From nought to 87,698 in five years

Not really knowing what I was doing, I started this blog in October 2006. In the years since, and according to the FeedBurner chicklet in my sidebar (since removed), the RSS subscriber count has risen to 87,698 (the number fluctuates a little each day, usually decreasing at weekends when less people access the feed).

Glass-fronted building

It might’ve taken five years (those looking for a quick-fix should take note) but I’ve learned a few things along the way and want to share some blogging advice.

1/ Focus on what you’re passionate about

Two things here; focus and passion. When you focus your content on a particular topic or profession, your readers know what to expect, and they’re more likely to subscribe. Unless you’re passionate about what you publish, you’ll get bored long before a few years have passed.

2/ Share your mistakes

We all make them. Few of us share them. You tend to open-up more when you talk about getting things wrong, and it’s that personal touch that’ll help keep readers interested. Here’s an old post of mine from 2007 that might be of use if you’re starting a blog: Seven blog mistakes to avoid. And perhaps one of my biggest mistakes — neglecting email security.

3/ Comment elsewhere

There’s a big world of blogs out there, with a big world of people reading the comment threads. Join the chat. I’m sure you have some good advice or a point-of-view that others want to read. You might learn something, too — I have, thanks, in no small part, to my valued commentators.

4/ Make guest appearances

Offer guest articles to blog owners who have already built a solid subscriber base. I did this on a couple of well-known blogs. I sometimes look back wishing I could press ‘edit’, but still, worth doing. One thing to remember, offer your best writing. Don’t hold the good stuff back for your own blog. You only get one chance to make a first impression with the new audience.

5/ Make it easy to subscribe

Seems obvious, but there have been plenty of times when I’ve had to search for a subscription button or link. Put it in a prominent position on your blog. Additionally, not everyone knows the benefit of RSS subscriptions, so offer an email alternative.

6/ Publish consistently

It doesn’t matter if you publish a new blog post every day or every couple of weeks, but consistency breeds familiarity, which breeds confidence, leading to trust, and eventually to sales of some sort. We all have something to sell.

7/ Don’t sell-out to advertising

I encourage you to make money from your blog. It makes sense given the amount of time you’ll invest. But a blog that hides useful content behind blocks of Adsense, popups, and a raft of flashing banners is a sorry sight. Instant turn-off.

8/ Social proof

We avoid the empty restaurant in favour of the busy one next door. To a certain extent the same applies to our websites. Some people think it’s boastful to show a blog’s subscriber count. I don’t. But avoid using the FeedBurner chicklet (or whatever alternatives are out there) until it shows more than 500 or so.

9/ Don’t sweat the numbers

It’s easy to become a stat-addict, constantly looking at numbers, charts, graphs, wanting to see a continual increase and wondering what you’re doing wrong if you don’t. Try to treat each reader/commentator as if s/he’s your only one. This one-at-a-time focus keeps your writing personal, and people will subscribe to your blog because of you.

10/ Be positive

The blogs I enjoy most remind me from time-to-time how fortunate I am. Millions struggle every day to have the life I lead. What do I really have to complain about?

A sincere note of thanks to every one of you who takes time to read what I have to say.

If you have any additional tips or advice to share, please do.

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  1. Hey David, great post as ever. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been a little down on the number of people viewing/interacting on my blog recently – it sometimes seems like a lot of effort for not a lot of return! That said, your post helps confirm a few things I need to improve!

  2. David,

    You missed “Write a book…” I’d be interested if you’ve can draw any links between it’s publication and your blog followers? Was it released in ’09, so about half way through your blog?

    Of course folks wouldn’t come back if your blog wasn’t worth it, so +1 for content.


  3. I know the feeling, Owen. Stick with it. At the very least, the search engines will be indexing your new content, and that’ll help people find you.

    Kieran, I should’ve mentioned book-writing. Thanks. There wasn’t any spike after publication. At least, not until earlier this year when numbers took a huge climb. No idea why. Maybe I’ll find-out it was a glitch, and I can chalk this post down as one of those mistakes.

