• writing

    Seven ways to grow your blog, part seven: group (and solo) giveaways

    Welcome to the end of my series on seven ways to grow your blog in 2014! To recap, thus far I’ve talked about the importance of a good layout and design, sprucing up your “about” and PR pages, crafting great content with great photos to match, and networking your blog via social media and other outlets. To wrap it all up, I want to talk about giveaways: why group giveaways rock, how to set them up, and a few legal pointers to keep in mind before you hit “publish”. Read more after the jump!

    Giveaways do two things for you: draw in new readers, and reward existing followers. I like to do giveaways to say “thank you” to those who follow my blog, but there’s so much I know now that I didn’t know (and wish I had!) when I first got started. If you’ve never hosted a giveaway before and aren’t sure how to get started, here are some things to keep in mind, along with tips for hosting a group giveaway. *Please keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, so none of this should be taken as legal counsel for hosting a giveaway. This is simply based on my own research. I strongly recommend you do your own research prior to hosting a giveaway, particularly as international law can be very different from U.S. giveaway requirements.*

    Brush up on the legalese

    Believe it or not, there’s a lot more to putting together a giveaway than just picking a prize and creating an entry form. Before you get started, read everything you can on blog giveaways and the law (I recommend you start with this article from Sara F. Hawkins and this one from For Dummies) to be sure you understand what you can and cannot do while putting together the giveaway. This is even more important if you’ll be hosting a group giveaway, since you’ll want to make sure everyone is on the same page.

    For example, you can’t require that entrants follow you via a given channel, so don’t create an entry form demanding they follow all eight (or whatever number) of the host bloggers’ accounts before they can unlock the rest of the entry options.You can offer a freebie entry as the mandatory entry and offer “follow me” entries as the additional “optional” entries.

    Decide whether to go domestic or international

    There are pros and cons to both. Aside from the legal complications that can come with international giveaways (see the above article links), you have to remember that the cost of international shipping can be prohibitive, and some items (like nail polish) cannot be shipping overseas. On the other hand, many bloggers don’t want to leave their international readers out in the cold. Whether you’re flying solo or hosting with a group, you’ll need to decide on this element before you pick out a prize.

    Pick your prizes

    Especially if you’re going international, an e-gift card is a great way to offer an instant prize without the time and expense of shipping; it also lets each of the participating host bloggers chip in a small amount of cash towards a larger prize. (Typically, one blogger collects the money via PayPal and purchases/sends the gift card once a winner is drawn.) The downside to this is that the website might not ship to your winner’s country, so be careful to choose a store that any winner can enjoy.

    If you’re shipping physical prizes, you’ll have to come to an agreement: are you chipping in toward one larger prize, or will you each contribute a smaller prize? Who will cover the shipping? You should also agree beforehand on a timeline for shipping.

    Sponsored prizes–yea or nay?

    I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, hosting a sponsored giveaway lets you give something away with no cost out of your own pocket (yay!) and you’ll probably get some cross-promotion by the sponsoring brand via their social media pages, since they obviously want people to come enter your giveaway. On the other hand, if the sponsor flakes out on sending the prize, you can find yourself on the hook for sending an acceptable substitute–and unfortunately, it does happen. Just something to keep in mind before you host a sponsored giveaway for a $200 item.

    Put together your entry form

    I absolutely recommend using the free version of Rafflecopter; it’s easy to use and makes sifting through entries a breeze. Please don’t host a giveaway in which entrants have to leave a comment for each entry (one as a regular comment, one to say they’re following on Twitter, etc.)–those are annoying and time-consuming for the reader, and they’ll be more difficult for you to moderate. Remember, you have to draw the winner at random; it’s so much easier to do with the Rafflecopter widget!

    As for awarding points per entry: keep it even. Don’t award one point for a freebie and ten for following on Instagram. It’s unfair to your readers and depending on what state you live in, it could be illegal (gulp).

    Write out your terms and conditions

    Be explicitly clear when writing out your terms and conditions; here’s a post from Pink Heels Pink Truck that gives a good example of what to include. You can add these to the bottom of your Rafflecopter widget or just paste them into the blog post. I like to add in my giveaway posts that all entries will be moderated, and those that are “spam” entries will be thrown out. I don’t know why, but people will click all of the entry buttons without doing anything at all, and that’s not fair to the other entrants. This is where the moderation panel comes in handy! If you’re hosting in a group giveaway, decide beforehand who will be moderating (typically, the “lead” host, who will also create the Rafflecopter).

