Mastering Social Media Part 1: Treat Your Blog Like a TV Show

What if I were to tell you that successful blogs have some striking similarities to successful TV shows? That the whole realm of blogging actually looks so much like the world of broadcasting it is surprising institutions that currently have broadcasting programs don’t just merge the two together. It may sound a little odd if you’re not used to working in a production environment, but having split my last 8 years evenly between TV production and online development the similarities are so blatantly obvious that they’ve pretty much passed me by unnoticed.

I know what you’re probably thinking (especially if you read this blog every now and again or know me personally): Ok, here we go again. Morten has some crazy idea and won’t let it go until he’s laid it out in every excruciating minute detail. And you’d be right. So why should you care? Because if my assertions are true (and they are of course) bloggers have a lot to learn from the trials and tribulations of their camera lugging brethren. And, to be honest, broadcasters could learn a thing or two from bloggers as well.

Just so it’s clear from the get go. To me the term “social media” encompasses a wide variety of technologies and can be further sorted into at least two sub-categories: Social Publishing (blogs, YouTube etc) and Social Networking (Twitter, Facebook and the likes). There is quite a bit of a gray zone between the two and there are also social media environments that fall out of these definitions entirely but that’s for another time.

Make it or break it – it’s all about who you know … but mostly chance

I like to say television is one of the most volatile and unsecure professions you could choose, maybe only beaten by radio which is pure insanity. That’s because your job in TV is almost 100% dependent on audience approval and popularity. In other words, it doesn’t really matter if you work with the best people in the business on the best show ever written, produced and broadcast: If the unwashed masses don’t absolutely love the show you are likely out of a job tomorrow. And this is especially true for the producers. If your show doesn’t get stellar ratings you get, at most, a couple of weeks or maybe a month if you’re lucky to save it by changing things up. And if that doesn’t work you’re out the door and your time slot is replaced with the latest and greatest in voyeuristic social pornography, often mislabelled as “Reality TV”.

Sound familiar? Well it should, because blogs are pretty much exactly the same: You can have the best content ever written on the coolest blog ever created, but if the people out there on the internet don’t love it they won’t read it, you won’t get repeat visitors and your stats will devolve into a daily reminder of exactly how many friends and family members you have and how supportive they are. And although no one will call security and have you escorted out of the building with your potted plant and 7 fingered promotional foam hand from Bruce Almighty, your double digit visitor numbers will do nothing to improve your financial status and you will eventually end up caving and getting a “real” job to keep the lights on.

So what is it that separates the successes from the failures? Or rather, what is it that launches some blogs from relative obscurity to 10.000 visitors a day and rising fame in seemingly no time? Exposure, friends and a fair bit of luck.

The first two, exposure and friends, often go hand in hand. To get anywhere in the media world, whether on TV or on the web, you need people to actually find your content. To make that happen you need people to talk about your content, and that usually starts with friends. Actually, “friends” might not be the right word here. I’m not referring to your beer league buddies or shoe shopping clique. By “friends” I mean people with power who for one reason or another take a liking to what you’ve made and tell their friends with power and all their loyal followers to check your content out. Sure, there’s always an off chance that your network of 100 or so friends and family will somehow generate the critical mass that lifts your blog out of the internet soup, but to get where you want to go within a reasonable amount of time you need to reach a bit higher and enlist the help of people with connections. To put it bluntly: While your mom may be able to get her entire kayaking club to visit your blog once a week, a single Tweet from a local paper, a semi celebrity or an established blogger with a solid fan base will make your stats look like an electrocardiogram.

But that’s just part of it. Even with friends in the right places pushing their loyal minions right into your lap there is no guarantee they’ll actually stay there. And this has less to do with quality of content than you’d think. The ‘stick’ factor is usually a matter of luck; of being (or in this case writing) in the right place at the right time. That’s because once on your site the viewers need to be in a receptive mood for your particular content. In other words if they’re not open to the kind of material you are presenting, it doesn’t matter if it’s Pulitzer prize material; they won’t care and they’ll likely never come back. So while your excellent article on the conflict in Burma may never get more than 200 views a random post on an internet myth about an artist starving a dog to death may cause a furore and lead to an interview with BBC Radio.

Predicting the unpredictable

It must seem like TV producers have it easier: There is a finite number of networks and only so many hours in the day so if their show is on TV people are far more likely to stumble on it than they are to ever land on your blog. The reality is quite different. For every show that makes it to air there are hundreds standing in line to take their place with thousands in various stages of pre-production or pilot versions just waiting for the right time to shine. And unlike a blog which can usually survive for weeks, months, even years without any major visitor numbers, a TV shows have a tendency of getting shut down at the first sign of weakness. Just ask Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.

With this in mind TV producers try to predict where things are going to go before they go there to get to the top. Often they’ll sit on fully developed shows for years waiting for the right time to come, and occasionally shows that were originally produced years ago but never aired are revamped when times change to fit the content. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this strategy can also be a disaster. Not only does it result in cascade effects where rivalling networks launch almost identical shows at the same time (case in point Trauma, Mercy and Nurse Jackie – all new nurse / ER themed shows that launched fall of 2009) but it produces duplicate shows hitching a ride on other popular shows and lots of shows that are either ahead or behind on the times and miss their mark all together. Looking into the future and predicting what people want to watch 6 months from now is not easy.

At the same time there’s a real danger in burning out because you don’t adapt. Remember Pink Is The New Blog? That site was on everyone’s lips several years ago but was quickly outscooped and outcontroversied by other blogs like Gawker, PerezHilton and TMZ. The dethroning of PISTNB had little to do with their content and more to do with their lack of evolution: The world simply changed quicker than expected and they didn’t keep pace. Sure, they’re still there but you don’t see them all over CNN and they don’t have their own TV show. The distance from the top of the world to irrelevance is measured in microns where the internet and television are concerned.

Getting to the top the hard way

Yes, I know. I paint a bleak picture. It’s what I do best. So what’s the solution? What can you as a blogger learn from my TV friends who I’ve so kindly portrayed like moguls one inch away from the homeless shelter? Like seasoned and successful TV producers the key to rising and sustained success in the blogging world is to invest in something that oozes quality and authority and at the same time be ready to adapt at any time, even if it means abandoning what you’re doing and coming up with something totally different on the fly. To quote one of my favourite movies Ghost in the Shell “overspecialize, and you breathe in weakness.” But don’t take that as an invitation to publish inconsequential drivel: Even if you’re dead on in your predictions of what’s popular people will quickly abandon you if your content is crap.

Getting and sustaining success means you need to produce good quality content that people like and want more of. It’s a difficult and illusive combination that may require years of honing before it reaches perfection. But it’s doable. It just requires a lot of ideas, willingness to fail, an ability to leave things behind and move on and most importantly time.

Let me leave you with this: On average a social publishing endeavour will take a year or more to achieve any type of success unless it’s already attached to a well known brand. And even then it’ll take another 6 months to establish the trust of the reader that will elevate it from mildly successful to a force to be reconed with. It’s an investment in time and energy that may or may not pay off in the long run, but only if you stick with it and learn to adapt.