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When’s the Best Time to Publish Blog Posts?

This guest post is by HubSpot’s social media scientist, Dan Zarrella.

Of all the data analysis that I’ve done, day-of-week and time-of-day data has been consistently the most popular. So in preparation for my upcoming webinar, titled Science of Blogging, I decided to combine all of my existing data on timing with my new research into one master post on the subject.

The first time I looked at blog post timing was when I was analyzing retweets. I found that retweets exhibit a strong diurnal pattern, in that they’re more common during the day and less so at night. I noticed that retweet activity tended to peak around 4pm EST, suggesting that this might be the best time to tweet a blog post for maximum potential retweet reach.

When I looked at retweet activity over the days of the week, I saw that they peaked later in the work week, specifically on Friday.

Since I first published this graph, the most frequently cited piece of this research has been the idea that Friday at 4pm is the most retweetable time of the week. While your niche maybe different, this data was based on analysis of nearly 100 million retweets, so in aggregate, Friday at 4pm is indeed the most retweetable time of the week.

Moving on from retweets, I started studying Facebook sharing and discovered some things that surprised me about timing there, too.

First, while major news sites and blogs publish articles during the work week, articles that are published on Saturday and Sunday tend to be shared on Facebook more than those published during the week. Perhaps one reason for this is that (as Wired reported), more than 50% of American companies block Facebook at work.

Next, I looked at the effect that the time articles were published had on the number of times they were shared on Facebook. I found that while there is a fair amount of variation, articles published in the morning, around 9a.m. EST, tended to be shared more on Facebook than articles published at other times of the day.

Looking back at these four data points, it may seem that they’re contradictory, but thinking through them a bit more, we can see that they is not necessarily so. Both day-of-week charts tell us that we should experiment with publishing articles later in the week—on Friday and Saturday specifically.

And by publishing posts early in the day, but tweeting them later in the afternoon, we can stimulate both Facebook shares and retweets.

I recently did a survey of over 1,400 blog readers and I asked them what time-of-day they read blogs. Morning was the most popular, followed in decreasing popularity by the rest of the day. Most respondents reported reading blogs at more than one time, so this piece of data reinforces my suggestion to publish early in the morning.

The best timing advice, however, may actually be around frequency. Last week, I analyzed 1000 of the most popular blogs on the web, according to Technorati. I compared their posting frequency with the number of incoming links and visitors they had attracted (according to Yahoo and Compete).

I found that among very popular blogs, publishing multiple times per day led to a huge increase in a blog’s success. This tells us that rather than focusing one perfect day or time, we should aim to publish at many times, and on many days.

Have you experimented with post timing and tweeting? What has your experience shown about the best times of day or week to reach your readers?

Dan Zarrella is HubSpot’s social media scientist. This post contains data from his upcoming webinar The Science of Blogging, taking place on December 9th.

Four Professional Editing Techniques that Boost Post Value

Putting aside grammar, spell-checking, and similar post QA techniques, editors commonly rely on a suite of tactics to help boost the communications value of content. They’re easy to apply, and don’t take a whole lot of expertise or time. Perhaps you can (or do?) use them to hone your posts.

1. Moving the key point to the opening

My dictionary

Often, we can get carried away setting the scene for a post—so carried away, in fact, that we neglect to tell readers what it is that they’ll get if they keep reading.

If they don’t know where the post is heading, readers aren’t likely to put in the hard yards to complete the journey. Often, we’ll make that point further into the post, after we’ve set the scene. I usually find that moving that key point up so it’s part of the opening paragraph doesn’t harm the flow of the scene-setting in the least, yet it has big benefits in terms of setting reader expectations.

It’s a small change, but it can make a big difference, as it promises readers a real deliverable.

2. Making the content answer the title

If the post’s title is “Five Tips for Blog Productivity”, I’ll want the sub-headings to be numbered one through five. Similarly, if the post title mentions pros and cons, I’ll ensure that both pros and cons are clearly mentioned and identified within the body, and that they’re called pros and cons, not advantages and disadvantages.

Whatever your title, the content should answer it, clearly delivering what it promises. Even these seemingly prosaic alterations can help readers to feel satisfied that the post delivered on the promise in its title.

3. Adding sentences that tie the content back to the theme or point

Sometimes, we’ll start making a point under a subheading and, having made it, simply move on to the next subheading or section. But on reading—particularly if the article is long, makes many points, or presents complex information—the critical information you’re presenting in each section can be lost to the reader. After all, they’re trying to take a lot in at once!

Often, adding a concise summarizing sentence that reiterates the key point of the section, and explains how it relates to the overall theme of the post, clarifies meaning, aids comprehension, and reinforces to readers that you gave them what they expected.

