If you’re like most businesses who have stepped into the digital world, you could probably be spending less and making more.

I’ve seen it in client after client (and their competitors). They believe that big results take big bucks. They think they need to pay for every visitor they acquire. They think they need to buy attention and hijack eyeballs. This is not the way the world works online.

Or at least, it doesn’t have to.

Most businesses don’t have a blog. Let me rephrase that. Yes, most online businesses have a log of posts that they have published using a blogging platform and have buried somewhere on their site. Close to none of them have an audience. Close to none of them have ever seen a cent of profit from their “web log.” Very few of them have spent any real effort, because almost none of them actually believe that their blog is going to bring them business, or keep it.

And why would they?

Marketers have spent the past century training themselves to believe that consumers don’t choose to be marketed to. They have convinced themselves that consumers are a captive audience, and we can only gain access to that audience by spending resources that could be invested elsewhere.

And they have carried that mindset into the world of blogging, knowing full well that nobody will voluntarily choose to be sold to. Knowing that it’s almost certainly a waste of funds, but doing it anyway because “everybody else is doing it.” And so they get half-efforts, mediocre content, and even poorer results.

These “blogs” do nothing but rob converting pages with click-aways, and so businesses bury them in the footer or eliminate the link altogether, barely maintaining their blog as a separate entity, hoping that one day it will start sending traffic to the “important” part of their website.

But a “real” blog should never be hidden. It should take center stage. Consumers should volunteer to read it. It should mean that you would never have to buy ad space again if you didn’t want to, because you have a steadily growing stream of traffic that you don’t have to pay for, all because you have an audience that actually cares about what you have to say.

Instead of buying ad space on a media platform, you would own the media platform, and you would maintain the right to advertise your products and services wherever and whenever you saw fit.

This is not a fantasy, a sales pitch, or a techno-utopian dream. It is the reality of marketing on the web, and if you ignore it your business will languish and fade away as reality carries on without you.

Is your website an asset or a liability?

Economics work differently on the public web.

In traditional economics, an asset is something that you own, and that others can only use if they pay you for it. A liability, on the other hand, is something that somebody else owns, something that you’ll need to pay for in order to use.

Value doesn’t work that way when you’re dealing with public goods.

On the public web, value isn’t owned, it’s shared. Apart from the monthly cost of an ISP connection, information on the web is free. Value isn’t measured in dollars and cents, it’s measured in attention. A low value web page receives little or no attention. The result is that it becomes a liability to you, as well as a liability to the consumers who see it.

Conversely, if you create an online asset, it becomes an asset for those who come across it.

I’m not pointing out all of this for the intellectual novelty of it. I’m pointing this out because unless you understand the basic economics of public information, you’re not going to be able to use it to make money.

A blog is fundamentally different from a product or an advertisement. It does not exist so that people will pay for it. It does not exist to convince people to pay for something else. It exists so that people will be there to be persuaded in the first place.

You must understand this point if you ever hope to use the web to make money more efficiently: a website that exists to sell is not an asset, it’s a liability. Attention does not naturally flow to sales pages; consumers view them as a waste of their time. As a result, the site immediately becomes a liability for you as well. Your only option is to pay for attention that you do not own, a drain on your resources.

Let’s get more concrete.

Facebook made $219 million in the second quarter of 2013. That’s profit, not revenue. GAAP profit. How would you like to make circa 8 hundred million a year?

They didn’t do it by getting consumers to pay them to use Facebook. They did it by creating an asset that people could use for free. It is an asset for their users, and so it is an asset for them. It is a liability for the advertisers who use it to buy attention that they have not earned.

How about Google? They earned $3.23 billion in profit last quarter. Again, that comes primarily from the fact that people voluntarily choose to give them their attention.

Look at any one of the top performers on the web and you will find the same thing. Whether or not they have products to sell, they all owe their success to free value that they have offered in exchange for attention. They have leveraged that attention to become filthy rich, because they have more attention than anybody else could possibly afford to buy.

Before we move on, I don’t want you to walk away with the belief that if you just build it, they will come. You need to go out there and find attention. The purpose of your blog, the asset, is to keep that attention, and spread it virally.

That takes media outreach, guest posting, and yes, occasionally advertising, in order to accomplish. Any sound strategy must balance finding attention with keeping it. That means you need to be able to build relationships as well as offer value in order to successfully use a blog to make money.

