One of the critical advantages of WordPress is that it offers the blogger tools for calculating their impact. It is also one of its critical weaknesses as the analytics are limited to daily visitor and hit counts, as well as a sense
of where readers are coming from and what links they click as they read. It could be the pro-suite is better, but in for the average WordPress amateur, you basically get a bar graph and some lists. They don’t even allow you to export to Excel.
Still, I love bar graphs and lists. I love data and spreadsheets and trying to read the digital tea leaves. As last month was the busiest month ever on A Pilgrim in Narnia, I thought it would be fun to talk about some lessons I’ve learned from more than 5 years of blogging. Today I’m going to talk about growth; on Monday I’m talking about connectivity.
First, the basic stats. Here are the numbers for the last 5 years (and a bit) on WordPress.
A great chart is worth a thousand words, but spelling out some of these words is helpful. I am what the young folk are calling a 100,000 Hit Blogger, averaging 8,000-11,000 each month for a little more than two years. I’m going to mention some reasons below and on Monday why this sounds more impressive than it is, but for now it is important to note that this does not tell me how many people actually read anything I wrote. It is a Google-type analytic, trawling for any connection with the site. 100,000 hits a year sounds amazing for a quasi-intellectual blog, but a lot of that is snow.
The trendline is interesting. Year 1 isn’t that helpful to tell us much; they were pretty lonely months. Years 2, 3, 4 and 5 all has huge growth patterns (50-95% year-over-year growth). Then we suddenly level off in Year 5. Here’s how that data looks in a monthly chart:
Here are some of the trends that pop out:
- It was nine months before the blog hit its stride at 1,000 hits/month.
- There are freezing and cooling periods, where the numbers move up, settle a bit, and stabilize at a new level. We see this in the summer of 2012, where the 1,000 hits/mo blog suddenly pops forward and it is looking like a 5,000 hits/mo blog. It settles in at 3,000-4,000 for a few months, then 4,500-6,000 for a few months, and then accelerates up to nearly 11,000 hits in Feb 2015. Then the blog settles again, twice moving up to 10k/mo and twice settling back down.
- The monthly stats don’t even show the story of normal activity. Usually blog hits go up or down by less than 10% a month. Weekly, though, the range is up to +/- 30%. There is much more variability during the month than looking long range.
- Each of the big loss months—Feb 2013, Jun 2013, and Jun 2016—were months where my posting became suddenly lighter after a strong growth period. The biggest lesson for bloggers: if you want to build your blog readership, blog regularly and never break the pattern.
- However, there are critical trends beyond our control. Look at the monthly trends: it is clear that blog readership goes down in the summer, begins to recover in September, and reaches its height in January or February. The 3 biggest months were all February, and the 6-month growth trends all come after a summer lull.
- This chart may capture that trend even a little better, where I trim off the partial years:
- Based on the data, there are three kinds of growth trends:
- Catapult Growth: a 30% increase in a single month (much of 2011-12 up to Oct 2012, Jan 2013, and Feb 2015).
- Seasonal Growth: a 50% increase over 5-6 months (the months leading up to Oct 2012, Jan 2013, Nov 2013, Dec 2014, Feb 2015, Nov 2016).
- Slow and Steady Growth: moderate growth over longer periods (especially 2014 and 2015-16).
- Catapult Growth is a factor in half of these Seasonal Growth periods.
- Catapult Growth and strong upward movement is triggered by three key factors:
- The Big Share: this is when a post is shared by someone moderately famous or a part of a strong network. This is usually on Twitter or Facebook, but can be rooted to other blogs or websites. For example, Terry Chimes from The Clash shared my post about him—“A Clash of Faith”—catapulting it forward. A New York Times editor shared my link to “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” and it kicked off. I often don’t know where the share comes from, but in the world I play in that Big Share can be a scholar whose own university President may have no idea what they do. Sometimes this is organic, such as “The Real Order to Read Narnia: A Third Way” from Feb 3, 2015, which was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter by normal folks.
- The Popular Post: this is when a blog catches on and moves quickly. For example, the post I hate most, “50 Shades of Bad Writing,” was published on Sep 21, 2012, leading to four months of growth. There were other points in there, including NaNoWriMo, which created a lot of traffic and some popular Christmas posts. Still, that post drove growth of the blog into a new level.
- Zombie Posts: this is where a post comes back from the dead. This happened with my “50 Shades” post when everyone decided such a great work of literature needed a film. Feb 2015 became a hot month, especially when added to “The Real Order to Read Narnia: A Third Way.” Recently, my Screwtape and George Orwell posts have been hot, even though they are fairly old. There is probably a cultural reason for that.
