I have recommended blogging to many of my clients and others in my network, whether as their principle outreach or as a complement to or destination for their social media strategy.
From the freelancer to the multinational corporation, a blog is a great way to put content into the world that helps position you and your expertise to potential clients. And for freelancers and consultants, it’s a way to leverage content that you’re probably already writing anyway. For individuals looking for an online venue to publish what they write, a blog provides you with a way to say what you want to say without attaching or relating it to a social media platform such as Facebook.
This blog post gives a general outline of what to do to plan and set up a blog. While it goes into details assuming a WordPress blog, much of it is applicable to blogs in general.
Why do you want a blog?
Just like each of the other components of your online presence, your blog needs individual consideration and planning.
The first step in creating your blog is to identify your goals. Of course you want it to be highly visible with lots of subscribers and for it to result in advantages for your business or accolades for you.
But that’s too general. Back away from the hyperbole and come up with a few specific goals for your blog. What do you want to accomplish? Once you know this, then you can plan accordingly and have realistic expectations. The goals that you set for your blog should depend a lot on why you want to blog, and vice-versa.
Here are three general reasons to blog. These are from a small-business perspective, but also apply to larger companies as well as a personal blogger:
- Personality: Use your blog to inject some of your personality into your business. The reason this is a good tactic for smaller businesses is because people tend to feel more comfortable doing business with people they feel they know.
- Information: Some people use their blog as a way to document processes or products or otherwise create a knowledge base of information. This will give you an easy place to refer your customers to when they have questions, and will impress potential customers with your breadth of knowledge in a particular field.
- Community: Use your blog to build a [hopefully interactive] community. A community is a good way to help build a loyal customer base. Also, a good community often is a self-grower as community members recommend the community to their friends.
Choose a platform
WordPress is the leading blogging platform, but there are other options, including Squarespace, tumblr, and many others. Naturally, if you are with a large organization, you will probably not use WordPress. Contact your IT department and ask for their guidance. Many company websites today are set up with a database-backed content management system (CMS), so providing additional blog functionality may be an easy thing for them to do.
However for small businesses, entrepreneurs, and personal bloggers without an IT department to call or the budget to hire outside help, I recommend WordPress. However, note that I am not referring to WordPress.com, which lets you very easily set up a blog as part of their site by simply setting up an account. No, what I’m referring to is the WordPress software platform which runs on your own web server on your own domain where you have full control of it.
Honestly, I’ve only ever used WordPress for a blog so I can’t offer opinions about other options. For that reason, I’ll assume in this post that you plan to use WordPress.
Get a hosted domain
If you’re reading this as an early step toward adding a blog to your existing business website, then you will probably just use a blog path at one directory level below your regular domain, for example: www.domainname.com/blog.
But if you are planning a standalone business blog or a personal blog, then your first job is to get a domain.
Getting a domain can be quick and easy (and inexpensive), but thinking of the perfect domain name is a process you should not rush. See more about domain names here, and note that you’ll save yourself a step by buying your domain through the company you plan to use as your web host.
If you don’t already have a web host, I suggest you get your domain through a web host that provides WordPress services. This short list from WordPress.org offers a good start, but note that if you already have a web host that you are comfortable with, contact them to see if they offer this service: many of them do.
Planning your blog
With your shiny new domain in hand, it’s time to do some planning.
Set reasonable expectations
This is not “Field of Dreams,” where you build a blog and readers automatically come. In fact, unless you put serious effort into promoting it, you might have only one or two readers a month. Ask yourself why you are blogging at all, and set your expectations accordingly.
Good content is far more important than a strict schedule. A rookie move is to publish that first blog post declaring “Welcome to my weekly (or monthly or whatever) blog!” Rather than kill yourself to keep a schedule, just do what you can when you can. Remember: doing it right is better than doing it right now. That said, keep your blog from getting stale by setting a limit on how much time you’ll allow to go by without posting something new.
Who is your audience? Who are you talking to? All would-be bloggers should have an idea about this. Are you talking to peers? Are you talking to people in your professional network? Are you talking to people who share your interests, such as painting, parenting, politics, or partying? For the business blogger, you are probably talking to prospective or existing customers, but you might also be talking to press, to employees, or your shareholders. Know who you are talking to and talk to them accordingly.
Once you have identified who you will be talking to, plan what voice you want to use for that audience. A personal blog written in a very formal voice could be off-putting, and a professional blog written too casually could fall flat. Only you know the voice that is appropriate for your audience. Think about this ahead of time and as you edit, look for ways to capture that voice.
