The Power of Your Blog’s Hidden Community and How to Find It

by Marcus Sheridan

hidden blog communityI’ve talked about “community” many, many times here on The Sales Lion. It’s a subject that fascinates me and frankly it’s a subject that continues to develop in my mind each and every day.

Understanding “Blog Community”…and What it Really Means

When I started this blog 3 years ago, the thought of getting comments on a post was magical. The idea that someone would come to my website, read my stuff, and then actually feel prompted to leave their own words was purely exhilarating. But for a long time, almost no one did.

In other words, for the first 6-12 months of blogging here and pouring my heart and soul into this blog, I didn’t sense I’d developed much of a community at all, which was a tough thing to deal with.

After about a year of writing, I shifted my thoughts and actions towards networking. I built up relationships with other bloggers. I commented often on other posts. I worked very hard to serve others.

All of these actions paid off, and the comments started rolling in. The “community” started building, and I was happy…at least for a time.

Something was missing

But even though I would often get dozens, if not hundreds of comments per post, I began to feel a lack of true community in one main regard—I started The Sales Lion to help marketers and business owners—big and small—to overcome their trials and struggles in this information and digital age.

And for the most part, I never heard much from those people. Most of my comments were from other bloggers doing similar things to me. I appreciated (and still very much do) all of those comments and all of their support, but I also realized that I didn’t seem to be talking to my hard-core end users—the business owners, entrepreneurs, and marketers that I really wanted to be touching, teaching, and helping.

As I was going through this struggle, I began reading more and more about the sacred “list.” People like Pat Flynn and Derek Halpern were always mentioning the power behind this “list” and what we could do as businesses and bloggers to build said list.

The “List” is born

After much contemplation on this subject, in November of last year I published my 230-page eBook, Inbound and Content Marketing Made Easy, and used it as the means whereby I would start my email list—one that would receive my bi-weekly newsletter—and one that I would now start a relationship with on a “different” level than my regular blog rss/email subscribers.

To put it mildly, publishing that eBook and starting The Sales Lion newsletter was the best thing I’ve ever done on this blog during its 3 year existence. Not only did more people subscribe to my newsletter in 6 months than had subscribed to my regular blog in 3 years (we’ll talk a lot about this another day), but I also discovered something to me that was utterly magical—I had a massive, untapped community just waiting to chat with me, if I would only give them the right means for doing so.

I came to this conclusion based on many events, but here are 3 of the most telling experiences I’ve had:

1. When anyone subscribes to my newsletter and downloads the eBook, they get an automatic reply email that asks one simple question: What is your biggest struggle with inbound and content marketing?

Now, every single day, business owners and marketers all over the world are replying to this question and telling me their specific struggles with a subject that I’m absolutely passionate about. In fact, so many of these emails was I getting that I decided to start  my Mad Marketing w/The Sales Lion Podcast—all for the sole purpose of answering these amazing questions/concerns of real people and businesses around the globe.

2. As those of you who read my newsletter know, I like to ask questions, usually one, at the end of the posts. In one of these newsletters, I told readers that if they sent me the URL of their company’s website, I’d give some quick feedback as to the inbound/content marketing suggestions I had. Little did I know it would take me 8 hours of diligent focus to answer the dozens and dozens of emails and comments that came from this one simple question. And although the work and time investment was significant, I was developing a sense for my community, and end user, as I’d never seen before.

3. A few weeks ago I asked my newsletter list another simple question: If I did a free webinar on “How to Become a Thought Leader in Your Niche,” who would attend?

Literally, within 30 minutes of firing off this email, I had over 100 responses from readers expressing their excitement, and need, for such a webinar (which is in the works btw, so stay tuned). In fact, still to this day I’m getting emails from folks talking about their sincere desire to become a thought-leader in their field, and how to make said desire become a reality.

Personal Questions, Personal Responses

I’m sure you can notice a pattern behind these 3 powerful events. Each one involved a simple question—a question that allowed for a simple answer.

But here is the thing about your “list:” Although some folks never answer your questions at all, and although some may leave incredibly quick responses, others will definitively take the time to open up and chat. Simply put, they’re looking for someone to talk to. They need help. And the fact that you’re willing to at least listen speaks volumes.

Oh, and another note about this whole newsletter/list/community subject—since I started it 6 months ago my business has really, really taken off. To be honest, I’m already overwhelmed (in a good way), which is why I now have a virtual assistant (I’ll be chatting about that subject another day), and am looking to add folks to my team so as to continue to give great service, grow the business, but also have the time to write, teach, and speak as much as I possibly can in the coming years.