  4. Ellen Tolsma

    Thanks for sharing David, very helpful. You encourage to make money from a blog but advise against advertising. What model do you think works best? Affiliate programmes? Donations? Curious to hear your thoughts on that :)

  5. Hi David,

    It’s wonderful how you share the good and the bad, the highs and lows.
    A couple of things I think you got right early on were having a really clear understanding of your audience and knowing what problems to solve for them.

    Here’s to the next six years!

  6. Great post David, thank you for sharing! I’m finally starting to blog myself, and this was encouraging and inspiring. I definitely agree that a big part of being a blogger is engaging with the community in whole, and being a good citizen of the blogosphere. Offering to write guest posts for more established blogs is a great idea, and I have no idea why I never thought of it before!

    P.S. I found your book before your blog, so the book must have helped drive traffic a little at least! Maybe it just takes a while for all those different efforts to build momentum.

  7. Ellen, I don’t mean to completely avoid advertising. I make money from it. Rather, don’t go overboard. Becoming an Amazon affiliate is also recommended.

    Thank you, Bernadette, both for reading, and for your excellent guest author contributions.

    Daniel, good luck on your own journey with Altered Focus.

  8. Thanks for sharing these great tips!

    What makes me keep coming back to read your blog posts is the interaction you have with readers. I love how you always try to reply to the people who leave comments on your blog. And when some people left somewhat-rude comments, you would still write your replies to them in a nice way instead of just getting offended by those rude comments.

    When I visit your blog, I can always tell that you genuinely care about other successful or emerging designers and that you do want to help them grow by sharing your knowledge/experience.

    I’m subscribed to over 100+ blogs but only visit a few of them regularly. And it kind of annoys me when the blogger obviously cares most about the extra income he/she can make rather than the actual content of their blog.

  9. Great tips, David – and awesome numbers!

    I’ve been mildly successful this year with a personal blog I’ve been writing. I have followed pretty much every tip you listed above and am pleased with how well it’s progressed in 9 short months. Now I’m working on getting a business blog up and going and will be following these tips even more.

  10. Vash Salarda

    Before, I knew that a hundred people subscribing to your blog was good. Now, I know it’s not good enough. 87,698 is a big number and it takes a lot of work to let people know that you exist in the web.

  11. That’s kind of you to say, Jessica. Thank you. One thing about having a moderately-trafficked blog is the inevitable (and very welcome) difference of opinion in comment threads. If people come across as rude it’s worth remembering how easy that can be when there’s no tone of voice or facial expression. Trolls are another matter. I’ve seen enough not to let them bother me. Most of them are moderated-out so I don’t waste readers’ time.

    Jason, is the business blog for you? I’m curious if you’re switching away from using your personal name for design work. Love your donation policy, by the way.

  12. I love how the page title (and the RSS entry title) differs from the actual article title. Very tricksy, David.

  13. Nice post, lovely site you’ve got here.

    In fact, your site has me thinking about “the comfort factor” in a blog/site’s success. Like going into a store or restaurant: there are those rare places where you feel instantly at home, almost at peace; others, where you tense up almost at once, can’t wait to get out.

    It’s restful here, uncluttered, unhurried. Don’t know if that’s planned, or just a reflection of your personality, but it teaches an important lesson. I intend to come back and reflect on it further.

    Thanks for the tips, wishing you continued success.

  14. David – few things going on here. I have a personal blog on a different site than the one linked here that I started in December of last year. It’s been mildly successful (better than I had imagined) and continues to evolve.

    I just recently started blogging on my Branding & Design site in the past few months, but started getting consistent in the last few weeks. I’m trying to make this blog more of tips and help for business owners/individuals in a marketing/branding/design.

    I am considering moving away from my personal name towards a business name for my branding and design work. Where I live, it would just give me more credibility to have a business name, as opposed to my own.

    And thanks for the mention of the donations. I started doing that when I started design work and my clients really like it.

  15. Interesting and insightful post again David. Your blog has been an inspiration to myself and many others throughout the years.

    Keep up the good work…

  16. You are the man, David!

    Love everything you create~

  17. Wow, well first off congrats on your number of blog subscribers! I believe I began reading your blog around 2007/2008 but probably commented for the first time earlier this year.

