Starting a Blog is easy. Starting a Blog in 2012 is a little bit more complex.
There's a Blog about anything and everything out there, right now. It's hard for someone considering a Blog to come up with a new and/or different angle. The topic can be as obscure as your brain can fathom, and odds are that a Blog covering that exact topic already exists. Pushing that further, it's somewhat hard to even define what, exactly, a Blog is in this day and age. Afterall, you can Blog on your Facebook page, you can micro-Blog with Twitter or video Blog on YouTube. You can even Blog using tumblr - which is a hybrid online social network and Blogging platform - or you can Blog for an existing online publisher like The Huffington Post. For this post, I'll define a Blog as an online journal that you either house on your own server or is being served via the Blogging platform's servers. Lately, I've been sent links for a lot of new and freshly-minted Blogs, and there are some "best practices" that may help others down this fuzzy path.
How to start a Blog in 2012:
- Choose the right platform. The default choice for a great Blogging platform is WordPress. My recommendation is to go with it (full disclosure: this Blog is powered by MovableType and it's way too late in the game to make the switch to WordPress, but I would if it could happen seamlessly). Do the hard work of figuring out if a hosted solution is best for you. My general recommendation is to use the free version until you start seeing uptake by the community. No point in spending the money if you're not generating readership and/or going to stick with it.
- Design matters. While we do live in a world of RSS feeds and links tossed around via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, the best Blogs are designed well. They look good and read well. WordPress makes this (somewhat) easier because you can buy and customize themes. If you're serious about Blogging, get very serious about having it look great. It's hard for people to get excited about a plain Blog. Design matters. Always.
- Great names. It can be funny, quirky or a play on an existing meme, but figure out a relevant, cool and timely name for your Blog. I believe that people like saying, "Six Pixels of Separation" much more than, "Mitch's Blog." Finding a name is never easy, but when it's done well, it makes the Blog that much more shareable. People like sharing things that not only sound cool, but that make them look smart. Your name matters. Try to avoid names with a number in it ("is it '2' or 'two'?" - it can be confusing) and watch out for a multiple word title, where one word's last letter is the same letter as the next word (like: mikesstand). You're trying to make it easy, not confusing for people to find you.
- Secure your domains. In a world where finding a domain name can become an expensive and frustrating endeavor, refer to the last bullet point as your guiding light: the more unique, strange and funky the title, the more likelihood you'll have of being able to secure the URL. A trick would be to use one of the more reputable domain name websites to see if your choices are available prior to choosing it (and, if it is available, please make sure to grab it on the spot - you don't want to come back a week later and find that someone else already grabbed it).
- Write a full bio. I've seen countless WordPress bio pages that are simply left blank. Write a full bio and make it as robust as possible. People want to know who they're reading. Make it crisp and clever. A great bio is critical.
- Read first. Most people will tell you to start writing. I would argue that if you want to start a Blog in 2012, start with reading. Read everything. Blogs, books, newspapers, magazines, tweets, etc... Get a feel for the industry that you're going to Blog about and form a perspective. Along with that perspective, it's equally fine for you to start commenting in other online spaces before starting your own Blog. Commenting in other (more heavily-trafficked) spaces will give you insights into how people feel about your way of thinking (especially if your comments get other people excited about commenting and adding to the discourse).
- Write. Write. Write. If you want a successful Blog, you have to write. You have to write a lot and you have to post frequently. You have to do this, not to cram content into a Blog, but because only through the frequency and habit of writing will you get good. Only through the frequency and habit of writing will you begin to find a voice. Only through the frequency and habit of writing will you begin to build an audience. Here's a truth: you won't find your voice over time. I simply don't believe that a writer arrives at this strange destination called "their voice." I think a strong voice simply evolves over time. But none of that happens without writing. You're not writing for writing's sake. You're writing to exercise your critical thinking skills. When you do that often enough, great writing will start to flow.
- Watch what you write. Spelling and grammar count. I recently came across a new Blog that was started by a lawyer (it said so in their bio). It was littered with spelling and grammar mistakes. I type fast and I make mistakes (and there is a great group of people who send me notes and leave comments, so that I can correct my mistakes), but overall, the flow of the writing has to be readable. I'm not talking about the random misspellings or grammatical burps (it happens). I'm talking about text that is both unreadable (and somewhat laughable). Poor spelling and bad grammar undermines your content and your critical thinking. Take the time to either proof your own work or find someone who will take pity on you and do it. Spelling and grammar mistakes will directly impact your credibility. Trust me on this.
- Don't be shameless about your self-promotion. Whenever it's time to self-promote, I get a pit in my stomach. I love Blogging, I love sharing, but I hate beating my own chest. Choose how you're going to self-promote, but before you do anything ask yourself: "if this message showed up in any one of my streams, how would I feel about it?" As a way to not feel too self-promotional, I use my other social media spaces for self-promotion by asking a question in hopes of provoking some kind of reaction. This feels like I'm adding value to someone's stream without it being a "look at me! Look at me!" moment.
- Don't be scared of analytics. Most Blog platforms offer some kind of analytics. You should also be running Google Analytics as well. If the thought of web analytics scares you, please go and check out the work of Avinash Kaushik (his Blog, Occam's Razor, is treasure trove of great insights - as are his two books, Web Analytics - An Hour A Day and Web Analytics 2.0). You should be measuring everything from readership and referral traffic to keywords. I particularly like keyword analysis, because this can give you some immediate insights into the type of words people use to find your content. Write more with those keywords in mind.
Take it slow.
It is quick, free and easy to build a Blog, but building an audience and finding that elusive voice is a long, hard and desperately lonely journey. Make sure you are ready for it. There will be times when you will question if anybody is reading your Blog and if anybody cares. It's not easy, but keep at it. If you believe that you have something useful to share, odds are that there are others - just like you - out there as well. It will be a decade that I have been Blogging and still, to this day, I wonder if anybody really and truly cares (like, what would happen if I stopped Blogging tomorrow?). It's fine and normal to have those feelings, but keep at it. Why? Because if you care enough to Blog, it means that you have something to say. If you have something to say and you're Blogging it, it means that you want to share and connect. Ultimately, the world needs more people like that.
What would you add to this list?