There are two types of people who will really like this post. First is the content producers (bloggers, website managers, writers), because I’m going to lay out some really geeky blog stuff. The other people who will enjoy this are those who want to peek behind the curtain of The Military Leader blog. This post is an inside look at everything that I invest and every step that I take to make The Military Leader what it is today. If you’re not a content producer, don’t worry. I’m going to give you a few takeaways right up front. Here we go!
Takeaways for the Non-Geek
- Starting a blog to share your thoughts and build influence is absurdly easy. Start here!
- Organize your life with the incredibly powerful app called Evernote.
- Use Buffer to easily share web content across your social media platforms.
- Want a foolproof way to proofread all your work? Use your computer’s “Text to Speech” function to read your writing aloud. You’ll catch more mistakes than ever.
- The Military Writers Guild is a substantial collection of superb defense writing. Chances are, the content you care about is there.
Now, I invite you to step behind the curtain. I’m going to take you through every step that leads to the blog posts you see on The Military Leader.
Setting the Stage
Before getting into the details, I want to share with you some intangible aspects that come with creating and maintaining a platform of influence.
- Be mentally curious, open to learning lessons. Insight doesn’t happen without a curious mind. And writing content that engages people doesn’t happen without a writer who is constantly on the lookout for lessons to draw from life and share with an audience. I’ve always been a student of leadership, but creating The Military Leader has heightened my sensitivity to leadership lessons. My radar is constantly scanning for content and insight to share.
- Be deliberate about consuming content. I write about leadership, so it’s crucial to fill my mind with content that will be beneficial for my platform. You can rightly assume that I don’t read food reviews, follow NASCAR, or research the stock market. I engage with networks and content that supports my niche. That goes for books, articles, podcasts, social media, and people with whom I connect. I structure my consumption in ways that will improve me with respect to my family, my job, and my writing. That’s it.
- Capture thoughts for refinement. Writers must commit to logging even the smallest insights they generate, because any one of them could lead somewhere big. Since my radar is tuned for leadership lessons to share, I’ve developed a system to make it easy to capture key thoughts and ideas. I use Evernote. Evernote is a brilliant web and mobile app for organizing anything at all. Sometimes I’ll get a new idea or even come up with a blog post title that sounds worthwhile, and I immediately bring up Evernote to save it for later.
- Talk about what to write about. Rarely do I get a thought and write a post in one setting. I typically let my thoughts marinate for a couple days or even weeks. I use this time to make more associations to share in the piece. I also talk to friends about the topic, which refines it into the core elements that will resonate with the audience. I brainstorm a lot of post titles, too, deliberating over the exact wording that will grab people’s attention. (Read this about titles, aka headlines.)
Ready to Write
- Platform. If you don’t have a WordPress blog, you can fix that with this in-depth tutorial on setting up a WordPress blog, by Michael Hyatt. I use Bluehost hosting service because they had a discounted price through Michael Hyatt’s website and he recommends them. That was good enough for me. I started The Military Leader after considering that there were probably other people out there (just like me) who were searching for good leader development content to share with their teams. I had done a lot of research into leader development and figured I post it (along with a few thoughts of my own) to the web and see what sticks. That was March of 2014 and after almost two years, the website is closing in on 500,000 views!
Time. I get up early to write, typically 0430. This gives me at least a couple hours before I have other commitments. It’s frustrating for me to get on a roll and get distracted by life stuff, so I shape my environment to prevent that.
- Computer. I work on a 13” MacBook Air. I find that Mac is more responsive than Windows, which his important to me because I don’t want slow processing to disrupt the few good thoughts I produce.
- Location. Everyone has their preference with writing environments. I can’t work on the couch or bed because those spots tell my body to relax. I work at the dining room table, which also forces me to have good posture.
- Music. I prefer a low dose of mellow classical to keep me in a serious writing mode. I’m a big cello fan, so I usually listen to Zoe Keating or Yo-Yo Ma. (If you want to be wowed by creativity and talent on the cello, watch Zoe Keating perform.)
- Theme. Finally, let me plug Michael Hyatt’s WordPress Theme, GetNoticed! Michael customized this theme to automatically integrate the major elements of successful blogging and he hit a home run with it. I’m convinced that The Military Leader’s modest success is largely dependent on this theme. You can get it here.
