A ‘Simple Web’ Philosophy For Getting What You Want

getting what you wantPhotography by d’n’c

Most hard questions have simple answers. The hard part is in the doing.

The question: how can I lose weight? can be answered truthfully in one sentence: eat three modest, healthy meals each day (and no more), and make exercising a habit.

But that isn’t good enough. It’s the how that gets us. It’s not enough to say what we have to do. We need to know how to do it.

As bloggers and webmasters, we want most or all of these things: more visitors, more subscribers, more comments, more money, more inbound links, and more people saying good things about us. Our wants aren’t in question. It’s the how that gets us. It’s the how that has us reading a dozen blogs a day, trying to find the answer (or at least a little piece of it).

You can stop searching, for now. The answer is in this post.

The Question

How can I get visitors, subscribers, comments, inbound links, and people saying good things about what I do?

The Answer

Evaluate every action, every possible change, and every existing feature of your blog or website, and ask: Is it gripping? Can the reader resonate with it? Does it make it easy (and rewarding) to interact? And most importantly: is it easy (or rewarding) to talk about?

That’s all you need to know. Do these things, and you’ll get everything you want.

Not satisfied?

Keep reading if you feel underwhelmed or disappointed.

Of course you do. If you don’t, you’ve probably got everything you want already.

There’s nothing wrong with the above answer. After all, it’s true. If you did all those things, you’d get what you wanted (and more).

Trouble is, like the answer to all our weight-loss woes above, it deals with the What, not the How. It’s all very well to want to write something worth talking about, but how do we do it?

That’s where the idea of the Simple Web comes in.

What is the Simple Web?

It’s my name for a practical philosophy of actions and results. As the name implies, it’s simple enough for anyone to follow.

Every website or blog has elements that help you get what you want, and elements that are obstacles to doing so. Those elements which help you fall into four distinct categories, and I’ll be discussing each of them in more detail in a series of posts after this one.

#1 — Gripping

Each new visitor has a limited amount of attention to give. Are you focusing it on elements which further your message, or squandering it away on distractions?

If your site — and I use this to mean blog or website — isn’t gripping, readers aren’t going to engage with your content. If they don’t engage with your content, they’ll forget about you.

If your site isn’t gripping, your other actions are wasted. Your articles might be top-notch, but if few visitors are gripped enough to read them from start to finish, you’ll never see the rewards those articles deserve. I don’t mean to sound dire, but a failure to ‘grip’ readers is something I often see crippling otherwise excellent sites.

The key question is: how can I make sure every element of my site is gripping, and how can I remove the elements that aren’t?

Building a gripping layout

1. Make it memorable. How distinctive is your site? Do you have your own logo, or a unique header? People remember visuals much more strongly than names — that’s why big brands place such an emphasis on their logo.

2. Use eye-catching headline presentation. We’re not yet talking about the content of those headlines, but simply how they’re presented. Are they eye-catching, distinctive, and do they stand out from your content? [See it: Cornwall SEO]

3. Put your best foot forward. Work your best content into your design. Are your most popular, or favorite posts, highlighted enough that the average visitor will see them? A ‘Popular Posts’ widget is more gripping than a ‘Recent Posts’ widget. If visitors were looking to find your most recent posts, they’d be scrolling down the page.

4. Work images into your articles. As Robert Scoble said when explaining how he reads feeds, images slow the eye down. They’re magnetic when it comes to eye contact, and do a lot to encourage readers to focus on your articles.

Repairing non-gripping layout elements

1. Simplify down only to the elements that will grip visitors. MyBlogLog widgets, Recent Comments, long Archive lists and blogrolls in the sidebar, too many (or boring) ads and other unessential layout elements all fail to grip visitors.

Gripping layout elements provide concise doorways to essential functions and content. Non-gripping elements distract from what is essential, and can work to make the rest of your site less gripping.

Build gripping content

1. Craft attention-grabbing or interesting headlines. I like to think of each headline as the sign on a door you want readers to open. If the sign promises something good/interesting in the room ahead, readers will peek inside. If not, they’ll move on to the next door.

If you feel like too much of a sell-out going for the jugular with big-numbered headlines then you might simply settle for ‘interesting’ — a headline which works to pique interest in a subtle way. I’d recommend switching between the two strategies so neither overstay their welcome.

Attention-grabbing:
Get Off Your Butt: 16 Ways to Get Motivated When You’re In a Slump

Interesting:
The finger moustache virus

2. Create content with your ‘Most Popular’ list in mind. Build a collection of 5 or so really impressive posts with headlines that promise immense value and display them somewhere highly visible on your site (preferable ‘above the fold’). These posts will be magnetic to new visitors, and instantly communicate that your site is packed with value.

3. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. If your headline is good or relevant, readers will ‘open the door’. Before stepping completely inside they’ll take a peek at what the article has to offer. This peek is your first few paragraphs — or better, your first paragraph.

Don’t be afraid to ‘spoil’ your readers. If your article was a short story, you’d start with telling the reader what happens in the end. Why? Because the value doesn’t lie in the what, it lies in the how.

If a potential reader is clear on what she stands to gain by finishing the article, she’s more likely to do so. And that’s what we want — reading, not scanning.

4. Write for the new visitor. Would your article be gripping to someone who had never visited your site before? Is it likely to be submitted to social media?

