This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Blogging essentials

How can I build a platform and readership for my blog?

That’s a question I hear a lot — most recently, from Lauren Thaler of The Infinity Game. Lauren’s a brand-new blogger, writing about her life as a “nuclear family of one”: an only child, Lauren lost her dad when she was just a baby, and was raised by a single mom who died of cancer when Lauren was 28. Since I’m an only child of a single mom myself, it’s a story I related to — even more so since I have a dear friend in Lauren’s situation.

But what really made me want to answer Lauren’s question is that she’s an amazing writer: just the kind of voice that blogging should help surface and encourage. In the crowded blogosphere, however, talent isn’t enough to ensure that you’ll be discovered by all the readers who would enjoy and benefit from your work. So I’m going to take the next few posts to answer Lauren’s question, and in the process, provide a short guide to starting up as a blogger.

Before we get to the juicy details of building your massive global following of thousands and launching yourself into the blogging stratosophere, let’s tackle the three essential questions that any blogger — newbie or pro — should be able to answer about his or her blog.

1. Why are you blogging?

It is essential to know why you are blogging before you embark on the challenge of building your readership. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, you will tackle the challenge of building up your blog in very different ways. For example in Lauren’s case I could imagine a range of goals, each of which might lead to a different emphasis.

  • Publish a book: If Lauren wants to sell a memoir, she should write at least some posts (perhaps a weekly series) so that they form some kind of narrative, most likely chronological, that pulls her story together.
  • Establish herself as a subject-matter expert: Lauren could position herself for speaking, coaching or counselling work with families coping with cancer or other loss. In that case she should focus on building a network in the cancer or support communities by doing a lot of blogging about and outreach to other cancer or bereavement bloggers.
  • Establish herself as a writer: If Lauren wants to launch a writing career, her blog can help her develop a portfolio, but will likely be more useful if she varies her subject matter a bit (to show breadth) and reaches out to get guest blogging gigs on other sites.
  • Build a support network: If Lauren is blogging as a way of building a support community (for herself or others) of one-member families, she might add a more prominent “are you a family of one? Contact me!” in her sidebar, and consider adding multi-author support to her blogs (so others can create profiles and/or blogs)
  • Express and process: For many bloggers, blogging is an end in itself: a way to express yourself and process your feelings (which can be especially valuable when coping with grief, trauma or some other major life challenge). That is a great reason to blog — in fact, one of the delights of blogging is that it makes a public writing platform available to anyone with this need — but if your blog is really there for you, free yourself from the burden of trying to build a readership! The effort and strategy that go into building a readership are a waste of your energy. Just blog for you, and let the chips fall where they may.
  • As a process of inquiry: Sometimes you start out knowing why you want to blog, and sometimes your blog finds you. Particularly if you are the kind of person who thinks by writing, you may want to just dive in, commit to the practice of blogging regularly, and see where it takes you. But check in after a month or so to see whether you’re now ready to answer the question: you may well find that once you get into blogging regularly, you develop a vision or goal for your blog.

2. Who are you blogging for?

This is actually two questions: who do you want to reach, and who are you reaching? Start by thinking about who you want to reach, which is closely related to your goals. If you are trying to publish a memoir then in addition to wanting to build overall readership numbers, you really want to reach publishing industry insiders like editors, agents and book reviewers. If you are trying to get gigs speaking as a subject-matter expert, then you want to build your readership among influencers (and especially event organizers) in the industry or field that is likely to book you for talks or workshops.

But stay open to the possibility that your audience may not be the folks you initially thought you were going to reach. Maybe you started out thinking you’d appeal to people like you — say, fellow “families of one” — but discover that your blog has a general audience, or appeals to a different niche (people with both cancer and kids, who are trying to figure out how to help their kids cope with a prospective loss). Read your comments and the tweets that people write to or about you, and look at the blogs, twitter feeds or other google-able info about the people who’ve responded to your blog posts: that will tell you whether you are reaching the kinds of folks you were targeting, or perhaps have other audiences you hadn’t anticipated.

3. What do you have to offer?

Once you know something about the audiences you are trying to reach — or the audiences you have reached by accident — think about what you have to offer to each one. In general most blog readers are looking for one of the 3 Es: enlightenment, entertainment or entanglement.

  • If you know a lot about a specific topic and have information or insight to share, you can offer enlightenment: write blog posts that offer concrete information in a compact and consistent way (numbered lists are an eternal favorite) or that are original and thoughtful in their analysis of a challenging topic.
  • If you’re an exceptionally compelling or funny writer (or videographer, or musician, or cartoonist) your blog may offer content that has entertainment value: it’s just a pleasure to read or hear or watch.
  • If you’re a great convener or social butterfly then you can offer your audience entanglement: conversation or mutual support from other like-minded or complementary soul. Provide your audience with community by posting blog posts that invite conversation with questions, challenges or provocations, and put your social skills to work by nurturing the conversations and connections that emerge.

Remember, this isn’t just about what your audience wants: it’s about what you are great at and love to do. Your blog has to reflect your passions, whether it’s the thrill you get from writing or the joy of documenting your latest step-by-step craft or home repair. Build your blog around a topic you are passionate about, and in a form you love to work in (whether that’s writing, podcasting, video or photography) and you will find it a pleasure to put in the hours of effort it takes to build a really successful online presence.

In my next post I’ll get to the nitty gritty: the essential ingredients for your blog’s setup.

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