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How My Family and Friends Help Me Blog Better

This guest post is by Jonathan Dunsky of WorldofDiets.com.

A lot of bloggers work alone. I started out the same way. I hardly talked about what I was doing and never got into details with the people closest to me.

Today, however, I feel that this approach can limit the success of your blog and that you must reach out to those closest to you to help you build your blog to its fullest potential.

helping friends

Copyright Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com

The people around you can help you in a variety of ways: giving you ideas for content creation, providing usability tips, design ideas, and general constructive criticism. You can use all this to make your blog more appealing, interesting, and popular.

In the two years in which I’ve been writing my health and fitness blog, I received tremendous help from the people in my life. I want to share some of those things with you to give you some ideas on how the people around you can help you become a more successful blogger.

Pushing me to make difficult changes

I have to admit that I love my blog. I’ve put a lot of work into it and I find it hard to make changes to it.

Fortunately for me, my wife, Karen, is not as sentimental and kept pushing me to invest in a better design for the site. She didn’t like the plain look of the free theme I used whereas I didn’t want to touch it.

In the end, as is usually the case in our marriage, I capitulated and bought a premium theme, tweaked it a bit to look just right, had a designer create a logo for the blog, and implemented a magazine style home page instead of a regular blog format.

The result was a decrease in bounce rate, general approval from readers, and I am even more in love with my blog today than I used to be in the past. I guess I’m just a shallow guy and looks do matter to me.

The point is that making this kind of change would have taken me a lot more time if no one was there to push me to do it.

Creating better content

There are a number people in my life that have helped me create better content.

The first is my wife, who is a physical therapist. I often consult her about correct exercise techniques and how to craft effective workouts for my readers.

The second is my friend, Dorothy, who has struggled with her weight for years. She represents the average visitor to my site—a person who wishes to lose weight in a healthy and gimmick-free way.

Just by speaking with her about the methods she tries and the process she’s going through reminds me to create content with my readers’ problems in mind.

Following trends from afar

I live in Europe so it’s harder for me to keep up with trends in the US and Canada, where most of my readers are. Fortunately for me, one of my childhood friends lives in New York and I can ask him whether a certain fitness product or diet plan is getting a lot of attention and media coverage in the US.

In this way I can create content which people are more interested in at that time.

For instance, my review of the Shake Weight might have never been written if I didn’t know how big that product was in late 2009. Up to this day, that blog post received nearly 300 comments.

Design improvements

My sister-in-law, Sharon, is a graphic designer so I consulted her about the color scheme and design of the blog and logo. Whenever I want to make design changes I know I can count on her professional opinion to steer me in the right direction.

How to enlist your friends and family to help you blog better

First, you have to be open about what you do and what your goals are. If you’re blogging about some shady topic and you can’t even talk about it with your friends, you will have to do things on your own.

Second, accept criticism. If people are afraid to tell you what they really think about your blog, you will miss out on crucial tips that can make it much better. From now on, any criticism should be viewed as constructive.

Third, your blog is written for people. Unless you write about internet marketing, you should seek the advice of people who are not marketers. Get the viewpoints of people who are similar to your readers.

Finally, don’t disregard anyone’s opinion. Don’t be quick to reject proposals. You don’t have to accept or implement every suggestion you get, but you should take the time to consider it.

If you have other stories about how those closest to you have helped you become a better blogger, or some tips to add, please share them in the comments below.

Jonathan Dunsky is a writer, husband, and fitness enthusiast. You can check out his fitness and nutrition tips at WorldofDiets.com.

Usable Content: a Blogger’s Introduction

You’ve probably heard of usability. Back in the day, when the web was wild(er) and free(r), usability proponents like Jakob Nielsen encouraged site owners to stop doing things like displaying yellow text on black backgrounds, shun the Blink and Marquee tags, and focus on helping users do what they wanted to do on websites.

These days, usability is crucial to the success not just of blogs, but of online businesses—much of the information we read about reducing friction and improving sales pages, for example, is based on usability principles. So are the layouts of popular blog themes, online image albums and video players, and so on.

But we can go further than this, to look at the usability of our content. Content usability isn’t often talked about, but as content creators, bloggers should get their heads around this idea.

What is content usability?

Content usability focuses on making the information we publish as usable a possible to the users our blogs target.

content usability

Copyright Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com

An example: if your blog targets people with dyslexia or other reading and comprehension difficulties, you’ll tailor your content to their needs. That might mean tweaking your layout, avoiding certain color combinations, changing your default fonts, altering your writing style, and so on.

Another example: if you run a blog that’s focused on promoting special offers (like a deal-aggregation blog, for example), you’ll want to make sure that every aspect of your content is targeted to readers achieving the goal of taking up those deals. Maybe you’ll make the deal links stand out through color choice. Perhaps you’ll also provide the details of each deal in a sidebar so that users don’t need to scroll through your content to find the links. Perhaps you’ll pull out the key aspects of each deal into a “vital stats” list that appears at the top of every post, for the same reason.

As you can see, the notion of content usability is closely tied to your audience and your blog’s purpose. That said, there are some general usability principles that you should consider in formulating your content.

Principles of content usability

Aside from the most basic ideas of content usability—accurate spelling, good structure, and so on—there are a few content usability principles that bloggers often ignore.

Use consistent formatting

Darren’s provided some detailed formatting advice for bloggers, and formatting is a big deal for usability.

The real key to formatting usability is to use formatting consistently, so that headings of the same level are given the appropriate markup (second-level headings are all H2s, for example), emphasis is always used in the same way, and so on.

This matters for a range of reasons that aren’t limited to the fact that human beings are reading your blog posts—SEO and screen readers, for example. But at its most basic, formatting tells readers something about the nature of the content you’re presenting, and about its component parts.

