If you know exactly what you’re doing, you can build a blog that gets over 100,000 visitors per month in less than year—from scratch.
Chances are, however, you don’t know exactly what you need to do to achieve that, but that’s okay.
The fact that you’re here and ready to learn means that one day, you will know what you need to do to create a fully sustainable business from your blog.
Another factor is the time it takes. Some of you may be able to build a thriving blog in a year, while others may take two, three, or even five years.
During this journey, your blog will progress through five distinct stages:
- Blog creation
- Initial growth: finding your 100 “true fans”
- Scaling up your traffic
- Reaping the rewards
- Maintaining your success
In this article, I’ll outline the five stages of blog growth to help you understand where you’re today and how far you have left to go.
Stage 1: Your Blog is Born
Expected time to complete: Less than two weeks.
When you read most blogs on creating an online business and online marketing, the sexy parts involve hundreds of thousands of visitors and profit.
But traffic and profit are the result; your foundation is the cause of those results. Figuring out the important details of your blog isn’t always easy, but without a solid foundation, you can’t build a skyscraper.
There are four things you need to do in this preparatory phase.
Even if you already have a blog, you may benefit from going over these things again and improving them if you skipped them before.
1. Define Your Niche
This is the first step—the step where most blog owners fail. It is crucial to know who is going to benefit from your content.
In other words: who do you want to serve?
You don’t need to know how you’re going to do it yet. The products you will make, the content you will create, and your traffic generating methods don’t matter yet. The audience you want to help comes first.
You need to be able to state what type of people you’re trying to serve and be as specific as possible. It’s better to be too specific than too general as you can always expand later.
For example, you may want to serve office workers who want to learn how to eat healthy at work.
Here are 124 niche case studies, both good and bad.
2. Create a Reader Persona
Now that you know the people you want to serve, you need to learn more about them.
In order to create content that actually helps them, you must understand who they are, how they act, and what they struggle with.
You can learn about your target audience in many ways, for example:
- in-person conversations
- demographic sites like Alexa and SEMrush
By the end of your research, you should know your target audience’s:
You can even give your reader persona a name. Note that all of these have to be as specific as possible. For instance, 25-35 years old isn’t an age, it’s a range. Pick one age that accurately describes your ideal reader.
In the end, you want to have one specific person in mind you can write for. This will help you create content that resonates with your readers.
3. Create Your Blog
If you’re going to build a blog-based business, you will at some point need a functional blog.
Unless you need some really unique features, I recommend sticking with WordPress for now. It’s the simplest option to get you up and running, and you can always redesign the blog in the future. Here’s how to install WordPress—it’s pretty simple.
Alternatively, if you’re already running your site on a platform like HubSpot, it might be even easier for you to create a blog.
What I don’t advise you do is go out and spend thousands of dollars on a custom CMS or design. The first version of any blog isn’t going to be perfect, and it’s going to change a lot down the line.
Focus on getting a simple, functional, and not completely ugly blog up and running as fast as possible. Don’t waste weeks or months trying to make everything look perfect.
4. Discover Where Your Readers Hang Out
Before you can even attempt to draw your target audience to your blog, you have to figure out where they spend their time.
Note that in some niches, you may have to get offline and go to conventions or local meetings to connect with your target audience and get them on your site.
To start with, find the most popular blogs in your niche. The easiest ways to do this is by Googling “top [your general niche] blogs.”
Create a spreadsheet to keep track of these sites. In one column, indicate if the blog allows comments, and in another, if it allows guest posts. To check for guest posts, Google “[domain name] guest post.”
Go through any big lists of blogs, and visit each one individually. Look for signs of high traffic such as several comments on each blog post or a lot of social shares.
Add the best ones to your list. You want to identify blogs your reader persona visits so you can eventually get them over to your site. Ideally, you want to identify as many as you can, but at least 50. If you’re having trouble getting that many, think broader, e.g., “best health sites” instead of “best nutrition sites”.
After blogs, it’s time to check out forums in your niche. Again, search for “[your general niche]+ forum,” and go through the results on the first few pages.
If you find forums you believe your target audience visits regularly, record them in a separate section of your spreadsheet. Note the number of members, or active members, to indicate activity and popularity.
Forums typically aren’t big enough to use as a main traffic strategy at any point, but they can help you refine your reader persona and can be used for certain promotion tactics.
Stage 2: Finding Your 100 True Fans
Expected time to complete: Less than four months.
Back in 2008, Kevin Kelly coined a concept called 1,000 true fans. It really took off when Seth Godin started referencing it in his advice.
In short, he described how anyone could make a great living if they interacted with and had support from 1,000 true fans.
