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Put Out the Welcome Mat: How to Run a Blog Contest with Panache

This guest post is by Nathalie Lussier.

Whether you’ve got a new blog or want to jump start your existing blog, you have two options: 1) keep blogging and hope it pans out, 2) try something different.

In this post you’ll learn how to run a blog contest with panache. Just like you want to organize a great party that everyone continues to talk about weeks after, your blog contest should create a great experience for everyone involved.

People love participating in contests: it makes them feel like they’re a part of something special, whether they win or not.

Before we dive in, let’s look at how running a giveaway on your blog can shift your blog into high gear.

Nurture what you’ve got and watch it grow

Ever notice how people who are good at taking care of what they have tend to get more of it? For example, people who are great at saving and investing money tend to make more of it? The same is true when it comes to taking care of your audience.

A new way to look at blog contests is to consider them as:

  1. a way to thank your existing readers for their loyalty
  2. a way to bring in fresh new readers.

Most of the advice on contests is about creating a buzz and getting more traffic to your blog. But I think it’s even more important to remember that, with a contest, you’re saying thank you to your existing audience.

Contests are also the perfect way to ask people what their challenges are, which will give you an idea of what topics to cover in future blog posts.

Contests create social proof.

If your blog is brand new and you want to build up social proof right off the bat, then consider setting up a simple contest. You will get more comments, social media props, and testimonials than you thought possible.

Giveaways increase engagement.

Ever publish a blog post only to hear crickets chirping? Yuck. No fun.

With a giveaway you’re sure to get lots of responses—if you do it right. The trick is to make your giveaways simple to enter, so you remove the barrier to entry and get more people to participate. The more people participate, the more likely they are to come back for more of your content and become loyal fans.

Start a buzz.

How do you know when something is creating a buzz? When everyone starts talking about it. People love sharing things that are useful, relevant, and fun. If you build your contest with these ideas in mind you’re going to give people something worth spreading.

Share your products or services in a fun, non-spammy way.

One creative way to use contests and giveaways is to offer your services or products as the prize. Structuring a contest around what you offer is a great way to make people aware of your products and services. If people like what you’ve got and they don’t win, they may decide to purchase.

Create a contest with panache

Now let’s look at how to structure your contest to ensure it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

1. To get sponsors or to go it alone?

Depending on the size of your blog, you might be approached by sponsors to offer their products as the contest giveaway. My rule is that you must feel like it’s a good fit for your audience, and stand behind the product, if you’re to give away an external party’s product.

For one giveaway, I mailed out two of my favorite books, so there was a values match there.

You could also approach sponsors that you think would be a good match for your audience. However, like Darren demonstrated in a previous article, it’s actually easier to give away your own products or services if you have them.

Delivering digital products is much easier than following up with someone to ask for their mailing address, and it’s also a great way to debut a new product or service.

2. Keep it simple, sweetie.

The easiest way to invite people to participate in a giveaway is to have them comment on a blog post. The easier you make it for them, the more likely they are to participate. You want people to participate and get excited about the contest.

I also recommend emailing your newsletter and directing them to the contest blog post so they can enter, even if they haven’t visited your blog in a while.

3. Add a social media component.

It’s easy to assume that people will be so excited about your giveaway that they’ll be shouting it from the rooftops. But unless you ask them to spread the word, they probably won’t. We’re all busy and after someone enters a contest they’ll probably be off to the next thing. One way to get the most bang for your contest buck is to build social media sharing into the contest.

Ask participants to tweet, Facebook like, or blog your contest for extra points. If it’s just a matter of clicking a tweet button, they’re a lot more likely to take action.

Be clear that sharing on social media sites (using a hashtag so you can track it, for example) will give them a greater chance to win.

4. Ask people to get creative.

If you’re offering a more highly priced, valuable prize, and you know people will be chomping at the bit to get it, then make them get creative.

The perfect example of this is Marie Forleo’s contest, where she gave away a seat to her live event in New York City, complete with accommodations. Marie was very clear that she wanted to get people to take action in a way that would get them moving toward their goals, whether they won or not. So she fashioned the contest in a way that rewarded people who filmed creative videos. This got many people to post their very first video online!

5. Decide on the winning criteria.

Often the easiest way to identify your winner is to select someone randomly, using a number generator. That may be the most egalitarian way of giving out a prize, but I think you’ll get a lot more engagement if you set selection criteria. For instance, you might let readers know that you’ll pick the response that’s most passionate.

You can also set up your contests using a two-step process, if you’re having a hard time choosing a winner and the prize is substantial. First, gather the contestants and have them comment or film videos, then set up the finalists in a poll. In this case, the numbers will clear show who the winner is. Having a poll will also get the participants to share with their networks to gather votes, thus bringing in more visitors.

Being clear that you’ll be the final decision-maker is just as important as the rest of the criteria I’ve mentioned here.

6. Keep to a timeline

One of the biggest mistakes I see new bloggers make is to have a contest every week. Unless your blog is set up to be a contest blog, you want to build contests in as a fun surprise and not a regular occurrence.

The problem with too many contests is that you’re essentially bribing your readers instead of giving them good value through your content. I recommend running contests once per quarter.

Most giveaways run best with a deadline that’s about a week away. This gives people enough time to enter and to share the contest with friends. The timeframe’s also a short, so it won’t get lost or forgotten on a to-do list.

Your contest giveaway action plan

Here’s a quick recap that you can use as a checklist to plan your first (or next!) contest:

  1. Choose your purpose: good will, buzz, engagement, launch.
  2. Decide whether you’ll go with a sponsor, give something you possess/buy, or offer a product or service you provide.
  3. Choose the scope: make it super-simple or ask people to put some skin in the game.
  4. Pick a time frame: no more than a week, and no more often than every quarter.
  5. Kick off the contest with your social media network, blog, and email newsletter.
  6. Keep the energy going after the contest ends by giving everyone who participated something really cool like a free ebook or special piece of content.

