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Know your Blog

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Before you embark on designing your blog, you and your blog need to sit down and have a little chat. Get to know one another. Maybe even have some coffee together.

Kidding aside, to design a blog that reflects who you are and what you blog about, you need to take a closer look at your blog. I assume that you’ve already defined your purpose for blogging. If you still scratch your head over that, start there and determine what made you start a blog in the first place. As Darren Rowse from the popular blog Problogger once said:
If you’re fuzzy on what your blog is about, it’s unlikely that anyone else will have much of an idea either.
This post goes beyond your blog’s purpose. I help you go deeper by giving you some ways to take a closer look at your blog. That way, you really, truly understand it. In this chapter, I show you how to create goals, get to know your audience, and even hone in on the voice and tone you want to shine through in your blog design.

Creating Goals for a Strong Design

If you’re serious about growing your blog and creating a strong design, move setting goals to the top of your blog design to-do list. Think of them as the skeleton of your blog. From design to navigation to content, every decision you make about your blog should move you toward putting meat on that skeleton’s bones.

Without goals, you might find yourself veering off track with your blog design. Sure, your design may look nice, but it might not mesh with what you want to accomplish in your blogging. And if you weren’t blogging to accomplish something, you probably wouldn’t be readiing this post to improve your blog design.

Pinpoint what you want to accomplish

If the thought of setting goals makes your mind go blank, try one of the easiest,most common ways to set goals: the SMART method. SMART is a mnemonic device that has been used in project management for decades. The letters in SMART can stand for different things, depending on who you talk to, but here’s what I stick with:
  • Specific: Say exactly what you’re looking to achieve. Generic goals may be easy to think up, but they don’t move you toward an achievable goal in the same way specific goals do. “I want to make money blogging” isn’t specific enough. “I want to earn $500 a month through advertising” is specific.
  • Measurable: Quantify your goal with numbers. Say you gained 500 e-mail subscribers last year. That’s less than 50 per month. So, shoot for 75 new subscribers a month. Or 100. Just try not to fall into the trap about obsessing about numbers.
    Other measures you can strive for could be publishing three times per week, increasing subscribers by 30 percent, or earning a certain amount of money from blogging.
  • Actionable: When setting goals, stick with action words. Even better?
    Imperative verbs. Start your goals with words like increase, create, and grow. All these cut to the chase, driving action on your part.
  • Realistic: Being realistic means setting goals that are challenging but doable. Also avoid claiming that you want to be the best, funniest, and so on. I’m not saying you can’t ever be the best, but there are plenty of steps you’ll need to take to get there — so make those your goals.
    Try not to make your goals too difficult or too easy. If you aren’t sure whether your goal is realistic, you can always adjust it later.
  • Timely: I don’t know about you, but my inner procrastinator doesn’t work without a time-frame to complete something. Why? There’s no urgency to light my fire. Add time-frames to your goals to keep that fire lit.
To start writing out your goals, think about your blog’s bigger purpose as well as more specific things you want to accomplish. Then brainstorm goals that can help you meet that ultimate achievement, select the most burning ideas, and then start adding measurements and time-frames.

How many goals you create really depends on you. Too many can overwhelm you, but too few can make achieving them too easy. Start with two to five goals and then adjust if you need.

Set a reminder on your phone or calendar to review your goals at regular intervals. Blogs change over time, and you might need to rearrange your blog design layout to help meet those goals.

Draw attention to goal-oriented design elements

After you write out your goals, put them in a place where you see them often — whether that means you type them on a desktop sticky note or scribble them on a real sticky note. Keep your goals top of mind because they form the basis for many decisions about where to place your design elements.

The ways that design can support your goals may surprise you. As you build your blog design, take a look at your goals and think about how elements of your design, layout, and navigation can be used to meet your goals.

Say you want to increase your e-mail subscriber list by 15 percent in three months. The following design decisions can help you meet this goal: 
  • Promote your e-mail offering in a conspicuous space on your home page. 
  • Create an e-mail subscriber box that asks only for an e-mail address instead of a first and last name plus an e-mail address. This would make subscribing as easy as possible. 
  • Place a subscription box elsewhere on your blog. Perhaps you add the subscription box at the bottom of each blog post, to your About page, or in your footer.
Carrie with Children is an example of how to adjust your design layout if one of your goals is to bring awareness to a certain topic. Carrie writes about many topics but wants to give special attention to Down syndrome. To do that, she includes a Down Syndrome tab to the right of the popular About tab and features a separate section for DownSyndrome posts prominently on her home page.

