This article is part of a series of posts on How to Build Blog Traffic (see Intro).
Everyone knows that if you want a successful blog you have to start with great content. But what does it mean to have great content? Your friends and family will read your blog because they know you and like you. To reach out beyond your social network to a much wider audience you need to provide something valuable, something a reader can't easily get elsewhere, or can't easily get all in one place. Here are some things to consider regarding what goes on the pages of your blog:
Be Useful, Entertaining, or Timely
The most successful blogs are useful, entertaining, timely, or a combination of all three. Of these three, probably the one that will have the most legs is "useful". When you present something that's useful, people will return to it over and over again. A blog like Darren Rowse' ProBlogger.net is filled with practical advice for bloggers. You can spend hours going through Darren's archives. The addictive Life Hacker blog recommends ideas and software to help us all become more productive. A new favorite is Lara Ferroni's Still LIfe with... blog about food photography. With each of these examples, the content doesn't expire the day it is written, but remains valuable to readers for months or even years.
You don't have to write about celebrity gossip to be entertaining. One of the most popular blogs on the planet is Heather Armstrong's Dooce. What Heather writes about (constipation, Mormon jokes, her kid) is not remotely useful, nor even timely, but it is highly entertaining. The same could be said for Cute Overload, Durham Township, Post Secret, and ZeFrank.
Regarding timeliness, I would argue that sites like Engaget and Boing Boing succeed not only because of the breadth of content they deliver, but the fact that usually you can hear it from them first. They get the scoops on interesting products and net happenings. Blogs covering news, sports, and stocks all rely on time-based information. Political sites like Wonkette are timely as well as entertaining, and if politics is your life, probably useful as well.
What should you emphasize - utility, entertainment, or timeliness? It all depends on what you like to do, what you are good at doing, and how much time you are willing to commit. To have a successful blog that relies on timely information, you need to devote a lot of time to updating your content, probably several times a day. I read somewhere that the guy from Engaget starts his day at 6 am and puts in at least 10-12 hours a day in front of his computer. To be entertaining, you have to be, well, really entertaining. Some people are talented writers, most are not. Some people are brilliant and looney and you could watch them all day, most are not. Some people are wickedly creative. Personally I don't like to write and I don't even pretend to be entertaining, so I stick with the third category, usefulness.
Blogs become popular by attracting the attention of other bloggers with similar interests who link to them. The more you focus on a subject the more likely you are to attract readers and other bloggers who care about that subject. If you care about building an audience, it's better to have a blog about gardening, and only gardening, than it is to have a blog about gardening, movie reviews, political commentary, and astrology. Unless the movies, political commentary, and astrology entries are actually about gardening. (When the moon transits Venus later this month, Aquarians will be advised to plant tulips.)
Post Frequently, But Not At The Expense Of Quality
Conventional wisdom states that one should post a new blog entry at least once a day. I don't agree with this. For the most part, frequent posting is better than infrequent posting, but not at the expense of the quality of the posts. We all have limited time and most of us would rather spend it reading things worthwhile than entries with little substance that were obviously put up just to fulfill some arbitrary "post everyday" rule. Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks updates her blog once or twice a week. 101 Cookbooks is a gorgeous blog, well written, with beautiful photography. Heidi gets thousands of visitors each day to her site, and she is one of the most highly ranked food blogs in Technorati. If you only post once a month, don't expect thousands of readers. But unless you have a blog that depends on producing timely information, e.g. a news blog, you simply do not have to post every day. Actually, when I start feeling pressure to update my main blog every day it sort of takes the fun out the process and the blog begins to feel burdensome. I know when I start feeling resentful of my blog that it's time to take a break. Usually a few days away does the trick.
Posting more than once a day may actually have a negative effect on blog popularity. As Erik Kintz discusses in his Why Blog Post Frequency Does Not Matter Anymore post, too much posting can lead to "RSS fatigue". People remove you from their feed subscriptions because they are tired of sorting through all your posts to get to the good ones.
Use Images and Photographs
This may seem like a trivial suggestion, but let's face it. We are visual creatures. We respond well to beautiful images. Even the Wall St. Journal now has color and photographs throughout its pages, for a reason - people want them. Graphics and photos can help to accent or illustrate your points. They also break up the monotony of text, and give relief to eyes tired of reading online. If you use graphics or photos, make sure they are high quality. Don't take them from other sites unless you have clear permission from the site author. Invest in software (e.g. Photoshop) and a decent digital camera, preferably an SLR (i.e. the Canon Rebel or the Nikon D70). Take as much care with the quality of your images as you do with the quality of your writing. Which reminds me...
Writing is a craft, a skill that improves with practice. Some people are great writers; most of us struggle to be simply proficient. Help your readers by not rambling - get to your point. Eliminate unnecessary words. Punctuate. Capital letters exist for a reason. Check for spelling and grammatical errors and typos. Proofread before you post. After you post, read it again, just to be sure, and correct then any mistakes. Keep it simple.
Most professional journalists-turned-bloggers I know promote the use of imaginative, eye-catching headlines in blog posts. Personally, I think this tip is overrated. I'm more concerned that the headlines contain keywords in them that will be picked up by the search engines (more on that in a future post). In most situations, I want the headline to clearly indicate what is in the blog entry. If however, your blog is more oriented toward being timely and entertaining, and you aren't particularly concerned about traffic from search engines, then a snappy headline makes a lot of sense.
Make Us Care
As I mentioned in the introduction post to this series on building blog traffic, your blog needs to be about something that some people, somewhere, care about. No one's going to give a hoot about your blog unless you care passionately about it first. When you feel passionate about your subject, it will be reflected in your writing. It is the energy, care, and attention that you bring to your subject (or anything for that matter) that will inspire others to take notice and to come back.