Nothing is more important in online marketing than the value you exchange for attention. But there’s one thing you really need to understand about value in this context before you dive in: online value doesn’t necessarily correlate well with financial investment. In fact, sometimes spending more money actually ends up working against you.

You could be losing customers as we speak, and this is why:

If you’ve ever been to YouTube, seen an internet meme on Facebook, or received a viral chain email, you already know that heavy production costs don’t have much to do with the ability of online messages to spread.

A recent study by Pixability reveals exactly that. The most successful YouTube channels didn’t just publish videos with high production quality. They also published gritty videos or user submissions.

Furthermore, they published videos with a wider range of lengths. Not shorter. Not longer. Both.

The internet sees value in more ways than one. Sometimes people are looking for something deep, involved, and helpful. Sometimes they are looking for something simple and funny. Sometimes they want something well researched or heavily produced. Other times, they want something raw, relatable, and personal.

It’s all about range. Many in the web marketing industry preach niche. Sometimes niche is the way to go. I will agree that you want to find and keep a core audience, and that this audience will often have particular tastes and interests. But surrounding that core (or cores), you want material with more mass appeal.

You will lose customers if you fail to connect with your core audience, and you will lose customers if you fail to connect with the general public.

“Connection” is not something that you can achieve with overproduction alone. If you are going to invest more money in your campaigns, you should invest it in targeting and understanding your audience. It can help to run surveys using a tool like SurveyMonkey, and yes, you can and should use analytics and “big data” to better understand and target your audience.

But you should go further and actually communicate directly with your audience, and perhaps more importantly, the influencers who they admire.

These communications result in more than “targeted content.” They create communities. This is important, because communities are the fabric of the web. Communities build the links that Google uses to decide which websites matter and which ones don’t. Communities form the bonds that allow messages to propagate socially through emails, social bookmarks, sharing platforms, and word of mouth. Communities give people a reason to keep coming back, and communities will even become brand advocates when they are engaged deeply enough.

To connect with your core audience, you will need to:

  • Understand and appeal to the needs of your core audience
  • Foster and play into inside jokes, references, and memes
  • Be a “thought leader” by not just parroting what others have said, but by providing advanced material for hardcore followers, and providing “brand new” information whenever possible
  • Interact with and respond to your “regulars”
  • Moderate comments and discussions to guide culture and keep things civil

To connect with the general public, you need to:

  • Produce content that relates to your “core” audience, but with mass appeal
  • Simplify your advanced subjects and present them in fun, lighthearted, easily consumable packages
  • Share visual content that creates humor, relatability, surprise, intrigue, and that tells a story very rapidly
  • Avoid defining your “core” audience by what it is against, and instead focus on the positives that a general audience can at least respect

By appealing to a core audience as well as the general public, you maximize the amount of attention you are capable of gathering, and you successfully keep a growing audience. People who join this audience may not necessarily need or want to buy anything from you at first. But as they continue to return they will grow to increasingly trust your brand, and when the need arises, you will be their first choice.

Are you putting visitors in the boiler room?

One of the reasons many businesses don’t take blogging seriously is the fact that a brief look at the numbers makes it look counterproductive.

Place a link to your blog into the main menu of your site, and you’re going to see people clicking away from your sales pages and onto your blog. You may even see a decrease in conversions, as people take one look at your blog and bounce right off your site.

So, to be completely transparent, I have to admit something:

A bad blog will do nothing but pull users off of your sales pages and then scare them off of your site. If you’re not willing to invest in a worthwhile blog, don’t bother. Just keep spending money on ads and optimize your landing pages for better conversions. You’ll be genuinely better off.

But there’s a downside here, one that goes beyond the never ending payments for a flat number of visitors each month. I’m talking about the fact that you can only make a customer by pressuring them into a split-second decision, a decision that they are inclined not to take, and that they may resent later on.

Let’s take a look at a related subject from QuickSprout. In the example, Neil Patel discovered that a shorter version of his sales page led to more people scrolling down to the signup form. Common sense tells us that this means conversions should go up. But as Neil rightfully suspected, the shorter content did not convert as well. Even though fewer people read the whole page, more of them felt confident by the time they finished reading it, and they were more likely to fill out the form.