If I use italics for emphasis here, and bold here, you may well become confused, even subconsciously. Why are those two items (they could be headings, or titles, or images, or buttons) presented differently? Are they different? Okay, so that formatting might not make my content unusable, but it does reduce its usability. How? By increasing confusion.

Don’t underline online text

Using underlines on web text wasn’t cool in Jakob’s day, and it’s still not—even though web design, and web users, have both come a long way since then.

In the good (or bad, depending on how you see things) old days, underlines on text were reserved for hyperlinks—that was the signal to web users that the text was linked to another resource. It still is on many sites, and many of us still regard an underline as the standard form of web link.

Underline your text without a link—for the sake of emphasis, say—and you’ll confuse more than a few of your readers.

Include links

The web offers us a great benefit over every other communications medium in that when we refer to something or someone, we can show readers what that is without breaking the flow of our engagement with them.

Let’s imagine I’m talking to you about content usability, and I want to mention readability, but I’m not sure if you know what that is. Instead of that nice, subtle link I just included in the previous sentence, I’d probably end up saying something like this:

“So, yeah, content usability includes factors like readability and … oh, so readability’s about how easy it is to read and take in—like, comprehend, really—your stuff. So there are these online tests that let you paste in your content and they’ll tell you how readable it is; they’ll give you a readability score that corresponds to school grades and—what’s that? Oh? You know about readability? Cool. So … what was I saying again? Oh yeah, content usability…”

The web offers us the ability to suggest further reading and deeper insight without breaking the flow of communication, or telling readers things they don’t want or need to know. Links make your content more usable, because they make it more useful. Links help your readers to achieve their goals through your blog. Don’t just mention brand names, individuals, or websites: link to the them. And link to them in a way that helps readers predict what they’ll get if they click on the link.

Use pertinent words and phrases

If your content is going to be useable for your audience, surely speaking to those readers is a big part of the communications picture.

You’ll notice here on ProBlogger that we refer to bloggers a lot. We frequently refer to your blog, your audience, and your niche, as these are all terms that are part of the blogging vocabulary, and we all understand what they mean. As a secondary term, we do refer to your site, but only to avoid repetition. First and foremost, we call ourselves bloggers.

This isn’t about SEO—although of course it helps. This decision is about talking to our audience in the terms you understand—terms that resonate with you. Another example: when I first started with ProBlogger I asked Darren specifically if he (and you) referred to your blog visitors as “readers.” This is standard terminology on this blog, but it wasn’t for other publications I’ve worked on.

This may seem like a minor issue. But imagine you read three articles on ProBlogger, and not one of them contained any mention of blogs or blogging or readers. Imagine if all they referred to was sites and end users. You might start to question whether the content was really suited to you and your needs. You’d probably wonder how applicable—or useful—it was to your situation.

Use the words your readers know, understand, and expect. And use them consistently, so users aren’t jarred by a proliferation of terminology. This will help to make your content more usable, though again your readers may not realize it consciously.

Use the most appropriate content form

Content isn’t just words—we have at our disposal diagrams, photographs, video, sound, and interactivity in various forms. Often, written content should take a supporting role. It’s up to us as bloggers to discern those moments, and to use the tags, captions, and other tools available to us to augment, rather than replace, the appropriate content form.

In all cases, we should make the most of those possibilities, even at a text level. If your blog post doesn’t fit into list format, don’t write it as a list post. If as you’re writing, you find that your post becomes a list, go back and make that clear in the title and opening paragraphs. Telling users what they can expect—and then meeting that expectation—is vital to usability.

Think laterally

I’ll admit that I can be a bit slow on the uptake as a web user. That’s not good, because I use the web a lot, and I get grumpy when things don’t go as I expect. I can think of plenty of examples, off the top of my head, where usability could be better.

Each of these examples arises as a result of the point I made above: that on the web, we, as bloggers, can link to resources. That’s the up-side; the down-side is that we, as readers and users, can get confused about what can be clicked on, and where it will lead. Very confused, in some cases.

Like Darren’s Workbooks page—I really want to be able to click on the book titles there! I was looking for a book there today (ProBlogger’s Guide to Blogging for Your Business). I scrolled down, found the title, clicked! …aaaand nothing. I had to go all the way to the scroll bar again, drag it down, and click on the link.

Can your blog’s users click on the things they expect to?

Or, take Google’s page header (it’s not a blog, but it deserves a mention). When I started using Google+ I had some questions and started looking for Help. I saw that little cog in the top-right corner, but I thought it provided access to my settings, not help. Even the page footer, standard location for Help and Privacy links, lacks a link to Help!

Help-less

I expected to see a Help link in this menu bar. Is that so wrong?

Does your blog clearly indicate what’s what, and what leads to where? You might need to do some user testing to find out the truth on this one.

And what about this shot from Copyblogger? This box appears at the bottom of Copyblogger’s right-hand sidebar. I don’t know about you, but I’m a lazy clicker. The box has one link. So (my whiny-teen-alter-ego whinges), why can’t I click anywhere on that box to access the link?

Why can't I click anywhere?

Copyblogger kudos box: not so clicky

Does your blog make users work harder than they need to?

These kinds of issues may require some lateral thinking—or some user testing—to uncover, but correcting them could make your blog, your newsletter, your sales pages, and your content in general, a whole lot more usable.

Making content usable

Okay, so people don’t talk much about content usability. But people who create content and publish it should have a firm grasp and consciousness of the concept and what it means for their users. We’re not always going to get it right, but we owe it to ourselves and our readers to strive constantly to improve content usability.

How can you do that? You could review some of your content using the ideas I’ve mentioned here, and see where you could make improvements. You could play around with wireframing software like mockingbird to create different presentations for your content. Perhaps you know a usability professional who you can speak to about the principles of usability—or you could just pick up a book on the topic at your local library. Once you get started, you might like to do some user testing to see if you are actually making your content more usable for readers.