Have you ever used a contest on your blog? How did it go?

Nathalie Lussier is a contest loving blogger and a finalist at the Infusionsoft contest, who will love you forever if you vote for her Raw Foods Witch here. It takes less than 5 seconds, and you’ll see how to run a high-end contest at the same time! Tweet her at @NathLussier.

10 Realizations that Will Crush Your Little Heart In Your First Year of Blogging

This guest post is by Moon from Experiments in Passive Income.

This post comes from someone who has made a ton of mistakes and is on her way to learn from those mistakes. You and I probably have a lot in common … after all, you’re here to learn about blogging and how to do it well and, well, I’m trying to do the same.

Being the owner and author of a blog that is in its first year of infancy, it’s been an emotional roller coaster ride—kind of like riding a car with a driver who makes you think of your impending death thanks to their inept braking skills and their random urges to switch lanes (without looking).

As a new blogger in a very crowded niche, I’ve found the year tough. It’s been tough finding my voice among so many others, producing content that is rich and teaches others a thing or two, attracting traffic that sticks (subscribers)—all while trying to establish a schedule.

Still, it helps to be prepared. Here are ten things that will crush your little heart in your first year of blogging:

1. You’re still waking up to low subscriber levels.

After eight months, only 100 subscribers are subscribing to your blog feed. Yeah, that will kill you inside. You might smile on the outside and tell yourself all’s well … but you’ll have to swallow your pride and evaluate how you’re hindering your blog’s growth. Are you presenting your readers with boring content? Or do you need to guest blog to bring exposure to your new blog?

2. You realize that attracting visitors is more than just good SEO.

Sooner or later, you’ll realize that attracting visitors to your blog is more than just good SEO (long-term strategy). At that point, it’s time to buckle down and learn how to use Twitter, su.pr, and Facebook properly to garner thousands of views a month.

This type of social media marketing needs to be done, and done well. And it will take you more than a few minutes to promote your content properly and on a daily basis. No one wants to simply hear noise on their media streams—give them that, and they’ll quickly stop paying attention to you.

3. You realize what SEO entails.

Eventually, it dawns on every budding blogger that SEO involves much more than just incorporating your keywords into your content excessively and using keyword rich links. If you want search traffic, you need to spend a few hours a month learning about SEO and actually executing it. It’s amazing how much time I’ve spent catching up on SEO, but I’m still not using it properly. I bet you’re not, either.

4. You fail to monetize your blog.

When you don’t earn even a measly $100 per month from your blog, despite trying hard, it hurts. But earning money through your blog is more than slapping ads on it. Keep trying!

5. You realize there are no easy ways to make money through your blog.

It’s absolutely essential that you write great, unique content and create a list of subscribers who love that content. It’s not 2001 anymore! People have become wary of the Internet, and they want proof of your success before they’ll trust you. Give it to them.

6. You understand that you need to do more for others.

You want subscribers? You need to do more. To get that list going, you should probably create a handy, free ebook or report that deals with a topic related to your blog, and helps your readers. Yes, you do have to help others in order to help yourself.

7. You recognize that good content can take more than an hour to create.

Great content will definitely take more than an hour, especially if you’re a beginner. Anyone can produce good content. You’ll need to write unique and in-depth content to give your readers something to talk about and impress other fellow bloggers—to get the buzz going, so to speak.

8. You realize that people want to read specifics and in-depth case studies.

Your readers can find generic crap anywhere. There are tons of blogs that talk about growing your traffic or making money online … and the majority are boring!

Instead, show readers how you’ve helped someone grow traffic or what strategies you’ve implemented to make money through your blog. This is precisely what I did when I showed my readers how exact domain names can kill the competition! This kind of content takes a bit of time and experience to develop. Keep plugging away!

9. You understand that networking is a necessity, not an option.

This doesn’t mean you re-tweet someone’s post occasionally. You need to converse with your followers, ask questions, and interact with other bloggers—successful ones as well as beginners in your niche and peer bloggers who started around the time you did. Create a group that helps promote each others’ posts. You never know who will get your hype snowball rolling.

10. You realize that you’ve been doing most things wrong!

Just because you knew all this stuff doesn’t mean you executed it at all, or executed it properly. At the time when I started my blog, I thought I knew something about blogs and making money online. But that learning is an ongoing process. Once you realize this, you might feel momentary despair. That’s okay—as long as you continue to take steps and improve your efforts.

Despite all these things that might have you sobbing under the blanket with a pint of scotch, hopefully you’ll realize that you should keep going. In fact, if you love what you’re blogging about, the pure thrill of having your content go viral or making your first few sales will probably have you giggling like a school girl and make you realize that it’s all worth it.

I’ve made all these mistakes and then some and I won’t be quitting any time soon! What mistakes have you made in your blogging experience? Share them with us!

Join Moon as she shares results of her passive income experiments at her website. You can check out her free ebook, To The Moon & Back, in which she details all her experiments in the span of a year

How Changing My Intentions Made Me Money

This guest post is by Roman from how this website makes money.

Two years ago I stumbled across the concept of blogging for money.  Instantly it hit me as the perfect thing: sit behind a computer, design a site, write, be my own boss, work from home, what could be better? I knew nothing about traffic, SEO, backlinks, Pagerank, or keywords.  I knew nothing about how to make money with a website.  So what did I do next?  I registered the domain name howthiswebsitemakesmoney.

Looking back all I can do is laugh at my arrogance.  Like thousands before me and thousands who will come after me, my first attempt at blogging was a site about making money online.

