Foreign Office bloggers should focus on making sure that their blogs are integrated, personal, real-time, and 2-way. These are the headline findings of our detailed evaluation of the impact and reach of our blogs.
Our aim was to get beyond our regular stats reports to provide a deeper analysis of the reach of our blogs and the impact they have on the people that read them.
Some of our findings were expected, some were unexpected. Some of what we found was an endorsement of what our bloggers were already doing. But there are clearly things that our bloggers could do to improve the reach and impact of their blogs.
We carried out the work internally (much credit to Rob and Shane), but we made every effort to just report what the data told us, and in no way game the results.
Here's a summary of what we found:
What we did
1. A survey
All our English language bloggers posted a blog entry asking their readers to complete a quick survey. We asked readers a few questions about themself and their blog reading habits. And we asked them to rate a set of extracts from Foreign Office blogs according to how informative, balanced, trustworthy, authentic, appropriate and interesting they found them to be.
We took a good look at the data we already had, concentrating on traffic, inbound links, and the number and sentiment of comments.
3. Competitor analysis
We wanted to learn from what others were doing. So we thought a bit laterally about who we might regard as competitors or peers of FCO bloggers (Carl Bildt, Steve Clemmons, Norman Geras, Moby...) and compared what they were doing with what our bloggers were doing.
Some of our findings are particular to individual bloggers. But there were some pretty clear themes in the data:
1. Blogs are 1 tool among many
Our most effective blogs are combined with wider communication and policy activity.
For example, the second biggest peek in traffic to the Foreign Secretary's blog last year was when he posted Forging coalitions with the Muslim world. That blog was complementary to a speech he gave at on the same subject, was combined with outreach to bloggers, and was promoted via Twitter - including real time coverage of the speech and press conference. As a result it generated mentions and inward links from other bloggers and leading websites, increasing the potential influence of the blog entry exponentially.
We found that that this kind of behaviour is common among the peers of FCO bloggers too, who might use Twitter to confirm hunches or check facts with their followers while they are writing blogs, or use physical events or conventional media to promote blog entries or continue the conversation.
Where we found this kind of multi-channel behaviour, we found that it was reflected by both increased traffic, and increased volume of comments. It seems that successful bloggers are rarely just bloggers, and successful blog entries rarely exist in isolation from other channels.
2. Personal insights and opinions make for interesting blogs
People expect, like and respond to blogs that only the author could write. In particular, they respond to personal insights. And readers comment on our blogs - and rate them highly and return to them - when they agree or disagree with the expressed opinion.
Our survey asked readers open questions about what they liked and disliked about FCO blogs. The strongest theme from the "likes" was around personal insights. And the most common answer mentioned insight into the opinion of the writer. When we asked them what they disliked, readers said they disliked blogs were bland or dull, or that didn't offer enough of the personality of the writer.
What do you like about FCO blogs?
What do you dislike about FCO blogs?
The blog entry that was rated as being the most authentic was $50 shopping spree by Grace Mutandwa, which uses personal anecdote to make wider points. Blogs that just reported events or described facts were rated as being less authentic.
The blog entry that was rated as most interesting was Marwa el Sherbini by Dominic Asquith, in which he expresses a clear personal opinion. In fact, this entry (published at the time in Arabic and English) was the best rated of all the entries we tested across our metrics of informative, balanced, trustworthy, authentic, appropriate and interesting.
3. Readers want comment in real time
A significant number of people read our blogs every day. We know that stories move on very quickly online. As do as do the opportunities for our bloggers to engage their readers.
More than 20% of readers of FCO blogs say that they read them every day. This is the kind of behaviour we might have expected from readers of technology blogs, where the majority of readers might subscribe to an RSS feed. I didn't expect the number to be so high for our foreign policy blogs, where we know that the number of people subscribing via RSS is a much smaller proportion of the audience. There is clearly appetite for real time content.
When we looked at our peers, we found that there was a clear correlation between real-time blogging, and reader engagement (if we take the number of comments received as an indication of engagement). Those who blog as things happen also receive the most comments. For example, Carl Bildt posted 53 entries to his blog in July - often offering comment on events before they happened - and received more than 400 comments.
4. Readers want conversations
Readers expect our blogs to be 2-way communication. And blogs that reach into specific communities of interest generate the most visible engagement (comments, and inward links).
Our survey results suggest that our blogs are stimulating real engagement. Our readers are having conversations as a consequence of reading our blogs. In particular, 66% of readers of FCO blogs said that they had discussed our blog entries offline. This appears to be an endorsement of the choice of blogging as a medium for our diplomats: by blogging they are stimulating conversations, on and offline.
We also asked readers what they expected in response to comments posted on our blogs. 34% of readers said that they didn't expect a response at all. Of those that did expect a response, 29% expected the author to respond personally, and 37% said that they expected a representative of the FCO to respond, although not necessarily the author.
We can see from the metrics that the blogs that are most commented-on are entries in which the author addresses issues that are already the subject of online debate. The most commented-on blogs from the Foreign Secretary last year were those about Sri Lanka, and we can see similar peaks when he blogged about Georgia, and Iran.
Traffic to the Foreign Secretary's blog, overlaid with volume and sentiment of comments
Some practical recommendations
We've turned these themes into some practical recommendations for our bloggers. Our advice isn't the same for every blogger, but we are using our findings to encourage our bloggers to be personal (say things that only they could say), real time (if it takes days to draft or check the facts then it's probably not a blog), integrated (with other things they're doing on and offline), responsive (responding to comments), and targeted (writing about things that people are already talking about online).