Articles that don’t make sense without background information generally have little success on social media services, where content needs to be self-sustaining. If it’s not self-sustaining, new visitors are unlikely to be gripped by it.

5. Write for your target audience. Who is the ideal visitor to your site, and what kind of content would they want? What answers would they be searching for?

One thing to note as that you are (probably) part of your target audience. Most of us write for those with the same interests and goals as us.

What kinds of articles would you most love to read? What kind of site would you most wish to discover?

The next step in the process is to start creating a site that resembles the ideal. Chances are others in your target audience will appreciate it, too.

6. Create an About page that promises value. A good About page explains what kinds of topics you write on and why you’re qualified to write about them. A great About page explains what visitors to your site stand to gain by reading its content.

Repairing non-gripping content

1. Change what isn’t working. If a particular type of content consistently generates little interest, either change the way you do it or do something else.

Uninteresting content doesn’t merely sit there, neutral, neither adding nor detracting from your site. If a great article is a +1, a boring one is a -1. Boring articles have the potential to outweigh the benefits of good ones.

You often won’t know an article is boring until you hear the chirping of crickets in the comments section. It’s a distinctive and valuable message: don’t do the same thing again.

2. If in doubt, don’t publish it. It’s better to not post (which has a neutral effect on your site), than post something sub-standard merely to show signs of life, or because you should.

How this ties into the ‘Simple Web’

Simplify down to the design elements and content that will grip your readers. If it’s not gripping, it’s distracting, or boring — the opposite of gripping.

Allowing non-gripping elements to stand, or non-gripping actions to continue, is often mistaken as being harmless — as neither hurting nor harming your site. This isn’t the case.

Every boring, distracting or irrelevant inch of your site and its content will weaken what is gripping about it.

Ask yourself: is this element/action +1, or -1? If it’s not one, it’s the other. The belief in zero, in certain things being neither one nor the other, and therefore acceptable, causes us to waste time and visitor attention on actions and elements that simply don’t contribute to the growth of your site.

A challenge, if you’d like to try it: Eliminate every zero or -1 action from yourself and your site.

#2 — Resonating

If your content or design can’t be understood, it has failed, and complex ideas are no excuse. The only obstacle to expressing a complex idea in simple terms is laziness. If visitors don’t understand your message, how can they interact with it, or talk about it?

Once you’ve created gripping content and a gripping environment for it, the next step is to construct a site that resonates with your reader.

You might have the most clickable headlines in the world coupled with a flawlessly simple and usable design, but if your ideas don’t resonate, it won’t count for much.

Resonance is a prerequisite for every reader action that works to grow your site. The behavioral flow is: entry — grip — resonance — interaction — talk, and resonance is arguably the most important link in the chain.

Readers won’t interact with the site if they don’t resonate with it. Readers won’t talk about it if they don’t resonate with it. But a reader can talk about it without interacting, and vice versa.

In other words, resonance is key. In this post, I want to show you how to create a site with the resonance of a bell.

What is resonance?

Resonance is not the same as agreement, or even disagreement — though it may involve either. Resonance is understanding followed by an internal reaction.

Content with this resonance is at first understood, but what happens after is more unpredictable. Does it link-in with feelings of self-confidence, or feelings of inadequacy?

Does it make a point the reader has always felt, but never been able to articulate? Does it arouse emotions? Approval? Amusement? Does it seem as if the information will contribute to ‘being better’ at something?

Any kind of understanding and internal reaction is resonance, whatever form it may take. Understanding alone is not enough.

Your words must mean something to the reader. When I tell you “The sky is blue,” you certainly understand, but it won’t resonate because it’s old knowledge.

Building a design that resonates

1. Create an About page that resonates. Don’t simply list the topics you write about — explain your core message, your mission statement, and what you hope to bring. Make sure it’s something no-one has seen before.

I’d argue that there are two types of resonance: resonance with a general message and resonance with a specific one.

A reader might resonate with the idea of making money online, but how can you be unique enough with your mission statement that the reader will also build specific resonance with your site alone?

2. Create a design that resonates with your message. Once you’ve worked out your unique message and mission statement, take some time to think about how you could use your design to further that message.

For me, it’s incredibly important to have a simple, minimalist design because simplicity is something I often advocate. If my design were messy and cluttered, my calls for simplicity wouldn’t resonate at all.

To extend the make money online example earlier, a blog I think does this particularly well is Dosh Dosh.

The site has built itself around approaching the topic in a friendly and fun way, and the design reflects that perfectly. Does your design suit your message?

3. Do the words and structure resonate? It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that your design and navigation is hinged on words and expressions you can change, and structures that can be rebuilt in different ways. Can you mine opportunities to resonate from these elements?

Repairing a design that doesn’t resonate

1. If your design says “I’m not serious”, rebuild it. If it’s messy, cluttered, sloppy, or jarring in any way, your design is an obstacle. It’s what your content comes clothed in. If your content is badly dressed, it appears less trustworthy and informed.

WordPress users are spoiled for choice when it comes to gorgeous, easy-to-use themes. There’s really no excuse for a bad design.

2. Fix elements that say “I’m in this for me.” Nothing spoils the resonance of a blog that tells the reader “I’m doing this for you” like ad placement which impedes usability.

In-text advertising, or blocks of AdSense within blog posts, say: “This content comes at a cost.” This loss of resonance will be crippling in the long-term.

