John McDougall: Hi, I’m John McDougall and welcome to The Authority Marketing Roadmap. Today my guest is Christa Terry, founder and CMO of Hello Mamas. Christa is an author, editor, and blogging consultant. Her popular blog Manolo for the Brides blossomed into a book, I Do, published by Simon & Schuster. Welcome, Christa.
Christa Terry: Thank you very much, I’m glad to be here.
How To Get Started Blogging
John: Awesome, so how did you get started blogging?
Christa: Well, in the early 2000s I was writing a personal blog and I just happened to get picked out of the crowd by an established fashion blogger who saw my work writing about weddings, and from there he asked me if I wanted a paid position blogging. I never actually set out to become a professional blogger but I felt like, at the time, it was a great deal. I could work from home. So I took it on and I was, according to some of the early blog marketing sites, one of the first paid employee bloggers.
John: Oh, really? Nice, that’s a great start. That turned into a book deal even, right? Later? How did that come about?
Christa: My boss, that established fashion blogger, he was working with an agent to put together a book proposal and suggested that I take some of the content that I already had and segue that into a book proposal that he would share with his agent. The agent liked what I was doing and agreed to represent me. I was lucky because I had that platform. So because I had a readership of 80,000 a month at the time, which – I don’t know how that translates to now – but at the time those were big numbers. So when we put together the book proposal, we were able to say, “Hey, we have this already established audience and they’re the ones who are going to be buying the book.”
John: Yes, having a platform is absolutely key. It’s interesting though; you didn’t set out and say, “I need to write a book. I’m going to be the best blogger.” A lot of that was organic.
Christa: Absolutely, absolutely-
John: That’s awesome.
Christa: – it was a surprise to be invited to blog professionally, and then it was absolutely a surprise to have an agent say, “I’d like to represent you.” And the continuing success there always felt a little — it was just great because I was doing something that I really enjoyed, which was writing, and I was getting all kinds of benefits from that.
Picking a Niche to Blog About
John: For the people that don’t have that awesome experience of it just sprouted out of the ground organically like that, how important is it to pick a niche? When people are trying to stand out from the crowd — and now blogging is so established and competitive — how important is that to really narrow down your focus, or not?
Christa: Well, at that time I think it was less important. If you had asked me I would have said, “Well, I’m a wedding blogger.” That’s –
John: As narrow as you went.
Christa: Yes, that’s as narrow as I went. Whereas now the blogging world is so saturated that you really need to differentiate yourself, need to drill down to set your content apart because now everybody’s a wedding blogger, everybody’s a parenting blogger, everybody’s a lifestyle blogger, a fashion blogger — If you look at the most successful blogs at first glance you might say, “That’s a parenting blog.” But if you then read over, and over, and over, you read that content, what you’re going to find out is there is absolutely going to be a narrower focus in what they’re writing about. They’re not just blogging about their life, but it’s something in addition to that that’s sort of what’s surrounding it, but they have a passion, or a hobby, or – otherwise – a focus that is driving all of that content and making it more original than just some sort of higher-level subject matter.
John: You’d say basically now it’s so competitive that’s more important than ever even though again, you might not be able to tell that right off the bat, people are all niching-down to some degree.
Christa: Yes, you absolutely need an angle to get attention, even if that angle is not immediately apparent. I think that holds true whether you’re talking about your personal blog, or you’re talking about your company blog, or some other blog that’s associated with a project, you definitely need to have a nice, tight focus to be successful.
John: But the flipside of that potentially is that if you go so narrow — left-handed albino gerbils –
John: – alright, that’s not a real thing — that golf on only certain kinds of courses — you go too far and you have an audience potential of a hundred people, do you think about that at all in terms of drilling your niche down? But if you are in a big space like weddings, brides, etc., you are at least connected to a larger audience somehow.
Christa: Yes, and I think that that’s going to happen organically because if your focus is let’s say you’re a retailer of wedding jewelry, wedding planning is part of that whole thing. Buying wedding jewelry is part of your wedding planning to-do list. You’re grabbing people in that way but to try and back around if you have the tightest focus in the world and there’s only a hundred and fifty people interested in the thing that you are writing about. If you are the only one writing about it, you have a captive audience –
John: Really engaged small crowd.
