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5 Blogging Lessons from NaBloPoMo

This guest post is by Karen Andrews of Miscellaneous Mum.

As problogger.net reported earlier this year, November is traditionally National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). This year I decided to set myself a personal challenge by giving them a try. Yes, together. In the spirit of imparting some tales of my intrepid adventures, I thought I’d share with you some important (and surprising) things I learned along the way.

1. Don’t be afraid to cut away the safety net

Is your blogging routine as old and worn as your favorite pair of slippers? Do you post at the same time on the same day, week in and out?

I see the comfort this can provide, and usually prescribe to the method, but on the other hand might this negate a thing blogging is often known for—the spirit of experimentalism? What if an alternate time, or topic, or way of publicizing your content happened to work even better? Isn’t it worth trialling?

2. Application cultivates discipline

It’s an old adage that the more a muscle is exercised, the better it performs and is strengthened, and I think this applies to writing. I found that by making the commitment, I found the time I needed to perform my tasks—in batches, I will add, as I have a child at home—and I sat down to work guilt-free and purposeful. This more positive mindset really helped.

3. Creativity rises in the ranks of precedence

It would take a remarkable talent to post thirty straight days (or more) of absolute winning content: talent, planning, assistance, and even a little luck might be closer to the mark. Even the most serious and best of us have silly off-the-cuff days, and I, personally, find them refreshing to both read and write.

It gives you the chance to share a part of yourself that a different kind of reader will identify with and appreciate. If your blog is more business or niche orientated this might be trickier, but I can cite some instances here on problogger.net where Darren has done something similar with great results—like an April Fools joke post which stated that ProBlogger had been acquired by Google, or a special guest post by his son.

So I’m issuing a challenge: post your own photographs instead of sourcing them from creative commons, write some flash fiction. Do you draw? Show us!

4. Determining your blogging future might just be made that much clearer

Once the month is over, stand back and take a breather. You’ve earned one. But what’s next? If you’re like me, worrying about traffic and subscribers takes a backseat when you’re in the middle of the task of laying down words until you emerge from the fog. Lucky there’s a wealth of information waiting to be looked over via Feedburner or Statcounter or Google Analytics (if you choose to do so).

Sometimes you’ll be able to tell what worked “better” by commenter count or good old gut instinct. The question now is: which way will you go? Will you apply your new tactics or chalk them up to mere play? It’s never an easy question to answer, but think about it this way: you’re better situated to do so now than you were a month ago.

5. This above all: life happens. Make peace with the fact

Did I finish NaNoWriMo? No, I barely cracked the 3,500 word mark. What happened? Illness, end-of-year school concerts, events, errands. You know the usual excuses. Still, those 3,500 are better than nothing—which might have happened if I hadn’t signed up at all. Besides, I still met the NaBloPoMo goal.

I believe above all else that the best thing you can offer your blogging is the best you. This might mean taking a rest or postponing such challenges if they become too untenable. The best thing of all is, you’ve got the next thirty days, you can begin again. Go solo if you want, you’ve already got the practice in. Maybe recruit some blogging buddies, and make it a community project. You can do it.

Karen Andrews is an author, publisher at Miscellaneous Press, award-winning short story writer and poet. She is also known through her personal blog as ‘Miscellaneous Mum‘. She is on Twitter as @miscmum.

6 Steps to a Loyal Blog Following

This guest post is by Shari Lopatin of www.sharilopatin.com.

I had a writer friend tell me the other day I have the best social network she’s ever seen.

“What?” I asked, shocked. After all, I only have about 380 Twitter followers (I follow 200-something). “You should check out these people instead,” I offered, with three other usernames. “They have way more followers than me.”

But she persisted. “They may have more followers, but your network is much more engaged.”

Engaged.

So many people think the more followers you have, whether on Facebook or Twitter or your blog, the better. But numbers aren’t what counts. Who cares if you have 20,000 followers, when no one pays attention to your posts?

Six tips to engage your networks

Whether you’re selling a product, a service, or even your writing, you want people to care.

The key is to build loyalty. My writer friend discovered the loyal nature of my network when I tweeted a question for her. She immediately began receiving tons of responses. What does that mean?

My followers are listening to me—and taking action.

Your social networks will eventually convert into (loyal) blog followers. I’ve had many blog subscribers discover me on Twitter. But just how do you get people to care? Well…

1. Reach out

Twitter is abuzz with tons of professionals looking to connect. Use Twitter’s “search” feature to type in keywords related to your business. For example, if you’re a writer, search “writing.” Begin following people tweeting about this topic, and see who follows you back. Then study their Twitter profiles.

What’s their follower/following ratio? Do they seem engaged with their network? If so, take it a step further. Visit their blog. Comment on their posts. Reply to their tweets, and maybe even fan them on Facebook. Then, direct message them on Twitter (or email them through their site) and invite them to guest post for your blog about their expertise. This will develop a trusting relationship with people who have the ability to influence their networks for your site.

