A Blogging Pro Responds to the January Empathy Challenge
When Automattic’s John Maeda invited me to evaluate the posts from January’s Empathy Challenge, I was thrilled. As a full-time blogger, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to attract more traffic. Think about it: if nobody reads the stuff I write, then I don’t have a job.
Nowadays I’m an established blogger working with big-budget brands, but for the majority of my career, I worked with startups and scrappy entrepreneurs that had to scrounge to scrape together $50 to pay me. If I didn’t generate results from 1 blog post, I wasn’t going to get more work.
That’s why this Empathy Challenge resonated with me so profoundly.
Most of the people hustling to get eyeballs on their website have limited time, limited experience, and limited money. The real hustlers know this is going to be a lot of work, and they’re willing to invest the time and effort. Daniel W. Robert summed it up pretty well in his Empathy Challenge post:
The challenge isn’t putting in the work. The challenge is knowing what does work, using time and effort wisely, and being willing to take some emotional risks. More on that later.
Before You Start Driving Traffic…
Reading through all the Empathy Challenge posts was illuminating. Each person came at the problem from their own perspective, choosing solutions that fit their personalities and aptitudes.
There was a lot of great insight into laying a good foundation on which to build. Most posts mentioned at least one of the foundational habits of blogging, like:
- Planning for success
- Posting consistently
- Publishing quality content
- Focusing on readers
- Engaging with readers on social media
Ideally, you should have a blog that people actually want to read before you start driving traffic to it.
Realistically, if you’re blogging because you need a cost effective marketing strategy for your business, you probably don’t have great blogging skills or the time to invest in becoming a world-class blogger.
It’s painful for us pro bloggers to admit, but a blog doesn’t have to be incredible to generate traffic and make money. That’s good news, though – it means you can make a lot of mistakes while you’re learning, and you’re still going to be okay.
Assuming you’re starting with no blogging skills at all, the best place to start is your audience. Dan Hauk said it beautifully in his post:
Blogging is a perpetual empathy challenge. There’s only 1 reason people read your blog posts: because they’re getting something they want from it. Nobody reads your blog because you’d like them to.
Marina Pape asks the right questions in her Empathy Challenge post:
The other point that was covered very well in these empathy challenge posts was planning. Many posts questioned the goal of getting 1,000 people to read a blog post, and Cristel Rossignol had the insight to ask:
Before you spend a single cent driving traffic to your website, you need to know 2 things:
- Why do you want to send traffic to that page on your website?
- What are you going to do once it gets there?
Give people a reason to come back, start collecting email addresses for your mailing list, and put some thought into your sales funnel before you spend money on advertising.
Design From Anywhere at Automattic.
Tips From an Expert on Failure
When I started out blogging, I did everything wrong.
I’ve been blogging full time for more than 5 years now, and I still have more experience doing things wrong than I have doing things right. That’s a really good thing. When brands trust me with their money and reputation, I can avoid a lot of very expensive pitfalls since I’m such an expert in all the stuff that doesn’t work.
In that spirit, let’s start with the most common ideas that look good, but never work as well as you hope.
1: Expecting Your Facebook Friends To Care
We all think that our friends are going to read our blog posts, and we’re all wrong.
There’s a big difference between your personal network and your professional network.
Yes, social media is going to be a major part of your traffic strategy. It’s just going to be your brand’s network that generates results, and not your Aunt Sharon, your former college roommate, and all those people you went to high school with.
That means building your professional network is pretty important. Creating a community around your brand is job unto itself.
This is hard to accept, and you probably don’t believe me.
2: Begging For Shares
Generally, this is what we do when we realize our friends on social media aren’t going to click on our blog post links. Posting links to your blog with captions like “Come on, guys. Friends support friends! Please SHARE this post!!!!” don’t encourage people to share. They encourage people that were previously indifferent to mute or unfriend you.
Again, the only reason that somebody reads your blog is because they’re getting something they want from it.
Most of your friends aren’t part of your business audience. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can move on and start finding the people that actually want to hear what you have to say.
3: Dropping Links in Comments, Forums, and Groups
This is a bad idea for 2 big reasons:
First of all, the clickthrough rate on spammed links (that’s what this is – link spamming) is very low. Most people aren’t going to click a link in a forum unless they specifically asked for it.
