As I have confessed before, I love bar graphs and lists. I love data and spreadsheets and trying to read the data to see what trends emerge. 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. Last Thursday I talked about growth and the importance of posting regularity—with a lesson on the power of Google for driving traffic. Today, I’m talking about connectivity, which is far more rewarding for most bloggers.
First, the basic stats. Here are the numbers for the last 5 years (and a bit) on WordPress.
Last week I noted the key trends in blog growth. Catapult Growth moments are often driven by one of two kinds of sharing events:
- A super cool person or website that is way above my level (Feature Post).
- A post that picks up a large number of shares by normal people (Viral Post).
As useful as Catapult Growth is, there is always a settling down factor after this growth. In real terms of blogging success, it isn’t much more than cool to watch your stats double in a day. Long-term blog impact is less about the sheer numbers of hits you get, and far more about how deeply you have connected with a community of readers. In this way, a blog like mine that gets 10,000 hits a year may be as effective in reaching a community as mine, which gets 100,000 hits. Based on the comment sections on some blogs, there are small numbers blogs that have had a powerful impact on the key people for their target conversation group (i.e., their defined market).
New readers—including some good readers that stick around—are drawn in by viral and Big Share events. However, as I concluded on Thursday, solid growth is built on particular principles:
- Regular Posts
- Relevant Topics
- Strong Writing
- Readable Design
- Meaningful Networks
- Good Readership
I think #3 is nonnegotiable: Great writing is the foundation of the success of the blog genre and a powerful protest against mediocrity in a world that is awash with words. Write well, or go do something different. We’ll deal a bit with #2 and #4 later this week, but the key to Slow and Steady Growth is #5 and #6—Meaningful Networks and Good Readership.
WordPress statistics are less helpful for gauging this, to be honest. For example, included in my stats dashboard—the dashboard that WordPress makes worse each year—is the figure of 2,679 WordPress followers and 6,140 followers in total. Leaving behind the creepiness factor of our “follower” culture, these stats are almost useless. Of the 2,679 WordPress followers, most are getting that post in their Reader, and who knows how often they check it? Of the total follow count, that also includes my social media connections. So followership numbers tell me little. To get a sense of how people are connecting, though, here’s the breakdown of followers:
A singularly annoying feature of WordPress is how it tracks comments. As of today, I have 9,326 comments. This would be awesome except it includes pingbacks—links to other blogs—and my own internal comments. I have no way of gauging my real conversation level, except to guess that it is about 25% of that number. Worse is that there is no aggregate tracking mechanism for seeing how blogs connect to one another, even thought that connectivity is the foundation of WordPress’ internal mechanism. They know it; they just won’t share it with me (or it might be behind the paywall and I don’t know).
Still, there is a basic in-out tracking feature at WordPress that probably gives us a sense of what’s happening. Let’s look at “referrers” first—people who send folk my way, including search engines, facebook, twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and other blogs and websites. Here is the treemap of the last 30 days of traffic on A Pilgrim in Narnia:
It’s a pretty overwhelming image, isn’t it? Search Engines—of which Google is 98% of that—make up 83% of the last month’s traffic. That’s huge. February 2017, however, was not a typical month. I managed to have the highest hit count ever on A Pilgrim in Narnia without having any Big Share events or any Popular Posts (though there are Seasonal Growth factors). This was a Slow and Steady month built on Zombie Posts, Facebook shares, and Google traffic. Here is what the referral traffic looks like over the whole life of the blog:
In the all-time stats, search engines are still key, representing 61% of the traffic. Facebook has a similar influence, but Twitter and other blogs and websites are about 25% of the traffic in the last five years. What lessons can we draw from these pictures?
- Most of my traffic has little to do with me. As I argued on Thursday, Google is King and I am merely a successful part of their algorithm. My next post will explain how you can be more successful in this way (if you are interested).
- Facebook is still the social media driver. Twitter is great for quick dissemination of content and picking up the occasional Big Share. However, Facebook has a solidity that is lasting through a youth flight to other social media. My readership is a bit older—university students are the youngest readers—so I am perhaps less impacted by social media trends. We’ll see in five years, but I suspect Facebook is here for a while yet.
- Blog and website referrals are down. There is a terribly simple reason for this: I haven’t been connecting as much online. More of this anon.
- WordPress Reader isn’t doing much for me (or anyone, I suspect). Having been featured on WordPress, I appreciate what they are trying to do. Being “featured” (now it is called “discovered”) drove readership in an early stage, popping me up into a new level with the post, “The Land Where Oz is North of Middle Earth: Reflections of a Speculative Cosmographer.” However, when I was “discovered” on WordPress last fall with a protest post—“The PEI Bomb Threat and the Politics of Twitter”—it made very little difference to my stats. It is a great emerging blogger tool, so use it if you are in those first couple of years of active blogging. The new “Featured on Discover” tool is a lot stronger in that it is driven by actively engaged WordPress editors, so it is quite an honour to be mentioned.
- As my blog has grown, I am less and less dependent on big players. This is part of the leveling off of my growth, I think. My readership is not as active as some of the big blog drivers, but their impact is less for me than it used to be. I still love being featured and shared by people who have interesting digital platforms.
