I had an interesting day today at Blogcamp UK in Birmingham. The event was sold out almost instantly, en-masse to what are generally called “mommy bloggers”. I was rather incongruously among these early-birds, but I decided to brave the event anyway — since the moms of the USA are one of the key demographics I’m currently selling to.

Blogcamp UK 2012 was certainly an interesting insight into a female world of blogging. This exists parallel to the rather male world of WordPress wranglers, PR suits, and chunky-spectacled social media gurus. It’s full of baby blogs, kitchen blogs, Pinteresters, Etsy and Ravelry crafters, and seems pervaded by a rather uneasy (but apparently lucrative) mash-up of paid product-promotion posts and personal life/emotions blogging. The event was sponsored by Skype UK (represented by two stalwart and personable young heralds), and a toddler nutritional outfit (GrowingUpMeal?) catering to the current baby-boom.

Sadly both the “spinning off ebooks” and “how to handle writing reviews” sessions were cancelled due to non-attendance of the speakers. But I caught interesting sessions on “Snark” blogging, and on creating paid online courses around your blog.

The attendance mix appeared to be split between those just starting to dip their toe into blogging (much consternation about being told from the platform early on, to get off blogspot.com / blogger.com as soon as possible), and savvy “old hands” running commercial blogs seemingly stuffed with paid product reviews and PR-driven links. Given the amount of time that the latter seemed to have to spend on their online properties, many of which appeared to require intensive 24/7 monitoring of oceans of resulting social chatter, I did wonder if that route was really one that was realistically open to many busy moms with young kids.

Branding your blog:

The morning started with a keynote from Muireann of Bangs & a Bun blog (style, opinions, and women’s issues) and its new niche spin-off Spikes + Heels (running for fitness). Muireann has around 7,000 Twitter followers, but didn’t give traffic/income stats for her blogs. The focus of Muireann’s session was on building a personal brand based around the projection of your blogging identity. Muireann has her own domain(s), a custom designed template, and uses press-shot quality photography of herself done free on a time-for-prints or free-links basis. As search moves more toward image-based interfaces, I wondered if there might be a pay off from this in the future — in terms of traffic gained from the integration of face-recognition into search.

There was talk of the need to find a consistent tone-of-voice, and the way that a low-traffic period in the first year or so of operation can allow you the time and space to find that tone. The audience can sometimes steer your “tone”, in terms of the questions they ask, the comments posted, and topics requested. Muireann’s example of perfect tone would be the tweets currently being put out by WstonesOxfordS (Waterstones bookshop in Oxford St., central London — the Studio’s wi-fi connection suddenly creaked when that one was mentioned). Regular use of your own unique catch-phrases can also be used to help build a blog brand.

Find brands to promote that fit with the personality that you want your blog to project. Consider brand consultancy opportunities, as well as basic brand promotions. Opportunities should arise organically from your own interests and online activities. Be open to opportunities that arise from unexpected directions. Public speaking opportunities will generally only come from first doing video blog posts, rather than podcasts.

The British are very uncomfortable with promoting themselves, especially offline. It’s “not the done thing”. Muireann’s experience in New York shook that out of her.

One of the things you can do is to create demand for your presence at events, but you need to be strategic about what you will attend. This is especially true if you’re in demand among PR companies. You don’t want to be known by them as “that woman who will go to anything”. Only go to events you’re really interested in. Talk to everyone — you never quite know who you’re talking to. Conversely, don’t rant and whine on social media — it will come back to bite you. Cultivate genuine “fans”.

Don’t shove your mummy-ness down the throat of your readers. Variety in blogging gives you a “long tail” in terms of search traffic, and allows you the option of future diversification. Let the blog change as your life changes, and as your audience changes. The knock-on “how my life is being changed” effects of a new personal activity can be as interesting to blog about as the activity itself. Choosing the right time for a second or third spin-off blog can be tricky. Don’t let your existing audience box you in, and yet don’t bore them with the new niche stuff when it really needs a new and separate blog.

“Snark” blogs:

Stuart Heritage of Luv and Hat talked about “How to Run a Snark blog and get away with it”. His blog is a dual-editorship blog, based on the idea that one person will love something/someone, and the other will hate. Targets need to be well picked, and the celebrity circus certainly offers many targets. Another way of finding targets is to simply find out what others are talking about, and then to “say what people are thinking, but are afraid to say”. Sarky live blogging of TV broadcast events draws an audience. The site makes itself pay with “advertising”, although no further details were given on this.

Snark needs to be mixed with personal honesty and self-depreciation, if you’re going to get away with it. But some celebrities will still track you down and berate you, some dogmatically. Some of them have parents or relatives, or PR people, who will do this for them. Some have legions of semi-deranged fans who will gladly take on the responsibility, and are more than willing to make horrible threats. “Ignore the haterz”. On the flip side, some celebrities will start to cultivate you, and may treat you like their other social networking acquaintances.

