Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrating 6 Months of Rural TeleCommentary

Life has taught me that it is important to celebrate and acknowledge personal and professional accomplishments and milestones, and I think that Rural TeleCommentary's success in just 6 short months definitely deserves recognition! At the end of last year, I was facing a somewhat uncertain future. I had just ended a very rewarding internship and I was on the verge of completing my coursework for my telecommunications Master's degree at University of Colorado. I knew I was facing the very daunting task of starting and completing my thesis in a reasonable period of time, and I was hesitant to look for a "serious" job with that responsibility looming over me. I've dedicated 10 years of my life to my higher education, and I do not want to become one of those people who pour years of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars into an education only to get swept up by a lucrative career before completing a thesis. Anyway, the challenge that I faced at the end of 2010 was finding a way to keep myself involved in the telecommunications industry where I could focus on things that interested me, at my own pace and on my own schedule, but still have time to finish my degree and keep one eye on my future career. At first, I wasn't sure about blogging. I didn't think people really took bloggers seriously. I didn't think I would get very many readers since I haven't had years of professional experience to build up my name and credibility. However, there seemed to be virtually no risks, or cost, to starting a blog. Additionally, there seemed to be a lack of blogs focused entirely on rural telecommunications policy issues (although I have found some good ones since I launched Rural TeleCommentary). My writing style and personal philosophy is very detail-oriented and highly analytic, and I really felt that the rural telecommunications industry could benefit from my unique perspective coming from a small family owned rural telecom provider combined with my extensive education in telecom business, economics, engineering and policy. As a result, Rural TeleCommentary:
Perspectives on the Rural Telecommunications Industry was born on December 30, 2010, with my first official post on January 12, 2011.

In the first two months, I focused primarily on building up a nice array of content. I did not have many readers—primarily just previous co-workers and a small group of select individuals who I counted on for feedback and testing out ideas. In January and February, I only had about 100 page views each month. I purposely delayed promoting the blog until I had about 10 posts, because once I started promoting, I wanted new readers to see that I was taking the blog seriously and capable of writing consistently on a wide variety of pertinent topics. In March, I started sending e-mails to individuals at rural telecommunications associations, law firms and consulting firms, as I intended these people to be my primary audience. I received quite a bit of positive feedback, and I was even featured in a blog post on Connected Planet, which I thought was really cool. I got a great opportunity to promote my blog at the NTCA Legislative and Policy Conference in March, where I passed out letters describing my blog to NTCA members and the Iowa Congressional staff that we visited during the conference. By the end of March, my page views per month had grown to over 300.

In terms of readership, April was definitely my biggest growth month. I attended a conference on Smart Grid Policy where I gained some new readers, and I got two big breaks with the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and USF Reform comments. At the beginning of this project, I knew I wanted to make comment analysis a major component of my blog, and the USF reform proceeding was definitely the best opportunity I could have asked for to showcase my critical analysis skills on an issue that is of the utmost importance to the rural telecom industry. Another big growth opportunity came in April as a result of joining Twitter to share my articles and "micro-blog" about issues that arise on a daily basis but may not warrant an entire blog post. Twitter was a slow process at first. I found that it was hard to gain followers, and you have to do a lot more than just follow people and re-tweet to get noticed on Twitter. I found that it was important to respond to tweets with meaningful commentary, not just "I agree" or "nice" or whatever. However, that can be difficult to do in only 140 characters. Anyway, I am very happy with my decision to join Twitter and now it has become an important part of my blogging process and a critical resource for most of the telecommunications news that I read on a daily basis. Twitter has helped me learn about companies, websites, blogs, and people that I possibly would not have known about otherwise, and for that I am thankful. As a result of my ongoing blog promotion activities and joining Twitter, I had over 1,000 page views in the month of April.

The growth continued in May and June. I was extremely focused on USF Reform issues in these months, which certainly helped me gain a lot of readers. I have been very impressed with the number of Google searches on USF Reform where readers are directed to Rural TeleCommentary. I'm glad that so many people are trying to learn about this issue, and I hope my analysis has been helpful. I have received quite a bit of positive feedback from readers about how helpful my USF comment summaries have been, so I am pleased to know that all the work has been valuable to other people. In mid-May, I ramped up my presence on LinkedIn. Prior to the LinkedIn IPO, I never really found that site to be very useful and I couldn't figure out how to take advantage of it properly. Anyway, since mid-May, I have managed to increase my connections from 4 to almost 180 and my efforts on LinkedIn helped me land a job as a blogger for JSI Capital Advisors. So yes, LinkedIn is a very valuable social network and I am extremely happy that I gave it a shot after years of finding it pretty uninviting. On the other hand, Facebook has not been a very valuable source of readership for Rural TeleCommentary. I have only gotten about 30 page views from Facebook since I started the blog, and I post links to every article I write. I don't really find this surprising, as my Facebook community consists primarily of people that I haven't talked to in over 5 years and a large number of people that I don't even know why I'm "friends" with—I think this is a pretty common sentiment about Facebook as people are starting to realize that there are better networks for professional activities. Anyway, I don't think many of my Facebook friends care very much about the rural telecom industry, but I will continue to post links to my articles there anyway because there is nothing to lose by doing so. Between Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, social networking has without a doubt become as big of a component of Rural TeleCommentary as the blog itself, and I am still learning the best ways to take advantage of social networking to increase readership.

