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Group Writing Project: Write a ‘Discussion’ Post

Over the last week here on ProBlogger we’ve been digging deeper into the topic of ‘building community’ on a blog. See the series at:

Today it’s time for an opportunity for you to do something practical to actually build community on your blog – to create a discussion post as part of this weeks ‘Group Writing Project’.

What is a Group Writing Project?

These projects are quite simple – I name a type of blog post to write and ProBlogger readers all go and write a post on their blogs that fits into that theme and then come back here to let us know about the post.

The aim is to give you the chance to practice writing a different type of blog post but also for readers of ProBlogger to discover one another and to drive some traffic to your blog!

I’ll outline how to participate below.

What is a ‘Discussion Post’

This weeks series of posts has been about building community and deepening reader engagement on blogs. One of the techniques I described was something I do at Digital Photography School where on a semi-regular basis I write a post that is simply a question for readers to discuss.

The post doesn’t teach anything, express any opinion and is usually pretty short – it simply asks a question and allows readers to have their say.

Here are a few examples from dPS:

Feel free to take that approach or to take the challenge in another direction.

For example you might like to

  • start a debate
  • run a poll
  • give readers a chance to write a tip
  • take a reader question and post it for the community to answer

Really anything that is primarily aimed at getting readers discussing and commenting upon the post.

What if I don’t Have Any Readers to Discuss

The challenge with writing a ‘discussion post’ is that you may not feel you have enough readers to get discussion.

Please don’t let this stop you – hopefully by participating we’ll be able to send you a little traffic but if you’re lacking readers here’s a couple of tips:

  1. As a friend to comment – this was something I used to do in my early years. I didn’t do it with every post but certainly when a post was about getting a discussion going I would often email a friend (especially blogging friends) to ask (or beg) for a comment. Of course I’d repay the favour when they asked too.
  2. Kick off the discussion yourself – in the old days of my first blog I would write a question in the post and be the first commenters to kick things off. Feels a bit odd but it does sometimes work to get the discussion going

Sometimes just finding the first person to leave a comment is all it takes to get a discussion going.

Here’s How To Participate

Here’s how to participate and put yourself in the running for a prize (please note – one entry per person – not per blog and please only submit NEW posts).

1. Post a ‘Discussion’ Post

  • Be as creative as you’d like – take it in any direction you want – it can be on any topic (keep it clean and ‘family friendly please), it can be serious, funny – what ever you like
  • Give your post a good title. Once all the posts are listed it’ll only be your title that sets it apart from others. It doesn’t have to have the words ‘discuss’ in the title – but if can if you wish.
  • Feel free to write your post in your own first language – I’ve previously included a number of non-english posts and am excited by the prospect of making this a multi-lingual project.
  • Please consider putting a link back to this post here on ProBlogger on your post so that your readers know you’re participating. You don’t have to do this – but it’d be appreciated to help grow the project.

2. Let us Know about your Post

  • Once you’ve posted your ‘Discussion Post’ let us know about it by leaving a comment below. Please make sure you include your name, your post title and the URL to your How to post.
  • Comments must be received by midnight on Friday 12th April to be included in the prize draw (it will runs little longer this time as I’ll be travelling).

3. Surf Surf Surf

  • This is where the project has potential to get pretty cool. Surf the submissions received in the comments below. Leave comments, make connections with other ProBlogger readers and enjoy reading what others have to say. By surfing each others links you’ll hopefully find some cool new blogs but also make some new connections (which may well lead to people visiting your blog too!

4. Link, Tweet, Share

  • There is no formal ‘judging’ of the ‘discussion posts’ received as this is not a competition. Instead – I encourage you to surf through the links left in the comments below and not only comment but share those with your own network that you like the most. Link to them on your blog (you might even like to write a ‘top 5′ post), Tweet out some links to the ones you like or share them on Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn etc. Share a little love and you might find it comes back at you!
  • Probably the best part of the last group project was the amount of inter-linking I see happening between participating bloggers as a result of their posts. It’s obvious that people found new blogs through it and that the benefits of participating was way beyond getting a link here on ProBlogger me but flowed on to a lot of new connections and links between other bloggers.

5. Prizes

  • After 12th April I’ll randomly draw a winner and announce them on the blog. The winner will get a copy of each eBook in the ProBlogger Library of eBooks.

How to Build Community on a Blog: 24 Must Read Articles from around the Web

This week we’ve published a series of posts on the topic of building community on a blog with these posts:

Today Jade Craven continues this series by looking at what others around the web have written on the topic of building community on blogs.

There is a lot of conversation around the topic of building a community around your blog. It is a fantastic technique, but it is actually an extremely complex issue. The ‘rules’ differ for each community. A business blog doesn’t have the same goals as a personal blogger.

In this post, I curate my favourite resources on building a engaged and loyal blog community.

Think about what is important to you.

There are several things you will need to consider before deciding on what strategies to use.

Strategies:

Make readers famous.

In an earlier post about building community. Darren recommended that you make a reader famous. Here are some examples I have seen within my own community.

  • Gavin Aung Than regularly interacts with his a community – most notably through his ‘readers of the month’ feature. As a result, he has a highly engaged audience who will rapidly share his content and help out with tasks such as translating the comics.
  • Scott Dinsmore has a ‘Reader Spotlight‘ series.

Do you know of any other ways bloggers have made their readers famous?

Blog commenting

 Other ideas:

 Cool resources:

Looking for some more advice? Check out these articles!

7 Strategies for Growing Community on Your Blog

This week on ProBlogger we’ve been looking at the topic of building community on a blog. We started by identifying 9 benefits and 3 costs of community on a blog and then looked at 5 stages of building community on a blog. Today I want to dig deeper into some specific things to DO to build community on your blog.

Across a Crowd

1. Write in a Conversational Voice

This tip fits into the ‘it’s not rocket science’ category of blogging tips (as do many blog tips) – however as simple as it sounds I regularly see bloggers falling into the trap of talking ‘AT’ readers rather than blogging in a conversational voice.

The art of good conversation is as much as being ‘interested’ as it is about being ‘interesting’. Good conversationalists ask questions, pause to allow others to speak and listen to others when they are speaking.

ships, night, passing and all that...

Good bloggers similarly often write in a more conversational way and in doing so invite readers to respond.

Every bloggers needs to find their own style and voice but I’ve found a number of things have been helpful in writing more ‘conversationally’:

I write like I speak

y best blog posts often start out as me writing an email to a reader answering a question. Alternatively I will often imagine I’m talking to someone as I’m writing – which leads to a post written in a more personal way.

I tell stories

I don’t do this in every post but I find that when I weave some kind of personal angle into a post that it seems to draw readers into recounting their own stories. The story need not be long or highly personal story – it could simply be sharing how you did something in your business (you’ll see me do this below when I talk about how on dPS we added a Flickr Group to dPS as an intermediate step on the way to starting a forum).

I use personal language

When you talk to another person it is common to use words like ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’. Conversely when you write in a theoretical language these words often disappear. Check out the top 20 posts on ProBlogger in 2012 and notice that over 50% of the most read posts this year had personal words in their titles.

Share Opinions

One of the most powerful ways to get some kind of a reaction from readers is to share you opinion. Doing so will automatically trigger your readers to think about their own opinions and whether they agree with you – and more often than not you’ll find at least a few of them will let you know if they do! Tread a little carefully here – opinion pieces can cause debate and depending on the tone of your writing and the topic can lead to heated conversation!

2. Invite Interaction

Part of writing in a conversational tone is to invite others to participate in the conversation. While some of your readers will comment without any kind of interaction you’ll be surprised how many more will interact with you with a simple call to do so!