If you need a little extra impetus, consider that in many cases, better content usability means better content reusability. Format your posts well, use reader-appropriate language, link wherever you can, and employ the appropriate formats for the message you’re delivering, and you’ll be much more easily able to repackage that content into a saleable format down the track.

How usable is your content? Are you conscious of usability as you write and prepare posts for publication? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Are You a Generous Blogger?

I know what you’re thinking.

“Of course! I’m a lovely blogger! I’m always giving stuff away—advice in my posts, free chapters from my ebook, whitepapers, time, and a whole swag of fun fun fun on my Facebook page!”

That’s great—and certainly generous—but what I’m talking about is something different.

A generous blogger is one who shares such valuable information that readers immediately start searching for their contact details.

  • In a blog post, we’re scrambling for the comments so we can thank them, and add our own thoughts.
  • After using their product, we head to their Contact page so we can let them know what a difference the information has made to us.
  • In a guest post, we’re scrolling frantically for the bottom of the post so we can find the author’s bio and check out their site, now!

As we consume their information, we find ourselves thinking, “This is amazing. Who is this person?”

A generous blogger doesn’t need to sprinkle their off-site content—comments on others’ blogs, Twitter replies, and so on—with links to their own blog: they freely provide information that’s so valuable it makes readers want to seek them out.

They explicitly ask for feedback and happily engage in hearty, thoughtful exchanges with readers.

And they encourage goodness—by alerting readers to All Things Good, not just their own thoughts or products, or programs they’re affiliated with.

Generous bloggers let their content and actions do the talking, while their easily findable bio, linked name (in post comments), or contact page lets readers get in touch, or get more information, if they’re interested.

Are you a generous blogger?

Does Fotolia Have Photos for Your Blog?

Do you use images in your blog posts? Most bloggers like to increase their posts’—and blogs’—impact with an image, and while I’m a die-hard textophile, I can see the point. An image is certainly more eye-catching than text. Couple the right image with the right heading, and you’re on fire.

Until recently, the only image resource site I’d used was stock.xchng. While I like the site and its offerings, sometimes, there’s slim pickings for particular image types. I prefer not to use CC-licensed images myself because some CC images can be used for commercial purposes, others can’t, and the image owners may change their minds, then ask you to take the image down … to be honest, it all seems like a lot of hassle to me.

I do work with a lot of content, so maybe that has something to do with my inflexibility on this point.

Fotolia: royalty-free stock photography

Recently we were contacted by Fotolia and offered a month-long trial of the service, which boasts a library of over 13 million images. There were some images that were unavailable within the trial, but in the month, I sourced 17 images. Only once did I find that an image I wanted to use was unavailable in that subscription—and it wasn’t hard to find a replacement that was just as good.

Fotolia offers photographs, vector images, and videos. The only option I used was images. To give you an idea of what’s on offer, I ran a little search on both Fotolia and stock.xchng for the keyword “handshake”.

Fotolia returned 17,913 results, and the selection was good.

stock.xchng returned 34 results, and the selection was … not as good.

Both sites allow you to roll over the images to see an enlarged, lightbox version of the pics. Both tell you on the results page what sizes are available, and when you view a specific image, both sites tell you how you can use that image—in Fotolia’s case, you’ll also find out the cost of the image.

Costs

Fotolia uses a credit system to sell images. The cost of each image depends on:

  • the size and resolution of the image
  • the license you choose
  • the image itelf—some images simply cost more than others.

If you’re planning to buy a stack of images, subscription plans are available which can see the images cost you “as little as $0.14 per image!”

Use and application

Fotolia offers two kinds of licenses:

“The standard license (from XS to XXL and the V license)

“This license allows you to use our images to illustrate magazine ads, websites, blogs, marketing campaigns, press articles, tv video or movies, book and book covers, documents, reports, presentations, etc. on all types of media with no limit on time or copies.

“The extended licenses (X to XV)

“This license allows buyers to use the image to create derivative products intended for resale or distribution where the value of the product is derived from the image (postcards, t-shirts ect.)

“Without limitation, you’ll be able to create mugs, t-shirts, posters, greeting cards, templates or other products, and sell them to your customers.”

This is a pretty big bonus over free stock images. stock.xchng doesn’t allow the resale of images—if you want to do that, you need to contact the creator through the site. That’s (likely) no big deal, but from an ease-of-use perspective, Fotolia makes this a no-brainer.

Image quality

Anyone who works with images knows that there are good stock libraries and bad stock libraries. Even I can tell that. Those who are really into design, marketing, and visual communication can pick very fine lines between what’s deemed “usable” and what’s not.

I’ve used a lot of images from stock.xchng over the last three years or so, and it’s pretty easy to tell the dross form the diamonds. Some amateur photographers are great and I’m always able to find something really good on the site.

While Fotolia returns many more results, and more polished images, for each search, I generally found the bulk of images to be a little too … posed. Or contrived. An image of a hand reaching out of a computer monitor, in particular, made me cringe (I think I was searching for “handshake” at the time). I still shudder when I think of it.

I just can’t get that image out of my head.

Seriously.

But let’s move on. On occasion, I did use what I felt were less-than-ideal images for want of anything better (one of these days I’m going to do my own photo shoot of a branding iron, no matter what it takes).

That’s not to say there weren’t some fabulous, fabulous photos on the site. And some of the less-polished, not-designed-for-an-ad-agency shots that I feel are more natural and speak more directly to real readers.

All in all, I’d say Fotolia had a great selection of images. I always found something I liked—and found it quickly.

Finding what you want

As a text fiend, I find search functions universally poor. However, the search on Fotolia was really very good. I had no complaints, which is saying something, and was pleased with the results I got every time, which is saying even more.

