National Career Development Week kicks off today, and while I personally have no connection with the counseling association that celebrates it, I always feel it’s a great time to reexamine career goals and set a game plan for the coming year. Many people do this after the first of the year, but I like to have a clear vision come January, before all those other “fresh start” goals take away my focus (you know the ones… like cleaning the garage and working off a few pounds. Blech.).
When it comes to blogging as a career (or working your way up to that point), I’m often asked what the secret is to growing a blog audience.
And to that I answer…
There is no secret.
I’m not merely saying that to evade the question or hide my “secrets.” The truth is, there’s no trick to instantly gaining a mass following on your blog (unless you count Ellen or Oprah among your friends).
There are things that help with growing a steady readership, however, and I emphasize the word steady. You might have a viral post sending thousands of clicks your way, but if there’s no substance to keep those new visitors around, your pageviews will eventually drop.
How do I know this? Because I’ve been lucky with a few boosts through the years with readers sharing my posts on Reddit and StumbleUpon, and editorial mentions in The Guardian and MSN Money. After the clicks started to die down, I figured my traffic would fade as well. But what I found instead was my traffic continuing to grow at a gradual and steady pace, from existing readers as well new ones that reached my blog organically (mostly through Google searches).
What drew them to my blog and kept them coming back? After four years and one redesign, here are some of the things I learned along the way… and which I think will help any blog, new or old, grow a loyal audience.
1. Invest in a reader-friendly blog design.
WordPress (and other blogging platforms) offer clean, simple, default themes (templates) right out of the box. But as your blog grows, investing in a custom professional design for your blog will greatly improve the functionality and send your branding over the top.
That said, I realize that it sometimes isn’t feasible for a new blogger to spend money on design (unless you’re friends with one or a designer yourself). Start by buying a better theme that gives you more options (I use Thesis as a jumping-off point for my own design). Customize the fonts and colors to develop a consistent identity for your blog, create intuitive navigation and categories, install plugins and widgets to offer more functionality, and when in doubt, think less is more.
2. Add visuals and improve your photography.
Along with a well designed blog, people are drawn to visuals. It’s no surprise that good photos help tell a story and thus attract more readers. You don’t need a snazzy camera these days to capture beautiful photos, either. You just need to practice constantly with whatever camera you have on you, whether it’s your phone or your DSLR. (This is the gear I use for my blog.)
Shoot your subjects in natural light and focus on composition, staging, and editing. (If your Photoshop skills feel a little lacking, I recommend Totally Rad! for their easy-to-use actions and filters.) As someone who’s taken hundreds of thousands of photos, these are things I’m still working on, every single day, to improve my craft and evolve my style.
3. Blog consistently with a clear, honest voice.
I mentioned in this post that consistency is the key to successful blogging. If you want readers to keep coming back, you have to give them something fresh to come back to. Try to post at regular intervals that your readers have come to expect, whether it’s once a day or once a week. Pick a topic that you’re truly passionate about, that you could write about day in and day out until the sunset of your life, and you will never run out of things to say.
Above all, just be you. Be true to your own voice, embrace your quirks, and blog as if you were writing to a friend. At the same time, blog like there’s a big, important audience out there hanging on to your every word, even if you’re just starting out and your audience consists of your mom, your cousin, and that nice old lady next door.
4. Blog about things that readers care about.
And beyond that, blog about things that readers want to share with their friends (and perhaps their own readers, if they blog as well). As someone who has dozens of blogs added to my daily newsreader, I always gravitate toward the ones that produce content I haven’t seen anywhere else, or offer a unique spin on a classic subject.
Be topical yet timeless; give people posts that they want to read right now, and that they’ll want to read for years to come. Some of my most popular posts on Garden Betty are a couple years old and they continue to be liked/pinned/shared/commented on to this day; in the blogging world, this is called “sticky” content. It’s informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking, the kind of stuff that sticks with your readers and makes them want to reference your content again and again.
Have enthusiasm for your topic and be generous with your knowledge! And while your blog is deserving of quality content that you care about as well, remember that even the best of us have bad days. Only by publishing posts consistently and learning from those experiences will you be able to transform your blog into a traffic-worthy destination.
5. Always respond to comments, emails, and social media messages.
I’ll admit that I’m not the most efficient person when it comes to emailing, but I strive to respond to every message that warrants a response, such as a question on a recipe or feedback on a post. I still communicate with the same readers that have been with my blog since the very beginning, and I treasure those relationships because let’s face it, our attention spans these days are so easily thwarted.
If your readers take the time to show you some love, love them back. Interacting with your audience is one of the most basic and genuine ways to not only grow your traffic, but keep it around as well. Don’t be afraid to change your mind or admit mistakes if a new viewpoint has you thinking differently. Developing that connection with your readers makes you more human and less of a blogging robot; it’s also something I value when I read other blogs.
6. Network with like-minded bloggers and even bloggers outside of your niche.
Beyond your own readers, reach out to other bloggers whose talents, philosophies, or lifestyles you admire. Be social and affable; send them a tweet, post a comment on their blog, or introduce yourself through email. Show an honest interest in other bloggers’ work and don’t just comment for the sake of linking to your own blog. Make your name known as someone who’s resourceful, dependable, loyal, and a pleasure to have around. You never know where your next collaboration — and future audience — could come from.
Expanding your network of business and personal contacts means you will always have an ally (who gets it) to share information, inspiration, encouragement, and even a few laughs together. At the very least, you’ll meet someone whose interests or goals align with yours; at best, you might even make a new friend.
The takeaway from all of this? Building a readership is partly luck and mostly hard work. It’s not rocket science, but it does take time, perseverance, and consistency. My best advice for bloggers is to keep at it. I didn’t start taking my blog seriously until a year after it launched, and I didn’t see steady, significant traffic until a year after that. But I continued to write about the things I was passionate about, and one surprising day an audience appeared — and stayed.
Good luck and good blogging!