Individual Protection

Inviting your readers to interact with you can include numerous things such as:

  • asking readers to comment (and not just at the end of posts… you can signal right at the beginning that you’re interested in other people’s thoughts on a topic (as I did several paragraphs above).
  • asking specific questions – I find the more specific your questions are the better better responses you get (i.e. instead of ending a post with a general ‘what do you think?’ guide your readers with a more specific question about your topic or give them some alternatives or examples to help them make that first comment.
  • write posts that are purely questions – one of the best ways to get responses is simply to write a post that is little more than the question itself. These ‘discussion’ posts can be gold (for example recently to wrap up a week of content on the topic of Pinterest we finished the series with a discussion post on the topic.
  • Setting a Challenge – on dPS we do a weekly themed challenge for readers to go away and take a photo on a theme and then to come back and share what they did (here’s an example of one we did on the theme of ‘Nature’). This not only gets a good number of comments – it gets readers DOING something quite involved which is a sign of real reader engagement. Another recent example would be our recent Group Writing Project here on ProBlogger.
  • Polls – perhaps the simplest method of getting a first time reader out of passivity and doing a little something is to run a poll on your blog. Having them simply choose from a couple of multiple choice options and clicking ‘vote’ may not seem like much but it signals to your readers that you’re interested in their opinion or experience and takes them a tiny step down the road to engagement and community. The other thing you can do with polls is once they’ve voted ask them to tell you why they voted as they did. For example on dPS we asked readers if they’d ever taken a photography class and then at the end of the post invited them to tell us what class it was and how they found it. 161 people added a comment. While this was a small % of those who’ve voted in the poll it was a higher number of comments than an average post on the site.
  • Tell Readers about the Community - while we’re talking about polls, the other thing I’ve found useful is to not only run a poll but to post the final results of a poll too. For example in this post we shared how many of our dPS readers are looking to buy a new camera. In doing this readers see where they fit in to the diverse membership of your community and you remind them that they participated. The other good thing about showing results is that you signal to your whole readership that others are engaging with you. In that example above we mentioned that 28,000 people responded to the poll – great social proof!
  • Invite Interactions OFF your blog – community does not just need to happen ON your blog for it to be worthwhile. In fact some of the best community discussions I’ve seen among my readers have happened on our dPS Facebook page or on my personal Google+ page. People are trained by these social networks to interact – so it can be a great place to begin conversations and relationships that may lead to ongoing community.

Regular invitations to your readership to interact will gradually draw more and more of your readers out of passivity and into an interaction with you. Even a small first step towards community could lead to a passive reader becoming super engaged which as we’ve seen previously can have many positive benefits.

Further Reading:

3. Consider a Dedicated Community Area

Blogs have community built into them to some degree by allowing comments to be made on any post. Many blogging tools now not only allow comments but allow threaded comments which enhance the experience and allow mini-conversations to happen in an easy to follow way.

However if there may come a time on your blog where you want to give readers the ability to not only respond to what you or your writers have to say – but also to start threads of new conversation.

To do this you’ll want to consider some kind of dedicated community area.

There are a number of ways to do this. On dPS I first did this by starting a ‘Flickr Group‘ where I invited readers to share photos and start conversations. dPS being a photography site and Flickr being full of photographers this not only gave our readers a place to interact but also helped us to find new readers.

For dPS the Flickr group also gave our readers a taste of community and whet their appetite for it to the point that they began to ask if I would consider starting an actual forum area – something I did (see the dPS Photography Forum here) after I saw that there was enough demand to kick it off with enough active members.

Blog to foum

A forum comes with its own advantages and challenges.

In short forums benefits are:

  • Increasing Reader Engagement
  • Builds User Generated Content
  • Increases Page Views per Visit
  • Appeals to different types of readers

However the challenges of forums include:

  • The challenge of moderation (they can take a lot of work and are often targets of spammers)
  • The challenge of having enough critical mass to make the forum active enough to be attractive
  • The technical challenges – as with most self hosted blogging platforms forum platforms need maintenance and upgrades and can be a challenge to manage.

Further Reading on Forums: check out 10 Mistakes that Will KILL a Forum (or blog) and 6 Tips on Adding a Forum to your Blog.

Other options for community areas on a blog include setting up off site community areas such as:

Of course with all of these options you’re really at the mercy of other companies who have control over the hosting and upkeep of your community. You also lose some control over features etc.

Add to the conversation: If you’ve had experience with other types of community areas on your blog (or other people’s) I’d love to hear about them in comments below.

4. Use Interactive and Accessible Mediums

While we’re talking about using different types of social media lets touch on a range of other tools that you can use to help build community on and around your blog.

A number of years ago I experimented over with using Ustream to connect with my readers. I set up a ProBlogger channel and on a fairly regular but impulsive basis used to jump onto it to do Q&A sessions with readers.

It has been a year since I ran a Ustream chat but the times I did it I got a lot of positive feedback from readers as it allowed them to not only interact with me by asking questions but allowed them to see and hear my responses live.

Today there are a number of other such options available to you – perhaps the most popular of which is what Google+ offers with their hangouts.

I’ve not run a hangout myself yet (there are only so many hours in the day) but have attended many as a viewer and think that they’d be a great way to give readers a more engaging experience of you – particularly now that they can be live streamed and synced with your Youtube channel.

One of the best people I’ve seen doing hangouts is Trey Ratcliff who is brilliant at it!

The other option on this front is to experiment with running webinars – something I’ve done more and more over the last year.

Webinars

I use GoToWebinar (to which I am an affiliate) to run ProBlogger webinars and while mine have only been me talking to slides or me interviewing guests (audio only) I’ve had more positive feedback about our webinars than I have about most other things I’ve done in the past couple of years here on ProBlogger.

GotoWebinar have also just introduced Video conferencing also for 100-attendee webinars (soon to be adding it for larger plans too) so that those attending can see you live.

5. Run Projects and Challenges

I’m often asked what the ‘tipping point’ for ProBlogger was – the moment that the blog really took off. There were a number of these but one was the first time I ran the 31 Days to Build a Better Blog (31DBBB) challenge.

31 Days to Build a Better Blog is today our best selling eBook but it didn’t start out that way. It actually began as a series of blog posts that I put together over a month in 2005.

The idea started as a joke with a fried but was one that wouldn’t go away and so on the spur of the moment in the early hours of a night when I couldn’t sleep I posted that we were going to run this challenge where I’d give readers a little teaching/theory on an aspect of blogging every day for 31 days and would also give them a challenge to complete that related to the challenge.

I didn’t really expect it to take off too much but the next morning I awoke to a lot of comments on that post and people emailing to say that they were excited. The following 31 days not only saw increased traffic on the blog but readers engaging in a deeper way than they had before.

I ran 31DBBB over the next two years again and each time we saw readers becoming more and more engaged with the site.

What I realised through these projects is that giving people a common task to work on over a period of time gives them a shared experience that draws them closer together.

Since 2005 there have been many such projects run around the blogosphere. In fact inspired by 31DBBB Nester from Nesting place runs an annual ’31 Days of Change’ project on her blog in which bloggers are invited to run a ’31 Days’ series on their blogs.

Last year Nester saw over 1200 bloggers run 31 Days Challenges over the month of October (just a few pictured below)! That project is growing every year and I suspect it is because bloggers who join are discovering the power of running such a project on their blog.

There are many other challenges you can run. Check out FatMumSlim’s Photo a Day Instagram challenge for example which is participated in by many thousands of people. Similarly Fox in Flats runs a Style Dare a Day challenge that is always popular.

