Blogging

Guest Post: Three Simple Ways to Improve Your Blog

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A blog is something that is never finished. Unlike a book, which is a final piece of published work, a blog continues to be updated frequently by its author. It needs to be – people view blogs as sources of information that stay fresh; if a blog goes stale, people won’t come back.

If you have a blog, posting frequently isn’t the only thing you can do to make it better, though. Through my experiences building my college blog, I’ve learned that there are always improvements you can make in the design, structure, functionality, and other areas. In this post, I want to lay out just three things I’ve done to make my blog better, and show you how to do them on your own.

Start an Email Newsletter

In terms of reader engagement and retention, having an email newsletter and an associated list of subscribed emails is about the best thing there is. Sure, promoting your articles via social networks is good and all, but being able to send someone an email is ten times better. Not only do you know they want to hear from you (otherwise they wouldn’t have given you their email), but you get to connect with them in the one place where they take some sort of action with every message they receive. Sure, that action may be to delete your email from time to time, but the odds are better that they’ll read it.

Starting an email newsletter is pretty easy, and it’s also free. The service I use, MailChimp, lets you send out up to 12,000 emails a month without paying a dime. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t come close to hitting that limit. If I ever do, it won’t matter at that point because I’ll basically be Darren Rowse 😛

Once you’ve got yourself set up with MailChimp, you need to add email signup forms to your site. I have one in my sidebar and one at the bottom of every post. This way, people can’t help but see them. It also helps to make them attractive; just having a couple fields with plain, black text isn’t going to cut it. A form should catch someone’s eye. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to take a standard MailChimp form and use CSS to place it on top of a custom-made graphic. If you need any help with this process, let me know.

After you’ve started getting subscribers, it’s time to send your newsletter. I have a few hard rules when it comes to newsletters:

  • Have something interesting to say. This is a subscriber’s email inbox we’re talking about; don’t tread lightly.
  • It needs to be beautiful. A newsletter that looks bad will find its way to the trash faster than a starving raccoon.
  • Be frequent enough. You don’t need to send a newsletter every week, but don’t let people forget you.

Be sure to check your MailChimp analytics once you start sending emails. You might be surprised at how well your messages work on sending you repeat readers!

Change Your Permalink Structure

How often do you think about the URL of your blog posts? While it may not be as memorable or important as an article’s title, the URL is something you should pay attention to.

By default, WordPress generates URLs that look something like this: www.patrickkphillips.com/p=?123. How memorable is a number at the end of a post? We can do better than that; in fact, Patrick already has – his permalink structure creates URLs that list the day, month, year, and the post’s name.

I used to use the same exact structure. However, I recently switched to using just the post’s name. Using just the name creates a URL that is short and easy to remember. If you remember the post’s name and are smart enough to put dashes between the words, you can go directly to any post under this structure.

Using just the name used to be kind of a no-no for WordPress users, but since the release of WordPress 3.0, the platform’s ability to cope with a large database has improved to the point where a date or category-based URL structure is no longer needed for speed. If you’d like to switch to this style, you’ll have no worries about slowing your blog down.

To change your permalink structure, just go to the Permalinks section of the Settings menu in your Dashboard. Then select Custom Structure and enter /%postname%/ into the field.

This last step is important! You need to install the Permalinks Migration plugin after you change your structure. Otherwise, every link to your blog will break, which is probably the worst thing in the entire world besides having a grizzly bear fall into your living room.

Install a FooBar

If you read a lot of blogs, you’ve probably seen a small message bar adorning the top of some of them (Tim Ferriss’ blog is one that comes to mind). This is usually the HelloBar, and it’s simply a message bar that stays at the top of your blog and acts like a magnet for eyeballs.

However, I have a problem with the HelloBar – it’s way too freakin’ expensive for what it is. HelloBar’s pricing structure makes you pay for clicks: for $5/month, you get 100 clicks. If you surpass that 100, you’ll be automatically upgraded to the 500-click plan for $13/month. If you pay with Paypal, which doesn’t allow them to auto-upgrade you, they’ll just disable your HelloBar altogether until you upgrade manually.

Even though I used HelloBar for a long time, I was a little annoyed that I was paying a monthly fee for a piece of Javascript. Sure, HelloBar justifies that price with analytics, A/B testing, and other features, but I didn’t use any of them – in fact, I was using mine primarily to put up jokes, not drive clicks.

Luckily, I recently found a premium plugin on Code Canyon called FooBar. It does the same thing HelloBar does, but it lets you do it from your own Dashboard. The best part, however, is that it costs just $12, one time – no recurring fees. It’s also a lot prettier than some of the other bars out there.

There are plenty of other tips I could put here – in fact, I’ve learned enough during my time designing my blog that I could probably write a book on this subject. To keep it digestable, though, I’ll leave it at three.

What cool blogging tips do you have?

Thomas Frank is a junior at Iowa State University studying business. He’s a writer of college tips and a serious headphone afficionado. You can connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.

[photo courtesy of Eric M.Martin. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]

3 Comments

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  2. What great ideas! Thanks for sharing these. 🙂 I might actually implement some of these.

    1. @Cathryn (aka Strange) Thomas definitely gives good advice. I met him through Blogchat and he did a critique of my blog for SEO and gave me some really useful tips that I was able to implement. That’s why I asked him for this guest post. He knows his stuff!

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Thomas Frank is a 2013 business graduate of Iowa State University. He's a writer of college tips and a serious headphone afficionado. You can connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.