Christa: – who are super engaged. Maybe you are not going to get a book deal signed or something to choose through out of that but you may attract the attention of brand partners if that’s something that you’re interested in or other people in your industry that you can partner with. So there’s something worthwhile to have a smaller but incredibly engaged audience.
John: There’s a blogger, have you heard of Jeff Goins?
John: Jeff has a saying, “small is the new big” And he talks about getting your first hundred, then your first thousand people on your email list, and yes very similar to what you’re saying there. You can start there and branch out.
Biggest Blogging Mistakes
John: What’s the biggest mistake you see people make in starting a blog?
Christa: For starting a blog it’s absolutely not having a roadmap or a strategy. I think that people come into it saying, especially in the business like those thing, “oh I am into this social media thing, so obviously I am going to have a blog” They look at their team, they pick someone on their team whether it’s on a social side or some expert person in their team and they say, “you write the blog” And then they start writing it, they’re putting posts out there but there’s no cohesiveness to it. They don’t do any research. The first thing that I think people should do is you go and you look and see what’s already out there to identify that niche.
They are not creating an editorial calendar, they’re not working ahead. Basically they’re not doing the proper work necessary that I believe is necessary to have a successful blog. The other issue is — in that same idea of not doing the prep work — is not making it look good. I think that right now people — because it’s so easy to make a blog look good, and it’s so easy to do graphics now — people really expect if they’re going go and look at your blog that it’s going to look like Good Housekeeping or Time Magazine or The New York Times.
John: Right, no matter what level you are at because some people with themes, one person or companies have them, that look awesome like that.
Christa: I think this is a lot easier to make your blog look professional from the get go with what is to me a minimal amount of effort. But when people aren’t putting the effort in and they just start throwing the content out there, you’re going to get maybe a search engine results from there and people coming in but as soon as they get there and they see what’s there or they see that there’s a big lack of content because you’re just starting out because you haven’t done any posts ahead, it really looks unprofessional and they’re just like, “goodbye” because they expect something better.
Blogging and Editorial Calendars
John: You started very organically yet it’s interesting because you’re saying you really need to be organized as a blogger. Thinking that you just come at it like–people shouldn’t mistake the idea that you can just organically sprout up as a blogger with the level of details you’ve put into it that may seem like, “oh she just started blogging and it just all happened” you’d said actually it doesn’t totally happen that way when you’re especially in the more competitive days, you need some level of editorial calendar, really planning things out, and is that what you’re doing on a regular basis?
Christa: Yes now, because back then you didn’t really have to do it because very few people were doing that, especially at the hobby level, but now you have even people with their personal blogs. Maybe they are making a little money off of it, maybe not. And they still have an editorial calendar. So when we founded Hello Mamas and we knew that there was going to be a blogging component and I was going to be in control of that, I said “We really need to make this organized”, we need to get a nice design, so it has to look good. We need to plan to really cover our bases, in terms of the kind of content. So we would want some lifestyle content, some fun content, some serious how-to parenting topics. And we put a lot of thought into it. The web app launched before the blog did, because we really wanted to do it right from the get go.
John: Okay. Yes. Any tools for that, like editorial calendar plug-ins, or anything like that, that you like?
Christa: No. Actually, I don’t know if I’m old school.
John : Good old-fashioned lists.
Christa: Yes, exactly. We just use Google Drive and have a spread sheet on it, which because we’re a team of four people and two of us handle the blogging side of it, we need to be able to collaborate in a way that is centralized with all of our other data that we have in the backend. So, Drive works for us.
John: And you have a pretty good following, right? You have a certain amount of unique visitors and subscribers.
Christa: Yes. We don’t do as much tracking of that as we really ought to, because our main concern is always user acquisition for Hello Mamas. So everything we do, blogging, it’s driving user acquisition. We’re less interested in how many people we get reading any one post than we are in how many people are being driven to the sign up page via that post.
John:Right. Yes. Back to your original answer is be organized, be organized in what your goals are and in what you’re trying to drive people to do.
Coming Up With Ideas for Blog Posts
John: How do you come up with ideas for writing posts?
