AU Alums Join the Blogosphere
By Cara Miller
Luke Renner BA '98 admits that he’s a “brainiac,” an idea man. He’s the guy who’s up at 2 a.m. grappling with life’s big questions — not to find definitive answers but to grow in the process of speculation and see what new ideas emerge. Small ideas fuel bigger ideas and have propelled Renner to where he is now — founder and president of Fireside International, a non-profit media company seeking to leverage technology to improve education in Haiti. Not so uncommon is the fact that he often journals as a way to sort through his thoughts and document certain events as they relate to his work. But what might be surprising is the fact that Renner posts this information online in the form of a blog so that anyone can read it and make comments.
And people do read. Renner has more than 20,000 followers on Twitter. Each time he blogs, he sends a Tweet with the link to his latest post so readers can easily access it. But for Renner, the process of writing a blog is not about gaining followers. “It’s nice to know that people are reading it occasionally,” he says. “But blogging just gives me an opportunity to work through questions. I don’t tend to blog with a bunch of answers. More often than not, I use blogging as a way to expose my process to people in the event that my process will be helpful in their process.”
Renner is among a growing number of people across the globe who find blogging to be a rewarding venture. Originally termed web log, a blog is essentially a diary on the web in which authors post text, pictures, and links to other articles and websites. As Renner suggests, it is a fluid, dynamic medium that gives writers a place to expand ideas and reach out to a large audience. In turn, readers can easily and anonymously access current information and interact with others who share their particular interests. Topic possibilities are endless, ranging from the financial to the spiritual and everything in between. There are even blogs about writing blogs.
Plenty of other AU alumni have jumped into the blogosphere for one reason or another, representing a wide spectrum of subject matter and expertise. Like Renner, many alumni maintain blogs with the purpose of helping others.
Julie Ieron BA '86 is a Christian author who focuses much of her writing on women's ministry and the challenge many women face in caring for aging parents. She has plenty of personal experience when it comes to this issue as she and her mom once worked together to care for her dad as he underwent four surgeries in one year and her grandmother, who health declined rapidly before she passed away.
“We’ve lived the gamut of the caregiving process together,” Ieron says of herself and her mother. “And we continue to do it for each other.”
In the midst of this stressful time, Ieron was approached by an editor at Moody Publishers to write a book that would be a resource for women facing similar struggles. She was also encouraged by the marketing team to begin a blog on the subject.
Ieron agreed to write the book, The Overwhelmed Woman's Guide to … Caring for Aging Parents, but she resisted the idea of a blog. She didn’t think she had time to write it nor that anyone would care to read it. And the idea of starting a blog for the purpose of selling books seemed a bit superficial. But once the book was released and readership grew, Ieron began to reconsider. One group of readers formed their own e-mail prayer circle, which Ieron asked to join and was rewarded with a caring group of women she describes as “prayer warriors.”
“Prayer is great,” she says, “but we also need reminders to get into God’s word — to drink deep of the resources God provides to sustain, encourage, challenge, and strengthen us through a tough season. That’s when the idea of a devotional blog resurfaced for me. It became something that could offer a drink of cool water to a parched caregiver. Not a tool to sell books. Not something to add to my to-do list. It’s an opportunity — and challenge — for me to dig into the Word and share the comfort I receive to help others who are in similarly exhausting circumstances.”
Ieron’s blog consists of devotional entries intended to encourage readers and provide hope during their week. Because caregiving tends to be a “private struggle,” she explains that few of her readers post comments on the site, but she does hear from many people individually. “I love the interaction,” she says. “I love the opportunity to pray someone else through, as so many do for me.”
Rich Razgaitis BA '96, MBA '03 is another blogger who is using his life experiences as a way to encourage and motivate others. His resume of professional and personal endeavors is impressive as he has lived and learned throughout life's ups and downs.