    Why group giveaways rock

    Group giveaways are awesome for a few reasons: it means less out-of-pocket expense for the prize, it’s just fun (co-hosting almost always is!), and it’s a great way to gain cross-exposure for your blog. Since each of the bloggers involved will be posting the giveaway on their blogs and then sharing it via their social media channels, the potential for new faces to see you included as a host is huge. This is a great way to gain new readers for your blog with very little effort.

    If you want to host a group giveaway, cordially invite a few bloggers to join you and create a sign-up form that can be filled out detailing what social media links they would like to share and what they’ll contribute to the prize. You might also ask each one to send you a photo of themselves and a brief bio that they’d like shared in the giveaway post, so readers can learn more about the bloggers behind the giveaway.

    Partner up with bloggers you trust

    This is where I have to be a Debbie Downer and say what no one really likes to say out loud: on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. I’ve heard way too many stories of bloggers who hosted giveaways or swaps and never sent out their goods, or vice versa–bloggers who won a giveaway and never got their prize. If you want to partner up for a giveaway, make sure it’s with bloggers whom you trust. You do not want to get left holding the bag if someone else suddenly goes AWOL.

    That’s it for my blogging giveaway advice! Do you have anything else to add that I didn’t cover here? If so, leave me a comment and let me know your best advice for hosting a giveaway (solo or otherwise).

  • writing

    Seven ways to grow your blog, part six: Reach out (networking)

    http://writergirlm.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Barcelona-traffic.jpg
    (photo of Barcelona traffic via Unsplash)

    Happy Friday! We’re almost to the end of my week-long series on ways to grow your blog. If you’ve missed any of the posts this week, you can go back and check them out here: how to smarten up your homepage and layout, fixing your “about” and PR info, producing great content, adding great photos, and using social media to network and grow your blog. Today I’m going to talk a little more about networking, hooking up with brands and other bloggers, and how to increase your blog exposure beyond the social media realm.

    With so much traffic through the blogosphere, the idea of networking with bloggers and brands can be daunting, but it shouldn’t be. Whether your aim is simply to make bloggy friends or eventually work with brands full-time, here are some tips for making new contacts, increasing your blog exposure, and landing sponsored gigs.

    Leave comments–lots of comments

    Whether you’re looking to draw new readers to your blog or just want to make friends (or both!), one of the best ways to get things started is to leave comments. Leave lots of ’em. Make sure you’re not a “no-reply blogger” so the blog admin can e-mail you a reply to your comment if they want to! If other people comment on your blog, replying (by e-mail if possible) is a great way to further engage with them. You’re not obligated to visit their blog, if they have one, but it’s nice to drop by and say hi if you have a moment.

    A word on comment etiquette: if bloggers ask that you not leave a link back to your blog, don’t include one; and please don’t ask other bloggers to “follow for follow”–this is rude and a good way to get your comment marked as spam. Asking someone to check out your blog is kind of on the border, so I typically don’t do it. Some bloggers will say that it’s okay to leave your blog link, in which case you can include it as part of your signature, but if in doubt–leave it out. You don’t want to look like you’re only there for the self-promotion.

    Join link-ups

    There are more link-ups in the blogosphere than I could possibly list here, so rather than try to point you to a specific link-up I will just tell you to get out there and find a link party you think you’d enjoy, and have fun! You can find topical linkys, challenge linkys (like weekly fashion link-ups), “hop” parties based on a type of social media (Instagram, Pinterest), and so much more. This is a fun way to find new bloggers to follow and also to draw new readers to your blog. Plus, it forces you to write a post when you might otherwise be lacking for inspiration!

    Participate in blog challenges

    If you really want to get crazy, try a blog challenge. Some of these run on a weekly basis, others ask you to blog every day for a month. Like link-ups, they’re fun, they provide instant exposure, and they’re a great way to “meet” new bloggy friends.

    Consider hosting

    Here’s a scary idea: consider hosting your own linky or blog challenge! If you’ve made the acquaintance of a fellow blogger and think she’d be a great co-host, shoot her an e-mail and ask her–if you’re both somewhat new to blogging and link-ups, this is a great way to test the waters together, while also dividing the work of creating buttons, linkys, etc.

    Join blog networks

    The SITS Girls is my personal fave, but there are others out there as well. These not only provide you with chances to network with bloggers and brands, they can provide great sources of tips and inspiration for your blog, from creating better content to utilizing social media, networking, handling legal issues (like copyright and photo usage), and more.

    Hook up with brands

    It would be nice to think that e-mails would just show up one day, asking you to work with a brand or test a product, but in the meantime take advantage of blogger programs that hook you up with brands looking for sponsored posts and reviews. Influenster connects active bloggers with themed VoxBoxes based on their blog niche and expertise; products can include anything from beauty products to home goods to food. BzzAgent hooks you up with products for review; like Influenster, the products offered cover a wide range of blog niches, from beauty to health to parenting to food. The site is partnered with MyPoints so taking the eligibility surveys (usually 1-2 minutes long) and reviewing the products you receive for review racks up points that you can turn into gift cards–a nice little added perk!

