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11 Lessons Learned After Running a Massively Popular Blog

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For the last three years, I've had the pleasure of managing Nettuts+ - a site with 80,000 subscribers, and over 3 million page views each month. In that course of time, I've learned a great deal about, not only what it takes to build an active community, but also the economics of running a sustainable and profitable blog. I'd like to share some of these lessons with you today.


1. It Takes a Village

While, on the surface, many of you may associate Nettuts+ specifically with me, the truth is that there's an entire team here at Envato that is responsible for its success.

Keep in mind that you can certainly run a successful blog on your own, but, boy oh boy does it help to have multiple hands on deck!

Behind the Scenes

Keep costs to a minimum when first getting started.

Think about it: running a profitable blog can potentially require editor(s), writers, developers, designers, marketers, managers, etc. All of that costs money. I use the word potentially because there are numerous ways to skin a cat; always remember that.

To keep Nettuts+, and more largely, the Tuts+ Network, in tip-top shape, we require:

  • An editor to manage the day to day activities on the site (that's me!)
  • A designer to keep the site's visuals current
  • A developer(s) to integrate the required functionality on the site
  • A marketing guy/team to help generate revenue
  • Manager(s) to oversee the landscape of the Tuts+ network

Now, truthfully, this list doesn't even scratch the surface, though it'll do for the sake of this article. Does this mean that you can't start a blog on your own? Absolutely not; in fact, keep costs to a minimum when first getting started. You can accomplish many of these tasks on your own -- at least at first.


2. You're Not Allowed to Make Money

Of course, this comment is somewhat made in jest, but, you'll quickly find that a blog which earns a bit of money somehow irritates certain members of your community. Some feel that the inclusion of, say, a banner ad reduces the quality or respectability of your brand.

What? You guys are trying to create a sustainable environment for this blog? Sell-outs!

I suppose the idea behind this line of thinking stems from that scary word: "commercial." If you -- gasp -- make a living off of your contributions to the community, that, consequently, means that you run a -- second gasp -- "commercial blog."

Think what you wish, but what's the alternative? People have to live and put food on the table. To expect a site, like Nettuts+, to invest thousands upon thousands of dollars every month into educating the community, without any method to recoup those said costs is nonsensical and, more importantly, impossible.

This is specifically why the Tuts+ network offers a Premium program for those readers who want to:

  • A: Give back to Nettuts+, in exchange for providing a never-ending string of daily education.
  • B: Take their training a step further, with higher level and more in depth tutorials and screencasts.

3. You Must Engage

Inject yourself into your developing community.

Some blog owners/editors prefer to remain behind the scenes pulling strings, like a manipulator does to a marionette. That may work for some, but I tend to feel that this management style is unwise for a variety of reasons. Most notably, it's vital that you, as the owner/editor/manager of a blog, inject yourself into your developing community. Doing so serves a variety of purposes:

  • Relationships: You build a personal relationship with your readers, as you get to know one another. Rather than Teacher -> Student, you should strive for Peer -> Peer.
  • Feedback: What better way to keep your "ear to the ground" than to immerse yourself in your site's community, whether than come via the comments section, emails, or social networking sites?
  • Loyalty: Engagement builds loyalty. Readers are far more likely to frequent your site if they know you personally, than if you're a faceless John Q.

IGN

I'll tell you a quick, and somewhat nerdy personal story. When I was kid, I was a huge Nintendo fan (actually, still am). I'd frequent a site, called IGN, which specializes in gaming news. On the Nintendo channel, the lead editor, Matt Casamassina (who has since moved on to working at Apple) had an enormous fanbase, specifically for the reasons mentioned above. Whether in his reviews, or the quick office videos they put together, he approached his audience on a "hey guys" level, rather than a more formal approach.

As a result, he was far and away the most popular editor on IGN for years. Regardless of the writer of a particular Nintendo review, you were bound to find multiple reader comments containing something along the lines of, "But what does Matt think about this?" That's 100% what you should strive for!

Make yourself synonymous with your blog.


4. You Have a Duty to the Community

At the point when you decide to turn your blog into a business, you must consider one important fact:

You have a duty to post accurate information.

Certainly, the validity of this statement will vary, depending on your field of interest, though it should remain at least partially true across all industries.

As a blog with 3 million page views a month, we have a duty to post valid content that conforms to the respective standards in our industry. In the case of Nettuts+, this translates to: we must post tutorials, which are forward thinking, and don't promote dated technologies and techniques.