Christa: I read a lot. I think that reading a lot within your industry — you take your niche and go and see what else people are doing with that — is really, really important. Because in all honesty, unless you are on the forefront of technology, chances are everything you want to write about, somebody has written about previously. And while I’m not suggesting cribbing other people’s ideas, you also don’t want to re-invent the wheel. So if you see posts that other people have done, that have been successful and you can put your own spin on it, I think that it’s a great way to find ideas, it’s a great way to find inspiration. Just read a lot, within your industry. Outside of your industry. See what people are saying, what’s controversial. You find a blog post that has 900 comments on it. How can you write about that same thing and get 900 comments yourself?
John: Absolutely. I read the other day in research for a post I’m writing. One is “How long does it take to write a blog post? And how often do writers write?” and I read that Seth Godin reads and researches about 16 hours a day.
Christa: I bet.
John: And when he goes to write, it just blobs out and in 15 minutes he can whip off a post. Of course his posts are famously short, but they’re short and good because of exactly of what you’ve just said. He’s researching almost 16 hours a day. What else do you do? Although, he said he doesn’t watch TV. He doesn’t go to meetings and yet he has a company and people too. I think he actually authored a book called Read Before the Next Meeting or something. [Editor: Seth Godin’s Domino Project published the book by Al Pittampalli called Read This Before Out Next Meeting] I have to look that up, but [he’s] not a fan of wasting time. So, more time to research like you said. Do you use Feedly or some kind of access reader to keep track of all the blogs that you follow and read?
Christa: I was, but then I found that I was getting kind of trapped in what I was reading. Because I’m writing in a parenting space and that can be this incredible echo chamber or you’re only finding the things that are in agreement with what you think or are similar to the style of content you’re already putting out there. And so I found it more valuable to be looking a lot at what was going popular on Facebook, going popular just across social media, even if it didn’t fit in with what I felt like we should be writing about because I wanted to be exposed to new ideas, so I could bring those new ideas to my audience in a way that I felt that it should be put out there.
John: As opposed to when you list, “okay, these are the hundred blogs in my space that I’m reading”. You’re kind of speaking in a –
Christa: Right. And their recycling their content. So if you have your hundred blogs, eventually they’re really writing about these same things, writing in the same way. And I try and get out of that as much as possible. And I also want to write professionally, so I find that looking at things like Washington Post on parenting, New York Times, and really going to a higher level than other blogs, and seem that I can take that content and put it on my blog as just one step above of what’s out there.
John: The quality level of the research they put into it.
John: Or how they write because they’ve been around so long and really organized.
John: That’s good advice. That’s a little contrary to a lot of people so focused on getting that exact list and keeping in touch with them. That’s a great thought to.
Christa: I get bored too, so you know what, that’s something maybe I should mention that it’s super easy to get burnt out on blogging, especially if you’re like, “This is my niche and I’m blogging these topics.” Sometimes you kind of lose your way and you get stuck in the cycle of topics going around. But if you go outside of that, you’re going to seem more interested and your posts are going to seem more interesting.
John: Yes. Keep yourself inspired as opposed to digging into a rut and feeling like it’s work. It doesn’t help your vibe of your posts.
SEO Keyword Research for Blogs
John: Do you do SEO keyword research for each post or is SEO more of an ancillary secondary thought?
Christa: I don’t do it for every single post because I do not want to fall into a trap of relying exclusively on keywords to drive all of the writing. I mean.
John: Yes, or the headlines maybe, right? And be careful.
Christa: Yes. One that I think that we’ve all come across at this point in the blog posts where you’re reading it and they’ve been key-worded to death. And you’re seeing these kind of awkward phrases that have clearly been like a square peg into a round hole into the post. And the results are incredibly awkward, and I know for me I’ll immediately stop reading, because I know, as somebody who’s done that in the past, I can sense it right away and I’m like, “Okay, this was written maybe by an author that I like, or it’s about a subject that I’m interested”, but I’m out, because I know that that, I guess I can sense that the person had ulterior motives when they were writing, and then, “That wasn’t to inform me. It was to grab Google’s attention.” So I think that if you are crafting solid blog posts on a regular basis and they’re informative and they’re appealing to readers, you’re naturally going to hit a lot of keywords. And I think if you’re doing it that way, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do keyword research because I’ll get to that in a second. But if you’re doing it that way, you’re going to hit it. You’re going to hit your main keywords but you’re also going to be organically be hitting long keywords without even trying, right.
