5 Things You Can Do to Pull The Reader In

When you get down to it, a blog has one overriding goal above all else. Namely, to provide readers with compelling and engaging content to read.

Thanks to poor designs, posts plastered with advertising and poor presentation, sometimes blogs tread an entirely different path, repelling rather than attracting readers.

Once you’ve captured a reader’s attention you can serve up advertising, but without readership a blog may as well not exist.

So how do you help rather than hinder your reader’s eye?

Fortunately there are many lessons we can learn particularly from that ancient of arts – magazine publishing. What bloggers are doing now, magazine production has been doing for years.

If you flick through the pages of most any major publication and you’ll see incredible thought is put into presenting content to catch your eye, to get you interested and to make the whole experience pleasant.

Text legibility

Font choice, font size, alignment and line spacing all contribute to how readable your text is. For most, much of this work is done for you by your blog template or stylesheet.

If you are making choices (even between different templates) the things you want to look out for are:

  • Choose a nice clear font and size.
    There was a time when small was cool and designers in particular push 9 and 10 point text on web users. That time was the 90’s and thankfully it has passed. Go for a readable font at a readable size.
  • Space things out
    A cardinal rule of design is that unless you really know what you are doing, text should never touch anything. Not borders, not images, not lines, not anything. Make sure there is space and padding keeping everything clean and separate.
  • Make your line-height roomy … but not too roomy
    The space between lines of text – leading (pronounced ‘ledding’) or in CSS terms ‘line-height’ – should be proportional to the font size you’ve chosen and generally speaking it should be more than the HTML defaults. If your lines are too close together then your eye can’t differentiate as well between them and you need to work harder. If they are too far apart then thats also harder for your eye as it gets lost when going from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. A medium, generous amount is perfect. This site talks about leading, how it works and how you can control it with CSS.
  • Don’t Justify
    When you lay out your paragraphs of text you have a choice of aligning left, centered, right or justifying it. The last – justification – tells your PC to auto-space words to make the end of each line of text line up with the others. At first it can look neat but its a bad idea. What can happen is you get odd sets of spacing between words forming up between lines called ‘rivers’ which disturb the eye and make reading harder. Unless you have good reason, always align left.

Use Pull-quotes

Nothing but uniform text down a page can look rather uninviting and so its a good idea to mix up your text as much as possible.

There are a variety of ways you can do this, the most basic being paragraph breaks. But since you already do that (I hope!) another idea to use is the trusty pull-quote.

Pull-quotes come from traditional publishing and are basically a part of the copy pulled out and magnified. Readers read the quote first and then are engaged enough to go and read the entire text.

For this reason its always best to use an interesting quote or line. You can produce a variety of styles of pull-quotes with CSS and if you are using WordPress you can even get a plugin that will do it for you.

Use Images

In the same way that a pull-quote can break up a body of text and draw a readers eye to engage them, so too do images spice up your words.

The best way to use images is to use CSS to float your image to one side and add a margin around it so that the text wraps nicely.

You can purchase the rights to show images really cheaply these days at sites like iStockPhoto.com or even download some pretty good free images from sites like sxc.hu – so there really is no excuse for a dull page!

When selecting images, obviously you want the nicest photo quality you can find, but also try to get something which is interesting to the eye and matches your color palette.

Photos that are a little less obvious generally work better. For example if you were writing a post about business ethics, an obvious choice would be a photo of people shaking hands – since this seems to be the stock world’s idea of what business is – but a more interesting choice might be a photo showing a businessman half in shadow, half well lit.

Vary your text

Basic things like headings, italics, links and so on can make your text a little less monochromatic and a bit more visually interesting. But be careful, a little variation can go a long way, but a lot just makes a mess.

Another way to vary your text which is useful if you always have long blocks of copy is to have a lead in paragraph which is in a slightly larger font and possibly italicized.

The principle behind a lead-in is similar to a pull-quote, it literally is designed to be easier to read to draw in the reader and get them going.

Here on NorthxEast, we have a lead in section at the top which typically has a catchier block of copy to get the person interested before we get to the meat of the article.

Small columns of text

If you’ve ever had to read a line of text which just went on and on horizontally without line breaks then you’ll know how hard it is to read. Look at a newspaper or magazine and you’ll see that the columns of text are never very long horizontally. Rather usually shorter multi column layouts are employed.

Because the web is not naturally made for multicolumn text layouts, you probably shouldn’t attempt it unless you are a professional web developer. Shortish, single columns of text can do wonders in enhancing readability (like the one you’re reading right now!).

