With CycleLove approaching its first birthday (and no doubt some teething pains and temper tantrums imminent), it seemed like a sensible time to recap on lessons learned over the course of this year.
I’m not claiming to be a pro-blogger by any means, but I do feel like my blogging toolkit is a lot better equipped than when I started out.
Polite notice: if there’s a product link below, it most likely heads to Amazon.
- Choose your topic carefully.
In the past I've had a few blogs, but never gotten close to getting them off the ground. Either I blogged in such a scattergun manner that only a handful of readers came back regularly, or focused on such a narrow topic (like my own music) that I had nothing to say. If you can't think of 20 potential items for blog posts right off the bat, you need to reconsider your topic. Check out the excellent TentBlogger series of tips on pro-blogging for more advice on this.
- I've said it before, and I'll say it again, content is king, not design.
This may be a harder pill to swallow if like me, you're a graphic designer. Don't worry about how it looks — worry about what you're saying. If you have a fledgling blog, consider using a simple, readymade theme to begin with. Once you have 3-6 months of content in place, you'll have a much better idea of how you want it to look. If you do it the other way around you'll be working blind.
- Concentrate on finding great stories and people.
Not on SEO or any other marketing mumbo-jumbo. If it has an acronym, chances are you don't need to worry about it for now.
- Words are your best friend. Learn how to use them.
Start with Writing That Works: How to Communicate Effectively in Business and then keep reading, and writing, as much as possible. Deconstruct the output of writers you admire. Then reconstruct it in your own voice. The fabulous Brain Pickings also posts a lot of great advice on writing, like these 10 Tips on Writing from David Ogilvy
- Images are your second best friend.
They like to hang out with words, too. Use the highest quality images possible. Although having no image is usually better than having a ropey one. Also, remember that people like big pictures. See the cunningly named The Big Picture for a fine example of this.
- 'Write Epic Shit'
This tip comes from Corbett Barr on ThinkTraffic: "Write things that make people think. Inspire people. Change lives. Create value. Blow people away with your usefulness." I took this a step further for CycleLove, and decided to 'do epic shit'. It worked, and the article has gone on to become one of the most shared on the site.
- SLR users, take that camera off auto!
Experiment with using aperture priority mode. You don't have to become a manual ninja overnight. Start by taking a few shots where you are making the decisions, not the camera, and slowly wean yourself off auto. Trust me, it's worth the effort.
- If your camera came with a kit lens, consider upgrading it. Switching my Canon 400D to a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens have made a world of difference to my photos. I can't believer that I used my previous (film) camera for nearly ten years without using a proper lens on it. Shame on me.
- The Voice Memo app on the iPhone is more than adequate as dictaphone.
I've used it to do record interviews in all kinds of noisy environments, like coffee shops and street corners, without any problems. Just be sure to place your phone as close as possible to your interviewee.
- If you do interviews, keep them short. Every minute of audio takes around five minutes to transcribe. Which means that teeny ten minute interview you just did might take an hour to write out.
- Sometimes the most effective way to engage your audience is to ask a question. The most commented article on CycleLove this year was, quite simply, "What bike do you ride?". In retrospect it's an obvious topic, but it took me nine months to get round to asking it.
- People like free stuff. Therefore free stuff makes for great marketing. Run competitions. Buy small prizes yourself if you don't have the leverage yet to wangle freebies from other companies. Use your freebies like a carrot on a stick to draw in new readers.
- Reliable hosting is worth the investment. I switched CycleLove to the specialist Wordpress hosting company WP-Engine and have enjoyed flawless uptime ever since, despite several huge traffic spikes caused by mentions on Hacker News and from high-profile Tweeters. If the site had still been running on a budget hosting package, I'm pretty sure that a lot of people would have seen error pages instead of my website. That would have sucked.
- Your newsletter subscribers are an invisible, but highly precious, resource.
Don't neglect the people who have trusted you with the key to their inbox. Even if you only have a tiny mailing list, give it plenty of love. The people on your list are your early adopters. The ones who care enough to fill in a stupid form on your website to sign up. And the ones who are most likely to be sharing your blog with their friends.
- The subject line of your newsletter matters. More than you might think.
You can increase both the number of people who read your email, *and* the number of people who click on the links inside, just by tweaking your subject line copy. If you're using a newsletter system like MailChimp, make use of A/B split testing to run some experiments on your subject lines. In general, I've found that not following the usual advice on subject lines has been most effective.
- Get familiar with what Eric Ries calls 'vanity metrics', then ignore them
Because if you concentrate on numbers, say hits to your website or how many Facebook likes an article has, it means you are forgetting about people.
- There are more direct ways to measure the impact of your site, like 'the inconvenience test'
Again, this tip came via the always-excellent ThinkTraffic blog: "Put simply, the test of inconvenience is an informal analysis of whether you have readers that are willing to go through hoops to interact with you, or to achieve your call to action, or to just generally spend extra time interfacing with your content, products, or services." Has someone emailed you personally to thank/praise you about your blog? Written an epic comment which is paragraphs long? Or spent 10-15 minutes reading your site? Then congratulations, you are passing the convenience test.
- Social buttons have to be social to work (duh!)
This tip is courtesy of Joanna at CopyHackers who gave me some incredibly helpful feedback on the first iteration of CycleLove. One of her suggesionts was that I remove the commenting, tweeting and like options. "Those are all critical parts of social proof, but the only thing low tweets and zero comments proves is that very few people are actually visiting your site or that, when they come, they're not engaged enough to talk and share. Once you build up an active following, throw the social buttons back on there. Easy."
- Build your mailing list by getting more aggressive.
Again, this advice came from Joanna: "You don't have to be super-aggressive. But you may want to add a HelloBar or ViperChill Bar that invites people to sign-up. I do this on my site, and it works just as well as the really ugly ones and the annoying pop-ups"
- Use Qualaroo to ask people what they most like about your site or what they most want from your site
One last tip from Joanna at CopyHackers. A Qualaroo widget can sit very unobtrusively in the corner of your site, waiting to collect responses from your readers. You might be surprised by their answers!
- Try extending your blog into the physical world
It's a great way to put faces to what would otherwise be just names on Twitter or Facebook. With CycleLove, that meant hosting a launch party and film screening. If you do organise an event, keep it simple, and focus on something that will closely align with the ethos of your blog.
- Buddy up with blogs or brands at a similar stage in the journey to you
Everything is easier if you have some friends on board to watch out for you, or to tap for advice.
- Don't give up!
It sounds to me like most blogs take a year to really kick in. If you're not getting much traffic at first, be patient, and keep creating good content. The eyeballs will come.
What would you add to the list?
PS. I missed a few things out on the first sweep.
- Working standing up is easier than it sounds. I tried it for a week (using a tall chest of drawers as a temporary 'desk') and found myself more focused, and much straighter, into the bargain. Ever since I've been hugely aware of my bad posture and ever-so-slight hunchback. Read more about the health benefits of working standing.
- Squarespace (used to power this site) makes a very refreshing change from Wordpress as a blogging platform. The drag and drop post editor means you can create interesting, multi-columned posts very fast; escaping the tired text-with-interspersed-images look of many blogs.
- Writing blogs posts first thing in the morning (I'm talking before breakfast) was the single greatest productivity booster for me in 2012. If getting up early is hard for you, read Joel Gascoigne on "Two important and often overlooked aspects of creating a lasting morning routine" (He knows a thing or two on this subject, being the founder of Buffer).
Posted to writing in 2012.