Photo courtesy of miss karen
One of the most common questions I get asked over at my other blog, Zen Habits, is this: “How have you become so successful so quickly?”
Newer bloggers are looking for my secret formula or the key to my success, but I’m always sorry to tell them I don’t have any secrets. I do the same things that other successful blogs have done, and that excellent blogs such as ProBlogger and Copyblogger teach you to do.
However, without sounding like I’m bragging, I have learned a few things over the last year of blogging — a year in which my blog went from nothing (literally nothing — it didn’t exist at the beginning of 2007) to a Top 50 blog with nearly 40K subscribers. While I don’t claim to have any secrets, it’s hard to come this far without learning a thing or two.
In hopes of sharing some of this knowledge with my fellow bloggers, I’m going to list some of the key things I’ve learned about blogwriting. I hope to develop some of these things in future posts, but I thought a good overview would help.
1. Write from the heart. Sure, you could write very popular posts without putting yourself into it. You could make calculated decisions on post topics, and write just to have popular posts that spread your blog’s name and build links by the dozens. It can be done, but I don’t recommend it. The best blogs, in my experience, are those that are written with authenticity and soul, that are personal. In my writing, I try to write about topics I’m passionate about, that I’ve experienced myself, and I hope that shows in my writing. A couple of my favorite examples include Get Rich Slowly and ProBlogger – both J.D. and Darren write about intellectual topics, but you can tell they’re being authentic as they do so.
2. Be insanely useful. It’s possible to create a successful blog without trying to be very useful, but it’s not done very often. Of all the most popular and successful blogs, the only one I can think of that doesn’t try to be very very useful is I Can Has a Cheezburger. That’s a phenomenon to itself, and it would be hard for you to tap into that kind of sentiment. Instead, go for the usefulness route: whatever topic you write about, try to be as useful as humanly possible. Seriously. Create a resource like no other. Even if it’s being done elsewhere, you can explore new angles, create new resources, give tips from your own experience. One post after another, pound your readers with useful information. They will love it.
3. Keep the reader’s problems in mind. This goes with the tip above, but it’s important to stress that you’re thinking about the reader’s problem, and no one else’s. Who are your readers? What is your target audience? And how well do you know them? If you don’t know them well, you should start asking them: What do they want to know? What problems do they need addressed? Read other blogs with the same target audience if you don’t have an audience yet, and see what problems those readers express. On this blog, for example, many of you seem to be bloggers who want to build a successful blog — and therefore, I would be remiss not to address that problem here. On Zen Habits, many of my readers face problems having to do with simplicity, with productivity and organization, with health and fitness, and so on. I address problems related to those topics, and generally they’re happy. If they’re not happy, I try to address the problems I’ve missed. Once you’ve identified the problems, again, try to be as useful as possible in solving them.
4. Don’t just write about yourself. You should always put a piece of yourself into your posts, if you want readers to identify with you. But your blog shouldn’t just be all about you, not if you want people to keep coming back. While many blogs start as a personal journal, I have to be honest — most people aren’t interested in reading personal journals unless those journals are about people who are doing something they want to do. That kind of journal, then, becomes extremely useful in solving a problem they have. In other words, even if the journal seems to be all about the blogger, to the reader, it becomes about the reader. And that’s why it works. You should take that lesson and remember that you’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for an audience. Make it about them, and you, in a shared conversation. Incorporate their questions, their stories. Share what you’ve learned, but also share what they’ve learned.
5. Interact with readers. A blog is really a conversation. It starts with your post, of course, but it continues with comments from readers, and with comment and criticism from other bloggers. Get that conversation stirred up a bit by posting questions and polls and contests for your readers — this gets them deeply involved in the conversation that is your blog, and there’s no better way. On Zen Habits, I often pose an Ask the Readers question, and I get tons of responses. I then take those responses and pick the best answers and do a Top 10-style resource list, and you know what? The tips from the readers often turn out to be the best tips on the blog.
6. Give them a reason to come back. Why would a reader keep coming back to your blog? Why would they subscribe, when there are so many other blogs out there to subscribe to? You’ve got to give them a reason. And the reason is that they can see what amazing content you put out on a regular basis, and they can reasonably expect you to continue to produce that content. They won’t want to miss out, so they’ll come back or subscribe. Darren at ProBlogger did a great job of talking about this: How to Build a Sense of Anticipation (and also see Part 2).
