Written by Scott Dinsmore – Follow me on Twitter.
“Show me the path and I’ll walk it.”
Important Note: I created this post with the goal that it would be the last resource you’ll ever need for getting your first few thousand subscribers to your blog (and likely as many as you want). It’s very detailed and intentionally long (at over 3,300 words). It’s meant to be a resource you read, bookmark and come back to as you grow. If you know someone growing a website or blog, please share it with them.
Let the action begin:
I’ve spent the last year and half testing every strategy and gimmick out there for growing a blog. The bad news is that almost none of them are worth an ounce of effort.
The good news is that there are 3 tactics that work flawlessly.
Once I discovered these, my subscribers grew by 10,000 in about 15 months and this blog is now one of the top 0.7% most trafficked on the internet. I don’t say this to brag but instead to prove to you there’s a system that works.
Let’s dive in…
At the beginning of last year I had about 114 subscribers. Most were friends and family and the number hadn’t grown since I launched the blog a few years prior.
When I started my site I naively thought if I build it they will come. Turns out that doesn’t happen on the internet so much.
With the rare exception, you have to work your ass off to get people in front of your stuff. But you also have to focus on the right work.
Early last year I’d hit a crossroads: Either (sadly) shut this site down that clearly seemed to be going nowhere, or take it seriously and really see what’s possible.
I chose the latter.
That’s when I went to work. I studied every technique out there in search of the 80/20 solution to growing a blog. I literally spent dozens and dozens of hours reading every book and doing every course I could find. And then testing it out. Believe me there are a lot of things you can spend (read: waste) your time on. The problem is that hardly any of them are useful. You can mess with the best widgets, find new plugins, play on social networks. I did it all.
Almost all of it got me nowhere.
But then after testing everything, I found the holy grail. The 80/20 of growing a blog audience. I’d even call it the 95/5 – the top 5% of tasks that yield 95% of the results. And the best part about it is there are only 3 things to focus on.
After finding this 3-step formula, it was off to the races.
I get emails and requests almost daily from people who want my help or to hire me to teach them how to do the same.
I tell them the same three things every time. I sometimes feel badly charging for the guidance since it’s so simple, but as always the devil is in the details. The results speak for themselves and they’ve been consistent in every one of the dozens of people and case studies I’ve analyzed.
This post is going to cost me some consulting hours but I think it’s one of the most helpful things I could write for any of you looking to create a following for your cause.
Here’s a year snapshot of my site’s traffic:
Here are a few stats to go with it:
- Total visits April 2010: 1,097
- Total visits April 2011: 17,230
- Increase in monthly visitors: 14,700%
- Subscribers on April 30, 2010: 114
- Subscribers on April 30, 2011: 4,005
- 12-month subscriber increase: 34,130%
Let’s talk about how you can do the same.
The only 3-Step Formula you’ll ever need to grow your blog by 4,000 in 12 months (or as big as you want):
1. Write insanely useful content.
Or as Corbett at ThinkTraffic likes to say, write epic shit. There is nothing more important than writing content that genuinely helps people. Did you hear that? Nothing. Seriously. Don’t convince yourself otherwise.
Find your voice. Speak from the heart. Be vulnerable. When people visit your site, they are going to make a very fast decision whether to stay or not. Your content has to keep them there. They want to hear from you, not some generic top ten list generator.
Blow people’s minds. Tie in ridiculous personal experiences and stories – like how I worked out with Tim Ferriss or bought an engagement ring form Warren Buffett. Go out and have unique experiences and interact with passionate people and then bring it all back to your writing.
Always be helping. Think of the things your readers most need help with. What expertise do you have to help folks? Constantly be thinking of ways to help people with real problems and do it in unique ways. Start with your problems. You’re likely not alone.
Be dependable. Pick a writing and posting schedule and stick to it. Best to start with once a week and increase once you realize how much effort’s involved in a weekly post (good work takes serious time). Give your readers something to anticipate and expect on a schedule they can rely on.
Constantly practice. Every blogger is an artist. Good art takes time. The more writing you do, the better you’ll get at it. Learn about various post structures and headline techniques, vary your content. See what sticks. Find time to write everyday, even if it’s only a sentence or two. Pay attention to what your mentors in the space are doing. Notice how they write. Learn and apply it.
Your site has to be full of insanely useful shit. Simple as that. This is where it all starts.
2. Write guest posts (i.e. Write insanely useful content for other sites)
This is the game-changer. Having killer content on your site is the foundation where as this is how you turn on the fire hose. If you want new people to join your following, you have to get your insanely useful content in front of new people. The best and most consistent way to do this is by writing for other peoples’ sites (for those new to the scene, that’s what we call ‘guest posting’).