Anatomy of a Blog Post
Ok, here’s the step-by-step process. If you know WordPress, you’ll recognize what’s going on. If not, you can read a step and click over to your own blog or, of course, leave a question in the comment section below.
- New post. Mouse over Posts and click Add New.
- Title. I write a draft title at this point so I can save it under a recognizable name for later.
- Add shortcode for inserting the Featured Image. I use code to insert the Featured Image and do this as part of every new post. This gives me more control over where I place my Featured Image. I’m not sure if it’s particular to the GetNoticed! theme, but my code is (with brackets on either end instead of quotes): “featured-image size=”featured” single_newwindow=”false”]CAPTION[/featured-image”
- Insert a “Read More” line. A Read More line is a feature that hides a portion of the blog post when it’s viewed on the Home Page, forcing the reader to click “Continue Reading” if they want to see the rest of the post. I use a Read More line for two reasons. First, it keeps my Home Page neat and tidy, allowing me to show more posts with less scrolling. Second, a Read More line drives a reader deeper into my blog by requiring a click to read the full post. This allows me to present more content to them and also gives me data on what they read. If every post was fully displayed on my Home Page, a visitor could scroll down to read one post or five, and I’d have no way to track how many.
- Add Subscribe, Link to Archives, Back to Home. Also as part of my standard post, I close with an opportunity to subscribe by email, a link to The Military Leader Archives, and a link that takes the reader to the Home Page.
- Save a draft. At this point, I save the post so I don’t get too far down the road and lose what I’ve created.
- Write a catchy intro. Often, I’ll already have a plan for how I want to introduce the topic. I like to tee-up the rest of the post by presenting a problem or creating suspense. I try not to give away the whole post in the first few paragraphs. The key is to create and sustain a level of suspense that keeps people reading.
- Featured Image. I limit my introduction section to a paragraph or two, then let my Featured Image serve as a natural break. Since I have a Read More line below the image, people get the catchy intro, then an image that grabs their attention, and hopefully they’ll be interested enough to click Read More. (I’ll talk about how I get my images later.) When I chose an image, I pay attention to how the thumbnail image will look in different social media outlets. Twitter, for example, cuts off the edges of the image, only showing what is in the middle portion of the picture. This may diminish the impact the image will have, so I sometimes do some cropping to get it right.
- Sub-headings. I use Sub-Heading 2 in almost every post as an easy way to transition to different supporting points. This precludes me from having to build transition sentences into each paragraph as I move from point to point. However, for personal stories or narrative posts, I limit the sub-headings. I also use sub-headings to give the reader a little hint of the main point, or maybe to highlight a catchy aspect of the discussion. Note, sub-headings can help your SEO score if they include your post’s Focus Keyword.
- Body. Most of the time, I try to write my blog posts to be easy reads, with bulleted lists, bolded text, and short paragraphs. I recognize that my readers don’t have the time to plow through a manifesto…it’s hard enough to get people to read about leader development – I don’t need to make the content difficult to consume. I’m also a stickler for avoiding passive voice, which dilutes the force of my argument. Also, while I develop my notes in Evernote, I often write in the actual WordPress blog so that I see exactly what’s going to publish.
- Conclusion. I like to provide a clear takeaway section that pulls everything together. This ensures that the reader gets the core message and gives them something to skip down to if they don’t have time for the entire post.
- Questions for Leaders. You may have noticed that I regularly include a section with questions that challenge the reader in ways that inspire growth. I started this after listening to John Maxwell talk about the power of asking the right questions. I try to write “How” and “What would happen” and “In what ways” questions instead of “Do you” and “Are you” questions that the reader can answer without much introspection.
- Save often. WordPress likes to log me out every few days, so about twice an hour I’ll highlight all the written text, copy it, then save the draft post. Losing work is a serious bummer!
If you haven’t heard of the terms “Swoopers” and “Bashers” used to describe the predominant writing styles, then check out this interview with Military Writers Guild member, Crispin Burke. A Swooper writes for speed and volume, throwing every idea onto the page then refining later with many rounds of editing. On the other hand, a Basher writes for precision, agonizing over word choice, sentence structure, and grammar. Writing is editing for a Basher and while it may take longer, Bashers don’t like to go back and edit.