4. Adding links, references, and supporting material

If the post mentions a book, website, or person, I’ll try to find links that interested readers can follow for more information. Again, this is about delivering on your promises, but external links are also a good way to build your credibility and your reputation as someone who knows what they’re talking about.

The more information you provide to readers, the more respect they’ll have for you as the go-to person in your niche. Links and supporting material matter.

I use these four editing techniques constantly to hone content. What tricks do you use to make a big difference, quickly, to your posts’ value?

Setting the Hook: Fishing for New Readers with Social Media Lures

This guest post is by Ben Harack of the Vision of Earth project.

Regarding readers as fish, and bloggers as fisherman, might seem strange. Bear with me as I show you part of why I like the idea of blogging as being similar to fishing.

Those of you who are familiar with fishing know that getting the fish to bite the lure is only the first step of the process. A good yank from your end is often advisable in order to “set the hook”, ensuring that the fish will be less likely to escape.

A new reader to your page doesn’t have the hook set yet, in fact, they might not have bit at all. They might just be moving closer, perhaps to sniff the lure.

Modern media speed and information overload has caused readers to be more cautious with the way they spend their time reading or browsing. The fish might just swim in a bit closer to see if the lure looks tasty. If the lure looks dead or unappetizing the fish will likely swim on to find something more interesting.

Lure readers in

One of the major topics on ProBlogger lately has been social media. While search engines have been very important in the development of the Internet, social media has led a revolution in how we interact with content.

I feel that the onslaught of social media has exacerbated the short attention spans of Internet readers. Social media information tends to come in small bites. I feel that this evidenced by the naturally short nature of Facebook statuses, tweets, and news headlines on Digg, Reddit, and others.

How is it best to lure people in with social media? This website is absolutely full of tips on this subject. To capture the power of social media, I can honestly recommend reading about:

In a recent post about the small size of tweets, Darren raised the idea of a possible swing towards long-form content. From his post, and my own experience in the area, I have concluded that social media tends to facilitate the creation of connectivity, conversation, and community around content of value.

For bloggers, the hub of our content tends to be our blogs and websites. Social media can be regarded to some extent as the cloud of human interaction around a website. Darren illustrates this well in his post Home Bases and Outposts – How I use Social Media in My Blogging.

It is important to note that social media is not just another outlet for your standard content. If you only use it to link directly back to your blog, you are missing out on most of its potential. Social media is primarily a conversation created around you and by you. Without your interaction, conversations will still happen, but they will progress without you being involved. A megaphone isn’t a good conversation partner. To create a strong following, you need to connect with the people who are interested in what you do.

In the world of social media, quality of communication is key. Being restricted to about 30 words per unit of communication means you have to make each one count. With practice and care, it is possible to show that brevity does not preclude quality. It is possible to convey great meaning with even a single tweet.

We live in the age of the sound bite, the slogan, and the catch-phrase. In order to tame the beast of social media, we need to master its language.

Set the hook

You can’t force people to read what is on your page, but you can certainly encourage them. You can’t force them to come back, but you can provide some good reasons why they might choose to.

The specific techniques that I try to use are:

These tools cater to the tendencies of Internet readers. The intent is to grab their attention so that they will actually consume your content more fully rather than scanning it.

It is hard to set a dull hook. Sharpen your hook by making your website easier to navigate. Highlight your social media connections, and provide clearly visible ways for people to subscribe to your content or newsletter. Provide interactive elements such as contests and polls to generate additional interest.

I experimented recently with the creation of my own blog carnival called the Renewable Energy Review. Unfortunately as I found out, there is extremely little in the way of quality writing being pushed around the blogosphere on this topic. Our standards at Vision of Earth are high enough that only one article submitted thus far merited a link from us. This might sound harsh, but we have established standards of editing and fact-checking that are not matched outside of professional periodicals.

So what did I do? My team and I simply transitioned into creating a high-quality periodical of our own. Even with the publication so early in its life, we have noticed that it has already begun to draw some substantial interest. As a fledgling volunteer project/blog, we have been happy with the results.

More commonly, bloggers will write a series of posts on a topic to generate interest and subscribers. When people like what you write, and know that you will have more of it soon, they have an incentive to come back. All of the techniques for setting the hook eventually depend on you having content that is of value to readers to such an extent that they will come back again to experience more of it.

Eat your readers

Analogy taken too far? I think not!

Your readers consume your content, but you are the one who is attempting to make a living off them. If you are a Professional Blogger, the number and quality of your relationships with your readers are what literally put the food on your table.

