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Interview with Susannah Gardner

Me PhotoLast week Susannah Gardner from Buzz Marketing with Blogs posted a two part interview with me so this week she’s agreed to answer a few of my questions in my ProBlogger Interview of the week. Susannah is a web/blog designer through her own business (with her husband Travis Smith) Hop Studios, she’s an author of the soon to be released Buzz Marking with Blogs for Dummies (affiliate link) book and she’s an avid blogger. You can actually download the table of contents and first chapter of her book here. In the following interview I ask Susannah about her upcoming book, about blog design and about the pros and cons of having a blog (plus lots more). Enjoy.

ProBlogger – Thanks for your time Susannah – can you start us off by telling us how you would introduce yourself to a stranger – give a quick sketch of your life.

Susannah – I’m a Web designer, technical book author, blogger, and with all my spare time, I’m working on a master’s degree in public art studies. I love to read and travel. When I say I love to read, I mean it. Even at my busiest I just have to fit a few minutes in every day to make everything right in the world. I’m married to a great guy, Travis Smith, and we live with our annoying but cute cat in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Together we run Hop Studios, a Web design company. Whenever possible, we like to work on sites that bring together our combined expertise in online publishing, journalism, design and writing.

I’ve been making Web sites and working in the Internet field for my entire working life. I got started at the Los Angeles Times right out of university, which didn’t then have a Web site but knew one was needed to replace the online news service they created on Prodigy. It’s been Web sites and journalism and multimedia and design ever since. One of the things I like best about having chosen this career path, instead of, say, copy editing, is that it has taken me places I never expected to go, like running my own business and working every day with my husband.

ProBlogger – When and how did you first discover blogging? Why did you first get into it? Have your reasons changed since then?

Susannah – Blogs arrived for me gradually. I can’t really say when I began reading them regularly, but it must have been in 2001. I started my first blog, Unfavorable Pink, in September 2002. It’s a personal blog in which I write mini-reviews of the books I read. I started it for two reasons — first, I wanted a record of what I was reading and to share that record with friends. I’d kept a paper record for a long time, but looking something up in it always involved flipping lots of pages, so a blog was a big improvement. The other reason I started the blog was professional — I wanted to try installing and running a blog so that I could better help my clients. This is the best part of Internet development, as far as I’m concerned: There’s always something new to learn! I’ve kept Unfavorable Pink running, albeit sporadically, since 2002, though I’ve never promoted the site to anyone besides friends and family.

As it turns out, my personal blog was important for another professional reason: When I had the idea of pitching Wiley Publishing on a blogging book, I could point to it as a demonstration of my knowledge about blogging.

My second blog, Buzz Marketing with Blogs, is only three months old.

ProBlogger – What is the purpose of Buzz marketing with Blogs?

Susannah – Buzz Marketing with Blogs was started as a companion blog to the book Buzz Marking with Blogs for Dummies (affiliate link) that will be out in March 2005. It serves two purposes for me. I am using the blog to build up buzz about the book in the blogosphere; by launching it before the book is actually out I can make people aware of it and give them a place to come with questions about it. The second purpose is to be a resource for readers of the book to find up-to-date information and blogging tips.

This means I have several very different audiences for the blog, and that those audiences will change over time. Today my audience is bloggers and journalists. Next month, I’ll be adding business and PR professionals to the list. Luckily the fluidity of the blog format makes it easy for me to shift my focus as my audience changes!

ProBlogger – What do you see as the advantages of blogging over other forms of online publications? Do you see any limitations in it?

Susannah – Blogging seems to me an ideal Web format. It does so many important things well:

• Floats most recent information to the top
• Provides a coherent mechanism for archiving
• Can be used for personal and professional reasons
• Is about dialogue and communication
• Has a built-in organizational format

Even the most basic Web site faces these issues, and frequently fails to deal with them well. This isn’t to say blogs are an all-purpose solution to Web publishing. There is room online for all kinds of Web sites, fortunately.

Blogs do have limitations, as does any format that functions using templates and predetermined organizational strategies like categories and date-based archiving. I know it’s a popular concept right now to entirely replace a business Web site with a blog, but I think there is a place for more “traditional” (if I can use that word about a medium as young as the Web) Web site designs.

There are few businesses and individuals who are doing business online or simply establishing a presence that I wouldn’t recommend a blog too, especially in combination with a more static Web presence. The combination of a standard Web site and a blog is really quite perfect; each compensates for the limitations of the other.

ProBlogger – As a web/blog designer – what are the biggest mistakes that you see people making in terms of design in their blogging?

Susannah – Blog design is still quite young, and though we are seeing some common layout and design techniques, I expect to see a lot of change in this area over the next couple years. For business blogs, I think the worst design mistakes are in using blog software templates, not branding your blog sufficiently, and not putting the blog front and center on your business’ existing home page. Blogs aren’t step-children, and they deserve as much design attention as any other Web site you put together. They are more informal, and they don’t need to look just like your existing site, but there should be some correlation between the two. It continually surprises me that businesses with blogs don’t do more to promote them. If you go to the trouble of starting and maintaining a blog, why wouldn’t you put the more recent blog post on your home page – or at least provide a prominent link to it?