2. Promote others

This can be done on Facebook, on Twitter, and even on your own blog. Let’s say you’re a lawyer, looking to build your expert status. Follow the steps in #1 to find other influential lawyers who offer great advice. Then, tweet a link to their site or blog post (i.e. “Great advice on handling angry bankruptcy clients from @joesmithlaw, www.joesmithlaw.com/bankruptcy”). Do the same on Facebook.

This does two things: first, it lets your followers know you’re not selfish, and you’re out to educate them (which builds trust). Second, people feel flattered you thought their work relevant enough to share, and they’ll most likely return the favor.

3. Respond

Everyone knows you should always answer questions posted to your Facebook page. But let’s take this a step further. Maybe you’re a media consultant. So use Twitter’s search feature to type in keywords like “blog.” From there, seek out general questions you can answer (i.e. “Anyone know how to connect my WordPress blog to Twitter?”). @Reply, and answer it! Maybe even follow the person.

If someone you follow poses a general question in your newsfeed, answer it, too. People want to be heard, and you can gain new (loyal) followers this way.

4. Ask questions

People love talking about their thoughts and opinions. For example, on my blog, I always ask a question at the end of my posts. For a recent topic, I wrote about, “Kindles: Writer’s Best Friend, or Worst Enemy?” Rather than just finishing with my thoughts, I asked my readers, “What do you think? Are Kindles securing our relevancy as writers, or helping to kill our profession and demand?” That generated 24 comments. You can also pose questions on your Facebook page related to your business, and watch the responses pour in.

5. Cross-promote

This one is my favorite, and one of the most under-utilized, strategies. I recommend it all the time. When another expert guests for your blog, have them cross-promote to their networks.  Ask them to run a blog post driving traffic to your site the day their article runs. Have them promote it on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google+. And you do the same.

On average, I’ve seen this technique double the traffic to a website in one day. Plus, if you partner with someone influential, new visitors will be more likely to subscribe to your blog, follow you on another social network, and best of all … engage with you moving forward!

6. Be real

Don’t sound like a product or corporation. No one wants to interact with a brand (unless you’re Coca Cola or Nike). Sound like a real person who people can connect with. But beware! Don’t overshare—just offer enough to make yourself real to your followers (i.e. Relate to my opening story in this post).

I’ve found the golden rule of social media is this: the more you give, the more you get.

What do you think? Do you find highly engaged social networks equate to more loyal customers and blog followers? How do you develop relationships with your followings?

Shari Lopatin is a former daily newspaper reporter who now works in the corporate world as a professional writer, journalist, and media strategist. Find her on Twitter at @ShariLopatin, or read more of her marketing and writing tips on her blog, “Shari Lopatin: Rogue Writer.”

How to Use Images in Your Blog Posts

This guest post is by Karol K of ThemeFuse.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

I’ve always liked this adage even though it’s one of the biggest cliches ever. Pictures, photos, image—they are all great for visualizing your posts and making them more memorable.

I know that it’s the content of the book that’s important, but what would be a book without a nice cover? Okay, let me stop being poetic and get straight down to business.

Why you should use images in your blog posts

1. They help your written content to deliver the intended message with a bigger impact

There’s really no better way of doing this. If you want to really emphasize a strong point, you can do it by writing it in bold as a separate paragraph and then placing an image next to it. Of course, the image has to be of some relevance to the text, or it won’t work.

2. They make your post more memorable

We humans need an anchor of some kind to memorize things. Most of us tend to remember things in snapshots—by visualizing them. It’s not natural for us to remember something as text—a set of words and sentences. It’s difficult to make a snapshot of a piece of text. Images do this job a lot better.

(Quick note. Sorry, but a headline is still the most important factor for every blog post. Just wanted to make this clear.)

3. They break the text visually

In most cases, reading from a computer screen is not comfortable. Eyes get easily tired, you can’t be staring at a computer screen for more than an hour at a time, and let’s face it, sitting at your desk is not the most comfortable position either.

Images are not the magic-bullet solution to make all of these go away, but they do make it easier for the reader. If the text is long you—the author—absolutely must break it down into smaller chunks.

The first rule of breaking it down is to use short paragraphs, no longer than four to six lines. However, even if you’re doing this, you will still end up with a number of paragraphs, and they need to be broken down too. The solution: images.

When you place an image every six to ten paragraphs, the text gets really reader-friendly. Everyone can easily follow your way of thinking and do a little five-second break to look at an image. And then they can easily return to the place where they’ve left off.

I’m sure that there are many more reasons for using images, but I’m confident that the above prove my point well. And, of course, I’m not even going to discuss the situations in which a blog is totally image-driven, like all kinds of photo blogs, for example.

What’s the best place for an image?

I’m no guru here, but I think that the best place is the beginning of a post (somewhere near the headline). It’s where the reader looks first, so if we want to help them to memorize anything, this is the placement to use.

