Because I have some reach in the tech community and blogging is my thing, I find that people reach out to me somewhat regularly. This outreach takes all forms, but of particular interest today is people hoping that I’ll share some post they wrote.
Almost invariably, here’s how this goes. An ambitious soul decides that he wants to start a blog. Let’s call him Earnest. Writing a lot of posts over the course of months and growing an audience seems slow to Earnest. So he decides to kick-start things with the following steps.
- Write some kind of contrarian “hot take” that seems novel to him, but that has probably been written roughly 50,000 times. “What If Agile Actually ISN’T that Great?!”
- Reach out to his network and to “influencers” like me with, “hey, will you share this sweet hot take?”
- Get a few halfhearted shares, zero comments, and a broad communal yawn in response.
- Repeat a few times.
- Give up on blogging.
At some point, as he’s moving from step 4 to step 5, Earnest wonders to himself, “why is no one reading my blog?” So let’s look in detail today at the answer to that question. Hopefully the result is that you write a different step 5.
How Do People Arrive at Your Blog Anyway?
Earnest is primarily concerned with one particular method of getting people to his site. He’s probably hoping that this will turn into a second method, while completely ignoring a third. In his mind, traffic acquisition is sort of a nebulous lump of stuff.
There are, however, three main, distinct ways that people wind up reading your blog posts. And to understand those, you have to understand the two main things that people go on the internet to do. Those are:
- Solve a problem they have.
- Be entertained.
So assume that anyone arriving at your blog is there for one of those two reasons. Now, the question of how they arrive there. Here are the three main ways that Earnest’s prospective readers could arrive to read his contrarian take on Agile:
- Finding it via social share and syndication (through promotion of the post).
- Organic search, meaning that they find the post via search engine.
- They see it because they follow your site or RSS feed and they see all of your content.
With all of this background, it actually becomes pretty simple to understand why no one is reading Earnest’s blog (or yours).
Alright, So Why Aren’t People Reading Your Blog?
So why aren’t people reading? Because you’re writing as if your audience were mainly arriving via method (3), when, in fact, you have no followers.
It’s pretty easy to understand why this happens. What do you do when you’re new to blogging? You look at famous companies and prominent bloggers to see what they’re doing. And then you mimic them. Fake it ’til you make it (or just follow demonstrated successes), right?
It’s entirely rational. But it turns out not to work very well.
Bloggers with large existing followings can and should write different styles of blog posts from newbies.
Nobody Cares about Earnest’s Hot Takes
Let’s drive this point home a little bit more before we get to how you can go about getting traffic. To understand what you need to do, you need to understand how a new blog/blogger differs from well-established ones.
Recall the reasons for people using the internet: solving problems and finding entertainment. When Earnest writes his hot take, which readership itch is he scratching? It’s a trick question because the answer is neither. Earnest is saying, “get ready, world, because I have an opinion!”
And the world reacts with a yawn.
Earnest’s opinion doesn’t help anyone solve a problem. And it doesn’t entertain anyone, because who in the world is Earnest? His friends and coworkers probably all know his opinions already, and random people have no reason to care. They get to his site, see his first, probably sloppily written post with its clumsy clickbait-imitation title, and they bounce.
If, however, Earnest had already built a sizable readership, things would be a bit different. He’d have a long track record of entertaining or helping people. People would thus find his hot takes interesting and entertaining. And they might even consider his hot takes as helping them solve a problem — the problem of keeping abreast of important events and opinions in the industry.
But he has none of that yet. He has work to do, and so do you.
So here are some things to start doing and some things to stop doing if you want to build readership.
1. Stop Thinking of Your Blog as a Journal
We’ve alluded to this idea before on this blog. Amanda talked about “vanity writing” as more appropriate for a journal and I talked about not mimicking companies like Github and posting navel-gazing stuff about yourself. But it’s worth saying again.
If you want readers, stop thinking of your blog as an assorted collection of whatever happens to be on your mind. That’s called a journal — not a blog.