Add to the conversation: If you’ve run a challenge like this – please tell us about it in the comments below so we can learn about it!

6. Real Life Events

One of the most powerful ways of building community with your readers is to actually meet them – face to face.

I know this is full of all kinds of logistical challenges but IF you can meet your readers – take the opportunity because face to face interactions and a real life shared experience certainly seems to speed up the building of community.

I first experimented with this in the early days of my first blog when I didn’t have a heap of readers but when I posted that I would be in London on a holiday and asked readers if they wanted to meet up for a drink. I had 3 people show up for a beer – not a large crowd but the first time I’d met readers face to face.

Now almost any time I’m in a new city I’ll try to tweet/post out a time and place to have a meet up. Sometimes we get a good turnout and other times it is small – but every time it gives me an amazing opportunity to meet readers and build relationships with them (and for them to meet one another).

The other way I put myself out there to meet readers was to attend events that I thought my readers might be attending. In the early days for me this was about buying a ticket for popular events just like everyone else but in time it meant accepting speaking invitations when they came for the events I knew my readers were attending.

Over the last 4 years I’ve of course had opportunity to not only attend other people’s events but to run my own ProBlogger Training Events here in Australia. This started relatively small with a hastily arranged 100 person event but each year it has grown – to the point that our September Gold Coast event sold 200 Early bird tickets in a couple of hours.

The added bonus of our real life event is that a virtual event runs alongside it both in the selling of virtual tickets but also through the hashtag for the event. While not all ProBlogger readers are able to get to Australia in person the event hashtag last year saw a lot of readers engaging with one another and the ProBlogger brand and created a real buzz.

What I notice after running an event or meeting people face to face is that in the days and weeks after we meet in person I’m much more likely to see that person engaging with me on social media and on the blog. It’s one of the fastest ways to build deeper engagement.

The perfect example of someone who has run hundreds of real life events around the world is Chris Guillebeau who when launching his books has done meetups in every state in the US and for his recent book every continent around the globe. I was fortunate to go with him to one of these events in Melbourne and was amazed at the enthusiasm his readers turned out to the event with – it’s no wonder Chris has had such a massive impact upon so many.

7. Put Your Readers in the Spotlight

Newsign

Way back in 2006 I wrote a very short post encouraging bloggers to ‘Make Your Readers Famous‘.

At the time it was a bit of a throw away idea and not something I’d pondered too much but in the last 7 years it has been something that I’ve seen the power of many times.

The idea is simple – put your readers in the limelight on your blog. Most blogs keep the blogger on the stage with the microphone and the readers inn the audience – but what would happen if you allowed your readers onto the stage?

The answer to that question is that readers will take real ownership over your blog and become a lot more loyal to it if you allow them opportunity to share the limelight.

Most bloggers use their blogs to build their own profile – but when you use your blog to help your readers to build their profile and achieve their own goals something special can happen.

Here are a few ways that you can make your reader famous that I’ve previous published (updated for 2013):

  • Promote a comment to a Post – sometimes readers make incredibly insightful and wise observations and tips in the comments of your blog. While they will be read by a handful of people in the comment thread – why not pull it out and use it as the basis for one of your post – highlighting the wisdom in it and the person who made the comment.
  • Write a Post about a Reader’s Blog – visit the blogs of those leaving comments on your blog and pick one that you resonate and that is relevant to your readers. Write a link post linking to that blog highlighting the best posts and what you like about it.
  • Send Your Readers to Comment on Someone Else’s Blog – write a post that links to someone else’s great blog post and instead of asking your readers what they think about it on your own blog ask them to head over and comment on it on the other person’s blog. Shutting down the comments in your own post and saying that you’ve left a comment on their blog already can help make this more effective.
  • Give Readers an Opportunity to Promote Themselves – run a project or write a post that gives readers an opportunity to promote themselves in some way. For example on dPS I wrote a post asking readers – do you have a photoblog?‘ As I wrote the post I thought I’d add a line inviting readers to share a link to their photoblogs. I didn’t think much of it until the next morning when I woke up to 250 comments on the post and a whole heap of emails thanking me for giving readers the opportunity to highlight their work.
  • Run a Reader Poll and Highlight Answers in a followup post – have a post one weekend where you pose a question to your readers. Then in the week that follows do a followup post where you add some of your own thoughts on the question and pull out some of the best comments left by readers. Alternatively you could survey your twitter followers on a topic relevant to your blog and then highlight their responses as a blog post (example of this).
  • Invite Guest Posts – often ‘guest posting’ is talked about solely as a way to get free content for your blog. While this is nice – one of the things I love about it most is that it puts the microphone in the hand of someone else and lets someone who would normally be constrained by the comments section have a little more power and influence on the direction of your community for a moment in time. This can have a real impact upon the person doing the post – but also upon your readership as they see someone like themselves featured on your blog.
  • Invite your Readers to Promote their Social Networks – a fun project I ran here on ProBlogger a number of years ago was to have a ‘social media love in‘ where I invited readers to share their social media accounts with us here on the blog. Readers left comments sharing their Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, StumbleUpon (and more) accounts and we compiled all the submissions (over 700) into lists so readers could all follow one another. It was a massive amount of work but helped our readers grow their profiles.

There are many more ways to put your readers into the spotlight and help them out with their own online projects and goals. Please let us know below how you’ve done this type of thing on your own blog!

The 5 Stages of Building a Culture of Community on a Blog [Case Study]

Yesterday we looked at some of the benefits and costs of building community on a blog – today I’d like to move onto some of the ‘how to’ by examining the stages of building community that I went through on Digital Photography School.

Build a CULTURE of Community – Not Just Engagement

Let me start by repeating the advice I gave yesterday that building community and reader interaction on a blog takes time. It won’t happen over night but develops day by day.

It is also something that YOU need to take the lead in as a blogger.

Be the community you want to have‘ is advice I regularly teach at our live ProBlogger Training Event because what I’ve found is that readers often take a bloggers lead when it comes to engagement.

If YOU are obviously engaged with your content, passionate about helping your readers, interested in who they are, writing in an inviting way and willing to interact with others then you’ll be on the right track to developing a culture on your blog where interaction is normal.

Note: I really want to emphasise this idea of building a ‘culture‘ of community on your blog. This goes way beyond using certain ‘techniques‘ to get comments or engagement.

Engagement is great – but the most successful bloggers I”ve come across go beyond that to build something deeper with their readers whereby readers not only interact but have a deeper sense of belonging, ownership and where they embody and live out the values of the blog with one another.

The Stages of Building Community on a Blog

Stage 1: You

In the early days of your blog community generally looks like this:

Problogger Stages of Community1

Yep – just you.

Maybe if you’re lucky you have a partner, or a parent, or a friend who drops by once in a while – but it’s largely you. This is totally fine and normal. I remember my first 10 or so blog posts going up to the deafening roar of silence – I couldn’t even get my wife to read them!

In those very early days you can still write in an engaging way – but probably more important than lots of reader engagement is you writing engaging and compelling content so that when people do arrive they’ve got something to read.

This is also an important time to get your mindset right. Identify what type of community you want to have. What values do you want it to have? What are the boundaries of acceptable behaviour? The clearer YOU are on what you want to achieve the better position you’ll be in to start building and modelling it to your readers (remember – YOU have to BE the community you want to have).

Hopefully – with a little time and you putting yourself out there you’ll begin to find a few readers for your blog.

Side Note: ‘Finding Readers’ of course is a topic for another series but a key component is putting yourself out there into the places your potential readers are already gathering. I cover this (and a lot more on the topic of Finding Readers in this free webinar). It is probably the most comprehensive thing I’ve produced on the topic of finding readers for a blog to this point.

