A Chinese Wife Advises a Japanese One on Building a Better Blog Following

Know what happens when you get your first book deal before you’ve written your first book? You need to write the thing and build up your following at the same time. I was at the AWP 2013 conference in Boston a few weeks ago, and everyone was talking about the importance of having a social media following, even before the book comes out. In fact, ideally a year or so before it comes out! (Actually, everyone was talking about the importance of having a “platform,” but that word bugs me: the only platforms I like are tastefully-designed platform shoes.)

So in addition to freaking out over whether I’ll get the book written in time, and written well, now I’m freaking out about my sadly non-satorial “platform.”

But I’ve turned to the wonderful, kind, lovely, and very smart Jocelyn Eikenburg, whose blog Speaking of China has this really big following. Jocelyn has been so generous with her support and enthusiasm since we met over social media a few months ago. And, as usual, she was really generous in response to my question about how she manages to be such a social media diva.

Here’s all her advice!

Let me tell you a secret — for a long time, I sucked at blogging and building a following. Back in 2007 and 2008, years when I labored at writing about business and China, and engaging with people on these issues, I couldn’t seem to get more than a handful of people to notice me. I felt lucky if I got even one comment or pingback in a month and didn’t know Twitter from Facebook.

After all that, sometimes I can’t believe how I’ve built up a following with Speaking of China.

Of course, it didn’t happen right away and it took persistence and time. But with dedication — and some direction — you just might generate a following of your own. To jumpstart your efforts, here are the ideas that have helped guide me along the way.

Be Unique

Whenever people ask me about building a following, one of the first things I tell them is, “Be unique.”

It’s a lot harder to get noticed when what you’re offering is not that special. For example, in the China expat community, it seems like every single day a new “English teacher writes about China” blog pops up. Since this has been done seemingly thousands (if not millions) of times, these bloggers will have a tough time convincing more than just their friends and family to follow them. In marketing terms, their blogs lack a “Unique Selling Point” (or “USP”).

On the other hand, if you choose a unique focus for your blog — and thus give it a USP — you’ll stand out. And a blog that stands out gets noticed and creates buzz.

I did this primarily through my focus (love, family and relationships in China) and my perspective (a Western woman married to a Chinese guy).

You could also give your blog a USP if you have an extraordinary voice or perspective — like a David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell.

Before you start out, read through the blogs in your potential subject area — or related areas. Know the competition, so you can figure out what you can do that’s different or even better. How do you find the blogs? Try these suggestions for old-school directories, new applications and search tools.

Blog With Focus

I’ll bet you know at least one person that turned her blog into a sort of random “personal diary”. One day, she’s sharing a photo of her cat in some compromising position. The next she’s ranting about annoying neighbors or giving you a blow-by-blow of her entire vacation to Disney World.

The whole “I’ll post whatever floats my boat” approach won’t cut it if you want to build a following. When you move randomly from topic to topic, people don’t know what to expect from you. That means it’s a lot harder for them to decide whether you’re offering something of value to them. And if they’re not sure, they’ll move on to a better blog.

This is the reason why I gave my blog an unequivocal tagline — One Western woman with a Chinese husband writes about love, family and relationships in China — which I’ve carried over to my social media presence as well.

The best part about focusing? You can build yourself up as an expert and become the go-to person on that subject, which can even land you in the media (which happened to me).

Be Passionate

Remember that business/China blog I mentioned in the introduction? One of the biggest reasons I failed was something so simple, but so important — I didn’t really enjoy writing about business in China! And because I disliked it, I didn’t blog very often and even struggled to promote my work, knowing deep down it didn’t reflect my best efforts.

With Speaking of China, though, I had the passion to do it from the beginning. And it grew as I focused my blog and refined my approach. It’s that passion that still keeps me posting after nearly four years.

So whatever you choose to focus on, make sure your passion is there. Passion will help you create irresistible content. And with passion, you’ll continue blogging for the long haul.

Be Reliable

Readers love knowing what to expect. If you’ve defined your subject area and you’ve made it unique, you’re more than halfway there. But there’s another part of that equation — showing up on a regular basis. Yes, I’m talking about posting on a schedule that your readers will come to know and expect.