Blogging is the opposite of the high pressure sale. It’s about taking the pressure off. Modern consumers know that they have literally thousands (probably more) of options to choose from online. They are under absolutely no pressure to buy from you, and trying to make them feel as though they are is only going to backfire.

Consumers need to trust you before they are willing to buy from you. A sales page that addresses all of the most common objections goes a long way. A blog goes much, much further. It creates a kind of trust that only a major faux pas can destroy. And that leads to consumers who will buy from you not just once, but again and again, and who will recommend you to a friend.

A sales page can only lead to a sale if the visitor needs what you’re selling right now. It’s useless in any other circumstance. Blogs are different. They can capture consumers who have absolutely no need for your product, and keep them warm until the need arises, or even gradually persuade them that your product is worth a purchase.

This highlights the fact that if your blog isn’t good enough to visit more than once, it’s not worth putting on your site. A blog for any other reason is missing the point of a blog.

That segues rather well into our next point.

Your email list is probably underwhelming. Here’s what to do about it.

Gregory Ciotti recently built an email list of 30,000 subscribers in 12 months. By harnessing this list for links and social sharing activity, he brings in as much as 100,000 visitors each month. That’s “free” traffic. You don’t get results like those with sales pages alone, and you never will. You have to offer something of value on the public web in order to make that happen. In Ciotti’s case, that was a content marketing strategy, which consisted primarily of blogging.

To be more specific, the broad strategy was actually fairly basic:

  1. Find a “twist” on a popular niche to provide unique value (being data-driven in a highly anecdotal industry)
  2. “Bribe” people to subscribe to email updates with high quality eBooks (these ones)
  3. Drive those subscribers to valuable blog posts striking a balance between SEO keyword targeting, “Gawker” sensationalism, and actionable appeal to a core audience
  4. Email influential people who would be interested in the content
  5. Publish content aimed at the core audience, as well as tangential content aimed at a general audience (sound familiar?)

Accomplishing this requires a few things:

  • The ability to produce content that your target audience’s “idols” would be willing to share with their audience
  • Conversion optimization to persuade people to subscribe in order to see such content regularly
  • An understanding of the psychology of headlines, as well as the keyword research necessary to make them work in the search engines
  • The ability to write email headlines and bodies that people actually feel compelled to respond to

Master those skills alone, using them properly, and there’s a good chance you will completely dominate most of your competitors.

Mix this with some knowledge of data-driven marketing and you will be virtually unstoppable.

None of it matters unless you meet 2 bare minimum requirements

There’s a thread running through this whole post that you may or may not have noticed. Without understanding that thread, you could execute on almost everything we’ve talked about so far and still end up falling flat on your face. It all comes down to these two factors:

  1. A relevant audience
  2. A way to identify qualified leads

We mentioned before that you need to target both a core audience and a general audience. Both are necessities if you hope to build an established presence online that will stand the test of time. That said, it is ultimately your core audience that actually ends up spending money on you.

Blogging is a wasted effort if you fail to build a relevant core audience.

What is a relevant audience? Let’s start with what it’s not:

  • A group of people obsessed about a specific product
  • A niche gathered around an exact keyword
  • A specific demographic

This is a relevant audience, a group of people who:

  • Share a common problem, or have an interest in solving certain types of problems
  • Could solve these and related problems using your products or services
  • Are not so obsessive that they are isolated from the general public

This is an important balance to achieve. You want to have appeal to a “hardcore” audience, but this audience shouldn’t be so hardcore that they look down upon “noobs” and everyday people. You want spillover to the general public, so that you can keep pulling in a growing audience. There is no shortage of brands (or television shows) that ultimately crumbled by pandering to an increasingly rabid “hardcore” audience, isolating themselves entirely from the mainstream.

Remember, the focus is on a shared problem and the topics that relate to it. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind when you define the problem you’re attacking:

  • If your product or service solves a very specific problem, and that problem only, do not build a blog around that problem. Focus on related problems.
  • Do not tease your audience by saying that you will help them solve their problem with a blog post, only to pull a bait and switch, asking them to buy your product instead of giving them useful advice
  • Take your problem one or two steps broader than the core problem solved by your product. For example, if you sell a blender, you don’t want to build a blog around the specific problem: “I can’t blend my food the way I want to.” Focus on a broader problem, like “I want to do better in the kitchen,” or “I want to eat healthier.”

