When is a blog too personal?

One of the great ongoing debates in the murky world of blogging is whether your weblog should be personal or professional, whether you should be revealing or private. There are, of course, many different answers and at some level the real answer is “whatever you’re comfortable with”, but I think it’s a topic worth exploration nonetheless.
First off, I think it’s useful to differentiate between a personal blog, which is probably serving as a diary or journal, and a professional blog: in the former case, there really isn’t much question because you can’t really have a personal journal if you’re not being personal and writing about your life, your experiences and your thoughts.
If you’re blogging for business, however, it’s a different story…

Business blogging is a different story because your goal is to convey a certain level of expertise, credibility and, yes, professionalism, and that can be counter to the idea of being too personal.
One solution is to use the “water cooler rule”. If a topic isn’t something you’d talk about with your supervisor hanging around the water cooler or coffee station at your office, it’s probably not appropriate for your professional blog either.
That might work pretty well for you, but I don’t think it goes far enough, because I can easily imagine chatting about the latest TV show or sporting event with colleagues and supervisors, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for my business blog.
What surprises me, however, are people who have what I call a hybrid blog, where it’s somehow intermingling personal and professional information. One article might be about the relative merits of a particular new coding standard or software product and the very next is about a big fight that the blogger had with their significant other or an encounter with a hostile street person or similar.
It’s not that these experiences aren’t legitimate blog fodder, the problem is that it’s not focused. Good blogs – at least in my opinion – are those that are focused pretty tightly on a single topic, be it coding standards, real time inventory management, RFID implementation problems, or even international tariff regulations.
Imagine that you were a well-known business author and you had a blog with the intent purposes of promoting your new book, your speaking gigs, and your consulting business. Blogging about your book, about letters you receive, reviews in the media, and even your experience speaking at different events is all perfect content, continually reaffirming your expertise, credibility and status as an expert.
Now imagine that in the middle of this you pop in a note about how you were really disappointed in the latest Star Wars movie, or had a terrible experience at a local ethnic restaurant. Could be interesting reading, but unless you somehow related it to your book and area of expertise, it’s just noise, just content that’s fighting your other efforts and preventing you from reaching your goal of being widely recognized as a professional in the online world.
I have a friend who is a professional editor and writer who is also in what she calls an “alternative relationship” where she and her husband both date other people. It works for her, but when she blogged about her relationship on her professional blog, I was shocked.
She said that “I’d rather just ‘out’ myself and if it turns off potential clients, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to work with them anyway.” I just don’t see it that way. When you buy a burger from the local eatery, do you want to know the politics of the owner? When you get your car tuned up at the local garage, do you even care about the religious background of the mechanic? When you receive a catalog in the mail, do you want to be confronted with the sexual orientation of the company owners?
Probably not.
So if that’s the case, why would you expose yourself and your personal life to the world at large – and your future customers – by blogging about your life rather than just your professional efforts?
Of course, there are undoubtedly people who will vehemently disagree with me, and that’s okay, because if there’s one truth about the blogosphere, it’s that nothing about blogging is cast in stone. It’s all fluid, changing and evolving on a daily basis as different people try different ways to balance personal and professional online.
Let me end with a question: how do you balance your personal and professional life in the online world? In chat rooms, on blogs, and even perhaps on your own weblog, do you talk about fights you’ve had with your partner, your religious beliefs, your political views, etc., or do you keep all that offline as best you can?
Me? Well, let’s just say I write a parenting blog but don’t even use the names of my kids. No kidding.

24 comments on “When is a blog too personal?

  1. Good post Dave — although your apostrophes are displaying as weird character sets for me in Firefox for the Mac…
    Anyway, as you know, this is a topic I’ve explored in some depth. The issue of where (or whether) to draw the line is not just about whether you devote entire postings or categories to personal or non-professional topics (such as a restaurant review), but even to whether you decide to *mention* any personal aspects of yourself and your life — especially if those tidbits might be considered at all controversial (religion, sexual orientation, political opinions, etc.) — in a blog that’s primarily professional.
    What I learned is that, at least in the case of the audience of my weblog Contentious.com, the vast majority didn’t care at all if I (or other bloggers they read mainly for professional reasons) occasionally mention or even devote occasional entire postings to personal or non-professional topics — as long as that content is made somehow relevant to the core theme of the blog, and as long as it doesn’t overwhelm more directly relevant content.
    In my 2005 survey, the majority or respondents said they don’t mind or actually like seeing some personal information offered in a business context.
    Here’s a link to my survey: http://snipurl.com/14omd
    Of course, this was not a scientific survey, but the results were very intriguing.
    Yes, I too prefer blogs to have some focus — but how you define “focus” depends on your goals and resources (including your own enthusiasm for blogging), and the preferences of the core community you’re trying to connect with through your blog. It also depends on whether the blog is entirely your own, or done on behalf of your employer, client, or other organization — and if so, what their policies and preferences are.
    If you’re not sure what your audience wants, I think it’s a good idea to ask them directly and to experiment. This is conversational media, after all.
    IMHO, of course. YMMV.
    – Amy Gahran