Two years later, I know how to start a site, I know how to write content, I know about SEO, I know about backlinks, I know how to add advertisements … but I still do not know how to make good money online.  The site makes dimes a day, not dollars.

The site has been two years of disappointment.  Two  years of waking up in the morning and seeing the same green egg in AdSense.  Two years of waiting for a four-digit affiliate check with my name on it.  Two years of working without pay.  Two years of scratching my head.

So I asked for advice, and every time the reply was the same: create a site about something else. Create a site about what you know and what you enjoy.  Do not create a site with the intent to make money, create a site with the intent to help people by doing something you enjoy doing.

What happened when I changed my intent

Six months ago I created a new site.  This time my intent was pure pleasure.

I live in Prague and I love it here.  So I made a little site about how great Prague is and what people should do when they come for a visit.  It was built in a month.  In a gust of activity I designed the site and wrote the content.

It was so easy.   I did not agonize over what to write about.  The content flowed effortlessly from my head to the keyboard.  I did not have to take long walks with the dog or waste water standing dazed in the shower coming up with new ideas.  I just sat down at the computer and wrote about what I know.  It was so easy I actually looked forward to it.

As an afterthought, I created a simple page where people can order a real postcard from Prague.  Visitors select a picture of Prague and fill out a form indicating what they want written on the postcard.  After they hit the Submit button I get the request by email.  I grab a postcard and, like an ancient scribe long before computers, lick the tip of the pen and write.  After pounding a Prague stamp on the postcard I toss it into the mailbox on my way to work. I charge $4.00 for this five minutes of work.

I created this site with no aspirations of becoming rich, no day dreams of shaking hands with Oprah, no imagined scenes of telling my employer to find some other donkey to kick around. I created the website because it was easy for me to do and I enjoyed it. I made it because I needed a break from my ‘real’ website. I expected nothing to happen.

Again, I was wrong.

My hand is ink blue from all the postcards I have written.

I wrote a postcard from a son playing a trick on his mother: “Hi, Mom!  Sorry for not calling in last few days.  But I am in Prague with friends.  Having a great time and the beer is sooo cheap.  Say hi to Dad.”

I have written postcards to countries all over the world.  Some of them in languages other then English—I have no idea what I am writing. Fortunately, the order form does not allow Chinese characters!

I get emails from people thanking me for the information they found on the site, thanking me for the postcard, asking for more information.

I feel like I am making the world a better place.  I made a website about something I know about and am interested in and people are thanking me. Emotionally it is a soft, warm, fuzzy ball.

And yes, I am making money.

Intend to enjoy and you might make money

I learned a lot about making money online not from my site about making money, but from licking postage stamps.

New arrivals to the make-money-online scene go through the same initiation—they start out with the intent to make money, then fail to make more then a pile of pennies.  For some it means the end and they quit, but for others this brutal introduction teaches them that their intent needs to change.

Of course, making money is about traffic, clicks, affiliates, backlinks SEO, but it’s also about finding something you enjoy doing.  If your intent is only to make money the odds are stacked against you: you will probably quit.  But if your intent is to do something you enjoy then you will keep moving forward until one day, you will be surprised to find that you are making money.

What’s your intent?

Roman intends to figure out how this website makes money.  He has been trying to do that for two long years, so when he needs a break and do something fun he goes onto his other website to send a real postcard to his mother who misses him very much.

Top 5 Affiliate Sales Techniques

This guest post is by the team at E-junkie.com.

Working with so many merchants and affiliates gives us a great opportunity to see what different bloggers are trying to do to generate sales of affiliate products, and over time we’ve noticed that some strategies work much better than others.

These are the top five affiliate sales techniques we’ve seen work time and time again.

1. Only promote products you’re willing to stand behind 100%.

We had one incident on our site where someone bought something from a third party, didn’t like it, and got so mad that they launched a Denial of Service attack on us!

It’s very common for us to receive emails from people who buy stuff from our merchants but get mad at us for allowing people to sell what they see as substandard products. Initially we used to tell them that this is akin to writing to Bill Gates complaining that someone who made budgeting software using Excel didn’t do a good job, but now if we get too many complaints we just get rid of the product.

We have a certain brand that gets attached to whatever is being sold using our platform, and if a product is bad, people view us negatively, even though we have nothing to do with it.

The same applies to your blog.

Your customers will see very little difference between your products and the affiliate products you sell. They’ll blame you if they don’t like the affiliate product. Only promote products you really love, and are willing to back 100%—or your readers will lose their faith in you.

2. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

The range of products that our merchants sell never ceases to amaze me. Recently we featured a seller whose product is poo-shaped pillows! No, that’s not a typo: these pillows are colored and shaped like poo.

You never know what will work until you try it out—many times you’ll think about something, assume it won’t work, and move on to something else. Yet the Internet makes experimentation so cheap and so easily measurable that you should give all your ideas some time before you drop them. You never know what will bring you the next million!

3. Reviews work much better for affiliate sales than buttons, widgets, or advertisements.

In Darren’s 31 Days to a Better Blog book, the exercise for Day 28 is writing a review post that includes an affiliate link.

We’ve seen this approach work much better, as far as conversions are concerned, than advertisements, widgets, or buttons on your website. You may drive a lot more traffic to your sales page using buttons, but contextual links in reviews have much better conversion rates.

4. Think of your customer service as your product.

If we see a merchant who offers first-rate customer service, we know that they’re going to be big. There’s so much commoditization in so many industries that it becomes difficult for customers to choose between products, and for merchants to be heard. Great customer service is something that easily cuts through this clutter.

Sometimes people will buy your product just because they know that you will pick up their call or answer their emails. When you put customer service on the same pedestal as your core product, you will see an attitude shift in the way you deal with your customers, and also the way they see you.