The point is to choose a core topic that is related to the problem your product solves, but that is broad enough to talk about indefinitely. You never want to run out of things to say. As soon as you solve one problem for your readers, there always needs to be another one to address. If you don’t believe you can talk about a subject indefinitely, if you don’t believe that anybody would want to hear weekly or daily updates on the subject, your topic is way too narrow.

Keep in mind that when I say this, I’m still talking about your core audience. To pull in a general audience, you need to occasionally take things even broader. In fact, with everything you publish, you should find some way to tie it in to one of the big seven niches:

For the best results, I would recommend going back and forth between writing:

  • Posts for your core audience that only touch on one of these “Big 7.”
  • Posts on the “Big 7” that relate tangentially to your core audience

For most niches, this is the ideal balance between relevancy and numbers. Believe me: you need both to succeed.

Now, there’s another important piece to this. A relevant audience does not consist entirely of qualified leads.

These two ideas are often conflated, but they aren’t the same. Somebody who subscribes to your blog may be more likely to buy something from you than the general public, but odds are they are nowhere near qualified yet. When somebody signs up to receive blog posts, this is not a free pass to start sending offers and sales pitches whenever you want.

Again, this is where I really start to stress the importance of data-driven marketing.

Consumer targeting isn’t all that important when you are sending out blog posts. As long as the posts are valuable, most consumers won’t care if the relevancy isn’t incredibly high for them. On the other hand, consumer targeting becomes incredibly important the very second you try to sell something.

A recent study by Adestra reveals that nearly all emails with “selling” words produce worse than average unsubscribe rates. Subject lines that mentioned “Free Delivery” may have had a click rate 135 percent above average, but they also had an unsubscribe rate 82 percent below average. The only “selling” word that had better than average unsubscribe rates was “New,” but clicks were lukewarm, only 38 percent above average.

To get the clicks without the unsubscriptions, you need to know who to reach out to.

To do that, you’ll need to do some data digging. Use a statistical package to track which behaviors indicate that a sale is likely. Don’t make assumptions. Test everything, and make sure you’ve reached statistical significance before you think you know how and when to target users with sales messages.

The last thing you want to do is scare off subscribers who would have eventually become customers if you’d just held off.

All future value is lost unless you keep them

You might have been surprised to notice that we’re nearing the end of the article, and we haven’t really talked much about social media yet. In fact, we’ve barely touched on it at all. Why? Well, there’s often a lot more fantasy than there is reality when it comes to social media marketing. Here is the harsh truth about conversion rates from these sources:

In short, social media is overrated. These numbers can be misleading, because they fail to account for first touch attribution, but in general, social media just isn’t a good source of new customers.

This doesn’t make social media useless. Yes, search engines and referrals are the best free traffic sources for acquiring new customers, but social media allows you to reach people that you wouldn’t reach otherwise.

Investing heavily in social media is largely counterproductive, but there’s no reason to shun the benefits it can bring if they come almost automatically. As Gregory Ciotti’s example above makes clear, an effective blogging strategy makes it possible to leverage social media with little or no social investment:

We don’t even have a Facebook page.

We pretty much just use our company Twitter (@HelpScout), which updates 3 times a day (if I remember to do it). It’s real use, however, is monitoring mentions and replying to questions/support issues that people may have. Also for giving thanks to our supportive customers!

Social media is distribution; your only job is to give them something worth sharing.

“Promoting” a piece of content should be relegated to getting it in the hands of people who already have your ideal audience. This is better done over email, and I can’t tell you how many times a single email has lead to a link, which then lead to hundreds of new visitors and email sign-ups.

The end result? Their posts receive thousands of tweets, likes, inShares, and even +1’s.

This kind of activity leads to secondary visitors who were referred by their friends, which as we’ve already admitted, are relatively low value. Still, this is value comes directly from your blogging efforts, with little or no actual social media activity on your part. Perhaps more importantly, the badges offer social proof which makes you feel more trustworthy to visitors.

So yes, social media is helpful, and blogging takes care of most of the social activity that you need. But shouldn’t you also be using social media to retain customers and keep them coming back?

Opinions here are mixed, to say the least.

