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You Have a Niche! You Just Don’t Know It Yet

This guest post is by Heather Eigler of HomeToHeather.com

Yes, you do have a niche. You’ve likely read it a thousand times on blogs about blogging. Two of the number one pieces of advice are ‘choose your niche wisely’ and ‘write what you know.’

So what if you aren’t wise and don’t know anything? What could you write about that qualifies as a niche? And what does having a niche do for you anyway?

Having a niche has its benefits

Your niche gives you focus. It gives you identity and purpose. A blog with no niche is like a magazine with no cover model. The model on the cover of a magazine tells readers instinctively what they are likely to find on the interior pages. A fashion model indicates articles about celebrities and shopping can be found inside. An athlete tells us we can likely learn how to improve our golf swing.

The same goes for blogs. A niche is our version of a cover model. We include it in our headers, our buttons, our posts and our SEO. Readers who land on our page will instinctively know what the blog is about—if we’ve done our jobs well.

There are blogs about food and blogs about cameras. Blogs about travel and blogs about sports. But what if you just write about your everyday life? What if there is no core subject matter and your blog is a grab bag of this and that.

What can you do then?

You have a pre-made, bona fide, built in niche

Yes, you do! It’s your location. Everyone lives somewhere. And there are other people who live where you do who might be searching for information on local events or restaurant reviews. And there are many people who don’t live where you do who might be interested in visiting someday … but how would they know if they can’t come across anything on the web that tells them what a great place it is?

When I rebranded my site, HomeToHeather.com, to be more of a personal blog, I knew that I was going to have issue expanding my readership because of my content—it’s a mom blog. Only so many people are going to want to read about my kids
and they certainly aren’t going to surf in from search engines to do so. Yes, I write about other things, too—like blogging and products.

I’ve had a small bit of success with traffic from StumbleUpon but not enough to keep the site growing. Since I live in a fairly large, dynamic city I decided that incorporating a local slant could be my niche. So I started incorporating a few posts here and there about Calgary. I added my city to my title tags and banner. Then I sat back and watched my stats to see if anyone arrived via search.

And they did.

What topics can you take local on your blog? How about:

  • events
  • restaurants
  • parks
  • wildlife
  • sports
  • local celebrities
  • local schools, clubs, and associations
  • tourist info.

If they’re talking about it, they’re Googling it

What’s going on right now that people are talking about? Read through your paper and write a post on the opposite view on a major topic. What are people talking about at work? Write about it.

I get a smattering of Google traffic every day for phrases such as Calgary Daycare, Calgary Blog or Calgary mom blog. I’ve attended a few events as a “local blogger” and have had one or two advertising inquiries from local
businesses. The new local focus is working and I’m excited about what’s next for me.

While HomeToHeather is still a small blog—very small, I am slowly working my way towards establishing a local readership, with local content. It’s a great way to round out the rest of my more random posts about blogging, motherhood and creativity. So try it yourself and take advantage of your built in niche—you never know where it will take you.

Have you done any local posts on your blog? Could this technique work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Heather lives, parents and blogs in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Grab her rss feed for more posts on local blogging.

Social Media … or Social Blogmarking?

This is a guest post by Devesh of Blokube.

What is “blogmarking”? Many of us already use and understand social media, but very few of us tap into the great and growing potential of social blogmarking sites.

Blogmarking is the process of you bookmarking your blog post on a blog bookmarking site. Blogmarking can also be referred to as blog bookmarking.

How blogmarking works

The blogmarking process involves you writing a post on your blog, looking for a great and active blogmarking site, and then submitting your post to the blogmarking site.

Your post will be ranked on the site based on the number of votes it gets from users. If your post has a great title there is every chance that it will get a lot of eyeballs. If it’s good, it’ll likely get a lot of votes, and moved to the front page of the blogmarking site.

While blogmarking works just like social bookmarking, the concept is different. A social bookmarking site is highly influenced by power users who determine which posts can be promoted to the homepage. Most of these power users have been on the site since its inception, and they read and work on the site rigorously. It’s not easy for just anybody to become a power user.

The concept of a social blogmarking site is different from this, as any post can be promoted to the front page on the basis of the votes it receives from site users. If you’re not familiar with blogmarking, here are a few blogmarking sites:

Social media … or social blogmarking?

There are many ways to spread the word about your blog while building stronger relationships online. Currently, the key most popular options are social media sites. So let’s look more closely at the pros and cons of social media sites in comparison to social blogmarking sites.

Social media sites

You’re undoubtedly familiar with social media sites and are using them to promote your blog. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and so on, allow users to create a profile, providing photos, website links, biography information, and a host of other personal details.

To get solid traffic from social media sites, you usually have to be very active on those sites, and that can take lot of time.

Advantages of social media sites

First, let’s look at some advantages of social media sites.

They’re open to anyone: A major advantage of social media sites is that they’re open to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a new blogger or you’re already established, you can easily open an account on any social media site you love, and you can begin to interact with others immediately.

They foster community: Social media sites also encourage discussion and community interaction—that’s the main reason why they were established. Take Facebook as an example: a lot of your high school/college friends probably have a Facebook account and you can easily get in touch with them through the site. Another community-related advantage of social media sites is that they encourage personal discussions and people will be encouraged to discuss and interact with you if they know a lot about you as a person.

Disadvantages of social media sites

Even though making use of social media sites has strong advantages, it also has disadvantages.