Try to understand your readers and cultivate respect for them. Understand, because you may be fishing with the wrong lures or in the wrong part of the lake. Respect, because a genuine conversation requires some degree of shared positive regard.

Ben Harack is the leader of the Vision of Earth project, which attempts to study the key challenges facing society today. They publish on topics as wide-ranging as nuclear energy, ending poverty, and deliberate social change.

Everything You Need to Import and Display RSS Feeds with WordPress

WordPress makes it super-easy to publish your own content, and even easier to import and display content from other great sites around the Web. Just as other people are displaying and reading your feed in their apps and devices, you can use external RSS feeds to supplement and strengthen your site’s primary content.

Whether you’re displaying feeds from similar sites or aggregating news from around the world, importing feeds means taking advantage of the best that the Web has to offer. In this post, you’ll see how easy it is to grab external RSS feeds and display them anywhere on your WordPress-powered site

Why do it?

No website is an island, and with a virtually infinite assortment of content and services around the Web, there’s no reason not to take advantage of content that will benefit your readers and help improve the overall quality and content of your site. Feeding external RSS content to WordPress:

  • adds relevant, useful content for your readers to enjoy
  • adds relevant, targeted keywords for search-engine robots
  • keep visitors on your site by giving them the content they want.

Depending on your niche, using external content opens up many possibilities. Here are some concrete examples to help illustrate some common ways RSS feeds are used to create and supplement content:

  • news sites importing weather feeds to display current conditions
  • sports sites importing news feeds reporting the latest sports news
  • investment sites displaying current market values and stock prices.

For blogs, the possibilities are only limited by your imagination. I’ve seen some great independent sites that make excellent use of external feeds. Here are some examples:

  • blogs that display their social media feeds, such as Twitter and Facebook
  • bloggers with more than one website displaying posts from their other sites
  • news-portal sites that aggregate the best blogging and/or web design feeds.

And the best part? WordPress makes it so easy to integrate external RSS feeds that it’s almost funny. Depending on your goals and experience with WordPress, there are several ways to go about doing it: using widgets, plugins, or manual coding. Let’s examine these different techniques and explore everything you need to import and display RSS feeds with WordPress.

Displaying feeds with the default RSS widget

Right out of the box, WordPress includes a handy RSS widget that can be used in any widgetized area on any widgetized theme. Just drag the widget to your widget area and choose your options:

The default RSS widget

As seen in the screenshot above, the default RSS widget provides several basic options, including number of feed items and which elements to display. Yes, it’s super-easy, but your customization choices are limited. As a general rule, the more stuff (e.g. post title, post date, author name, and so on) you include with each feed item, the more cluttered it tends to look.

Seriously, a linked title and post excerpt is all you really need to display, and doing so keeps things looking clean. Unfortunately, even after limiting our display options to only “title and excerpt”, the output using the default WordPress theme looks sloppy:

The default widget output

…and the posts just continue all the way down the sidebar. If you’re handy with CSS, adding a few rules to your style.php may be all that’s needed to slap things into shape, but clearly more control is desired for better customization.

Displaying feeds with WordPress plugins

For more control when you’re working with external feeds, there a number of excellent plugins available. Let’s have a look at the best plugins for importing and displaying external RSS feeds. Note: all plugins have been tested/reviewed with current versions at the time of this posting, and working with the latest version of WordPress, 3.0.2.

FeedWordPress

A good sign of a reputable WordPress plugin is how many times it has been downloaded. So with over 300,000 downloads, FeedWordPress by Charles Johnson is definitely worth checking out. It’s an incredibly powerful, flexible plugin that makes importing and customizing feed content extremely easy. Here’s a screenshot of the Settings page:

The FeedWordPress Settings page

But FeedWordPress does way more than just display external feed content on your site—it actually creates a post for each imported feed item. So, for example, if I want to back up my latest Twitter tweets, I can either create an entire tweet archive, or I can let FeedWordPress do it for me. FeedWordPress installs easily, and imports any number of feeds using the following default settings:

  • Auto-updates are turned off by default; cron may be configured, or just use manual fetching.
  • Auto-import and create categories, tags, and even authors (as contributors) for each feed item.
  • Titles for feed items are auto-linked to the source, so there are no single-page views or comments.

Of course, all of these options may be configured to your liking using the FeedWordPress Settings page. Other useful settings enable you to mark imported posts as drafts or private, update posts to match changed feed content, and much more. To get started, check out the FeedWordPress Quick-start Guide.

WP-o-Matic

Another incredible plugin for importing feed content as posts, WP-o-Matic is very similar to FeedWordPress, but with some different features and slightly easier configuration. After installing the plugin, hit the Settings page for an easy, four-step configuration process:

  1. Run compatibility check.
  2. Configure time-zone settings.
  3. Configure cron settings (via WebCron, crontab, unix cron, or manual fetching).
  4. You’re done!

