So you want to start a blog

Few do it right. Until today.

By: Russ
Estimated Length: 12 Minutes

Is this a bad idea?

No! Writing blog posts can have many benefits for your business and your website. Most people start one at the recommendation of a person like me or a search engine professional. Pleasing Google is a national sport for web people, so it’s a common suggestion. Google rewards fresh content, high traffic, and returning users, and while there’s many ways to tick those boxes, a blog is big tool to get that done.

Our Google lust often gets in the way of seeing the other benefits though. A lot of people find in their business that they answer the same questions over and over again. Maybe it’s annoying, maybe it’s a time drain, but however you cut it, answering those questions in a blog post has clear benefits to all involved.

Using a blog to answer these types of questions can be a lot more than a simple way to get people off your back, it can also help establish yourself as an authority and a helpful hand. Authenticity is a critical factor in business, and one that will only become more valuable as the machines swoop in and take our jobs.

It can also be used to communicate your style and tone. Are you a no-nonsense kinda person? Maybe you take a scary complicated thing and make it fun and easy? A blog is a perfect way to communicate your personal strengths through a unique voice.

How to generate ideas for your blog

One of my favourite blog stories is about a car mechanic that was writing about general automotive maintenance. Real standard stuff like how to check for erosion, why to rotate your tires, and other mid-range tasks. One day they swung for some super low hanging fruit: How to Change Your Windshield Wiper Fluid.

Do not underestimate how many basic steps are glossed over on the internet by people who forget what it’s like to be a beginner.

Now, this may feel silly to write about. In the automotive world, this is akin to producing a pamphlet on how to breathe. Of course a seasoned mechanic might feel odd producing such a thing. What would the competitors think? Oh how they’ll laugh at us!

Turns out, the blog post immediately became their most popular. Their hesitancy was wrapped up in one of the most common mistakes made in business: they didn’t fully understand who they were selling to. We’re often tricked into accidentally selling to ourselves, or believing that everybody has our base knowledge. We covered those basic lessons so long ago we’ve forgotten they even exist.

In truth, there’s tons of people who’ve never changed their wiper fluid for themselves. What’s more, they know it’s silly and is something they should know how to do. Looking up a blog post is a safe way to answer a question you might be too embarrassed to ask. Why not answer these questions?

This is a long walk to make a simple point: start very basic. It’s possible your unique scenario won’t fit here, but in general you can treat your blog like you’re training a new recruit that knows nothing about your business or how it works. Flower blog? How to water your plant. Dog training blog? What kind of leash to buy. Motivational speaking blog? How to create a powerpoint presentation. There are tons of questions that people are too afraid to ask, and you can be their hero. Do not underestimate how many basic steps are glossed over on the internet by people who forget what it’s like to be a beginner.

Try not to worry about giving away trade secrets. It’s likely those matter a whole lot more to you than they do anybody else. People are busy, they don’t have time to upend their entire life in an attempt to take over your job. If anything, showing people how you do a thing might just convince them that they don’t want to do it and should hire you. Again, it’s about authenticity and trust. Who’s more trustworthy than somebody who is literally giving away their knowledge?

Can you figure out what your industry is bad at? What are the questions that are going unanswered? Try a google search to see what customers are asking. You can even use predictive text to see what common things get written after people begin typing a question about your industry:

Blog ideas from a google search

How to produce at volume

I’ll level with you about one of the most common things I see in this line of work: most blogs get abandoned early on. Frankly, they’re more work than people might initially realize. Don’t be dissuaded by this–use it as motivation. There is likely a gap in your industry, and you can fill it with proper planning. If it was easy everybody would do it, and luckily for you most people aren’t doing it correctly.

Creativity is much more a muscle than people are comfortable admitting.

Writing is a creative pursuit, and you’ve got one ace up your sleeve: many don’t think they’re creative. They think creativity is passed down like eye colour and you’ve either got steely blues or you don’t. Creativity is much more a muscle than people are comfortable admitting. Truthfully it is much easier to simply pass it off as a thing you don’t have rather than a thing you aren’t good at.

