Growing a blog’s readership is a task that is universally acknowledged to take time and steady progress. In this series of case studies we study the blog FreelanceSwitch.com, which has experienced rapid early growth.
As one of the two principal drivers behind the blog’s success, I am in a unique position to be able to report back what we did, the decisions we made and how they translated to the site’s success.
The other titles in this series are:
Building a SuperBlog Pt 2: From 2000 – 7000 Readers in Five Fast Weeks
Though I wish it was a completely replicable experience, much of the blogs success was thanks to a few measures of luck and mystery.
Nonetheless there are five critical factors that I believe contributed to our success.
(1) Choosing The Right Niche
Some time ago Rand from SEOMoz wrote a very insightful article about how to choose what NOT to blog about. In the article he basically surmised that each niche only has a limited space available leading to a few runaway successes, a handful more of successful blogs and a lot of also-rans.
This is somewhat akin to having a couch sitting in your living room that everyone wants to sit on. While some sofas are bigger than others, all couches have only limited space.
And so it winds up that the later you are, the less couch space there is left, until newcomers are leaning on corners or resting backs on the side. So to succeed, you must get to the couch when its at least mostly unoccupied.
With FreelanceSwitch, the first thing we did was find the right couch to sit on.
Freelancing is an area that both Cyan – the site editor – and I know a lot about. More importantly however is that the area was underserved.
How did we know it was underserved? Because when I wrote an article about freelancing here on NxE back before it became a blog about blogging, the article became very popular ? so popular my old web host couldn’t take the heat and crashed!
With that sort of response to a post, it was immediately evident that freelancing was to be a popular topic and one which at that time in particular had buckets of potential.
I would say that above all else, choosing the right topic is what has made FreelanceSwitch such a quick success. In choosing that topic, we also chose to make the blog extremely focussed.
That is to say that when you get to FreelanceSwitch you know in about 10 seconds what the blog is about … wait for it … Freelancing!
Having a focussed topic means readers quickly know whether the blog is for them or not and increases the chances that the right people stick around.
(2) Leveraging existing assets and knowledge
When you start your first blog, site or business you have one web asset – the one you just created. FreelanceSwitch was my third blog, I write for the official blog on FlashDen.net as well as this one you are reading right now – meaning at the time that we launched FreelanceSwitch, we already had access to a little core base of 400 odd readers to help get things started.
As soon as the new blog launched, posts went up on both this blog and the FlashDen one announcing the new site. This little extra push helped bring the first 60 or so readers over those first four days of being online.
While this number seems small now, those first readers are your most critical. They are the readers who give you that first ounce of momentum and become the force that drives the blog.
Equally importantly to the access to two other blogs was the knowledge I had gained in writing and running them.
From what WordPress plugins to use to how to make sure people knew where to click to subscribe. Those basics of blogging that seem simple in hindsight, but which can be a little mysterious when you first start out.
In other words, if you are brand new to blogging, I think it takes a few weeks just to get your bearings, so having that out of the way helped in giving FreelanceSwitch such a quick start.
(3) Writing some pillar articles
One of the lessons I’ve learnt through writing here on NorthxEast is the importance of having pillar articles on a blog early on.
A pillar article, sometimes referred to as flagship or evergreen content, is the sort of posts that stand the test of time and that are shining examples of what your blog is all about.
Chris Garrett of Chrisg.com has produced a very worthwhile e-book called “Creating Killer Flagship Content” that is available upon subscription to his blog. I highly recommend reading it.
On FreelanceSwitch we first ported over that original Comprehensive Guide to Freelancing that had proven so popular here on NxE to get the site started.
After that Cyan and I set about writing a few posts to pad out the site with general content. This was then followed by two major pillar articles that still receive comments and trackbacks today, The 101 Essential Freelancing Resources and 12 Breeds of Clients and How to Work with Them.
These pillar articles are not only very useful and great content, but they are also very deliberately the sort of bookmarkable linkbait that attracts attention in social media, which leads me to the next point?
(4) Capitalizing on Social Media
When it comes to getting a lot of traffic as quickly as possible and without spending a fortune, nothing works quite as well as social sites like Digg and Delicious.
Although much has been written on this topic and I don’t want to repeat the obvious, I will mention a little on the subject.
Back when I wrote the freelancing article on NorthxEast I came right up against the phenomenal amount of traffic that social media push when my hosting at the time buckled under the pressure.
After experiencing the pain of watching traffic go begging once, I knew I’d never let that happen again. With FreelanceSwitch we set up with a hosting company called SliceHost.com which though not particularly friendly to the non-sysadmin, is a fantastic hosting company.
Fortunately our developer Ryan setup the blog to run smoothly under all sorts of duress.
We then set about writing an appropriately bookmarkable article. The idea for that first article was taken from a blog called iHelpYouBlog.com where we had seen rapid success after the author had written a list of 101 great posting ideas.
Having so many post ideas in one place was something every blogger felt like bookmarking. Following suit, we compiled 101 resources for freelancers which we hoped anyone freelancing would feel like bookmarking.
Of course just writing something like that isn’t always enough, since you need some momentum to get the ball rolling. This was something I had learned from my friend Ivan Brezak Brkan.
When publishing that original freelancing article here on NxE, he had helped kickstart its popularity by getting it featured on Problogger. From there it had snowballed into the mass of visitors that crashed my server.
So then how do you get an initial bit of momentum? Well that was the critical question. We knew we had something worthwhile, but we needed people to see it.
The first thing we did was write to some really big blogs who we thought might find the post interesting – LifeHacker,LifeHack.org, 43 Folders. LifeHack.org and LifeHacker.com did eventually list the article, but that wasn?t what got us going as it turned out.
Rather it was something a bit trickier. One tool that we had used a few times previously for other sites is StumbleUpon Ads. This is a service which lets you purchase StumbleUpon visits at 5 cents a pop.
So I created a campaign and loaded it with $50, enough to get 1000 visitors to see the URL for the 101 list.
With this traffic we gained the initial momentum the site needed. From there the del.icio.us bookmarks flooded in taking it right to the top of the popular list and bringing in some 15,000 visitors in about a day.
Fortunately many of these added us to their feed readers, bookmarks and have gone on to become loyal readers.
(5) Design to look like a Professional Outfit
One of the great benefits of being a professional designer is being able to custom design sites for myself. A tailor made design really takes a site or blog to the next level in its perception by new visitors.
It means that people stumbling on your site immediately see you as a professional outfit and expect quality content. When you back that up with some pillar articles all of a sudden you are in business.
With the FreelanceSwitch design, we deliberately worked on making not just an aesthetically pleasing design, but also a very approachable and friendly look. Using characters, bold type and friendly tones the site manages to get across a persona of a helpful and readable content.
While having a great design alone is by no means a necessity for blogging success it is the icing on the cake that helped us get FreelanceSwitch to its current success.
This has been the first part in a multi-part case study tracking FreelanceSwitch’s growth. In the next segment, I discuss the factors that helped grow the blog’s readership from 2000 on up to 7000 in five weeks.