The challenge: build community around your blog

I probably should have titled this post, How to drive traffic to your blog. That would have gotten more clicks, right? But the truth is, while we sometimes use hits to measure the success of our Web sites and blogs, the reason for that success is community.

One common mistake new bloggers make is thinking that all they have to do is put information out there — and readers will come. But to create a successful blog or Web site or organization, you’ve got to turn that information into conversation, into community, into a place people want to visit again and again.

Several writers have approached me recently, asking how they can attract readers to their blog. What they really need to know is, how do you go about building a community?

Here’s what I tell them:

Provide awesome content. This sounds obvious, but it’s the basis of any successful blog. If you don’t have good content, the other strategies I’m about to suggest are useless. Ask yourself: Is my content unique? Useful? Inspiring? What can I give readers that they won’t get anywhere else?

Encourage conversation. Write in a way that encourages dialogue and follow-ups. Ask questions at the bottom of your posts. Not yes or no questions, but open-ended ones that give readers the chance to weigh in. If your content is awesome, they may think about commenting or linking to your post on their blog. But they take that leap unless they feel welcome, inspired, encouraged.

One person who does this really well: soon-to-be author Jody Hedlund. There are thousands of writing blogs out there, yet writers go back to hers because she engages readers, asks great questions, joins the conversation in the comments and visits the blogs of her readers. She starts dialogue. (For example, check out her recent post about blogging.) On that note…

Join the conversation. Respond to comments on your posts. Visit the sites of the people who left them, and leave comments on their sites. When you do, make sure your name offers a link to your site. Not only will the blogger come back to visit you, but her other readers might, too.

Link within your posts. When you link to other bloggers’ posts within your posts, you’re helping your reader by providing additional information. But you’re also creating a conversation with those bloggers because their blog will tell them you linked to them, and maybe they’ll visit your blog.

This is how I connected with author Mary Morris. I mentioned her book and linked to her Web site so readers could find out more about the book. She noticed my link — either her site told her or Google alerts let her know — and visited my site, left a comment, I responded — and boom! We’re friends. That’s one of the main benefits of having a blog: connecting with people who have accomplished what you’re working toward.

Link to descriptive words like my travel blog or Inkslinging in Africa, not instructions like click here. This helps Google send people to your blog. Which brings us to…

Search Engine Optimization. You only need to understand the basics of SEO to make it work for you. The most important rule is to write good headlines, using words you’d type into Google if you were searching for whatever you’re writing about. An example of a good headline: How to find and apply to writers’ colonies. It has lots of words you’d type into Google if you were looking for a colony: colony, writers, find, apply. A bad headline: Does this count as productive? It doesn’t tell you what the post is about, doesn’t contain any keywords that would help Google guide readers to the post. Yeah, I knew that when I wrote it and I did it anyway. Sometimes we break our own rules.

Use images. They do more than make your blog interesting and fun to look at. Just like Google uses your text and links to determine whether to send people to your site, it also looks through your images. One map I included on my travel blog still drives significant traffic there a year after I stopped posting.

Get involved online. Participating in Facebook and Twitter will lead people to your blog. But make sure you’re using those tools properly, promoting yourself in a way that attracts, not annoys, potential readers.

What other forums can you join to lure people into your community? I created a Ning group for writers of travel memoir. I did it because I wanted to connect with writers in my genre, but as an added benefit it brings people to my blog. Another example: I’m active at Matador Network, a community of travelers. I leave comments on stories and occasionally write for the site. All of this participation online helps me strengthen my own community. (Need more ideas? Check out this post at Chip McGregor’s blog.)

Network in person. No matter how much we try to create relationships through our blogs, those connections are still virtual. Turn them into in-person connections. Go to conferences or round tables or Meetups — anywhere that helps you physically meet people who share your interests. At the very least, put a photo of yourself in your blog sidebar. Readers are more likely to feel like they know you if they can picture your face.

Be likable. Show us your personality — if only the nice parts. You are your own community liaison. You are your brand. You are the face of your blog. Make us want to hang out with you and get to know you better. Be interesting and helpful, but also be a friend. When I like the person behind a blog or Web site, I go back for more.

~ Yes, all of this stuff is time consuming. It’s also necessary if you want your blog to succeed. Don’t let it overwhelm you. You don’t have to introduce all of this at once. Focus on one or two of these suggestions each week, and eventually they’ll work in your favor.

Do these ideas help? What have I missed? How do you build community around your blog, and what do you struggle with?