On the short list, he worked for various Fortune 500 companies before taking an executive-level position with a start-up business that faired well during the “dot-com blowout.” He was living in Manhattan with his wife when the World Trade Center was attacked. They escaped but were never able to return to their apartment. He has served as president of a pharmaceutical company in Cincinnati and worked his way up to CEO of an international health and nutrition company in Washington. He has had three children born prematurely, one who wasn’t expected to live but is now 8 and another who lived only two hours after birth. He is now working for a start-up company focused on e-commerce and group buying.
“I have had the privilege of living five lives in 15 years,” says Razgaitis.
“I have learned a tremendous amount, especially about myself, and the process has been both exhilarating and appropriately humbling.”
What began for Razgaitis as a marketing tool to build an audience and share experiences from a previous job has morphed into a blog that provides therapy for him throughout the writing process and encouragement for others who can relate to his experiences. Most of all, he strives to help people discover their purpose and then follow it.
As he says on his blog, “So much of success in business, team sports, volunteerism — whatever — rests squarely on the shoulders of the people who are involved. As part of this, when people get dialed into their passion, or purpose, they really can achieve greatness … though too often our ‘destiny and purpose’ get shrouded into tangible non-specifics like ‘make a lot of money’ or ‘buy a McMansion.’ That’s not the stuff I’m talking about. I’m referencing getting really dialed in on what you’re supposed to be doing, and then doing it.”
Razgaitus admits that he sometimes questions why he spends so much time maintaining a blog. His only explanation is that it’s a “labor of love,” something he feels compelled to do. For him the greatest reward comes from helping someone else.
He says, “The biggest kick is when I get an e-mail and someone writes, ‘Man, that story you just shared, I totally needed that. Thanks.
While for some, blogging is a hobby, it is a business venture for others who have discovered there is money to be made in the blogosphere. Carrie Koors BA '96 is fortunate to have the best of both worlds; her blog - "Money Saving Methods" - helps others and provides her with a healthy income.
After working for several years in accounting and finance positions, Koors quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom to her three children. Her expertise in budgeting coupled with her innate tendency toward bargain hunting prompted her to share tips and deals she found with her friends via e-mail. When someone suggested that it would be easier for her to update a blog, Koors agreed. She began her blog in January 2008 and has gradually worked up to around 70,000 visitors each month who are looking to save money or make money through online offers, mystery shopping, surveys, etc.
Because of this following, companies and advertisers also contact Koors with special promotions or giveaways, hoping that she will pass the word along to her readers. She now gets paid for her blog but continues to value the opportunity she has to benefit others.
“Everyone is so thankful,” Koors says. “I get e-mails every month from people telling me about their stories and struggles and thanking me for helping their families. It always makes what I do feel worthwhile.”
Koors credits most of her shopping savvy to her parents’ example of living frugally. Following her mother’s example, Koors gets all of her holiday shopping done when items go on sale for 75 percent off. She also views her time at Anderson University as a valuable experience in learning to “pinch pennies.”
She says, “I learned to save, live below my means, and make due with what I had. And when I graduated and had my student loans to pay, my husband and I dedicated ourselves to paying the ten-year loans off within the first four years. I understood the basic knowledge that we would be better off financially today — 14 years later — because we didn’t pay interest on a loan for ten years.”
Deborah Haupert BA '82 is another AU alumna who is making money from her blog. Girlfriendology.com began in January 2006 as a way to inspire women to value their female friendships and support one another through various joys and struggles.
“The inspiration came from the need I had to be around female friends when I found out two of my girlfriends had cancer — one of them a dear AU girlfriend,” Haupert says. “I did research and found that women need female friendships. It makes us healthier, happier, less stressed, live longer, and feel more beautiful.”
Haupert has 20 years of experience in corporate marketing. Soon after she launched her blog, she decided to pursue it as a business. She quit her corporate job a couple years ago to focus on Girlfriendology. She has since developed a large following of women, and because of this, companies are inclined to advertise on her site. For example, she recently taped a Biz detergent commercial. She has also worked with Crystal Light, Frito-lay, Kroger, and Office Max.
