Just over three years ago, when I started this website, my first post was 11 Things I've Learned About Blogging. It was basically a summary of everything I'd learned from writing previous blogs and how things were gonna be different this time, dammit. I think I nailed about two of the 11 points and I mostly cringe when I read it now ("I hate all of the blog accoutrements that everyone loves. I don't really like blog comments... I'm not sure if I'm going to set up an RSS feed for this").
I get asked about once a week for tips on starting a blog. And the thesis statement of my response is always: "Don't do what I did." (Or, if it's a hardcore "Simpsons" person asking, I say "Don't do what Donny Don't does.") Outside of picking an attractive gimmick and trying to write the best damn stuff you can write, I did just about everything wrong.
With my three years of mistakes now under my belt, I know exactly what I'd do if I could start all over again. And those are the tips I want to pass along today. Here are my 11 biggest pieces of advice for anyone interested in starting a blog. Virtually all of which I whiffed on.
Pick one specific topic or focus. When I started this site, I picked 11-item lists as my gimmick and decided I'd write about every topic in the world. This generally made it easier to come up with ideas... but severely hurt the marketability of this site. "General humor" is just about the single worst summary you can have. "My blog about me and my random thoughts" is worse, but just ever so slightly.
When I actually got some traction and started talking to agents and publishers about possible book spinoffs from this site, everyone quite bluntly told me that I'd just have to pick one area and focus on it because, otherwise, there was no book here. I ended up picking dating/sex (thus my book, the 11 Points Guide to Hooking Up, was born). But if I'd just picked one more focused niche early (anything as broad as "dating" or "Simpsons" or as specific as "ManBabies" or "Texts From Last Night") it would've helped things move along much, much quicker.
Make sure you're in it for the love. Starting a blog for the sole purpose of achieving a grand plan (getting a book deal, getting a TV show, getting hired by ESPN, meeting Mila Kunis, etc.) is doomed to fail. A blog that's going to hit that level is a legitimate full-time job. Which doesn't pay you anywhere close to what your actual full-time job pays.
Unless you're in it because you absolutely love what you're writing about, or love what you're posting pictures of, or love having people regularly tell you "your retarted," it's going to be almost impossible to grind it out long enough to achieve your endgame.
Go with the pre-made blog software. - I decided to code my own blog software because (1) I knew how and (2) it was easier for me to customize it exactly how I wanted it that way, rather than trying to figure out all the nuances Wordpress or another free blogging platform. Giant mistake. There are millions of people working on creating refinements and plug-ins and apps for those platforms. I am the only person working on mine. And now it's my Vietnam -- I've sunk too much in and my content is too intertwined with my self-built janky blogging platform to move elsewhere.
Every once in a while I will feel a bit randy (like Martin) and start thinking about converting this beast over to Wordpress. And somewhere around the point where I start having to try to figure out how to re-code their content populating loop template I throw my hands up in the air. And not to say "AYO, I gotta let go, I wanna celebrate and live my life." But rather out of defeated frustration.
Get a domain name. Domain names cost $7. They make you look so, so much more pro than whatever.blogspot.com or whatever.tumblr.com or geocities.com/whatever. Especially that last one.
(And before you settle on a domain name, check out NameChk.com to make sure the Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are also clear for that name. You need to own that identity all across the Internet plains.)
The generic Wordpress template is a big turn-off.
Don't expect big numbers right away. You have to pick the right time to start marketing. I wouldn't recommend blasting the blog out on the first day -- because people will read the one or two posts, see there's no other content, and probably never come back. And for the love of God, don't send out the blog until you've changed the subhead to something better than "Just another Wordpress blog."
We're all used to seeing people start blogs, fade within a week and never come back. A friend announcing a blog on its first day is like a friend announcing a diet on its first day -- we're rooting for you, but there's a 97 percent chance it's not gonna stick.
And after you do take it out into the world... realize that it could still be quite a while until you get some sizable traffic. Apparently, there's a lot of stuff on the Internet. And people need a reason to check out your contribution. So once you've found your niche and you're putting out quality content on a consistent basis, they'll come and they'll stick. It just might take a little while.
(For me, I had a few readers here and there for the first seven months. Finally cracked through thanks to some big StumbleUpon numbers in the eighth month. And hit "ok, this is for real now" numbers in the 13th month. I came close to getting bored with writing into a void around five months in but I'd promised I was going to give it a full year and I stuck to that. I am so grateful to Sam of June 2008 for making that pledge. That guy is cool, man.)