Think of it from another perspective. A lot of us subscribe to magazines and we count on that content arriving at our doorstep or in our e-reader on schedule. Just imagine if the magazines just decided to only deliver their content when they felt inspired. Or worse, what if the magazines just forgot to deliver it once or twice?

That’s why I think of my blog like a magazine — that my readers deserve to know when new content will come and that I should deliver on that promise.

The great thing is, most blogs today allow you to schedule your content ahead of time — handy for when you’re on vacation!

I post Mondays and Fridays every single week, same time and place. And when I’m on trips or just unable to post (which occasionally happens when an emergency comes up), I even run simple posts with archived content — because I always get new readers and chances are it’s new to someone out there.

Know Your Audience

Every blog and social media butterfly an audience. The better you know them, the better you can tailor your content to your readers.

But how to know them?

Site analytics are a great place to start — which give you some information about where your visitors found your blog, how they entered your site (referral from another website? search engines?) and even popular search queries that bring traffic to you. For a wordpress.com blog like Tracy, you can study your Site Stats — built into your site. If you have a self-hosted site like mine, you can use Google Analytics.

Still, if your site doesn’t generate a lot of traffic yet, you might not gain much from analytics alone.

Try keyword tools like the free Google Keywords. While it’s not comprehensive, it does help you learn what people are searching on for a specific topic — which could then generate some potential ideas for future posts and keywords you could add to your content (see my paragraph below on incorporating keywords into posts for more details).

Figure out where your audience hangs out — such as other blogs, forums or even groups on social media sites — and see what they’re talking about and what fires them up.

Check the social media as well. For example, you can search through Twitter and Google Plus with keywords to see what people are saying on your topic.

And remember, the more you blog and share over time, the more you’ll come to know your audience through comments, e-mails, and even people you interact with on social media.

Write Great Content With Readers in Mind

Okay, so your blog is something unique. You have a theme. You have passion. You’ve set a schedule. You even know your audience.

But when it comes to attracting readers, you have to write for them.

Let’s return to that “personal diary” blogger I mentioned above. She’s definitely not thinking about her readers when she publishes a blow-by-blow account of her vacation or complaining about neighbors. Sure, she’s random and that’s a problem. But there’s a bigger problem — no one really cares about her life when it’s presented as some navel-gazing journal.

Now that doesn’t mean your own experiences can’t become great content — I blog about my experiences all the time. But the difference is, I mine my experiences for questions or truths or insights or something entertaining that might resonate with my readers.

There are many ways to write for your readers. Here are some examples of how I do it:

1. Short memoir-like essays that, as I said above, end with something more universal that readers can connect with

2. Advice columns where I answer questions from readers

3. Lists of movies or books or blogs my readers might want to know about

4. Commentary on news that’s relevant to my readership

5. Highlighting celebrities in our community

6. Interviews of bloggers my readers might want to know more about

7. Sharing stories of love found — and love lost — submitted by readers

8. Introducing love-related Chinese idioms, since many of my readers are interested in the language

9. Reviewing books of interest to readers

10. Creating lists of “reasons why” on a certain topic that might enlighten readers or spur conversations

11. Confronting issues — such as stereotypes — that my readers care about

But that’s not the last word in content. See number 10 on this post on growing traffic and also Seth Godin’s post for more ideas.

Incorporate Keywords and Keyphrases into Titles, Posts and Tags

A lot of my traffic comes from the search engines — which means any blogger should never forget the power of search engine optimization (aka SEO).

One of the most important things you can do is incorporate popular keywords and keyphrases (from your audience research) into your post titles, body content and tags. Even better, if a keyword or keyphrase lends itself to a great post, then use that as the title and pepper it into the post itself. See here for more ideas on using keywords in your posts.

If you have a self-hosted blog and you use WordPress like I do, you can tap into even more SEO possibilities with plugins like my favorite, Yoast’s WordPress SEO.

Make It Easy To Subscribe To/Share Your Content

Everyone has a favorite method for receiving content. For me, it’s e-mail. So imagine how I feel when I discover a new blog, only to find that the author offers no option for subscribing to posts by e-mail.

