The Secret Sauce of Successful Blogs

secret sauceThe attractiveness of making money from blogging seems to overpower the reality of what this entails.

Fortunately, there are many blogging sites with tactical approaches to starting a blog with the goal of making money. Some are kind enough to supply their income reports as well, giving us more insight to their revenue streams and strategies.

As an avid reader and contributor to the strategic communication industry, I’ve come across my fair share of blogs, ranging from smart and savvy to outdated and dry.

With 2014 in action, it’s commonplace to reflect on the previous year. I thought back to all the sites I’ve learned from and which provided me with the most value.

For this article we’ll see the nuts and bolts:

  • the secret sauce of successful blogs
  • patterns we can act on
  • situational and timeline factors

Community Values

At the core, most successful blogs – or any website – run on the power of community members.

Forums and contributors provide long-term sustainability.

How we create, accept, and manage these community systems directly impacts every aspect of our website.

To execute proper community management we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the contributor and the shoes of a new visitor.

What does a contributor look for?

  • Access to our readers
  • Access to our authority, trust, and ranking
  • Recognition for contributions, in the form of links, referral traffic, and social engagement

What does a reader look for?

  • Content aligned with the promise of the premise; every site promises something in their tagline
  • Fresh ideas, challenges, questions, insights, humor – most of all, a real voice 
  • Signals of quality: comments from other readers, high share counts, active presence in other communities

These are the fundamental values of contributors and readers.

Since we cannot ‘approve’ our readers, we focus on the quality of contributors.

The Risk and Reward of Guest Blogging

We all know how guest blogging works and the general incentives for both the blogger and the site owner.

However, there are layers of vetting that separate a gang of average guest bloggers from a team of great ones.

These layers are easy to overlook, but easy to identify.

Let’s take a look at a couple exemplary guest blogging communities:

Moz Blogs

  • Posts go through a multi-week editing & approval process
  • High quality standards are set upfront
  • Posts have the opportunity to get promoted to the official Moz Blog

The challenges and criteria are clearly laid out for any interested contributor.

The incentives and lottery-ish style of promoted posts make the opportunity very attractive and valuable.

Social Media Examiner

  • Posts go through a multi-week editing & approval process
  • High quality standards are set upfront
  • Posts have extremely high social engagement rates

In turn, these layers of standards and incentives force contributors to work hard on creating something truly unique, timely, and valuable to the community.

Contribution Patterns

In both Moz and SME, there is a lengthy editing and approval process, which sustains the standards of high quality content (as subjective as that may seem).

The incentives are almost carbon copy:

  • High authority/PR, trust, ranking
  • High social engagement
  • Increased exposure and access to readers

The differences arise in topics and formats.

Just as Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll, Rand Fishkin/Moz is the King of SEO education & Michael Stelzner/SME is the King of Social Media Marketing education.

Moz contributor articles often feature an emerging/insightful strategy that was used in the respective contributor’s campaign.

SME contributor articles often describe strategies in a step by step format with screenshots.

Discussions and comments normally commend, challenge, and add insight to these articles.

The system is clear-cut: challenge contributors to go way beyond the monotony of average industry articles.

Increase Subscribers With Relevance

Have you ever taken a second to stop and think about why you subscribed to a blog? I tried to think back to why I’ve signed up for twenty-ish blogs and these are the reasons:

  • An article showed me how to improve one of my daily routines.
  • The contributor/site owner replied to a comment I left
  • The site owner linked/mentioned/commented my blog
  • The site owner directly asked me to subscribe
  • The contributor/site owner asked me to be a part of one of their pieces
  • I’ve put their tips into action multiple times
  • Someone I follow praised their site

Out of all these reasons, I think the best takeaway is how a site cements impressions and expectations.


When we visit a piece of content, we’re riding the bounce model:

bounce model


When we make an informational search or referral click, the anchor text and rich snippets set an initial expectation. This expectation gives us a general idea of what the page should provide us with.

If the page does not satisfy our query, we bounce.

If it does satisfy our query, does it also meet and exceed the expectation? Meaning, does it provide more than the bare minimum answer?

If it does not provide any context, insight, or added-value, our impression and future expectations are of low quality. We’ll immediately bounce in search of something better.

But if it does exceed our expectations, such as a promoted Moz Blog post or tactical SME article, we now expect that level of quality every time.


We should now realize that every layer of our site, such as the editorial process, impacts the quality of impressions on new visitors and the expectations of returning ones.

This is why we see so many articles on how to create “evergreen” or “sticky” content. Personally, I don’t enjoy those instructional articles because they either;

a) assume we have a bottomless marketing & design budget


b) suggest we rehash examples on tier 1 sites.

Instead, as site owners, we should be focusing on creating and efficiently managing a contributor system that fosters a standard of quality we know exceeds initial expectations.

The Power of Social Signals

We’ve covered contributor systems, content quality standards, and new visitor expectations, but let’s take a look at social signals.

When I see an article with hundreds of social shares, that signals a few things to me:

  • Safety: I know I can click around and trust the page .
  • Value: I know lots of people found the article interesting.
  • Success: I know the content achieved its goal.

However, I also know the reality of social shares is skewed. Many sites automate sharing, which dilutes the quality of shares. It makes our jobs easier after hitting publish, but it’s not as effective as manual outreach/promotion.

If we have the time for manual outreach, there are a few sweet tactics that amp up the signal power of our content.

