Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Insider’s Guide to Running a Six-Figure Membership Site from Home

Note from Marsha Stopa: There was a ripple in the blogging world last week when we learned that John Yeoman had passed. John ran several acclaimed fiction writing programs at his membership site Writers’ Village and was a fixture since we launched this blog. We counted on him popping into our inboxes with a wry observation, slightly cynical question or a witty comment on posts. John was a charter member of Serious Bloggers Only, fond of long, analytical and challenging debates in the forum. His clever posts were winners in every SBO blogging competition. Ever the delightful gentleman, he was widely respected for his experience, insight and willingness to help.

John sent this post to me on June 10, shortly after he became aware of his medical issues, to consider publishing within SBO. We can’t be sure, but it may be one of the last pieces he wrote. So publishing it where everyone can benefit is more fitting with the kind and generous soul that he was. He is deeply missed.

Membership sites are potentially the most profitable kind of online business.

Your product is digital, so you have no inventory or shipping costs. You can operate wherever you have computer access, even from your home (as I do). If you create your own product and do most of the techie stuff yourself, your overheads are negligible.

So your pre-tax profits might be as high as 80% of turnover.

What other kind of business can claim that?

Above all, you have to make a subscription sale only once. Subscribers on an automated payment profile will then pay you regularly, maybe across several years — provided your program is good.

Your cash flow can be excellent. And you can usually predict your income stream a year or more ahead.

So why doesn’t every blogger run a membership site in their own niche?

Because it’s not easy.

I’d guess that nine in ten subscription programs fail in year one, and the tenth is struggling. Why? Because it takes years of error to learn what works. Most bloggers (I suspect) give up.

When I started my first online program in 2012, I’d already run two highly profitable subscription businesses in the UK. One — the Marketing Guild — turned over as much as $1.4 million annually from my own front room. It was driven entirely by direct mail. (Remember postage stamps?)

Between 1986 and 2000, it grew to be the UK’s largest indie publishing business.

So I already knew what I was doing, didn’t I? Yes and no. It still took me four years of pain — starting with no technical knowledge whatsoever — to build an online subscription business that worked.

I called it the Writers’ Village Academy, a coaching program for serious fiction writers.

Want to write publishable stories or novels? The Academy will show you how. It’s intensive and advanced, with content equivalent — or superior — to that of an MFA (MA) in Creative Writing. (I know that because I once taught the MA program at a UK university.)

With more than 2000 subscribers since 2012, the program now brings me more money — on auto-pilot — than I can reasonably spend.

Like to do the same?

Ho, ’tain’t easy. (If it were, everybody would do it. And they’re not, are they?) But I’ll give you a head start.

Before I do that… I’d like to put on record the vast debt of gratitude I owe to Jon and Marsha at Serious Bloggers Only. Their personal advice and support have been priceless to me over the years in building my online business. Whenever I hit a log jam, they seemed, uncannily, to have the answer. My sincerest thanks!

Here are Golden Precepts that have worked for me.

Every niche and business is different, of course. But they might save you a load of pain and error, whatever niche you blog in.

Choose a niche you’re passionate about.

You’ll have to live with it a long while.

Choose a topic within the niche that you know a lot about.

You can’t just scrape info off the web untested, change the words and re-organize it. People do that, but their programs fail. Because folk can find that stuff anywhere, for free. Why should they pay you for it?

Your personal authority must be highly credible. It should shine out of every word in your program and promotions. In time, major influencers in your niche will seek you out to co-host webinars, podcasts and conferences. So you’d better know what you’re talking about.

BTW: None of those co-ventures are necessary when you launch your program. They’re icing on the cake. I’ve never needed them. But you won’t get them unless you know your topic inside out.

Give your program a perceived uniqueness.

The easiest way is to brand it with your own identity. You are a niche authority, or you can credibly present yourself as one. (Don’t forget to show your photo everywhere, professionally posed. It’s your brand.)

When I launched the Academy, I already had a PhD in Creative Writing. Hardly anyone else in the world could claim that at the time. My own doctoral research had given me a special insight into how to write novels and stories that get published. My expertise was, indisputably, unique.

Two years later, I published four novels. They gained more than 100 5-star reviews across five Amazon sites in five months. Those novels added to my credentials. They proved: I walk my talk.

If you can’t — or don’t wish to — brand the program strongly under your own name or identity, organize your materials into an original formula. Give it a proprietary product name or acronym. Explain why your formula is uniquely beneficial.

You’ll need a branded product name sooner or later, in any case. Because if the program is just you (Jane Doe’s Personal Coaching), you’ll never be able to sell your business. And you’ll be forever in the loop because your subscribers will be buying you, not your service. (Kiss holidays goodbye.)

Promote a branded “product“, a self-contained formula. So people don’t buy just you. Then one day you might be able to sell your business, if you wish.

Beware of putting yourself irretrievably in the loop.

I can’t emphasize that too strongly. Some people are parasites. (Okay. It’s human nature.) They’ll squeeze you dry, and you’ll find yourself working, for your heaviest users, for $5/hour.

Create an automated system that gives subscribers the perceived benefit of one-on-one feedback (if that’s essential to your program) without you being in the loop.

My solution was a private member forum. Members critique each others’ work there, and I nod in occasionally. Obvious, in retrospect. But it took me three years to think of it. In that time, I’d been driven mad by folks who thought they’d found Santa Claus, grabbed all my goodies, mailed me a joyful testimonial, then canceled.

My system is now 95% automated. I spend my time largely on admin and troubleshooting. (“I can’t log in.”) With foresight, I could have set things up that way at the start.

Ring-fence your time from day one. That way, sanity lies.

Give proof factors, case studies, testimonials, and third-party test results.

Nobody will buy into your program without independent proof that it works. (Even an outrageous money-back guarantee won’t bail you out, all by itself. It screams desperation. And, without proof factors, how can people trust that you’ll even honor your guarantee?)

Gain early testimonials from beta testers. Enroll them in the program at no fee, and ask them to work it hard. Ideally, they should be people who have credibility in your niche, by their experience or occupation, so their names will carry weight. However, they needn’t have a web presence. Ask them for a usable but candid review of your program in their own words. A testimonial that’s too poetic in its adulation convinces nobody.

A Tip: Do not post — as some enthusiasts do — hundreds of ecstatic testimonials on your sales promotion page that scroll down to Australia. I doubt if anyone reads them. And, to me, they scream snake oil merchant. Just a few, impressive testimonials will do.

Of course, be sure to ask your beta testers to alert you to errors, dead links, misspellings and other problems in your program.

Needless to say, don’t write your own testimonials. No program can succeed without integrity, and that starts on day one. Later, you’ll gain more unsolicited testimonials than you can use, if your program works.

Make it very easy for people to join your program on a rolling subscription.

Let people test it for no charge for a trial period of, say, four weeks. Or for a token fee, refundable when they pay their first real sub. But make sure they’ve set up a valid payment profile, direct debit mandate, or the equivalent, before you send them anything significant.

