The Beginner's Guide to Blogging | Blogging, Small Business, Web Design & Hosting Tips - A Small Orange

The Beginner’s Guide to Blogging: Part 1

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Whether you run a business or not, there are countless benefits to blogging. It can build your brand, build you up as an authority, and of course (the really exciting stuff) it can make you money.

Let’s begin by looking at the benefits of blogging in more detail.

Why Blog?

Blogging as a business

A well-run blog should play a key part in your marketing strategy (not to mention the fact that if you want to invest in content marketing, it’s pretty much a prerequisite).

Benefits to blogging as a business include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Increased brand awareness
  • Increased organic search traffic
  • More brand authority
  • More leads
  • More conversions
  • Links

Let’s break this down.

Increased brand awareness – Great blog content will get shared around and increase the number of consumers who are exposed to your brand.

Increased organic search traffic – Well-written and useful content can rank in the search results and drive organic (i.e. free) traffic to your site.

More brand authority – Write in a manner that showcases your knowledge, and consumers will come to know you (and your brand) as an authority in your industry.

More leads – Blog content that targets consumers towards the beginning and the middle of the sales funnel can bring targeted traffic to your site and turn them into leads.

More conversions – In a similar manner, you can also craft content that will help turn those leads into sales.

Links – Links are the beating heart of the web and are one of the biggest factors Google uses to determine how visible a site is in its search results. You’ll need them if you want to rank organically.

Best of all, these benefits will generally stick with you for the long haul. Content that performs well initially tends to continue to perform well over time. Content that doesn’t perform well right away can often gain traction down the line.

Take Hubspot, for instance. The site sees a significantly higher number of leads generated via its old blog posts than its new ones.

“Let’s say you sit down for an hour and write and publish a blog post today. Let’s say that blog post gets you 100 views and 10 leads. You get another 50 views and 5 leads tomorrow as a few more people find it on social media and some of your subscribers get caught up on their email and RSS. But after a couple days, most of the fanfare from that post dies down and you’ve netted 150 views and 15 leads.

It’s not done.

That blog post is now ranking in search engines. That means for days, weeks, months, and years to come, you can continue to get traffic and leads from that blog post. So while it may feel like day one or bust, in reality, blogging acts more like this:

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So while you’re hitting your snooze alarm, surfing in Hawaii, and pumping iron, you’re also driving traffic and leads. The effort you put in yesterday can turn into hundreds of thousands of views and leads in the future.”  – Corey Eridon for HubSpot

Blogging as yourself

There are many reasons you might want to run a “personal” blog.

It might be that you want to build your personal brand, perhaps to make a move to freelancing or to make yourself more attractive to prospective employers.

It could be that you have a passion you want to share. Maybe you want to go one step further and use a blog to build yourself up as an authority on that passion, so you can monetize your expertise by working as an influencer.

“Having a high Klout score or a big following does not make you an influencer.  Popularity is NOT influence. It takes a lot more work to become a true influencer.

True influencers would never call themselves  “influencers” because they are too busy adding value to others’ lives. They use their powers for good, not personal gain. These are the only ‘influencers’ we need to know.” – Cammi Pham, for her blog

Maybe you want to make money as an affiliate marketer.

Perhaps you want to go back to basics and use a blog to share stories with your friends and family. Maybe you just want to use your blog as a 21st-century diary (it’s easy to make them private, if that’s what you’re after).

My own blog, sujanpatel.com, is part personal, part business.

It exists to build my personal brand, but my personal brand is my business (or one of them, at least). The blog has been instrumental to the growth of the “Sujan brand.”

One of the key goals of sujanpatel.com is to drive consultancy leads. I have a page dedicated to that purpose. However, the benefits go much further than that.

My blog has been responsible for book sales, helped to grow my email list, and led to a number of speaking gigs.

Literally, money just lands in my lap if I make sure to blog regularly and answer my email.

The way I see it, if you run a business today, or simply want to make money online, you can’t afford not to be blogging.

