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Every Blogger Starts From Zero – You Could Be On the A-List Next Year

Today Ali Hale from Aliventures shares some thoughts that build upon a recent post I wrote on finding your blogging voice.

Darren’s recent poll on How Long Have You Been Blogging suggests that over half ProBlogger’s readers have been blogging for under a year (and of those, a sizeable proportion have yet to launch their blog).
 
It’s a difficult stage to be at – and I know, because I’m there with a new blog at the moment. Checking stats daily (or hourly), getting over-excited about every comment, wondering how on earth to figure out what your readers want when you don’t have many of them … and that’s if you even manage to overcome your desire for perfectionism, or your nerves, long enough to get your blog off the ground!
 
So what can new bloggers do to make the early stages a bit easier? Three things that can help are:

  • 1. Looking at the experiences and early posts of current big names in the blogosphere
  • 2. Making a checklist of what really needs to be done before your launch, your revamp or your big promotional push
  • 3. Slowly turning the focus of your blog from “me the blogger” to “you the reader”

 

Even Big Names Started Out Small

 
In blogging, very few people start off with a ready-made audience or with the financial backing to make an instant splash (socialites like Arianna Huffington excepted). The majority of bloggers on the “A list” today started off with zero readers, and grew gradually.
 
Perhaps one of the best-known examples is Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. Leo’s first post was in February 2007; he now has 125,000 subscribers, and has just released an ebook about Zen Habits’ success. In the ebook, he admits that in the early days, “I asked a few friends to leave some comments, just so that the blog wouldn’t look so empty.”
 
However amazing the bloggers you look up to are now, there was a point in time when none of them had ever written a blog post – or even heard of a blog. So if you had some blogging mis-steps to begin with, take heart: Yaro Starak, of Entrepreneur’s Journey writes in part five of his business timeline about how “although I had installed a blog on BetterEdit.com as early as November 2004 I had rarely made new posts.”
 

Your Voice Develops With Time

I often feel that I lack a strong “blogging voice” – partly because I write for several different blogs as a freelancer, so tend to adapt my style a lot to the needs of various audiences. There are many bloggers whose voice I admire, and even feel a bit intimidated by; it seems to come so easily to them.
 
It was only when I started digging right back into some great blog-writers’ archives that I realised everyone starts out sounding a bit stilted. Here’s a quote from a very early post by James Chartland, of Men with Pens fame:
 

  • Tell potential clients what you will do. Be exact and concise. Cover everything and provide all the details.
  • Ask a question about the project. Show interest and that you have paid attention to what the client needs.

              (from How to Be a Professional Freelancer)
 
There’s nothing wrong with the language used there (James is a copywriter, after all), but it’s … a bit bland and ordinary. Frankly, if you’re a current Men with Pens reader, you probably wouldn’t recognise it as James – just compare it with this:
 

The train trip there was great. I love trains. The city was great, too. (Though I was heard to often mumble, “There’s a lot of people,” throughout the week.) The hotel was okay (I’ve seen better), the sights were amazing and the attractions were fun. Oh, and I went shoe shopping with Naomi. (For sneakers. Please.)

(from What James Did This Summer and Where He Got the Money)

 
This shows several hallmarks of James’ style: use of dialogue, chatty but zingy language, and a certain willingness to bend the rules of grammar (“For sneakers. Please.” probably aren’t sentences that your crusty English teacher would approve of.) Even the title of the post is much more engaging and personable.
 
So don’t spend hours writing posts and deleting them – just start getting content out there. The more you write, and the more you share your writing with an audience, the closer you’ll come to finding your true blogging voice.
 

What Actions Do You REALLY Need to Take?

If you’re currently planning a blog, or waiting to relaunch or restart an existing one, don’t keep waiting for the perfect moment. You’ll always wish you had more time, more knowledge, and more support, and frankly the only way you’re likely to get them is by getting started! In his ebook on the Zen Habits story, Leo talks about his situation when he started out:
 

Maybe you think you haven’t got what it takes? That’s what I thought when I first started Zen Habits. In fact, I started off without goals, without money, and with no time. Now Zen Habits (http://zenhabits.net) has more than 100,000 subscribers—and a thousand more are joining each week.

(from The Zen Habits Story)

 
And even those who have made it know there’ll never be a perfect moment: here are Darren’s words about the launch of TwiTip:
 

“Late last week I realized that if I was waiting to ‘have time’ to start it that I never would – so I bit the bullet and got it going.”

 
Try making a check list of the absolute essentials that you need to get done before the next step. Can those design tweaks wait? Is anyone really going to notice if the font isn’t perfect? Focus on:

  • Creating compelling content
  • Any major usability issues (eg. your RSS feed not working!)
  • Getting the word out about your blog – using social media sites and contacts

 
You could also take a goal-focused approach, and concentrate on trying to meet some small, immediate goals, rather than day-dreaming of your future fame and fortune (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s what keeps me going too…)
 
Don’t worry if you have the feeling that you’re writing into a vacuum. It can seem like a chicken-and-egg situation to begin with: you want to create content that readers will love, but until you actually have enough readers to give you some feedback, you won’t know what they want. Just keep going – once you start getting traffic, you’ll start learning what people want to read. It worked pretty darn well for Naomi Dunford of IttyBiz fame:
 

“I managed to get my hands on a boatload of traffic and asked them what they wanted in a small business and marketing blog. Because they were nice, they told me.”

