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The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Blog, Attracting Readers

Blogging is a great way to make some big bucks.

And blogging success stories really aren’t that rare these days.

Some people turn blogging into a hearty side gig or even a full-blown career — like this mom, who makes $6,000 a month.

Then there’s this student, who paid off $15,000 in student loan debt with his blogging income — before he even graduated!

Even more impressive, this food blogger reaps a comfortable $150,000 a year.

Heck, The Penny Hoarder is a prime example. When I started this site back in 2010, I was using a free platform and updated the content about once a week.

Now? The Penny Hoarder brought in more than $20 million in revenue in 2016 and sees more than 16 million visitors each month (including you)!

Cropped image of young woman working on laptop while sitting in cafe. African girl using laptop computer with a cup of coffee on table.

Starting a Blog: Step-by-Step

So are you interested in learning the ropes? Let me share with you what I’ve learned about starting a blog and transforming it into a healthy business — and how you can follow a similar path.

The Logistics: Domains, Hosting, Platform and Theme

If you want to start a blog, you’ll have to decide where it will live, how it will look like and what to call it.

Before you write a post or start tweeting about your new site, you’ll need to choose your blog’s domain, sign up with a host, pick a platform and decide on a theme.

It might sound a bit overwhelming, but I promise it’s not too bad.

Here are some simple definitions to get you started:

What’s a Website Domain?

Your domain is your address on the internet. It’s the name you give to people when you tell them where to find your website, like ThePennyHoarder.com.

Yours can be anything you want, ideally close to your blog’s name or your own name. (You don’t want to buy awesomeshoes.com if you’re planning to blog about food.)

Given how cheap it is to get most domains, you could even buy a few iterations. So if your name is Janice M. Schmidt and you want to start a running blog called Janice Runs Fast, try to buy both janicerunsfast.com and janicemschmidt.com. 

What Does Website Hosting Mean?

If your domain is the physical address for your online plot of land, your host is the foundation and bare bones of the house you’re building.

Your hosting company keeps your site on its servers so people can access it over the internet. Without hosting, people will just see an error page when they try to visit janicerunsfast.com.

I like Bluehost for website hosting, and if you usethis link, you can get set up with a site for just $2.95/month. (It’s usually $7.99/month.)

Which Platform Should You Choose for Your Blog?

You probably don’t want to live in an unfinished house with bare walls, concrete floors and no lights, right?

If you want to furnish your house with paint, carpeting, flooring and appliances, you need a blogging platform.

Once you set it up, you’ll use the back end of your platform to update your blog. When it comes to blogging platforms, you have three main options:

 

WordPress.org

Almost every major blog in the world uses WordPress.

It’s the most popular and robust DIY platform out there. You have to set up your own domain and hosting, but if you’re looking to get serious with your blog, WordPress is the way to go.

You have basically unlimited design options, and you can install any number of plugins to manage everything from social sharing to analytics.

There are a few downsides, though: It’s a community-built platform so some plugins can be buggy, you have to be moderately technical to figure out any problems you encounter, and there’s a bit of a learning curve.

That said, the level of difficulty is really up to you.

If you want a simple design with a professional-sounding URL, you can do that on WordPress.org. If you want a New-York-Times-level blog to support thousands of readers every day with high-quality photos and hundreds of comments, you can do that, too.

Want a simpler option to start with? Read on for a few other options that don’t require as much tech-savvy.

WordPress.com

This is the simpler version of WordPress.

It’s the best way to get your blog off the ground as quickly, easily and cheaply as possible — using WordPress.com means you don’t actually have to worry about buying a domain or hosting — they’ll take care of it for you.

The downside is your domain will look a little different: You’ll have janicerunsfast.wordpress.com rather than janicerunsfast.com. (You can upgrade through WordPress.com to eliminate “wordpress” in your domain, but it will cost you a few dollars.)

You’ll also see a few ads on your site, you won’t have access to quite as many themes and plugins, and storage is limited (so it’s not a great choice if you want to share tons of high-res photos).

But the big perk is the basic account is free and easy to use.

Because it doesn’t cost you anything, WordPress.com is a good option if you want to start a blog as a school project, to stay in touch with friends and family, or simply to see if you like this whole blogging thing at all before investing in something more substantial.

Squarespace

If you’re keen to blog seriously but you’re not tech-savvy, you might like this happy medium between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. If you want a gorgeous but easy to customize website, Squarespace is your guy.

Unlike either WordPress option, everything in Squarespace is controlled and managed by the platform.

You’ll have 24/7 access to a professional support team and unlimited storage. The downside is you won’t have the huge range of plugin, widget and design options as with WordPress, since many of those are community-designed and maintained.

The other major difference is Squarespace isn’t free. It has a number of different packages, but you should expect to spend just under $100 per year for their cheapest plan, which is probably all you need if you’re just getting started.

What About a Theme for Your Blog?

A theme is a template that enhances the appearance and functionality of a blog without you having to touch any code.

To go back to our house metaphor, using a theme is like hiring an interior designer to pull everything together and make all the rooms flow, without actually having to paint the walls or carry the furniture yourself.

Most of the blogs that look appealing and professional use a theme to pull that off.

No matter which platform you choose, your blog will come with access to at least a few free themes. Squarespace is well-known for having lots of gorgeous themes, so if you value design but aren’t a designer yourself, that’s another point for the platform.