A simple, suggested solution: less ads + less clutter = less ad-blindness + more clicks.

Build content that resonates

1. Focus on clarity. Your idea might be a great one, but it won’t mean much if readers can’t understand it. I’m a firm believer in the principle that even complicated ideas can be expressed in simple terms if enough care and attention is put into the process.

Readers won’t resonate with your content if its meaning isn’t clear to them. What you think is over-simplification is probably just right; after all, you already understand.

2. Does it bear resonating qualities? These might include: the promise of self-improvement, new but welcome knowledge, humor, interesting facts, a powerful story, or any other qualities likely to elicit an internal reaction.

3. Another option for resonating content: does it articulate something your readers already believe? We spend so much time trying to avoid stating the obvious but, strangely enough, those that do are often rewarded.

What seems like common sense often seems to others like material worthy of the front page of Digg. People have a lot of opinions and beliefs and little time to express them.

They tend to reward those that express what they’ve been thinking but haven’t had time (or the desire) to say.

You can bet that the Miss South Carolina video was most popular among those who already had certain views about blondes and beauty-pageant contestants.

It’s why articles discussing why StumbleUpon is so great do well on StumbleUpon, or why articles about Digg’s greatness do so well on Digg.

In short: people like to see their own world-views reaffirmed.

 

4. Is it what the reader has been looking for, but didn’t know it? Often content with the potential to become wildly popular is content that taps into a want or need that has not yet been acknowledged in the niche.

Some suggestions on how to pick these up: participate in forums and scrutinize comments on sites in your niche, including your own. You may be able to pick up a problem others have as yet been unable to solve.

Another strategy is to look inwards: what is the most important unanswered question you want answered? The next step is to answer it yourself.

5. Pick a voice that resonates. A humor blog begs for informal language, an authority blog begs for great spelling, grammar and expression, a copywriting blog begs for crisp, lyrical writing. Is your voice betraying your message, or resonating with it?

Repairing content that doesn’t resonate

1. Listen to comments and feedback (or the lack thereof). If it’s clear that readers don’t understand, or have misunderstood you, I’m sure it’s tempting for some to believe that the ‘right’ reader would have understood. Not so.

If readers aren’t resonating with your content, the cause almost always lies in your own practice. How could you have been clearer? How might you have expressed things more simply?

2. Put readers first, social media second. The real reason why Digg-bait and link-bait are almost dirty-words is that they imply content which puts in-bound links before readers.

The mind of the author can be seen too clearly, constructing each sentence, bullet-point, link and screenshot for maximum social media impact.

In truth, link-bait articles are often really valuable to both readers and social media users, but it’s the sense of self-interest behind them which gives them a bad name.

The key is to write content addressed squarely at readers, while simultaneously having the capacity to resonate with social media users, too. It’s tricky, but you can get better at anything with practice.

3. Minimizing content with little resonance. ‘Thanking your sponsors’, paid reviews of products we could all do without, and badly presented link-round ups are all examples of content with little chance for resonance.

Before hitting publish, ask yourself: does this have more value for readers than it does for me? If not, question whether the content is worth publishing.

How this ties into the ‘Simple Web’

Every word that doesn’t resonate is wasted. Like cotton wool around a bell, the elements of your site that don’t resonate will counter-balance the resonance you do achieve. Once again, there are no zero actions.

There is a tendency to think that elements which don’t resonate, but don’t impact on the resonance of other elements, are harmless — that it doesn’t matter whether they exist or not. Surely this is the logic behind self-serving posts, or self-serving advertisements.

The ‘Simple Web’ philosophy doesn’t accept this. What adds nothing to your site also hinders it. It’s an action you could have spent elsewhere. It works against the resonance you’ve achieved.

Will your next action be +1, or -1? Refuse to accept an internal ‘neither’. Your site and your own actions will be sleeker, more focused and more effective because of it.

#3 — Interacting

Every webmaster or blogger wants their visitors to do the following (subtracting those which don’t apply to you): subscribe to their site’s feed, comment, buy — if they’re selling — or click on ads, explore your best stuff, and come back regularly.

Are you making all of these actions as easy (and rewarding) as possible?

Building your subscriber base

1. Move your feed icon to the top of your sidebar. As I discussed on a recent article about basic usability, readers looking to perform an action they’ve repeated elsewhere (such as subscribing to a feed) will first look for the ‘standard’ — in other words, the way things are usually done. Feed icons are usually near the top of the page, so we should look to emulate this.

2. Add a ‘subscribe’ message to the bottom of your articles. I’ve noticed an increase in feed subscribers since adding the message you can see at the bottom of this post (if you’re viewing directly on the site).

I suspect this is for a number of reasons: 1) someone who has taken the time to read to the end of your article is probably feeling good about your content and 2) visitors are still in ‘reading’ mode and will probably take in the message. You might also consider adding a feed icon and even your feed count to add visual impact.

3. Promote incentives. Chris Garrett offers a free eBook to every feed subscriber. Others have run competitions and offered prizes via their feed footer. What’s your incentive?

4. List the benefits. Most site owners advertise their feed as a benefit in itself. Another option might be to tell readers exactly what they’re going to get. To use the example above, ChrisG.com accompanies its subscribe icon with:

Receive more blogging and marketing tips, new media news and a FREE eBook.

Highlighting the value of subscribing to your site is a good way to increase subscriber numbers.

