A lot of people are starting blogs these days. And a lot of people seem to have professional aspirations when starting them. As someone who stumbled into a professional blogging career without really meaning to, I can tell you the road to create a successful and sustainable blog is long, winding and often thankless.
There’s a lot info out already out there on the nuts and bolts of starting a blog. I personally recommend that you use WordPress and host it on your own domain. If you’re going to do something, you may as well take it seriously.
The focus of this post is how to generate a large readership.
1. Select a Unique Brand and Concept to Focus On
This submarine’s most blogs before they even get started. Most bloggers start out writing about one thing: themselves. This is fine if you just want to use your blog as some sort of online journal and don’t expect anyone to read other than your friends and family. But if you have higher aspirations, you’re shooting yourself in the foot before you even start.
Even though every major blogger ends up creating a large personal brand for themselves (Tim Ferriss, Leo Babauta, et al.), their blogs are still built on the foundation of a core theme or idea that is expressed easily. Their blogs are built with a value-add for readers in mind, not pontificating about their own lives and random thoughts.
The first question I ask a lot of beginning bloggers is “What’s your brand?” and this stumps a lot of them. That’s fine, it stumped me for a long time too. But you need to be able to answer it clearly and effectively. My blog is about self development for men, particularly improving their relationships with sex and wealth. Boom. Done. In sales, this is called the “Elevator Pitch” and it’s crucial if you’re going to get anyone to stop and pay attention. You need to have an idea that when random people stumble upon your stuff, it’s immediately clear what you stand for and why you’re writing. The brand also needs to speak to the readers and their interests directly.
All three blogs present an obvious idea that appeals to the interest of a reader immediately. You don’t have to hunt around to figure out what the site is about. And even though all three sites’s writers have large personal brands and share a lot of personal experiences, they are not the central focus of the blog.
2. Don’t Try to Be Everything to Everybody
Once you’ve settled on your brand and your niche, stick to it. In fact, if possible narrow your focus as far as possible without making yourself insignificant. The result is paradoxical. The more you hone in and master a particular territory of a larger subject, the more people will be interested in your perspective and give you credit for having something unique to say.
It’s often not until you have a massive following that you can start to branch out into other areas and get more adventurous. The perfect example of this is Tim Ferriss. Tim’s Four-Hour Work Week focused on one specific point: setting up an internet business so that you can make money without working. Even though he had plenty of other stuff to talk about (living around the world, fitness, nutrition, etc.), the main idea and point of his initial work was how to “hack” a passive income for yourself.
Once that core idea caught on and his audience became massive, he was then able to start applying that to other subjects such as fitness and nutrition. But if he had started out with a blog and/or book that was about business, traveling, cooking, fitness, etc., it would have been that much more difficult for people to grasp his central idea and their interest wouldn’t have stuck as easily.
For years I wrote about pick up and dating. It wasn’t until I narrowed the focus on of my site to meeting women and dating through emotional connections that my site and brand took off. From there, I was able to expand into a broader category of self development for men.
3. You Will Live and Die By the Quality of Your Writing
Every time you write and someone reads it, you are temporarily transporting them into your mind. You are giving them a unique mental experience and if you don’t make that experience enjoyable, you will lose them. It’s as simple as that.
You don’t have to be Shakespeare or anything, but you need to be conscientious in how you’re expressing yourself. For instance if you’re writing about fitness and citing a lot of nutritional data, then your readers likely don’t need nor expect you to be a wordsmith. But you sure as shit can’t suck with a keyboard.
Great writing is necessary but not sufficient. It, by itself, won’t make you hugely popular. The combination of writing, brand and engagement is what makes you popular. But bad writing will kill your blog off faster than just about anything.
What if you’re not a great writer? Most people aren’t when they start. There are a few exceptions (journalists and novelists spring to mind). But a lot of people such as myself, we figured it out as we went along.
You have to love to write. It has to be something you would do regardless of whether there’s an audience there or not. Before I started blogging I was a forum whore. I had thousands and thousands of posts across half a dozen forums ranging from politics to music to tiny local dating forums. This prepared me in a major way for blogging more than any English class did.