You'll Fail

If your community is vibrant enough, though, they'll keep you in tune, as to what does and doesn't work on your site.

Now the truth of the matter is: you're bound to fail at one point or another. Unless you have an MIT-trained team of fact checkers at your disposal, it's nearly impossible to be 100% correct at all times. We're not that smart.

On Nettuts+, we've posted some brilliant tutorials which simply aren't available else where on the web. That said, and with full disclosure, we also have posted tutorials, which, in hindsight, could have been improved.

If your community is vibrant enough, though, they'll keep you in tune, as to what does and doesn't work on your site. They'll also provide you with feedback on which authors are welcomed on your site, and which...aren't.


5. Finding Quality Staff is Incredibly Difficult

Would you be surprised to find that, here at Nettuts+, I have quite a difficult time finding quality tutorials and writers for the site? We're a massively influential web development blog, yet, even now, I struggle when searching for new authors.

Educational sites are difficult in this regard.

Many incorrectly assume that massive sites have massive rosters of writers at their disposal.

  • Talent: The phrase, Those who can...do is particularly relevant here. Quite often, those who are capable of writing high level/quality content unfortunately don't have the time or financial need to write for blogs. Given the fact that we're able to post a new tutorial or article every day proves that this certainly isn't true, across the board. We continue to post content from incredibly talented developers on a daily basis, but nonetheless, it does make the process more difficult than you might anticipate.
  • Misconceptions: Many incorrectly assume that massive sites have massive rosters of writers at their disposal. Some might think to themselves, "I'd have a 1 in 100 chance of being accepted." This absolutely is not the case.
  • English: As an English-based blog, that limits our potential author base to those who either speak English, or have learned it as a second language. The problem is that, more often than not, the grammar in tutorial submissions needs to be at least 90% correct. This typically is not the case with the latter, I'm sorry to say.

This is specifically why it's imperative that you adhere to lesson number three (You Must Engage). By becoming an active member in your industry's community, you'll be more successful when it comes to finding authors for your site, than you would otherwise.


6. Open your Pocket-Book

This may come as a shock, but industry veterans cost a fair bit to hire.

This may come as a shock, but industry veterans cost a fair bit to hire. For a high quality, in depth article or tutorial from an industry veteran, you should expect to spend anywhere from $400 - $800 -- at least in the web dev industry. Sounds expensive for a single article? Maybe - but these guys have spent their entire adult lives acquiring the necessary knowledge to write such a tutorial.

Nettuts+ adopts a flexible model, when it comes to purchasing guest tutorials. This expenditure will range, in the majority of cases, from $60 - $250. That said, we do make exceptions in certain cases, if the author/tutorial/concept warrants the cost.

When deciding on how much to offer, we consider a handful of arguments.

  • How in depth is the tutorial?
  • Has this topic been covered numerous times across the web?
  • How well-known is the author in the industry?
  • Will the article require a fair amount of editing?

With that pricing model in mind, I'm sure you can quickly realize how much it costs us to fund a month's worth of tutorials. Banner ads aren't pretty, but, without them, there'd be no Nettuts+.


7. Trolls Exist

This is the worst tutorial EVER!!

It's a sad truth that, where there are comment forms, there exists trolls. Don't worry; every successful blog in existence has received a terribly cruel comment or two -- likely hundreds! Rather than curling into a ball at the sight of these sorts of replies, consider them to be a rite of passage.

In the mood for a laugh? This dramatization of a "troll" comment always makes me laugh.

Trolls vs. Criticism

However, don't confuse trolls with legitimate criticism of your site's content. Negative feedback will often be your greatest source for improvement. They'll provide you with article corrections and inaccuracies. The old saying, "the best advice hurts your feelings" is absolutely true.


8. Readers are Scrollers

The print world doesn't directly transfer over to the blogging arena. Though it certainly does, in terms of grammar and structure, an in depth blog posting is quite different from a chapter within a book.

Want proof? Take a new posting, and publish it as long string of paragraphs, like you may see in a book. Next, over the following several days, use an analytics tool to review how long visitors spend on the page. I promise you that you'll find these numbers to be surprisingly low.

You have 3-5 seconds to pique a reader's interest.

