The Four Stages of a Successful Blog (and How to Promote at Each Level)

Your blog earnings, Year One

This is a long post, but bear with me. Sometimes you can’t give good advice in soundbites and despite what some self-appointed gurus will tell you, creating a successful blog is a long-term process, not a series of tricks and shortcuts. I’ve launched five travel-related blogs now and here’s how it usually plays out.

Stage 1 – Define, Design, and Launch

Takes approximately 4 to 12 months

Before you write one word, define what will make this blog different, why people should read it, and why they should return. “I want to start a blog” and “My magazine gigs are drying up” are not good answers. What unfilled need do you meet? What do you know more about than most other people? What subject is not being covered well already? What can you write about with authority for years on end? Is there commercial value to your subject area?

Next, think hard about the look and feel. You can get by without a good design at first and redo it later, but remember that first impressions mean a lot and web readers are less forgiving than they were 10 years ago. If you don’t grab people in a few seconds with a clear presentation, often they’re gone. Pick your template carefully and modify it if you can. Pay or trade out services to get a distinctive logo or custom header. Otherwise your blog will say “me too” instead of “I’m unique.”

Then start writing and publishing good material. Few people will be reading at this point, so don’t risk a sophomore slump by putting down every great idea you’ve ever had into your first 10 posts in 10 days. Start with one post a week, two tops. (Google won’t index you any faster even if you write every hour.) Vary the length and subject matter. Then spread the word.

Stage 1 growth strategies:

  • Tell friends and family.
  • Put the blog in your e-mail signature.
  • Put it on your portfolio page.
  • Nudge people to subscribe in your posts and your sidebar.
  • Use social media to plug your posts (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon) and put the blog in every profile.
  • Submit your blog to all the search engines yourself or use a service like
  • Ask (real) friends to link to it or link to it yourself from other sites you control or message boards where you’re a member.

At this stage there should be few or zero ads on your site. Until you are receiving hundreds of visitors per day, earnings will be too minuscule to make it worth it to muck up your site with advertising. Exceptions are affiliate ads that are a perfect match (Vegas hotel banners on a blog about Las Vegas), ads for your own products, and possibly Adsense ads in unobtrusive places, like at the end of each post, if you’re really that desperate for beer money. Keep in mind though, many ad clicks result in the visitor leaving your site and not coming back. Can you afford that now?

Stage 2 – Search Engine Presence

Starts 4 to 12 months after initial launch

After a couple months, you will probably be able to find your blog in Google by doing a search for its name or your own name. You won’t likely show up for many keyword phrases though unless you run the world’s only blog about “Tasmanian tankless scuba diving” or “tandem mountain biking in Idaho.” Google purposely takes its time giving much search engine love to new websites because there are too many spammers and scammers out there starting new ones every day.  Keep plugging away and be patient.

Somewhere between your 4th and 12th month anniversary though, you’ll start to see your search engine traffic rise. A few hits at first, then dozens, then hundreds per week. This is a beautiful thing because it means you’re not bugging people to come read your writing: they’re voluntarily finding you on their own—they’re already interested in your subject matter.

Make them want to come back! Answer their questions, give good advice, and then ask them to subscribe. (You can ask them to follow you on social media too, but believe me, one more RSS subscriber is more valuable than 50 new Twitter followers, both for readership traffic and future revenue.)

Stage 2 growth strategies:

  • Spend more time on getting links from other sites.
  • Interlink to your own archived posts from new ones.
  • Comment on message boards and related blogs with your site URL.
  • Be sure to install and use some kind of SEO pack plug-in that allows you to control metatags.
  • Keep doing stage 1 promotion, but dial back the aggressiveness with friends and family who aren’t a match for the content. You don’t need reluctant readers anymore who are just there to do you a favor.

Stage 3 – Lift-off

Starts around one year after launchblogging success

After running your blog for a year or so, you should now start getting some real traction. At this point, if you’ve picked a good niche and written passionately about it, you should have a nice batch of RSS subscribers, have referrals from other sites sending traffic, and you should be getting regular weekly traffic from search engines. After a year, if Twitter and Facebook are still two of your main traffic sources, that’s a problem. You shouldn’t be having to do daily (or especially hourly) social media promotion to get readers to visit your blog.

Assuming you have a good mix of traffic sources and older posts are still getting hits, congratulations—you’ve hit lift-off! You can now go on vacation for a week or two without logging in and still see your traffic hold steady or even rise. (You can future-post with WordPress so new material gets posted while you’re gone.)

This is when you should have enough traffic to start monetizing—or when you should start seeing the ads you had up actually start generating some income. You might start getting inquiries from advertisers who want to appear on your blog. You are adding new subscribers each week and getting indexed for more keyword phrases in the search engines. You can’t quit your job and blog in your bathing suit on a beach full-time, but you’re seeing clear progress.

Stage 3 growth strategies:

  • Focus on “tending the garden” to keep it growing. (Design changes? Posting frequency change? Adding other writers? Less of this, more of that?)
  • Analyze traffic statistics to see what’s working, what’s not.
  • Spend more time on creation, less on promotion.
  • Scale back social media time in favor of link building and partnerships.
  • Do guest posts for blogs reaching people you would like to attract.
  • Monitor ad programs to see what’s bearing fruit. Test new methods and placements.

Stage 4 – Success!

Varies, but usually 1.5 to 3 years after launch

Depending on how much time and effort you have put into your baby up to this point, and whether your niche has traction, you should reach a tipping point before your third anniversary in which your blog is making real money and/or is contributing to your overall career success. People define “success” in different ways: speaking engagements, book sales, media attention, press trip invites, or new freelance gigs may mean more to some people than digits on a paycheck. So it pays to figure out your definition of success from the start so you can aim for that in your plans.

Now you can relax a little on the promotion side and look more at the big picture on the content side. You may be able to post longer pieces because you have real fans, be able to veer off from your niche a bit more, and just generally be more creative with what you write. You can stop worrying so much about “feeding the beast” with catchy linkbait titles and concentrate more on creating work that really matters, writing that deserves a big audience and will get it—because people know you and trust you.

At this point, social media promotion should be no more than a reminder, not a constant broadcast. You’re a headliner now, not the struggling opening act, so drop the always-connected smartphone madness and focus your time on high-value tasks instead. You’ve got your 1,000 true fans (or more) now hopefully, so write good stuff for them—and you. Perform like an iconic brand, not a me-too knock-off.

Stage 4 growth strategies:

  • Set goals and analyze what’s required to get to the next level: design, content, revenue, and offline media.
  • Go to conferences and find other way to meet power players in your niche face-to-face.
  • Build alliances and develop business partnerships.
  • Raise your offline media profile: book publishing, speaking, interviews, etc.
  • Take some time you used to spend on promotion to interface with advertisers & agencies—or hire someone else to do this.
  • Consider hiring additional writers or virtual assistants.

What stage are you in, and what do you know now that you wish you’d known earlier?

[flickr photos by lorenabuena, NASA, U2005]

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