AAM 2012: Blogging Basics 101

Building blogs in Wordpress

Make Your Reader Awesome

How do you engage readers?

  • How do I attract readers and build a following?
  • How do I elicit meaningful reader interaction?
  • How do I engage readers and enlist them as participants in a discussion?

Great questions! There are ways to attract and engage visitors to your blog, as well as ways to turn them off. It all begins with your attitude toward your visitor. Focus on your visitor, not yourself, and you’ll be off to a solid start.

Download this graphic as a printable PDF (8.5 x 11″).


1. Make Your Visitor Awesome*

Focus on information and experiences your visitor is going to find helpful and engaging, not on marketing or PR goals. You can reach a much larger audience if you focus on subjects that your visitors care about—modern art, paleontology, library science, Victorian design… You will serve your readers as well as your mission.

(See Joel Spolsky, Let’s Take This Offline, for some good examples of how to transform an angle from “making yourself awesome” to “making the reader awesome.” These examples are primarily business-focused, but the lessons apply equally to museums.)

  • Find out what people care about: Read other blogs in your subject area. See what’s up. Participate in comments and discussion. If you have a Facebook page, see what’s a hit and what’s a dud.
  • Ask for the engagement you want. Build questions and references to the reader (“you”) into the spirit and words of the post, rather than adding them as an afterthought.
  • Be relevant: Use the expertise at your institution to offer perspective and context on news stories and current events.
  • Foreground visitors by incorporating user-generated content, such as photos, feedback, stories, videos, etc.

EXAMPLE. The Brooklyn Museum is getting rid of its old card catalog, and asks if we want some. For free.

EXAMPLE. Nina Simon explains, very compellingly, why she was annoyed by the recent NPR story on the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City and asks what others think.

* In the immortal words of Kathy Sierra, game developer and onetime blogger.

2. Be Conversational and Open

A successful blog is a spin-free zone. If you’re using your blog for marketing or PR, which the majority of institutional and company blogs do, the reader will sense that immediately and leave. Readers don’t want to feel manipulated in the social media space. (Not sure if you’re doing that? Check how many times you refer to yourself and whether you use a lot of superlatives to describe your work.)

Speak in an accessible, generous, enthusiastic way, as if to a friend from out of town who’s coming to visit your institution. What are you excited to share? What do you want to hear his opinions about?

  • Approach a blog post as you would a conversation, not a lecture.
  • Avoid institution-speak and promotional language.
  • Be authentic. Use self-disclosure. If you’d like visitors to talk about themselves and voice opinions, it helps if you do the same.
  • Find and celebrate others’ awesome work.

EXAMPLE. After only two weeks on the job as the director of the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, Nina Simon talks about what she’s done so far, what’s up next, and why. And invites interns!

3. Create Interesting Angles

Begin each post by defining an angle—a specific take on your topic that makes it fresh and engaging.

  • Approach your topic from a lively, original, and possibly unexpected angle: one specific work in an exhibition, a moment from an event, a how-to from a workshop.
  • Write a snappy title. Can’t figure out a title? You might need to refine your angle.
  • Take a stand—offer a strongly held, rationally argued point of view.

EXAMPLE. An architectural historian at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney comments on Osama bin Laden’s compound and the architecture of anonymity.

EXAMPLE. We have a great lecture coming up at the Getty Villa by an archaeologist who studies ancient beers. There was a desire to use the blog to promote this lecture, which needs a boost. We brainstormed angles that would benefit the visitor and decided to interview the speaker about how to brew King Midas’s ancient mead yourself, at home. That’s more interesting and useful to the reader than a glorified press release about the lecture; it’s also something that will continue to have value and attract visits to the blog long after the lecture is over. (Blog post is in the works as of this writing.)

EXAMPLE. SFMOMA Open Space columnist Chris Cobb writes an all-time classic engaging title: Are San Francisco Artists Still Just a Bunch of Liberal Hippie, Left-Wing Drug Addicts and Alcoholics that Hate America?

4. Dare to Look Ridiculous

Be human! Admit mistakes. Get wacky. Reveal your thoughts. Fall flat on your face and get up again.

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s boring. 🙂
  • Be willing to reveal your mistakes and what you learned from them.
  • Discuss the thought process behind projects, not just the results.

EXAMPLE. In a blog post about their design collection, which includes “great items of cultural significance,” a MoMA media producer builds canonical artworks from the collection out of Legos.

EXAMPLE. Shelley Bernstein of the Brooklyn Museum talks about how visitors were confused about two duelling Brooklyn Museum iPhone apps, how she found out about the problem, and how she fixed it.


Comments are the main way visitors engage with your blog content. The way you handle these comments can help motivate and sustain engagement—or, conversely, dampen it.

1. Welcome Questions and Differences

Clarify what kind of engagement you’re looking for, and ask for it. Everyone loves praise, but that’s only one type of engagement. Questions and criticisms are engagement, too, and often of a more meaningful kind. Welcome such comments as an opportunity for real, meaty conversation.

2. Follow up with Questions or Suggestions Immediately

Reward people for contributing substantive comments by following up right away: answering questions, addressing concerns, thanking contributors for ideas. Other readers will see this and know that participation is valued here.

3. Be Genuine and Humble

Address all comments with respect and generosity, especially when you disagree or if the commenter has brought up a sensitive issue. Write in your own voice; avoid canned message points.

4. Use Visitors’ Input to Make Your Institution Better

Consider using your blog to actively solicit feedback about projects or decisions—and make sure to validate visitors’ input by showing how their comments actually made a difference.


Okay, let’s do this thing! Work with your neighbor to…

  1. Pick a topic. Pick an event or exhibition or other happening that you want to talk about on your blog. One partner will take the role of the blog post creator, and the other partner will take the role of the blog visitor. Take a few minutes to discuss and learn about this topic together.
  2. Create a visitor-centric angle and post title. Now, work together to conceptualize this content for your blog in a way that foregrounds the visitor and “makes him awesome.” Come up with a specific angle, including a blog post title.

    (To think about: Can you offer the visitor valuable information that she can use in her everyday life? Provide deeper context to an issue she cares about? Offer a fun experience on the blog itself, perhaps through a video, quiz, or poll? Take him behind the scenes? Make connections outside the institution, for example to current events or issues of social relevance?)

  3. Share and refine. The first rule of content revision is “revise, revise, revise!” So, let’s discuss what teams came up with and get feedback. Our mission is to respectfully but honestly apply the “who cares?” test.

A note on language. We’re using the word “visitor” because we think it’s better than most other words—reader is focused on text, audience is passive and herdlike, user is impersonal and distancing. Participant may be best of all—she is not only welcomed to stay for a while, but is taking an willingly active role.

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