Hey, It’s Okay Tuesday

Today I’m linking up with Amber from Airing My Dirty Laundry for Hey, It’s Okay Tuesday! This week I say, it’s okay…

…to only care about awards shows for the clothes on the stars.

…to be ready for spring while also thinking it’s just a little bit early for stores to start stocking Easter candy. It’s not even February, people!

…to say you’re cutting back on coffee for the New Year, and then replace it with tea.

…to count moving furniture for spring cleaning as “exercise”.

What are you okay with this week?

Seven ways to grow your blog, part three: Produce great content

(photo by Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash)

Welcome to part three of my week-long series on ways to grow your blog in 2014. If you missed them, you can view part one here and part two here. Today I’m talking about how to produce great content for your blog, get past writer’s block, and draw inspiration without sounding like a parrot.

The magical question that many bloggers ask is, “How can I write posts that will draw more readers, and keep them coming back?” And the answer that’s usually offered is simply, “Produce great content!” What’s missing, obviously, is the how, and for many of us, the when. It’s hard to be a well-spring of great ideas 24/7 and while it’d be nice to think that we’ll have time to blog daily, many of us struggle just to keep up with e-mail on a daily basis, much less post that often! Here are some things I’ve learned over the years that can help you consistently produce top-notch content for your blog.

Keep a day planner/memo book

The reality is, ideas tend to come in waves: you might have lots of inspiration for posts one week and nothing at all the next. I like to write down all of my ideas and save them for backup on the days when I’m drawing a blank at the keyboard. This is also a good way to keep track of any time-sensitive events that you might want to blog about, like a holiday, a product launch, a seasonal trend, etc. Writing an editorial calendar might sound kind of silly, but if you’re serious about posting on a consistent basis, it’s a must.

Use scheduled posting

Some bloggers are incredibly averse to scheduled posts, and I honestly have no idea why–they’re a lifesaver! Write your posts ahead of time and schedule them to go live throughout the week, rather than posting a clump all on one day. This allows you to tap your inspiration when it’s active and spread out the results for a consistent flow of great posts over a longer time period, which gives readers a reason to return to your blog.

Take great photos

I’m going to cover this topic in more depth tomorrow, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But in short: take lots of great photos, or grab free ones online through sites like Unsplash, which sourced the photo used in this post. These make your posts more attractive, which helps draw in new readers, and also make them Pinnable, which encourages shares via social media!

Sign up for challenges and link-ups

Whether you commit to a month-long daily blogging challenge or pick a fun weekly link-up, you’ll challenge yourself to craft content on a regular basis, plus you’ll have writing prompts to get your writerly brain revved up. Bonus: since you’ll probably add your blog link to a widget that shares all of the linked posts for other bloggers to see, you’ll boost exposure for your blog.

Touch trends lightly

I’m of two minds on trends. On the one hand, if it’s December and you’re out of ideas for new blog posts, writing about anything Christmas-themed is a) an automatic topic filler and b) a way to jump in on a trending topic, potentially boosting pageviews. However, I think it can be tempting to shape your blog content around current trends in an attempt to garner extra views, and that can hurt the quality of your content if you’re just putting words on the page for the heck of it.

I don’t write lots of Christmas content because December is the busiest month of the year for me at my “real” job, so finding time to blog is hard. I could force out gift guides and holiday beauty tutorials, but my heart wouldn’t be in it and I know the quality of the posts would suffer as a result. My advice is, if you have an idea for how to write about a current trend in a way that’s really pitch-perfect for your blog, go for it. Otherwise, don’t feel bad about skipping the trends.

Talk about yourself

The extent to which you get personal on your blog is, well, a personal decision. Some people are comfortable putting it all out there in cyberspace, and some blog under a pen name for privacy. I’m somewhere in the middle–I blog under my real name and talk a little bit about myself, but I don’t talk a lot about where I live or work or about my family and friends.  How far you go is up to you. Keep in mind, though, that it’s hard for readers to connect to a blog written in an impersonal style.

You don’t have to be a pro to write in your own voice, and you don’t have to be super-explicit about your personal life to inject a little flavor into your blog; you just have to be real. Talk about the challenges of taking your family meatless one night a week, or how you do your makeup in five minutes flat in between college classes. Explain why a family history of diabetes led you to be so passionate about running that you just had to start a blog about it, or show off your collection of crazy coffee mugs in a post about your favorite hot winter drinks. That personal spin turns an average post into something unique and makes it “stick” with your readers.

Look at your pageviews and comments

Yes, you read that right. Lots of people say you should ignore your pageviews, but I think they can be helpful in refining your posting. Caveat emptor, sometimes great posts get low pageviews and average posts get lots of comments, so don’t take it personally if a post that took a lot of work only gets a couple of comments. It happens. That said, to a point, looking back over the view counts for my posts has helped me identify what I’m doing really well and where I could improve: did this post have great photos? Was it well written or did it ramble? Did it have a good title? Was it something that encouraged reader feedback?