If you’ve used image sites before, you’ll know that it can take some intuiting to get the kind of image you want. So when I had to find a shot for Angela’s post on humor, I expected the worst. I’d have to say that I got some pretty unusable results on Fotolia, but with them, I also got some good results, and was extremely pleased with the image I chose. It was natural, not too posed, and comparatively low-key.

Choosing images is an extremely personal thing, though, and what I think is bad, you might see as great. All I can tell you is that I had better luck searching for tough keywords on Fotolia than I ever have elsewhere.

Is Fotolia worth it?

If you’re not earning money from your blog, I wouldn’t recommend spending cash on images. You can get good free photography through so many other sources—spend your money on something that translates directly to more readers.

If you are making money through your site, Fotolia is worth a look. You don’t need to be making millions, either. The images I bought cost US$0.33 each, and I downloaded 17 images during the trial, so all up, Darren would have been looking at $5.61 for three weeks’ worth of images here at ProBlogger. Not bad!

If you:

  • deal with a lot of content
  • don’t want to have to worry about licensing and permissions
  • want to spend as little time as possible making your posts look good
  • want to finish looking for images so you can [insert other, more interesting task here]

…then Fotolia could provide the answer.

Have you used Fotolia? What about other stock photography sites? Let us know how you manage imagery on your sites through the comments.

Is Blogger Copyright Dead?

If you’re reading this blog post anywhere other than ProBlogger.net, you’re reading an illegal rip of the original.

Content scraping—by automated programs that pull entire posts from your blog for republishing elsewhere—and autoblogging—where sites regurgitate whole articles from your RSS feed on their pages—are the most common content ripping practices. They are illegal.

Any reproduction of your content without permission is illegal (attributed quotes and brief excerpts aside).

There’s no two ways about this. If you made the content, you own it, and you have the right to say where it’s published.

copyright

Image by stock.xchng user Spiders

As an old-skool content creator, I’ve been astonished at the things I’ve heard and read in recent months on this topic, particularly among the blogging community. As content creators, it’s up to us to learn, understand, and, if needed, fight for our rights—and those of others. It’s your job to protect your copyright.

There seems to be a growing sense of despondency among bloggers either overwhelmed by the amount of content ripping, or so used to seeing it that they begin to question their understanding of the concept. This post intends to set those misunderstandings straight—and, I hope, to inspire you to protect your rights, and the things you create, as you see fit. And from an informed position, rather than one in which you feel you have no option but to suck it up.

First, I want to talk about some of the objections I’ve heard to copyright enforcement lately, and give a few rebuttals. Then I’ll outline what bloggers should do if they find their rights have been infringed.

The arguments against

I have to tell you, it surprises me that there are arguments against copyright enforcement, but here are some of the ones I’m hearing.

“It means more eyeballs for my content.”

Ripping my article onto another site may mean more people see it. But so would a well-penned piece that responded to, added to, or argued against my article, and linked through to it.

Come to think of it, that kind of article would likely attract more eyeballs than a straight rip, because the second type of blogger would likely be active in marketing his or her blog, unlike most blogs that simply rip content for the sake of having something to display alongside their ads. And we all know the search engines work actively to penalize such sites anyway.

“But it’s a really big, well-known site.”

So a Fortune-500 publishing company ripped your post, and sent you a truckload of traffic yesterday? See point one above: it’s still illegal, and had they had something intelligent to say about your content, you may have received even more eyeballs, and more lasting interest from a more qualified audience.

Frankly, big sites are the last ones who should either undertake or get away with illegal content reproduction. Today, a big site. Tomorrow? Well, what if you found your hard work was ripped onto shonky looking, ad-emblazoned, overtly cheesy, poor quality website?

To say it’s okay for a big, good-looking mega-blog to rip your content, but not for below-average Joe to do so on his design-by-the-cat, ad-swamped site isn’t just hypocritical: if you let one site rip your content, you send the signal that it’s okay for everyone to do it.

“I don’t mind if my site isn’t the exclusive location for my content.”

A guest post you’ve penned specially for publication on another, carefully-chosen site is one thing. Having others reproduce your content as they see fit, without your knowledge, is another.

Often, the sites that rip content rip it relentlessly: once they find an author they think is good, they’ll simply republish everything that person writes. Maybe so far they’ve “only” ripped three of your articles. This time next year, they may have republished them all. Is that still okay with you? I know it wouldn’t be with me.

Note: If you actively want others to reproduce your content freely, that’s great—but for the sake of those who don’t want ripping to become the norm, display a Creative Commons license notification on all your posts. That way, people who read that content on other sites will have some indication that what looks like a rip is actually legal and welcome.

Ripping remedies

So someone’s ripped your post? I say: take action. Given the fact that many people online actually think this practice is legal, I encourage you to take an active role in protecting your rights, rather than (as one blogger recently said to me) “shutting up and taking it.”

Each of these steps takes no more than five minutes. You probably won’t need to complete them all—I find a concise, direct, but respectful email to the offending site’s owner usually does the trick.

  1. Contact the website, point out the rip, explain that it’s illegal, and ask them to remove the offending content within 24 hours. Explain that you’ll contact their host if the content remains online.
  2. Perform a WHOIS search and find the site’s host. Prepare to contact them and submit a DMCA takedown notice if the ripped content is not removed from the site within 24 hours.
  3. Perform a Google search for your name, or the topic of your post. If you find the offending site in the results, report it as a “duplicate site” to Google.

Don’t badmouth the offending site on your blog. Don’t make snide comments on the ripped version of your post on their blog. Write to them, and wait to see what happens. Then take the steps above. This is the most dignified path.

Is it worth the effort?

Yes. You’re a blogger. Your content is your product. Seth Godin wouldn’t let anyone reproduce his latest book online. Why? Because it’s his product. He made it, and he deserves to make a living from it. You made your content, and you deserve to reap the rewards of those efforts.