If you prefer, you can also purchase more premium themes from other providers.

If you go with WordPress.org, you have unlimited options, though a few are known for being better than others.

If you’re a little more technically inclined or up for getting your hands dirty, you could try these more advanced themes: Genesis, Thesis and X Theme are considered the top WordPress themes out there, and you can get any of them for less than $100.

A Quick Recap So Far

We’ve covered a lot so far. Here’s what you need to do to set up your blog:

  1. Purchase your domain
  2. Get a hosting account
  3. Choose a platform
  4. Install a theme, if you want one

Content: It’s Time to Start Writing on Your Blog

So you’ve got your blog all set up. It’s online, looking great and ready for action. Now what?

You might feel ready to hit the ground blogging, but first take a minute to set up these two basic pages.

Your Blog’s About Page

This is where you talk about you.

Why are you blogging? What do you know about your subject? Why should readers listen to you?

Besides your homepage, your about page will likely be the most visited page on your site, so it’s worth putting time and effort into creating one you’re proud of.

Janice the runner might want to post a photo of her running, along with a couple of paragraphs about how she discovered her love for the sport, her running goals and maybe a bit about her life when she’s not hitting the road.

On my about page, I talk about how I’ve been trying to make extra money for as long as I can remember. I also include a few photos and display a graphic of publishers we’ve been featured on. These relationships help establish trust.

Your Blog’s Contact Page

If you want to blog anonymously or don’t want people to contact you, you can leave this out, but otherwise you’ll want to include some information about how people can contact you — especially if you’re hoping to make money blogging.

After all, if readers love what you have to offer, or a literary agent wants to offer you a book deal, or a hiring manager thinks you’d be perfect for his open job, you want it to be easy for those people to get in touch, right?

You might want to install a contact form (WordPress.org has plugins for this) or just write out your email address on your contact page. If you’re worried about spam, you can write something like “janice AT janicerunsfast DOT com.”

If you want to get fancy or you have a team of people working for you, list different email addresses for different reasons, like advertising requests, media inquiries or clients who want to hire you.

But it’s perfectly fine to just funnel everything into one place if that’s easiest for you.

What to Blog About

It’s finally time to start blogging!

What you’ll blog about depends on your goals. Do you want to share your adventures with your friends back home while you travel around the world for a year? Are you hoping to spread the word about your freelance business? Do you want to share your expertise on a particular topic? Or are you hoping to turn your blog into a business?

While you’re more than welcome to write about your every whim and opinion, blogs that focus on a particular niche often perform better in terms of traffic and money-making potential. So think about your passions, your business, your experience or your goals.

What expertise or advice can you share with the world?

Generally, you want to blog about something where you can bring a fresh perspective.

For example, while a ton of people blog about money, I like to think The Penny Hoarder stands out by focusing on weird ways to earn, save and invest your money.

 

So while the world might not need another daily fashion blog, you can set your fashion blog apart by focusing on capsule wardrobes, refashioning clothes you have in your closet or limiting yourself to clothes you buy on consignment.

This is where I also want to highlight the most important thing about blogging: No matter what anyone tells you, you can do whatever you want.

Never underestimate your own personal, unique perspective; the most successful blogs have their own personalities and quirks, just like the people behind them.

Sure, there are a million and one food bloggers out there, but there isn’t one with your voice, with your experience, who shares your all-consuming obsession with making the world’s best guacamole.

Experiment, get creative and have fun with your blog! Put yourself out there, start writing and see what happens.

Content Strategy and Inspiration

Before you publish anything, decide if your blog is going to serve as a diary, sharing your experiences and adventures, or focus more on how-tos and information.

If your blog is going to lean more toward diary-style, for example, a photographic journal of your travels, your content will depend on your daily life.

Get out there and start exploring, then write a post about what you did and how others can learn from it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If you prefer to focus on the how-tos of travel photography, you’ll need to get more specific.

That’s easier said than done, but here are some easy tricks to get your ideas flowing. Write down whatever comes to mind as a potential post, and then go through your list anytime you need inspiration.

  1. Ask friends, especially those with little knowledge about your topic. If you’re starting a travel photography blog, ask your friends, “What’s one question you’ve always had about photography? What do you wish you knew?”
  2. Skim Cosmo. Bear with me on this one — it’s worth it! Magazines like Cosmopolitan are filled with fantastic headline ideas, and sometimes it’s easier to start with a headline and write the post from there. If you see an article called “12 Makeup Brushes You Need and Exactly How to Use Them,” you might write about “12 Camera Accessories You Need and Exactly How to Use Them.” The more specific you get in your headline, the easier it will be to write the post later.
  3. Look for trends. Read your favorite travel and photography blogs, skim through Twitter and Instagram hashtags and check the news. What’s hot right now? What’s trending? Is anything in the news relevant for your readers, like a new product release or a new movie with a photographer as the main character? If Instagram just dropped a bunch of new filters or you want to share your obsession with your awesome new zoom lens, your blog is the perfect place to wax lyrical.
  4. Google it. When you search for “photography tips,” you get a whole a world of content. From “taking stellar photos with your Android phone” to “how to photograph fireworks,” you find tons of inspiration. Plus, you’ll see what’s already popular and you can riff on those topics in your own voice. Keyword Tool can also help. Type in “photography” and you’ll get a giant list of the top Google searches related to your topic, like photography classes, contests and apps.

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