You sweat blood all night, hunched over your keyboard, typing away at your blog’s next masterpiece. Finally, you click “Publish”, the post flies into the ether, and then, you wait. You refresh the page, over and over, waiting for that first comment to appear. Drat, a splog trackback! Refresh, refresh…. You check your stats, you search Digg and StumbleUpon for any mention of your post, you sit and fret, wondering if your post was good enough, whether people will like it or even read it, whether you might — just might — make a few bucks or change a few minds or get a few votes of sympathy or whatever else it is you secretly hope will be the outcome of people reading your post.
If only there were some way to tell if your post was going to be effective.
Writing is writing
There are as many styles of blog posts as there are bloggers (more, even). Some are frivolous and care-free, others are serious and business-like. Some are concerned, others apathetic. Some are long, detailed reports about the minutiae of their topic, others are impressionistic sketches offering inspiration rather than instruction.
What they all ultimately share is the desire to get their reader to do something — to feel or act a certain way, to buy a product, to think a thought, to answer a question, to leave a comment, or even just to respect the author. Bloggers imagine some outcome, and trust to their writing skill to get their readers there.
I was thinking about this as I read Bob Bly’s Copywriter’s Handbook recently. Although we’re not all explicitly trying to sell something with our blogs, the rules that apply to good sales copy apply just as well to good blogging. Good writing is, in the end, good writing. Like an advertisement, an effective blog post leads the reader to take action.
Maybe a reader will make a duct-tape wallet after reading a post on a craft blog, or set up a computer backup system after reading a tutorial on a tech blog. They might write better because of a post on ProBlogger, or make more money, or launch a new site, or create better headlines. They may feel sorry for a blogger who recounts her awful day at work, or thrilled by the announcement of a child’s birth on their favorite daddy-blogger’s site. They might buy a product, or not buy a product, because of a review they read on your blog.
With that in mind, I’ve adapted the following tips from Bly’s “How to Write a Good Advertisement” (in Chapter 6 for those playing along at home). Here, then, are nine criteria a blog post must satisfy if it is to be a successful post:
1. The headline draws the reader in.
The importance of a good headline has been emphasized repeatedly here at ProBlogger (for example, here and here and here) and elsewhere, and for good reason. Few readers will read a post whose headline doesn’t entice them in some way, either by promising them a benefit for themselves (“How Blogging Makes You Sexier” — the reader wants to know how they can be sexier), arousing their curiosity (“The 10 Mistakes You Make that Are Costing You Money” — the reader wants to know what those 10 mistakes are), or promising a reward (“Earn $5,000 in an Hour!” — the reader would like to make $5,000). A post that doesn’t get read in the first place is obviously not an effective post, so a compelling headline is essential.
2. A concrete detail or visual illustrates the benefit promised in the headline.
Not all blogs use images, for any number of reasons, but if you don’t, your first paragraph or two should concretely illustrate the benefit your headline promises. If your headline is “Earn $5000 in an Hour” then the post should open with the story of someone — you or someone else — who did just that — who they are, what they did with the money, something the reader can picture that lends credibility to the title and draws them further into the post.
3. The lead expands the theme of the heading
The opening of a blog post should not just be concrete but it should expand on and deepen the promise made in the headline (this applies to leads after subheads, too). To take one of the examples above, “How Blogging Makes You Sexier”, the first few paragraphs should not only offer the reader something concrete to “hook into”, but should explain what exactly the post is promising. Maybe you’ll say what you mean by sexier: “OK, blogging won’t give you those 6-pack abs you’ve dreamed of, but by putting yourself out in the open, blogging can put both your intelligence and your confidence on display. And studies show that women [or men] find intelligence and confidence 62% sexier than physical attractiveness”.
(Note: all figures made up for purposes of illustration. Please consult your beautician before putting this advice into practice.)
4. The layout is clear and skimmable.
The perils of presenting text on the computer screen are, by now, fairly well-established. Readers have little patience for electronic text, blogs included. They are far more likely to skim through your post — pausing for a moment here and there to read a snippet of text that catches their eye — than to read it straight through from start to finish.
Having a strong layout and design is crucial to the success of a blog post. Sub-heads, bullet points, short paragraphs, bold-faced text — all of these give the eye something to “catch on” as the reader skims through your post. Take advantage of whatever tools are at your disposal to help make key points stand out, without cluttering your post to the point that nothing stands out.
5. The post covers the topic in a logical sequence.
To make $5,000 in an hour, first you need to insert your affiliate link prominently in the post. No, wait, you should already have built a blog. Install WordPress on your webhost. If you need to register a domain name, use DustinHost. Now, in the second part of your post, you need to persuade the reader that the product will make them rich. Having a really strong headline will help get people to read the post.
If you bothered to read that paragraph, you’re probably hopelessly confused. It might have everything you need to know to make $5,000 in an hour (which, needless to say, I don’t actually know how to do). But if a post presents information in a scattershot way, no one will ever be able to put all the pieces together.
Most topics will suggest their own structure. A how-to post is best structured in steps, one after the other. A historical event is usually best presented chronologically. An idea an usually be broken down into clear parts. A post on turtles will probably be organized by different kinds of turtles (sea vs. fresh-water, for instance, or by species). And so on. There isn’t necessarily only one way to present whatever information you’re presenting, but however you choose to write the post, the parts should flow, one into the other, to create a coherent whole.