John: And ironically, that’s where Google’s really looking at that. Are you writing more in-depth content that fully covers the topic?
John: Not just jamming the keywords in there.
Christa: But that said, I always have my most recent keyword research handy so I can pull it up, because I’m not going to miss an opportunity to place the keyword in a headline or place it in text or — especially since we’re dealing with user acquisition — to be able to link them to a sign-up page, using a really juicy keyword. And when I think as a writer if you’re really hurting for ideas, going back and doing a new round of keyword research can really clue you in into what people want to read right in that moment. And so just doing a couple of searches can give you some really solid ideas about things to write about that might have never occurred to you so it’s really in that way doing that research. Maybe not every single time you’re doing a post together, but once a week or when you’re making your editorial calendar, do it then and see if it can drive ideas or if there’s keywords that are really good for what you’ve already thought about writing.
John: So you definitely have a process with SEO but you don’t let it drive every single post and every headline, so that the chances of that being overly dominant are too good. So you’re aware of it, you do the research. You’re targeting keywords when it’s appropriate. But you’re also backing off when it would it just hack things up.
Christa: Yes, I’m not a slave to Google.
Blog Promotion Strategies
John: Not a slave to it, right. And so that really leads into the next question which is about promotion. What are your favorite blog posts promotion strategies?
Christa: Well right now, I am a big fan of some of these contributor networks, that on one hand they’re going to take you off your blog briefly. Today, like the Today Show, their website has these contributor teams. There is The Mix which is Hearst Publications’ contributor network. They’re putting out topics and if you want to write about topics you can. In terms of the Today contributor network, you can just do it, anybody can sign up. For The Mix, you have to apply, but that puts select content outside of your network and outside of your industry but it puts up there along with a bio that I think looks really good where you can link back to your blog and typically you can link back to your blog or your website in anything that you’re writing for these contributor networks.
John: And were calls-to-action to a subscriber which might be useful to them.
Christa: Yes. Right. You wouldn’t want to say, “okay, I’m moving all of my writing energy over to these places”, but if it’s appropriate to do it once a month or there is someone on your team who can focus on that it’s a really great way to drive more people to your main project whether it’s a blogging project or you want to drive people to your company and I personally have had some good luck on contributor networks like that and other than that it’s really just a share. I think people are afraid to toot their own horns even when they have done something they’re really proud of they’ve written a blog post they’re really proud of where they have a blog post that’s like gotten a huge amounts of attention but they share it with their network on Facebook once, they share it with their network on Twitter once. You will drive some people off by over sharing on social but you’re also going to have more people see it than otherwise would have. I use — I can’t remember the name – it’s a Twitter tool that – it’s one of the many Twitter tools that lets you schedule a post.
John: So multiple, you don’t just – every post that goes out that just doesn’t automatically feed just one time, or it’s just for Twitter.
Christa: Right. Yes.
John: You have a scheduler, like when it first goes live maybe the next day, a week later, a month later.
Christa: Yes. Any evergreen content that you have you should schedule to share – if it’s on Twitter it can be more frequent, if it’s on Facebook it should be less frequent. Any network that you can share it on a revolving schedule of re-sharing, do it, because there are some people who are going to see it but what are the chances that you will remember a duplicate tweet that you saw a month ago.
Christa: You’re not, and more people are going to see it as a result, so I think it’s very valuable to put your evergreen content out there as much as you can, on any channel you can, as often as you reasonably can.
John: Yes, and the contributor networks of the Today Show and The Mix, that’s original content only or you’re taking a blog post you’ve already posted on your site and then you can cut and paste it in there, how do those work because there is LinkedIn Pulse and different…Medium and things.
Christa: Yes, they all have different rules. I know that Medium allows syndication, the Today Show contributor network allows syndication. The Mix has to be original because they’re putting it on places like Good Housekeeping and that’s a very woman focused one. It’s going up on the websites for the women’s magazines so they absolutely want original content but you’re getting a lot of exposure through it.
John: Okay, and with blog post promotion did you spend a lot of time guest blogging in any of the blogs you’ve started and grown?
