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 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.

First Month: Building Something From Nothing

first month of bloggingPhotography by Daniel Morris

These tips apply to any blog or website with modest traffic levels (0 — 200 per day) and under 100 subscribers.

If this doesn’t apply to your site, you might consider familiarizing yourself with these growth tips so they can be utilized if you embark on a new project in future.

I certainly can’t guarantee how much your site will grow in terms of numbers, but I do want to suggest that, unless you rely on SEO alone, the growth actions I’ve outlined should create real results on any site.

This post outlines the growth actions I’d recommend to anyone hoping to build an established site from a modest starting point.

Some thoughts on starting growth

Cases like the rapid growth of Freelance Switch and Zen Habits can make new bloggers feel quite inadequate. The subscriber bases of these sites have grown by the thousands in a very short time.

I want to suggest that these sites (and others like it) are not good points of comparison for us. It’s much easier to grow a blog quickly when you can leverage an existing profile or audience.

It’s also much easier when you have money or multiple people working on a site.

Both Freelance Switch and Zen Habits were blessed with a number of these advantages. This doesn’t take anything away from them, as many other sites begin with the same advantages and don’t do so well.

However, I want to stress that these sites aren’t a useful benchmark, as their startup situation is not comparable with our own. In other words, it’s not a level playing field.

Most of us, as was the case with this blog, will have to grow a readership from nothing. It’s a gradual process, but a very rewarding one.

Building something from nothing

If you don’t mind me embarking on a metaphor, it could be useful to think of your site, in this stage of growth, as a tourist attraction in the middle of a wild forest.

It’s a beautiful attraction, but there’s simply no way for potential visitors to find it. There are no paths, no roads, no signs. At this point, you’re relying on visitors stumbling across the attraction by accident.

The actions that follow are about building paths, roads and signs to your site. In the beginning, this will be almost entirely up to you. In some ways, this can make the task even more satisfying.

Here are my suggested actions for this period of growth:

Write a week’s worth of posts before you open the doors

You wouldn’t open your tourist attraction for business if the ticket booth or guest-house was nothing more than a timbre frame, would you?

New visitors need to be impressed by your blog, and there’s nothing less impressive than a sense of emptiness.

As there are no time constraints, try to spend more time than usual making your first few articles outstanding. Use them to communicate what your site will offer.

Join a forum

If you can’t find a forum for your niche, you’re probably not looking hard enough. I built my readership, in the early stages, almost entirely through my presence on the Authority Blogger Forums.

By placing a prominent, yet not overbearing, link in my post signature, I was able to encourage a number of curious click-throughs from forum users who’d enjoyed my posts.

If you can manage it, joining two (or more) forums can help you reach a new pool of potential readers.

I’ve discussed Finding New Readers in Forums before, but the crux of my advice is: post lots, make your posts valuable, connect with other forum members, and help others as much as possible.

Comment prolifically and thoughtfully on similar sites

Many potential readers are to be found reading other blogs and websites in your niche. The best way to draw them back to your blog is to leave a thought-provoking comment, or to answer the questions of other commenters.

I’ve written in detail on finding new readers through comments before, but the gist of my advice would be to: focus on both well-known and lesser known sites in your niche, post comments with value, engage with other commenters, demonstrate your skill in the niche, and most importantly, comment frequently (but only as long as you can continue to maintain the quality of your comments).

Start hunting out guest-posting opportunities

Guest-posts can bring dozens to hundreds of highly targeted visitors to your site (depending on where the post appears).

In the early stages of my blogs growth I guest-posted prolifically. Most of the sites I targeted were not ‘out of my league’, so to speak — they were more established than mine, but not so established that they wouldn’t take a chance on a new blogger.

One strategy I found very effective was to write a post on the Authority Blogger Forums offering to guest-post for anyone who asked.

Even if I wasn’t well-versed in the topic, I found I could research enough for one post with relative ease.

You could launch the same request on a forum dedicated to websites or blogs, or alternately, make the same offer on your niche forum (where at least some of the users will have blogs and websites).

If you want to be proactive I’d suggest pitching guest-posts to certain bloggers via email. My advice would be to stay away from the A-list for now, and be mindful of your inexperience.

Write the blogger a short, polite email outlining your idea in a sentence or two and offer to send them along the finished article if it sounds like something they might be interested in.