They can help build relationships and brand loyalty, but take time and dedication: If you observe how marketing is done on social media sites you will notice that influence matters. Those with bigger audiences, greater popularity, and stronger reputations will have more success with social media sites than those of us who don’t. Social media sites also require you to spend a lot of time building your profile, especially if you’re a new blogger, and even though the results you will get will be great, this takes considerable time.

They’re littered with ads and spam: Another major problem with social media sites is that they can be havens for spammers, and many are laden with ads. Since it’s very easy to join social networks, a lot of people who are just using the site for spamming purposes join, and this can lead to a lower-quality service.

Social blogmarking sites

Social blogmarking is the process of submitting your blog content to social voting sites and blogging communities.

Many bloggers don’t utilize the power of social blogmarking yet, but it’s a great way to get traffic and connect with other bloggers.

Advantages of social blogmarking sites

They’re less time-consuming than social media sites: A major advantage of social blogmarking sites is that they tend to consume less time than social media sites. It doesn’t matter if you’re a new or established blogger, you have an equal opportunity to gain exposure. What matters most when trying to get attention for your blog is not your influence or reputation, but the title of your post and its content.

They help you connect with other bloggers in your niche: Another great advantage of social blogmarking sites is that they allow you to get in touch with other bloggers in your niche. Since these sites are mainly used by bloggers (where social media sites are used by a much broader audience) they make it easy for bloggers to get more targeted traffic. For example, I notice that I get more links to my articles when I submit them to social blogmarking sites because most people reading my content there are bloggers, and they’re more likely to share it on their blogs if they like it.

They allow users to comment and vote on their favorite articles: Another major advantage of social blogmarking sites is that they allow people to comment on blog posts through commenting systems like those we see on everyday blogs. It’s also easier for bloggers to connect with others using this feature.

They’re a great way to share favorite blog bookmarks: Social blogmarking is a great way to share your favorite blog posts with friends, family members, and your readers. Content can easily get lost in the social media space but with blogmarking it’s easy to share your content with other people who care about your blog.

They champion quality content: If your main aim as a blogger is to find quality content to link to, or you’re a reader who wants to read more about a niche subject, social blogmarking sites are highly effective because they are always moderated. The quality of the blog posts you’ll find there is usually high, and the sites are spam-free.

Disadvantages of social blogmarking sites

They’re very specific: The major disadvantage of social blogmarking sites is that they’re very specific, and they don’t yet have broad appeal among general or mass audiences. For example, most of the current blogmarking sites focus on blogging tips and making money online, so it’s often difficult for bloggers in other niches to make effective use of these sites.

They’re not well-known yet: Social blogmarking is a relatively new concept, so although social blogmarking sites are growing their audiences, the concept hasn’t yet gained the same traction that social networking sites have achieved.

Getting started with social blogmarking

Social blogmarking has its drawbacks, but it also offers a lot of advantages. You don’t have to have a high profile or a huge following to succeed at social blogmarking.

Have you tried social blogmarking? Where do you think this field is heading in future? Feel free to share your views in the comments.

Devesh is young entrepreneur and author of Blokube, a social voting site for Bloggers and Intenet Marketers. Follow him @blokube and join Blokube on Facebook.

Time Management for Travel Bloggers … and Others

This guest post is written by Matthew Kepnes of Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site.

While I hate the name, I am, to some degree, a digital nomad. I spend my time traveling the world and working as I go. By that very definition, I’m a digital nomad. But unlike most other digital nomads, I don’t move to a city for a few months, live and work there. I run a travel blog so I’m constantly on the move. In fact, my life would be a lot easier if I stayed in one place. That’s why the issue of time management is so important to me.

Balancing life and travel is a hard task when you’re constantly being pulled outside for activities, while the demands of running your own business keep you inside.

As a traveler who makes a living by building and publishing travel websites, I’ve found that the web can be all-consuming: it’s easy to spend hours or even days online. There’s always work to be done. The Internet will take as much as you give it. Conversely, it’s easy to get off track and “play” too much. Meeting new people and traveling to new destinations often becomes more important than work. It was hard for me to strike a good balance between the two for some time. I worked too much and I traveled too much, so something always suffered.

Meshing travel and work into a manageable and fulfilling lifestyle is an art. If you are going to have a travel blog, you are going to eventually need to travel and blog at the same time. A some point you’re going to need to find a way to balance work and travel if you want to be a successful travel blogger.

Time management involves a lot of trial and error, and I have had to learn how to balance conflicting demands. I’ve been pulled in many different directions, and it has taken a lot of discipline to balance my work and life. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over my years of travel is that it’s important to set specific times for work. You have to force yourself away from the computer, otherwise “a few more minutes” can easily turn into a few more hours. Over the years, though, I’ve developed a few strategies that help others manage their time more efficiently on the road.

Check email once a day

It’s easy to get distracted by incoming email. I increase my productivity by scheduling specific times to check my email. Nothing is ever so urgent that it can’t wait a few hours. If you’re always checking email, you are going to be constantly distracted and not as productive as you could be.

Know when you are productive

My most productive hours are in the mornings and late afternoons before I go out. That’s when I do my best work. By scheduling work when I’m most productive, I get the most done and then I don’t have to worry about anything else.

Avoid tourist times

This point continues the one above. As a traveler, you want to be out, traveling and doing stuff. You don’t want to be working all day. Avoiding work during the day is important. Museums, tours, activities—they all occur when the sun is up, and that’s when you should be out too. Working the late afternoon or early morning will still give you time to see the sights.

