One of the unexpected results of writing this blog is that I’m now being approached by freelancers and companies for advice on setting up their own blogs. I’ve been spending a lot of time giving out the same basic advice and suggestions for blogging tools – so this is a reference page for my clients and readers, on the basics of setting up a blog to showcase your creativity, make valuable new contacts and promote your business.
What is a blog?
A blog is a website where entries (posts) are displayed in reverse chronological order, so that the most recent posts appear at the top of the page.
Blogging software automates much of the code required for web publishing, so that it is easy for even non-technical people to write and update a blog. Because all the blog posts are stored on a database, they can be searched an accessed in different ways, making it easy for readers to find the content that is most interesting and useful. Most blogging software also enables bloggers to interact with their audience by allowing readers to add comments to the blog posts, and to interact with other bloggers by linking to their blogs.
You’re probably familiar with the idea of a blog as an ‘online diary’, but you may not realise that blogs are now being used by large and small companies, as well as artists and freelancers, as a powerful business tool for promoting their work and interacting with customers and clients. The UK has been relatively slow to embrace business blogging, but in the USA, Japan and elsewhere blogging is now regarded as an essential marketing tool. In addition to publicity, a blog is a powerful way for individuals and companies to learn by interacting with customers, clients, collaborators – and even competitors.
Why would you want to start a blog?
- More creativity – one of my mantras is that creativity happens between people as much as between the ears. By connecting and conversing with others you will encounter new ideas and refine your old ones.
- Learning – The old saying ‘I don’t know what I think till I hear what I say’ is often very true of blogging. I’ve certainly clarified a lot of my thinking through writing blog posts and responding to feedback from others. And I’m still learning a huge amount from other bloggers on a daily basis – about technology, ideas, business and people.
- Fun! – although blogging involves a lot of work, it can be tremendously enjoyable. As you work on your blog, you’ll discover a lot of pleasure in creating a valuable resource for yourself and others. And if you’re the kind of person who enjoys talking to interesting and stimulating people, you’ll connect with plenty of them via your blog.
- Increasing your visibility – by writing a blog and putting your ideas ‘out there’ on the web you are making yourself more visible, not just to other bloggers but to anyone using the web for business or pleasure – and these days, that’s a lot of people.
- Networking – by interacting with others online you can connect with an astonishing range of people and expanding your network of contacts far beyond your geographical location and usual social circle. The stereotypical blogger is a narcissistic geek, but the bloggers I’ve been in touch with and met have been very outward-looking people who are very generous with their knowledge and expertise.
- Collaborating – when you are talking and networking with talented people in your industry or related fields, there is a good chance that ideas and opportunities for collaboration may emerge from the discussion.
- Building your business – blogs are definitely not the place for hard-sell messages; they are about sharing useful information and interesting ideas. But many bloggers report that the more they give out, the more they receive in return – whether customers, clients, collaborators or other useful contacts.
- Ease of use – You don’t need to be a programmer or web developer to create and publish your own material. Once you’ve installed the blogging software on your web space, it takes care of most of the technical side of things, leaving you free to concentrate on the quality of text, images, sounds and video you are publishing.
- Findability – In his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Growing Your Business with Google, Dave Taylor explains that search engines like Google are optimised to help users find fresh, high-quality content. How they define ‘high quality’ content is a trade secret, but Dave suggests that blogs are ideally suited to publishing material in a format that is ‘search engine friendly’ – which increases your chances of ranking higher in search engine results. When you are ‘findable’ in this way, more people are likely to visit your website when they are looking for the kind of product or service you provide.
Free blogging e-book by Seth Godin
Seth’s e-book Who’s There? inspired me to start blogging. It’s free and it could transform your business – what have you got to lose? If you like it, you’ll also enjoy his previous e-book – Knock Knock. Seth’s blog is also essential reading for entrepreneurs and marketers (and if you’re reading this, that probably includes you – even if you don’t like those words).
Setting up your blog
WordPress Blogging Software
On the fantastic side, it’s easy to write and publish material to your blog, including images, video and audio – if you learned to use a wordprocessor, you can learn to use WordPress. Once you’ve set your blog up, you basically type in your text, hit ‘publish’ and it’s live on the web. Not only that, it’s being published via RSS so that readers can subscribe to receive all your latest material. And there are lots and lots of graphics themes and software add-ons to help you customise it and create a unique blog experience for your visitors.
