Awhile back, Lisa from Little Foods wrote me a very nice e-mail asking for my advice on how to grow your readership. It's a great question and one that every blogger asks at one point or so in his/her career, possibly more often than once, possibly over and over.
I've been thinking a lot about the answer, mostly because I remember writing to several big bloggers in the infancy of my blog and asking them for some advice on the same thing. It always boiled down to a template response about how it's organic and just focus on writing and it will come. That was probably true, kinda, but not entirely helpful.
Truth is, it doesn't always come. For some people, it never comes. And it can be frustrating to get up every day and write that post, which amounts to writing something eloquent and great on a billboard, in a desert, where only the cactus, the lizards and your Aunt Betty are reading. That can be frustrating - you write and no one comes to read. Is writing even meaningful if no one comes to read? And there are those times when you steady yourself and write something downright controversial and pungent, and you think everyone will take issue, and what happens? Nothing. Not a peep. Not one crazed or incensed reader. Nothing. That's the worst.
So, here's my take on a few things about growing your readership. Remember, this an idiots take. Truth is, there are people with a lot more traffic than me who might have a magic formula that works better. So, this is from someone's opinion who is still trying to figure it all out, and still feels like she writes her billboard in the desert, even when you all say nice things and convince me this is not the case.
Times They Are A Changin'
You can no longer just write a good blog. There are millions of good blogs. They all look the same. They say the same things. There are 413,000 recipes for carbonara on Google. Yours better be laced with gold dust to stand out. The people who write these blogs are all pretty literate. They can put sentences together, some of them are even pretty. The pictures, thanks to a digital age in cameras where the family dog can shoot a good picture, means that everybody has pretty good photos.
There was a time when, for instance, no one was talking about eating gluten free. If I'm not mistaken, my friend Shauna started her beautifully-written, intimate blog because no one was talking about how to live vivaciously and eat daringly on a gluten free diet. That is not longer the case. There are thousands of gluten free blogs now. To have a good one that gets noticed in the din, you have to do more than write nice content. You have to be different. Trying to be Shauna will not get you anywhere, because let me tell you, there is only one Shauna.
Well, how the hell do I be different?
The basis for all great storytelling is two things: Concept and execution. You have to have a great concept - harried mom tries to make meals for her crazy family, teacher eats school lunch everyday and documents it, woman loves food and wants to eat well, but has to lose weight - these are concepts that can work.
It means you should be able to explain your blog to a stanger in one sentence and have them get it. If you are saying things like, "Well, my blog is about me cooking for my finicky husband, and, you know, some recipes, and some stories about me teaching special ed, and this diet I want to go on, and sometimes I post pictures of my dog..." The person you are speaking to will fall asleep standing up and will definitely never read your blog. Write your blog into a one sentence concept. Don't write another thing until you can do that.
And it's okay if the concept changes and is altered over time. My blog started out as a bunch of crazy stories about cooking and feeding the family, while managing two kids under two. My posts were frantic, harried, and I hope funny. This concept had to change when the kids stopped being so nuts. They grew up and instead of trying to loft basil through the air into the shopping cart next to mine, they started to enjoy the market. They learned to pick the best tomatoes and thump a melon. Nice, but not funny. My writing had to change with them.
Most of you who have been reading lately know that I am altering the concept of this blog a little more. I'm going to have a new header up soon and a new tagline to reflect this new concept. We change as people, and so should our writing and our blogs.
The most important part of all this is execution. Sure, you may have been the dude that thought up this great idea for a TV show about a gay guy and his best (girl) friend who live together, but if you didn't sit down and write the pilot script for Will & Grace, you didn't do anything special. It's easy to have an idea, much harder to execute. Most people don't get that. That's why when people say stupid things like, "I have this great idea for a book, you can write it and we'll split the profits", I know they have no clue. Execution is everything. You have to execute the concept. Every time you post.
This means if you are a photography blog, work on your photos, make them extraordinary or weird or dark or quirky. If you are writing stories, make them honest, deep, beautifully-crafted, effect people, get to them. If you are funny, please be funny. There just aren't enough humor writers in the world. Be known for something, like being funny, being satirical, writing gorgeous poetry. Make what you do stand out.
Focus on the thing you do best. And if you're not sure what that is and you're a blog newbie, use your blog to figure that out. I had no idea I'd write a humor blog. I started out writing serious posts about raw milk and shit. Then, I started getting feedback. People loved the funny stuff and couldn't care less what I said about the diary industry. I stuck to what I was good at, what got a response. I let Christina and Michelle take on the serious food/kid issues. These ladies are better at it than I am.
Which brings me to another point, you don't just write your blog for yourself. Sure, I hear people say, "Hey, this is my blog, I can say whatever I want." And I suppose that's true, in some sense, but if you want an audience, if you don't want to be a billboard in a desert, you have to write for them, too. You have to touch them, make them check your site everyday until another post is up. You have to add value to their day. That is what builds an audience.
Now, I'm rockin my blog, how do I get people to come?
