We are trying something new over here at Sweet Horizon and we are now offering our blog posts in the form of a podcast! I’m super excited to launch the Broadening Horizons Podcast for all of you that enjoy listening to a bit of business, blogging, and freelance information throughout the day. Whether you choose to read the blog or listen in to the podcast, we are just so happy to have you tuning in with us!
Radley wanted in on the action so enjoy these silly photos of him trying to be my co-host.
Today we are tackling How to Start a Successful Blog in 2019 What To Do and What to Avoid. I’m about to break down the Do’s and Don’ts of starting a blog so that you feel confident striking out on this journey.
This post today is a LONG one and it’s for all of you out there that have been dreaming, thinking about, and maybe even taking steps in planning your grand entrance into the world of blogging in 2019. Just so you know, you are not alone my friend. Stats differ depending on where you look on the internet, but the experts do say that there are over 300 million blogs on Tumblr alone (source) and a little over 100 million blogs on WordPress with over 136 million blog post being posted each month on the WordPress platform (source). That’s many millions of people sharing tips, inspiration, and creativity from all over the world, in hundreds of languages, with quite a few making some serious cash with all their influence.
I don’t say that to discourage you! Quite the opposite! The blogging industry is growing by leaps and bounds and companies worldwide are taking major notice. WordPress reports that over 409 million people view around 20.7 billion web pages each month (source). Influencers have become a cornerstone of online marketing and businesses know it. But I get it, entering into an industry that’s growing daily and constantly changing can be a tad overwhelming. That’s why I put together the Do’s and Don’t of Starting a Blog in 2019 to help you navigate this industry and hopefully answer some of your questions and ease any anxiety you may have. I’ve been blogging off and on for the better part of 9 year and have learned a lot of things, mostly by trial and error, and I love helping new clients and readers alike set up their blog for success!
This may be my longest post to date, so grab a cup of something yummy, cozy up in a comfy spot, and let’s dive in.
First things first, let’s address some of the areas you may want to avoid when you first take the leap into blogging:
Don’t try to DIY your website design
Yes, even you, Miss “I had the best looking myspace page out of all of my friends back in the day.” And if you don’t know what MySpace is, you are gonna make me feel really old… Take it from me, web design and development has changed a LOT since our myspace days and especially now where everything absolutely must look good on both desktop and mobile devices, you are way better off hiring a professional or buying a theme to make sure your website looks great and works effortlessly. Even when it comes to your social media, many designers sell premade templates that allow you to drop in your own photos, change the text and colors, and share on multiple platforms so that you upload beautiful content every single time. There’s really no excuse for a bad blog design especially when your blog IS your business. And the sad truth of it is, people will absolutely judge your blog by it’s cover, so to speak. Viewers are attracted to pretty design and will stay on a site longer if it is more aesthetically pleasing. Companies are also more likely to take you seriously and want to work with you if you have a more professional looking blog. And with so many blogs being started each day, you’ll want to make sure yours look professional and in line with what your brand stands for.
Don’t have the budget to hire a professional designer? That’s totally fine when you are first starting out. There are 100’s of templates for WordPress, Squarespace, Showit, you name it. Whatever platform you want to use, typically you’ll find options in any price range to fit your own unique budget until you can afford to get a custom design.
Don’t copy other blogs or bloggers
This goes for design AND content. You may think that some bigger blogger has the most beautiful site you’ve ever seen, (duh, because 90% of the time they paid a designer to make it look that good) but that definitely does not mean you should make your site look exactly like theirs. First of all, their site matches their brand and their needs, and they paid good money for that unique design. Your brand is different from theirs, so your site should be different from theirs as well. You also may think that they will never find out, but I’ve watched instagram stories that have made me cringe because a blogger has come across a copy cat and is putting them on blast. No one wants that. It’s unpleasant for both parties even when it’s handled appropriately. Same goes for content. With SEO and keywords it’s really easy to find out when someone steals your content and the bigger the blogger, the more resources they have to prevent this sort of thing, plus the more readers they have that will recognize their content and will be the first to look out for them. It’s their intellectual property after all and they own everything on their site, hence the copyright and policies all of theses bloggers have in place (and why you should too, but we’ll get to that). Regardless, big or small, you shouldn’t steal content from anyone, ever. Being unique is the only way to stand out in this business.