Allowing others to rip your content without your permission:

  • sends the message that bloggers have no rights around how their content is used
  • perpetuates the growing ignorance of copyright among site owners
  • devalues your blog, and your content
  • devalues blogging and online content in general
  • is a violation of your legal rights as a creator.

An alternative approach

As I mentioned earlier, if you actively want others to reuse your content, you could publish everything with a Creative Commons note, signalling that your posts are free to be reused by others.

You might consider this option if, for example, you want to have your content seen by the largest number of people possible—a mass market, rather than a niche audience. Perhaps you’re selling products exclusively through your site, and you believe that spreading your content through Creative Commons is a good way to get access to a wide audience who will come to your site, see your product, and want to buy it.

In that case, you’ll want to consider:

  • your in-article linking and promotional strategy (to get those readers over to your blog and sales page)
  • a marketing plan for promoting your quality, freely available content to appropriate potential publishers
  • the implications of the possibility of having your articles appear on some less-than-reputable sites
  • the challenges you may face in targeting the right audiences through this strategy
  • the implications for your own site’s SEO, if it’s mistaken for one that published “duplicate content.”

What do you think? Is blogger copyright dead? Does your copyright matter to you? Do you enforce it? I’d love to hear your feelings on this topic in the comments.

5 Sales Email Myths that are Costing You Money

Recently, I worked with Darren on some sales content—including launch emails—for the release of a new product at DPS. That launch email was tested against another version written by a professional marketer in a split test before the launch. In (what was to me) a shock result, the email I’d written achieved:

  • 7.3% more opens (39.5% to 32.2%)
  • 4.8% more click-throughs (7% to 2.2%).

As we’ll see, this experiment busted five key sales email myths:

  1. Use call-to-action sales links in sales emails.
  2. We need to “sell” the customer on the product before they’ll click a link.
  3. A sales email should focus on a discount or offer.
  4. A sales email should overtly drive readers to action.
  5. Scannability is about bold font, bullet lists, and subheadings.

First up, let’s look at the email.

—-

Subject: Wish you could take Gorgeous Photos, Every Single Time? Now You Can

Body:

Wish you could take gorgeous photos, every single time? Now you can.

Photo Nuts and Shots is your comprehensive guide to creative photography. And for a limited time, you can get 25% off the cover price!

If you know your way around your camera, and you’re ready to harness practical techniques to take stunning, evocative images, this 100+ page ebook is for you.

Over 9 down-to-earth chapters, professional photographer Neil Creek will show you how to:

  • harness light to convey emotion
  • know the rules of composition … and when to break them
  • take the sharpest possible photo every time
  • adapt the camera’s exposure to produce the shot you want
  • master the concepts of shot perception, planning, and execution — in any setting
  • tap into your unique creativity to take evocative photographs that reach out to viewers
  • be the best photographer you can be.

For full details, visit our Photo Nuts and Shots page.

This lush, inspiring, practical guide normally retails for $19.99 but for a limited time, you can secure a copy for just $14.99.

That’s 25% off!

Of course, you’re protected by a 60-day money-back guarantee, so if you don’t feel this detailed ebook has helped you become a better photographer, you can get a full refund.

For more information, and to order your copy today, visit Photo Nuts and Shots info page.

Darren Rowse

PS: Order Photo Nuts and Shots in the next week and you’ll also go into the draw to win a brand new Canon EOS T2i SLR camera and lens.  But hurry, time is limited.

One thing you’ll notice is the aspirational nature of the selling point here. This was an aspirational product, being sold to people who had an ambition. Also, the DPS audience members aren’t new to the Web—they’re comfortable with technology and this medium.

The other email we tested used an offer-based subject line that promoted the launch discount. While discounts certainly appeal to customers, this example shows that a discount doesn’t always have the pulling power we think it will. What works best always depends on your audience.

This email contains a number of audience-specific techniques that I’m happy to discuss in the comments if you like, but in this post, I really wanted to focus on the broader techniques that I think helped give this email—and could give any sales email—a solid head-start in the response rate stakes.

1. Tie the opening to the subject line

The first sentence of this email is identical to the subject line. I don’t think that’s necessarily ideal, but I do think your email has an immediate hook if your subject line identifies your key selling point, and your opening answers that point.

As I’ll explain in a moment, this email does achieve that “answer” in its opening. But what do I mean by “answer”?

In this context, an answer isn’t necessarily an answer—to a question, for example—although it can be. An answer is a secondary piece of information that actively and substantially supports the proposition contained in your subject line. Look at a book’s chapters and you’ll see that their opening paragraphs directly relate to, explain, and/or support their titles. You’re aiming to achieve the same thing, but in a sentence.

So, for example, it would be much stronger to follow this email’s subject line with an aspirational opening sentence than an offer-focused opening sentence. Why? Because the selling point in this version of the email is aspiration. The opening sentence needs to reinforce that positioning whole-heartedly.

2. Make the first word count

The first word in this email is “wish”. It’s a present-tense verb, it directly reflects the selling point (aspiration), and it’s sweet and non-spammy. Wish? Who doesn’t have a wish?

I could have started with “Do you wish” or “Have you ever wished”, but those sentences just push that crucial word—wish—further and further away. We have micro-seconds to catch potential customers’ attention. We need to cut to the heart of the matter.

That first word is valuable in itself from a positioning point of view, but as we’re about to see, it has much greater value than this alone.

3. Link to the sales page

The first link to the sales page appears on the second line of the email. It’s an informational link containing the name of the product.

The other email we tested included its first link to the sales page in the fifth paragraph, and the link text was a call to action: “Order your copy here.” In fact, that email had two links, and used the same call to action in both. As you can see, the email above does not use call-to-action link text.