A Truer Definition of Community

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, when I first started with The Sales Lion I measured community really in two ways: Number of comments and number of shares/likes/etc. (per post).

Today, although I still greatly appreciate all comments and sharing readers do, I also now understand that email communication (outside of face to face) is king when it comes to truly understanding the thoughts, needs, and concerns of your actual customers.

For almost 3 years of blogging I didn’t allow 99% of my audience to open up and share to me their thoughts, problems, and struggles simply because I wasn’t making it easy for them to do so.

The fact is, most folks don’t delve deep into their “issues” in a comment section. Yes, some do, but most do not. They want intimacy. They want privacy. And they feel like email allows for that. And remember, this principle applies to any business– whether you’re a plumber, a doctor, whatever– the principle doesn’t change.

So tap into your email community. Grow your list. Ask them questions. By so doing, I can assure you that you’ll be simply amazed at the results and you’ll also discover an entire side to your audience that you didn’t even know existed.

Your Turn:

What facets make up your blog community? Do you have a “list” and what have been the results? If you haven’t started building you list yet, why not? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

Stef April 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm

The thing that popped most for me here Marcus is the fact that you’re bringing on a VA. So glad to hear it! I have a wonderful VA. Hired her before I felt “ready” and it was one of the best things I ever did. She’s awesome and is so great at taking stuff off my plate with NO drama!

The other thing is listening to your list. So valuable. Gives me some great ideas going forward. Thank you!

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Marcus Sheridan April 19, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Hey Stef, I didn’t know you had a VA, cool! Yeah, it was a HUGE help to me and will continue to be going forward. Plus my VA is just dang awesome, reliable, honest, dependable….and kinda great at what she does. :-)

Thanks for stopping by Stef!

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Adarsh Thampy April 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm

“What is your biggest struggle with inbound and content marketing?” – You did “steal” it from Derek didn’t you? :)

I also implemented the same method in my email list (I saw that you recently joined my list so you must have experienced it!)

The problem with me is that I don’t give enough time to building an email list. My squeeze page has been ready including the copy, testimonial (one from you included), and the ebook itself with a custom ecover. However, I never got around implementing it (Will change it in a week though).

Marcus, your post on community is an excellent one. I do believe that a community is built when you really connect with your target audience. Nice that you are getting what you set out to achieve.

Well done Marcus.

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Marcus Sheridan April 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Actually, that was my line completely Adarsh, considering I wrote the book on it. :-)

But yes, the “Halpern Header” is all Derek, and boy am I grateful for that!

Thanks for dropping by brother, hope all is well on your end!

Marcus

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Adarsh Thampy April 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Oh.. I thought Derek had that idea first. Glad to know that it was actually you who tried it out first. What matters is, the idea should be good. And it’s a damn good one I tell you.

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Craig McBreen April 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Hi Marcus,

Nice post and some great pointers, as usual. I’m also a big fan of Mr. Halpern and am working on just about everything you’ve mentioned here.

Okay, the plan is to have it all done before BWNY. Think I can do it? Seriously, the focus for me right now is video, the list, and I’m now working on several pieces that I hope will actually help individuals and small businesses. Most will actually be completed in June.

Remember back in December when you called me out of the blue? Well, I still have notes from that conversation and there is this list I have ;) Speaking is taking a bit longer than expected, but everything else is rolling along, so thanks for that December push.

Enough about me already … I want to know what you really think about implementing the Feature Box? Just curious how it’s been received and how much it has helped with said list?

I like what Adarsh wrote, especially the last part. You have obviously done a tremendous job connecting with your target audience. I’ve only been blogging for about seven months and in that period of time you have really taken off and that is so cool to see. Looking forward to seeing you in action in NY. You and John Falchetto are on the “must see” list.

Now in that phase where I’m starting to make the connections Adarsh wrote about. The target audience. It’s more like a “trickle” right now, but that is a great feeling.

Thanks, Sir.

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Marcus Sheridan April 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Kind words Craig. You rock brother.

I’m going to write a post about what I call “The Halpern Header” (Derek didn’t brand that very well and I told him he should have called it that instead ;-) )

To make a long story short, it’s HUGE. A MUST have. Wish I would have done it much, much sooner.