A Tip: Beware those sweet folk who’ll say, “Enroll me for a month without a payment profile, send me your stuff and, if I like it, I’ll sign up.” You have confidence in your program, don’t you? So you might be tempted. Don’t be. You will never get your money.

Incidentally, it’s often worth asking people to pay a token fee up-front — e.g. $3 (refundable or not). It’s a qualifier. If they pay it, they’re serious. It also deters those with dodgy credit cards, or no money in their PayPal account, or who never intended to continue with you anyway.

When you launch the program, price it low — initially.

Your first task is to build a viable member base and gain testimonials and referrals. Don’t be greedy. Remember, you plan to run this business across a long period. (Don’t you?)

You can — and should — increase the price later, when you can point to 1,477 satisfied members, or the like.

A Tip: It’s better to raise your price, slowly, testing as you go, than to suddenly drop your price. Or to offer a big sales discount. That will infuriate your members who joined at a higher price (they’ll demand the same deal), and it has a smell of panic about it.

Beware of “giving it all away” with a price that’s permanently low.

Plan to at least double your price within, say, six months. The higher your price (within reason), the fewer time wasters you’ll get — and the greater your overall revenue.

I delayed this step far too long, afraid that I’d gain no members if I hiked the price. But when I doubled my price, it made no impact whatsoever on my intake of new subscribers. If your program is excellent, you could price it far, far higher than you think. (Even add a zero to the fee.) You’ll still get some subscribers.

The downside is… people in the consumer market are paying out of their own pockets. If your price is very high, they’ll demand your soul in return. (It’s different in the corporate market where you have to quote a high fee to gain any credibility. How do I know? Thirty years ago, I ran a blue-chip PR consultancy.)

Incidentally, when you increase your price, leave your existing subscribers alone. Let them continue at their original fee. If you ask them to sign a new mandate at a higher price, they’ll cancel. And rightly so. Aren’t they due a special rate for life as your cherished Charter Members?

Be prepared for a few “problem” subscribers.

They’re the ones who forgot that they’d signed up. Or who never read your terms of service (even though they’re set in 18 point type right beside your Subscribe button). Or who are simply mad. They’ll whine when their first subscription hits. Maybe they’ll raise a PayPal or credit card dispute.

If your business is ethically run, problem subscribers should account for less than 1% of your member base. But a few cranks can make your life hell.

Refund them at once. Don’t challenge them, even when they’re wrong. PayPal and the credit card companies will always find in favor of the customer, regardless of the merits of any case. It isn’t worth the risk of seeing your PayPal account limited while you contest a claim over a few dollars.

Email them a message of exquisite courtesy. Apologize and make them right (especially when they’re wrong). Decent people will have an attack of conscience and send you an apology of their own. Many times, I’ve seen a crabby customer — handled well — turn into a friend, and stay with me for years.

Present your course materials at regular intervals, ideally weekly or every two weeks.

(A monthly schedule lacks impetus.) I’ve found the easiest way is to put each module on a dedicated page on my website, each with its own cryptic URL.

Why cryptic? That way, rogues can’t work out that module #1 is named “[site url]/plotting1,” therefore subsequent modules must be named “[site url]/plotting2/3/4,” etc. And so gain my entire year’s program without further charge.

Password protect those pages so Google spiders can’t pillage your hard work and splatter it across the web for the world to access.

A Tip: Google can and will access the root directories of your site (subject to how the site’s set up) and steal the files you’ve hidden there, regardless of any page passwords. To protect copyrighted or sensitive files, I keep them in a vault at Members are given a special password to retrieve them. You can find many other vaults like that, often for free. They’re indispensable in these days of Google piracy.

Find a payment portal that lets you create subscription profiles for members, in a flexible way.

I use PayPal, although I (and plenty of my members) dislike it. No other payment portal, to my knowledge, lets you define a free — or token cost — trial period for new subscribers. Or pause, then re-activate, a member’s payment profile at their request.

You need that flexibility. PayPal’s quirks, often maddening, are a small price to pay for it.

A monthly payment schedule is about right. Charge subscribers every week and you’re goading them — every week — to ask, “Do I really need this service?” Hit them with a large sum every quarter (or year) and they’ll certainly ask themselves that question.

Set up an email program (say, at AWeber or MailChimp) so subscribers get an email in an automated follow up sequence every few days.

Each email gives a link to the next module.

A Tip: Both those programs offer you ways to integrate members’ PayPal profiles (or their accounts with other payment services) into an automated email sequence. So if a member cancels at PayPal, they’re automatically switched off your live email sequence. Or vice versa. Don’t be tempted — unless you’re technical and truly know what you’re doing.

A friend wrecked his business when he tried that. He set the system up wrong and found that AWeber (or it might have been MailChimp) had somehow canceled all his members’ PayPal profiles. Once a PayPal profile has been canceled (as opposed to suspended), you can’t re-activate it.

When the formal part of your program ends (after 12 weeks, 13 months, or whatever), encourage subscribers to carry on paying you regardless.

Call them alumni. They’ll still gain access to you — or a simulation of you — or aspects of your service. Amazingly, many members will stay with you, out of inertia or genuine loyalty, indefinitely.

Consider whether your entire subscription program could be delivered by email follow-ups alone.

It’s possible, if your materials are pithy. I did it successfully with Story PenPal, a highly simplified, low-budget version of the Academy. It presents story ideas every week — no more than 1000 words per email — with a link to a user forum.

However, an email by itself lacks flexibility. Attach a file and spam filters may block your email. You don’t have room — in an email alone — to expand upon a topic or present complex materials and graphics. (People also tend to mislay emails.)

With a link to a dedicated web page, you have no space limitations, and you can regularly update your content. (I’ve updated every one of the 64 weekly modules in my Academy series several times across four years.)

Expect a 50% cancellation rate during any free trial period.

Don’t take it personally. Many people will join on impulse, having no motivation or means to pay. After some 4-5 months, the cancellation rate abates as people grow loyal to your program.

A little case study. When I ran the Marketing Guild, I sold £495 ($800) annual memberships to business owners via workshops in rented hotel rooms. (Today I’d use webinars.) On average, across the year, if a room held 100 potential members (company principals), 32 would sign a Standing Order or direct debit mandate as soon as I closed the sale. That was after I’d enthralled them for two hours with quirky marketing ideas.

I promised subscribers a 30-day “cooling off” period before I processed their mandate. Indeed, I urged them — for their peace of mind — to date the mandate 30 days ahead.

When they became full members — i.e. I’d processed their mandate — they got a big printed newsletter every month plus free entry to all my future conferences, for themselves and their guests. (I encouraged them to bring business guests for free. They were my best source of future members!)

Meanwhile, I mailed new subscribers a big box of materials, at my own expense. They could keep it whether they canceled or not. This was the thud factor. It mitigated post-purchase remorse. It made their subscription real.

Exactly 50% of people would cancel within 30 days.

