Jolie O’Dell's new book, "Blogging for Photographers," is a thorough guide to everything you'll need to know about beginning and succeeding in the blogging process. From early preparation that will save you loads of time to more advanced advice on how to navigate the Internet and the potential pitfalls of putting yourself in front of the public. She goes over the technical side and shows you examples of specific successful blogs to illustrate her points. Here we share a small part of her chapter on community, which also includes information on spam, blogger networking, making good impressions with introductions, moving up networking tiers, and integrating social media. —Joan Sherwood, Senior Editor, Professional Photographer
This article was excerpted from Jolie O’Dell’s “Blogging for Photographers: Showcase Your Creativity and Build Your Audience” book, published by Focal Press last month. “Blogging for Photographers” is available in stores and online for $24.95.
One of the great parts of being a blogger is the fact that you get to interact with your audience. But when you’ve done your part by creating great content, readers get to do their part by responding to it, sharing it, and getting more involved with you, your blog, and each other.
Building a community is an exciting and sometimes exhausting endeavor, but it brings you close to your audience and creates real connections between you and your readers. And when those connections start to form, you’ll see some interesting “network effects” on your blog.
A thriving network can start to have a gravity-like effect on the surrounding areas of the internet. The stronger your community becomes, the more readers will get pulled into it. One regular reader will share a link in a tweet, another will email his friend about an insightful post you wrote. Little by little, your readership will grow; as you make connections on a personal level, your network will grow. And as your network grows, so does your personal brand, your business, and your overall ranking in the world of photo blogging.
Creating a community in comments
Don’t be shy—if your readers were interested enough to leave a comment, you should meet them halfway and start a dialog whenever possible.
The first, easiest, and most obvious way to start building a community is by reading and responding to the comments on your blog.
Note, I did not say by obsessively checking and pondering the deeper meaning of the comments on your blog.
This can be hinky territory for even the most self-assured photo bloggers. Your snaps and scribbles will acquire a diverse crowd of readers, and not all of them will be supportive, pleasant, or sane. That’s the gamble you take when you work in the public eye. Prepare yourself for some positivity, some neutrality, some negativity, and a healthy serving of spam, and try not to take it all too seriously.
If you’re particularly concerned about angry, unpleasant, or profanity-laced comments, your content management system (CMS) will likely give you an option for pre-screening comments before they are publicly published on your blog. If you choose to moderate all your comments this way, try to check for new comments at least once a day, more frequently if you get more than a handful of comments.
With that caveat in mind, know that the comments section on any post can be a lively salon for fascinating conversations between peers. Beginners can ask you questions; you can respond with specific tips. Old pros can offer you suggestions for new techniques to try. Avid fans can give you digital applause, and thoughtful connoisseurs can give you constructive critiques.
You don’t have to respond to every comment you get. In fact, many of your commenters’ thoughts may be along two well-worn lines: “That’s great!” and “Me too!” While these kinds of responses can certainly enliven and flesh out your comments section, they don’t really add much substance to the conversation you started when you published your blog post, and they don’t necessarily require a response from you. If you’d like to respond, you may absolutely do so, but be advised that the blogger who responds to every comment creates a cluttered conversation stream and cultivates an overly eager image.
Rather, it might be best (especially when you start getting more than one or two comments on a given post) to chime into the comments only when you have a specific thought to add, a question to address, or a point to clarify. Think of yourself as the host or hostess at a reception. Your job is to welcome people in, set the tone for the event (both of which you’ve already done in your blog post), and then facilitate a natural and pleasant conversational flow. Too much chatter on your part is as destructive to said flow as stone silence.
When you chime into a conversation in the comments section underneath a post, you can reply to a group or to a specific commenter. Just avoid confusion by being specific about whom you’re addressing, and be as clear as possible with whatever point you’re trying to make or question you’re trying to answer.
In general, your readers will be delighted to know that you’re not only an engaging writer and terrific photographer but also an active participant with your fans and friends online. You’ll probably build ongoing online relationships with at least a few folks who return frequently to read and comment; it’s the very beginning of a community and can end up being one of the strongest parts of your blog if you choose to make it so.
When responding to comments from others, be as personable as you would if you were speaking to them in real life. After all, when you take away all the code and pixels, we’re all flesh and blood, very real and distinct personalities who are quite connected through the internet. Even though we may be physically remote, we should strive to be as polite and respectful as if we were sitting next to one another in a public place.
Practicing such courtesy is easy when you’re answering a simple question or responding to a positive remark from a fan or friend. However, when a reader has a critical comment, it can be difficult to rein yourself in. The web gives us all a powerful feeling of invulnerability, and too often we take this feeling as license to insult and shame others whom we perceive as insulting us.
DEALING WITH NEGATIVE COMMENTS
No matter how cheerful your posts are, you will invariably have to deal with some naysayers and nasties at some point.