On a more granular level, the most common blog design mistake has to do with information overload. The two- or three-column layout common to most blogs is both useful and harmful. Some blogs are so jammed with badges, buttons and icons (or ads) that it’s hard to know what to look at first. In the rush to take advantage of all the blog services and technologies out there, many bloggers end up with crowded, overloaded pages. This is exacerbated by the amount and size of text on most blog pages.

ProBlogger – What advice would you give a new blogger just starting out with blogging in terms of design? What other non design advice would you give?

Susannah – I ask all my clients, blog clients or not, the same three things about starting a Web site:

1. What is your goal for your Web site/blog?
2. How will you measure success?
3. What is your audience for this site/blog?

Answer these, and most everything else falls into place.

My specific design suggestions have to do with your budget and how confident you feel about whether you’ll be blogging for long. If you aren’t sure about being a blogger, don’t worry about design. Choose an attractive blog template and just try things out for a while. You can always redesign while still blogging – in fact that gives you something to blog about and a way to involve your readers. If you don’t have much budget for your blog, same thing: Just get started.

As soon as you have the budget, or think blogging is for you, however, get a good blog designer in there to customize the look and feel, and to brand it with your company’s usual logos, etc. Any good designer can derive a blog design from an existing site so that you have something that looks similar to the rest of the site but still serves the purposes of a blog. Most importantly, make sure your blog design includes navigation back to the rest of your Web site! Preferably, this would look and function just like the navigation you’re using on all your other pages. Don’t be tempted to break basic Web site design rules just because you’ve started a blog.

ProBlogger – Do you make a living directly or indirectly from your blogging? Do you hope to? If so how?

Susannah – I make a living primarily through Web design projects, and writing. I purposely don’t carry ads on Buzz Marketing with Blogs because my main commercial message is to buy the book, and my secondary one is to consider using my design services. I think other advertising messages would dilute the effectiveness of my primary reason for blogging – generating buzz about the book and helping readers of my book get started blogging.

ProBlogger – You’ve written a number of books and are about to release another – could you tell us a little about your new one? What is it about? Who should buy it and why? Do you see writing books as a worthwhile venture? Why?

Susannah – “Buzz Marketing With Blogs For Dummies” will be released in mid-March. The book is for large and small business owners, PR folks, and entrepreneurs who want to get started blogging. It’s a comprehensive resource into blogging techniques and technology, meant for those with some familiarity with the Web but who are new to blogging or want to know more about it. I’m especially excited about the timing of this book – I knew when I started writing it that business blogs were an up and coming topic, but they have really taken off in the past couple of months.

This will be a great book for new or would-be bloggers, entrepreneurial bloggers, and PR professionals with clients interested in blogging. My hope is that it will suit the needs of a small business owner who has heard a few things about blogs but isn’t sure what they are really about, as well as larger businesses worried about things like blogging policies and libel.

You ask about writing books being a worthwhile venture. The jury is still out on this one. Writing books like this is difficult because of the compressed timeframe under which they are produced in order to get them onto shelves before they are completely outdated. Having said that, it is immensely satisfying to hold a book in your hand, and I enjoy having produced something tangible (Web sites, of course, are completely intangible). The books I’ve worked on have been very good for my professional reputation and credibility, and they have led to additional Web design work as well. For those of your readers who might be thinking about writing a book proposal, I say go for it. I am thinking about doing another book project… so I must like it to some degree!

ProBlogger – What is your favourite blogging tool or service?

Susannah – I use pMachine’s Expression Engine to run my blog, and am a huge fan of it for bloggers and Web site publishers. It’s at least as good, if not better, than Movable Type, even though you don’t hear much hype about it.

I am also a big fan of Feedburner’s services. I think RSS and comments are the two most important blog technologies, and Feedburner’s SmartFeed service makes sure your feed is universally accessible. Plus, you get stats – circulation, hits, and click-throughs – that most blogging software doesn’t provide.

ProBlogger – What has been the biggest buzz you’ve received from blogging? (best moment in blogging).

Susannah – Well, recently I posted an interview with Darren Rowse, and that got some good attention from the blogosphere. ;)

I would actually say that the best experience so far has just been in making connections with other bloggers. Everyone has been so supportive of the book and of me, and I wasn’t necessarily expecting that. It’s great that most bloggers feel there is room in the blogosphere for all kinds of blogs and bloggers.

ProBlogger – How much time do you spend blogging each day?

Susannah – I spend anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours a day blogging. I spend much more than that reading blogs.

ProBlogger – Where do you see your blogging in a few years time? What are your hopes and dreams for it personally?

Susannah – I am hoping that my blog and the book do well enough that I get the chance to revise the book next year or the following, and that the revision can take place with the help and advice of blog/book readers. I would love to hear about blog success stories from readers that I could turn around and feature in a second edition of the book. And, of course, I’d love to be part of helping some of those readers build their blogs as a designer and consultant.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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