That meant 16% of the room stayed with me, and many stayed a long time.

Across 15 years, and 52,000 delegates, those ratios never varied. So I could budget to lose as much as $5000 per workshop on marketing and hotel costs, certain that I’d get it back within a few months and make a good profit in year two.

Moral: learn your ratios and trust them.

Of course, I needed a lot of capital to keep funding my promotions and hotel rooms. (At one time, I was throwing the equivalent of $50,000 into direct mail every month.) Luckily, I had the money. Subscription programs — where people pay ahead — are cash rich by their nature.

However, you don’t have those up-front costs with an online program, delivering a product or service digitally. So you need little cash to keep it running.

Cancellations? If the program costs you little or no money to deliver, they don’t matter. Provided a healthy number of subscribers stay.

But beware (as I’ve said) of giving anything of value — especially your own time — until people have paid you at least one subscription.

For example, members who join the Academy on a four-week free trial don’t get access to our private Forum until week five, after they have paid their first subscription.

Prepare to top up the membership base continually.

Churn is inevitable in membership sites. I top up my member base two ways:

1. When people join my free mailing list, they get a no-charge 14-part mini course in fiction writing, delivered every two days.

Clever, original ideas of high quality. (An intense schedule is important at this stage to hold people’s interest while it’s warm. Run a more relaxed follow-up schedule and people will have forgotten who you are by week two.)

Every second module contains a small clickable ad for my paid-for Academy program, and some people do join that way.

Halfway through the mini course sequence, and at the end, they get a hard sell. That also works.

If they still haven’t joined the Academy, they revert to my general mailing list and receive emails every week, alerting them to my latest blog posts. I run the posts to build a relationship with my followers. The posts also bring traffic to my site and list via organic (keyword) search.

2. Every 6-8 weeks, I hit my entire list with a hard sell.

But I test each hard sell message first on small list segments.

A Tip: Email programs like AWeber let you make split tests of up to four equal segments. But these tests are almost useless. Why? The names — chosen by AWeber at random — are unknown to you. You need to know who you emailed with a given message so you don’t, inadvertently, email them again with the same offer.

So I devised my own algorithm. It splits my list roughly into equal-sized segments so I can tell exactly which names have received which offer.

How to run an online subscription program

Note: these splits only work with a fair-sized list of, say, 4000 names or more. Trying to split test just a few hundred names this way will yield meaningless results.

Some hard sells (usually my cleverest ones) flop. If one works, I roll it out to the entire list. But it’s important not to “burn” a list with too many hard sells. People just tune them out or unsubscribe. A reasonable ratio, I find, is one hard sell per 5-6 emails having beneficial (non-sales) content.

A Tip: That hard sell must be hard. Ruthless. No jokes. No fluff. Fun doesn’t work when you’re asking people to part with money.

I could easily automate my tested hard sell emails and schedule them — at 6-8 week intervals — a year or two in advance. Given the subscribers who drift into the Academy by themselves, from the ads in the follow-up sequence on my general list, I wouldn’t have to pay any further attention to sales promotion whatsoever.

I’d have a totally automated money machine. (Admin apart.)

List Building

The list is the foundation of a membership site. At the Marketing Guild, I rented my lists in as many as 100,000 names at a time. But the list rental rules have since been tightened up. Although you can still rent or buy email lists, they’re likely to be dross and/or illegally acquired. Ethical email services like AWeber, MailChimp, etc. won’t let you use them. And rightly so.

I’ve built my list across seven years (the Writers’ Village site has operated since 2009) to become one of the largest in my niche. I try to keep it scrupulously clean. Every three months I delete those who haven’t opened my emails for six months plus those living in countries who have no PayPal access. (Why pay to host people who can’t pay me?)

Each name on my list is notionally worth £5 (around $8). That benchmark is important when I’m advertising for sign-ups. A name must cost no more than £1 to acquire, to cover its hosting costs across a long period and still yield a profit if and when it converts to a sale.

A Tip: Don’t be too hasty to discard names if they haven’t converted to a sale over a long period, provided they’re still opening your emails. Although most of your paying members will come from fresh names, a significant number will say, “I give up!” and join you after a period of several eons.

I’ve gained names in three ways:

1. Guest posting at other people’s sites.

In 2014, I published around 80 guest posts across 30 writing sites. I found only one site that reliably brought me 60-80 sign-ups per post, plus a few that averaged 15-20. (Others yielded just a handful of sign-ups, although the quality of the posts was much the same.

Each post took me two days to write/edit, so the notional yield from my best site was £300-£400 per post. That was an acceptable yield but hardly wonderful.

Lower performing sites were a total waste of time.

A Tip: Don’t be fooled by techies who tell you that your backlinks in guest posts, whether successful or not, will bring you valuable “Google juice.” Baloney. You can’t put Google juice in the bank.

Now I guest post only by request and for fun. I don’t need guest posts any longer to build my list.

A Tip: Don’t be daunted by my so-so experience with guest posts. Bear in mind that I’m working in a narrow niche with very few prime sites that accept guest posts. Broader markets — like self-help, dating, entrepreneurship, etc. — will have hundreds of high-traffic sites. One good post at a prime site might bring you thousands of sign-ups, especially if people share it around.

2. Advertising.

After testing many sites, forums and ezines (newsletters), I found only two that gave me a worthwhile ROI. And I had to rest those vehicles for several months before I could advertise again. Too many ads, too often, brought diminishing returns.

Banner ads on sites and forums have never worked. Nor could they work, on reflection. The math is against it.

Why? The average click-through rate for banner ads is just three-tenths of one percent or 0.3%. That’s the industry average according to

So only three in 1000 people who see your banner ad will click on it. Even if 40% of those people join your list (a common sign-up ratio), you’ve acquired just one name. How much will you be charged for that banner? Anything between $100 and $1000.

Even worse — if it can get any worse — are rotating banner ads. (Now you see them, now you don’t.) They appeal only to kiddies who like duck shoots.

Google and Bing ads proved a total waste of money. That said, I didn’t have the patience to play games with longtail keywords, click bids and SEO. If I’d had the mind for such voodoo, I’d have been a hedge fund manager.

Facebook ads? They come well reported, especially since FB changed its advertising procedures so you can now target people in complex ways by their affinities rather than, simplistically, by their interests. But like Google ads, Facebook ads are a steep learning curve. I wish you luck.

Twitter ads? Never tried them, or wanted to. I’ve always felt that the kind of people who hang out on Twitter — except for commercial purposes — are unlikely to have enough IQ points to join my program. (Okay, call me snotty.)

3. Organic search.

Most of my sign ups now come from magpies — my name for people who flutter into my site following keyword searches at Google, Bing and the like. Hence, the importance of having a lot of archived blog posts at my site. (I now have nearly 200.)

Every post has a prominent sign-up box above it. Every high-traffic page has one too. And the sign-up box is always at the top of the page.