Of course you need to balance how much extra content you are placing in the form of advertising, pull quotes and so on.

If your column is too short for your content you can wind up with really thin bits of text wrapping around an ad or image, and this doesn’t look so good.

Look to Printed Materials for Inspiration

Getting a reader involved with text has been a mainstay issue in print design for a very long time and magazines and newspapers in particular are very good at it.

If you are looking for ideas about layout and how to present your material, they are an excellent reference for what to do to engage your reader, so get off your computer and pick up a paper tomorrow!

From Zero to Hero – Quick Start Guide to Blogging

A while ago I wrote a post called Good to Great – Why Some Blogs Succeed and Others Don’t, now lets look at why some blogs seem to hop on the fast track and attract readership right off the bat.

When I launched this blog in early February this year I naturally noticed other similar bloggers starting around the same time and because I am such a competitive person I kept tabs on some to see how my progress compared.

Pretty quickly I saw more than a few vanish or slow right down as they discovered how much work blogging actually entails. A whole bunch of others did averagely well and are still going well with growing readerships and continuing content, these guys are the norm.

In the final group though are a handful of bloggers who just seem to attract success, in particular and using the metric of subscriber numbers:

The reason I’ll use Philip’s iHelpYouBlog as the case study is that unlike Chris he isn’t already well known (Chris has written books and seems to be known from Performancing.com), and his blog is newer than Matt’s – though NBB is a pretty interesting case study as well.

Also though, I just like Philip’s blog the most and some of his posts like: A Fool-Proof Method To Brainstorm Blogging Ideas, The Complete Blogging Resource List For The Pro-Blogger and most recently 101 Great Posting Ideas That Will Make Your Blog Sizzle have really helped me along in my own blogging endeavors.

Actually I would even go so far as to say his blog has been more helpful than the illustrious Problogger – heresy I know!

So here’s why I think that iHelpYouBlog and similar blogs quickly attract readership:

1. A Strong Voice

These blogs always have a strong, personal voice. When I visit iHelpYouBlog (or NBB, ChrisG or more established successful blogs) I know where I am just from the style and tone of the writing.

This is important in the early days as it sets the blog apart. Of course by personal I don’t mean that they discuss their personal lives, rather that they aren’t afraid to share their viewpoint and their opinions.

Also with a blog like iHelpYouBlog there is an opinion that I don’t get elsewhere.

This is particularly important in a blog about blogging because there are *MANY* others out there and at times reading about the same old plugins and the same old tips can get a bit old. I visit iHelpYouBlog because I get insights I won’t get elsewhere.

2. Consistent Quality

No surprise here, but it still needs to be said. There are many blogs in my feedreader that I just skim to check if anything interesting has appeared, then there are a few that I read almost every post because I know that its going to be interesting.

When I first visited iHelpYouBlog I went through the last 15 posts, found that they were all interesting and immediately subscribed. I’m guessing that everyone else did too

3. Take Advantage of the Freight Train when it Comes Along
For a while iHelpYouBlog was building a steadily growing readership, and each week I would see the numbers going up by 10 or 20, but then one day he had a post hit del.icio.us/popular and it jumped by about two hundred.

Is that a lucky break? Not really, with consistent quality its a matter of time before something gets popular and blogs like Philips (and Matt’s with Digg) take advantage of this freight train and capitalize on the attention by writing more quality posts to follow up.

Also they will have done the hard work to get to a point where they *can* get Dugg or Bookmarked.

That is to say, Philip had built a core readership who could make sure that his super post when it arrived already had a good push and some momentum from the regulars to get the word out.

4. They Get Around

Somehow popular blogs just seem to pop up in different places, I notice this with all three of the blogs that I mentioned, that I’ll be somewhere completely unrelated and the person will have a link back to them, they will have posted a comment, there is an interview of them and so on.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, and I know it happens probably the most with Matt from NBB, but somehow these guys just get around, get noticed, make friends with other bloggers and promote themselves

So there’s my analysis of why these guys seem to make it so quickly while others take a lot longer. What do you think sets them apart?

How much money is this business going to make? – 4 Key Pitfalls to Avoid

So, you have a winning idea and a great plan to monetize this idea and start a powerhouse internet business.

Inevitably when you craft your business model you will start working out some figures for this new venture. So you sit down and start throwing around imaginary numbers.

