Less than a year after I started the Articulate blog, it's still a surprise to me that a) it's been as successful as it has been, and b) people now ask me for advice about starting a blog. Equally, nobody told me the whole thing would be so much fun.
Anyhow, I was asked again for some tips by someone starting a blog and I thought the most appropriate response was a blog post.
So this is a list of what has worked for me. Your mileage may differ.
Blogging like a pro
- Write often. I try (*try*) to write every week day. It doesn't always happen because of work pressure but it is easier to maintain the discipline if it is regular. I like using Joe's Goals to track this. Traffic seems to drop off dramatically at weekends so I don't post then, although I sometimes run a 'links list' style post on Saturdays but it's mainly things I've collected during the week.
- Keep a scratchpad. I use the notes field in an Outlook task item for each of the blogs I write to capture links, ideas, to-do items and so on. When I actually sit down to write, I've usually got two or three ideas to hand and a bunch of links to explore. It's useful to have a few stub posts ready to expand or edit in case you don't have time to write a long piece.
- Have a time to write. I tend to blog first thing in the morning, usually around 6am. That's just me. (See my post on how to get up early.) I know other people who write after work or in their lunchbreak.
- Variety is the spice of life. I prefer to do posts of different lengths and styles. The 'how to' list is popular but I like to run longer, more formal articles and interviews as well as more personal observations. One of the pleasures of the blog is that I don't have an editor who tells me what to write or how to write it. To this extent it is a playground for me.
- Contribute to the conversation. There are an awful lot of sheep on the Internet. With nearly 60 million blogs in existence,you really want to try and be a sheepdog. In my opinion, it's important to say something new and something interesting to contribute that the conversation.
- Be yourself. Voltaire once said, "if we don't find anything good a least will find something new." Ideally you want to say something interesting, Just be yourself. Some of the best blogs are the ones that are unique, idiosyncratic, and highly personal. The extraordinary thing about the blogosphere is that whatever you write about, there is an audience for it.
- Show your face. I think it's good to put a picture of yourself,your e-mail address, and a little bit of biographical information about yourself on your blog. Sometimes a nom-de-plume is necessary but turn your blogging alter ego into a 'real' person too. One of the interesting things about the lonelygirl15 story was how accepting fans were when they realised that Bree was, in fact, an actress.
- Get the technology right. If you're serious about blogging, you need to have a proper website address and not one from a free blogging company. I use WordPress software. A Google search will list all kinds of companies that specialise in blog hosting. Once you get your site setup, you need things like spam filtering (I have had 15,000 comment spams since starting this site) and other add-ons. A good site design will help but there are lots of open source designs to get you started. Finally, I recommend using dedicated software to write posts rather than the blogging software's built-in editor. In my case, I use Microsoft Live Writer.
- Plug into the blogosphere. The easiest way to build traffic is to comment appropriately on other people's sites. The blogosphere is a reciprocal sort of place. Link their blogs and they might read and link to yours. Critical to all this is a good newsreader and a good selection of sites. I use NewsGator because I can access my feed list on any web browser, on my PDA and on my main work computer and they are always synchonised. Make sure your site is registered with Technorati.
- Linking and loving. I've always been impressed by people who email me nicely when I comment on their blogs. I wish I could find the time to do it - I try. Surprisingly, the blogs that I am 'closest' to in terms of mutual sympathy and mutual linking are also the ones who are, on the face of it, my 'competitors.' They write about the same stuff I write about. Actually, though there's no real competition and finding your online community is a good way to start building a reader base.
- Traffic is important but regular readers rule. Occasionally, you'll produce a post that goes ballistic. I've had 20,000 visitors a day on occasion. Digg, Reddit and all the others pick it up and you're away. Only a fraction of those people stay and subscribe. It's very exciting when it happens but what matters is the number of people who keep coming back, who comment, who link to your site and who enjoy what you write. Write for yourself first, then write for them. The harder I try to get a traffic monster, the more elusive it becomes so I sort of forget about trying and they keep happening.
- Don't forget search. Google is my number one source of incoming visitors. Remember to register your site with all the usual search engines. I use Google Analytics and Google Sitemaps to monitor what they are searching for and tweak headlines and content a little to make sure I'm delivering content that searchers want. Advice on interviews is very popular.
- Use pictures. Pictures, cartoons and illustrations are essential. Just imagine reading your favourite magazine if there were no pictures. Yuck! A good picture illustrates the point you are making and draws in readers. I like iStockPhoto which is a cheap source of good quality images but they can be a bit corporate.
- Write for the screen. Be conscious of how people read on computer screens. Check out Useit.com and in particular, how users read on the web. Also check out my posts about how to write for a blog and how to Write strong headlines. Headlines are important because most people read blogs using RSS readers and use headlines to decide whether to read the whole post. (My favourite: man bites robotic dog and Darren Strange's Bill Gates runs like a girl).
- Give people different ways to read: Make the online visit easy to read - don't go for crazy colours or unreadable fonts. Many bloggers overlook email but FeedBlitz makes it easy for non-RSS subscribers to get Bad Language in their inbox [Update 21 March 2010: I now use Google's Feedburner]. Make sure you have a visible, easy to spot RSS subscription button. However, I would avoid the icon clutter that some blogs display when they try to accommodate every single blog reader and every single news aggregator. It's your site, not a billboard for other people's.
- Schedule blog upgrade days. Maintaining a blog is not just about writing content. I try to dedicate a day every two to three months to upgrading the site itself. This means recategorising posts, checking for broken links, implementing new features and other engineering stuff. I know just about enough HTML and coding to tinker with a site's template but not enough to build a new template. However, there are plenty of people who can help with this stuff and one way to stand out from the crowd is to have a unique site design as well as unique content.
- Monitor your stats. Anyone who is a true blogger will be addicted to their stats. But what is interesting is how I have changed the way I use them over time. Initially, I was obsessed by the raw visitor numbers. While these are still important, I am much more interested now in what brings people to the site, what posts they liked, whether they revisit and how often, what they search for and so on. I'm trying to use the stats to help me build a better site for my readers, not to gratify my own ego (well a little bit of that too.)
- Market your blog. Occasionally people ask me to contribute to their sites, perhaps with by-lined articles or interviews. For example, I write a free monthly column on Visual Thesaurus. This brings in a nice stream of new visitors who are interested in writing. I also make an effort to comment on sites and posts that are relevant to my readers and my areas of interest. This is probably the main form of blog marketing. It takes time but it pays long-term dividends. I still get new visitors from comments I wrote six months ago. However, the comments have to be appropriate, useful and link to a relevant page on my site. Comment spamming is naughty. Then there is the old fashioned kind of marketing. I like to my blog from my personal site, from my email sig, from presentation decks, in fact I mention it pretty much any time I can.