Potentially thousands more people will experience your work, and as a bonus the new inbound links will also help a ton with your Google rankings and online credibility. Most importantly, you’ll get to help more people with your content. That’s the key.
Become a guest posting machine. This is when it really clicked for me. Once I discovered guest posting I felt like I’d struck gold. I saw the value and committed to it. I wrote one guest post a week for months. I think I wrote 15 in the following two. My traffic absolutely took off. You can see a list of my recent guest posts here.
Sack up and start writing – stop putting it off! The funny thing is that I had been told guest posts were the answer for a couple months prior but I couldn’t work up the courage to start doing it. After all, it actually involves reaching out to people and pitching your work to others. That can be scary. And it was. Until I did my first two or three. Then the fear of asking turns into the excitement of being able to get your work out to a whole new world.
Start small. Reach out to people who have maybe twice your following. Pick sites that relate to your work. Look at their recent posts, check their comments and notice what their audience looks for.
Start pitching. Then write a short email mentioning your site and the idea you have for an article that would help their readers. Always focus on how you can help them and their readers. Everything comes back to that. List a few provocative headlines as possible topics. Mention any other sites you’ve written for with an example of your best work and send it out.
Write before you pitch. If you really want to nail it, write the whole article in advance and just attach it to the email so they know you mean business. They’ll get to see your stuff first hand, plus they’ll realize the massive effort you’ve already put in and be more likely to say yes. After all, it’s easy to ask in a three line email, but it’s a whole different show of effort to send over 1,000 of your best words. Stand out.
Customize to their site. Don’t write a generic post and try to pitch it to ten sites to see what sticks. You’re going to look like an idiot. Every post should be crafted to fit the message of the specific site’s readers and message. Show them you pay attention to their work. Worst case, they turn it down and you can repurpose it on your own site (but only if it hasn’t been published anywhere else–people nor Google like duplicate content).
Try sites out of your niche. If you’re a weight-lifting blog, don’t just focus on other fitness sites. That’s a good place to start but be sure to branch out into other categories. You’ll put your stuff in front of a whole different audience. Magical things can start to happen.
Start this week. There is a whole art behind guest posting and pitching and the best way to learn it is to start doing it. Seriously start this week. There is absolutely no reason to wait. Pitch and write at least one article in the next five days.
Leverage momentum. Maybe start with someone you know so you can ease the pressure. Do anything you can to start building the momentum. As you get more guest posts live, your credibility will build and more people will accept. Before long people will be offering you spots on their site without even having to ask.
People want you to write for them. This is not a one way street. Big bloggers are busy with all kind of projects. They’d love a great writer to take the load off their back for one of their weekly posts. Remember you are doing them a service. You are helping (likely saving them 5 or more hours!). We have to shift our psychology if we’re really going to get fired up for this (and in case you didn’t realize, being fired up is crucial!). You’re just giving them the chance to have you help out in a way only you can. Embrace it.
Trust the process. Realize that not every guest post you write will yield a ton of traffic, even from some of the big sites where you’d expect it. Don’t worry about it. Those are the exceptions. Stick to the process. You will get results. I’ve had single posts that have gotten me over 800 new subscribers in a matter of days. This stuff plain works.
Pay attention to those above you. Notice some of the top bloggers or the kick-ass up and coming guys like Tyler, Barrie, Mars or Steve. You see their work all over the place. It’s no coincidence they are growing like bamboo on steroids.
Why haven’t you taken this seriously yet? If you’ve been blogging for more that about a week, I know you’ve heard the guest posting drill. Then why aren’t you doing more of it? Commit right now to pitching a certain number of sites and writing a certain number of guest posts each week or month. Stick to it.
Create your dream list. Start making a list of sites you’d love to write for – from the smallest to the biggest in the world. Then start checking them off. You’ll likely get to write for all of them one day if you put your head down and get after it.
Prepare for the traffic. If you take this seriously, a lot of new people are going to be coming your way. At the least be sure you have a super easy way for them to subscribe (ideally using an email management program like Aweber – that’s what I use and others swear by it). Feedburner’s an ok place to start but is very limited. Put the subscribe box above the fold where it will catch the eye. Top right usually works well.
Give something away. Also offer something free for those who sign up. This can be as simple as a PDF of your top 10 or 20 posts. Just copy them to Word, format it a bit and save as PDF. It shouldn’t take you more than an hour or two and will likely increase conversion by 2x or 3x minimum (here’s a link to the free ebook I made in a few hours).