After configuration, you can begin importing feeds by creating a new Campaign and setting the following options:

  • feed title, slug, URL, and category
  • any regex pattern-matching on key terms (optional)
  • configuration of optional Custom import/post template and polling frequency
  • setting discussion preferences and whether to send pingbacks
  • setting whether title links should point to single-view page or content source.

In addition to importing and customizing any number of feeds, WP-o-Matic also enables image caching and provides some great import/export tools. Also worth mentioning is that WP-o-Matic doesn’t import any categories, tags, or users by default. Here’s a screenshot of the Settings page:

The WP-o-Matic Settings page

For importing feeds as post content, WP-o-Matic and FeedWordPress are excellent plugins that make things easy while providing much control over the configuration and customization of the entire process.

RSSImport

If you want to display external feeds without creating posts, the RSSImport plugin is really all you need. RSSImport enables you to import and display feeds using a shortcode, widget, or PHP template tags. And it does this using WordPress’s built-in feed-parsing functionality, via MagpieRSS (for WP 2.8+) or SimplePie (for older WP).

RSSImport makes it seriously easy to display any feed anywhere in your theme—and with massive flexibility. Here are three ways to do it with RSSImport:

Display feed content using the RSSImport widget

To display external feeds in the sidebar (or any other widgetized area), just install the plugin and visit the Widgets page. There you will find options for everything under the sun, giving you full control over many configuration options. Here is a screenshot showing a few of the widget’s many settings:

The RSSImport Settings page

Setting things up with the widget is really just a matter of going through the options and making sure everything is exactly how you want it. Bada-boom, bada-bing, as they say.

Display feed content using a shortcode

RSSImport also makes it easy to display feed content right in your posts and pages using a shortcode. Here is the simplest example, showing the five most-recent feed items from Digging into WordPress:

[RSSImport display="5" feedurl="http://feeds2.feedburner.com/DiggingIntoWordpress"]

That works perfectly, but there are many parameters available for customization. I’ve included a more involved example, using as many parameters as possible, in the downloadable code for this post.

So with the widget, RSSImport lets us display feed content in any widgetized area. And now with the shortcode, we can display feeds right in your posts and pages. But if we still desire even more control, we can get our hands dirty and modify our theme template files directly.

Display feed content anywhere in your theme

Direct modification of theme (or child theme) template files isn’t for everyone, but for complete control over configuration and customization, you may need to go there. I’s really no big deal, though—just pick a spot in your theme and add the following line of PHP code:

Just like with the widget and shortcode methods, you can use any of the RSSImport parameters to customize feed display any way you wish. Check out RSSImport at the Plugin Directory for complete details.

Displaying Feeds with WordPress’s built-in functionality

WordPress has a built-in way of displaying feeds using the fetch_feed function. Using the fetch_feed function means we have one less plugin to fiddle with and maintain, so if you feel comfortable working with basic PHP and WordPress template tags, then you’ll love how easy it is to import and display external feeds. To illustrate, paste this snippet anywhere in your theme (e.g. sidebar.php). Note that this code is also included in the download:

…and we’re done. Just specify your feed URL in the first line, and you’re up and running.

Way back when, importing feeds was a more complicated process, but over the over the years WordPress has evolved to make it extremely easy.

Here is a more complete example that shows how to grab different parts of the feed and display them as a nice definition list (this code is also included in the download):

The easiest way to understand this code is to just plop it into your theme file and look at the results on your site. Some of the highlights include:

  • an error-check in line 5
  • use of $rss->get_title(); to display the feed title
  • use of $item->get_permalink(); to display each item’s permalink
  • use of $item->get_date(); to display the post date for each item
  • use of $item->get_title(); to display the title for each item
  • use of $item->get_description(); to display the content of each item.

When working directly with template code, you have full control over the markup used to display your feeds. Throw in a little CSS and you’re equipped to rule the world.

SEO and other considerations

In closing, here are some things to keep in mind when working with external feeds:

  • Don’t steal, get permission—if in doubt, contact the publisher of the feed and ask.
  • If using WP-o-Matic, you may want to link target keywords and phrases using the regex feature.
  • Give proper link credit to the source of any feed(s) you use—otherwise it’s too shady.
  • Linking titles back to the source is good practice, but feel free to strip links from excerpts.
  • Don’t auto-fetch feeds more than once or twice per hour. If you need to update more frequently, get permission.

Bottom line: if in doubt, get permission. And always link back to the source. Everything else is up to you!