Don’t keep your blog hidden from friends or family
So many people start blogs and then are afraid to share it with friends or family. I’m totally guilty of this. For years I didn’t tell a soul, even my boyfriend at the time. Honestly I’m not really sure why. Maybe I was embarrassed about what people would think, or maybe a part of me thought that maybe it was a little lame that I sit for hours and write posts for strangers to read. I think a huge part of it was that I hadn’t really found my voice yet and wasn’t totally confident in the content I was producing. That’s just something that comes with time. But keeping your blog hidden means that you are missing out on readers that automatically have your best interests at heart. Family and friends especially can be a really positive audience to start with. Chances are they will love whatever you are putting out there, even when it’s not perfect yet, and they are also usually the first to share your content and get your name out there before you feel confident enough to boast about it yourself. If you think they may not be that supportive, I think you may be surprised, but even so there are tons of bloggers to network with that will rally behind you and support your new endeavor.
Don’t get upset with slow growth
We all start somewhere. Sure, the internet is full of people saying things like “Read about how I blew up over night.” or “How I started making 6 figures from blogging in under a month.” You’ve seen them, I’ve seen them, heck, some of those posts may even be the reason you started blogging in the first place. But remember that statistic from the beginning? There are over 400 million blogs out there and more starting every single day. So for every one of those articles talking about overnight success, just know that there are millions out there growing slowly and that’s totally okay. Slow growth is still growth. If you stay consistent and follow the “Do’s” in this article, you’ll be right on your way in no time.
If you want to learn more about slow growth, how it pertains to blogging and business and why it totally shouldn’t freak you out, you should read this!
Don’t try to blog about ALL of your interests
You may follow bigger bloggers that just seem to do it all. The sisters over at A Beautiful Mess always come to my mind when I think of bloggers like this. They show off amazing DIY’s, adorable vintage clothing, yummy recipes, talk about travel and their personal lives, teach workshops on photography and business, sell quirky stationery and scrapbooking products, and even built a really cool photo editing app. BUT keep in mind that they’ve been blogging for over a decade. They didn’t start out doing all the things from the get go. When they first started their blog, they were mainly into funky DIY projects and vintage fashion. It’s only been through years of working and building a HUGE team that they are able to offer all of this other awesome content. If I had to guess, you probably don’t have a team to start out with. Chances are you are a one blogger team. When you hear people talk about finding your niche or lane and sticking to it, this is what they are talking about. So think about what you really want your blog to focus on, maybe one or two subjects, and make those categories awesome! It’s so much better from a content creation standpoint to have consistent posts that are top notch and really focused on a certain area than to try and blog about everything in your life and have your blog look cluttered or confusing to your readers.
This also pertains to your social media accounts. Think about accounts you follow outside of your friend group. If you find a chef’s account that’s packed full of delicious looking recipes, you are way more likely to follow them for their content than say a chef that occasionally shows recipes interspersed with photos of their vacations and kids. Same goes for bloggers. If you love following a blogger for her cute photos of her kids and the outfits she puts together for them, chances are you wouldn’t be super interested in her pet grooming skills or her house plants. I dunno, maybe you would, depending on how invested you were with her blog, but usually the more established a blogger is, the more they can diversify their content and have it be successful. When you are first starting out, look at your content subjectively and fill your feeds with posts you would want to read.
Don’t buy followers
This should go without saying, but I also feel like I probably should say it anyway. When you are first starting out, it can be SUPER tempting to buy followers on social media. It’s also one of the worse things you can do if you are serious about building a following. Why? Because you aren’t getting followers that actually care about your content. In the game that is social media, in 2019 engagement is king. Once you reach the point of working with brands or companies and getting sponsored posts, you can bet that they will care WAY more about how many people are engaging with your posts than they will about your follower count. They want to see people liking, commenting, and genuinely caring about your posts. Buying followers usually just boosts your numbers using fake or bot accounts. Aka: those accounts won’t be buying from you, so companies won’t want to pay for a sponsored post that gets them nothing in return. A lot of companies use a system where you get paid a percentage of each sale you make for them, so you can see why engagement is king here. Also, instagram has done wide sweeps in the past and deleted massive amounts of fake or bot accounts, causing accounts with fake followers to lose even millions of followers overnight. How embarrassing.
It’s also really easy to spot accounts that buy followers. Typically they will have only a few posts and an unusually large number of followers comparatively (like 13 posts and thousands of followers already). However, that does happen sometimes for people, especially if they’ve deleted or archived posts to curate the look of their feeds a little more. But the dead giveaway is when you look at the engagement on their posts and it’s super low compared to the number of followers they have. If two different accounts are getting 100 likes each on their posts, but one account has 500 followers and the other has 50,000, the engagement for the smaller account is insanely better than the larger account. I know I know, the Instagram algorithm likes to toy with people, but again, companies are much more likely to work with the account that gets 100 likes with only 500 followers because that’s 20% of their followers that care about what they are posting, versus the account with 50,000 followers that only gets 100 likes, since that is only .2% of their following that’s interested. At the end of the day, the number of followers you have is the wrong number to focus on, and if you buy fake followers you are just wasting your money.
