I originally gave this post the clickbait-y title of “How to Start a Successful Blog in 3 Easy Steps.” I recently made the mistake of subscribing to a blog1 about how to build a successful blog. I went there to see if there might be anything I was doing that I shouldn’t be doing, or not doing that I should be doing. I came away from the experience unsubscribed, and feeling a little bit dirty. Some of it must have rubbed off, and thus that original title. Fortunately, I was able to change it in the nick of time.
The gist of this particular site is a familiar pattern that I’ve seen as the foundation for a lot of pieces on this topic. There are three steps:
- Produce good content.
- Build an audience through a multichannel marketing scheme.
- Measure, fine-tune, and repeat.
These steps are short and vague enough to make them seem like good advice, and perhaps, depending on one’s goals, these are the right steps to take. The devil, however, is in the details, and much of the thinking behind this sort of advice is anathema to my way of thinking.
Producing content makes me think of a production line, with an endless line of the same thing rolling along conveyor belts side-by-side, one after the other, in an endless parade of mediocrity. I’m a writer and so I write. I don’t think of what I write as “content.” Instead, I write essays. I’m okay with the term “posts” as a synonym for essays in this age of blogging. I try my best each time I set out to write something. Not all of it is good. But it is from those essays that aren’t good that I can learn how to do better.
The rationale behind blogging advice like the three steps above is to bring eyeballs to content in order to increase revenue. The implication, with some truth behind it, is that most blogs out there are attempting to earn money. More eyes means more clicks, more clicks means more ad revenue.
What’s missing is a model for blogs, like mine, which is a hobby, free of ads (because I find them annoying when I see them on other blogs), of sponsored content, done as an avocation, out of the joy I get from writing and discussing what I write with others. For someone who wants to build an audience without a business plan in mind, just a hobby, just to have fun, the model seems to fall apart.
One way to increase clicks, for instance, is to display only a lede paragraph to a post, and then require a reader to “Click to read more.” From a stats standpoint, a specific post will get more views in this model than one in which the entire post is available without clicking into it directly. I prefer the full post be available, and that’s how I have it setup here. You don’t have to “click to read more.” The entire post is there for you to read. The downside of this is that my stats undercount how many people see a given post. If the post is one of the 12 that are on the “front page” of the blog at any one time, a reader can read through the entire thing without ever clicking into it. This counts a “view” toward my “Home Page/Archives” but not to the specific post. It is a tradeoff I am willing to make to avoid inconveniencing readers.
There are other tricks that these advice sites give. Clickbait-y titles are another draw, and indeed, many of the advice blogs I’ve looked at focus on the importance of a post’s title, almost to the exclusion of everything else. They argue that if the title doesn’t draw in a reader, then no matter what you’ve written, it won’t get read. There is some validity to this. But titles should be accurate descriptions of what a piece is about, not bait-and-switch. Drawing in readers with one title only to show them something else is just annoying2.
As a writer, I want more readers because I write for readers. But I don’t want to get readers at the cost of annoying them. For a blog like this one, growth of readership has to be more organic. Success that I’ve had in the past has been largely based on 3 different factors than the three steps listed above:
- I write fairly well.
- I write consistently–meaning every day.
- I got lucky with what I was writing.
The first point is obviously debatable. But having sold fiction to the major science fiction magazines and some anthologies, I think my judgement in this is justified. I was paid for writing that was accept over other writing that could have been published in its place. This is also true for the dozens of pieces of nonfiction I’ve sold over the years.
Consistency is my superpower. Back in the heyday of this blog (say, 2012-2015), I was writing at least every day, and often multiple times a day. Readers could rely on me to have new stuff for them to read on a regular basis, and because of that, they kept coming back (assuming they liked what I was writing about).
Luck is the big unknown. If it goes your way, it can make a big difference. I was lucky to have an audience of readers who read what I wrote because of the fiction or nonfiction I was publishing. I got really lucky with my writing about Evernote. They reached out to me, because of my writing, and asked me to be an ambassador. That led to my Going Paperless series, and with Evernote’s signal boosts, dramatically increased the readership of my blog. It was more than I could have ever imagined. In 2013-2014, I was exceeding a million views each year. But it was mostly due to luck. The fact that I could write helped. And the fact that I was consistent helped make that luck, but there was still luck involved.
I don’t know what the average blog readership is and I doubt it is possible to get accurate stats on this. There is not a category for “blogging” stats in my 2021 edition of The World Almanac. They do list top newspaper websites and information website, but not “top blogs.” A Google search produces mixed results that tells me that smaller blogs should aim for at least 45,000 views/year with month-to-month growth of 6%. I found one site that suggested that if you are trying to make a full-time living from blogging, you should be aiming for at least 100,000 monthly page views. In that peak of 2013-2014, I was seeing number of about 120,000 monthly page views.
I’m not seeing those numbers today. There are several reasons for this. I burned out on the Evernote stuff, and a lot of people were coming to the blog to read those posts. There were years where I wasn’t writing as much or as consistently. Readership steadily dwindled to a low point last year (when I wrote only about 50 posts the entire year). This year, after more than 8 months of consistently writing at least one post a day, I am beginning to see the numbers come back up–slowly, but definitely up. Once again, two things have working in my favor:
- I still write fairly well. I like to think any writing today is better than what it was in 2013-2014, but that is an entirely subjective observation.
- My superpower is still consistency. With this piece, for instance, I have now posted for 255 consecutive days. In that time, I’ve written and posted 300 pieces. That’s write, you are reading my 300th essay of 2021.
What’s missing–and what is making the difference in terms of numbers from 2013-2014–is that element of luck. I don’t have an Evernote retweeting my posts to its 400,000+ followers.
Which begs the question: do the numbers really matter? They matter for blogs that are businesses, and for people who are trying to make a living from their blogs. But for hobbyists like myself, does it really matter how many people read what I write? From a practical standpoint, it probably does not. But from a human one, of course it does. I write so that people will read what I write and engage with it, and hopefully find value in it, whether it is simply something fun to read, or something that illuminates a part of life for them. The more people I can do this for, the happier it makes me. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about how many people read what I wrote.
I started this piece with a clickbait-y title suggesting advice on how to start a successful blog in three easy steps. Let me conclude it with some real advice, for those who may be seeking it, for how to start an enjoyable blogging experience in three easy steps.
- Be able to do something fairly well. Writing is a good start since most blogs are centered around the written word. But there are photography blogs, music blogs, art blogs, AI blogs, you name it. Find something you are pretty good at and start there.
- Be consistent. Both in terms of quality (I always try my best) and frequency (I write every day, but consistency could mean weekly, monthly, etc.)
- Be patient. Don’t give in too soon. It takes time. Sometimes, a lot of time. I began this blog in 2005 and it took 8 years of writing, and consistency before luck stepped in and played its role. Remember that each time you want to give up could be the time that luck steps in for you.
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