    Tomoson lets you apply for promotions based on your niche and blog stats and provides products from clothing to makeup to food to books and more. iFabbo offers bloggers free luxury beauty products for review. etailPR and Brandbacker are two more sites that primarily work with fashion and beauty bloggers. These are just a few of the hook-ups that I use and enjoy; keep in mind that many of the programs currently available are only open to U.S. bloggers. (Sucky, but hopefully they’ll expand in the future.)

    Be professional

    If you hope to work with brands full-time, you need to prove that you’re worth their products and money. I’ve touched on these points throughout the week, but to recap: proofread your posts for clarity and spelling errors, and use clear, sharp photos. Insert that disclosure policy at the beginning of every sponsored posts. Use your social media pages to talk about the brands you’re working with or hope to work with. Make sure you’re not lacing your pages with profanity or anything that’s not “family-friendly”, since brands will not want to promote you in turn if they think your content will offend other customers or readers. Finally, respond to all e-mails in a timely fashion, even if you aren’t interested in working with the brand; a short polite response is all that’s needed. Which brings me to my last point…

    Say “no” once in a while

    I think that one of the biggest challenges for newer bloggers is learning how to say “no” to invitations to review products, join networks or link up with new projects. You can spend a long time getting zero offers while watching other bloggers get tons, so when the offers start arriving it’s tempting to say “yes!” to everything just because you’re so thrilled to finally be on the inside of the blogging community. But saying “no” is an important thing to learn, because not every offer that comes your way is going to be worth your time or even pertinent to your blog.

    Out of the brand offers, sponsored opportunities and e-mail pitches I see on a weekly basis, I probably accept or apply for less than half. There are simply too many that don’t really fit with the theme of my blog, or maybe involve products and services that I wouldn’t really use of my own volition anyway. There’s a lot of mixed sentiment about sponsored posts in the blogging community and if people feel that you’ll give a thumbs-up to any product that’s tossed at you just so you can keep getting free stuff, it will seriously hurt your credibility.

    As far as getting involved in networks or linkups: don’t stretch yourself too thin. Once you’re no longer having fun, there’s not much point (you are blogging because you enjoy it, aren’t you?). If it becomes a chore to join in hops or linkys every week, or if you find that keeping up with a network is just too time-consuming, consider bowing out. Streamlining your focus will give you a smaller pool of contacts but also allows you to cultivate more quality time within those networks, and leaves you more time for the most important thing of all: writing new content for your blog!

    I hope these tips will help propel you forward into the fun world of networking, making new blog friends and working with brands! Tomorrow I’ll be wrapping up this week of blogging tips with a post on giveaways: hosting, joining, the benefits of group giveaways, and the legalese you need to consider before you get started. In the meantime, leave me your questions in the comments section below!

  • writing

    Seven ways to grow your blog, part five: Use your social media networks wisely

    http://madebyvadim.com/
    (image by Vadim Sherbakov via Unsplash)

    Happy Thursday everyone! We’re almost to the weekend. For the past four days I’ve been talking about ways to perk up your blog and grow your audience this year; so far I’ve been covering ways to make over the blog itself, including redesigning your homepage and layout, fixing your “about” and PR info, sharpening up your content and taking or finding great photos for your posts. Over the next three days I’m going to shift focus onto ways to share the awesome-sauce blog that you’re working so hard on, via social media, networking, giveaways and other outlets. If you’re new to blogging then making that jump into the world of social media link-ups can be a little daunting, so today in particular I want to share a few tips on how to get the most out of your social media channels, without losing valuable writing time to the inevitable time-suck of the social media universe!

    Decide whether to merge or separate

    The decision to hold personal and blog-related accounts separately or to merge them is one you have to make for yourself, based on your personal circumstances. Some people like to keep their personal and “professional” social networks separate but honestly, I feel like this is time-consuming (all of that signing in and out!) and kind of tricky (what happens if you accidentally log into the wrong account?). In the end it really boils down to the question of public recognition: if you link your personal accounts to your blog, much like using your full name, anyone in the world will be able to easily track you down and associate you with that blog, including employers, in-laws and old classmates.

    Personally, I have no problem with anyone knowing that I blog. I feel like I get a better experience out of merged accounts, since I spend more time being personable and chatty instead of worrying about whether what I’m posting should go into account A or account B. Remember, followers like to connect with bloggers who are personable and “real”. However, there are times when you might want to maintain separate accounts–for example, if you want to keep a private account for friends and family and a public one for your blog ramblings. There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s up to you.