Jeff Starr is a web developer, graphic designer and content producer with over 10 years of experience and a passion for quality and detail. Jeff is co-author of the book Digging into WordPress and strives to help people be the best they can be on the Web. Read more from Jeff at Perishable Press or hire him at Monzilla Media.

A Note from Darren: I can only really echo the call to ‘get permission’ when importing other people’s feeds. I’d also warn against simply reposting other people’s feeds in full – particularly if that’s all you do primarily on your blog. To do means you’re not really creating unique content – this isn’t great for readers but also signals to search engines that you’re just creating duplicate content (meaning you’ll never really rank too high for that content).

Keep in mind that successful blogs are built on unique and useful content. Importing feeds might seem like a quick way to generate content – but it does little to build your authority, voice or a relationship with readers.

Personal Or Business Social Media Accounts: Which Is Best for You?

One of the first decisions you’ll need to make when you start using social media and participating in social networking is to choose your username.

It might seem like a simple question, but the username you decide on will be closely linked to your branding, how people perceive you, and your brand’s future worth.

Your final decision will depend on the answers you give to the following questions:

  • Do you blog for fun or profit?
  • Is your blog a hobby or a business?
  • Are you building a personal brand or a business brand?

I’m sure you’re wondering which is best for your business.

The right answer may not be what you think

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and there are benefits and disadvantages to both personal and business branding within the social media space.

I chose to register my primary social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter) under my personal name.

I wanted to establish myself personally in my industry and niche, and position myself as the owner of a portfolio of online businesses.  I didn’t want to tie my name to one business alone. My reputation is of the utmost importance to me—it’s my trust currency, and I want to leverage each of my business actions as much as possible.

What should you do?

I’ve launched three businesses using my personal brand. However, I’ve recently separated my womeninbusiness.com.au brand from my personal brand. One of the reasons I did this was so I could present extra value to potential advertisers by offering a more targeted social media audience. I was also conscious of my (eventual) exit plan.

My answer to the personal vs. business social media accounts question was to register—and maintain—both. I built my reputation on my personal account and created a new account for my blog once I had an audience that warranted the separation.

Of course, I have thousands more social media connections on my established personal brand account than I do on my business account, but like I said, I’m fond of leveraging my actions.

Next week, I’ll tell you about the best ways I’ve found to attract an audience to new social media accounts. In the meantime, let us know how you have handled the personal vs. business brand question in your social media accounts.

Online Marketing: the Onion You Should Peel

This post was written by the Web Marketing Ninja—a professional online marketer for a major web brand, who’s sharing his tips undercover here at ProBlogger. Curious? So are we!

One of the most common mistakes people make when entering into the world of online marketing and sales is having a narrow understanding of what the discipline actually entails. This tunnel vision is not focused on one specific area—it’s simply based on the fact that most people’s understanding of online marketing stretches only as far as their personal network.

If they have family or friends who might, for example, be search engine marketers, then their vision of online marketing is probably limited to working the search engines. If they’re conversion marketers, they’ll think sales funnels is where it’s all at.

As the online marketing industry matures, this tunnel vision is becoming more of an issue. True generalists are becoming few and far between, as it’s almost impossible to follow the industry as a whole in great depth. The generalists are out there, but the likelihood of one being in your network is pretty slim…

In this post, I wanted to take a huge step back and look at the online marketing discipline as a whole, so you can ensure you’ve got an open mind when it comes to your own approach, and ensure that your implementation is a balanced one.

I see online marketing as being like an onion: it has a lot of different layers, which combine to create a perfect whole. Let’s peel back each one in turn…

Brand management

Whether you like it or not, you have a brand, your business has a brand, and if you don’t care about it, others will shape it for you. You might get lucky and your brand could magically evolve for the good, but if you want to reduce the odds of a catastrophe, you should pay attention to your brand. You can’t dictate a brand, but you can help shape what it is you project.

Brand management isn’t all touchy-feely sentiment: there is actually method behind the madness. I’ll no doubt talk about brand management in future, but if you can’t wait and want a 24-hour crash course in branding, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding should be high on your must-read list.

PR management

In all honesty PR isn’t my strong point, so I feel a little guilty talking about it. What I can say it’s its valuable. Good PR people will put your brand and your product in front of a whole new audience. They mold media to their whim, and although I’ve got no idea how they do it, I love it when they do!

Community management

A couple of years ago, this would have resided within the brand segment of online branding. But it has evolved to become something that requires an approach all of its own. Community management includes social media, but it’s not limited to that: there are dozens of different types of communities, and you need to be thinking about them all. I could perhaps have called this engagement management, as that’s really the key measurement for this segment of online marketing, but the brand specialists will only argue with me that’s what they do!

