What It Takes: To Start A Blog

So, you want to start a blog? There are plenty of good reasons to do so: 23 percent of internet time is spent reading blogs, 77 percent of internet users read blogs, 61 percent of US consumers have bought a product based on a blog post, and the blogging industry (such as it is) is particularly friendly to women – the majority of bloggers identify as female.

It’s not to say that it’s easy to start your own blog from scratch, or to make your blog profitable. But it’s a way of getting your ideas out and getting them heard, and if you can find an audience that demands the ideas you have to articulate, it can be a really rewarding way to connect with other people. I spoke with Susana Polo, currently at Polygon as well as the founder and former editor-in-chief of a corporate-owned lady-geek blog, The Mary Sue, as well as Riese Bernard and Alexandra Vega, who founded the indie blog destination for queer women, Autostraddle. If you want to know what it takes to start a blog, here’s what they had to say!

Find Your Niche

It might seem obvious if you look at a blog from a business perspective, but your blog needs to meet a specific demand that isn’t being met in other blogs – or else you’ll have to contend with competing blogs right out of the gate, and your content might be redundant. What communities do you belong to who aren’t well-enough served? What interests do you have that aren’t reflected on the internet already?

In Susana Polo’s case, it was brainstorming with her boss, Dan Abrams of Abrams Media, that brought The Mary Sue to life. “He said that he thought that there weren’t really any sites out there that were reaching out to an exclusively female nerd audience,” Susana told me. “For Dan, that was sort of a purely business observation – he’s not a geek in any way, he’s not a woman – and for him, it was sort of, ‘No one is doing this, I wonder if we could get in on that and maybe make something of it.’”

Autostraddle, on the other hand, was born out of Riese Bernard’s recaps of The L Word and the community she had built around her personal blog. In the process of doing those recaps and building that community, she noted that she saw a need for a variety of different spaces for queer women on the internet. “At that time there weren’t really any publications for queer women that were about everything,” she said. “There weren’t any places where you could read about politics and also dating advice and also crafts and also celebrity interviews and also social justice. We were inclined to fill that void with a conversational sort of blog.”

Alexandra Vega noted that Autostraddle, too, benefitted from the input of a “business-minded person”: “She was like, ‘What you have here is amazing, and you could monetize this and I think you could fill a really huge void in the market.’ It just really pumped us up, it was like, you could do this. You could make this a thing.”

Once you figure out what you’re doing in the first place, of course, the next step is to dive in. Starting and running a blog is an uphill battle – same as starting any venture – but when you feel like the stress of running a blog is going to be better than not pursuing it, you’ll know you’ve hit on something workable. For Susana, that moment happened when she was weighing Dan Abrams’ offer of a full new website to run with a friend. “She said, ‘It sounds like Dan is going to do this whether you say yes to it or not, and if you’re in an office with someone who’s doing this and you’re not, it’s going to drive you crazy.’ And I said, that’s absolutely true, and you’re right, so I guess I have to say yes.’”

Autostraddle was founded in 2009, when creative jobs were scarce. Riese told me that her choice was, “Do I want to get a job or do I want to live frugally? Then, it was a choice of, do I want to spend all day applying for jobs that I probably won’t get, or do I want to take this time to just work on this project?”

Alex confirmed that. Living lean and not having a whole lot of doors open, she said, “forces people to get out of that comfort zone. Now they’re like, ‘Oh, fuck, I’m on my own, maybe I should do that thing I always wanted to do for years. What the hell else am I doing?”

Build A Site

Building your web site is going to mean finding the right blogging platform, choosing a name, deciding on a design aesthetic for the site, and having a plan for how the blog will be organized. Hopefully you’ll do this with more time than the women at Autostraddle gave themselves – Alex said, “It was really great when Riese said, ‘Hey Tess and Alex, I think we should build this web site and I think we should launch it when Jenny dies [on The L Word], which was a total of two weeks.”

And design is more important than you might think, at first. Blogs aren’t just content to read, they’re also a visual experience for the reader. Both the content and the visuals have to line up with your blog’s overall mission, which Susana Polo found to be a challenging line to walk for The Mary Sue. “I remember trying to get across to a male designer the idea of having feminine touches on the site, but not having it look ‘feminine,’ which is a really weird thing to have to explain to somebody,” she said.

“The biggest thing for me with The Mary Sue was, I needed women to be able to see at a glance that this is a site that A) wasn’t pandering, and B) understands – that gets it. That is coming from a position within the community rather than from outside the community,” Susana explained. “We wound up going with a female silhouette logo and a neutral color palette for the rest of the site.”

