This is a guest post from Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, and author of the best-selling book The Power of Less. Leo has just released a free report for bloggers called How I Got 100,000 Subscribers in Two Years: Lessons from Zen Habits.
One of the things I’m proudest of at Zen Habits is not that I’ve grown a large readership for my blog, but that I’ve developed a very rewarding relationship with many of my readers.
It’s nothing you might call inappropriate (or illegal), mind you, but it’s vastly rewarding.
Because of this relationship, writing for Zen Habits is an amazingly positive experience, because my readers are so encouraging. Even more importantly, they contribute to my blog with their thoughtful comments, their criticism, their experiences, in ways I never could have imagined. They make my blog what it is.
And from a blogger’s perspective, there’s no better thing. Having such a genuine, engaging relationship with my readers means that they want to help me, in any way they can — they’re willing to buy and read my books, they want to follow my updates on Twitter, they want to talk to me and ask me questions, and that leads to all kinds of interesting things. I never planned for this to happen, but now that it has, I recommend it to all bloggers.
I think it can be consciously cultivated, just like any relationship. I did it less-than-consciously, just because I enjoyed conversing with my readers and trying to be of use, and I’m a naturally positive person. But you can do it consciously if you like, and I believe if you do it genuinely, it’ll be a genuine relationship.
That’s an important point to remember: you can’t fake this stuff. If you are just pretending to care about your readers, if you don’t really want to talk to them, they’ll feel that. They’re smarter than many people give them credit for.
Here are my suggestions for building a genuine relationship with your readers, based on my experiences:
1. A genuine relationship starts with you — you have to take responsibility for it. You can’t expect your readers to automatically be encouraging, supportive, kind, positive, loyal, helpful, and generous … just because you’re the awesome person you are. So start with a positive mindset, and be willing to work on the relationship, be open to what emerges.
2. Make your posts as helpful and useful as you can. Your posts shouldn’t just be about you, and how great you are (as true as that may be), but about your readers and their problems, and how you can help them solve them. Really try to help your readers in some way in every post. They will appreciate it.
3. Be helpful and positive in all interactions. In every comment you respond to, in every email with a reader, in every interaction on forums and Twitter and other social networks, you should try to be positive, try to be helpful, and try to build your relationship in some way. It’s the same when you build a friendship or working relationship with a co-worker, isn’t it? Being online doesn’t change how relationships are built — if you are always critical, defensive, offensive, attacking, sarcastic … well, that’s the kind of relationship you’ll have. If you’re just trying to sell stuff to people all the time, it won’t be a genuine relationship.
4. Encourage discussion in comments. You aren’t the only person who has good ideas or knowledge, so ask your readers to contribute their thoughts, to share their experiences, to add tips of their own. I like to do that at the end of a post, but even if I don’t, readers understand that I want this stuff by now. When readers give comments, thank them, respond to their questions and thoughts, interact. Sometimes, it’s good to get discussions going by asking reader questions in an “Ask the Readers” post — just pose a question and ask them to respond in the comments.
5. Accept criticism with grace. Bloggers have to have a thick skin, because inevitably we will be criticized. It’s the nature of the Internet, or any discussion of ideas actually — there is always criticism, and sometimes it’s harsh. And it can hurt. You get angry, or defensive, and when you respond to criticism in this way it’s not a good thing: 1) you look immature and defensive; 2) it discourages an open and frank discussion; and 3) you harm your relationship with your readers. Instead, thank your readers for their criticism, respond positively, and sometimes, acknowledge that they may be right. Because a lot of the time, they are, but our egos are too wounded for us to admit it to ourselves. Read more: How to accept criticism with grace and appreciation.
6. Build relationships in other channels. Having discussions in blog comments is great, but there are other ways to build relationships — through email, on Twitter, on Facebook, in forums (maybe even your own forums). While I can’t possibly respond to all the email I get now, I certainly did when my blog first started out, even when I had 10K subscribers — I tried to answer every question or thank them for every kind email. I miss that level of personal interaction, but I still try to connect with readers on Twitter and in comments. It’s a great way to take the relationship to another level.
7. Give back on other blogs. Many times, readers and commenters on your site will be fellow bloggers — which is actually how blogs emerged when they went beyond a log of interesting web links: they became a way to have a larger discussion on the web, as bloggers linked to each other and commented on each other’s posts. And so as other bloggers comment on and link to your posts, do the same for them. Go to their blogs, comment on their posts, link to them now and then if it’ll be useful to your readers. Write guest posts for them and invite them to do the same. Share their posts on Twitter if you like them. Building relationships with other bloggers is a great way to become immersed in the wonderful community of bloggers, and to build a relationship with some of your most active readers.
Read more from Leo Babauta at Zen Habits, and check out his free report for bloggers called How I Got 100,000 Subscribers in Two Years: Lessons from Zen Habits.