That’s me. I’m a serial Basher. When I get all my ideas organized and onto the screen, I start getting antsy about hitting Publish. I don’t want to spend any more time on it because I’ve already invested all my skills during the writing process. Nonetheless, I still do a couple sanity checks to ensure it’s professional and says what I intended.
- Run spell check. This is a must. If there’s a spelling error in your writing, it’s just a diary.
- Read through and bold text. I read the post with an eye toward highlighting the most insightful points. I ask, “What key ideas do I want the reader to walk away with?” Then I bold that text. I also look for content that is “Twitterizable” and will make good excerpts when reposting later.
- View preview. I then preview the post as it will look on the webpage, making sure that the headings look right, that I haven’t added an extra line somewhere, that the images are sized and spaced correctly, and that the bolded text isn’t too distracting.
- Proofread using dictation. Finally…and this is a key step…I use Mac’s “Text to Speech” feature to read me the post aloud. I follow along on the screen as the voice reads and you wouldn’t believe how many small grammar mistakes I catch that way. If you’ve never used it, here’s a guide to setting it up.
Here’s a sobering thought. Without the right search engine optimization (SEO) settings, your Pulitzer-level post could die on the vine, read by few. As The Military Leader grows, I’m finding that the site’s search engine ranking is going up. More and more traffic is coming to the site from search engines instead of referrals and social media, which means that people are finding the site through more diverse searches. I attribute that trend to the following steps that I do for every post. (Listen to this ProBlogger podcast episode to find out why it’s important to balance traffic sources.)
- Yoast SEO. First, I use the Yoast SEO plugin on my site, which makes it incredibly easy to optimize my posts for search engines. It assesses your site and scores the SEO strength across many domains.
- Assign a Focus Keyword. Assigning a Focus Keyword is a must. Keywords seem to be the most important factor in SEO. I pay attention to pick a keyword that will fit in the title and in the body of the post.
- SEO Meta-Description with Focus Keyword. I next write a short meta-description for the blog post, paying attention 1) to include the Focus Keyword in the description and 2) to make it both accurate and captivating. This is the text that people will see on social media below the link and can be effective at drawing them into the post. The box for the Meta-Description is just below the title and URL boxes in Yoast SEO (see picture below).
- Featured Image with Focus Keyword. If you’re new to blogging you may not have realized yet that images are vital to capturing attention. If your content doesn’t have an image, plan to see a fraction of the traffic that your content deserves. Put the opposite way, using an image will boost your content’s traffic by many times! Now, the type of picture matters…and the resolution…and the copyright classification. You can do mountains of research on images to find the perfect formula for your site, but here’s my battle drill:
- I almost always go to the Army’s released images to find one that fits my post. The Department of Defense image page also has good photos. Stock images of people shaking hands and boardroom meetings are cliche and boring. If my post deals with leadership, I’ll look for an image of a uniformed leader giving a speech or Soldiers talking in a group. If the topic is related to combat, then I’ll find a cool deployment picture. If it’s a sage piece of advice or a quote, then I’ll find a black and white photo of a dead general, which carries the effective message, “There’s wisdom here, click the link.”
- Social media advice on the subject says that image resolution needs to be at least 640×420 pixels. (Here’s a good infographic for using images and here’s an image size guide for Facebook.) WordPress automatically shrinks large pictures down to the right size for the area, so I look for images much larger than that and play it safe. (Check out what Amy Porterfield has to say about images and this post on finding images.)
- Before I download the picture, I’ll verify that it’s a shareable image. If it’s on the Army site, it’s already publicly released, although I don’t think you can use it as part of paid content. (If you want to read about copyrights, visit the Creative Commons page.)
- After downloading the image and ensuring that I got the full size photo and not the thumbnail, I go back to my site and set it as the Featured Image. I then copy the photo’s caption from its source website and paste it into the description and caption fields of the WordPress image uploader. If I’ve decided what the SEO Focus Keyword will be, I assign it to the image at this time. This is a critical part of good SEO. The image keyword needs to be the same as the post’s Focus Keyword. Finally, I copy the photo’s original URL and link it to a phrase like “Photo linked here” so people can get the picture if they want it.