Because she is always looking for ways to improve her blog, Haupert attends several conferences focused on technology and social media. Not only does this keep her current in the fast growing realm of social media, but it also allows her to connect with other technology leaders and female bloggers. “Sometimes we work together on projects for brands,” she explains. “I think the real strength and trend in this community is people/bloggers working together.”
Unlike Koors and Haupert who have independently nurtured their blogs into self-owned businesses, Amanda Scott BA '07 and Lindsay Connor BA '05 maintain their blogs as part of larger organizations. However, the focus of their blogs couldn't be more different.
Scott is the new media coordinator for the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), a White House agency within the Executive Office of the President. Before she took on this role, she managed the national blog that served the Obama for America online community through updates on news and events in which supporters could participate. She also directed 25 constituent blogs on the site, such as Women for Obama and Students for Obama, which targeted the interests and agendas of these specialized groups.
“Our national blog became a place that our supporters came on a daily basis to find out not only what was going on in the campaign, but also how they could help,” Scott says. “They took their online support and turned it into offline, ‘on-the-ground’ support that helped us win the election.”
After the election, Scott worked for the Obama-Biden Transition Team and now the White House, where she continues to write for the USTR blog.
She admits that watching The Bachelor has always been a “guilty pleasure.” She had been writing for Examiner on the topic of Indianapolis travel — a fairly unpopular subject — when the idea came to her to write a blog on the upcoming season of The Bachelorette. Her new blog launched in May 2009. Connor gets paid based on how much traffic her site gets. By the end of 2009, she had more than 500,000 page views.
“The show earns anywhere between nine to 20 million viewers per season,” Connor says, “so there are always people looking for information on the series, especially if they missed an episode. Fans also tend to get wrapped up in the personal lives of these contestants.”
On her blog, Connor covers news relating to current and past stars of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. She also posts episode previews, recaps, videos, and contestant interviews.
Like many other bloggers, Connor uses other forms of social media to publicize her site. Once she has written a new article on her blog, she posts the web link on her Twitter and Facebook accounts as an advertisement to her followers and friends.
Haupert and Koors draw readers in much the same way. “The advantages [of blogging] are that you can reach a large audience and create a community,” Haupert says. “I work frequently in social media, so I’ve been able to grow the community a lot through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social sites.”
The other advantage to gaining recognition is that it often leads to other opportunities. As their blogs became more popular, Haupert and Koors were both contacted by various advertisers to promote their brands. As Connor’s following grew, she was offered a regular spot with a Chicago radio station in which she could call in to the show and discuss The Bachelorette and reality TV.
“It’s fun to share behind-the-scenes info that the average viewer wouldn’t know,” Connors says. “And it was a great chance to promote my writing.”
Of course, there are some bloggers who are less concerned with the number of readers than they are in nurturing a community. Razgaitis says bluntly that he doesn’t know nor does he care about how many people are reading his blog.
“If there were ten people on the site a month versus ten thousand a day, I don’t know that I would change my style or intention,” he says.
Though it is a time-consuming venture for Razgaitis, who spends anywhere from two to six hours a week maintaining his blog, he has no set “plan” for its future. “Unlike my business endeavors, that are about strategy and tactics, this one is just happening organically,” he says. “It requires a dedicated commitment to make time for this. I can’t fully explain the commitment to it, though it is something I enjoy.”
Similarly, Ieron is more concerned with quality than quantity. Because she reaches out to a specific group of people — those who are caring for aging loved ones — she is most interested in writing something that is relevant and encouraging to them.
She says, “I want the spiritual nurturing they’re desperate for to be available to them when they need it — at 2 a.m. when they’re returning from the hospital, when they’ve awakened to change a parent’s diaper or carry a drink of water to an aging loved one. Caregiving is hard in any circumstance. And it’s especially hard when the tables have turned and the adult child is caring for an aging, needy parent. I want to be a source of hope and encouragement for them. That’s why I blog. If I do it for any other reason, it isn’t worth the effort.”
Perhaps the greatest criticism of blogs is that they aren’t true communities where people can make genuine connections. Because the Internet is big and impersonal, many people believe the same is true of blogs.