Stage 2: Readers Engaging with You

After a few readers begin to arrive on your blog here’s what community looks like:

Problogger Stages of Community2

At this stage YOU are still the centre of your community and all interactions revolve around you. Your readers tell YOU what they think of your posts, they email YOU with questions and YOU need to take the initiative a lot.

In my own early days of blogging I used to email every person who left a comment on my blog to thank them for their comment and to let them know I left a comment responding to theirs. This had a BIG impact – in fact I know of a couple of readers who still read ProBlogger today who read my first blog because I emailed them in that way.

This is really where your ‘culture of community and engagement’ needs to find its foundations. If you look after the small group of readers you have really really well – in time you’ll find they’ll start to ‘catch’ what you’re on about and do it themselves.

Stage 3: Readers Engaging with One Another

What often happens next is pretty cool. It looks like this!

Problogger Stages of Community 3

This is like when you have a party where you invite lots of friends who didn’t previously know you – and your friends start to hit it off with each other.

It’s actually something that I know some bloggers struggle with a little because suddenly readers start showing up on a blog to not only talk with you – but to interact with other readers.

It can be a little disconcerting to see this happen (and to see some readers run off with each other to start interacting on social media or their own blogs) but it is actually where real ‘community’ starts to happen on a blog.

When you start see readers interacting on a deeper level with one another you have a much deeper level of community engagement than you did when YOU were the central point of contact for everyone.

Stage 4: Community Evangelists

The next stage doesn’t always happen – but when it does you know you’re onto something pretty exciting!

Problogger Stages of Community 4

In this stage you begin to see engaged readers begin to evangelise your blog for you. They’ve found something that they’re so engaged with and find so useful to them that they can’t help but bring others in.

I saw this at Digital Photography School when we started a forum for the blog. I noticed a small group of readers who had been reading since the start of the site and who’d been starting to get to know each other began a thread in the forum about asking how they could help to grow the forum.

They’d found dPS to be a useful site for them but realised it’d be more useful with more members. That began a competition within this small group to see who could recruit the most new members to the site. They did it purely for bragging rights and because they wanted the community to grow!

I promoted this small group to be the forums first moderators!

Stage 5: Engagement

The final stage is a mess…. but at the same time music to most community managers ears.

Problogger Stages of Community 5

YOU as the blogger are still there but relationships and interactions go on above, below and around you. In fact some days you may even wonder if anyone would notice if you disappeared (although they will).

How to Build Community on a Blog

I’m sure not every blog develops in the above 5 steps exactly – but it is how I’ve seen emerge a couple of times now on my blogs.

Tomorrow we’re going to get a little more practical on the topic of building community on a blog by really drilling into some specific tactics on how to do it! Update: see that post at 7 Strategies for Growing Community on Your Blog.

Subscribe below to be notified of the links to future posts in this series.

9 Benefits [and 3 Costs] Of Building Community On Your Blog

Do you ever feel – as you blog – like you’re talking to an empty room?

Day after day you publish posts only to have them greeted by….

If that is how you feel – then you’re not alone. In fact one of the most common questions that I hear from bloggers is:

“How do I get my readers to interact with me?”

Over the next week I’d like to suggest some ways to increase reader engagement and would love to hear how you do it on your blog too in comments below.

But first – today I’d like to talk about WHY community and interaction on a blog is so important.

Blogging – More than Just Creating Content

There is no one way to build a successful blog but in my experience a blog really comes alive when there is at least some level of community on… or around… the the blog.

Perhaps the best example I can think of to illustrate this is the time I started Digital Photography School (my main blog).

When I launched dPS in 2006 I launched it without comments being activated on the blog. This was an experiment to see what impact not having comments would have on a new blog.

I quickly discovered that by starting a blog in this way had quite a few negative impacts upon the site – the main one being that not having reader feedback just felt plain weird and left ME as the blogger thirsting for interaction with readers. I guess I’d become used to getting readers engagement on my other blogs and without it just felt ‘wrong’ for my style of blogging.

Within a few weeks I’d not only turned comments back on at dPS but was already working towards starting a photography forum on the site too!

The impact of adding more and more opportunity for community engagement on the site was immediate and big. Page views went up, repeat/loyal readership increased and I feel the quality of the site also improved.

Why Build Community on Your Blog?

Lets take a bit deeper look at some of the benefits of focusing upon reader engagement and building community on your blog.

1. Community Increases Your Blog’s Usefulness

Right from the early days of ProBlogger my mantra has always been that a good blog is a useful blog.

If you’re not being useful to your readers on some level (and being useful can be many things from being informative, to entertaining, to keeping them up to date) it is very difficult to have success with your blog.

My experience of having community on a blog is that it makes the blog exponentially more useful – something James Surowiecki wrote about in his useful book – The Wisdom of Crowds.

Together we are a lot smarter than any single one of us.

I’ve seen this many times over on my blogs. While I work hard to have as much expertise on my topics there will always be things I don’t know but which my readership has experience and insight.

For example I once received an email from a reader – Mandy – asking how she should go about photographing her dying grandmother with dignity. This was a long way out of my expertise so I asked my readership and we had over 90 responses.

Without the community on dPS I would have been unable to help Mandy.

This is a fairly extreme example but I see it in action on a daily basis in the comments sections of my blogs when readers have their questions answered by others in the community.

Ultimately for me – increasing your blog’s usefulness to readers is the number 1 reason to build community on your blog. However there are other reasons too.

2. Community Builds Social Proof

Have you ever chosen to eat in a restaurant purely because you can see it is popular with other patrons or passed by one that is empty?

If so – you understand the concept of social proof.

People attract people in all kinds of places – a blog is no exception.

It is much easier to attract and get engagement from a reader if there is already engagement from other readers.

I’ve seen this numerous times on my blogs (but also social media accounts). The more genuine interaction you have on your blog the easier it is to convince others that your blog is worth a second visit.

3. Community Increases Page Views

Page views won’t matter as much to some readers of ProBlogger as others but for those of you monetizing your blog with advertising you might want to take note.

Page views are important for those using Ad networks like AdSense or selling ads directly to sponsors because the more times the ads are seen on your blog the more you’ll be able to earn.

Community increases page views. If someone leaves a comment on your blog on most blogs that means 2 page views instead of 1. That person is also more likely to return to see if others leave a comment responding to theirs so you’re up to 2, 4 or 5 page views (and even more if a conversation between readers emerges).

Add a forum area to your blog and the average pages viewed per visitor can skyrocket – we regularly see as many as 10 pages view per visit on the Digital Photography School Forum.

4. Community Makes Your Blog More Attractive to Advertisers

Speaking of advertising as a model to monetize your blog – I’ve discovered over the last few years of selling advertising directly to advertisers on dPS that many advertisers are looking to not only see their banner ads on a site – but they are willing to pay for engagement with your readers.

One of the best examples of this is an annual competition we’ve run on dPS to give away a price from one of our regular site sponsors.

This competition is part of an advertising bundle that we run with this sponsor (they also run some banner ads but also sponsor our newsletter regularly).

While they get value out of the banner ads and newsletter ads that they run it is the competition that really converts well for them because it gets our readers visiting their website and engaging with the products that they offer (because to enter the competition you need to leave a comment saying which product you’d like to win and why).

This is the third year in a row we’ve run this particular competition and we’ve had 700+ comments left on each year we’ve run it.

5. Community Makes Your Blog Easier to Create and Sell Products

Back in 2005 I ran a series of blog posts here on ProBlogger titled – 31 Days to Build a Better Blog. The project was so successful that I ran the project again in 2007 and then again in 2009.

