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Blog Design for ROI Rule #4: Make Posts Easy to Read

This guest post is by Gab Goldenberg of The Advanced SEO Book.

In the last instalment of the Blog Design for ROI series, I discussed the importance of showering attention on your community using design elements.

The fourth commandment of blog design for ROI is to make your posts easy to read. This ensures that your message gets across even to first-time skimmers, which helps turn them into loyal readers (and post-sharers).

There are several elements that impact on the ease with which a post is read. The primary elements we’ll cover here are:

Each individual blog post should have clear start and end points

The web 2.0 design trend contributed positively to web design practices in this regard, as it led many people to show rounded-corner graphics at the tops and bottoms of blog posts.

In itself, the roundness or squareness of the corners doesn’t matter. It’s the presence of the corner graphics that matters, because they indicate the beginning and end of the post.

You can see bottom-corner graphics in this old design of SEOBook.com’s blog:

rounded corners

In contrast to the above, it’s hard to distinguish where posts in WordPress’s Toolbox theme start and end, for lack of such graphic hints. Toolbox Theme, pictured below, uses large-font blue text links to show that a new post is starting.

no end to the post

If you didn’t know the site was a blog, though, you wouldn’t necessarily know that the links were the start of new posts, as I discovered in usability testing. Also, the blog’s name is only a little larger than the post titles. Using corner graphics clearly makes it easier to know when a post starts and ends.

That being said, the date, post categories and tags do help to distinguish the start and ends of posts. (And kudos to this theme’s designers for avoiding the calendar date icons, which are just distracting graphics.)

I’m not saying Toolbox is bad, it’s just that there’s an important improvement possible here. The flip-side is that the Toolbox theme gets some advantages from this light use of graphics, like fast loading times.

Line length and font size

Just as some forms of print are easier to read, so too it’s easier to read some particular text layouts online. For blogs, this means somewhere between 12-16 words per line, with about 12-point type.

Obviously this will vary a bit if you choose to accomodate older readers who typically prefer larger type (13 point of 14-point font sizes), but this rule is a good starting point.

Look at the legibility of my SEO blog‘s design in terms of the number of words per line, in the next image. There are a lot of words—20-22 words in each line!

line length on my blog

In contrast, you’ll find that Problogger has 12-15 words per line.

line length on problogger

These shorter lines are a lot more manageable and mentally rewarding, as readers feel that they are making progress more quickly.

It’s similar when kids choose a book with a large font and wide margins for their book report, so they can have done their homework (reading the book) in less time.

Besides your default post width and font size, which will determine post design, certain graphic elements also help readers speed through posts—and enjoy and understand them more…

Post-embedded sidebars, blockquotes, pull quotes, and image captions

Our blog posts need to be visually appealing not for the sake of art, but to help break up large sections of text into more manageable, bite-size pieces.

Pull quotes and blockquotes

Pull quotes and blockquotes, as well as post-embedded sidebars, help shorten some of the lines in your posts. This helps the reader feel like they’ll get through the post quickly.

Pull quotes are those quotes that appear on the side of a main block of text, and highlight an important quotation. (This also makes them a text tidbit, which I’ll discuss more below.)pull quote

In this, pull quotes are different from blockquotes, because blockquotes are typically complete paragraphs that are part of the main column of text. Smashing Magazine does a good job explaining the details of different quote types.

Blockquotes shorten a line by being indented, as you can see with the yellow line to the left of the content below.

Block quote indents

Post-embedded sidebars

Here’s what a post-embedded sidebar looks like (see the right-hand side of this picture), for those who haven’t yet seen one.

Sidebar

Do you see how the sidebar makes the main body of text narrower? This lets people to get through each line faster. It’s important also that the sidebar has a distinct appearance thanks to its grey background color. (You could use a border instead.)

Note: A post-embedded sidebar is different from the blog’s main sidebar.

The post-embedded sidebar offers information related to a specific post, such as biographical information on a person being interviewed, or background context on a story. The main sidebar is unrelated to a specific post and offers general information and navigation for the site overall.

Text tidbits: subheaders, bullets and image captions

I call these elements “text tidbits,” as they’re the little bits that get read most—they’re read by regular readers but also by skimmers who may skip other content, so that these tidbits are worth spending time on.

Since image captions are very highly read text tidbits, it’s important that blog themes include a caption element—even the basic grey background that is the default in WordPress.

In my personal experience, custom theme designs often forget to include a caption element. Words typed into the caption area of WordPress’ image uploader appear out of place, if they appear at all. This means visitors read fewer words, lowering the chances that they will become loyal readers.

Tables of contents

If you’re writing a long post with many sections, readers will find it useful to preview what the sections are. This way they can pick and choose what interests them.

Wikipedia of course, is the master of this technique:

Table of contents

The question of whether to follow Wikipedia’s approach of placing the table of contents as its own unique paragraph in the main body of text (as opposed to having the text wrap around it), is debatable.

On the one hand, this placement achieves the introduction’s goal, telling us what is to come. And this placement’s visual weight promotes use of the table of contents. On the other hand, a table of contents around which the main text wraps may prove less obtrusive while still communicating its point.

The answer to this question depends in part on the rest of your design, and so informal usability testing is the best way to choose which alignment option to choose.

Author profile information

It’s debatable where post authors should get credit for the post, but this matters both for new blogs and for blogs looking to encourage guest posting. On the one hand, leaving the bio to the end of the post rewards authors less—not every reader will read to the end. But placing too much content at the start of a post can be annoying for readers.

I’m in favour of a balanced approach: reward authors by showing the author’s photo and a one- or two- sentence bio with links at the start of a post. Then place a more expansive bio at the end for people who really must find out more.

The Fanciest Author Box plugin is an elegant way to create the more expansive bio:

Author bio

The balanced approach benefits both the post author and the blog owner. When visitors see a respected, familiar face at the start of a post, they’re more likely to stay and read. And as I mentioned before, the use of images (regardless of what exactly they are) lightens a post and makes it more readable.