But at some point, you must take your writing seriously. Read literature. Study the greats, analyze books, attempt to mimic great writers as an exercise. Write short-stories and fiction in your free-time helps as well.
This is a skill you must practice and craft over a period of time. If you want to become a successful blogger then you have to take it seriously like anything else. If you wanted to be a computer programmer you would continue to study programming and learn new programming languages. If you wanted to be a web designer, you would study up on design principles, new software and practice them continuously. It’s no different with blogging.
4. Post Often
Some bloggers only post a few times a month. Others post a few times a week. A few even post a few times a day. Generally speaking, the less you post, the higher quality the post will have to be. I prefer to post a few times a week because it generates more return visitors, greater reader loyalty and it seems to be my personal sweet spot. Honestly, I would post every day if I had the time to keep up with it.
I strongly believe that when starting out you should always err on the side of posting more often.
One difference between blogging and other forms of internet business that many people don’t realize is that blogging takes far more time to reach “escape velocity.” What I mean by that is that in other forms of internet business, you can strike gold or capitalize on a great idea fairly quickly.
Blogging requires at least a year or two to develop the level of consistent readership required to make any sort of respectable income off of it.
Generally speaking, the more you post, the more your baseline readership will grow. The more you post, the more likely you are to catch new readers’ attention, the more likely you are to be shared, the more likely you are to be linked to.
When starting out, posting quality content as often as possible is the lifeline of your blog, everything else is secondary.
A lot of people get into blogging and spend as much time on their SEO or marketing as they do on their content. This is a mistake. If your content is awesome, then a lot of the SEO and marketing will take care of itself and/or be rendered moot in the long-run and you’re wasting time. If you write amazing posts, people will naturally share and link them. If you engage your readers effectively and often, they will automatically trust you and you won’t have to market to them (much).
5. Aim to Affect People Emotionally
You can have the best information or advice in the world, the coolest stories, the funniest anecdotes, but if you don’t frame your content in such a way to move and affect your readers on an emotional level, you’re not going to get a whole lot of traction out of your content.
Affecting your readers on an emotional level requires that you pour your own emotions into your posts yourself. Or as my favorite high school teacher used to say, “Sometimes you just need to give a shit.”
Write with power. Write with conviction. Reach through people’s screens and grab them by the throat. It’s this “no holds barred” attitude that keeps them attached to you.
This may sound simple but it is surprisingly rare among bloggers. I really believe this is what separates a lot of bloggers from a mid-level success from becoming truly popular. Most bloggers don’t put their heart out on every post. They don’t risk themselves in everything they write. And because of their lack of emotional investment, the readers feel a lack of emotional investment as well. Therefore they don’t come back.
6. Don’t Shy Away From Controversy
In many ways, being controversial is one of the best marketing tactics one can employ — better than any squeeze page, link exchange or social bookmarking bonanza. A recent New York Times study found that their most shared and linked content also happened to be their most polarizing content. It’s a fact one must always keep in mind.
Although I believe there’s a fine line. Don’t be too cynical. Don’t cry wolf. Don’t pick fights and be controversial only for the sake of controversy. I think that’s unethical and can lead your readers down some unscrupulous paths.
But at the same time, don’t ever shy away from a controversial opinion or laying what you believe out there without apology. Again, this is something that separates low- and mid-level bloggers from a lot of the big boys (and girls): the fearlessness of letting thousands of people know your unbridled opinion and then weathering the onslaught of criticism and discussion in return. You can’t be loved without being hated. Or as one marketing guru used to say, “If you aren’t pissing someone off by noon, then you probably don’t matter.”
Successful blogging requires a large time investment, an emotional investment, and maybe most of all, it takes brass balls. It can be thankless but it can also be inspiring and uplifting. My blog has led me to affecting more people in the world than I ever would have believed possible five years ago.
And even in its own way, blogging can degenerate into another grind — like anything, I suppose. At the root of the matter, you must love it and live for it. And like anything, you won’t know until you get out and try it for a while.