For example, a tweet from an “authority influencer” like Ann Tran signals the content has left a meaningful impression on her. If we value her judgement, just as her 360,000+ followers do, we receive proof similar to seeing a high share count.

And we don’t just have to target authority influencers. If my best friend shares an article on Facebook, there’s a pretty solid chance I’ll click it. In the same vein, if the friends of a blog’s reader-base shares an article, they’ll most likely click it to.

So now we turn our attention to these communities of readers. We segment their community by activity and reach out to the most active users.

Examples include:

  • Mining comments, pingbacks, retweets, reblogs, backlink profiles, hashtags, keywords, and mentions.

Subjective Segmentation

Keep in mind that 99% of best practices in marketing are simply generalizations.

Most influential marketers and consumer behavior analysts, such as Geoffrey Miller and Seth Godin, stress the importance of subjective segmentation.

To put it simply: everyone is different, but most differences can be segmented.

Grab your pixelated shovel, because we’ll be digging through mounds and mounds of analytics data.

Profile groups are created to categorize and measure people based on subjective social signals. Digital marketing tactics are executed to act on our collected data. This is what separates an average site churning out content aligned with ‘best practices’ from a site that creates content based on pain points, reader demands, and social monitoring.

tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

The secret sauce of successful blogs involves creating an efficient and effective contributor management system, setting high quality content expectations, and analytics research for actionable strategies.

Quick Tips – Secret Blend of Digital Spices

Here’s a fire round of the secret sauces of some of my favorite community blogs:

What are some of the secret sauces you’ve un-jarred?

About author View all posts

Jesse Aaron

I'm a blogger, homebrewer, and community manager. Aside from writing, I have a passion for music and design.

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Neat note about too long, did not read Jesse. Keep your readers in mind. I post 4-5 times daily but limit each post to under 600 words. Great post!

    • Thanks for the comment Ryan! Yea, ‘tl;dr’ is a common thing these days, usually found on reddit where thread discussion can get pretty lengthy. But I’ve seen a lot of bloggers starting to use it which is pretty cool! And wow, 4-5 times a day is impressive!

  • I’ve decided to try a different approach in 2014 Jesse when it comes to my blog.

    I think people often associate lots of comments and social shares as defining a popular blog.

    However, it doesn’t necessarily make it a successful blog.

    To me a successful blog not only gets lots of traffic and social shares but it’s also targeted traffic that will convert to sales – whether that be from affiliate promotions or your own products.

    I don’t think having tonnes of comments really comes into it.

    So, for 2014 I’m going to focus on writing and promoting and everything else comes second.

    • That’s a great point Tim. I think every blog has standard of quality and that effects how their content is accepted and shared. With conversion goals pre-determined, I think most blogs (at least in the marketing education niches) can put more emphasis on developing a community of contributors and readers.Generally speaking, priorities are very different for solo bloggers like us versus communities like Entrepreneur, Social Media Examiner, Moz, etc….

  • Ha! I still shake my fist at that blog post that got that many comments. In reality, we see between 100 and 150 comments daily. That was just a whim. But thank you for including us!

    • Haha it was a valiant effort for sure – I think posts like that and discussions on SpinSucks have a real voice that most sites in the strategic communication niche cannot match. It’s refreshing when humor seeps through what can sometimes feel like a dry wall of educational articles. Also, looking forward to Wednesday – I think my guest post on a reddit PR crisis is going live :) Thanks for stopping by Gini, I appreciate it!

      • Yes! I read the post this morning and think it’s very good! Reddit scares me…I’ve stalked the PR subreddits before, but am too scared to jump in.

  • Agree with what Tim said.

    A popular blog isn’t necessarily successful (also depends upon our definition of success). I just launched my new blog and I got great feedback for my first post (but, I don’t consider it as much of an achievement….most of the commenters came to my blog because I commented on theirs – reciprocation).

    There is nothing wrong with the thought (I am sure we could use the content to convince those commenters to become loyal readers…read and comment not just because of reciprocation, but also because they liked what they read).

    For me, the secret sauce is ‘you’ (the writer). The stories and experiences of the writer/blog owners. That’s the main reason why I visit many blogs (even though I am already familiar with many of the tips they present….).

    Anyways, thank you for sharing this, Jesse! (Nice to meet you, btw. Thanks to Tim for directing me here).

    • Thanks for stopping by Jeevan, your insights are very accurate. It’s true, success, beauty – anything really, is in the eye of the beholder (as cliche as that sounds haha). I think popularity has layers. For example, when I see a post by certain social media *experts* I realize that all of the comments are simple “nice post!”. They are popular, but the popularity is of robot-like followers. The popularity of sites like Spin Sucks, Social Media Examiner, Moz, Matthew Woodward has a deeper layer of value, where social engagement impacts their business goals (such as social proof giving us the security to click on an article, where more social proof gives us the security to click on an affiliate link). Also, looks very clean; I’m looking forward to your future posts :)

      • No mention, Jesse :)

        Agreed. I hate it when I see comments like that, especially on popular blogs. But, it is understandable. Most of those folks are brand new bloggers and they don’t have to know about what commenting is and how effective/useful it can be.

        Yes, I am more inclined to participate in a blog with a active community (Even if the author is a successful blogger with eBooks, products and tons of shares, I usually don’t participate if there isn’t an active community on the blog. Although, people who offer services and other products may not necessarily have time to maintain an active community on their blog).

        Thank you :)

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