In 2008, Cartly Heitlinger was a freshman in college doing what most of us do in her situation – studying a subject they don’t like in order to get a degree they do. So she started a blog as part distraction, part creative outlet, writing about things she was interested in – study breaks and bows on shoes, to name a few.
Now, six years later, Carly writes a wide variety of posts on The College Prepster that revolve around fashion, lifestyle, shopping, her life in New York, and snippets about what she’s learned about blogging. Almost 2000 posts later, it appears she’s never been stuck for an idea.
For those of us who are dying to know how to keep our blogs interesting and fresh, I asked Carly to spill her secrets on how she found her groove, how she realised what her readers wanted most, and what are the kind of posts she won’t go near with a ten-foot pole. What she shares with us today are valuable tips she’s learned through trial and error – tips we can all use to inspire us to create useful and entertaining content no matter what our blog niche is.
In 2008 when The College Prepster began, it was Carly’s “little escape” that she could focus her energy on in between school stress, exams, and crew practice. She says the culture of blogging at the time was “actually pretty ideal”.
“There was NO pressure,” she says.
“No followers? No problem. Personal branding wasn’t a buzzword. Twitter wasn’t mainstream. Marketing dollars were still being spent in the traditional sense. The community of bloggers, (there were a handful in the same “niche” as me) was a lot closer and not competitive at all.”
So while there was no pressure, no competition, and no real need to be unique and stand out from the blogging crowd, Carly experimented with content she enjoyed writing and watched how it resonated with her growing audience.
“I really was just desperate for an outlet when I started; what I was writing about just sort of happened,” she says.
“For a while, I would blog about fashion (mainly products I liked) and quick little updates about my life. I was really young and quite busy with school, so I didn’t have that much to contribute. My content continued to evolve as both I and social media matured. I was able to share experiences and provide advice and work more closely with brands to produce exclusive content through the “College Prepster” voice.”
There are few blogs in existence that are exactly the same as what they were when they began. Over time, as we get more comfortable, more bold, more understanding of what works and what doesn’t, it’s natural to progress into new areas, to cut others, and find the winning balance. The best part of blogging is its flexibility, the ability of the author to test new things, to learn from their mistakes, and for their blog to evolve as they do.
The College Prepster has grown and evolved just as Carly has over the years, and while it stays true to its roots, it’s a much slicker operation these days, with a little more forethought into its content.
“I consider my blog to be a combination of ‘life and style’,” she says.
“So you might find anything from a recap of a fun weekend I had, new books or movies I loved, a personal style outfit, new arrivals or must haves from a favorite retailer, advice from a life experience, or simply just something interesting!”
The topics Carly features sit seamlessly alongside brands keen to reach her engaged and interested audience. From sharing fashion finds for the love of it, to collaborating with big-name partners, Carly ensures her posts are not just readable, but useful too.
“I always post products that I personally love and endorse. Some are paid features and I often make a commission off of the products, but it’s always things that I love!,” she says.
So what has the blog evolved into? And what resonates with her readers the most?
“I want my blog to be a place where people feel like they’re my friend and reading something they can’t find anywhere else,” she says.
“A blog entirely with only fashion photos seems too impersonal and a diary of just my life would be boring. I like to have a diversified content mix.”
“Writing about things that I think my readers will respond well to, versus listening to my intuition of what I want to post, actually has the opposite effect. You end up attracting the wrong audience!”
Right. so: diversify, go with your instinct, and stay true to yourself. What else?
“Readers who come back day after day respond very well to my “life event” updates. Whether I’m sharing a lesson I’ve learned or a fun day I had, they like following that plotline of my life. I get lots of new readers from Pinterest from fashion photos, organizational posts, and DIY/how-tos.”
Got it: Let people peek behind the curtain – they love connecting with the human experience. How has Carly seen that affect on her readers when she posts about personal stories?
“I think [writing more personal posts] is the key differentiator,” she says.
“It comes with costs (mainly a loss of privacy as readership has grown), but the value it adds to my blog is notable. Someone recently sent me an article about how blogs are dead and I almost had to agree. The market is saturated, the content is copied, and attention spans have gotten smaller! However, personal stories I think are getting lost or dramatized. (How many five minute Youtube videos have you watched about an inspirational video… only to move onto the next story next week?) There’s something to be said about a storyline that continues over the years. The College Prepster isn’t perfect, is relatable, and fails and succeeds. She has become a friend to the reader over the years! (It doesn’t stop at just the blog though, using other social media platforms to build out a more robust character is necessary).
“I love blogging about books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched. I love getting recommendations from other people, so those types of posts are generally great “conversation starters.”
But creating fresh, new, interesting content day after day, year after year can be difficult. What serves as Carly’s inspiration, considering she posts nearly every day (and sometimes twice a day!)?
“I find inspiration everywhere,” she says.
“But mostly I draw from my life experiences. I think this has actually allowed my blog to stand out amongst a rather saturated market and gain a loyal, very tuned-in audience. I’m not just showing a pair of new shoes, but instead talking about where I went in the shoes and what kinds of experiences I had.
Another of Carly’s hot tips is to step away from the mainstream ideas of what makes “blog content”.
“I think video, imagery, and writing all go hand and hand,” she says.
“I mean, look at Instagram. It’s really a mini blog (and should be treated as such!). It’s also important, from a business development perspective, to see where marketing dollars are being spent from a corporate level, namely Pinterest (photos) and YouTube (video). Writing certainly will continue to have its place, but it’s important to keep content fresh and “current.” If a photo or a video does the trick, then it does the trick. Content is content.”
So keep it personal, step outside the box, but also know what doesn’t work. What has Carly found doesn’t work for The College Prepster?
“As a rule, I don’t blog about politics or religion. That’s not to say that I don’t have opinions on these topics (I certainly do!), The College Prepster is just not the place. I used also lump personal relationships/my dating life into the off-limits category over time… but I’ve slowly relaxed a bit on that. I have a boyfriend, and while we share certain elements of our relationship online (mostly in the context of fashion and/or events we went to together), we keep it primarily ‘offline’.”
“Write about what you’d want to read. (And don’t blog about something you’ve already read. There’s nothing more boring than reading blog posts consisting of photos I’ve already seen on another website!) I write as if i’m writing to my best friend!”
If you’ve found this case study as inspiring as I have, you might like to read more of Carly’s blog at The College Prepster, watch her (super-useful!) YouTube videos here, chat with her on Facebook, or Tweet her here.