In this post I’m going to share everything I’ve learned about how to build a successful nonprofit blog from the ground up.

For the past two years, I’ve been managing the Wild Apricot blog. This year I’ve taken traffic from 9,000 visitors a month (where I left off last December) to over 36,000. We were even featured as the 14th top nonprofit blog in Feedspot’s Top 75 Nonprofit Blogs of 2017.

This Google Analytics snapshot shows individual sessions, not total blog post views (ex. If one person views 10 posts, it counts as one session).

I didn’t get our blog this far by using vague tips, quick hacks and secret tactics (you’ll likely come across a lot of these). From my experience, it took good old fashioned hard work, consistency, and determination — and that’s what I’m going to share with you.

It’s my hope that in sharing what I’ve learned, it will help you create a successful blog that will have a big impact on the community you serve.

Here’s what I will cover in this post:

  • 7 Ways a Blog Will Further Your Cause
  • How to Choose Your Blogging Platform
  • 3 Places to Find Topics Your Audience Craves
  • These 8 Things Will Make Each Blog Post a Success
  • This, Above All Else Will Make Your Blog Stand Out
  • Visual Marketing Tools to Help Your Blog Posts Pop
  • The Best Way to Get Shares and Views to Your Posts
  • 6 Places to Find Great Writers if you need help
  • The Advice I Wish I Heard When I First Started Blogging

7 Ways a Blog Will Further Your Cause

I hear lots of excuses from nonprofits who don’t blog:

  • “What good will it do for us?”
  • “Our blog posts never get any attention.”
  • “I’m too busy to blog!”

And they’re right. What good will a blog do you, especially if you’re busy with other things, and past attempts didn’t go very far?

If I’ve learned anything from blogging, it’s that a successful blog can change everything — it can drastically boost traffic to your website, triple the amount of email subscribers you have, I even know one small nonprofits that used their blog to double online donations (KnowHowNonprofit even has an easy guide to follow if you want to fundraise on your blog).

Of course, building a successful blog takes hard work, but when done right (which I will try my best to show you in this post), the benefits can be amazing. It can:

  1. Attract attention online, including social media. Your blog gives you a place to publish content directly on your site. Then your readers can share your content via email and social media – and that can lead directly to more traffic for you.
  2. Tell your story. One of the pillars of nonprofit marketing is smart storytelling, and publishing regular blog posts lets you tell your story and emotionally connect with your readers.
  3. Be one of the quickest (and cheapest) ways to spread news about your work, campaigns, events, or any other newsworthy item.
  4. Establish your authority in your space. If you’re the new kid on the block, blog posts with great content can help you establish your nonprofit as a group that can be trusted to provide useful, up-to-date information on your cause. For example, Vanessa Chase, one of the experts on nonprofit storytelling helped build her authority from writing over 400 blog posts on storytelling over 4 years. I asked her what advice she’d give to nonprofits looking to blog and here’s what she said:“Blogging is an excellent way for nonprofits to share their expertise in a value-added way that builds relationships with their audience. In this day and age of the Internet, people are seeking authenticity and trust. Content can be a tool that helps your organization achieve both of those goals while becoming an authority on your cause.”
  5. Get found in the engines. If you’re publishing great content, other sites will link to you, which will raise your search engine rankings and bring in more traffic, email subscribers, and donors.
  6. Build new connections with others in your industry. Simply writing on a topic you have expertise in can bring you attention from other industry experts, organizations, and bloggers.
  7. Attract new donors, members, and supporters. Whatever your goals as an organization are, a blog can help attract more people who may believe in your cause and support your efforts.

If you’re sold on why blogging can support your organization, you’re ready to set up your blog. In this next section, I’ll cover the basics of the different blogging platforms.

How to Choose Your Blogging Platform

Why does choosing a blogging platform matter when virtually every website builder offers a blog feature?

It all depends on what your goals are. If your blog’s purpose is to share pictures, then Tumblr may be for you. If you want access to lots of fundraising and sponsorship plugins, WordPress is a better choice.

Whatever your needs, there’s a blogging platform that specializes in them. Here is a list of the most popular blogging platforms, which are all free:

If you’re having trouble deciding between choices, most nonprofits end up choosing WordPress. The reason for this is that it’s easy to set up and there are lots of free templates to choose from.