 Use blog design to steer attention to a certain topic.

Define Your Writing

Although we cover aspects of blog design, your writing and your blog design need to be in sync. Everything that surrounds your words affects how readers perceive those words.

When you define your writing, blog design choices become easier. I talk about all these design elements in further posts, but your niche, voice, and tone all influence blog design elements, including
  • Font choice and size
  • Blog colors
  • Imagery you use
When it comes to defining your niche, voice, and tone, you might find these next sections easy, especially if you’ve blogged for a while.

Sometimes even experienced bloggers have a hard time describing what they write about because they just write what’s top-of-mind and then click the Publish button. Even if that’s part of your shtick (say, you’re known for your amazing randomness), you should still have an underlying voice and tone to your writing. For example, you make even the most mundane parts of life sound hysterical.

Carving out a niche (or not)

A niche simply means the topic that you write about. In the blogging world, you find two camps: those who believe you must have a niche to be successful, and those who think you can be successful without one.

Having a niche can seem more manageable because you have a tighter focus and you don’t have to meet the needs of many different audiences. Because niche blogging really digs into a specific topic, it’s easier to be seen as an expert or a thought leader about your topic. You may also attract more readers because niche blogs can generate more traffic from search engines. 

Not having a niche might give you more flexibility, though, especially if you’re passionate about more than one topic but lack the time to run multiple blogs. Parent bloggers are a perfect example of this. A mom blogger may share stories about her children, write about family-friendly recipes, share the latest fashion trends, and document a weight loss journey all in one blog.

One great example of blogging without a niche is the blog Jenny on the Spot, as shown in image, Jenny writes about everything from parenting to style to health. She places some of her blog’s main topics within easy sight in the navigation menu. Then her home page segments her latest blog posts around those topics and more. Even though she writes about many things, her blog design and content tie together.

On the other hand, not having a niche can hinder your ability to stand out as an expert or a leader. Without a niche, you may have a harder time branding yourself because you blog design has to encompass the many topics you want to write about.

 The Jenny on the Spot blog covers a range of topics.

Even if you decide you don’t need a niche for your blog, you still need to establish your voice and tone. Think about your favorite magazine. That magazine may write about many different topics, but one section doesn’t sound like a completely different magazine than another section because the voice and tone are consistent.

Showcasing your voice

Voice refers to the distinct personality of your writing. Voice combines attitude, style, and your personal character to give your blog a certain “feel.” If your audience could read two very different articles from you and still know they’re both written by you, then you’ve mastered your voice.

Defining your voice comes more naturally for some bloggers than others. And that’s perfectly okay. More than likely, your voice will also develop as you do as a writer. To better define your voice, ask yourself these three questions:
  • Who are you writing for?
  • Why are you writing?
  • What do you want readers to “get” about you through your writing?
Voice is an integral part to your brand so by answering these questions, your voice becomes more apparent and defined. Spend some time with these questions because the blog design decisions you make should take your voice into consideration. 

Readers see your design before they have time to read the content. However, your blog design should feel like your voice. For example, if your writing is sarcastic and dry, your blog shouldn’t be whimsical or flowery.

You can also emphasize voice in your blog design by how you actually format your blog posts. Word choice and sentence structure are part of writing but they are visual, too.

If you don’t have a niche, really understanding and developing your voice and tone becomes even more critical.

Determine your tone

Tone is your blog’s mood or attitude. When you write, do you sound snarky, kind, serious, fun, sarcastic, reassuring, helpful, earnest? We lose nonverbal communication when we write — your audience doesn’t have the benefit of understanding your words through facial expressions, gestures, or the pitch of your voice. You have just one thing: tone.

People often confuse tone with voice, but tone is actually part of your voice. You’ve likely heard the phrase “tone of voice.” While your voice may be humorous, your tone might be sarcastic. The tone of your writing can vary a little from post to post, but your voice should remain consistent.