That’s a minor consideration compared to the reputation you build when you spam links, though.
The blogging community is like a small town. It seems like all the noteworthy bloggers on a particular topic know each other – they belong to the same social media communities, link to each others’ posts and go to the same events. In short, they all talk to one another, and news travels fast.
Odds are, you’re going to want to work with other bloggers in your niche later, and if word gets around that you’re a spammer that hijacks comment sections or groups to try to steal traffic, you’re going to be in a bad place.
Building a group or active commenting community is a lot of work, so it’s understandable that the people who put in the effort get angry when other bloggers try to use that community for their own personal gain. Don’t be that guy. Build your own communities or be a positive contributor.
Note: There is a correct way to use forums, groups, and blog comment sections to generate traffic. It’s not fast, and it’s not easy. In short, become an active and helpful member of a healthy community, and once you’ve contributed loads of value without asking for anything in return, people in that community will start supporting you. Like Gareth Allison says in his post for the Empathy Challenge:
The name of the game is value. Give as much as you can, and then give some more.
4: A Note About Paid Advertising
Most Empathy Challenge posts mentioned Facebook ads, boosts, and PPC. All of these are viable ways to drive traffic to your blog, but they aren’t easy for newbies. The mechanics of choosing a target audience and boosting a post are easy. Actually getting your ads to convert is much, much harder.
Pay-per-click advertising rarely produces a return on investment until you cross a tipping point in your ad spending. Unless you have a lot of experience writing copy and running high converting ads, PPC advertising is probably best left until your budget and skill are both higher.
Facebook ads are one of my personal favorite advertising options, but keep in mind that I use them in conjunction with a holistic marketing strategy that covers multiple channels.
If you’re going to use Facebook ads (or any kind of paid advertising) to drive traffic to your blog, take some time to learn about sales funnels and retargeting with Facebook Pixel. Reach and clicks alone don’t pay the bills.
As a beginner, you’re still probably going to spend a lot of money generating traffic without actually selling anything. Consider it an educational expense.
Design From Anywhere at Automattic.
Beginner-Friendly Traffic Strategies That Work
We’re about to go through a list of beginner-friendly strategies that can send traffic to your blog.
Before we do that, there’s something you should know:
If your blog or website has major problems, you lack a plan and cohesive strategy, or you’re looking for a quick, easy and free solution, none of these things will work. As so many people said in their Empathy Challenge posts, there’s no shortcut here. Building your skills and attracting traffic to your blog is a lot of work.
There’s a reason all of us do things wrong in the beginning. Many of the strategies that work are physically easy, but emotionally hard. It’s gut wrenching to put yourself on the line. Things like volunteering to speak at a conference or sending a direct email to a professional contact can be absolutely terrifying.
This is what we experienced pros mean when we say it’s going to be hard. A willingness to work is a great start. To make it to the next level, though, you’ve got to be willing to deal with some serious discomfort.
You’ll be fine. Let’s get started.
Participate In Your Communities
We talked a little bit about this earlier when we covered forums, comments, and groups.
Now, let’s take it a step further.
Your blog isn’t the center of the universe. There are conferences where people in your industry gather and groups like the chamber of commerce that are designed to help you connect.
Learning to network effectively is hard, and you’re going to deal with some embarrassment while you work past your nerves. Do it anyway.
Serve all of your communities, online and off. Teach workshops to people who want to accomplish what you have, and apply as a speaker at relevant conferences and events.
(Yes, public speaking is 1 of the top 3 human fears. You were warned that this would be hard.)
Ze Marques is on the right track when he talks about taking people for an espresso and talking to them about the post he’s promoting. It might be a little slow to connect with people one at a time, but if you’re making genuine connections and staying active in your community, that kind of commitment is what builds your loyal following.
The espresso strategy also fits with the next step:
Reach Out to Professional Contacts
While begging your Facebook friends to share your posts is an exercise in futility, sending personalized emails to your professional network yields great results.
Consider your professional contacts. Odds are, some of them have something to gain by sharing one of your blog posts. Maybe they can use the point you made to justify their premium services, or perhaps you’ve created the kind of content that keeps their social media audience engaged.
