How to blog professionally (part 1)

Let’s examine the nitty-gritty of pro-level blogging in 2016, with a focus (naturally) on the technology: how to set up a blog, how online advertising works, how to monitor visitor numbers, and so on

In this first instalment I take an eagle-eye’s view of what as a writer you need to know before creating a blog, and address some fundamental concerns.

Getting started

If you want to get started straight away without waiting for my sage wisdom then you can head over to http://wordpress.com and create a blog immediately. As you’ll discover in coming months I can’t recommend WordPress enough. It has absolutely everything you need, and for free.

You’ll also want to head over to Google Analytics (https://analytics.google.com) and add your website. Analytics is how the Internet refers to visitor data and Google’s analytics tool works by giving you a chunk of code that you insert into your WordPress blog, or website. After this your visitor data are recorded magically. You’ll require those numbers when it comes to attracting advertisers.

Conceptualising

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before visiting WordPress.com you need to figure-out the blogging niche you intend to occupy. True, many people blog about everyday life but blogs that provide people a living are typically on a particular topic. Potential visitor numbers and advertising/sponsorship needs to be balanced against the topic you want to write about.

For the one-man blogger the situation is perhaps akin to the enthusiast magazine scene, which remains healthy in many parts of the world despite the print publishing nosedive. Put simply, be specific in your focus. In fact, be ultra-specific.

Let’s say you love fishing and decide to blog about it. Don’t blog about all kinds of fishing. Don’t even blog about just fly-fishing. Blog about fly-fishing on your favourite rivers or in your favourite area, and ensure you make this specific focus known in the blog title or by-line.

Why? Because readers visit hundreds of sites daily. The best you can hope is to become quite literally one of many favourites within their web browser, or a place they find themselves after a Google search.

This is a profound difference when comparing online writing to print journalism: People might only buy one enthusiast magazine each month, or one newspaper each day, but the idea of them visiting only one website is laughable. There is little if any loyalty online. Get used to it.

The competition

Of course, you’ll already have undertaken research to find out if there are potential readers and advertisers by examining the competition. Is anybody else blogging about your field and, if so, how many?

You might want to corner a market by writing about an obscure topic nobody else touches, but that’d be foolish. A beach already packed with sun loungers is where you should be setting-up because it’s infinitely easier to steal worms from somebody else’s bucket than dig new ones out of the sand. And here the worms are both readers and advertisers.

Before setting finger to keyboard you’ll also have analysed your competitors’ content. What are their weaknesses? What can you do better? Readers might not spot specifics but they recognise overall quality.

This might be less about what you write and more about how you write. One annoyance that drove me initially in my own blogging was the amateur grade of writing. I knew I could drive visitors by keeping postings concise and much less obsessed about the author (surely a plague affecting all blogging). People also appreciate decent grammar, which simply makes things less difficult to read.

I also mentioned my professional experience whenever possible while blogging. Why? Well, if I were interested in fly-fishing, and was looking for instruction and advice, I’d want to know what kind of trophies and rivers a blogger has under their belt. Wouldn’t you?

Making money

In analysing your competitors you’ll have spotted what advertising they’ve sourced. They’ll almost certainly have Google AdSense ads (www.google.com/adsense), which you can spot these because usually they’re labelled “Ads by Google” in tiny print at one corner, or have a small triangle logo there. Like traffic cones on motorways these ads are everywhere and anybody can get AdSense for their website. Because of this, and as you might expect, this type of advertising doesn’t pay well.

You’re specifically looking for sponsorship on the competitor sites. Often this is invisible. For example, a blog posting about a fishing expedition in which the author mentions using Bailey’s Bait may well have been sponsored by that company. Sometimes bloggers declare their sponsorship. Often they don’t. The ethics of this are neither here nor there. Again, get used to it.

In other words, it’s now your job to email Bailey’s Bait to see if they want to sponsor you. You’ll need to quote your visitor figures, perhaps even offering them guest access to your Google Analytics data.

You’ll need to promote your sponsor not just on your blog but on the weekly email newsletter you send out, and in your blog’s Twitter feed, or its Facebook group, and so on. Yup, your favourite blog didn’t create that email newsletter for your convenience. It’s so they spread their sponsor’s message even further. Advertisers appreciate that kind of value because, as a rule, it’s only when we’ve seen an advert multiple times that we come anywhere close to paying attention.

Another source of income is affiliates advertising, in which readers buy a product because you promote it and the company concerned then gives you a percentage. Played right, this can be even more lucrative than sponsorship. Again, I’ll discuss this in future.

Building visitors

The bread and butter in terms of your site’s visitor numbers is likely to be those who find your site via a Google search. Perhaps they’re searching for a good fly-fishing lure, for example, and you wrote about one some years ago. The moral of the story is that old postings can be gold, and you should go back to the most popular and link to updates you’ve written. Why? Because you need to keep the visitor at your site viewing your adverts/sponsorship for as long as you can – something referred to as retention. If you a reader leaves your site then they bounce, and a high bounce rate is bad news.

There are some important notes relating to this category of visitor that I’ll cover in future but one of the most vital is that Google demotes sites that are not mobile compatible regardless of how relevant they are to user’s search. Research shows that the majority of people visiting your site will be doing so via phone or tablet so when choosing a site design you have to ensure it’s got to be responsive. Again, I’ll be covering this soon.

The second category of visitor is referrals from another site. For example, perhaps a competitor fly-fishing expert is enthused about your expedition to the Liffey in Ireland, so blogs about your experiences him/herself, and links to your original posting. This can happen at any time, including when you initially post about the trip, or years later when the other person stumbles across your posting. If a popular blog picks you up you could see a huge surge in visitor numbers.

The moral of this particular story: Don’t consider fellow bloggers your enemies. If they’re professional and experienced they will know of the plural nature of the blogging world. Why not refer back to one of their postings and see if you can form a professional relationship or reciprocal gentleman’s agreement?

The third kind of visitor is the one who regularly comes to your site because they believe it to be a good source of information. Sadly, in my experience at least this is the smaller of the three categories because, as mentioned, loyalty is vanishingly rare online.

Generating the kind of original content required to even approach engendering loyalty is a hard slog. A far more effective use of your time is to put effort into the first two categories above.

Perhaps now you see why a lot of online content is so woefully poor quality…

Content

Talking of quality, and as hinted earlier, originality is overrated. Many blogs thrive by simply rewriting stories from larger blogs or news sources. Sometimes they add value by adding in their own research or opinion, but often it’s just a straight rewrite.

Such an approach can be incredibly effective and frustratingly so if you happen to be the blog that originated the story (yes, I’ve been the victim of this several times). When stealing your stuff some blogs will provide a hat tip (H/T) or a straight mention of your site, but many don’t.

Being first to a scoop is good only if it gets headlined by one of the news aggregators, such as Google News (https://goo.gl/KgHF4A), or one of the many phone/tablet apps that aim to aggregate website content, like Flipboard (https://flipboard.com). Again, I’ll discuss this in detail in an upcoming instalment.

So yet one more hard truth a successful blogger has to accept is that theft is part of the job. There’s a feeding hierarchy in the blogging world, and generally blogs steal from sites smaller than themselves. Should you be the one with sticky fingers, be honourable and provide a H/T to the original.

Use a news/feed reader app to keep on top of competitor blogs. Such apps condense sites down to their bare headlines, making it possible to scan each within seconds. Good examples of news/feed reader apps include Feed Demon: www.feeddemon.com.

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