Want to learn about WordPress.com from the best? Developing a successful WordPress.com website requires commitment to solid content, interaction with your community, and intentional and organic forms of growth. In “Spotlight on Successful Blogs: Learning From the Best,” we spoke with three top bloggers to learn how they built stellar sites. Their interviews were packed with valuable tips, insights, and inspiration — all things that they learned while building successful WordPress.com websites. We’re dishing out the details so that you can set your own website up for success. From learning specific techniques, to cultivating a community and a brand, we think you’ll enjoy learning more about how other successful site owners got their starts.
The first portion of our three-part series focuses on Christine Ray, a blogger at Brave and Reckless. A prolific writer and managing editor at several literary collectives, Christine began building her web presence in 2016 and quickly grew her readership, counting 3,886 followers and 79,000 views to date — and both figures continue to grow daily.
What prompted you to launch your blog?
I launched Brave and Reckless on October 8, 2016. I started the blog to make an essay that I had previously posted on Facebook accessible to a bigger audience. Once I put it up there, it looked kind of lonely. So I started posting other essays that I had previously published on Facebook, then some old poetry that I wrote in high school and college, which led me to wanting to write again. It was a slow, organic process.
How did you grow and develop Brave and Reckless?
I promoted the blog on Facebook among my friends and my college alumnae group, where I received a lot of encouragement and positive feedback about my writing. Once I decided that I was committed to the blog, I started educating myself about the culture. I looked for people who wrote things that I like to read and followed them. I checked out their followers, assuming that we would have similar tastes. I also got brave and started leaving comments. This helped me develop relationships and encourage other bloggers to visit Brave and Reckless.
Was there anything that specifically added to the growth of your site?
My blog has really experienced two growth explosions. The first happened in early December, when I won a Divergent Literature Contest sponsored by The Sudden Denouement Literary Collective with my poem “On Becoming a Writer.”
The second explosion occurred on May 2, 2017, when WordPress.com bestowed upon me the honor of featuring my post, “Brave and Reckless’ Advice for New WordPress Bloggers – Part 1,” on its Discover Feed — which millions of people follow. It was pretty surreal. I went from 164 blog views on May 1st, to 2,439 views by May 2nd. It was thrilling and terrifying all at the same time!
Was your site’s growth strategic and intentional, or organic?
My site’s growth has been mostly organic with lots of good luck. I never believed that I would win a writing contest, and it never crossed my mind that WordPress.com might recognize my blog. I still don’t know how it came to the editors’ attention, but I am deeply, deeply flattered.
How does social media impact your site’s growth?
Facebook had a huge impact when I was first starting out. I had the support of my alumnae community at Mount Holyoke College and would occasionally post my writing on a Seven Sisters alumnae site when I thought it might be of interest. I experimented with Tumblr, but closed that account because there was not enough return on time investment. My blog is set up to post automatically to Facebook and Twitter, which has certainly given me a bigger audience. I started investing more energy into Instagram, which has a large writing community. I am also a visual artist and enjoy making memes. I discovered that I love spoken-word poetry, and record my work as time allows. I do have a small following on SoundCloud, but I suspect that I have turned more WordPress.com bloggers into spoken-word poetry fans than I have turned SoundCloud members into WordPress.com fans!
Has any single post generate more positive feedback than the others? How did it affect you as a blogger, your site, and your community?
My two posts with the biggest reach have been “Brave and Reckless’ Advice for New WordPress Bloggers – Part 1” and “What Every Woman Knows.” For ten days in early May, I felt like all I did was answer questions from new bloggers. I have been asked by so many people to give them feedback on their blogs, that I had to create and post written guidelines! I am sure I have still not gotten back to everyone, but I try to answer every comment and I have looked at as many blogs as I have been able to carve out time for.
Were you familiar with WordPress.com before starting your blog?
I used WordPress.com for work-related projects before starting my own blog.
Are you actively involved in the WordPress.com community?
Absolutely! Finding my tribe and getting to interact with other talented writers is one of my favorite things about WordPress.com. I participate in several writing collectives on WordPress.com and often write collaboratively with other WordPress.com bloggers.
What has been the key for you to authentically engage with your community?
I try to respond to every comment made by readers on my blog, even if it’s just to say “thank you.” I try to follow my favorite writers as best as I can and leave comments. I love to read about new bloggers and try to leave encouraging comments. I share other people’s writing on Brave and Reckless quite frequently and hold fairly regular writing-prompt challenges, which are a lot of fun creatively and help create a sense of community.
Has the WordPress.com community had an impact on your blog?
The WordPress.com community isn’t why I initially came, but it is absolutely why I stay. I made some very close friends on WordPress.com. I discovered great writing partners. I co-founded two writing collectives with other WordPress.com writers, Blood Into Ink and the Go Dog Go Cafe. I believe my writing has improved from reading so much good writing, and I am constantly inspired creatively by the community. I also really love the neighborhood vibe that has developed at Brave and Reckless. It was not a conscious plan of mine to take it in that direction, but I am very happy that it has gone there.
