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Content Marketing & SEO Blog

Blog about startup growth strategies revolving around content marketing, SEO, CRO, and social media marketing.

Branding a blog

Sean Smith

Branding your blog digs deeper than a logo, it's the essence of the writer, it's all encompassing and it's worth sweating over. 

 

Branding your blog is basically speaking to your reader through everything but your text. It's showing who you are, it's showing what's important to you, and what makes you different. It makes you stand out from the crowd of other bloggers - especially the ones in your niche.  

Setting Design Principles

Your blog's design speaks to you as a person, if it's not catered to you it doesn't speak your message. The design should be the intangible tangible. It should be what people see, but subliminally notice next to your writing. Obviously it's up to you how you decide to design your site, but interruption is never a good design.

Set design principles. Decide what is important to you in reference to your design. What are your goals? If your goal is to maximize subscribers then feature RSS and email subscriptions front and center. If your goal is to increase your twitter followers, make sure you have social following widgets installed. If your goal is to engage with the visitors on your site through blog post comments, make sure you have a good comment structure and you let people know to comment. 

Design principles should be nailed down.

- What is your color palette? Pick ones that you like, but that will also be good for the reader. Obviously light light gray text on a white background is not a good choice.

- What font faces will you be using?  Hopefully not comic sans - but if so - rock that shit!

- One column or side-bar? Picking the goals for your blog is really important to how you design your site. 

Things of this nature. 

Teehan+Lax when designing Medium thought down to the minuscule details. They thought about personas when designing the product (as any product designer should) but to the tenth-degree. "Medium should be a place for intelligent conversation and interesting reads" essentially was the overall outcome, which was translated in every fabric of the finished product. It was elegant, simple and extremely beautiful when fully finished. The team even decided that one font-face - which would be in-decipherable to the normal user - was much to "bubbly" or "fluffy" to be taken seriously. They took it to another font face that looked very much alike, decided that was too IBM'y, and ended up with a perfect middle ground - intelligent but creative.

When I was setting design principles for this blog I decided on a few things that were very important to me.

1. It has to be creative, like a designer's blog. Well styled and stand out in it's own way apart from the typical norm of the industry.  

When you see some blogs (no offense to anyone) you can tell it's an SEO's. It's structured for SEO-out-the-ass. If I'm going to even try to compete in organic search against the likes of Moz or SEJ or any of the like, I better just close my laptop and go to bed. It would be a better use of my time. 

I don't want to be like the common SEO blogs - I want it to be unique, beautiful and designed to flow like the designer's blogs that I love reading. I love reading the 37signals blog, "Signals vs Noise" which is incredibly well designed.  I actually took a lot of inspiration from the 37signals blog - and Medium.. and MinimallyMinimal - Andrew Kim's blog. All 3 of these are blogs that I love to read, and one driving factor brings them all together - design.

It's not that it's well designed that makes me read it, it's that it's well designed because that's their mindset - that's what is important to them. It's what's important to me and that's one major reason I love them. That's what I wanted my blog to be like. Well-designed and more like a creative's than a marketer who is shoving CTA's down your throat.

2. Color palette of rose, mint, light gray background, deep gray headlines etc. Honestly this is just because I like those. That just comes down to my style, and it translates pretty well via design.. I think.

Fun fact, I get called "mint-pants" around the office because I have a strong love for my Bonobos mint-colored chinos. My favorite shirt is a rose shirt, it's not just my blog, it's what I wear too. It translates.

3. Minimalism. I chose minimalism because it's always been important to me. I love simplicity and I love the simplicity of a one column design. It takes the focus away from anything but the content.

That's what I want people to focus on - the content.

Not an "about the author" over to the right, a hovering "share box" or a "list of posts because you're sick of this shitty article." Nah, just one column. Simple. At the end, you can share - if you'd like - or (what I would prefer you do) is comment and start a discussion about it. Reach out to me and tell me how my content influenced you, negatively or positively. I want to hear it. I want constructive criticism or further engagement. I'll take it all. Unless your the Prince of Nigeria and need $10,000 to end a crisis tomorrow. I won't tolerate that shit.. actually I would probably comment back.. that would be hilarious. All of this was considered when designing the newest iteration of this blog.

4. Clarity. Hopefully you should always know what you're doing on my site, if you don't I'm fucking up somewhere. Point that out to me, please.  

 

Decide The Goals of Your Blog

What do you want the blog to do?  This is key.

Do you want to express your love for frilly pink ponies? If so, go to Tumblr. Do you want to become a millionaire? Good luck, you may want to try something more effective. Do you want to put out content to educate your following? Now you're getting somewhere.

Nail down the goals of your blog.  Even if the goals are shallow, they're your goals.
  1. Get more business through referral leads.
  2. Increase social following
  3. Engage with the community
  4. Teach people about my passion
  5. Start meaningful conversation
  6. Tell your personal story
  7. Generate usable content to promote your e-commerce business

Whatever it might be, write them down - that's what you will be grading yourself against. Hold yourself accountable if you're not executing on your goals. Be real about them. All of the ones listed above are understandable goals for a blog, some more selfish and shallow than others but that's fine - it's your blog. 