Encourage comments

1. Make leaving a comment the easiest thing to do after finishing an article. This is the time when the reader’s reaction is still fresh, so you want to make the segueway into commenting as smooth as possible.

2. Ask for opinions. Opinions are easy. We all have them, and on non-controversial topics, there’s little personal investment involved in providing them.

Asking for experiences is a little more difficult as it requires readers (to a varying extent) to step out of their comfort zone.

A simple tip: if you want to hear what readers have to say, ask them.

3. Rethink the recent comments widget. The most common format for this widget is ‘name’ commented on ‘headline’. For the reader, this means: “Name I don’t recognize commented on article I haven’t read yet.” Not much value.

A far better option, I think, would be to include a 50 word excerpt of the most recent comment in the sidebar.

This provides some interesting reading in its own right and may encourage the reader to want to give the comment some context. You can see another alternative I quite like at this personal finance blog.

The key is that the widget shows other people are not just commenting in general, but leaving interesting and insightful comments on the site.

4. Make commenting worthwhile. If you participate in comments on blogs you read, you’ll probably notice that there is a ‘polite’ culture on non-political/controversial blogs, where commenters tend to restrict themselves to addressing either the post or its author, but rarely engage with other commenters.

This means that if you don’t respond to commenters you can’t count on others responding for you. If you don’t respond, the commenter will never know if you even read their input or not. This doesn’t make the act of commenting very rewarding for them.

Even a one word response (if you’re strapped for time) will show the commenter you’ve acknowledged their opinion.

A blogger who interacts with commenters in a meaningful way, and gets plenty of comments because of it, is Michael Martin. You can see some examples at his excellent blog customization blog.

Build a site readers want to explore

1. Offer your best content to each new visitor. I’m a big fan of the ‘Popular Posts’ sidebar addition and all its variants. I don’t recommend using a plug-in for this, however.

Most of us know which of our posts caught fire with readers and which didn’t. Construct your own selection of great posts and make them as prominent as possible. I’d recommend putting them under your feed button.

Why? Because impressive headlines show the new visitor just how much your site has to offer. They provide an entry into the depths of your site after the reader has finished with the main page.

2. Simplify and be picky. A long list of great content is less likely to be engaged with than a short one. A short one is manageable, it makes the headlines easier to read, and it allows the reader the possibility of reading all of them if they so choose.

A long list can be intimidating and will make it harder for your really stellar articles to stand-out. I’d recommend having around five great articles showcased in your design, but you might experiment with other numbers.

3. There are better alternatives to ‘Most Recent’ posts. Unless your articles are really long a ‘Recent Posts’ sidebar area probably won’t be interacted with. It’s much easier to scroll down and get an overview of posts as a whole than try to pick-out headlines from the sidebar.

My suggestion would be to replace the ‘Recent Posts’ widget with a ‘Popular’ or ‘Favorite posts’ list. Readers already have access to your recent posts, but should never have to dig into your archives to uncover your best stuff.

How this ties into the ‘Simple Web’

If your site doesn’t grip readers, it won’t have a chance to resonate with them. If it doesn’t resonate, readers won’t feel compelled to interact in the ways described above.

If it doesn’t resonate, readers won’t feel compelled to talk about you.

Two challenges, if you’d like them:

  • Do something to make it easier to interact with your site
  • Remove an obstacle to interaction

 

#4 — Talking

All of us want visitors to recommend and promote our site. This might involve sharing with social media, telling friends, or blogging about it.

Does your content and design make this easy by being worth talking about? Are you helping to start the conversation, both on your site and off it?

Building a talk-worthy site

1. Create a unique or novel premise
Sometimes what your site promises to provide is sensational enough that it will get talked about. A number of bloggers put a new twist on the ‘make money online’ niche by promising to document their journey to a full-time income online.

Ambition is something that will be talked about. So will a site that promises something which has never been offered before (or at least, not in that way).

Can you make your premise unique, or novel, without changing your content?

2. Attempt something spectacular
A group writing project, a mammoth post-series, an ambitious goal, a remarkable act, a valuable resource given away. All have the potential to be spectacular, all have the potential to fail.

That’s usually why things like that aren’t attempted very often. What people often overlook is that it doesn’t matter. People will talk about you for trying — just in case you do succeed.

I can see something along these lines unfolding at Dosh Dosh right now: Maki is trying to build a free community compendium on making money online. Whether the idea works or not, the process promises to be fascinating.

3. Be controversial
Sure, it’s the oldest trick in the book. That’s because it works. Those who agree with you might link to you.

Those who disagree might link to you, and then try to disassemble your points in the same post. Those who agree might also share what you’ve written with social media, as everyone likes their world-view affirmed.

A final tip: trying to create controversy for its own sake won’t work. I’m simply advocating the benefits of being brave enough to state your beliefs (when relevant to your niche).

4. Coin a word or phrase
Seth Godin invented the term ‘ideavirus‘, and there are 212,000 Google search results for the term. How many of those mentions, do you think, included a link to Godin as the term’s inventor?

Surely not all — we could never expect so much from the Web — but I’ve got no doubt that many did. In fact, a specific search for “seth godin ideavirus” returns 196,000 results.

A significant majority of those talking about an ‘ideavirus’ are mentioning Godin in the same breath.

Can you coin a word or phrase that describes what others in your niche have wanted to say, but haven’t had the words?

