I've been fashion blogging since 2010, but it's only this year that I've felt like I've become "successful." Blogging fills different needs for different people. Some people want a safe place to voice their opinions or a blank wall for pinning inspiration or a virtual community. And then there are those who want to make this a full time job, with sponsorship opportunities and international fame.
When I started blogging in a particular niche, I wanted a little bit of all of those things. Those were the years of boutique sponsorships galore, when fashion blogging still felt like a way to democratize style but was on its way to becoming corporate-owned. Before the bubble burst. Admittedly, I was envious of all the eclectic, ModCloth girls getting new products to wear in every post. I spent a lot of time wondering why my blog was failing: Was I ugly? Boring? A poor photographer? And maybe it was a little of all of that, but ultimately, I think it failed because I was trying to force myself into a mold instead of playing to my strengths.
Success as a blogger looks different to different people. For a niche blog like mine, it's important that people actually read it, and it helps if a little community can grow up around it to sustain and challenge it in appropriate ways. So success for me means that 1. I can help fair trade brands flourish through mutually beneficial collaborations, 2. I share meaningful, unique content that touches people and helps the movement grow, and 3. people beyond the conscious consumer community enjoy and share what I write.
Without further ado, my top 7 tips for helping a niche blog grow in a meaningful way are:
1. Stay on topic, but don't get stuck.
My blog is on fair trade and sustainable fashion. It's fine for me to share varied content and personal stories, but I have to be careful not to post things that stray too far off topic. Occasionally, I've wanted to do long form journal posts about what's going on in my life - and I think it's fine to give yourself some leeway - but I get a lot less engagement from posts that have nothing to do with why people come here.
The added benefit of sticking with a clear topic is that you can eventually become an expert in a particular area. Writing on fair trade over 2+ years has given me the opportunity to present myself to organizations and individuals as someone who really knows what I'm talking about, because I do. It's an education that opens up doors to opportunities outside of blogging.
2. Have cohesive design elements that don't change too often. Brand yourself.
I consider myself an adequate graphic designer, but I don't know how to code and creating a whole blog design is something I'd rather let someone else do for me. From my experience as a reader of blogs, I think it's important to have a clear, unique blog design that fits with your brand and your blog content's aesthetic. I purchased a pre-made template for $30.00 (see the footer of this page for info) and made a few tweaks with Blogger's customization tool to make it my own.
You should also consider in-post graphics. Try not to go crazy with different fonts or colors. Keep things within a particular color scheme that suits your overall blog design. You don't have to be an expert designer or photographer, but you should strive for something that won't overwhelm your readers. I use PicMonkey for basic graphic design and photo post processing.
3. Be honest about free products and affiliate linking.
Alden of EcoCult wrote a thorough post on affiliate linking, but I'll rehash a bit of it here. People come to your blog to hear your voice and they want to be able to trust you. Being clear about links that may earn you commissions is not only a way to build trust, it's the law. It's also important to clearly note when you receive items free of charge in exchange for reviews or when you receive monetary compensation in exchange for a post. I also try to be transparent about whether or not comped items fit into my regular budget. Sometimes they're more than I would spend and I don't want people to get a false sense of my income level.
Though it can feel tedious to keep disclosing any perks you've received, it will serve you well in the long run. Plus, if you're writing on ethical issues like I am, being ethical about everything is really important.
I hate the idea of networking, but it really works. I joined two ethical blogger networks this year and their feedback, ideas, and blogs have been invaluably inspiring. Sure, occasionally they link back to me or share my content, but more than anything they've helped me understand how to best engage with readers, how to use social media (I'm pretty bad at it), and how to do a better job conveying information in a way that has lasting power.
A few of them feel like virtual friends who care just as much as I do about conscientious consumerism. I feel supported in intangible ways, too, and that gives me the confidence to keep caring and to push myself to be better. A lot of us are fairly small bloggers, but we benefit immensely from sharing ideas with each other.
5. Strive for authenticity, and take a break if you need to.
The first part of this step is obvious, but the second one is probably not a common piece of advice. Write because you care about what you're writing about. Share ideas with an expectation that people will give you honest feedback. Strive to build real community. It should feel like a commune, not a monarchy with you at the top.
And if you're just not feeling it, take a break. I don't think bloggers need to apologize for burnout or force themselves to keep going when they are out of ideas. Maintain a presence on social media, maybe, but don't get too crazy. If I give myself the mental space to breathe, I come up with much better ideas.
6. Don't be afraid to adapt and change.
If you read through my archives, you will see the ups and downs of my fair trade journey. I started with passion, but not a lot of information. My ideas about what constitutes "ethical" have changed immensely. My understanding of the industry has become more complex and less clear cut. My personal circumstances and spiritual convictions have changed, too. I have changed and the blog must change with it, and that's ok, because it helps me stay authentic.
I also have to accept the fact that some ideas and post topics are no longer part of the larger conversation on conscious consumerism. A lot has happened in the manufacturing industry (like Rana Plaza) and in the ethical clothing movement since I started out and I need to continually educate myself on the conversation so that my words aren't outdated and irrelevant.
7. Make it matter.
Even if you have a great idea for a blog that you think a lot of people will enjoy, that might not be enough to sustain it. I'm really big on doing things that make a difference and I think the key to long term success is instilling your blog with meaning. Whether your goal is to encourage new mothers or consolidate news about a particular industry or share awesome recipes, make sure you're doing it because you think it could make someone's life a little bit better. It doesn't have to be life changing, but it should be more than dribble.