Here's a PC World article about annoying ads... featuring an annoying ad.
When you do get ad-worthy traffic don't go crazy. I screwed this up big. Once my traffic passed the level where ads can actually bring in legit revenue, I signed an advertising deal with the first company that threw a decent cash offer my way. And they proceeded to load my site up with horrible ads that would pop over the content, autoplay video and crash people's browsers. As soon as the deal was done I swore never to have ads like that again.
I see this happen a lot with independent sites I like -- they get a taste of advertising revenue and then start having aggressive pop-up windows, ads with sound, and those full-page ads that make you wait five seconds before you can continue to the site. Those ads are ultimately a way to drive away the readers who got you to this ad-worthy traffic threshold. ("Thanks for making my site a success! And as a reward, here's a pop-over ad of Kevin James hanging out with talking zoo animals.")
Strike a balance between advertising and user-friendliness -- whatever you think that will be for your audience. I eventually decided on selling about five ad spots with no autoplay video, no autoplay audio and no pop-ups -- but your finding my be different. And don't push people too far, or you really can lose them.
Be careful of getting into fights in the comments. A few days after I posted my friend Nick's guest post on the 11 Biggest WTF Movie Moments, he and I talked. And he asked me, basically, "How do you do it?" He found himself reading the comments and getting upset over the negative ones. "I just wanted to argue back," he told me, "but I didn't. Out of respect to your site, and because of the whole 'never fight a land war in Asia' concept."
It's tough when you spend hours and hours writing something (and something that is personal) and someone responds "This is a waste of time" or "Why don't you write anything good anymore?" or simply "Fuck you asshole." But that comes with the territory.
I personally got hardened during my years in making web videos -- as harsh as people can be on blogs, they're exponentially harsher (and less literate) when criticizing videos. And I also refuse to engage in combat with comment trolls because they're unwinnable -- as soon as I, as the writer, respond and show they've gotten to me, I've lost.
Go with mostly shorter posts versus longer posts. I love writing 11-item lists but they're brutal. To do a list right it generally takes a minimum of five hours from conception to research to writing to photos to polishing. And it gets worse -- because I just don't have the capacity to do more than two to three a week, it's crippling to my traffic. People don't have a reason to come back and check the site a few times a day. A lot of people just check it once a week or every couple of weeks and catch up.
So if I started another blog, I'd make it one with at least three or four posts a day. When I was inspired to write something long I would do it -- but I would also fire off quicker things regularly. Much less pressure for every post to be perfect, much better for building an audience, arguably even better for creativity.
Are you ready for marketing? I am not good at marketing. Generally my "marketing" of each list consists of sending a message to my email list, posting it on Twitter, and sometimes posting on my Facebook page. With that level of marketing, I'm lucky I have a loyal readership, because I'm really dropping the ball. "Do more marketing" has been at the top of my to-do list for two years and eight months now. It's also been at the top of my enemies list.
Essentially, you can write the best content in the history of the world, but without putting a huge effort into marketing that content, you have to overcome astronomical odds to rise above the clutter of the Internet. If a blog falls in the woods...
Prepare to get angry at least once a week. For the past three years, this blog has made me angry at least once a week. That's when I find someone plagiarized me, or that another site's weaker list on a topic I did is blowing up, or that my traffic is down, or something I worked hard on flopped, and on and on and on. The highs make up for the lows, of course -- but when you're emotionally invested in something and depending on the Internet-at-large to keep you happy, it's not necessarily a recipe for stablility.
Believe in what you're doing, stick with your vision, and good things will happen. Three years ago, I wrote: "Blogging really is the best platform that a writer can have." And I don't remember what was going through my head then, or if I even really believed that... but I know I believe it a hell of a lot more now. Because if you have something worthwhile to create and contribute to the world, you stick with it, stay true to it, and work on it -- this is absolutely the ideal way to get it out to the world. And you have to market it hard and make people look at it. But when someone does look, if it's great, they'll come back and look again. And again. And again.
And just remember: When they say "fuck you, asshole," it's the real life equivalent of, "Um... well... I don't know if I fully agree with you but you're making some decent points."
This post was originally published on Friday, June 17, 2011 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Web & Tech.