On the free side, you can download it from the WordPress site, then follow the instructions to install it on your web space. N.B. If you are creating a professional blog, I strongly recommend you run it on your own web space instead of having it hosted on a platform site – firstly, it looks more professional and secondly, you want to ensure that all the benefits listed above (such as earch engine ranking, links from other sites) accrue to your web domain and not someone else’s. You don’t need a pre-existing website – WordPress can act as your website if you want to, but you do need a domain name and a web hosting service. Neither of these will cost you the earth, and hosting the site yourself could be one of the best investments you ever make. When choosing a web hosting service, you will need a SQL database to run WordPress – show them the WordPress install page and ask them if they can provide the functionality and login details it specifies – if not, you need to look somewhere else…
To learn how to use WordPress, read through the extensive documentation on their website. If you get stuck, there are lots of helpful people on the WordPress Support Forums – but make sure you search the forums thoroughly before asking a question, as the solution to your problem may well be on there already.
Once you’ve got the blog installed, you can choose from a range of free themes to customise its appearance. Have a look at my poetry blog and you’ll see it looks very different to the Wishful Thinking blog, even though they both use WordPress – the only difference is that I’m using the Tarski theme on the poetry blog, and yellowhite3c (with my own modifications) on this one.
Building your subscriber list
One of the main advantages of a blog over a conventional websites is the ability to publish an RSS Feed. This allows readers to subscribe (for free) to your blog, so that your latest blog posts are automatically delivered to them. This saves your readers the bother of having to keep checking your website for latest updates – let’s face it, they would have to be very dedicated to do this! And for you, it’s an opportunity to build your ‘fan club’ by developing a list of subscribers who read all your posts. Nothing is guaranteed though – readers can easily unsubscribe at any time, so to keep people reading, you need to keep producing quality content! For more about RSS feeds see my What is RSS? page.
RSS is extremely useful and it’s becoming better known – but there are still lots of people to whom it’s gobbledigook. So that you don’t miss potential subscribers, it’s a good idea to give people the option of subscribing to your blog via e-mail. You can set up an RSS feed at Feedblitz and the service will allow users to add their e-mail address to a mailing list and automatically sends them every post you publish on your blog. The basic service is free, with a small subscription fee if you want to customise the appearance of the e-mails (e.g. with your own logo and colours).
Reading other blogs
Blogging is about conversations – which means you do a lot of reading as well as writing. If you want to be a successful blogger, you’ll need to read lots of other blog, both to learn from others and to interact with them. Fortunately this is a lot of fun! And with a good blog reader, it can be surprisingly quick and easy to keep up with a large number of blogs. This is because once you’ve subscribed to a blog’s RSS feed, the reader will only show you the latest posts from each blog you’re subsrcribed to.
Publicising your blog
The best thing you can do to publicise your blog is to write quality content – useful, interesting, entertaining posts that engage your readers and make them want to come back for more (and tell their friends). Even if you managed to, there wouldn’t be much point in attracting thousands of readers if there’s nothing of interest for them on the blog. So the main focus of your blogging efforts should be to write (and/or draw, record or otherwise create) outstanding original content on a regular basis.
Having said that, there’s a world outside your blog and there are things you can do to attract the right kind of attention to yourself. It’s important to remember that blogging is about conversations – leaving comments on other blogs as well as using trackback links (see below) are great ways to start interacting with other bloggers and alert them to your blog’s existence.
One of the most encouraging things about blogging is finding that someone else has not only read and enjoyed one of your posts, but they have taken the time to write a comment about it. It’s always nice to get praise, but answering questions or even responding to (constructive) criticism can be rewarding ways of engaging with others via your blog.
And guess what? It works the other way round too – you can make someone’s day (or at least brighten up their tea coffee break) by leaving a comment on their blog. When you make a comment, you can leave the address of your blog so that other bloggers can follow you back to your blog if your comment is of interest to them. I’ve made contact with some great people by leaving and receiving comments. And it’s a good way to gain extra readers for your blog – if you are commenting on blogs that interest you, there’s a chance the author and readers could be interested in your blog.
Be careful though – when you leave a comment, you are a visitor on someone else’s webspace and a little consideration will go a long way. It’s considered bad manners to ‘promote’ your own blog with any kind of sales pitch – comments like this are likely to be deleted. Only leave a comment if you think it will genuinely add to the discussion on that blog, and will be of interest or useful to the blog’s author and readers. Lifehacker has a good guide to weblog comments.