That’s why it’s so important to offer your content in a variety of formats — something that definitely boosts your readership. When you offer only one option — such as RSS or even just e-mail — you’re missing out on readers that prefer a different format entirely.

If you have a self-hosted blog like mine, you need to know Feedburner — it’s free and when someone clicks on my RSS feed, my readers see a wealth of subscription options (including e-mail — something you must activate, but is easy to add).

But you’ll also need to add in links to your social media sites in a prominent place somewhere in your blog’s header or — like me — the top of the sidebar. Additionally, I go one step further and add a subscribe/follow call to action at the end of my posts:

Liked this? Get FREE updates to new posts by RSS or E-mail. You can also follow this blog on Facebook, Twitter, and Sina Weibo/新浪微博. Thanks for reading!

For wordpress.com users, you have built-in options to easily display in your sidebar — there’s e-mail, RSS and even social media widgets you can add there, inviting readers to subscribe in multiple ways.

Encourage people to share your content by adding social media buttons to your posts. Some people start posts with them, others end posts with them — but I like to start and end posts with these social media buttons so readers have the option to share something they see right away or just after they’ve read it.

And think about new and emerging ways for people to view your content. Nowadays, almost everyone and their cousin has a smartphone. That’s why I’m thinking about optimizing my site for those visitors. If you use wordpress.com, check to see if your theme is mobile-ready.

Follow and Support Other Blogs

Your fellow bloggers can actually help boost your readership just by following and interacting with them.

Subscribe to blogs related to your topic — and be sure to read them and comment. Everyone loves to get comments on their site, so it definitely generates goodwill. Plus if you include your website’s link, you’re announcing your virtual presence to the blogger, who might just link back to you.

Share their content on social media like Twitter and Facebook (making sure to @mention the author, where possible, and anyone else who might be interested).

And don’t forget to link back to the blogs you follow, which bloggers always love! You might even go one step further like I did and divide your blogs into topics/subjects. I’ve maintained a list of every single blog written by Western women or Chinese men who are part of our community, which has positioned my site as a the place to go to find the newest blogs in neighborhood.

Do Guest Posts

I’m doing a guest post right now — and it’s one of the best ways to build up your following! Identify large and popular blogs relevant to your audience and approach them about doing a guest post. As Ms. Career Girl writes,

Make a focused effort of reaching out to a few bloggers per week when they were new on the scene.  If you’re emailing a more established/high traffic blog, I suggest having your post already written.  Make it as easy for the blogger as possible!  Put a link to your blog in your bio at the end of each guest post so people can visit your site.  A lot of bloggers are happy to publish guest writers because it diversifies their content and perspective.  In many cases, they’re just happy not to have to write a post themselves for a day!

Use Social Media

I’ll be honest — I am a reluctant social media user. I was late to Facebook, and late to Twitter. But one thing is certain: they have value, and the proof came in my referrals. Facebook remains my number one source for referrals from another site.

For Twitter, one of the best things you can do is follow Alexis Grant’s advice:

[Create] a Twitter list of people you want to notice you, people who can help you get where you want to be. And this is important: it’s a private list, so only you can see it….

Now what should you do with this list? You should pull it into Hootsuite (or your preferred Twitter app or simply check it via Twitter) and use it to subtly help these people notice you….

To accomplish this, RT a few of their tweets, and add a thoughtful comment so they know you’re a smart cookie. @reply to one or two of their tweets. Or offer a valuable resource that will help them in some way, and CC them on the tweet. You might even introduce them to someone you know who could help them. The key is to interact with them in a valuable and interesting way.

Alexis also adds in another post that it’s important to use the @mention in your Tweets at least 90 percent of the time.

For Facebook, start out by creating a page — such as a page for your blog or book or an author page. But since Likes mean everything on Facebook, how do you get people to notice and Like your site? Authormedia.com offers 10 great tips including provide value to your followers, invite friends, create shareable images, and promote offline.

