Wanna know how to blog? Here's my blogging 101

Photograph: Imanuel Pasaka via StockSnap

I recently gave a lecture on how to blog, as part of a wider course on digital media and digital marketing. It seemed a bit like a waste to do all of that preparation and not share it with a wider audience, so I thought I'd reproduce it – more or less – here! Consider this the abbreviated version.

Blogging, vlogging and micro-blogging have become one of the most prolific forms of media around – whether you accept them as such or not. Any time you read an article on blogging, you'll read about 100 comments (I can't help it; I always read the comments section) deriding blogs as vacuous, time-wasting, pointless... I could go on (and there's a whole separate feature in the fact that women's interest blogs – fashion, fitness and make-up – get the brunt of a lot of these nasty comments). But, like it or not, people are reading, watching and engaging with them.

So, what's what? Why blog? Why vlog? Why micro-blog?

I can only speak from my own experience – as can most of us, unless we're PhD candidates or read three books a day – so I'll explain how I do it: I blog when I have something to write about. It's pretty simple. A few other factors include: do I have nice pictures? (Does it matter? – more on which later) Is it something that would work better in video or written format? Do I want to do a YouTube video on it? Is it a short, rambling musing on life? Is it largely picture-based?

From there, I decide whether to write about it; vlog about it; or micro-blog about it. That is to say, I'll post a pic on Instagram alongside a long caption, maybe something I've been thinking about for a while, or a frustration I want to get off my chest. Sometimes, if I haven't got a picture to go alongside it, I'll post it on Facebook (a recent rant I shared on my Facebook page reached 60,000 people – not a figure it would have reached if I'd posted it on my blog, for example).

It's largely personal, but one of the biggest questions I'll ask myself when I'm deciding is: what – and where – do people search for? Take this post, for example: "how to blog" is something that people search for in Google (or, for the under-25s, on YouTube). The above rant, on mothers who think no one understands them? What would people search to find that post on my blog? I often decide what I'm going to write about based on what, and how, people search for specific terms; I'll even search Google's trending topics to see what people are looking for right now if I'm lacking in inspiration.

Content is king

This, to me, is the number one factor when it comes to anything I do as a writer. It has to be good. Sure, there are moments where I'll share something a little ridiculous, or trite, and it won't necessarily be Pulitzer-worthy, but it'll be of interest or current relevance; it might be useful; it will always be well written; I'll check the spelling; I'll include photographs (most of the time, that I've taken myself – with an iPhone and a couple of filters, anyone can look like a good photographer these days); I'll try to come up with a catchy, shareable headline.

It doesn't matter how many Instagram followers you have, how many people want to buy the dress you wore on Friday night or how much people are engaging with your Twitter account; if they're not reading your blog, you've failed as a blogger. (Sure, you might be a social influencer – that's a thing now, and a totally valid one, but you might then need to decide that your blog is not going to be your currency; you are your currency.)

My top tips?

