I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails and Instagram messages lately from fellow bloggers or people who are thinking of joining the blogger ranks about how to start and grow a successful (lifestyle) blog. I never thought that, less than a year after launched my blog (9 months and 4 days, to be exact), I’d be able to call it my full-time job and earn a living off of it. I find there aren’t that many resources out there that go through all the steps involved in starting a lifestyle blog (apart from the technical aspects), so I wanted to write up a detailed post about my experience and what has worked for me personally.
Let me preface this post by saying that I am by no means an expert on lifestyle blogging. There are many, many examples of more successful lifestyle, home decor, and motherhood blogs out there that I (and millions of others) love to read and that I can only dream of one day joining the ranks of. However, as with all of my blogging / photography tips posts that I do on here, I’ve noticed an interest in this topic as well as a general lack of information online, so I wanted to help bridge that gap by sharing my personal experiences over the past 9 months.
Just a word of warning: this is definitely a lengthy post. I wanted to make sure I went into enough detail for each of the 10 steps I’ve laid out below to truly help anyone who’s interested in blogging professionally.
[ Step 1 ] Find your niche
The very first step to starting a blog is figuring out what you want to blog about. The blogging world is very saturated but there is absolutely still room for you to carve out your own little niche. Take a look at your passions. What do you like to do in your free time? What are you good at? You want to pick something that you’re passionate about so that creating content comes easily to you. You want to stick with 1 or 2 main topics, although the term “lifestyle blog” allows for a little more freedom with regards to that. Nevertheless, try and create a niche that isn’t too broad and is also unique in some regard. If you want to blog about home décor, what could your unique twist be? Is it affordable style? Minimalist but still kid-friendly? With a lot of DIY elements? If you want to be a mom blogger, what sets you apart? Do you want to take on a humorous approach? Being an active family? A world-travelling family? Finding that unique twist to your blogging topic(s) will give you an edge and make you stand out in the crowd.
Once you’ve picked your niche, try to stick with it consistently. Write the majority of your blog posts related to your niche. Of course there will be posts here and there that will be off topic because it’s part of your life and you might want to share it. But make sure that your blog readers who come to your blog because your niche speaks to them get plenty of what brought them to your blog in the first place.
For me, personally, I have way too many hobbies (a jack of all trades but a master of none haha) but two of the biggest (and most fun) are interior design and photography. I started Instagram 5 months before I launched my blog in the hopes of creating an online presence that would translate into my first few blog readers. I initially thought my blog would be mainly a mom blog (“momming” is what I do for the majority of my day, after all), but through sharing little bits of our life on Instagram, I noticed that people really loved seeing interior shots of our house. So when it came down to picking a niche for myself, I decided to combine motherhood with interior design. There are a lot of great home decor blogs out there and there are a lot of great mom blogs out there. But the combination of the two was something I hadn’t found all that often, especially a minimalist, Scandinavian take on child-friendly interiors as well as translating that love for modern, minimalist style into the world of parenting (baby products, kids clothing, etc.) Now, those aren’t the only topics I cover. I naturally cover the occasional travel as well, since we love travelling as a family. Blogging and photography tips have also become a big part of my blog in recent months because I’ve seen a lot of interest in that. But, no matter the topic I choose to cover, I always try and tie it into my particular niche – which is modern, minimalist lifestyle and parenting.
[ Step 2 ] Find your name
Before you start your blog, you’ll need to come up with a name. My two biggest tips for coming up with a name are ( a ) make it easy to remember and ( b ) make it easy to spell. You want something catchy, unique, and nothing too long (or it will be too hard to remember). You also want it to be easily google-able, so resist the urge to use unique spelling. And make sure the domain is available as “.com”, ideally without dashes or any other specialty characters. Just your name, no spaces followed by “.com”. (You can check domain availability at domain.com). I know those are a lot of requirements, which might seem next to impossible with so few short domain names left these days. But spend the time now to get your name just right. Changing a blog or domain name down the road is not ideal if you’ve built up an audience who will be confused by the change.
