I had the pleasure of speaking at WordCamp Nederland 2016. This is a transcript from my talk on multi-author blogging, with some tips, tricks and tools that I use to manage C+B and keep my sanity. Well, most of the time… 😉
In my session I talked about what I learned from running a not-for-profit multi-author blog for the past 3 years. I spoke mostly about what went wrong, so other people don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.
In the spring of 2013 I was miserable. I was living abroad, I was balancing a day job and a freelancing career and I felt alone all the time. I was following lots of American entrepreneurs who made it look so easy: start your 6 figures business from home, get ten thousand followers on Twitter in a month, build a business that will make you money while you sleep. You know, the usual.
The one good thing that came from participating in these forums and chats was that I started meeting like-minded Italian freelancers and after a while we started wondering: what if we start something, at the time we didn’t know what it would look like, for female creative entrepreneurs in Italy, in Italian, a support system to learn together how to become better professionals.
Since I build websites for a living, at some point I said: “Hey, I can whip up a blog pretty quickly and we can share what we have learned, talk with other women and see how it goes“. We will do it for free cause we want to give back. Three years later, C+B, in Italian, Casa+Bottega, Home + Studio is going really well.
As soon as we launched, the response was great! I know, these numbers might look small to some of you, but remember, this is a blog for female creative entrepreneurs. Talk about niche! We are a group of volunteers and I am amazed by the fact that we get proposals all the time from women who want to write for us. The content is so good that we have a big male audience that reads us even though all articles address the readers as “Hey sister” and stuff like that.
Learn from my mistakes
C+B is a not-for-profit blog and it faces a lot of the challenges that Open Source projects also face. Let’s start with some of the mistakes I made in the last 3 years: some of them I managed to fix, some I learned to live with and accept.
In terms of potential success but also time and energies involved. C+B was born as a volunteers run blog, to provide mutual support amongst female freelancers and it turned out to be really popular. Believe that your blog is going to be huge and plan accordingly. You need to be organised to coordinate all the writers. You need to think as if you were a big media company, even if you are managing the blog for the local gardening club.
Business Plan Everything
This is the biggest mistake I made: I didn’t think C+B would become so successful, demanding and expensive so I didn’t work on a business model or a business plan. Which is really terrible, since one of the things I do is to teach people how to write business plans!
The result? I pay for everything, it’s not much, but still… Costs include hosting, Mailchimp account, Facebook Ads.
If only we had sponsors, right?
This one is really on me: I hate looking for sponsors! I am pretty sure people would be interested in sponsoring us, cause we start to have good numbers and a targeted traffic, but I can’t seem to find time to put together a Media Kit and go nudge.
If you are planning on running a not-for-profit website, it doesn’t mean you will not have expenses as we saw in the previous slide, so find someone from the team that is good at this and follow the money.
This is especially important If you are a volunteer project like ours: you need to find partners not just authors.
People that believe in your mission and that can carry on your message.
Think also about all the other things that need to be done, beside writing: spell checking, SEO optimisation, graphics, social media, newsletter, maintenance.
Never allow pettiness
Creative a positive environment for writers and readers, always.
If one of the writers complains about their slot in the calendar or the number of times their post has been shared on social media or other stuff like this, cut them lose. They are toxic for the group.
If you get petty comments, that can be offensive for the author, go defend them. As the editor in chief you are also the mama bear.
Ban all trolls and bullies. We did have some, amongst the readers and the writers, and I dealt with them immediately and firmly: it’s never pleasant but it is necessary.
Nurture the community
The readers are the heart of a blog: find ways to talk with them, not to them.
On Facebook we run a weekly Ask Me Anything session and a Follow Friday post, where everyone can post their links and people can network online.
On Instagram we used to have a popular hashtag, #hounpiano, which means “I have a desk” but also “I have a plan” and it worked very well, until we couldn’t find the time to take care of it anymore.
We had a monthly Twitter Chat, we have a Book Club.
If the projects goes well it’s time to reconsider all the things you didn’t do and go for it: get a better hosting service, hire professionals to help you out, find sponsors and keep re-investing on your project.
If things get out of control, you are stressed out, you or the team are not motivated anymore: take a break, give the project to someone also or close it down. Don’t become too attached. Give yourself a good pat on the back, you did good, now it’s time to move on.
Tips & Tools
Now that we covered what it takes emotionally to run a not-for-profit blog, let’s talk about what goes on behind the scenes.
Doh! Don’t just use it cause you know how to, leverage WordPress! It was, after all, born as a publishing platform. As the editor in chief you are responsible to come up with an efficient publishing workflow: many features are already built into WordPress, use them. If they are not there, you need to get very clear on what you want to achieve so you can look for other solutions.
Teach others how to use WordPress
Not everyone knows how to use WordPress (shocking, I know!!!), we still see a lot of authors who paste articles from text editors, and bring with them some CSS that we spend lots of time cleaning, or don’t know how to use formatting options, so they don’t add titles, lists, block-quotes…
Teach them how to use it so they can become more efficient in their workflow.