  • Consistency is key. Decide on a schedule for your blog, and stick to it. (Here's where it becomes a case of, do as I say, not as I do...) This week is the first of 2016 that I'm going to have a new blog post every. Single. Day. If I don't, I'll buy the first five of you to let me know – via Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat – a coffee. (I can not afford to do that, so blog posts it is.) Readers will come to your blog for a whole host of reasons: maybe because you posted an interesting link that's piqued their curiosity, or because you've snapped about how awesome your new post is. Eventually, you want them to log on because they love your blog, they know your URL, and they can trust with 100% certainty that you'll have some new content up every single time they check in. Humans love to be able to rely on something; let them rely on you.
  • Think about the words you use, especially in headlines – and, if you haven't already, install an SEO plugin (I use Yoast SEO on Wordpress). This will allow you to decide what keywords you're hoping will be picked up from your piece; for example, here I'm going for "how to blog", because that's what I think people search for when they're starting out. So those keywords are in my post title, they're in the URL and they're in the first paragraph. I want my post to come up in page 1 when some newbie blogger looks for help online.
  • Think about your tone of voice and style of writing. My advice? Be yourself. I can imagine nothing more exhausting than writing in a completely different way to how I talk; how could I keep that up forever? Sure, if you're writing a business blog, you'll need to decide on a "voice" and, in that case, I'd recommend writing a style guide – an A to Z of how you spell words like "judgment" (or is it "judgement?" Both are correct, FYI!) or whether or not you use the word "whilst" (it's being phased out in most quarters). Having a style guide means, too, that if you need to hand the blog writing over to someone else – maybe you've got another position in the company, or need to concentrate on other projects – they'll have a handy guide to the voice and style.
  • Photography is crucial. Who wants to read paragraph after paragraph of text with no pics to break it up? (If you've got this far, well, you, but ordinarily I'd go for more photographs to give the eye a little reading break!) Like I said, anyone can look like a good photographer nowadays, but it takes a lot of practice. I take, on average, 30 photographs a day with my phone. That sounds like a lot, but it's actually easy. I just snap away as I go along – nice sunsets, sunrises, reflections, landscapes, cityscapes, flowers... I'll always find a use for my photographs, whether it's on my Instagram account, on Facebook, or to illustrate a blog post just like this one. Plus, I figure, the more photographs I take, the better I'm getting; I feel like I've taken some of my best photographs ever in the last six months.

TASK Come up with five content ideas for your blog, vlog or microblog posts (like Instagram, Facebook etc). What headline would you use? What keywords would you specify? What would someone search to find your post, and who would it appeal to?

The art of (self) promotion

How will you drive traffic to your blog? Sure, search is going to be hugely important, but right now, in 2016, the biggest referrers will actually be your social media channels (I might work on a separate post on how to grow your channels; in a year, my Instagram has gone from 3,000 to 25,000 followers so it is possible!): right now, social media makes up 70% of referrals to my site, which is pretty major.

Of that traffic, Facebook makes up 90%, followed by Twitter at 10%. LinkedIn and Google Plus then make up a negligible .02% and .01%, respectively. My analytics (I use Google Analytics; knowing your stats is crucial and, even more importantly, free!) don't show any results for Pinterest or – because it's not measurable (you can't insert links) – Snapchat, although I think the latter has been hugely important for me in the past year or so.

You'll notice that Instagram isn't on that list either; while Instagram doesn't give me any direct traffic, I would consider it a fairly essential social media platform for brand-building, and engaging with my audience, even if it's not the tool I use to direct that audience to my site.

There's a very good post on how to boost your Facebook reach over on Sue's blog, although, once again, if your content isn't good, that won't matter – people may click through to your site, but they won't hang around to read your content or engage with what you've got to say.

My number one piece of advice? If you want to be a blogger – you want to have an audience that reads your content; you want to be able to direct people towards your site and you want to have readers who engage with you – you need to be "always on" (that old chestnut!). I know a lot of people who will say it's important to have downtime, but in my books, that downtime will come when you're more established and can afford to take those crucial breaks.

Right now, I have notifications switched on for all of my social media applications, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; I try to respond to everyone, on every platform, as quickly and thoroughly as I can, and I try to spend time – every single day – engaging with conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Is it time-consuming? Yes. Is it rewarding? Absolutely. Is it part of my end game? Yes – but it's also something I enjoy, which is pretty important too.

If you're not the type of person who likes sharing with others, chatting to strangers, jumping into random conversations and sticking your oar in to discussions and arguments you spot online, that's okay – you're just going to have to use your really great content, and your really smart Facebook headlines, to engage with people. Social media, in 2016, isn't for everyone; in 20 years' time, it will be. So either you can spend your time catching up, and getting on board, or you can tread another path.