Each time I ran the project it grew larger and larger and readers became more and more engaged with the concept but also with the rest of my blog (it was a great community building project in and of itself).

At the end of the 2009 project a strange thing happened – my readers began to beg me to compile the 31 posts I’d written that year into a PDF… to sell to them as an eBook.

Yes you heard it – out of a period of intense reader interaction and delivering tangible value my readers asked me to sell them a product.

Not only did they ask me to create a product – 31 Days to Build a Better Blog (now updated into it’s 2nd edition) went on to become my biggest selling eBook.

This illustrates just how powerful community is if you’re looking to monetize your blog through selling products of some kind.

I’ve seen the same thing happening on dPS where we’ve developed 11 photography eBooks – the readers who buy our products are often the most engaged members of our communities and interestingly when a discussion happens in our forum area on topics covered in our eBook it is our community members who ‘sell’ our eBooks to new members the best.

6. Community Makes Your Blog More Attractive to Sell

Over the years I’ve had a number of companies offer to buy my blogs. While I’m not looking to sell them it is always an interesting discussion to have.

In most cases the conversation starts with a potential buyer interested in your traffic numbers and income – however what I’ve noticed is that when you begin to talk about the high level of reader engagement that you have on your bog many buyers become a lot more interested and start talking about higher purchase prices.

This will depend a little on the business model of a potential buyer – but I’ve seen this happen on at least 3 occasions in the last few years.

Community makes your blog more attractive to potential buyers.

7. Community Creates an Army of Advocates and Evangelists

An engaged and loyal reader is a powerful thing – not only because they’ll make your site useful and might buy your products – but because they are also much more likely to help you grow what you do.

This happens very naturally really – when you help someone on a daily basis and they feel a sense of belonging to your site they’re highly likely to tell someone about your blog.

I’ve seen it time and time again. I’ll often meet readers at a conference and ask them how they first became readers – the story is regularly ‘I am friends with Jim/Sarah/Bill/Joe/Anne… and they told me what a great site it was’.

Engaged readers don’t only help find you new readers – they can help you in many other ways.

Example 1: Several years ago one of my readers emailed me with an introduction to a New York Times journalist that they knew who was looking for someone to interview for a story. A week later dPS was featured in that publication.

Example 2: Around the same time a group of readers started a campaign to get our site on the radar of Canon and Nikon because they wanted them to advertise on dPS. They started a petition and did end up helping us land a small advertising campaign!

8. Community Can Help with User Generated Content

In a similar way – engaged readers who feel that they belong are more likely to contribute to your site by generating content for it.

This again may not be something that all bloggers are interested in – however if you’re looking to supplement your own content with guest posts from readers it can be an effective way of generating such content.

The other aspect of this is that you may not want to feature full posts from readers – but having engaged readers can help you generate other kinds of content.

For example I recently asked readers of my Google+ Account to share with us their advice on the topic of ‘finding your voice’ as a blogger.

I had some great responses and am compiling the answers into a post for ProBlogger (to which I’ll add some of my own thoughts). While not a ‘guest post’ as such it brings the wisdom of readers out of my social media community areas and onto the blog.

In the past I’ve done exactly the same thing by asking readers for their advice in the comments section of a blog and bringing those comments into a blog post.

9. Community Brings More Personal Satisfaction to Blogging

When I first drafted this post I didn’t have this point but on reflection of my last decade of blogging perhaps the biggest benefit of having community on my blogs has been it exponentially increases the personal satisfaction I’ve received from blogging.

I’ve had 30 or so blogs in the last 10 years and the ones in which I’ve invested into the community and had readers invest back into it have been the ones that I’ve been able to sustain over many years.

The blogs where community didn’t really click (and this can be the result of many factors) were blogs that I found most difficult sustain – probably because I wasn’t getting the engagement, feedback and encouragement of readers.

Maybe it is just me – although I suspect not – but it is community that is a fuel that feeds my blogs. Without it I can only sustain them so long!

The Costs of Community

The benefits of building community on a blog are many (and I would encourage you to add more that you’ve experienced to the comments section below) however it would not be balanced of me to talk about the benefits of building community on a blog without at least acknowledging that there are some ‘costs’ involved.

1. Building Community on a Blog Takes Time

Relationships and community don’t just appear out of thin air. They take time – in two ways:

  1. Firstly – building true community is something that generally takes a long period of time to gradually happen. While you can get comments on your first blog post – to get readers deeply engaged can take months… and years. We’ll talk more about how to build this culture of community on a blog in the coming days.
  2. Secondly – once you have community (and building community) can be something of a time suck and if you’re time poor it can be a challenge to do on a day by day basis.

2. Building Community can be an Emotional Roller-coaster

Building relationships with readers can be something of an emotional roller coaster.

In the early days it can be incredibly disheartening when community doesn’t seem to be happening despite your very best efforts.

But then in the longer term after community does begin to happen it can be so difficult to maintain once your community begins to pull in different directions and on those occasions when things go badly.

When community goes well it can be powerful – but when trolls, spammers or competitors infiltrate it can make you wonder why you bother at all!

3. Community Can be a Little Risky

I can think of a few instances over the years when a ‘community’ or readership of a blog have turned against a blogger and have really hurt the brand of a blog.

While these instances are certainly in the minority it is worth noting that if you’re not willing to invest into a community and lead it that you leave your blog’s brand in a vulnerable position.

We’ll talk more about this in the coming days as we talk about how to build a good culture of community on a blog.

How to Build Community on a Blog

In the coming days here at ProBlogger I want to explore the idea of building community and deepening reader engagement on a blog further.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at 5 stages of building a Culture of Community on a Blog and then the following day we’ll get a little more concrete and look at 7 Strategies for Growing Community on Your Blog.

As always – subscribe to our newsletter by adding your email address below for a wrap up email at the end of this series so you don’t miss out!

84 Must Read ‘How to’ Blog Posts (and 3 Winners Announced)

Last week here on ProBlogger I ran a ‘Group Writing Project‘ where I invited readers to go away and write a ‘How To‘ Post on their blog and then to come back and show us a link to it.

The response was fantastic (we’ll do it again in the weeks ahead) – 84 people wrote and submitted a post (although a few of those didn’t completely follow the instructions and submitted old posts – naughty!) and I’ve heard some great feedback from a number of you who enjoyed the challenge of writing that type of post, found some cool new blogs and also saw some great traffic from participating!

I’d REALLY encourage you to look through the submissions below (I’ve listed them all). There are some cool posts in the list and this project really comes alive when people surf through it and leave comments and make friends.

The Winners Are…

As part of the project I said I’d randomly choose one participant to win the full library of ProBlogger eBooks (worth over $250). We had such a great response that I’ve decided to give 3 prizes away instead.

So the 3 winners that I’ve just randomly selected are:

  1. Pamela – who wrote How to Be a Cat
  2. Caroline – who wrote ‘How to Go from Can’t to Can in 9 Steps: Starting Your Own Business
  3. Sam who wrote How to Have a More Productive and Energetic Morning

Congrats to our winners – I’ll shoot you an email shortly with your prize!

84 How To Blog Posts

Below are all of the submissions we received – it was a bit of a job to compile them all here but I hope you take the time to surf through some of the posts listed as there are some great blog posts in the mix here. Apologies if your post was missed – I hope I got them all but it was quite the task :-)

As you surf the list please consider commenting on the posts you resonate with to encourage the authors and if you find something good – PLEASE share it with your social network or even on your blog.

The Wave System: How to Get Your Facebook Page Updates Seen By More People

Did you just write a killer blog post? Or do you have an event/product to promote?

