Lately I’ve had quite a few emails from people looking for blogging advice. The writers of these emails are all very different, but they all have one thing in common – they’re totally fed up.
There’s a growing sense of frustration and disillusionment permeating the blogosphere of 2018, and a lot of the bloggers I speak to now are just plain sick of it all. They’re sick of working hard, and not really seeming to get anywhere. They’re tired of writing posts that no one ever reads. They look around, and they see other bloggers gaining followers and pulling in sponsorships apparently with ease, and they want to know how on earth they’re managing to do it – because there has to be some kind of secret that everyone else is in on, right?
Well, I said this in much more detail in my book, but there is no secret: sorry. I really wish there was. Instead, then, here are some hard truths about why some blogs are successful and others aren’t, starting off with the question I’m asked most often, which is about how I built up my own readership. So, here’s the truth about that:
I got lucky.
Lucky in that I started blogging in 2006, when this was all fields – there was no social media, the word “influencer” had yet to be coined, and there was just much less competition all round. Honestly, back then, blogging was kind of embarrassing, really – a kind of geeky hobby that no one had heard of, and you didn’t really want to admit to doing
Lucky in that, not long after I launched my blog, I started freelancing for the UK’s biggest blog network, Shiny Media. Shiny went bust a few years back, sadly, but, back then, they were way ahead of the curve: they realised very early on that blogs could be monetised, and they built a hugely successful business out of it. Between them, their various blogs were probably getting at least a couple of million visitors a month: I wrote for I think four of them, and, as my own blog was linked from the sidebar of the sites I wrote for, I ended up getting a lot of readers from there.
So, I got lucky. And, actually, “lucky” isn’t a word I really like using in conjunction with blogging, because, it’s a little more complicated than that, isn’t it? I mean, sure, the first part – the bit about getting in early, when there was very little competition? THAT was luck – and it’s the kind of luck you just can’t replicate.
TRUTH: Sometimes, some bloggers just get lucky, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to replicate that. Sucks, huh?
Getting in early might have been down to luck, though, but the other thing? The whole, “I freelanced for a massive blog network, and piggy-backed on their traffic,” thing? You COULD call that luck, but if you did, you’d be missing out an important point, which is that, while I really don’t like to blow my own trumpet, and am literally cringing as I write this, Shiny Media didn’t just pick me at random to write for – and later edit – their blogs, did they? No, they picked me because I was able to demonstrate writing skills I’d honed through years of experience, writing not just for my own “online journal”, but for newspapers, magazines and corporate clients.
TRUTH: You have to be able to write.
Or, if you can’t write, you have to be able to take REALLY great photos – and, if you can’t do either, you have to be prepared to work at it until you can.
It has to be a passion, and something you’re good at. What I’m increasingly seeing in today’s blogosphere, though, is a ton of people who DON’T have a passion for content creation, and who just want to be insta-famous, or get loads of freebies, or whatever. Look, I’m not here to tell you what your motivation should be: I genuinely don’t think there are any “wrong” reasons to start a blog, and if the thought of being popular on the internet is what gets you out of bed every morning, then, as far as I’m concerned, that’s as good a reason as any.
Having said that, though, what I’m seeing now isn’t a bunch of girls who grew up wanting to be writers or photographers – which is more or less how the blogosphere was made up in 2006. No, I’m seeing a group of girls who grew up wanting to be Insta-famous, or to be popular bloggers who get lots of “freebies”. They see the writing and photography as part of that career, sure, but that’s where they’re going wrong, because the writing and photography IS THE CAREER. It’s the be-all-and-end-all. If you don’t have the ability to create great content, then THAT’S the reason your blog isn’t successful – and I know that sounds too obvious to even mention, but it really isn’t to a lot of people.
This is why things like comment pods and follow-for-follow are so popular now: too many bloggers are looking for shortcuts to success, when there really aren’t any. They’ll spend hours every day meticulously following the rules of their comment/follow pod, in order to gain x number of followers, without seeming to realise that it doesn’t matter know many people you persuade (or pay) to follow you – if all you have to show them is mediocre content, they’re not going to stick around for more of it.
(Inevitably, any time I mention writing skills, I will almost always make some kind of ridiculous typo or stupid spelling mistake, which someone will gleefully point out in the comments. So I’ll just take a minute here to say that I’m obviously not Shakespeare, and I’m not claiming to be the best writer in the world. I make mistakes – we all do. Being a good writer is not, however, about never making mistakes, or adhering rigidly to very grammar rule in the book – it’s about being understood, and if your writing can’t be easily understood, or your mistakes are so frequent as to be distracting, you need to work on that first, before you decide you’re going to be a full-time blogger.)
I started out as a journalist, so I didn’t just know how to write: I also knew how to write for an audience. That’s quite a different thing from writing “for yourself”. One mistake I see a lot of new bloggers make is in insisting that they’re going to write “for themselves”. Many blogger take great pride in this: they talk about how they don’t care what anyone says, their blog is FOR THEM and they’ll run it how they want, thanks very much. Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, obviously… IF YOU’RE BLOGGING AS A HOBBY. But this post is not aimed at hobby bloggers: it’s here for the ones who want to go full-time and turn it into a career, and the truth is, you don’t build a career simply by pleasing yourself all the time, and ignoring what works in favour of what’s fun.
