Development blogging-How to have fun, avoid disappointment & be a strategic writer

There have been a few interesting posts on the ‘how to’ (and why) of (development) blogging, e.g. by Chris Blattman, Joitske Hulsebosch, Duncan Green or Tyler Cowen).
The development ones tend to focus on important ‘housekeeping’ rules, but blogging is more than ‘don’t be snarky’ and ‘write about things you know and care’.
I want to add a few more, let's call them, meta-points about development blogging that I have learned since I started blogging in the middle of 2010.


Blogging is (still) responsive to agenda set elsewhere
On most days and on most topics development blogging responds to something (conference, event) or someone (journalist getting something wrong). You can use it to your advantage and ‘join the debate’ but that also means you need to be prepared and respond in a timely manner. My posts on the initial Kony 2012 video, female bloggers or Charles Kenny's MBA contemplations were all responses wrote to enrich an ongoing debate. If taken at least half-seriously, blogging is not a task where you can set aside 45 minutes on a Friday afternoon. Finding a balance between topics you want to write about and ‘hot topics’ that capture your readers' attention is almost mandatory.

The ‘wrong’ people tend to know about your blogging, the ‘right’ often don’t
There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ readers, commentators or blogging colleagues, of course. What I want say is that blogging on certain topics, say, on academic hiring or publishing issues, tends to attract the attention of like-minded colleagues. There is a great potential for debate, but there is also the dilemma of attracting readers that are your peers in status, career trajectory or life situation. Put bluntly: My post on doing a development studies PhD may be useful for prospective students, but senior management in the university system are less likely to read it or even be 'influenced' by it. This offers an opportunity to be a bit bolder and more critical, but it somehow limits the potential of blogging as part of your professional communication.

Use blogging as a springboard for traditional approaches and products
Blogging itself is time-consuming and the ‘return of investment’ can be relatively small. It is a great way to share ideas, experiment with creative writing and show potential employers that you are following debates, are a good networker and understand social media. That is likely to become more important and in the end, no organisation really minds a bit of extra promotion ‘for free’. If only one student joins your university every year because of how you depicted the place in your posts is already a marketing win.
But my point really is that you are allowed to be ‘instrumental’ about your blogging. I have been and still am working on academic publications that are directly based on development blogging and Twitter or deal with topics that I blogged about. I’m not going into the details of how difficult the academic publishing process can sometimes be, because my point is: In my line of work, academic publications count. They get you the job interview. Blogging doesn’t. If the ‘currency’ of your network/field are policy papers, consultancy reports or a book then try to build them into your social media activities. Sometimes it works-sometimes it doesn’t. But you are the ‘boss’ of your own blog. If you blog less because of a real-world product so be it.

Small stories and real-world commentaries are more interesting than more ‘policy noise’
IDS Director Lawrence Haddad’s blog is a good example of institutional development blogging that I like. He is focussing on smaller vignettes, impressions from trips (e.g. to Japan) or conferences (e.g. on nutrition). Nothing ground-breaking there-but a great addition to all the ‘official’ social media and Internet activities that are happening at IDS. And that’s why I also like the small SDC Learning and Networking blog: It deals with real-life challenges, shows how a large organisation works without exactly sharing state secrets. That’s both true for individual bloggers and institutions: A small NGO in Brussels commenting on a 300 page EU report? That’s most likely going to be a waste of my time. You either have to be outspokenly critical of said report (most organisations are afraid to take such a stance publicly) or you have to 'storify' the event by focussing on smaller stories: What was it like to sit in official meetings? What did you discuss with other organisations? What made the process more (or less) transparent than usual? Did they have golden tea spoons? In summary, development blogging means 'thinking small' and trusting that your story will find its readership.

Look beyond the numbers

How important are lots of visitors through search engines vs. communicating with a network?
As a recent post on On Think Tanks put it bluntly, people are more likely to change a policy than blogging about it when faced with policy reports.
Those who should blog, often don’t do it and those who blog, well, they should continue doing it, but keeping in mind that it should only be one egg in your professional portfolio basket. It’s a great way for some instant validation which can be quite important, for example during the PhD process or in an isolated spot doing aid work. Just don’t overestimate its influence and underestimate the time it actually takes not only to write posts, but maintain the blog, share the posts and look for interesting material around the Internet. 

Constant dripping wears the stone
One of the great benefits of blogging is that although some of the writing only has a short life- and attention-span, I have found that my blog has become a repository of ideas that readers come across and that may lead to interesting exchanges and follow-ups, e.g. an interview with a fellow blogger on Open Data, a journal editor encouraging me to develop a post into an article, a proposal from a Foreign Policy editor to re-write my response to Charles Kenny as a letter to the editor or an email from a colleague enquiring about a potential consultancy opportunity. Small, unpaid and sometimes less tangible results, but they are an indication that readers are paying attention regardless of quantifiable numbers and overall 'impact'.

All in all, I am glad that I added blogging to my professional communication, learning and research portfolio-and I am very proud that a few people have stopped by over these two years and some are even coming back on a regular basis! Thank you for sharing comments, ideas and spreading the odd link on Twitter or facebook!

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