Don’t over think this stuff. Keep it simple and watch what happens.
Here’s what happened the day my guest post went live on Elance:
Here are a few stats to go with it:
- Average daily visitors for two weeks prior: 94
- Visitors on day post went live (July 27, 2010): 709
- Average daily visitors for two weeks after: 234
3. Create genuine connections.
Hands down the best way to get the chance to write for other sites is by creating real-life connections with the people who own them.
People miss this one all the time. We forget that the online world is still run by real people. They want to connect. We all do. It’s time to get out from behind your screen and reach out.
Start thanking people. Make a point to send a note of thanks via twitter or email to people who’ve written content you enjoy. Be genuine with your praise.
Get face-to-face. Find virtual connections who live in your town and get together with them for tea or beers. Go out on workouts with them. Make real friends.
Link to people in every post you write. Links are the currency of the Internet. Start dishing them out like crazy.
Keep a list of people and their sites (use your guest post list from above) and try to link to at least a couple other sites in each of your posts. Be sure you’re linking to really useful content that your readers will enjoy and then do it often. Your readers will appreciate it. The other site will love it and people will start to notice you.
Tell people you mentioned them. Send a short note letting them know you linked to their article and thank them for giving you something awesome to link to. Don’t ask for anything in return. Just be generous.
Create a network. Find some people at a similar level and work together to link to each other’s work and build each other up. These relationships will be invaluable as you grow, create products and build your influence.
Notice how others connect. Look at some of your favorite blogs. How are people around you meeting up online or off. Perhaps they do webinars, tweet ups or interviews. Notice how often they link to others. People are doing it all the time. Corbett Barr and Pat Flynn seem to do it almost every week and they get a ton of vistors they would have never seen otherwise.
Interview people. Offering to interview someone on your site always makes folks happy and they’ll likely send their readers over to check it out.
Who are you more likely to link to? – an awesome site where you’re friends with the owner or an awesome site where you don’t even know the owner’s first name? Obvious I know. Start doing it.
The world, online and off, is run on personal interaction. I wrote a whole post purely on building world-class connections. Check it out.
Here’s what happened when Leo at ZenHabits decided to link to me one day:
Here are a few stats to go with it:
- Average daily visitors for two weeks prior: 363
- Visitors on day linked post went live (December 6, 2010): 2,506
- Average daily visitors for two weeks after: 620
- New subscribers in 3 days after linked post going live: 920
4. Have a clear brand.
This is a little bonus. If you do the above three things you will grow faster than you could have ever imagined, (even if your core message is a little weak). But your brand still makes a huge difference and is very worth getting right. It also massively helps your chances of turning your blog into a business (in case that’s part of your plan).
Communicate how you want to help your readers. Are you making the value you’re offering to your readers crystal clear? The more obvious this is the easier it will be for them to explain your value to others, link to you and want to spend time with your stuff. It also makes anyone more likely to subscribe.
Take the time to nail a crystal clear brand message and design. It doesn’t have to be complicated and in-depth, just clear.
I’ve spent a ton of time on branding in the past few months to refine the way I communicate how I want to help all of you. I hope to have the rebranded site launched in the next couple weeks and cannot wait to share it with you. I’m seriously so freakin excited. Keep an eye out!
Warning: Hard work required.
Did you know that when Leo Babauta first started ZenHabits he did nearly 10 guest posts a week in addition to writing as many as 10 weekly posts on his own site? He did this for the whole first year. That’s twenty posts a week.
Think about that for a minute.
Most bloggers haven’t written 10 guest posts in their whole blogging career and most never will. Do you know how much work that is? Do you know how badly he must have wanted it to work that hard? As a result he had over 25,000 subscribers in his first year (and now has over 215k and is a Time Magazine top blog). He found what worked and gave it laser focus.
When I discovered the above formula, I dedicated 15 hours a week to making it happen. I didn’t write 20 posts each week but I did pick a number and didn’t let up. As a result, my passion, my blog, has now also become a sweet little business that helps thousands of people each week. I pinch myself every time I think about it.
How bad do you want it?
I’ve shared the above four steps with dozens of people so far and now many thousands in this post. The wild thing is do you know how many have taken the guidance to heart and put their head down to put it to use?
I could count on one hand.
It’s crazy how guaranteed these results are. This stuff is totally possible if you’re willing to put in the work. It is completely on you. The good news is not that many people are doing it. Don’t be one of them.
Time to start writing.
Have questions or success stories? I’m happy to answer any and all. Please ask them in the comments below.