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I was reading this Jakob Nielsen Alertbox about the top 10 weblog design mistakes. Mistake #8 was:

Mixing Topics

If you publish on many different topics, you're less likely to attract a loyal audience of high-value users. Busy people might visit a blog to read an entry about a topic that interests them. They're unlikely to return, however, if their target topic appears only sporadically among a massive range of postings on other topics. The only people who read everything are those with too much time on their hands (a low-value demographic).

The more focused your content, the more focused your readers. That, again, makes you more influential within your niche. Specialized sites rule the Web, so aim tightly. This is especially important if you're in the business-to-business (B2B) sector.

If you have the urge to speak out on, say, both American foreign policy and the business strategy of Internet telephony, establish two blogs. You can always interlink them when appropriate.

It makes sense but I'm assuming this is only meant as a guideline and not a hard and fast rule. My question is: Is mixing topics ever the right thing to do? And if so, when? Do you know any blogs that managed to pull it off?

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I wasn't clear, obviously: with "new variant" I mean blogs that don't serve just (or primarily) the writer's need to say something, but (also or only) something else, whatever this something else may be. Meaning, the blogger doesn't blog because she feels the need, the urge, to do so, but because she tries to "achieve" something with it. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 8 '11 at 1:09
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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It depends on what your blog is trying to achieve.

I agree with this much of your quote: readers come back most consistently to a blog that is focused, that offers one thing consistently. The reason is that, the more you switch around the key element of your blog posts, the less likely each individual post is to be enjoyed by a regular reader.

But two important provisos to that:

The consistent element isn't necessarily a topic. Some people have great voice or wit or style, and that's what keeps readers interested - and coming back. Or they're just really great at continually finding new interesting things. Or, they've achieved celebrity status and have fans for whom the fact that that person is writing it is the element that interests them. Scalzi's Whatever is a good example, with probably a mix of all the above.

And secondly, some mixture can be excellent - it gives you a specialty. For example, writer blogs are a dime a dozen, but some writers stand out because they write about writing and one or two other things. So Jim Van Pelt blogs about writing and about teaching, and Mette Harrison blogs about writing and running marathons. I'd probably never go looking for blogs on education or marathons - but reading about writing and those things gives the blog character and uniqueness - and I follow those blogs devoutly.

So in summary, the advice not to overscatter yourself is quite correct - a key of publicizing anything is to choose your target audience, and then target 'em like heck. But that doesn't mean no variety at all - it just means to keep your target audience constantly in mind.

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+1 Some blogs I read for the topic; others I read for the author. –  Monica Cellio Jun 5 '11 at 23:15
    
"It depends on what your blog is for". "achieve" is obviously biased to a certain type of blog, though I don't know what I'd call it. Originally, blogs were (and still, for many, are) just a "whatever I want to write about". Or really, "what happened today". "blog" stood for "weblog", a log on the web. If you want the blog to "achieve" something, it's not that anymore, it's... a tool, a vehicle. Smells commercial to me. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 8 '11 at 1:06
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@jae: I would take that as a given, since the question is following advice on how to improve one's blog and how to attract and maintain an audience. Not necessarily "commercial" as in "selling something," but clearly a ways away from "whatever I want to write about." If OP is actively trying to gain a following for his blog, then he's definitely trying to achieve something. –  Standback Jun 8 '11 at 18:31
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I agree that narrowly focused blogs will attract a wider audience, however I don't think it's because broadly focused blogs require more mental RAM (at least in these days of tagging and RSS feeds). A blog that covers a wide range of topics is mostly interesting to people at the intersection of all, or at least most, of those interests. For example, I've stopped reading tech blogs that were overtly Christian in a way that disturbed me, or business blogs that were very authoritarian and closed-source oriented when it came to technology.

One blog that mixes topics well is that of Eric S. Raymond, where you'll find martial arts, social commentary, open source software, tech sector analysis (currently a preoccupation with the smartphone market), libertarian politics, science fiction, and a whole lot more. Despite the author's total failure to use tagging to allow readers to cherry-pick content of interest, this blog works well. There is a lot of crossover in these interests, the writing is of unusually high quality for a blog, and is internally consistent.

Is mixing topics the "right thing to do"? It depends a lot on the goals the blog aims to achieve. I tend to use mine as a dumping ground for any thoughts i want to document, especially things I want to be able to refer others to, rather than explaining repeatedly. Mixed content works fine there. If you are trying to write a profitable blog, gain visibility in a particular niche, or raise awareness of some issue/cause, then a more focused approach would probably work better.

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ESR's blog? Thanks for the pointer, but I pass on everything ESR ever since he turned out to be a gun-nut (and that's just his biggest, let's say, foible...). Just my 2 (euro-)cents. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 5 '11 at 15:41
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@jae Thanks for proving one of my points: that a blog about a broad range of subjects can become uninteresting to people who have an aversion to just one of those subjects. –  HedgeMage Jun 5 '11 at 19:00
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Andrew Sullivan's Dish (fka The Daily Dish) is about as mixed-topic a professional blog as I can imagine, and it does staggeringly well. The core may be politics, but there are a lot of other ideas covered as well.

Smaller business blogs would benefit from focus. Once you get a decent steady readership, you could try widening the topics and see how readers respond, and use that as a guide to whether or how you should expand.

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Applying structure to prose is no more than good writing practice, after all, and not limited to blogs. Do you make an outline -- in your head or on paper -- before you start writing anything for submission? Do you sort-of stick to the outline and, as you write, do you modify the outline on the fly?

Even if the writing is stream-of-consciousness or a journal page, there's some sort of structure.

Why would anyone not do the same when writing a blog entry?

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-1 Doesn't address the question asked. The OP inquired about blogs that cover many different topics vs. those with more narrow focus, not the structure or focus of individual posts. –  HedgeMage Jun 5 '11 at 21:16
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I think you're answering a different question. Are you implying that mixing content is always a bad idea as it makes the blog unstructured? –  melhosseiny Jun 5 '11 at 21:17
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