What I learned after a year of blogging. My ten best tips.
Whew, that flew by.
I started Twisted Spoke in February 2009. After 12 months and over 330 posts, I’ve learned a few things about writing a cycling blog that might interest readers and other blog writers. There have been surprises and plenty of lessons learned along the way. Here are a few of the bigger ones about writing every day and building an audience.
1) Armstrong rules
When you’re blogging and you want a post read, it’s mandatory that you make love to Google. It’s all about SEO, search engine optimization. I’m not much of a tech head, but I’ve seen the numbers. Google loves Lance and readers search for Lance in droves.
Any post I write about Armstrong, no matter how lame or uninspired, is guaranteed to pull in 5 times the number of views as ABL — anyone besides Lance. I now understand in a personal, numerical way the power of Armstrong. My wordpress blog analytics prove it every day, post by post.
What that means is, like everyone else in the media (American, mostly) I am a humble servant of Lance. I hang on his every word, follow his every tweet, spin stories on the tiniest detail of his daily life.
When there is not Lance news, I go to Plan B — I simply make a story I can put Lance in to feed the google beast. This is also why Armstrong gets the royal King treatment in the U.S. No access to Lance means nobody is reading you. Do I want to be invited to a Radio Shack camp someday? Yes, I do. So will I write anything highly critical of Lance? See what I mean?
Whatever your blog category and subject matter, find your Armstrong and be ruthless in using it.
2) Sex sells
Like every other media publication in the world, I have embraced pandering as a business strategy. I’m embarrassed but I’m not turning back.
I used to look at the covers of all the magazines wondering aloud why the relentless cheap titillation and sexual pandering goes on. Again, I’ve learned from personal experience why it’s done. Uhh, it works. I now troll constantly on the look out for cycling-related sex. I’ve written about hot legs, sports porn, bondage calendars and exploitive yet charmingly sexy posters of Japanese girls on bikes.
I have run posts about strippers and lingerie shots of Spanish and Italian models. I work the podium girl thing as hard as I can. Again, numbers. Someday I’ll reach a point (maybe) where my audience is so big I can dial back the pandering. But you know what? I don’t want to — pandering is fun, it’s sexy and a lonely blogger needs that.
An example: one of my highest ranking posts of the year was on British track cyclist Victoria Pendleton’s lingerie spread in FM magazine. Over 3000 people came to Twisted Spoke thanks to her four inch heels and black thigh highs.
When you’re in the build audience stage, you sex it up. Now, does pandering always work? For some inexplicable reason, no. I wrote what I thought was going to be a killer piece on sports porn that would rack up mega hits. For reasons I can’t fathom, nobody really picked up on it. (See #7 Surprises)
2) Post Fast
A corollary I discovered (not being a Google master) is that search results are based in part on who gets out there first. I began to notice that many cycling new sites immediately posted preliminary results with a paragraph of story that they’d later do the full write-up on. Why? You come up first on the search results if you’re first out.
Now, when possible, I write a quick hitter to get me high up the search results and finish it later. The Victoria Pendleton pander post brought big numbers in part because I was one of the first to post — and that rank doesn’t seem to change later.
That is also why a twitter component is essential to keep you up on breaking news you can post on. As a blogger you’re going against big, funded, ad supported news sites. They pay for ranking and they’re also the boss based on sheer volume of content created. Which brings me to …
3) Twitter. Yes.
People told me for months, dude, you gotta be on twitter but I was so busy writing and adding share buttons and RSS feeds and trying to understand the wordpress blogging platform that I just couldn’t handle any more tech.
Then four months ago, I hit a flat part in readership growth (this could be because I wasn’t pandering enough) so I decided, okay, throw twitter into the mix. Growth curve back up. To me the whole social media thing is a big swirling, ever changing mess that only 25 year olds with unlimited free time can stay on top of.
But if you want to play the game and you’re going to commit the time to writing (the hard part) then work the twitter. If Lance can do it, you can.
Next up, a facebook fan page for Twisted Spoke. Which also makes it mandatory that you find a good and affordable designer who can put this stuff together. Craigslist is a good place of that. And while we’re at it, mashable.com is a fantastic resource for wordpress templates and ways to use twitter to conquer your world.