Of course, you can use more than one image in a blog post. So my recommendation is to use the first image at the beginning, and then spread other images evenly throughout the post so they do their job of breaking the post down visually. Which brings me to the next point…

Don’t use too many images in short posts.

Images should make reading easier not harder. If you break the text too much, the whole purpose loses its sense and turns into an obstacle.

The perfect number of images per post for your blog is for you to decide. It depends on the blog’s design, the average post length, and the content of the post as well. You can find your number by testing a couple of possible setups and deciding which one works best.

The size of images

The maximum size you can use is the width of the content block on your blog. So again, it’s design-dependent.

That being said, the most common approach is to use images that are smaller (except for photography blogs) rather than bigger. That’s because the image is just there to aid you in conveying the message; it’s not to be the message itself.

An image is an extra element. If it’s too big it becomes the main element. I’d advise you to use images that are either not wider than one-third of your content block width, or even up to the whole width but really small in height.

Now, there’s an exception to this rule—screenshots.

Screenshots usually work as main elements of a post, so they need to be bigger. Also, they need to be bigger for readers to be able to see clearly what’s on them. Another approach is to present a screenshot as a thumbnail along with a lightbox gallery link.

How to embed pictures on your blog

Before you stop reading, bear with me! I know that this is basic and everybody knows this, so there are only two things I want to tell you here.

  1. Upload images in the exact dimensions you intend to use: always resize your image to the exact size you’ll use in a blog post. Bigger pictures consume more space than smaller pictures, so there’s no point in uploading a large picture and then scaling it down inside of WordPress.
  2. Use an image optimizer plugin: something like WP Smush.it. I’m not going to go into technical details because, to be frank, I have no idea how it works, but what I do know is that it optimizes the size (the disk size, not the dimensions) of images with no loss of quality. And it’s free.

Remember attribution

There are basically three types of images you can use:

  1. your own images
  2. free images
  3. paid images (usually referred to as royalty-free images).

Attribution is a thing you need to have in mind when using free images. It depends on the license a given image is shared with, but what you usually have to do is to somehow attribute the image to its author or creator.

The most popular way of doing this is by placing a link to the original image in your post. Some image directories require you to do this, and some don’t.

Treat attribution as a payment for the image—which essentially is exactly the case.

Do you have any strategies for using images on your blog you’d like to share? Feel free to share your opinion and advice in the comments.

Karol K. is a 20-something year old web 2.0 entrepreneur from Poland and a writer at ThemeFuse.com, where he shares various WordPress advice. Don’t forget to visit ThemeFuse to get your hands on some original WordPress themes (warning: no boring stuff like everyone else offers).

How I Bumped My RSS Conversion Rate from 16% To 25%

This guest post is by Gab Goldenberg, of The Beginner’s Guide To Usability Testing.

Want to find out how to boost RSS subscriber conversion? I did, but I hardly found any information about it online!

Besides having an obvious call to action above the fold and getting to [social news site]‘s front page, the blogosphere doesn’t much discuss how to convert more readers to subscribers.

I’d been meaning to test my RSS subscription page for a while, and finally got around to it. Here’s what the old page looked like:

The newsletter top

The newsletter bottom

The RSS subscription page was way too busy!

Notice the loads of links on the page? There’s the sidebar navigation, the breadcrumbs, the main navigation…

Additionally, the benefits copy is above the calls to action, which pushes them below the fold.

The conversion rate theory and the execution

My hypothesis was that by eliminating the distractions I would increase conversions. In other words, I’d eliminate the links on the page and move the benefits below the calls-to-action.

The reasoning for moving the benefits copy was that if someone clicked to view the subscriptions page, they were probably already pretty convinced and should be shown the conversion form and button immediately.

People who were still hesitant once they got to the page would be able to scroll down and read the benefits copy. That’s also why I moved the reassurance text (“You can unsubscribe with a single click, anytime”) below the form.

Finally, I did one more thing, which wasn’t originally in the plan, but which my limited HTML/CSS/Photoshop skills forced: I added testimonials into the left-hand sidebar. I’d initially planned to get rid of the sidebar, but that broke the page’s alignment and looked bad.

(Since my site is powered by WordPress, I used this Google Website Optimizer-Wordpress workaround to be able to use GWO. That’s because I never had a successful experience using GWO with WordPress, partly because GWO isn’t designed for sites that use a content management system, because I have a custom theme, and because many of the plugins are bad quality.)

Here’s what the page looked like after I edited it:

The new signup page

And here are the results:

That’s right, the variation outperformed the original by 56.3%—I added nine points of conversion to my overall conversion rate!

Methodology

I want to mention how conversions were measured. The limits of Google Website Optimizer (GWO) forced me to only measure one goal, so I chose the email subscription instead of a click on the orange button.

What that means is that I don’t know the difference these changes made on conversions for people clicking on the RSS button. Or should I say, this test didn’t reveal the difference these changes made…

Initially, my goal was to measure results comprehensively. After a fair bit of struggling, I followed the instructions on GWO’s help site and altered their code and mine so that both email subscriptions and RSS button clicks would be counted.