5. Don’t lose your customer at the last step.

One of our core mantras is to make our product as easy to use as possible, and we see a lot of other successful merchants do that too.

There are two key ways of doing this: simplify your product, and provide as much detailed documentation as you can on how to use it.

While there are limits to simplifying the product, you can always provide a great amount of detail on how to use your product, or how to become your affiliate.

Leo Babauta’s step-by-step directions on what to do when you want to join Zen Habits as an affiliate are a great example of what I’m talking about.

A user can walk through that whole process without any confusion, and providing such great detail can vastly improve your conversion rates. You really don’t want to lose your customer at the last step just because your instructions weren’t clear. It’s so hard to get people’s attention, and convince them to try your product. Don’t let them fail to sign up just because they can’t understand the directions on your site—that’s the last thing you want to happen.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out any of this stuff—it all makes so sense when you think about it.
The reason why affiliates and merchants fail to follow this advice isn’t because it’s hard to figure, but because execution is difficult. Doing the right thing, day in and day out, over and over for years, is what makes the difference between generating a six-figure income online, and the rest of the blogosphere.

Keep these best practices in mind—but also focus on executing them as much as you can. What tips can you add to this list?

E-junkie.com is a hosted shopping cart and digital service that lets you sell just about anything on your website, blog or social network. Our mission is to lower the barrier of entry in online selling. Our blog is about small business, e-commerce, self publishing and all the awesomeness in them. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook or Subscribe with us for all the action.

How a 30 Minute Reject Post Brings Me Hundreds of Subscribers a Week

This guest post is written by the Blog Tyrant.

Three weeks ago I wrote a guest post for a large blog that got rejected on the grounds that it contained ideas that had already been discussed at the blog. Now that same post is bringing me hundreds of email subscribers every week. Let me tell you what happened—and explain how you can replicate some of that success.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Julian Stallabrass

How I turned a failed post into a subscriber magnet

Ever since I first thought about selling a blog I knew that I had to grow my email subscriber list. I’ve talked about it in my post on how to blog and I’ve talked about here on my Problogger guest posts. It is your mailing list that allows you to grow a large online business that outlasts the ups and downs and brings in considerable income.

The rejected post

Seeing as I had spent a fair amount of time building sites and blogs, and experimenting with growing a mailing list I thought I would make it a regular theme on Blog Tyrant. People seemed interested. In order to grow my readership, though, I knew I had to write exciting and relevant guest posts about themes that are closely tied to my blog. So I wrote an article called How to Grow Your Email List by 120% Overnight that talked about some strategies I had used to massively boost my email subscribers.

It got rejected. Actually, it’s the only guest post I’ve ever had rejected.

The free ebook

After I had cooled down and patched up the hole I punched in my office wall I sat there staring at the post. For some reason I didn’t want to just use it on my own blog. Something was telling me not to. Then, on a whim, I thought I would just turn it into a free ebook and give it away on my site to anyone who subscribed by email (nothing new). I wrote the copy, added the email subscription form and went to bed. The next day my email subscribers had gone up by 200 addresses. The day after that, 120 addresses. Hundreds of people were subscribing to my blog to get this free ebook.

Why is this ebook so successful?

I started to wonder why this ebook was so successful. I have other blogs that give away free ebooks but none of them seem to pull in subscribers at the rate this one does. After a while, I realized that I’d carried out a strategy without even thinking about it. In an effort to promote my new site, I had inadvertently pre-promoted the launch of my ebook.

I went back and looked at all the guest posts I’d written in the past few weeks which were still bringing in traffic. In every single one, I had talked about growing a mailing list, the importance of community, or something to do with that rejected-post-turned-ebook.

In essence, I had built a whole lot of hype around the ebook without even realizing that I was doing it. If I was a marketing firm I would have charged a lot of money for that strategy!

How to replicate that success

Duesenberg SSJ Roadster replica
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ed Callow [ torquespeak ]

Now that I’ve admitted to the shameful fact that I did all this by accident, I want to talk about a few ways that you can replicate that success on your own blogs. These few steps are key to making sure the whole thing goes down well.

1. Research that ebook subject hard.

The subject of that ebook is of utmost importance. I go to so many sites where the free ebook is a bit wishy-washy and not really that exciting. You don’t want that. Look at your analytics and find out why people are coming to your site. Look at competitors’ blogs and see what posts have gone viral. Find bestsellers in your niche. Research hard and come up with a subject and title that’s really compelling to the people that you write for.

To be honest, the title and subject are almost more important than the content. Sure, my ebook has excellent tips that I really did use, but it’s not even 20 pages long, and it only took me about an hour to put together including the coding and the cover design. You want to make sure you get it right.

2. Create guest posts that target and promote your ebook.

Here is where the magic takes place. You want to write a good ten or 15 guest posts for blogs in your niche that target readers of your new ebook. Now, you don’t have to directly mention the ebook like I’ve done in this post. You just need to generate interest, as I managed to do in my other Problogger guest posts Why I Leave Your Blog, How to Make Your Blog Addictive, and Why Your Blog is Not Going to Make You Rich.

None of those posts directly mention any ebook, but they do spend a lot of time talking about mailing lists and growing a community as a way to make big dollars. If you landed on my blog after reading one of those posts and saw the ebook, you’d probably be more likely to download it than any other random visitor. In the affiliate marketing world, this is called pre-selling; Darren calls it a sneeze page.

3. Generate more interest in the comments.

Once your guest posts are published, it’s important to get over to the pushing site and interact with people in the comments. Share as much as you can about the topic, and try to dispel any objections that people might have. What you’re doing by taking this course of action is giving people a secondary gentle push in your blog’s direction. They might not love you after they read your guest post, but they certainly should be open to liking you after you talk to them in the comments.