Three years ago I wrote a post about the debatable cruelty-free status of Neutrogena, and to date it remains the most-read post on my blog. As it turns out, lots of people were just as eager as I was to get in between the layers of jargon on the company’s FAQ page, and a post that was merely the result of my personal frustration with trying to go cruelty-free turned into a hit. I realized that concise breakdowns of similar policies from other popular brands were kind of lacking for a lot of people, so I eventually started a much-viewed series of posts about the responses (or lack thereof) that I’d gotten from major beauty brands as I eliminated animal testing from my cosmetics bag. I also learned from writing that post the importance of using a good title and strong keywords, to improve your chances of being “spotted” by search engines (translation: more pageviews).

Take a break to read and experience

We all hit a point where we’re unable to find anything new to say on our blogs. When that happens, it’s time to dive into your topic and have fun experiencing it (rather than writing about it), as a way to kickstart your creativity. As an example, I primarily blog about beauty and fashion. When I feel my creative juices drying up, I pull out my style magazines and read style blogs. Looking at all of those OOTDs and pretty pictures of makeup really gets me in a mood to sit down and blog. Maybe it’s time to take a new fitness class, try a new recipe, or read a new book. Step back from your topic as an author and enjoy it without expectations of “getting material”, and you’ll probably find yourself relaxing enough that you get back in the blogging mood without realizing it. Sneaky, huh?

Inspiration vs. copying

I feel obligated to make one last note here. Sometimes you see something so cool in a magazine or on a blog that you just can’t wait to try it out yourself on your blog. However, there’s a fine line between taking inspiration and just plain stealing an idea. As an example of a general rule, if you see a cool piece of nail art on someone’s blog and want to try it out for yourself, at the minimum you should let your readers know where you got your inspiration, and link back to the original post. When it comes to something like a recipe, ask the blogger if they mind if you re-post it on your own blog (with credit and a linkback, of course). Other blogs can be a great source of inspiration, but be respectful and don’t rip off other bloggers’ ideas. It’s rude and it creates mad drama within the blogging community.

So there you have it–some of my best tips for creating great content, even when your muse is on vacation! Tomorrow I’ll go into more depth on the topic of photos, how to take them, where to find freebies, and how to use them to draw new readers. Until then, leave me any questions in the comments section below!

Seven ways to grow your blog, part two: Fix your info!

Welcome to part two of this series on growing your blog in 2014! Yesterday I talked about cleaning up your homepage with custom headers, streamlined sidebars and special widgets to create a more professional, user-friendly reading experience. Today I’m going to talk to you about crafting standalone pages for your blog, particularly the “about me” and “PR” pages. If you’re hoping to network or to begin working with brands, these are particularly important pages to streamline, since they’re your first and last impression on someone who probably browses through dozens of blogs daily.

Start with a bio

Ideally, you should craft a professional but friendly bio of less than 200 words (remember, it will be read by new subscribers as well as PR reps). Most people don’t want to read a full page on your life and keeping it short will help cut out anything irrelevant, as well. Introduce yourself and explain why you blog; don’t be afraid to brag on yourself a little. Are you a beauty school dropout who started a beauty blog based on your talent for recreating celebrity makeup? Or a baker with a dream of opening her own restaurant, parlaying her love of sweets into a food blog? You don’t have to get super-personal (and on the interwebz, you may not want to) but details and something unique about you and your blog will make your “about” page much more interesting. Readers like to feel that they’re getting to know something about the person about the blog, so anything that’s “you”–the fact that you’re multilingual, your love of koala bears, your rock-climbing hobby–sticks out.

Once you’ve got a bio, create a short-n-snappy version to cut & paste onto your social media pages: Facebook, Twitter, etc. On some sites readers will be able to click through to a larger “about” page where you can post your full bio, but for quick browsers (or sites with limited space, like Twitter) you need to be able to sum up yourself and your blog in one to two sentences.

Finally, pick out a good headshot of yourself and use it as a uniform avatar across all of your sites. Don’t use a pet photo, a full-body shot (it’ll just look blurry in a tiny thumbnail) or anything that’s not PG (alcohol, suggestive photos, etc.).

Make your contact info easy to find

I recommend putting your e-mail on both your “about” and “PR” pages. If you want people to get in touch with you (and you do!) you want to make yourself accessible. It also doesn’t hurt to re-post your social media links; I include my Twitter handle for anyone who wants to get in touch with me in an instant.

