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What's all the blog about?

You're on Facebook every day and you dabble in Twitter. So how come you know nothing about blogging? Louisa Wilkins speaks to those in the know about why millions of people choose to bare their souls online, and why the rest of the world tunes in.

Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
From left to right: Parenting blogger, Emily Lidén; Fashion blogger, LuAnne D'Souza and Food blogger, Sally Prosser.
Aquarius

Before the internet, what did people do with thoughts they wanted to share, but didn't have anyone to share them with? Write a diary? Put a note in a bottle and send it across the ocean? Write a letter to the local newspaper? But people don't write letters any more, they write emails; and they don't need to puta message in a bottle, they can blog.

There is no doubt about it - if you have something to say to the world, blogging it out to billions of internet-users is probably the best way to go about it. Nostradamus, Charles Darwin and Mary Queen of Scots (who was held captive for 20 years by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I) would, no doubt, have all been bloggers given the chance. Imagine if Bridget Jones had written a blog rather than a diary? In the same way that reality TV shows have brought Joe Bloggs' life into our living rooms, blogs bring Joe's thoughts into our minds - and, if the ever-increasing number of blogs is anything to go by, we simply can't get enough of it.

A mysterious world

When you take an average of some of the figures being banded about by trustworthy internet sources, there are (very roughly) 200 million blogs out there, offering up musings and information for your perusal. Despite the fact that most people come into contact with the internet daily, the world of blogging is shrouded in mystery for many of us. How could something so huge have passed us by? And is it not just a lot of monologue about people's thoughts on their breakfast? Apparently not. Dip a toe into the waters of blogging and you'll find that it's brimming with passionate people saying clever things about interesting topics. Granted, you may have to sift through a fair amount of narcissism and navel-gazing before you find the good stuff, but, as I've discovered, when you find someone talking sense about a topic you're interested in, it can be addictive.

Canadian Annie Meikle fell into the world of social media in 2008 by being the only person in her friendship group who knew how to use Facebook and Twitter for marketing purposes. What started off as a bartering deal with friends soon snowballed into her own social media marketing company. Now, since moving to Dubai, Meikle is working as head of social media for Total Communications and PR. As someone who spends a more-than-average amount of time online, she says that blogs are addictive for readers because of the frequency with which they can be updated. "I think blogs fill a niche on the web where people can get very deep analysis on a certain subject. With blogs, people can have up-to-date news, photos and videos on their favourite subject, almost every day," she says. It's topping up your monthly dose of happiness (from your favourite magazine, for example) with an intravenous drip of the stuff.

Alexander McNabb is a journalist, author and blogger (fakeplasticsouks.blogspot.com), as well as being the director of Spot On PR, a Dubai-based public relations company. He believes that blogs are popular with readers because they have the freedom of honesty, which other written voices, for example, the media, may not have. He says, "Blogs aren't hung up on the necessity to report with the impartiality that governs journalism, so you geta personal viewpoint. Where the person with the viewpoint is interesting, thought-provoking, or an expert or pioneer in a particular field, you get that first-hand and you get to go straight to the horse's mouth, get the unfiltered stuff and make up your own mind."

So, we've worked out what attracts readers to blogs (their prolific nature is moreish and their honesty is refreshing), but what about on the other side of the blogging coin? What is it about blogging that draws in a constant stream of fresh bloggers? "There are a variety of reasons why people blog," says McNabb. "For myself, I have a nasty book-writing habit - I took to blogging because I hit a book-writing hiatus. When I wrote my first blog post in April 2007, it amused me. As time wore on, it continued to amuse me... and seemed to amuse others, too. Blogging is like Speaker's Corner... it'sa chance to get stuff off your chest. There are also a lot of professional blogs now, too, and blogging is becoming less of a Wild West and a bit more accepted. When you get PR companies investing in getting bloggers to endorse their brands, this becomes obvious."

The benefits of blogging

Of course there are the incredibly lucrative blogs, like The Huffington Post and Perez Hilton, which are worth millions, and there are countless stories of people who have quit their jobs to blog full time and live fruitfully off it. However, the reality for most bloggers is that they do it either for the love of the blog, or to add value to their day job. Once you start sifting through blogs, it becomes clear that one of the main driving forces behind blogging is passion. Whether it be passion for a particular topic, or a passion for being creative, there has to be some sort of personal reward or gain, above and beyond the limited commercial potential of blogging, for people to dedicate hours and years of their life to it, and to find something interesting to share with people they'll probably never know. While there is some connection with readers through comments, the anonymity of the internet demands that the only reason someone will keep blogging is because they get something out of it for themselves. Meikle says, "People blog for different reasons... they might have seen a gap in knowledge where their expertise could help, for example Weesha's World [see box, alongside], or they might want to geek out on a hobby, like food bloggers." She continues that for small businesses, blogging is simply a way of marketing themselves. "Blogging can be a good way of branding yourself as an expert in your field, like Huda Beauty (hudabeauty.com) does. Then you get bigger companies using blogs to engage with their audience on topics in order to loop them back to their products. Some people do manage to make money on their blogs, but it's getting harder because there are so many blogs out there," she says.