4) Write like a Madman
333 posts in 365 days. My wife is ready to kill me, she’s bored to tears with blogging, she thinks bike racing is a waste of time. My children have a new phrase — “daddy’s blogging again.” Who cares what the family has to say — I’ve crawled my way up the google ranking by writing my ass off.
This is not easy to do and I read somewhere that the average number of blog posts people write before quitting is 11. But the more content you create, the more google looks at you with respect. Another blogger is already afraid I’m going to burn out but I assure you — when you’ve spent your adult career in advertising writing about tomato sauce, checking account plans, and gas additives, biking seems a lot more fun.
The message is, be prepared to write. In the first month I had 8 people reading. The last three months I’ve doubled the number of total views per month, going from 6000 to 12,000 to 25,000. Next month looks very exciting.
If you need to keep it short, then short it is. But write like a madman. I once heard David Milch (Hill Street Blues, Deadwood) talk about screenwriting at a conference. All neophyte writers hunger for the magic rules but Milch has only one — and it must never be violated. If you consider yourself a writer, you write every day. He didn’t care how much — it’s not about volume, it’s about commitment, discipline and forcing yourself to learn your craft.
5) Link to your other posts
I learned this lesson from a reader and now good friend James Raia, the cycling writer at SFExaminer.com. Back to google love. You want your stuff read so when you do a new post, hyperlink to any previous post you did on the subject.
You want page views and audience — give them more reasons to come back by slipping them some of your other brilliant stuff. I go out of my way to find ways to link back to previous posts I consider extra funny — even if I have to twist the article to make a spot for them.
Down the road you want to make some money, any money on this addiction. Google Adsense is ready to pay you whatever but you need a decent audience first. Linking is a basic step toward that.
6) Make Friends with Other Blogs
I don’t know how successful this has been for Twisted Spoke, but I try. Find the best blogs that you like on your subject and say hi. Put them on your blogroll links and they’ll do the same. But if they get 100 views a month, it’s probably not going to get you more than a few readers a month.
However, if you can get linked to a super popular blog or site, that can have bigger implications. I wrote to Joe Lindsey who pens the fantastic Boulder Report for Bicycling Magazine on the web. I asked him if he’d consider adding me to his blog roll and he did. Those are quality readers coming my way and they spread the word.
7) Expect the unexpected.
Armstrong is guaranteed audience, pictures of sexy podium girls, guaranteed audience, a post on the Tour de France, Paris Roubaix, the Tour of California, the World Championships, all good.
But then there are the surprises. Posts I’ve written that pulled in huge numbers out of the blue in ways I could not even begin to understand or even theorize about. Crazy stuff — and it’s always amusing to discover what suddenly sparks attention in the vast and often impenetrable webverse.
Here are two of the most read posts at Twisted Spoke for the last year. See if you could have guessed they’d be so successful for a cycling blog: Pancho Villa and the French cartoon character Obelix.
I wrote a humorous series on the Vuelta a Chihuahua, the hometown of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. One post was about the three cycling jerseys with his name on them. Okay, go figure that one. Almost every week it still pulls in more reads — 1700 and counting — more than Evans, more than Boonen.
Then I did an oddball post about the cartoonish code names on the blood bags in Operacion Puerto, a doping ring in Spain. Again, I figured that was good for 50-100 reads — wrong –2,250 views and still going strong. So you never know. Just write what inspires you and stop guessing about what audience wants to read.
Writing has always been a solitary, isolating thing and that’s not about to change. The neat thing about blogging is you’re sending something out in the void. At first, there’s nothing but silence — and after a while you do wonder if your time would be better spent riding your bike because nobody seems to know you exist.
You’re a nobody in Google’s eyes and in most cases you’re so buried in the avalanche of search results, only a few people will bother to find you. Then, slowly but surely, they will. I don’t even know how people found Twisted Spoke in the beginning.
I was on page 7 of the search results — who goes that deep unless they’re doing research for a PHD? My numbers per month went like this: basically zero, 8, 98, 423, 465 and then magic, Armstrong un-retired, it’s July and the Tour de France, 11,194. (See #1 Lance rules).
The month after, Lance done and tour over, the numbers collapse back to 2,841. But the graph is all up from then on. So have faith and keep writing. If you care about your subject, if you’re insightful, funny, have something unique to offer, then your audience will find you somehow, someway.