If you have no gauge to grade against then what are you wasting your time on?

What gets managed gets measured.. or some shit like that. 

Goals influence everything though. Goals influence conversions. How do you know if your blog is providing worth to you if you have no "conversion" established. Even if it's just having your content shared on Twitter. Write down what's most important. IE:

  1. Blog comments with meaningful conversation
  2. Shares to Twitter
  3. Shares to Google+ 
  4. Shares to Facebook and other profiles
  5. Simple like-button pressed
  6. More than 3 page-views per visit
  7. Over 10 minute time-on-site
  8. Email signup form filled out
  9. RSS signup form filled out

Etc. These are seriously important to jot out. Without a clear system of "what is most important" you have no base for design architecture. Everything will be in a wash of conversions and nothing will stand out - meaning likely nothing substantial will happen. If you wan't a little bit more understanding of design architecture and how important it is while setting structural goals, check out this article from Joey Cofone from Baron Fig.

 

Set Core Topics

What matters to you specifically that you would like to write about? You will be in it for the long-haul, be real with yourself. Get granular with it. This is a toughie, I'm not going to lie.  

When I started blogging I decided to cater to every topic in my niche. I made categories for Email, SEO, Blogging, Content Marketing, Social Media, Branding, PPC, CRO, Startups, Entrepreneurship, Psychology, Marketing, Thoughts,  Business, Productivity etc.

Far more than those even (because honestly I still have most of those) and I'm still trying to trim it down. I was paralyzed by topics. There were simply too many. What the hell would I write about?  

Find what interests you the most and limit yourself to a few of those topics. 

You want to be able to write meaningful content. If you aren't enthused or interested in some of the topics, why write about them? Is it hitting one of your end goals? If you don't care about what you were writing about, chances are other people won't either. 

Through hard realization I want to trim my categories to Blogging, Content Marketing, Social & Branding. My pieces about blogging and social media will subsequently hit SEO - seeing as I believe that's what has the most impact over SEO. Marketing is so broad, every one of my other topics fall under the marketing category. This is when it gets hard. You have to put shit on the chopping block and be ruthless. You will have too much you want to write about, limit it.

All the great, successful bloggers have targeted niches. They rule those niches. Find yours and stick with it.  

Generally the things that interest you most will be the best parts to focus and specialize one. I am obsessed with productivity, minimalist to-the-point answers, blogging and content marketing. Those are my core topics, with a bit of flame in other places.  

 

Setting Core Principles

I don't think anyone could say it any better than Jonathon Colman when speaking about setting core principles.  Check out his slidedeck.

 

That's a mighty-fine slidedeck. Basically the core principles of your business or blog is the absolute core of your business or blog. It fundamentally makes up everything that you do and it polarizes your audience more than anything else. It determines what kind of people are going to follow you and what kind of organization they're following.

Nail them down, write them down, tattoo them to your forehead. Whatever you do, let the world know what's up.  

Pro tip; if you're picking core principles for your own blog, think about how you were raised, what's important to you, how you like to write and what kind of reader you truly want. 

My core principles were pretty easy to nail down, just because it's really apparent to me what's important to me personally. This should take some serious though though, because this is all-encompassing. Get granular too, being too broad makes it not actionable.  These should really be used to hold yourself accountable too.

My blog's core principles turned out to be:

  • Humility - I'm really quite an idiot, just curious and craving self-improvement with every fiber of my being. I read, share and explore a lot, so it's easy to keep humble when I see how incredibly smart my peers are.
  • Simple - Make it clean & concise. Be concrete, solid and minimal. Say what needs to be said in as little time it takes to say it. If there is a lot to say, that's fine, make sure it's actionable.
  • Creative - Like a designer's blog, keep it creative, keep it interesting. Have twists or be corky.
  • Idiotic humor - Be a little bombastic. Be dumb, it's fun. Break up the monotony with a little bit of good-old-fashioned idiocy.
  • Engagement - Involve people, talk, engage. Involve as many people as possible in as many posts as possible. I learn very well from stories, perspectives and insights from other people so I want multiple opinions on the subjects I cover in my blog.
  • Counseling - I want to teach, to share, to educate and to help my readers learn, experience and act. I've read a ton about myself through the Zodiac all the way to StrengthFinder2.0 and one thing that has always been a common thread is counseling. It says that I love to counsel and that I'm very good at it. That I have insights that provide great value to the people around me, that I can cut through information and see the real purpose or true definitions between the lines. That probably sounds a bit self serving and I thought that too - but when I really took it in, it's sort of true. I've always acted as a counsel to the people around me and I love doing it! So I want this blog to act as a counsel on the topics I'm interested in. 

These are just my few core principles, it's also important to keep them simple. You want them to be guidelines, but more like reminders of which you can be measured against if you fall off track. Moz's "TAGFEE" is the perfect example of simple, actionable and beautifully executed core principles. They live by theirs over at Moz, and you should live by yours. Or rather, yours should be what you live by.