McNabb agrees. He says, "It's hard to make money from the internet. You need a lot of clicks for it to become profitable, or you need advertisers. It's an uphill struggle." According to McNabb, advertising on blogs makes sense; after all, if you're a fashion retailer, having your ad seen by 3,000 fashion enthusiasts is more efficient than having it seen by 30,000 people who aren't that bothered about it. But for the most part, people blog because the reputational benefits downstream are enormous - all sorts of things have come my way through my blog."

A new connection

In the non-blogging world, we tend to typecast bloggers as nocturnal bedroom-dwellers with translucent skin and the social skills of a dead dormouse. However, with the rise in blogging and social media sites, blogging today has become less of a reclusive pastime and more of a way to meet like-minded individuals. Meikle says, "One of the fastest ways to make stronger relationships online is to meet people offline at tweet-ups and events. It doesn't feel that strange - you've already had conversations with them, and you know you have something in common with them. So, it's kind of like seeing an old friend who you haven't seen in a while."

McNabb says, "In the early days, blogging was anonymous and solitary. But when Twitter was unblocked here in the UAE in August 2008, it almost instantly started tweet-ups and social networking events."

McNabb is one of the founders of Geekfest (check it out on facebook - www.facebook.com/GeekDubai),a regular social networking event for internet zealots. He says, "When we set up GeekFest, we thought we'd get a few techies sitting around, not communicating, tapping into their phones. The shock we had when we had a room full of sparkly, talkative, interesting people... there are vibrant little communities of people who have met online, who are meeting up offline."

Even to a self-declared blog-noramus, the world of blogging doesn't sound too scary, or technological, or self-indulgent or banal. In fact, it sounds pretty interesting and diverse - and like something worth checking out.

FASHION BLOGGER

Blog: Weesha's World (www.weeshasworld.com)
Blogger: LuAnne D'Souza, 25, from India has been in Dubai since birth years and blogging since 2009.

"It started as a blog about my thoughts, but I was frustrated with never seeing fashion on women with bodies like mine, so i started putting outfits together and posting them. I noticed that when I posted about an outfit I would get a lot more visits on my blog. So, it ended up becoming a fashion blog.

"i was working in online marketing, but six months ago I was contacted by a fashion brand who said they liked my blog and they wanted to work with me. After that they asked me if I wanted to do some freelance fashion copy writing for them and I am doing that now fulltime. It's amazing... you don't think things like that will happen to you.

"I've always been in to fashion and shopping. I'm a chubby girl and I love to dress up. I think that everybody should have the right to feel pretty if they want to. i'm just an average girl... I'm not rich, I'm not size zero... I'd like other girls to get the message that fashion is not about body or size - it's about feeling great. So, i don't just focus on fashion, I also talk about self-esteem and body image. The point is that it isn't superficial to want to feel beautiful and nobody looks like celebrities - not even celebrities themselves.

"I'm getting about 6,000 views per month these days. I don't make money out of Weesha's World. But I don't really want to as it would start to affect the content - and I want this blog to be honest."

Bloggers tips:

  • "Networking is so important - you have to be active on social media and checking out other blogs and commenting on them."
  • "I post once a week and the maximum I would post is twice a week. I noticed that, with my blog, if I post too frequently, I don't get enough traffic, or dialogue, on each post."
  • "Don't just do it for the free stuff. Do it because you have something important to say, or because free expression is important to you."

FOOD BLOGGER

Blog: My Custard Pie (www.mycustardpie.com)
Blogger: Sally Prosser, 40 plus (!), from England, has been in Dubai for nearly 12 years and blogging since February 2009.

"I've always had an interest in cooking - my Dad was from Poland and Polish culture and hospitality is very much based around food. But my background is in marketing and communications... so I have always had little geeky tendencies and have kept up-to-date with social media developments.

"I was reading a few food blogs and really enjoyed them. I've always written, but when I started this blog, I found a way to write and a voice that I loved. As with any passion, it takes over your life... by the time I've cooked the food, set up the photo shoot, downloaded the images and written up the post and the recipe, you're talking a minimum of four hours for each post.

