What would I do if I were starting a blog from scratch?

starting a blog

By Mark Schaefer

Here is mind game successful bloggers play with each other. “If you had to start over right now, how would you do it?” So here is my answer, an amalgam of stuff that worked and stuff I learned from mistakes I learned along the way. If you are just starting a blog from scratch, here are the foundational steps I would take to do it.

1. Don’t obsess with a niche

Let me state plainly that yes … it is important to have a niche. You eventually need to carve out a little place on the web that you can make your own.

But if you don’t know what that is, don’t let that stop you. Maybe you won’t discover your niche until you have blogged for six months, or a year. Maybe you will discover your niche based on an insight from a blog comment, maybe your niche will shift over time.

When I started my blog I thought I knew my niche and found after six months that I hated it. So I changed it. Over years of blogging and 1,500 posts, I learned that my blogging niche is not writing about  Facebook, or strategy or SEO. My niche is me. My niche is the perspective I bring after being in business for more than 30 years. I think that is legitimate but it took me awhile to figure it out.

2. Stop making excuses

Everybody gets busy. And when that happens, if blogging is the first thing that drops off the table, you will never, ever become a successful blogger. If you write consistently – let’s say two hours a week – blogging will become easier over time.

You will find your voice, you will find your audience, your confidence will grow, you will become more efficient. But none of this will happen if you don’t stick with it. Carve out at least two hours a week if you are serious about this and never miss.

3. Spend time building an audience

It can be pretty depressing to pour your heart into a blog and know that nobody is reading it. I am speaking from experience. I get as many page views in a week that I got in my first 18 months of blogging put together! {grow} was a lonely place for a long time.

I learned that “Build it and they will come” is a great movie line but a lousy blogging strategy. Blogging is not just about writing. I had to spend time finding and nurturing my audience. Here are a few posts with ideas to help you do that:

4. Read

There are about 10 blogs that I read consistently and a lot of other resources like Marketing Profs, Social Media Examiner and The Full Monty that I scan for ideas and trends. Being an active reader helps you to be a better writer. However … don’t try to BE like somebody else. Follow your own path.

5. Make it look professional

If you want to grow your blog and maybe even build it into a business, the site should look professional. If you are spending a lot of time on your blog, why put it in a cheap-looking container? I often recommend to new businesses that if they only have a little bit of money to spend on marketing, spend it on a great-looking website. It is your front door to the world.

6. Stick to a schedule

Whether you decide to blog once a month or once a week, it’s important to be consistent. If you are trying to build an audience, they need to know when to expect something new from you.

7. Become a blogger, not a writer

Even if you consider yourself a good writer, that doesn’t mean you are an effective blog writer. There is a big difference in what we might have learned in school and what readers on the web expect. So spend a little time learning how to write for the web. Here are some resources to help:

8. Be yourself

To stand out you need to be original. To be original, you have no choice but to be yourself. Does that seem obvious? It’s not. It took me years to figure that out. Being yourself takes courage. I am still working on this and probably always will be.

9. Think about SEO in context

Optimizing your content for search may not be your top priority. Some people are going to have a twinge of anxiety at this piece of advice because SEO is a sacred cow in our business.

Hear me out. For some businesses, SEO is essential, especially if you are trying to gain traffic to sell a discreet product like a clock or a computer.

But what if you are trying to become a thought leader who aims to build loyalty? That doesn’t take “traffic.” That requires an audience. There’s a difference. And to build an audience, you need to serve them consistently with quality content, not necessarily keyword strategies. I recently wrote about the goals of different kinds of content (hygiene, hub, hero). The type of content you create and the relative importance of SEO must be in context with your goals as a writer. There needs to be a blend of priorities that fit your strategy.

10. Know when to pivot

When I started my blog, I thought that finding a niche meant being “on message.” I was afraid to sway from my core theme.

Within a few months, I was bored. Everything changed once I allowed myself room to grow … and I am still growing! My blog is different than it was six months ago. It is radically different than it was two years ago.

Some of this is because I am responding to changes in my audience. Part of the reason is because my interests have changed. But hopefully I am always staying interesting and relevant.

I don’t see myself stuck in a theme or a niche. I am evolving. I am “pivoting” month by month, year by year.  Once you have found your niche, don’t be afraid to alter it. Don’t be afraid to {grow}!