Product management

Online, people are only starting to understand the value of pure product management and product marketing. Basically this is the discipline of researching, defining, shaping, building, promoting, and managing a specific product. This could be a service, an eproduct, or even a physical product. There a are a lot of great methodologies around when it comes to managing a product, and this discipline is the origin of such buzzwords as “unique selling proposition.” It’s an extremely important, but often underutilized area.

Market research

The role of the market research team is you give the other areas insight into what’s happening both in the industry as a whole, and within the groups of your customer base. They’ll provide competitive intelligence as well as helping you to discover new opportunities in the industry. Product marketers work closely with reattach marketers to get an understanding of the impact (positive or negative) their products are having, in order to assist in the evolution of the product. Usually research is conducted in qualitative (high-detail, low-volume) and quantitative (low-detail, high-volume) ways.

Campaign management

This where most people’s understanding of online marketing starts and ends. But as you can see, it’s only 1/6 of the picture. Online advertising, SEO, SEM, email marketing, product launches, affiliate management, and conversion optimization all sit under the campaign management banner. People seem to gravitate to these disciplines because they’re measurable and directly attributable to revenue. But the indisputable fact is that they’re dependent on all of the above. If you have a great brand with lots of convergence in the media, with a heavily engaged community, and a suite of amazing products, your campaigns will practically construct themselves. Sure, if you’re not running campaigns you’re leaving money on the table—but it’s not the only consideration you need to make.

Like an onion, online marketing has many layers, and it’s important you consider them all. If you jump straight into the campaign stage of online marketing, your conversions will suffer. So if you’re involved in marketing now, or you think it’s something you need to do, step back and ensure your plan covers all disciplines of online marketing.

Stay tuned from most posts by the secretive Web Marketing Ninja—a professional online marketer for a major web brand, who’s sharing his tips undercover here at ProBlogger.

Three Essential Tips to Growing Sales and Service, One Tweet at a Time

This guest post is written by Phil Hollows, the Founder and CEO of FeedBlitz.

Twitter offers small businesses and independent professionals unique opportunities to out-maneuver their larger competitors, by using the social network as a real-time prospecting and customer service system. You can improve your pipeline and grow a stellar support reputation simply by following these three simple tips:

  1. Use Twitter Search to find leads and spot problems in real time.
  2. Know when to tweet and when to hold off.
  3. Use Twitter’s Favorites function to aggregate testimonials.

1. Get vain! Twitter search is real-time market intelligence.

Tweets are, effectively, people shouting from the rooftops, in public, about what they’re doing. Some of their cries will be relevant to you and your business. The trick is to find the signal in the 1,000 Tweets-per-second noise.

What you need is one or more well-tuned Twitter searches, running in a good Twitter client, such as TweetDeck. Once you’re set up, you can quickly identify the people talking about your industry, you, or your competition. I have TweetDeck’s audio alerts set to go off only on the relevant searches; when I hear it chirp I know there’s something I need to pay attention to.

The first essential tip is to start with a so-called “vanity search”—to find people talking about you, your business, and your niche—at http://search.twitter.com.

You’ll probably find there’s too much information with your basic search criteria. To tune the results, go to the advanced page at http://search.twitter.com/advanced to add filters and get more granular. For example, I use a search that excludes the text “http” so that I avoid (re)tweets referencing my own company’s URLs. This narrows down the search to people who are talking about us (which is what we want) instead of people who are simply using the service.

Once the search is tuned, add it to your Twitter client, then rinse and repeat for your competitors and industry terms. You should monitor them the same way.

You’ll quickly discover service and support opportunities from people who need help. You’ll find sales openings when people talk about your industry, the problem you solve, or frustrations with competitors. You’ll find new communities you can join and influence. I guarantee that you’re going to get some surprises and insights long the way!

Working this way, you can solve problems before they become crises, or close the deal before any competitors know there’s even new prospect in the market. You’ll be permanently one step ahead of everyone else.

Tip 1: Twitter search, properly tuned, is free and as timely as you can get it—right when the user is articulating a need you can address.

2. Tweet! Don’t tweet!

Now that you have some hits, it’s the perfect time for you to introduce yourself.

Having found a conversation you want to be part of, you must be sensitive. I recommend sending exactly one tweet, something like: “FYI, saw your Tweet, this might be of interest” (for sales), or “Hi, I’m Phil from FeedBlitz, how can I help?” (for support). No matter what the purpose of your tweet, link to a page or URL that adds value to the conversation.

Examples of great URLs to send include:

  • a feature comparison matrix
  • a relevant ebook, online video or podcast
  • a support page or knowledge base entry
  • a Wikipedia entry on the topic
  • testimonials and recommendations (your LinkedIn profile, perhaps).

