This week I'm exploring the results of my 31 Days to Building a Better Blog project. On Tuesday I looked at the impact of the activities on my stats and yesterday I explored how they dramatically improved my sense of community.
In this post I'm going to share what I learned in the past month.
31 Lessons From My 31 Days of Building a Better Blog
In no particular order. . .
1. Run periodic first time reader audits. You should always be looking at your blog or website through the eyes of people who are visiting for the first time. They will never see things the same way that you do and you may be missing out on some good opportunities to pull in readers.
2. Stay engaged with your reader community. Blogs are about conversations, not monologues. If you want one-way conversation, put up a website. If you want to engage with people, use a blog. But then make sure you talk to your readers both in comments and via email so they know they're not talking into the void.
3. Blog frequently. The more I blogged, the more engaged I felt with my topics and with my community. When I let a few days go between posts, I found that I felt less interested and it seemed to be the same for my readers. This is a lesson that the Smoke Free Wisconsin folks discovered, too. Blogging is like exercise--you should do it almost every day.
4. Blog well. You should blog every day if possible, but try to avoid blogging about crap just so you can put up a post. Most readers want quality AND quantity. If something has to be sacrificed, then they'd prefer to lose the quantity. We have enough digital noise. No need for us to contribute to it.
5. Get out more. Prior to the 31 days project, I had gotten into a rut of staying on my blog and within a relatively small group of other bloggers I have in my feed reader--kind of like staying at home and in your neighborhood all the time. But blogging ideas and connections to others come from venturing outside of your immediate area, so one thing I learned was that I need to expand my reading and thinking horizons, both on and off-line. Maybe ride a bike or something.
6. Have a good About Page. In keeping with point number 1, I discovered that a good About page is a critical component of any blog. It should be prominently featured on your site and it should give new readers a way to understand what you do and how to easily navigate and engage with your site.
7. Planning is good. I've tended to be a more reactive blogger, looking for what other people are saying and then responding or adding to those ideas or sharing that information. But in starting to plan a week's worth of posts I opened up some new ways to think about what I blog about and how I blog. In particular I started to think about themes and about how to post in smaller chunks so that I don't overwhelm people. Planning made me more mindful about what I put up and that improved the quality of my work.
8. Design is important. Your site should be both beautiful and functional. The 31 Days project really made me re-evaluate how people use my blog. I had used many default modes of navigation (such as having monthly archives), but in digging into my blog stats, I discovered that there were a lot of features people didn't use. I also discovered some new ways to make my site more useful to readers by creating sneeze pages and decluttering my sidebar. And it definitely got better looking, thanks to helpful comments from people with a better design sense than I have.
9. Put up a picture of yourself and make sure it's a good one. I always knew that people connected to a blog more when you included a picture of yourself. But I also discovered that the picture you include needs to send the right message. I briefly changed my photo to something more serious and intense- looking and got immediate feedback that it made my blog seem less approachable and friendly. Needless to say, it came back down. First impressions really do matter.
10. Recognize readers. As I mentioned yesterday, community-building was an important part of this project for me. I routinely link to other bloggers and try to bring great comments into the body of my blog, but the 31 Day project made me realize that I need to be more planful about that. People like to be seen and it's important for me to provide that recognition on an ongoing basis.
11. Get some goals and track them. I went into this project with a sort of vague idea of wanting to run a learning experiment. I came out of it realizing that I need to be more thoughtful about where I want to go with my blog. I haven't set those goals for myself yet, but I know that it needs to be done.
12. The kids are kicking our butts in the blogosphere. I'm 43 and just trying to figure out this whole blogging thing. Al Upton's miniLegends are 9 and they are already getting it. We have some catch-up to do.
13. Get stickier. Despite what I said in point 11 about not having goals, I actually did have a few, one of which was to build my RSS readership. I learned that to do this, I needed to "stickify" my blog by encouraging one-time readers to subscribe and by re-doing my RSS page to explain the whole concept.
14. If you want to know something, just ask--but be specific. Something I consistently found in the past month was that if I asked a question, I usually got some great responses from people. But the best responses came when I asked specific questions. Responses to "What do you think," were generally not as good or helpful as responses to "what do you think of me moving the sidebar to the right?"
15. When readers talk, you should listen. That whole photo thing I mentioned in point 9? If I didn't listen to what current readers had to say, I'd probably have lost new ones. And if I'm trying to build a community, that means I have to listen and respond to the members.