Write a disclosure policy

You can read up in more depth about the FTC’s blogger regulations just by running a quick search on the net; if you don’t already know anything about disclosure policies, how they affect your blogging and why you need one, take a break and sort it all out. Writing a disclosure policy isn’t hard; you can get one from Disclosurepolicy.org. If you plan on doing sponsored posts or accepting PR samples, then you’re obligated to include a disclosure policy, alerting your readers to the presence of such posts. Having a clear disclosure policy posted on your blog from the get-go can save you a lot of headaches down the road if you begin to pick up a lot of sponsored traffic, since it isn’t just for reader benefit: it also lets brands know you’re serious about complying with blogger guidelines.

While we’re on the topic of policies, I like to include a copyright notice in my sidebar and on my disclosure page. This makes it clear that I am the copyright owner for any content and photos that appear on the blog and outlines my policy for publishing content that originated with another author (Creative Commons photos, etc.). Finally, I include a comment policy. You may or may not find this necessary, but I like to politely let other bloggers know that I do not do “follow for follow” and that those comments will not be published. I am okay with bloggers leaving their links, so I state this as well.

Finish off with the random bits

Some bloggers create page links that redirect to given topics on their blog. I have pages that talk at length about cruelty-free beauty and my favorite cruelty-free brands, as well as one where I can brag on the blogs that I love and read daily. Depending on your blog you might have extra standalone pages to create, or you might not; don’t feel that adding lots of extra pages is necessary. Some bloggers add tons of these pages, and some add only a few! It’s entirely a personal choice!

Tie it all together

Once you’ve set up a certain number of standalone pages, you need to figure out how to make them accessible but also aesthetically pleasing. If a sidebar link list isn’t your thing, use image mapping to create a cool sidebar button or page header that includes links to each of the pages. This is more eye-catching than a link list and if you include themed colors or graphics, it can add a nice personal touch to your blog, too. Remember, the goal is to make it easy for readers to find these pages, so if you opt for a sidebar button, place it above the fold.

E-mail signatures

I wanted to include one last paragraph on e-mail. Whether you’re using a personal e-mail or one dedicated to your blog, there are a couple of things you can do to make your outgoing messages look more professional. First, create an e-mail signature with the name of your blog and your social media links. In most e-mail programs you can easily do this via your “settings” or “options” tab; it doesn’t have to be fancy, but it clues in mail recipients to the presence of your awesome blog and linked channels, and it beats the heck out of manually inserting all of those links over…and over…and over.

Second, if you’ll be on vacation and away from your e-mail for more than a couple of days, make sure to set the “vacation response” in your e-mail program with a brief polite message and an indication of when you’ll be “back in the office” to return e-mails. This way, if anyone tries to contact you on blog business, they won’t be baffled (or irritated) by a week of radio silence.

That’s it for today’s bloggy tips! Tomorrow I’ll be talking about producing great content for your blog, including beating writer’s block, staying organized, and the difference between inspiration and flat-out stealing ideas. Until then, feel free to comment below or tweet me (@QCPChic) with any questions you might have, and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Seven ways to grow your blog, part one: Clean up that homepage

Welcome to the first part of a seven-part series on growing your blog! Each day this week I’ll be talking about a different thing that you can do to improve your blog and build your readership. Obviously I hope we’re all blogging for the love of it, but realistically we all want to grow our blogs and what better time to focus on that goal than the start of a new year?

Today I’m going to be talking about the importance of cleaning up your homepage and blog design. Like any form of print media, a clean layout, easy-to-find links and clear navigation are essential to drawing and keeping readers. If your blog has a hard-to-read fonts, a sidebar cluttered by ads, or other distracting elements, users are less likely to stick around. Luckily cleaning up your blog is super-easy, even if you’re new to HTML and blog design. Keep in mind that these are just tips, and you should adapt them to a design that fits you and your blog; I think if you’re not happy with your blog design, then it doesn’t matter how “pro” or “blogger-y” it is, it’s no good. Keep tinkering until you’re happy.

Create a clean background

Look at some of the blogs you like best. Please don’t copy anyone’s layout or design–it’s just crappy behavior–but do take notes. What do you like about their design? What do you dislike?

The biggest no-no in blogging is creating a dark background with a light font; this is very hard to read and will drive readers away in a flash. I would also advise that you ditch any fancy swirling fonts for a clean typeface in a medium size that will be easy to read. It’s fine to use fancier fonts for headers, but avoid anything so fancy that it’s difficult to read without squinting!

