By Leo Babauta
You can put Google Adsense ads on your site from Day 1, and you can launch an amazing ebook in the first month of your blog’s existence … but let me spare you the suspense: you won’t make any money doing that.
Why not? Nobody’s reading your blog. Nobody knows who you are, or why they should trust you, or what authority or credibility you have. No one is looking at the ads, because no one is looking at your blog.
Many bloggers start out thinking they can make some money right away, and put up every ad they possibly can. They end up with disappointment.
The missing ingredient is readership. It’s the foundation for making any kind of money off your site.
Now, let me clarify: you shouldn’t gain readers just to make money. There are lots of more important reasons to grow your readership: to help more people, to connect with fantastic folks, to let your means of self-expression reach a wider audience, to grow your credibility, to open up possibilities. And this last one is important: when you grow your readership, you open up even more possibilities.
It wasn’t until I had 26,000 readers that I got a book deal — the readers proved to my publisher that I had something worth saying, and that it was resonating with people. It wasn’t until I had those readers that I made any noticeable money with ads or affiliate links (like Amazon affiliate links). It wasn’t until I had those readers that I sold a best-selling ebook (Zen To Done), or had the chance to write for some of the biggest blogs in the world, or start the A-List Blogging Bootcamps, or successfully launch a couple of other blogs.
A world of opportunities arise when you grow that readership — when you lay that foundation. It’s a platform from which you can launch all kinds of ventures, businesses, products, services. You can do almost anything, but first you need to build that foundation.
We’ll talk later about what you can do once you build that foundation, but right now, let’s look at the most basic thing of all: how to build the foundation.
Most Important Factor
If you could do only one thing to grow your readership and build that foundation, it would be creating amazing and useful content. In fact, I strongly recommend that almost all your blogging time be spent on creating content, if you don’t have that foundation yet.
You could spend time on other things: checking your stats, putting ads on your site, checking your earnings, emailing, doing social media, responding to comments, adding new widgets and buttons to the site, tweaking the design, instant messaging, and more. There’s lots that goes into blogging … but none of that really matters, as much as creating amazing content.
To find the answer, you need to get into the head of the reader: why does she visit your site? To admire the great design, or check out all the widgets you’ve added to the sidebar? To admire how much time you’ve spent doing email or Twitter or Facebook or IM? No: the reader comes to check out the content, because the content will help her in some way — by teaching her how to do something, by inspiring or informing or entertaining.
So if the reader is coming for content, that’s what you should be focusing on. The content is what draws new readers and keeps old readers coming back and compels people to subscribe or dig through your archives.
Letâ€™s briefly look at three ways how really useful and powerful content can boost your blogâ€™s traffic:
- Other bloggers will link to your posts and send their readers your way.
- Readers who do find you (from other blogs or elsewhere) will find so much use in your content theyâ€™ll want to come back, or better yet subscribe so they can get regular updates of your great content.
- Great content will be shared by readers on delicious, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Digg and other social bookmarking services.
The benefits of great content go far beyond these three things. When readers really love your content, they will bookmark you as a reference and keep coming back. Theyâ€™ll share the content with their friends via email and social networks. Theyâ€™ll start to look to you as an authority, ask you questions, buy your ebooks. Great content is the start of amazing things for bloggers.
And the good news is that while it definitely takes hard work creating great content, learning how to do it, isnâ€™t the hardest thing in the world. Weâ€™re going to look at some ways you can turn an ordinary blog post into something powerful.
How to Create Great Content, Briefly
Let’s look at what it takes to create great content that will draw readers.
Letâ€™s start by remembering the goals of great content â€” you want the readers, and other bloggers, to find your content so useful and powerful that they will link to you, subscribe, bookmark the content, share it with others, and come back again and again.
So with that in mind, what does great content need to be? One or both of the following:
- Something extremely useful.
- Something remarkable.
A great post can be both, or one or the other. For example, I did a post on how to clear out the queues in your life (email inbox, to-do lists, social networks, etc.) and readers found it pretty useful. But a little while before that, I did a post called â€œFeel the Fear and Do It Anyway (Or, the Privatization of the English Language) â€” this post wasnâ€™t very useful to readers, but was â€œremarkableâ€. It got hundreds of comments, Diggs, Tweets and bookmarks, and was blogged about many times. Being remarkable means saying something that people will take notice of, will talk about, will pass on. It catches peopleâ€™s attention â€” not just to be flashy, but to get a conversation going.
Letâ€™s look at how to do both of these things:
1. Be extremely useful.
It all starts with the topic of the post. You need to consider your reader, and center the topic of your post on your reader â€” not on yourself, your ads, your blogger friends, or anyone else but the reader. What are his or her needs, wants, hopes and dreams? What problems does he have in his daily life that you can solve? It helps to get to know your readers, and donâ€™t be afraid to ask them to share their goals, dreams, problems with you. Think about the problems youâ€™ve solved in your life, both personal and professional. Often, if youâ€™re an experienced professional, you forget what itâ€™s like to be just starting out, so you need to think back to the early days of your career and remember the problems you faced, the challenges you had to overcome, the uncertainty and ignorance you had. Remember those, and you have some extremely good post ideas.
Now choose a topic that will solve one of the readerâ€™s problems, help him achieve something heâ€™s always wanted to achieve. Create a resource for him: an extremely useful set of practical tips, links, tools to solve that problem. Again, itâ€™s useful to have a beginnerâ€™s mind as you write this guide or resource: what does the absolute beginner need to know? What misconceptions does he have? What practical tips worked for you? What doesnâ€™t work?
