How a little string can improve your blogging

Ever find yourself struggling with what you should write about next, or needing more details, anecdotes or statistics to illustrate a blog post, white paper or media pitch? Me too. Fortunately, I have a solution.

When I was a reporter, I gathered a lot of string. This does not mean that my desk was cluttered with balls of twine or little pieces of thread. It means I consistently collected interesting facts, anecdotes, statistics, studies, articles and other information. I could later pull from that store of ‘string’ for new story ideas or to add rich detail to existing projects. (There’s a pretty good definition of ‘gathering string’ at Netlingo.)

Ball of red string

Photo via {a href="http://www.sxc.hu/photo/747814"}nicootje{/a}.

In fact, this is such a common term and common practice that my editors and I would regularly have conversations about how I was “gathering string” for a big story or upcoming feature.

If you’re responsible for generating a regular stream of content for a blog, newsletter, media pitches or the like, then you should start gathering string, too. Done consistently, it will give you more content ideas, more links and more research ready to go when you sit down to write.

So how do you do gather string? Make these three easy steps a habit:

1. Expose yourself to a steady stream of relevant content from other sources. For me, this means I’m constantly scanning RSS feeds and email newsletters related to topics I’m interested in – writing, public relations, social media, content marketing and the like.

2. Store the information you find interesting for future reference. I use Evernote, a free application available for virtually every modern computer, smart phone and tablet; my notes are synced and always available no matter what device I’m using. I can organize material into folders and use tags to categorize it.

3. Periodically review the string you’ve gathered and figure out how to use it. Some of it, inevitably, you won’t use. Some of it will support a line here or there in something you write, or provide supporting statistics or anecdotes. And some of it may serve as inspiration for entire content pieces.

If you want a way to generate more ideas and give your writing more depth and richness, you should try gathering some string.

Why you should attend ConvergeSouth

Blogs and social media are great, but you can often learn more, meet more people and have a richer experience attending conferences, seminars and other events in person. There’s a big difference between skimming a blog post in your RSS reader and the immersive, interactive experience of a conference.

That’s why, if you’re interested in social media, search engine optimization (SEO) and doing business online, you should attend ConvergeSouth 2010. (Disclaimer: I am one of the volunteers helping to put the conference together. I’m involved because I’ve attended several past ConvergeSouth conferences and I think it’s a great conference.)

So far, this year’s line-up of speakers includes:

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Four things readers want

News conference

Publishing news about your niche or topic area is one sure-fire way to attract and retain an audience. (Photo: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/106233)

What do readers want? And not just readers, but viewers, listeners – audiences for all media. If creating content is part of your marketing strategy then you’ve got to figure out what content your audience wants. What kind of blog posts, ebooks, podcasts or videos will attract the most people, get shared most often and keep your brand uppermost in people’s minds?

What they want is likely to boil down to four kinds of content.

How To

How to be wealthier, how to be sexier, how to be slimmer. How to do something — create a great Facebook fan page, sell more life insurance or bake the perfect cake.

Bookstores and libraries are full of how-to books. Magazine covers are scribbled over with how-to headlines – “How to get your guy to ____” screams Cosmo. And the Internet has become a treasure house of how-to content of every type.

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Five mistakes newbie bloggers make

Road closed sign

Some blogging mistakes can block your path. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/589399)

I’ve been blogging for about 10 years now. Along the way I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also made a lot of mistakes. A lot.

So, if you’re new to blogging and determined to be successful at it, here are five mistakes to avoid.

Mistake #1: Not sticking with it.

Some bloggers see a lot of success relatively quickly, but there is no such thing as an overnight success. Even those bloggers who brag about how they took a new blog from zero to 10,000 subscribers in three months, or whatever, didn’t really go from zero to hero overnight. Chances are they put in years of work before they ever launched that “overnight success” blog, developing skills and acquiring tools to make a big splash quickly.

Whatever your goals are as a blogger, you’ve got to stick with it to see success. A good rule of thumb would be six  months of steady blogging before you begin to see significant traffic, readership or (if it’s a goal) revenue.