If you stress that the blogger can still reject the article one you’ve had a look at it they’ll be much more likely to take a chance.

I never had a blogger reject the article after showing it to them, but even if this does happen once, you can always use the article on your own (or another) blog. A tip: make sure you search the target site to make sure your article idea hasn’t been used before.

Forget Digg and!

Low-traffic sites rarely reach either place, as you need a certain mass of visitors to vote up your articles before a snowball effect gets rolling. Few of us have the raw materials required.

I want to explicitly stress one social bookmarking service that is often overlooked or misunderstood by bloggers and webmasters — though it is starting to get the recognition it deserves.

That service is StumbleUpon, and I want to suggest that it should be your exclusive social media focus in the early growth stage of your site.

One vote for your article at Digg or will never bring more than a few visitors. One vote from a StumbleUpon user has the potential to bring hundreds.

For this reason, I’d suggest pushing only StumbleUpon submission at the end of your posts (for now). Forget Digg,, Reddit and all the others.

They’ll only serve as obstacles for your Stumble link or button. In doing this, you’ll be squeezing the maximum amount of social media juice out of a limited number of visitors.

Kick-start the process by getting involved on StumbleUpon yourself. I’ve written about how StumbleUpon can help grow your blog over at ProBlogger.

Focus on writing viral articles

If your site is new, get into the habit of focusing on potentially viral articles right from the outset. If your site has been around longer and hasn’t yet focused on going viral, your current position will allow you to gain more than you lose by making this transition.

Not every article you write has to be written with virality in mind, but investing time in a few really carefully crafted posts might pay great dividends.

50 Tips to Unclutter Your Blog, which is still somewhat viral, was posted in the relatively early days of this blog and truly helped to get the ball rolling. Don’t save your best ideas for later: you need them right now.

Here are some good ideas for viral articles. I’m also happy to think of some for you.

Let others know about you

Start introducing yourself to other bloggers, offer to help them, or link them to an article their readership might enjoy (preferably by someone else, at first).

If you’ve written something you think would truly by appreciated by the audience of another site in your niche, consider politely pitching the link to them. Don’t ask for a link explicitly, merely suggest it as something the blogger or their readership might enjoy.

Keep your eye open for every opportunity

If you see a group writing project, participate. If a blogger you read is sick, offer to write a post for them (that’s how I got my first guest-posting gig at ProBlogger).

An instinctive sense of opportunity is one of the most important skills any blogger or webmaster can develop, and it will only grow stronger with practice.

Moving into Month 2

The next stage of growth applies to sites with approximately 200 — 300 visitors a day and 100 to 200 subscribers.

If you don’t feel as if those statistics will apply to you due to the nature of your site, you can move into the next stage when you feel you’re ready.

Tomorrow I’ll be outlining strategies to move through the next stage of growth. If you have any questions so far, please ask via the comments on this post.

Getting Better at Bad: Why Practice Doesn’t (Always) Make Perfect

being perfectPhoto by fabbiovenni

“Practice makes perfect.” – Unknown

Or does it?

We’re told that with thousands of hours of ‘deliberate’ practice, meaning practicing the same thing repeatedly, we can become experts. Well, tell that to my old soccer team.

I was new to soccer and especially bad at it, but some of the players on the team had been practicing and playing soccer for 12 years. And yet, they weren’t very good.

In truth, they were terrible. Their kicks were weak and inaccurate, and they were awkward with the ball.

These were players who had spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours practicing soccer. They practiced the same skill repeatedly. And yet, they never seemed to improve. We lost every game we played!

They were passionate and dedicated and loved soccer, but it didn’t help. Somehow, in 12 years of practice and playing, no coach had ever taught them the correct way to strike a ball, or control it.

When we practiced, we were only getting better at doing things the wrong way. Every training session we burned bad habits and bad technique into our muscle memory.

We became experts at playing soccer badly.

Repetition isn’t enough

I’m a firm adherent to the belief that anyone can become expertly skillful at anything, if they practice intelligently.

But it’s not enough to practice with repetition – to take 500 free-throws, or write 500 short stories, or play 500 songs on the guitar.

If your technique isn’t right, you’ll be getting progressively better at doing things the wrong way, and helping to entrench habits that will hold you back from reaching your full potential with that skill.

