This is part of our occasional series of posts covering the aspects of starting a blog. See Blogging 101 for the full list.
So you know you want to start a blog, and you're know how easy it is to set one up of your own. It's a start, but just blogging isn't enough. I believe that I could argue a case 100% of the time for why every business or person should be blogging, but I now tell people outside the space that they should never blog just for the sake of blogging; ultimately you should only start a blog when you have clear goals on what you want to achieve. Having a goal and knowing where you want your blog to go applies equally to personal blogs and corporate/ business blogs, and without that goal, there's a very strong chance that your blog will fail within 6 months. Then there's the consideration of what to blog about. Anyone can write, but what topic(s) should you target so you can achieve your goals.
What do you hope to achieve in setting up a blog? Are you starting a blog for fun, a lark where you can rant and rave, or shares pics with friends? or are you hoping that your blog can achieve something, traffic, fame, money, publicity or any combination there in? No matter what the reason, you should always know up front what you want to achieve from having a blog. Goals can be anything you want them to be; it might be creating a presence on the web that is completely you. It might be using the blog as a support tool for something else. It might be establishing yourself as an expert in your field. Typically many will set statistical goals, such as Technorati rank or traffic. Related to this is income; you might wish to make $500 a month from your blog within 6 months to supplement your income, or you might want your blog to become a full time job. No matter what the goal, you absolutely must have one to have any chance of your new blog going the distance.
Finding your niche
One of the hardest challenges facing people looking to start blogs today is knowing what to blog about when everything has been done before. At the base level we have personal blogs where we share our thoughts on anything we care to write about (my personal blog is a good case in point). There's a role there for personal blogs, and they can assist in building your online presence, and sharing with friends, but most personal blogs don't go far unless they target a particular niche (my personal blog is again a case in point).
Business bloging is a little easier, because the topic will always be related to the business. But even in this space, focus and niche come into the mix. The first step is to short list what you think you might be interested in blogging about. The obvious first entry on that list is going to be what ever field you know the most about. If you're a PR professional that would be PR, if you're a call center worker who collects fine china, it could be a blog about collecting china. If you're knowledgeable about the topic, and are passionate about it, your chances of running a successful blog improve.
But sometimes the world doesn't need yet another blog about startups, or gadgets, or celebrities. Competition can be fierce, and opportunities to enter the space slim. If your goal is to have a lot of traffic, and make good money, then sometimes you have to think outside the areas you're naturally drawn to.
Some internet marketers love spruiking lists of "high paying verticals" which they say you should target if you want top returns. It's all very good in theory, but let me warn you now: there are thousands of mesothelioma blogs out there, and very few pay. Chances are every entry on that list has been bled to death by thousands and thousands of bloggers. The idea of a list isn't a bad one, but you need to create one of your own.
Start with a list of things you think might work, they might be items you have a passing interest in, you think you will be able to write about, and areas where you'd like to learn more (sometimes writing a blog is a great way to learn about a topic). Then hit Technorati, Google Blog Search, BlogCatalog, Blogs.com and any other blog search/ directory services you can find and type in those words, visit the sites your find and make a list of the results. From that list, and from your observations, note which topics are being well served, which aren't, and note any ways you think you can do better. With a good list and a little time, sure enough you will eventually identify opportunities, and you may find a topic to blog on. This may sound like a slow and long process, but I can't preach the point enough: always do your research, even if you're already sure about what you want to blog about. If you don't know what's out there, you don't know who you will be competing against, or who might be able to help you along the way.
Small niches can be really nice
When I founded b5media with Darren Rowse and Jeremy Wright in 2005, we knew we didn't have the capital to create a few huge blogs that could compete against the blogs coming out from Gawker Media and Weblogs Inc. We decided then that if we couldn't own a space, we'd own the sub-spaces instead. For example, we couldn't do a huge celebrity news blog, but we could create the biggest Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears blogs because the competition in each space was less than at the top. I don't know whether b5media follows that path today, but while I was with the company, it grew to over 260 blogs and something like 6-7 million page views (possibly more) and went on to take $2 million in its first round of funding.
I'm not suggesting that you should go out and set up hundreds of blogs, and b5media had over 200 bloggers when I left and one of the biggest expenses was the accounting required to pay all the bloggers. But it does prove a point: you can specialize in a particular niche that isn't at the top of the food chain and succeed. Rather than writing a web 2.0 blog, you could run a blog about Facebook, instead of a gadget blog, you could specialize in GPS units, or the Apple TV. The key is to find a small niche that works well for you, and offers competitive opportunities.
In some ways, we've gone from the simple (setting up your blog) to the difficult (niche and goals) and yet although it may sound a little hard, it really isn't that difficult. We make decisions every day based on goals, and we regularly focus on niches based on personal likes. Should I take that new job because we can use the money to buy a car is a goal based decision, deciding whether to buy chocolate or free range chicken this week is picking a niche (although obviously sometimes you can have both). Goal setting and finding a niche is really just common sense, but sometimes people get caught up on the wonders of blogging without taking time to fall back to everyday decision making skills. Use this as your rough guide; it won't deliver you millions, but following these steps will improve your chances of success.