  • Investment: Those who purchase a book fully expect a time investment. Alternatively, a visitor to your blog is, more often than not, in search of a "quick fix." You'll surely find that they're not willing to read a seemingly endless string of paragraphs. We have to trick them to do so!
  • Scroll Points: The key to a well-formatted blog posting is inserting "scroll points." You have 3-5 seconds to pique a reader's interest, before they move on to the next quick fix. To create scroll points in your postings, use a generous number of blockquotes, lists, call-outs, headings, numbered items...whatever you can think of. As an example, refer to this very article; notice how I've applied multiple levels of "scroll points"? We initially have numbered headings for each idea, but then, within each point, I've also inserted additional stop points to grab your attention. This allows for a more comfortable and flexible reading experience.

9. Find a Niche

If you attempt to cover the entire spectrum of your industry, you'll alienate a large portion of your readership.

Every popular blog that I frequent has its niche. Think Nettuts+ doesn't? Well, it's true that "web development" is a rather broad focus, but more specifically, we focus on front-end development: HTML, CSS, PHP, and JavaScript. We even have a sub-niche that comes in the form of video tutorials. While they don't bring in massive amounts of traffic, they have still managed to generate a loyal following from the readers who prefer a more visual style of training.

If you attempt to cover the entire spectrum of your industry, you'll alienate a large portion of your readership. For example, on Nettuts+, while we could post Python and MODx tutorials every other day, we simply don't have the audience to warrant the expenditure or the space. The same holds true for the less-used CMSs available around the web. Instead, we focus primarily on WordPress.

Need More Examples?

What if you don't feel skilled enough, yet, to write articles about your industry? That's okay, too; use it to your advantage! Create a blog which chronicles your progress in your field. Thousands of people around the world are in your exact same shoes; they'd enjoy reading the blog of somehow who is encountering the exact same difficulties and confusions as you.


10. Don't Half-Ass It

"If you're gonna do it...do it right!"

Though that quote is admittedly vague, it applies to nearly all facets of life. If your goal is to run a successful and profitable blog, don't half-ass the job. I'm sure you're familiar with the "talkers" -- you might even be one yourself.

Sometimes the dream is more exciting than the reality.

"Talkers" spend more time speaking about what their business is, and how it's going to change everything, rather than physically working toward making that concept a reality.

I've witnessed this "loss of enthusiasm" first-hand on multiple occasions. I suppose it's understandable, though; sometimes the dream is more exciting than the reality -- the reality of working your tale off, writing well into the night. It's much easier to live in your imagination and prepare CEO name plates for your desk, than it is to build a business.

Outline

Before even picking up a pencil -- or, in this case, typing a key -- determine who it is that you want to be on the web.

  • Special: What makes you special? Not in the Mr. Rogers sense, but in terms of your point of view. Is your plan to follow the pack and release a copy-cat blog? Hopefully not.
  • Distinction: This item travels hand-in-hand with your point of view. How will your blog distinguish itself? Can you converge your ideas into a single sentence? If not, perhaps your blog needs a bit more planning. At Envato, "we help people earn and learn, online." The movie, Julie and Julia, tells the true story of a girl who created a blog, which served the sole purpose of documenting her progression through a cookbook. That simple and relatable concept transformed her blog into a massive success (and a movie). On Nettuts+, we strive to be "the best online resource for front-end web development training." What about your blog?
  • Format: What format will your postings take? On Nettuts+, we focus on screencasts and in depth tutorials. Will yours be centered around quick tips? Video? Opinionated rants? Hilarious comics?
  • Service: All blogs must provide some form of service to the reader. This can come in the form of news updates, education, pop culture updates, comedy, etc. Try to determine what your blog's service is, or will be. Once you've decided, you better damn well execute that service better than all of your blogging peers. Honestly, if that's not your ultimate goal, then what's the point? Don't half-ass it.

11. Show Some Passion

Passion is contagious.

Passion is contagious. We've all met that person who is utterly consumed by their industry. Isn't that enthusiasm infectious? It certainly is for me, and I assure you that it is for your readers.

Passion can be a scary thing -- or better put, the lack of passion can be a scary thing. It has the potential to dissolve careers, bury businesses, and ruin relationships. So what about you? Do you genuinely have a passion for what you'll be blogging about? Be honest! It might be smarter to ask yourself this question one night, long after the rest of the world has fallen asleep, as you lay awake. I find that our thoughts are more honest at these points.

An easy way to quantify passion is to ask yourself if you'd be willing to run your blog for free -- indefinitely. Take money out of the equation, when deciding.

Income, though certainly the overall goal, needs to come second. The irony is, of course, more often than not, there's a direct correlation between passion and profit.

I saved this item for last, because I strongly feel that it's the primary key to a successful blog. Engagement, teamwork, marketing, the concept...that all factors into success. But if there's no passion at the root, you're doomed to fail.

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