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Revisiting an Audacious Idea

The look and design of the Audacious Ideas blog of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore really lives up to its name. Bright orange and green elements contrast brightly with plenty of white space and a clean typography, creating a lively and wide-awake interface. The logo is a profile of a person who has a bright orange splash of an “idea” right inside her head, and a visitor to the blog is immediately inspired to think.

The posts are diverse in content, written by many different authors, and almost all of them lead with a story.  Sara entered the country with a green card when she was ten years old, says one post, inviting you in to learn more about young Sara’s experience with immigration. Danny is a skateboarder reads another post, and this is what skateboarding means to him: “Ever since I started skateboarding around the age of 7, I’ve seen the world in an entirely different light leads to an article about an innovative outreach program called “Skateboarding for Success.” 

There’s no boilerplate here. The blog is an idea-lab and a story-hub, designed to be testing ground where social justice issues that are at the heart of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore’s mission can be debated and discussed.

We recently checked with Communications Network member, Debra Rubino, OSI-Baltimore’s Director of Strategic Communications, to see what wisdom she’s uncovered from doing the blog over the years since we first featured it on our website in 2009. And, at the end of the post we’ve added a few questions for you, our readers, as well!

Q. What led you to start a blog and what were your hopes & dreams for it?

I was at a session at the Communication Network’s annual conference in San Francisco in September 2006.  During one session that was led by Victor d’Allant, who at the time was overseeing the Skoll Foundation’s online community, “Social Edge,” we talked about how to bring social media and blogging online for your organization – and to be careful what you asked for because you could easily overburden staff with these tasks.  On the plane ride home, I thought that one way to get OSI-Baltimore and its mission better known might be to ask people outside our organization – in addition to our own staff – to blog for us each week.  I thought we could create a whole new community by inviting others to contribute.  And heeding the lessons learned from 2006, I thought, if we start it, we don’t have to commit to it forever.  We can discontinue it in six months if it isn’t working.  Now it’s five years later and we’re still going strong.

Q. The posts on the blog are very individual in tone and diverse in content, but they share a strong voice and similar editing.  How do you structure the production of the blog to keep things consistent?

Our Communications Associate, Tania Cordes, handles all the coordination, scheduling, editing and content management.  We typically ask for the posts to come in between 250-500 words, but some people really struggle with keeping to that length, so she edits their words and goes back and forth when necessary.  It’s a lot of work, but because we’re not doing all the original writing, we can keep up with it.

Q. How does the blog fit into the communications strategy at OSI? And what do your metrics tell you about your audience?

Every Monday morning at 10:30 we send out an email to our list announcing the week’s post and at the same time we tweet it out and do all the usual things.  The analytics show we’ve maintained a readership of about 600 people – I don’t know if they are the same 600 people for each post, but we stay steady at that number.  (Sometimes it goes up to 750, sometime it goes down to 300.) However, we know anecdotally that the blog has a wide reach. People in the community talk about it, compliment us on it or a particular idea, disagree with a posting, etc.

Although the office opened 14 years ago, OSI-Baltimore hadn’t branded itself at the time we started the blog.  We knew we needed to do so because we were changing our funding by diversifying.  The blog was one piece of a new brand identity campaign; it, along with other things, helped us establish a meaningful place as a social justice hub in Baltimore.  We believe that in order to change people’s opinions, people need to be involved with the organization. But being involved means that they also want to share their opinions – and those opinions also need to be considered and perhaps debated as part of a process.   We’re really invested in this idea – if you’re building a social movement and an open society, you need people to be part of it at every level. The blog is a great vehicle for this.

 Q. What is an important post or moment in the blog’s history?

Back in January 2008 there was a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun that really displeased us.  The articles were related to a relatively new drug that was particularly useful in treating opioid addiction – an issue that is very important to us – and although a few letters to the editor had been printed, we felt that we really needed a platform to respond to ideas that we felt were inaccurate or ill-informed.  Diana Morris, our director, wrote a commentary about the piece and it sparked a very intense series of comments from around the world. It was one of the biggest weeks for the blog.  If we had not had already established the blog as a platform for this type of thing, we wouldn’t have been able to respond so quickly and with such a reach.

Q. Even though you’ve marshaled an army of “freelancers”, your blog still takes staff resources – have you ever thought of stopping?

I am still disappointed that our blog, while it is read consistently, doesn’t grow – although we’ve tried many different things along the way.  But whenever I say we should close it down, people won’t let us stop.  Contributors still come to us, asking to post, along with those we invite.   So now, we plan to expand upon it.  Our goal is to create additional interactive features to make it an enhanced experience.  We want to continue to grow it into a primary social justice hub in our area.  We’re still feeling our way—and I’d love to get some more good advice from members of the Communications Network.

Now it’s your turn:  What advice do you have for OSI-Baltimore?  Any tricks or tips for leveraging the metrics for growth? Have you changed your expectations for a blog with the rise of other social media? How do you manage content and production? Share your experience!

Courtney Williamson is the community manager of the Communications Network.

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