One of the reasons I was able to draw so many readers to Zen Habits within the first year was that I treated the promotion of Zen Habits as you would any other product — I branded it.
Of course, there are other reasons as well — I really focused on creating as useful content as possible, for example — but branding is what really helped Zen Habits take off so quickly.
When you think of your blog as you would a brand, you have to create a consistent message and have everything you do — on and off the blog — send the same message. And you have to repeat the message as often as possible to your target audience until it’s stuck in their head.
It’s why Pepsi and Coke and McDonald’s and Barack Obama have done so well — they’ve thought about branding and have applied the concepts of branding as well as anyone in history.
Today we’ll look at some of the basic ideas of branding and how you can use them to promote your blog (or book or other business, product or service).
The Mistrust of Advertising Techniques
Now, many of you — like me — might be hesitant to think of your blog or writing as a “product” or anything commercial. That’s natural — you are wary of slick advertising techniques and you would rather focus on great writing and being sincere and real. That’s totally understandable — I’m exactly the same way.
But realize that these advertising techniques work because they understand the way the human mind works. And while you can use these techniques to promote something fake or evil, you can also use them to promote something good. You can use branding and marketing techniques to promote family planning, health education, physical fitness, compassion and charity. It’s used by charities and other good causes worldwide — the best non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross and Unicef use branding techniques.
So using branding doesn’t mean you’re doing anything fake or evil. It just means you’re being smart about promotion.
The Core Message — What It’s All About
Before you do anything — name your blog (or other product/service), write a single post, work on the design, anything — you need to figure out your core message. This is the message you want to send out to your readers/customers in everything you do. This message needs to be communicated in your title, design, content, promotions, and actions.
Here’s how to get started:
1. First, figure out who your target audience is. Who are you trying to help with your blog? Who do you want to attract? It’s good to have a clear picture of exactly who these people are — working parents who have a busy schedule, tight budget, and not enough time for romance? College students not getting enough sleep and on an even tighter budget? Even if you’re going for a pretty broad appeal, it’s still good to get a general idea of who your audience is.
2. Next, figure out what desires you’re going to be tapping into. Every reader goes to a blog for a reason — some desire they have that the blog will potentially fulfill. Maybe the reader is looking for peace and happiness, or physical fitness, or success with the opposite sex, or personal growth. Figure out what desires you’re going to help fulfill — and remember to stay in line with what you’re passionate about, what you really want to write about, what you know and have to offer.
3. Then figure out what message you’re going to send to them that will tap into specific desires. This is key: every blog sends an unstated message to the reader. Some, with their loud designs and even louder headlines, scream, “I’m trying to sell you something!” Others are a bit meeker, and quietly say, “I’m just a nice person who likes cats.” What will your blog say to readers? What do you want it to say? Craft a message that fits with your personality, that matches what you want to convey to the world, and that also taps into the desires you plan to fulfill (from the previous step above).
4. You need to be consistent about your message in everything you do. Once you’ve carefully crafted your core message, you need to align everything you do with this message. If you do things that conflict with the message, you will be sending confusing signals. Instead, be consistent in everything: keep the same message in all your posts, headlines, comments, blog design, guest posts on other blogs, comments on other blogs, and so forth. The more consistent you are, the better.
5. Finally, you need to repeat your message as much as possible to your target audience. A great brand with a great message is worth nothing if the target audience never hears about it. Consider the great brands in consumer products, such as Pepsi or Coke or Apple or Google … these guys do constant advertising, on TV, in billboards and the sides of buses, all over the place. The more the better. And even if people have already seen the brand (and heard the message) once or twice, it might not have stuck with them the first couple of times … but after the fifth or seventh time, maybe it hit home. With Zen Habits, I was everywhere my target audience was the first six months … I was freelancing for five different blogs, writing a couple of guest posts a week, answering interviews as often as possible, and was often seen in social media and in link posts on other blogs. And in every one of these appearances where my target audience might have seen my brand, I repeated the same message (not verbally — the message was unstated but still clear). I was as consistent as I could be, and as a result, many people who I wanted to attract were exposed to my brand and message more than once. They might have forgotten about me the first time they heard the message, but after a few times, it stuck with them.
Sending Out a Consistent Message
Consider an example from the world of politics … with the flap about vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s $150,000 wardrobe (paid for by Republican donors). The problem wasn’t that there was anything ethically wrong with buying such expensive clothes … the problem was that these purchases conflicted with Palin’s message of “I’m just a regular American gal”, and as such, it hurt her message to the public.