Make and document decisions now about your voice and how you will write, that way you avoid having to make the same decisions over again. If you don’t have a style guide, you definitely need one — and this applies to every blogger, not just businesses. A style guide is especially important if you think you will have guest writers or have someone else do your editing. Read more about style guides, and if you don’t have one, you may use the Miller & Mattson style guide as a starting point (because, seriously: you must have a style guide)!
Setting up and getting started
Okay, now that you have some planning under your belt, let’s get you started! Especially if this is your first time using WordPress, give yourself some time to ease into it. For those setting up personal blogs, I always encourage people to get started on Friday night and devote the whole weekend to it.
A development server
If you are adding a blog to your existing, established site, then I strongly urge you to first develop your blog on an interim development server or in a different directory on the same server with an optional password, then move it to your site when you are ready to launch. Talk with your IT department about this or, if you are doing this on your own, talk with your web host about it.
You can also do this if you are launching a new standalone business or personal blog that you have not yet publicized, or you can just go for it. Just know that anyone who happens to know or find the URL will be able to see your placeholder content and your experimentation as you get this off the ground. (For both my blogs, I just developed them live.)
Load the WordPress platform
Presumably you have already gotten your domain, and hopefully you got that domain from a company that provides WordPress services. If you haven’t already, now is the time to set that up. This is typically as easy as contacting your web host and asking them to set it up. [Many web hosts provide an easy self-serve install process as well.]
Be sure to tell them your expectations for what your URL will be. For example, if you are creating a standalone blog that your readers will access by just going to your domain (www.yourdomainname.com), then be sure to tell them this. Otherwise, they might assume you plan to build a website at that domain in addition to the blog, so they might install the WordPress in a “blog” subdirectory.
If your web host does not provide WordPress installation services, then you can go to WordPress.org to get what you need and use FTP to do it yourself. It’s not too difficult, but if you are not a computer savvy person, then I urge you to hire someone to set it up for you. Please let me know if you need a recommendation.
Go to your dashboard
Once your WordPress platform is live, do two things:
- Go to your WordPress admin dashboard. Open your favorite web browser and enter the WordPress admin URL that your web host sends you, using the provided username and password to log in. If they do not provide you with a URL, then it is probably going to be the following: www.yourdomainname.com/wp-admin
This will take you to your dashboard, and you will see a menu along the left much like what I show in the above graphic.
- Go to your blog. Open a second tab in your browser (usually Ctrl-T will do this) and go to your new website. You should see the very basic beginnings of your new blog, for now called “Just another WordPress site.”
As you work on your blog, keep both tabs open so you can jump back and forth to see what you are doing.
Time to explore
The first thing you should do is explore the platform. Your relationship with this tool needs to be a good one, as you will need to reach the point where you can come here to write, not to struggle with an unfamiliar environment. Now, before anyone knows your URL and before you have serious work here to protect, take the time to just click on stuff and see what happens.
Your new blog has some default pages and posts already there. Check out Pages and Posts in the dashboard menu to see how this default content looks.
To get familiar with this tool, you need to jump into it. Use the Post menu item to open an existing post or create a new one. Change some wording on the post to get a feel for the text editor. As you make changes, save your work, then refresh your window in the other tab to see the results. As you experiment, publish a post with different types of content that you can use as a model page as you customize the look and feel of your blog. If you experiment with WordPress in a password-protected directory, then nobody will be able to see your experiments. If the WordPress directory is not password-protected, and if you have not yet given your URL to anybody, it’s unlikely any human will guess your URL and see your experiments. But it’s not impossible that somebody might guess your URL, so resist the urge to try something funny that might embarrass you later.
Below is the tool panel that you will see at the top of the text edit window:
[Note that if your text editor looks very different from this, see what I say about the Classic Editor plugin below.]
The Visual tab lets you enter text that will display in a way that only approximates WYSIWYG: the fonts, spacing, and colors might be slightly different when you look at how the page is rendered. This is where most bloggers do their work. If you are comfortable working in native HTML, you can do that on the Text tab in the text editor. [Knowing HTML is not required at all, but sometimes I have found it helpful.]
Many of the tool icons in the text editor, such as those for changing the alignment of a paragraph, are obvious. Here are some of the others:
The Quote icon will set the paragraph as quoted text. Every theme renders this differently:
Here’s how the theme I use does it.