If you end up choosing WordPress, here is a list of helpful tools that can make your nonprofit blog more robust:

  • Nonprofit-Specific Themes
  • Sponsorship Plugins: add sponsor details onto your blog.
  • Event Plugins: include event registration on your blog.
  • Donation Plugins: accept donations on your blog.
  • Membership, Online Form, and Members-Only Areas: The best option when it comes to building out a membership website is to connect your WordPress site with something called membership management software (or just create your website and blog with membership management software). Integration can be easily and it’s a better way to build out a full membership website (with events, member logins, online payments, and a full contact database), instead of trying to install multiple plugins to do the same thing.

Once you’re setup with your blogging platform, you’re ready to start blogging!

In the next section I’ll cover how to find the right sorts of topics your readers will crave.

3 Places to Find Topics Your Audience Craves

I used to brainstorm topics I thought my audience would be interested in, but it was mostly guess work — sometimes my posts would be a hit, other times not so much.

I was relying on intuition, and it wasn’t working.

Fortunately, I found a smarter way to write about what interests people — I let them tell me what they want.

It’s actually quite simple. It just takes a little listening and a little research.

For example, many people kept asking me where to find a list of free webinars for nonprofits (since we do a monthly free webinar). So, I went and found every free nonprofit webinar I could and published a list. I then shared it with the people who asked me for it. That list ended up doing so well, that I now publish a new list every month. This year alone those webinar lists (here’s an example) received nearly 20,000 views plus thousands of shares across social media.

In the same way, listening to the questions and conversations of the people you’re writing for can guarantee each of your blog posts’ success.

Here are three main places I listen for successful topics:

  1. Social Media: Join conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn to see what people are talking about and asking. Then write about the most popular topics. Plus, if you see a comment that particularly stands out to you, reach out to that person and ask them to expand on their opinion or story — they may have something interesting to share. With their permission, add it into your blog post.
  2. Office Talk: My coworkers are a great source of topics, because they’re interacting with hundreds of nonprofits every day. In the same way, listen to what your coworkers, donors, sponsors, members, and volunteers are chatting about and write about topics that answer their questions.
  3. Keywords: Every day millions of people ask Google billions of things. The things they ask are called “keywords” and there are tools that allow you to see which keywords are trending (Mozis a tool I use). If you publish topics that have trending keywords, there’s a good chance a lot of people will find your article on Google.For example, I noticed many people searching for the keyword, “nonprofit event tools.” So, I researched every tool I could find and chatted with an expert event planner to help write the intro. The post ended up getting a couple hundred shares and now it’s the number one post in Google search results for “nonprofit event tools”. Every month it gets over 1,000 views.

From my experience, if you let your audience steer your blog’s content, you’ll end up having an easier time getting shares and views to your posts, because you’re writing about topics they’re actually interested in. Of course, success of your blog will still depend on your ability to deliver “great content” so people actually listen to what you’re saying. In the next section, I’ll cover what I’ve learned to do this.

These 8 Things Will Make Each Blog Post a Success

Everything’s been written before. Take a look at this search for “how to start a blog.” How can you compete with 396 million articles on the same subject? Who’s going to care what you have to say versus everyone else?

I’ve learned it’s possible if you’re willing to do what it takes.

And this is where good old fashioned hard work comes into play.

To stand out, you’ve got to write something better than everyone else — in short, what I call “great content.”

And while “great” is subjective, there is a standard formula I follow every time that I’ve learned works best. You can use these 8 things as your nonprofit blog best practices too:

