Fact: In early 1999, there were an estimated 23 weblogs, or blogs, on the Internet*
Fact: In 2008, Technorati (the world’s leading blog search engine) claimed to be tracking over 100 million blogs (and those are just English-language blogs!).
In less than 10 years, blogs have become an integral part of the way business is done and information is shared online. And in my opinion, they’re the most reliable, efficient way for companies and business leaders to communicate directly to their stakeholders in plain English, not in marketing speak or the foreign language of financial projections.
Because of their intimate nature and relatively low cost to implement, blogs are also a natural choice for independent consultants, contractors, and freelancers. Whether as a standalone or as part of an existing website, a blog is an excellent way for independent professionals to have an ongoing conversation with potential clients and partners. And when used effectively, a blog can be a powerful lead-generation tool.
But you know that already, right? What you really want to know is how you can use blogging to promote your services as an independent consultant. What steps do you take? What software should you use? How much time will you need to dedicate to blogging?
Blogging is such an extensive topic (in fact, some of the best blogs are all about blogging) that it would make for a very long read if I went into all the details, so instead I’ve decided to share a quick and dirty guide, based on my own blogging experiences and advice from some of the Internet’s best professional bloggers.
- What is a blog?
- Can be thought of like a mini-magazine, or an ongoing conversation with readers
- Typically updated multiple times per week or per day
- Something that speaks for you and your business even while you’re out doing other things
- Why blog?
- To establish yourself as an expert on a particular topic
- To generate leads for online and offline businesses
- To increase your website’s Google ranking (via regularly updated, relevant content)
BEFORE YOU START – SURVEY THE LANDSCAPE
- Perform Keyword Research – When people search for content online, they usually start by entering key words into an online search engine like Google. Keyword research helps bloggers center their blog content around the words that potential readers will be searching for. If you want your content to actually be found by the right people, keyword research is essential. This Copyblogger post on keyword research gives a step-by-step overview of how keyword research is done and how it can help you reach the right readers and boost your search engine ranking.
- Determine Your Audience – Who are you writing for? What are their problems and needs? How will your content help them? Try this simple technique to develop a profile of your blog readers.
- Check Out Other Blogs on Similar Topics – see what they’re writing about, and if there are any gaps you can fill or a different angle you can provide on the topic.
- Determine Blog Name / URL – Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when choosing a domain name for your blog.
- Choose a Blogging Tool or Platform– There are loads of blogging tools out there that will help you write and publish your blog, but here are my top 3 blogging tools, listed in order from most to least complex for new bloggers.
- WordPress (used by most probloggers)
- Define a Purpose and Goals for Your Blog – Your primary goal should be to develop a loyal audience of ‘followers’ that want what you have to offer (products, services, or just advice and know-how). To make sure you can track progress, state your goals in numerical terms – e.g., I want to get 150 visitors per month, and an average of 5-7 leads per month from the blog.
HOW SHOULD IT LOOK? CHOOSING BLOG DESIGN AND LAYOUT
The look and feel of your blog will be very important. But it’s not the most important thing. Don’t spend too much time agonizing over your blog’s design upfront. Focus on content, promotion, and lead conversion first, and you can continue to tweak your blog design over time.
- Gather Design Ideas – Smashing Magazine has a huge collection of free WordPress designs, or themes, for inspiration. For hints on what makes a great blog design, check out this article.
- Get a Do-It-Yourself Blog Design or Hire a Designer – Deciding whether or not you should hire a blog designer will largely be based on your skills and your budget (in both time and dollars). If you’re fairly comfortable with HTML, I’d suggest doing it yourself. Start with a basic, but attractive template design, tweak as much as you can without spending too much time on it, and keep a running list of small site enhancement projects that you can hire someone to do over time. Two of my favorite design template providers (for WordPress) are: Woo, and Elegant Themes.
WHAT SHOULD IT DO? DETERMINING BLOG FUNCTIONS
- Select Blog Extensions and Plugins – As you get more sophisticated, you’ll want your blog to do more – e.g., make some posts members-only, sell downloadable products, show ads, display your Amazon favorites list, allow users to automatically share your post on Facebook, Twitter. All of these types of functions are made possible through the use of plugins and widgets. This is where WordPress is powerful – since it’s open source, users are creating plugins and widgets all the time. There’s a vast library of WordPress plugins to select from and several that are considered ‘standard plugins for any WordPress blog, like All-In-One SEO
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS – CONTENT AND PROMOTION
If I had to guess the #1 reason why most blogs fail to live up to their creator’s original expectations, I’d say it’s because they underestimated the effort involved in running a blog and failed to plan ahead. These steps should help you avoid the same fate.
- Define Blog Topics, Set an Editorial Calendar –
- What you’ll write about – from your keyword research, you should have a pretty good idea of what topics you’ll write about. You can also survey your current clients or others that match the profile of your readership to get an idea of what kind of information means the most to them.
- How often – The more often, the better. But you should be sensitive to how much your targeted audience can tolerate. Be sure to communicate to your readers how often you publish new content, and stick to the schedule. Professional blogger Chris Guillebeau recommends that you write enough material in advance so that when (not if) you get too busy to write, you’ll have a backlog of content to pull from. For maximum effectiveness, use this sample blogging editorial calendar to help you stay consistent.
- Other people’s content – not everything on your blog has to be your own original content. Sharing other people’s blogs, articles, and products boosts your credibility (by showing that you’re in the know and scouting relevant info) and creates community with others in your field. You can also invite subject matter experts to write guest posts on your blog.
- Determine Blog Promotion Strategy – The most common methods for promoting your blog are:
- Social media – sharing blog posts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, StumbleUpon, etc.
- Commenting on other blogs, forums, etc. with a link back to your blog included in your signature
- Guest posting on other blogs
- RSS – allow readers to get updated content from your blog in an RSS reader. The most popular RSS service is Feedburner
- RSS to email – automatically publish updated content to email list subscribers using RSS
- Link trading with other websites, blogs
TRACKING AND MEASURING
Like any other business activity, you should track the results of your blogging efforts in relation to the goals you originally set for yourself. Regardless of what your goals are, some key metrics you should always track are: Site visitors, return visitors, rate of visitor conversion (to a customer or subscriber) ad clicks, referring sites / inbound links, and blog ranking. Check out one approach for measuring blog success.
LEARN FROM OTHERS
The best thing about blogging is the community of other bloggers that you get to interact with. Tap into local groups that include bloggers of varying degrees of experience – they’re an excellent resource for blogging tips, shortcuts, and best practices. Here are a few Atlanta-area blogging groups:
- Atlanta Bloggers Meetup Group
- Atlanta Web Marketers Meetup Group
- Atlanta WordPress Users Meetup Group
I hope this ‘quick and dirty’ guide is useful to those of you who are considering starting your own business blog. If you’d like a longer, cleaner version, send me a message or leave me a comment on the blog.
*Source: ‘A Short History of Blogging’, The Blog Herald, March 2005.