    Great list but I think items 1 and 2 probably set your blog apart from many others. In addition to the great work you’ve showcased I’ve also been extremely impressed by and appreciative of the tips and tidbits that you openly share. I’ve found your blog to be an invaluable learning tool specifically as an aspiring designer and even more as a professional in general. In addition to motivating me to start my own blog, you’ve also inspired me to be open to continuously learning and just as open to sharing.

    Thanks for the tips. Congrats again and much continued success!

  18. I’m not sure just how much good it does, Ash, but I reckon a URL of “how-to-get-blog-subscribers” is quite a bit more useful for search engines than “from-nought-to-87698-in-five-years.”

    Mark, you’re welcome back anytime, and I’m glad that’s the impression you got. Here’s to continued success with your illustrative work.

    Jason, if you’ve yet to finish it, good luck with the naming process. Never straightforward when you’re going by more of a “company” name.

    I appreciate that, Andrew. How’s Design Soak working-out for you? Fair bit of content there now.

    And to you, too, Natasha. Pleasure to count you as a reader.

  19. @David. It’s going quite well, although I only get half the traffic I used to get 3 month ago due to a few posts originally getting a lot of viral traffic (which has now dipped somewhat).

    However, I’m sticking to a mission to run it as a side project that I allocate just 15 – 45 mins a day to running.

    I think there’s nearly 200 posts now (120 new ones), so I’ve given it a good start. Thanks for asking…

  20. Excellent. Could you elaborate on speaking to people outside of the internet community? It’s difficult to get the balance between a capitalist mindset (which is very apparent on the web) and an organic lifestyle when so much energy and feedback is ephemeral on the internet. Many thanks. Jonny Drury

  21. Jamie Davis

    A very interesting post David.

    I agree with Daniel Christopher, your book is definitely helping findability. Early this year I also discovered your book on Amazon first before discovering your blogs.

    And now, your blog is my main source of inspiration and research. It has helped me so much already and I haven’t even sketched the surface yet ;)

    After battling with myself for a long while, I finally decided on a name for my website/business and shall be learning the ways of WordPress very soon to start my own blog. When I do, I shall focusing on points: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 – and I have no problems with 10.

  22. David, I think you missed two major things that keep people reading your blog in ever-increasing numbers:

    1) Your articles are always informative and inspiring;

    2) You’re a very nice bloke.

    People may think I’m being silly with number 2, but I’m deadly serious. There are some very big egos in the design world, but yours certainly isn’t one of them.

    I wish you continued success.

    Regarding comments, I have been forced to turn them off on my site due to being overwhelmed by spam, but I enjoy reading the contributions on your site(s).

  23. Some great points here David, but I wanted to share what draws me to your blog more than any other, two things actually –

    1/ Design – The designs you share are obviously a cut above the norm (just thinking of your holiday pictures in Tenerife)
    2/ Layout – You have lots of white space, like your home office it is clean and not cluttered by advertising, text links, banners and such.

    Keep it up, always nice to see when you share something new :)

  24. Online side-projects can come in very handy, Andrew. Hope your numbers pick back up, regardless of viral traffic.

    Jonny, I’m not sure what you’re talking about unfortunately.

    Great to read, Jamie. And those points are good places to start (the rest are perhaps better suited to further down the line).

    Thanks very much, Richard, Dave. Kind of you to say.

  25. Jamie Davis

    Yeah, that was my thinking.

    Your blog here for example has posts that go in-depth about many aspects of design. From dealing with clients on a one-to-one basis, all the way to growing as a designer/business over the course of years, (plus all the things in-between).

    So upon finding you website, it was important for me to narrow down what I needed to start out and focus on that rather then trying to take in everything if that makes sense. That said, I do tend to take something away from each post ;) Thanks again.

  26. Nice collection of tips David. I should really try and make them work for myself. By the way, I love the font used in your comments box. Is it Garamond? Minion perhaps? I used to be good at this.

  27. Good old Georgia, Rick, designed by Matthew Carter in 1993.

  28. I always try to write about what interests me, because if I don’t find it interesting there is strong chance that no one else will, and as you say, you’ll never stomach keeping it up month in month out for years if you don’t enjoy what you write about.