5. Introduce a new (good) idea
Good ideas excite people. Those who like them will want them to gain traction: they’ll tell others, expand on your thoughts, and otherwise get behind your cause.

If you have ideas, give them away. If you think an idea is truly great, that’s all the more reason not to hoard it. Besides, are you really ever going to have the time to make it a reality?

6. Make yourself useful
Every person who reads web content finds some value in it for themselves. (Yes — even the three readers of your cat blog). Lifehacks are so popular because they promise incredible value: to make the act of living better.

Why are numbered lists so big? Because they’re an excellent preview of the value the article will present to the reader.

Resource lists? Valuable — you’ve done the work for the reader, and saved them a few hours of time.

When writing, your compass should always be oriented towards providing value for your target audience. Value is more important than your writing style, or your spelling and grammar, or any other factor.

I call this ‘vital content‘ (as opposed to viral, though they’re often one and the same). People judge content by the value it presents to them. The more valuable your content seems, the more likely it is to be talked about.

7. Invest time in your content
We all appreciate those who do hard work for us. We tend to appreciate web writers who do the same.

If you take the time to assemble 100 tips, or 50 links, or 25 resources, on any topic, there’s a pretty good chance others will link to it. The great thing about this type of content is thatanyone can produce it. The only ingredient is time.

8. Write lyrically
No, you don’t have to rhyme, but taking the time to make the simple act of reading your writing a pleasure can pay great dividends.

Every niche suffers from a hefty dose of repetition. Often the writer who succeeds amongst repetition is one who can write in such a way that every article seems fresh and scintillating, regardless of the topic.

Plenty of personal bloggers with relatively boring lives have built huge success on the back of sharp, witty writing. Imagine if we started combining vital content with writing that was, in itself, a pleasure to read?

9. Talk about yourself
Too much of this is usually frowned upon in social circles, and I’d argue that the same applies to social media. In most cases, though, talking about yourself indirectly is a great way to build your blog.

When you write a comment addressed to someone else’s post, you’re also talking about yourself: you’re saying something about the worth of your opinions, your expertise, and your ability to write.

When you guest-post, you’re talking about yourself once again, and demonstrating to potential readers what you have to offer. In the beginning, talking about yourself is the best way to get the conversation rolling.

How this ties into the ‘Simple Web’

Does your site ask to be talked about as much as it could?

Is everything you do worth talking about?

What do you do that isn’t worth talking about? Do you write articles with little chance of inbound links, or social media success? Could you replace them with something more talk-worthy?

Talk builds your site. It sends you traffic, and increases your exposure. It will build a name people recognize.

The core behavioral habit the ‘Simple Web’ attempts to introduce is the elimination of all actions that hurt or stagnate the growth of your site.

Stagnating actions don’t run counter to growth, but don’t contribute to it, either. If each of us replaced every stagnating action with a proactive one I have no doubt that the result of our efforts would improve dramatically.

Some suggestions for getting started with the ‘Simple Web’:

  • In the time you’d usually use to write a speed-links article, pitch a guest-post at another site instead.
  • Create a gripping ‘About’ page.
  • Simplify your layout to enhance what’s best about your site.
  • Share an idea others might be enthusiastic about.
  • Create a valuable resource for your readers.
  • Showcase your best content in a place new visitors will see it.
  • Start to categorize your actions as +1 (growing), zero (stagnating) and -1 (detrimental). You’ve hopefully eliminated the latter — your next target is to eliminate zero. Replace every stagnating action with a growing one.

 

Obstacles

Every design element, every function, every blog post or article, which does not fulfill one of the actions above, is holding you down.

They serve only to distract, and to suck away attention from what is important. The actions in this category don’t merely sit there, ineffective and neutral. They hurt your site.

What makes it simple?

The ‘Simple Web’ is about simplifying both our sites and ourselves (as bloggers and webmasters) down to doing and adding only things which help us get what we want.

These actions are divided into four practical spheres. This makes it easier to work out whether an action fits into the philosophy. If it doesn’t, drop it, and do something that does.

What will I end up with?

  • A site layout in which every element fulfills an important function in growing your blog or website.
  • A site layout which squanders zero reader attention.
  • Content which is always worth talking about.
  • Content which will turn casual visitors into loyal readers.

Where to now?

If you have any reflections or questions about the ‘Simple Web’, please let me know in the comments section.

19 Strategies to Help Turn New Visitors Into Loyal Readers

chess in the parkPhotography by dlkinney

Yesterday I wrote about loyal readers and how they can be a key factor in your blog or website’s growth.

Today’s post provides 19 answers to the question: how can I help new visitors become loyal readers?

Each point is not necessarily a complete answer in itself, and is best used in tandem with several others.

The stronger the connection you make with a new visitor, the more likely they are to keep your site firmly planted in their memory.

How many of these strategies are you already using? How many more could you build into your approach?

The value of each loyal reader

  • dozens to hundreds of visits
  • much more likely to link/recommend you
  • takes your recommendations more seriously
  • more likely to buy your product or service

How can we build loyal readers?