7. Write catchy headlines. I have to admit, headlines are more important than they should be. Headlines are like advertisements for your posts — if they’re not very good, no one will read the posts. And so you could have amazing content, but if the headlines suck, you’ve got nothing, as far as readers are concerned. Most readers will find your posts in one of three places, and all three rely on the few words of your headlines to draw them to the actual post: in their feed reader, in a link from another blog, or on a social media site such as Digg or delicious. Consider two headlines for the same exact post: A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home or The Stuff in Your House. The second headline won’t get many readers, but the first is one of my most popular posts ever on Zen Habits. In a few words, it tells people that 1) it will solve the problem of clutter in their homes and 2) it will do so in a very useful guide format. With those two points succinctly conveyed, they click on the headline and read the post. Pay special attention to the popular headlines on other blogs, and try to figure out what works and why.
8. On social media. Zen Habits would never have found as many readers if it weren’t for the social media sites — mostly Digg, delicious and Stumbleupon. So I can’t downplay the importance of these sites. I should tell you, however, that while they can send you tons and tons of traffic, it is also hard to get popular on these sites if you don’t already have a lot of readers who will bookmark your posts. For a new or smaller blog, the best way to get a popular post is to get a link from a bigger blog. Lifehacker, Lifehack.org and Dumb Little Man all helped some of my posts get popular early on, and I was extremely grateful for that. How do you get links from bigger blogs? Well, follow the points above to create an insanely useful post that comes from the heart, addresses a common problem, and has a great headline. Then email your link to the editors of bigger blogs — be aware, however, that these editors get hundreds of similar emails and don’t appreciate spam, so you should only do this rarely and only when you’ve got an amazing post that their readers will like. Even then, you probably won’t get a link. But you might get lucky. Once you do have a readership, doing the same things I just mentioned will help you get popular posts, but without the need for a link from a bigger blog. It’s hit and miss, but it definitely helps to get popular.
9. Guest posting. Besides social media and the ocassional link from a bigger blog, the best way to draw new readers to your blog is to write great guest posts for other blogs, especially bigger ones. This shows a new audience what a great writer you are, and how useful your posts are. I wrote dozens of guest posts for dozens of blogs in my early blogging days, and nothing helped get exposure for Zen Habits more than this. When writing a guest post, write your absolute best stuff, following all of the tips above.
10. Reveal yourself. This is similar to writing from the heart, but it’s going beyond that — readers want to be able to relate to you. That’s why they’ll look for your about page if they enjoy one of your posts. They need to know who you are, and why they should be reading you. Read My Story at Zen Habits … it’s gotten dozens of comments, and that’s because people can relate to the things I’ve done, and are trying to do similar things themselves. In your About page, and in your posts, you have to share some of your personal life and personal info. This is difficult at first, to give up some of your privacy, but if you really want to connect with readers, you’ll do it to some extent. Of course, only share what’s appropriate to your blog. Readers don’t need to know about what goes on in your bedroom if you’re writing about Indian cooking.
11. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Blogs can get stale if they do the same things over and over. When you sense this is happening to you, break out from your mold. Look at what other blogs are doing different, and try those things out. Find other mediums, such as movies and magazines and books, and see if you can get ideas from them. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and to fail. It’s from this failure that you’ll find success.
12. Focus on the essential. A blogger could spend every waking hour on his blog, not only writing posts but formatting them, finding photos and links, reading and responding to comments, checking stats, seeing how much money he’s made on different ad systems, tweaking the blog’s layout and design, keeping updated with the social media, reading feeds, checking and responding to email, keeping up with Twitter … and so on, ad nauseum. It’s not worth it. It doesn’t help your blog to grow. Figure out what’s essential, what you really need to do, what actions pay off … and spend your time doing these things. Let the other stuff fade to the background, and do them infrequently. For me, writing and interacting with readers are the two essential activities. Sure, I still do most of the other stuff, but I try to minimize the time I spend on them, and place most of my emphasis on the essentials.
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