As of the beginning of July, I now have over 5,700 page views, far beyond what I ever expected to receive by this point. When I started Rural TeleCommentary, I honestly thought I would be lucky if I got 20 readers a month. Although I can't tell by the Google Statistics what percentage of readers are "dedicated" versus what percentage are just stopping by, I can determine that I have a nice number of dedicated readers, which I hope continues to grow. As much as it kills me to say this, I owe a lot to the Google monster for directing traffic to my blog. However, it is up to the end user to actually click on my links, so I'm clearly doing something right. Also, the highest number of readers sourced from Google searches have searched for the phrase "rural telecommentary," followed by "Cassandra Heyne" (which definitely creeps me out). Other popular Google searches include "USF Reform," "arbitrage rural telecom," "AT&T-Mobile," "small rural carriers" and "telecom smart grid." My most popular post by far has been Smart Grid Synergies for Rural Electric Co-ops and Telecom Providers, largely due to a rush of traffic from France over the last few weeks. My most popular USF Reform post is the comment summaries from the price cap carriers, followed by the reply comments by rural telecom organizations. My posts on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger have been very popular, not surprisingly.

What has been surprising is the continuous number of international readers that come to Rural TeleCommentary. So far, readers have come from over 60 countries. A couple of months ago I posted that I planned to include more articles on international telecom policy, and unfortunately I have not had as much time to dedicate to this task as I originally anticipated. However, I still plan to post on international issues from time to time—I'm working on something right now on Pakistan's USF system thanks to a reader telling me that their system has been successful. The following chart shows my page views as of July 4 from the top 10 countries—as I mentioned above, there has been a large influx of traffic from France recently specifically for my Smart Grid Synergies article. 

So, what have I learned so far in this project? First, aggressive promotion is very, very important. If you want readers, you can't just sit back and expect them to come to you. I was very nervous at first to send strangers e-mails and hand letters to people and bring up my blog in basically any conversation, but over time I think I have become more confident as I continue to get positive feedback. I know it is very challenging to try to take up time in someone's day, and most people are already overwhelmed by e-mails, articles and other news. I tend to write long articles, and I realize that I am dealing with limited attention spans and competing with a bombardment of content from all over the web; however, I feel that most of the topics I write about warrant considerable detail and high-level analysis, which is what helps my blog stand out from the crowd. So, the second lesson is that it is important to offer a fresh perspective on popular topics. Everyone in the rural telecom industry knows that the FCC's USF reforms are scary, and everyone everywhere knows that the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is a disaster in the making—I try to go deeper than the prevailing opinions and offer interesting analysis from my unique perspective on the industry. Thirdly, time management is really important and an ongoing challenge especially now that I have two blogs to write for—I try to stick to a strict schedule where some days I work on articles for JSI and some days I work on articles for Rural TeleCommentary. I've had to shelve some ideas to focus on more pressing matters, and I definitely cannot write about every single topic that interests me or I would literally not have time to sleep, ever. Lastly, I have learned that blogging is indeed a very fun and rewarding process, but it definitely requires dedication and commitment. I think I have been lucky that I have not encountered any significant challenges yet in terms of harsh criticism, and even critics of my perspectives have generally offered polite and constructive feedback. I am an avid reader of fashion and beauty blogs, and I know those bloggers get some extremely harsh criticism sometimes (why someone would make hurtful, mean comments about nail polish, I have no idea; but it goes to show that in an anonymous Internet environment, some people have no boundaries or common courtesy). Passions definitely run high about most of the issues covered on Rural TeleCommentary, so I'm thankful that I haven't encountered too much negativity yet—hopefully I won't in the future. The only aspect of blogging that I have been disappointed with it the lack of comments on my posts. However, since I started using Twitter, I have definitely engaged in conversations and debates related to my blog content, so I suppose that fulfills one of my initial goals of active reader participation. I also know from my own experience as a blog reader that people rarely comment on blogs in general. There are blogs that I have read every day for years and never commented on, so I have definitely learned that a lack of comments does not necessarily mean that people don't care. Also, I get a fairly steady stream of e-mail responses which indicates that some people simply aren't comfortable posting their thoughts in a public forum.

What's next for Rural TeleCommentary? Hopefully, there will many more months of increasing readership and interesting articles. I am trying very hard to post 2 articles per week on both Rural TeleCommentary and the JSI blog, but this can be a pretty aggressive goal especially when the articles involve reading hundreds of pages of regulatory filings! I am hoping to flex my engineering muscles a little in the near future. I haven't had much of a chance to write about technical issues, and I feel like I should before I forget everything I learned in my engineering classes. I could also use some practice with technical writing. I'm hoping to write some articles on rural LTE and FTTH, and I definitely have some ideas stored away on these topics. I will continue to do comment summaries on select proceedings, and there will definitely be no shortage of articles on USF reform as the rulemaking draws near and after the rules are released—indeed, that is where the real work will begin (and when I will finally have to write my thesis).

I want to personally thank each and every person who has read even one post on Rural TeleCommentary, and I especially want to thank those of you who have shared my blog with your colleagues and have continuously read my articles since the very beginning. I welcome any and all feedback about how to improve this blog for the benefit of my readers, so please do not hesitate to contact me with suggestions.

Cassandra Heyne

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