One thing that I’ve started to find valuable — and am trying to use more of — is tagging other influential people who you know will share the content and also influential/popular Facebook pages related to it. While I wouldn’t overuse or abuse it (such as tagging the same people/pages all the time, regardless of the content), when it makes sense to tag, be bold and go for it. For even more inspiration on Facebook, check out this post.

Pinterest is also a new and emerging platform, but one that’s a lot of fun to use. You can basically post images from any site or blog to “boards” you create on Pinterest, which people can then follow. Instead of using the template boards Pinterest suggests for you, I created my own boards related to my site — including a board dedicated to showcasing photos of couples of Chinese men/Western women. But as I read this post with more tips on using Pinterest, I realize I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with this platform.

Become The News Source For Your Topic/Theme

Sure, I have a unique and focused blog and I use social media. But I take it one step further by sharing content on social media sites with relevance to my own blog.

What kind of content? Relevant blog posts from other websites, news articles, photos of couples, new books my readers might be interested in, and more.

When you focus on sharing a certain type of content, people will see you as the go-to expert for this information and be more likely to follow you on social media (and even subscribe to your content).

Besides subscribing to relevant blogs, I also receive Google Alerts on specific areas of interest on a daily basis. For example, when I find great news stories or blog posts or even photos embedded in blogs/articles, I share them on social media platforms.

Find Your “Promotional Groove”

Almost every day, I stumble across yet another post with tips on building a following or a platform — and more often than not, they read like a one-size-fits-all proposition. That you MUST do what they say or else.

But guess what? Not everyone can become, say, a Twitter Power User. We all have different strengths and personalities. And that means that some methods will work better for you than others.

So as you work on your connections and following, don’t fret if something doesn’t feel right to you. Be honest with yourself and be willing to go in different direction, even if it means ignoring some advice (including my own). But as long as you keep trying and experimenting, believe me — you’ll find your own promotional groove, just like I did.

Jocelyn Eikenburg writes about love, family and relationships in China at Speaking of China, and was published recently in the China anthology Unsavory Elements.

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The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing: On my forthcoming memoir, The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West (Putnam Press)

Tracy in MiajimaBeing a gaijin wife in Osaka, I can be pretty out of it. I’d never heard of “The Next Big Thing,” or even knew what a “blog meme” was, until the lovely Jocelyn Eikenburg set me straight.  She’s the author of the forthcoming book Red All Over, a memoir of finding love and home in China; about, as she has written, “what happens when you let go of every expectation you had about life, love and even your own wedding, and just learn to listen to your heart and say ‘I do’ to the people, places and possibilities that really matter.” Jocelyn has been one of the most enthusiastic and supportive friends and fellow writers I’ve met online since my unexpected book deal landed in my lap!

She’s also a smart and funny and a beautiful writer, and if you don’t know about her and her blog Speaking of China, then you are missing out.

As for this “Next Big Thing,” it involves answering a few questions and then sharing the love by tagging another writer you admire, which I do below:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Well, the basic idea came from my falling madly in love with the least likely person in the world: a Japanese salaryman who could barely speak English (and I spoke no Japanese).

The book is about what happens when you are a Boston-based, skeptical, plan-obsessed, feminist literary academic who meets the love of your life, but being together means you must give up every plan or goal you’ve ever had and essentially forfeit your own world for his.

Ultimately, though, it’s the story of finding love and meaning in a foreign language, as well as hope and happiness amidst the boatload of loss and confusion that we call real life. (Here’s the full overview.)

What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Really??? I need to finish writing the book first before I can even start to think about this one. Now, if you’re asking what I’d want to wear on the red carpet, that’s another story. But don’t get me started, or I may just stop writing and click over to some online shopping sites, just to see what they….

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Good Shufu a true story about finding love, meaning, hope, and self in the least likely places in the world: the places we always swore we’d never go.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The Good Shufu is forthcoming from Penguin’s Putnam imprint in 2015. It’s represented by the very, very wonderful Rachel Sussman of Chalberg & Sussuman.