  1. Welcome new commenters. You could keep a document of users who’ve commented on your blog and add to it as comments appear. When you encounter a name you’re not sure you’ve seen before you can word-search the document for the user and quickly now if they’re a new commenter or not. Take the time to welcome them to the community.
  2. Answer commenter questions. Sometimes they will seem off-topic or difficult to answer, but it’s worth giving it a shot. Few interactions leave a more lasting impression on a person than being helped by someone else.
  3. Thank those who thank you. All of us will, at some point, be lucky enough to be on the receiving end of kind words delivered via comments. It’s important to acknowledge these — even if it’s just to say thanks.
  4. Don’t neglect frequent commenters. Part of building a loyal readership is maintaining those who are already part of that readership base. Continue to engage with regular commenters as much as possible.
  5. Encourage RSS subscription. Few readers are more loyal than those who get your content instantly delivered to their feed reader. In order to help the process along, I’d suggest advertising your feed in the first screen of your site and beneath each post on its single post page. I’m not sold on those ‘Please subscribe to my feed’ banners that often appear above the first headline as I think they may interrupt the reader’s attempt to engage with the content.
  6. Check the formatting on your feed. Perhaps this is something everyone does already out of vanity but I do suggest subscribing to your own feed. This will allow you to see when something isn’t working or displaying properly. If it’s a frequent problem, it may cause some of your subscribers to drop your feed.
  7. Answer every email you get. Sound impossible? What if that answer were only ‘Sorry, I don’t have the time to get back to you at the moment, but I’ll do so as soon as possible.’ Not hard — you could even cut and paste it. The worst thing an emailer can experience is the feeling of being ignored, particularly when it took time to compose the email. Simple acknowledgment can put you ahead of many other bloggers and webmasters in this area.
  8. Solve problems/answer questions via email. Sometimes a reader will contact me with a tricky question or problem that would take me at least 10 or 15 minutes to answer. My first reaction might be: I don’t have that much time to spend with one person. The second stage of my reaction, however, is to think: what if doing so will help them towards becoming a loyal reader? When you think of it like that, it’s not hard to make the effort.
  9. Get to know readers personally. Chat to them via your IM of choice, use social media together, or meet up for coffee if you’re in the same area. A personal connection will always prove stronger than an informational one.
  10. Acknowledge the web presence of those readers who have them. If a reader with a blog or website comments, go and visit it. Leave a comment, or send them an email if you enjoyed the site. Make reference to it in comments. Subscribe to their feed. The reader is acknowledging your web presence and they will surely appreciate it if you engage with theirs.
  11. Thank/friend those who vote for your articles on social media. This practice, aside from being good karma, is a great way to attract one-time social media fans back to your site. They may have enjoyed your content enough to vote it up, but perhaps took the article for what it was and moved on to the next thing. A kind thank you email or message can remind them that the site is still growing and you have more to offer.
  12. Give new visitors something to remember you by. Just like you might remember a friend each time you glance at the gift she bought you, giving new readers something to remember you by is a means to keep your site in their memory. Some suggestions: offer a free service (depending on where your skills lie), a free eBook, plugin, digital image, printable cheat sheet, etc. Publicize it towards the top of your site, in plain view.
  13. Stick to your core topics. Too many topics will mean that, unless the site is mainly about you and your personality, for every person you please you will be boring ten others. If you do need to write on diverse topics it could be wise to assign them to certain days, so uninterested readers can skip them. (See it: Zen Habits).
  14. Don’t let competitions be replacements for your site’s content. A good competition runs alongside and does not interrupt the normal functioning of your site. If it does, think of all the readers who have not entered and will not win prizes. Your site may be getting inbound links (of dubious clickability, often), but what about all the loyal readers who are no longer getting the same amount of value from your site?
  15. Publish on certain days, at certain times. If you’re struggling to write five posts a week, for example, cut it down to four, or even three. Consistency and quality is more important than frequency. In fact, post frequency doesn’t matter anymore. A consistent publishing rhythm will stop readers loading up your site only to find nothing new there.
  16. Make every article remarkable, and cut out filler. Will new readers remember your site if the first article on the page is a ‘thank the sponsors’ message, or a conventional links round-up? Filler posts might seem harmless, but they effectively mean that new visitors who come to your site when such posts are in the spotlight will have few reasons to remember it. What if every post your wrote was remarkable — even if you had to post less?
  17. Put your loyal readers in the spotlight. If you visibly treat your loyal readers well it helps make the ‘loyal readers’ group a better place to be. Which user has commented on your site, more than any other? Send them a gift today — a DVD, CD, a consultation voucher, or whatever’s appropriate — as long as it says ‘thanks’. Write about it, so other readers know how much you value loyal readers. Assemble a round-up of your favorite comments for the month. If your readers have blogs or websites, link to them.
  18. Write dirty. Humans form attachments to personalities more strongly than they do information. Put yourself in your writing and people will start to care about you and what you write. After all, there’s a reason you find your best-friend’s cat blog far more fascinating than someone who doesn’t know them would.
  19. Connect with new commenters via social media. Add them as a friend, send them a message thanking them for stopping by. Even better, vote up one of their best articles. Social media offers us an opportunity to do real, meaningful favors for others by giving them what they most want: traffic.

Discussion

Pinyo, who blogs about personal finance, asked a useful question via a comment on Grow Your Traffic: Turn New Visitors Into Loyal Readers.

How can we really reach out, thank them (visitors), and get them involved? I have been thinking about doing some type of readers-centric post, but afraid it will be a flop.

Thanking readers is an important habit to get into and it’s a topic I want to explore more thoroughly in future. Though this article offers a few suggestions I thought I would turn it over to you, in order to get some different perspectives and experiences.

