Content is king.
You may be familiar with the above quote. It was coined by Bill Gates in a 1996 essay which was eerily prescient of the upcoming explosion in popularity of the internet. The words are favored amongst online content creators as a way of validating the worth of the written word against other "contenders" for importance (such as design).
And while one cannot underestimate the importance of content when it comes to building a successful blog, we live in a world where quality content alone does not suffice. Multiple elements must combine in a synergetic fashion in order to give a blog the best possible chance of success.
Make no mistake -- the quality of your content is vitally important. In fact, we have a whole post dedicated to creating great content later in this series. But branding is arguably just as important, yet so often neglected.
With that in mind, in this post I want to explore the importance of branding, give you examples of great branding across the web, then explain what you need to do in order to brand your authority blog in a compelling manner.
What Is Branding?
The American Marketing Association defines branding as:
A name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.
As a blogger your primary role will be to engage with the reader rather than sell to them (the selling usually comes later), so branding in that context is all about demonstrating to visitors what differentiates your blog from your "competitors" (although I hesitate to use that term for reasons that I will go into later in this series).
Branding is more than just one thing -- it is a combination of various elements (which we will discuss later) that come together to provide visitors to your site with an immediate and compelling reason to stick around and explore further.
Why Branding Is So Important
In 2012 The Guardian reported on the ever-decreasing attention span of the modern Internet consumer with the headline, "Say it quick, say it well":
A recent Pew Internet study in the US suggests that while students coming through the schools system in this always on world benefit from instant access to a wealth of information from numerous sources, their attention span and desire for in depth analysis is consequently diminished. The current generation of internet consumers live in a world of "instant gratification and quick fixes" which leads to a "loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking".
In a world of instant gratification and where an alternative website is just a mouse click away website owners need to find ways to firstly grab the attention of a user, and then keep it for long enough to get your message across. If you don't, their cursor will be heading to the back button and on to a competitor in the blink of an eye.
Having a blog packed with great content but poor branding is like trying to start a Rolls Royce engine without any gas in the tank. But that's not all there is to it. You don't just want to put any old gas into your engine; you want the high grade stuff that will start the engine every time and keep it running smoothly. That's what branding is -- your fuel.
Examples of Superb Branding
Every now and then I will come across a site that is branded in an utterly compelling way. Even if I am not within that blog's target audience, I sit up and take note. In order to give you a better idea of what good branding looks like before we get onto the specifics, I have included some of my favorite examples below.
One of the most important elements of branding is immediacy and Chris' site is a great example of how to do it right. His tagline -- "Challenging Authority Since 1978" -- is enough to capture the interest of anyone interested in a non-conformist way of living.
This site features one of my favorite designs. It is clear, colorful and leaves nothing to the imagination in terms of what you can expect by exploring further. The message is clear: if you want to build a successful website, you should be a Think Traffic subscriber.
One could argue that the tagline "Get anything you want" is rather ambiguous, but Marie Forleo's site is a great example of how the various elements of branding can come together to deliver a compelling message. It is almost immediately clear that this site is for entrepreneurial women who are interested in personal and professional development.
This site is a fantastic demonstration of the power of social proof in branding. Although the design itself is not particularly eye-catching, Laura relies upon the testimonial of a subscriber combined with mentions on some very well-known websites (Freelance Switch included!) to convince visitors that they would be missing out by not joining her list.
Developing the Most Important Elements of Your Brand
In reality one could write a book about effective branding (and many people have), but we certainly haven't got time for that here. So instead I am going to focus on what I consider the key elements of branding and explain how to leverage them to their maximum potential. Furthermore, where appropriate I will give you budget options so that you can build a compelling brand without breaking the bank.
Startup bloggers often agonize over their blog's name. I know I did. If you get it right then the name can spread like wildfire; if you get it wrong then you can become seriously jaded by it over time.
However, to assuage your fears I will make two points:
- Your name isn't that important -- consider for example that three of my examples of excellent branding above are simply named after the blog's founder.
- You can always re-name your blog in the future -- in fact, this can be an excellent excuse to drum up publicity.
My number one recommendation with a name would be to go with something safe and relatively conventional. If you're not confident of an idea because you think it might sound a little too salesy or false, dump it. Much better you go with something as simple as your name than something that people will be turned off by.
What does any successful blog have? A logo. Ultimately, it is something you need -- whether you have one when you launch or at a later point in time.
