On tokens of engagement and not taking things personally
Valentine’s Day annoys many men because they are compelled to buy tokens of affection (roses, chocolates and greeting cards) as stand-ins for what most of us really care about, which is caring, respect and love.
Stand-ins; however, can be like shiny pennies for both parties. These shiny pennies might get your attention, but in the overall scheme of things, they’re not worth as much as other more important things. Clearly, it’s way easier to buy chocolates and roses than it is to care more. The problem with stand-ins, is that they’re rarely more than symbols, and everyone who has been around the block at least once knows that symbols sometimes lie.
Similarly, as bloggers, we often confuse stand-ins for the real thing. We might spend hours publishing a post we’re really proud of, only to feel vaguely disappointed at the deafening silence of our audience. Or we might quickly whip up an unedited picture with credits, and we’re surprised at how much engagement we receive.
Any blogger with a public blog appreciates views, likes, comments, social media shares/ reblogs, and follows. Blogging, like so many creative pursuits, can be a lonely exercise. These tokens of engagement can help us feel acknowledged for the efforts we make. But, they are not always what they seem.
Imagine you are walking down a busy and familiar street in your neighbourhood. As you walk along the sidewalk, you may notice someone you know walking towards you in the opposite direction. If they see you, that’s a view. If they smile and wave from a distance, you might consider that a like. If they stop and exchange a few pleasant words about the weather or what you’re wearing, that’s a comment. If they take a moment to introduce you to the companion they’re walking with, that’s a share or reblog, and finally, if they add your contact details in their mobile, so that they might more easily connect with you again, that’s a follow.
Tokens of engagement represent how our presence affect the actions of others. Generally, in everyday life and blogging, we tend to like more engagement that less engagement.
But again, like most stand-ins for the real thing, these tokens of engagement can sometimes distract us from remembering what really matters. There might have been a million reasons why the person walking along the street either didn’t see you, was preoccupied with something if he did, was in too much of a hurry to stop and make chit-chat, or might have felt unsure of how to introduce his friend, or might have though he’d just find you on Facebook when he got around to it.
What’s important to remember is that tokens of engagement are just that: tokens. Tokens are not the thing itself. Likewise, the tokens you receive aren’t necessarily a valid representation of the thing (e.g. audience, appreciation, consideration, or respect) they are meant to represent.
A few examples of reading too much into tokens of engagement.
Let me give you a few examples from my own blog, that might help illustrate how misleading the presence (or lack of presence) of tokens of engagement might be.
My Second Life History quiz post (published Feb 8, 2015) received 1125 views in 7 days. It’s been my most viewed post this year to date, and when you consider that it generated 588 responses in those seven days, it’s even more remarkable. That’s an astonishing ratio of views to engagement (a ratio almost 2:1) is and the best volume of engagement I’ve ever seen from anything I’ve ever written.
In all my enthusiasm, I might conclude that quizzes are really popular, and that I should give up my regular posting approach, and publish quizzes instead. But there’s more to the story. And for this, I need to explain ratios. A ratio is how one thing compares to another. When I consider how engaging a blog post is, I want to look at two numbers: the views and the engagement token (a like or a comment).
For example, a post that receives 100 views and 100 likes, has a view to like ratio of 1:1, where a post that receives 100 views and 10 likes, has a view to like ratio of 10:1. For any engagement ratio, the closer the first number is to 1, the more a blog post engages people to do something.
My quiz post has received 9 likes and 30 comments (51 total but 21 were my responses to comments that I won’t count in my ratio). Here is what those ratios look like
- views to likes ratio of 125:1
- views to comments ratio of 38:1
Pretty different, eh? The point is, if I were to only judge the value of my quiz post by the number of likes it received, I might conclude that quizzes were at best an average way to generate audience engagement.
As a point of comparison, my next most commented post is called The Instant IM and Honouring Transition Time in Second Life published in December 2014. This post had 28 comments (10 of which were my responses to comments, which I won’t count in my ratio) and 16 likes. Despite this reasonably good level of engagement (for me), the post only had 152 views total. The ratios look like this
- views to likes ratio of 10:1 (views to likes)
- views to comments ratio of 8:1 (views to comments).