Exclusive Bonus: Download the beginner’s guide to blogging cheat sheet for the complete to-do checklist and make sure you’re doing everything you can to build a blog that converts.

Setting Up Your Blog

My experience has shown me that setting up a blog is where many of us fall down. If you know nothing about web design or development, it’s easy to be intimidated or feel overwhelmed by what’s involved.

The first step is finding someone to host your blog, once you do that you can get started on setting up your blog.

Thankfully, setting up a blog is easier now than it’s ever been. Many platforms pretty much build your blog for you. For instance try finding a service that offers a drag & drop website builder as an easy way to set up your blog.

The main thing you have to do is pick which platform you want to use. Let’s take a quick look at some of the most popular.

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WordPress

As you can see above, WordPress holds the lion’s share of the market – by a lot. Although initially launched as a blogging-only platform, it can now be used to build and manage entire websites.

Not only is WordPress really easy to use, the number of plugins and themes available for the platform means it is by far the most customizable CMS on the market.

Getting started with WordPress is free, although you may want to fork out for a premium plan, and depending on the traffic your blog and site receives, you may want to pay for hosting. You can do this for as little as $5 a month with a shared hosting plan from A Small Orange.

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Drupal

Drupal is really a fully-blown CMS that can be used exclusively as a blogging platform. It’s especially popular with people who are at least moderately tech-savvy.

Drupal’s main selling points are its versatility and the ease with which it can grow with your business.

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Joomla!

Joomla! is another option that would suit those with at least a little bit of skill and experience in web development. Benefits include the ease with which sites can be developed in multiple languages, front-end editing abilities (meaning you don’t need to log into the back end of the site to make changes) and access to more than 8,000 extensions.

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Since WordPress is the most widely-used and user-friendly of the above options, for the rest of this section I’m going to reference it exclusively.

Picking a theme

WordPress boasts an ever-expanding and seemingly limitless selection of themes for webmasters to sift through and choose from. This is thanks to its open-source platform that allows anyone to design themes.

If you can’t find a theme that tickles your fancy on WordPress itself, you might have more luck with a third-party developer, like:

Of course, like anything in life, you shouldn’t base your decision on looks alone…

Free or premium?

Free WordPress themes are great because they’re, well, free. Premium themes, however, often boast more features and better support. They also tend to be more (or entirely) unique. This is important if you want to stand out.

If limiting your spending is really important to you, there’s nothing inherently wrong with picking a free WordPress theme. Most of them still look good and will serve their purpose.

However, if you can afford it, it may be worth forking out for something a little more unique and customizable.

Simplicity is key

Your blog theme should look good, of course. But it should also be easy to use and not risk distracting the reader with unnecessary bells and whistles. Pick a design that has clear and intuitive navigation.

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Pick a responsive design

There’s no getting around it: websites today need to be mobile-friendly. Thankfully the solution to this is very simple – pick a responsive design (meaning that the design automatically reconfigures itself to fit any size and shape of screen).

Load speed

Load speed plays a huge part in page abandonment. Users just don’t want to wait – and why would they, when the next site along might load faster and offer similar content?

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You can use Pingdom’s website speed test to find out how long a theme takes to load – just enter the URL of the theme’s demo.

Naming your blog

What’s in a name?

A lot.

It plays a huge part in first impressions. In fact, you could say it’s more important than your blog’s theme. Your name will appear in the search results, while your theme won’t, after all.

It’s also going to stick around (you ideally don’t want to risk changing it after you’ve built a successful blog under it). Your theme is much easier to update if you change your mind later.

When picking a name, you should be asking yourself questions like…

  • What’s the blog about? (See next section below, “Choosing a niche”)
  • Who’s your target audience?
  • What tone of voice will you be using? Is the blog serious, or will you be keeping it light-hearted and fun?
  • What’s the purpose of your blog? If it’s to build your personal brand, for example, you’ll probably just want to name the blog after yourself.
  • Is it unique? Will it help your blog stand out?
  • What imagery does it evoke?
  • Is it easy to remember?
  • Is the domain name available?
  • Do other people like it?