Set a time limit

I set a time limit for work and tasks. If I force myself into a time constraint then I have to work during that time. It’s a mental trick, but it works. This works even better when you’re traveling with other people. You don’t want to make them wait!

Create a task list

It can be easy to get into work or forget about important tasks. I find that creating a list of tasks helps me to focus my efforts and increase my productivity. I like to break the list up into daily tasks. Once I finish a day’s work, I go out and play, and I don’t feel like there is still more to do.

Compartmentalize

Another trick I find helpful in balancing the workflow is to create day tasks. For example, Monday is my writing day, Tuesday is photo day, Wednesday is a random task day. By further breaking up the work into more manageable pieces, I spend less time getting stressed out and going, “Oh! I have so much to do!”

Shut off social media

Twitter and Facebook are the most distracting tools ever invented. I love them both and constantly use them, but when I am working I shut them off. If I don’t, I spend too much time chatting with friends on Facebook or reading tweets, and my productivity suffers for it.

Learning to balance work and travel—or blogging and the rest of your life—is a hard task that everyone has to work on. You can better balance work and play, however, by training yourself to lead a disciplined life and by having good time management skills. I didn’t learn these lessons right away, and I’m still not all the way there yet, but I’m getting there. What are your time management secrets? I’d love to hear them!

Matthew Kepnes has been traveling around the world for the past four years. He runs the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site and has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian UK, AOL’s Wallet Pop, and Yahoo! Finance. He currently writes for AOL Travel and The Huffington Post For more information, you can visit his Facebook page or sign up for his RSS feed.

5 Fast Tips to Improve Internal Links

This guest post was written by James Hay, Social Media Coordinator for Fasthosts Internet Ltd.

Playing to your strengths is an important part of SEO, and before going out and spending all day endlessly pursuing external links, it is important to look at your own site.

You control what is displayed on your site and the SEO tips below provide a number of ways to increase your rank strength and improve your blog’s internal link architecture.

Just in case you’ve not come across the phrase “Internal Linking” before, here’s a quick definition from SearchPath:

The process whereby words or phrases within a web page are linked to other pages in the site. Internal links are considered important in SEO terms, as they are often spidered and displayed by Google.

So here are my top five tips to help you improve your internal link architecture.

1. Use keyword-relevant anchor text

Ensure that the keyword(s) you’re trying to get ranked for is used as your anchor text (the text within the link). For example, if the phrase you are trying to get ranked for is “Internal Links”, and the page you want people to find for that phrase is your article “Guide to Internal Linking”, then use that phrase as the anchor text for your link. The search engine spiders will then understand what your target page is about, and it will increase the content’s ranking strength for that phrase.

2. Use absolute URLs

Although there is no empirical evidence to say that search engines spiders prefer absolute URLs (i.e. http://yourdomain.com/pagetitle.html) over relative URLs (i.e. /pagetitle.html), it is good practice to use absolute URLs. It help spiders determine exactly where the page is located on your site, and if your content gets copied, then at least the links will point back to your website.

3. Improve your site’s speed

The speed at which your pages load certainly affects your page rank. I recommend using Google Webmaster Tools and adding a sitemap to your blog. You can then look at your site performance and how quickly your pages load. Google seems to regard 1.5 seconds or less as a good load time. Compress any large images and refine unnecessary code to help speed up your site.

4. Use text menus

Although search engines are improving all the time, the search engine spiders still have difficulty crawling non-text navigation menus. It is advisable to use text menus rather than those that require Flash or JavaScript.

5. Clean up your links

It’s important to keep in mind that search engine spiders love to move freely and quickly through your site, which is why I’ve provided the tips above. But one thing that spiders really dislike is hitting a dead-end, and broken links are the cause of this. The Google Webmaster Tools can also identify broken links on your blog. Go through those links and either remove them, or change the anchor text and redirect the link to a valid page.

These are my top tips for improving internal links on your blog. What others can you add?

This article was written by James Hay, Social Media Coordinator at Fasthosts Internet Ltd and the main contributor to the Fasthosts Blog which provides advice on everything from B2B Marketing to Social Networking.

5 Ways Facebook’s Discussions App Will Make You a Better Blogger

This guest post is by Tommy Walker, Online Marketing Strategist and owner of Tommy.ismy.name.

“Build a community.” You hear it all the time. “Comment on other people’s articles, guest post, and join the conversation.”

One of the problems with the way most online communications systems are set up is that they’re top-down in nature. A blog requires posts before people can comment, Facebook’s Pages require updates if they’re to stand out in the News Feed … the list goes on and on.

And while these methods are essential to community building, getting more comments or tweets or Facebook shares on an article is not an act of community building. You’re building a successful broadcasting platform—sure—but broadcasting to a bunch of people is not community.

Community isn’t defined by a high number of comments, either. Community is defined by the conversation that’s happening between the people leaving comments.

If you want to be an authority, creating killer content is only the first step. A true leader has the ability to embed ideas, spark conversation, and inspire others to rise to the occasion. The next step is to give those you inspire the resources to communicate with each other about the ideas you’ve implanted.

This is where the Facebook Discussions Application comes in.

The Discussions App

1. Facilitate lateral communication

Think of Facebook’s Discussions Application as a poor man’s forum. While it lacks the ability to share photos, link with anchor text, or even give users a signature, it does one thing that’s vital to community building: it allows members to communicate with each other.