If you’re still struggling, try this little exercise: write down several words that describe your niche (so “home decor”, “motherhood”, “Scandinavian”, “minimalist”, “monochrome”, “affordable” for me). Then write down words that are related. Use thesaurus.com if you need help and don’t be afraid to get a bit abstract with your related words. For me, I wrote down (amongst others) “house, home, interior, design, nordic, bargains, grey, black, white, love, kids, littles, mini, mama, bird, beautiful, habit, life…” and so forth. I tried hundreds of combinations (all not available as yourblogname.com) but this exercise made me decide I wanted the word “grey” in my name. I thought it perfectly summed up my minimalist, monochrome, Scandinavian style. I also decided I was okay with my name being a bit of a more abstract reference to my niche as long as the name was still short and catchy. My husband actually was the one to come up with my name. We tried switching up popular phrases by swapping one word out and using the word “grey” instead. So instead of “happy go lucky” we have “happy grey lucky”. I feel like my approach to life and parenting is very easy-going and the phrase “happy go lucky” goes well with that laid-back attitude.
[ Step 3 ] Set up a self-hosted WordPress site
WordPress can be confusing at first. There are actually two sites – wordpress.com and wordpress.org. The first is a free blogging platform (much like blogger.com) that hosts your website (blog) on their server and doesn’t require any setup on your behalf apart from signing up, picking a blog name, and choosing a theme (from a limited collection of presets). It’s completely free unless you choose a custom domain name (so happygreylucky.com vs. happygreylucky.wordpress.com) for $3 a month. The second is a piece of software that you need to install on a web server yourself (self-hosted) and allows you to completely customize your website (blog) using a very user-friendly interface. It gives you complete control, from using custom themes and installing plugins to using Google Analytics and the ability to monetize via ads. It’s the pricier option (you’ll need to pay a monthly hosting fee in additional to your yearly domain costs) and also takes more time to setup and customize, but I absolutely feel it is the better platform for serious bloggers. Take the time to learn WordPress and, trust me, you won’t be disappointed. For a great tutorial, check out this article. It dives deeper into the difference between the two sites, how to install WordPress, as well as how to move from .com to .org, if you’ve started with the free platform but want to switch to self-hosting.
In terms of choosing a hosting service, there are plenty of good options out there. I personally use eHost.com and have had a good experience with them. I purchased my domain name from domain.com but I know godaddy.com is another popular option.
Side note: If you’re self-hosting (wordpress.org), make sure to install the Google Analytics plugin so you can get access to your blog’s traffic information. Here is a great article that takes you step-by-step in how to install the plugin.
[ Step 4 ] Design your blog’s aesthetic
Now that you’ve set up WordPress, it’s time to pick a theme. WordPress gives you a selection of themes to choose from but you can also find one elsewhere online. ThemeForest is a great source for themes, as is Etsy. The theme I am using is Soledad. I love clean, bright monochromatic design and I wanted my blog to reflect that. The Soledad theme is a great basis for the look I was going for – a lot of white, clean lines, and simple elements.
A premium (paid) theme has several advantages over a free theme. Apart from more customization options (usually), premium themes generally have a support team that you can contact directly and they offer more regular updates. Most themes are in the $40-80 range. You can customize any theme with custom CSS as well. I’ve done quite a bit to mine but my background is in computer science and I have a lot of web development experience. If you’re a newbie in that department, make sure to pick a theme that allows enough customization via the interface so you don’t have to touch the CSS code.
Apart from a theme, you’ll also need to design a logo. I designed mine myself – I used Photoshop and just played around with different fonts and combinations of black and grey. If design is not your forte, however, you can always outsource your logo design. 48HoursLogo.com is a great way to go. It allows you to create a logo contest and have designers create designs for you. You can rate submissions and let designers know if they’re on the right track. You’ll pick a winner at the end of your contest window and pay the designer a minimum of $99 (plus a $29 listing fee) – a bargain compared to professional graphic designers.
Now, whilst I am a firm believer that your blog name and domain name shouldn’t change over the years, I think switching up your logo and theme is not a problem, as long as you aren’t making any drastic changes (at least to the logo). If you want to create your own logo for now and then wait a bit to hire a professional, by all means do so. Some of my favourite blogs switch up their look every couple of years and I don’t see any issue with that. In fact, I think it’s a good idea since web trends are constantly changing.
[ Step 5 ] Plan your content
Okay, so now that you’ve got your blog up and running, it’s time to think about content. Start off by putting together a list of blog post ideas that relate to your main topics (your niche). When choosing blog topics, always try and ask yourself “will this help someone”? While it’s great to just write a journal about your life, this is usually not that interesting to others. There are a number of personal blogs out there that are very successful (Love Taza, for example), but it’s definitely much easier to build a successful blog if you’re offering readers something that is helpful to them. Remember, most people read blogs to make their own lives better, whether it’s home decor inspiration, parenting tips, or researching an upcoming trip. If your blog post is helping them in some way, they’re more likely to read the post as well as come back for more.