Whatever you send, it should be one link, at most two. Your tweet goes directly to the right person at exactly the right time.

Then, stop. No more tweets for you! Anything more than a single tweet with a relevant resource is too much. It’s a very short step from relevant interruption to spam. Don’t do it.

With luck, you’ll get a reply and the conversation will open up. If nothing else you’ll get kudos, and potentially have your tweet retweeted to the user’s followers—that can pay dividends later on.

Occasionally, folks will get angry about your talking to them out of the blue, even though they’re talking in public. In my experience, engaging with someone who takes this perspective is usually a lose-lose situation. Self-righteousness is immune to logic, and you’re better off leaving well alone. As long as you’re following the “One Tweet and Out” rule, just mark it up to experience and move on. It’s hard to do, because the criticism feels very personal, but it’s essential that you don’t talk back.

Tip 2: Tweet only once. Tweet with relevance. Then stop.

3. Use Twitter Favorites as real-time testimonials.

Eventually you should have enough Tweets from customers and fans that it’s worth favoriting them. In Twitter, favorites have their own RSS feed. I don’t really think anyone else is going to subscribe to it, but it’s a fabulous resource to send to your business’s new prospects: a list of real testimonials from real people in 140 characters or less.

To find you Favorites feed, go to your account at twitter.com. Go to your Favorites, and from the RSS options your browser gives you, choose your Favorites feed. Bookmark the feed’s URL. Done!

As an example, here’s my raw Favorites feed, which I use to track customer service praise for my business, and send to sales prospects looking to switch from other systems. Of course, since we’re FeedBlitz, I actually run it through my own service first to make it pretty, change the feed’s title and add social media sharing options. What I send in practice, then, is this.

Excellent customer service can help close the loop for sales. Don’t miss out on that opportunity.

Tip 3: Twitter favorites become a great resource for the times when people ask what it’s like to work with you.

All you have to do is tweet back “Don’t take my word for it, see this…” and let your fans do the convincing for you. It’s simple, powerful, and effective.

Twitter is your real-time sales and service secret weapon

Sales and customer service are both hard to do well. Twitter search makes them easier, by providing you with:

  • direct access to the right people
  • direct access at the right time.

Used well, Twitter Favorites give you the resources you need to make these tasks easier and more productive as time goes by. How else do you use Twitter to promote your business or blog?

Phil Hollows is the Founder and CEO of FeedBlitz, the email and social media marketing automation service and premium FeedBurner alternative. Phil writes the FeedBlitz News blog (subscribe here) and the weekly “List Building for Bloggers” series. Follow Phil on Twitter as @phollows, or read his full bio here.

Put Out the Welcome Mat: How to Run a Blog Contest with Panache

This guest post is by Nathalie Lussier.

Whether you’ve got a new blog or want to jump start your existing blog, you have two options: 1) keep blogging and hope it pans out, 2) try something different.

In this post you’ll learn how to run a blog contest with panache. Just like you want to organize a great party that everyone continues to talk about weeks after, your blog contest should create a great experience for everyone involved.

People love participating in contests: it makes them feel like they’re a part of something special, whether they win or not.

Before we dive in, let’s look at how running a giveaway on your blog can shift your blog into high gear.

Nurture what you’ve got and watch it grow

Ever notice how people who are good at taking care of what they have tend to get more of it? For example, people who are great at saving and investing money tend to make more of it? The same is true when it comes to taking care of your audience.

A new way to look at blog contests is to consider them as:

  1. a way to thank your existing readers for their loyalty
  2. a way to bring in fresh new readers.

Most of the advice on contests is about creating a buzz and getting more traffic to your blog. But I think it’s even more important to remember that, with a contest, you’re saying thank you to your existing audience.

Contests are also the perfect way to ask people what their challenges are, which will give you an idea of what topics to cover in future blog posts.

Contests create social proof.

If your blog is brand new and you want to build up social proof right off the bat, then consider setting up a simple contest. You will get more comments, social media props, and testimonials than you thought possible.

Giveaways increase engagement.

Ever publish a blog post only to hear crickets chirping? Yuck. No fun.

With a giveaway you’re sure to get lots of responses—if you do it right. The trick is to make your giveaways simple to enter, so you remove the barrier to entry and get more people to participate. The more people participate, the more likely they are to come back for more of your content and become loyal fans.

Start a buzz.

How do you know when something is creating a buzz? When everyone starts talking about it. People love sharing things that are useful, relevant, and fun. If you build your contest with these ideas in mind you’re going to give people something worth spreading.