4. Make sure your call to action is strong.

The last thing you need to do is make sure the signup area on your blog contains a good, clean, strong call to action. Put it in one of the blog hot areas. Make sure you use copy that gets people excited, and allows them to give you their email without worrying that you’re going to abuse it. Most internet marketers agree that you need to use a direct call to action that tells your visitors exactly what they need to do to subscribe. Don’t leave it up to chance.

Bonus: how to give away a free ebook with Feedburner

Not everyone out there can afford to use Aweber to give away free ebooks to email subscribers. Unless you’re making good revenue, it can be a little bit expensive. For that reason, I want to show you how to do it completely free with Feedburner. It’s not quite as efficient, but it works well for me and a lot of other bloggers.

1. Upload your ebook to your server.

Go to your FTP area and upload your ebook into the root folder. If it’s small enough you can just go into your WordPress Dashboard and upload the PDF as an image. Copy the address of the ebook.

2. Get your FeedFlare template.

While your FTP is open, download this file. Unzip it, open it up with Notepad or Wordpad (not Word) and edit the information that I’ve filled out for you. Once you are done, hit save and upload it to your root directory without changing the name at all. It should appear as an XML file if you’ve done it right.

3. Edit Feedburner

Now log in to your Feedburner account and activate FeedFlare (it’s under Optimize). Scroll down to the Personal FeedFlare heading and add the URL of the XML file that you just uploaded to your root directory. The URL should be http://youblog.com/feedflaretemplate.xml

4. You’re done!

Every time someone receives a Feedburner message from you, there will be a little ebook download link at the bottom of the post. I’d recommend making an instructions page for people so they don’t email you asking where it is. Just let them know that the free ebook will be at the bottom of the posts that arrive in their inbox.

Conclusion

This strategy of pre-promoting an ebook has worked extremely well for me in the past few weeks. I’m getting hundreds of new subscribers every week, and they are all turning out to be valuable members of my community who comment, interact, and share my posts. Try it out if you haven’t already.

I’d really like to know if you know any other ways to promote your blog or a product on your blog. Please drop a comment and let me know.

The Blog Tyrant has sold several blogs for large sums of money and earns a living by relying solely on the internet. His blog is all about helping you dominate your blog and your blog’s niche and only includes strategies that he has tried on his own websites. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook or subscribe to his feed for all the juice.

How to Nurture Your Creativity

This guest post is by Ali Luke, from The Creativity Toolbox.

How creative are you? A lot of bloggers feel that they’re not very creative people. Perhaps they come from a technical background. Perhaps they’ve never picked up a paintbrush in their life, and think that means they’re not creative. Perhaps they see creativity as something for other people.

The truth is, if you’re blogging—or even planning a blog—then you’re already much more creative than a lot of folks.
As a blogger, you’re not just creating content (though that’s the biggest area where you’ll be exercising your creative muscles).

Right from the start, you’re also creating:

  • the brand for your blog
  • your business plan and blogging strategy.

And if you’re bootstrapping your blog (almost all of us are, when we start out), you may well be creating:

  • your logo and site header
  • the look and feel of your blog (the fonts and colors you choose, for instance).

If you’re a little further along with blogging, you’ll be looking at creating extras like:

  • a regular email newsletter
  • ebooks
  • audio programs
  • physical books
  • membership content.

All that involves a lot of focused thinking, hard work, and a few sparks of inspiration.

Why creativity is so important for bloggers

When you visit a new blog, what encourages you to stick around? I’d guess it’s the quality of the content and the overall design.

If the posts are original and well-written, the blog looks good, and the topics fit together, then you’ll probably read on.

But if the posts comprise scrappy content, or long quotes from other people’s blogs, you’ll be gone within seconds. If the blog’s design looks like something from 1995, you probably won’t stay long. And if there’s no sense of cohesion—no plan or brand—then even if the content is good, you’ll probably not want to read yet another post about that cute thing the blogger’s cat did.

Your blog will succeed or fail on the strength of your creativity.

Blogs start to fail when bloggers:

  • get burnt out and carry on posting substandard content out of a sense of obligation
  • get tired and just post links to other people’s content
  • get bored and stop posting for weeks on end.

You don’t have to be wacky and weird in your creativity. It’s fine if your style is quite straight-laced, or casual and laid back, rather than humorous. You don’t have to have a complex metaphor or a really neat hook for every single post.

But you do need to create. Which means crafting your blog posts, not dashing them off. It takes energy, focus and dedication.

How to be creative—all the time

A lot of the folks I talk to seem a bit scared of creativity. They’re convinced that it’s something mystical or magical, like a bolt of lightning from the heavens.

The reality is that we’re all naturally creative. Not convinced? Think about your dreams: we’re all capable of making up wonderful stories and vivid pictures in our minds.

It’s important, though, to nurture your creativity—especially as you go further and further with your blogging. You might well feel hugely excited and motivated when you’re getting started with your blog, only to gradually lose that sense of inspiration and run out of steam. There’s nothing wrong with you—you just haven’t been focused on keeping your creativity bubbling away.

Write on topics you care about

This is crucial for me, and for many of the bloggers I talk to. You’ll find it tough to write consistently on a topic which bores you.

Sure, celebrity blogs might be big business. But if you couldn’t care less who’s sleeping with whom, then you’re better off writing about something else. Comic books, fine art, food, personal finance—whatever interests you.

If you’ve got a blog on a topic in which you’ve lost interest, see if you can find a particular angle that gives you a way back in. Maybe you’re fed up with writing about the technical specifications of the latest gadgets, but you could easily create a series on the innovative use of technology in the developing world.