This article was written in the context of being a musician or an artist, but the same applies to most small businesses. A relatively small group of loyal readers can make your business a big enough success to allow you to become a full-time blogger (if you aren’t already).
If you have a new blog, going from zero to 1,000 is a big leap. Too big, in my opinion, and unnecessary.
A better goal is to gather 100 true fans.
When you first begin a blog, you’re starting at zero. No matter how well you research your target audience, you’re going to make mistakes. The problem here is that no one will tell you what mistakes you’re making—at least not yet.
As long as you define your target audience well enough, you will have the ability to attract your first 100 fans (although it could take a while). These fans will play an instrumental role in the growth of your blog.
Loyal readers will comment on posts and respond to emails. They will tell you when something resonates with them through comments and feedback. They will also tell you when they don’t like something either through a comment, email, or silence.
If you have 100 high quality subscribers and still can’t get any comments or email replies, the problem isn’t the subscribers: it’s your content.
In reality, you’ll likely fall somewhere in between perfect resonance and radio silence. On some posts, you’ll get a lot of engagement (say 10-15 comments from your 100 fans), while others will only get one or two.
Use this feedback to tweak your reader persona and craft content that helps this updated persona. That’s when you’ll start seeing consistent resonance and more rapid growth of subscribers.
So, where are we right now?
You have a brand new blog but no audience (or a very small one). This is your main challenge. You need to get your first 100 fans.
In addition, you have a ton to do. You need to create content, build relationships, create more content, promote your content, and more. But you’re likely the only one who can do it since your blog isn’t producing any revenue.
You need to spend your time wisely. That’s why I’m going to tell you the optimal strategies that you should use to get your first 100 true fans.
Optimal Strategy #1: Guest Posting
The core of your initial traffic strategy should be guest posting. The most common places that your target audience hang out at are likely other blogs (in most niches).
You need to find popular blogs that have a huge audience. A small portion of this audience will be your target audience. You can then attempt to get these readers to subscribe to your site through a guest post. Guest posting is an important strategy for blogs of all sizes.
One common mistake people make that you may also make is to try to write any guest post that you think will be popular on a site. However, even if the guest post becomes popular and sends you a lot of subscribers, they might not be the right ones that you want to build your blog and business around.
Instead, find a topic that you think will do well on the blog you’re guest posting on, but angle it towards your target reader.
For example, if I were writing a guest post on Forbes (which I regularly do), I wouldn’t write a general article on the current state of the economy. Although it might become popular, I would rather write a slightly less popular article about how the recent economy problems affect your business’ marketing plan, or something along those lines.
Always remember that your goal at this stage is to find that small group of 100 true fans and get them to your site. Attract their attention first and foremost before considering the rest of a traffic source’s audience.
Here is everything you need to know about getting results from guest-posting:
- Guest-Posting on Steroids: A 4-Step Blueprint That the Top Guest Posters Use
- 7 Lessons Learned from Publishing 300 Guest Posts
- Advanced Guest Posting S trategies
Optimal Strategy #2: Create the Right Type of Content for Your Blog
As I’ve already noted, your time is extremely limited. While it might be ideal to pump out a ton of content to get your blog rolling, it’s not the most important thing.
Right now, you have very few (if any) visitors. You don’t need to continuously create content because no one’s reading it.
It’s better to spend time trying to get traffic from other sources before creating a high volume of posts on your own blog.
That being said, you do need some content on your blog, but some types of content are better than others. Writing an opinion post is going to be a waste of time: why would anyone care what you think at this point? That’s not an insult—it’s a fact. You need to build up your expert reputation before writing a post like that.
But certain types of content can work well at this stage. In particular, you should create a few posts that can attract quality backlinks and help you build relationships with influencers. If you do it right, it might even result in some decent targeted traffic.
These magical content types are:
- Roundup posts
- Ego bait posts
- “Poster boy” posts
You probably already know what link roundups are. You ask several influencers in a niche the same question and then publish the results. Some influencers will comment on the post, link to it, and share on social media.
Ego bait describes a wide range of posts. Essentially, you want to appeal to the ego of an influencer or company with a large following. Make them look good by showing that their advice solved a problem for you or someone else. Let them know you created the post, and maybe they will link to it.
Finally, you can use the “poster boy” formula. It’s a lot like ego bait, but it takes the tactic to the next level. Find a few particular influencers, and find a particular piece of strategy or technique advice from them.
Then, implement that advice and track the results. Create a case study of your results that make the influencer look amazing. This will lead the influencer to keep linking to your case study as evidence of their awesomeness.
This last tactic is a lot of work, but it produces results. Bryan Harris was able to get over 400 subscribers with this technique on a new blog.
