The blog has become a vital – and ubiquitous – part of the think tank’s publishing platform. Offering experts and researchers the chance to convey their insights in a digestible and (hopefully) accessible way, a blog post can be an invaluable way to curate content, reach new audiences and even generate media coverage.
But being a great blogger requires very different skills to being a great analyst or researcher. And for comms people, knowing how to encourage researchers to blog, deciding whether (and where) to place blogs externally, and understanding the ingredients of an impactful blog can be tricky.
So for our 13th WonkComms Breakfast Club, held in partnership with Soapbox, we decided to tackle these questions and more. And here are five things we learned.
1. There are (at least three) different types of blog – so choose carefully and tailor it to your output
We heard about how one think tank categorises blogs into three different types: the timely c600 word comment piece, often reflecting on the policy implications of a recent announcement or initiative; the report launch blog, either summarising in a pithy way the main findings of some research or highlighting one key finding that might warrant further commentary; and the 1000 word ‘datablog’, usually containing a nugget of original analysis, one or two charts and often an accompanying press releases.
There will undoubtedly be other types. But the approach for each must be carefully tailored to the audience. Which brings us on to the second thing we learned…
2. Dissemination is everything
No matter how well-crafted or punchy your blog post is, getting it read by your target audience takes a lot more than sticking it on a website and hoping for the best. Numerous different tactics were discussed, from pitching and placing articles in existing media outlets, to featuring in weekly newsletters, to creating bespoke and shareable graphics for social media.
Each approach depends slightly on the type of blog post it is. Going back to the three types described above, the comment piece is often disseminated via social media or careful targeting at key commentators, and often through external placement in established media outlets. The report blog is often disseminated directly via email newsletters or plain old emails. And the datablog should be original enough to generate headlines of its own.
It’s for comms teams to work with researchers and draw up plans accordingly. So careful coordination between people responsible for blogs and those responsible for social and traditional media is vital.
3. Getting researchers blogging serves a useful purpose internally
The external benefits of effective blogging to a think tank are clear: profile, relevance, influence and (hopefully) impact. But turning wonks into commentators can also serve a useful internal purpose, both in honing written skills and in testing how relevant their research or analysis is in terms of the external policy debate.
A beautifully crafted research report is no use unless it also contains something of resonance to policymaking – that’s what sets think tankery apart from academia. So asking researchers to write 600 words on why their findings matter for policy is a good discipline that should help keep think tank research relevant and impactful.
4. Blogging is a distinct skill that most people need to learn
Writing for blogs is hard, especially for researchers juggling multiple projects, complex analysis, and funding bids. The skills that researchers have developed aren’t necessarily the same as those you need to write pithily. As very few people are natural comment writers, would-be bloggers need editorial support and training. Some think tanks have been investing in dedicated Comment Editors to do just that. Others are supporting blogging from within other comms disciplines.
However they do it, the assembled wonkcomms audience at our breakfast club were agreed that good blogging takes time and practice, and a good way to foster a culture of blogging is to share examples of good articles and blogs.
5. Consider developing a pitching process to keep blog posts readable, relevant and impactful
Several attendees spoke about the benefits of having an internal pitching process to encourage researchers to think carefully about their argument before putting pen to paper. Asking wonks to sell their ideas to their comms colleagues can mean a lot of time saved in going back and forth on multiple drafts, as well as avoiding a lot of bruised pride. Clear guidelines on word limit, style and tone can also help.
This discussion focused on a lot else besides all of that. From the merits or otherwise of guest blogs, to the media strategy accompanying some blog posts. What are your top tips for think tank bloggers? Please do share them below!