Can’t wait to meet and chat in NYC!!

Marcus

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Craig McBreen April 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Looking forward to that post for sure.

“The Halpern Header” Good one! Maybe he can take that one and run with it! ;)

Yes, I look forward to meeting you too!

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Tom Treanor April 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Marcus,

This post really hit home for me today. I’ve been building my list and have started to really notice my hidden community. To tap this and to get more engagement, I do try to move some of them to my LinkedIn Group, Facebook Page or Facebook Group. I’ve kind of carved out my biggest fans into these groups by asking them to join me there too. We talk there and they’re also often the ones who email me after I send out an email. They give feedback, thank me or sometimes ask for help.

I’m still working on my “formula” but I agree with you that the list and how you tap it is 1) fulfilling and 2) much more valuable from a business standpoint.

Thanks for the great post!
Tom

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Marcus Sheridan April 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Tom, what I love so much about you is that you are really “working it” when it comes to the platforms. You’re not afraid to push, experiment, and learn. I mean this in all sincerity, but watching your growth and strategy has been quite a joy for me.

Keep on keeping on my man,

Marcus

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Tom Treanor April 19, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Thanks Marcus – I appreciate that!

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Rebecca Livermore April 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Marcus, through this post you helped me to see an important aspect to having a list that I haven’t seen others write about, and that is that it gives people a private way to connect with you. I love the fact that you ask people questions and that they feel free to respond and how you are now using those questions and answers to benefit your podcast listeners.

I do recall that my first communication with you was an email, and it was a little while after that before I started leaving comments. A lot has happened since then, for which I’m very grateful.

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Marcus Sheridan April 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Lots of dittos Rebecca. :)

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barbara April 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Great post Marcus. As I moved my blog recently from blogger to wordpress I learned a lot about my community. My designer told me she had never seen a more loyal following in any blogs she’d worked on before (clearly she’s never seen yours!). I was very moved by that.

As I began to go through my list to alert everyone about the move and how to stay connected I got positive feedback from some who never comment. I’ve been thinking about a monthly newsletter and you may have given me the nudge I needed to make that happen.
Thanks!
b

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Ryan Hanley April 19, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Marcus,

There isn’t really too much more to say on this topic… I absolutely couldn’t agree with you more. The “Subscriber” relationship takes you to a whole new level. Especially was subscribers understand that they are getting a unique and special product for taking that extra step of engagement.

I love my subscribers… I love them…

Thanks,

Ryan H.

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Harriet April 19, 2012 at 3:49 pm

When a I was younger I had a few blogs on the go and I gave up on them because I wasn’t getting any feedback. Obviously now I know that I need to network in order to gain readers so I’ll well equipped for when I start blogging again properly!

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Justin P Lambert April 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm

This is a questions I’ve been struggling with as well. I’ve been blogging for a little over two years now and I am starting to pull together what I think is a “community”. But, like you said, I’m not quite where I want to be with the number and quality of comments on each post. I do have a list, but I have simply been lazy about accomplishing what I should with that group of special folks. I recently wrote a post about my re-commitment to them, however, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming newsletter.
Thanks for your insights and your example!

Justin

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Cheryl Pickett April 19, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Hey Marcus, we’re on a similar wavelength today. I just hit publish on my post and it’s about building community too. I think sometimes the problem is we, as the blog owner, don’t make it as easy as we could for people to engage on our blog. I kept seeing one “missing piece” pop up lately, so that’s what I covered (everyone’s gonna have to pop over to see what it is… :-) ) You’re in the clear though :-).

I used to have a newsletter with a different blog but I stopped partly based on seeing other models, partly on my personal preferences changing. I’ve been thinking about starting one again though, and I like your rationale for the reasons why. Looks like my to do list just got a little longer.

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Radlyn mendoza April 19, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Nice post Marcus from someone who came to your blog to find out more about inbound marketing for my law firm, which is a very different reason than most of your commenters (who seem to be marketing bloggers like you). I do appreciate the newsletter so thanks for all your hard work on it and answering questions. Best regards, Radlyn @ http://www.gardnerandmendoza.com

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data quality April 19, 2012 at 11:43 pm

Thanks for this Marcus. My background is in marketing for a big multinational so I worry more about things like data quality than the community aspect. You have given me a few things to think about and I will defnitely be changing how I think.