The more practical your tips, the better. Itâ€™s not enough to say that the keys to losing weight are eating less and exercising more. Those are both difficult things to do. Give the reader extremely useful ways of doing those things, and youâ€™ve created a resource.
Creating extremely useful posts is a skill, but itâ€™s probably the most important skill youâ€™ll develop as a blogger. Read dozens of other extremely useful blog posts to give you some inspiration and guidance â€” learn from the best. And then imitate them â€” not in content but in style and depth. Itâ€™s in this imitation that youâ€™ll get better. And with practice â€” writing dozens of in-depth posts of your own â€” youâ€™ll get good at this skill, and develop your own style and voice.
2. Be remarkable.
To be a blogger is to be part of a large conversation that happens not only in the blogging world, but the Internet in general. To be a remarkable blogger is to make a strong contribution to that conversation, to say something worth listening to, to say something others will find worthy of talking about.
Start with bold ideas. Every post starts with an idea â€” take the idea you come up with for your post, and see if you can make it bolder. Be daring â€” aim for a big post, not just a regular one. Aim to say something huge, not just what everyone else is saying. Aim for a post that a major blog would link to, and that people will talk about. Get noticed!
Also see if you can take a stance on an issue that others are talking about â€¦ but make it something different. Not just different for the sake of being different, but different to be a devilâ€™s advocate, to get people to think outside their normal patterns, to shake things up, to challenge traditional ideas.
Find a way to provide new information, a twist on whatâ€™s been done, or a fresh perspective. If youâ€™re just doing what everyone else has done, in exactly the same way, people will yawn at your post.
Other Factors Besides Content
Creating great content isn’t the only way to grow readership — it’s the most important, but there are other factors. The second most important factor, once you’ve created the content, is spreading the word about your blog. Now that you’ve created amazing content, you need other people to find out about it somehow.
Creating content, and spreading the word — these are the two things you need to focus on to create the foundation of readership. The other factors are extremely minor compared to these two. We’ll look at how to spread the word in the next section, below, but let’s go over a few other minor factors that help build that foundation:
- Design: Important only because you want people to believe you have a professional blog, which helps with your credibility. Why should they read you instead of the thousands of other amateurs posting worthless drivel? Because you have something to say, and you have credibility. Also, bad design distracts from the content — the best design showcases the great content, and makes it easy to find useful content.
- Responsiveness: I don’t do this well on Zen Habits anymore, but in my early days I was very responsive to my readers. I would respond to every comment, every email, and answer the best questions with a full post. Readers like to know that you’re connecting with them.
- Best posts: Readers won’t go through your archives to see whether you’re worth subscribing to — they want to make that decision with a glance down your front page. So they’ll look at your most recent posts, and then look at the sidebar to see your best or most popular posts, to see whether the posts look useful. Be sure that’s easily available in the sidebar, or you’ll lose a lot of potential subscribers.
Spreading the Word
So you’ve created the great content — how do you get the word out? There are lots of good ways. Here are the best methods:
- Network with other bloggers your size or preferrably larger. The more bloggers you know, and the better your relationships with them, the better. Make friends by reaching out, complimenting what you like about their blogs, offering to help in some way, offering to do a guest post for them. Help others, and it will come back to you eventually.
- Do as many guest posts as you can. At least one per week, preferrably 2 or even 3 a week. The more, the better. An aggressive campaign of guest posts will help your blog reach tons of new readers. When you do guest posts, try to follow the above guidelines for extremely useful content. If you don’t, and you make the benefits obscure, the advice vague, and the text rambling, you will have the opposite effect — you’ll scare readers away from your site. If you make the post extremely useful and easy to read, you’ll attract new readers. Once they go to your site, they should find much more of the same kind of great content. Look to do guest posts on blogs with larger readership than yours, but with an audience that will be interested in your content.
- Social media — focus on Twitter, StumbleUpon and Delicious, but do it in an organic and non-pushy way. Create amazing content and headlines — you need to do both — and you’ll have a greater shot of your posts spreading on these services.
Growing Without Hype
Look, there are many who have grown rapidly by learning the art of hype. Unfortunately, readers can sense hype, and they begin to grow weary of it. You lose trust when you do too much hype.
I’ve been guilty of hype, and I always regret it. It doesn’t feel authentic, and the boost in popularity you get from it is temporary and empty.
A much better method is growing by helping others. Create great, useful, interesting content, and spread it authentically, through guest posts and growing relationships with other bloggers. Don’t try to “game” social media, or create posts just so they’ll get popular or linked. This is a fool’s game. Really try to help people, without making yourself out to be a god or tearing others down.
It’s possible to grow this way, and you’ll do it without making readers tired of your hype or distrustful of anything you say or do. That’s a good way to build the foundation.
How Long It Takes
There’s no one answer. I grew pretty rapidly, because I was aggressive about doing guest posts and getting my content and brand out there as often as possible. I probably wouldn’t do it that way again, but my growth would be slower. I’m OK with that.
How fast you grow depends on a lot of factors — how well written your content is, how useful it is, how people perceive you, how well you connect with readers and other bloggers, how often you get out on other blogs doing guest posts and the like … it’s not easy.
I’d say you can’t build a really good foundation of 10K readers in less than 6 months, and for most bloggers, it’ll take much longer. A year or two years, if they’re creating great content. That might seem like a long time, but remember that you’re building a business, a brand, relationships, and trust. That doesn’t happen overnight.