It’s well worth looking at the names of other blogs in your industry – in part, to see what sort of names work among your competitors, but also to help you come up with something that’s going to make you stand out.

Publishing your first post

The best thing about WordPress is how easy and intuitive it is to use. However, just to be sure, I’m going to run through a few basic steps involved in getting your first post published.

You’ll be managing your site (or blog) using the “My Site” menu on the left of the screen. If there’s nothing there, click the “My Site” button in the far left corner. The full menu should drop down.

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From here, click the “Add” button that appears next to “Blog Posts.”

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You can then choose to write your blog post directly into the text box, or copy and paste it in from an external document.

To make formatting your post easier, you may want to switch to HTML mode.

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When you’re finished, you will probably want to preview your post. You can find that button in the “My Site” control panel.

If you’re happy with how your post looks, you can publish it right away by clicking “Publish.” Alternatively, you can schedule it out for a later date using the button located directly to the right of “Publish.”

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Choosing a Niche

Before you can actually write your first blog post – perhaps, even, before you name your blog and get it designed – you should pick the niche you want your blog to cover.

This step is important because it gives your blog more direction and focus. It’s much easier to become “the best” – to become a thought leader – in one very specific area, than to become a master of many areas.

Sure, there are plenty of publications that cover all areas within a particular subject matter (think about pretty much any big-name tech blog, for instance). There are also lots of sites that cover many different, entirely unrelated topics.

The difference is that these sorts of sites generally employ a huge range of writers, each with their own specialist area.

If your blog lies in your own hands, or the hands of a small team, it makes sense to pick one very specific niche that you can really sink your teeth into.

So how do you choose the niche that’s right for you?

Knowledge and passion

First and foremost, the “right” niche is one that you are passionate and knowledgeable about.

Do you need to know everything about that niche? Of course not. You can, and will, learn as your blog grows. However, you should have a decent base of knowledge in your chosen niche, and enough passion for that niche to keep wanting to learn more.

Fit

If you’re running a business blog, your choices are limited: the right niche is one that fits your business.

Does your company offer marketing services? Then write about marketing. However, you might want to consider the advice above and choose one specific aspect of marketing to focus on, or assign a specific area to different staff members in accordance with their individual expertise.

Reach vs. competition

This is where your job gets difficult.

So we know that the “right” niche is one that you’re knowledgeable in and are passionate about.

It’s also one that is popular enough to ensure the potential audience is there, but not so popular that you’re going to suffocate under the competition.

The fact is, if you can think of something you want to focus on, someone has probably already created a blog about it.

Your challenge is to find that “niche within a niche.” To do this:

  • Target your blog at a particular level of knowledge – beginner, intermediate, or advanced.
  • Create a blog that covers a particular niche in a unique way (Listverse doesn’t focus on a single niche, but the “lists” angle gives it a unique edge).
  • Look at a niche from a different point of view.

In summary, choosing a successful blog niche comes down to two things:

  1. Having a unique enough angle to stand out from more than 200 million other blogs.
  2. Actually giving a damn about the subject you’re covering.

Writing for the Web

Before you begin to blog, there’s one thing you really ought to learn…

How to write for the web.

This is because writing for a digital audience calls for a very different style and skillset than the type of writing most of us were taught in school.

Writing a blog post is nothing like writing an academic essay. Big words and long sentences are out; simple terminology and short, easy-to-read sentences are in.

Of course, it takes time to really master the craft of writing for the web. You’ll need to practice if you want to achieve perfection.

In the meantime, let’s get you up to speed on the basics.

Great web content:

  • consists of short sentences – try to stick to 20 words or less.
  • avoids short paragraphs – four or five sentences at the most.
  • avoids using jargon (use language everyone can understand).
  • avoids repeating words in quick succession.
  • avoids repetition of ideas.
  • uses an active, not a passive, voice.
  • avoids using unnecessary words. For example, the sentence “George’s wife is a woman who is unhappy because of the fact that George ignores her.” could be cut to just 8 words: “George’s wife is unhappy because George ignores her.”