Don’t compare yourself
I totally get it, for even well established bloggers this is so freaking hard. Especially with social media accounts so blatantly showing people’s follower counts. I kind of hope for the day when Instagram gives us the option to disable the ability to see people’s follower counts because there are so many accounts with amazing content, making decent livings off of their blogs, that don’t have a ton of followers. Remember this, followers DO NOT equal success. And so often when bloggers are first starting out they look at well established bloggers and tend to compare themselves to these people that have been blogging for decades. Keep in mind that everyone starts somewhere, not everyone finds success overnight, and everyone’s idea of success is different. Focus on what you are doing well and just keep at it!
Now for some positive vibes up in here. Let’s get down to the things that you absolutely should be doing as a new blogger in 2019:
DO have a pro website design, even if it’s a theme
Maybe I’m biased because I’m a designer, but I really can’t reiterate this enough. Like I said earlier, good design is essential in attracting your audience and keeping them. Your blog is your business and should be treated as such. You wouldn’t open up a new retail store and not decorate it or style it to look it’s best. So don’t show off your blog to the world without first taking some time to do a little tlc. No matter what platform you want to start on there are designers and premade templates that will get you started on the right foot. I design and code specifically for WordPress but have worked with Shopify and Showit and love the wide range of templates and options that are currently on the market. Occasionally you can find an okay free theme, but putting even a little bit of money toward a more robust theme is well worth it in my experience.
Why are themes a good option when first starting out? Well, for one they are cheaper than a custom design. The designer that created the theme is intending it to be purchased and used multiple times so the price can be many times less than hiring that same designer to custom create a one of a kind site. Heftier themes, while usually a little more expensive, will also usually have a more intuitive set up process and more options when it comes to customizing. Of course the only way to get a totally customized site is to hire a professional to do it for you and that usually requires having a self hosted site as well. And for two, themes usually have presets in place for widget design, color schemes, and font choices for bloggers just starting out that may not have a professionally designed logo or brand. It’s a fun way to start testing out what styles you want to implement in your blog and brand without sinking too much money into the design at the beginning stage.
Do set up a domain and hosting
If you are totally new to blogging the term self hosting in that last paragraph may have really confused you. Let me explain. Self hosting your website simply means that you are hosting your site through a server so that you have control over all of the code, design, and backend file setup. WordPress.COM sites are not self hosted, but are hosted through wordpress servers and thus have limitations on what they offer. WordPress.ORG sites are self hosted and really the possibilities are endless. Most bloggers never need to fool with changing any of their hosting files, but it can come in handy when hiring a designer who needs to access those files or embedding codes into your site for affiliate programs. We’ll get into affiliate programs in a minute. There are lots of options when it comes to buying a domain and hosting for your site. My favorite that I personally use and recommend to all of my clients is Siteground. They can walk you through every step of the process and get your site set up and running in no time. Plus their customer service is the best I’ve found, hands down.
Having a custom domain to match your branding is also essential if you want to look professional and taken seriously within the blogging community. If your url reads something like www.hollyslookbook.wordpress.com, I as a reader will think you are probably just a hobbiest blogger. Versus if your url reads www.hollyslookbook.com I will think you are a serious fashion blogger solely by reading your domain name. This is a huge plus for attracting readers, companies to partner with, boosting SEO, and just cutting down on lengthy urls.
Do join affiliate programs
Affiliate programs can be a tad intimidating when you are first starting out, but they are a huge way that bloggers in 2019 make money from the readers of their blog. Essentially affiliates act as a go between from your blog posts and the products people can buy online. They track either purchases made from your site or clicks on products from your site. The ones that track purchases usually pay better but are harder to get *ahem* affiliated with. Yes, there are affiliate programs that don’t accept newbie bloggers, BUT there are still plenty that do. ShopStyleCollective is a great one for fashion, beauty, and home decor bloggers to start with. You can easily build scrolling product widgets of all of your favorite items and create links to products on other sites using their link builder tool. Amazon and Target both also have affiliate programs that offer links to almost all of their products. It’s a super easy and fun way to share your favorite items with your readers.