And I’m still in shock and awe over all of this!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Oooh, check back in, let’s say, 7 months? The full draft is due to my editor at Putnam, the incredible Sara Minnich, in January 2014.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I started writing the book at the tail end of 4+ brutal years of fertility treatments and 2 pretty heart-rending pregnancy losses, all undergone in Japan (and I still speak virtually no Japanese). I hadn’t written anything—I mean anything—in a few years because of the stress of this medical issue. And then one day, just off the cuff, I sent a pitch to the editor of the New York Times Motherlode blog about the difference between the desire to have a biological child and the desire to be a parent.

She published the piece (although with a much different title than the one I had chosen), and a few days later, an editor at Putnam emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in submitting a memoir proposal. I was shocked! And delighted! And still totally infertile! So while all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and hide from the world and my twice-daily-in-the-stomach-blood-thinner shots that my clinic in Osaka thought I needed to have any chance of sustaining a pregnancy, I signed up for a course on nonfiction proposal writing through MediaBistro, wrote a proposal and four sample chapters, submitted it to Putnam, and they offered me a deal!

I was shocked! And delighted! And still totally infertile!

But working on this book has been one kind of godsend, because it has helped me cope with coming to terms with turning 45 and abandoning our medical quest to try to have a child—an issue I write about towards the end of the memoir.

As my husband says, “If we can have baby, that will be like miracle. But it will still only be like dessert, because you’ll always be the main course.”

So, despite some of the sadness of the past few years, how can I not feel like the luckiest girl in the world?

Now, I’m excited to introduce Kaitlin Solimine, another recent friend and fellow writer whom I’m honored to follow and know! She’s an award-winning writer about China, a former U.S. Department of State Fulbright Creative Arts Fellow, and the 2010 Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Most recently, she was the March 2012 guest editor for the magazine Cha: An Asian Literary Journal , and I got to hear her give an incredible reading from her forthcoming novel at the Four Stories Boston 2013 opening night, an MP3 of which is posted here. Rumor has it, she attracted some publishing interest at this event, which doesn’t surprise me one bit!

“Strangely, my new role as ‘traditional Japanese housewife,’ didn’t bother me, despite my history of feminism”

And my 1st official reading from the book-in-progress

I’ll be reading a brief excerpt from The Good Shufu on Thursday, March 7, at The Fairbank Center at Harvard in celebration of the March 2013 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

Here’s a sneak peek from the middle of the piece I’ll be reading:

A few months after our marriage, I sat one night on the floor of my father-in-law’s living room, the worn but tidy rug rough under my limbs. I’d begun to call my father-in-law Otōsan, “respected father,” bowing low when he came for dinner three times a week, serving tea to him and Toru on the nights we ate at his house, just down the road from ours. Strangely, my new role as shufu, or “traditional Japanese housewife,” didn’t bother me, despite my history of feminism. This is not my culture, I thought. This is something I just do out of respect to Otōsan, when we’re with him. I surprised even myself by how easily I could play the part, as long as it was only for a few hours a week, in a country and language I knew I’d never call my own.

That night, while the men sipped the tea I’d served, I flipped through old albums of Toru as a baby. I saw him as a newborn in his mother’s arms, her face shining above his perfectly rounded cheeks, the red bow of his baby mouth. She stared at him with a love and pride so fierce it looked like hunger, a hunger I had never felt or wanted. Until then.

Suddenly, that hunger began to tempt me, my heart melting a bit until I could taste a new yearning on my tongue.

****

I was 41 when I first got pregnant. “Contratulation, Mrs. Tracy!” the doctor at the fertility clinic in Osaka said, dropping the “s” and confusing my first name for my last, as everyone in Japan did. She pronounced my name “To-ray-shee,” and she had doubted my ability to get pregnant at all, given my age.

The clinic nurses were giddy. They spoke no English, but I knew what their delight said: 41! Getting pregnant on your very first try of IVF! With your own eggs! They smiled happily and bowed enthusiastically when I came in for my weekly ultrasounds. “Iee, ne,” they would say—“It’s great, isn’t it!”—and their eyes would sparkle as they clasped their hands against the bright pink of their polyester uniforms.

Red the full piece in the March issue of Cha, or please come see me read on 3/7/13 if you’re in the Boston area! More info about the event is here!