I think this points to a couple of common misconceptions about writing sales copy:

  1. The first is that a call to action is the appropriate form of link text in sales copy.
  2. The second is that a reader needs to be told things—that you need to “sell” them on your concept—before they’ll be sufficiently convinced to click on a link. I think most web users are more sophisticated than this. They trust their own opinions far more than yours or mine, and they know that clicking on a link is not a commitment to buy.

If you look glance at the opening of this email, you see two things: “Wish you…” and a link to Photo Nuts and Shots. I may be alone in my take on this, but to me, that says “Problem? Solution.”

4. Make it scannable

You knew this was coming, right? And yes, we included a list (every point starting with a carefully chosen verb, to communicate a benefit), a bolded discount offer, and an eye-catching post-script with a competition to generate immediate action.

But the other email we tested had all these “scannable” elements too. So what’s the difference?

I think scannability has evolved from the early days of subheads-and-bullet-list advice. As we just saw, at first glance, the opening contains a problem and a solution—even if the reader isn’t reading. This may sound extreme, but I’ll say it: the reader doesn’t really have to move their eyes to get that information.

If, as we know from research, readers’ eyes stray down the left of the display, then we should provide them with as much information as we can on the far left of the page. I am an extremely lazy online reader, so I know from personal experience that this makes a big difference to comprehension.

I think scannability comes right down to language choice and sentence structure. On the left-hand side of this email we see—even if we don’t consciously read them—the following words:

  • Wish you could
  • Photo Nuts and Shots
  • Over 9 down-to-earth
  • For full details
  • This lush, inspiring
  • That’s 25% off
  • Of course, you’re protected
  • For more information
  • Darren Rowse

This information combines to deliver:

  • acknowledgement of a problem
  • the name of the solution
  • a link
  • value: the book length (9 chapters; I used the number because it stands out more clearly in body copy than would the word “nine”) coupled with the size of the discount (also a number)
  • reassurance

The one thing to remember with this left-hand-side technique is that words in subsequent lines of the same paragraph may not display against the left-hand margin in the user’s email client. You really need to focus on first words of paragraphs with this technique.

5. Beginnings and endings

There’s another little scanning-related technique that I wanted to mention. Let’s look again at the list of benefits, which is probably one of the parts of any sales email that gets the most attention.

  • harness light to convey emotion
  • know the rules of composition … and when to break them
  • take the sharpest possible photo every time
  • adapt the camera’s exposure to produce the shot you want
  • master the concepts of shot perception, planning, and execution — in any setting
  • tap into your unique creativity to take evocative photographs that reach out to viewers
  • be the best photographer you can be.

I have this idea that we pay attention to the beginnings and ends of pieces of text. Take the middle sections out of these bullet points, and here’s the message you end up getting:

  • harness light …  emotion
  • know the rules … break them
  • take the sharpest … every time
  • adapt the camera’s … shot you want
  • master the … in any setting
  • tap into your …. reach out to viewers
  • be the best … you can be.

This applies to other pieces of text, too. Like the first two paragraphs:

Photo Nuts and Shots … 25% off the cover price!

If you know …  100+ page ebook is for you.

And the refund paragraph:

Of course … get a full refund.

So don’t just pay attention to the left-hand side of your content. Also pay close attention to the endings of each piece of text in your email.

Warning: oversell

This email did achieve a good response rate. However, the complaint rate on this email was higher than the other version we tested by 0.04%.

That’s a small percentage, and you’d probably say it was worth it, given the higher open and click-through rates.

Interestingly, Darren told me that the ebook’s author, Neil Creek, also voiced concern at the strength of the message in this email. When the email was mailed to the whole of the DPS userbase, the words “every single time” were removed from the subject line.

I have to admit that I was extremely impressed by the product itself, and that obviously came across loud and clear in my writing. But it makes an important point about word choice and expression. The bottom line seems to be, don’t go overboard, however enthusiastic you may feel about the product.

Rewriting the myths

After this experiment, here’s my take on the sales email myths I outlined at the start:

  1. Use call-to-action sales links in sales emails.
    Write your copy for the audience, and use what feels like natural link text. If it’s a call to action, fine. But it needn’t be.
  2. We need to “sell” the customer on the product before they’ll click a link.
    Some readers may need convincing, but many just want to look at what you’re selling for themselves. Don’t make them hunt for the link.
  3. A sales email should focus on a discount or offer.
    The focus of your email should be dictated by the audience’s needs.
  4. A sales email should overtly drive readers to action.
    You don’t need to use in-your-face techniques like call-to-action link text, repetition, and screamy sales lines (“Don’t miss out! Order now! Limited stock available!”) to get results.
  5. Scannability is about bold font, bullet lists and subheadings.
    Scannability is about paragraphs, sentences, and words as much as it is these presentation mechanisms.

How do you feel about these ideas? Do you think they’d work with your readers? What other suggestions can you add? Also, if you try some of these techniques and can share your results with us in the comments, we’d love to hear them.

Forget “Content Production”, Think “Idea Exploration”

Since I wrote about creativity, I’ve been considering the issue of getting inspiration for blog posts.

Some who commented on that article said they never have trouble finding post ideas. But others revealed that they really struggle with getting inspiration. Sometimes, they’re struck by it; other times, they have to go out and track it down bodily.

I’ve found that my approach has a lot to do with how many post ideas I have. I wanted to share my approach here, and see if you felt the same way, or take a different approach.

The production trap

The burden of having to “produce” content can be overwhelming to the point where it stops production altogether. Feeling that you need to “produce” to a schedule, or on a regular basis, can make you feel a bit like a machine, and make your content seem like an “output”.