  1. Be useful, emotional, or both. Your blog posts should teach your reader something useful they didn’t know before. If you can do that, your readers will keep coming back for more. If you’re just sharing news, or important information, emotion is the best way to get your point to hit home with your readers.
  2. Use Long-form writing. Even in this fast-paced world, people still prefer long-form content of 1000 words and up, and so do the search engines. In fact, posts over 1,000 words in length consistently get shared more. Longer blog posts allow you to dig into a topic with more depth, and that’s what people really want. And if you’re worried about your publishing schedule? Don’t hesitate to cut back on the number of blog posts you publish. It’s better to publish one incredible post every month than four sub-par ones.
  3. Tackle complex subjects. When you tackle a meaty topic, you can share your thoughts and provide the information people need, or the stories they need to hear. Don’t stick with simple topics with every article – it’s okay to pick something complicated, then share everything the reader needs (or wants) to know about that topic — kinda like this post!
  4. Make it easy to read. Online readers find big blocks of texts intimidating and overwhelming, and they’re more likely to skip an article that doesn’t have any white space. Use subheadings, bulleted lists, and short paragraphs to make your article easy to digest.
  5. Consider Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It’s every SEO manager’s dream to get the number one spot on Google for a particular keyword, because it can be the biggest source of traffic for any blog. For example, if you write a blog post called “10 Dog Treats for Puppies” and it gets the number one spot on Google when people search for “Dog Treats”, you can be sure to expect thousands of visitors a day. Of course ranking for any particular keyword is quite difficult, and there are specific things you must include in each blog post in order to rank. If you want to tackle the basics of SEO, WordStream put together an easy-to-follow guide I recommend reading.
  6. Write for a niche. A big mistake many bloggers make is to value traffic over conversions — a million views on a blog post about dinosaurs will do nothing to help a nonprofit children’s theater. Your ultimate goal should be to convert a blog visitor into a supporter of your nonprofit. The best way to do this is to write about topics that are very specific to your nonprofit. For example, if you’re a nonprofit children’s theatre in Boston, a good topic to tackle might be, “10 Summer Activities to Do With Your Kids in Boston.” One of the activities in your list can be to attend a show run by your theatre. The traffic to this post can help sell more tickets and sign more kids up to your program.
  7. Be competitive. Whatever subject you’re tackling, do a quick Google search and browse through the top posts. What can you do better than them? Perhaps you could include more research, involve the help of an expert, or create a really fun infographic.
  8. Only Write When You Have Something Important To Say. This comes from a quote from Ali Mese, a blogging guru: “I will publish an article only when I have something important to say.” It’s as simple as that. If you flood your blog with low-quality posts, your audience may become bored and not bother to read what you’re saying. But if you only write something when you have something actually important and helpful to share, success will naturally follow. In fact, 94% of people will share a blog post they find helpful.

If you’re able to incorporate all eight of these things into every blog post you publish, you’re way ahead of the game. But, there’s still one more thing I’ve learned above all else that helps any post stand out.

This, Above All Else Will Make Your Blog Stand Out

It’s well known that good writing (the ability to create an interesting hook with an exciting payoff) can make any blog post stand out, but it’s also the hardest thing to do.

Unfortunately there’s no quick hack to writing well — I’m still not very good at it, but there’s one thing I learned from my coworker, and bestselling author Donald Cowper, that’s helped me immensely.

It’s to incorporate the elements of storytelling into my posts.

There’s good evidence why this works so well.

Research reveals storytelling helps us better understand key points and enables better recall of those points even weeks later. Plus it makes for a much more enjoyable read.

Imagine this: you run an animal shelter and have a donation campaign coming up. What post do you think people would rather read about?

  1. A PR-style post announcing the details of your campaign? (Most blogs would take this approach)
  2. An emotional story about a dog’s year-long journey to adoption with a link to donate at the end?

Number two will win every time.

If you need further proof, head on over to Facebook to see what types of articles people are sharing and reading the most.

No matter what type of blog post you’re writing — a list of resources, a how-to guide, an opinion piece, etc., try to find some way to incorporate a story into it. It will make your posts much more memorable.

But, once you’re finished writing your blog post, you still have to engage your readers visually. In the next section I’ll tackle which tools make it easy to create engaging visuals that get shared on social media.

And if you’re looking to get better at writing and storytelling, below are some resources I highly recommend:

Visual Marketing Tools to Help Your Blog Posts Pop

Half my posts’ success comes from pairing it with a great image. That’s because great images help posts stand out on social media channels.

In fact, posts with images and videos get shared up to 230% more than those without.

From my own experience, images with big smiling faces get shared the most. Just take a look at the two images below and pick which one you’d share. Both are bright and beautiful, but the one with people in it is so much more engaging.

Celebration Cheerful Enjoying Party Leisure Happiness Concept

If you need help creating images for your blog posts, here are some tools that can help:

  • Canva: free blog post image templates
  • Freepik: free images, cartoons, and vectors to download
  • BigStock: purchase credits to download professional images

And if you’re looking for more help to create great posts for social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.) or to create slideshows and videos, check out this post from social media guru, Julia Campbell, on 10 Inexpensive (or Free) Nonprofit Marketing Tools That Create Stunning Visuals.