(from Saving You From Bankruptcy and Public Humiliation Since October 2007)

Turning the Focus from “Me” to “You”

Once you begin to build up your readership, you might need to start changing your focus. Many bloggers start out by writing about their own struggles or goals. For example, Leo started Zen Habits as a way to keep himself accountable and to write about his own self improvement (as well as to share his experiences).
 
Another good example is Trent Hamm, who started The Simple Dollar to work through his own financial difficulties, and again to share what he learnt. You can see this in his early posts, where his focus is primarily on lessons drawn from his own personal story:
 

“It was very intimidating to look at my finances in this way, and it made it clear to me that I needed to make some major changes in my spending and saving habits.”

(from I’m In Big Financial Trouble – Where Do I Start?)

            
As Trent’s readership grew, he began focusing much more on readers’ questions and problems, and this is reflected in the voice of more recent posts – notice how he uses “you” and “your” here:
 

As long as you’re subscribing to the overall principle of spending less than you earn – and either way you choose, you’re not spending much money here – either choice is healthy because it expands on your existing non-financial values. Frugality or career-building both trump idleness.

(from Does Earning More Trump Frugality?)

 
If you’re trying to develop a blog from the early stages, consider shifting the focus onto “you” the audience: see what people are asking about in comments, or read other blogs in your area for ideas. Keep your personal touch, but make sure the content is relevant, valuable and useful to the reader.
 
You don’t have to rule out a personal blog altogether, though: it might not shoot you into the Technorati Top 100, but it could be a valuable outlet. There can be a bit of a gulf in the blogging world between would-be ProBloggers and diarist bloggers, but Darren has a personal blog, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t too.
 

The Take-Home Message

 
Don’t worry about writing the “perfect” next post: just start writing. Don’t fret about your blog’s design being perfect. Don’t feel depressed because your subscribers haven’t even reached three figures. You’ll develop your voice and style, and your audience, as you go along.
 
With its focus on stats and instant feedback, blogging can bring out the perfectionist in all of us. Remember that everyone started somewhere – and the success stories of 2009 and 2010 are still waiting to be written.
 
About the Author: Ali Hale has recently launched Aliventures, a blog that explores how to get more from life. She’s also a professional writer and blogger, and has written a guide to making money from freelance blogging.

7 Steps to Building a Genuine Relationship With Your Readers

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.

Let me Show You How my RSS Advertising is Performing

Today I spent a little time digging around in my AdSense earnings stats to see how they’d been performing over the last 6-12 months and particularly was interested in how the RSS advertising was performing.

I decided to pull out some of the data that I found and chart it (I’m a visual kind of guy) and thought I’d share some of what I saw when I analyzed how the ads are performing in the feed of my photography site since August 2008 when I started running AdSense in the feed.

I’ve removed the figures from the chart to comply with the Terms of Service that AdSense has that prohibit sharing of too many specifics but have below charted Earnings (the blue line), eCPM (earnings per 1000 impressions – the Red line) and Impression numbers (the yellow line). I’ve also included a linear trend line to help visualize the average movement.

AdSense-RSS-DPS.png

When I initially looked at the raw data I was surprised to see how much the ads were now earning on a daily basis. It’s been a long while since I looked at the figures so they actually looked quite healthy (RSS ads now make up around 10% of my overall AdSense earnings). My first reaction was that perhaps AdSense have got RSS advertising right at last and it’s starting to earn more per impression.

However the chart above tells a different story with the increase in earnings coming from an increase in impressions. In fact eCPM has been falling.

My next question was whether this fall in eCPM was due to the economy or whether it was more to do with a trend in RSS advertising – so I decided to compare the eCPM of my RSS ads vs the eCPM of the AdSense ads on my site. Here’s what I found:

RSS-vs-Onsite.png

This surprised me. While RSS eCPM (blue) is on the downward slope onsite eCPM has been on the up and up.

Of course this could be explained by the increase in the popularity of the site and more advertisers targeting it (I’ve noticed that as traffic and the brand of DPS grows that more and more advertisers are targeting the site) – but from what I can see advertisers are targeting the feed as well as the site, yet the eCPM is falling there.

Keep in mind that this is just an observation of a single site – I’m sure it’ll differ from site to site and industry to industry (for example the RSS ads here on ProBlogger’s feeds are performing appallingly less than a tenth of what they earn on DPS despite having half as many subscribers) but it does make me wonder whether others are seeing similar trends?

How is RSS advertising performing for you?