I asked Elden, the man behind the immensely popular blog, the Fatcyclist, what his tip would be and here it is. “Forget about google tricks. Instead, write about something you’re so interested in that you don’t think you’ll ever run out of ideas of what to write about. Then know who you’re writing it for. Actually have a visual image of say five real people who will want to read what you have to say.”
Like I said, have faith and listen to Elden. Those five people will find you, and then their five friends and so on — empires begin like that.
9) Be the master of your niche
Twisted Spoke is always a work in progress. I’m new on the scene and yet feel qualified to offer opinions on the state of cycling. That kinda makes me a bit obnoxious but not unlike every other sports fan in the world. We’re all experts, right?
That said, there is something about writing on a subject every day that makes you appreciate the people who really have their chops down — the writers at cyclingnews or Bicycling.com for example. Writing almost everyday, you gain an appreciation for those who have to generate stories all the time and write them well. You’re knocking off 300 words, they’re doing 800 – 1000 and their stuff reads better and brings the story to life.
During the cycling off-season when there were no races, I almost went nuts looking for things to write about. I dug deep into the comedy bag. Anyway, the point is, find your niche and become as knowledgeable as you can. And know what you have to offer.
There’s no way I can compete with the big cycling news sites: I don’t have the access, I’m not at those races, I don’t have those interviews. What I can offer that they don’t is a different take, another spin on the same story.
I made a decision to focus mostly on European ProTour level road racing while adding in anything else that catches my eye for comedy. Figure out what your approach to your world is. Is it digging deeper, being funnier, offering the unexpected perspective? Decide what the reason is for readers to come back. It’s your little world — own it.
The final words here come from a great cycling writer and former rider Joe Papp. His consul: “Don’t be bland or boring or fail to distinguish yourself from the masses.” The web is already a cesspool of yammering nonsense. If you’re jumping in, have something to say and say it well.
10) Work the reader forums
This is something I did early on and took a little crap for, too — although I don’t think for good reason. It’s another good way to find more readers and get your name out.
You know the main sites you go to and there’s usually a reader forum where people vent and pontificate about the daily news — which in my case is cycling. So I’d go to the Velonews and Cyclingnews forum areas and post my own ever-so-witty insight with a link to my latest post.
I always pulled in at least 50 readers that way and that’s a good number when you’re starting out. Now, one or two people complained and one forum cop suggested I adjust my boosterism. I always figured hey, what’s the dig deal — there’s no advertising on my blog, I’m not trying to make money, just directing readers to a subject they’re already interested in. But that’s just me.
Same goes for facebook fan groups. Find the ones that cover your area of blogging and whenever you have something relevant, hit their wall with a link. This can be time consuming and I only recommend it in the beginning for that reason. I rarely do it these days. Okay, that’s 10 thoughts but hey, you’ve been cool enough to read to the end. Bonus #11.
11) Enjoy the ride
I tend to go into things with a certain naivete and without a lot of long range planning. When I began Twisted Spoke, I just wanted to try blogging and cycling was the only subject I cared enough about to write on everyday.
Its turned into this exciting journey that is taking me places I’d only dreamed I might go and gained me introductions to people I would have never met. My blog posts have been picked up by publications in France, Belgian, England and all over the U.S. Reuters linked to Twisted Spoke after Milan San Remo. I’m in conversations with two different editors of cycling publications about writing for them.
I now have readers all over the world. The director sportif of Team Sky follows Twisted Spoke on twitter. Two time TDF finisher Marty Jemison dropped us a line. I’ve had the chance to connect with great guys like Joe Papp and Joe Parkin and James Raia.
Regular readers who send me comments always brighten my day and even the mean-spirited ones written IN ALL CAPS TO MAKE THEIR STUPID POINT amuse me.
I’m actually gonna cover the Tour of California this year. My first press pass. I’ll just go deep into my Norcal Buddhist lingo and say, like, feel the energy of your soul going outward and attracting the glowing orbs you seek.
Your blog is like this river you create and then the amazing thing is, it begins to carry you along, creating momentum and possibility you hadn’t even considered. Stick with it and you’ll be surprised to see how many doors open. And these days, open doors have never been more essential. So enjoy the ride.