Find a healthy balance of topics that you can discuss, and invite readers with whom you have a relationship to start topics on their subject of expertise to help out. Topics can be started by any person who “likes” a Page—they don’t have to be started by the Page administrator.

At first, it’s likely you’ll have to get people into the habit of checking the Discussions tab through status updates, because conversations in the Discussions Application are not published to the News Feed. However, once you’ve got people communicating with each other, your Discussions application will take on a life of its own.

2. Have exclusive conversations

Have a favorite book, tool, or other secret weapon that you’d like to talk about, but it doesn’t quite fit into your content calendar?

Instill a sense of comfort among your community members that encourages them to start conversations that apply to their specific situations. Use the Discussions App to share resources with your community and keep the information exclusive. In other words don’t tweet it, post it on youtube, or blog about it: keep it exclusive to the Discussions tab.

Of course anyone can “like” your Page and gain access to it, but the idea here is to keep little gems tucked away so your loyal and most active readers gain a feeling of exclusivity.

3. Field questions

If all of your content surrounds a specific theme, but a member of your community has a question about something else you’ve established your authority on, the Discussions Application is a great place for them to have a side conversation with you.

One of my clients runs a regional restaurant chain. Fans of their Page frequently use the Discussions App to ask questions about a new stores opening in their area, vegan/vegetarian friendly food, and upcoming events.

Hubspot, an online marketing agency and technology firm, sees frequent queries on their Discussions tab ranging from questions about their products and reports to blog-and-website-101 type questions.

By encouraging your community to ask questions in this setting, you do two things:

  1. If they’re asking a Frequently Asked Question, you can address it in a public setting so others may be able to see it.
  2. You make it possible for other members of your community to show their expertise on a particular subject.

Of course, sometimes not everyone will agree on a particular answer, which brings us to our next use for the Discussions App.

4. Discuss incendiary ideas

Can’t we all just get along? Well, quite honestly sometimes the answer is just plain “No!”

Discussions can be a great tool to either spark or facilitate debates on incendiary topics. Sometimes when a conversation has the heat turned up on it, people come out with their best stuff, so every now and again bring up a topic on which you know people will have opposing and strong viewpoints.

Just a word of warning, though: a good debate can bring a community together—or tear it apart. Your job as the authority is to keep debates respectful and to prevent people from crossing the line.

5. Extend the conversation

Don’t let the conversation die simply because it gets buried in the News Feed. Start a topic in Discussions to extend the conversation further.

One of the perks of being a Page administrator is that all participants of a comment thread are notified when you respond to that thread.

So let’s say for example you publish a status update that, for one reason or another gets a ton of feedback. Chances are that the conversation won’t die simply because it’s no longer interesting. More likely, they’ll die because it’s no longer visible.

Why not start a Topic on the Discussions tab to allow members to continue the conversation? Though the conversation won’t be published to the News Feed, it does bring people a little deeper into the overall experience, giving more meaning to your relationship. Also, depending on the topic, the thread could become a resource that you can link to from time to time.

These are my preferred ways to use the Discussions App to build community around a blog. Have you tried the Discussions App yet? What tips or advice can you add?

Tommy is an Online Marketing Strategist and owner of Tommy.ismy.name. He is about to release Hack The Social Network, the ultimate guide to Facebook Marketing, and is currently developing a “mind hacking” course.

How to Create a Membership Program that Rocks

This is a guest post by Mary Jaksch of A-List Blogging Bootcamps.

Many bloggers dream of adding a membership program to their blog. And with good reason. A membership program can create raving fans, will make your blog stand out, and can even create a great revenue stream. But most membership programs fizzle out because the creator made one or more of five critical mistakes in creating and running it.

In the last couple of years I’ve set up two successful membership programs, the A-List Blogger Club, with over 800 paying members, and the free Goodlife ZEN Fitness Challenge, with over 350 members. And I’ve helped quite a few bloggers to plan and set up successful membership programs. I’ve learned what works, and which mistakes to avoid.

Initial questions

Before I share my tips with you, let’s consider a few important questions.

Is creating a membership program really worthwhile?

A membership program is a lot of additional work for a blogger, so it’s important to think carefully before you establish one. The upside is that a membership program boosts a sense of community on your blog, creates goodwill, and can be a great source of income. The downside is that it’s hard work to maintain a membership site. In other words, you have to work your backside off in order to make it a success.

Paid or free?

Whether you want to create a paid or unpaid membership is a decision you need to make before you start. It’s hard to convert a free program to a paid one without losing most of your members. If you are dead keen on starting a free program, make sure you have a plan of how to monetize it in the future. Otherwise, it will become a drag on your time and energy. (You’ll find some suggestions on how to monetize a free program further down).

What’s your offer?

If you want to create a paid membership program, you need to make a crushing offer in order to get people to join. And you need no-brainer benefits in order to get people to stay.

If you start a paid program, just creating a forum isn’t enough. If you offer some kind of training as well, you’re off to a good start. Because people expect information on the Internet to be free, and they don’t want to spend money in order to just bitch and moan about their life on a private forum. But many are willing to pay for new skills.

For example, for membership of the A-list Blogger Club (which Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and I run jointly) we offer free access to any future A-list Blogging Bootcamps, as well as to all the material of past Bootcamps. Members get a monthly interactive masterclass, plus members-only monthly training seminars. All this for an under-the-radar price of $20 a month. Members regularly tell me that we’re giving away too much. True. It’s our intention.

