10 more blogging lessons I wish I had known earlier

10 more blogging lessons I wish I had known earlier
21 July 2021

How can you create a successful and lucrative business out of blogging?

If you’ve followed my own writing for a while, you will have already come across some tips that I’ve published previously:

In this third and final article, I’ll tell you about the stuff that I’ve learned the hard way, realised too late, or wish someone had told me earlier to make my life easier.

Here are 10 more lessons you should watch out for.

1. Plan your “value ladder” BEFORE your launch

A “value ladder” is a line-up of offers that increase in price and value alongside the customer journey – starting from your readers’ initial awareness to their final decision to buy your premium offerings.

Everyone kind of knows that as a content creator, you offer a free product first, then upsell readers to their first paid-for product, then add more, higher-value products. However, neither myself nor other bloggers that I am in touch with had spent much time planning what their value ladder would look like.

Admittedly, it’s quite difficult to plan your value ladder as you won’t have collected any customer feedback or metrics prior to starting your blog. That’d be an easy excuse to not think about it too much and push the planning out to a later date. It’s what I’ve done. In retrospect, I should have taken a more strategic approach earlier on.

The value ladder is the basic architecture of your content business, and I strongly advise you to spend some time thinking about it before you launch anything.

The planning of your value ladder doesn’t need to be perfect. As the old military saying goes: “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.

However, there is another important saying: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” E.g., you could make planning your value ladder a part of your “one-page business plan“.

In any case, spending some time planning your value ladder will do two things for you:

  1. Give you another set of goals to work towards. Having a clear goal generally focuses the mind and makes you work harder, faster, and more effectively.
  2. Avoid problems caused by launching products in the wrong order or missing out on upselling opportunities.

It’s mightily useful to simply start instead of getting caught up in paralysis by analysis. However, that shouldn’t stop you from doing SOME planning before you launch.

The value ladder is the basic architecture of your content business, and I strongly advise you to spend some time thinking about it before you launch anything.

2. Prepare to eventually launch a private community

While I was building my blog, plenty of people suggested to also set up a forum for my readers. My instinct had always been not to have a public forum, and I now know that my instinct was spot on.

If this particular point is of interest to you, then you MUST take the time to read “The Rise of Private Communities“. This long-firm article sets out everything in the most precise possible way, and I wish someone had pointed me towards it much earlier.

Private communities are the sort of “VIP groups” that blogs can launch to upsell new products to their members. They are the sort of group that can cost thousands (or even tens of thousands) to get into. They have the highest nominal price of any product, but they may also be the cheapest for those who become customers and make use of the product. As the author of “The Rise of Private Communities” put it: “In terms of the value I received last year, these have been among the best investments I’ve ever made.

How is it possible that private communities are extremely costly but also the best value?

Launching a private community is a tall order because customers will demand a LOT from you in exchange for a chunky membership fee. However, they are also a magnificent opportunity for you to shine and provide extraordinarily valuable services to your customers.

You can think about multiple angles, e.g. a private community could even be “for free”. Instead, you make it an entry requirement that everyone contributes something other than money, which could be their know-how or a specific task that everyone has to perform. Private communities are all about having a smaller, highly focussed group of people in a tightly controlled environment. Misbehave, and you get ejected (which keeps members from misbehaving in the first place). Members tend to be more engaged because they want to justify their investment. There is no fucking around or trolling.

Because of content piracy, some say many blogs and newsletters will accelerate towards building their own private community. Content is a magnet, community is a moat.

That’s opposed to public fora, which tend to be highly toxic, suck in the host’s time, and not generate any additional income – which is why my instinct not to launch a public forum was right. It would have proved a huge distraction for me without generating much value. However, I’ve never spent much time thinking about eventually launching a private, gated community – until recently. There is ONE pressing reason why every content creator should think long and hard about it.

The content of private communities is a lot harder to pirate than a simple newsletter, which is all the more relevant once you know of newsletter pirating tools such as SharedThis.Email. Because of content piracy, some say many blogs and newsletters will accelerate towards building their own private community. Content is a magnet, community is a moat. I find this a mind-blowing realisation.

Make this notion a part of the previous point, i.e. integrate it into planning your value ladder. In a way, this is actually a sub-aspect of lesson #1. However, this particular product opportunity is so big and important that it deserved a separate mentioning.

I also recommend reading this short, free report by Trends.vc: “Trends #0014 – Paid Communities“, of which there is also a USD 50 extended version available for purchase.