 

Setting Style Guidelines

Style guidelines should be laid out in such a way that your posts will always have a consistent theme. You want your followers to somewhat expect what they will see when they hit your page, this way they carry through your content without going into shock or feeling lost. It's essential to growing a consistent following. 

These style guidelines should be set up for every intricacy of your post formatting. Some of mine are: 

  • Long, descriptive titles. Explain the point of the article as effectively as possible before the user hits the page (pre-qualified leads basically) IE: "How to Blog; The Ultimate Resources - 104 articles, 18 tips, 8 interviews, 10 platforms and 21 pros to follow"
  • 80-20 Actionable content. Content following the 80-20 analysis of productivity, which essentially states that 80% of the stuff you do is fluff, and you get 80% of your result from 20% of your work. I want my content to be the 20% that informs the 80% of your results. That's what I focus on. 
  • Tell stories. Stories make information so much more entertaining. Everyone loves a good story, especially if it's well delivered. Focus on that. 
  • Use H2's for headers, quotes for impact, bolded quotes for double impact. Which basically means:
If I have something important to say I'll say it like this - if it's really important I will say it like this

Establish your style guidelines. Down to the length of your content. I prefer long-form content, but that's just my cup-of-camomile. If you're into short stuff like Seth Godin, do that. Keep it consistent though. That's crucial.

 

The Point of All of This

These are all steps to branding your blog but the overall point is to make it yours. 

It needs to be unique to you, your style and your ideals. If it's catering it will come across that way. Decide what is important to you - this can be the hardest part.  

Stick to it - be consistent. Whatever you decide to do, do it every time. Keep pushing til' it sticks. Don't bounce around a ton. If something simply isn't working, that's understandable - but bouncing around and not settling doesn't give your audience a chance to know you.  

Be real with yourself. You don't want to write about everything, be real and nail down your favorite topics. It's tough, but do it. It pays off. 

Have something to work towards. Have goals, otherwise you won't know what you're measuring, you wont have a grade of success and you won't get obsessed like you should.  

Have design principles - make them have a reason. It's obnoxious when there is no rhyme or reason it shows. Make there be a reason for every piece of design on your page. Be anal about it, it will pay off in the tests. 

Iterate. If you aren't happy with the design - revisit it. Get it laid out but then go back and second guess, but always ask "is this aligning with our style guidelines, our core principles and our goals?" Like the evolution of 37signal's blog:

 

 

Examples of Well Branded Blogs

  1.  MinimallyMinimal by Andrew Kim. Product reviews, industrial design, graphic design. Very simple, designed to be minimal.
  2. 37signal's "Signals vs Noise." SvN is my favorite blog in terms of branding, focus, style, design, simplicity and approach. There is a ton of information on the design and branding behind SvN, like this one on the typography choices
  3. Tim Ferriss's "fourhourworkweek blog" is branded exactly as his books. All 4-hours. He has caught a lot of flack for this name as it's been reciprocated throughout his career but regardless, it's known and works very well. It doesn't take much to associate his blog with his 3 New York Times Best Sellers (The 4-Hour Workweek, Body and Chef).
  4. Moz's blog. You know when you're on Moz's blog. They have great editorial guidelines and great moderators that enforce them. You know the YouMoz is for everyone who wants to try to contribute, and that the Pro blog is for Pros or posts that get promoted from the YouMoz. The design principles align with their other products so everything is very fluid. You have clear call to actions, as you can subscribe, follow, thumbs up or thumbs down a post, comment and get more information if need be. It's exactly aligned with their goals, and it works, beautifully.
  5. Copyblogger's blog . They practice what they preach, it's absolutely apparent. They will tell you that you need a large email signup box on your blog while their's is slapping you in the face. They have clear call to actions, with a clean monochromatic theme and very big audacious boxes that say "CLICK ME DAMNIT!" - or might as well -
  6. The Buffer Blog . This is one of my favorite blogs out there. I love productivity and dear god do they deliver on productivity. If I wasn't already sold on the product before reading their blog, it wouldn't take but half an article for me to start using their shit. They just get it. It's clean, minimal and actionable - just like their product. Very clean call to actions - not intrusive but definitely stand out. Branded perfectly around their product, so it's all very clean and cohesive. You know where you are - and it's comforting.
  7. Neil Patel's Quicksprout blog. It's obvious he is after the readership and user-base. He is after referrals and he is after money. He provides great information which gets him great visits, but his site is meant to convert. It does. A guy who has founded two marketing analytics companies (Kissmetrics and CrazyEgg) doesn't just "decide" on a theme. He tested the shit out of everything to see what got him the best ROI. This is how he branded his site, but he branded Quicksprout around him. If you know about Quicksprout you know Neil Patel and vice-versa. 

These are some blogs, personal and business that have core principles laid out. They properly branded their blogs. Concreting their audience and set the foundation strong.  

What are your core principles, what is the story behind your blog? I'd love to know.