Christa: Yes, we did that quite a bit for Hello Mamas because we really at the beginning wanted those links coming back and I would say that that has been very valuable for us but at the same time we needed to focus on putting content on our own site as well so we probably had – it’s probably 90% on our site and then we devoted 10% of our time to guest blogging.
John: But you did some of that every month –
John: – you are featured on other sites at least monthly.
Favorite Blogging Tools
John: Yes. Okay. We just discussed how often you share your posts on social media. What about favorite blogging tools?
Christa: I would say that the Google Keyword Tool is still one of my favorites – it always comes back to that for me.
John: Yes, absolutely.
Christa: And I recommend it to people all the time. You would be shocked at how many people say, “What is that?”
Christa: It’s this free thing and you can find out exactly what’s going on behind the scenes at Google. That’s good. My second favorite right now is actually more of a design tool than a blogging tool, but there’s this site called Canva — C-A-N-V-A — that makes it incredibly easy to do things like infographics to design a header for your blog, to make nice shareable graphics for every blog post. Or if you’re concerned with people putting yourself on Pinterest you can make these graphics that make it exactly clear what people are looking at when they share it on Pinterest or anywhere else. That has been invaluable to us. I would say we use it every single week for just about every graphic that we do. If you don’t have a graphic designer in-house, which we do not, it is just an amazing tool.
John: You do some of those yourself when you’re writing a post? Are you thinking, “What image would go in there?” and then you actually go into Canva yourself, as well?
Christa: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there’s not particularly a learning curve for Canva, which is great. I wouldn’t consider myself a designer, but I feel like I get really good graphics out of it. Because it’s so accessible it’s right there. You know I’m not going outside to say, “Does anybody have an image for this?” I’m able to just really do it all in harmony at one time. I think I get better images out of that when I’m doing — it’s not just “copy” it’s the content for the entire post.
John: And you find them on creative commons, images that then you import into Canva to add the flavor to it?
Christa: Yes. We are very careful. After the one time we had a guest blogger — always vet your guest bloggers —
Christa: – we had a guest blogger who pulled an image from who-knows-where and literally three years later we had a cease and desist letter that said, “You’re using this copyrighted image that belongs to this photographer.” And we’re all looking at each other and going, “Where did this even come from?” And so we go back and we see what post it was on and it was a guest. It wasn’t one of us. It was a guest blogger. But you never know when that’s going to come back and bite you in the butt.
John: – Yes, you have to protect yourself.
Christa: And there’s so many free — I mean there are creative commons license images. Canva has its own bank of free to use images. If you’re blogging, like I’m doing parent blogging and I have children, and I have pictures of just things that have happened in my life. I use a lot of my own pictures. If you’re blogging for a company or an industry, chances are you probably have your own pictures, as well. So why aren’t you using your own content that already exists?
John: And then you spice it up with Canva and that enables you to get more social shares, right? Because that image now can be shared. Do you take the image itself that’s in the main picture for the blog post and share that also individually? Or do you make other images to go with posts?
Christa: Typically we have so much else that’s going on, we want to make it easy. So typically the picture that’s in the post is also the one we’re going to share. Anything we make we do try to make it so it’s appropriately sized for this and that and the other social network, and that it’s going to make sense to share it on Instagram. We want text on the image so it makes sense to share it on Instagram. It’s pointing back to whatever the content is or it’s pointing back to Hello Mama’s. We’re all about re-use and making it simple because if you have a giant marketing team I’m sure you could really optimize the process across people. But if you’re dealing with a small team or it’s just you, you need to optimize it for one person using DIY strategies and make it easy for yourself or you’re going to get burned out.
John: So with the Google tool, a spreadsheet, and Canva, you’re good to go.
Christa: Yes, we’re kicking it old school. [laughs]
John: Yes. That’s good. Yes. A lot of people should be inspired by that. You know you’ve built blogs with very large amounts of traffic and people signing up. Really great work. Thanks for speaking to me today. Tell us how people can get in touch with you.
John: All right. Great. I hope you enjoyed today’s discussion. Check out workingdemosite.com/authority for more interviews and information on authority marketing and subscribe and review our podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m John McDougall. See you next time on the authority marketing roadmap.