The Best Way to Get Shares and Views to Your Posts

When I first started blogging, I struggled to get 100 views and any shares to my blog posts.

Now my posts often receive thousands of views and hundreds of shares. This didn’t happen until I learned to do one thing — and it’s something I don’t see a lot of other bloggers doing.

That thing is to share my blog posts myself.

Every time I publish a post, I immediately share it on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, and in LinkedIn Groups.

But there’s a catch.

Just sharing a link doesn’t do much. To really have an impact, I’ve learned to create a conversation around my blog post.

Here’s an example:

I wrote an article called 24 Things I Wish I Knew Before Entering the Nonprofit World and shared it in a LinkedIn Group I’m a member of. Instead of just pasting the link, I asked a question to get people reflecting on their own careers: “If you could go back in time, what’s one thing you’d tell your younger self about the nonprofit world?”

The result was amazing.

Nearly 100 people liked the post and 26 people commented on it. This resulted in over 1,300 people clicking the link. Other posts in that group shared around the same time barely received any engagement at all.

Since I knew my question got people talking about my post, I replicated the conversation on other social channels too, which created just as much buzz elsewhere.

Creating conversations around blog posts has been the biggest contributor to boosting shares and views of my blog posts.

One way I track total shares of my posts is with a free Google Chrome extension called BuzzSumo. It allows you to see how many shares a page got on Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest. If you also want to see how many Twitter shares your post get, you’ll have to create an account with them.

Of course there are many other tactics that will increase views and shares for each of your blog posts. Here is my list:

  • Setup an RSS feed subscription on your blog: subscribers will get email notifications whenever you publish a new post.
  • Send out a month blog update: craft an email talking about your best blog post from the month and include links to other helpful blog posts to your email subscribers.
  • Include your latest blog posts as a roundup in your monthly newsletter, or publish a monthly roundup of all the best blog posts you’ve come across.
  • Work with an industry professional or include a quote from a highly-followed expert. This gives them an incentive to share your post with their network which can widen your reach.

All these tactics just help to amplify the reach of a post. As I said before, good writing trumps everything else.

5 Places to Find Great Writers if you need help

Here are five places (both paid and free) I’ve used to find guest bloggers and freelance writers to help me out.

  1. Connections: Ask your friends and colleagues if they know any guest bloggers or freelance writers. You may be surprised how a friend of a friend ends up knowing someone great.
  2. Industry Experts: If you know of certain experts in your industry, email them and ask if they’d be willing to guest blog for you. They may not say yes, but you will never know until you ask. Many of the guest blog posts on Wild Apricot are from experts I reached out to.
  3. Other Blog Posts You Like: There are likely blogs you already follow. If so, reach out to the writer of that blog and ask if they’d be willing to write for you, or cross-blog one of their posts. With some luck, they may agree!
  4. LinkedIn Freelancers: Simply use LinkedIn’s search feature to search for anyone who has the words “Freelance Writer” in their profile. Then, reach out to a few and ask to see their work.
  5. Upwork: Upwork is an online marketplace of professionals looking for freelance work.

The best type of writer you can find is someone who understands your work and your audience. It takes time and effort to find someone like this, but once you do, you’ll have a steady stream of great content published on your blog, which can increase your readership.

The Advice I Wish I Heard When I First Started Blogging

When I first starting blogging, I was anxious to write something that would go viral. I kept hearing stories of people who skyrocketed their blog after figuring out some traffic or social media hack. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to “go viral” nothing I wrote seemed to catch on.

It wasn’t until I learned (the hard way) to think about blogging in a completely different way.
A blog isn’t about getting traffic, it’s about helping real people solve real issues. Traffic is just an indicator of that.

As soon as I started writing things that actually helped people, that’s when the Wild Apricot blog started to take off.

Now I regularly get emails from people thanking me for giving them a new idea or strategy, or that they’re going to share something I wrote with their board. And that’s really what blogging is all about — helping others.

Second to this, success doesn’t happen over night. It’s taken me months of consistently writing and publishing to build traffic up from the ground. So, if you don’t meet success right away (or even in the first few months), don’t get discouraged. Keep learning what your audience likes and keep trying to help them in the best way you know how.

With all that being said, best of luck with your blog!

This post originally appeared on the Wild Apricot blog.