These seven AU grads-turned-bloggers disprove this notion.
For Ieron’s readers, her blog unites people who share in the struggle of caring for an aging loved one. Her devotionals provide hope and a connection with the body of Christ.
Koors’ blog empowers readers to take control of their finances. It also gives them a place to share their struggles and help one another.
Haupert gives women a place to find strength and value in friendship.
Connor gives readers a fun — often needed — distraction and offers opportunities for people to share in a common interest.
Razgaitis raises people’s awareness of purpose and fosters a community where readers can talk about what that means for them.
Scott’s blog rallies support and encourages people to join together for a common goal.
Renner connects people who share his passion for Haiti and brings new ideas of how to improve lives.
He says, “One of the criticisms is that it’s not real. It’s not real relationships. But you really do meet people. We’ve had resources donated through Twitter. We’ve seen families reunited. We’ve been able to be a part of that.”
Scott's blog: www.ustr.gov/about-us/press-office/blog
Conner's blog: www.examiner.com/bachelorette-in-national/lindsay-conner
The Power of Social Media
Perhaps no one can speak to the marriage between social media and blogging better than Luke Renner BA '98, who is stationed in Haiti with his family in an effort to help alleviate the effects of poverty through technology. His company, Fireside International, endeavors to spread knowledge through media training and an innovative structure that bring education to Haitian families through the use of portable iPods.
This has been a work in progress throughout the last few years as Renner has labored to get funding and launch pilot projects. He often uses his blog and Twitter to post updates about his company, which is quickly gaining momentum. But it wasn’t until the earthquake that Renner truly realized the power of social media.
Living in Cap Haitien, the Renners were 90 miles north of Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit. Minutes after, he used Twitter as a way to communicate the experience.
“I had ten people following me on Twitter,” he explains. “Basically, I was a non-user with an account, which is probably the bulk of people on Twitter. And that boiled down to that I just didn’t get it, plus I didn’t have anything to say.
“On the day of the earthquake, I Tweeted something like, ‘We felt that. I’m an American living in Haiti. If you want to talk, here’s my phone number.’ The very first call was probably ten minutes later. It was Ann Curry from Dateline NBC.” The Ann Curry. “That did a couple things. For one, it showed me that this earthquake — which was frightening, but since we were 90 miles to the north, we didn’t see buildings falling — was a really big deal. The other thing I was aware of was the power of Twitter. You’re in a conversation with anyone and everyone.”
Following his phone call with Curry, Renner posted on Twitter a short video of his apprentice standing outside, describing what the earthquake felt like for her. Within an hour and a half, the clip was on CNN and quickly spread to other major networks. Renner did an interview that night with Larry King Live and several other shows. The next day, he headed to Port-au-Prince to help in any way he could, often taking pictures and filming video. While there, he met with Curry and Brian Williams and was interviewed for the Today Show.
Because Curry was often Tweeting about Renner during this time period, his Twitter following has grown from 10 to 20,000. He now feels that he understands how to use Twitter as an effective communication tool and has served as an expert panelist on this very subject.
“It’s been an interesting rebirth in a way,” he says. “I called myself a communicator to begin with. That’s why I moved to Haiti, because I believed in the power of these things. And then when they really show their power, I act all surprised. I moved there to tell Haitians they can do all these great things with these tools. And they can.”
Renner started his blog as a result of Twitter— specifically because he felt limited by Twitter, which restricts users to 140 characters per Tweet. He would occasionally get caught up in “stream-of-consciousness Tweet rants,” where he had to send multiple Tweets to communicate one idea. That’s when he realized a blog would be a more static venue to communicate larger messages. And he could still use Twitter as a way to draw readers to his blog.
“It’s a good fishing mechanism,” he says. “Your blog is your boat; Twitter is your fishing pole.”
Renner’s blog focuses on the principles of his organization — using technology to improve the lives of those suffering the effects of poverty. As word spreads about Renner and Fireside International, he’s hoping to raise awareness of the need that exists within Haiti and draw support for his cause.