3. Plan to go multi-channel, but only one step at a time

When you start a blog, you’ll probably be tempted to launch on all sorts of different platforms. Most likely, you will already be on one of the various social media platforms. It’s easy to give in to the idea that you want to be active in all these places since you already have a few followers.

You couldn’t be more wrong in picking a strategy.

Social media channels are littered with content creators who are dabbling in making use of them. Everyone puts a bit of effort into it, but 99% aren’t entirely focussed. You never want to be in the 99%, though. Instead, you always want to be in the 1%.

To learn how it’s done, watch this 1h 7min video of David Perell interviewing Anthony “Pomp” Pompliano. In the unlikely event that you don’t know Pomp, he runs one of the world’s most widely-read business newsletters and blogs, and has built an entire empire around it, which nowadays even includes a USD 150m venture capital fund.

In this talk, Pomp bares all. For anyone aspiring to build a content business, it’s one of the best videos out there (and if you don’t like videos, you can get the same content in the form of this Medium article). If you don’t want to invest a whole hour or get a first taste of the video, watch the segment that starts at 16 min and 50 seconds: “Focus on one platform at a time”.

Pomp explains how he initially spent ALL his energy on Twitter – hours every day tweeting and answering every single tweet – which made him stand out amidst the noise of the platform. 99% of all content creators on Twitter can’t be bothered to put in that much effort replying to other Twitter users. Had Pomp not focussed all his energy on one platform, he would not be where he is today.

As Pomp put it:

This is the #1 thing I did that a lot of people do the opposite of. So I started on Twitter in 2017, and I waited for 18 months before I went to another platform which was Substack.

I think what a lot of people do is they go out and say: ‘Hey, I need a Facebook, and an Instagram, and a TikTok, and a YouTube.’ They end up doing none of them well, and they get a little bit of following on each individual one of them but it’s enough to actually help build up any actual momentum. You end up getting 100 followers on five different platforms. Well, it’d be much better if you get 500 followers on one platform and focus all your time and energy on going from 500 to 5,000.

This should be common sense. However, common sense is not common practice.

Don’t be like the 99%. Be like Pomp instead!

4. Highlight others – for free!

The majority of content creators I know are pretty cagey about their audience or too busy with their websites to think much about collaboration.

On the one hand, this approach is wise because it protects their brand and keeps their focus. On the other hand, it leaves them at risk of missing out on one of the most powerful strategies for growing their blog.

How to find the right balance between these two extremes? Here’s my very own approach.

In October 2019, I launched “Blogs to watch” on my investment blog, Undervalued-Shares.com. This monthly series introduces my readers to other investment-related blogs that I enjoy myself, many of which are hard to find because there is no central register. I do so entirely for free and without even asking my colleagues for as much as tweeting out my article in return.

My goal had always been to eventually turn “Blogs to watch” into an eBook and publish it as a standalone free product. For an eBook to make sense, I needed at least 20 articles which were going to take 20 months to build up. Even while I was building the content over time, the strategy already yielded results. For example, some of the bloggers I featured sent my article to their audience, or they repaid the favour by adding a link to my blog to their website.

However, the real breakthrough came when I eventually launched “The world’s best investing blogs“. There is something about being included in a book (even if it’s “just” an eBook) that gets peoples’ attention, all the more if it has a flattering title.

Some of the bloggers who had previously failed to do as much as acknowledge my article with a short email turned up in my inbox with a suggestion to talk and collaborate. Others – including some very-well regarded people in the investment world – praised me on social media. Endorsements don’t come any better than that.

Two bloggers fist-bumping

I recommended others and didn’t ask for anything in return. My belief had always been that the more energy you put into the universe, the more comes back to you. Initial results were a bit slow, probably also because some of the featured bloggers were suspicious of why I was referring my audience to them (“What’s the catch?“). After I had done it for some time, they started to believe that I was doing it simply as a service to my readers, and doing it well.

This brought an increase in traffic, sign-ups, and brand recognition as well as brand value.

There are a thousand ways to curate and highlight others. Given the results I’ve had, I wish I had started one or two other smaller initiatives earlier to capitalise on this particular growth opportunity.

Think about how to make this part of your content strategy and then act on it. You can’t start to lay the groundwork for this early enough.

5. Be wary of paid acquisition

Every content creator wants to grow their audience as fast as possible, and paid acquisition of new readers is a tempting possibility. So far, I have yet to meet a single colleague for whom this has worked, though.

When you think about it, it does make sense that paid acquisition for content creators works only in rare, exceptional circumstances:

  • There are so many wealthy corporations advertising on the web nowadays that you’ll find yourself competing with advertisers who have much deeper pockets than you. The days of undervalued advertising opportunities on the web are long gone (with rare exceptions).
  • How many times in your life did you ever react to an online ad or similar promotion?