So why do I suggest signing up to these affiliate programs early in your blogging career? In my opinion it’s way better to be using these programs and have them in place even before your readership is high, because if you do happen to have a post go viral (that’s the dream, right?) you want to already have plenty of goodies on your site to harness the traffic and make you some money. If you wait to set up affiliate programs AFTER you have a rise in traffic, usually with viral posts you see a spike in traffic that lasts only a little while before leveling out again, you may have just missed out on a ton potential sales.
Do keep a content calendar
To be honest, this is something I’m still working on. Everything is a work in progress, right? And I can fully admit I don’t have all of this down pat. Not by a long shot. But I do know that when I use my content calendar to its full potential my blogging life is so much easier.
For both your blog and your social media accounts you should keep a content calendar of everything you want to post. It can be just the week at a glance, the month, or if you are super ambitious, the year. However, planning out the entire year’s worth of posts is a bit much if you ask me and leaves little to no room for trial and error, which you definitely need when you are first starting out. If you read my recent post on my favorite business tools then you know that I love Planoly for instagram. It’s a drag and drop interface where you can plan out your instagram feed, add specific groupings of hashtags at a glance, and it will even remind you when it’s time to post. For my blog I use Trello with it’s handy Calendar feature to plan out what posts I upload throughout the month. At a glance I can see if I’m covering my main blog categories each month, make sure I’m staying on top of my to-do list for each post, and know exactly what still needs to get done.
You may think that this is excessive, especially when you are new to content creation in general, but a content calendar can be so helpful with generating tons of post ideas and making sure you always have something fresh to post. This way you can also always make sure your posts look consistent for social media when you view them all together in advance, helping you achieve the most enviable feed in your niche. It also helps you set realistic goals for your blog. If you plan to post 4 times a week to your blog but you end up only realistically being able to post twice, just readjust your content calendar and plan for 2 posts each week until you feel comfortable amping things back up. Consistency and quality are the key to success especially in the beginning stages of a blog, and a content calendar is the perfect place to start.
Do blog legally and set up a policies page
I bet you didn’t know there was an “illegal” way to blog. If you are new to blogging there are two VERY important things you need to be aware of. The first one, GDPR is a scary sounding acronym that stands for a law called General Data Protection Regulation. Basically the gist of it is that viewers need to be aware if you are tracking data and cookies on your site to show you info about the kind of people looking at your content (i.e. using a system like Google Analytics). Analytics are important for content creation but we’ll get to that in the next section. This law also gets pretty strict about minors using websites and the fact that they can’t really consent to having their info collected in your analytics. Right now this only pertains to sites with visitors from the EU, which I feel like is most of the internet, but I would imagine the US will implement something similar very soon with all the social media privacy and user info court cases in the news last year.
The easiest way to make sure you site is safe and legal is to have a policies page that tells people how you use the content you collect AND to have a GDPR compliant notification somewhere on your blog that people have to accept that they understand that you track cookies. I’m sure you’ve seen them at the bottom of websites and blogs. Heck, there’s even one at the bottom of my blog right now that shows some simple policy info, a link to my Policy page, and a button for the user to accept. This helps protect you from anyone claiming they didn’t know their info was being tracked. The second important legal thing you should have is your policy page in general. This page not only can handle GDPR content but is also where you should state what you own on your site and the legality of your intellectual property. This will come in handy if anyone tries to copy any of your content, like the big Don’t we had at the top of this article. There are many plugins for GDPR compliant pop-ups and for templates for this sort of policy page on the internet, so a brief search will serve you well.
Do set up Google Analytics
Some sort of analytics software is essential for understanding your traffic and what readers are viewing on your site. Google is just the big dog and setting up your Analytics through them can also give you great insight into your SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. It’s fairly simple to do by creating an account and adding the code they provide to the header area of your site’s code. If you don’t know where to find this, contact your designer or hosting service and they can probably help with this.
Why are analytics important as a new blogger? They tell you super in depth info about how many people are viewing your site, how long they stay on your site, and what they click on while they are there. Obviously you want people coming back again and again, staying on your site for long amounts of time because that means they love your content, and you want to see them clicking on posts or affiliate links that will make you money. With this info you can adjust the posts you have planned on your content calendar to better suit the readers you are getting.See how all of these parts start coming together? A better understanding of your readers means a better and longer future for your blog.