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How to use personas in blogging

Mannequins

Putting a face on your readers with personas can improve your blog and content marketing efforts. (Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/499007)

Many marketers use personas to help them better understand their customers and design products and marketing campaigns that will be attractive to those customers. You can use them to improve your blog or other content marketing efforts — podcasts, videos, white papers and so forth.

What is a persona?

A persona is a fictional character used to better understand the desires, goals and motivations of some set of potential customers.

If you’re running a blog about weight loss, you might use personas to understand the differences between a 19-year-old woman and a 47-year-old man when it comes to losing weight. Chances are they have different motivations, different values and different circumstances in their day-to-day lives. Rather than treating those two sets of customers the same, personas allow you to clearly fix in your mind how each group is distinctive and will likely seek different information as they explore weight loss solutions.

Properly constructed personas are built off extensive research, which could include interviews, spending time with people in their day-to-day lives and collecting statistics about a target group of customers. If you have the resources for that sort of research, then you have a huge advantage compared to your competitors. But even if you don’t, you can still use personas to rough out some basic ideas about different audiences.

You can still consider all the people you know in real life who are representative of potential readers. That can help you define personas based on interactions and communication you’ve had with real people.

Also note that you can have multiple personas for a single brand, product or service. Different groups of people may purchase the same product for different reasons. Effective marketing communications will still take into account the needs, aspirations and values of these different personas in creating an overall marketing plan.

[Read more...]

How to budget time for social media

Hour glass

You have limited time - use it wisely when it comes to social media. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1068015)

One of the challenges of social media is how to manage the amount of time that you could put into these activities. How much time, and how exactly you spend that time, will end up being a little different for everyone depending on your goals and strategy.

Here’s a framework to help you budget your time. This is especially helpful for personal branding and networking activities, where it’s harder (or seems harder) to just carve hours out of your workday for these activities.

Content creation

Do you blog? Do you write articles or white papers or create presentations that you share on Slideshare? What about podcasting? Creating original content can help you establish a brand and demonstrate your expertise and knowledge. It’s a very powerful strategy, and if you choose to use it you’ll want to set aside some time to focus on it.

  1. How much content do you want to produce each week or month?
  2. How much time do you need to devote to produce that content? How many hours is that each week and each day, on average?
  3. When will you put in that time? During your lunch hour? In the early mornings or late at night? On the weekends? Decide when and put it on your calendar.

In my case I’m probably averaging about 10 hours a week on blogging right now. You don’t have to spend that much time, but consistency is important.

Listening and reading

It’s important to keep up with what’s going on in your industry — reading blogs, articles and books, listening to podcasts, and generally keeping up with new ideas and conversation. How much time you spend on this will vary depending on your industry and goals.

Accountants need to keep up with the latest tax law changes. Doctors have to try to plough through stacks of medical journals. I try to keep up with the flood of books on social media that are being published and the many, many blogs on the subject. Since it’s so easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of information available, it’s a good idea to decide how much time you want to spend on this.

  1. What do you need to keep up with? Books, blogs, professional journals, other sources?
  2. How many hours per week will you devote to this?
  3. When will you keep up with these? At night before you go to sleep? Can you listen to podcasts and audiobooks on your iPod on the way to work?
  4. Do you have a system to bring the most relevant content to your attention? Google alerts? RSS feeds? Some of the tips in this post on finding and sharing great content can help.

Conversation

Of course, social media isn’t very social if you’re not talking. That could include sharing content you find, responding to others in a variety of social media channels (including commenting on blogs), and even reaching out to people via email to connect offline. It also is the tool that allows you to turn mere online connections into actual relationships (whether they’re weak or strong).

1. What social media channels are most important for you? Twitter, Facebook, a specialized social media network on Ning or a forum devoted to your industry?

2. How much time will you spend on these channels? An hour a day? Three hours a week?

3. When will you spend that time? In short 15-minute bursts throughout the day? In a longer, more concentrated period a few times each week?

More tips

All of us have a limited time and energy, but the vast world of social media can suck up an enormous amount of that if we’re not careful. So here are some tips to manage that.

Focus. You probably have limited time, at best a few hours a days, to devote to this. So concentrated on the 20 percent of tools/sites/strategies that are going to yield 80 percent of your results. For me, these days, that means Twitter, writing blog posts and reading blog posts and books get most of my attention.