Inspiration falls into this same category, and just as we see with creativity itself, people are often terrible at understanding how it’s generated. It’s treated like the wind–either it’s blowing or it’s not and there’s nothing we can do about it. They sit around waiting for inspiration to strike instead of finding a tall hill and some metal.

Stephen King has one of the best tips on generating your own inspiration.

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in… Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.”

Ideas will come to you at unexpected times. There’s a reason so many of us have our best ideas in the shower. There’s no war of attention being waged, you aren’t on your email (presumably) or trying to have 3 conversations at once. It’s you, your mind–and unless you’re one of those cold-shower weirdos–a whole lot of relaxation. This is where our subconscious takes over and does the heavy lifting. If you strengthen your idea muscle over time, that subconscious will slip into overdrive in short order.

You can strengthen that muscle by sitting down and coming up with ideas. They don’t need to be good ones (and at first almost none of them will be). The quality is not your concern, merely the flexing of the muscle. Just hammer out a quick list of 5 or 10 things for any given question or problem. Ten ways to improve our customer service. Ten ways to get more done in less time. Again, your ideas won’t be amazing at first. Quality comes later.

Have a note accessible in your phone or whatever you have on your person at all times. Cultivating this skill is like flattening a path through a forest. One day you’ll find the ideas start to use it, and they move much more efficiently.

What if you suck?

It’s damn likely you will at first if it’s not something you’re used to. Again, not a lot of people are doing this, so you’re already ahead of them. Plus, you’re probably being more hard on yourself than you need to be. Have you seen some of the writing out there? The bar is much lower than you might realize.

Still though, I get it. Sometimes we need help. Thankfully it exists, and it comes from a very important source: Google. I’m not implying you Google how to write (although you’re welcome to), but let’s not forget Google wants us to write well for our visitors.

There is a WordPress plugin called Yoast, that is widely considered one of the gotta-have-it plugins in the industry. It helps you with all sorts of stuff, and one of them happens to be writing. Yes, it’ll make you tag your images for the visually disabled and ensure you’ve got things set up properly for Google to crawl your site, but it’ll also do a few key things when it comes to writing.

If you hammer out a piece of writing, it will provide a healthy amount of feedback on how to adjust it for Google. As Google wants us to write well, we end up killing a few birds with one stone here. It’ll point out if your headings are unclear, if you’ve written in a manner that’s too complicated, if you’ve written too little, if you’ve written too much, even if you’ve started 3 consecutive sentences with the same word.

There’s also standalone services such as Hemingway that more or less is doing the same thing, but at a more intense level. It can help you curve bad habits and might point out some things you weren’t aware of. As an added bonus, if your site isn’t run on WordPress, this would be a great resource.

Refine it

John Cleese presented a wonderful lesson in his book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide. In it, he talks of the time he lost a book that was full of sketches and ideas. As any of us would, he throws himself a pity party and laments the work now lost. Then he gets to work recreating it as best he can.

The interesting turn happens when he finds the book sometime later (after recreating it entirely, of course) and decides to compare the lost book to the new one. While not consciously realizing it at the time, his recreated book is far superior. The jokes are tighter and thoughts are more clear.

In the hustle and bustle world of content creation, there is often a premium placed on the amount you can churn out. Popular blog sites that focus on news or gossip might have writers producing upwards of 20 posts per day. While I’m not going to tell you not to do that, I do think winning this game through volume is going to be tricky. Also, while Google does demand of us fresh content, remember it also demands quality and a reason for people to return. If you’re just spewing half-baked thoughts onto your site, you run the risk of coming off looking half-baked yourself.

My blog method

Allow me to present my method, and you can decide if it’s for you or not. I write blog posts in point form first. It’s just a collection of headings and bullet points. This first sweep takes about 10 minutes and is mainly a brainstorming session. The second sweep is actual writing… it has paragraphs and punctuation and all that fancy stuff that “writers” use. The third comes at least 1 day later, most often 2 days. Don’t forget the role of the subconscious here, because what happens during those days is critical. You’ll have epiphanies while out on a walk or in the shower. You’ll stumble upon ways to make themes fit better together, or you’ll realize you’ve contradicted yourself in places. When you sit down for that third pass, assuming you’ve given the dough time to rise, you might find what you’ve got isn’t as good as it was yesterday. This is where you tighten, adjust, and move stuff around. I don’t like iterating too much beyond this, as perfect can often be the enemy of good. For me 3 passes seems to be the sweet spot of taking time to be pretty good, but not so much time that nothing ever gets published.