I launched the test and was happy until I discovered that something was causing the pages to load very slowly. I’m talking about 30 seconds for a page with the main functionality and 60+ seconds for full load.

Despite that, it seems some people did wait (or didn’t have this problem?) and early results of the test looked like this:

Notice the 11/11 conversion rate for the variation? That’s right, a 100% conversion rate for the variation! And why not? If visitors clicked my sidebar link to go to the subscriptions page (i.e. this was highly motivated traffic), and they saw a simple page without distractions, and with a very easy conversion process, doesn’t it make sense that they’d then convert?

Sure, it’s probably just a lucky streak and with more traffic we would have likely seen the conversion rate drop to 90% or such, but the point is that the no-distractions page still kicks butt—and takes names.

Unfortunately, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t solve the load time problem, though. So I started a new test, only measuring a single goal: email subs. And that’s where the data above comes from.

Another very interesting finding is that, contrary to the common situation of email subs being more numerous than RSS subs, it seems my techie audience prefers RSS. If about 30% are converting by email, and the no-distractions page gets say 90-100% conversion rate, then potentially 60-70% of my visitors prefer RSS subscriptions.

Of course, I’ll need to test some more to find out!

Want to help other bloggers and email marketers increase RSS conversions? Share your own experiences with RSS conversions below!

This guest post is by Gab Goldenberg, author of the advanced SEO book and The Beginner’s Guide To Usability Testing.
If you liked this post, get Gab’s posts by email or RSS -free- plus enjoy the subscriber only downloads!

How I Overlooked a 1000 Visitor a Day Source of Traffic [And What I Did to Grow it to 3000 Visits a Day]

Last week I was digging around in my Google Analytics stats and drilling down to look particularly at sources of traffic to my photography tips site.

I noticed a new source of readers that has been creeping up in terms of how much traffic it sends. Here’s the chart from the last few months.

new-traffic-source.png

It started as a trickle, but as you can see, in the last month there have been days on which traffic from this source has spiked up to over 2000 unique visitors. Even on an average day we’re up over 1000.

While it’s not the biggest source of traffic to the site by any means, it was a bit of a surprise and made me realize that I’ve not been as diligent in checking referral traffic sources as I once was.

Referrers are key

Before I reveal the source I want to emphasize my point: keep a watch on your referral stats. The source of this traffic doesn’t really relate to many of you who are operating in different niches, but the principle does. Be diligent in watching where traffic is coming from because there are almost always ways of growing traffic from these unexpected sources.

  • If the source is another blog, you can build the relationship with the other blogger.
  • If the source is a social network, you can get more active in that network, consider putting sharing buttons on your site, and educate your current readers about how to use it.
  • If the source is a search engine, you can look at what you’re doing right on that post SEO-wise and try to replicate it. You can also tweak the posts getting the traffic to make them rank even higher.
  • Whatever the source, you can look at the content that’s working out and produce more of it.

There are any number of ways of exponentially increasing growing sources of traffic, but if you don’t know about them, you will never be able to take action!

So what was the source of the traffic?

I know some of you skipped down here without reading the above section. You really should go back and read over it … but I’ll tell you now if you promise you will!

The traffic is coming from Pinterest.

Pinterest is a growing social bookmarking/network site (they call themselves a Virtual Pin Board) that is particularly popular in some niches like home decoration, weddings, craft, fashion, food, and more.

The traffic has literally arrived without me doing anything at all. I didn’t have an active account on Pinterest until the last week or so when I set up an account (connect with me here). I haven’t promoted the site there, or used their buttons (until this last week when I put it on a few of our hotter articles). The growth has been purely organic. I guess photography is one of those niches that Pinterest users are interested in!

Since finding out about Pinterest I’ve begun to participate there a little more myself, and have added a few share buttons to some pages that have been doing well for us. I’m taking my time as I don’t want to do anything spammy, but even since I’ve known about it and participated on this low level, I’ve seen traffic rise from a spike of 2000 or so visits in a day to over 3000—lucky I checked my stats!

As I say, this isn’t about Pinterest (although I’m sure some of you will find it fun and useful)—it’s about being diligent about your metrics, always being on the lookout for what’s growing, and working out how you can position yourself to be able to leverage that.

When Should You Launch Your New Blog? [Complete or On the Go?]

I’m regularly asked this question by PreBloggers: “How much work should I do on my blog before I launch it?”

  • How many posts should it already have live?
  • How many posts should I have in reserve and ready to go?
  • Should I have a customized or premium theme, or just start with a default one?
  • Should I invest in a logo before I launch?

The list of questions goes on, but they all boil down to the same thing: how complete should a blog be before it’s launched?

Launch day

Image copyright Byron Moore - Fotolia.com

There’s no real right or wrong answer to this question. I asked my followers on Google+ about how they launched their blogs recently and the array of responses was huge.

