I saw this question posted on Hacker News a few days ago:
Ask HN: Is having a personal blog/brand worth it for you?
This topic really caught my attention. I read through tens of answers on the thread and that got me reflecting on my own journey as a blogger.
I launched this blog as “Surviving CRM” back in 2008 and switched it to a more personal “Thinking Forward” blog in late 2019 (to say farewell to CRM and move towards the broader low-code theme with Microsoft Power Platform). These 14 years provide me some perspective on the topic of personal blogging and also building a personal brand along the way.
There were three subquestions in the Hacker News post that I’m going to try and provide my answers to.
Q1: Does the time spent writing feel worth it to you?
I can never know the true time I’ve spent on blogging. Not in total, and neither on average per post. They only thing I can really measure is the amount of posts & words within these posts that I’ve written over the years. Here are the annual stats from my blog, up until July 2022:
Looking at the total number of words I’ve posted in my blog and using 250 words per minute as the estimate for reading time: it would take you ~25 hours to read everything I’ve written in my blog.
How about writing those words then – how long might that have taken? I won’t go to deep on the scientifical part here and instead use the first figure that Google gives me for writing in-depth essays or articles: 5 words per minute. This would be roughly 100h per year in my case.
That’s only 2 hours per week. It goes nowhere near the time I’ve spent on doing the research required to come up with the final output for a blog post. Reading MS documentation/blogs and community content, testing the features in real live systems, connecting the dots in my head, having online discussions on the topics. The blog posts really are just a tip of the iceberg.
Let’s just say that I may have spent one working day for each week of the year, for the past 14 years, to do all the work required to produce the output that you see here in my blog. Essentially a 6 day working week, to come up with content that has been posted online, for free.
That may not immediately sound like such a great deal when illustrated this way, but let me tell you: that 6th day of the working week has always been the most rewarding one for me personally. Thinking about the total number of days, blogging with all the community work included comes pretty close to my longest employment relationship duration. I guess it’s obvious I wouldn’t have sticked around this long then if it wasn’t a whole lot of fun.
Right at this moment, when writing this “meta” blog post, I’m on my 4 week summer vacation (the Nordic way), at a summer cottage in the middle of nowhere. I’m looking over a peaceful lake view, with a glass of rye stout from Amager Bryghus next to my laptop. Even in situations like these I sometimes choose to write on my blog because it brings me more joy than it consumes time. It’s a hobby that has grown into an element of life that sort of defines who I am. Well, not everything of course, but an important slice of me.
Does blogging become faster the more you do it? Yes and no. Experience helps you in the areas that are repeatable, meaning the process around writing and publishing blog posts. Yet there’s no point in trying to minimize the time spent on the act of blogging itself.
Working as a consultant who bills customers by the hour, you can sometimes get too wrapped up in the concept of productivity. More bang for the buck / value for the customer = more outputs in less time, right? That is often not true – even in billable work. Even less so when you are doing things for your personal growth.
You see, when blogging for yourself (i.e. not because someone at marketing asked you to), it’s not a requirement to be very efficient in how you spend your time. I don’t have a budget for how many hours I can spend on this. Yes, the real world around me (family, friends, life) needs my time, too, but outside of my official working hours I don’t keep track of time. Things take as long as they need to take.
To me, writing is thinking. Your thinking is likely to improve if you spend a bit more time on it, rather than just taking relying on your gut reaction and assuming that’s all your brains could ever achieve.
In the long run, blogging has probably saved me time in more ways that I could ever measure. Not just by teaching me skills that would have been difficult to acquire otherwise, but by creating something that helps me on a daily basis: my network. Which leads us to the next question:
Q2: Did it help you to get noticed/ find jobs or other opportunities?
After the first few years of blogging, I’ve never had to look for a job. The opportunities always came to me, without my initiative. You could compare this to the commercial activity of inbound marketing. The effort is spent in advance, building up the audience, which in turn then reduces the need for outbound activities. So, the active work is still done, only in a different order than traditionally.
None of what has happened to me in my professional life for the past decade would have ever become real if I didn’t start blogging. Through both writing my blog posts and amplifying the posts of other community members, I’ve succeeding in building an incredibly valuable professional network. Putting my words out there has been the single best career move I can think of.
On year 6 of my blogging career, I received my first Microsoft MVP award. 2022 marks my 10th year in the program. Gaining access to not just the MS product team behind Dynamics 365 & Power Platform but more importantly, the other MVPs who are as passionate about their craft as I am – that has been undoubtedly a turning point for me.
At the beginning of my blogging journey I wasn’t sure if this MVP role was a path I actually wanted to pursue, though. My top priority in personal blogging has always been to honestly write about both the good & the bad that I encounter in Microsoft’s product offering – so that others can learn from my real life experience. Fortunately, having an NDA with MS hasn’t resulted in me having to apply a filter on how I talk about things. Just the “what” when it comes to non-public info, of course.
While writing your posts and reflecting on the lessons you’ve learned is an major part of blogging, I consider an equally important side of it to be the active participation in your community. A major reason why I originally started my own blog was because I wanted to give back to the community who had helped me get started on my career.
Already back in 2005, the blogosphere around Microsoft CRM 3.0 was what really set this technology apart from many other CRM competitors at the time. A global community can truly be a force multiplier, allowing newcomers to challenge the more established players out in the market. I believe this very same phenomenon plays out in the area of citizen developers today, with the community helping each other to democratize technology and making previously impossible things possible to a whole new (and bigger) audience.
Blogging may not be as trendy today as it was 14 years ago when I started. With today’s social media channels having replaced the old Web 2.0 era tools like RSS readers in how content gets consumed, aspiring new writers may well ask themselves: “will my posts on an independent blog site get me noticed anymore, or should I just use a platform where I already have a network”?