How can you over-deliver?

Take-home tip: offer “too much” for a price that’s “too low”. It’s not enough to have a crushing offer. There are some important pitfalls you need to avoid if you want to create a successful program. I’ve sighed over many new programs that were doomed to fail, just because the blogger made one of the following mistakes.

5 Critical mistakes that can kill your program

Mistake #1: There isn’t enough momentum

You need momentum in order to start a membership program. That is, you need a bunch of people who are ready and eager to join. I reckon that you need at least 50 members in order to make it work. If you have less than that, the program will most likely fizzle out. Nobody likes hanging out in a dead forum where zilch happens.

When Leo and I started the A-List Blogger Club after our first Bootcamp, we started with 45 members. The first month was touch and go because we had barely enough momentum. I used to post on the forum about ten times a day, just to keep the thing alive. Then, as soon as we hit over 100 subscribers, the forum burst into life.

When I created the Fitness Challenge on Goodlife ZEN, Leo Babauta suggested creating a forum so that members could report how they exercise each day. Over one hundred readers had expressed that they wanted to join the Fitness Challenge in comments on my introductory post. So, from day one, I had over 100 members in the program. Now numbers have swelled to over 350 and the forum is a lively place.

Make sure you have at least 50 people who will start your program from day one.

Mistake #2: You start because you think it’s a good idea.

Many bloggers tell me that they want to start a membership program. I applaud the idea in principle. But warn that it’s not you, the blogger, who needs to think it’s a good idea. Your readers or participants need to clamor for an ongoing program. My suggestion is to create something on your blog that creates a buzz – and only then start a program.

Let me give you an example: Project 333—which was started by Courtney Carver of Be More With Less—is the kind of project that’s begging for a membership program. The project is about creating a wardrobe with only 33 items that you can live, work and play in for three months. The project has had a huge buzz on Facebook, and Courtney is now developing the project on her blog. I see that her latest post about the project has over 100 comments. That’s a sure sign of enough momentum for starting a membership program.

Mistake #3: Your program lacks clear benefits.

You need to give prospective members a good reason to join. I’ve seen a lot of limp programs especially in the self-development field that offer this kind of “benefit”: This program is a place where you can share your journey of development. Boring, right?

What’s important here is to think about what aspirations members share. Common aspirations are the glue that holds members together. For example, fans of Project 333 want to experience practical minimalism, the participants of the Goodlife ZEN Fitness Challenge want to get and stay fit, and the members of the A-List Blogger Club want to become better bloggers.

Once you’ve got the handle on the common aspiration, it’s easy to formulate clear benefits. Just make sure you don’t use what copywriter Clayton Makepeace calls “faux benefits”, that is, features masquerading as benefits.

Mistake #4: You let spammers and ranters into your forum

People who join a membership program get hacked off if they read spam comments in the forum. To scan the forum for spam is one of the necessary tasks of maintaining a good program. Make sure that only registered forum users can post. And assemble a group of moderators to help you with the task of keeping your forum clear of spam and rants.

Set the culture of the forum by responding in a friendly, supportive way to comments. Create guidelines and make sure members adhere to them. If you get nasty people in your program, don’t hesitate to give them a warning, and block them if they continue to flaunt your guidelines.

Mistake #5: You pluck a name out of thin air.

I’m often amazed at the names bloggers come up with for their programs. Take a name like “Cut Your Coat”. You might think that “Cut Your Coat” is a dress-making program. Wrong. It’s about self-development—but who would have thought that?

Make sure that the name of your program clearly states what it’s about. The purpose of the program needs to be self-evident. If you need to explain the name, bin it immediately.

How to monetize a membership program

The best way to monetize a free program is to create digital products that are tailor-made for your ‘captive’ audience. For example, I’m in the process of creating ebooks and podcasts about fitness and motivation for the Fitness Challenge at Goodlife ZEN. The key is to create products that can help your members to participate successfully in the program.

If you run a paid membership program, you can create courses or digital products to sell to your members. Survey your members to find out which relevant skills they would like to develop.

How to set up a membership program

Setting up a free membership program is easy. All you need to do is to add a forum to your blog. I use the free WordPress plugin Simple:Press. It may not the best forum software, but it’s easy to install, and it preserves the appearance and branding of your blog.

If you want to set up a paid membership site, I suggest using the WordPress plugin Wishlist Member. It’s a premium plugin and costs $97—but it’s worth it. Wishlist can be adapted to many different program structures. And it’s easy to integrate with payment processors, such as Paypal or 1Shopping Cart, or with email responder services, such as AWeber, or Mailchimp.

So should you create a membership program right away?

Whatever your plans for a membership program may be, don’t be in a hurry to create it—especially if it’s going to be free. Wait until you have enough momentum, as well as a real reason for setting up a program. Then think carefully about the structure you are aiming for. You need to know exactly what you want to offer, and how you are going to deliver it in your program.

Don’t settle for mediocre. Instead, create something of real value. Most of all, be insanely useful. Create something that can change lives.

Over to you—if you’ve run a membership program, what are your tips?

Mary Jaksch has created the Great Fitness Challenge on her blog Goodlife ZEN. She is passionate about blogging and is co-founder of the A-List Blogger Club.

How to Break Your Blog Traffic Addiction

This guest post is by John Burnside of MoneyIn15Minutes.

My name is John Burnside and I am a recovering traffic addict.