Well, those are some things that helped me when I started out and these are ideas I would use to start again. Which of these ideas had an impact on you?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy NatalieDee.com

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  • Hey Mark,
    My personal blog is currently ‘in transition’ at the moment between two providers but when its running I write for that and for my employer.
    Dedication and time management both heavily come into play as a result and it’s sometimes difficult to get home after a day or writing to start over and write for a personal site.

    What helps is the thought of creating something that others find interesting and a source of inspiration (hopefully).

    As you mention it’s also a challenge to write, what you believe is a great bit of content, only for very few people to read it. What I try and remember is that I am writing (blogging) for me too and if I believe that an article has helped me to grow as a blogger and also helped me learn a few things on the way then it’s OK (as long as it doesn’t happen too often!).

  • What you are decribing here is a HUGE challenge Barry. When I was starting out, I was writing for two customer blogs and my own. I simply could not maintain a high quality on my blog and contribute original thining to these other (similar) sites too. Eventually I was able to focus on my own brand-building, which I determined was a priority, and just write on {grow}. There is a certainly a limit to creative output … at least mine! Thanks for the excellent contribution to the discussion!

  • Yeah, I naively thought that I could do both but struggled for the reasons you mention.

    One thing I also noticed, but forgot to put in my previous comment, is that initially my passion for photography was what dictated and drove the content on the site. However I realised after a certain amount of time that the two became mutually beneficial and my photography started to become driven by my ideas for the site content.

    Hope that makes sense!

  • I haven’t written a blog post for two months now. I haven’t had the appetite for it. I’ve been thinking about the changes I plan to make with my online presence for quite some time now, yet I haven’t taken action. Suffice to say, I’m pivoting but haven’t yet broken into the next step(s). Much of the online world has lost its lustre for me (I don’t include you or your words/works in this…one of the few places I regularly visit). The steady stream of regurgitated do-this-don’t-do-that-see-me-hear-me-follow-me is so much white noise. Some days I feel like it’s all a very stuffy room with all the windows and doors closed, without a breath of fresh air (again, present company excluded:)

    I’ll figure it out. I always do. Nice timely post and a good little kick in the pants for me. Thanks. Cheers! Kaarina

  • Mark,
    Thank you so much for this very thoughtful and honest piece. I am always encouraging clients to be themselves when creating content. So often, we get in our own way and let fear prevent us from thinking outside the box, when, in fact, any audience or fan-base worth their salt should be interested in YOU and YOUR brand, not some generic industry regurgitation. This piece serves as a reminder that brand personality is of the utmost importance! If we let go of the confines of writing for SEO and clicks and honor our own thoughts instead, the writing comes much easier.

    Another point with blogging is that it truly takes time, as you mentioned. It takes time to get into a writing groove. It takes time to find your niche. It certainly takes time to build a genuine audience. Blogging is not a sprint. It’s more like training for a marathon! It takes dedication, consistency and patience, but those are all good things! Once you do build that audience you’ve been wanting, they’ll have expectations, so taking the time to develop your craft is worth all the time and energy (and writer’s block) 🙂

    Thanks again! Great suggestions here.

  • “My niche is me.” I love this simple sentence. I’m going to have that bouncing around in my brain for inspiration. I can see how great it will be to say that to any client that is reluctant or doubtful about their blogging potential by stating “Your niche is you.” But I can only say it with authenticity if I’m setting an example.

    Thanks for being authentic and setting an example Mark Schaefer.

    Your niche really is you. Have a great Thanksgiving friend!

  • I’m with Billy.. “My niche is me” is such a great line and it’s so true. Sat with a couple young ladies last week to discuss blogging and writing.. getting ready to send them this post. A lot of relevant thoughts and ideas no matter where you are in your journey. Happy Thanksgiving friend.

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  • I love this, Mark!
    As Billy already said “My niche is me” is a great concept, and also very tweetable 🙂

    And I totally agree with your point of view about SEO: if you write for your audience you’re already optimizing for Google.

  • Rachael Kutschman

    Thanks so much for the advice! I just started a digital marketing blog here and will have to apply some of your words of wisdom, especially the stop making excuses! http://rkutschm.wix.com/digitalmarketingumd

  • You did it again Mark! Yet another required reading for my class next semester. Can’t wait to have the students and some of my clients read it.

  • Love that. Very interesting.

  • I hear you on that. I review blog posts on Triberr every week and I would say 95% of it is crap. I don’t know what people are trying to accomplish by writing the same thing over and over again. Good luck with the pivot!

  • I’ve used that marathon analogy myself quite a bit. Very true! Thanks for the wonderful comment Maura!