To help you nail your web-writing technique, I can’t recommend the Hemingway App enough. You remember Ernest Hemingway, right? He wrote books like The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms

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…but today he is arguably best known for pioneering a short and succinct style of writing – the style of writing we associate with writing for the web, and that the Hemingway App helps us to achieve.

Specifically, the app identifies sentences that are hard or very hard to read, phrases with simpler alternatives, and unnecessary uses of adverbs and passive voice.

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Of course, one of the best ways to learn is to learn from the best. In other words, start reading content by great digital writers.

One of my favorites has to be Backlinko’s Brian Dean. He absolutely kills it when it comes to short paragraphs and sentences.

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Kristi Hines is arguably marketing’s biggest and best-known freelance writer, copywriter, and ghostwriter, and for good reason – she has an incredible way with words.

Unfortunately, her own blog contains just three examples of her writing. To see more, I recommend checking out her profiles on other sites like Social Media Examiner and Crazy Egg.

Check out Blogger Sidekick’s Will Blunt to find out specifically how to write blog content “like a boss.”

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And for something a little different I can’t recommend Everywhereist enough. It’s a beautifully and uniquely-written travel blog penned by Geraldine, the wife of one of SEO’s biggest names, Rand Fishkin. She has an incredible knack for pulling you into a story and making you stay for more wonderful, off-the-wall adventures with Rand and Geraldine.

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Exclusive Bonus: Download the beginner’s guide to blogging cheat sheet for the complete to-do checklist and make sure you’re doing everything you can to build a blog that converts.

Formatting Blog Posts

What looks better…
This?

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Or this?

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It should go without saying that wall-to-wall text doesn’t render right on screen. Sure, some sites, like Wikipedia, might be able to get away with it. Most of us, however, need to put a little more effort into formatting and presentation if we want to create content that people are actually going to bother to read.

Subheadings

Barring novel writing, subheadings are fundamental to a good, readable piece of writing.

Below is a chunk of text taken from Wikipedia’s page on Doctor Who.

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On the left is the text as it appears on Wikipedia. On the right it has been reformatted by Adam Thompson of 10x Digital to include subheadings.

Which version would you rather read?

Boost the readability of your content by using subheadings to separate sections of content, and in some cases, themes and ideas, too. Here is a great example of how to use subheadings in your blog.

Images

Imagery helps to draw the reader’s eye towards certain sections on the page, illustrate points being made, and maximize readability by breaking up text.

Of course, not just any image will do.

You’ll want to make sure you have the rights to use an image (unless you’ve taken or created it yourself, of course). Here you can see an example for usage of good blog images, these were created using a free web program such as snappa.io. Simple yet effective.

Using images that are owned and protected by someone else can land you in a pretty sticky spot. You can read more about copyright and the law here.

Stay safe by…

Once you have an image, modifying it can give you more edge (just check to be sure you’re allowed to modify any images you choose to use, first!)

Head over here for an excellent article on how to turn an image like this:

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Into this:

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Bonus tip: embedding gifs and videos into your posts can have a similar effect.

Lists

Use numbered and bullet point lists to organize sequences of points. It makes them:

1. Easier to read

2. Easier to digest, and

3. Easier to remember

Quotes

When presented correctly, quotes can add visual appeal to your content. They also lend credibility to the points you make.

The simplest way to present a quote is by indenting it, like so…

“Few things will improve your post like well-positioned quotes. Many authors are not only more brilliant than we are, but they’re also superior writers. By taking their brilliance and inserting it in your posts, you’re boosting your argument’s credibility and making your articles more interesting to read.” – Mary Jaksch, Write to Done

Alternatively, you could up their visual appeal by adding a colored background:

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Or embedding it in an image:

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Generating Ideas

Once you know what niche you want to focus on and you have the basics of writing for the web down, with at least the bare bones of your blog in place, it’s time for one of the hardest mountains you’re going to have to climb…

Coming up with ideas.