I got sucked into the analytics quicksand, and barely got out alive! I used to wake up in the morning and check how many hits I had over night. I used to stay up until after 12, even if I was tired, because that is when the day’s Google Analytics results came out. As soon as I got a mobile phone that could access the internet anywhere and everywhere I wanted that was when I was truly lost to my cravings. I would check at least once an hour and sometimes twice.

The thing with traffic addiction is that checking up on your traffic then leads on to more procrastination. ‘I’ve had one more person on my blog. Maybe they sent me an email or a comment?’ Then you go and check your emails and log in to your admin area. The list could go on and on and you can make that cycle last all day (I know because it’s been done!). This means that you will actually do nothing towards getting more traffic and you will end up just watching your traffic get smaller and smaller which is exactly the opposite of what you watch traffic for.

Hopefully these techniques that I’m about to share will help you, just like they have helped me, to actually get on with something that will help your blog.

Method 1. Rigorous planning

Now I know the nature of the traffic addict is not to plan. That is how I got stuck in the rut in the first place. I would say to myself, “I’ll just check this while I am thinking of what to do.”

The way to get around this is to plan out your day to the letter the day before. Give yourself tasks and time limits for the next day that you are going to work on your blog. If you are part-time, then plan when you are going to work and what you are going to work on during that time. Do not use the excuse, “I only have a couple of minutes.” A couple of minutes is enough time to get a bit of exposure for your blog.

Go to another blog and write a comment or have a look on a forum to see if anything interesting has been talked about that, day and if there is anything you can help with. That only takes a second, but that work will stay online helping you for a long time with a backlinks and, we hope, relevant traffic.

Method 2. Restrict the times when you look at your statistics

This method is very basic and reminds me of dieting or quitting cigarettes. Simply do not allow yourself to look at your emails or your analytics outside a certain time of the day. Write down all of the things that are included in your “procrastination list” and then give yourself a small window of time during the day that you are allowed to check them.

This is the method I use to restrict myself from checking all day. I have allowed myself to look at them first thing when I wake up and then after I have finished my work for that day. Also for the morning check so that I actually start work I actually time myself and give myself a 15-minute limit. I realize this sounds a little extreme, but when I look back over how much time I have wasted when I could have been expanding my blog, I know the restriction was worth it.

Method 3. Replace the cravings

This method is very simple and I think of it a bit like shocking the system out of the habit. As soon as you think of going to check up on your stats, redirect your activity. By this, I mean change that thought into something constructive. For example, every time you have that bad thought of wasting time, do something else like write an article or socialize on your networks (yes, this can also be a form of procrastination, but that’s another article entirely!). After doing this for a little while, you will soon get into the habit of doing constructive things.

Once you employ these methods, you will start to see results very soon in your traffic rankings. Keep in mind that everything you are doing instead of checking up on your statistics will stay online and help you for a long time. Checking your stats does nothing to help you.

My name is John Burnside and I am an internet entrepreneur. If you want to learn more about blogging or making money online then please subscribe to my feed.

How Your Blog Can Score You Free Travel

This guest post is written by Anthony from The Travel Tart.

When I first started my travel website in 2009, I just wanted to get my travel writing out there, because I was frustrated with the way traditional media worked. Little did I know that having an online presence would lead to opportunities for press trips to all corners of the globe, and I did this from scratch!

Fiji's Coral Coast (image is author's own)In 2010 alone, I went on press trips to Fiji, the United Kingdom and South Africa. I have also recently become partners with a major adventure travel company that will provide more opportunities for press trips in the coming year.

When I talk about press trips, I mean trips where all expenses such as flights, meals, accommodation, and activities are covered. Considering I only started my blog in 2009 with virtually zero knowledge of how the Internet worked, that’s pretty good!

Would you like to use your travel blog to travel the world? This is what I’ve learned from my experiences.

Blogging has advantages over traditional media

Traditional media such as newspapers, radio, and television have a scattergun approach: they broadcast all sorts of information to everyone, but this information isn’t relevant or interesting to all of these eyeballs.

However, being a blogger with an online presence means that one can use multimedia such as writing, photography and video for the website. These media can be used to portray the same story in different ways.

The blog media offer numerous benefits over traditional media:

  • Speed: bloggers can post something about an experience on the day, and start attracting traffic immediately. Traditional media people have to write the story, submit it to an editor, wait for approval, and then have the piece published—a process that can often take weeks or even months
  • Using photography and video footage can show an experience, instead of telling it. Newspapers and magazines can’t do this. For example, try writing about an experience such as bungee jumping off a perfectly stable rock ledge for a 70 metre freefall. This video communicates the experience much more effectively.
  • You can create multiple articles from one trip. I normally do a blogging campaign for these press trips by producing numerous posts, with each one focusing on something different from the trip. The number of posts per trip varies depending on what I experience. As an example, I’ve created 15-20 posts for a two-week press trip, and scheduled these to publish over time.
  • The biggest benefit of being a blogger is that you can attract targeted, long-term Internet traffic that has an indefinite shelf life. For example, if someone is Googling “South African Adventure Travel”, you can be sure they’re specifically looking for information on that topic. Also, because people are specifically searching keywords via search engines, this means the traffic consists of people who are interested in these topics, and are therefore more likely to take notice of the information you provide. It’s laser-focusing for your content!