TASK Pick your two favourite posts from the content task and set up a promotion schedule for them. What platforms would work best to promote those particular pieces of content? Why? What headlines would you use, and how would they vary? For example, give the different headlines you would use for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus. What would you post to Instagram to alert your readers that you'd shared a new piece of content?

Money, money, money

If you are a hobby blogger – meaning, you have a full-time or part-time job that pays the bills, and you want to blog about lipstick / politics / science for the love of it, then you can skip this part. But I reckon most of us who blog wouldn't mind using said blog to make a few extra euro on the side.

The first – and most obvious – disclaimer is that very few of us are going to make any real money from our blogs. And by very few, I mean, less than 5%. There are those at the top, whose blogs are read by tens of thousands of people, and are earning enough money to make a living – Pippa, Suzanne, Anouska, Erika. Then, there's everyone else: though they may be hosting ads, or using RewardStyle (an affiliate marketing scheme that means that, every time you click through to an item you like, from their link, they get a percentage), it's very unlikely that they're making enough to give up their day jobs.

The waters are further muddied by the fact that there are so many different ways to monetise your blog and social media channels. Appearances, paid promotions or sponsored posts, banner advertising, Instagram posts, Snapchat mentions... They're all possibilities, and things that brands are willing to pay money for. If these are avenues you're thinking of going down, it would be worth checking out the ASAI guidelines on disclosing said monetary agreements; you are required, by law, to let your readers know when you're recommending something that's been paid for.

It's all so darned confusing, starting with: how much do you even charge? And how do you know?


A photo posted by Ember & Earth (@emberandearth) on

A friend once told me that you should either do things for love, or for money – so my attitude is, if I love a brand and really want to work with them, I'll offer them a good deal. I might even do a freebie for, say, an Irish brand, or a friend of a friend. (I recently did some posts on social media for Ember and Earth, when they sent me a coat; I like the idea of supporting Irish brands, and didn't think they'd have a budget for social influencer spending.)

Otherwise, I go by my day rate. When I went back to freelance work, I set myself a target – a wage I'd like to earn for the year. I then divided that by the number of weeks I'd like to work (44, cos I'm lazy) and used that to give myself a day rate. So, when I'm approached to do something, I figure out how many days it will take me – and how many days it's already taken me, say, to build my social channels up to where they are now.

The best bit of advice though? That came from Cocoa Brown's Marissa Carter, who told me always to sit down face to face with potential clients, because by the time you sit down with them, you're both invested in working together. If you send someone a figure, and they say no, you can spend several emails clamouring to get them to change their minds. If you sit down over coffee, you can see if they baulk at your original quote, and negotiate from there.

It's also worth deciding whether or not you want to work with the brand in question. I've turned down so many collaborations because they wouldn't be right for me; I want content that my readers are going to be interested in, and I know – from checking my Google Analytics, for one – what works for them, and what doesn't. I also know what works for me; I'm not interested, say, in shilling the latest brand of processed pasta sauces. It's not a product that I, personally, have any interest in, so why would I want to work with them?

Remember, paid-for content only works if it appeals to, in this order: your reader, you and the brand in question. You need to figure out a way to make content that's smart, engaging and – so important – doesn't look like an ad!

TASK Take those same favourite post ideas and figure out how you'd monetise them. What brand(s) would they appeal to? Why? How would you find a way to give your content a commercial angle that someone would pay for and, crucially, your readers would want to read?

Blogging can be big business

That is absolutely true – but only if you're willing to put in the time, the effort and figure out how to do what it is that you want to do, well. And the absolute first rule of thumb? Just start!

I get so many people asking me how to blog, or how to start blogging, and the simple answer is, just do it. Go on to Wordpress (it's my favourite), choose a template, and start writing. It doesn't have to be complicated, and you don't have to have a back catalogue of 50 blog posts and a bespoke design to get cracking. Remember, smart links will get people there, but good content will make them stay.

Questions? Queries? Anything you'd like to add? Let me know in the comments!