Blog post design pointers

When choosing graphic design options for your post, always aim to facilitate a quick read that will fully express your message. The more they absorb your message, the better for you and your blog’s ROI.

  1. Ensure people know where one post ends and the next starts, so that readers scanning homepages and archive pages can easily choose a post to read.
  2. Keep the line length down to 12-15 words to help visitors read more. Occasionally, make lines even shorter with some attractive pull quotes, sidebars, and blockquotes, as this helps move readers through your post.
  3. When writing long posts, offer a content preview in the form of a table of contents. That way people know if they’ll read something of interest from the very beginning.
  4. Post author credits are an important reward for encouraging guest posts, so share some love at the start—but save the whole personal bio for the end.

How does your blog post design stack up against these guidelines? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Gab Goldenberg wrote The Advanced SEO Book – and you can get a free chapter here. Gab and Internet Marketing Ninjas, the folks behind the Blog Design for ROI series here on Problogger, are offering to mail you a free print copy of the Blog Design for ROI guide as a small book. Get your free copy from seoroi.com/blog-design-for-roi.

Blogging Responsibly: An Owner’s Manual

This guest post is by Aidan Huang of Onextrapixel.com.

It invariably happens to everyone who starts a successful blog: the blogger sits down to write, but runs smack into a stretch of writer’s block.

He thinks, “When I started this blog is was meant to be fun, but now it feels more like work! Why do I continue to do this? Maybe I’ll just take today off, and my fans can just wait until I’m in the mood to create my next post.”

Writing a blog post shouldn’t feel like work you don’t want to do, but even bloggers have off-days.

It’s during such times that bloggers must focus on their responsibilities.

For bloggers who are confused about their responsibilities, I’m here to help. Here are a few tips for both new and established bloggers that will help create a sense of responsibility toward readers—an asset that will help you attract and maintain a wider audience.

Writing what you love

Bloggers generally begin blogging because they have a knack for writing, write what they love, and are full of information they feel must be shared. They are basically a community of writers who express themselves and everything they’re passionate about.

But this doesn’t mean that the act of writing is always an easy task.

The golden rule of being a responsible blogger is: write through the hard days. Without entries that are posted on schedule, bloggers will soon find themselves without an audience—or worse, without ever having built an audience. Internet surfers are always in search of fresh content, and without it, it’s only matter of time before your blog’s traffic completely dries up.

To get through those days where writing seems like nothing less than the worst imaginable chore, bloggers should focus on their readers, or the readers they wish to attract.

When a blogger decides to forgo creating regular entries, he just may wind up as his only reader. Creating content is the foremost responsibility a blogger has to his or her audience, and without fresh content, the blogger can hardly hope to attract one.

A blogger would be wise to take advice directly from his blog’s comments section. By using readers’ advice, he can craft a better experience for his audience. New bloggers can seek immediate feedback by sending links to friends and family members via social media.

If you give them mechanisms for direct response—such as special “talk back” entries—readers will begin to feel a sense of ownership that will deepen their experience with your blog, and help you generate a wider audience.

As incoming blog traffic increases, a blogger becomes responsible to a larger crowd. At this point, it becomes important to recall those reasons why the blog seemed like a good idea in the first place, and to carefully plan its future.

With greater power comes greater responsibility—as well as the possibility of ad revenue.

Blogging for dollars

After a blog attracts a stable readership, the question of money arises. Long-time readers will quickly ascertain when a blog begins attracting ad revenue, so it’s important to be up-front and honest with them.

Bloggers who collect ad revenue aren’t betraying their readership by being paid for their work, but it may seem that way to some. Readers will understand that bloggers are human and have bills to pay too. As a blogger begins to monetize a site, it’s important to keep the content up to the task of maintaining and attracting readers.

It’s important for a blogger to indicate whether a particular entry is sponsored or serving as a paid review or advertisement. By making this distinction, bloggers are letting readers know that their time is valued.

It’s also important to distinguish between affiliate links and all others, because modern blog readers expect to be treated as valued customers. They typically have a good understanding of how internet advertising works, so they won’t be easily fooled.

Many writers make a modest living or nicely supplement their income by running a blog, and manage to do so without any conflict between readers and advertisers. After the dollars begin rolling in, bloggers may feel the need to post more entries each day, but, again, it’s important not to let the quality level drop even remotely. Readers who are subjected to advertisements are all the more likely to become steeper critics.

Bloggers shouldn’t let the prospect of making money result in watered-down posts, either, as this may be more harmful than helpful. After all, a successful blog attracts viewers based on content quality, not quantity.

Acquisition: to stay or to go?

When a blogger reaches the heights of the blogging summit, the acquisition offers may start rolling in. Now the blogger is faced with a number of new decisions: should s/he sell the blog to a larger company? And if s/he does, should s/he continue to write for it? Or can s/he move on and start another blog?

All of these options are viable, and although loyal readers may be disappointed when a blogger decides it’s time to move on to other blogs and leave this one to be run by someone else, they’ll understand. However, a blogger has an obligation to let his readership know just what it is that’s happening here.

If the blog is being acquired, readers are likely to notice, and so it’s important to take the initiative and simply tell them in advance. A blogger should also explain whether he plans to stay or go after the acquisition; inquiring minds (and loyal readers!) will surely want to know.

A fresh start can mean a lot once you’ve been blogging for a while. You can build a new venture having learned from earlier mistakes and experience, but the thought of going back to square one can be overwhelming.

If you get a nice pay check from selling your blog, what will be next? Would moving to an island and and sipping pina coladas all day really satisfy you? Will money alone truly make you happy? Are you sure you’ll like that more than running a blog you actually enjoy and believe in?

Preparing for the unexpected

As a blog grows in popularity and size, so do the dangers that come with it. A popular blog is often the target of hackers, competitors or other malicious attacks. A big part of being a responsible blog owner is to protect and secure your blog so viruses or malware will not affect readers.