Do follow good SEO practices
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is super critical in the running of a website. If your SEO is perfect, you will rank higher on Google searches making it easier for returning readers to come back to your site and potential readers to find you in the first place. Bad SEO practices will slow down your site, cause you to rank lower on Google searches, and make it harder for people to find your blog. SEO is a super dense subject, but some of the best practices are using keywords through your post, in your title and headers, and in your permalink, optimizing your images for web so that they aren’t massive files that take forever to load, naming your image files relevant names with keywords, creating concise descriptions for your blog posts for when they pop up in searches, and using proper linking techniques between sites. I have many posts in the works about SEO and best practices for bloggers so be sure to check back in with the blog for more in depth info in the future.
Do invest in a nice camera and photo editing software
Now let me be clear, while a DSLR and Lightroom are definitely the most professional options, don’t feel like you can’t be a success without shelling out big bucks for both. Honestly, the newest iPhone does a pretty excellent job with photos and there are tons of amazing photo editing apps like ColorStory that will probably get you where you wanna go during the beginning stages of your blog. BUT, when you are ready to really take blogging seriously, investing in a DSLR and learning Lightroom will definitely up your game.
Just please, for the love of all things blogging related, don’t snap photos on your outdated phone and use instagram filters and call it a day. Grainy photos are a NO GO and will never look professional. And slapped on filters can be spotted from a mile away. Look at the blog photos and instagram feeds that you admire and could scroll through for days. What kind of aesthetic are they creating with their images and how does that make you view their content and products. People are much more likely to buy a dress from a girl who took the time to look cute, styled the dress with fun accessories, found a creative location, and edited the photos to look dreamy and picturesque, than they are to buy from someone who just threw on the same dress, took a selfie with a dirty bathroom in the background and slapped a snapchat filter on it. Take pride in your work and really put your best foot forward and that will put you leaps and bounds above the rest.
Do stick with less than 5 categories
I said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t be all the things, at least not to begin with. If you have trouble finding your niche, write down all the categories you’d think you’d like to blog about. Next, circle the ones you are most interested in and think you could absolutely KILL IT with, and if you still have more than 5 categories start generating post ideas for each category and see which 5 categories you can come up with the most content for. These categories can always adapt and change as your blog grows and changes, but again it’s better to have focused, polished content than lazy, all over the place content. A narrow focus allows readers to remember you and what you do after only visiting your blog once.
Do set up social media accounts specific to your blog
I find this one super important but I know there are mixed views on this subject. Some people love using their personal social media accounts for their blog because a lot of time they already have a steady following of friends and family. I personally have a couple of issues with this. 1) readers should be able to look up your blog name on social media and find you immediately. Chances are, unless they are just obsessed with your content, they aren’t going to know your name to be able to look you up on your personal account. It’s much easier for them to remember your catchy blog name and find you from there. 2) I don’t like the idea of bombarding friends and family with business or blog content all the time. Yes, I know I said to share your blog with friends and family, but when you have a new social media account specific for your blog, those that want to follow along can and those that don’t, don’t have to be overwhelmed with all of your sponsored or engagement driven posts. Maybe that is just personal preference but I just feel more comfortable with that strategy. And 3) you can easily set up a business account with Instagram and link it to a Facebook page when you have accounts specific for your blog. That way you can see Instagram analytics just like your Google Analytics for your site and you’ll know exactly what your followers are loving (hint hint: what you should be posting more of in the future).
Do build a network of like minded bloggers
If you’ve been blogging any amount of time you know that blogging can end up being kind of a lonely thing. You spend hours writing posts, taking and editing pictures, and sharing the heck out of them on social media. Lots of bloggers are in fact quite introverted and work mainly alone. But in doing so, many end up finding their people in other blogs, facebook communities, and through social media platforms. What an awesome thing, right? People finding each other over a shared interest like makeup or home decor and sparking a very real friendship through this digital medium. These are people that understand exactly what you are trying to do, who will encourage you to keep going, and who will celebrate every little win with you.
I mentioned this briefly at the end of the Don’t Keep Your Blog Hidden from Friends and Family section, but finding and building relationships with like minded bloggers I swear is one of the most important aspects of running a blog. If you run a fashion blog, follow and comment on other fashion blogger’s accounts that you admire. If you run a book and journaling blog, find other book and journaling accounts run by kindred spirits. It’s so important to build a community that you identify with in this online space and I guarantee it’ll make it all a lot more fun!
Whew! There we have it. We’ve made it to the end of this super long post! I hope you’ve learned something new along the way and I hope that this post gives you all the encouragement and basic resources to start out your blogging journey confidently and in control. There are lot of tools already in place for bloggers in 2019 and there’s no reason you shouldn’t use them all to your advantage.
If you have questions on something I covered here or just want more information, leave a comment at the end of this post or browse some of the blogging related posts I have on my site already. I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions!