Each week I am publishing an interview from the book Blog Blazers (in alphabetical order) which can be purchased on Amazon here. The interviews were all done in 2008 and the full list of bloggers interviewed can be found by clicking here.
This week the interview is with Asha Dornfest of Parent Hacks
Asha Dornfest is the founder and publisher of Parent Hacks, a site devoted to parents’ scrappy, real-world tips and product recommendations.
Starting a blog was a natural outgrowth of Asha’s background in writing and technology. Before the Web was in popular use and well before kids, she and her husband Rael started a “Web design” business. In the early 90s, if you knew HTML, you were practically a Web designer by default. From there, Asha went on to write several computer how-to manuals, including “For Dummies” titles about Web publishing.
After her kids were born, her interest and writing inspiration turned to parenting, not because she felt a sense of expertise – in fact, just the opposite. Parenting was the first endeavor Asha undertook in which “reading the manual” had no effect, and, in some cases, made things harder. She started Parent Hacks as a place where parents could find those priceless tidbits of “worked for me” parenting advice one usually stumbled upon by chance – stuff that rarely showed up in the “expert” parenting manuals lining her bookshelves. Along the way, she discovered a generous and smart community of parents all of whom understand that when enough of us throw a bit of wisdom into the pot, it gets easier for all of us.
Asha is the mother of two children (an eight year-old son and a four year-old daughter), and the wife of a charming and brilliant geek. They live in Portland, Oregon.
Steph: What makes a blog successful according to you? Is it traffic, reach, revenue, etc.?
Asha: Traffic, reach, and revenue are all metrics that can be measured so they get a disproportionate amount of attention. They’re important numbers. Absolutely. But even though I’m working on ways to make those numbers grow, I don’t actually think they are the most important indicators of success. Nothing like leading with a cliché, but I’ll do it anyway: a successful blog (or publication or business) improves the lives of its readers. That may mean supplying a time-saving tip, saving readers money, or making them laugh. Whatever…if a blog improves the lives of its readers, they’ll keep coming back, and when they do, the traffic, reach and revenue will follow.
Steph: When did you decide you finally reached success with your blog?
Asha: Reached success? Hmmm, I don’t think success is an end point, really. That said, I’m thrilled with my readers’ level of enthusiasm and involvement. I’ve always enjoyed the role of community facilitator, and I feel like that’s what I’ve become at Parent Hacks. It’s more than a one-way blog…it’s a conversation.
Steph: How long does it take to become a successful blogger?
Asha: There’s no way to quantify the time it takes, although folks in it for the long haul certainly have an advantage. Parent Hacks is one of those unusual cases of a site taking off almost as soon as it launched (disgusting, I know.). I wish I could take all the credit and say that it was my brilliant forethought and subtle design, but serendipity played a big part.
Steph: Who do you think are the most successful bloggers on the internet today?
Asha: My role models are Leo Babauta, J. D. Roth (Getting Rich Slowly) and Merlin Mann (43 Folders). Each writes a highly-engaging blog with a distinctive voice. Each built authoritative blogs because they wanted to improve an aspect of their own lives, and then share what they learned with the world. That generosity comes across in every page. None of these writers rests on the laurels of a “successful site;” they’re always looking for ways to give readers useful, well-written content. While each of these writers earns revenue from their sites, and is open about it, money never feels like the purpose of the blog. The bottom line is almost too simple: I like each of these people a lot.
Steph: Which five blogs do you regularly read?
- Confessions of a Pioneer Woman [hilarious and oddly exotic]
- Cool Mom Picks [stylish and smart]
- Ask Moxie [useful and generous]
- TechCrunch [I can’t help myself]
- Sweet Juniper! [most likely to bring a tear to my eye]
Steph: Which websites would you recommend for any new bloggers starting to blog?
- Problogger [of course]
- Creating Passionate Users [there’s gold in them thar archives]
- Micro Persuasion [super-intelligent commentary on social communication]
- Seth’s Blog [because everyone should read Seth Godin]
Steph: Which book(s) would you recommend for new bloggers (these can range from marketing books, blogging books, etc.)?
Asha: I find that books on blogging generally lag too far behind the info available online. On the other hand, marketing books, with Seth Godin’s books standing out in particular, are good reminders that our blogs are, indeed, worthy of great content AND good promotion.
Steph: What is your most successful blog post ever?
Asha: Hard to judge, really. The post I’m most proud of is the one in which I shared the story of an American grandmother stationed in Iraq who collected toys and distributed them to children she met there. I encouraged Parent Hacks readers, along with all the bloggers I knew, to spread the word and donate toys, and we managed to create an incredible toy drive. People were so happy to be able to do something positive in the face of a terrible situation.
Steph: What’s your biggest tip on writing a successful blog post?
Asha: Economical writing. Follow those journalism rules — lead with a strong hook, and only write as much as you need to. But don’t make it so sparse that it feels impersonal. Readers should never wonder if there’s a person behind the blog. Bonus tip: if you’re funny, use humor. If you’re not (be honest), stick to useful.
Steph: What’s your best advice in regards to content and writing for bloggers?
Asha: Good writing counts. Connect with your readers.
Steph: How important do you think are the headlines of your blog articles?
Asha: Exceedingly important, both for time-challenged RSS subscribers and for a good showing in search engines.
Steph: Do you spend any money and time on marketing?
Asha: No money (except a few hundred bucks on business cards and a great logo), but I should spend more time. I’ve really focused on community-building rather than on expanding the audience.
Steph: What are your main methods of marketing your blog?
Asha: These would be my main methods if I spent the time I should on marketing: reaching out to print pubs, swapping posts with other sites, and just reaching out to people whose work I admire — that’s something I do naturally because I’m so interested in how people do things. I toy with working the Diggs and Facebooks of the world, but I never stick with it.
Steph: Which marketing tactic has surprised you the most in terms of its effectiveness?
Asha: One thing I’m terrible at is analyzing my stats and testing my site improvements. As soon as people start asking me these sorts of questions I start stuttering. The quality that has likely made Parent Hacks as successful as it is — my focus on content and community — may bite me down the road, because I don’t do anything with the pile of Google Analytics data I’ve got right in front of me.
Steph: What are your quick and short five best tips for blogging?
- Read Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.”
- Open your eyes to the world…soon you’ll be following every observation with “I’ve got to blog about this.”
- Email your readers. If you don’t have any, email writers you admire (briefly, they’re busy). Jump in!
- Don’t neglect your life offline.
- Get your own domain name.
Steph: What is the most common pitfall new bloggers generally fall into?
Asha: Trying to affect a cynical, snarky blog persona. I can’t STAND authors who throw around the negativity in an effort to appear intelligent or edgy. Come to think of it, I don’t like people who do that in real life, either.
Steph: If you knew what you know now when you first started, what’s the one biggest tip you’d give yourself today?
Asha: Get help.
Steph: What repels you the most from a blog (animations, in your face advertising, etc.)?
Asha: Bad writing.
Steph: Do you make any direct money from your blog through advertising, product placements, etc.?
Asha: Yep. Advertising (through Federated Media, Google AdSense and Feedburner) and Amazon Associates affiliate fees.
Steph: What is your best monetization method (Ads, affiliate marketing, etc.)?
Asha: Depends on the time of year, but my Amazon earnings have had the biggest growth curve.
Steph: Do you find you get more from direct monetization of your blog or from opportunities that come because of the existence of your blog?
Asha: I’ve gotten lots of offers (paid blogging jobs, book projects, etc.) as a result of my blogging, but I’ve turned almost all of them down in order to focus on my site.
Steph: What’s your most interesting story related to your blog and blogging experience?
Asha: Once again, the Iraq toy drive that happened as a result of a Parent Hacks post. It is so humbling to think that there are little children in Iraq, many of whom are orphans, that have toys, clothes and supplies as a result of my spending a couple of hours writing a post and emailing people from the comfort of my dining room. I don’t relate this story to pump up my self-importance, but to point out the amazing connective power blogs can have.
Steph: What’s the one biggest opportunity that came to you because of your blog?
Asha: The chance to collaborate on a book with one of the most well-respected pediatricians in the country.
Steph: Any other comments or thoughts you’d like to share?
Asha: I just want to thank you for including me in this fascinating project! I can’t wait to hear what your other interviewees have to say. I still have so much to learn.
Oh — one last rah-rah. I just want to encourage folks who want to write anything to start blogging. For us extroverted writers, the isolation that comes with writing is often the most difficult part. While blogging still happens behind a computer, it thrusts you into a fascinating community of people, many of whom may even become friends.