Thinking about starting a research blog? Dr Inger Mewburn is the Director of Research Training at the Australian National University and the founder of the popular academic blog The Thesis Whisperer. The Thesis Whisperer has been running successfully for several years and contains many helpful articles about the process of doing a PhD. The FERSA blog editors were therefore delighted when Dr Mewburn agreed to a short interview, where she shared some of her insight into how to run a successful blog.
How do you create sustained growth with a blog-centric community?
That is a very good question. First of all, I don’t really concentrate on growth, I concentrate on quality, so if you keep the quality going then you do get good word-of-mouth and growth takes care of itself.
But I think being on as many channels as possible and having your branding sorted out so that you are recognisable on multiple channels is important. I’m on Instagram. I’m on Twitter and I’m on Facebook, and I’m always the same brand and the same name – and I even started a YouTube channel ages ago and I never used it. But I use it now and it is a Thesis Whisperer YouTube channel.
These things are what they call, in marketing, “touchpoints” so people are able to encounter you in various different places, and also making content easy to share. So I share mine under a Creative Commons attribution licence, which means that anyone can publish so long as they mentioned the original person that published it. So it is making that content shareable and creating those touch points. You’ve got to have that quality, or else it just doesn’t grow.
So how do you reach your non-followers?
Actually I have found printouts of my blog posts stuck up all over the world… (including) walls of tea rooms, the back of the toilet stall (!). Having your followers really sharing it through other means — through word of mouth — is how you reach other people. Also just doing things like this interview, doing podcasts. I’m surprised how often mainstream media is effective: so if I’ve given an interview to a major newspaper (which I have multiple times in my country) or in The Times, then that circulates, which is good.
One thing I do is write for the Union newsletter — the Union for academics in Australia. [There] are different pieces than I write on the blog and yet there is a huge audience of people that never goes [to the] blog. There are a lot of older academics and I get a lot of letters back from people who follow me up from that kind of areas so to speak. Being in multiple different spaces at the same time and taking those opportunities to do different types of writing and different formats, I think that really gets your circulation wider.
So how do you create meaningful engagement on the blog and social media?
One simple thing that I do at the end of every blog is I post a question or ask a series of questions, and the question invites a conversation. The conversation takes off or it doesn’t depending on how interesting people find the post, so that’s one way of getting the conversation going. Another way is to have a very strong set of moderation rules. I have a moderation page and it has gotten longer over time as things have happened. I very actively go there and delete people who are being jerks so I have no qualms about getting rid of them. Sometimes they repeatedly post and say “Why are you deleting me?” and I am like “because you’re being a jerk and my moderation policy says don’t be a jerk”. As soon as somebody is behaving like that it gives a chilling effect on other people’s experience. Managing that for me has been quite easy, very little trouble actually and I just weed it out as I go. One time I did post on my Facebook account – a picture that was overtly feminist and it attracted the kind of online trolls, kind of disaffected male audience. I actually deleted that post because they were starting to pay attention to me and I thought they would pay attention to more of what I was doing so I just shut it down. Being quite careful about managing that online dialogue keeps it nice and makes people want to participate. I think one of the reasons I have such a successful community is because it’s 70 to 75% women.
What are your thoughts on institutional blogs like the Warwick or the LSE blog as opposed to more student run or individual blogs?
I think any blog that has a distinctive voice is a good thing. I think some of those institutional ones have had trouble sustaining themselves. Not Warwick or LSE, they’re good examples of successful blog. But I have noticed others coming and going over the 10 years or so that I have been doing this and I think sometimes they get overly teachy, and they get a bit like “You should, you should, you must.” I think the successful ones do not do that. They just invite a conversation. Sometimes institutional blogs have trouble doing that. Another one that works is the Red Alert by the La trobe University. So I think very active content moderation, and content curation are key factors in my view. Someone is really thinking about the blog and it’s a commitment as you know. It is a big commitment. I think it is important to take breaks to have a bit of a think about what you’re doing, and what’s happening is this really valuable and a sort of refreshing time. I think a lot of people don’t build things into their schedule and then they just get exhausted.
How do you manage to maintain a high quality blog as The Thesis Whisperer? Do you have people to help you and reject posts?
I get offered a lot of posts so I post my blog once a week and then someone else’s the next week. Sometimes I will do three weeks of other people’s content before mine. Actually I have got a year of content in the queue! People are a bit surprised when they’re writing for next week and it is actually a year’s time. Do I reject things? Yes, sometimes I reject things just because they are rehash of what’s been there before. What I’m looking for is someone’s voice, someone’s experience and not necessarily “5 things that I should have done in my first year” and unless it’s ”5 things I should have done in my first year that I have realised as my experience was unique being a student with blindness” or such. I do not like the generic stuff. There is a lot of generic stuff out there. There’s more than enough. So I reject very few but I rewrite a lot. I edit very actively, it’s one of the things I’ve always done and that is part of the quality of the piece. So I have to end it with the person’s permission, so I edit it and I send it back and then we come to an agreement. So that takes a lot of the time. And I have no help at all, I do it all myself. I sometimes feel a bit tired but I have had the work down to a very fine part and to me editing other people’s work has made me a very quick editor and my writing skills have gone up massively just from writing the blog and editing other people’s work. It has taken a long time to develop this skill and to become this efficient.
Do you have any concrete advice for us for the Fersa blog? Any themes, are there topics that you think we should cover? And how do we sustain this enthusiasm beyond us?
I actually really like the voice that you have going. What’s really interesting about you is that it took me ages to realise that it was a multi-voice team. So I think that’s a real strength that you have. You’re able to create a voice that is an amalgamation of all of you and it has its own identity and that’s sustainable and you can turn it over to other people. I believe you’re not the first people to have the blog and it’s been sort of handed over to you and it’s great that you’re able to do that and sustain yourself that way. And I think keeping it real with the things – the question that I always ask myself is, is this useful if I read this? So I think picking up on themes is a really valuable thing to do. I’ve got about five different themes that I write under. If something does not fall within a theme, then do not include it. I will find somewhere else to put that piece of writing. Inviting writers in advance may be helpful too and one of you might take ownership of a particular type of theme. It will enable you to do more research in that area. That’s the other thing that I bring to my blog and that Pat brings to her blog, and what very few other people bring to their blog is the research angle. Because both of us actively research research so my research field is research students and Pat’s is students in general. So we bring in the research degrees, the research papers translate that research so that might be something you might want to explore a little more to actually look at the research, maybe if you’re writing for students. If you’re writing about students in depression then there is research on that that’s leading people to more resources which is always a good thing. So they come in and he have done a thing on depression and depression is a depressing topic and if in the topic you include papers that people can go out and read for, there that’s a thing that builds engagement. It’s like you’re not the source of everything but the resource point person for everyone else. I think you’re doing a great job.
Thank you very much to Inger, the Thesis Whisperer, for taking the time to speak with the FERSA blog and your valuable advice.
This interview has been lightly edited for length, clarity, and profanity per FERSA blog’s moderation rules.