The Problem of Sharing Links on Facebook

If so, you probably rely, at least partially, on linking to your webpage through Facebook. But lately Facebook is showing outbound links to such a small percentage of your page followers, that it’s potentially detrimental to blogs and businesses alike.

Bloggers have it worst because even when people click on a link through a Facebook and decide to share a blog post, they don’t share or interact on the Facebook post–they do it directly from the blog. So the Facebook post gets no interaction and therefore Facebook views it as irrelevant. Before I developed the Wave System I’ll outline below, my outbound links were being seen by less than 10% of the followers on my page.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money to acquire the fans on my pages; but when I write a blog post or have a sale that my readers can benefit from, Facebook doesn’t allow me to tell anybody about it.

Sound familiar?

Within 20 minutes, any post with a link from your Facebook post falls so far down the feed, it’s rendered useless.

By this time, you should know that the more interaction you get on a post, the more people will see it. If you have figured out a way to get people to interact on your promotional posts, I’m all ears. I’ve tested on 10 different pages and still haven’t figured it out.

Since payment buttons, squeeze page, and blogs usually exist outside of Facebook, you need people to click a link—a link that Facebook doesn’t want to show them.

You’re then left with two bad options:

Bad Option #1 – You can continue to post sales material multiple times a day and preface it sheepishly with words like:

“hey guys,

In case you missed it earlier, just a reminder we’re having a big sale on our super premium widgets today.”

This way more people will see the ad, but it also means you’re no longer adding value to your followers and will probably get your page hidden.

Bad Option #2 – You can decide to pay for Facebook’s “pay to promote” feature. I like Facebook ads, but am I the only one who has noticed that it gets more and more expensive? It costs me $1,000 to promote a SINGLE POST to the followers on one of my pages.

I already run Facebook ads continuously, but $1,000 to promote a single post to my existing fans is almost never worth it–especially to promote a blog post and not product sale. And, for almost every Facebook page owner that runs a small business, it’s out of the question.

To put it bluntly, you’re screwed. All that time, money, and effort you spent building up a Facebook page has gone for naught. Facebook is evil right? Would you agree that they are greedy pigs that are systematically squashing small businesses?

I don’t…

Facebook is Forcing Marketers to Evolve

Facebook used to be a place where lazy marketers could get heard. All they had to do was put sales pitches in the feed and generated big email lists that turned into sales. But now I can’t log onto Facebook without seeing a marketer (or even the occasional social media expert) complaining that Facebook is evil and is making it impossible to succeed.

Make no mistake; Facebook is still the most powerful marketing medium on the planet. That is, of course, if you know how to use it.

I say this because, through a lot of experimentation, I’ve developed a system to select the posts I want Facebook to show to my audience for free. With a bit of planning, I’ve repeatedly gotten status updates with outbound links to my blog posts and event promotions to 50-75% of the users on my page. And no, I don’t do this by combining my links with cheap pictures, motivational quotes, or memes.

This article will teach you exactly how to trick Facebook into showing your blog posts and promotional status updates, which get little to no interaction themselves, to the majority of your users for free. In addition, I’ve included a bonus section at the bottom where I show you how to identify specific groups within your page and target them, also for free.

The First Step is Understanding EdgeRank

EdgeRank is the Facebook algorithm for determining relevance. While the specifics often change, the constant is that Facebook is trying to figure out who and what you want to listen to. It does this largely by tracking your interactions.

“Like” an update, click on a picture, watch a video, or share an article, and your affinity towards whoever shared that article goes up. (Note: This is obviously a very superficial overview about EdgeRank, but it’s enough to understand my system below.)

The Wave System – How to Manipulate EdgeRank and use it to Your Advantage

I’ve been experimenting on 10 different Facebook accounts for two years. Despite all of Facebooks changes, it has always worked and will always work in a predictable pattern.

I’ve used the Wave System to build multiple fan pages with 15,000+ members in a matter of months. Not only that, these are users who are avidly interested in my business and purchase my products.

I’ll be sharing one example of each different type of post I used in the example from the picture below. This was a promotion for a conference I’m holding. The result was that Facebook showed this post 78% of my fans for free. It did this because of the insane relevance I was able to build up in the days previous using my 4 step system below.

Ptdc seminar 1

It takes some planning on your part. Here are the 4 steps to the Wave System:

Step 1 - Collect what you predict will be a series of very viral photos. Whenever you come across something that you think will get a ton of interaction, put it in a special folder.

There are probably pages that already serve your demographic. Take a couple of hours and go through their archives. Download the viral memes or pictures that do the best on your competitors pages and put them in your folder—why start over when somebody else has already done the work for you? (Note, always give proper attribution to photos if you can. Most people don’t on Facebook, but don’t be a jerk like most people.)

Step 2 - The most viral pictures and status updates concern a controversial or often discussed subject pertaining to your industry or the perception of your industry.

Write the biggest public misconceptions about your industry. What is it that gets under your skin as a professional? Write that down.

Next, on that document, note the side of the controversy that your audience firmly sites on.

Below is a picture of an example I used to generate a lot of shares and likes leading up to my conference promotion. I know that trainers get frustrated when people say that they need to wait for everything to be perfect to start working out (because it never will be). So I posted a viral photo and added in a bit of a rant in the description for good measure.

Meme 1 pre launch

Step 3 - 2 days before you plan on putting out a promotional post start to publish 4-6 viral pictures or status updates that you expect get a ton of interaction. Pull them directly from your file in steps 1 and 2. Refer to my post called, “When is the Best Time to Post on Facebook?” to pinpoint, to the minute, the best times to publish these posts for your audience.

The more people that interact with these multiple posts the better. Continue to publish 4-6 times a day generating as many likes, comments, and shares as possible. The purpose is to generate as much relevancy from as many of your fans as possible towards your page.

The most effective status updates in terms of gaining relevancy are those that hit on a public misconception that affects your industry. It’s likely a source of common frustration and one that your audience will want to share to help education their friends and family by sharing the post. Below is an example I recently used.

Written statement

Step 4 - When it comes time to post your promotion, publish the post with your sale or call to action. For the next 2-3 days, wave in and out viral materials.

Your promotional post will not get much interaction. But, because you’ve build up so much relevancy the previous two days, Facebook will show automatically show your post to more people.

For the next 2-3 days, wave in and out promotional materials with viral posts. This way, Facebook will continue to show your promotional posts to a higher percentage of your page users.

How to Use Questions

One other option for increasing affinity to a large group of people is to ask questions that you expect to get a lot of interaction. I poll my audience for two distinct different reasons: information collection and relevance building. Allow me to give an overview of both.

Information Collection Questions – My Facebook page is my focus group. Often I’ll ask them questions like, “what topics do you want me to cover in the coming weeks?” or I might be doing one of my many experiments. For example, if you read my article linked above on the best time to post on Facebook, you’ll note that I did an experiment where I wanted to find out the most common times my following exercised. So I asked them, and hired administrative help to graph it for me.

Relevance Building - Getting a lot of comments on a status update is a fantastic way to increase relevancy to a number of followers on your page. Sometimes I’ll rile up my audience by choosing a controversial subject that affects them, arguing one side, and asking for their input. Below is an example (note that this was two days before I promoted my conference):

Question pre launch

Bonus Section – Using the Wave System to Pre-Select Your Audience

I was in a social media gathering last week and a good question came up. The question (paraphrased) was, “My Company offers different services that appeal to different types of people. Is it a problem to promote all of the services to my entire page or will that turn off the groups that aren’t interested in that one service?”