Share your products or services in a fun, non-spammy way.

One creative way to use contests and giveaways is to offer your services or products as the prize. Structuring a contest around what you offer is a great way to make people aware of your products and services. If people like what you’ve got and they don’t win, they may decide to purchase.

Create a contest with panache

Now let’s look at how to structure your contest to ensure it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

1. To get sponsors or to go it alone?

Depending on the size of your blog, you might be approached by sponsors to offer their products as the contest giveaway. My rule is that you must feel like it’s a good fit for your audience, and stand behind the product, if you’re to give away an external party’s product.

For one giveaway, I mailed out two of my favorite books, so there was a values match there.

You could also approach sponsors that you think would be a good match for your audience. However, like Darren demonstrated in a previous article, it’s actually easier to give away your own products or services if you have them.

Delivering digital products is much easier than following up with someone to ask for their mailing address, and it’s also a great way to debut a new product or service.

2. Keep it simple, sweetie.

The easiest way to invite people to participate in a giveaway is to have them comment on a blog post. The easier you make it for them, the more likely they are to participate. You want people to participate and get excited about the contest.

I also recommend emailing your newsletter and directing them to the contest blog post so they can enter, even if they haven’t visited your blog in a while.

3. Add a social media component.

It’s easy to assume that people will be so excited about your giveaway that they’ll be shouting it from the rooftops. But unless you ask them to spread the word, they probably won’t. We’re all busy and after someone enters a contest they’ll probably be off to the next thing. One way to get the most bang for your contest buck is to build social media sharing into the contest.

Ask participants to tweet, Facebook like, or blog your contest for extra points. If it’s just a matter of clicking a tweet button, they’re a lot more likely to take action.

Be clear that sharing on social media sites (using a hashtag so you can track it, for example) will give them a greater chance to win.

4. Ask people to get creative.

If you’re offering a more highly priced, valuable prize, and you know people will be chomping at the bit to get it, then make them get creative.

The perfect example of this is Marie Forleo’s contest, where she gave away a seat to her live event in New York City, complete with accommodations. Marie was very clear that she wanted to get people to take action in a way that would get them moving toward their goals, whether they won or not. So she fashioned the contest in a way that rewarded people who filmed creative videos. This got many people to post their very first video online!

5. Decide on the winning criteria.

Often the easiest way to identify your winner is to select someone randomly, using a number generator. That may be the most egalitarian way of giving out a prize, but I think you’ll get a lot more engagement if you set selection criteria. For instance, you might let readers know that you’ll pick the response that’s most passionate.

You can also set up your contests using a two-step process, if you’re having a hard time choosing a winner and the prize is substantial. First, gather the contestants and have them comment or film videos, then set up the finalists in a poll. In this case, the numbers will clear show who the winner is. Having a poll will also get the participants to share with their networks to gather votes, thus bringing in more visitors.

Being clear that you’ll be the final decision-maker is just as important as the rest of the criteria I’ve mentioned here.

6. Keep to a timeline

One of the biggest mistakes I see new bloggers make is to have a contest every week. Unless your blog is set up to be a contest blog, you want to build contests in as a fun surprise and not a regular occurrence.

The problem with too many contests is that you’re essentially bribing your readers instead of giving them good value through your content. I recommend running contests once per quarter.

Most giveaways run best with a deadline that’s about a week away. This gives people enough time to enter and to share the contest with friends. The timeframe’s also a short, so it won’t get lost or forgotten on a to-do list.

Your contest giveaway action plan

Here’s a quick recap that you can use as a checklist to plan your first (or next!) contest:

  1. Choose your purpose: good will, buzz, engagement, launch.
  2. Decide whether you’ll go with a sponsor, give something you possess/buy, or offer a product or service you provide.
  3. Choose the scope: make it super-simple or ask people to put some skin in the game.
  4. Pick a time frame: no more than a week, and no more often than every quarter.
  5. Kick off the contest with your social media network, blog, and email newsletter.
  6. Keep the energy going after the contest ends by giving everyone who participated something really cool like a free ebook or special piece of content.

Have you ever used a contest on your blog? How did it go?

Nathalie Lussier is a contest loving blogger and a finalist at the Infusionsoft contest, who will love you forever if you vote for her Raw Foods Witch here. It takes less than 5 seconds, and you’ll see how to run a high-end contest at the same time! Tweet her at @NathLussier.

How to Use a Magazine to Improve Your Blog

View this video at full size here.

Looking for a little inspiration for your blog? Check out this simple exercise that I do from time to time, particularly if I’ve got a little time to spare and a magazine handy.

Note: pick a magazine that relates to your topic—unlike I did in this video! [Read more...]