I have colleagues who’ve tried it out. Some of them tried it repeatedly and in all sorts of ways. None of them succeeded. Not a single one.

Would you like to know of a free, effective way to grow? Read on.

6. Controversy is the best acquisition tool

Few things get your audience to grow faster than stirring up a bit of controversy.

By that, I don’t mean being controversial for the sake of it. The Internet can smell when someone is putting on a show just to stand out. Instead, you’ll need to come up with slightly controversial content that you genuinely stand behind.

Intelligent, relevant controversy gets you noticed.

On the web, people like to amplify something extraordinary. In our world of levelling down, someone who is willing to take a slightly controversial stance will be noticed all the more. Some will find your content refreshing and different while others will simply admire the fact that you dare to open your mouth. You’ll make both friends and enemies by doing so, but your friends will love you all the more for it.

I once published a piece on my investment blog to show how Germany’s corporate law (and capital market culture) traces back to the Nazis. It was a solid factual piece with relevant angles for my audience, but not what you’d typically expect on an investment blog – and it made some peoples’ neck hair stand up. However, to this day, people keep asking me about it! My article was very memorable and different from anything they got to read elsewhere. “How on earth did you know about this?“, one reader asked.

Intelligent, relevant controversy gets you noticed.

You could do worse than to draw up a plan on how to publish at least one controversial piece every quarter. Eventually, your ability to create (thoughtful!) controversy will naturally beat a path to the next important growth strategy.

7. Embrace the “superfan”

I’ve had superfans before I had ever come across the term, and it’s taken me a while (like, 20 years!) to properly recognise their value.

As the name indicates, superfans are people who like your content so much that they evangelise to others about your work. The term made it into the public domain when Pat Flynn published his 2019 book: “Superfans – The easy way to stand out, grow your tribe, and build a successful business“.

Everyone talks about building an audience, but few realise how powerful it is to have superfans who help you do it. They will post your content to their social media feed. They will defend you in online fora when trolls attack your work. When you launch new products, they are the first to purchase, which gives your product launch the crucial initial momentum.

Your content business’ growth plans will accelerate if you build an army of superfans. Imagine having 50, 500 or 5,000 people out there who are constantly talking up your book. That’s more effective marketing than anything you could ever create yourself.

You could even say that having such an army is for free. Technically speaking, that’s not true. To get superfans, you do need to do something extraordinary. Superfans don’t just appear overnight; they need nurturing. Depending on how you play your cards, you don’t necessarily need to spend money on getting superfans – but you need to invest in making an extra effort.

What are good strategies for creating superfans?

How To Create Unexpected Superfans for Your Writing” spells it all out for you. If you internalise the points raised in this article, you won’t even need to read Pat Flynn’s book. It’s all about going above and beyond to turn your most interested customers into superfans.

You can also go to 29 min 06 sec of the Perell/Pompliano video. Pomp does a section that very much ties in with the subject of creating superfans. Creating superfans is all about getting across to your audience that you pay attention to them and getting them involved.

I created superfans simply by what I was doing at the time and without even giving it further thought. In retrospect, I realise that my ability to do so is a bit of a superpower. Going forward, I’ll make use of it much more actively.

This whole notion ties in with #4 of my earlier article, “Why now is the time to build your $100m blog – and 15 tips on how to do it“, where I explain why 100 readers can be more valuable than 1,000 readers.

Don’t complain about user numbers and the difficulty of growing your business. Instead, busy yourself creating superfans who do the marketing for you! If you are currently frustrated by having a relatively low number of followers, consider that there are probably a few superfans hiding among your readers. They are just waiting for you to activate them.

8. Respect this one (and only one) benchmark for your content

I have a simple but highly effective quality control for the content I put out on my websites: I need to enjoy reading it myself and have an itch in my stomach at the thought of sending it to my readers.

If content doesn’t meet this goal, I rework it. Some pieces of content I have reworked a dozen times, other pieces I rewrote from scratch or totally changed the flow of. (It helps that I have an editor who critiques every piece.) Very occasionally, I kick something into the bin altogether – maybe 2% of my pieces.

Are you genuinely excited about getting your content out there under your name?

I re-read my own articles and reports until I don’t come up with any more edits. This involves me re-reading it multiple times over, which can be five times or 20 times (usually about a dozen times). Obviously, this is hard work and, at times, a bit unnerving. There is always that moment when I think: “Gosh, should I read it AGAIN?

