Paul Boag has been working on the web since 1994. He was one of the original founders of Headscape, a UK digital agency, and is a well-known and respected author, blogger and conference speaker. He’s also co-host of the long running, and perhaps the original, web design and business-focused podcast BoagWorld.
Our paths have crossed many times over the years and knowing that he always likes a chat, I asked him if he would be willing to spare a few minutes to discuss the web, the industry and ecommerce – he kindly said yes.
This interview took place in late 2014. Since then, Paul has decided to move on from Headscape. After 13 years of running an agency, he will be branching out on his own, focusing on consulting, speaking, writing, training and mentoring.
We covered a lot of ground! This will be the first of two blog posts from our conversation.
I began by asking Paul the importance of sharing ideas and content in today’s increasingly crowded market.
Keir: One of the things you have done consistently well over the years is sharing your own industry experiences through your blog posts, books, your long running podcast and regular conference talks and workshops. How important a role do you think “content marketing” (as it’s now known) is to success?
Paul: It's enormously important. If you're a freelancer working in the web industry, having an online identity is possibly one of the most key aspects in your success. You could be the best web designer in the world, be the best at what you do, but if you're not expressing and communicating that well, then you're going to fail and be invisible. Truth be told, I'm a mediocre designer. I always was, even when I was actually doing design. But I was willing to talk about what I was doing and I was/am a good communicator.
I think sharing and communicating has all kinds of benefits. For a start, if you're talking about yourself, if you're putting your content out there, then people are going to hear about you, step one, kind of obvious. Part two is that if they are reading your content, you're going to be in their memory more often. That means when work comes around you're more likely to be invited to tender for that work.
Step three, if they know you – and I'm not just talking about knowing your writing, but know a bit about you as a person, which is why I've always embraced things like podcasts, video, Twitter, that kind of stuff – if they know about you as a person, you've got a distinct advantage when it comes to actually winning the work.
People buy from people. Again, you could be a brilliant web designer, but if the client doesn't like you, if you come across badly, then it's going to go nowhere. Oftentimes we can bypass the tendering process entirely because people know me and they think they'll get on with me so we win the work.
The other aspect to it is you will get better clients. Because you've been talking about who you are and what it is you do, you've educated the client before they've even come to you. By the time they sign up, they already understand the way you work. They understand your priorities and the way you approach projects. As a result, projects run more smoothly and tend to be more profitable.
The final aspect is if you're writing and putting stuff out there frequently, you're establishing yourself as an expert. Once you're perceived as an expert, life gets a lot easier.
There are so many benefits for building your online brand identity, sharing your information to the point where you're giving away all the trade secrets, really. It seems very counterintuitive, but it works.
Keir: If you’re starting a blog today, do you think it should be a company blog or under your own name – even if, essentially, you are the company?
Paul: I've got no answers to this. I know what we've done, and I know I swing backwards and forwards over this subject the whole time. Originally, the main reason I wrote for my blog (on Headscape) was to clarify things in my own head. When you learn something new, it helps to actually write it down to understand it. That's where I started.
We had no intention, as a company, of it being anything really. Then obviously it became a main marketing tool – but we have endless debates about. I think if we'd had a choice we would we have included the BoagWorld blog as the Headscape blog.
For a long time, I thought that should be the way that you go, but then on the other hand, I know if I go and read a “company” blog, I'm instantly hesitant. There is an extra level of reserve. It doesn't matter what you write about and how careful you are – there's still an element of, “This is somebody that's trying to sell me something.” I think when you have it as your personal site, that doesn't exist as much. But then on the other hand, it's less likely to convert into actual real work.
The other problem we suffered from – because the blog is my blog – is that I'd became this lynchpin, this figurehead for the company. That causes all kinds of bottlenecks and problems where clients want me specifically to work on the project. That can cause problems if you're an agency. That's not a problem if you're a freelancer, obviously.
Keir: Do you have a writing process? Do you set time aside, or do you outpour and then edit? For example, I know some people have daily writing limits. How disciplined were you when writing your last book?
Paul: I normally create an outline for each of the chapters with a rough word count. When I've got a deadline, which I do obviously with writing a book, I do plan out each week: I'm going to write a chapter or whatever it be. I do that, but if you take just a normal blog post, it normally starts off as a vague idea based around whatever I'm currently doing.
A great example of that is, at the moment, I'm playing around a lot with video. So I'm going to write a blog post on how to do video stuff.
It really annoys me when people say, “I can't think of anything to write about.” You're surrounded by ideas – everything you do every day is a blog post. You could write blog posts about writing blog posts if you want. There's not a shortage.
Next, that idea gets dropped into Evernote, normally with just a half a dozen or less bullet points of rough things I want to cover. It will sit in Evernote potentially for months. Next time I sit down to write something (because I feel like I need to write something, or I want to earn some money for whatever reason), I'll go through that list, pick out one, and then I just write without hesitation, deviation, or editing.
I just write, write, write. Once I've written an initial draft, I have quite a specific approach that I take. First it goes into Hemingway App. I use that to clean up the rubbish. From there, I get my computer to read it back to me while I read along. It helps me to hear it and see it, and I'm more likely to pick up little mistakes and sentences that don't flow well. After that, I add links, images, pull-out quotes, that kind of stuff, and that's it. I reckon a 1,000 word blog post takes about two to three hours.
Keir: How do you think speaking at conferences and running workshops fits in with blogging? A lot of writers never speak, and vice versa – what are the benefits?
Paul: I feel it’s all very interlinked. I see a bump in the readership on my blog when I've been speaking more often. Equally, I get more speaking engagements if I've been writing a lot.
Then there’s the podcast. It's got a very tiny listenership compared to a few years ago. It used to have hundreds of thousands but now it's tiny – about 6,000 people download each episode. We went through a stage of thinking we weren’t going to do it anymore but when we did, we noticed that the blog got less visitors and I got invited to speak less. Podcasts, Twitter, blog posts, speaking – they all feed off each other. It's all interconnected in some very complicated way that I don't really understand.
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