  • True, my niche is me. Unfortunately my niche keeps getting bigger and bigger. Time for a diet!

  • Awesome Kristen. So glad this post could help your friends!

  • There is a place for SEO but it is certainly evolving and changing! Great to hear from you Giusseppe!

  • You are going to have a busy group of students. They are going to hate me by the end of the semester with all that required reading. ; )

  • Busy is good, right? And they always end up loving you in the end. The exciting part for me is my class is doubling in size to 50 so we’ll get even more people exposed to the Tao of Thor haha

  • Love the article Mark, thanks for sharing! Great tips and advices, we’re about the launch our company blog and can’t wait to get started with the content!

  • Wow. Nice progress.

  • Good luck Satu!

  • Jeffrey Slater

    Mark, James Altucher was asked what the theme of his blog was about and he said that humans don’t come in themes so he just writes about stuff. The spirit of your blog post today reminds me of this very point.

    Be yourself is always great advice whether blogging or doing anything in life. Its great when a genuine human being shows up. I’ll take reading or listening to an authentic person any day.

    I just wrote my 400th blog post and have started to realize that blogging helps me think through marketing issues I’m wondering about. I’m happy others read it and it gets shared but it has become a way to understand problems.

    Cheers and enjoy Thanksgiving.

  • Great post Mark – things changed for me when I pivoted my blog but I also didn’t have a niche when I started which helped me to find my feet… you are so right about being a blogger not a writer …it takes time to get out of English class and find a conversational “bloggy” voice and stop using so many paragraphs! haha

  • Maria Riley

    This couldn’t have been more timely as I’m working on breathing new life into my poor neglected blog. Mark, you have such a great writer’s voice. I felt like we were discussing this over coffee :). Thank you.

  • Great points Jeff! Cheers to you.

  • Ha. Love the bloggy voice! That made me laugh Donna.

  • Hopefully we will some day. Best part of my job is meeting people from the blog!

  • Hi Mark, like some of the other people who commented here, I am also breathing new life into my company blog. It got off to a good start a few years ago but then got side-tracked when I wrote about things I didn’t know that much about. I changed that in January by putting the focus back on PR and have since added posts about content marketing (and some on social media) when I repositioned my company.

    The other thing I’ve changed is the addition of an editor to the writing process. I now work with a former marketing journalist who reviews my posts and tidies them up a bit before they go ‘live.’ It does require extra planning and money but is definitely worth the investment.

    Thanks for your sharing your thoughts. Always appreciated.

  • Maria Riley

    Agreed! That would be great. Happy Holidays.

  • Interesting approach. Sounds like a great move. Good writing matters!

  • Ah! This is so very timely for me. I have a social media accountability buddy and she and I were just saying this week that we’re both going to pull back our efforts in December in order to regroup and set goals for 2015. I need to consider my brand and how I’m going to continue to “put it out there.” I can’t do that until I know where I plan to go, how I’m going to do it, and I need to make sure I understand my “Why?” And I need to know these aspects in order to attack my social media efforts in an efficient and successful manner. I was going to search your blog for getting started types of posts and re-read Born to Blog to refresh myself on your and Stanford’s ideas.
    So, thank you, thank you, thank you! This post does a lot of that for me. 🙂

  • ha yes – well, fortunately that bloggy voice is my voice, so it makes blogging much more fun (and easy) that way! I will look forward to meeting you properly in March – 3rd time lucky!

  • We’re about to launch our blog, so this one came in handy! Spend time building an audience ~ thanks for the related posts! I think this is one of the hardest parts. I was wondering: what do you think about Tumblr? Let me re-phrase that: What do you think about businesses that choose to have a blog on Tumblr? I know that it’s a microblogging platform, and it’s different from blogging. I’d still like to hear your opinion. Thanks!

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  • You made my day. Truly.

    This idea of a social media accountability buddy is an intriguing idea. Possible guest post Merideth?

  • It’s hard to say without knowing more about your business but my instinct is “no.” 1) your blog needs to be integrated into your website for optimal SEO and business value and 2) If your blog turns into a business Tumblr can’t grow with you as well as WordPress. For example, this entire business site has scaled on WordPress. Hope that helps.

  • That will be a fun time.

  • Install Disqus or LiveFyre immediately. The default comment forms found in most CMS systems are barriers to engagement and real time commenting.

  • Ann Handley

    Wonderful post, Mark. And I appreciate the shout to MarketingProfs and Everybody Writes. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  • Same to you and thanks for taking the time to stop by Ann.