Some spent considerable time (and money) in preparing for their launch, while others launch very much “on the fly,” and made improvements as they went.

Do what I say … not as I do

I remember writing a post on this at some point in the past, and creating a list of important things to do before launching a blog. However the reality is that with the blog I launched after writing that post, I managed to do almost the exact opposite—I launched it almost completely on the fly.

I guess there’s an “ideal” launch scenario, and then there’s the reality. The ideal is to give your next blog launch careful consideration and plan out a great strategy. The reality is that when you’re launching a new blog, you’re often really excited about it and want to get it out quick while you have momentum and energy.

The other element of this is that sometimes the strategy and planning can almost kill the idea. As Shareef Jackson called it on Google+, “analysis paralysis” can kick in.

Here’s what I’d aim for (the “ideal” blog launch)

So with the admission that I don’t always put a heap of planning and strategy into the launch of a new blog, here’s what I “ideally” would aim for when launching a new blog. I’ll attempt to note the importance of each point.

Brainstorm post topics

I think this one is really important—essential, even. I would generally do a brainstorming exercise before I even commit to the idea of starting a blog to see if the topic is a viable one. If I can’t come up with a list of 20 or so post topics in a five- or ten-minute brainstorm, that indicates to me that it’s just not a blog topic that will be sustainable.

Having a list of brainstormed post topics is also so helpful after you’ve launched because finding a topic to write about is often the big stumbling block for many bloggers, and leads to the dreaded “bloggers block.”

Write ten blog posts (three published and seven drafts)

I really like to have at least a few posts already published before I launch.

Some bloggers like to have more than three (when I was working with b5media we used to have ten already published), while others think that one published post is enough. My theory is that if you at least have a few published posts, you’re showcasing the type of content that you’ll be publishing in future to those first readers who come to check you out.

These posts should be typical of the types of posts you’re going to be writing in the future in terms of topic and style. Evergreen content is good too, as it’s this content that will be useful to people today but also in months and years to come (some call this “cornerstone” content).

Also I think it’s important to at least have a few posts written up as drafts that you’ll be able to roll out in the first week or so of your blog. Having some in reserve to draw on in this way is good because it gives you a little more time in that important first week or so to do other activities like promote your blog, write guest posts on other sites, and so on.

Have a unique(ish) design

There’s a variety of approaches that you can take with design.

At one end of the spectrum, you can go with the free, default template that comes with your blogging platform.

At the other end is a custom design, where you get a designer to come up with something completely unique for you (though of course this can be expensive).

In the middle is the use of a premium theme: you pay a smaller amount for a design that is professionally designed, and customizable but not completely unique.

I have tried all three approaches with my own blogs over the years.

Ideally, I would love to advise a custom design for your new blog, but the reality is that most of us don’t have the budget for this for a brand new blog—particularly when you’re sometimes not even sure if the blog will be something that works out in the long term.

As a result, I tend to advise people to look at the premium theme option, but to customize it where they can by tweaking the colors, layout, and even adding a unique logo.

As someone who is “design-challenged” myself, I know that this can be a little daunting. You might like to have a go at it yourself, or perhaps engage the services of someone to help you get set up.

Don’t worry if the design isn’t perfect when you start—while your design does create an impression, you can always put more time and resources into improving it later. All of my blogs have evolved in their designs over time, and most started with what I considered to be temporary designs.

Set up an email newsletter

Today my biggest source of traffic and income generation on my photography blog is the emails that we send to our community. Fortunately, on that blog I began gathering email addresses of readers from day one. However on other blogs, I’ve not set newsletters up until much later. In doing so, I feel like those blogs could have been much bigger if I’d taken that step earlier.

I’ve written extensively on the why and how I use email newsletters here, so won’t rehash it all except to say that setting this up would be on my list of new blog essentials.

Set up social outposts

High on my list of priorities for a new blog would also be setting up social media outposts.

My approach to social media as it relates to my blogs is that my blog is my home base, and around it I try to set up outposts, which are places where I have a presence as a way of supporting my home base. I’ve written more on home bases and outposts here.

The outposts will vary from blog to blog, depending upon who I am trying to reach and what social media networks they use, but in many cases this would be about setting up a Twitter account, Facebook page, LinkedIn Group, Youtube Page, and so on.

I may not be highly active from day one on these accounts, but at least reserving an account and promoting it a little when I am active can pay off if I do it early on.

What would you add?

What do you like to have done before you launch a new blog? I’d love to hear your own suggestions and stories below.

5 Tips for Getting Free Media Exposure for Your Blog

This guest post is by Michael Haaren of Creators Syndicate/Dallas Morning News.

Many bloggers and other brandbuilders are moving en masse into Twitter, Google+, and other new media. While these should certainly be part of your overall media strategy, don’t neglect TV, radio and other legacy media. They still have plenty of reach and prestige, and are starving for cool stories to tell. Here are five tips for getting your name in lights.