We provide every now author with a welcome package with some basic instructions on how to fill their profile or how to format their posts.
Give clear instructions
We don’t just give instructions on how to use WordPress, we say how many words the article should have, we explain the concept of long form, give some SEO basics, we have a list of common grammar and spelling mistakes and things like that.
I am always working on this document cause setting realistic expectations and give clear instructions make everyone’s life easier.
Take care of the legal things
Remember we are thinking big!
Ask a lawyer to draw up a contract that clearly states who holds the copyright of the post and what the author is allowed to do or not to do.
In our case the author keeps the copyright, the content is shared with a Creative Commons license and we ask authors not to repost the same content verbatim: we made two documents available, for regular contributors and guest-posters, on C+B (only in Italian, sorry!).
Find the right plugins
Since I put together the website in a couple of hours, I relied on a number of plugins to get things done quickly. After 3 years I have a clearer idea of what our editorial process is, so some will be dropped in favour of different solutions.
For example our author page is now managed with a plugin that doesn’t allow me easily to show the different teams so we need to come up with a more elegant and efficient template.
The plugins we can’t live without are:
Work with professionals
This is another reason why you business plan everything! As I said, at some point you will want to step up and you need the right people to support your ambition.
C+B did ok for years, now I know we need to hire a UX expert and a developer to implement a few features that we need and we can not find readily available.
We use Edit Flow and we love it but there is one thing that we really miss: the possibility to comment the text of a post inline as you would do in Word or Google Documents. Instead we have to copy the chunks of text that we want to discuss with the author in the Editorial Comments and if it’s more than a couple of sentences, we need to move it elsewhere.
Refine your editorial flow
As the editor in chief you are responsible for creating your editorial flow.
Write down how you think things should work. Go into details. How long before the publishing date articles should be delivered and how? Who reads the articles? What needs to happen before an article goes online. What happens after the article is posted?
This is an outline of our flow:
- Francesca (me) —> Creates the calendar in advance and shares it with everyone involved.
- Author —> Uploads the article and puts it in the “Idea” status.
- Francesca —> First pass: I check that the article is fit for publication, check for tone of voice. If everything is okay I move it to —> “Draft” status.
- Daniela, who is an accomplished copywriter and editor comes in —> Spellchecking and editing —> The articolo stays in “Draft”
- Tatiana, our SEO expert does her magic —> SEO optimisation, copywriting suggestions if needed —> Still a draft
- Nydia, our amazing graphic designer puts the final touch —> We noticed that if we add a brief slogan to our featured image, the reach of social media sharing increases, so Nydia created a template: she also chooses the pictures for every post, adds the sentences, uploads the image in the post —> Still a draft
- Francesca —> I go in for final approval: the article now has been checked multiple times but I still read it quickly one more time to see that everything is ok —> Finally the post is ready to be scheduled
- Daniela, Barbara, Francesca B, Clara, Author —> We have one person in charge of every social and on the day of publishing they are responsible for sharing the post on social media.
Make a 4-6 month editorial calendar
Create an editorial calendar with a good mix of topics.
Decide how many times articles will be posted in a week. Don’t be afraid to post less frequently but with longer articles.
Send all the authors the calendar: it’s easier if they know it in advance, so they can plan for it.
This is where all the project management happens.
It was very important to teach the authors how to use it, don’t take for granted that everyone already knows the tools you love.
Once we started using Trello we had a Google Hangout where I showed the main features. Whatever software you plan to use, I advise you record a short screencast that shows how things work and send it with the welcome package.
This is one of our boards, for the editorial calendar.
We have ideas for articles, we have the calendar for the blog, the Ask Me Anything and Facebook, we have our workflow so everyone can check it, in case they forgot how things should be done.
We tried so many different tools!
We relied heavily on Facebook groups but that kept us separated: we had a group for the tech team, a group for authors, a group of occasional guest-posters. I really wanted a place for everyone to hangout and also to quickly communicate with the right people. So we moved everything to Slack.
It’s a bit of a learning curve for people who have never used it but again, I sent out clear instructions on how to join, added description to all channels and I am planning a town hall meeting at the beginning of November to see how everyone is liking our new communication tool.
Meet regularly face to face
Even if it is via Hangout, do it. This is another big mistake I made and I am trying to mend it with monthly meetings.
If you can do it in person, even better, otherwise do an online videocall at least once a month: we didn’t do that for so long cause the staff is smaller than the number of people who write for C+B and we weren’t motivated enough I guess.
Now that we are all on Slack I think it will be great to meet regularly with this great group of generous women who decided to share their time and knowledge for the benefit of other great women.
As you have heard, the emotional, human, side of running a multi-author blog is more complicated and stressful that choosing the right template so connect with all the people and find ways to recognise the hard work they are doing.
I hope that my trial & error process will be helpful for your blog, if you have any questions you can find me on Twitter as @FrancescaMarano or drop me an email, I would love to hear from you!
Slides on Slideshare. Video coming soon on WordPress TV.