A Tip: A sign-up box at the top of the page — no matter how ugly it looks — will bring you three times more sign ups than one hidden in a side panel or at the bottom of the page. Jon Morrow says so, and it’s true. I’ve tested it.

What about boxes that pop up or slide in or flash? I’ve never tested them. But I have wondered about the quality of the names captured that way. “Alright, already!” I hear people cry. “I’ll sign up just to get rid of your stupid box!”

Qualified names? I think not.

It’s amazing how many magpies discover my hidden posts that go back several years by following keyword searches. Hence, the importance of putting keywords in your post titles. (My all-time winner has been ‘How To Create A Brilliant Detective.’ Don’t ask me why.)

How do you write those posts? I refer you with great respect to SBO and Jon Morrow. Follow his advice and you won’t go wrong.

Pinterest also brings me a lot of sign ups, though I can’t easily track their conversion to sale. So I’ve found it important to pin the main illustrations in each of my posts to Pinterest.

Magpies are wonderful things. When you reach the point when you don’t have to promote your site to get traffic, but you can rely on magpies alone to top up your list, you’ll know you’ve arrived.

Other sources of names #1: Social networking.

I promote all my weekly blog posts at Facebook, Twitter (via and Google +. However, clickthroughs from these sources are sparse — although Triberr is supposed to give my posts a reach of millions via the tweets of fellow Triberr members and I have a respectable 4,700 Google+ followers.

Maybe I don’t understand social networking? (Frankly, the more I look at it, the less I want to.) I’ve seen desperate bloggers try to penetrate the noise by posting as many as 100 messages a day on FB, Twitter and Google+, using automated systems. Splat! Does the Internet need even more noise? I don’t.

That said, I have gotten around a dozen sign-ups to my free mini-course whenever I’ve posted a hard sell at Google+. But I don’t do that more than once a month. Call it self-respect.

Stumbleupon? I tried it a few times. Didn’t work. Gave up. Ditto, Ditto, Hubpages.

Reassuring conclusion: You can be a total dummy at social networking, as I am, and it won’t hurt your membership site one bit.

Other sources of names #2: Joint Ventures

Once you have a good market reputation, a tested product and (optionally) a big list, you can explore joint ventures (JVs) with other site owners in your niche.

I’ve had excellent results when promoting somebody else’s non-competing program to my list, and, in return, they’ve promoted my program to their list.

No money changes hands. There’s no risk. Results on both sides are easily tracked. If both your lists are of the same size and quality — and you can trust each other to play fair — it’s a win-win.

Highly recommended.

I’m less sure about complex deals that involve a site owner promoting one’s program to their list in return for a financial commission. I ran two such JVs. They were profitable but, in retrospect, not worth the hassle.

Such deals are simple to set up if you sell a digital product for a one-time payment. Subscription services are more problematic — for example, how do you agree on a commission? I gave my JV partner the first month’s commission from every subscriber gained from their list who stayed with me past the free trial period.

That worked. But it was difficult to administer. Software programs exist that can automate JV commissions, but they’re not worth exploring until your list is vast.

Affiliate programs. Never tried them. Never wanted to.


Using the techniques above, I have now built a money machine that yields me a six-figure annual income, and 95% of it looks after itself. But it took me four years of pain and error.

If I were to start again, I’d invest my time in a massive program of guest posting. I’d also run low-cost text ads, testing as I went, in selected newsletters in my niche.

As my list grew, I’d phase out the guest posts, continue with the ads and make sure I ran a great post on my blog every week — to keep my list happy and bring in magpies via organic search.

Could I do it all again — in, say, two years — starting from scratch? Perhaps. And maybe you could too. But with three provisos:

  1. Your program must be good. It should meet a genuine market need. And be a great value for money. (So it brings you few complaints or refund requests.)
  2. You run it totally ethically from day one. Shortcuts don’t work. The real profits lie in the after-market — the revenues that roll in from happy subscribers year after year after year. Only ethical businesses survive beyond their first year.
  3. You love what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’ll burn out.

Good luck!

About the Author: John Yeoman was the founder of Writers’ Village, and a much-loved member of Serious Bloggers Only. Sadly, he passed away earlier this month. If you knew John and would like to leave a comment please do so below, or leave a note for his family on his Facebook page.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

7-Eleven, Slurpee Drones, and What It Means to Turn Your Company Around

For years, I stopped going to 7-Eleven. I’m guessing it was likely almost a decade. Heck, once I realized how much sugar a Slurpee had in it, and what it was doing to my waistline, I literally had no reason to go to the convenience store, especially with newer, better options like Sheetz, WaWa, and…

The post 7-Eleven, Slurpee Drones, and What It Means to Turn Your Company Around appeared first on The Sales Lion by Marcus Sheridan.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Most Popular Social Networks With Enterprise Marketers

Marketers at large companies say Facebook is both the most used social network by their businesses and also the most effective one for engaging audiences, according to a recent report from Clutch. Read the full article at MarketingProfs


How to Run Your First Webinar (with No Skills, No Stress and No Budget)

It’s just too scary, isn’t it?

You see all those fancy schmantzy bloggers offering webinars.

And everyone and their cat is queuing up to watch them.

They have the authority; they get the attention.

Yes, I bet it’s crossed your mind to do it too.

After all, webinars are supposed to be the hottest thing on the Net.

But to run a webinar yourself? It’s just too damn scary.

There’s the huge cost.  And how to even start creating a webinar, let alone broadcast it?

It’s beyond the reach of a blogger like you, right?

I’m here to tell you something: the world of webinars has changed.

It’s now affordable. It’s easy. You can do it.

In fact, you should do it.

Here’s why…

Why Serious Bloggers Love Webinars (Even if They Don’t Have Anything to Sell)

If you blog about any topic that more than a handful of people care about, you’ll be up against fierce competition.

Many bloggers will be fighting for the attention of your audience, and from the outside looking in, little will distinguish you from them.

Rise above the mass of wannabe bloggers.

So if you want to rise above the mass of wannabe bloggers, running webinars is a savvy option. Here are the benefits:

  • You transform your ideas into events. As the experienced blogger Chris Garrett says: You get the opportunity to create a sense of event around your ideas, value and information.
  • You forge a unique bond with your readers. Watching you on live camera is the next best thing to seeing you in person. Not only can they see you, but they can also interact with you. And in the future when they read your content, they’ll hear your voice.
  • You become an authority. When you appear as a presenter and give value to your readers, you create fans who respect you as an authority.
  • You increase your blog traffic. Online events, like webinars, are like magnets. They attract traffic and generate new subscriptions.
  • You can earn a little money. If you review, promote, or talk about a product in a webinar, you can make sales and earn income.

But if webinars are so damn sexy, why don’t more bloggers use them?

The honest truth?

Because they’re scared.

Why Most Bloggers Are Scared Witless by Webinars

Let’s face it.

Running a webinar sounds daunting.

The technology seems like a scary challenge.

And then there are those embarrassing glitches you hear about…

Like the guy who talked for thirty minutes before noticing that people could hear zilch.