It pays enormous dividends to keep going through your content over and over again until you have thoroughly exhausted all avenues for improving it further. When you feel that you have exhausted all potential for improving it further, read it ONE more time! That’s when you read it for your own enjoyment, and you can focus on checking whether it’s as good a piece as it should be.

I am my own biggest critic, and nothing leaves my desk until I am thrilled with it.

If you pursue this as your quality-control strategy, I can guarantee that your content business will grow at a healthy pace. Importantly, you won’t lose many readers along the way. An annual growth rate of 20-30% may appear low in this world of hyped-up stories about outlier content creators, but if you compound at such a rate, your content business will be going places sooner or later. Chances are, you’ll achieve 20-30% in bad years and a lot more in good years. If across a decade you achieve an average annual growth of 30% with two outlier years where you grow 70%, you will have grown your audience by 18 times when the decade is over.

9. Develop a solid knowledge of the tools at your disposal

The following is a point that gets way too little attention among content creators.

Everyone is busy creating content, and too few people make themselves knowledgeable about the tools at their disposal. Going back to the example of Pomp, he has built one of the world’s best-known content businesses with just three employees.

As he puts it:

The big thing is that given the tools that are available and the platforms, you don’t need a lot of people and you can build incredible reach, audience and monetisation using the tools that every other person has available to them.

Every piece of Pomp’s content gets millions of views, but Pomp and his two colleagues only succeeded because they have a solid understanding of the tools available.

Content creation

There are currently over 200 widely-used tools for content creators. Luckily, you don’t need to research them all yourself but simply check out “The ultimate guide to the creator economy“, published by Antler in May 2021. This guide gives you an overview of everything that’s available in the areas of:

  • Audience Curation
  • Audience Monetisation
  • Vertical Platforms
  • Community Management
  • Creator Tools

Does that make you feel overwhelmed?

It ties in with point #4 of “My top 10 rules for building a blog“, i.e. invest in building a quality website. Taking one or two people on board as employees, freelancers or partners (like Pomp did) can be cheaper than trying to do it yourself because you end up with a bigger pie overall.

10. Define in advance what you want to be known for

You probably won’t believe that this point was even an issue for me. Is it?

My investment blog, Undervalued-Shares.com, is the more mature of my two websites, and it’s now gotten to that stage of what I intended it to do and become. When I relaunched it in late 2018, I could tap into 15 years of experience in doing something similar. However, even for this website, I wish I had done more work in advance to define what it was supposed to become known for in its new incarnation.

For Swen-Lorenz.com, a lot of work remains to be done on what its purpose in life will be. (Although I do not doubt that it’s a sleeping giant!)

You only get the chance to play with a white canvas once, and that’s before launching something! Once it’s out there, changes are still possible (and inevitable), but with a much greater effort. If you make changes to an existing content ecosystem, you need to take all your followers along. If you change a concept before launching it, all you need to do is convince yourself.

If you are still in that pre-launch phase of conceptualising and plotting, give yourself sufficient time and enjoy every minute of it! You won’t get another chance like it.

That’s all I’ve got – now go for it!

This is the third article in which I have shared my knowledge of how to successfully build, grow and operate a blog (or any other form of content business).

It’s the final one. I have given you everything I’ve got. You’ve sucked me dry.

I just want to add one final message: keep in mind that everyone starts at zero. Everyone.

What separates the people who succeed (at anything) from those who ultimately fail comes down to giving it your all.

If you want to create a successful content business, you have to be at it day after day after day. There are no shortcuts and no magic wands. It’s a lot of work, and much of what you’ll try will fail or produce mediocre results.

There may be the odd case where that isn’t the case, but these are the lottery winner-type outliers of the business. You won’t be one of them. If you succeed, it’ll be a million times more likely because you’ve put in hard work. If you disagree with this statement, you better go out now and buy your next lottery ticket.

What separates the people who succeed (at anything) from those who ultimately fail comes down to giving it your all.

The good news is that you are lucky to live in an era with more ways than ever before to capitalise on creativity. No generation before you has had the same breadth of opportunity for turning a passion into a livelihood. E.g., this article has shown you a resource that gives you 220 technical tools to work with, most of them with a free trial version. This is an insane number of available tools, which anyone who has lived before you would have been envious of.

This era has decades more to run, during which the first-generation content creators will benefit from a rising tide and compounding growth. Start-up costs for joining the fray are nearly zero, and you’ve got people like me who spill the beans about their experience for free.

This opportunity is yours for the taking. Remind me again, why haven’t you started?

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