When I’ve stripped all the numbers away, it is the blog connectivity that I feel matters most. I care very little about the 61% of connections that are Google-driven and see my work as with that other 39%–key referrers where I can make a meaningful connection in social media or on A Pilgrim in Narnia.
Here are the top 5 referrer categories to A Pilgrim in Narnia:
- Apologetics: The Poached Egg and other apologetics sites
- Higher Ed: Higher Education sites, including Moodle and digital classrooms, meaning that profs are using my material in learning spaces
- Christian Controversy: Especially from the Patheos family of bloggers
- C.S. Lewis and Inklings Scholars: See those linked in Appendix B, but especially The Oddest Inkling and her suite of sites, Essential C.S. Lewis and his suite, and Tolkien Society bloggers
- Parenting: LikeMotherLikeDaught.org and other parenting blogs
That list actually captures pretty well what I do. Though #4 is almost the least of these referral groups, it is at the centre of my blogging mission. And these are my most significant commenters—fantasy bloggers, theologians, pastors, teachers, literary critics, historians, curious Christians, and intelligent readers. I love my connection with these folks. Though my apologetic, teaching, and Christian controversy blogs get more traffic, it is in #4 where I see my real success. And it is to those types of bloggers that I have driven the most out-traffic, with Arend Smilde’s www.lewisian.nl and Sørina Higgins’ www.theoddestinkling.wordpress.com being the largest clicked single sites (i.e, other than youtube, goodreads, big media, etc.).
The list of referrers, though, is huge. Appendix B captures the top ones, but there are 50+ WordPress bloggers that have sent me traffic—as well as 50+ Blogspot bloggers and dozens of other sites. Many thanks to all, because this is where I want to live.
Now, here is the critical lesson: The difference between me and a 10k/year blogger is Google’s algorithm, not the quality of our content or our connections. Now that I have buoyed up to a critical level of hits, growth has slowed because I have reached my capacity to extend my network. I cannot follow many more blogs or connect with many more communities. The only way A Pilgrim in Narnia will grow is if I get a book deal, if I move to an editorial model (i.e., bring in editors and writers), or if Google decides that I should be at a different level. The first isn’t happening, and the third is partly out of my control. So I am left with the middle option, and I don’t think there is that much need for a larger culturally informed Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction blog. We’ll see.
The best growth for me, then, has been the connection points I’ve made with others:
- In The Flesh: I saw 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. You may want to connect with a local writer’s group, take a class, or attend a conference to extend your digital platform.
- Netvents: Online events and intentional networking are essential keys to growing a blogging community. My first experience of this was an online blogging of the Hobbit chapter by chapter. Those blogs (here and here) remain popular, and I have stayed connected with many of the other writers.
- Facebook: My posts automatically publish to my Facebook feed, but I am going to change this feature and have them go to the A Pilgrim in Narnia facebook page (which I encourage you to “like”). Beyond the wall, I use Facebook selectively and intentionally to connect with C.S. Lewis, Inklings, and fantasy scholars—as well as theologians—in order to tease out an idea, find a resource, create a mild controversy, or share my material. In that group of “scholars” are intelligent and well read fans. I also share fan material to a broader audience through groups. I have not spent any time, however, connecting with the myriad of Christian and theological groups, so I don’t have much experience there.
- Twitter: Because my Twitter connections have gotten so big—and they are pretty small, 2500 or so—I struggle with how to use Twitter. Here’s how I have dealt with it, and I would be pleased to hear of your experience:
- I used the list feature on Tweetdeck to make a “Lewis and Inklings” list, which is basically my hotlist of tweeters who talk about fantasy, folklore, theology and literature, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.
- I also have made lists of #HigherEd tweeters, as well as institutional lists (things for work in education and government).
- On Twitter I share meaningful Christian content, fantasy lit events, quotes from my reading, poignant political moments, and things I find funny.
- I don’t engage in apologetics dialogue because, frankly, unlike my atheist students, Twitter anti-God evangelists are neither well educated nor generous of spirit. I don’t feed the trolls, and you shouldn’t either.
- I also share three kinds of content from my blog:
- New Content: I will tweet out new posts 3 or 4 times.
- Zombie Posts: When old content becomes hot again, I will use Twitter to extend that impact.
- Forgotten Favourites: The world doesn’t always remember
- Material I am Testing: When I have an idea I am teasing out, Twitter is helpful at getting the word out.
- Special Days: Without spending much time on it, I tweet strategically when there are calendar days like an author’s birthday or a key moment in history that is worth remembering. I also will take advantage of #FolkloreThursday, #amwriting, #amreading, #NaNoWriMo, and other Twitter events.
- Though Twitter is only 3% of my referrals, I think it is probably 15% of my meaningful contacts as well as the basis for key Viral Posts.
Well, that’s Fun with Stats #2. Later this week I am making the critical error of giving some advice about how to increase blog traffic.
Appendix A: Higher Ed Referrers
The King’s College
Moody Bible Institute
Oral Roberts University
Baptist Bible College
McLennan Community College
University of Alberta
California Lutheran University
Appendix B: Top Blog Referrers