  • Nice addition Randy. Much appreciated.

  • love this post, Mark! especially the parts about being yourself and pivoting. the key for me is to simply…write. evolve. rinse. repeat. never staying too stuck. humanity is fluid + ambiguous…and all of us are constantly evolving…which endlessly inspires ideas for creative content. when we learn to embrace it all…the highs, the lows, the in-betweens, we pour our hearts + souls into our work…and truly come alive. it’s intoxicating. freeing. and i’m so grateful that this is our work in the world. can it get any better?! enjoy your thanksgiving!

  • Absolutely, Mark! It would be an honour and a rewarding task to task to take on.

  • Mark, all 10 points are superb! My only difficulty is wrt # 5, which requires one “to incorporate Pictures & Videos” to give it a professional polish. Can you please guide as to how to do that. Thanks a lot Mark !

  • Ha! Love that sense of joy Jessica!

  • Today, there are many great looking WordPress templates available for little or no money. There really is no excuse to have a bad looking site. I didn’t specifically mention pictures and videos but in WordPress it is literally as easy as cut and paste. I’m not a “techie” person so if I can do it, anybody can! : )

  • Appreciate your prompt response. Shall try WordPress & will revert. Thanks a lot Mark !

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  • Thanks a lot, Mark, for the reply! This blog is meant to be just another place where our audience can find great and interesting content, therefore we went with Tumblr. But I understand what you saying, it’s really up to the purpose of the blog and future plans what is the right platform.

  • I love your blog Mark and this post demostrates why. You consistently encourage people to just be themselves when they write – we need to relate to each other, not sound like robots. I feel like my blog is constantly evolving based on what I learn here and from other blogs as well.

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving! I’ll be in your neck of the woods for Turkey Day next year. My parents booked a cabin in Gatlinburg.

  • thank you my friend. surely we will get to meet in the upcoming year?

  • I hope to!!

  • Knowing what I know now, the biggest thing I’d redo: rethink my strict professional vs personal approach, mix up more of the ‘me’ stuff – that ‘off niche’ content that’s not just about boring business and brand and building a career. I’d crossover the twitters, throw a little caution to the wind and take my chances.

    That typed, can’t undo what I’ve done – but I can evolve, learn from my mistakes. Most all of these are on the list, when ever I get to my long overdue extreme blog makeover. FWIW.

  • I’d say, “become a marketer” — Not a blogger. Not a writer.

    Looking at a blog like a blog isn’t going to help in the long run. What really works is a holistic approach to our intents online. So, if it’s just a blog that’s on the anvil, how do we run it like a business?

    But yes, agree with:

    “Write everyday”
    “Sticking to a schedule”

    and many others 🙂

  • Awesome post. I just launched my blog in September.. and i’ll def keep these tips handy. 😉

  • I was there too Davina. Very formal, aka boring!! : )

    Here’s to evolution!

  • Depends on your goals. I’m not sure how you can be a blogger without being a writer : ) Thanks for commenting Ashwin.

  • Awesome. Glad to hear it helped!

  • Hi Mark!

    For me, #3 was worth the read. It’s encouraging to know that, at one time, {grow} was a lonely place. I just launched in September and was already beginning to get “the blues”.

    I finally bit-the-bullet and joined Google+, but after spending some time there, I’m beginning to believe that my audience is probably more active on Facebook.

    I’m going to have a look at those links you provided to get some ideas. This post has been very inspirational. Thank you for sharing…

  • Great post, thanks Mark!

    Perfect timing as we enter New Year resolution season too! 🙂

    Every point was helpful and encouraging; I particularly liked:
    “To stand out you need to be original. To be original, you have no choice but to be yourself.”

  • Lizzie, if you are trying to build a blog audience, I would put my money on Twitter. It is the fastest way to build a relevant and engaged audience that swing over to the blog. Check out chapter five of The Tao of Twitter for big ideas on how to grow that audience and activate it.

  • Glad I could help Karen!

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  • Good stuff, Mark. My big mistake was not starting to build my list right away.

  • James Shipway

    Thanks for these Mark. Encouraging and practical tips. I like the idea that consistency will help you suceed.Maybe you can’t build a huge audience overnight, and you can’t make everyone read your blog or watch your videos…but you CAN be consistent and committed. This thought helps me keep on track and shut out distractions and nay sayers!

  • Agustin Carranza

    Hi Mark!,
    I agree with the idea that we must pay less attention to keywords and emphasise the “natural” writing, no wonder our objectives are people not search engines…

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