Or the trolls who stalk webinars and disrupt presentations.

Shit happens, but most problems are avoidable.

Bottom line: you have to practice before you go live.

Shit happens, but... most problems are avoidable.

Unfortunately, I headed into my first webinar ever with the attitude, “I haven’t got time to practice, but, hey, it can’t be so difficult!”

The webinar ended in chaos. Here’s what went down…

It was in 2009. Leo Babauta and I had just created a blogger training course, called  A-List Blogging, and we decided to run a webinar as part of our launch.

The software we used at the time allowed us to appear live on camera. It looked easy, so I didn’t bother to practice.

The plan was that I would start the webinar and Leo would appear after my introduction.

We agreed to meet up as presenters in the software’s “green room” a few minutes before kickoff.

But Leo was nowhere to be seen.

I waited a few minutes and then started the webinar without him.

I was rattled.

After a little while, I said to the participants:

“Er… sorry, folks, I seem to have mislaid Leo.”

“WHAT!?” The chat-box erupted with questions.

It wasn’t a good moment.

Suddenly, a few lines appeared in the chat box, written by Leo. He couldn’t get into the system as a presenter so he entered as a participant to let everyone know he was locked out.

I soldiered on.

Now and then, Leo popped up in the chat to say he was still trying to get in.

The participants got involved:

“Leo, REBOOT!”

“Mary, has Leo got the right password?”


Leo never managed to show — and the webinar slowly slid into chaos.

And when I think about it today, I still feel a little sick.

Since that time, I’ve learned how to run goof-proof webinars.

And I’ll tell you exactly what you need to know to run successful online events.

But first, let’s consider what content to choose for a webinar.

How to Choose a Webinar Topic Your Readers Can’t Resist

Most people are busy, and leisure time is in short supply. So if your webinar topic is boring as bat’s piss, they’ll chill out with funny cat videos on YouTube instead.

To get your readers to watch, you must wow them with a topic that’s as satisfying as placing the final piece in a puzzle.

But how to pick the right topic?

Hidden in your blog are two sources of fail-safe webinar topics: your list of popular posts, and the list of keywords that lead readers to your site.

Find your hidden sources of fail-safe webinar topics.

Take a look at your ten most popular posts and think about repurposing them as a webinar.

For example, on my blog, three of the ten most popular posts are hot contenders for webinars, How to Write Better: 7 Instant Fixes, 201 Ways to Arouse  Your Creativity, and How to Finish What You Start: A Five-Step Plan for Writers.

I’m sure you can imagine how these topics would lend themselves as content for a webinar. In fact, 201 Ways to Arouse your Creativity could be transformed into a whole series of webinars!

A webinar is an opportunity to drill down into the topic of a popular post. It’s your chance to expand what you wrote, give detailed suggestions, offer examples, and discuss questions.

The second source of content for success-prone webinars are the keywords people use to find your blog. If you have Jetpack installed, you can find them in the Site Stats section, or you can look in Google Analytics (under Acquisition > Keywords > Organic).

For example, the following keywords brought readers to Write to Done on a recent day:

Things to write about

Sexs (yes, written like that!)

Writing dialogue

How to write better

How to be a writer

… And the list goes on and on.

Apart from the second keyword [YIKES], all the others would be great starting points for creating webinar content.

But what about your blog?

What keywords do people type in to find you?

Once you’ve picked your topic, you’ll be itching to create content right away.

However, I suggest holding off until you get a tight grip on the technical aspects of running a webinar. Creating content is much easier once you understand your webinar basics.

How to Run Webinars Like a Pro (Without Spending a Dime)

With the advent of Google Hangouts on Air, it’s possible to run webinars for free. And you can accommodate unlimited participants!

It can be a little tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing, but this post will give you all the information you need for a confident start.

(When it’s time to scale up your webinars, you can buy some cool webinar software that integrates with Google Hangouts on Air, such as WebinarJam (aff) or Easy Webinar Plugin (aff). They offer additional functions, like integration with autoresponders, having the option of more than one presenter, using high-converting registration pages, and so on. However, you have to shell out at least $297 for either of these two solutions.)

Run your webinars with the confidence of a pro!

Here is how to set up and run a webinar on Google Hangouts on Air.

Hangouts on Air integrates with YouTube, and your webinar will be streamed out live on your YouTube account.

To run Google Hangouts on Air (HOA), you need to connect your Gmail account with Google Plus and YouTube.

If you don’t already have a Gmail account, set one up here.

Actually, set up a second Gmail account as well. You can use this account to test your HOA webinars.

Go through the following setup steps both for your main Gmail account and for your test account. You need to …

Tip: In order to run webinars that are longer than fifteen minutes, you need to increase your time limit on YouTube by verifying your account.

Congratulations, you’ve now got the technical setup complete!

Now it’s time to get cozy with running a webinar. And there’s only one way to get confident: practice!

How to Make Sure Your First Webinar Runs Without a Hitch

You need to practice thoroughly before you run a public webinar.

Think of your training as having four stages.

Stage 1: Get to grips with Google Hangouts

They’re very similar to Hangouts on Air but are not streamed out live so you can keep your early efforts private.

You can practice on your own or invite a small group of friends to join you.

Here’s how to start a Hangout.

Go to your Google+ homepage, moving the cursor over the Home menu on the top, left-hand side to see the drop-down options. Click on Hangouts.

Google Hangouts

On the next page, click the Visit button.

Visit Google Hangouts

From there, practice using the various tools, apps, and icons.

Practice before going public.

You might also like to try creating some basic slides using PowerPoint or the SlideShare app on Google Drive.

Note: if you want to present a slideshow in your webinar, make sure your slides show up in a separate window. (Click here to find out more about crucial settings).

Stage 2: Learn how to set up an Event on Google+

Tip: use your test Gmail account to practice setting up events.

First, click on Events in the same drop-down sidebar menu as before, or click on Event in the share bar.

How to set up an event on Google+

You can find step-by-step instructions on how to set up a Google Event here.

Stage 3: Practice starting a Hangout on Air

You can start a Hangout on Air either from your Google+ home page, or from your YouTube account.

I find it easier to start from YouTube.  

First, click on the Upload button.

Start a Hangout Air from YouTube

From there, you’ll see an option for starting a Hangout on Air.

Broadcast HOA

You can find out exactly how to do it here.

Stage 4: Bring it all together and create a test webinar

Now you’ll integrate what you’ve practiced so far.

Use the following steps:

  • Set up an Event on Google+.
  • Send an invitation to yourself at your second email account.
  • Schedule the event 30 minutes ahead.
  • Start the Hangout on Air by going to your YouTube account.

Give your Hangout on Air the same name as the event you created.

Once your HOA is set up, you’ll need to grab the embed code for your blog page, as well as the link for your Google+ page.

You can find the Links icon at the bottom right-hand corner of your HOA.