I recently checked what my personal LinkedIn stats looked like for the past 12 months (using Shield Analytics). By making 102 posts during the past 365 days, I’ve received over 500k views for them on LinkedIn. In my WordPress blog I’ve tracked only 130k views during the same time period. While my blog traffic hasn’t been growing for a few years anymore, the year-on-year figures from LinkedIn are mostly green:
The way I see it, a page view on a blog that you own & control is many times more valuable than what LinkedIn might track as a “view” of a single post that a user scrolls through in their endless stream. The impact is likely at least 10x higher when a visitor opens a web page dedicated to your writings and spends a minute or two on it.
Besides, a fair share of the LinkedIn posts I’ve made have been to share a summary of my blog post. This site right here is the “read more” destination where I actually get to talk with the audience who finds the topic interesting enough.
At the end, it’s not about the “likes”. Social media apps that gamify your clicks will always show you stats that are more compelling than a blog site like WordPress. Don’t get distracted by these. (I know I do, so I’m not saying it’s easy…)
“Couldn’t you post longer content as LinkedIn articles, though?” While it might be tempting for authors without an existing blog to start with the social media platform, I’d encourage you to ultimately own your words. Don’t become a slave to a network that primarily thinks about its own algorithms and business models for making money from your content. Exploit them wherever they serve you, but don’t become merely a servant to them.
Q3: Do you learn something new from it?
All the time. Even when the blog posts I write are just about documenting a discovery that I have made during a customer project, it helps me go far beyond what billable work would justify. Instead of just solving this one problem and jumping straight to the next one in the queue, I can spend a moment actually connecting the dots in my head.
Establishing links between the synapses in our brain is physically how learning happens. I find that the act of turning my thoughts into writing, arranging them on the screen and especially linking to related articles is the most effective way for me to learn. With this in mind, Q3 sounds a bit strange to me when rephrased: “do you learn something new from learning something new?”
You see, writing the blog post is not the end result of a carefully planned process (for me at least). Quite often the act of creating a draft post is when you really start to think. If you’ve ever heard about rubber duck debugging, then the idea is exactly the same. By explaining a problem to someone else, be it an inanimate object like a rubber duck or virtual object like a blog, you can often solve that problem without anyone providing you the answer.
Even the mere intent of “hey, I could write a blog about this” can start the mental process of organizing the details better in my head. Now, if blogging really would be such a magical formula to solve all problems, why not do it even more? Looking at my annual blog stats, why do I sometimes only write one post per month? It’s because all mental processes reserve cycles from your mental CPU (the brain).
Having a blog challenges you to put your thinking in writing. It’s not all fun and games, though, as you will inevitably get stressed at times about “I should be blogging about X, Y and Z, why can’t I ever get these things done”. The sad part is: you’ll never get over this feeling, no matter how much you do blogging.
Another fact of life is that you’ll continue to encounter other community members who write more posts, better posts, learn new things faster, get more readers, and so on. Spending years on writing blog posts on a specific domain topic doesn’t protect you from the impostor syndrome. A growth in the amount of exposure your writings get can even lead to scenarios that induce long term stress.
The dark side of community leadership recognition programs like the Microsoft MVP award is that they are founded on metrics of your impact. When I said earlier that personal blogging is an act where I don’t track the hours spent on it, in reality I still do need to log the outputs as community activities into Microsoft’s system. If you don’t do enough measurable activities to prove your impact to the community, you will no longer get awarded on July 1st next year.
Q: How much is enough? A: You won’t know, so nothing is ever enough.
During the past couple of years, I’ve felt very tired at times. Going through COVID, starting a company, getting a kid – many factors around me have contributed to the low mental energy reserves. I’m certainly not the only one with such experiences. I’ve heard from many people in my network that they’ve recently been asking themselves the question “is the MVP Award worth it?” So have I.
If the target would be to keep hold of the award, then maybe this type of blogging that I’m doing wouldn’t be the best choice. Lengthy articles that reflect on the state of the ecosystem, for example, aren’t exactly the type of material that will gain a lot of Google hits. Shouldn’t I rather be answering “how to” questions that some one is typing into the search bar? Why not just tell the audience “here’s how to do X with Y”, one feature after another?
Also, shouldn’t I rather reuse my content in more than one context, to gain more entries I could list as my community contributions for Microsoft to see? Instead of publishing a single blog post, couldn’t I format it as a presentation that I could then recycle in multiple virtual events that exist in the global Power Platform community?
Such a “shouldn’t I” list quickly becomes endless. It can turn your hobby into an energy drain rather than a source of energy. It is of utmost importance that you can be honest with yourself and identify why you should say no to things.
- Should I do videos? No, I hate skimming through them for answers and would always read the text version instead.
- Should I do more podcasts? No, I practically never listen to them since I love the sound of music, not the sound of someone talking.
- Should I submit sessions to community events? No, I have no motivation for attending virtual events and my ability to travel to live ones is limited.
How does all this relate to the original “what do you learn from blogging” question? It’s all about learning who you are and what you love doing. Knowing what separates you as an individual from the different crowds that you interact with.
What this means is: I couldn’t ever give an answer on whether blogging is worth it to you. The reasons, the benefits and the price of blogging that I’ve talked about here are subjective and apply primarily to me. I would surely encourage you to give blogging a go if some of these experiences and thoughts resonate with you. At the same time, be sure to remain honest with yourself and stop writing on your blog if in the long run it takes more than it gives.
Where I’ve found blogging to be an invaluable tool is in finding your own voice. It’s not quite the same as keeping a personal diary would be, but if you’ve ever found putting your thoughts into writing as an exercise you enjoy, there might be something here for you to gain.
Who knows what your brain might say to you if you’d give it a brand new channel of communication. Such as a blog.