#6 How do I keep track of my audience?
Below that question lurks a monster, the most feared of blogger traps: stats. There are three main locations where stats can be found and observed for free in their natural environment:
I’ll come back to the latter in Tip #7.
I told you in Blogging for Writers (1/3) that I chose Weebly as a blogging platform. In your dashboard, Weebly keeps track of the number of visitors that come to your site, and of the number of pages that were viewed. More detailed stats include which pages were visited and the number of visits they each received (your visitors’ targets), and which websites and social media sent visitors to your blog (your visitors’ sources).
Note that I said
“the number of visitors that come to your site”
because they are not all humans. Bots, scamdexers, you name it. Blogging platforms do not protect you against this. Or they do, partially: I guess lots of bots and scamdexers never make it to my blog. But when they do reach my blog, I have no way to sort them out from the mass of visitors.
Interestingly, in the image used by the Weebly Help Center (just above) to explain its dashboard system, most of the visitors are bots and scams. Look on the right, at the visitors’ sources: freelovefreeway, pizza-tycoon, domainsigma… We bloggers all know those guys. Evil little stinkers. This is what your dashboard looks like upon opening your blog. But provided that you make a proper use of social media (see previously in this series), it will change very fast. Soon, you’ll see facebook.com, m.facebook.com, twitter.com, bit.ly, pinterest.com, reddit.com as your sources of visitors. These visitors are your human visitors.
Now look on the left of the image: it is difficult to know if the visits targeting “/” (your homepage) and sometimes “/1/feed” (your RSS feed) are from people or electronic crawlers. Personally, I look at the visits received by specific pages and blog posts.
Google Analytics (GA) is much more precise, professional, but also kinda nightmarish. Register your blog in GA by inserting a special code in the parameters of your blog (the web is replete with tutorials for each blogging platform). You will see that GA is packed with information. Packed. Honestly, you need to know how to read it. Moreover, there may be discrepancies between what GA tells you and what your blog dashboard tells you. Stats services do not block the same crawlers, and do not discriminate between new and returning visitors in the same way. What I mean is, even if you learn some basics on how to read all these stats, you will never really know what’s going on on your blog.
This is where, unfortunately, we need to (re-)separate writing from blogging. Remember what I said earlier in this series:
Writing is a process of producing stories, whether fictional or not.
Blogging is a process of producing electronic content for a public.
Ask yourself what you want. Do you mostly want to produce electronic (and as such crawled, indexed) content for a public? Or do you mostly want to produce stories? My personal opinion is that if, as a writer, I spend more time analyzing those stats than I do sitting silently with my paper notebook and a coffee, observing people, then I’m doomed as a writer.
Again, a blog provides readers with stories. But do not confuse what your readers expect with what your readers want. The fact that your readers expect you to write very short blog posts, or lifestyle blog posts, or blogging advice, do not mean that they don’t want you to tell them about that lady you passed in the street, or your chemo, or how it felt to be standing under the rain on that Icelandic cliff. Do not meet expectations. Meet people.
At that point we need to go back to the initial question:
How do I keep track of my audience?
Answer: By reaching out. By knowing the readers behind the audience. By caring that this person whom pen name or Twitter handle you can spell by heart, left you a loving comment, recommended your blog, retweeted your last declaration. Stats are like words: they have a form (the number you read in your dashboard or in GA) and a meaning (the reader behind the number).
Good writers should know their readers. Stats should just be seen as a tool to help you into blogging properly. Stats will tell you if something went dreadfully wrong. Like, forgetting to turn on the “let major search engines index my website” button — yes I did. Or forgetting to set up a homepage. Or if some of your links are broken. Or if the architecture of your blog is so complicated that no one dares browse it and someone even saw the pizza-tycoon crawler run away with a yelp.
Other than that, as a writer, what you need to keep track of is who visited which piece of yours and why and where from. Like, that person, who is a Brazilian travel writer, travelled to your piece via the tweet that one of your other readers (a British lifestyle blogger) posted overnight. That “twitter.com — 1 view” stat will then make more sense, and will also become unimportant: what will matter to you is the human chain of readers that led a new visitor to visit your blog willingly (and maybe avidly).
As a writer/blogger yourself, you may disagree. But again, this is where the overlap between blogging and writing meets its limit. If you became such a well-known writer that you can’t keep track of each of your readers anymore, then it means you don’t even need to read stats anymore. You are a published author, a magazine contributor or a major writer/blogger on the world wide web. Congratulations ❤
Anyway, this is where Tip #7 comes in useful.
#7 What are these bit.ly, goo.gl, and other short URLs
I keep seeing everywhere?
It baffled me too. Some fellow bloggers kept using them while tweeting from a sleek and sophisticated smartphone I knew I wouldn’t know how to turn on. (It’s like TVs. I don’t own a TV. Last time I had one, there was an on/off button on the front. Now that button is gone and I can’t turn on the TV by myself when I’m staying at friends. Ok, I’m digressing. Digression is generally not so good for readers. Don’t do it. Like right now, about 25% percent of my visitors probably clicked themselves away from this post, thinking “Jesus!”).
So the bit.ly and goo.gl users are not part of a sect, nor the rich owners of an expensive internet service that shortens their URLs to make them look prettier and more Twitter-friendly.
URL shorteners are excellent for blogging writers who want just enough stats to evaluate their social media performance and communication skills.
I personally use bit.ly. (Ok, I looked into it like a week ago, and decided I should start using it. But please pretend I’m an expert.)
Create a free bit.ly account. Every time you want to post a link on any social media, enter this link into bit.ly first, which will give you a shortened URL, and then post that shortened URL. The latter will be forever tracked by bit.ly, whether you posted it once or dozens of times: you will be able to know who clicked on that link, when and from which website.
Even if they send visitors back to your blog, shortened URL won’t give you insights into your blog audience: they will give you insights into your social media audience. How your Facebook Page, tweets and pins manage to trap the passer-by as well as the subscriber. I like URL shorteners because they give you a simple but clear, focused idea on which piece has been visited and where from. Do you really need more?
#8 Should I write on external platforms such as Medium?
It turns out that novels could be written about this, so I’m going to try to keep it (frustratingly, maybe) very short:
Which leads us to the final tip...
#9 Is blogging a first step toward publishing my work?
Not so fast. I would say, if you think about your blog as a means of finding and expanding your audience, then yes, technically, it’s a first step. As I said earlier, blogging made me a better writer. But I also told you how time-consuming it is; and at the same time I forgot to tell you how addictive it is. Blogging may become a cathartic activity. A way of emptying yourself from your emotions, thoughts and stories. Which is good; you can do it with style and technique; you can do it better and better. But at some point, you will find yourself sitting, again, for a whole morning, to finish the last post of your series “Blogging for Writers”. In the meantime, your book is not getting even started; your photowriting project schedule is getting dangerously messy; the number of emails you have sent to travel magazine editors is approaching, roughly, 0.
So I will conclude this article with a bullet list and a decision.
For two weeks, I am going to stop blogging.
I will continue maintaining my social media profiles (see you there to know more) and reading fellow writers/bloggers. But my writing time will be spent on my photowriting project, on that book project, and on contacting those travel magazine editors.
In the meantime, I hope that this series helped.
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