How could we say thanks to our readers, in a meaningful way?

Grow Your Traffic: Turn New Visitors Into Loyal Readers

grow your trafficPhotography by Nika

What’s the difference between a one-time visitor and a loyal reader who visits your site daily for a year?

Around 364 unique hits.

You’d be lucky if a link from an A-list blog sent that much targeted traffic your way. The good news is that turning a first-time visitor into a loyal reader is a whole lot easier than getting a link from an A-list blog.

The bad news? Loyal readers are a source of long-term traffic many bloggers and webmasters (and many articles about growing site traffic) seem to ignore.

What if you could build loyal readers from just 5 new visitors? If they went on to visit your site daily for a year, those 5 visitors would bring you 1825 hits. Further, 50 loyal readers of this kind would bring you 18,250 hits over the course of a year. And so on.

In this post I want to outline some basic strategies you can use to turn new visitors into loyal readers.

Be generous

Generosity leaves an impression, whether you offer new visitors a free eBook, a free review, or some other service.

Make a connection

Responding to a comment or email could turn a one-time visitor into a loyal fan of your site. It’s surprising how many bloggers and webmasters don’t see responding to comments/emails as worth the time investment. It absolutely is!

Be consistent with your topics

If the reader enjoyed your coverage of a particular topic they may keep tabs on your site, hoping for some more great coverage of the topic they’re interested in. If none is forthcoming, they might lose interest.

If you write about a flaw in the iPod screen, for example, you don’t necessarily need to write about the flaw again. You would probably be expected to cover the broader topic of iPods, however.

Pick your general topics and be consistent with them, to avoid readers feeling your site was not what they thought.

Develop a consistent rhythm

Loading up a site only to find that it still hasn’t updated can be quite a disheartening experience. If this happens enough, the reader might stop trying.

This doesn’t mean you need to post every day. You might only post once a week. The key, however, is that your articles flow with a consistent rhythm. If you post 5 times one week, readers will probably expect you to post 5 times next week, too.

Where to next?

Tomorrow I want to provide a longer list of concrete strategies you can use to convert first time visitors into loyal readers, and in doing so, exponentially grow your site traffic. If you don’t want to miss it, consider subscribing to my newsletter.

Third Month: Building Your Snowball Effect

snowball effectPhotography by redjar

This post represents the third stage in the 3 Month Growth Plan. I’d suggest getting an overview of the first stage and second stage before you tackle it.

The third month roughly applies to sites with 300+ daily visitors and 200+ subscribers. I think these strategies still apply very strongly to this blog, meaning that they may well be useful for any site with less than a thousand daily visitors and subscribers. I can’t write about growth beyond that stage, as I’m still learning as I go.

Now that your site has found its feet, this stage of growth is, at its core, about creating a network of fans who will begin to promote your work for you.

While readers are voluntarily recommending you to others in a variety of ways, this allows you to focus on what’s most important: creating vital content that will help build an even stronger snowball effect.

Guest-posting: aim high, because you’ve earned it

By this point you should have experience guest-posting on a variety of blogs in different stages of growth. With that experience under your belt I’d suggest going straight to the top of your niche and pitching your best ideas at its most well-known bloggers.

Make sure to highlight your guest-posting credentials and keep the email short. One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that high profile bloggers are incredibly busy and, more often than not, simply won’t tackle an email that is longer than two paragraphs.

Guest-posts on the highest trafficked sites in your niche will yield many targeted clickthroughs to your site. In my experience, guest-post traffic is the second-best traffic you can get (trailing only traffic coming through personal recommendations).

Be mindful of diminishing returns

At this growth stage, the traffic you receive from comments and forums will begin to seem modest in comparison with other strategies.

I’d suggest no longer viewing commenting as a traffic building strategy, but instead focusing on whether your comments will be worthwhile in a networking capacity (or simply whether an article moves you to comment, purely from a personal perspective).

Forum use should also be stripped back to whatever level you get personal enjoyment from, rather than maintaining it as an intensive strategy — unless you feel your site rides heavily on the back of your forum profile.

The main reason behind a disengagement from these strategies is that the sheer volume of writing required is no longer going to be an efficient use of your energy, when it could instead be poured into creating a great article. At this stage, the latter will always grow your site more.

A stronger focus on virality and social media

With an established reader base your chances of social media success or virality increase, simply because there are more people around to support your content.

Now that you’ve stripped back some self-promotional growth strategies, it would be wise to reinvest this energy in writing value-packed articles your readers will champion in a variety of ways. The importance of this growth strategy will grow exponentially as your site does.

Connecting and co-operating with other bloggers

Ask quick questions, offer to guest-post, help out, or simply say hello. There are plenty of opportunities for bloggers to enter into mutually beneficial relationships.

If there’s one thing we sometimes lack, it’s audacity: the audacity to think we’re worth noticing.

Your chances of success are relatively easy to calculate. If you approach the other blogger with your own self-interest in mind, there’s no reason for the blogger to do something that only benefits you. I

f you approach the other blogger with mutual benefit in mind, your chances go up. However, opening the dialog by giving and expecting nothing in return is always bound to be noticed. Mason said it best:

It’s often times good to start out with just a brief offer or introduction, something that doesn’t ask anything of them (in fact if you can give, you’re better off).