The Insert read more icon will break the text and insert a “Read more” or “Continue reading” link. Note that it only does this on the page that shows all your blog posts, not within the editor window or in the blog post itself. Also, every theme renders this a little differently.
The Toolbar toggle icon expands or contracts your tool panel.
The Paste as text icon lets you paste text copied from a word processor or other program without including any of the formatting hidden in it. Always use this to paste text from other programs.
The Clear formatting icon lets you delete formatting from text. Highlight the text (plus any white space before and after it!) and then click on this icon.
The Special character icon brings up a panel from which you can choose a character to insert into your text.
The Keyboard shortcuts icon will remind you of the keyboard shortcuts to help you work more efficiently.
One sad truth about the internet today is that it is crawling with hackers and other bad actors. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you work to set up your blog:
Themes and plugins. Most of what governs the look and functionality of your blog will be driven by themes and plugins, which are programs written by others. My number-one rule is to only use themes and plugins that have been installed by a very large number of people, which are compatible with the latest version of WordPress, and which have a descent rating. We’ll go into more detail about this later when we talk plugins, but keep in mind that this is an important factor for maintaining your security.
Updates. Because there are quite a few hackers looking for vulnerabilities out there, the programmers who create and manage WordPress and its many components constantly issue updates. Your job as the administrator of a blog is to always ensure that everything is kept up to date. It’s very easy to do, but it’s something you should look into at least weekly.
Customizing your blog
Now it’s time to start the work of making your blog your new home. My experience is that this will happen in several stages, depending on whether this is a personal or a business blog. First, you should set up a “good enough for now” look. Then after a few weeks, months, or longer, when you are familiar with the tool and ready to do more, either update the look of your site or hire someone to do it for you. Below are the steps that I suggest to get you to the first “good enough” stage.
Your first step is to choose a theme, which provides the foundation for the look and feel of your blog. The beauty of a database-based site such as a WordPress blog is that you can change your theme at any time. This is easy to do when your blog is at this newborn stage, but becomes more complicated later on when you have more settings and assets to deal with.
From the Appearance section of the dashboard menu (we’ll just call this the Appearance menu), choose Themes to access the Themes page.
Your new WordPress installation will likely come with a few simple default themes installed. On the Themes page the upper-leftmost theme shown is the one that is currently active. If you hover your mouse over one of the other themes, you can choose to activate it or see a live preview. Experiment with “live preview”ing other themes, and if you like what you see, go ahead and activate it. Later on when you have lots of content in your blog we would be more cautious, but for now, explore!
Once you are familiar with this process, then look at more themes. Click the Add New button at the top of the page to get access to many, many thousands of more themes. Narrow the list with the Featured, Popular, and Latest filters. Better yet, click on the Features filter button. This will display a large checkbox panel where you can indicate the features you want the theme, and thus your blog, to have. Check everything that is important to you, then click the Apply Filters button.
On the resulting screen, preview the themes that seem good to you, installing the ones you like best. Once themes are installed, you can choose the one that you want to Activate.
This can be a grueling process. I recall spending well over half a day on this one step when I set up my blog. Just get yourself to the “good enough for now” stage, then after you’ve published a few posts and are more familiar with the platform and, more importantly, more familiar with what you wish your blog was doing, then you can go back to this step and do it again. Very little that you do at this early stage is set in stone: you can change it later on.
Customize the theme
Once you have activated a theme, you will use the Customize option from the Appearance menu to customize. This will open up a new menu on the left with an approximate preview of the blog on the right. Because every theme has different options, there’s not much I can say here. But note that many themes provide guidelines or user guides where you can get more details on other options. Here are the basics that almost every theme will let you set here:
Site Identity. This is where you indicate the name of your blog, the tagline (if you have or want one), and your icon.
Menus. Set the primary location for your menu, which usually will be “Primary Menu.” To actually set up the menu details, you will choose Menus from the Appearance menu — but that’s something you can get to later.
Widgets. A widget is a self-contained area that serves up content. For example, on the right side of my screen I have a TagCloud widget, followed by a few others, including one that lists all my posts. Just like the Menus item above, all you are doing here is indicating the locations where widgets can appear. The actual widgets themselves will be set up by choosing Widgets from the Appearance menu later.
Homepage Settings. Here you will tell the theme whether you want your home page to be a page that lists all your latest posts, or a static page. You would set this to “Static page” if you want visitors to your blog to see introductory information before seeing the list of your posts. Even if this is something you want to do, for now I suggest you leave it as “Your latest posts.”