Be realistic. Don’t sketch out a plan that calls for 30 hours a week (almost a full-time job) of work on this, and then find out a month into it that’s it’s just too much. It’s better to start out with very modest ambitions. As you become more fluent with the tools, you’ll be able to increase your productivity by becoming more efficient and integrating these tools into your life.

Consider the rest of your life. If you’re going through a really busy period at work, going on vacation or caring for a sick family member, some of these actvities may temporarily take a back seat. That’s OK. Don’t burn yourself out or disregard other priorities just for the sake of keeping up with some ideal social media time budget.

Got ideas or questions on how to budget your time for social media? Please share them in the comments below.

How to figure out your blog’s USP

Tulips for sale

It takes more than beauty to stand out. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/942854)

There are a lot of blogs out there. You’ve got to wonder — what makes your’s different? Why should anybody read it? If you don’t know the answer to that question, then your readers may have trouble figuring it out as well.

You need a USP — a unique selling proposition. Marketers develop USPs all the time for products and services. The USP helps define precise why a potential customer would choose that product or service over all the others. If you can define the USP for your blog, you’ll do a better job of persuading more people to read it and getting more people to subscribe or give you their email addresses.

Developing a USP is tough, but here are some questions to consider to get you thinking about it.

Your market

The first thing to do is to consider the market that you’re in.

What’s your market niche, topic or industry? What subject area are you focusing on? If you’re not focusing on a particular topic or theme (or at least restricting yourself to handful) it’s going to be a lot harder to define what value your blog delivers to some particular group of people.

What are others in your niche doing? Reading lots of other blogs in your niche and figuring out what they’re doing can be a bit depressing. The first time you do this, you might come to the conclusion that other bloggers are already doing everything that could be done. There may be folks writing about breaking news in your niche, some providing tutorials for beginners, others providing strategic guidance for advance practitioners. But keep looking and thinking. What’s not being done?

You

Once you’ve got a good grip on your market, it’s time to think about you (or, in the case of a company or organizational blog, your organization). You need to figure out what makes you unique, as that will probably figure into your USP.

What experiences — jobs, education, hobbies, attitude, values, experiences, nationality, skills, etc. — are you bringing to your blog? Imagine a group of new bloggers writing about fitness and weight loss. One’s a doctor, and knows how to find and cite the latest scientific evidence. Another is a fire fighter, and can talk about the challenges of eating right and exercising while working a stressful job. And another is a devout Christian, and can write about how fitness, nutrition and weight loss fit in with spiritual values and practices. Different backgrounds, and, I’m sure, different blogs.

What are you really good at? What are the things that you do that people in your life tell you you’re good at? Do any of those apply or relate in any way to your niche? (And if they don’t, do you need to reconsider your niche?) How can you bring that skill to bear on your blog? How can that skill be reflected in the content you create?

What fascinates you? A big part of a successful blog is passion and energy. Bring that to the table, and your writing will shine a little brighter, your posting schedule will be more frequent and the quality of your content will be higher. How can you incorporate what really fascinates you into your blog?

Your USP

Answer all those questions above (and maybe a few more that might occur to you along the way) and you might start to get a clearer idea of what your USP is. Here are a few more thoughts to help you crystallize your USP.

Can you combine two (or more) different elements (perhaps two parts of your background) to create a unique new persona? How about a Buddhist MBA productivity blogger, for example? Though someone probably has that one already tied up.

Is there a certain type of content not being provided (or not provided well) in  your niche? Interviews, tutorials, data analysis? What’s not being done that you could do?

Can you bring a particular style or attitude to your blog? If all the other blogs in your niche are sincere and heartfelt, bring some humor to the niche.

Is it unique and will it sell? Finally, once you start to get an idea of what your USP could be, ask yourself: Is it unique and will it sell? You want to be honest with yourself here, though not so hard on yourself that you give up. But if your USP is not unique or it won’t sell, then you don’t have a USP. Back to the drawing board.

Have you successfully created a USP for your blog? If so, how did you go through the process? What tips do you have? Please share them in the comments below.