If I take this approach, my writing can become mechanical, my posts formulaic, and my points vague and unfocussed. The last thing I want to be is a content sausage-factory, but if I take a “production” philosophy, that’s how I wind up feeling—and it shows in my content.

The exploration goldmine

The “production” approach doesn’t work for me, but the “exploration” approach does.

I find writing posts is a great way to explore the ideas that are on my mind. You probably started your blog because you have an interest in your blog’s topic. What aspects of that topic are on your mind? What elements are you curious about? What areas within that field annoy you, and why?

These kinds of considerations are precisely what inspire me to write. I look at what others are doing and saying and creating, and I reflect on that—maybe not immediately, with a pen in my hand and notebook open, but over time. I let these ideas, motivations, and questions filter, settle, and develop in my mind. They’re always there—we’re always thinking, right? Then, when something really starts to stick in my conscious, I write about it.

Your blog is the ideal place to explore those ideas that are rattling around your mind. Rather than “producing posts”, you might find it helpful to think of your blogging as an opportunity to:

  • formulate disparate thoughts into coherent concepts
  • advance your own theories
  • suggest alternative viewpoints or approaches that have occurred to you
  • see if your readers agree with a hunch you’ve got
  • invite readers to help shape your perception, idea, or viewpoint

This post is an example of exactly that. As I mentioned at the outset, this idea—of post writing being a way to explore and develop thinking on a topic—has been sifting through my mind ever since I wrote that post on creativity. There are many half-formed, embryonic ideas in my mind, as I’m sure there are in yours, and this one has finally surfaced as something that I wanted to get a second opinion on.

So here I am, posting about it, in the hopes that you’ll share your thoughts on using your blog to explore and develop ideas in the comments. I’d love to hear them!

Is Your Link Text Letting You Down?

How do you use links in your blog posts? Bloggers link to other online resources for many reasons: to give credibility to a claim, to provide additional information, to give credit to another person or institution, to allow users to easily follow a natural progression or procedure, and so on.

You could say that in-text links allow us to apply a degree of functionality to written content. If they’re used appropriately, links can achieve their goals without confusing—or losing—the user. They can also support a good search rank for your content. If they’re used poorly, they can frustrate users, undermine your credibility, or create gaping holes in your site, SEO efforts, or sales process.

When we’re talking about in-text links—links that aren’t part of your blog’s buttons or navigation—it’s important to remember also that the links aid scanning. Well-used links can boost your posts’ readability, as well as reader comprehension. While some argue that a scanner finding an interesting link will simply click away from your site, ending their engagement with your content, I’m not so sure. I have the feeling that’s only likely to happen if the user is looking for something specific and their scanning suggests that your content doesn’t provide the answer.

If, as I’m scanning, the page content looks good, and the links seem interesting, I’ll go back and start to read the page content itself. Often, scanning is used as a means to gauge the page’s value and relevance to the individual, so if your links’ text, which jump out at a scanner, doesn’t help to communicate the content’s value or relevance, you’re missing a golden opportunity to connect with readers at first glance.

So let’s look at the link text specifically. I’ve noticed three broad approaches to using text links:

  • the minimalistic approach
  • a call to action
  • the descriptive approach.

The minimalistic approach

The minimalistic approach links a single word—maybe two—to the external content, like this:

You can read my article on tutorials here.

There’s a variation of this approach which links individual words in a phrase to multiple, related examples or sources of the information being discussed:

I wrote a short series of posts on blog content-related issues.

You guessed it—I’m not a fan of the minimalistic approach. Firstly, for scanners, or those using screenreaders, the word “here” isn’t exactly indicative of what we’ll get when we click on that link.

In the second case, readers may not even realize that different words are linked to different sources—a number of web developers and content creators (i.e. heavy web users) I’ve spoken to over time have said they’ve never noticed this technique in use, even though I see it often. Perhaps they’re just not realizing what they’re seeing when they come across these kinds of links?

A call to action

Once upon a time, when the web was young and users weren’t always sure what was possible, there was a school of thought that said every link should involve the words “click here”, as in:

Click here to access Darren’s article on ProBlogger’s October income.

A scanner scanning this page would only notice the words “click here” in the above sentence, so they wouldn’t know how relevant (or otherwise) this content was to their interests. We could link the entire sentence, but again, that makes it difficult for scanning readers to discern the important information in those first, split-second glances.

The words “click here” do form a call to action, and are certainly justifiable in cases where we want readers to take action:

For all the details on the Copyrwriting Scorecard, click here.

But in cases where you have no vested interest in the reader clicking on the link, I think it’s best to avoid “click here”. These days, when web users know what a link is, and what it does, this kind of link text can be boring at best, and patronizing at worst.

If you believe that the words “click here” do actually create impetus in the reader to take that action, you’ll use “click here” sparingly, saving it for links that make a difference to your bottom line, rather than verbally encouraging users to leave your site every time you reference another source (which may be often).

The descriptive approach

The descriptive approach indicates to readers—and to scanners, screenreader users, and search engines—what they’ll get when they click on the link:

Darren explained this point in his article on ProBlogger’s October income.

To me, this approach seems appropriate, at least in any case in which you want to link to another page—on your site, on someone else’s—that doesn’t impact your bottom line. You may also choose to use it as a softer, more subtle sales link in cases where the content in which the link appears isn’t primarily related to the product you’re promoting.

Text link composition

There’s one last consideration we haven’t touched on yet: the composition of your text links. If you’re going to treat them, at least in part, as scanning aids, you’ll want to keep links short and pertinent. Try to include the description or title of the linked document in the link, and if you’re not using the document’s title, include the most important words at the beginning of the link.

Let’s look at this in practice. Here’s an actual sentence I wrote naturally as part of a blog post critiquing infographics:

This one, revealing how teens use cell phones, hints at some of the informational problems that can arise when researchers focus on the form, rather than the function of infographics.