- While Seasonal Growth is affected by Catapult Growth phenomenon, it emerges naturally in certain kinds of environments:
- In The Flesh: I saw long-term growth after each conference I attended (Jun 2012, Nov 2013, Sep 2014, and Jun 2016). Teaching and connecting with scholars is a big part of my blog development.
- Netvents: online events and intentional networking are essential keys to growing a blogging community. For example, I had blogged each of the Hobbit films, getting a bit of fan mail and some internet hate (because I didn’t think Peter Jackson was the filmmaking version of Sauron, the Dark Lord of the Lens). However, when I hosted “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Blogs” with other bloggers, it opened up new possibilities.
- The Sticky Post: this includes posts that remain quietly popular for months or years on end. This includes “Screwtape on Pleasure and Distraction” and “Between Mars and Malacandra, Fantasy and Real Life,” both from Jan 2012 but more popular now than they were then.
- Often growth is a combination of factors. My Jan 18, 2013 post “Reconsidering Apologetics” was shared by The Poached Egg and a few other apologetics groups. The combination of the Big Share and The Popular Post made for a big Jan 2013.
I don’t have the data to support it, but after doing this for five years, I suspect that long-term sustainable blogging growth happens when a Big Share or Zombie Post–each of these are viral events–happens to a blogger that has this combination of these factors:
- Regular Posts
- Relevant Topics
- Strong Writing
- Readable Design
- Meaningful Networks
- Good Readership
- Still—and this will be sad for a lot of people—Google is king (or queen, or duchess, or a President offering to make the Internet great again). This is more a message for Monday, but these trends are guided by Google’s algorithms. More traffic found me in Nov 2013 because C.S. Lewis was in the media (the 50th anniversary of his death). So even when I was blogging on a non-Lewis topic, Google drove traffic to my site. I would bet you that if I hadn’t blogged on A Bridge to Terabithia just as Josh Hutcherson was launching The Hunger Games, I would still be a 10,000 hits a year blogger. An early Googlicious event led to the next one, and the one after that, and so on. I have had enough pop culture content, regular readership, and Big Shares that Google drives traffic to my site. It’s not my fault, mostly—and it probably isn’t your fault if you are still at 1,000 hits a month.
- And … goodness, lots of sites have better content, conversations, and connectivity than mine with far less traffic. Fun with stats may be informative, but it is only ever fun. It is never a measure of self-worth, a gauge of writing ability, or a metric for most kinds of meaningful success.
Knowing all this, I want to echo what I said in the fall: I write what I want. I write because I love blogging, so why would I have it any other way?
And, honestly, it all seems pretty random sometimes. One of the most popular posts of the last year is “How to Read All of C.S. Lewis’ Essays”—an unusually boring and practical post. I did a good job, but it was mostly a post for research geeks.
On the other side, a lot of great posts (in my mind) have gotten the internet equivalent of a shrug. I am not driven to write based on popularity. Good Tolkien posts will always draw twice as many readers, but I only post what I find fascinating myself. Who would want it any other way?
I am not completely un-shaped by reader trends. Over the last two years I have added some resource posts—not because they get a lot of hits, but because they attract the right kind of reader. My posts on hell brought mostly awkward silence, so I let the topic drop. In the long-run, readers appreciate C.S. Lewis resource posts. Because I am a C.S. Lewis resourcer, I have used reader feedback as an opportunity to play to my strengths.
I also break my own rules whenever I want. Although intensely interested in politics, I tend to avoid the topic. A lot of my readers are conservative Americans. I felt compelled to do some posting about Donald Trump even though I knew I would alienate readers I love. They were mostly light and not terribly negative posts, but some people committed to the left or right are not able to believe that someone with whom they disagree has anything meaningful to say. It was painful watching conservative Christian Americans ramp up to elect a person who wasn’t conservative, Christian, or of Presidential calibre. So I stepped out of my normal patterns to try to add perspective. I failed in this, and have been dropped by some blog lists rolls that equate Christian with conservative. But the posts were popular with readers who probably will never return. And Italians.
There are also personal factors that affect growth. This has been my most uneven year—which probably explains why there hasn’t been rapid growth. I suspect A Pilgrim in Narnia has hit a Googlesque soft peak and has reached its potential in rapid growth. But this last year has been almost spastic, going from deep posts about my (or Tolkien’s) struggles, to distant or cold posts about teaching or academic matters, to shiny happy face humour blogs and political satire. Thanks to readers who have stuck around, but it really was a survival year for me.
Well, that’s Fun with Stats 1.0. I hope you pop back in on Monday and check out the lessons learned on connectivity. Meanwhile, here is a super spastic chart on blog hits. It also looks remarkably like childhood art.