Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Our Interview with Jeremiah of ZRecs.com

This week's blogger interview is with Jeremiah McNichols, founder of blogs Z Recommends and Gardenaut and the giveaway compendium PRIZEY. I interviewed Jeremiah using Google's handy Chat tool (available through GMail). Here's what he had to say:

When I think of Z Recommends, I think about how you're always trying out new widgets and tools. I wonder if you'd be up for identifying a few that you'd say every new blogger should know about.

Well, if you aren't using FeedBurner, start there. Also, Google Spreadsheets. They recently created a killer form generator that can collect data into a spreadsheet using a form. It's a simple way to collect some information from your readers - giveaway entries, mailing list sign-ups, survey data, etc. Very few bloggers are getting as much from their readers as they should.
How so?
They know more than you do, about almost anything. Collectively, I mean. And they want to share their knowledge. They also want to tell you, and each other, about themselves. These are very useful things for bloggers to learn from and about their readers - for post ideas, for feedback, for blog monetization, and for getting a feel for your voice as a blogger and identifying what it is you really want to focus on.

How do you encourage readers to dish?
Ask questions that aren't leading questions. Ask questions you really want to know the answer to. Communicate that you're really curious. Express a need. Asking for asking's sake will prompt the occasional reader but you won't get much, and it won't be as good.
I read somewhere recently that you shouldn't tell your readers everything you know so that you leave them something to say.
Well, that is probably sometimes true. But what I'm talking about is not the kind of knowledge you look up on the internet. I'm talking about personal experiences, the stuff you learn in your bones that parenting, for example, is all about. If it's facts, you shouldn't ask - you should look it up, and if it's relevant to your readers, you should be telling them, no question. Of course, you have to do all this with the firm knowledge that you may not have all the facts, and make it clear that you're not closing the door to amendments, additions, corrections, enhancements....
All blogging is provisional.

So maybe it's not our telling people everything we know, but telling them that we know everything, that shuts down responses, because what reader really has the time to set us straight? A few trolls, maybe, but it isn't anyone's job to tell you that you're undereducated. You generally have to figure that out for yourself. And telling a blogger that is intrinsically combative, which most readers of most blogs, who are really quite polite, don't want to be. Some blogs thrive on that, but it doesn't work for me.
How do you deal with negative, or overly-combative comments on ZRecs?
Well, criticism can be valuable, but negativity tends to cancel out that value. So if it's a question of someone being combative, the tone on ZRecs is generally so supportive that I can keep my mouth shut and someone will come to our defense. If I really feel that I must respond personally, I have that overall tone to support me - you know, subtly suggest that they have misunderstood the tenor of the conversation. This works even if they have good points, but are making them rudely. Acknowledge what you can identify as valid in their logic or criticism, but don't engage in the vehemence. In that sense it's sort of like face-to-face communication in groups, like at a party - many people can be embarrassed by kindness. Of course, with blogs, it can be a masked ball. You know, aggressive declarations from on high from some very brave person named "Anonymous." But all in all, the social aspect of managing a blog is like being the host at a party. You want to help people have interesting conversations.
A facilitator, even, for the flow of information among readers.
Yes, and to you, to filter and reinterpret and research and rebroadcast in a better form than it was given to you. We learn so much from our readers - both publicly in comments and privately in emails. What distinguishes a good blog that learns from its readers from a discussion board is that we validate information, we flesh out its implications, we connect the dots, and we help really valuable information get a wider hearing.
Every blogger should have an email address where they can be contacted directly. Set up a spare account and forward it to your main one. If you use Gmail you can even have your main account respond to forwarded messages from your other account as though you were writing from that account. So you should always be accessible - when people trust you and your judgment they will ask you private questions, send you tips, give you ideas....
...when you can't think of anything to post about!
Absolutely. We learn about a lot of breaking news from our readers on topics we're known for - plastics safety, scuttlebutt on big consumer products companies, new products to try. Of course, being accessible via email also keeps you open to solicitations from companies (great for a review blog), inquiries from the media, etc. You have to be disciplined in how you manage your correspondence. Drill as deep into that as your level of incoming mail dictates - filter, auto-respond, set up spreadsheets and form-based contact, whatever it takes. And if you are established enough, do not feel obligated to respond to every single email you get. No one can fairly expect that.
Blogging has changed a lot just in the few years that we've been doing it. Where do you think it's going? What's on the horizon?
Well, bloggers definitely need to be thinking more globally about their interests and goals and not in terms of what blogging itself is capable of doing. Blogs are a format and they are a tool. But what happened with blogs in the early years of this decade is now happening with web application development, with applications you can embed in web pages, with spaces that integrate different kinds of online media. Those are all becoming tools in our toolbox.
What are some of your favorites? Twitter? Podcasting?
Well, I like streaming to Twitter, but I will never use it from my phone. Well, never say never, but... I just don't have that kind of time. But we try to use tools pretty judiciously. I try to approach them with an eye towards their strengths and functionality and use them as appropriate. For example, we feed PRIZEY into Twitter. It seems like a good use of it - the headings of the giveaway listings pretty much say what you need to know. (You can do this with a tool like Twitterfeed.) But we don't stream Z Recommends posts to Twitter, or posts from our newest blog, Gardenaut. It doesn't seem right for the spirit of those blogs. Why would you want to see our daily reviews or gardening posts on your cell phone? I can't make an argument for it.

So that's the sense in which it's a tool. I don't drive in screws with a hammer. I want people to see things we do with those tools and assume there might be an interesting reason for it, rather than, "Oh, they got all excited about the latest fad."