That’s better than my quiz post, which might lead me to conclude that writing about the everyday pet-peeves we experience inworld might be a better way to generate audience engagement
My most liked post is The fog comes on little cat feet. This post (a popular poem set to images taken inworld) was published in October 2013, and has been viewed only 63 times, but still received 21 likes, and 2 comments. The ratios are:
- views to likes ratio of 3:1 (views to likes)
- views to comments ratio 32:1 (views to comments)
As far as likes are concerned this post is a sure winner, which might suggest I should write very short posts (e.g. poems) set to images taken inworld. People clearly like them, right? The views to comments ratio, however, suggest that people don’t really find much to talk about in these posts, so if it’s conversation that I’m looking for (I am), maybe this is not the best type of post for me.
My most viewed post is My digits – Approximating human proportions in Second Life, published in June 2013 with 3,197 views to date. This post received 10 likes and 12 comments. The ratios for this post look like this:
- views to likes ratio of 320:1 (views to likes)
- views to comments ratio of 266:1 (views to comments)
Those are dismal engagement ratios, which might tell me that my post about modifying my shape to be more realistic, whilst interesting to many, wasn’t well received. Maybe the images sucked. Maybe my writing wasn’t interesting enough. Maybe people don’t like my ideas. But if I look at the views, clearly there’s a lot of interest in shapes!
If it all sounds a bit meaningless, it’s because it is.
Tokens are merely tokens.
Whilst I’ve taken a rather logical view here by calculating ratios, I think that many of us check the value of our creative output (our blog posts and pictures) in a similar, albeit more emotional, way. The problem, is that whilst these engagement tokens are real, interpreting them to mean what we think they mean might lead us down the wrong path.
Does this sound familiar? You publish a post. It’s gets half-dozen likes, we crack a bit of a smile. It gets 10 or more likes, we get a little more happy. It gets two or three comments, we get a little excited. It gets 10 or more, we’re positively giddy. We start looking at our stats. Before we know it, we’re reloading the post on our blog, or refreshing our email, just to avoid missing any more feedback we’re getting. Sometimes, we might even be surprised that a post that might have taken an average amount of effort (or even less than average amount of effort than other posts we’ve written), seems to get more positive engagement.
What happens when we spend a huge amount of effort writing a post (like I do for most of my posts), taking and editing pictures for it, and then finally sharing it with the world, only to have it met with nothing but a deafening silence? Might many of us not feel vaguely disappointed? Might some of us even question the quality of our skills, the merits of our efforts, or even the value of our ideas? If we’re a little more self-confident, we might instead blame the audience. Clearly, they don’t know quality when they see it; or, our post might not have been as popular because it wasn’t mainstream enough; or, people didn’t like it because it wasn’t about easy things to like, like pretty dresses and glammy shoes.
This isn’t you? Oh, ok. I guess I’m the only one. But if you do see yourself relating to the above scenarios, let me say it again: the symbols lie.
The first problem is that the data doesn’t represent the truth. The quality of your post (how well written, engaging, stylish or well researched it was) tends to be unrelated to the tokens.
Your quality as a blogger (how much of a good writer, photographer, stylist, or clever trevor you are); again, tends not to be related to the tokens you get on your blog posts.
Much of the time, it’s not about you.
There are so many factors that influence engagement – which aren’t really about you at all – which include:
- How engageable is your post? My survey is not the best survey ever written, it just happens to be the type of thing that people like to do on the internet. It’s also something that people like to share. Quizzes don’t necessarily reflect the sharer’s values or point of view, which makes them easy to pass around without exposing oneself to the vulnerability associated with taking an opinion on something.
- How focused and controversial is your post? My post on the Instant IM is easy to engage with because it’s about one thing that many people can relate to, and it’s relatively easy to agree or disagree with my views, inviting more comments than likes.
