WOW have I been reading a lot of blogs lately. My Google Reader list almost doubled after reading through all your recommendations. Combine that with my awesome tablet and newfound free time for reading, and I’ve been a blog-post-consuming machine these days.
I don’t know whether this is a curse or a blessing, but my web marketing and development background means that it’s impossible for me to read blogs without at least a little bit of analysis. I look up how many readers the author has, think about how that compares to the readership of other, similar writers, and notice which posts seem to get the most traffic among his or her readership. I also follow a handful of mega-bloggers (folks who have millions of pageviews per month); not all of their writing is to my taste, but I read them out of curiosity to observe what it is they do that seems to touch a nerve with such vast numbers of people.
I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and in that time I’ve accumulated a lot of data. And for a long time I thought that it was mostly useless, because there simply didn’t seem to be any clear set of rules that would apply to all top-notch blogs. For every tip that was commonly accepted as a best practice, there were plenty of blogs that had great readership yet did the opposite. “Include lots of pictures,” “have a good design,” “write concisely,” “do numbered list posts,” were all good ideas, yet didn’t seem to be implemented consistently among blogs that actually gained traction.
Even the disreputable traffic-baiting techniques didn’t seem to work all that well. I’ve heard the lament that it’s impossible to have a widely read blog unless you trash other people or share graphic details about your intimate life or swear like a pirate or pen divisive political tirades, yet (to my relief) that’s not what I found when I looked at the data. Folks like the Pioneer Woman, Leo Babauta, Design Mom, Glennon Melton, and Sarah Mae all built sites that attract tens of thousands of loyal readers without resorting to any of those tactics.
So for years I just shrugged my shoulders, the analyst in me annoyed and perplexed that I could not seem to find a single thing that all the big personal bloggers had in common.
And then, on this latest reading kick, something finally clicked. It’s embarrassing how excited I was when I realized that I actually did see one — and only one — thing that every single person with a widely read personal blog has in common. It’s something the Glamourai and BooMama, Donald Miller and Alice Bradley, Michael Hyatt and Kelle Hampton share. Yes, even Ann Voskamp and the Bloggess have it in common. And it’s this:
They are all wholly, unapologetically themselves.
Kelle Hampton, for example, is passionate about taking pictures to share the beauty in her daily life. So is Ann Voskamp. And you can tell from the energy that exudes from the pages of their blogs that they don’t post these photos because they read in some tips list that it’s good for traffic; it’s the natural outpouring of a genuine, white-hot passion in this area.
I’m guessing that BooMama doesn’t write her laugh-out-loud funny posts because she read somewhere that quirky Southern humor helps build a readership, just like Donald Miller probably didn’t decide to focus on spiritually-based life improvement tips due to a market potential analysis. Instead, they were both honest about what they most enjoy writing, and followed where their energy naturally flowed.
Some people are very open and just can’t hold back on all the details of their personal lives; others are more formal and reserved. Some absolutely love creating beauty and couldn’t imagine a blog that wasn’t filled with big, beautiful pictures and a lovely design; others would be happy with a bare bones style where the beauty is in the words alone. Some people feel most passionate when they can write long, wandering posts that release all their thoughts on a subject; others naturally lean towards sharing their ideas quickly and concisely. Some find that they’re never more in the zone than when they express themselves through visuals; others prefer words alone. Some have lifestyles that allow them to update frequently and predictably; others don’t — and their readers still love them.
It doesn’t matter which category you fall into, or whether your own passions are in line with what the experts say you need to do to have a big blog. The only thing that’s really important is that you know who you are, what you love, and which unique charisms God has give you, and you express that on the page.
This idea is summed up beautifully in one of my favorite quotes, from Howard Thurman:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Especially in this disconnected society where there’s so much loneliness, I think that we all naturally gravitate toward people who strike us as deeply human. In the age of digital living and on-screen personas, we’re desperate for that unmistakable sense of connectedness you can only find when you’re around people who are honest with you about who they are. We’ll even listen to the ideas of someone whom we otherwise wouldn’t agree with, just to be in the presence of a person who is passionately comfortable in her own skin.
And so, if I were to write a “tips for bloggers” list based on my 10 years of analysis and as many years of having my own blogs, I think it would only have one item on it. I would simply say:
BE YOURSELF. Be wholly, unapologetically yourself.
This doesn’t mean rationalizing bad behavior or navel gazing or wallowing in self-indulgence; instead, it means digging deep to find that unique combination of interests and talents that only you can offer the world, and sharing them with as much energy as you can muster. To paraphrase St. Catherine of Siena, be who God meant for you to be, and you’ll set the blog world on fire.