How to blog frequently

Runner

Posting frequently requires discipline and a commitment to that goal. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1122022)

One of the biggest challenges for most part-time bloggers is finding the time and energy to blog consistently. Since Jan. 18, I’ve been engaged in a little challenge here for myself — 30 posts in 30 days.

As it turns out, I probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to try to average a post a day. Work has been crazy, with a lot of travel and an unusual amount of night and weekend hours. A couple of my volunteer commitments have required more time than usual. And just last week snow kept my daughter out of school for four days, which disrupted our household schedule and made it even harder for me to keep up a demanding extracurricular writing schedule. There is more travel on my calendar in the next couple of weeks, so this is not going to get any easier. In fact, I’m going to have to average about 1.5 posts a day to make my goal.

Nonetheless, despite the challenges I’ve learned a lot of good lessons about how to blog frequently. Here are some of the keys that have helped me to write as often as I have the last couple of weeks.

1. Keep a list of blog post ideas some place. Your list could be in a file, on paper or even inside your blogging software. But keep a list of ideas and every time an idea pops into your head, add it. You don’t have to end up writing a post for every idea, but having a bunch of ideas ready to go makes it a lot easier to keep to a writing schedule.

2. Work several days (at least) ahead. In the last three weeks or so I’ve had a couple of times when I had as many as four posts written and scheduled to go. Typically I was able to do that on the weekends, when I could devote more time to writing and when I felt less pressure to publish. This helps because it takes the pressure off to produce something for today or tomorrow and makes you feel less anxious about maintaining a frequent posting schedule.

3. Write partial drafts. Sometimes I don’t have the energy or time to finish a blog post all in one go. But that’s OK, and in fact in someways it’s better. If I start to write a post knowing I don’t have to finish it right now it makes it less intimidating to start. And if I go back to a post I’ve already started with the intent of finishing it, it’s easier because I already have some of it done. Writing partial drafts has been one of the most important keys for my regular posting.

4. Prioritize writing over reading. It’s tempting when you hop on your computer to just check your email, your RSS feeds or Twitter to see what’s going on. Don’t. Write first and write often. If you want to be a frequent blogger, you have to put your priority into creating content. And the way to do that is to simply put in the time.

5. Have a goal. Thirty posts in 30 days was a goal for me, to see if I could post that frequently. It was a private goal at first, and now I’ve made it public. But keeping that goal in mind has helped me keep going at times when I didn’t feel like blogging. Other people can post this frequently, so I should be able to also, right? (Check in on Feb. 16 and we’ll see how well this worked for me.)

These have been the most important things I’ve done in the last few weeks to post frequently, even as I’ve been busier than usual in other parts of my life. How do you keep up a regular blogging schedule?

Free stuff for bloggers and other online types

1. Free business cards, from Vistaprint.

Free parking

There are lots of freebies available for bloggers and other online types. (Photo by Jenny Rollo - http://www.sxc.hu/photo/975867)

2. Free phone number with voice mail and other features, from Google Voice. Unfortunately this is still in beta, and you have to request an invite, which may not come soon. They don’t seem to be allowing uses to give away invites, at least yet, judging from the fact that I don’t have any to give away in my account. Another option is Simple VoiceBox.

3. Free blogging softwareWordPress. Of course.

4. Free photos: Flickr and stock.xchng are two sites where you can find photos that you can use online for free. You normally have to credit the photo, of course, and respect the creator’s wishes as far as how it’s used (commercial, noncommercial, etc.).

5. Free FTP software, for uploading and downloading sites to and from your siteFilezilla (you want the client version, not the server version).

6. Free photo and image editing, online. Pixlr.com is a web app that allows you to edit photos and other images the same way you would with a lightweight desktop program, such as Photoshop Elements. You won’t get all the features you get in a desktop app, but Pixlr.com is still quick, easy and free. (Note, if you’re using open source images from Flickr or stock.xchng, it’s generally OK to resize them for the web, but the terms of service frequently prohibit major changes, such as turning a color photo black and white or otherwise altering the image.)

7. Free CSS and HTML debugging utility. If you want to get your hands dirty and write or edit code for your site, Firebug is a great Firefox browser plug-in that can help.