Conflicting messages weaken your branding efforts. If you are trying to send a message of peace and love, don’t start attacking your readers in the comments. Don’t write posts about how much you hate John McCain.
Stick to your core message in everything you do. That includes:
- Title and subtitle of your blog. Zen Habits, for example, is a title that sends a message of peacefulness, being in the moment, doing one thing at a time. What message does your blog title (and subtitle if you have one) send to readers?
- Design. If your blog is about simplicity, you need an uncluttered, clean design. If it’s about kids, you might have fonts that look like they were written in crayon (for example). The colors, layout, ads, and every other design element send a message to your readers — and it should be consistent with your core message.
- Content. The topics and titles of your posts, as well as the images and other content you use, should all be consistent with your core message. If you write a post that conflicts with your message, you will weaken your brand and your blog. Think about that with everything you write and everything you include in a post.
- Comments. When I’m tempted to respond in anger or with sarcasm to a rude commenter at Zen Habits, I take a deep breath and remember what my blog is about. An angry comment from the writer of Zen Habits would be a deeply conflicted message. Every comment you write on your own blog should be consistent with your message.
- Off-blog comments. Similarly, you are representing your blog every time you comment on another blog. What message are you sending when you do so?
- Guest posts. This is probably the most important branding you do, so be sure to keep your core message in mind as you write
- Emails etc. Even when you send emails to other bloggers, readers, advertisers and the like, you are sending an unstated message … and it should be in line with your core message.
Repeating Your Message Often
You want to be everywhere your target audience is … so think about what other blogs they read, and what social media/bookmarking sites they might use. This is where you can reach them with your brand and your message.
Now try to find as many ways as possible to get your message and brand to these sites and blogs. That’s not always easy, I know, but it’s worth a try. Some ideas:
- Guest posts. These are my favorite ways of getting a brand to your target audience, as you might know by now. I’ve written dozens of guest posts for many blogs — all of them with an audience that I’d love to reach. Write as many of these as you can — aside from creating great content at your own blog, guest posts are the most important way you can spend your time as a blogger.
- Comments on other blogs. This is an easy way to get to your target audience, although not as effective as guest posts. While people will rarely click through your comment to go to your blog, the important thing is not attracting a lot of traffic through commenting, but getting your brand and message out. If people see your brand and message often on the blogs they read, it’ll start to stick.
- Links from other blogs. When a blogger links to one of your posts from within a post — whether it be a link post or other content — these are gold. Not as good as a guest post, because you don’t control the message, but still great because it attracts traffic to your blog and also gets your brand out there. Try emailing other bloggers with your best posts as they’re published, and politely suggesting they might be interested in sharing the link with their readers. Don’t do this too often with the same bloggers, as they’ll tire of it, but once in awhile doesn’t hurt.
- Social media. While it’s not easy to get popular on a social media site, understand that this is a good way to get your brand out there to new readers. Only some of these readers will be in your target audience, but the ones who will take notice of your posts on social media sites will likely be your target audience. I suggest focusing on delicious.com and Stumble Upon as it’s easier to get popular on them than on, say, Digg.com … and they’re also more likely to reach your target audience (Digg has a very specific audience that isn’t always what you’re looking for).
All this talk of branding might not sit well with some bloggers who see it as crassly commercial or manipulative. And I can see those points. But I don’t think branding means you have to do things that are not true to yourself, or write about things you’re not passionate about. It just means you think carefully about your message, try to be consistent about it, and try to get out there to the people you’re trying to reach.
As a writer, you have to be self-promotional to some extent, or people will never read your stuff. This is true with book authors as well — they have to get out there and promote their books. It’s also true of journalists — the most successful journalists are in themselves a brand, and they promote their brand pretty well. If you’re going to be self-promotional, as you have to be, it’s just best to do it in a smart way. That’s all branding is.
And it works. I used it consciously with Zen Habits, and I’ve seen it put to use by other successful bloggers as well — whether they’re aware of it or not.
Still, there’s one thing to remember:
All the branding in the world will not work if you don’t have amazing content to back it up.
If you get people to come to your site because of branding, and they see a paucity of content or a bunch of posts that are poorly written, not interesting and not useful … you’ve destroyed your brand. You’ve sent the reader a message that ultimately says, “This site is a waste of your time.” Don’t send that message — send a message that says you love what you’re writing about, that you are professional and thoughtful about your writing, and that you genuinely want to help the reader.