Personally I like a clean white background with black text, a few pops of color and some limited graphics–it’s minimal and easy on the eyes. However, if you do want to use a patterned background, make sure you select a design that isn’t too “busy”, and use floating text boxes that will make it easy to view posts, link boxes, etc. Color-coordinating your header and highlighted link text to your background will give everything a streamlined feeling without losing personality. As an example, I’ll point you over to Georgia’s blog For the Love of Thrift. She’s got a low-key textured background that matches her highlighted text, floating boxes to hold posts and buttons, and a small header with a graphic in complimentary colors. I like Georgia’s design because it’s colorful and shows a bit of her personality without overpowering the eye. The layout is girly and fun but still very easy to browse.

Customize your header

If you don’t know how, run through a quickie tutorial (like this one that I posted last summer) or browse Pinterest for inspiration. A title and perhaps a small eye-catching graphic is good. Even better is a set of page links right beneath that let readers quickly jump to the homepage, “about” and “PR” sections, or other topical pages you might include on your blog. (I’ll talk more about creating pages tomorrow.) As an example, I really like the header for Erin Celeste’s self-titled blog (here): her header bar makes it easy to access pages like her “about section” and gives you an instant idea of what topics she covers in the blog, but it also lets you jump to one of those topics with a mouse click. Clean presentation + easy navigation = reader-friendly!

A custom header doesn’t just look great, it provides a cleaner navigation experience for your readers (and potential PR people!).

Clean up those sidebars

One of my biggest pet peeves is logging onto a blog and becoming lost in the sidebars. If you fill them up with flashing ads, graphics and other distractions, it not only makes it difficult to navigate the blog, it can be a huge distraction from the main posts as well. I like a design with one sidebar for your media links, a few ads, blog archive, any link-up buttons, etc. This lets you fill most of the screen with your posts rather than sandwiching a small post column in between two blinking columns of “et cetera” stuff. (Also: a wider post column means more room for large pictures!)

Place your blog button or intro photo (which will ideally link to your “about” page) at the top of your homepage sidebar. Your follower/social media buttons should be right under this. Keeping these items above the fold (meaning they’re visible as soon as the page loads) makes it much easier for new readers to see who you are and how they can keep up with you. If you don’t know how to make blog buttons for your social media links, go back to the image mapping tutorial I posted above so you can create a neat, clean set of buttons that will allow people to easily find and follow you. It takes a little time and effort, but the result is much more streamlined and attractive than a random jumble of buttons.

Any navigation bits (blog archive, tag cloud, linky buttons) will ideally be somewhere in the middle of the sidebar; they’re not as important as your blog button and follower links, but you still want them to be easily accessible for better navigation. You can place one or two large ads midway through the sidebar, but don’t drown your navigation links in visual clutter.

Everything else–ads, affiliate links, random graphics, etc.–can go in the bottom third or so of your design. I feel obligated to remind you here that if you’re placing affiliate buttons on your blog, you need to make sure they’re properly labeled. I like to keep my ads and affiliate buttons separate for this reason. Also, putting my affiliate buttons in one big clump at the bottom of the page reduces a lot of sidebar clutter, since it’s typically hard to resize or reshape these buttons for a cleaner look.

Encourage your readers to, well, keep reading

There’s a lot of debate over whether or not to use the “jump break” feature in posts. When you use this feature, readers on the homepage will see whatever text and photos you’ve placed above the break, with a link to go to the full post to continue reading. If you’re posting very long, picture heavy posts that involve lots of scrolling, I think using this break is a good idea; it makes the homepage easier to navigate and lets you fit more posts on the homepage as well. However, if your posts are shorter, I would use it sparingly; readers can get annoyed if they have to click “read more!” for every single post. More importantly, make sure you’ve got a great photo or other teaser above the break, or else there will be no incentive to keep reading.

I would also consider using a widget like LinkWithin to add a “see related posts” blurb at the end of each blog post. Meaghan from You’re Meaghan Me Crazy has a great tutorial here on adding this widget to your blog. Basically, this widget pops up at the end of each blog post with a random set of posts with similar themes or keywords; it’s a way to entice readers to hang around a little longer, and helps promote your awesome content with zero effort on your part.

This screenshot of my homepage shows you how the jump break feature works. Also note the easy-to-find share buttons and LinkWithin box. Readers scrolling through the homepage will find it easy to browse and share posts.

Make sharing easy!

You want your readers to comment on and share your posts, right? Make sure it’s easy for them to find the comment box and buttons to share via Twitter or other social media. If these options are right under the post it will be really easy for readers to interact with you, so don’t hide them somewhere. Also, seriously think about turning off the word verification on your posts. If you’re worried about spam, turn on the comment verification. No one likes that CAPTCHA form!

That’s it for this round of tips. I hope you found these tips helpful for streamlining your homepage and giving it a more professional edge. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about crafting “about”, PR and other pages for your blog, so check back in for that! In the meantime if you have any questions, leave me a comment or send me a Tweet (@QCPChic) and I’ll do my best to help you out!