16. Listen to yourself, too. The past 31 days has made me a much more confident blogger. I've often questioned my instincts, on posts, etc., but in the past month I did much less of that. It had a powerful effect on me both on and off-line.
17. Google Customized Search is a MUST for your blog. Thanks to Emily Turner, I added Google customized search, which made it far easier for me and my readers to find content on my blog. I highly recommend it.
18. Not everyone will come through the front door of your blog. Digging into my stats reminded me that many people do not enter a blog via the front page. In fact, many come through more popular posts that have been bookmarked or linked to. These were good opportunities to lead people to other resources by interlinking some posts.
19. Leaning on others can help get you through the rough spots. There were several times during the project when I felt like giving up. Fortunately I had the support of several other bloggers going through the same experience. They made this blogging bootcamp much easier and kept me participating when I wanted to pack it in.
20. It's about process. While the specific tasks of the 31 Day project were important, what proved even more helpful to me was the process of going through 31 days of intense effort to build a better blog. It meant 31 days of thinking about blogging and of seeing how various tasks connected. It also meant seeing what other people were doing and how their efforts might inform my own. Content was important, but the experience itself was the critical thing.
21. Sometimes you just have to let go of perfection. I tend to tinker a lot with my posts. But when you're involved in an intense project like this, there isn't always time. Eklavya taught me that there's beauty in just getting it done.
22. You should pay attention to what your blog looks like in different readers. I'd never thought about it before, but as Sue Waters pointed out, how your blog looks in a reader may have a pretty big influence on whether or not people read your blog.
23. People are really attached to their readers. While we're on the subject of feed readers, I hadn't thought before about how passionately attached some of us are to our readers. Which means that when you are setting up their RSS subscription explanations you need to consider all the different ways we'll be reading you and make it easy for us to subscribe with our particular reader.
24. You never know how you'll inspire someone. An unexpected yet wonderful benefit of my 31 Day experiment was that it inspired some others to start blogging. I know of at least two people--Nancy Riffer and another Nancy, the "Cajun Chestnut" --who took the plunge as a result of this whole thing and I'm hoping that more will do so in the future.
25. Get clear about why you blog and then communicate that to your readers. The mission statement exercise was an important one because it forced me to really think about why I blog and what I want to blog about. I'm still working on getting greater clarity around that, but I think that the process has been good for helping me to get more focused in my writing and in the kinds of information I want to include here.
26. Be human. At the beginning of the project, I got several emails from people who told me they felt that I come across as "approachable" in my writing and that it was that quality that attracted them to my blog. That's a quality I'm trying to foster. What the emails made me realize was that people connect to your human side, to the person behind the blog. Even if you're blogging for an organization, readers still want to know there's a person behind the curtain.
27. Less is more. This came from my Canal Street shopping experience, but was a lesson I actually learned repeatedly and need to keep learning. If readers can't find you through the clutter, they'll probably just move on.
28. Use the tools to analyze your stats--they really do help. I had Google Analytics installed on my site, but hadn't used it a lot. Digging into the numbers was an interesting exercise that led to some good decisions on how to redo my blog. Building a heatmap with Crazy Egg also gave me some good info on where people were clicking in my site.
29. Blogging good manners pays off. As Paul Webster pointed out, simple etiquette goes a long way. Thanking commenters, readers who have been around for a while, and people who link to your blog are all examples of good blogging etiquette. Adding the personal touch with an email and comments on other people's blogs takes it further. I'm not always perfect with this, but I'm definitely getting a lot better.
30. The blogosphere is a friendly, helpful place. A lot of people give very freely of their time and expertise and when you need help, there are plenty who will offer it without asking. I met some wonderful people in the past 31 days and I'm looking forward to maintaining these relationships for many days, months and years to come.
31. Run more 31 Day learning experiments. This project began on a whim to get more purposeful about blogging and to challenge myself with ongoing assignments. Tim Davies was the one who first got me thinking about how this framework of 31 days of tasks might be an excellent learning strategy to apply in a variety of ways. Then Christine Martell picked up that thread and we're deep into planning some similarly-structured learning experiences. Beyond that, though, I've found that this strategy gave a huge burst to my learning and should become an important part of my own personal learning environment. So expect some more learning experiments in the future.
That's what I learned in the past 31 days. I'd love to hear about what you learned.
If you're interested in continuing to grow and learn as a blogger, please join us at the Building a Better Blog community where we're using weekly blog challenges and ongoing conversations to continually improve our blogs and the blogging experience.