Different themes may offer additional choices on the menu, such as options for specifying a color palette, setting a background image, and much more. It is this diverse range of options that makes choosing a theme a big job and that makes it difficult to assess a theme without activating it and exploring.
My advice at this very early stage is that the very best thing you can do right now is experiment. Create a sample blog post — even if it is just filler text with a random image — then pay attention to how your changes affect the page. And don’t sweat this step too much. Choose something that looks at least a bit like what you want, then settle in and get comfortable with it. You can’t really know what features you will want until you learn more about the platform, and that won’t happen until you’ve been using it a while. Choose a theme and play with its customization options until it is at least adequate, then move on to get comfortable with the platform.
Once you have chosen a theme and explored its options, head over to look at plugins. Think of plugins as programs that you add to your blog. There are several plugins that I rely on for my blogs, but here are three in particular that I recommend:
Classic Editor. WordPress updated their default text editor to one that is block-oriented which I didn’t care for. I use this plugin to enjoy the text editor that I am more used to and which I recommend to others. Of the three plugins I list here, it is this one that I recommend installing and activating right away.
UpdraftPlus. I use this plugin to backup my site. You don’t need this right away, but once you have things set up to the point that losing your content would be painful, start with the free version of this plugin. In the meantime, just copy/paste your content into a text file or Google Doc (or Evernote!) for safekeeping. Just in case.
By the way, if you are comfortable using FTP, then you can just copy all of your blog files onto a backup drive to take care of your backups. I just use this plugin so that I can have an automated backup process.
Wordfence Security. This plugin monitors activity and logins, sends me reports on hack attempts, and sends notices about plugins that need updating. To be honest, the only benefit I’ve received from this plugin so far is peace of mind. But someday it just might be what alerts me to a problem that I can solve before it would have resulted in a compromised site.
As I said in my discussion of security, take care when installing plugins that they are reputable. For example, here is the information panel for the Classic Editor plugin:
This shows that it is actively used by over 5 million users, is regularly updated, is compatible with my version of WordPress, and out of 780 reviewers, this has a solid 5-star reviews. That’s good enough for me!
Writing your blog posts
With some of the initial set-up steps done and at least the basics of your look and feel taken care of, now we can start on the actual reason you’re here: writing your blog posts.
Every writer has their own process. One blogger I know writes everything in a Google Doc, has a hired editor tweak it, then posts it to WordPress. Other bloggers, including myself, may write from scratch in WordPress, or may take something they first posted on Facebook or sent in an email, paste into into WordPress, then fine-tune and edit it there. In any case, you can save your content in draft mode until it’s ready to go live.
Whatever process you use, here are some notes to consider:
This is your face to the online world (or one of them), so make it right. Read it out loud to yourself. Preview your pages before you publish. Check twice! And if you are not a stellar writer, then hire an editor.
Reading a wall of text is not what people tend to do on a screen, especially in the “chunked information” world we have nowadays. At a minimum, have a “feature” graphic for every blog post — but consider interspersing additional graphics as well. Here are some of my blog posts about graphics.
Unless stream-of-consciousness is your particular style, have an outline, and use subheads to break it up and make it “scannable” by readers.
Make the text of your link be a verb or noun phrase whenever you can, not just “here.” Link back to your blog whenever appropriate, but when you use links to any site that is external, have it open in a new page.
Sum it up
What do you want someone to do (or think or feel) after reading your post? If this is your business blog, tie it to your business when you can without getting too salesy.
This is not a newspaper: if you have a thought to add or a new related post to link to, revise your post to add new content.
Beyond the posts
Setting up your blog, fine-tuning the look and feel, and then writing your posts is the bulk of what you’ll do as a blogger. But you will also need to do some other things:
Categories and tags. Once you have more than two or three posts, you’ll need to think carefully about how you will organize the information on your site. A typical approach, and the way I do it on both of my blogs, is by setting up a small number of categories as the first “sort” for my content, then I use tags as a further sort. Here’s my blog post about setting up categories and tags for a blog.
Comments. You’ll need to either keep up with or disable comments. I got fed up with dealing with spam and disabled comments on my blogs, but someday I want to find a good plugin to help me filter out the spam instead.
Promotion. Unless your sole purpose is to publish your thoughts and readers be damned, you’ll need to tell potential readers about your blog. For companies, this can be achieved by adding it to their website, newsletter, and other social media channels. For personal bloggers or smaller companies, you can cross-post your blog posts on social media, including linking to it in comments on other blogs and posts, taking care to do so only when the content is appropriate and to not just be spamming.
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