Getting critical comments—be they constructive or otherwise—is absolutely unavoidable for any blogger. In fact, fear of such comments has held many a creative soul back from blogging. But you shouldn’t let your apprehensions about this facet of online life intimidate you or detract your enthusiasm.
In fact, your policy on and reactions to negative comments can be a huge factor in establishing the ethos of your blog’s community. How you respond to these kinds of comments will set you apart and define your character—and, if you’re blogging as a business owner, will send strong signals to your potential commenters.
Different bloggers have different approaches. The thoughtful will carefully engage detractors in an intelligent and reasonable debate. The thick-skinned will poke fun at meanies. The Pollyannas of the internet will post a thorough section on their expectations of positive commenting and will delete anything with a hint of snideness or profanity.
But every seasoned blogger will have developed their own techniques for dealing with negative comments. Here are a few helpful tips and coping mechanisms for the bad/ugly spectrum of comments, from the ugliest insults to well-meant critiques:
Don’t feed the trolls! This is Rule One of online communication. It simply means that while you will encounter “trolls,” i.e., web-dwellers who exist online for the purpose of inflicting emotional pain on others, you are under no circumstances to “feed” them, i.e., show any sign that you notice or are affected in any way by their antics. If you get a “trollish” comment, delete it, do not respond to it, and move forward immediately without paying any further mind.
Take the high road. If someone leaves a nasty comment or one that’s just critical of your work, you can always come out on top by being unflappably gracious. A simple, “I’m sorry you feel that way. Have a great day!” can quickly and successfully close the matter, allowing you to save face, still remain in control of the situation, and not be dragged into a flame war (a heated back-and-forth that sucks everyone involved into a maelstrom of negativity and hyperbole).
Sometimes, you don’t have to respond with a correction or rebuke to an obviously incorrect negative commenter. Your other readers will come to your rescue—a good sign of a healthy community.
Delete, delete, delete. You’re in charge here; this is your playground. You are in no way obliged to publish every comment you get, and you can delete anything that doesn’t fit in with the vibe you’re trying to cultivate. Free speech certainly has its place, but your blog isn’t a public or government-owned property. If detractors want to speak freely, they can darn well set up blogs of their own.
Don’t fear the banhammer. The banhammer is your privilege as a blog owner; in most CMSes, you can permanently ban any commenter who you feel is dragging down the tone of the conversation with verbal abuse, threats, or profanity (if that’s not okay on your blog).
Take a deep breath. If you get a particularly vitriolic comment that just sets your teeth on edge, walk away from your computer (or shut down your smartphone) and go blow off some steam before responding (or not responding, or just deleting the comment altogether). Some low-blow comments will go straight for your emotional jugular. In those moments, you might need a mantra; I have a few of my own! “These people don’t pay my bills” is a perspective-saving personal favorite that reminds me why I blog and reinforces the fact that a bad comment has no real-world impact on me.
Negative isn’t always nasty. Some folks will leave comments that they didn’t like your work or they didn’t understand your story or they hate the lens you’re using, and so on. Don’t let it get to you emotionally, and assume that the commenter meant well. If you start by giving them the benefit of the doubt, you can decide for yourself whether the criticism does, in fact, have any merit; but if it was made without malice, there’s no need to get upset.
Laugh! Sometimes, an overly negative commenter is so off-base that their words go from offensive to just plain bizarre, outlandish, and ludicrous. Feel free to shake your head and chuckle. One seasoned pro in the blogosphere tells me he likes to reply to these commenters with three simple words: “You fascinate me.” It’s a little wink-wink that lets other commenters know you’re in on the joke and don’t take the negativity to heart.
Just remember: Your commenters, positive and negative alike, don’t really know you. Any comments they leave are more a reflection on them than on you. Dark people leave dark comments, and we have to pity them for not having better things to do with their lives.
Finally, there might sometimes be posts that stir up strong reactions or controversies in the community. Likewise, if you do any personal blogging, you might also find yourself delving into some very tender territory. In most blogging software, you can turn comments on and off for an individual post, and on my own blogs, I will very often flip the switch into no-comment mode if I feel that I’ve said all I have to say and I don’t particularly need or want feedback from others.
This might strike some of your readers as a high-handed way of avoiding criticism, but look at all the facts: You took the time and effort to set up a blog, do all your photography, and craft a well-thought-out blog post on a perhaps sensitive subject. It’s your work, and no one is entitled to any part of it. If you don’t feel like subjecting yourself to commentary—positive or negative—you can simply close the comments section.
When I do this on my own blog, I run a brief disclaimer at the bottom of the post, where the comments section would normally be found:
“Comments are closed for this post. You are encouraged to disagree, debate, or expand the conversation on your own blog; you will be linked to via trackbacks and pingbacks.”
It’s a polite but firm way of telling your readers that while you appreciate them, this particular post is a one-way talk or speech or demonstration rather than a roundtable discussion.
It goes without saying that people act differently online than they do in real life. It takes a cool, collected head to rise above the noise sometimes—but patience and an even temper almost always pay off.