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How Off-Topic Is Too Off-Topic?

by Joe Loong on July 27, 2009

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One of the good things about having a blog that’s loosely-focused (say, about whatever broad range of social media issues that strikes your fancy) is that you don’t really have a topic to stray from. Which means that nothing is really off-topic, as long as you can circle it back to social behaviors (which can be nearly everything).

However, if you’ve got a company blog, product support blog, or other topically-focused or single-issue blog, there’s always the question — how far off the main topic can you diverge before you start annoying readers?

A recent example I’m specifically thinking of is TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington ranting against handshakes, for reasons of public health and/or squeamishness.

Now, going to events and meeting entrepreneurs and such is part of TechCrunch’s raison d’etre. So complaining about poor event logistics, or even railing against paper business cards is par for the course. However, when you start pushing your personal agenda and get preachy about sanitary practices, you’ve lost me.

(Even a general interest blog can venture into this territory, like when someone beats a joke or theme to death, a la Boing Boing’s extended riffage on the “Long Horse.”)

Why Go Off-Topic in the First Place?
Now, off-topic posts are an integral part of most blogs’ editorial mixes. They help fill the gaps if there’s nothing immediately blogworthy to write about. Off-topic posts make it easier for bloggers to inject a little personality into the blog, which can otherwise be a challenge if you’re doing, say, a straight, “just the facts” product support blog. And after all, off-topic posts helps humanize the bloggers, and the organization they represent — which is one of the reasons you’re blogging in the first place, right?

The key, then is to know your audience’s tolerance for off-topicness. And there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all ratio that you can apply: The line is going to vary for each blog, what you’re trying to do, how good your bloggers are able to communicate, and what your audience wants.

This means you should listen to your audience, checking both your active feedback (comments, e-mails) and passive metrics (pageviews, links, tweets, blog mentions etc.). Also, read your own blog (duh) and keep track of what you write about — you need to be able to keep a clear overview of the direction and tone of your blog’s content, so you can know if you’re ever approaching the edge.

Things You Shouldn’t Do
The don’ts when it comes to off-topic posts are a little easier:

* Abuse the bully pulpit: Especially for corporate and product blogs, you’ve got a built-in audience of customers and users. They’re self-selected, but not captive, so don’t take liberties with their attention, because the second you take them for granted, you’ll start losing them.

* Get more serious in your off-topic posts than your on-topic posts: Off-topic posts (I mean really off-topic posts, outside of even the realm of “day in the life of Company X” stuff) should be quick hits, not long, drawn out pieces. If you’re putting more effort into any of your off-topic posts than your on-topic posts, something is probably very wrong.

* Be too full of one’s “self-”: This is a blanket item for anything that’s too self-serving, self-indulgent, or self-important — basically, anywhere that you’re inflicting your personal beliefs on others. Personal blogs are nothing but “self.” Corporate and single-issue blogs are the antithesis of this — they’re not for you, they’re for “them.”

There’s a happy medium between dry, featureless corporate blog devoid of personality and self-indulgent personal playground, and it’s a wide and roomy one. Be respectful of your audience and their attention, and you should be able to keep them entertained while still keeping sight of your blog’s goals.

Ever have a run-in with an overly self-indulgent off-topic post on a corporate blog? Have you ever crossed the line yourself? Leave a comment below.

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    • http://markdrapeau.blogspot.com cheeky_geeky

      Fact: You're talking about Michael Arrington and TechCrunch.

    • http://www.joelogon.com/blog joelogon

      Mark — hrm, is your point that: it's to be expected with Arrington / TechCrunch (a la one big ego site; or that because I'm talking about it, he's accomplished what he set out to do; or that because it's TechCrunch, he feels he can get away with using the bully pulpit that way; or even all of the above?

    • http://markdrapeau.blogspot.com cheeky_geeky

      I don't know if he purposely set out to get you to talk about him, but if someone goes somewhat off topic and it results in novel neutral-to-positive articles (and a handful of negative articles), that's a win.

    • http://markdrapeau.blogspot.com cheeky_geeky

      I don't know if he purposely set out to get you to talk about him, but if someone goes somewhat off topic and it results in novel neutral-to-positive articles (and a handful of negative articles), that's a win.