For those of you who are new to blogging, you might not realize how hard this part is. What’s more, it only tends to get harder. The more you write, the more your pool of ideas generally shrinks.

You can minimize this effect somewhat by choosing a fast-moving niche. SEO is a good example. There are so many changes happening so often in the industry that you’d have to create a lot of content to run out of fresh ideas.

But, regardless of the niche your blog operates in, you’re probably going to need a few tools to help you come up with ideas.

A great place to start is to find out what other people are asking about your niche.

For this, I tend to turn to Quora and Reddit.

They’re really easy to use. Just enter a subject of interest in the search box and read through the results to see what questions people are asking around that topic. Your task is to create content that answers those questions.

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Long-tail keyword research tools can be infinitely valuable when it comes to topic inspiration, too.

Just to clarify, I’m not talking about Google’s Keyword Planner here. It’s useful, sure. But it focuses on head, buying terms – terms that have a high search volume. Keyword Planner rarely shows you what people are actually asking.

For this purpose, tools like these are going to serve you much better:

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the oldest, most tried-and-tested method of idea generation in the book….

Brainstorming.

At some point, you will probably revert to basics and get your team together for a good, old-fashioned session of brainstorming. But how can you ensure you maximize the time you spend on it?

Sure, you could just sit around a table and wait for someone to come up with a winning idea…

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…or you could find a way to use this time more efficiently:

  • Use the “note and vote” method. Everyone gets a few minutes to think up as many ideas as they can. They then share their top ideas, the ideas are discussed, and the best ones voted on.
  • Try Brainwriting 6-3-5: six people and three ideas in five minutes. After five minutes, you pass your ideas to the person on your left, the timer is reset, and you come up with three more ideas. After just half an hour you will have 108 ideas.
  • Use a tool like tecmark 635 to take your brainwriting online (and negate the need for all participants to be in the same room, office, or even the same country).
  • Have a drink (or two). Seriously. Alcohol has been proven to enhance creativity.

One other tool I find really useful for idea generation is my own blog comments. Okay, so this one doesn’t always pay off, but sometimes readers will ask questions or make suggestions that make me think:

“Hey, why didn’t I think of that one already? I could probably turn that into a blog post, too.”

Here’s the trick, though – I make sure to write down that idea immediately. If I don’t, I’ll forget it – guaranteed.

For that, I use Evernote, but you can use whatever works best for you. The important thing is that you always have something on hand that will let you jot down ideas as and when they come to you.

Setting Goals

The most successful blogs tend to result from the author (or authors) working towards a very specific set of goals.

When setting goals, try to adhere to the SMART principle. This stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

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A specific goal would be something like “get 5000 unique monthly visitors.” It would not be “increase visitors to our blog.”

A measurable goal is one that you, by whatever means, are able to accurately measure whether or not you meet it. The example above is a measurable goal since “unique monthly visitors” is a metric you can view in Google Analytics.

An attainable goal is one you can realistically achieve. You should be ambitious with your goals, sure. But you shouldn’t set goals that are so ambitious you have no hope of actually accomplishing them. That would suck.

A relevant goal is one that actually relates to your business and what you want to achieve. If you’re not bothered about growing an audience on Pinterest, for instance, you shouldn’t set a goal of “get an image pinned 100 times.” It doesn’t matter to you, so it’s irrelevant whether or not you accomplish it.

Time-bound goals entail adding a time limit for achieving that goal. For instance, “get 5000 unique monthly visitors” might become “get 5000 unique monthly visitors by month six.”

If you follow the above strategy, you should be able to create goals that provide direction and focus for your blogging efforts, and that will help you achieve more in less time.

When you first begin, six months is a good time limit to set for achieving your first group of goals. However, remember that when that time limit is reached, your goals should be analyzed, assessed, and reset accordingly – whether or not you managed to meet them.

Creating a Strategy

Once you’ve determined what you want your blog to achieve and by when, it’s time to weave these goals into a strategy.