Grab the Google HOA embed code

When you embed the YouTube code in the Text Editor of your blog page, I suggest changing the size to “640” width and “360” height to make the video bigger.

The YouTube Page link needs to be placed in the Events section on Google+.

Click on your event and select Edit Event.  From the Event Options button, select Advanced and then, Show more options to reveal the YouTube input field.

Embed the YouTube HOA link.

Once you’ve embedded the code in a draft page of your blog and have inserted the link on the Google+ Event page, your webinar is ready to be broadcast.

Click on the green Start Broadcast button on your HOA to make your webinar go live.

You can download an essential report on how to troubleshoot webinars using Hangouts on Air. Grab it here (it’s free).

Now that you’ve come to grips with the technical side of webinars, let’s get creative and give shape to your content.

How to Design a Webinar to Engage Your Audience from Beginning to End

For killer webinars, the classic three-act structure works best.

The first act is the introduction which includes your story of why you’re passionate about the topic. The second act is the main presentation, and the third act is the question and answer session.

Here is my blueprint for forty-minute webinars:

  • 5 minutes for the introduction and personal story
  • 25 minutes for the main presentation
  • 10 minutes for the Q&A

A key part of your main presentation is the last five-minute stretch. Always end with a call to action. If your webinar is educational or inspirational, suggest one simple action your viewers can do today.

And make sure you know what’s in it for you too. Ask them to sign up for your email list or like your Facebook page.

If you’re using your webinar to sell a product, use the last five minutes before the Q&A to explain how the product solves a problem you’ve been talking about, and encourage people to buy it now.

Blueprint for a killer webinar.

Here’s the process of creating a webinar.

First, create a rough outline of the introduction and the main presentation with headings, subheadings, and bullet points.

Next, decide on an approximate length of each section so that you can work out how many slides you need — five slides per minute is about right.

In order to create slides, you need some presentation software. Depending on whether you have a PC or a Mac, you can use PowerPoint or Keynote to create slides.

Another option is to use the Google Slides app, which you can access on Google Drive for free.

A key technical point is that your slide presentation needs to show in a new window. Both PowerPoint and Google Slides have settings for this, but using Keynote is more complicated. I explain more about this (including a work-around for using Keynote) here.

When you create slides, use text only with big bold headlines.

Once you’ve created your slides, you can go back and add images for extra emphasis.

Of course, you’ll be speaking to your audience as you show each slide. You might be tempted to wing it, but write a script to follow. Believe me, you’ll feel more confident if you have the words you want to say in front of you.

How to Make Sure the Camera Loves You (and Your Fans Will Too)

People love seeing their favorite bloggers live on camera because they feel connected in a way that’s difficult with writing alone.

But most of us don’t like how we look on camera. However, the truth is that talking, smiling, laughing — even making mistakes — on camera endears us to our readers.

You don’t need a “TV-face” to be successful, but you do need to know something about the psychology of relating to your viewers on video.

The key factor is camera placement. The camera needs to line up exactly with your eye-height.

Here’s why.

If the camera is below your eye height, attendees will get the feeling that you are “talking down” to them.

On the other hand, if the camera is above your eye height, attendees sense that you’re looking up to them and lack authority.

So line up the camera exactly with your eyes.

Connect on camera - your readers will love it.

If you’re using a web-camera on your computer or laptop, you may have to balance it on a stack of books or adjust the height of your seat to achieve the right height.

One of the advantages of systems that use Google Hangouts on Air is that you can choose between appearing live on camera and showing slide presentations. This also means you don’t have to be on camera every second of the webinar.

For example, you can start live on camera, then follow on with your slide presentation and appear live on camera again for the question and answer session.

So now that you’ve created your webinar, it’s time to let people know about it. After all, you want your fans to show up for your online event.

How to Create Irresistible Buzz for Your Webinar that Gets People Queuing Round the Block

You can create a great webinar. But what if nobody watches it?

The best way to create buzz around your event is to treat the lead-up like a mini-launch:

  • Get participants to register for your event. It’s a good idea to set up a special email list with a corresponding signup form to use for registrations. You can do this easily if you’re using an autoresponder service like Aweber (aff) or Mailchimp. You can create an automatic response that gives them the URL of the page where you’ll embed your webinar.
  • Write a blog post that gets readers fired up about your webinar topic. You can heighten anticipation by opening up questions in your post and promising to answer them in the upcoming webinar. Place the webinar registration form at the bottom of your post and make a point of asking people to register.
  • Email your subscriber list. Once you’ve announced the webinar on your blog, send out a series of emails reminding the people on your main list to register. In his ebook, The Ultimate Webinar Marketing Guide, (aff) Lewis Howes suggests sending out a sequence of three emails as a mini-launch. The first email could go out a week before the webinar, the second one four days prior, and the last one on the day before the webinar.
  • Use social media to keep the buzz going. Don’t forget to use social media to let people know about the webinar. And reach out to other bloggers to let them know about the event too.

Build some buzz so people line up to watch.

Another fantastic way to build buzz is to write a guest post on a popular blog covering a related topic and announce your webinar in the author byline. This takes some effort and planning but could have a huge impact on the number of attendees.

In general, you can expect about 25 percent of those who have registered to actually attend. To boost that number, send out an email just before you start the webinar to people who’ve registered.

It’s Time to Join the Ranks of the Webinar Pros

If you’re serious about becoming an authority; and want more traffic and subscribers, webinars are an opportunity you can no longer ignore.

You might think webinars are scary and costly, but the arrival of Google Hangouts on Air means that with a little practice you can run slick, successful webinars at zero cost.

But the big question is: will you take action?

Because let’s face it, most people don’t; taking action requires grit.

So they stay hidden in the background, just another wannabe blogger who’s too meek to truly connect with their audience.

But that’s not you, right?

Because you’ll take the steps laid out in this post and put them into action.

You know this is your chance to finally rise above the mass of wannabe bloggers.

So grab it.

Use it.

Enjoy the attention and become a true authority!

About the Author: Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at — where you can grab a copy of her free report, How to Create an Irresistible Lead Magnet in Less Than 5 Hours. In her “spare” time, Mary’s also the brains behind and, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 4th Degree Black Belt.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

9 Essential Books That Will Transform Your Writing Forever

Admit it.

You have several half-read writing books stacked up on your nightstand, several more squirreled away in a desk drawer and a dozen more on your Amazon wish list.

You scrutinize all the books that “customers also bought” looking for those one-of-a-kind books that will transform you into a great writer. You jump “inside the book” to read the table of contents and credits and page through the free preview.

Searching for the magic formula.

The formula that will erase the silent self-doubt. The nagging thought that you’re not quite good enough as a writer.

Books have an uncanny power to teach us, to transport us, to move us light years beyond our ordinary lives. If we could only find the right books, the tried-and-true books written by trusted masters. So we keep looking.

And once in a while you find a writing book that speaks to your heart and gets to the core of what you’re struggling with right now. It changes you. It changes your writing. It changes your life.