    Make sure they’re linked to your blog

    Take a few minutes to add that pro bio and photo I mentioned on day two to each of your networks, and make sure they all link to your blog homepage. You might even link them to each other; I occasionally blog about books, so my Goodreads account is linked to Twitter and automatically Tweets out new reviews each time I rate a book.

    Follow just a few

    Lots of people will tell you that you should follow as many users as possible in order to really get the maximum social media experience and find new networking contacts.  I’m going to say, take that advice with a grain of salt; while following lots of different users can certainly expose you to bloggers and brands that you might never have discovered otherwise, it can also clog up your feeds until they’re unusable.

    For example, on Twitter, I try to only follow users whose feeds I actually find really interesting; otherwise my feed clogs up with updates I don’t care to see, and I find myself endlessly scrolling searching for the handful of updates I actually find useful. Trimming your list doesn’t just improve the quality of your feed, it also lets you spend more time interacting with like-minded bloggers and social media users, meaning you’ve got a better chance of making friends and developing contacts. 

    Chat with other bloggers, and have fun

    Friending or following like-minded bloggers and your favorite brands on social media is basically soft networking; it’s a way to start growing your exposure and contacts in a casual setting. Beyond that, though, it’s a good way to start making friends in the blogging community, and it’s just fun! Don’t be shy about leaving “likes” and comments and sharing posts. You might find new blogs you love or even gain a few new readers of your own. It’s okay to not treat the social media branch of blogging as a 24/7 job; part of the appeal of sites like Instagram is the fun factor, so remember to enjoy yourself! If social media starts to feel like a chore, it’s time to reconsider.

    I know several bloggers who have quit Facebook because the work of updating and maintaining a separate blog page became too much of a drag. While they were initially worried that this move might lose them a few followers, in the end they were much happier because they didn’t have to face the chore of sustaining that branch of their network. If something doesn’t work for you, cut it off; you don’t have to be hyper-connected to be a good blogger.

    Allot your time wisely 

    In theory, you could open up multiple tabs on multiple devices to stay hyperconnected to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more while trying to work on your blog. But you won’t get much done that way; not only is the constant updating a distraction, those timelines have a tendency to pull you into a leisurely scroll that eats up minutes before you know it. After I publish a post, I usually post the link to each of my social networks and I’ll give myself a few minutes then to scroll through other users’ updates, comment, share, and so forth. Then it’s back to work, and time to close out those tabs–if I don’t, my productivity goes down the drain.

    Instead, I like to schedule ten minute breaks to “check in” on my feeds. This lets me play around without getting lost in space (which happens way too easily when I’m on Pinterest!) and also gives me a mini respite from writing or whatever else I’m doing at the time. Obviously, I spend a lot of time at my desk, but if you don’t and you only have, say, an hour at the end of the day to squeeze in your blogging and related tasks, then time management is even more critical. Finish your posting, editing and other major tasks, and save the Tweeting and chatting for the last five or ten minutes so they don’t take over your writing time.

    Post often

    Obviously, the more you’re posting, the more you’ll show up in your followers’ feeds. It can be discouraging at first to post throughout the day when you only have a handful of followers, but building a timeline of frequent, fun and informative posts builds appeal for potential new followers. It also shows brands that you work to engage with your audience on a regular basis–crucial to landing sponsored gigs, since brands want to work with bloggers who can promote their products outside of a regular blog post. This infographic shows you some peak times to post on different social networks based on their traffic flow.

    Take advantage of features

    Beyond the basic posting and following, take a little time to explore other features available to you. For example, on Twitter, you can jump into hashtags to follow topics that interest you and participate in chats or Twitter parties. This is a great way to find new blogs and bloggers to follow. Use hashtags and tag other users in your posts on Twitter, Instagram and other networks, particularly if you want to mention a brand; you’ll often get shares from those tagged, which increases your exposure.

    Don’t spam your followers

    No one likes an account that screams “look at me!” so don’t just flood your timeline with links to your latest blog posts. Comment on (and possibly share) posts from other users. Chat with other users and your followers. Share pictures, links to blog posts or articles that you like, or even updates from your other networks (like Tweets about interesting Pinterest finds).

    Be a tease

    Sure, you could simply post up links to new blog posts as they go live…or you could post photos and updates that give your followers a “sneak peek” of upcoming content. If you’ve got a new product that you’re excited to review, post some photos and let your followers know that a full review is coming soon; you might also talk a little about the product as you use it. Again, use hashtags and tag any brands mentioned so they’ll see your posts.

    I hope you found these tips helpful! Tomorrow I’ll be talking about networking in a broader sense, so be sure to come back for that!

  • writing

    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!