If you choose to go without a logo then you may not be taken seriously by many of your peers and visitors. Personally speaking, a blog without a logo is an easy way for me to determine that a blogger is not committed to what they are doing. This kind of instant litmus test is widespread amongst internet users (whether it be conscious or subconscious), so going without a logo is going to hamstring your development quite drastically.
Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind about your logo is that it does not need to be complex or hugely imaginative. Consider the four logos in the examples above -- they're downright simple. A logo in itself does not produce miracles, but it needs to be unique enough to be recognisable. Consider the fact that ninety-three percent of kids recognise McDonalds' golden arches -- although the logo itself is pretty unremarkable, the power of branding has elevated it to worldwide recognition.
If you are not skilled in graphic design then you will need to commission a design. Fortunately, there are some great options to suit all budgets.
Envato (the team behind FreelanceSwitch) recently launched Microlancer. This new site is set up so freelancers can sell targeted service packages. There are high quality freelancers offering logo design services on Microlancer. You can choose from a wide array of styles and prices. You can also leverage our FreelanceSwitch job board to place a free, direct ad looking for a freelance logo designer.
A logo will typically not clearly convey the message of your blog -- it is just a piece of the puzzle. Your tagline however should leave nothing to the imagination. Consider the taglines from the sites featured above (Laura's site excepted as it has no clear tagline):
- Chris Guillebeau: Challenging Authority Since 1978
- Think Traffic: Build a Thriving and Profitable Audience For Your Site
- Marie Forleo: Get Anything You Want
- Leaving Work Behind: Quit Your Job and Build Your Best Life
Each of these taglines, in just a few short words, gives you a good idea of what to expect from the site. And that is in a nutshell what the job of your tagline is -- to convey enough information about your site to convince people to explore further.
The common denominator amongst most taglines is that they communicate a clear benefit. Consider Marie's -- what could be more clear than "Get Anything You Want"? People should benefit from a visit to your blog -- it is the job of the tagline to make it absolutely clear what that benefit is.
The great thing about taglines is that you can change them with ease. It's not so easy with a logo, but a tagline can be changed at any time. If you pick something today and don't like it next week, just change it.
I am only going to skim over the topic of design here as we have a whole post dedicated to it later in the series, but when it comes to branding, your design should act as a facilitator. Think function over form -- far better to have a basic design that helps to create a compelling brand than a beautiful design that leaves a visitor confused as to what you actually have to offer.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a relatively clean and simple blog design. In fact, if you have never turned your hand to blog design before then I would outright recommend that you keep it simple. A clean blog design can facilitate a quality brand far more effectively than something more complicated.
The best example of excellent use of a simple design above is Laura's site. In reality, it's just a simple brand, a subscribe box, and some logos. What could be more simple? And yet I am willing to bet that it is highly successful in effectively communicating her brand and attracting subscribers.
You can start your blog with a default (and free) WordPress theme such as Twenty Eleven or Twenty Twelve. However, I would recommend going one step further and purchasing a quality premium theme. My number one recommendation is the Canvas framework (which you can pick up for just $60) -- it provides you with a wealth of customization options and is what I use for my own blog.
Copy and Conversion
Going back to common denominators again, you may have noticed that none of the above examples present normal blog content (i.e. blog posts) to visitors "above the fold." That is because an excerpt from a blog post is unlikely to clearly communicate the benefits of the site, which means that visitors are more likely to abandon ship.
With that in mind, the copy on your home page should expand upon the clear benefit communicated via the tagline and give visitors clear instruction for what they should do next (don't be afraid to tell your visitors what to do, otherwise they may make their own decision which involves them leaving your site!).
Putting together the copy that will help convert first-timers into repeat visitors and subscribers is perhaps the most challenging part of the process of branding, but as with your tagline, remember that you can change your copy at any time. In short, don't sweat it. As you can see from the examples above, your home page copy can be written in many styles, none of which are "right" or "wrong." Just start by going with what feels right.
Branding Is Secondary to Taking Action
There is a possibility that you could feel overwhelmed by the concept of creating a strong brand for your blog -- especially if this is all new ground for you. To that I would say to not worry about it too much. As you grow and develop as a blogger your branding skills will evolve and you will be able to improve your blog accordingly.
Consider this screenshot from Think Traffic circa 2010:
Not quite so flash, right? Remember that you can change anything about your blog at any time. The key thing is to make a start; to take action. Without that you will achieve nothing.
Now that we've covered branding, the next step for your blog will be to actually create it. In the next post in this series I will take you through a step-by-step guide to getting your blog up and running on the WordPress platform. Don't worry -- it'll be a piece of cake!