At a minimum, your strategy should dictate:

  • How often you will post.
  • When you will post.
  • What you should do before, during, and after you post.

It’s critical that you post regularly, even if you can’t post as often as you’d like. There are two key reasons for this:

  1. It’s easier to promote content when it’s created at even intervals.
  2. It’s easier to build an audience when you’re creating content on a consistent

If you want to take this a step further, your strategy could also include guidelines for:

  • How your posts should be formatted.
  • What should be included in each post: i.e., I try to include at least three quotes from other people in my industry in each blog post I write.
  • Keyword use.
  • The style of writing you should use, and so on.

However…
The most important part of a blogging strategy, as I see it, is “what you should do after you post.”

Along with the quality of the content itself, this is the part that determines the success of what you write and create. It’s how you get people to actually visit your site, read your work, and ideally, go on to share it.

This part of your strategy might include tasks like:

  • Including your blog post in your next email blast.
  • Posting to relevant social channels.
  • Notifying people linked to, mentioned, or quoted in the article.
  • Using paid channels x, y, and z and assigning x budget to each channel.

We’ll look at how you can effectively promote your content in more detail in Part Two of this guide. For now, just remember to use those goals that you set to guide your strategy. Be realistic about what you can achieve – if you can only blog twice a month, is it fair to set a goal of securing 250 blog subscribers within six months?

Outsourcing Writing Work

Most of us, at one point or another, will struggle to keep up with our blog schedule. Especially if things elsewhere in our lives or our business are going well.

Other priorities get in the way, and when you’ve got new business coming through the door, it’s easy for blogging to fall by the wayside.

Unfortunately, while maintaining your blog might seem insignificant at the time, in the long term it’s probably going to hurt you. You really shouldn’t let this aspect of your business slide, however busy you might be.

Thankfully there’s a workaround.

Outsourcing.

According to Hubspot’s State of Inbound 2015 survey, 13% of companies use freelancers to create content, and 10% work with agencies.

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It’s safe to say that if you choose to outsource content creation, you’ll be in good company. But how do you actually find freelancers who can create content for you?

In an ideal world, you would want to have a team of outsourcers on hand that you work with directly. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find suitable talent – especially if you need work completed quickly.

In the meantime, it makes sense to use a third-party service that can match you with a suitable freelancer. This option also offers protection should the resulting work not be up to scratch.

There are heaps of platforms promising to match companies with freelancers. Some, however, are better than others.

As a general rule, you get what you pay for. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

I’ll have to admit, I don’t have first-hand experience with any of these sites, but I have heard good things about:

Speedlancer – $59 for a 600-word blog post. They promise to get your post to you in just four hours.

Konsus – A service that matches your task with the best available freelancer to complete it. You pay by the hour, and the more work you order, the less you pay (rates begin at $19 an hour).

Localancers – Matches you with freelancers that operate within a particular location or timezone – the idea being that collaboration becomes easier when a freelancer is working when you are. The cost is determined by you and the freelancer.

So now you know…

  • Why you should blog
  • How to set up your blog
  • How to write for the web
  • How to format a blog post for the internet
  • How to choose a relevant yet profitable niche
  • Different ways of generating ideas
  • What type of goals you should set (and why it’s important to set them)
  • How to devise a blogging strategy, and
  • What to do if you’re too busy to blog

There’s so much more to learn but you can start blogging today!

I’ll be back soon with Part Two, in which I’ll be looking at…

  • How to optimize your blog posts
  • How to promote your blog posts, and
  • How to monetize your blog

But for now, if you have any tips, thoughts, or ideas to add – please leave a note in the comments below:

 

Don’t Forget to check out the next part to the Beginner’s Guide to Blogging here.

 

Exclusive Bonus: Download the beginner’s guide to blogging cheat sheet for the complete to-do checklist and make sure you’re doing everything you can to build a blog that converts.

Image source: Hubspot

 

Image source: Datadial

 

Image source: Hobo Web

 

Image source: Vulture

 

 

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