Once you’ve made a list of blog post ideas, try and put them first under one of your main categories (your niche topics) and then further into subcategories. Try and add a few more ideas to each category. For me, my main categories are “home”, “motherhood” and “lifestyle”, and my subcategories include “home décor inspiration”, “DIY”, “room tours”, “tablescapes”, “photography and blogging”, “parenting tips”, etc. Under each subcategory I’ll have several blog post ideas. For example, for “DIY” I currently have some Easter egg crafts, a couple of IKEA hack ideas, and an easy sunglasses storage project that I’m in the midst of making right now. If you always have several future blog post ideas written down, it’ll be easier, in that moment, to pick a topic to write a full post about – depending on your mood, what you’re working on, what your readers have shown interest in, etc.
Site note: you definitely don’t need as varied categories and/or subcategories as I have. If you want to start a simple home decor blog that focuses on modern, Scandinavian design (which is just a single category on my blog), you might divide your posts into inspiration posts (where you post other people’s homes), product finds (your favourite throw pillows, for example), house tours (aka showcasing parts of your own home), and decorating tips (where you share tips for creating a certain look).
[ Step 6 ] Create your content
Now that you’ve planned your content, it’s time to start creating! This will be a highly individualized process since everyone has a different writing style, but my main two tips are ( a ) when I doubt, keep things short and to the point and ( b ) use high-quality images. Clearly I’m not taking my own advice in terms of brevity here, but since this is meant to be a highly informative post, I think it’s fine to write a lot. My tutorial posts are usually quite lengthy as well since I want people to have as much information as possible. But, in general, people have short attention spans these days ( I blame social media) and, if you ramble on too long, they might just click away. So keep it long enough to give readers the information you want to get across, but also short and to the point enough to keep readers interested until the end.
As for posting pictures, high-quality photos (or even any photos at all) are definitely not a requirement for a blog, but if your niche involves something visual (home decor, fashion, etc.), your images should be high quality. Nothing turns me off more than a blog that has good content but terrible photos. I personally only post photos on my blog taken with a “big” camera (aka my Nikon D610 SLR or Sony A6300 mirrorless camera) since I want crisp, high-quality, professional looking photos for my blog but that is a personal choice since my blog is very visual and I want my photos to reflect that. You definitely don’t need to invest in an expensive camera, the latest phones have great cameras these days and even inexpensive point and shoots can produce high-quality images. What’s more important is learning some photography basics. Make sure you only photograph in good light, learn the basics of photo composition (you can find a great article here), and then learn how to edit your photos in a style that find appealing. Editing is definitely a highly personalized process and there’s no “right” and “wrong” way edit photos. If you’re interested in my own editing process, I wrote a post about how I edit my iPhone photos here as well as my SLR photos here.
[ Step 7 ] Find your first readers
The first thing you should do is search engine optimize (SEO) your blog content. People aren’t going to find your blog if it doesn’t show up in any (Google) searches. SEO could be an article all on it’s own, so I won’t go into too much detail. Instead, make sure to check out this great article, which really dives deep into SEO within the WordPress framework.
Within SEO, I think one of the most important elements is your title. And not just for being found by Google. Having the right title helps potential readers decide whether or not they are going to commit to reading your post. Your title needs to convey exactly what the post is going to be about in the 1-2 seconds it takes to read the title. Don’t leave your title too vague. “Top 10 tips for adding Scandinavian style to your home” is a much better title than “Scandinavian design”. The latter could mean so many different things vs. the former lets you know exactly what to expect when you start reading. In general, blog titles with a number in them (“Top 5…” or “10 steps to…”) seem to perform better than posts that don’t.
The next step is focus on quality content. If your blog doesn’t have great content, even if you get readers to your blog once, they won’t become regular readers unless what they find is good to begin with. Rather than trying to keep up with a blogging schedule (aka churning out several posts a week), focus on making each and every blog post great. It’s better to post only once a month but have that post be fantastic than to produce 10 mediocre posts in that same timeframe.
Linking is another great way to get readers to your own blog. Sounds backwards, right? By including relevant links to great content in your own posts, you are ( a ) showing your readers that you want them to find the best possible content, and ( b ) you are participating in the blogging conversation. Bloggers who you link to will usually get notified so they might check you out. Which in turn could bring some of their readers to your blog. Getting your link on other people’s blogs is the flip side to this and is also very helpful. Contribute to the conversation by leaving thoughtful comments on blogs that hit a similar niche to yours and people who read the comments might just click through to your website and become readers themselves (don’t be spammy though).