There’s a difference between moaning and being snarky. Moaning is about “doom” and angst. Snark should leaven the cynicism with lightheartedness, fun, and wit.

Be prepared to back down immediately on being seriously challenged. Have the courage of no convictions. This is especially the case if a blogger might have skirted the area of libel with some comments. Conversations with American lawyers usually go better if one puts on “the Hugh Grant” British accent and copies his trademark apologetic demeanour.

Online e-courses:

Susannah Conway was asked by a friend to run an evening course in photography at a local media training centre in Bristol, in 2006. Susanna turned this into a way of having the group of women go beyond simply taking pictures, to making picture that were ways of creatively “seeing the self” and moving into personal growth. Her first online course followed from this, and had 100 sign-ups without any marketing — and without her having a teaching qualification. The fourth time she ran the course, it sold out in ten minutes.

Susannah currently runs courses seasonally (winter/spring/summer/autumn), which retail at under £100. This seasonal rhythm creates natural points of anticipation during the year. Courses are limited to 150 participants, who interact either on Flickr or a private Facebook group, and run from 6 to 8 weeks.

It’s no good having great content if the delivery method is wrong for the audience. Each course starts with a video of Susannah, and informational slide shows with voiceover (Powerpoint + Camtasia). Terms and ideas are explained and clarified at the start. The momentum of the group’s natural social interaction and online friendships can dissipate toward the end of the course, if you get less than 150 people. More than that number, and the conversations can get out of hand and the tutor can be overwhelmed. Courses run 7 days a week, during the time they last. 150 is about right to generate the natural community interaction and peer support that will lessen the load on the tutor.

Give students enough to do. Ask for 4 photos per week per person. Don’t offer “prompts” in every lesson, but do try to give some kind of daily task in their in-box every day. Each daily message should be 500 words of chat, and 500 words of “prompts” — ideally accompanied by visual explanations or diagrams.

A free summary ebook is given out at the end of the course. Feedback is asked for on the last day. Students are encouraged to give testimonials, including video testimonials. They are also offered a linked sidebar button to put on their own blog.

After the course, contact is kept up with the tutor via a mailing-list and monthly newsletter. Send it out 24 hours before any new course registration opens, if you know you will rapidly fill your course places. Doing this avoids people being disappointed, and gives people time to round up their friends to do the course alongside them.

A good deal of the income from the courses comes from America. This reduces profits, since course prices are charged in pounds and the dollar/pound ratio is currently unfavorable. Online ‘creative / personal development courses for women’ has become much more crowded marketplace than it used to be. A small number of similar courses have sprung up that might appear to be “inspired” by those of Susannah.

Susannah has spun off two very nicely produced print books (passed around), which presumably help to increase income via upselling. e-books are something she is reluctant to get into, since they currently lack the vital social aspect of the courses. The courses are as much about personal development as about skills, and so need a period of weeks rather than just a day or two.

The courses repeat, with tweaks to keep them fresh. Much can be learned from looking at other popular blogs, and seeing how they do certain things. One can also do other people’s courses, which is tax-deductible, to gain insights into how others do things and what works for different types of student.

There was a well-attended late afternoon session on Google’s new “nofollow” requirements. This refers to Google’s attempt to try to crack down on paid blogging, which the majority of the session attendees seemed to be concerned with in one way or another. The move by Google has been getting the SEO world all abuzz in the last few weeks, and appears to go under the rubric of the “Unnatural Links update”. Scary rhetoric aside, as far as I can tell this mostly seems likely to affect the “I bought 1,000 backlinks embedded in junk articles” blog-flipping crowd.

Blogs that are “over-optimised” will increasingly be penalised by Google in the near future. Great content of 500 words or more per post, and light-touch automated SEO (the Google XML Sitemaps and All in One SEO Pack plugins on WordPress) seems the way to go. Frequency and timeliness of posting matters greatly to Google, as well as to your regular readers. Blogs will increasingly need to be friendly to readers on small mobile devices, and to load fast, or else will risk being penalised by Google Search.

That’s it. It was getting late and I didn’t stay for the final panel debate about the symbiotic relationship between PR people and “mommy” bloggers, and about how to open channels to PR companies and offer them community-relationship and insight services. It’s apparently common for mommy bloggers to be pressured by public relations companies to not disclose that they are running sponsored / paid / freebie-induced posts.

There were also basic sessions on how to start putting simple videos on your blog using Windows Live Video Maker, how to do a basic self-hosted WordPress install, and a basic introduction to “what is SEO”.