Web Design

Secrets for Creating a Commercially Successful Blog

Last updated Sep 1, 2006.

By Dave Taylor

I hope you're ready for this. I'm going to write about something that will probably get my Blogging Insider's Society membership revoked: how to consciously and deliberately write blog entries, design a blog, and get involved with the blogosphere to maximize your visibility and traffic.

Why is this so potentially controversial? Because in the optimistic world of The Long Tail, bloggers generally believe that blogging lets you succeed or fail based purely on your ideas and ability to express them, rather than any sort of more crude or passé approach like writing about what's popular or courting thought and opinion leaders to encourage them to link to you and what you're writing about.

The phrase that keeps rattling around in my head as I write this is "the tyranny of ideas," but perhaps that's because I'm actually writing this in a politically aware independent bookstore cafe, and I am quite literally surrounded by ideas, shelves of them, ideas that succeed and influence people (think Richard Dawkins' "meme") based on whether they're smart, catch the popular zeitgeist, etc.

Or do they? Is it, in fact, the case that you can influence your own popularity? Could it be that the children's books written by celebrities become successful simply because of the cult of celebrity, because of the packaging, or because of some cross-promotions, rather than otherwise? Put another way, could Rod Stewart sell a book about the virtues of abstinence? Maybe... if it's packaged and marketed properly. Heck, Madonna has successfully reinvented herself as a sensitive, quasi-virginal model mother, so surely anything is possible with the right strategies and tactics.

The Science of Being Popular

If all of these big celebs have figured it out, if there are "handlers" making sure that the exposure that these famous or wanna-be famous people get is always positive, always moving in the right direction (and a splendid reference in this regard is my friend Steven Van Yoder's book Get Slightly Famous), then why can't you and I start to apply these conscious and thoughtful ideas to our own online efforts?

That's the gist of what I want to talk about in this article. I’m going to assume that you’re not blogging because it's been recommended by your spiritual counselor (yeah, I live in Boulder, Colorado. How can you tell?) or your psychiatrist, but because you have a specific measurable goal. Perhaps your goal is to "become more visible in your industry" or "become a thought leader" or something as pragmatic as "sell more stuff" or "make more money from your online activities." If so, that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. It’s totally do-able.

Dress for Online Success

The first way to be popular is to look like you’re popular already. This is the heart of the multi-billion-dollar fashion industry, of course, and one reason why products like the Apple iPod are so astonishingly successful—even while better music players exist in the marketplace. My parents would refer to this as "dressing for success," but I believe that it also applies to your online presence.

Put simply, if you want to be a popular site, you need to have a slick, professional design that resonates with your target demographic. If you're writing about the hypno-trance music scene, your design needs to riff on the design of the most popular musicians and groups in that space. Put more simply, if you're writing about rock climbing, you need to have pictures of rocks on your page.

Here's how I applied this rule myself. Go have a look at my business blog. Now, have a look at the site that was my inspiration. I can remember sending email to my designer saying, "I want to have instant credibility with the Fortune 500 executive crowd. Let's use the Harvard Business Review as our primary inspiration." That's where the rectangular design, colors, type treatments, and so on, all originated. And it works: Influence leaders, such as columnists for the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, follow my blog.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we all fall into the soul-sucking ooze of banal conformity. I’m simply pointing out that if you trail blaze—whether it’s how you dress for a job interview or how you design your blog—you do so with some risk that wouldn't otherwise be present. Us older folk call this the "tattoo and two piercings syndrome," but if you're under 25, you probably won't have a clue as to what I'm talking about.

Talk Like Your Audience Talks

Here's another thought that you might not have considered: if your community uses particular jargon, acronyms, and slang, you should most definitely be using them too. It establishes credibility and authority in the same way that, say, knowing a smattering of Latin can help you communicate with doctors or throwing out some basic nautical jargon can help your sailing readers feel instantly at ease, knowing you're "one of them."

For me, the greatest challenge in this regard is slang and obscenities. If you’re going to be blogging about the inner city hip-hop scene in Detroit, for example, do you write the way that you’d talk when face-to-face at a club? All those slurs, the obscenities that would make a sailor blush, the off-color jokes, the racist and sexist commentary, and the crude gestures might be appropriate within the context of the club, but putting them in your blog postings could have a dramatically different result and make you popular for all the wrong reasons.

I'm particularly sensitive to obscenities. I can $#@$ swear with the best of them and enjoy the appropriate adult language sprinkled into discussions with my buddies over late-night beers, but I’m very careful in the online world to always come across as polite and professional. That's my online persona, and that's how I not only write my blog entries, but even occasionally edit comments other people leave on my blog. Yes, I will pull out curse words to make the overall experience of reading my blogs less offensive, even on threads talking about obscenities.

This one we can call, the "front page of the New York Times" syndrome. Instead of asking yourself, "Is this something my friends will think is cool?" think about how you’d feel—and what kind of fallout there would be—if the New York Times quoted your most ghastly, profane blog entry on the front page. Gives you a bit of pause, eh?

To Be Continued...

I'll pick up this theme next month and talk about how hanging with the cool kids can indeed make you a cool kid and how that applies to the world of blogging. I’ll also discuss how sometimes writing about what you want to sell is not just necessary, but a best practice. I can't write in a total vacuum, however, so please feel free to add your comments to this article and let me know what you think!