Because mastering the craft of writing depends upon your continuing education as a writer. It means you regularly upgrade and fine-tune your skills.

The 3 Critical Disciplines You Need to Develop as a Writer

1. Brutal Honesty

First, you need to cultivate a brutal, raw honesty. You need to accept that not every word, every emotional thought, every adjective-loaded sentence that flows from your hot fingertips is precious.

I mentored many rookie reporters who had a cocky, almost swaggering pride at where their writing skills landed them out of college. A few weeks in a newsroom with a couple of crusty copyeditors exploded that attitude. Then, they were ready to listen.

Objectively, unemotionally and dispassionately analyzing your writing is one of the most valuable skills you can develop to further your writing opportunities. And as a side benefit, you’ll also be able to handle scathing criticism from ruthless editors.

2. Linguistic Appreciation

Secondly, you need to develop an ear and eye for the flow of language.

Good writing has a rhythm, that deliberate cadence the writer creates in your mind as you read. Marvel at the perfectly placed and exquisitely balanced use of illusion, surprise and metaphor, and crave to imitate it.

Because if you don’t learn to appreciate the music and poetry in other writers’ work, you’ll never cultivate it in your own.

3. Insatiable Curiosity

Thirdly, you have an insatiable desire to learn anything and everything to improve your writing, the openness to accept constructive criticism and the commitment to sit with your bloated prose and edit until it sparkles.

Yes, writing is a solitary craft. And learning to improve our writing can feel like solitary confinement without guidance and reassurance. We can learn from teachers, from workshops, from books, but ultimately success is up to us, alone with our notepad or laptop.

The 3 Types of Books You Need to Grow as a Writer

There are three broad types of books about writing:

  • Books that teach the mechanics of language – style, grammar, editing, etc.
  • Books that teach structure – how to structure your thinking, your frame of mind and approach, and structure a story or other particular literary form.
  • Books about being a writer – how to navigate the unique inner life of a writer.

Of course, most writing books will touch upon each type of writing advice. But to improve your writing skills in the fastest and most effective way, you must understand what you need to grow as a writer right now and choose the appropriate book to help.

The 3 Stages of Writer Development (and What to Read Based on Where You’re At)

We have writers of all levels of experience and ability reading Smart Blogger and in our GuestBlogging training program and Serious Bloggers Only community. They typically describe themselves in one of three stages:

1. The Novice Writer

You’re a brand-new writer who felt an inner switch flip on, and now a river of ideas is pouring out of your head. You know your writing needs work – lots of work – but you are compelled to keep writing because you feel powerless to staunch the flow. And even if you could stop, you wouldn’t want to.

What to read: Ideally, you should be reading both books on mechanics and structure. But the books on the mechanics of language will likely bore you to death right now. It’s far better for you to learn structure and good thinking habits early, and work on the mechanics later.

Think of it from an editor’s point of view: A poorly written but well-structured piece of writing can be polished. A poorly structured and poorly written piece is a nightmare, and rarely worth the editing effort it demands. The writer doesn’t understand his topic, hasn’t thought it through with clarity and is clueless on how to engage the reader.

2. The Competent Writer

You’re a decent writer and have lots of ideas, but you often aren’t sure where to begin. If you’re honest with yourself, your writing is okay with occasional stellar moments.

What to read: Start with books on approach and structure that will help you think through your ideas before you put them on the page. Often, with good writers, the best writing happens in your head before you even jot down a sentence.

If you’ve been writing in a certain style or format for a while — such as blog posts — cross train in another genre. (More on this later.) Study the structure of screenwriting, novel writing or poetry for six months or until it feels nearly second nature to shift into this new form. The change in your writing will be dramatic and permanent.

Once you’ve improved structure and approach, pick one or two mechanical fixes to work on as you rewrite and edit with your new eyes.

3. The Seasoned Writer

You’ve written a lot for a long time and have the mechanics mastered. But your writing experience has been centered in business, academia, medicine, law or other utilitarian venues. You’re ready to write fiction, or use the life lessons you’ve learned to help others through your blog, but you’re struggling to share your own ideas in your own voice. You recognize that your writing is solid, but it lacks warmth and sparkle.

What to read: Immerse yourself in books about being a writer and the writer’s life. Leisurely read some writer memoirs, and you’ll be startled by how similar your doubts and struggles are. Try on a few silly new rituals, like writing poetry by candlelight or stream-of-conscious journaling in the pre-dawn hours to change up your point of view.

How to Know Exactly Which Books to Read First

Before we dive into our list of essential books, let’s talk briefly about the best way to use it.

If one of these writing stages resonated strongly with you, jump down to our favorites in the three categories below and start there. If you’ve already read our favorites, you might want to read them again with a fresh mind and notebook handy.

If you don’t feel you fit neatly in one of those stages, grab the book that excites you the most, right now, as you read about it here. The one that jumps up and gently taps you on the cheek like a hungry cat to get your attention.

Start there and take the time to import the ideas and exercises into your current writing immediately. Thinking about it won’t make it so; you must put these concepts into practice. Even 30 minutes a day will make a noticeable difference in a short time.

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
— Mary Heaton Vorse

The Only 9 Books on Writing You’ll Ever Need

Think about this: in the next hour, you have the ability at your fingertips to tap into the world’s best books on writing and begin the next stage of your transformation – if you’re willing to make the commitment of time.

The following books will make the difference, and each is around $10 on Kindle or less, so download and begin.

Books on Mechanics of the Language

*On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Favorite: Best book on the mechanics of the language

On Writing WellI was fortunate to find On Writing Well while I was working at my first newspaper and realized my editors, excellent grammarians all, could not teach me anything more about significantly improving my writing. This one book changed the trajectory of my career as a journalist from a mediocre, but promising, community reporter at a large twice-weekly paper to an international business reporter at a respected metropolitan business paper.

Originally published in 1976, Zinsser’s tips on mechanics, structure and thinking have stood the test of time for generations of writers of all kinds. His principles are equally sound for today’s bloggers, fiction and non-fiction writers and any kind of digital publisher.

Categories: Primarily mechanics but interwoven with thinking and structure

What’s in it for bloggers: If you read only one book on improving the structure and mechanics of language, make it this one. An added benefit: You’ll learn a lot from Zinsser’s easy, conversational writing voice that you can apply to your own blog.

Buy this book on

Books on Structure and Frame of Mind

*Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder

Favorite: Best Book on Structure

Save the CatSave the Cat is essentially a formula book, focused on the structure of screenplays. It’s similar to Story Engineering (below) in that it explains the structure and elements of a screenplay, but is more approachable. Think of it as an introductory college course that teaches you the basics.

You’ll learn the main story archetypes, how to structure a good screenplay, and more subtle techniques like how to create a character the audience loves almost immediately.

One of Jon’s favorite writing books, you’ll be able to write a decent screenplay with Save the Cat if that’s your goal. He calls it “Headline Hacks for storytelling – fill in the blanks.”