Own it

Thankfully there are many ways to blog these days, so finding a place to do it is not an arduous chore. Many do it on their own websites, or they use a service like Medium, or they even do short-form writing on a social network such as LinkedIn or Facebook. If what you’re doing is mainly for enjoyment, any of those options will do.

Should you be doing it for business however, I would caution against giving up control of your writing by using an external service. While a service such as Medium does certainly remove barriers to entry, it is still a company with interests and we don’t know what those interests will be over time. They can pivot their business model at any moment and your content could be impacted as a result. In a similar vein, using something like facebook to house your writing can be precarious as Facebook uses an algorithm to distribute your content. Should that algorithm shift in a way that’s unfavourable for you, it could impact who you’re able to reach.

So do we avoid these services altogether? Absolutely not. In fact I’d argue they’re critical to your success–the content just shouldn’t start in any of them. Make your own content in a walled garden that you cultivate yourself, then push out to these services. By all means post your writing to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and the like… just make sure it’s an intro paragraph to hook attention, followed by a link to the full piece on your website.

Get a newsletter

So if the goal is to get our writing in front of the eyes that want it, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that for many, social media is a wasteland of distraction or a legitimate threat to safety. Even if neither of those things are true, people have preferential ways to consume the content they find interesting. A newsletter is a great way for someone to keep up to date with what you’re doing, while not having to be engaged in a platform they don’t enjoy.

A service such as MailChimp can get you up and rolling for no cost at all. Should you get big enough to require a paid plan, allow me to be the first person to congratulate you on your problem.

How often should I blog?

While this is a hotly contested topic for many, it’ll ultimately have to come down to your personal preference. What your topic is, what your audience is like, and how much time you’ve got to put towards the practice will all factor into how much content you should publish. Is your business an auto body shop and you’ve got all day to write? Fill your boots! Is your business selling 3 models of backpack to a niche group of outdoor adventurers and you’ve got a new baby? Let’s see if we can do one per month. Neither approach is incorrect, it’s all about your comfort level and ability.

Just write. Produce stuff and see what happens. Maybe it’s way easier than you thought and you like it. Maybe it’s far harder and you hate it. Truth is many become overwhelmed before they begin, so they never do.

Don’t forget people have lives too, and it’s unlikely they’ve got the bandwidth to be fully immersed in your world 4 times a week. I’ve had to say goodbye to more than several very interesting sources of writing over the years simply because their output was too high. It becomes overwhelming if you force your audience to sift through the rough to find the diamond.

Also keep in mind the golden rule of Google: make the site good. If you sell a niche product to a niche audience, do you need tons of blog posts that are certain to feel forced and watered down? It won’t drive a whole lot of engagement if people come to see you as an unimpressive Old Faithful, blowing your noises into the nothingness of existence every hour on the hour.

What if you hate it?

Writing isn’t for everyone, and there’s no shame in giving it a whirl and realizing it’s not for you. Can it be a fierce marketing tool? Bet your ass. Is it worth pulling out your hair or dreading the alarm each morning? Not at all. Marketing is a beast with many heads, and we don’t need to feed them all.Just find another part you enjoy more and go hard in that direction.

Marketing is a beast with many heads, and we don’t need to feed them all.

If you find you hate it but you still view blogging as an essential way to break into a market, consider hiring a copywriter. I might advise you find one and stick with them so they can learn from you, improve, and dial-in your voice. At this point they simply become a part of your marketing budget, and really whether you’re writing the posts or somebody else is, it’s all coming out of a budget one way or the other.

Ok go do it

A blog is a lot of work, but it can be a fun way to get your thoughts out into the world. There are clear upsides in the world of search engine optimization, and you may net some customers who find you to be a reliable or enjoyable person. There is a right way and a wrong way though, and by following the above (or just picking out the bits that work for your situation) you can hopefully use it to grow.