11 Lessons I Learned During My First Year of Blogging
One of my favorite things I get to do at SEI is write weekly blog posts to engage with the public and our community. This was my first year writing in this format and I have learned a lot along the way. One year and 37 posts later (plus 32 posts by SEI mentor, Andy Ruth), 2015 has taught me 11 mandatory lessons every blogger should consider:
1. Define your purpose: why are you writing a blog?
The most popular reason to start a blog is to build a brand and capture an audience. Before starting your blog, lay out everything you are working with: who is your audience; what topics are you going to cover; why are you engaging with your topic; how are you going to approach your audience; and where are you going to publish? If you don’t know specifics yet, that’s fine: use large brush strokes in the beginning and a finer brush as you get into a rhythm and feel out your topic and audience.
The questions listed above are good questions to ask as you are building your brand. If you are looking for more resources to build a brand, check out this link to Quick Sprout’s free branding etext (probably the best resource around, free and otherwise).
2. If you don’t like your topic, your audience will know
You should be writing the blog pieces you would want to read. If you are not vibing with your topic, not only will it be a pain for you to write, it will also be a pain for your readers. A lack of interest can lead to something called “thin content”. Thin content is when your webpage or blog offers little value to your visitors. Why is this bad? There are a number of reasons, but for the sake of space and the theme of this post, I will touch on two. First, it hurts your search engine optimization (SEO); your blog will get buried under thousands of other blogs and you will have a hard time reaching your audience. Second, if you aren’t adding something new to the conversation or restating something more clearly, your blog content will not stand out, will likely be tagged as a content farm, and your credibility will be questioned...like EHow pre-2012.
- As a blogger, your reputation is important; don’t ruin it by trying to make quick advertising money with valueless clickbait.
- A lot of the time, companies will start a blog because it is a trendy marketing tool. It WILL backfire if you do a sloppy job.
- If you write, write about something you care about, because there is already way too much garbage online.
3. Posts should be measured in “skimmability”
Forget what you learned about essay writing in high school and/or college--a blog does not follow the same format. There are important formatting guidelines to follow, which I will get to later, but for the most part, a blog is going against all the formal formatting rules you learned in compulsory education. A blog post should be written to skim first and read second. Notice how I have headers so you can read all the tips in one go, and then text below explaining in detail each header? This allows your reader to skim the bullets until they get to ones that apply to them.
Your blog post should be visually enticing with a variety of fonts and media. The last thing you want is a block of text. Consider adding media such as pictures, videos, quotes, and free downloads.
4. Outlines are important
Creating a map for your blog will help you visualize your story and aid in developing a consistent “flow” for the piece. When I am teaching the principles of writing, I usually take a short essay, cut out each paragraph in the paper, and have students arrange the paragraphs in an order that reflects the best “flow” for the paper. You can do this too while writing and outlining your blog. Here is a picture of my handwritten outline in the cut-up exercise.
While writing my outline, I leave holes to come back to (if need be) and jump to the next point. After I finish my outline, I look at other blogs, websites, books, and journals to beef up my content and fill in gaps.
Most of the time, I write my outline one day, fill in content the next, and spend the third day revising. Even then, three days feels quick. Sometimes, there is too much I want to say, and this time limitation is a good buffer for word count because I am only able to write what I have time for. And the point of a blog post is keeping it short and sweet with one nugget at a time.
If you have a big idea or theme, you can use more than one post to cover it. For instance, I wrote two series this year: my SEI Dock Model and Introduction to NLP.
5. You get better with practice
The more you write, the more confident you will be in your writing. After a few blog posts, you will become more familiar with the structure. You will develop your style and will understand the boundaries of the space you are in. In blog writing, the training wheels are off; you are still on a bike, but you have a lot more freedom to lose your balance.
If you need help finding your balance, consider the following: practice often by writing a little every day, read other blogs to see how your peers are writing, and listen to the feedback (if you need feedback, ask a friend or family member for constructive criticism).
6. Engage often
Here at SEI, we try to post twice a week, and this seems like this is a sweet spot for most blogs. If twice a week is too much of a time commitment, you should be reaching out at least once a week to remind your audience that you still exist.