I’m in a similar situation here. My page for personal trainers promotes both nutrition and exercise products. I use the Wave System to manipulate EdgeRank to pre-select my audience.

The best way to illustrate this is with an example:

Let’s say I’m going to be promoting a nutrition program in 3 days time. I would start the wave system as per the steps above, but would only use viral photos that were nutrition based. This way, the people who were interested in nutrition would like and comment on those posts. The people who weren’t interested in nutrition would ignore them.

Then, when it comes time to put my first promotion up, the people who my content pre-selected would be shown the promotion and those who aren’t interested in nutrition wouldn’t.

It’s not perfect, but it works reasonably well.

Facebook is not evil, quite the opposite. Facebook is powerful and, if you understand how to use it, can be the most important marketing tool at your disposal.

Never forget though, the purpose of Facebook is not to collect fans; it’s to find your audience so that you can get them off of Facebook and onto an email list. Use the Wave System to get people to your squeeze pages and into your marketing funnel.

Jonathan Goodman is a 2X author and the creator of Viralnomics. He is currently offering free enrollment to his 20-day content creation course.

I’m not Technical Enough to Blog [Misconceptions New Bloggers Have #4]

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of posts here on ProBlogger that looked at ‘Misconceptions New Bloggers have’. We covered:

Today I’d like to add another misconception – that you have to be technical to be a successful blogger!

I wonder how many potentially great bloggers have been put off starting a blog because they perceived blogging to be a technical task?

My Story

I think back to my own first forays into building a web presence – way back before I started my first blog – and remember having that feeling myself.

I remember back in the late nineties coming across a website that was written by another Aussie guy who had put together a collection of quotes and jokes. It wasn’t a blog as such but I was attracted to what he was doing and I emailed him to ask him how he did it and whether it was easy enough to set up something similar.

His reply claimed it was easy – but then went on to describe a process that went way above my head. It involved a lot of coding – there were no templates, few tools and within reading the first few paragraphs of his email I knew I’d never have a website.

I had no technical background, I’d not long even been on the web and my personality didn’t really lend itself to the detail that I saw as being needed to set up a website.

Fast forward 4-5 years to 2002 and when I came across my first blog and wondered if I too could start one I remember feeling again that perhaps it would be beyond me. I didn’t let the feeling stop me this time though and began to investigate.

What I found was a surprise – tools now existed to get a site up and running in minutes.

With my limited experience (at that time I used the web to do occasional emails (hotmail) and to research essays (search engines) and to do IRC chat) I was able to get a blog up and running and to post my first post within an hour or so. I even made an attempt at designing my own template/theme (it was ugly but I managed).

I had a steep learning curve – back in 2002 the tools were somewhat primitive and I still needed to learn some HTML code because there were no What You See Is What You Get options. You had to write your posts in html and to get comments working on your blog you had to use an external script (I guess we’d call it a plugin these days).

Today the tools at our finger tips are amazing. Creating a blog takes seconds, updating themes are relatively simple (if you want to use a default theme or a premium one – a bit harder if you want to do it yourself), posting to blogs is as simple as writing an email or creating a word document and there are literally hundreds of thousands of plugins around to help you customise your blog with not a lot more than a few clicks.

There are still technical things to learn about if you want to take your blog up a notch (hosting/servers, custom themes etc) but in the scheme of things the tools now exist to create blog with little or no technical background.

The other things I’d say on this topic are:

  • there are technical things to learn – but you don’t need to know them all at once. When you’re first starting out you might want to keep it simple and set your blog up on a WordPress.com blog – a few clicks and you’re on the go. In time you might feel this blogging thing is something you want to get more serious about and want to transition to your own domain and hosting – but by then you’ll have a lot more skills at your fingertips. Take your time and suck up as many skills and as much knowledge as you can as you blog.
  • together we know it all – I realised pretty early on that even where my knowledge fell short that there were others around willing to help. I still remember in my first week or so of blogging wondering how to make text bold in my posts – I was embarressed but summonsed the courage to ask another kind and generous blogger. She not only helped me with that basic request but over the years became a good friend. We even ended up doing some blogs together. I quickly found that there are people around willing to give advice and share their knowledge. Some will do it for free just to help out, others you might like to barter services with and there are heaps of people around willing to do short term paid work for you to help set up aspects of your blog.
  • outsourcing – on that note – if your budget allows and as your blog grows it is worth considering whether outsourcing some of the more technical aspects of blogging might be right for you. While I’ve learned a lot over the years I’m still not really a technical guy – particularly when it comes to hosting blogs the size that mine have grown to. As a result I’ve out sourced some technical aspects of my blogging – particularly the hosting of my sites and some development work.

As Important (if not MORE Important) as the Technicalities…

Lastly – there are much more important things in blogging than the technical aspects when it comes to having success.

Yes you want to have a blog that loads correctly and that isn’t crashing all the time – but in my mind the things that are as important for success include:

  • Having an understanding of your readers – knowing their needs etc
  • Being able to create content that is compelling, useful and meeting the needs of your readers
  • Being able to engage with readers and build community on your blog
  • Having the ability to draw readers to your blog

None of these things are easy – but similarly to what I said above about the technicalities – you don’t have to know it all from day one. Skills develop over time as you need to know things but also the more you experiment.

I’d love to hear your thoughts:

  • What advice would you give bloggers feeling overwhelmed by the technical side of blogging?
  • What technical aspects of blogging do/have you struggled the most?

9 Steps to Creating a Successful e-Course

NewImageIt seems so effortless from the outside: Record some audio, shoot a little video, schedule a few emails, throw in a live call. Shaazam! You’ve got an e-Course.

But when you dive in to actually create your own course, you may get:

  • frustrated – ‘What do people actually need to know to get started on Pinterest? I thought I knew:,’ or
  • overwhelmed – ‘I know so much about eating paleo. I have to include everything, but it’s too much!’ or
  • despairing – ‘Everybody knows everything about marketing, why would they listen to me?’

Welcome to teaching! It only looks easy because you’re looking at someone else’s finished product.

But, if you have the desire to share what you know, here are the steps you can take to create your own successful e-Course – without hiding in endless hours of Angry Birds or eating a pint of triple fudge cookie dough ice cream.

1. Dump Your Brain

First dive into the question, ‘What do I MOST want to teach?’ by writing non-stop for 10 minutes. If you lose steam, repeat the question but keep your hand moving!

Stream of consciousness is the key.

Don’t try to restrict your choices too soon. It’s comforting to make decisions – it makes us feel safe – but do it too soon and a lot of juicy bits may get left out. Or you just might find yourself teaching something you aren’t invested in – which is a quick way to exhaustion and burnout.

Take a dance break to get the creative juices flowing, then ask yourself:

  • Since nothing is off limits for me to teach, I could include:
  • The best learning experiences I’ve had included:
  • The worst learning experiences I’ve had included:

Write for 3 to 5 minutes for each question. You are diving deeper. You’ll repeat ideas, get bored: just keep writing. You are investing all of 25 minutes tops. No big deal.

Reward yourself with another dance break. Or coffee. Or a walk. Taking a break from thinking is essential. From my own work and from working with teachers I know that your results will simply be MUCH, much better.

2. Find the Core

Your next job is to find the one core idea of your course.

The biggest reason a course never comes together or doesn’t work is because the teacher tries to cover too much. Put yourself in your students’ shoes – they want a problem solved. Help them learn one thing. And then help them learn the next one thing. Restrain yourself from drowning them with a fire hose of too much material and they will reward you with loyalty and repeat business.

Now read through your brain dump. Look for the frustrations you most want to solve or the outcomes you most want to lead people to. What themes keep showing up? List those.

