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Case Study: Building a Blog and Finding Your Audience By Courting Spotted Owls

owlHow many times have you felt that drawing readers to your blog was as discouraging as trying to count spotted owls in the wild?

Where are they?  Where would they be?  Why can’t I find them? What must I do to attract them?

One rule of thumb for all of us who are building a blog is knowing exactly what “species” we want to attract.

When I first launched my blog, I knew who I was trying to attract and serve: Hermits!  My husband and I began a ministry to hermits in 1997 when we were asked to take over a small newsletter with a mailing list of two hundred.  Since that long ago time, our readership has increased to over eleven hundred around the world.

Gathering those eleven hundred hermits was no easy task, and we often felt as though were were trying to find just one more spotted owl in the wild. Along the way, we learned a lot about finding your audience. I’d like to share some of those lessons with you today.

Identifying Our Spotted Owls

Before we arrived at a “flock” of eleven hundred spotted owls, we realized that we had to define for ourselves who our “hermits” were. You see, we inherited some diffident folks who wanted to know if they “fit in” and could receive the newsletter.

The initial concept of hermit for which the newsletter had originally been designed was static and limiting.  We deliberately enlarged the initial concept of hermit because solitary life, freely chosen, was on a continuum and we wanted to do more than “preach to the saved”, as it were.

Initially, the newsletter was only sent to Catholic hermits who had been, or were planning to be, “canonical hermits.” That is, individuals who had met the requirements that Church (or Canon) Law laid down. Although hermetical life goes back to the third or fourth century, it is only since 1983 that the Catholic Church has given people who pursue a hermetical life a recognized place among professed religious.

But alongside these comparatively few Catholic Church hermits, we were discovering a whole segment of the population that felt drawn to solitude, not because they fundamentally disliked people, but because they felt they could best help our present day world by lives of intense prayer-care.

Many of these prayer-care hermits preferred to stay hidden, unknown in their personal consecration to this call, which, as Thomas Merton pointed out, always seems to increase when society is going through a major transition.

The simplest definition we could come up with was: a hermit is a person who lives alone by choice for spiritual reasons. That tiptoed around the problems of denominations and practices because we wanted to serve everyone who was waking up to a call from the Holy to live in concentrated awareness of him/her/it.

As we held firmly to this idea, the spotted owls came flocking in, hooting joyfully that now they don’t feel like the only person in the world with these weird ideas about living in solitude and prayer.

We offered them “raven’s bread, food for those in solitude” and watched in amazement at how they quickly began “writing” the entire newsletter with their shared thoughts, questions and reflections. We took our cues from their concerns and needs, offering what they were needing or wanting as soon as those needs became apparent.

Expanding Our Spotted Owl Flock

Once we knew that our newsletter was a successful way to communicate with – and serve – our audience, we then built a website that focused exclusively on hermits. Our website includes a history section; descriptions of hermetical lifestyles; hard-to-find resources; books; services such as retreats; spiritual guidance; and a lending library.  With this internet presence, we gradually reached new spotted owls in countries around the world. Our website now averages over nine hundred hits per day.

To our amazement, we also discovered that we had become the “go to” source for the Media researching this “new” lifestyle.

However, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that our website grew overnight. It was a long process but encouraging, because we saw readership increase month by month. And we catered to them in a very personal, one on one, manner. We listened as readers lamented the lack of spiritual guides; the difficulty in educating bishops about hermit life; their fruitless search for explanations of legal terms used in Canon #603, and we responded to them.

Bumps Along the Road

Paul and I have always tried to offer our readers (experienced hermits and beginners) what they needed and asked for.  After all, this is at the core of building an audience-based business, as well as at our core of serving our community.

And like most audience-based businesses, we occasionally offered a neat idea that proved neither wanted nor needed. For instance, we offered to sponsor a conference for hermits.  When we floated this idea, it sank fast, torpedoed by a total lack of interest!

On another occasion, someone suggested that Raven’s Bread readers have a group name.  Again, a polite silence made it VERY clear that hermits are NOT joiners!  They are strong individuals who prize their independence. They know who they are and don’t need a special name or identifying insignia, any more than they need or want an outfit modeled on thirteenth century widow’s weeds!

Learning by Listening

By listening intently with an open mind, we kept our focus very sharp, and aimed our services at genuine needs. Although this appears to doom a blog to a narrow and quickly exhausted field of interest, the opposite proved true.

What we lacked in breadth, we made up in depth.  Lively interchange and sharing of personal experiences kept readers coming back for more “food for those in solitude.”

