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Joel Spolsky and Kathy Sierra are Close, But There is More to Blogging

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 20, 2010

Joel Spolsky has succeeded brilliantly with blogging as marketing medium, and he says he only learned why a year ago based on something Kathy Sierra said at the Business of Software Conference:

To really work, Sierra observed, an entrepreneur’s blog has to be about something bigger than his or her company and his or her product.

Tantalizingly close.  Being about something bigger than the self-serving marketing of your product, your company, or even yourself is a key ingredient.   But it’s not enough either.  Spolsky’s examples hint at the greater purpose, in other words, what is this thing that’s bigger than the pedestrian marketing messages so many corporate blogs spout–don’t talk about the camera attachment you’re selling, talk about how to become a better photographer.

There is a phenomenon familiar to astronomers and stargazers called peripheral vision.  Some heavenly bodies are too dim to be seen directly, even with the aid of a telescope.  If you stare at them, they disappear.  But, tantalizingly, if you merely look near them but not at them, you can see them.  This blogging that Spolsky and Sierra speak of, is sort of a peripheral voice.  It is about finding a bigger picture to talk about, but it isn’t just bigger.  Many subjects are related bigger, but not interesting.  This is why I say the message is tantalizingly close, but incomplete.

The missing ingredient is to give something of value.  Your voice, opinions, and writings do not automatically have value, even if you are Joel Spolsky.  You have to convey that value in your writing.  You have to give something of value away for free to your readers.  That is really the entire secret to marketing with the Internet:

You have to give in order to get.

Conventional marketing has a hard time getting its head around that.  They’re entirely focused on what they’re going to get.  At best, they want to place whatever they’re willing to give inside a snare.  Here’s this nice juicy piece of cheese, but as soon as you take it, the trap snaps shut and I will compell you to become my customer!

But what if we leave juicy cheese in the same place day after day, week after week.  What if the availability causes a happy community to spring up?  Isn’t that community even more valuable than the little bit of game that was getting snared before?

Postscript:

Reading Spolsky’s post, he seems equal parts trying to convey that he has mined all the value blogging has to offer and now has no more time for it, and equal parts revealing of another important problem he has to solve:

We have the undisputed No. 1 product among the 5 percent to 10 percent of programmers who regularly read blogs about programming. Meanwhile, we’re almost unknown in every other demographic.

It’s an interesting question.  What are the missing demographics?  He alludes to great products not meant for programmers that are unnoticed because his audience is programmers.  He alludes in the quote above to programmers who don’t read blogs.  Will a cessation of blogging and a switch to other channels bear fruit?  Has the Internet changed the world enough, especially if you want to sell software, that the give-to-get mantra is now a requirement for selling to anyone with even a little bit of the way the web works influencing their thinking?   He says Twitter has a lousy blog, but clearly they understand giving-to-get very very well.

I wish Joel well in his journey to open other channels.  But in the end, he has spent 10 years building a brand.  The issue isn’t the blog and that it is only reaching the subset of programmers reading your blog, Joel.  The issue is the brand.  Marketing is as much about driving people away as it is about bringing people in.  Your brand does that.  It is a signalling mechanism.  Rolls Royce can’t just slap a hybrid engine into their cars and suddenly appeal to the Berkeley Greensfolk.  And those other channels you want to bring to bear may or may not take another 10 years to bear fruit, but the best they can do is convey the brand you’ve already built to new places. 

As for changing that brand, be careful what you wish for, and be careful what you give up.

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