1. Grab the big picture

Legacy media is grappling with tectonic changes. Before you pitch any idea to a TV producer, radio-show host, or newspaper or magazine journalist, take a few minutes to see what’s happening in their industry. Since your “target” is dog paddling in those trends, knowing them helps your pitch bob to the top instead of sinking to the bottom.

Sites to check include I Want Media and Media Bistro.

2. A good pitch is usually short and succulent, like a fish hook with a worm on it

It’s trite but worth remembering—the journalist is a fish and you’re the angler. You’ve got to cast something we’ll bite at. And since we’re even more info-stupefied than everyone else, you only have a moment to catch our eye.

For example, I recently put out a query on Peter Shankman’s Help a Reporter Out, better known as HARO, which many journalists and producers use to find interviewees. (Queries are distributed three times daily and are free, so be sure to sign up while you’re there.)

Since I write about home-based gigs and careers—which now includes many bloggers and experts, like Darren working in a home office in Melbourne—I wanted to hear from people who have unusual home-based businesses.

As soon as the query went out, pitches began to flood in. I scanned them in spurts, in between posting to our Facebook page and screening a job lead for our website and trying to keep the dog from chewing his hot spot again. (Like many journalists, I work from a home office, too.)

Soon, I was “hooked” by a lead-in that described a baby fawn lying on a bed of broken glass, in Pennsylvania Amish Country. The glass, I learned, came from antique bottles, discarded long ago. Collectors would scoop up intact bottles but leave the broken ones behind, and wildlife like the fawn had to cope. The artist pitching me, Laura Bergman, turned these fragments into remarkable pieces of jewelry. The business was Bottled Up Designs, and we covered it in our column.

As a rule, keep your pitches to a three- to five-line paragraph or two. Mention briefly why you’re pitching the journalist (“In reply to your HARO query on wombats…” or “Having read your Toy Industry Review article on Ken cheating on Barbie, I…”). Then add the “hook,” and your relevant credentials. Close briefly with your cell phone number. Journalists are usually time-pressed and work odd hours. If you’re not available, they’ll quickly move down the list.

3. Target people who care

It’s much easier to get a journalist to cover you if your pitch includes something we care about. For example, I often write about green issues; it’s one reason I’ve advocated telework for so long. Laura Bergman, whether by coincidence or by research, hit a nerve when she mentioned that fawn lying in glass.

4. Identify, hone, and cue up your blog’s unique stories

Every blog comes with unique facets, aspects, or stories. Bloggers are individuals, and blogs, in the larger sense, are always narratives—absent mimicry and plagiary, both unique. The trick is to find the sexiest or most intriguing or flamboyant facets, polish them down to a few lines, and share them when the opportunity presents.

A pitch might be based on something in your own life—“How blogging wrecked my marriage” could easily be a morning-show segment—or key off a subject or individual you covered in your blog.

Even a blog on a theme that many might yawn at—tax law, for example—can hold compelling tales. How about a rogue tax agent, who leaves his family with embezzled funds, and winds up on a nude beach in Brazil, surrounded by aspiring samba stars? You get the picture.

5. Pitch early and often (email is usually best), but don’t call

When journalists send out queries on HARO or Bill and Steve Harrison’s Reporter Connection (be sure to sign up there, too) they trigger immediate replies, often voluminous. And the first pitches to arrive in the inbox frequently end up the winners.

Pitch often, too. If you can score on 10% of your pitches, you’ll beat many pros. You have to play the odds to “get ink.”

Finally, unless invited, don’t call to follow up on a pitch. Let the journalist call you.

Oh, and one last tip, which you may have heard elsewhere: don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

Michael Haaren is the co-founder of Rat Race Rebellion, a site devoted to screened, home-based jobs, and a syndicated columnist with the Dallas Morning News. His frequent media appearances include CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and many more.

Your “How-To” Post Will Fail If You Don’t Use These Techniques

This guest post is by Neil Patel of KISSmetrics.

Gone are the days when you could write a simple “how-to” blog post and rank in the top search results. Why is that? Two very good reasons.

First, all of the general and highly-competitive posts like “how-to blog” or “how-to find a roommate” are already written.

The other reason is Google Panda. Remember Google’s update this past year that took down a lot of the content farms? That algorithm was designed to penalize short and shallow articles and reward high-quality content.

Now, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.

The bad news: If you want to write a “how-to” guide that stands out, then you have to work. The good news: Not very many bloggers are willing to put in the hours and effort. And fortunately I’m going to give you the secrets to creating these posts so you won’t have to work nearly as hard.

Start with detailed research

Great how-to blog posts have great content. But it’s never easy coming up with that content, which means you need to do a little research. Here’s a two-step process you can use to come up with ideas:

  1. Visit your competitors’ blogs and see which posts generated a lot of comments and/or got shared a lot on the social web. You can put a list of headlines into a spreadsheet along with the number of retweets and Facebook “like” on each post.
  2. Browse the trending topics on Tweetmeme, Google Trends, and Google News for the last week. Once you discover what people are after, start to think of topics that are related to the trending ones.