Keeping learning more

Whenever I go to a conference, like BlogWorld, I come back with a bunch of ideas. There’s something invigorating about learning new things—and it often gets me back into a creative mood if I’ve been in a bit of a rut.

Of course, you don’t need to go to conferences to learn (though if you can make it to South by South West or BlogWorld, they’re well worth the investment). There’s a huge amount of learning material available for bloggers, including:

I’d suggest setting aside one hour, twice a week, just for learning. That might mean listening to an audio program, reading a section of an ebook, or browsing through blog archives. Use a notebook or blank document on your computer to jot down your thoughts.

Write down all your ideas

Ever had a great idea when you were out walking, on the bus, or watching TV?

Often, ideas don’t crop up when you’re at your computer. They’re sparked off by something which you see or do, and they pop into your head at the oddest moments.

It’s so easy for those ideas to slip away, or to end up half-remembered. If you’ve got a notebook in your bag, you can just scribble them down—you may even find yourself outlining a whole blog post or an entirely new strategy.

In fact, any time that you’re fleshing out an idea, try writing it down. It’s often easier to think things through when you start to put them into a physical form, rather than trying to hold everything in your head.

Don’t force yourself to create

Some days, you don’t want to sit down at the computer and write. But you drag yourself there anyway. You open up a document and stare at it for a bit. You resist the urge to check email, or play on Twitter.

You make yourself write.

You think you’re doing the right thing—after all, isn’t this what all the productivity experts would advise?
So after a couple of miserable hours, when you’ve finally managed a half-hearted post, you shove it onto your blog and go and do something fun.

You don’t get as many comments as usual. You don’t get retweets or links. And the next day, you feel even more fed up. But you sit down to write anyway…

I’m hoping you can see why this is a mistake. Creativity isn’t something you can force. Sure, you can probably apply a bit of self-discipline when you need to get the dishes done or clear your emails—but writing blog posts takes energy, and a certain amount of enthusiasm.

A number of the bloggers I talked to at BlogWorld said that they’d rather not write a post at all if they’re really not inspired—and I agree with them.

Don’t force yourself to create. Give yourself a regular time and place to write, but if you’re really not in the mood, take a break and do something else instead.

When you need inspiration

Sometimes, you’re keen to write, but you’re just not sure where to start. You want to write a blog post, or come up with an ebook outline, or get a brilliant headline for your latest piece—but that creative spark needs lighting first.

Here are four easy ways to find that inspiration.

Start with an image

If you use images for your posts, you probably write the post first and choose the image afterwards, right?

When you’re stuck, head over to Flickr, looking for a great image, then write the post to go with it.

As soon as you start looking at an image, your brain will begin to make connections and see possibilities. The picture you choose doesn’t have to have any obvious relationship to your blog’s niche—in fact, a seemingly-unconnected image will usually work best for sparking your creativity.

Brainstorm on paper

Staring at a blank Word document or the text box in WordPress?

Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and start jotting down ideas. If you’ve no clue where to begin, write down your blog’s name or topic in the center, or use your list of categories.

Don’t judge your ideas at this stage—write them all down, however unoriginal or boring they might seem. You’ll find that the ideas start flowing after a few minutes, and often a weak idea can lead to a great one.

Read news articles in your area

This works better for some niches than others, but often a news report can bring you a new idea. If you’re writing about health and fitness, you might look into some of the latest scientific research. If you cover techy topics, there’ll always be something new to write about.

Even evergreen content can be inspired by a news article. A report on average happiness levels, for instance, could lead to a thoughtful post on why we’re less happy today than in the past—despite generally having a better quality of life than people living 50 years ago.

Do something else entirely

When you’re waiting for an idea to develop, try getting away from your computer. Go for a walk, take a shower, tidy your office—anything that doesn’t require much mental effort. The thoughts you’ve been playing around with will continue to develop, and you’ll often find that a great idea comes effortlessly into your mind.

Just don’t forget your notebook so you can write it down…

What could you do, today, to bring the best of your creativity to your blogging?

Along with Thursday Bram, Ali Luke created The Creativity Toolbox—a set of three action-focused guides and seven powerful interviews with creative practitioners and experts. Want a huge creativity boost? Check it out…

Personal Blogging in the 2010s

This guest post is by Karen Andrews of Miscellaneous Mum.

Personal blogging has changed a lot in the last two years. Some writers now run blogs or social media campaigns to extend their profiles for current (and future) readers; some bloggers are using their reach to find or be offered writing work.

The line between ‘writing’ and ‘blogging’ is blurring, which is terrific, but can also be confusing. I know this first-hand. So today I’m going to share with you some points I try to keep foremost in mind. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Making money is possible, but prepare for tough decisions

Here’s a description: you’ve built up a pretty healthy traffic flow, or a solid RSS subscriber count. Long before that, you signed up to an ad network, thinking that by this stage the money would be steadily coming in … except it’s not.

You think about selling private ad spaces, but worry that would be a turn-off for your audience. You’re hesitant about doing sponsored or affiliate-related posts for the same reason. And as for all those opportunities out there in waiting, the longer you’re stuck, the harder they seem to be to grab.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Well, I’ve got a message of hope for the personal bloggers out there. You have one thing on your side. You’re making decisions that matter every day. Here are just a few: how much or little do I reveal about myself or my family? What are some ways I can frame or contextualize a story for effect? What is the best response I can give if I’m challenged about an issue?

What’s needed to answer those questions? Integrity. Look into that part of yourself when asking yourself how far you’re willing to go to make money from your blog. The answer is often there waiting.

Making sure ‘I’ am enough

Here’s another description: you’re chatting to a friend who also blogs, but does so in more traffic-heavy niches (such as entertainment and technologies). You compare the time you spend and your blogging tactics, and are roughly doing it the same way. The difference is that your friend’s site’s hits are triple yours. You start to feel discouraged.