My immediate inclination is to link the words, “This one”, but of course that’s not very informative for scanners, since it doesn’t make sense out of context. I could link the phrase “revealing how teens use cell phones,” but that’ll make the words “This one” look weird in context.

What if I changed the word “one” to “infographic”? We could have a winner—although the words “This infographic, revealing how teens use cell phones” will make a very long link. This revised version provides a nice compromise:

This teen cell usage infographic hints at some of the informational problems that can arise when researchers…

This version would also work in cases where the nature of the linked content (infographic) wasn’t as important as what it was delivering (information on how teenagers use cell phones): it puts the information first—catching scanners’ attention—and the content type last.

Link text is important, don’t you think? Do you spend time honing your in-post links to communicate clearly with your readers? What tips can you share?

5 Tips for Creating a Truly Valuable Tutorial

The notions of pillar and evergreen content aren’t exactly news to bloggers—we know that’s where we have some of our best shots of nurturing rapport and loyalty, and building repeat readership. It follows, then, that we should hone our pillar-content-writing skills.

Today I wanted to look at a key type of pillar content: tutorials. Many blogs post tutorial content in some form or other, even if it’s not labeled as such. We recently published a tutorial on Facebook albums here at ProBlogger, and if your blog is one that gives advice, you’ve probably penned a tutorial or two in your time.

The next time you’re writing a tute, apply these tips and see if they make a difference to the quality and value of your pillar content.

1. Set the tutorial’s deliverables.

Setting the tutorial’s deliverables isn’t about working out what you want to say: it’s about working out what your audience wants to know. So you think a tutorial on pruning basics will be good pillar content for your gardening blog? Great. Your starting point should be your readers: what do they know about pruning? What types of plants are they pruning? Do they have any experience with pruning? What kinds of content will help them: diagrams, videos, or descriptions?

Approach your tutorial from the perspective of your blog’s users and you’ll be able to easily—and accurately—identify what the tutorial’s deliverables should be. For example, you might focus this tutorial on fruit-tree pruning for novices—people who have never pruned a fruit tree in their lives. Your deliverables, or goals, are that by the end of the tute, your readers feel confident to go outside and prune a fruit tree in their garden. They’ll know what tools they need, and they’ll know exactly what they need to do to prune the tree for maximum productivity next season.

2. Structure the content.

Next, plot out your tutorial roughly. You might start by listing the key concepts users will need to understand, and planning out a logical flow of content that introduces those concepts, then builds on them with practical application-related information.

What you’ll end up with is likely a series of steps. Make these into headings and subheadings within your tutorial. Make them numbered headings if they all have a place in the logical flow of the information, and if you like, attach a word like “step” or “stage” or task” to each one. Make your subheadings as prescriptive and unambiguous as possible, and create for each a statement that indicates clearly what information will fall in each section. For our pruning tutorial, the first heading might be, “Step 1: Prepare Your Pruning Tools.”

Also consider the types of content you’ll use to communicate with your users. You might use images to illustrate some points, and videos to show others. Identify where you’ll need specific information types at this point, before you begin writing, since this is probably the time when you’re at your most objective about what methods of presentation will work best for your tutorial’s audience—and make your pillar content truly invaluable.

3. Use word flags consistently.

Every topic has its own language. Sometimes, that language can degenerate into jargon, but it’s fair to say that if you’re teaching readers something through a tutorial, there’s probably some topic-specific language they’ll need to understand. For the pruning tute, that language might include words like:

  • secateurs, saw, shears
  • bud, spur, leader
  • challis, cordon
  • espalier, train, pleach

As you write the tutorial, be prepared to introduce each term as you need to within the logical flow of information you planned. You might decide to italicize the first instance of each word, then provide its definition immediately afterward. Do this consistently, and your readers will understand that every time they see an italicized term, it’s something they need to learn. They’ll also know to expect a definition. The italics will make it easy for them to find the definition again if they forget it later in the tutorial; the definitions must be provided consistently to make your italicizing worthwhile, and your tutorial clear.

This way, your topic-specific terms become word flags for readers: once they read your definition of pleaching, and understand what that is, they’ll more quickly comprehend the information in your tutorial—and the rest of your blog—that builds on this concept. So don’t go interchanging the word “pleaching” with “training” or “shaping”. That negates the value of your word flags, and undermines the comprehensibility of the content itself. Once you’ve explained a topic-specific term, use it accurately and consistently everywhere.

4. Explain images and downloads.

When you planned the tutorial, you worked out the places where different types of content might best be used to make particular points. For example, a picture of secateurs will probably communicate more clearly to our would-be pruning buffs than would a wordy description of the tool.

Whenever you include a type of content that’s different from the primary content type your tutorial employs, explain it clearly. Don’t include images, sound files, PDFs, or other downloads without explanation—and make those explanations detailed and as clear as you can. If this kind of extra information creates confusion, you’ll lose those very readers you’re trying to help.

5. Show how you delivered on your promises.

Remember the old essay-writing advice: tell them what you’ll say, say it, then tell them what you said? That advice applies very strongly to tutorials. Your tute’s subheadings clearly identified what users would learn in each section of the content. Its introduction should set out exactly what the user will learn from the tutorial, and its conclusion should show how the tutorial delivered on those promises.

Your introduction might explain what readers will learn—what need the information addresses or problem it solves—in broad terms, seeing as they may not have the necessary topic-specific language to get into detail just yet.

The ideal conclusion goes much further, though: it reiterates the actual flow of the information you presented and shows how that addresses the need or problem you identified in the tutorial’s introduction. It basically explains to the reader how your tutorial solves their problem—and justifies for them the reasons why this pillar content is valuable, and worth bookmarking, sharing, commenting on, and favoriting.

I think these are the basic prerequisites of a great tutorial. What others can you add?