Know Your Voice

Before you get to producing content, it’s going to be important to decide what kind of tone you want your content to have, what topics you’re going to cover, and how the content will serve both your readers and potential advertisers. Or, as Susana put it: “Ideally, you have a definition that makes cohesive sense, that gives your blog or your website or enterprise a nice, coherent theme so that it doesn’t feel disjointed, but it also gives you the breadth to provide interesting news consistently.”

For The Mary Sue, “You could separate it into two categories: genre film and media that we know the female nerd audience is interested in, and women doing cool things in male-dominated spheres of anything. Real women doing cool things, in addition to fictional women doing cool things,” she said. “You go with both parameters, and there’s really a lot there. So you give yourself some guidelines – some firm ideas about what you cover so that you can choose from the areas of your coverage, at any given moment, what the most pertinent piece of news is.”

Autostraddle being a general interest site serving queer women specifically, Riese and Alex focused especially on creating a space for their readers that felt safe. “I think it’s true for a lot of our readers that Autostraddle was the only space where they could engage on whatever topic was being discussed with only other queer people, and talk to people about their stuff,” Riese said. “I don’t think people ever max out on having conversations with other people who are like them. Everybody craves it and needs it, and we’ve been really honored to make a space for that.”

So at Autostraddle, Riese said, “We wanted to have a sort of conversational tone, and have a focus on community-building, and our writers who would be real people who spoke to you like they were your friends” – not least of all because that’s how the site started, as a project between a community of friends. “I’d say the majority of queer women’s publications that existed at the time were written using pseudonyms and avatars for pictures. It was hard to find a site where you could see that the author was a real person, which is important when it comes to building a community and gaining trust from our readers.”  

Build A Community

Both Susana and Riese hammered particularly hard on the idea of having a community, not just a readership, during our (separate!) conversations. Susana, for example, said that “The Mary Sue has a really dedicated, loyal community attached to it. We managed that by really listening to our community and staying clocked into social media, and trying to hang out in the places where our community was hanging out, on Tumblr, and on Twitter. But really paying attention to what was going on in those communities.”

Too, she said, the community informed what she was doing for The Mary Sue. “A lot of the media I have consumed since starting The Mary Sue has been because there’s this thing our audience is interested in that I am not intimately familiar with, and I should become intimately familiar with it so that I can be better at my job. Which, in the nerd world, is not a hardship.”

And to Riese, the whole point of Autostraddle was the community. “We were looking at this amazing community we had built around [“The L Word”] and wanting to keep that, and thinking that this would be a good moment to see if it’s possible that this small blog and this little community could become something more than that.”

Alex likewise gave Riese props for the work that the editorial team at Autostraddle does in this regard. This is especially important for Autostraddle as an indie site – most of their income is from reader donations, merch sales, and subscriptions to A+, the Autostraddle premium service. I suggested that the fact that the readers were willing to fund the blog was a testament to the relationships the editorial team had built with their readers. “We’re very personally invested in all of the readers, every single one of them,” Alex said to me. Then to Riese: “You care so much about what people say in the comments. You take that very seriously, and the site has grown and changed because of feedback directly from readers. You’re very tied to them and what they want.”

On a blog, community-building often comes down to comment moderation. Susana told me that “Just taking a really active stance on comment moderation really helps a website maintain a community of regular readers and encourage them to participate and pay attention to the site, rather than the people you get coming in from search traffic.”

Riese just about gushes about Autostraddle’s commenters: “Our readers have so much empathy and so much caring for people,” she said. “Everybody’s just super, super supportive and engaged, and I think part of what enabled that from the beginning is that our writers have always been involved in the comments section. It’s not just the writers – all of our team members are commenting and talking to people. It’s always felt like an extension of the site rather than this black hole where readers can drop by and say something awful.”

Which isn’t to say that it’s always easy – as Alex told me, “There are always going to be difficulties and bad apples.” And as Riese pointed out, “There’s no happy place of moderation that works for everybody.” But stayed clued in to who your community is and what they want, remaining a part of that community rather than a separate entity, will help to build a commenting and community ethic on your blog.

Figure Out How To Make Money

Well, actually, if you’ve looked into how to start a blog that (hopefully, one day) makes a profit, you probably already know how to make money: Attract readers so that you can sell space to advertisers who want to reach your audience. Simple, right? Just kidding, of course it’s not.

