It's no secret that blogging can be a great way to expand your business, reach out to new customers, and form a closer dialogue with existing ones. There are an extraordinary number of bloggers out there trying to do just that, but without an audience of loyal followers, it's unlikely a blog can become a significant growth tool.

Driving new traffic to your blog is a start, but the trick is to turn first-time visitors into repeat readers who can build your social network and add credibility to your brand. So what's the secret to transforming your blog into one readers want to come back to?

"I actually think there's a myth that there's one thing they can do to drive traffic," says Maisha Walker, president of message medium, a New York-based Internet marketing consulting firm, and an blogger. "It's a combination of things that all work together and feed into each other, especially if you're just starting out trying to build a name for yourself."

This guide will help you turn the blogosphere into a loyal audience.

Building a Loyal Blog Following: Be Interesting

At the root of a good blog is good writing. No matter how many other tools you use to drive traffic, readers will keep coming back for one reason: they're interested in what you have to say. So your first step to building your tribe of followers should be focusing on delivering engaging, high-quality content on the topic you've chosen to write about, and people will find their way to it.

"You have to have a topic; it's a contract with your reader so they know what to expect from you," says Penelope Trunk, founder of web-based startup Brazen Careerist, a career network for young professionals, who writes a blog of the same name with 40,000 subscribers. "But write to the edge of that topic, because your job is to surprise them. Think of a new intersection of old ideas." Trunk's blog focuses on career advice, and she says posting about the rules of resume writing would be the center of the topic. The edge of her topic, she says, would be writing a post about what resumes and The Canterbury Tales have in common, for example.

It's true that some of the blogosphere's biggest names can afford to focus the majority of their time on writing, paying less attention to other tools and ways to promote themselves. But people like Trunk and Seth Godin, bestselling author and founder of web-based recommendation site Squidoo, whose Seth's Blog is one of the Internet's most popular marketing blogs, have found that not keeping track of subscribers has actually helped them get where they are.

"It's pretty simple," Godin says. "I try to post things that people want to tell other people about. The reason I don't want to know my number of subscribers is because I'm not trying to make my numbers go up so I can transform people into numbers I can sell ads to. I am trying to make change."

When you focus on creating strong writing, you shouldn't forget an important part of that process: editing. Strong writing is concise. Your readers will appreciate it. "The New York Times launches the biggest ideas in the world in their Op/Ed column," Trunk says. "You don't have any idea that warrants more than 700 words. It becomes disrespectful to the reader that you're not editing yourself."

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Building a Loyal Blog Following: Be Consistent

Writing a post people want to read takes time, but try not to take too long. It's important to update your blog regularly and predictably, with at least two posts a week. Make it a habit. "If people view it as a habit, they will visit," Godin says.

Updating often will help build your readership and could drive ad revenue, but that may only be true to a certain point. Setting an arbitrary number of posts you must hit each week can sometimes sacrifice the quality of your posts. Ultimately, it's about finding a number you can be comfortable with, knowing you're continually producing your best content and that the frequency suits the nature of your topic area. "For me, in general, I find that it's two post per week," says Deb Perelman, founder of the award-winning food blog Smitten Kitchen. "But, obviously, if I were writing a political blog, that wouldn't cut it."

Spend some time getting to know your audience so you can consider too what they're comfortable with. Jacob Morgan, co-founder and principal of the San Francisco-based Chess Media Group, a social media business consultancy, started out by posting on his Social Media Globetrotter blog each night at midnight, but later discovered this wasn't the ideal number for his audience. "Actually, updating every other day for my site works a little bit better," he says. "Not everyone checks their RSS reader everyday because they don't have time. This way, it gives everybody a little more time to read the content and comment on it."

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Building a Loyal Blog Following: Be Involved in the Conversation

A great blog should be a real, engaging conversation on an interesting new idea or opinion of a topic of common interest. As the writer of a blog post, you start that conversation. Starting the conversation isn't enough, however. Playing an active role in the discussion happening about each blog post is essential, so you're not "creating a black hole at the bottom of the page," as Perelman puts it.

David Spinks, who manages a community of blog reviewers at web-based Scribnia and started the Spinks Blog on how businesses use social media, responds personally to each comment. That may not always be practical, but be sure to respond if someone is asking you a question or has clearly took the time to craft a well-thought response. It's a sign of respect to your readers, and it will help drive repeat readership. "Whether you've read every post or you're coming to my blog for the first time, I want everyone to feel like I'm listening as well as that I care about what they have to say," Spinks says.

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Building a Loyal Blog Following: Participate in Different Contexts

The conversation started by a blog post often transcends the comments section. So, meet people where they are. These days, they're on social media, at sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Digg. Those sites give your content exposure in different contexts and can help build your credibility, Walker says.

 "Twitter is the most valuable tool not just for promoting content, but for allowing me to reach out to people and continue the conversation," Morgan says. "They help share the content. You can tell they're your regular readers."

Including social media badges on your posts easily allows your readers to share them. Don't underestimate the importance of e-mail, either. If you notice a particularly engaging comment, take the time to e-mail the person who wrote it. Or, if you have written something particularly relevant for certain readers, Walker says, e-mail them.

You should also be an active participant in the community of blogs on your topic. "It's really important to join the conversation on other blogs," Trunk says. "If you're not a part of the community of people writing on your topic, then it's not an honest effort."

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Building a Loyal Blog Following: Promote Yourself

In order to build ourselves a name, a little self-promotion never hurts. One of the best ways to do that is to tap into that community of blogs on your topic. After posting a thoughtful comment on the content of other bloggers, include a link to your own blog. Another way to drive repeat traffic is to offer to guest post on those blogs that have a similar readership to yours.

Promote yourself through all of your "owned venues," as Walker puts it. These include the more obvious ones, like including the URL of your blog on your business cards and e-mail signatures. If you're at an event, include it on the event handout. Continually promote your blog through all the social media you use, including it in your Facebook profile, for example. Include your blog, or a link to it, on your company Web site. The point is to remind people that the blog is there, and make it easier for them to find it, Walker says.

It's important to exercise caution when promoting yourself. Spamming other related blogs with comments that are simply a plug for your own blog, without a meaningful comment attached to it, will do more harm than good to the credibility of your blog. Including a link to a bigger blog on your own blog, a practice called "link bait," also doesn't usually work because big bloggers will rarely link back to you.

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Building a Loyal Blog Following: Make Use of Available Tools

By now, you've put in a lot of work on your end. Make sure you take time to see what's happening on your readers' end, to see if your work is paying off. There are plenty of tools available online (many of them free) to keep track of stats such as number of pages views. One of the most popular is Google Analytics, a free and comprehensive tool which allows you visualize and track a wide range of metrics and data.

Other useful tools include:

  • RSS Feed, a basic but essential tool to manage reader subscriptions
  • FeedBurner, which enhances your RSS feed by adding functions like automatic links to Digg
  • LinkWithin, to link to other related posts in your blog and keep readers more engaged with your site
  • Disqus, to organize comments and join the conversation more easily
  • Crazy Egg, to see where people are actually clicking on your blog
  • Site Meter, to see how people found your site and where they came from
  • Chartbeat, to set alerts that your site is down or experiencing a spike in traffic

You should also master Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It's a tricky topic within itself, but you want to make sure you write strong headlines, have high value links, include relevant meta descriptions, and have a clean site code.

There are many tools out there that will help you optimize traffic, but don't get too caught up in the numbers. "I really don't spend too much time looking at the analytics," Morgan says. "If my readership increases by 10 or 15 percent, that's great, but if I'm able to build ten more valuable business or personal relationships, to me that's more valuable."

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