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January 17 2012


10 reasons Ph.D. students fail

"Read on for the top ten reasons students fail out of Ph.D. school." This is a GREAT list! I think it's missing one thing: (11) Focus on your teaching/TA duties to the detriment of your own research.

September 17 2010


5 Mistakes That Make Local Blogs Fail

So you're thinking about starting a local blog. Maybe you're a reporter tired of office politics and lowest-common-denominator assignments. Maybe you're a neighborhood gadfly who wants to create a new place for locals to gather. Maybe you're a realtor who wants to generate new leads.

Either way, your local blog, like most new things, will probably fail.

It will fail to support you. 

It will fail to win an audience. 

It will fail to have real impact in your community.

I meet a lot of local bloggers and people thinking about starting local blogs who ask me for tips or for feedback.  After having several of these conversations, it seems useful to pull these conversations together in one place modeled after a great piece Paul Graham of YCombinator wrote back in 2006. He found 18 mistakes that kill startups. I think the mistakes that kill local blogs can be condensed down to five.

Let's break them down.

Five Mistakes

#1. You're doing it alone.

The first reason your local blog will fail is because you don't have the right people working on it. Notice I said "people." No, you will not succeed working on this alone.

As a solo local blog founder, you alone will be responsible for creating the content, editing it, distributing it, selling ads around it, promoting it, collecting payment, accounting for the money collected and spent, and then covering all your legal bases. That's an incredible amount of work. More importantly, any time spent on any one of these tasks is time NOT spent on the others. If you go it alone, your business will be single-threaded. Everything will have to run through you before it can happen and you can't always be available. In a single-threaded business, if the one agent needs to take a break, everything else grinds to a halt. 

As Graham puts it: "When you have multiple founders, esprit de corps binds them together in a way that seems to violate conservation laws. Each thinks "I can't let my friends down." This is one of the most powerful forces in human nature, and it's missing when there's just one founder." If it's really just you, then your team is weak and your blog will fail.

#2. You don't know your market.

The next reason your blog will fail is because you didn't do your homework. In the case of the local reporter who's been covering her beat for a few years, yes, she knows her subject matter inside and out, but that's just the tip of the iceberg of necessary knowledge for building a business around it. For example, does she know:

a. How many people are actively looking for coverage of her beat?

b. The average incomes of those people?

c. How many of them have Internet access?

d. How much time they spend online?

e. What businesses or organizations would like to reach those people?

f. How much money they spend annually in doing so?

I could go on. My experience has been that very, very few local bloggers have answered any of these questions or have any intention of answering them in the course of working on their blog. And these are not tricky, obscure questions. These are questions that any business founder would need to answer in order to be taken seriously or stand a chance at success. If you don't know these things, then you didn't do your homework and your blog will fail.

#3. Your content is weak

The third reason your blog will fail is because your content stinks. It stinks because it lacks a point of view and it fails to address a real, general human problem.

Whether you're a trained journalist, a neighborhood gadfly, or a realtor, your content probably lacks a point of view. As a newspaper reporter, you were trained to be objective. As a gadfly, you have relationships around the community that you have to protect and worry about. As a realtor, you will never say anything bad about the community you cover and therefore will be a bore.

Your blog has to have a point of view and a voice because people only engage with things they can wrap their heads around and get familiar with. Your local blog will only succeed if it wins an audience. You win an audience by building relationships between your stories and readers. No one relates well to something they don't know and understand. Your blog has to have strong, easily remembered stances on local issues people actually care about or it will fail. Groupon is a company that sells deals, not local news per se, but they have a phenomenal grasp of the voice and point of view of their content. Read their style guide here.

Which brings us to the other reason your content is weak. It's weak because no one wants to read it. And no one wants to read it because it doesn't address any real, general human problem. For all the bluster about hyper-local coverage and blogging in the last five years, as someone who runs a city-specific social news site where people vote for the stories they actually are interested in, it seems pretty clear that most people don't give a fig about what's happening day in and day out in their local elected bodies. That stuff matters a great deal to other elected officials, people who do business with elected officials, and the political/news nerds in your community, but that's it. 

If your local blog is focused on covering local government, it should be a subscriber-only, paid newsletter that goes out to just those people. It should only be a public blog if there's mass interest in the subject matter, which there just isn't for a lot of the stories showing up on hyper-local blogs. If your content lacks a point of view and is centered around things that the general public isn't interested in, it will fail.

#4. You haven't thought through your business model

Let's assume you figured all this stuff out. Now how are you going to make money? Ads, you say? Okay, great. Have you answered these questions?

 -What kind of ads? Banners? Text links?  Sponsored posts? Real-time ads?  

 -Who's going to sell them?

 -How are they going to sell them?

 -What are you going to charge? 

 -Who are you going to sell them to? 

 -What's the value proposition of buying your ads over someone else's?

 -How many ads do you need to sell to cover your costs?

 -What the heck are your costs?

Until you answer these questions and more like them, your blog will make no money and it will fail.

#5. You have no distribution strategy

Finally, your local blog is going to fail because you can't distribute it to enough people. If your local blog is ad-supported, then your ads are your product and your content is a marketing tool created to bring people to look at your ads. In order for you to sell ads, you need to have people coming to look at them. You need eyeballs on your blog. How will you get them? 

Twitter and Facebook are good but not great answers here. Both can drive significant traffic but require a lot of work on your end. Also, their purposes are at odds with yours. Facebook and Twitter are your competitors. They sell ads to the same people you probably want to sell ads to. They would be perfectly happy if you didn't start a blog at all and just started a Twitter/Facebook account and posted your content there. If you are a local blogger, Facebook and Twitter, not your local paper, are your biggest threats. Why should someone visit your blog when they can read your headlines alongside other neighborhood headlines over there? They are useful but can't be your main tools.

Search could be a win for you, but have you devised a search engine optimization strategy?

Partnering with established sites could produce regular traffic and great visibility, but have you had formal conversations with other publishers about that? These things don't just happen.   Unless you have a formal, structured plan for how people are going to find you and see your ads on a regular basis, your local blog will fail.


In the end, the main mistake is looking at it wrong. You are not starting a blog, you are launching a small business. You are no different from the guy opening a bar up the road. You are both starting small, local businesses. You need to know something about blogging and social media, yes, but what you really need to bone up on is what it takes to run a small business. Instead of going to the local blogger meetups in your city, you should go to the local small business owner and entrepreneur meetups. Instead of following the latest social media news, you need to read up on the latest advertising, marketing, and search strategies showing results for actual media entrepreneurs in the field. This is the main mistake local bloggers make that dooms their efforts.

But if you can avoid this and the other five listed above, you'll have a chance to start something that will sustain you and have a real impact on your community. That's a special thing. 

There are opportunities out there for local blogs, they just need to be considered and approached with the right frame of mind. 

Thanks to @tracysamantha, @kiyoshimartinez, and @annatarkov for reading drafts of this.

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