Now I’m going to assume you already have a travel-related blog, or a blog with a strong focus, so I’m not going to tell you how to write travel posts. Instead, I want to explain the techniques I’ve used to build my profile as a travel blogger with the organizations I’ve approached and had sponsor my trips.

Get started

I sell the above benefits of having an online presence, and promote what I can do for a company or tourist commission—and back it up with evidence.

For example, I’ve turned up to travel exhibitions in my town because there are usually tourism commission and other travel industry stands there. Then I start talking to someone at the stand, as they’re usually a public relations employee. This is how I scored one of my press trips.

Also, I use business cards and hand them out as they’re relatively cheap, and I’ve found they’re a great icebreaker.

On the press trip itself

I’ve often been the only travel blogger for most of the press trips I’ve been on—and that means I can be a writer, photographer, and video production person all at the same time!

However, the trips provide exposure to other travel-related contacts, which expands my network and opens up more opportunities—ironically—in traditional media! I’ve also received great feedback from these guys about how video can capture a travel experience so well.

Be proactive and follow up

I have followed up all of these press trips with a report that details the Internet traffic my reports have attracted, video views achieved, and Google Keyword positions for the organization that paid for my trip. Along with this information I include traffic strategies the organization might like to consider, such as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, Stumbleupon etc.), and so on. This all builds up a body of evidence for my clients, and an even strong track record for me.

Your blog is your advantage

Having an online presence can give you a number of huge advantages over traditional media.

I feel that the biggest advantage is that the Internet is quantifiable. You can provide clients or trip sponsors with traffic statistics, information on where traffic comes from, and even data on how long visitors stay on your site.

Getting on the first press trip is the hardest. But if you can demonstrate a track record of attracting targeted Internet traffic beforehand, your chances of scoring that first one will be much higher. And once you have that track record, you’ll be invited on more press trips! This is how your blog can create opportunities that lead to free travel.

If you’ve managed to score free travel thanks to your blog, what other tips can you add?

Anthony writes about the funny, offbeat and downright weird aspects of world travel today. For more information, you can visit his Facebook Page or sign up for his RSS Feed.

8 Tips To Launch Successful Challenges at Your Blog

This guest post is by Celestine Chua of The Personal Excellence Blog.

Earlier this year, I launched a challenge called 30 Days To Live a Better Life (30DLBL) on my blog. This is a 30-day challenge where participants complete one task a day, for 30 days in the month, that will help them live a better life. When I created 30DLBL, it was breath of fresh air—I’d not seen any such personal development challenges around at the time, and it was fun to do something different rather than just write articles every week. I was very excited about my challenge, and thought I’d probably get about 100 people joining in, or 200 people max.

I was proven wrong. The minute the post went live, there were already a handful of participants. By the end of the day, there were over 100 participants. The number slowly exploded to 200, 300, 500, 800 … to over 1,200 excited participants all over the world, all ready to transform their lives in the next 30 days! Not only that, but people were tweeting about 30DLBL, blogging about it, sharing it on Facebook, and telling all their friends about it. Some readers even specially created new blogs just to blog about their 30DLBL experience. Needless to say, the response totally blew me away!

The 30-day challenge was extremely successful, and many participants’ lives changed in unimaginable ways that month. Many of them rediscovered themselves on a whole new level, set new goals, and created new plans for their future. It was so successful that I later launched a guidebook and a workbook on the upgraded version of 30DLBL. The book sold over 200 copies in less than two weeks of launch, and last month I did a second run of the challenge, with many more runs planned in the future.

Some bloggers have also been inspired by the success of 30DLBL and are launching their own 30/31-day challenges, and it’s great to see them getting down to engage their communities.

Why run a challenge?

First off, you might wonder, why run a challenge? There are four key reasons:

  1. Create a breath of fresh air: At that time I launched the challenge, I’d already been running The Personal Excellence Blog for about 1.5 years. After 1.5 years of writing article after article, I wanted to have a 30-day challenge as a breath of fresh air, as Darren did with his challenge, 31 Days To Build a Better Blog. The challenge was designed to complement what I write at the site. It was very much welcomed by the readers.
  2. Help readers apply what you teach: Even while we may be writing down the most important insights in our articles, it’s a whole different thing altogether to apply that advice to real life. Some readers may not fully comprehend what you’re writing, while some readers may not know how to apply your insights. A challenge helps them take action.
  3. Engage readers: A challenge lets readers become involved. It makes them feel like they’re a part of your site. Launching 30DLBL helped me get up close and personal with my readers in a completely new way. At the end of the 30 days, I’d developed a very close bond with many of my readers.
  4. Form a community: With the launch of 30DLBL, I saw the first signs of a true community forming around my blog—a community where readers interact with each other, care for one another, and really help each other grow. This made me very excited about what’s ahead.

Eight tips for running a successful challenge

Here, I’ll share with you eight tips to help you run a successful challenge on your blog.

1. Evaluate the role of a challenge in your blog

Some bloggers may prefer to write articles, which is totally fine. Challenges are not necessarily for everyone. Figure out whether you do want to run challenges as part of your blog, and how regularly you want to do them. It can be a once-in-a-while project—for example, Darren runs 31DBBB at Problogger about once every few years. Or it can be a regular affair, which is what I’m planning for my blog.

I love interacting with my readers, getting up close and personal with them, and growing side-by-side with them, and I see a challenge as the perfect platform for me to know them better. Last month I finished a second run of 30DLBL with great success, and it’s now part of my plan to have three 30DLBL challenges every year. On the other hand, I launched a new 21 Days To a Healthier Me challenge in January ’11, where people all around the world get together to live a healthier life for 21 days. I’m planning more new challenges in the months ahead, to get more readers to join in and participate. Through these challenges, I’ve gotten to know my readers on a much personal level than I had previously with just writing articles.