8. Free email, calendar, file sharing and web site creation. Google Apps Standard Edition brings Google’s apps (such as Gmail and the Google Calendar) to your domain, backed by Google’s robust server farms.

9. Free conference calls. FreeConferenceCall.com offers a free conference call service that allows you to have conference calls. The company even offers free recording, so you could use it, for example, to record a podcast. In case you’re wondering, this company makes its money by upselling customers to offerings with more features.

10. Free advice. There’s a lot of information and advice out there, of course. Not all of it’s good. But among those I really like are Darren Rowse’s Problogger.net, Brian Clark’s Copyblogger.com and DavidRisley.com.

There’s lots more free stuff, and free advice, on the Web. What are some your favorite freebies? Please share them in the comments.

12 things to do when you don’t feel like blogging

Cat

Don't resort to cat blogging. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1244985)

This is another one of my occasional posts on what to do when you don’t feel like blogging.

1. Update your bio/about page. If you’ve been doing this for any length of time, chances are it’s out of date. You should also make sure that you’re including everything there that’s going to help reinforce your brand and (if it’s a personal blog) establish your authority and expertise.

2. Develop a list of non-content tweaks to improve your blog. Chances are, you’ve got a widget or a plug-in you’ve been meaning to add to your blog, or a design tweak that you haven’t gotten around to. If you’re not going to create new content (the most important thing you can do), then figure out what else you could do to improve your blog.

3. Make one (or more) of your list of non-content improvements. If you already have a list of potential blog improvements, or you’ve made one, now is the time to start implementing those. Decide which is most important, and implement that.

4. Add more social media sites to your Ping.fm account. Ping.fm is a cool service that allows you to send updates to all sorts of social media, chat and social bookmarking sites at once. That makes it easy, when you publish a new post, to spread it to all sorts of networks. You still have to sign up for individual accounts at these sites, but Ping.fm automates the process of posting to some or all of them at once. Hint: You can also tie Ping.fm into your Hootsuite account, so Hootsuite updates it — if that makes sense for you.

5. Create a notebook with all the important records related to your blog. If you’re not keeping track of all your passwords, business records and other information related to your blogging and social media activity, it’s easy to find yourself hitting that “I’ve forgotten my password” link too often. I use 3×5 cards in a little plastic box (about $2 from an office supply store) to keep track of this information.

6. Brainstorm ideas for the next time you do blog. Sometimes taking the pressure off yourself of actually writing a full blog post can be freeing, and you may find new ideas flowing.

7. Leave smart, relevant comments on other blog posts. If you’re like me, you’re already blogging, keeping up with social media networks and digesting a torrent of incoming email, RSS feeds, ebooks and paper books. Commenting is something you probably don’t do as often as you should. Blogs with CommentLuv installed or that use Do Follow links can be particularly helpful for SEO purposes.

8. Check out other blogs in your niche, and figure out how to get a guest post on one of them. Guest posting can boost your search engine visibility, bring you new readers and give more credibility to your reputation and brand. Step one is to figure out where you’d like to guest post.

9. Look at your blog with a browser you don’t normally use and fix any design problems that show up. If you habitually use one browser (I recommend Firefox), you might be surprised what it looks like in Internet Explorer (various versions), Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome or the Opera browser (all of these, except Internet Explorer, come in versions for both Mac and Windows machines). You might also want to consider making your site better for mobile browsers. Here’s a set of WordPress plug-ins to help you do that.

10. Do something totally different to get inspired. Exercise, visit a museum, play with your children or read a thriller. Sometimes your brain needs a rest or a change of direction.

11. Proofread old posts. You’d be surprised at how many grammar and spelling errors could be hiding in old posts. Go read some of that older content and fix any mistakes. After the Deadline is a WordPress plugin (there’s also a Firefox add-on version) to help you find and correct those errors.

12. Blog anyway. If you’ve committed to posting regularly, don’t let your feelings (which are probably temporary) dictate your actions. If you’re feeling blocked, read my post on eight ways to overcome writer’s block.

What do you do when you just don’t feel like blogging? Leave your tips in the comments.