  2. Funny – this was the topic of an IM conversation (below) with a friend today (the other’s identity edited). I do not say much on my personal work blog about myself – once in a while I will write something that talks about me – and that’s why I love Vox.
    It’s supposed to be my personal blog that I can keep people that I do not know out of. Well, that seems harsh, but we all need places that we can be ourselves, and writing is always therapeutic.
    friend: who’re you hiding from, anyway?
    jeremy_pepper: LOL
    jeremy_pepper: read my blog – do i talk about anything person?
    jeremy_pepper: personal?
    friend: not *really*
    jeremy_pepper: see
    jeremy_pepper: so, vox is talk about personal shit

  3. I think how personal you become in your blogging should depend on several factors – the main one being your audience and secondly, what’s the theme of your blog.
    Obviously being personal in my blogging and websites has served me quite well. I’m able to stay at home full time and have for nearly 7 years now.

  4. This is why I write about professional stuff on Blog Business Summit and personal stuff on my own personal blog. I don’t see anything wrong with putting yourself out there, just as long as you draw some boundaries.

  5. Teresa, the problem is that it *can* be unsafe. I have long ago taken to heart an experience I had in the mid 90’s after I published “Creating Cool Web Pages with HTML” and listed my website address therein. On the rudimentary book home page I had a link to “photo album” and had a couple of pictures of my family and one of my daughter, then about 1yo. Perfectly innocent picture, clothed, etc., but I got email from some raving psycho complaining about the “child porn” on my site and how I was “exploiting my child’s sexuality to get traffic” and other such nonsense.
    I ignored the email, but realized rather with a jolt that there are pretty strange and scary folk out there on the Internet and that I really didn’t want them to be seeing pictures of my children or learning too much about my family. That day I took down the picture page and I’ve never had pictures of any of my family up and online since then…
    A good colleague of mine was also sharing a story with me about how he had his home address on a financial record that was publicly accessible and was quite upset when he got a call from his wife who complained that “some customer from your online store” was standing at the door. That woman was apparently friendly and just wanted to say hi, but what if it were an irate customer?
    So, have I become a wee bit paranoid? Perhaps. But I’d rather err on the side of being too impersonal than have a problem…

  6. Great post Dave.
    Perhaps unknowingly you just used two related personal examples of why not to post personal info. Your policy of not mentioning your kids names on your parenting blog, and just now in your comment as to what led you to that policy.
    You can offer a glimpse of your personal life without jepordizing the safety of your family. Which as I just posted over at the BlogWorld blog should always come first.
    Ps. Will the math test be graded?

  7. Blogs that blabber on and on about YOUR products and YOUR company and YOUR seminars, etc. are self-serving boredoms.
    But I agree that many marketing and business blogs bury their relevant content under tons of worthless drivel, private trivia about home remodeling and such.
    I think all content in a blog, even in personal vanity blogs, should be presented in terms of reader benefit.

  8. What Vasper said.
    The wine business is maybe a little unique. My blog content is usually at the level of things I would say or show to visitors to my tasting room: fun, informative, a bit off color, etc. But if something major happens in my personal life, it may affect my ‘blog voice.’ In those cases I just go with my feelings, and blog if it feels right. I think it creates a connection and a context…

  9. I agree. You need to figure out what your focus is and then stick with it. Personal commentary is out of place in a business oriented blog. Just because you have friendly exchanges with your readers it doesn’t mean they are your friends. As such, they really don’t care about your personal musings, they only want your professional opinion. If you are doing a business blog keep your personal items to yourself or do a separate personal blog.

  10. I think blogs need to be personal… if they are not, then it kinda loses its attractiveness. However maybe my definition of personal is not you having to reveal all the secrets, but more of having a very unique and conversational writing style.
    But then again, it still depends on how big the company is, etc.