6. The post is persuasive.
The most effective posts lay out an argument in a way that leads the reader to agreement of sympathy with the author’s position. They may not agree 100%, but they can see the reason in it, and are forced to make their disagreements explicit (which is why really strong posts tend to have really intense debates in their comments; weak posts don’t, because they’re easily dismissed).
Being persuasive depends on a lot of different things:
- Knowledge of your audience: You have to know enough about your audience to know what matters most to them, and appeal to those values. Arguments that depend on a close reading of the Bible, for instance, probably aren’t going to be much use on a science blog, or a blog dedicated to secular humanism.
- A logical structure: See above. One point leads naturally and effortlessly into the other.
- Concrete detail: Most of the time, people need to see an idea in action to really get it, and the more concrete detail you can offer the easier it is for them to “see” it.
- Evidence: Statistics, interviews, quotes from respected works — these support your argument and make it more likely your reader will find it persuasive.
- Narrative: Stories resonate strongly with people, because they combine concrete detail with a structure that’s intuitively familiar to us: this happened, then this happened, then this happened.
- Emotion: When it comes down to it, people respond most strongly when their emotions are called into play. The promise of a gain or the fear of a loss can be very persuasive, if you can make it real enough. This isn’t carte blanche to blatantly manipulate your audience, which is as likely to backfire as to succeed — you can appeal to emotion without being over-the-top.
7. The post is interesting to read.
Hard to believe, isn’t it? But if your post is boring, chances are it will be skipped. Remember, there are lots of other blogs in the RSS sea!
This doesn’t mean you have to be sensational or play down to the lowest common denominator. If you have a passion for what you’re writing, respect for your audience’s intelligence, and you have a strong command of language and style, you should find it quite easy to write a clear, engaging post on whatever your topic is, whether it’s tax law or lingerie of the stars.
8. The post is believable.
So I’m hanging out with Tom Waits and Keith Richards the other night, and who should walk in but Johnny Depp. “Johnny, old boy!” I cry out, over the din of the bar. “Good to see ya!”
To be effective, a post needs to be not only persuasive but believable. You made a promise in your headline; if your reader doesn’t feel like you’re being straight with her in the post, you’ll lose her — probably for good. I can’t tell you how many “make money online” blogs I’ve clicked through to from another site, read through a post or two, and never visited again because I felt like I was being scammed somehow. “$5,000 in an hour? No way!”
What establishes credibility? Different people are going to be swayed by different things, but a few essentials are:
- An about page: The absence of an about page is usually enough for me not to trust a writer. Who are they? Why should I believe them? What are they hiding?
- Your background: Do you have a degree in the topic you write about? A string of publications? 20 years in the industry? I know you’d like to think your writing stands on its own merits, but for many readers, knowing you write from experience matters.
- Endorsements: Testimonials from clients, positive press, reviews from major figures in your field, word of mouth from other bloggers, and links from well-regarded sites all help you to convey your credibility. It means more when someone else says they trust you than when you say I should trust you.
- Professionalism: You don’t need to blog in a jacket and tie (though you might change those jammies once in a while!), but attention to little details like spelling, grammar, site design and usability, language appropriate to your audience, and so on matter to your audience. The best content in a site that looks amateurish and immature isn’t going to be nearly as effective as weaker copy presented in a professional way.
9. The post asks for some action.
This is probably the most overlooked part of writing an effective post. Of course, it’s not always clear what the “action” is — if you’ve just written a thousand words about what a jerk your boss is, you might not have any particular action in mind, at least not consciously. But just think: if you don’t know what the action you expect of your reader is, how much less will they know?
Because you do have an action in mind, even if you’re not making it explicit. You want your reader to subscribe to your RSS feed, to come back and read the next chapter in your adventures in corporate hell, to click on ads, to share your story with their Twitter pals, to digg or Stumble or bookmark it, to link to it on their blog. You want them to feel sorry for you, to laugh with you, to write a letter to their Congressperson, to boycott company X, to patronize company Y, to write better or to start a blog or to have a better relationship or bake better cookies or ace that interview or get a job or install Linux on their toaster oven, to buy a product or subscribe to a magazine or download a program or…
The more explicit you are about the outcome you have in mind, and the more forthright you are about asking for that outcome, the more likely it is that that action will happen. Seems like common sense, yet a surprising number of writers skip that part. Even in advertising, there are writers who are great at capturing attention and building interest, who get their reader all keyed up to buy the product, and fail to ask for the sale.
Your next blog post
Obviously these guidelines don’t apply to every possible post. If you post haikus, short stories, or other creative writing at your blog, then they might not apply at all (though there are other standards of writing within your genre that do apply). But for most “non-fiction” blog posts — tutorials and how-tos, political commentary, even journal entries — these points are a pretty good standard to measure your posts by.
Next time you sit down to write a post, keep these points in mind. Decide what the goal of your post is and write towards that goal. When you review your post — you do review your post before you publish it, right? — ask yourself how well you satisfy each point, and whether your post might be more effective if you paid more attention to one or more of these signs of an effective blog post.
Maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll find that one or more of these points don’t really apply to the kind of writing you do. That’s fine — at least you’ll know, rather than lucking out. Chances are, though, that you’ll find in each at least some kind of idea about how your posts can be improved. And better, more effective posts means more traffic, lower bounce rates, more word of mouth, more of everything you’re blogging for.