Tone can also vary depending on your target audience or their feelings. Think about how you would share big news with an adult friend versus a child. You’d probably use different words and inflect your voice differently. Or if you were sharing big news with someone who thought might object, you might vary your tone again to keep in mind their feelings.

Look over blog posts you’ve written and write down adjectives to describe the overall tone in your writing. Then think about what those adjectives do and don’t mean. You can see how I did this for my own blog
Tone Attribute What It Means What It Doesn’t Mean
Approachable Write like I’m helping a friend; don’t sound like a know-it-all; don’t be intimidating. l invite readers to let me give them extensive feedback via e-mail or social media.
Casual Use contractions; writelike I’m talking to oneperson playful writing (likeusing “yo!” or “y’all”) I don’t use improper grammaror most “text-speak” (I mightuse OMG but not “prolly” forprobably)
Simple Avoid jargon; explain without fluffy words (“use” not“utilize”) Content is “dumbed down

No matter what your tone, make sure it’s authentic and doesn’t feel forced. For a really slick look at how a company uses tone to adapt to their audience’s feelings, check out the MailChimp site Voice and Tone.

Understand Your Audience

Like voice and tone, your blog design also depends on knowing who your audience is and what they want. The more you understand your audience, the easier time you’ll have making design decisions. Your audience has an especially strong impact on the following design elements:
  • Navigation: When you know your audience, you can organize your blog navigation tools so your readers can easily find the content they want. 
  • Home page and overall layout: Your audience can impact the visual hierarchy of where content belongs on your blog, particularly your home page. For example, if you know your audience enjoys your craft tutorials the most, then you could place a button that links to those tutorials near the top of your sidebar or always include your latest craft tutorials in a rotating gallery towards the top of your home page. You can also start applying those core design principles.
When getting to know your audience better, you want to look at both your current audience and the type of audience you want to attract.

Knowing your audience can benefit your design

Understanding your audience means that you can design a blog that makes them feel comfortable. Your design and layout should not only focus on their interests, but also align with your tone and goals.

Here are things you can learn from your audience that benefit your blog design:
  • How much content they consume about your topic: If your audience wants multiple posts a day (and you have that capacity on your own or with contributors), you may choose a different blog layout than someone who posts twice weekly. A perfect example would be a deal blogger whose readers expect to know about the latest sales and coupons.
  • What answers they’re seeking: Your audience’s content preferences can help you decide how often to write about a certain topic. You can also build a popular topic into your blog design. If your audience likes your video tutorials, you might design a blog page just for those. If your audience wants basics about sewing, create a sidebar image that links to a page dedicated to sewing for beginners.
  • What platforms or communities they belong to: If your audience heavily uses Pinterest (a social media site for bookmarking and sharing links via images), you want the functionality in your blog design to be Pinterest-friendly.
    That means good image titles and easily visible PinIt buttons. If they are big Twitter users, you might consider a widget that shows your latest tweets.
  • Their basic demographic make-up: If your audience is mostly males in their 20s, your site design should look a lot different than a blog whose audience is women in their 50s. While you can assume you know your audience, you might be surprised by the results.
  • Tech-savvyness: Do your readers have smart phones, tablets, or the latest gadgets? Or do they use their computers just for web surfing and e-mail? If most of your readers aren’t bloggers, maybe you don’t need the CommentLuv plug-in that automatically pulls that commenter’s latest blog post. It might be confusing and inhibit someone from leaving a comment. If your blog readers are heavy smartphone users, they’ll appreciate a mobile version of your site or even a special mobile phone app.
Resist the urge to think that your blog is for anyone and everyone. Without a target audience, you water down your writing and make it harder to design your blog.

Finding out who they are and what they want

After you understand how knowing your audience can make your design friendlier, you need some ways to actually gather that information. The best place to start in defining your audience is talking to your existing readers. You can then look at people who don’t necessarily read your blog but who you want as readers.