If these fail, the blog owners should immediately inform and update readers about what’s happening through available channels, like social media and newsletters, and assure readers that they’re fixing the problem.

Another unexpected circumstance to take into account is the inescapable fact that we are all mortal. We may fall sick—and even leave this world.

A responsible blog owner should know themselves, and figure out how he or she should react to these situations before they arise.

The blogger can find someone that they trust to carry on the blog. A trusted friend or spouse who shares the same interest can take what you have created and help keep it growing into the future. You can state your decision in your will, or in a draft post to be published when you are gone.

Protecting yourself from lawsuits should be something that you should strongly practice. You should state your disclaimer, privacy policy, and terms and conditions on your blog to safeguard yourself. You can get insurance to protect yourself from libel, but there is not a single insurance company I know of that will insure the blog itself.

Blogging responsibly into an uncertain future

Writing a blog is a bit like raising a child: the blog starts small, with only the blogger to guide it, but it can grow into a massively successful enterprise. There comes a time for many bloggers, however, when the blog must end or be passed on to the next blogger—much as a child grows up and moves on.

In reality, blogging is a job. It may be a beloved job, but it still involves quite a lot of work. As a blogger’s career and personal life develop, there may come a time when blogging must become a thing of the past. When the time comes, it’s important that a blogger maintain the professional courtesy readers have come to expect.

A blogger should reveal the future of the blog to readers long before that future actually arrives, just as they’d give notice before leaving one job for another, or retiring altogether. A blogger might explain that the blog will be ending completely, or that a new writer will be taking over—whatever the case, honesty is key.

On the web, a blogger’s every movement is visible to all those who are watching. Professionalism is a must, no matter what else happens, especially for those bloggers who choose to forgo anonymity.

Once again, responsibility to the readership becomes key to blogging responsibly, but instead of providing regular content, the blogger must now inform readers of the blog’s future, so they can update their links and bookmarks accordingly.

Creating the perfect ending

There often comes a time when the blogger has reached the end of his blog. The least-responsible thing a blogger can do in this situation is to abandon the blog completely, without notice. Readers will resent the fact that their once-favorite blogger wasn’t respectful enough to close the blog properly or to point them in the direction of new, recommended content.

Bloggers who treat readers with respect and care will be remembered for doing so. Readership is really what makes or breaks any blog, but that doesn’t mean that marketing must be a blogger’s first priority.

The most successful bloggers begin writing for the love of creating—not in the hopes of building an audience and putting the blog up for sale. Readers won’t appreciate being treated as if they come with a price-tag; surely they receive enough of that treatment from television networks and news outlets.

Are you a responsible blogger? What’s your plan for your blog? Do you update it on a regular basis? Are you just starting out, or thinking about selling the one you’ve built? Please share your thoughts with us.

Aidan Huang is the editor-in-chief of Onextrapixel.com, a popular web design and development magazine. You can subscribe to get the latest information about design and development through their RSS feed. Aidan has sold a few blogs successfully and is always thinking of starting a new one.

How Sponsored Posts Can Ruin Your Blog

This guest post is by Kalen Smith of OnlineRookies.com.

More bloggers accept guest posts for their sites.

Guest posts are an arrangement where a guest author will write content and submit it to the blog. In exchange, the blogger will allow the blogger at least one backlink to promote their own website. Guest blogging is a great opportunity for both the blogger and the guest author to receive exposure and share ideas.

Or is it? Some use guest blogging as a means to monetize their site: they charge a fee to guest authors for sponsored posts.

What is a sponsored post?

Most bloggers are more than happy to receive free content to their site and offer a backlink in return. A blogger will not generally pay nor receive money for a traditional guest post. However, some bloggers insist on taking sponsored posts instead.

A “sponsored post” differs from a traditional guest post in that the blogger will require the guest author to pay a fee to post the content. They see guest posts as a way to make money blogging.

I generally discourage bloggers from using these kinds of sponsored posts for several reasons. I think they are unfair to the guest author and can damage your site. I suggest you pursue other advertising strategies if you are looking for a way to monetize your site.

Let’s see why.

Why do bloggers take sponsored posts?

I don’t blame bloggers who are frustrated with guests who submit low quality content. Many SEO linkbuilders certainly fall into this demographic.

Some SEO companies do a very good job guest posting. One of the SEO companies I’ve worked with actually secured a guest post with one of the biggest social media managers in the world, because they were committed to quality.

However, there are other SEO companies that do a very shoddy job with their services. Although I want to encourage bloggers to be open to anyone offering a guest post, I certainly understand and respect their decision not to take a guest post from freelance writer or business they aren’t familiar with.

What concerns me is bloggers who insist on taking a payment from authors wanting to secure a spot in their blog’s schedule. These bloggers clearly aren’t discouraging what they consider “thin content” from being submitted as a guest post. They are simply using guest posts as a means to monetize their sites.

I am opposed to this as matter of principle, but it can also ruin your site in a couple of ways.

What harm can sponsored posts do?

I have a few qualms with sponsored posts. If you are offering sponsored guest posts, I ask that you at least hear me out here.

They’re unfair to the guest

Many bloggers charge a fee because they want to receive something from a guest blogger. They don’t realize they are already getting something: fresh content for their blog.

A guest poster has to spend time writing the content that they are going to submit. Warn any guest poster of your standards beforehand so they don’t waste your, or their, time. If they take their work seriously, they will submit a high-quality post to you.

As a blogger, you understand how long it takes to write great content. By accepting guest posts, you get several hundred words of great content and a fresh perspective for your readers. This can save you a considerable amount of time writing content yourself.

In return, they get a two-sentence biography and a link back to their own website. It is still a great arrangement for both parties, but you are already getting the better deal for the amount of work involved. Is it really fair to ask for a payment on top of that?

Most bloggers who charge a fee to place sponsored posts do so arguing that these posts are “advertising.” However, they stipulate that sponsored posts cannot be promotional in any way. I find this to be ironic and very unfair to the guest blogger. If a business is paying for promotion (sometimes to the tune of $250 for a post), shouldn’t they have a chance to promote their company somewhere in the post?