Every time you practice with bad technique, you entrench it further. The most obvious example is in sport, and unknowingly teaching your muscle memory to throw incorrectly, or kick like your leg is a hockey stick.

But this applies just as equally to cooking, or making music, or writing, or any other skill you might want to learn. If you start to practice before you know what you are trying to learn (and what you are trying not to learn), your skills may end up stagnating.

“I can’t sing.”

If you’ve ever had the pleasure (or displeasure) of watching an episode of an Idol series, you’ve probably seen some of the terrible auditions that air.

You watch those people and assume they are talentless and delusional, that they simply don’t have the ability to sing. And yet, there’s no doubt they spend a lot of time singing, and singing the same things repeatedly and doing their best to improve.

They’re engaging in what is commonly called deliberate practice, so why are they still so bad at singing?

I suspect it’s because they spend a lot of time practicing how to sing badly. They’ve never been taught how to control their voice, or modulate their pitch.

Surrounded by encouraging friends and relatives, they’ve never been told that they’re going about this whole singing thing the wrong way.

And yet, with the right teaching, practicing the right things, even the worst singer can learn how to sing.

Repeat success patterns

When trying to learn any skill the best thing you can do is learn how the skill is practiced by people who are already experts.

How do your favorite writers write? How do the best soccer players kick a ball?

Find success patterns and replicate them.

Too often we focus only on results when we practice. It’s possible to achieve good results with bad technique, but too often that’s what separates the best from those who get lost among the middle ranks.

You hit a ceiling of how far you can go doing things the wrong way.

Learn the best practices in the field you are trying to learn, then practice what you learn. In sport, practice correct form. Focus on form over results.

In the short-term you might fall behind teammates who settle for easy yet incorrect methods, but long-term your investment in good technique will pay off.

When writing, don’t simply try to write as much as you can, regardless of quality. Try to produce as much good writing as you can, putting into practice the advice and best practices that you learn.

Don’t write things that you know contradict the expert advice you have read, for the sake of increasing your word count (often thinking I’ll fix it later). Every time you do that, you’re getting better at bad writing.

Intelligent practice

When striving for expertise, deliberate practice is not enough. To become an expert at a skill, you must:

1. Learn the best practices, success patterns, and correct technique and form for the skill you’re trying to master.

The time you spend reading and researching is not, as is commonly argued, wasted time that you should spend actually practicing. You are preparing yourself to practice right.

2. Practice good form first, and think about results later. Most bad form is entrenched when people take shortcuts to get results faster. If you’ve ever read a poorly written best-selling novel, that’s why.

3. Practice good form for a long time and you can’t fail to become extremely good at the skill you’re practicing.

Just know that hard work isn’t quite enough. You don’t need innate talent (many argue it doesn’t exist), but you do need to practice intelligently.

How to Pick Your Niche Wisely

niche selectionPhotography: Different Shadows by gizax

From birth to death, in so many places — at school, at work, in the street — we’re told that to be different is wrong.

It’s no surprise, then, that many of us are afraid to be different when it comes to writing web content. Most fall into one of two approaches when undertaking the difficult task of picking a niche.

1. A-List by numbers.

This usually involves picking a member of the web content A-list and trying to provide the same content for the same people.

2. Difference is impossible.

When you’re creating web content on topics no-one else is writing on then it’s impossible to be different, because there’s nothing to differentiate yourself from!

In this post I want to outline the pitfalls of both approaches and describe two approaches to picking a niche I see as being most likely to lead to success.

No-one made the A-list by numbers

The urge to try and become successful by following in the footsteps of a member of the A-list is easy to understand.

If it worked for them, why wouldn’t it work for me?

It’s unfortunate that the logic seems so sound, because the pitfalls can be so huge. Let me use an example to illustrate the point.

Nike is an incredibly successful shoe company. Do you think, though, that a shoe-startup which aimed to make shoes that looked like Nikes, targeted the shoes at Nike’s market, and brand itself just like Nike would logically go on to be as successful as Nike has been?

It just doesn’t work that way. You might even do Nike better than Nike does, but people will always choose an established brand over a virtually identical, lesser-known brand because of the social proof.

Because that brand is so successful, so everywhere in the niche, people think it must be good. Your meta-blog might be as good as, if not better, than ProBlogger, but if you’re writing the same kinds of tips, on the same kinds of topics, for the same kinds of people, readers are going to listen to Darren Rowse over you every single time.