Here we are, circa five years into the “social media revolution,” and there’s basically no data to speak of on the subject. We can point to Forrester research that describes how social media is responsible for less than 1 percent of repeat sales. The problem with studies like this is they only tell us how things are. They don’t tell us what would happen if those companies invested more in social media, and they don’t really measure how much influence social media has on repeat sales.

What I can tell you is that most people do see every subject line in their email, but nobody sees everything in their Facebook feed. Furthermore, you can’t segment and individually target your social subscribers the way you can target your email subscribers (sadly).

All of your blogging efforts are for naught if you don’t retain the visitor. No matter how impressed they are, no matter how much they want to come back, if they don’t subscribe to get updates, very few of them will (unless they happen to see you mentioned again elsewhere).

We’ve always had more success getting repeat visits from email than from social media. Most data-driven posts on the subject will say essentially the same thing. So while I wouldn’t say that you should avoid social subscriptions, I would say that you should prioritize email subscriptions over social media subscriptions.

Email has higher conversion rates (as discussed above), and most data suggests that it gets more clicks as well. There’s even quite a bit of evidence suggesting that email is responsible for more viral sharing than social networks.

With that rant out of the way, here are some pointers for customer retention:

  • Not even a purchase transforms a subscriber into a “qualified lead.” As always, test your assumptions and back them with statistically significant data. Users should be receiving far more blog posts than sales letters, or they will unsubscribe (or worse, toss you in the spam folder).
  • As we’ve mentioned before, use a “bribe to subscribe” in order to pick up those email addresses. Submitting your email address is psychologically equivalent to paying for something. You need to offer something very valuable in order to convince them to sign up. Be sure to CRO the heck out of this; it’s the most important thing on your blog.
  • Once subscribed, users prefer videos and blog posts over whitepapers and webinars, which can trigger unsubscriptions. (And don’t call your blog posts “issues” or “newsletters.” The data doesn’t look good.)
  • The Adestra study mentioned above reveals that “Daily” is the highest performing word in email subject lines (that they measured). It had the best click rate (100 percent above average) as well as the best unsubscribe rate (75 percent below average). This suggests that daily blog posts are incredible, if you can do them properly. I would very strongly take this advice with caution. It’s much better to post weekly if that’s the only way you can maintain quality levels, and there are some pretty fantastic counterexamples (OKCupid, etc).
  • Think of social media as a very light commitment. People are more willing to “Like” your Facebook page than give you their email address, but they’re also less likely to see your posts. When you share your posts on Facebook, if you get that involved, share them with an image (preferably a funny one). Facebook is a place for captioned images and videos, not in depth discussions. Let links to your blog posts ride on these bite-size social tidbits, rather than trying to share blog posts themselves.
  • You will retain customers better by maintaining relationships with influential people and your “regulars,” as well as people who address you directly. Social media activity meant to start a conversation or get “chatty” is mostly counterproductive, because social networks are more concerned with what’s new than keeping conversations going. Social media isn’t always the best platform to maintain these relationships, and if you can get a forum running on your own site this is typically much more effective. Again, email is typically a better platform for communication, unless you happen to have IM chats on Facebook with influential people.

If it seems like I’m being a “flip-flop” by saying that you should foster a community around your blog, all while saying social media isn’t that powerful, I can understand the confusion. The primary issue, as I’ve touched on before, is that social networks aren’t actually good platforms for conversations. They suffer from “ooh shiny” syndrome.

It’s better to build a community around your comment section and on-site forum. Facebook and social networks should be a natural extension of this, rather than your primary communication platform.

In short, think of your blog as its own social network, in the literal sense of the word. Make your core audience feel involved in the process, and be sure to respond and act on their feedback. Just try to keep as much of this on your own platform as possible.

Cracked.com is a good example of this. (Isn’t it always?) Their articles routinely receive hundreds of comments. The ability to sort comments by votes, and to up or down vote comments, is a major boon here. Their Facebook page, on the other hand, receives only about 10 or 20 comments per post. I believe that this ratio is a sign of a healthy site with its own community.

We’re coming up on 5,000 words here, so give yourself a pat on the back for reading through this. I genuinely believe that if you take all this to heart, you will dominate your competitors. If it helped, we’d love it if you passed this on. If it’s all a bit overwhelming, get in touch and let’s talk about how to make your business the talk of the web. Thanks for reading.