Interacting with your own readers is another important aspect of starting a blog. If you get a comment, e-mail, or link from their blog, make sure to respond back. If people take the time to visit and write you something, responding makes it all that more likely that they will return since you are showing you care. This gets harder and harder to do the more you grow since there are only so many hours in the day, but I personally always try and respond whenever I can. I truly appreciate it when people (you) take the time to write me an e-mail, send me a DM, or comment on one of my posts. So thank you!
[ Step 8 ] Utilize social media channels
With having gone through several ways of bringing initial readers to my blog in step 7, the best strategy for me personally has actually been social media. I started my Instagram account in January 2016 and spent the first 5 months growing it to 10K followers. It was then that I decided to launch my blog, which did get those first readers to my blog that I wouldn’t have gotten there otherwise. Every time I wrote a new post, I would post to my Instagram account and include a call to action to click the link in my profile. I also switched my personal Pinterest to a blog one (aka changed the name and added my blog info) as well as set up a Facebook page and Twitter account. I would post to all four channels and even though I didn’t (and still don’t) have a large following on any of those channels, I did get consistent click-throughs from those platforms that contributed to those early pages views.
I don’t just use social media as a way of sharing my posts, I also use them (mainly Instagram) to gauge the type of content to post. For example, I was getting (and still get) a lot of questions about my IKEA-hacked learning towers as well as my Instagram photo editing process which is why I decided to write those posts last fall. They’ve become my two top performing posts to date. Pinterest as well has been fantastic for my blog growth. Whilst initially Instagram referrals made up the bulk of my blog traffic, Pinterest is now my number one traffic source, bringing me roughly a third of all of my web traffic, which is about 3 times the traffic that Instagram brings (even though I have something like 5% of the number of followers on Pinterest than I do on Instagram). I get Pinterest traffic both from my own blog post pins (aka when I create a Pinterest-specific pin and link it back to my blog post) as well as readers who pin my photos, which in turn get repinned by others. I now actively take Pinterest into consideration whenever I think of new blog post topics because I realize how powerful of a platform it is for blogs that create visual content, like I do.
I know a question many of you will be asking is how I’ve been able to grow my Instagram account to over 41,000 followers in a little over a year. Since Instagram has been vital to my blog growth I definitely want to talk more about that, however this post is about starting and growing a lifestyle blog and Instagram is by no means necessary for that (even if that is what has helped me so much personally). I absolutely will be covering that topic in the near future in a separate post. There is a lot of ground I want to cover on the topic of Instagram, so a separate post makes sense as well. Be on the lookout for that in the upcoming weeks!
[ Step 9 ] Growing your audience
Okay, so all of this is great and all, but the goal of starting a blog (if you’re looking to turn it into a business) is to bring more and more eyes to your blog, isn’t it? First of all, realize it does take time. That’s what every post about growing your blog says, right? Ha. It truly does though, it takes time and hard work. That said, it doesn’t have to take a large amount of time. I started my blog in June 2016 with about 2,500 monthly pageviews that month and, now, 8 months later, I’m at about 50,000 pageviews over the last month (that’s about 1,700 pageviews with roughly 900 unique visitors per day), and I’m consistently growing each month.
How have I been able to achieve this kind of growth? What has helped me the most is listening to my readers and followers. Taking e-mails, Instagram comments, and DMs into consideration when I write a new blog post. Ask your audience what they’d like to see more of and then do that. Use Google Analytics to see what your top performing posts are and write more of those. I copy my blog posts sorted by pageviews into Excel every couple of months and color code by category to see which categories are doing the best, which subcategories are doing the best. What common themes I notice in the top performing posts. And vice versa. I look at my poorest performing posts and will post less of that since it doesn’t seem to resonate with my audience.
Creating customized Pinterest pins (aka very tall “banners” with photos and text – see an example here) has also helped me a lot with growth. As I mentioned in step 8, Pinterest has become my number 1 source of traffic and creating images that pop in the Pinterest feed has really helped with growth over the past six months.
Apart from that, there are a few other strategies to help with growth. SEO optimization, which I talked about in step 7 is as important for growing your audience as it is for finding those first few readers. Last fall, I went through all of my old posts and optimized the image titles, descriptions, etc. and now my images show up high in the Google image search. If you search for “monochrome Scandinavian living room”, for example, I’m in the top 70. If you add “white”, I make it up to top 50. (I’m pretty proud of that fact lol since I’m a Google image addict, almost as much as I am a Pinterest addict.) Definitely read through this article from step 7, because SEO absolutely helps. (Google is a close second in terms of the traffic to my blog.)