You might be surprised at the ways you can collect information about your audience. Sure, companies pay big bucks for massive surveys, focus groups, and other sorts of research. As a blogger, though, you don’t need such indepth and precise surveys to find out what your audience wants. Here are a
few tools to gather information about your audience:
  • Facebook: Ask a valuable question to your fans, friends or group members. Depending on the relevance of your topic, ask your fans, Friends, or group members a question.
    Don’t hound anyone with multiple questions. Ask sparingly and make sure your question really gets to what you want to accomplish.
    Look at the user profiles of some of your fans. Check out the About description and see what other fan pages they like. This might seem a little like spying at first, but remember you’re looking at only what that person made publicly available.
  • Twitter : Do a search for a hashtag (#topic) or keyword related to your blog topics.
    Within that hashtag or keyword, study the conversations that happen within the hashtag, note where these Twitter users link to content, and look at their Twitter profiles.
    Peek at your own followers. No, you don’t need to stalk anyone. Just take a look at their bio, visit their blogs (if they have one), and get a sense of their interests.
  • Quantcast : See your site’s demographics. After you set up Quantcast on your site (it’s free), you can view your profile to see age range, gender, and other demographics about your audience.
    If you know of blogs in a similar niche as yours (or they write about similar topics), you can look up their profiles on Quantcast using the search feature. If they don’t use Quantcast, they won’t have a profile. It’s also worth mentioning that a profile also displays web site traffic but most bloggers claim Quantcast doesn’t report traffic very accurately.
In addition to using the tools in the preceding list, you can get more in-depth knowledge about your audience from your audience themselves. Here are a couple of techniques to dig deeper into your audience’s opinions and preferences:
  1. Interview a few blog readers. Ask them to describe your blog and see whether readers’ perceptions align with your own. Ask them whether they can find content on your site easily. Find out the types of things they will want to see on your blog.
  2. Survey your audience. Ask questions about content and how your site works. Be careful not to ask directly about your blog design. (You’re the one who best knows your goals, voice, and audience. Asking your entire readership about colors or fonts can lead to subjective answers that make your decision even harder.) You can use these tools to create your survey:
    • SurveyMonkey: SurveyMonkey is the leader in web-based surveys and for good reason: It makes creating surveys a cinch. With a free account, you get basic reports, 10 questions per survey, and 100 responses per survey. You can actually embed the survey in a blog post or blog page, too.
    • Polldaddy: Polldaddy comes from the same company that created With a free account, you get 10 questions per survey and 200 responses per month. You can even survey people from an iPhone or iPad (cool idea if you wereat an event or conference) and also embed the survey on your blog.
    • Google Drive: Through Google Drive, you can create a form that drops answers into a spreadsheet for you to analyze. You can also embed the form into a blog post or a blog page. While you can easily create a form with questions, Google Drive doesn’t turn multiple choice answers into quantifiable data. For example, if you want to find out what percentage of those surveyed answered a. Excellent to your first question, then you have to do the math yourself using the spreadsheet formulas.
      For this reason, Google Drive works best for surveys when you ask open-ended questions that don’t need to be quantified. 
You might think I’m missing an obvious place to gain insight into your audience: blog analytics, such as Google Analytics. But don’t worry — I will devote an entire post to it.

What your readers answer on certain survey questions may contradict with what your analytics program tells you about your most popular types of posts or topics. For example, your analytics may show your most popular posts are on a topic readers don’t rank as one of their favorite topics. Because some of your traffic may be from visitors who come from search engines but don’t turn into regular readers, be sure to compare survey results with your traffic patterns. That way, you’ll gather a more complete picture of what your audience and potential audience both want.

Creating a user persona

After you have a solid understanding of who your target audience is, consider developing user personas to paint an ever clearer picture. A user persona is a short profile that describes a segment of your audience.

Think of personas as your “fake real people.” Even if your target audience seems pretty straightforward, you might have different segments within your audience. For example, if you write a blog about photography, you might have a non-professional looking for tips on taking better photos or an amateur photographer looking to build a photography business. Personas bring to life these segments by creating a fake name, picture, and description of these different audience segments.

Sometimes people think that building personas means that you’re stereotyping your audience. However, think about personas more like archetypes rather than stereotypes. Archetypes seek to create a general model of a personality or behavior, whereas stereotypes seek to demean a type of person by emphasizing clichéd or predictable behaviour.

Personas can help you make better decisions about your blog. Every time you launch an e-mail, start to create a promotion, or have a brilliant idea for a new blog post series, pull out your personas. Does that “thing” resonate with one of them — or better yet, a few of them?

Then, after you understand your audience more thoroughly, you can move to making decisions for your blog design.

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