I can understand charging for a post that is specifically written to promote the company. However, guest blogging was intended to be more of a bartering system.

They can hurt your relationship with readers

I don’t have a problem with affiliate marketing or any other business model that makes money from great content. You can build affiliate links into your content naturally without compromising the value of your post. Affiliate marketers still focus on creating great content and share resources that benefit their readers. Sponsored posts are a bit more awkward.

Your readers could actually be offended to see you running guest posts. Why? If I see a blog taking sponsored posts, I assume that they are relaxing the standards of quality to make a buck. I am sure other readers feel the same way when they see that they are reading a “sponsored” or “paid” post. You may argue that you only take high-quality content on your site. However, I don’t believe most bloggers hold companies and SEO freelancers to the same standard when they are paying for the post.

The United States Federal Trade Commission requires you to disclose whether or not have received payment to post any promotional content or links. Other countries may have similar laws. If you are abiding by these laws, then your readers will know that you are getting paid for these posts.

Many bloggers argue that they need to generate advertising revenue. I understand that we need to make a living. But is the content itself the right way to advertise?

You are selling links

Many people who take sponsored posts claim they are against black-hat tactics such as selling links. Frankly, I don’t really care if someone wants to sell links or not. It’s not usually illegal and it’s not hurting anyone.

However, you should at least be honest with yourself. I roll my eyes when someone pretends they are superior to anyone who sells links but then turns around does the same thing themselves.

Of course, my personal opinion shouldn’t concern you. There are bigger implications, such as the fact that selling links can harm your blog’s ranking. No matter how many times you tell yourself you aren’t in the link trade business, Google will probably decide otherwise if they know you are taking dofollow, sponsored posts. In fact, Matt Cuts has written on this very topic in his article Paid Posts Should Not Pass Pagerank.

Anyone who knows you take money for guest post placement can report you to Google (including a guest blogger who was irritated that you asked for payment). Google itself can find out how much sites are charging for post placements. Matt Cutts said that Google did a small test and found a number of sites that were running sponsored post contests. Those sites are now on Google’s naughty list.

Of course, you can put the “nofollow” tag in a sponsored post, but what guest poster would agree to that? Commercial companies are usually interested in getting link juice.

Also, you better be honest with them if you are going to nofollow the link once they’ve paid good money for it. Withholding your intentions can get you into trouble later on—and with others besides the disgruntled author.

Is it worth it?

Taking sponsored posts can be risky. Is it really worth alienating yourself from your readers and damaging your position with the search engines in order to make a quick buck?

What are your thoughts on taking sponsored guest posts? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Kalen Smith writes about the importance of a social media marketing plan and Internet marketing experiments and case studies on his blog OnlineRookies.com.

The Hard Truth: Is My Blog Post Worthy of Becoming an Ebook?

This guest post is by Nicolas Gremion of Foboko.com.

Bloggers invest a lot of time in their craft. Whether they’re dissecting the latest episode of Dexter, offering business tips, or creating Twilight-inspired fan fiction, bloggers work to provide timely, relevant content for their readers.

Most bloggers eventually wonder if they should develop a book, but they struggle with deciding what’s “important enough” for a full-length work. Should writers repurpose existing posts from their blogs, or go with entirely new content?

Determining whether a blog post topic is worthy of an entire book can be hard, but it’s not impossible.

Is this post compelling enough?

One great thing about blogs is they allow you to measure the popularity of a post easily. By tracking the number of reads, comments, social media shares, trackbacks, reposts, and questions asked, you have data that highlights what your audience wants to hear.

If you’ve written 100 posts about quilting, you may have enough content to repurpose into a book. Rather than scrabbling to find a new topic, use your best content to establish the foundation of your ebook.

If you doubt whether a post’s topic is still relevant, take a look at the impact it made long after it was published. Lifehacker.com, for example, frequently has year-old posts receive airtime and commentary. Because the issues discussed are everyday problems, they maintain a timeless quality. That means, conversely, that topical issues are less likely to have a long shelf life – an eBook dissecting the Obama/Romney race won’t have nearly the relevance today it had two months ago, for example.

Pulling in more feedback

Yes, blogs’ features make it easy for you to determine how interesting people find your work (gulp!). But in order for these tools to be useful, you have to actually be receiving feedback. How can you get more of what you need?

  • Write for offline publications, whether that’s an occasional article or a regular column. Writing for print publications will help you refine and edit your pieces.
  • Participate in traditional media, such as T.V. or radio interviews, using sites like PRWeb.com to find opportunities. The chance to share your thoughts via other outlets allows you to garner feedback from their readers.
  • Provide an email address and encourage feedback.
  • Speak at industry events; if your blog focus doesn’t naturally lend itself to a specific industry, check out lifestyle shows. Live events collect the conversations occurring in your space.
  • Join a “virtual book tour” via teleconferences, webinars, or online T.V. or radio interviews. Callers’ questions and comments offer great, real-time feedback.

Once you have feedback, how can you gain a bigger perspective about implementing changes to your work?

  • Visit blogs in the same space or industry, especially those with conflicting opinions or viewpoints.
  • Check out blogs outside your arena in order to sample other styles of writing, presentation, and attitude. What works for them may make excellent tweaks for you.
  • Read books, from contemporary works to historical tomes, to gain a deeper understanding of different ways of thinking and being.
  • Invest in continuing education, whether that means conferences, trade shows, courses, or training. These keep you updated on the latest news in your field, preventing your ideas from feeling stale or recycled.

Because blog posts are short and sweet, you can easily test different topics or approaches. Take advantage of your blog’s flexibility to develop a voice—and perspective—that will lend itself well to a full-length ebook.

“Red flags of death”

While most of your posts are probably fascinating, there are some topics that raise the “red flag of death” over your ebook before it’s even started.