You need to network. Sorry, it's true. The internet exists outside your pajamas and the living room. You know how you go to some A list bloggers site and they link to this post by some new-to-you blogger and you read her post and think, Why that post? My post was so much better. I'm a better writer. Why doesn't she link to me?
Easy answer. She probably doesn't know who you are. Or that you even exist. And she and the linked blogger are friends, have networked, met on Twitter, met at a conference. People take care of people they know and trust. It's human. You need to be out there. And by out there, I mean either attending events if you live in New York, Seattle, Chicago or if not, you need to be on Twitter, engaging people on social media, posting about your blog, what you're doing, why you have something special, important, interesting to say. If you can't get to a conference, fine, plan a pot luck meet-up of food bloggers on Twitter in your state, or town. Hell, plan a Twitter party around an idea that interests you and network in your underpants. Mrs. Q did a great one about school lunch. She expanded her circle of readers, showed how daring and relevant she is, and and engaged people in a way that meant something to them.
By the way, if you are a blogger and you arent Tweeting, you are missing a HUGE opportunity. And a lot of fun. Tweeting is just writing mini-blog posts. Hundreds of my readers come from Twitter on days that I post and I've become friends with people who are much more talented than I am. These people have elevated my game. Jennie, Cathy, Gail, Shauna, Melissa, Abby and Matthew. Just by being friends and colleagues with people who are better than you, more successful than you, changes your game, rubs off on you. And when these folks are just plain awesome people, who hold your hand when you make a giant ass of yourself in front of a prospective agent, and do things like edit your book proposal before it goes out to agents, and just make you laugh every time your day turns to shit, well, that's even better, isn't it? The world just becomes a much nicer, warmer place to be in.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't be afraid of No.
It happens often that someone I know on Twitter will DM me and tell me they wrote a post that was important to them and ask me to retweet it, or give it a mention. I'm happy to do it when I can. We do that for friends and colleagues. We help promote each others books and brilliant posts and pieces in the Huffington Post. Don't be angry about the nepotism, and rail against it as unfair. Embrace it. Ask a bigger blogger if they would help you publicize a post that is important to you, or introduce you to Twitter folowers on Follow Fridays. It takes two seconds and people will do it. If they don't, fuck 'em. Who cares? But you have to be engaging people. If you do, sometimes things will stick.
Forget traffic, build a tribe
Bloggers are always worried about numbers, traffic. I know some bloggers that check their stats constantly. I see people tweeting about their numbers. I hear there are things you can do to get on board with a trending topic to increase your numbers. There's all that gibberish about SEO. Okay, fine. Let other people bang their heads against the wall. It all just gives me a big ole rotten headache. And it's not what gives me joy.
Forget your numbers. Numbers are distant things. They don't have faces, or thoughts. Numbers cannot be changed by your writing, or moved by a picture. They might determine your success with advertisers, but they don't determine, necessarily, that your blog can be life changing, that you can make a difference, that the lizard that is reading your billboard may have needed to hear the exact thing you wrote, at the exact minute you posted it. By focusing on "traffic" you negate and minimize how your writing can make a real difference, how YOU can make a difference.
That's probably why you started blogging in the first place, isn't it?
What you want are a dedicated tribe of people, a community of poeople who are inspired by your message, happy to read you, that take something away every time they come to your site. Focus on them. If you write a site about kids and cooking, you need to make peace with the idea that there is going to be a certain segment of the population that is not going to want to see your kid eating octopus, no matter how crazy cute they look, or how beautifully lit that photo is.
They are not your tribe. Forget them. Just focus on the people who can be changed by your words, your stories.
If you have a hundred readers, or 50, or 10, take a look at who they are. See who else they read by their link lists and look at those blogs, comment and see if the people don't come back to you. Don't waste your time commenting on the big blogs, (unless you genuinely love the blogger and it means something to you to say what you're feeling out loud). Those people who get 700 comments arent going back to your blog. They are busy. They can't check out every commenter's blog, even if they want to. Comment on blogs your size and smaller, in the same vein as yours.
Find a community, share ideas, guest post on each others blogs, start a family of ideas. But you have to get out there. You have to connect with people either by going to an event or by chatting on Twitter, or commenting, or making friends. Then, watch them become readers. Those are the people, who will promote you. They'll pack their bags and start moving to the desert. Pretty soon, a bunch of people will be sitting in the sand eagerly anticipating your next post. And they'll tell others and your readership will grow.
And speaking of a group, don't worry about the A list bloggers. Sure, they are successful and talented, but why some people are more successful than others is random and determined by so many things. Mostly, things you can't control. The A list is not your goal. Making a meaningful connection is.
Every time I've spoken about some blogger as if she were Jesus Christ, David always chimes in and says, "Kim, she's a...BLOGGER" Like "Kim, she's...an ACCOUNTANT." This sort of puts it in perspective. Bloggers are just people who write stuff in their jammies. We have that in common. If you want to be in the "in crowd" you should focus on creating your own. And that sounds like a hell of a lot of fun to me.
Hope this helps!
PS: If you haven't gotten your book proposal from me yet, just hold on. I'm working through the list. Should have them all out in a few days. Thanks!