What We Learned About Blogging in a Year
By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Jasmine Walovitch and Kiely Barnard-Webster
If you are looking for an alternative way to share your program findings, definitely consider blogging. Within a year we succeeded in fostering a space for conversation between actors working in the field of anti-corruption in fragile states. On this anniversary, we want to share the key lessons we learned about blogging on corruption, and make the case for you to become involved.
As Mark Pyman argued last week, the anti-corruption sector can use more platforms like these, which try to break out of the methodological box, share program findings as they arise, and create a stage for voices from the full spectrum of stakeholders – including policy-makers, donors, and practitioners. We hope you find these six lessons about blogging inspirational!
1. You don’t need to be an experienced blogger to become one
We started this blog series on corruption in fragile states for the Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative (CAASDI) program in March 17, 2016. CAASDI aims to contribute to more effective programming, by developing a diagnostic process to better understand corruption dynamics in the criminal justice sector in fragile contexts.
At the same time that CAASDI was strategizing the dissemination of project findings from the program’s pilot project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, its sister project on Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy (CJL) in Uganda, was trying to identify more effective means to communicate moving away from traditional publications which are often ineffective.
CJL eventually commissioned a video, while CAASDI tried its own experiment – blogging for six months, as a medium for reporting on achieved results, maintaining a relationship with our busy donors, and engage practitioners and policy makers that haven’t heard about our work before.
Our team had its initial hesitations. We knew blogging works for household names in the non-profit community, but will it work for us? We address a niche topic and a very specific group of practitioners and experts. Do anti-corruption professionals even read blogs? (Yes. They do.) After the first six months we saw our experiment was reaping positive results, and we decided not only to continue blogging, but to also dedicate more time to it.
Within a year, 33 posts and 15 authors later, we are still happy we took the plunge. Do you think blogging could help your project? Follow some of our advice below to do so successfully.
2. Proactively pull people into the conversation
Creating the space, i.e. designating our WordPress blog for our series, wasn’t enough to encourage conversation. Writing a blog post is only a fraction of the work necessary to getting its ideas read and discussed. Being active in pulling in potential readers to your blog is not optional. In most cases, the equation goes: more (and smarter) dissemination efforts = more readers. Still, we found a few dissemination time-savers. Here are a couple:
Continue linking back to previous posts to show your continued relevance as a source of information.
Ask blog post authors to share the post with their networks.
For comparison sake, see how our LinkedIn page, which has been live for as long as the blog, has not been successful in creating conversation. This is largely because we decided to focus our dissemination efforts on the blog website.
3. Readers will subscribe if you provide unique, credible, and easily accessible information
We had a lot of posts front-loaded in the blog to provide a background for the series, and prove that we have unique content to offer.
The unique content of our blog series displayed through 80 of the most frequently used words in our blog posts 1-28.
With several blog posts inspired by the CAASDI and CJL projects, we proved that our space provides credible, evidence-based, information. We argued that this information and the questions it raised offers something unique to the field by being grounded in field experiences. And visitors to our blog agreed – the proof is in the pudding – website visitors were reading our posts. The top three most read posts were:
What Can We Learn About Corruption in Fragile States?
The Unhelpful Nature of Anti-Corruption Research: As seen by people trying to develop solutions
Common Approaches to Understanding and Combatting Corruption
The number of readers for each of our top three posts.
Readership over time, by post.
Key tip: Reporting accuracy, visitors vs. ‘readers’. We get a lot of our data (including the figures above) from Google Analytics. If you do too, increase the accuracy of your ‘readership’ report by excluding your own visits to the blog (that can be singled out if you use a utm), and by eliminating visitors who were on the post for less than 30 seconds (and just skimming through.)
4. Experts will want to be series guest authors if you can offer the promise of being read by the right people
Once our blog subscriptions grew, (by over 500% since our first week!) we could make the case for guest authors to start sending submissions. They trusted that materials we curated on the blog could reach an interested, engaged, audience.
Where our readers have been coming from, March 17 2016 – March 17 2017. The size of the circles represents the relative amount of ‘visits’ from that location. Report generated in Google Analytics.
There was also the promise of an opportunity to generate cross-learning and feedback on new research. Our readers were at headquarters as well as field offices. We were able to reach readers in the contexts authors were speaking to, such as Uganda. Our subscribers work for universities, foundations, government agencies (e.g. USAID, Global Affairs Canada and Irish Aid), research organizations (e.g. J-PAL at MIT, Transparency International), judiciary and parliaments, and individuals from the defense and private sectors.
To date we were fortunate to be ‘hosts’ to submissions from 11 guest authors of different backgrounds.
5. Identify the value of different types of ‘conversation’ on/through your blog
All our blog posts create a form of conversation between actors working in the field of anti-corruption in fragile states. In our experience, this is a helpful way to identify and categorize the manifestations of ‘blog conversation’ and its use:
5.1 Content discussions: high in value, but hard to track, and harder to generate
This form of ‘conversation’ happens when a reader sends the author, or fellow readers, opinions and information (through blog comments or by email). It is the more obvious meaning of conversation. Even though it is harder to track, but can offer useful content to the author and fellow readers.
The first successful ‘content discussion’ we hosted this past year was catalyzed by Michael Johnston’s post on how to measure corruption. This prompted an interesting and well-articulated counter post written by Matthew Stephenson and posted on his Global Anticorruption Blog, spurring a follow-up rebuttal-post from Michael on the topic.
Two other highly discussed posts were The Unhelpful Nature of Anti-Corruption Research, and Are Social Norms an Important Missing Link in Anti-corruption Programming?.
Key tip: Team communication. Team communication is key to ensure that everybody is aware of important comments sent to various team members through different channels. We use a Google Sheet and Google Document to track key comments.
5.2 Recommendations: lower in value, but easy to track, and easier to generate
This form of ‘conversation’ happens when a reader recommends the blog post to a colleague (liking on Facebook, retweeting, forwarding). It is easier to quantify, but also adds less value to the author. We still measure this form of conversation as a litmus test for our relevance to readers. We do this using simple Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn analytics.
Handing over the mic
We hope this post has encouraged you to join future conversations as authors or as readers of our corruption in fragile states series:
Contact us (emails below) if you are interested in submitting a post.
Have your colleagues subscribe to our mailing list, so they will also receive our posts on unique insights, points of view, and experience on anti-corruption policy, program design, and implementation.
Comment below about new topics, in the realm of countering corruption in fragile states, you would like to read about, or any feedback on our series so far, and this overview in particular.
It has been great chatting with you. Let’s talk again soon.
About the Author
Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda. As a Professor of Practice, she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning.
Jasmine Walovitch is Communication Associate at CDA. She helps CDA expand the reach and use of its lessons, tools, and resources, and supports the convening of CDA trainings and collaborative learning consultations. She admits she was ignorant to the anti-corruption world until beginning to co-curate and edit this blog series – but feels like she’s learned a lot since. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kiely Barnard-Webster is Program Manager at CDA, working on innovative approaches to tackling corruption in the DRC and peacebuilding and conflict sensitivity in Myanmar. Kiely is also a regular author and co-curator of theblog series on corruption in fragile states. Contact: email@example.com