2. Ensure you have a sizable reader base

Before you kick off a challenge, you’ve to ensure that you have a sizable reader base. The last thing you want to do is to have a challenge that no one’s participating in! Bear in mind that there’ll always be dropouts throughout the challenge, so if you have 100 people signing up, you might very well end up with only ten people towards the last week, and that will pull down the momentum. So the more participants you can get starting the challenge on Day 1, the better.

When I kicked off 30DLBL, I had almost 10,000 subscribers. I believe you’re good to go if you have at least 5,000 active subscribers, though I’ve seen people launch challenges with only 500 subscribers and they went well. In those cases,  the outreach was smaller by comparison, and the community, while small, was tight-knit.

3. Offer a tangible, compelling benefit

Your challenge should have a tangible, compelling benefit that draws people to participate. Since people have to dedicate time to the challenge, the benefit has to be something attractive. For 30DLBL, the benefit is about living a better life, and that’s something which was very compelling to many. After all, as growth-oriented people, we’re always looking for ways to grow and improve our lives.

Your challenge should be relevant to the topic of your site. It’s going to be quite strange if your blog’s about cooking and you run a challenge that’s on making money! Since I run a personal development blog, 30DLBL was a great complement to what I’d been writing at the blog. It was a great way to reinforce the ideas and concepts I’ve been sharing since the blog started.

Besides it being a direct complement, your benefit can be a subset of your site’s offering. Think about what your site is about, then brainstorm on the various sub categories that fall under the theme of your site. Are there any noteworthy topics worth starting a challenge on? The Live a Healthier Life in 21 Days challenge I just ran this month has been a great success. While some may think that health and personal development are unrelated, it works as healthy living is part of living a better life. People who are interested in personal development are the same people who want to pay attention to their health and fitness too.

4. Allow enough time for people to join

I posted the announcement post for 30DLBL five days before it started, which provided enough lead time for people to find out about the challenge, share with their friends, and join in. At the same time, I think it would have been better if I posted it earlier. Overall, one week should be more than enough time for you to promote the challenge and spread the word.

5. Set a proper duration: 30 days, 21 days—whatever suits

It’s up to you to design your challenge the way you want. I recommend making it a daily challenge, since it’ll be easier to follow. Duration-wise, I recommend 30 or 31 days (where participants can dedicate a whole month to it), or 21 days if you think 30 days is too long. 30DLBL was, of course, 30 days long, whereas my healthy living challenge was 21 days long. Anything longer than one month will be too long—participants will be likely to lose steam before it finishes.

6. Create channels for participants to engage with one another

A successful challenge is one that allows the participants to interact with one another—not just to interact with you. Establish channels for them to engage with one another. With 30DLBL, I initiated a twitter hashtag of #30DLBL, so that participants can connect with one another. I also created a new forum, with a sub-forum dedicated to the challenge so readers could have their own space to interact with one another. This approach worked very well. Participants used these platforms to give each other support and encouragement, and at the end of the process, many new friendships and bonds had been formed. Many of them added each other on Facebook afterward, and stayed in touch through the forums and Facebook.

7. Make your challenge tasks easy to follow

If you make your challenge tasks daily (which I recommend), you want to make them easy to follow. Don’t set tasks which take a week to complete. If your challenge is too tough, your readers may get discouraged and give up mid-way. This will defeat the whole purpose of the challenge to begin with! Make the tasks easy to process—break them up into mini-steps and spell everything out in layman’s terms.

For example, when I first ran 30DLBL, there were several tasks that made the participants feel discouraged, because they couldn’t finish them on time. Subsequently, they kept putting off the tasks and eventually disappeared off the radar. Hence, in my upgraded version of 30DLBL, I revised the tasks such that they could be completed in 30 minutes to one hour, if the person made an effort to do so.

8. Be in tune with your participants’ needs

Your participants are the backbone of your challenge, so stay in tune with their progress every step of the way. Observe what’s happening at ground level. If there’s something going awry, step in to help out. Throughout 30DLBL, my site received over a thousand comments from readers. I read through as many comments as I could and replied to all the questions that they asked. I also made a point of responding to as many participant comments as possible, so that they would be encouraged to share more. This created a tightly-knit community around my challenge.

I also noticed after four or five days in the challenge, some participants were falling behind. Hence, I introduced a three-day break after the first week, so the participants who were falling behind could catch up. It was very much welcomed and many participants were able to regroup themselves and get back into the challenge after that.

Moving forward

Challenges can be resource-intensive, but they definitely pay off. Your readers become more engaged, you help to make a positive difference in their lives, and you can build a community for your site. It’s up to you whether you want to create one, and what you want it to be about.

For me, running 30DLBL has been an extremely rewarding experience, and it’s not going to end there. I’ve planned a series of new challenges which I look forward to completing with my readers. Have you ever run, or considered creating, a challenge for your blog? Tell us about it in the comments.

Celestine writes at The Personal Excellence Blog on how to achieve excellence and live your best life. Check out the life changing 30DLBL program and live a better life in the next 30 days. Get free ebooks 101 Things To Do Before You Die and 300 Inspiring Quotes of All Time now by signing up for her free newsletter.