The Mary Sue is a corporate-owned blog, so much of that work is done for the team. However, editorial at The Mary Sue has to be concerned with how to get traffic. Specifically, Susana told me, the question is, “How do we get spike traffic? It’s a difficult thing to parse, because you don’t want to be the site that does things just for traffic, but at the same time, traffic is the thing that allows you to be a site at all. So finding that balance of, ‘Are we doing this just for the traffic, or are we saying something with this?’ – is sort of a constant back-and-forth, give-and-take movement.”

At Autostraddle, being an independent blog, the process of running advertisements and staying solvent is more complicated. “We won’t take ads from companies that we think are unethical,” Riese told me, because they want the blog to be a safe space for their readers.

But the site does run network ads (think Google ads) as well as sponsored content – articles that are created with an advertiser. Alex, who runs ad sales, told me, “It’s really great when we can work with people that we really like and who are on-brand. We’re really specific about our brand because we don’t want to cheapen the site, we don’t want to cheapen the aesthetic.” Autostraddle has worked with a marketing company that connected the site with advertisers who wanted to reach out to the LGBT market, like Motrin and O.B. Tampons with sponsored content.

But, Riese said, it’s not advertisers that Autostraddle has to answer to, ultimately: “Our readers are our boss. That’s who we’re answering to. And the advertisers we work with know that we’re not going to adjust how we do things for them.” The plus side to being picky and specific about who you work with, and insisting on the primacy of your brand, Riese said, is that “It does mean that the advertisers who do work with us get really, really good returns. It means that our readers actually listen and actually read our sponsored content.”

As mentioned before, Autostraddle makes most of its money from its readers, through A+, donations, and merch sales – ad sales only count for about 11 percent of revenue. And while having more ad sales would enable the site to do some of the bigger projects they’d like to do, Riese and Alex insist on putting the community that built the site first. “It’s kind of a pain that more advertisers haven’t gotten on the boat, but it is what it is,” Riese said.

Work Doggedly

Any entrepreneurial enterprise will force you to work a lot without getting paid practically anything, in the very beginning of things, so brace yourself for that. Riese and Alex, starting out, had to work full-time on the site in lieu of having different full-time jobs, all before the site even started bringing in money. Riese used her savings, and she and Alex lived with family for a while to cut down on overhead. “It was a very lean way of life. And really stressful. And pretty awful,” Riese said. “But somehow we managed to get through that part.”

Then, once you do launch the site and start producing content, you might be surprised by how difficult it is to get content up on your schedule. Susana describes her days like so: “I come into work, and our first post goes up at X-whatever time in the morning it was at that particular era, and I have to look at the internet, find some news, and write about it, and then 45 minutes later, I have to have accomplished that again. Then when other people who aren’t on the morning shift come in, they have to help me out with accomplishing that.” You’re at the mercy of whatever news is available, and whatever publishing schedule you’re on; and once a story is available, you have to get it written and posted really quickly. “It’s a pretty wild way.”

“I have a lot of colleagues who will commiserate with me on this,” Susana continued. “Whenever an article comes out about how print journalism is superior to online journalism because print journalism has, you know, deadlines, and bloggers don’t have deadlines, we just laugh, and then we cry.”

If I can speak from my own experience, I can absolutely confirm this. To blog, you have to be on your toes constantly, able to crystallize an idea about how to approach a news item in a matter of minutes, and you have to be able to articulate that idea well in basically less than an hour or so, and sometimes less. It gets easier with practice, but blogging inherently forces you to manufacture ideas and write non-stop.

Learn As You Go

Blogging is not as easy as it is sometimes made out to be, but it’s all right – the things you don’t know how to do, and the things you can’t prepare for before you launch your site, you’ll learn as you keep working. Riese put it best: “We’ve been learning as we go along. I mean, I’ve made more mistakes than anyone else has, than any of our commenters or other writers. It’s always a learning process.”

Accept that, and keep plugging away. In blogging, it’s possible to build a community that you love to serve around the things you feel passionate about – and that is an amazing way to make a living.

Want to take a crack at starting your own blog? Good news — we want to help! We’ll be giving one lucky reader a year-long premium subscription to WordPress (a $99 value). To enter, email a one sentence pitch that encapsulates the blog you want to create to [email protected], with “I Want To Blog” in the subject line. The blogger hopeful with the best idea (i.e. the idea that we judge to be the best based on creativity, vision and the potential to entertain/inform) will win. All entries must be emailed by 11:59 p.m. on October 18, 2015.

A big, big thanks to Susana Polo (@nerdgehrl), Riese Bernard, and Alexandra Vega. Visit The Mary Sue and Autostraddle, and subscribe to their RSS feeds! (And donation programs!)

Send me a line at [email protected].