If you’re working on non-fiction pieces, the usual topics should be off-limits; this means sex, politics, and religion should be relegated to the back corner. However, if it’s controversy you want, these may be the very issues you touch on. The challenge then becomes controlling the conversation so it remains constructive—and doesn’t degenerate into the name-calling brawls these topics lend themselves to.

If your non-fiction is business-based, don’t create a book that reads like one long sales letter, or piece of overhyped marketing material, for your company. Not only will people not want to read your ebook, you’ll not add anything to the industry conversation—a deadly trait for a blogger.

The great thing about investing time and effort in these different kinds of research is that you’re giving your audience a chance to see you in action. They’re engaged with the content you’re working on, and that creates interest. These are exactly the people who will download your ebook—so you’re building not just a product, but promotion for it.

You’ve invested a lot of time in your blogging. Don’t shy away from a longer piece if you’re ready for it. To boost your success, assess the interest level of your topic, as well as the voice and insights you’re offering. By making sure your ebook speaks to your readers, you’ll develop an even more loyal following than you currently enjoy.

Nicolas Gremion is the CEO of Paradise Publishers, Inc., and founder of Foboko.com, a social publishing network where members get support writing their books from peers and connect directly with readers.

How to Write Emails that Get an Immediate Response

This guest post is by Robert D. Smith of TheRobertD.com

Remember the last time that you sent out a guest post request, suggestion of a joint venture, interview invitation, or some other important message … and waited … and waited … and waited…?

And then nothing happened. You got no response whatsoever. Not even a “No”! They couldn’t even take the time to just say “No”! How dare them, right? What a bunch of jerks!

Or maybe you’re the jerk. Ever think about that?

The list of reasons why people don’t respond to email is long, so I’ll abbreviate it slightly by focusing on the main ones below:

  • Your email wasn’t clear.
  • Your email didn’t sound sincere.
  • Your email only talked about you.
  • Your email didn’t leave them with an action or logical next step.
  • Your email was full of typos and grammar errors that conveyed an amateurish sloppiness.
  • Your email was fantastic, but they’re just a jerk and didn’t respond.

Out of all of those, which do you think is the most unlikely scenario? In all likelihood, it’s not them; it’s you. Now, let me explain why that is great news—if the problem lies with you, then that means you have the power to fix it. So let’s get to it!

5 Ways to fix your bad emails

Now that we’ve listed out the most common problems, let’s list out some solutions.

1. Be yourself

Whether you’re requesting to write a guest blog, sending out a press release, or just sending someone a friendly hello, it’s so easy to forget that there’s actually a real, live person on the other end.

Like you and me, they prefer communicating with other real, live people. They just want to see your personality, some signs of life! Don’t be dry and boring—just be yourself.

2. Write from a good place

This is the key to letting your personality shine through your email. Your mind needs to be in a positive, confident space. When you write with positivity and confidence, personality just seems to seep in effortlessly. And that’s when personality is most genuine: when it isn’t forced.

Of course, the problem with this tip is that we’re not always in a good mood. With some emails, we may be a little nervous or intimidated by the outcome. Here are a few things I do to combat those negative emotions:

  • Write standing up. There’s something about standing up that just gives you a little more confidence. It might sound a little silly, but I urge you to give it a try. I bought an adjustable desk that I can raise to standing height almost solely for this purpose.
  • Turn on some upbeat music. Play something that you love, something that’s your favorite. Our favorite music is directly connected to our personality, so this tip can really get you going. Since you’re already standing up, you can even throw a little dancing in the mix!

3. Read your email out loud before you hit Send

If any part of the email feels weird coming out of your mouth, change it. I don’t think anyone particularly likes reading their own writing out loud, but this is a very simple practice that will work wonders for you.

4. Establish an emotional connection

Here’s an example of an email with no emotional connection:

Hi Robert,

I like your blog a lot and was wondering if you wouldn’t mind helping me spread the word about my latest self-published venture, “Emails Form Hell: A Journey Deep Inside My Outbox.” I will eagerly await your response. Thanks.

I see emails like this all the time, not just in my own inbox, but in the inboxes of everyone I know who has a platform of some kind. Emails like this are popular because they’re very easy to replicate. You can send it out to 300 different people and all you have to do is change the first name at the beginning. Unfortunately, 300 different people will also ignore it.

If you want a response from someone, it is essential to connect emotionally. If they’re a blogger, for instance, don’t just tell them you like their blog. Tell them about the specific post they wrote that kicked you in the rear and caused you to go do something awesome! And if they’ve never written a post that made you react that way, don’t pretend you love their blog. It’s not that difficult to tell what’s genuine and what’s not when you’re on the receiving end.

5. Don’t use a dumb email address

I almost didn’t include this point because it seems like it’s already been said enough. Apparently, however, it has not, as I continue to regularly receive emails from AOL addresses. So one more reminder: if you have your own website, use an email address associated with it. If you don’t, use a gmail address that contains something as close to your full name as you can get.

Getting people to respond to your emails really comes down to one all-encompassing thing—coming across like a real person who cares. Practice the above tips on a regular basis and you will be shocked by how much more effective your online voice and persona become. Get ready for an inbox full of replies.

What was the last email you sent that’s overdue for a reply? Tell us in the comments.

Robert D. Smith is the author of 20,000 Days and Counting and a consultant to numerous best-selling authors, speakers, and entertainers. Grab his free eBook, Battle-Tested Branding, here.

Writing the Truth of Your Own Experience

This guest post is by Sean M. Madden of Mindful Living Guide.

The cornerstone of my teaching is to write the truth of our own experience.

They’re fine words, which roll off the tongue with ease. But I needn’t tell you how gut-wrenching it can be to put them into practice.

For when one shares the results of such writing with the world at large it is very likely to anger at least some folk—no matter how clear, how unassuming, and how well-intentioned is what you have to say. And of course, it can be daunting to commit one’s truths to paper.

But the good news is that there’s a flipside.