    I barely ever check my subscriber count to be honest. I’d like a lot of subscribers and readers, but I think I actually quite enjoy the blogging most of the time and really I do it for myself more than anything.

    Otherwise I think I would have given it up by now as I certainly do not have tons of readers after nearly 5 years of blogging (holy cow).

    I also find it a useful place to point clients to for information and reference with regards to any old project or blog/inspiration that relates well to their current project.

  29. Tracy Culler

    Hi David,

    As a newbie to the blogging world, I have found your site very helpful and makes it seem less intimidating. The tips you have provided are encouraging points that give me a little more faith that I maybe am able to do this. The main thing that comes to mind is that as long as you are interested in what you blog about that it becomes part of you.

  30. Pointing clients to relevant blog pages is another benefit. Completely agree, Amanda.

    Tracy, glad to have been of help.

  31. With regards to guest posting, do you have links to your guest posts available anywhere? I’m curious to see examples of ‘early guest posts’ from now established bloggers.


  32. I wrote guest posts for Smashing Magazine and Liz Strauss’ Successful Blog. There’s one problem I’ve found with guest submissions, though, and that’s whenever your outlook changes, or if you change your mind about what you’ve written, you don’t have control over the content as if it was on your own blog. So that’s something to be extra careful about, Paul.

  33. Thanks David. That’s actually a great snippet of advice and definitely something I’ll keep in mind.

  34. Really helpful points David. You have a knack for common sense that isn’t so common. I think that is more rare than it sounds!

    As I wrap up the design of my new blog about agit-prop art and graphics, #9 is something I will have to keep in mind… I can’t help but think I am writing on a subject that only I care about.

  35. Maybe you can convert some people. @matt.
    Thank for the advice. @david

  36. I think agitprop is a great focus for a blog, niche topics can be very successful. You’ll have to let us know when it goes live, as I for one am interested to read it.

  37. David,

    You have some great blog topics. Most I read and then reread. Your outlook on the graphic design business is insightful. You basically give us an elementary education (easy to understand) on the graphic design business.

    Thanks a million.

  38. I have been a long fan of your work and your site; I’m really glad I stumbled upon this post. Again, thanks for the advice. I think the hardest part about blogging is failing publicly but we just have to realize we’re only human.

  39. Thanks for sharing these tips David. Just starting my company / company’s blog and these hints will be a great help. Great advice. Thanks again.

  40. Christina

    Haha! Again I am commenting. I just “discovered” the Blog wagon. (I know, I am behind!)

    I just started out on Blogger…getting my feet wet and I know and watch some people now. Eventually, when I have this blogging thing down, I am sure I will hop into the big kids pool!

    There are so many things I am passionate about, and I focus on one thing at a time to talk about. Including the mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s what you learn after that makes the difference. I’m currently writing up a post about my class portfolio assignment…and the mistakes I made!

    Thanks for the tips! They will definitely help out newbie me. :)

  41. David,
    Really nice post here. I have been trying to get my blog off the ground for the last few months. These comments keep me going.

  42. Good luck with your library of ideas, Mitchell, and my thanks to everyone for stopping by.

  43. These are great pieces of advice. It’s essential to slow down and treat your readers with individual care. It’s much too easy to neglect the reader, post crappy content, and go instantly for the advertising bucks. That’s not how to make it in this industry. Thanks for the reminder David!

  44. This post was a huge help David, as a young writer who didn’t realise the importance of subscribers until I had finished my book, it was good to get some tips from someone with more experience in this field!

  45. Good read David. One question for you. Out of curiosity, how were you able to go from 20k in followers in January 2011 to 140k in followers in December of the same year? That’s an amazing feat.

    If you are wondering how I got those figures, it was from “archiveDOTorg”, which allows people to view cached websites dating back to 1996. I was just doing some research on how others have achieved high subscriber counts. Thanks for any input.

  46. I’ve no idea, Derek. Perhaps Google changed how it tracks subscribers, maybe integrating a previously omitted group. There was no great jump in website traffic or comment numbers, so I don’t pay it much attention.

  47. Thanks for the reply David. Yeah I’m sure there are many variables that play into the numbers.

  48. Thanks for the amazing post! I’m trying to get my blog up and running and writing consistently. Thanks for the great tips! :)

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