Now look for the uber-theme – Which idea has the most energy for you or encompasses all your other themes?

Not sure? Pick one theme and brainstorm 3 to 5 takeaways people would learn. Be as concrete as you can. Now ask yourself, ‘What is the core idea behind these takeaways?’

Write your core idea on a post-it note and keep it front and center as you continue to work on creating your course. This is your critical content filter and focus-er. Only content and exercises that fit this idea – and support your takeaways – go into this course.

Everything else is for another course. Keep a notebook or computer file open to jot those other ideas down as a jump-start for next time!

3. Befriend the Critic

This is usually when your negative inner chorus chimes in with helpful comments like, ‘Nobody will ever buy this,’ or ‘Everybody knows this stuff already,’ or simply, ‘This sucks.’

Instead of believing these voices and losing momentum or ignoring them entirely – which drains your energy because they are still yammering in the background – write down what they are saying. Get this repetitive chatter onto paper. Then use it to improve your course.

Here’s how:

Take the list and cross out every word that is pure meanness, that sounds like your 7th grade English teacher, or that you no longer believe – in other words, old news and not your stuff. Use a big black Sharpie.

Look at what’s left. Ask yourself, ‘Is there any insight here that can help me create a course that I love to teach and that helps people?’

For example, if your inner mean chorus insists your design is hideous, get curious. What design tweaks could help this round of your course, tweaks that you have the time and resources to implement?

If your critics shouts, ‘Nobody will buy this,’ make a list of where your just-right students hang out. Ask for guest posts now, comment on related posts (use Google Alerts to find them,) comment on Facebook. Use these insights to take action.

Certain you have nothing original to say? When I wrote my first book proposal, I was 26 and felt like a fraud, so I wrote in a stuffy pretend-therapist voice. Everybody turned the proposal down.

I rewrote it in my authentic voice and two of the world’s biggest publishers wanted it. If your critics are whining about originality, check in: Are you valuing your voice, your stories, and your ideas, or are you trying to be like everybody else?

Here’s the SECRET to using this process: Your inner critics worship perfection. Perfection kills creativity and stops forward motion. ‘Good enough,’ and ‘What serves my students?’ are your mantras here. Use what you can and leave the rest!

4. Steal like A Teacher

I teach a writing retreat every year in Taos, New Mexico, and one idea that gets everybody excited – and makes writing for them so much easier – is learning to see and ‘steal’ other writers’ structures.

The idea is simple – read to find how a piece of writing is organized and then use that structure for your own content. You can do the same thing when you are developing a course – steal structure and pour your content in (No stealing content!) The structure helps you remember what you know because the mind likes to know where to put things.

Look for structures like ’3 videos, 7 emails, 4 live calls’ and dig deeper to understand how the structure supports the material. For example, in TeachNow, there is a class and transcript for each module, and then short audios and videos that build out or supplement a few ideas from the class, for people who want to go deeper.

Go hunt for structures that fit your core idea, as well as your just-right student’s needs and lifestyle.

5. Name the Steps

Effective learning is broken into incremental steps that build on each other. But it can be tricky to name these steps because you are so close to your material.

Use your imagination to go back in time to when you were first learning your subject. Feel into one aha moment – maybe when your first understood how to grip a golf club or how to listen to your partner with an open heart. From this place, describe one thing you want your students to learn.

You don’t have to create the steps in order; you can order the steps afterward. Let beginner’s mind guide you and start wherever you feel the most ‘juice.’

Before you write or record a step, ask: Does this fit with my one core idea?

6. Tangible Takeaways

Learning is elusive – and people are so overwhelmed with information overload already – it’s damn hard to get concepts to ‘stick.’ Think about it: How much do you remember from the last course you took? The book you read or listened to last night?

You can up your course’s ‘sticky’ factor by asking students to name what they have learned – throughout the course, if possible.

  • Ask students to take one concrete action today based on what they just learned.
  • Prompt people to share one takeaway per module or per week on a private Facebook group.
  • Ask students to record a video or audio sharing their top three takeaways from the entire course.
  • Ask students to send in one takeaway after a live call and include their website address.
    • Compile an email that goes to all your students or that you share on your blog with live links to their sites, as an extra incentive.

Most e-Course designers skip the takeaways because they assume nobody wants ‘more work.’ Make a case for how much benefit they’ll receive from doing so. Challenge them to try it once, just to ‘prove you right or prove you wrong.’

Takeaways also teach YOU what people are learning. Knowing this will help you rejigger your course and your marketing because you will see how people are actually using the material. And it will give you ideas for new courses. It’s precious stuff!

7. Beta

The only way to learn to teach is by teaching. The only way to see if your material works is to test it on real people. This why teaching is so scary – it’s like performing, even when you aren’t offering anything live.

Here’s how to make it easier: talk to other people who have created courses. Ask them:

  • How did they deal with their fears?
  • How did they weather negative feedback or unhappy students?
  • How did they market?

Peer support normalizes so much!

And remind yourself you are NOT your work. This has kept me sane for 21+ teaching and writing years. You are amazing – you, separate from your work. How your work lands or is received is no reflection on your worth as a human.

8. Build in Regular Feedback

I send out an email three times over the 3-month TeachNow course, asking for student feedback about the course. I ask these questions:

  • What has been your biggest takeaway in TeachNow so far?
  • What has shifted for you because of this learning? How have you applied it?
  • What did you think you would learn by now that you haven’t?

I offer a gift if feedback is given by a certain date. By doing so, I gather feedback when it’s fresh for people and encourage a sense of ownership in learning. If your course is delivered all at once, you can ask for feedback several times via autoresponder, and include gentle nudges to use the material if they haven’t already.

9. Keep the Momentum Going

The more often you offer your course, the more input you’ll garner about how to improve it and what other courses to create. But that’s hard to do if you’re not getting the sales – or rave reviews – you want. You get discouraged and think, ‘What’s the point?’

Give yourself a few days off – a real rest, away from marketing and technology – and then assess.

Ask yourself:

  • Did you fall in love with content creation and not put equal time & creativity into marketing?
    • If so, pour your energy into marketing for the next round.
  • Did you try to create a course that filled a need but lost your voice in the process?
    • Go back and tweak – just a little – to add your stories, experiences and voice.
    • Add that to the sales page, too.
  • Did you consider your students’ needs?
  • Did you describe clear benefits on your sales page?
  • How many people did you get your course in front of?
    • Did you promote it in the places your just-right students hang out?
  • Did you make clear requests for feedback from current students?
    • What tweaks can you make to the course and your sales page to address these requests?
  • Did you enlist peer support from other course creators?
    • Share your challenges and successes?
    • Swap best practice and sales ideas?
  • When can you offer the course again?
  • What are three fun ways to get the word out?

Creating effective learning courses and marketing them is a giant undertaking. What’s helped me is to devote myself at first to creating great content, then refine the content while putting lots more energy into marketing, and then for the rest of the life of the course, my energy goes into marketing and into any live teaching component.

I so hope these steps help you get into action and share what you love! – not next month or next year or when you feel you know enough – but NOW. Get into action, find your core idea, and beta, Baby, beta.

Shoot me a line and tell me how it goes!

*image credit: Odette Mattha Design, www.odettemattha.com

Jen Louden is the best-selling author of 6 books, including the pioneering best-sellers The Woman’s Comfort Book and The Woman’s Retreat Book. Her retreats are world-famous. She’s the proud mom of a college freshman (How did that happen??), and the creator of the popular TeachNow course. You can sign up for free samples of TeachNow, including a Library of free resources and a live call on April 4th, here http://theteacherspath.com