  11. Everything you blog is ultimately personal.
    No matter how professional it might be!
    As professionals, we want to forge tight relationships with customers. This often involves revealing a bit of one’s personal convictions.
    Ahh, but there’s the line. Which bits of your personal life do you reveal…and which are best left unsaid, unwritten?
    Some personal bits will help attract and cement relationships…while working to repel people you don’t want to develop relationships with, anyway.
    For example, I don’t personally think I’d trust a blog about parenting if the blogger revealed the names of their children! I’d think that blogger was exploitative. But someone else might think the opposite — that blabbing about your kids to virtual strangers is the only way to earn trust and develop a connection.
    But by choosing NOT to reveal something is in itself revealing. It could be indicative of a higher ethic, a more thoughtful approach. That gives an audience insight into personality.
    Opinion, humor, word choice, diction, sentence structure…it’s a big part of blogging, and it definitely reveals who I am as a person, albeit in glimpses.
    BTW — I know of a company blog with multiple writers. Their policy? No one can use the “I” word. And no names or bylines. It’s a bunch of opinions and facts, with no personality, no humor, and no authority. It ain’t much of a read, either.
    In blogging, personality matters.

  12. I’m a bit torn on this actually. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of your points (for example, “being confronted with someone’s sexual orientation” is something that I actually appreciate as an openly bisexual woman, and I have a number of bi and gay friends who not only don’t mind it, but seek out businesses that are gay-owned or gay-friendly. I also have no problem talking about my committment to the environment, something I’ve built my business on which is based firmly in my personal politics), I have to admit that the idea of talking about my relationships on my business blog is a bit… undesirable for me.
    However, I think there’s something very nice about sharing a bit of yourself in your blog, and the way I tend to feel about it is this: if you were straight and married and you had a conversation with your wife about something relevant to your audience/business, you’d probably have no problem talking about it on the blog, and most readers wouldn’t have a problem with it; in fact, they might enjoy it. So how is it different to talk about alternative relationships, be they gay or be they polyamorous (more than one partner)?

  13. We’ve been kind of torn about this lately too. The thing that makes me nervous is not so much the personal information I choose to divulge via my blog entries – it’s the cumulative data that can be gleaned by piecing together information that I willingly give out along with the stuff that’s inadvertently available, like the personal info associated with domain name ownership.
    I’d be very interested in finding out more about how to reduce the amount of very specific personal data (address, phone number) to safeguard my family, but I wonder if that’s like trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle…

  14. Dave, thanks very much for posting this interesting article. Now, I’m not a professional blogger as such and make my living in insurance marketing. So, I guess you could say I have some knowledge of blogging as a participant. I personally think that how much you choose to disclose about yourself all boils down to the purpose of the blog. If it’s personal I think the blogger can write about things that they’re comfortable discussing. If the blog is a business blog, obviously the aim of having the blog is to build credibility and trust by establishing oneself as an expert in their field. To come across in an interesting way that isn’t devoid of personality, you can write about business-related topics in a fun way. You don’t need to disclose your favorite restaurant or film in the process in doing this though in my view. I agree with you though – stick to the topic of your blog overall if your blog is a business blog.

  15. As I was reading your article, your stance on ‘hybrid’ blogs surprised me. I write a hybrid blog, and have received many positive comments on it. Also, I am an avid reader of many blogs, and I seem to find that in some ways, the hybrid blogs are more interesting. One topic is fine with a professional blog, but when reading for entertainment, that personal touch is nice.
    I think that hybrid blogs help you to get to know and understand the blogger. It is similar to going out to dinner with a coworker; you see a side of the person that you would have never seen otherwise.
    Overall, I feel that the blogger should express as much of themselves through their work as possible. Do not get me wrong, I do not like listening to teenage ramblings. I just like the personal touch.

  16. This is an excellent post which answered the question I had. I recently started a blog and I am still learning. You helped me add clarity to my purpose in doing my blog. I think that at the end of the day, everybody will draw the line at a different place based on our background and our purpose for writing a blog. Also, you simply can’t please everyone (those that try to are usually politicians). You simply have to pick your style and stick with it.
    Thanks Dave!

  17. Hi, This is peter. Your are maintaing it so nice to keep all out of spams and other non sence. I also want to do things like you. Do you have any suggestions.
    Online Dating

  18. We were going to start a blog and have found your post very helpful. As a new start up company, we think that our posts should be professional in nature because car insurance isn’t something people take lightly.

  19. Great advice! I’m beginning to do most of things things, and my next step is to grab me a domain/web hosting as well.!I seem to find that in some ways, the hybrid blogs are more interesting. One topic is fine with a professional blog, but when reading for entertainment, that personal touch is nice.

  20. I personally have 3 blogs up now, 2 are business and 1 is personal. The balance I strike especially with my personal blog is that I never reveal anything private about my family, but I’m pretty open about myself. I think people appreciate that honesty and give it back as well. I do avoid anything vulgar or profane but beyond that I’m pretty flexible. Thanks for the topic and I’ll try to send over some traffic.

  21. I’d be very interested in finding out more about how to reduce the amount of very specific personal data (address, phone number) to safeguard my family, but I wonder if that’s like trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle…

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