From the beginning of your site to now, take us through the evolution of how it came to be. What was that experience like for you?
In many ways, I view myself as an accidental blogger! I didn’t necessarily come here planning to make this kind of investment in the community, in the site’s development, or in my identity as a writer. Those were all pieces that gradually evolved over time. I came, I got curious, I explored, I met people who became incredible mentors and encouraged me to really think of myself as a writer and poet, not just as a middle–aged woman who writes. I found people who like and appreciate my writing, who helped draw in other people who like and appreciate my writing. I try new things and stick with what feels good. I try to write every day, and I try to support the sites I am involved with every day. I don’t know that Brave and Reckless will ever have a final destination. It has been growing and changing as I grow and change. It is a fluid canvas that reflects my evolution as a writer, an editor, and a blogger.
Any blips along the way? What helped you navigate those challenges?
One of the hardest challenges is to make time and honor my commitment to writing. It is far too easy to get caught up in the busyness of everything else in my life and my blogging world, and not to prioritize my own writing. I also allowed myself at times to become over-committed to my WordPress.com projects and my sleep and downtime suffered. There is an art to finding the right balance and being realistic about your time and energy. Writing is a commitment to yourself. Running a successful blog requires time and care, and learning how to use tools and skills that may be unfamiliar.
How did you choose your blog’s template? What was that process like for you?
I have changed my template twice since I started off. I like clean lines and I am highly visual. I have been known to spend more time choosing an image than I spend on writing the piece! Finding something that visually captures the feel of my writing is important to me. I am a pretty intrepid experimenter and have spent hours on the weekend “trying on” different themes until I found one that I thought offered the look I was going for visually, while being user-friendly. There is a huge amount of content on my site and I have had to work at making it easy for people to find and navigate it.
What’s your process in selecting the graphics to highlight on your site?
I love looking at images, and will often download many images that appeal to me when I visit Pixabay or Pexel when I need just the right image. I keep pretty extensive image files to draw on. I am not rigid about my “look,” but I love high-impact black-and-white photography, fantasy imagery, and strong women. I spend a lot of time on image selection, but I feel that it is time well spent.
What decision-making process did you use to create a site with an extensive reach?
Honestly, I became a sponge and walked through most doors that opened for me. I have had fabulous mentors, and I have had a lot of luck.
How much content do you share, and how often?
I share a lot of content. On any given day, I might share a new poem, repost an older poem that I am fond of, post a submission from another writer to one of my writing prompts, and either post a thought of the day, a daily song, a spoken word piece, or share something from another blog. There is a fine line between bringing traffic to your site and overwhelming your readers. As I have become more confident about the quality of the content I share, I worry less about this. I am a very versatile blogger and have more than one type of follower. I am able to appeal to many types of readers.
Did you have any major epiphanies as your blog evolved?
I really think the biggest epiphanies for me were around realizing “Oh, I guess I’m a blogger now. Better figure out what that means,” and taking myself seriously as a writer. Honestly, one of the biggest surprises for me on WordPress.com was that other people liked my writing, that I spoke to their experiences, and that I had so much to say.
What advice would you give to those starting a WordPress.com website?
- Make writing a daily habit and post frequently. You will become a better, more confident writer, and it will be easier for readers to find you.
- Remember that many WordPress.com readers are following you on a smartphone or tablet and reading you during lunch. Shorter posts are more likely to be read.
- Look for writing that excites you, resonates with you, makes you smile, fits your interests and Follow them. Reading good writing makes you a better writer. Writers who write what you like to read have followers you have something in common with. Check out their followers — very often these are also people you will want to follow.
- Don’t think of this as a numbers game. We post our writing because we want it to be read, but 15 really engaged readers can sometimes give you a lot more than 200 disengaged readers.
- If someone takes the time to comment on one of your blog posts, respond (even if it’s just to say “thank you”). Most relationships on WordPress.com develop from replies.
What have you found to be the best ways to connect with your readership and audience?
Find writers whose work excites you and follow their blogs by email. Check out other bloggers who follow them. Leave thoughtful comments. Answer comments left on your posts (unless they are creepy or upsetting.) Never say “I’ll follow your blog if you follow mine.” This is not a popularity contest. People put their hearts and souls into their writing. Show respect.
What results have you seen from building your blog?
My whole life has changed since I posted that first blog post last October! I have found myself as a writer, have found a community of writers who challenge, inspire, and support me, and feel like I have had real impact on people. It has also been extremely powerful to me to speak my truth. It has encouraged me to live my life in a braver and more reckless (less careful and controlled) way. I have connected with people all over the world. I have even started taking writing classes at the university that I work at. The ripple effect has been enormous. Who knew?!
Read the next interview in our Building WordPress.com Website Success series here.