A certain number of people visit the site, so many sign up, another number purchase and then probably you do some calculations, a x b x c = whaddya know you are going to be rich!

But there is a catch… Until you have actually started doing business these numbers are totally and utterly fictional. It is OK though, because even if you were a seasoned entrepreneur they would still be fictional.

The truth is until the doors open nobody really knows how successful a business is going to be. There are no sure fire hits.

The trick is refining your guesses so that the chances of your overestimating the vast profits you will be making are about the same as your chances of underestimating.

Here are four key pitfalls to avoid when “calculating” your expected revenues:

Pitfall #1 – Overestimating Your Market Size

When we started FlashDen.net, I can remember thinking “There are 1 million Flash users, if only 1 in 10 of them is interested in our product that is 100,000 customers” …

But just because there are X million people who might possibly fall into your market, does not mean that your market size is X million people. In reality our market for FlashDen was people who use Flash in their work, who purchase off the internet, who speak English, who … etc.

That is our real market and it is a lot smaller than 1 million. To give another example, if you were selling shaving products, you could say that your market is well… Men, so thats 2.5 billion people right? Easy money!

Pitfall #2 – Forgetting Your Costs

Whenever I go into a restaurant and look at the prices on the menu, almost always in my head I think something like “Well cucumbers cost $1, tomatoes cost $2, this salad costs $10… gee these guys are making a killing!”

Now anyone who has ever been in the restaurant business will tell you its one of the hardest around. There are many hidden costs that I in my infinite wisdom reading my menu am forgetting, like marketing, rent, personnel, insurance, wasted materials, non-food materials like the menu I am holding and so on.

Assuming that all the costs that you can think of really are all the costs is a fatal assumption. Even if you think you have adequately thought of every conceivable cost, throw in another 25% for good measure, because there will always be things you hadn’t thought of until you actually are there running the business.

Pitfall #3 – People Will Pay

However you price your product or service, whether it is a one off sale price, a subscription price, a donation amount, an advertising price or some other price, you are assuming that people will be prepared to pay that amount.

Unfortunately pricing is often done through trial and error, going up and down to find what the market will bear, what people will be prepared to pay and what they won’t.

There are no magic ways to guess this one right, you can go by industry norms if there are some, you can go by what you are prepared to pay, but inevitably you will have to make a leap of faith and guess, so try to be conservative – that way if there are surprises they will hopefully be happy ones.

Pitfall #4 – Once its Built, the Hard Work is Done

Assuming that the product development – whether its programming some software, getting a web storefront ready or writing that ebook – is all there is to it is another fatal mistake.

Maintenance, marketing, sales, ongoing development, bug-fixing, advertising, administration and support are all huge parts of any business. I recall telling a friend about our web business and how much work there was to do and he said “But the website’s built, what else do you have to do?”

Perhaps there are businesses where you just build it and leave it, but I’ve never come across one. Nine times out of ten the build is the easy part, it has fixed constraints, you can work out what you need to do to build something.

After the build there are hundreds of variables, lots of things that could go wrong, that will need doing, competitors that pop up, marketing campaigns that turn out to be ineffective, support for things you didn’t expect to have to support, administration that takes a lot longer than you expected and so on.

Just keep it real

At the end of the day it’s common sense: think it through, don’t jump to conclusions and be conservative.

But in the excitement of new business it is all too easy for things like common sense to go out the window as you sit and calculate out just how you will spend those millions that are wait for collection.

A Classification of Online Business Models

I’ve mentioned “Business Models” a few times now, I even have a category of posts under the name, but what is a Business Model?

A model is something you use to depict or understand something much bigger. So remember in Return of the Jedi, when they are planning their attack on the Death Star, they view a holographic projection of what it looks like, well that was a model.

Now a business may or may not be as complicated as the Death Star, but regardless it should have a model to describe how it works, who it sells to and so on – though it probably won’t be holographic!

Broadly speaking then a business model is a short description of how a business generates its revenues. This is different to a business plan which is anything but short, and tends to the very specific.

Since we are going to be classifying web business models, we’re going to make this very broad indeed.

So below are seven major categories of Web Business Models and we’ll look at each one in detail over the next few days…

Advertising Model

The advertising business model is thanks in no small part to Google the predominant model on the web.

A business will provide content, services or even products usually for free, then place advertisements to generate revenues. The advertisements come in many forms including text, graphic, flash, video, interstitial and graphic ads.

Traditional implementations of the advertising model include just about any blog, community, magazine or portal you can think of.