Truth: blogging isn’t always fun. Sorry.
As I said, I was fortunate in that I was able to use the traffic from my freelancing jobs to build an audience relatively quickly. That audience, however, was a very small one – and it remained that way for years. Why? Because I viewed my blog strictly as a hobby, and didn’t do anything to try to make it grow.
At this point, I’d started three other commercial blogs, which I’d launched with the sole intention of turning them into businesses. Forever Amber, on the other hand… well, it was my online diary, really. It was the blog I kept FOR ME, and I gave absolutely no thought whatsoever as to its content.
TRUTH: you can’t do that.
Or not if you want your blog to be a business, anyway.
Actually, that’s not quite true: I DID think about the content – quite a lot actually. It’s just that I imposed silly restrictions on that content, in the belief that my blog was “only” a diary, and that that was all it could ever be. So, I’d write about that great dress I bought at the weekend, say, but I would not post photos of myself wearing said dress, because my blog was not a fashion blog, and I already had one of those. I didn’t write about beauty products either… because my blog was not a beauty blog – and I had one of those, too. I DID write about the work we were doing to our house at the time, but I did it in a very haphazard kind of fashion, without any thought as to what kind of information people were looking for on interiors, or DIY, say. So, I’d do a single, diary-style post, saying, “hey, guys, we totally remodelled our bathroom, and it was a nightmare!” Which was fine for a blog I was just just using because I wanted to document my life somewhere (And, again, if that’s why you’re blogging, this post isn’t aimed at you, so feel free to disregard every single word of it…).If I’d been thinking like a businesswoman, though, I’d have been able to get TONS of much more useful posts out of that bathroom remodel. Things like:
How to remodel your bathroom on a budget
How we planned our new bathroom
How I organise my bathroom products
10 things I’d do differently with my bathroom remodel
Aaand, I’ve written the words “bathroom” and “remodel” WAY too many times now, but you get my point, I’m sure: back then, I wasn’t really thinking about the type of content that would be useful, or even just interesting to my audience, and that was a mistake, because….
Truth: your content has to be useful – or at least entertaining
Having just said that, I’m instantly going to caveat it by saying that not ALL content HAS to be useful. Not all of mine is: I still write diary posts, and I still use the site as a record of my life – but I do it with an awareness that while those posts might be fun to write, and some readers do enjoy them, they’re not the posts that bring traffic to the site, and they’re not the ones that make money: so, if I want my blog to continue to be a viable business, I have to also think about creating the type of content that DOES fulfil that remit. I’ve said it before, but people aren’t on Google and Pinterest (Where most of my traffic comes from) looking for updates on what I got up to this week – they are, however, looking for information on things like how to walk in high heels, and whether or not they should buy those magnetic eyelashes they keep seeing advertised on Facebook. (ANSWER: NO. NO NO and thrice NO.) I don’t need to write that type of content ALL the time, then, but I DO need to think about my audience – and my POTENTIAL audience – when I’m working on my editorial calendar.
A lot of people don’t do that. Time and time again, I see new bloggers complaining in Facebook groups about how their blogs aren’t getting any views, only to click through to the blog in question, and find that the most recent post was three weeks ago, and it was a generic wish list, of the kind you can find anywhere. Then I’ll go back to that group, and see that the same blogger who can’t understand why her blog isn’t successful is now all over the follow-for-follow threads, desperately trying to drive traffic and followers to a blog that doesn’t actually have any useful content on it. WHY? Because the industry is currently filled with people who are fixated on having “followers”, without giving them anything to follow – and that’s never going to work, is it?
But what if you don’t fall into that category?
What about all of the amazing bloggers – and there are lots of them – who ARE creating awesome content, who AREN’T focusing all of their efforts on follow-for-follow nonsense, and who STILL aren’t seeing results? Because this is happening. It’s happening a lot, actually, and here’s the reason why:
The blogging industry is totally over-saturated.
When people ask me how I managed to grow my blog into a business, the one thing they really DON’T want to hear is that it took me YEARS to do it.
It did, though.
And the fact is, if I was starting this blog today, in 2018, I’m sure it would take me even longer – if it even happened at all.
The sad truth is, you see, that it is REALLY, REALLY hard to make a blog successful right now. There’s just SO much competition, and so much noise, and I honestly believe it can be almost impossible to break through that and stand out amongst the crowd. That’s not to say it IS impossible, obviously – I’m not out to discourage anyone here – but it IS hard, and it WILL take time. Like, a LOT of time. And even more hard work.
If you’re ready and willing to put in that time and effort, and to work really, really hard at creating content that people will want to read and follow (without you having to pay them to do it – either in cash or in kind, by promising to follow them back), you just might have a shot.
But if you don’t?