Write the truth, and others—perhaps only a relative few—will appreciate beyond words that you’ve dared to express what they’ve longed to say, but perhaps couldn’t quite articulate.

Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, advises his correspondent thus:

Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?

I’ve many times asked myself this question over the course of my writing life, and have reconsidered it afresh whenever I revisit Rilke’s Letters, either on my own or with a group of students. My initial response tends to be, no, I mustn’t write—my life could be well-lived without the act of penning words onto a page. And yet I do write, often as if my life does indeed depend upon it.

Eleven years ago, I participated in a meditation retreat in which I had to relinquish any and all writing (and reading) materials for the course of a week and a half. No problem, I thought. Until several days into the retreat when I found I had something I had to express. So I liberated a blue permanent marker from the men’s toilet area and wrote my then nearly ten-year-old daughter a letter which spanned the full length and width of the fitted sheet I’d brought from home to sleep on. A letter she slept with for a very long time, until—ever so slowly, wash after wash—it finally faded from sight.

And how many times, since, have I resolved to give up writing in response to the egregious crimes of state we witness on a day-to-day basis, only to find myself in the most silent hour of my night writing an article for publication, a blog post, or page after page of handwritten diatribe?

Why, if time and again I tell myself I needn’t write, must I?

At times I write to release my soul from the burden of silence in the face of monstrous lies. Other times I write in response to witnessing the wonderment and beauty of this world. Either way, I write to express the truth of my own lived experience, and am infinitely happier for regularly doing so.

10 Steps to write the truth of your own experience

  1. Jump in headfirst. As with entering a cold sea or swimming pool, it’s much easier to plunge in, headfirst, than to wade slowly cursing the cold each step of the way. Once you’re in, you’re in, and you’ll acclimate yourself much more quickly. Ditto with writing.
  2. Courage grows in the doing. Fear and self-doubt, on the other hand, fester in the not-doing.
  3. Write with pen and paper. Make it a physical act, involving your whole body, your whole being, not just your mind. Thoughts are more likely to come in the doing than in the thinking up of things. Certainly, write on your computer as well, but get comfortable with putting pen to paper.
  4. Write first and foremost for yourself. While you might eventually like to share your work with others, write firstly for yourself without concern for your readers. Remember, too, that the acts of writing and sharing your work are wholly distinct. Share your work only when you’re ready.
  5. Trust wholeheartedly in the process. Simply write down whatever comes up. Trust in this process until the need to trust is replaced by an experiential knowing that the process works.
  6. Be patient and supremely gentle with yourself. Remember, too, that a thousand-mile journey begins with that very first step. Keep walking, and writing, and every once in a while look back to see how far you’ve traveled, and how much you’ve accomplished.
  7. Write with no expectations. Rather, nurture a sense of letting go of the notion of writing well. Good writing will come of its own accord, all the more so when you write regularly and truthfully about your own life experience.
  8. Begin a daily, or near-daily, writing practice. Commit to a three-month daily writing practice as a means to recognize, firsthand, the benefits of doing so, and, thereby, to develop it into a habit.
  9. Recognize that writing topics abound. They’re literally everywhere within you as well as in the world around you. Begin to notice the rich, inspiration-packed details of your day-to-day life.
  10. Write down your inner truths with great courage and honesty. You’ll thereby find your voice. This last step is a repeat from an earlier, closely related article I wrote for ProBlogger which you might find helpful to consider alongside this piece.

What strategies have you found to be helpful in writing the truth of your own experience? Please leave your comments below so that we can continue to learn from each other’s experience as well.

Sean M. Madden is a Creative Writing & Mindful Living Guide who is slow-traveling on a shoestring in Europe with his partner, Mufidah Kassalias. In addition to leading courses and workshops, Sean also works one-to-one with clients worldwide via Skype, email and telephone. He invites you to contact him via email or to follow him on Twitter (@SeanMMadden), Instagram (@SeanMMadden) or Facebook (Mindful Living Guide).

How to Choose the Right WordPress Contractor for Your Blog

This guest post is by John Bonello of WPProHelp.com.

After reading the articles on how to work with designers and technical contractors here on Problogger.net, I felt the need to share my experience with you on how to choose a WordPress contractor.

Choosing a third-party WordPress contractor is probably the most important task of all for a WordPress blogger, yet it’s not often discussed.

I worked as a system and web server engineer for international companies for over 12 years and recently, I started my own business. In that time, I have seen projects fail or take much longer than expected to be finished. Even worse, I have seen projects which have cost more than double the allocated budget.

All these failures can be attributed to one simple mistake: the project manager didn’t choose the right contractor for the job.

How can a blogger find a good WordPress contractor?

Finding the right WordPress contractor is not always easy. It might take some time until you find a person that really fits your needs. Major problems typically encountered by bloggers when hiring a contractor are price, availability, lack of communication, and worst of all, lack of knowledge.

I am going to share with you some necessary tools to help you find the right WordPress contractor to get your job done. Be careful, though: these are not golden rules. Unfortunately, although a contractor may satisfy all of these criteria, that does not necessarily mean that he or she is definitely the right one for you. That said, these points can serve as good indicators that the contractor is worth considering.

Basic skills

You can determine if a WordPress contractor is knowledgeable or not by checking out his or her website. Typically, WordPress contractors like sharing their experiences online via their own blog—after all, it’s their marketing tool.

If the contractor frequently publishes WordPress-related content, and has a WordPress blog, then most probably he or she is quite experienced in the field.

Previous jobs

A WordPress contractor’s testimonials can speak for themselves. You should always check out the contractor’s website for testimonials. If you are in doubt, ask the contractor to share a customer’s contact details with you so you can approach the customer with any questions you might have. If you found the contractor via an online hiring platform, check the history of his or her previous jobs ratings. Previous job ratings can give a better indication than testimonials.

If a WordPress contractor is new on the block, most probably they won’t have many testimonials, won’t have a rich job history, and won’t have a lot of followers on their social media channels. This does not mean that you should immediately give up on the contractor. Keep in mind that start-ups tend to be really hungry for work and more flexible than already established contractors.