Categories: Primarily structure and formula

What’s in it for bloggers: A blog is a performance and you’re the main character. Learn how to make an audience fall in love with you.

Buy this book on

Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks

Story Engineering - Larry BrooksCompelling stories are the undercurrent that propels successful writers and bloggers of all kinds. Whether you are writing blog posts, e-books, magazine articles or novels, having the skills to deftly tell a story will make you both memorable and in-demand as a writer.

Story Engineering is like a master class in storytelling and novel writing. It focuses deeply on the six core elements – or competencies – of successful storytelling, screenplays and novels. An intense, comprehensive book, Story Engineering can help bring your writing to a professional level if you read and consistently apply the concepts in this book.

Categories: Heavy on structure

What’s in it for bloggers: You can master the structure of a good story with this book, whatever topic, niche or length you write. And get all your questions answered about storytelling in one place. It’s worth the time and effort.

Buy this book on

Naked, Drunk and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay, by Adair Lara

Naked Drunk and Writing - Adair LaraWhile at first glance this book looks like it has nothing to do with blogging, learning how to craft a compelling personal essay is the essence of what most bloggers struggle with today. Whether or not you realize it, you are parading yourself naked and drunk every time you hit “publish” in WordPress.

Naked and Drunk is about two-thirds biographical and about one-third writing lessons. It weaves together Lara’s personal stories with lessons on how to structure a memoir with lessons and language mechanics.

This is the book you also want to read if you want to learn to effectively tell your own story. But don’t read it first.

You need to understand the elements of crafting a good story to fully appreciate and benefit from the lessons in Naked and Drunk. Read it after the storytelling books. Read it after you read Save the Cat.

Categories: Primarily structure with some mechanics

What’s in it for bloggers: You’ll discover how to see beyond the label “blogger” and craft your story to touch the lives of readers.

Buy this book on

How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling, by James N. Frey

How to Write a Damn Good Novel - James FreyDamn Good Novel is similar to Save the Cat in that it offers a structure and formula for constructing a novel, but it’s filled with more principles of good writing and examples of excellent storytelling.

If you haven’t figured out by now, structure and storytelling are critical skills to becoming a successful, or even merely competent, writer. The more you can learn about storytelling in all its forms, fiction or non-fiction, short or long, the more tools you have in your writer’s tool box.

With tens of thousands of new blogs created every day, according to, compelling storytelling is the one proven method of setting your writing apart from the masses.

Categories: Primarily structure and storytelling

What’s in it for bloggers: This is cross training in storytelling. Don’t guess, don’t try to make it up and don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. Learn it; then make it work for you.

Buy this book on

*CA$HVERTISING: How to Use More than 100 Secrets of Ad-Agency Psychology to Make Big Money Selling Anything to Anyone, by Drew Eric Whitman

Ca$shvertising - Drew Eric WhitmanTitle turn you off? Too money-grabbing for you? Skip this copywriting book at your blogging peril.

Face it: Successful blogging is persuasive writing in another suit of clothes. It doesn’t even matter if you want to make money from your blog or not. You need to connect with people (through stories) and persuade them you have a message worth reading or products worth buying (through copywriting).

Jon recommends this book for most bloggers because it has the most modern approach and best summary of the key points covered in the fundamental copywriting books.

Categories: Structure and using the mechanics of language

What’s in it for bloggers: Whether you’re a beginner or more experienced writer, take the time to learn what successful bloggers know about using psychology in your writing. At least, it will open your eyes to how you respond to the persuasive writing all around you without even knowing it.

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Books on Being a Writer

*On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Favorite: Best book on being a writer

On Writing - Stephen KingEven if you’ve never read any of King’s gory thrillers, read this book. Then reread it at least once a year.

Very much a memoir, King uses stories of his wild childhood to illustrate the making of a writer. Besides memorable stories, you’ll get insight into structure, key takeaways on mechanics and his opinions on what’s important to writing and writers. You get to peer inside his head and see how his mind formulates those bizarre ideas and crafts unworldly plots. You’ll be both awed and inspired to suddenly see story elements all around you.

Categories: Primarily writing life with frame of mind and structure insight

What’s in it for bloggers: The craft of storytelling to engage readers and keep them coming back for more (from the author of more than 50 worldwide bestsellers), and how to constantly think about what your readers are thinking so you can crawl inside their heads and freak them out.

Buy this book on

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird - Anne LamottLamott’s small book may be one of the best-loved on how to structure your writing frame of mind and the writer’s life. She so adeptly and invisibly reflects her thoughts and experiences back on the reader that you feel an intimate part of her personal stories – a rare and long-acquired storytelling skill.

This is another book to read at least once a year. And along with King’s On Writing, to copy by hand on paper to absorb some of the rhythm, cadence and magic of these classics.

Categories: Being a writer interwoven with frame of mind and approach

What’s in it for bloggers: Lamott could be a role model and idol for bloggers who want to use their personal stories to illustrate fundamental truths about life. You’ll so resonate with her stories, you won’t even notice when she talks about herself.

Buy this book on

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones - Natalie GoldbergGoldberg’s fresh observations will reintroduce you to the wonder, magic, curiosity and excitement that lured you into writing in the first place. Although published nearly 30 years ago, Goldberg would be a hugely popular blogger today if she filled a blog with her Zen-inspired posts on how to be a writer, how to beat procrastination, the beauty of language and how to be focused and spontaneous at the same time.

Back in my newspaper days, I read from the chapter, “Man Eats Car,” when asked to talk to elementary school classes about creative writing. Inspired by Goldberg’s example, I once wrote poems on demand for $1 during a church festival. Children stood there and stared at me, wide-eyed, as I wrote poems on their ideas – ballet, wrestling, the rain – in the pen color of their choice.

Categories: Frame of mind and being a writer

What’s in it for bloggers: If you need something gentle to jar you out of your same-old same-old writing rut and inspire you to see the world with fresh eyes, read this book.

Buy this book on

Read Your Way to Becoming a Better Writer

Your writer’s education is never complete.

And if you stay curious, the world is a generous teacher.

Every day, your mental kaleidoscope is filled with images and impressions you can use to create mesmerizing stories.

Books can bring structure and insight, but the constant search for exactly the right book keeps you from the job at hand – the act of writing.

So call off your search and focus on the nine books mentioned here.

Start by asking yourself a question:

“What do I need as a writer – right now?”

To sharpen the tools of your trade? Grab Zinsser’s book.

To get fresh inspiration on life as a writer? Pick up King, Lamott or Goldberg.

To learn a proven approach to structuring your writing? Read Save the Cat.

That you start is more important than where you start.

So get reading. Pick a book and start.

And then get writing. Because that’s what real writers do.

About the Author: Marsha Stopa is SmartBlogger’s Senior Instructor and Coach. Whether it’s nailing your blog topic or audience, positioning, time management, promotion or monetization, Marsha has coached bloggers in every imaginable niche. If you’re wondering if she can help your blog, drop her a note here with your biggest frustration.