Do not believe that by throwing a wide net you will “ensnare” a lot of readers for your blog. More likely, you will merely spread questions: “Who are you really addressing?  Who are you trying to reach and serve?”

Like spotted owls, your potential contributors and subscribers are camouflaged and will be easier to count if they come to what you offer rather than if you are out there flailing the bushes and, unintentionally, driving them away.

Be Unique and Focused

The secret of a build a successful blog is offering something unique… and focusing on it. If your field is job hunting, for instance, there are already dozens of blogs on this subject.  But if your focus is on those recovering from losing a job and facing the necessity of re-selling themselves, then you have a very particular audience to attract.

Writing out of your own experience gives your blog an authenticity that people recognize. If you have had the ego-bruising experience of being fired, your approach will be suffused with the empathy of someone who has “been there.” And the topics you address will have a different slant.

You must identify not only a topic you are familiar with, but choose a facet that hasn’t been treated extensively. For instance, Rosalind Joffe’s blog at WorkingWithChronicIllness.com is powerful because she has dealt with chronic illness most of her life.

She offers very practical suggestions born of her own experience and invites comments on well-chosen topics apropos to this situation. “Contrary to popular opinion, work can be good for your health … when you live with chronic illness“, she pronounces with authority

Always treat potential contributors to your blog with respect. Greet them personally –I was attracted to Mirasee because each email had my name scattered throughout.  Who can resist:  I was wondering, Karen, how you would answer this?

Empathy also draws people in.  When one of our bloggers wrote about her loneliness after the traumatic death of her husband, a number of other contributors offered her understanding as well as helpful advice about how to get through this rugged patch while remaining true to her deep attraction to solitude.

It was heartwarming to facilitate this discussion which brought out the deep compassion that, contrary to popular opinion, solitude fosters.

Use Your Personal Expertise

Clarify to yourself what your niche is – it must be very focused and intense.  Also, it should fit your personal area of expertise so you can speak with authority and out of experience.  I lived as a hermit for six years and had ministered to lovers of solitude for seventeen years before I started my blog.

I knew my field from the inside out and, though now married, I still live a very secluded lifestyle. My extensive correspondence with hermits keeps me tied into the developments and questions that need to be addressed.  However, I don’t over-estimate my expertise.

There is another, narrowly focused blog: “Juridical Advice for Hermits from Still Song Hermitage” by Sr. Laurel O’Neal which has a successful track record because the author has a degree in canon law.  She attracts questions that are more technical than those we address.

Find Your Spotted Owls

Keep your eye trained to pick out the spotted owls in the foliage surrounding you. Going back to the example of creating an audience business which serves people who have been fired: Your potential readers need healing as well as helpful advice.  Offer what your audience is literally aching for: ten methods to recover self-esteem; seven ways to re-package talents and experience; or thirty-seven steps to converting anger into energy.

Genuine empathy will draw folks like sugar water draws hummingbirds. But beware of the icky-sweet pity-party approach. An occasional kick in the pants has merit – at least my Dad thought so!

If you begin to get a reputation for being the site which talks to this specific niche of fired people who need healing and recovery, don’t contaminate your offerings by discussing the value of college degrees or developing new skills unless you can tie it into the “recovery” aspect of your blog.

We never accept articles or posts about general spirituality. Whatever we post on our newsletter, website or blog has to touch on life as a hermit or solitary individual: how to earn a living from a hermitage; how to face down loneliness until it turns into solitude; what forms of prayer are more appropriate when praying alone. Our material even covers how to cook for one!

Suggestions for Building A Blog

Once you’ve found your spotted owls, it’s time to build your audience-based business. Through our own experiences, we’ve found that is process is actually very simple.

  1. Choose your subject with care, and in accord with your own experience.
  2. Keep your focus sharp and do not wander from it.
  3. Treat each contributor with respect and care.

Success as a Gatherer of Spotted Owls

Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, a narrowly focused blog can attract and keep goodly numbers of contributors – and even garner interest from the general public. Our blog has become the “go to” place for writers scrounging around for someone with experience in our field of living a hermetic life.

Raven’s Bread Ministries has been approached by writers from publications such as Saturday Evening Post, New York Times Magazine, Modern Farmer, and most recently, Wall Street Journal!  It is surprising how many folks are looking for spotted owls!

What type of spotted owls does your business serve? How do you find them, and how do you nurture these relationships? I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences in the comments below.

About Karen Fredette

Karen Karper Fredette is a former nun married to a Roman Catholic priest with a ministry to hermits AND author of five books. She has been writing and publishing since 1969 - articles, poetry, short stories, biography, fiction and non-fiction books. She also mentor solitaries and co-edit Raven's Bread Newsletter.

