Shane Snow is a New York-based tech journalist and co-founder of Contently.com, a marketplace for brand publishers and journalists.
In 2010, New York City startup, Birchbox launched a blog about beauty products before it had any customers. The beauty sample delivery service – and its blog – exploded in popularity.
Today, to keep up with its readers’ appetite for content, Birchbox employs multiple editors and publishes half a dozen posts a day, along with an online magazine. According to compete.com, Birchbox.com traffic grew 6,500% in 2011, to over 110,000 monthly unique visitors at last count.
But raw traffic data doesn’t tell the whole story about the value of a publication. Birchbox’s blog drives customer acquisition and retention, which means its readers are loyal enough to become subscribers, followers and customers. At last count, the company had 44,000 Facebook Likes, 14,000 Twitter followers, and 9,400 Youtube subscribers. New blog subscribers – people who had willingly opted in to Birchbox content – pile on every month. (The company declined to release hard numbers on total blog subscribers).
Ironically, the hit-based nature of social media means many blog owners have difficulty cultivating long-term loyalty from their users. It’s easy to get excited when the occasional “viral” post brings in a spike of traffic. But often that traffic melts away as quickly as it arrived.
Brian Clark, CEO of CopyBlogger Media, says a building a quality blog following means “attracting the right people in order to accomplish your specific goals.” In other words, he says, “you’ve got to put quality ahead of quantity.”
So, how do upstart blogs like Birchbox’s build such voracious followings? Here are six tips to attracting readers who stick around longer than the click of a StumbleUpon button:
1. Turn Existing Customers Into Readers
Current customers can be an excellent source of quality readers for a new publication. Often, they already identify with the target demographic. And they’re already familiar with you.
Whether it’s getting a customer to subscribe to a newsletter, blog, or Twitter feed during a signup or checkout process, or requesting they subscribe in a follow-up email or call, happy customers are highly likely to become readers. Turning customers into readers gives you the opportunity to reach other potential customers – your readers’ friends – through social media.
Birchbox benefits from this virtuous cycle as new readers become customers, new customers become readers, and readers share with friends.
2. Skip The Misleading Traffic-Boosting Techniques
Pageview-racking slideshows and catchy-yet-misleading headlines are commonplace in the blogosphere; many publications use them to increase traffic (and therefore advertising revenue). Unfortunately, however, these techniques often don’t result in quality readership growth.
“Headlines should be descriptive and tell readers what to expect,” says Chris Spagnuolo, Founder and Publisher of guyism.com, an independent men’s lifestyle site with 3.5 million monthly unique visitors.
Slideshows skew page views-per visit stats, making it more difficult to accurately gauge traffic stickiness; misleading headlines may put your content in front of new, unsuspecting readers, but those readers are less likely to stay, and may even have negative reactions to being tricked.
“We’ve always believed that the best way to get good quality readers is to create good quality content,” says Ben Lerer, Co-Founder of men’s city guide Thrillist. Lerer says Thrillist’s experiments with slideshows or tricky headlines never yielded valuable reader growth.
3. Speak to a Very Specific Audience
Casting a wide net can be good for generating traffic, but with a glut of reading options on the web, passionate blog followers gravitate toward hyper-specific publications. That’s one of the reasons many niche media sites are growing while mainstream publications bleed readers.
Thrillist benefits from targeting a niche audience, Lerer says, rather than broad categories like “New Yorkers” or “men.” The publication focuses on 20- and 30-something, nightlife-loving urban males, and it speaks to them as peers. Knowing its readers completely allows Thrillist to connect with them more effectively.
Often this means targeting a niche in which you – the blogger – already belong. “We [are] really writing for ourselves,” Chen explains. “And we never talk down to our readers.”
4. Guest Post and Use Guest Bloggers
Allowing guest bloggers to post on your blog brings twofold benefits: more content for your blog, and new reader exposure for your site. Guest bloggers often point their own followers to posts they’ve written for other publications (and you should encourage them to do so). Ideally, those readers start to recognize your blog and eventually subscribe to you, too.
“Our uniques have increased every month, in large part because we’ve been … using more guest bloggers,” Chen explains.
Likewise, guest posting your own content on relevant blogs in your niche can help you attract new audiences.
“We’ve built a number of valuable partnerships with brands and other publishers who have helped us educate other guys about Thrillist,” Lerer says. “But,” he adds, “we know these guys wouldn’t stick around if the quality of what we produced on a daily basis wasn’t top notch.”
5. Encourage Loyalty Through Consistency
Giving readers something to expect helps them work your blog into their daily or weekly routine. As your audience grows, you should increase your content frequency; however, from the beginning, publishing on a consistent schedule will help build loyalty.
“We try to post between 6-10 times a day … to keep people coming back,” Chen says.
Consistency also has to do with presenting readers with a unified voice or consistent approaches. Clark says fostering a quality audience means, “taking an editorial stand for what you believe in, rather than watering things down to avoid offending anyone. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to try to be controversial. In this day and age, simply taking a position and standing behind it will bring people who agree, and people who don’t.”
Clark continues, “Don’t be afraid of those who don’t [agree with you]. They galvanize your supporters who do agree, which turns them into fans instead of luke-warm traffic.”
6. Be Timely And Relevant
Blog to connect with what’s currently on your readers’ minds. This way, you’ll not be interrupting them; instead, you’ll enhance their routines.
“Be relevant, interesting, and digestible,” Chen says. “By giving people stories that are easy to click and share … you’ll instantly increase your reach.”
It’s all about social relevance, Spagnuolo says. “Think, ‘Will one of my friends from high school think this is worth sharing on Facebook?’ If the answer is yes, that’s a good start.”
Shares, followers, bounce rates, and conversions can indicate whether a blog’s readership is engaged or simply transient. Any blog that’s tuned in to its audience can increase the above and grow loyal readers.
“To us, a quality reader is someone who stays or shares,” Lerer says. “If they’re engaged, they’ll be more likely to come back. If they’re sharing, they’re creating value. Either way, those are the two best kinds of readers.”