Some less conventional implementations are things like classifieds and directory sites where the user actually wishes to browse the ads (as opposed to more disruptive forms where they are interrupting normal content).

And cutting edge implementations include blog review services (such as ReviewMe and PayPerPost), AdBrite’s new image advertising service or a service like agloco.

Merchant Model

The merchant business model is perhaps the most straight forward and is simply when the business sells goods – either electronic or physical – through some sort of web interface.

Traditional implementations of the merchant model are sites like Amazon.com or buy.com

And a more cutting edge implementation would be a service likeiTunes

Speculation Model

The speculation business model is based on buying web assets and selling them for profit. The assets might be domains, traffic or even whole sites.

A traditional implementation of this model is the purchase of domain names to resell them later at a profit as the domain market becomes tighter or a company finds itself in dire enough need of a domain to warrant paying a premium.

Domainers often profit off the domains through selling ad space off domains in the meantime.

Another implementation of this model is what is known as arbitrage, that is a business purchases traffic from a service like AdWords and then speculates that the traffic will in turn click on advertisements at a higher advertising payoff than they were bought.

Subscription Model

The subscription business model is when a site provides continuous content, products or services for a recurring payment.

Implementations of the subscription model include web hosting and internet providers, software providers like 37Signals and content providers like ShutterStock.com

Brokerage Model

The brokerage business model covers businesses that facilitate transactions between two parties for either a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction.

Implementations of the brokerage model cover things like auction brokers such as eBay, marketplace brokers such as iStockPhoto and transaction brokers such as Escrow.com or PayPal.com

Donation Model

The donation business model is based on users donating to the organization to help towards operation costs.

Donation models are used in shareware and open source software, as well as in non-profit sites like Wikipedia.org

Referral Model

The referral or affiliate business model relies on other businesses providing programs to pay out for referrals to their business.

The primary business will then set up specialized content sites or tools to direct users to their affiliates.

Implementations of this model can be found on a content site such as JohnChow.com as well as from more sophisticated tools and services sites like hotelclub.com where users are channeled off to partner providers.

Other models exist, however these are perhaps the most common and widely used. If you can think of some examples that don’t readily fit into these categories, leave a comment and let me know.

More on Business Models

There are far more technical definitions of Business Models – the sort of thing you would encounter in a management course – which categorize up the components and label them in specific ways.

You can view such a definition here. And there are some very loose definitions of the term, such as this one from Clarke“A useful interpretation of the term ‘business model’ is therefore that it is the answer to the question ‘Who pays what, to whom, and why?’ “.

Michael Rappa has done a good job of categorizing web business models in his article “Business Models on the Web” which is both extensive and worth reading and on which this classification is based.

Ideas Are Cheap, Action is What Counts.

I have heard quite a few business ideas in my time and I have had more than my fair share. Through it all I have realized one thing. Ideas are cheap.

In fact they are a dime a dozen. Everyone has ideas and I would even say at various points everyone has some pretty darn good ideas.

The thing is without executing the idea, it’s pretty worthless. Ideas are cheap, action is expensive.

The odd thing is oftentimes people are overly protective of their ideas or seem to think that having an idea for a business is the hard part out of the way.

For example on more than a few occasions people have said to me something along the lines of: “I have a fantastic idea, you execute it and we’ll be partners”.

This sort of thinking is so upside down. I have yet to hear an idea where such a scenario would have been even remotely worthwhile.

One of my favorite books, which I highly recommend you read isGetting Real by 37Signals and it’s available online to read for free. In it they quote various people and my absolute favorite quote is this one from Derek Sivers, president and programmer, CD Baby and HostBaby:

It’s so funny when I hear people being so protective of ideas. (People who want me to sign an NDA to tell me the simplest idea.)

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.

Explanation:

  • Awful idea = -1
  • Weak idea = 1
  • So-so idea = 5
  • Good idea = 10
  • Great idea = 15
  • Brilliant idea = 20
  • No execution = $1
  • Weak execution = $1000
  • So-so execution = $10,000
  • Good execution = $100,000
  • Great execution = $1,000,000
  • Brilliant execution = $10,000,000

To make a business, you need to multiply the two.

The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20. The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000.
—Derek Sivers, president and programmer, CD Baby and HostBaby in Getting Real

Derek sums up perfectly my point. Action is everything, how you execute development, marketing, branding, PR and the myriad other aspects of business are the main determinants of success, not a single idea – no matter how barn stormingly good it is.