"I don't make money at the moment... I see it as a creative outlet first, as well as a shop window to demonstrate some of my professional skills. Advertising revenue from blogs is pretty low and, for me, my blog is very personal - I don't want to compromise the look of my blog right now- so I'm happier without those few dollars in my pocket each month. What's important to me are the people who keep coming back and commenting on my posts... the comments are so much appreciated. And blogging has been a real confidence boost for me. I'm very good at hiding behind my computer, but now I'm much more confident about meeting new people and taking advantage of opportunities."

Bloggers' tips:

  • "Link up with fellow bloggers. We have a private facebook group for local food bloggers called Famished in Arabia with more than 70 members and a public site called Table Talk (www.tabletalk.me), which is on facebook and twitter."
  •  "Learn through feedback - at the moment, it seems people are looking for fast recipes using fresh local ingredients, so that's what I am tying to give them."
  • "I try to do two posts per week. I think posting regularly is important for your readership. I also try to stagger it, but life's not always like that."

PARENTING BLOGGER

Blog: Dubai Our Sandbox (www.dubaioursandbox.blogspot.com)
Blogger: Emily Lidén, 33, from France has been in Dubai since 1995 and blogging since March of this year.

"My husband and I were friends from school time here in Dubai. We came back in 2005 and set up a design studio together. In December 2008, I had Luella and I haven't been back to work since.

"I started the blog because my friends pointed out that I was always saying to them, ‘Have you seen this?' or ‘Have you tried this?'... talking about things I'd found online. So, I thought I'd share these pretty things, these useful things... share my little goodies with other mothers. I wasn't sure how it would go... if people would find it interesting, but it's doing well and picking up. I enjoy it... it's like a little candy for me, and hopefully others, every day.

"I try to work on it every day... when Luella is napping, I browse online, or read magazines. Then after dinner in the evening I'll post something. Now it's just a part of my everyday life. The good thing is that with my iPhone, I can take photos and make notes wherever we go, so it's easy.

"I don't make any money out of it at the moment - it wasn't really for that. But recently people have been saying to me that I should get advertising on the blog. I wouldn't know where to start... if it comes to me, then why not? I'll just see what happens. It's not a priority.

"I wasn't aware of the blogging community before, but I did some research about it and got in touch with other bloggers in the UAE. Most people have their blog linked to Facebook, so you can connect with people. Blogging's becoming a bigger phenomenon than I would've expected. I'm going to parenting-related events and meeting people who read my blog... people sometimes recognise me and my daughter/ I have about 170 Facebook fans, but probably only know ten per cent of them. So it's great... I love having that interaction with readers and having the chance to meet them.

Bloggers' tips:

  • "For me, I've realised that I have to be posting at least five times a week. If you don't post, the traffic goes down for sure."
  • "Keep it fun. Don't let it become a chore."
  • "What's most important is the content - keep it interesting and revelant. A simple, well-designed blog is a bonus... I am still working on that!"

How to start a blog

Writer, blogger and PR director Alexander McNabb gives his tips for starting a successful blog.

1. "The first thing to do is to pick a platform to host your blog. Posterous.com is popular, Wordpress.org is powerful but can be difficult to use, while Blogger.com is easy-to-use and gets great search results."

2. "Choose an area or topic that you want to comment on and make sure you've got something to say about it. Ideally, plan out how you're going to talk to your audience - many blogs start witha wa-hey, then die in a few weeks or even days."

3. "Think of a title for your blog. Make sure it's searchable and catchy."

4. "Post regularly - at least three times a week."

5. "Engage with people who comment on your blog and make sure you comment on other people's blogs, too. Remember it's alla conversation."

Find Alexander on his blog (www.fakeplasticsouks.blogspot.com) and on Twitter (@AlexanderMcNabb).

Marketing your blog

Annie Meikle, head of social media at Total Communications and PR, gives tips for using social media to market your blog.

1. Twitter is a great way of networking with people and with other bloggers. Tweet links to every new post you put up.

2. There are so many blogs now and people are so savvy about which pages they land on. You have to think very critically about who you want to attract and what you want to achieve, and really make your content as appealing as possible.

3. Learn as much as you can about search engine optimisation - check out Mashable.com, a news site about all things digital and social. It's a great place to start learning more about online marketing.

4. Create a Facebook page to support your blog.

5. Become an expert on your chosen topic.The things that would turn me off a blog include... If it hadn't been updated recently, if it was hardto navigate, and if itlooked outdated. The things that would make me go back to a blog include...If it had a really smart design, if it was well-written and the person had taken the time to make sure their spelling and grammar was correct, and if the topic was something that I am interested in.

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