Once you have the conversation going, it is a lot more effective to send along links (but infrequently, it’s not something to be abused.)

Make it great to be a reader
Some of the most profitable companies in the world got to where they are by making it great to be their customer.

If you want readers to get a snowball effect going, they need to feel motivated to do so. One simple and very rewarding way to do this is to treat your readers as you would your friends.

  • You don’t treat your friends as a mass — you treat them as individuals.
  • You would do something for a friend without expecting repayment.
  • If your friend had a problem, you would try to solve it.
  • If a friend asked a question, you’d try to answer it.
  • You’d tell your friend that you appreciate her/him.
  • You would treat your friend to spontaneous acts of kindness.
  • You would be selfless in your dealings with them.

Of all the growth strategies, the last has been the most personally important to me. It’s something that deserves greater discussion and something I think many of you will resonate with.

Now that we’ve explored the 3 Month Growth Plan, in my next post, I want to present grassroots growth as the over-arching philosophy behind it, and mount a case why this method is not given the attention it deserves.

Second Month: Building A Springboard

2nd month of bloggingPhotography by Francois Schnell

Once you’ve read and digested the growth outline in The First Month: Building Something For Nothing, this article represents the next step.

It aims to be a plan of action for sites with a more established and regular readership: 200 — 300 visitors per day on average, or under 200 subscribers.

If the statistics for your site are different, but you still feel you’re in this ‘newly established’ growth bracket, these tips should still be of use to you.

I want to stress that it’s not necessary to move into the next phase of growth within one month. I’ve organized the series in this way because it roughly tracks my blogs progression, which is a base for this model, but I’m well aware not everyone has the desire or the time to pursue growth via a ‘blitzing’ method.

In other words, take all the time you need to aim for the next stage of growth, and re-align the time frame to something that fits well with your personal goals.

Here are my suggestions for the growth of a newly established site:

Broaden your social media focus

I’d suggest adding buttons for Digg, Reddit and del.icio.us at the bottom of your posts, and perhaps even at the bottom of your feed.

Now you have a more established readership your chances of success on other services besides StumbleUpon are not worth ignoring.

In the first month stage of growth, you probably began to get a sense of what works on StumbleUpon and what doesn’t. In this growth stage you can refine these skills and, in doing so, may achieve some success on other social media services.

Success on any one social bookmarking service can be pushed along by having an active profile on the service you’d most like to see success with. Through this profile, you can start to build a connection with social media influencers who may be willing to give your articles a leg-up.

A new approach to guest-posting: quality over quantity

You will reach a point in your growth where guest-posting on small sites or sites that aren’t well targeted to you will no longer be worth the time investment.

You’ll know when you’ve reached that point, because your gut instinct will question whether the traffic received was worth the time it took to craft the article.

At that point, I’d suggest aiming higher with your guest posts. Use your experience as credentials: tell more prominent bloggers how many times you’ve guest posted before. Have you written for any sites they might now? Include that information in your email. You don’t need to aim for the A-list, but you can aim to reach a bigger audience.

Maintain your focus on commenters

At this stage of growth I would suggest continuing to respond to every comment, if you can. It helps create a comment culture on your blog and allows you to create a long-term relationship with individual readers.

I’d also recommend connecting with readers in other ways: through social media, IM, email, and so on. Unless you go wildly off-topic, it’s difficult to get to know readers on more than an informational level via comments.

Pack value into each article

Before sitting down to put words on the screen, ask yourself: “What does this have to offer my target audience?” In other words: is it something they will find useful, or interesting, or entertaining?

All viral content is built from this simple base. Good content provides value. Viral content provides outstanding value.

Many bloggers and webmasters would love to do this but feel they don’t have the time. If that’s you, consider cutting down your post frequency in order to write higher quality articles.

The big myth that stops people from doing this is that if you don’t post for a day, your subscriber count goes down.

This isn’t true. Your subscriber count is actually determined by the number of people who accessyour feed on any given day. On days when you don’t post, those who already read your last post yesterday will not read your feed again. It doesn’t mean that large pockets of your readership are unsubscribing each time your feedcount drops. This is why it generally goes down over weekends, and surges on Monday, too.

Something to think about: when Copyblogger first started out Brian Clark only posted around twice a week. Now that the site has cracked the Technorati 100, post frequency is still generally three or four a week. Unless you’re a site built around ‘scoops’ (like the big gadget blogs, for example) you simply don’t need to post prolifically.

Do something buzz-worthy

Creating a spectacle or giving away something for free both make you interesting. You could start a tips project that runs for 40 days, or give away a service without expecting anything in return. You might also run a unique and innovative competition.

These initiatives, aside from creating buzz around you and your site, can also make a stronger impression on readers than any email or comment, particularly when helping them with a problem or giving them something for free.

Let’s face it: these kind of actions rarely happen on a personal level when it comes to Web 2.0. An impersonal tutorial might solve that niggling problem you’ve been having, and a download page can provide you with something for free, but how often does this transaction take place between two individuals alone?

The scarcity of this kind of interaction (between relative strangers) makes it special.

Moving into Month 3

The next stage of growth in the series will broadly apply to sites with around 300 — 500 daily visitors and 200+ subscribers.

In other words, the Third Month stage of growth should apply to sites who are somewhere in the middle of their niche: not quite towards the top, yet far from the bottom.

In other words, you may well be half-way there.