- How light and fluffy is your post? Lighter content (like feel-good poems and pretty pictures) invite a lot of likes, but not as many comments. These things are easy to like. Like mom’s apple pie, they’re not controversial and they might brighten up our day a bit.
- How many followers you have that are registered on the same blogging platform? Many people inworld tell me they like my posts, but don’t like them on WordPress, because they don’t have WordPress accounts. My personal experience tells me that leaving comments on Blogger posts isn’t always easy or reliable.
The second problem is that we’re not that good at interpreting data, even when it’s valid. Half of any engagement ratios depends on the number of views your post received. Similar to engagement, there are many things that influence views – that you have ZERO control over – which include:
- How timeless is your post? Posts about a particular fashion item or event will never be as timeless as posts about more general things, like shapes, or pet-peeves, or technical how-to posts and tutorials. The latter posts, will always get more views in the long run.
- Who shared your post? I know that if a select handful of bloggers like what I write about enough to share it, that post is going to get a lot of views. Whilst I appreciate the many shares it received among many bloggers, I can pretty much owe the bulk of the views received by my quiz to mainly one referrer.
- Where was your post shared? I’m not a plurker (I just don’t get the user interface – if anyone wants to volunteer to help me with that, I’d be all over it), but my posts that others share on Plurk and Twitter tend to garner a lot of views. Posts shared on Facebook don’t do as well. I’m not sure why that is, but it is.
- How search engine friendly is your post? Far away the most common search terms that lead visitors to my blog are related to avatar shape and avatar appearance, which is why my post on human proportions gets so many views. It just happens to be a popular search term for people interested in Second Life.
- How well does your post ride popular coat-tails? Since posting; however, my shape digits post receives most of its views in June, when Strawberry Singh does her what’s your digits challenge. I’m not a frequent participant in memes, but some really inspire me, and those posts tend to enjoy a high number of relative views.
You have an invisible audience that may not be acting, but they’re watching.
Blogging, in some ways, is like speaking to an audience behind a curtain. You know they are out there somewhere, you just can’t see them. It can drain one’s enthusiasm. It is probably the number one reason people give up on blogging. But consider the fact that your real audience is probably much larger than you think. Most of us gauge our audience size by guessing. We sometimes base the value of our posts by the number of likes and comments, or by the portion of our follower list, or by how many friends read it, or by who might be interested in the topic, or for all sorts of other explanations we make up for ourselves.
The fact is, a huge proportion of our audience is, and will always be, invisible. When blogging, we’d do well to remember the 90-9-1 rule. In most internet communities, of which Second Life blogging is one, 1% of the people give most (with posts or engagement tokens), 9% of the people give occasionally (writing, liking or commenting on posts here and there), and 90% of the people are lurkers. It’s not that a lurker didn’t click like or comment on your post. It’s that they don’t tend to click like or comment on anybody’s posts.
When it comes to the presence or absence of feedback: don’t take it personally.
Yes, most of us appreciate likes, comments, shares and follows. Many of us would also like to know how to influence those tokens of engagement. We’re human. Since we were little, we’ve been conditioned to expect positive feedback for a job well done. We tend to smile when our posts inspire discussion – even if its disagreement. We’d always rather get a new follower, than lose one.
But don’t, regardless of how challenging it might be, let tokens of engagement distract you from doing this for your reasons. Don’t let likes and comments tell you what you should be writing about. Don’t let followers influence what you share, or what you hold back. Stick to your guns, write what you want, share what matters to you, and stay motivated.
TL/DR: Blog because it makes you feel good, regardless of the feedback your blog posts receive.
Keep a consistent schedule? Yes. Invite participation? Yes. Contribute value in your posts? Yes. But always, always remember, you are your blog’s number-one-fan, and very likely its most unyielding critic. Whilst it may at times feel like you’re a lone voice in the wilderness, at least it’s your voice. Keep at it, and Happy Valentine’s Day.
* A big hat tip to Seth Godin for inspiring me to write this post, by writing this post today.