But don’t stop there. When you’ve got your idea nailed, read about a dozen articles and posts connected to your idea.

Make notes as you read and bookmark them. Follow rabbit trails. You may not need all this information right away, but this kind of research will prepare you for what’s going to come next.

Show the visual data, always

When it comes to creating blog posts in this very competitive blog world what you are really trying to do is kill the really boring blog post.

The old way of writing a how-to you could get away with just describing the steps. Here’s how it was popular to do it on eHow:

Pretty lame, right? No wonder video tutorials and picture slides have taken over their content.
See, today you need to show the data. That’s means you need to share charts, graphs, reports, blow-outs of details. This is one of the reasons that infographics are so compelling. You have complex data simplified in a picture.

For example, here’s a visual data explaining how Page Rank works:

And with the blogging tools available today, you don’t have to be a designer to provide good visual data.

However, I do have to warn you. To quote Edward Tufte in his The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, “When you go about Data graphics should draw the viewer’s attention to the sense and substance of the data, not to something else.”

In other words, your visual data must be relevant.

Back up all your claims with examples

One of the easiest ways to separate your how-to blog posts from others is simply to provide examples of the claims you are making…namely links to other content.

This does several things.

For one, you are showing your readers that you took the time to find these examples. It also shows that you understand the unwritten blogging rule about linking to other people and keeping the conversation alive.

Besides, web readers scan the text of a blog post for three things: sub headlines, images and links. If there are no links, you are missing out on opportunities to capture reader interest.

Design your how-to post for the power scanners

How-to blog posts by their nature are scannable because you are giving your readers steps to follow. But not everyone thinks that way or even designs it with that in mind.

You have all this great research and the worst thing you could do is dump it on the page so it looks like this:

The lines are too long because the margin is too wide and the paragraphs are too thick. While this blogger has links, he’s missing sub headlines.

What do you think … is it easy to scan? I don’t think it is. Blogs posts should allow skimmers to read the headline, scan the sub headlines and understand what the post is about in less than 30 seconds.

Use killer images to slow down RSS readers

You have no excuse these days to not put images into your blog posts. Word Press and other blogging platforms make it drop-dead easy.

Why are images important? Because that’s what people on the web prefer. Whether it is an image to open the post or a series of images throughout the post, images are much attractive to readers.

In fact, this summer Cyrus Shepherd ran an experiment where he published an article with images and an article without and then shared the results on SEOmoz. When it came to link-backs and social sharing momentum, the article with images buried the other one. There was no competition.

Another reason images are important is that for your readers who use a RSS reader to consume content, an image is more likely to get them to slow down as they scroll through their feeds. I discovered this trick about four years ago when Robert Scoble told Tim Ferriss how he read 622 RSS feeds each morning.

Finally, putting images into your blog posts brands your personality. Do you remember Dosh Dosh? His sight is no longer up, but one of the most compelling and interesting things about his blogs were his anime images.

Here’s one more example: the This Isn’t Happiness Tumblr blogger has branded his or herself on images alone.

Create a compelling introduction using the PAS formula

You might think that when it comes to writing “how-to” guides that you can just jump straight into the steps. Don’t kid yourself.

Even if you have the clearest and most compelling headline and all the greatest data in the world, you need to prepare your reader for what’s going to come next.

But just writing a short introduction isn’t enough. You have to write a compelling one. Use the PAS formula to do that.

  • Pain: describe a real problem that your readers can identify with.
  • Agitate: make that pain seem even worse by bringing up more bad news.
  • Solve: tell your reader there is a solution…the blog post they are about to read.

Now did you notice that’s what I did in this introduction? Did you think it was compelling?

Craft an irresistible headline using these four elements

I saved this one for the last because it’s the most important. A headline will make or break your blog post. And you should put in as much time on the headline itself as you do the article.

Headlines are what going to attract readers. And like I mentioned in the introduction, a basic headline isn’t going to do it.

  • Specific: for example, let’s say you are a designer and you want to write a how-to on making a design illustration out of mixed media that is organic. This is specific: How-to Create an Organic Mixed Media Illustration. You could get more specific by including “in 11 Short Steps” or “in Five Minutes.”
  • Keyword-rich: usually when you are that specific, your keywords automatically come out and that’s what you want because all the general and competitive headlines like ““how-to” Design an Illustration” are taken. You are writing for the long-tail search.
  • Special: a successful how-to headline these days stands out because it is original. For example, the Inc. magazine article Overworked? 4 Signs You Need to Recharge is about a pretty common topic. But it doesn’t feel that way because it’s combined terms in unusual and unique ways to create a fresh headline. It feels special.
  • Sensitive to time: great headlines also suggest a sense of urgency to the reader. The BPA Lurking in Your Thanksgiving Dinner was time-sensitive when it was published, because that holiday is coming up for Americans. Obviously your how-to needs to provide a practical solution for your readers’ problems.

Conclusion

There are still plenty of opportunities to write “how-to” blog posts that rank in the top page. You just have to be willing to work hard to write them.

What tips can you share on making today’s “how-to” blog posts compelling?

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics and blogs at Quick Sprout.

What to Do When Your Niche Blog Isn’t Making Money

This guest post is by Blog Lady.

There comes a time in your career as a blogger or website owner that you find yourself with a niche blog or site that isn’t meeting your expectations money-wise. That’s nothing to feel bad about. It happens to everybody, and if some say it’s never happened to them, they must be insanely lucky or they just haven’t been in the business long enough.

But what do you do when it finally happens to you?

Give it more time

It could be that the only thing your niche blog needs is more time to “prove” itself. All sites take time to build authority and gain steady traffic. If you’ve been running your site for a month or two and you get only a dozen or so visits a day, don’t be surprised if your earnings are, or are very close to, nil.

If anything, you shouldn’t worry about making money from such a young site. Instead, focus on producing quality content and establishing good relationships with your readers and fellow bloggers/webmasters. I’ve found that it’s best to give a niche blog eight to 12 months before I start to make conclusions about it.

I almost gave up on one of my niche blogs several months ago. It was doing quite poorly in comparison to my other sites. But then it suddenly took off, for reasons unknown. Today it is my biggest money earner. So don’t give up too quickly on what seems like a failed project.

Examine your target keywords

Niches aren’t equally profitable, and even keywords within the same niche do not have the same earning potential. You want to optimize your blog for keywords that can generate the most income. If you’ve been targeting and ranking for low-value keywords, the payoff may be small even with a high conversion rate.

On the other hand, if you target high-value keywords but convert rarely, you may be targeting an audience that has a low click-through/conversion rate. (In other words, the type of visitor that isn’t motivated to click ads or buy a product.)

Find keywords that have the best combination of ad value, traffic volume, advertiser competition, and conversion rate.

To give an example, one of my oldest sites targets a small niche in the New Age market. I knew what kind of information that competitor sites weren’t providing, and was sure I could deliver it. And I did. Yet what I didn’t think of was the low commercial value of the specific keywords I’d chosen. I got the traffic, all right, but not the dough. So I researched my niche for higher-value keywords with better conversion rates, and applied them to several new and existing posts. Sure enough, these keywords bumped up my AdSense and Amazon affiliate income.

As for which keyword tools to use, I’m happy with the free Google AdWords Keyword Tool. You might try commercial tools such as Market Samurai, if you can afford them.

(Note: this is no reason to delete low-earning articles by the way. If your readers enjoy them, keep them and make some more—it serves your visitors well, earns you their trust and hopefully, backlinks.)

Explore different ad placement and ad types

Sometimes, the issue might not be your choice of keywords at all, but what you sell, how you sell it, and where you sell it. Check the advertisements that show up your blog. Look over the affiliate products you sell. Are they appropriate? Are people likely to click or buy them?

If you get few clicks, try moving your ads to different places on your blog. Experiment with affiliate widgets, buttons, and text links to see which get the most attention.

When you change your ads this way, wait several days to a week before you change them again. Personally, I’d wait for as long as it takes for me to get 500-1,000 impressions. (That’s less than 24 hours for a high-traffic blog, but the average site would need more time.) Monitor your conversion rates via your advertiser’s or affiliate partner’s account.

Now don’t go to desperate means to get clicks on your ads. That means, don’t try to “mask” your ads and don’t put them where they will disturb visitors’ experience of your blog. The few extra dollars you make this way aren’t worth the contempt and loss of trust it would incur.

Modify your strategy

Are you wholly dependent on a specific type of traffic, such as search traffic? If so, you need to modify your strategy to be less reliant on that traffic source. If you rely on Google for the majority of your traffic, you’d be seriously hurt if an algorithm update were to drop your site’s ranking.

Learn to diversify. Besides search traffic, look to social traffic, word of mouth, advertising and other means. We all need to do this, whether or not our sites make money, if we are to survive in the post-Panda era.

Know when to let go

I said earlier that you should give your niche site a chance. However there is such a thing as trying too hard. If you’ve tried all ethical means to boost your site’s income and still nothing happens, face the music. Leave it alone and try something else.

To invest all your time and resources in a lost cause is foolish. And don’t feel bad doing this. You’re learning. Every niche blog you make teaches you a lesson. With every success and failure, you discover what works and what doesn’t, what your viewers want and what you are capable of delivering. So even a failed site—if it is that—is not a complete waste of time. Learn from your mistakes, vow to do better and move on.

Blog Lady. A former freelance website content writer and now full-time niche blogger. Visit my blog for more articles on niche marketing, blogging and social media. Website: Blog Lady RSS Feed: Blog Lady RSS Feed.