Optimal Strategy #3: Paid Traffic
If you have more money than time to invest in your business, paid traffic is a way to accelerate your growth.
That being said, it’s completely optional. Many successful blogs never use paid ads, while many other successful blogs do it at one point or another.
The big benefit of paid ads is that despite having no existing traffic base, you can create an audience. It can get expensive, especially if you’re new to using paid advertising. It’s very important that you spend some time improving your email opt-in rate before blowing through thousands of dollars.
Here are some of the best resources on using paid traffic to build a blog’s audience:
- 6 Simple Steps to Start Your First PPC Campaign
- PPC Hero guides
- PPC Advertising is Just As Much About the Audience as it is Keywords
Optimal Strategy #4: Develop Social Media Presence
Last but not least, you have to attend to social media.
Popular social media platforms have boatloads of traffic, and the most popular ones—Facebook and Twitter—almost definitely contain your target audience.
The problem is that any good social media strategy takes time to work. If you’re going to use social media, you have to be prepared to consistently use your chosen platform for months before it starts to pay off with some decent traffic.
If you’re really set on using social media to funnel traffic to your site, you can speed it up by using paid traffic. As I’ve shown on the nutrition site case study, paid ads on Facebook are relatively cheap and can help you build an authoritative page quickly.
I don’t recommend using social media as a primary traffic strategy unless you’re willing to continually invest in it. However, you can still identify one or two channels to start building while you focus on other traffic generation methods.
What about SEO?
If you know me well, you know how much I love SEO and benefit from it. But aside from building authoritative links when you get the chance, you shouldn’t focus on it very much at the beginning.
Gaining the authority and trust from search engines takes several months of publishing high quality content. You should start seeing some real organic search traffic after about a year, and that’s when you can shift more of your focus toward SEO.
Stage 3: Attracting Swarms of Fans—Scaling Up
Expected time to complete: 8-24 months
Now that you know almost exactly what your audience needs help with and wants, it’s time to kick your traffic growth efforts into overdrive.
Although you will be growing much faster than you did during the last stage, this will take time too.
Look at the NeilPatel.com blog as an example. I began the blog at the very end of September 2014. In the month of May, 2015, my traffic grew to 63,827 visitors—that took about eight months.
Consider that it took me eight months to grow to this point even with my experience and personal brand. Additionally, I’m still in the process of scaling up the traffic to that blog, which means it falls into this stage.
At this point, you have some traffic and a good idea of your target audience. Your main challenge now is starting to create great content on a regular basis. In addition, your time is still limited.
Optimal Strategy #1: Continue with Your Traffic-Building Strategies
Since now you have to spend more time on content creation, you will have less time to spend on getting traffic from other sources. Nevertheless, you need to continue your traffic strategies from Stage 2.
Although you may have 100 true fans, your rate of growth will be too slow if you solely depend on those fans to spread the word. Instead, as you gain traffic during this stage, start spending more and more time on creating and promoting content on your own blog.
Optimal Strategy #2: Create a Content Schedule
In the previous stage, you started creating content for your blog. Now, it’s necessary to do it on a regular basis. Think about not just those specific types of posts that we looked at but any type of content your true fans may enjoy.
You need to decide how often you want to post and what you will be writing about.
A thorough content calendar will help you plan out content for up to a year in advance. At this point, you’re still getting a lot feedback from your 100 true fans. I’d recommend planning your content for only a few weeks or months so that it can be adjusted based on the feedback you receive.
Once you achieve consistent resonance, you can plan your content schedule as far in advance as you’d like.
Optimal Strategy #3: Start Considering Monetization
Traffic is nice, but the end goal should always be to produce revenue.
If you’re selling a service, e.g., offering consulting, you can do this early on with no issues. It doesn’t take a lot of time to create a simple landing page. Put a link to it in your menu, and drop it in your emails to subscribers when appropriate.
The long-term goal of your blog may be to sell a product. If you already have a product, you can start selling it during this phase and put some time into improving your conversion rate.
If you don’t have a product, now is a great time to start paying attention to the major pains of your audience so that you can create a product around them. Most products take months to create, so the farther you can plan ahead, the better.
Stage 4: Reap the Rewards—Getting Paid
Expected time to complete: three to six months
The line between Stages 3 and 4 is often blurred. Once you develop a sizable audience (most go with 5,000-10,000 subscribers), you need to monetize your blog as soon as possible. At the same time, you need to keep growing and continuing to do all the growth strategies described in Stage 3.
Optimal Strategy #1: Focus on Monetization
“Why does it always have to be about the money?”
I know that you might feel like I’m telling you to be greedy by advising to monetize as soon as possible, but it’s the opposite of that.