Listen to other bloggers

Since you’re blogger, most probably you know other bloggers who hired a WordPress contractor before you.

Get in touch with them, and ask them who they’ve been working with, and if they are happy with their contractor. Feedback from experiences of fellow bloggers can prove to be invaluable.

Attention to detail

We tend to believe that no one gives enough attention to detail unless the project is their own. I tend to disagree with this impression—there are some great WordPress contractors out there.

You can assess the WordPress contractor’s attention to detail by simply visiting his or her website. If parts of the contractor’s website aren’t working, and it includes broken links, definitely that is not a good sign.

A contractor’s website is their shop window. It is what prospective customers see first. So if a contractor’s shop looks run down, then most probably his products and services really are.

Communication

Everything boils down to communication. If the communication level is not right, I can guarantee you that the job will not succeed.

The first time you engage with your WordPress contractor will be via email or phone. While discussing your needs, make sure that the contractor can understand you properly. Throughout my career, I met a lot of brilliant minds that unfortunately are not able to communicate well. A good working relationship isn’t just about the technicalities.

Hiring the WordPress contractor

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how to start looking for a good WordPress contractor, let’s talk discuss some tips on what to look out for when hiring a WordPress contractor.

Stick to a single company

Designers are good at designing websites. WordPress developers are good at writing code. WordPress technical contractors are good at troubleshooting and fixing broken websites, and building new solutions using existing code, such as WordPress plugins.

Each is a different job, and they shouldn’t be mixed together.

The good thing, though, is that typically a designer knows a technical WordPress contractor and a developer, and vice versa. There are also WordPress companies which offer all WordPress services under one name.

So if you already have a WordPress contact, be it a designer, a developer, or technical contractor, and you need something which the contractor cannot provide, ask your contact if he or she knows someone in that particular field before rushing to hire another third party.

There are several advantages in hiring people that know each other rather than having three different contractors from different sources.

  • It costs less. If you hire a group of WordPress contractors that know each other, or hire all services through the same company you might and should be able to discuss a package price, rather than paying for each individual job. Individual jobs tend to be costly.
  • It is more efficient. If all of the WordPress contractors you hire know each other, or work for the same company, they are used to working together. This means that the project is more likely to be finished in a timely manner and work right out of the box.
  • You’ll have a single point of contact. Dealing with a group of contractors and coordinating all the work between them can be a nightmare. You are better off spending your time more efficiently, such as writing content, rather than coordinating a project. So if you hire all your WordPress services using the same contact, you’ll only have to worry about conveying your needs to that one person.

It isn’t a one-time project. Build a relationship

Although you may think that finally you’ve got the ultimate website design with all the functionality you may need, rest assured that after a couple of years, if not months, you are going to need to change something on your website or blog. Be it a small design change, new functionality, or a complete website revamp, you will need to get in touch with your WordPress contractors from time to time.

When shopping around for WordPress contractors, make sure you are comfortable working with that contractor as this isn’t the last time you will speak to them. Make sure they can always understand your needs and can listen attentively.

Contractors do not like to take over someone else’s leftovers and try to fix them. For most technical people it is much easier to build something from scratch rather than fix someone else’s code. Even the best software developers in the world admit that reading another developer’s code is very difficult and time consuming.

Switching from one WordPress contractor to another is costly, it guarantees you an endless amount of emails and phone calls, and ultimately it will take you ages to finish the task.

Try to keep customizations minimal

I have encountered many developers who prefer to build their own custom solution rather than use an already existing plugin or function. Custom solutions will always cost more and in the long run this might be a problem. If something goes wrong and you need an urgent fix, you’ll have to use the same developer.

In such scenarios, it is highly likely that you will be overcharged, since you are at the developer’s mercy. This does not mean that all developers take advantage of such a situation, but I suggest you don’t put yourself in such a situation in the first place. I receive many emails asking me to fix something because the developer who has done it is no longer available, or is overcharging.

If you need specific functionality implemented on your WordPress website or blog, you should always ask your contractor and check for yourself if it can be achieved using existing WordPress plugins. As I’ve already explained, no one likes fixing someone else’s mess, so always push for readily available solutions where possible.

Ready, set, go!

Even though you’ve probably heard of many bad experiences when hiring WordPress contractors, there will always be WordPress contractors who are capable and loyal.

If you already have a WordPress contractor that you’re comfortable working with, it is good to ask them about anything you need. Chances are that even if they cannot provide you the service themselves, they will have some contacts who can.

If you do not have a WordPress contractor and are looking for one, shop around and ask as many questions as you have. Good contractors will answer all of your questions, help you, and be ready to go the extra mile to get the job done for you—even if they cannot do it themselves.

Do you have a contractor who helps with WordPress maintenance and updates? How did you find them? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

This is a guest post by John Bonello, owner of WPProHelp.com, a WordPress security and technical firm based in Europe. WPProHelp.com also frequently publishes WordPress Tutorials for Beginners on the company’s blog.

Why Twilight has Such a Massive Following—and How to Apply This Concept to Your Blog

This guest post is by Allison Boyer of NMXlive.com.

I’ve never actually met a fan of Twilight.

It’s true. I’ve met people who say they kinda-sorta-maybe like the books, but can’t stand the movie. I’ve met people who say they’re reading the series because they’re curious. I’ve met people who say they just watching the movies for a laugh. But I’ve never met, face-to-face, a hard-core, die-hard Twilight fan.

Yet they exist out there. I see message boards and fan sites brimming with excitement over the latest film or gossip about one of the actors, and when they show snippets of the premiers on the news, there are always lots of screaming fans. So why won’t anyone actually admit to me that they are a huge fan of Twilight?

The answer is exactly why I believe this series has such a massive following in the first place—and it’s an extremely important lesson for any blogger trying to grow a community.