Believe me, I empathize with your objections. It took me way too long to figure this out. On my blog DaedTech, I lucked into lots of readers in spite of making this mistake for years. In retrospect, this was because I wrote a lot of posts that software developers found cathartic (a form of entertainment) and I sprinkled some useful how-to posts in as well.
But if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have acquired readers a lot faster.
2. Instead, Write to a Specific Person
That advice might seem a bit daunting, particularly if you’re prone to blank page syndrome. But luckily, there’s a good way to counteract that.
Write as if you’re talking to a specific person. And I mean really specific. Don’t think about writing to “a developer” or “management.” Instead, think of writing to Cheryl, the senior software developer that sits two rows over from you. I mean that specific.
Offer this person advice or writing a how-to post that you think will save them some effort. Use the tone that you’d use when talking to them conversationally.
This will help get you out of the habit of writing with the sort of stiff formalism or pseudo-academic verbiage that makes blog readers bounce. It also makes it all about the reader and not about you.
3. Stop Writing about a Random Smattering of Topics
Getting out of the “blog as journal” mode might help with this, but it’s worth mentioning as a separate point. After all, you might not be dear-diarying your daily work experience into the wider internet, but you might still have a pretty random set of topics.
I did when I started blogging. You might have found these articles all in a row:
- How to Fix Sound Card Issues on Ubuntu
- Getting Started with TDD
- JUnit for C# Developers
- Setting up a Raspberry Pi
This is a completely random set of topics. There is no one Cheryl or Earnest that will be interested in these topics. They all do solve problems for people, but none of those people is likely to follow you.
4. Instead, Pick a Mission for Your Blog and Stick To It
Early in the history of Hit Subscribe’s blog, I talked about the need for a mission. I’ve also talked about how you should built a blog out of heavily interconnected posts. Those are important points in understanding how you should approach your blog to gain readers.
Pick a mission — a main theme for your blog. What problem in the world do you aim to solve? That’s easy if you have a product or service to offer. But even if you don’t, you should be thematically trying to do something.
When you do this, you’ll be able to write both posts designed to entertain and designed to solve problems, and you’ll be able to tie them all together thematically to gain followers.
5. Stay Away from Opinions Altogether at First
That said, in the beginning, I’d steer away from trying to entertain. In fact, I’d try to stay away from pure opinion posts altogether. I mean, you might be able to pull it off, but you also might wind up annoying people and frustrating yourself.
6. Instead, Start with How-Tos
Catering to people by helping solve their problems, rather than by entertaining them, is a much more blue-chip blogging play. If you write a post excoriating some popular trend in the industry, you’d better do it in seriously witty and convincing fashion, with excellent prose.
But if you’re helping people finally get past some error that’s been making their life a living hell for hours, they’re not going to ask you to be William Faulkner. Even if you can’t string two sentences together, they’ll love you.
Blogging is like anything else. You get better at it with practice. So practice and get your legs under you with low-risk posts that help people solve their problems. People will appreciate these posts, and it’s these posts that help you bring in organic traffic over the course of time.
7. Save Your Outreach for When You’re Established
I’ll close with one last piece of advice. This one assumes that you’ve implemented the previous bits of advice successfully enough to start building a following. And it concerns the outreach to people like me that I mentioned early in the post.
Save this outreach for when you’re actually somewhat established and writing proven content. When you think about it, this makes sense. You don’t do things very well when you’re new to them, and blogging is no exception. Do you really want to blow your capital with your network and prospective influencers on what will probably be one of the worst posts you ever write? And one that has absolutely no proven track record of resonating with anyone.
No, I didn’t think so.
So keep that option in your back pocket. Write how-to posts that solve problems for people, all according to a common theme and mission. Share them with your network as you go, sure, and hope that your site’s SEO profile gradually rises and brings organic searchers. And then, once you have these things going for you, pick a particularly strategic or impressive post and ask for shares then. Or, maybe you won’t even have to because they’ll notice you of their own accord.