15 comments

  1. I love how Firepole wasn’t afraid give a platform to a woman who blogs and writes for hermits. “Weirdness” can be a helpful aid in teaching.

    Karen — you make great points about the importance of specificity in building an audience and the examples you use are spot-on.

  2. In an online world that’s very noisy with millions of blogs, going narrow seems to be the only way to go! I think you nailed it when you wrote that building your online presence wasn’t an overnight process.

    This is the case no matter what your niche/subject. However, making it ultra specific increases your chances of building your presence quickly, since you’re serving a market and its specific needs.

    Did you ever feel like you were being too narrow? (I know a lot of my clients fear this and fear not having enough of an audience).

  3. Keep up your courage, Pamela! You are offering a very valuable service to people who need a LOT of hand-holding in the beginning. Like you observe, though, they have to be courageous enough to claim how they want to use their gift in public. Where are you posting the message of your business? You may need to go where you suspect your spotted owls may be lurking. I am always astonished at the number of “lurkers” who come to my website/blog but don’t identify themselves until one magic day I get the email beginning: “I’ve been reading your website for years…… Be gentle and courteous with your unseen guests …. you may even try addressing them in one of your posts? Do you recall the song from Brother Sun, Sister Moon? “If you want your dream to be, take your time, go slowly. Do few things but do them well, heartfelt work grows purely.” Care for your clients and be glad you have time at this point, to give them your very best.

  4. This was lovely, Karen. Although I’m far from a hermit, I LOVE Thomas Merton and could relate to so much of what you shared today. I needed this reminder, too — narrow my focus will broaden my audience. Thanks so much!

    1. Marcy,
      You have surely “hit the nail on the head.” Give each client your focused attention – what everyone wants (and deserves) but seldom get. I suspect that as you do so, your list of clients will grow, referred as much by word of mouth …. “You won’t believe happened to me today!!!” as by your attractive blog/ website. Be assured of my prayers for your continuing success.

      1. Thank you SO MUCH for your prayers, Karen. Growing my online biz has been both the most THRILLING and TERRIFYING thing I’ve ever done. However, what keeps me at it is that I truly feel like I’m doing what I was called to do. Blessings to you, as well.

  5. This is completely fascinating, the process and the subject matter it relates to. I love the idea of small following with great depth. I do feel sometimes that people seeking out voice work with me are like the spotted owls. Since speaking out or singing out publicly is a huge fear for many, it seems like people should be flocking to my work in droves. And yet, because it is a huge fear, people have to have done a certain amount of personal work and access a certain amount of courage to contact me. So, at the moment, those numbers seem smaller. Again, fascinating post.

  6. You’re right Karen,

    Building a blog is no easy feat. Defining our target market seems to be the problem most people battle with from the beginning.

    At this stage, it is very easy to wander and lose focus. But if we must archive our goal of building a business we feel comfortable with, we must take the time that is needed to identify and attract those we really want to work with. And that will make a whole lot of difference.

    1. Godwin,
      Your comments reminded me of the popular line from Lord of the Rings. “Not all who wander are lost.” When we are searching through the various possibilities we might want to focus our blog on, we have to consult our head, our heart and our gut. We review our gifts and life experience; we listen for our heart to skip a beat when a certain topic comes up; we feel confirmation when the deep “YES” rumbles through our gut. And remember, the search is likely to be one that will lead down some new paths that will branch naturally from the one you choose in the beginning. That is different from “losing focus”. Congratulations for offering such valuable skills to a world of folks who need them!

    2. Dear Daryl,
      Congratulations on recognizing where you have had specialized training and experience. In addition, you are offering skills that people need to learn these days. We have to have the self-confidence to believe in the value of – not only our gifts – but also ourselves. Each potential customer will be interviewing YOU as well as ascertaining the quality of your ability to teach them how to do research, write white papers, and do case studies. I can see this being applied to a wide variety of businesses, as well as non-profits needing to write for grants, etc. Hope all goes well with you, Daryl!

  7. That’s a great question, and one that I’ve personally struggled with!

    I’ve got a LOT of knowledge as a freelance writer under my belt, and with experience/qualification/writing experience in business, psychology, dating, the environment, and technology, I found it almost impossible to nail down ONE specific aspect. Although my blog is mainly a “business blog” (I also have a freelance writing blog) I found it difficult to differentiate myself from other business blog writers.

    Thankfully, I recently came up with my own “spotted owl” – writing technical business oriented papers such as case studies and white papers. With a degree in business and psychology, and extensive experience having to research and write papers during my university days, I believe that my skills fit this market almost perfectly!

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