The empty protagonist

The protagonist of the Twilight story is a teenage girl named Bella who is forced to move to a new town, where she finds that one of her classmates (and all of his siblings) are actually vampires and that her best friend is a werewolf. Two of the vampires fall in love with her, fight over her, and constantly save her from other supernatural beings.

Bella, as a character, is nothing special. And that’s the point.

At some point, we’ve all daydreamed about a hunky man or beautiful woman falling so deeply in love with us that they’re willing to fight off other suitors and even risk their lives on our behalf. We all know what it feels like to deal with unfairness in life, like having to move to a new town. We all know what it feels like to be unsure of our feelings, like Bella is with both potential partners at some point or another. And the supernatural element is just fun. We all have the child inside, who remembers how much fun it is to play pretend.

Bella is an empty shell, so the reader (or viewer) can image being in Bella’s shoes.

That’s why it’s so hard for people to admit liking this series, even if they have every special edition DVD at home. It’s embarrassing to admit that you just want to be like Bella, living in this fantasy world with two hotties fighting over who gets to save you this time.

(Of course, few people actually want that for real, but it’s a fun little escape from life for a few hours.)

This isn’t the only time an empty protagonist, or an “everyman” type of character, has shown up in a book or film. Ishmael in Moby Dick, Winston Smith in 1984, and Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all have these qualities. It’s a common technique used to help you relate to a specific character.

Why bloggers should care

All of us would love to have a massive following like Twilight, right? So how can we take the concept of an everyman character and bring it to a blog about food or social media or fashion (or whatever your niche may be)?

The answer isn’t an easy one, but the solution is to suck your audience into a story they can relate to, using that to support the thesis of your blog post.

Take this blog post for example. I’m writing about how to build your community, but I started by talking about something everyone knows—Twilight. My first line, about not knowing anyone who actually admits to liking the series, was designed to make you think, “Huh. I don’t either!” or even “Wait, I know someone!”

Either way, you’re internally having a conversation with me and this blog post now, rather than just passively reading a list of tips.

Many bloggers do this extremely well. Check out Elizabeth Potts Weinstein. Read a few posts from Erika Napoletano. Browse the archives of Man Vs. Debt for posts from Adam, Courtney, and Joan.

On all of these blogs, with almost every post, you learn something, but only after they suck you into the story, making your nod your head and completely relate to whatever they’re talking about. Even if you haven’t been in their specific situations, you understand what it feels like.

You can put yourself in their shoes.

And that is the key to make people come back again and again. It’s slow at first. People know they like a post you’ve written, but they aren’t quite sure why. So they read some more and then some more, and soon they are subscribed to your RSS feed and signed up to your mailing list and sharing every post you write with their social media followers.

This is obviously not the only way to build a community on your blog, but if you’re struggling to find your place, think about using this technique on your blog. How can you pull readers into your post by using an everyman story? How can you keep your fans coming back for more by helping them relate to you? How can you entertain and inspire instead of just educate?

For more tips on building a community, check out the “Three Very Unique Ways To Build A Massive Community” panel at New Media Expo (NMX – formerly BlogWorld) in January. It’s a can’t-miss session if you’re looking for new ways to find your fans and keep them coming back for more.

Blogging in Brief: Looking Good, Saving Face, Tags and Lags

We all make mistakes, but making mistakes in the media can be costly—especially to your authority!

…Or can it? We all know readers appreciate honesty. And our first story this week is all about that.

Saving face online

Last week, I got my regular flippa.com newsletter … and another a few hours later! The new subject line? “Our newsletter, now with functional links!”

Intrigued, I opened it to see this:
Newsletter

Way to save face after a blooper! If you’ve ever had to apologise for an error you’ve made publicly, online—perhaps even on your blog or with your valued subscribers—we’d love to hear how you handled it in the comments.

Big-block headers revisited

I mentioned last time the growing trend toward big-block header on blogs. This week, I found one that acts simply to pull you through to the latest content, on food blog Peas and Thankyou.

Content feature

This screencapture shows the header on rollover—the opening of each post appears as an overlay on the header. This is a great use of imagery I think, and an excellent way to catch the attention of readers, especially those who are arriving for the first time. On dPS, I use a similar carousel for featured content, but it’s not simply for the latest posts. It really brings attention to your current content.

What do you think of this idea? Could this work for your blog?

Name your own price

The battle to find the best price for a blog product—one that maximizes your profit—can be hard to do. So the approach of letting customers choose their own price is an interesting one. Tara Gentile uses it on her blog:

Set your own price

The product is designed to change customers’ relationship with money, so the tactic is in keeping with the concept.

Seriously

It’s an interesting tactic, and not one I’ve tried. Have you? How did it work? I’d love to hear of your experiences in the comments.

Are your promotions slowing your site?

Many blogs show a popup on page load for first-time users—perhaps offering a download, subscription, or other goody.

But this week I’ve stumbled across a few that are really extremely slow to load as a result.

One of them flashed up the homepage before hiding it—so the screen was blank—for what felt like ages (but was probably 5-10 seconds) before displaying the popup. The popup itself didn’t have the usual close button in the right-top-corner, either, which meant that after the long wait, I had to spend more time trying to work out how to close it so I could access the site content. That finally appeared only once I’d found the Close window link.

Every time you add a new widget, plugin, or promotion to your blog, test the load times for different browsers to make sure your blog’s still accessible and usable for everyone who stops by.

Do tag clouds still matter?

Remember tag clouds? They were popular a few years ago, but they seem to have fallen out of favor now—though I notice the Blog World blog still has one:

Tag cloud

Tag clouds can help users drill down to specific content that isn’t represented in your basic blog navigation, and to reach content in your archives that spans topics. In fact, in some cases it’s a great way to provide users with access to your older material. That said, I don’t use tag clouds—basically because screen real estate is so precious, and a tag cloud never really makes the cut onto my sites.

Are you using a tag cloud? How’s it working for you? We’d love to get an idea of whether you think this mechanism is still relevant to the blogs of today.