There are also tools that can do more harm than good. First, every blogger has to understand that there is a trade-off whenever you load off-site content onto your site. Some stuff loads fast, and some stuff slows down your pageloads. Visitors are extremely sensitive to pageload times. So there are a lot of widgets that load external data to your blog that you might think are cute or a cool idea but are actually making it harder for people to read your blog, not just visually but in terms of loading the blog's pages into their web browser.
And you can't assume that everybody's technology is as up-to-date as yours.
Yes, or that it works seamlessly with yours. Or that the performance you see now is the same level of performance some widget will have when everyone else starts using it and its hosting servers start getting slammed.

Also, there are services that do things that may sound useful but actually do you a disservice. If your blog is very small, for example, displaying a badge showing your Feedburner subscription numbers might seem cool, but might turn off a potential advertiser when they see you have 35 people following your blog.

There is another widget I added recently when we were getting what was to me astonishing traffic over the BPA issue. It's called whos.among.us. It tells you how many people are on your site at any moment. I added it during a traffic spike that lasted for about two months. At its peak we had about 500 people on our site at any given moment, which made me so proud I couldn't help but advertise it. Now we are back down to the 30-50 range and, you know what? I'd rather let people assume what they want. I took it off. But it's worth saying too that these distinctions are always personal and relative. No amount of traffic is going to impress everyone, so try not to brag about it or assume it confers some kind of special authority.
Congratulations on the attention you're getting for your BPA work, by the way.
Thanks. That was really an interesting experience for us. It still is, but it was very satisfying to be a big part of that discussion a month, two months ago. We felt privileged to have a lot of people listening to what we were saying. And we were ready for it. I've had it otherwise - lots of attention, and not ready. This was better. We were well-educated about the topic and ready to carry the ball further. And that's one of the benefits of being focused in what you write about. When the BPA issue really broke, we worked with Mobile Commons to develop a text-messaging service that allowed you to query a database we created using the listings from our Z Report on BPA. That was probably the most radical rethinking we've done of our function. We knew it might actually reduce the use of our blog, but in the end, we realized what we really wanted to do was spread information around, and blogging was just a means of doing that. And, in the end, the project got us so much publicity that it helped our site traffic far more than it could have hurt.
So it sounds like, with respect to the future of blogging, that it's important to keep reevaluating what a "blog" is.
Yes, and don't let the format's very real constraints govern what you do in web publishing. Let your subject be your guide. Is what you really want to talk about best suited for a blog, and if so, how can you use the sidebar real estate to genuinely contribute to what people will want to do on that blog? What are the multimedia user communities that might be drawn in to participate, through their own interest or by you integrating their shared content in an intelligent way? Will the type of reader feedback that is possible in a blog suit your topic, or is this really something that could and should be generated by a community, either in a wiki, where everyone is a co-creator, or with a greater emphasis on discussion, like a Ning community board, which can also have a dominant blog component written by a single author? Or would it make a better audio or video podcast? Each of these formats has its strengths, and sometimes multiple strands can be brought together in unique ways that can become very emblematic of what you're trying to do. A lot of what we try to do on our sites is simply to brand ourselves and suggest a clear path for reader engagement through the tools that we use.

When we developed PRIZEY, we said, "What would it be like to have a blog that was a rapid stream of giveaways, posted as we heard about them?" There were some ways in which the blog format didn't support that well enough, so we tried to mitigate those and develop a sort of hybrid. Posting giveaways as we found them, for example, meant that some that were still current might appear below ones that had ended, so we embedded a Google calendar and we enter every giveaway into it when we post it, and paired it with a search box so you can find an upcoming deadline and then search for the post. Later I pieced together some JavaScript to show all the posts that ended on a certain date; it grabs your computer's date and searches for that date in the texts of the posts, which are now formatted so that that information will be easily found.

We use a lot of JavaScript on Gardenaut, too - if you enter in a bit of localization data in the sidebar you can do a lot of locally-based searches, and at some point in the future I intend to bring some of that customization into what you are invited to read on the blog itself. That's a project for 2009, probably.
There really isn't an instruction manual for this field, is there. It feels like we're figuring it all out as we go.
Absolutely. And we have to take those tools into our own hands and figure out how we want to use them, sometimes in unanticipated ways. As long as we don't think of ourselves too specifically as "bloggers," we'll be okay.

What has changed since the idea of blogging first started making sense to people is the rise of user-generated content and of community tools. Blogs don't really partake of those things. Comments are a very poor discussion-delivery system. They are also a very poorly- organized archive of heavy loads of information.
Where can a new blogger go to learn about these tools and keep abreast of what's new?
Read Techcrunch. That's my number-one suggestion. It's a blog about technology startups. You will find a lot of things that aren't relevant to you, but you will also hear very early about interesting companies that are developing tools that will be useful to you.
And we can see new tools on ZRecs, of course.
Some of them. And even more of them probably on PRIZEY. We'll also have a couple of new projects rolling out in the next six months. With each site we develop, we try to look at our tools in a very agnostic way, with as few preconceptions as it is possible to have.
One more question. How do you track your traffic stats for ZRecs? Which of the free stat counters would you recommend bloggers use?
Well, we use StatCounter.com for basic counting and displaying of stats. I think they retain a little more data for you for free than Sitemeter. We also use Google Analytics - that's the one we rely on for really in-depth information. It's pretty much unbeatable. Also free.

Last Week's Interview: Amy Clark of MomAdvice.com

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