- Assign URL. Another part of good SEO is putting your Focus Keyword into the URL and title of the post. I do this at the end of all the other steps.
Check SEO. Yoast SEO automatically displays a Green-Amber-Red stop light to indicate the quality of the post’s SEO. It also gives a list of reasons the post is good or bad. I check that SEO status at this point to ensure it’s Green.
- Assign categories. Next, I assign categories that the post applies to. I don’t really pay attention to these much, but some of my categories are: Leadership, Military Leadership, Personal Development, Managing Your Career, and Guest Posts.
- Add tags. Tags are also not critical but can be beneficial when people are searching for content on the site. If I want to highlight a specific type of post or content, like all Guest Posts or all posts that talk about Counseling, I can search by that tag and share those search results on social media. Here’s an example.
Ok, this is the home stretch. The hard part of creating and formatting the content is over, now it’s time to ensure the world sees it in the best and most professional way. The truth is that you could have viral content that’s undermined by unprofessional presentation, grammar mistakes, or a botched publishing process. These are the steps I use to push out the post.
- Check publishing time. I personally like to publish my posts in real-time (versus scheduling it for some time in the future). It doesn’t matter when I hit publish because my posts aren’t connected to any automatic actions in WordPress. There are ways to automatically push posts on social media when they hit the web, but I don’t do that because I like to use Buffer to push my content, which gives me more flexibility. If you do opt to push out your content when you hit publish, then make sure it’s set up properly before you post.
- Check email distribution. I recommend using a third party email marketing client like MailChimp or AWeber to push your posts to your email list. WordPress has an integrated method to do this, but it’s extremely basic and not customizable. Linking MailChimp to your blog is an entirely different workflow that you can research on your own. MailChimp has videos on this setup, too. You’ll seed to set up an RSS feed on FeedBurner and spend some time customizing your email to reflect the feel of your site. For each post, I ensure that MailChimp is set up to grab the post and push it to my email list at the time I want, which is usually first thing in the morning.
- Preview. Before hitting publish, I preview the post one more time to ensure it looks good. I also check all the outbound links to ensure they’re functional.
- Hit Publish. I’ve done all I can. Time to put it out there!
- Review the page. I immediately view the new page to ensure everything published ok and fix any mistakes. This is another reason not to do automatic publishing. Even though it’s published, no one really knows it’s there yet and I can still edit it.
- Push on social media. As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of Buffer, which is an app that pushes content across social media outlets. Buffer allows you to publish your post for free on up to four social media sites at one time. I have The Military Leader linked to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ using Buffer and use it whenever I want to share the site.
- Import to Medium and publish. I also have a Medium site for The Military Leader, which gets minimal traffic but I keep it going on the off-chance a post will go viral there. To do that, I go to Medium and import the new post’s URL, then edit it and publish with the appropriate tags.
Ok, if you’re still with me, then congratulations…you’re a blogging nerd! (like me…) I hope that gives you some insight into what it takes to make The Military Leader happen. Below are some other resources I use regularly that you might find helpful.
I invite you to leave your comments, questions, or other resources below in the comment section.
If you’re interested in developing your platform and increasing your influence, I have to recommend Michael Hyatt’s book Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World. He explains every facet of building your platform, from Twitter feeds to publishing frequency to writing guides.
Once you’ve committed to building a blog, listen to every episode of the ProBlogger Podcast. There is no better resource for hitting all the basics. And it’s a podcast, so you can listen on the way to work or on a run.
I also use OptinMonster for the pop-up you see on The Military Leader. OptinMonster is easy to use and has lots of methods to engage your readers.
When I want to dive into data, I use Google Analytics. It’s the gold standard.
The comment sections on The Military Leader are from Disqus, which is a very popular and smooth commenting platform.
Finally, The Military Leader wouldn’t be where it is today without the help of the Military Writers Guild community. We have a commitment to mentor writers and share each others content, which leads to higher traffic and larger influence. Very proud to be a part of that esteemed group!