You may find yourself writing two styles of posts throughout the week to fit your schedule, and this kind of diversity is welcomed. Examples of different styles are: long form posts, summary posts (where you point to other blogs), list posts, “how to” posts, reviews, insight and opinions posts, “update me” posts, and “roundup” posts (ask a few guru’s in your field one question and post their replies).
7. Titles are 80% of your piece
Good content gets ignored because of bad titles. Think about it. If a title doesn’t draw you in, you don’t click. David Ogilvy, often called The Father of Advertising, said: “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar.”
Use buzzwords and nerve pinching adjectives to make your titles magnetic.
Some blogs and articles will tell you to spend half of your time coming up with your headline. I think this is a little overkill, but that doesn’t mean titles/headlines are not incredibly important.
Your title needs to stand out and be the most “clickable” string of words on websites and social media newsfeeds. Remember, 80% of the work is getting someone’s attention.
You are going to need some media to spice up your post. According to a Hubspot post on content marketing, “marketers who are leveraging visual content are seeing significant increases in their blog traffic, social media engagement, visitor-to-lead conversion rates and inbound customer acquisition results.” Luckily for us writers, there are some great places to connect with photographers who allow us to use their images for free or a small fee.
gettyimages.com $$$ but worth it if you have extra money in your budget
canva.com $1 photos
buffer.com/pablo Free photos
flickr.com Paid and Free (creative commons) photos
commons.wikimedia.org (public domain) Free
Wiki to public domain image sites
If you are using a creative commons image, make sure you are citing it correctly. Remember to cite the title, author, source, and license. Here is a guide.
9. You are going to need a good editor
About three months ago, my posts started looking and reading a lot more professional. My friend Jason (who has a blog of his own), started giving me feedback and revisions to my posts. In addition, my fiance Megan copyedits everything I write (and everything I wear before leaving the house). I also bounce ideas off of my mentor Andy Ruth and others at SEI.
It’s embarrassing to read through an old post and find grammar and spelling mistakes. Luckily, my worst mistakes get filtered out and I come across as a real authority (wink).
Also, if you don’t have anyone to look over your blog before posting, downloadGrammarly (yes, there is a free version) to look for errors.
10. First year marketing/getting hits
The goal is to get to a point where when you click “publish” you have a strong enough audience who will “advertise” for you because 1) your content you’re posting is worth sharing and 2) you have spent the time building your readership.
When I say “advertise”, I am talking about a more organic form, a technology-based “word of mouth”. The top seven places I see traffic coming from are not paid advertising sites (we don’t pay to advertise our blog): 1) Reddit 2) Stumbleupon 3) Google 4) Bing 5) Twitter 6) Facebook 7) LinkedIn. There are a number of places you can pay to hook people to your blog, but this goes back to the first bullet point: why. Our “why” for this blog is a service to you, and we welcome you to the conversation to start a dialogue about any of these topics. Our motive is not for clicks so we can sell advertising space. Our one ulterior motive is for you to like us so much you take time to look into our business and services. Besides that, this is a way for us to engage with the community we are regularly working with and offer you tools to build your skills.
This year, we will be developing more services. As this develops, so will our outreach and marketing--and I will keep you in the loop by blogging about it :)
11. Stick with it
Writing a weekly blog post is hard. Some Monday mornings I open my laptop and start writing, hoping that something salvageable comes from my free write that I can turn into an outline. If you build it, they will come. My posts last winter were largely ignored--beyond the people at SEI, my mom, and my girlfriend, I was lucky to have 10 views unaccounted for. This summer, my best daily view count was in the hundreds, and this month, I had one post break 3,000 views in one day. Keep in mind, this was after nearly a year of writing. If you write good clean content, market it well, and read the articles I pointed to in the post, you will have no problem getting views and drawing attention to your blog.
Here’s the key: you’ve got to stick with it. If you want to develop an audience, you have to be regularly posting and promoting. Will it take time? Yes. Once you find your rhythm, it will feel like no time at all.
I still have a lot to learn. Your feedback in the comments and emails have helped me think about my posts and have contributed to growing my skills. Thank you! I am looking forward to another year of writing and sharing my knowledge, passion, and findings.
Andrew J. Wilt