Does this sound familiar? My message this time is a little more sobering. Yes, it can be hard, but this is the time when you need to decide if you are enough. Does it really matter if your traffic isn’t like so-and-so’s? Perhaps your ambitions can be channeled differently, or your goals need redefining.

It never hurts to stop, take a step back, and see what personal bloggers have achieved in recent years. People who live with or are affected by mental or medical challenges, for example, have been able to raise their voices to advocate the networks which support them and are, in turn, worth being supported by others.

Personal blogging isn’t easy—you might be surprised how many other people feel the same way. This is why meetups and conferences are so important: they create opportunities for open discussion and learning among like-minded peers. It’s also worth remembering that your blog will go through its ups and downs, just as all lives do.

If you’re struggling, perhaps take a day—or a week—off to clear your mind and refocus. It might make the difference between two or three mediocre posts or one terrific one. It might make the difference between quitting or sticking it out. At these times we need to take care of ourselves. We’re all worth looking after.

Karen Andrews is an author, publisher, speaker and blogger at Miscellaneous Mum.

How to Ajaxify Your WordPress Site

This guest post is by Jeff Starr, co-author of the book Digging into WordPress.

Injecting a dose of Ajax into your WordPress-powered site is an excellent way to enhance functionality and streamline the user experience. Without touching a line of code, you can harness the power of Ajax to boost performance, improve usability, and fill your site with win.

Ajax enables your web pages to respond very quickly and smoothly to user input by loading only snippets of data instead of the entire page. The WordPress login/registration screen is a perfect example. Without Ajax, logging into the WordPress Admin requires a URL redirection and complete page load. With Ajax, users can log in from anywhere with no redirection or page load required. This translates into a more luxurious, sophisticated experience for you and your users.

Beyond the “coolness” factor, Ajax can also improve the responsiveness and performance of your site. Instead of loading new pages to leave comments, view posts, and share content, Ajax empowers users to interact with your site with greater intimacy and efficiency than ever before. By eliminating page loads, Ajax helps to save valuable server resources and bandwidth, resulting in improved performance for your site. And you can “ajaxify” just about anything: from logins and comments to navigation and updates, Ajax can speed things up, save resources, and make your site better than ever.

WordPress + Ajax = Awesome

Using WordPress, implementing Ajax functionality couldn’t be easier. By installing and configuring a few choice plugins, you can ajaxify your entire site (or any part of it) without touching a single line of code. The trick is choosing only the best plugins for your site, and only what’s needed. There are a zillion Ajax plugins available, but only a handful of them really work as advertised (or at all). Let’s check out some of the best WordPress plugins for adding Ajax to your site from within the comfort of the WordPress Admin.

Ajax plugins for WordPress comments

A majority of the Ajax plugins listed in the Plugin Directory are aimed at improving the commenting system. Here are five of the best plug-n-play Ajax plugins for your WordPress comments area:

  • WP-Comment-Master: Put simply, WP-Comment-Master ajaxifies the entire commenting system: comment display, comment paging, comment submission, and posting. It features a great Settings page for easy integration and configuration and is definitely one of the best Ajax-comment plugins available.
  • iF AJAX Comments For WordPress: Another excellent plugin for ajaxifying the comment-submission process. iF AJAX Comments enables users to preview and post their comments without refreshing the page. It includes a ton of options for fine-tuning required fields, CSS styling, status messages, and more. It also features a host whitelist for tighter security.
  • AJAX Comment Page: AJAX Comment Page is a nice little plugin that ajaxifies the display of your comments with a fancy slide-in effect. It works great for paged or unpaged comments and includes a simple Settings page to control the number of comments per page.
  • Ajax Comment Preview: So far, this is the best plugin I’ve found for true comment previews. Ajax Comment Preview enables your users to see exactly what their comments will look like when submitted. This plugin uses Ajax to send the preview through WordPress’ “inner voodoo” and then instantly display the results. The plugin features a nice Settings page to control functionality and integrate the comment preview with your design.
  • AJAX Report Comments: One of my favorite Ajax plugins, Ajax Report Comments enables your visitors to report inappropriate comments with a single click. The Admin page includes basic settings and an email template. This plugin offers truly tight functionality and amust-have for sites with tons of user comments.

Ajax plugins for user login and registration

Ajax can literally revolutionize the user login/registration/lost-password experience. Instead of requiring multiple clicks and page loads to log into the Admin, here are three plugins that ajaxify the entire process into a single click.

  • Login With Ajax: Login With Ajax is a popular, well-ranked plugin (it has over 45K downloads). It enables users to log in, register, and recover lost passwords from the sidebar (via widget) or anywhere in your theme (via the login_with_ajax() template tag). It features a great Settings page with role-specific redirects and custom registration email templates.
  • iRedlof Ajax Login: Much more than a login widget, iRedlof Ajax Login adds a complete user dashboard to the top of the screen. The dashboard is pre-styled and includes complete login functionality as well as links to random posts and admin menus personalized to each user according to their role. Downsides: there’s no Settings page, and you need to add updateHeader() to your theme template.
  • AJAX Login Widget++: Another good plugin for Ajax-powered login, registration, and password functionality, this one also features login redirect. The login form can be placed in your sidebar with a widget, or anywhere else with add_ajax_login_widget().

Ajax plugins for the WordPress Admin area

On the other side of WordPress, the Admin area is another excellent place to enjoy the smooth and sophisticated comforts of Ajax. Unfortunately there aren’t quite as many Ajax-based Admin plugins to choose from, but here two that are both fun and useful.