At this point, you have tens of thousands of visitors a month (at least!).
If you don’t monetize your blog, how can you continue to serve your visitors well? You can’t invest in better content, and you can’t respond to all emails or comments any more. One person can’t service an audience of thousands.
If you really have zero time available to create a product, know that once you have a sizable audience, you will be approached regularly for joint ventures (JV).
Essentially, the other party will create the product; you provide the audience to sell it to; and you split the profit. Don’t immediately accept the first JV offer. Take your time, and only work with someone you trust and respect to provide as much value for your audience as possible.
Finally, you can always promote other reputable affiliate offers if you feel that you’re not quite ready to create your own product.
Optimal Strategy #2: Hire
Now that you are deriving some income from the blog, you can start getting some help so that you can continue to help your audience as much as possible.
First, you need to decide which parts of the blog need your attention the most.
Personally, I like to be the one writing my blog’s content (on Quick Sprout and NeilPatel.com), so I can’t outsource that. However, on Crazy Egg’s blog, I’ve hired an editor that has assembled a team of writers to produce content.
Here are the most common areas that blogs usually hire for:
- product support
- product development
- answering simple emails (get a virtual assistant)
- graphic design (images and infographics for content)
- web development (for site redesign)
- content strategy development
- content writing
Once you’ve identified which parts of your blog require your personal attention, start hiring people to take care of the rest.
Do this slowly, and make sure you’re hiring quality people to help you. It’ll save you a lot of headaches in the long run.
Stage 5: Maintain Your Position on the Golden Throne
Expected time to complete: hopefully, you stay here forever! (or until you sell)
At this point, you have a full-fledged business.
Your blog should easily be generating enough so that you can focus full-time on it. This is the stage that Quick Sprout has been at for quite some time.
In some niches, you will reach this point faster than others, just due to your specific audience and the size of your market.
But if you just sit on your success, you will lose it. Your business is almost always in a state of growth or decline. Obviously, it’s better to focus on growth than let the results of your hard work wither away.
Your main challenge at this point is to continue producing high quality work in the form of blog content and products. Additionally, you still have limited time to take advantage of all the opportunities now coming your way.
Optimal Strategy #1: Keep Hiring
If you’re doing things right, your traffic is only going to keep increasing. To keep up your quality standards and to free up time, you will have to find more reliable people to add to your small team.
The hardest thing about maintaining a successful growing business is finding and keeping good people on your team. If you find someone who does their job well, pay them accordingly even if you could get them to work for you for slightly cheaper.
This not only keeps them happy while working, but it prevents them from wanting to leave in the future. Not having to continually find, hire, and train people will save you much more in the long run than saving a few dollars on salaries.
Optimal Strategy #2: Automate
The great thing about having a significant amount of revenue coming in is that you no longer have to do things you don’t enjoy. Almost all boring parts of running a blog can be automated, either with a paid tool or an employee/freelancer.
Most hires should be for a specific task. When you hire someone, don’t just leave them to figure out things by themselves.
You need to create easy-to-follow systems that outline what you’d like your employees to do step-by-step. Although initial training will take time, in the long run, it will save you from having to waste time correcting mistakes and changing their work habits to suit yours.
Optimal Strategy #3: Be Selective
At this point, you are going to get offers to do all sorts of things, including guest-posting and conference appearances.
Since you have very limited time, you need to pick your opportunities carefully. Right now, it’s about getting a little bit more traffic and building your personal brand. Pick the opportunities that will have the most positive impact on your reputation and position as a thought leader in your field.
Optimal Strategy #4: SEO
No, I didn’t forget about SEO. By now, your domain has a solid amount of authority and trust, and you should be seeing a significant amount of organic traffic from search engines.
At this point, there are three things you should do:
- Evaluate your blog design for optimal “link juice” flow.
- Re-evaluate old content, and see if you can optimize for better terms.
- Strategically incorporate keywords into your future content.
If you don’t have experience with SEO, you could always hire an expert to help you out, now that you are generating revenue.
The purpose of this post was to give you a clear layout of how a blog-based business grows over time.
Growing a successful blog is not something that can be done quickly.
What I hope you get out of this is that if you use the right tactics at the right time, you will strategically grow your blog and take guessing and luck out of the equation.
You can learn all of the tactics you need on Quick Sprout and the NeilPatel.com blog.
As a final note, never stop learning about your readers and trying to help them. Even though this blog is past the initial stages, I’m still learning how I can serve you better every day through your comments, emails, and viewing habits.
To better understand where you are with your business or blog, I’d appreciate it if you could leave a comment below telling me what stage you’re currently at.
This post originally appeared on Quick Sprout, and is re-published with permission.