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Blogs, and Other Accessories

“Oh, and I want a blog.” That little toss-off sentence has been thrown into what was meant to be the end of an initial consultation at eight of the last ten new client meetings I've had. We've just gone over primary and secondary audiences, information pipe-lines and branding. We've been firm about budget, slightly more forgiving over time-line, and down right draconian when it comes to division of responsibility (yes, you will need to get me content at some point). The coffee is cold, we're wrapping it up and then this comes sliding across the table.

Now, don't get me wrong. Blogs are wonderful things. The very concept of interactive, evolving dialogue is exciting. I've gotten some of my academic friends to use blogging while working on their latest anthology, and they will be including the process and the dialogue that emerges as part of their work. Where there is good writing and interesting information, blogs are fantastic.

However. Let's be utterly honest and admit that the vast majority of blogs are like the wall-full of art at your grade-schooler's open house. You might be willing to admit some little darling has a pretty decent sense of palette and composition, you probably will admire the requisite three I'm-not-related-to-this-kid-I'm-just-being nice, oversized pieces of construction paper with blobby chunks of poster paint on them. Then you'll focus right in on the main attraction. That one, the purple marvel with a three legged horse and what seem to be oversized angels throwing blessings on the world (that turn out to actually be bombers killing off King Kong, Mom, can't you tell what I'm drawing?) is clearly the marvel of the whole show. It has merit, it has value, it's Van Gogh on a budget. Why? Because you're emotionally invested in the darn thing.

So long as we're talking about a personal web site where comment on the texture of last night's tuna surprise, or biting political insights combine with My Top Ten Movies of All Time, that's fine. It's the old ‘Hello World' script writ large and sparkly with three columns and a banner header. It's people connecting in entirely new ways, and (doom and gloom predictions about stalkers and civilizations' impending doom aside) that's always good. It's not quite the same when the entity involved is an organization.

So when the blog comment gets tossed out at the end of a professional consultation I can't help remembering the early days of the www, and the animated gif. As designers we were still pretty excited about tables and the chance to actually place images aesthetically around our text. We were also struggling to explain to clients the difference between their static media ad campaigns and the interactive, organic nature of the internet. Those initial meetings were a great challenge and lots of fun as clients came to recognize the unique nature of the internet and the possibilities it offered. But inevitably there came a moment when their eyes would light up and they'd say “oh, and let's have one of those animated things for our email link. You know, where the envelope folds up and flies away or the mailbox eats it or something.”

That darn dancing mailbox and its dozens of cousins, caught the imagination somehow. Like the blog, it seemed to symbolize the potential of the internet. With a whole vocabulary of web technology to master, here was one thing that you knew was important somehow, something that would show you really were doing the web thing.

So I take them aback a bit when I ask the obvious question - why? Well… because… it's what I hear about, everyone has one! How many useless bits of design and technology are foisted off on an uncaring world simply because everyone has one. The internet is particularly prone to these things because the very nature of the media creates excitement and interest in whatever is happening, and because quite often these ‘latest things' are also cheap and easy to produce.

However, although blogs are inexpensive and easy to construct, it's worth going over a few misconceptions about this media.

1. IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

There is still a touching belief in this internet myth, but web audiences are a savvy group and they won't go somewhere that doesn't have something significant to offer. With thousands of blogs out there, content has to be sharp and interesting.

2. IF YOU BUILD IT, CONTENT WILL FOLLOW

Sure you spend all day everyday thinking and breathing your product, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the world is interested enough to tune into an ongoing discussion of the finer points of widgets. Writing exciting, engaging prose on a consistent basis is a difficult task.

3. A BLOG IS A CHEAP, EASY WAY TO ADD INTEREST TO A WEB SITE

The difficulty here is it's quite true. A blog is cheap and easy. There is free software available that makes design and administration a breeze. Sure it's going to take some work to make an out-of-the-box product work smoothly with your existing site design, but that's not too difficult. However a blog is a bit like a two-year-old. It requires constant attention, and can cause a lot of mess. So while the initial investment might be minimal, there is a significant ongoing time commitment.

Under the old theory that the customer is always right I did, for one of my clients, construct a blog. They were delighted, I was cautious. We launched and watched what happened. The site design got rave reviews, and their target audience was responding. The blog, however, died. For several weeks they dutifully posted new articles and optimistically put out the “discuss” link without a single bite. Analytics showed that visitors weren't even hitting the blog link. We highlighted the link a bit, carefully pointed out the blog's existence and the response was still resounding silence. The reason was quite simple – there wasn't anything to talk about. People who came to the site were looking for particular information, they had no desire to comment on it.

Podcasts, flash, blogs – all wonderful things with all sorts of exciting uses. Without a reason for existence however, they are as valuable on a web site as an ashtray on a motorcycle.