site may have more readers, but a site the focuses on your topic may have readers more primed to respond to your ad.
Design is critical for a successful blogad. The visual part of your ad should catch the eye and give enough information to intrigue a reader but without dulling his or her appetite for more. Don’t just adapt your print piece! You’re speaking to a different audience in a different medium, and design for the size and placement of the ads.
If you can, have several versions ready — you can usually change an ad’s content at any point in the run, and you’ll find that your results are better if you rotate your visuals. You can even run several variants at once and see which garners the best response. Also, pay close attention to your text, since you can embed links to several sites or pages and expand on the message in your visual component. For inspiration, the blogads site has a list of good ads on different topics.
Once your ad run begins, watch its statistics throughout the weeks of your buy. As with most advertising, blogads give you some benefit just from exposure, but you’ll probably be most interested in the number of clicks your ad gets. If you’re advertising on several sites, compare the amounts you’re paying per click on the different sites — you may find that a relatively cheap site is giving you the best results.
Reaching the Top Political Blogs
If you’re working with an issue or electoral campaign, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get in front of the audience of the top national political blogs, sites like DailyKos or RedState? As a communications person for a political nonprofit put it to me once, “it’s like trying to get a story in the New York Times.” What she meant was, very high payoff, but it requires a lot of work and the chance of success is relatively low.
Journalists, Congressmembers and national political figures do often pay a great deal of attention to what’s discussed on the most popular blogs, but placing or influencing a story on one of these sites is extremely difficult. Some political communications companies on both sides do specialize in outreach to the authors and audiences of the big-name political bloggers, but this exercise is not for the empty of pocket. Some groups have seen success by working up the food chain on the largest sites, contacting DailyKos “diarists” and other lesser-known writers and hoping that the resulting story gets “promoted” to the site front page.
Niche Political Blogs
A growing consideration in blogger outreach is the continuing strength of niche blogs, often (in the political world) tied to particular cities, states or regions. Niche political and/or issue blogs have often turned out to be fruitful ground for political candidates and issue campaigns alike — their audiences may be small, but they’re by-definition HIGHLY targeted. And stories in niche political sites may climb the communications food chain and get much wider distribution.