  • Ajax Plugin Helper: It’s simple: save time while keeping up with WordPress plugin updates. Ajax Plugin Helper lets you activate, deactivate, delete, and upgrade plugins without leaving the Plugins page. Very smooth stuff, and there’s even an “Upgrade All” feature for knocking out multiple upgrades with a single click! Nice.
  • Admin Ajax Note: Ever wish you could leave notes and stuff for other admin users? Admin Ajax Note makes it easy with an Ajax-powered notepad in the upper-right corner of the Admin area. Create, edit, and delete as many notes as you want, and share with all users, one user, or none. Good stuff.

These two plugins are great, but it would awesome to add more to the list. If you know of any sweet Ajax Admin plugins, please share them in the comments!

Ajax plugins for other cool stuff

Here are some other keen plugins for ajaxifying different parts of your WordPress site:

  • DynamicWP Contact Form: The DynamicWP Contact Form puts a floating Contact button on the upper-left side of the page. Click the button and the dynamic contact form slides into view. Messages are sent via Ajax to keep the user on the same page throughout the process. Snazzy indeed, but the styling is distinct and may need to be tweaked to fit your design.
  • AJAX Calendar: An ajaxified version of the classic WordPress calendar, AJAX Calendar enables you to browse the months without reloading the page. It features a link to display all posts for the current month, as well as a caching option to enhance performance. If you’re already using the classic WP calendar, this plugin is highly recommended.
  • Ajax Category Posts Dropdown: This plugin is perfect for sites with lots of subcategories. Ajax Category Posts Dropdown lists your categories in a dropdown box. When a user clicks on a category, all posts from that category are displayed via Ajax. Easily display the list in your sidebar via widget, or anywhere in your theme via the acpd_display($acdp_title) template tag.

Ajax plugins to ajaxify everything

One of the coolest things to ajaxify is your WordPress navigation, so that when users click to the next post, it’s loaded instantly and on the same page, without a reload. Here are two awesome plugins that use Ajax to load posts, pages, comments, and archives to basically ajaxify all default functionality on the public side of your WordPress site.

As with any plugin that greatly modifies WordPress, these plugins involve a lot of options. You’ll need to spend some time to understand and configure them properly. Most of the other plugins mentioned so far are plug-n-play, but Ajax-everything plugins like these require some time to familiarize and customize.

SEO considerations for ajaxed content

As you ajaxify your site, keep in mind that search engines aren’t yet crawling or indexing ajaxed data, so make sure you’re enabling Google et al to find your content. There are numerous solutions to this challenge, the easiest of which involves the use of a well-linked sitemap and actual HTML content delivered via noscript tags.

Also consider SEO when ajaxifying your comments. User comments add content to your web pages, but they won’t be crawled, indexed, or considered in page rank if they’re served with Ajax. For many sites, this shouldn’t be too big a deal, but it is something to think about.

For more information on Ajax and SEO, check out Scott Allen’s article, AJAX, Web 2.0 and SEO.

Wrapping up

These are the Ajax gems that I’ve managed to find, but many other great plugins are available. If you know of any good WordPress Ajax plugins (or themes!), please share them in the comments. Thanks!

Jeff Starr is a web developer, graphic designer and content producer with over 10 years of experience and a passion for quality and detail. Jeff is co-author of the book Digging into WordPress and strives to help people be the best they can be on the Web. Read more from Jeff at Perishable Press or hire him at Monzilla Media.

The Money’s Not In the List, it’s In the Connection

This post was written by the Web Marketing Ninja—a professional online marketer for a major web brand, who’s sharing his tips undercover here at ProBlogger. Curious? So are we!

What impact will changes to the flow of communications on the Internet cause by the rise of new options, like social media, have on the old marketing adage, “the money’s in the list”? I was asked this recently, and I’ve been pondering the question ever since.

For quite some time, in all honestly, I dismissed the question, because I’ve literally made millions of dollars through email marketing—I’d be hard pressed to ignore that.

But then I thought about the main reasons I’ve been able to use that communication method as a monetization tool. The answer? It’s about the connection, not the practical outcome of having someone’s email address.

Then I realized that the money is not in the list, it’s in the connection with a customer.

We shouldn’t fear the changes new communications methods have brought to bear. We should see them as a great way to expand our channels to build even more connections with customers.

The same principles apply

It even gets better. You can take exactly the same approach you’ve been refining for your email list-building activity, and apply it to these new channels—the basic principles are exactly the same.

The four core attributes of successful email marketing are:

  • Make your email capture findable.
  • Provide incentives for people to sign up.
  • Craft well-written, engaging messages.
  • Give more than you ask from your list.

Now let’s look at how that might translate into a social media channel like Facebook.

  • Findable: Set up your vanity URL and Facebook page, and link to it from your site.
  • Incentives: Offer something unique to your Facebook followers (a coupon or ebook, for example).
  • Engage: Put together a publication schedule specifically for your Facebook page—don’t just syndicate your blog or Twitter feed.
  • Promote: Seed your promotional messages with real value, quality content, and so on.

The key here is to not treat the channel as a method to build your email list, but to see it as a new method to develop a connection with a customer in the place where they feel most comfortable communicating. If you’re trying to fit Facebook pegs into email holes, you might be able to jam a few in, but you’re costing yourself valuable leads in the process.

While these new channels need unique approaches, and different regulations govern what you can and can’t do in each, at their cores, they’re the same.

Patience pays

It took us all years to master the intricacies of marketing via email, so don’t expect instant income from these new channels. But stick with it, and you just might discover greater success was you step away from the norm and embrace new methods of connecting with your customers.

As long as the medium allows for me to communicate with my list, and my list to communicate with me, I’m happy.

Stay tuned from most posts by the secretive Web Marketing Ninja—a professional online marketer for a major web brand, who’s sharing his tips undercover here at ProBlogger.