Collecting e-mails is something that is often touted as a great way to grow your audience as well. I haven’t actually started an e-mail subscriber list (but will hopefully get one up soon), so I can’t tell you if it will help me personally, but I know a lot of bloggers are all about the e-mail subscriber lists. Partnering up with other bloggers is another great way to grow. Again, this is not a strategy I’ve used a lot myself but it’s part of my growth plan for 2017.
[ Step 10 ] Coming up with new content
Once you’ve been at blogging for a little while, have brought in initial readers, and are actively working at growing your audience with SEO as well as other strategies, you’ll want to take a renewed look at your content calendar. Continuously creating content that your readers enjoy and that will bring a constant flow of new readers to your blog is key to keeping the momentum going.
I touched briefly on it in step 9, but listening to your readers is a great way to figure out what type of posts to write in the future. Read (and respond to) social media comments, e-mails, and DMs to see what your audience is interested in. Or, better yet, ask them what they want to see more of. You should also be analyzing your blog’s metrics via Google Analytics to see what is performing well right off the bat, what is performing well over time, and what isn’t performing well at all. Check out your traffic sources, not just overall but for individual posts to see where certain posts perform the best. See where your audience is located to figure out the best times to post. Check out how long people are staying on your posts to gauge interest in each particular topic. A great in-depth tutorial on how Google Analytics can help you with your blog can be found here.
Also take a look at what others are posting in your niche. By that I don’t mean copy their ideas of course, just check out what other successful blogs are doing to stay on top. You can gauge audience interest by looking at the number of likes and comments a post received to see which posts on other blogs are doing really well. If another blog’s audience really likes easy DIY posts, for example, you can try including one in your blog to see how it does. I also spend time on Pinterest to see what sort of posts are consistently doing well on there. It’s a great way to get out of a creativity rut if you’re stuck on post ideas. Again, this isn’t about copying someone else’s ideas, it’s just about finding inspiration and doing research on what audiences in your niche seem to favour.
Conversely, looking at other blogs as well as Pinterest (or even just good old Google) to see what isn’t being posted is a great strategy to make yourself stand out from the crowd by filling a void that doesn’t need to be left empty. How popular Instagram influencers are editing their photos or what filters they are using, for example, is something that I tried to find when I was first starting out on Instagram but I honestly found next to no one willing to share their process. Even which filter they’re using, even though there is so much more that goes into a good photo than the VSCO filter being used. But somehow popular bloggers and Instagrammers are hesitant to share that information. Seeing that gap is what ultimately led me to write my Instagram photo editing post, which is one of my best performing posts to date. (I use VSCO A6, by the way.)
When coming up with new content, my biggest tip is to always ask yourself first – is there a need for this? Is this going to bring value to my current readers and potential new readers? Will my post help others in some way or another? Whether as home or style inspiration, as a how-to or tips post, or something entirely different, if your post has helped even just one person in some way, you’re on the right track. This doesn’t mean every post needs to follow this rule, of course. I break that every now and then but, the vast majority of my posts are written with having asked myself this very question. Even if it’s a blog post that wouldn’t traditionally be “helpful” (e.g. my vacation photos), I try and come up with an element of usefulness within the post (including tips for where to eat, what to do, where to stay, etc.).
[ Step 11 ] Monetize your blog [ BONUS ]
Okay, so I know my post title says “10 steps”. However, monetizing your blog is something that I haven’t yet talked about but, if you’re considering making blogging a career, it’s obviously a big part of that being possible. I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to monetize my blog (as well as my Instagram) to earn a supplemental income for my family. I’ve written 70 blog posts to date (71 if you include this one) and 15 of them (so about 20%) have been sponsored (you can find all of my sponsored posts here, if you’re interested). There are a lot of ways in which to monetize both your blog and social media, and (as with how to grow your Instagram account) there is definitely enough information I’d like to write down that I’ll be putting it into a separate post as well. Both of these follow up posts will hopefully be going live in the next few weeks, so be on the lookout for those!
If you’re still reading after this novel, bravo! (And thank you!) I hope this post has been helpful for you. With that said, I’d like to put the follow two questions to you:
- Is there anything I didn’t cover here about blogging that you’d love to have an answer to? Or an aspect that I’ve touched upon briefly that you think a more detailed post would prove helpful? I’m happy to do a follow up post to answer any lingering questions you guys might have.
- What would you like to see more of (or less of) on my blog in general? Any particular topic that I haven’t covered but that you would love to see more of?
Leave me a comment below!