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Stalking the successful blog: A case study in making the Web work for you

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BY MATTHEW COPELAND 
Stalking The Seam was born beside the woodstove on a late winter’s night in 2013. A bottle of Scotch whisky served as midwife. It was Steven Brutger’s woodstove, his Talisker and his hesitant question that set the ball rolling. “So I’ve been thinking,” he said. “And I’ve got this idea… and if it’s totally offbase just say so… but I was wondering… well, what would you think about writing a blog… with me.”
“Hell no!” was my gut reaction. I’m trying to scratch-out a living as a professional writer, I thought. Why would I want to spend time and effort giving it away for free? But I held my tongue. I’d known Steven for years as a hunting and fishing companion, colleague and friend and had come to think of him as one of the most universally capable people I’ve met — someone worth hearing out to say the least.
“About what?” I asked.
“I guess we’d need to figure that out,” he answered.
So began a discussion that, much to my surprise, led to one of the most gratifying and rewarding creative endeavors of my career.
STS, as we’ve come to call it, has in the intervening two years prompted a worthy body of work; provided an avenue for critical feedback; offered challenges and learning opportunities; dramatically expanded our reaches; established a laboratory in which to experiment; initiated adventures; and introduced us to numerous clients and friends.
Perhaps as surprising, we can trace most of our digital outlet’s success back to that initial conversation. We made a number of fundamental decisions right out of the gate, and somehow we got a few of them right.
First among them, both in terms of sequence and import, was topic. Our interests run to hunting and fishing, but a host of great outdoor sports sites were already jostling for attention online — many of them more expert, adventurous or well-known than us. What value, we wondered, could we add to that ongoing conversation?
Instead of trying to be another instructional platform, content aggregator, or escapist fantasy outlet, we decided to stick with what we knew and did best. As a couple of 30-something working stiffs with spouses, kids and mortgages, we get after the fish, fowl and four-legged critters more than most, often with little ones in tow. We suspected the majority of sportsmen and women could relate to our situations and guessed many of them would respond to our hunt for the sweet-spot between happy home-lives and passionate outdoor pursuits.
Agreeing on “a couple of average Joes trying to make it work” as the general subject gave us a purposefulness and continuity of voice that I doubt we’d have achieved otherwise. It also provided a filter through which to evaluate potential content.
The temptation is to externalize that function, to ask, “Will this post generate views?” But when combined with a commitment to 100-percent original content — also an early deliberate decision — knowing what STS was “about” prohibited us from chasing an audience, and allowed us instead to focus on storytelling. Doing so, paradoxically, helped the audience find us.
The STS Bar and Grill is a prime example. Primarily scotch reviews and wild food recipes, this regular Friday feature bombed almost every time it ran in the early days. But it fit into the original vision, and it was true to our interests, so we stuck with it. Overtime our stubbornness has been rewarded. A few STS Bar and Grill posts have quietly become top performers and attracted a segment of loyal readers we’d have never found without elk steak and Aberlour.
Nearly as valuable as an agreed upon framework has been a joint commitment to execution. The importance of the term “joint” can’t be overstated. Producing original content every Monday, Wednesday and Friday is a lot of work. Having a buddy to share the load is awfully nice. Having a partner to whom you are accountable is priceless. Someone’s bound to get behind and miss a post eventually — but it isn’t going to be me. I know that Steven, who’s every bit as competitive, feels the same way. I also know he’ll tell me the unvarnished truth when a post just doesn’t work, or a photograph isn’t up to snuff. The creative elbowroom that comes with playing in your own sandbox is great, but it does need sideboards. Sharing the credit and the criticism for what we produce doubles our chances at hearing the voice of reason before we wander too far off the reservation.
With our topical sphere selected, and baseline expectations established, the final key element to address was look and feel. Knowing that the Web is an inherently visual medium, and that Steven’s photography is a real asset, we wanted a format that led with imagery. It was also important to both of us that we present a certain degree of professionalism. Taken together, those goals translated into a clean, full width format with simple lines, understated fonts and color schemes, and minimal “bloggy” clutter. Realizing that vision took plenty of experimentation, trial and error. Knowing what we were shooting for, before wrestling with platforms, themes and settings, made all the difference.
We set out to create a blog that didn’t look like a blog, but we also made a point of embracing the medium. Frequent updates are a must, as is targeted online outreach.
There are well-established best practices for the blogosphere and ample resources available to anyone interested in learning. We did our homework and quickly learned the value of a newsletter and Google analytics.
But nothing has been so rewarding as engaging with readers. Fostering active relationships with the audience is absolutely critical to building and maintaining circulation. Those relationships also underpin the primary benefits of working on the Web — the creative stimulus, professional development, craft improvement, and newfound print and client work opportunities. When the audience shares our stuff with their communities, it drives traffic. When they share their thoughts and experiences with us, it drives us to keep telling stories.
Not even Google can put a value on that.
–Matthew Copeland served a six year corporate sentence in Major Metro USA before finding his way home to Wyoming. Today he writes for assorted magazines and helps clients tell their stories more effectively… when he’s not off playing in the mountains that is. Read his blog stalkingtheseam.com.
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