The basic marketing adage that people buy brands, not products, couldn’t be truer than in the case of web content.

You’ll never make the A-list by numbers, but you can be ensured a spot on the D-list.

I couldn’t be different if I tried

Seeing so many talented writers take the above approach and fail has prompted the a number of people to travel to the opposite end of the spectrum: to ensure you have zero competition by picking a niche that is as empty as possible.

The idea is that any and everyone looking for resources on this topic will come to you, simply because there is nobody else.

The pitfalls to this approach are deep ones. In truth, most empty niches are empty for a reason. Either nobody is interested, the topic is dead-boring, or there is an extremely limited amount of content you can write on the topic.

Avoid tiny or empty niches unless you’re truly passionate about the subject-matter, and only if you’re comfortable with the idea of never having a huge amount of readers.

Make others work at being different to you

It is possible to innovate. It is possible to have ideas that are completely new, or if not new, to expand on ideas that haven’t yet reached their full potential.

Starting a blog or website on the most obscure topic imaginable is an easy but ineffective way to do this. The key to true innovation is to put a new spin on an existing demand.

Millions of people like to be amused. built its success on discovering a new way to make people laugh.

Everyone likes to give away things they don’t want in exchange for things they do. BookMooch provides a new way for people to do this.

Web users want to locate the best and most interesting content the internet has to offer. Digg is one way to satisfy that want.

In essence, taking a great need or want and innovating a new way to satisfy it is a powerful way to separate your content from everyone else and put you a few rungs up on the ladder to success.

And yes, such ideas are difficult to come by, but the web isn’t going to disappear any time soon, either. You don’t need to come up with something amazing in an hour, and chances are you won’t.

Brainstorm for hours, over days, over weeks. People like to propagate the idea that ideas fall from the sky and that you can no more work towards an idea than you can work towards winning the lottery.

This is a myth, and a damaging one at that. You can work at ideas, and you do so by thinking, and thinking hard.

A great idea can significantly boost your chances of success, to the point where others will need to work out how they can differentiate themselves from you.

Pick any niche, re-write it

Some will tell you that it’s impossible to achieve success in a crowded niche. This is reasonable enough advice from anyone who has experienced what it’s like to create content on a popular topic and not achieve the kind of success they hoped for. In my opinion, it’s the wrong advice.

You can be successful in a popular niche if you differentiate.

I can hear your yawns already. That word gets bandied around like it alone is enough to answer every question ever raised.

How do I become successful? Differentiate. How do I get more traffic? Differentiate. The word itself isn’t very useful, but what it means is.

You could start a site about gadgets and be successful. You could start a site about blogging and be successful. You could start a site about making money online and be successful.

The key to this touches at the core of the suggestion above. You need to satisfy the demand for information on popular topics in new ways.

You’d need a distinct voice, a unique approach, you’d need to answer questions no-one has yet answered, but it could be done.

You won’t be able to succeed creating the same kinds of content on the same topics, nor is it enough to write the same content differently.

I can explain that with reference to my own thought-processes when planning what my blog would be. I love writing, I love blogging, and I love the web.

All of these things naturally feed into web content. Rather than blogging about those three entities in general, I decided to focus on something which unites all three, and, without which, all three couldn’t exist.

I was also surprised to find so little information on something so prevalent. After all, content is what the web is built from. I haven’t reached ‘success’ yet by any measure, but I do feel as if I could, if I work hard and long at it.

The key, as I’ve observed over the years, is to pick a niche you love and re-write it. Write about the topic in new ways, from a new perspective. Tell people how to do things they didn’t know they could do.

I always find it amazing that lifehacks are a relatively new phenomenon when they address a need humans have had throughout the ages: to be better at everyday life.

There are a million strong needs waiting to be served. It’s just a matter of discovering them. Is something everywhere in your niche, but never addressed directly?

And that’s where the hard-thinking comes in.

  • What do people want in a popular niche, that no-one is providing?
  • How could I write on a popular topic while setting myself apart?
  • How can I satisfy a broad need (humor, entertainment, new information) in a new way?
  • Could I provide new types of content on an already established topic?

Few people are willing to take the time — and it may take quite a bit of time — to think of a great answer to one of the above questions. This perplexes me a bit, because the rewards are so considerable.

Making the decision to be one of those people is the best advice I can offer on picking a niche.