Focusing on the benefit to them, send them individual emails asking for a share. Never send a mass email, and never beg. Asking in person is even more effective.
Some of these people are going to ignore you, and some of them are going to say no. The ones that do share your content are more than worth the hit to your pride, though.
The Small Town Newspaper Strategy
This strategy is a personal favorite. It’s the primary way I built my following as a brand new (and not very good yet) blogger.
The small town newspaper effect is this:
You write a blog post that promotes somebody else. They get your priceless third party credibility which boosts their prestige, supports their brand, and exposes them to your readers. When they share your post with their audience, you gain traffic, and some of those people come back to your blog later.
In all the Empathy Challenge posts, only Eduardo Villuendas came close to describing the small town newspaper strategy for generating traffic. He also very succinctly summed up the reason most bloggers don’t do this effectively:
[An online marketing specialist] suggests I talk about somebody famous on my blog, or even interview them, so they share my article with their fans and boom, thousands of eyeballs on my site. It doesn’t even have to be a truly famous person: it can be somebody with a few thousand followers on Twitter. It’s a nice idea, but I feel very awkward using somebody else to get attention to my own content.
That awkward feeling comes up again and again when bloggers start consciously building up their traffic. We have a tendency to feel like our ambitions are somehow bad, or that if we succeed with someone’s help, we’re winning at their expense.
Even knowing that this strategy is very much a win-win situation, you might still feel awkward.
Do it anyway. Success requires growth, and this is part of it.
Make Your Content More Shareable
Your skills will improve over time, thankfully.
When you’re more confident in your blogging ability and you’ve learned a little more, go back to your old blog posts and improve them.
Making content more shareable means putting more things in your posts that people want to share. That might be infographics, images for Pinterest, tweetable remarks or funny pictures. Reshare your updated content, and you get that ‘new content’ traffic spike without needing to write a whole new post.
By the way, if you read your old blog posts and they still sound good to you, you’re not growing as a blogger. You know you’re on the right track when you read your old posts and you’re a little embarrassed at how bad they are.
Make Your Content More Findable with SEO
Search engine optimization can quickly turn into a tricky topic. You don’t need to go all the way down that rabbit hole to start attracting traffic from search engines.
Professional SEO is hyper-competitive. Everyone wants to show up in the #1 spot for the most commonly searched keywords, so much that some companies spend literally millions of dollars on optimization tactics in an attempt to stay at the top of Google’s list.
You don’t have to do all that stuff as a new brand.
Design From Anywhere at Automattic.
Here’s all you need to know about SEO:
Google wants to do a good job at giving people exactly what they’re looking for. The algorithms that determine where your site shows up in Google’s search results have one goal: they want to find the sites that people are looking for so that those people come back to Google whenever they want to find something.
Every day, Google gets better at figuring out which websites people will be happy they visited, and which sites don’t give the reader much value.
If you want to rank well in Google, write for you audience. Serve them as well as you can. All the other stuff like backlinks and keyword strategy will come later when your site has a little more authority and you have a little more experience.
Does This Stuff Actually Work?
Here’s how I know all of these strategies will absolutely generate 1,000 views on a single blog post, even on a brand new blog written by a beginner blogger:
These are the strategies I used to do exactly that.
My first ever blog was generating about 12 views per post (and at least 9 of them were my mom) for my first 3 or 4 posts. Then, I wrote an article about my favorite bookstore and my traffic went nuts. That one blog post generated about 2,000 views in a week, and by the time I rebranded my blog, that post had seen more than 10,000 viewers. From my current perspective those are small numbers, but at the time, that was a huge success!
By featuring a bookstore I loved and letting them know I had written about them, I accidentally used the small town newspaper strategy to get my first ever spike in traffic. Later, I used all of these strategies (and all the ones that don’t work, too) to build my audience and start making money. That first popular blog post wasn’t even very good! After all, it was my 5th blog post ever.
Obviously, these aren’t the only ways to build your audience. This post is just a tiny bit of knowledge you’re accumulating along your journey. You have so much more to learn.
Go out there and make your own mistakes; there’s no substitute for experience.
We all start somewhere. It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you don’t stay there for long.