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Andrea Hypno April 20, 2012 at 3:07 am

I thought the email was dead. :D

No social media will ever beat the email whatever gurus will say, for the reasons you laid down. It’s direct and it’s personal. And I’m one of those who can say that if you say you answer to an email you do, every time.

Btw every blogger is an entrpreneur so you’ve always talked with them. ;)

Emails can be a burden especially when you’re receiving many but they reap much more than tweets. They require more time but they are worth it. I love receiving comments but when I get an email through my contact page it’s simply another thing, you took the time to write something more than 140 characters and that’s really appreciated, at least by me.

I’ve been struggling with the idea to let the list grow on its own without giving something back, just those interested in my articles, but I’m beginning to think that I could change my mind. I do subscribe when the articles I read are interesting even for nothing but clearly not everyone is like me. Well, given that I don’t use Feedburner I could have thousands of RSS subscribers without knowing. It’s a bummer but I’m trying to leave everything G related.

Great stuff as usual man! :)

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Mihai @ Freshome April 20, 2012 at 7:28 am

Hey Marcus. Wanted to ask you a quick question. Having a list of people subscribed to your site via Feedburner to get your daily updates is still considered a list ? Feedburner sends one email / day with the posts you published that day to all your subscribers.

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Rebecca Livermore April 20, 2012 at 8:43 am

Mihai,

You need to have something more than a Feedburner list. If you use something like AWeber, then you can send additional emails of your choosing to those who have opted in to your list.

As an example, on this site, those who fill out the form to receive Marcus’ eBook are opting in to his email list and he can then directly send email to those people. Make sense?

Rebecca

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Mihai @ Freshome April 20, 2012 at 9:36 am

Rebecca,

So what should I do with the ones that are in Feedburner right now and that are getting emails from us daily ? There are more than 20,000 people.

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Rebecca Livermore April 20, 2012 at 9:48 am

Mihai,

As far as I know, you can’t do anything to merge the two — perhaps someone else here will be able to better answer that question for you.

But here is a link to a blog post that explains the difference between Feedburner and AWeber and the advantages and disadvantages to both:

http://www.problogger.net/archives/2011/08/16/feedburner-vs-aweber-do-you-really-need-an-autoresponder-for-your-blog/

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Justin P Lambert April 20, 2012 at 10:15 am

Mihai,
Probably the best bet in your circumstance is to create an e-mail newsletter that will provide additional, valuable content to your blog subscribers: something directly related to what you do on your blog, but above and beyond. Then, write several blog posts over the course of a few weeks describing all the incredible benefits of subscribing to your new newsletter. These posts will be automatically fed to your Feedburner list, and, if they know, like and trust you already (which they likely do) you should have a fully functioning e-mail list of at least a few thousand fairly quickly. Then, you can work on building that up going forward.

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Mihai @ Freshome April 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Thanks for the feedback Justin, but right now I’m not sure what I could offer in the new newsletter, because we’re already doing out best to show the people the best stuff on the site. :)

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Justin P Lambert April 20, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Yeah, that’s always a difficult hurdle. You definitely do want to offer top-notch content on your blog since it’s your mainstay. But if you ever want to cultivate your e-mail list so you have the chance to send them offers that don’t appear on the blog, they will need some sort of incentive to make that jump.
Another option would be to compile a bunch of content you’ve already provided on the blog in a logical order and make it an e-book or a white paper. Then offer that for free in exchange for your blog readership’s e-mail addresses. This may be a touch less successful, but there is definitely something to be said for the convenience of compiled, curated information at your fingertips. It’s easier to use than individual blog posts. It might just be what they’ve been waiting for!

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Matthew Stock April 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm

This is one area I’m struggling in. Getting a lot of traffic to my blog, but the “networking” opportunities are kinda slim in our industry. As you know, our niche business (basement waterproofing) is based on need. I’m not so sure how many continual followers I will ever obtain given it’s usually a one and done type service. I’d like to find a way to attract more links other than just blogging. I know…patience grasshopper! But after 3 months and 40+ blogs I’d like some more links for SEO. You hearin’ me Miyagi-san?

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Jack@TheJackB April 20, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Very timely post for me. I just decided that it is time to build the list and have been trying to decide if I am going to use AWeber or MailChimp as my newsletter tool.

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Jen Gresham April 22, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Jack,
Just my two cents, and I know a number of the big names use AWeber, but I personally think MailChimp is a much more user-friendly interface (not to mention cheaper). I’m one of the few who’s tried them both. Feel free to PM me if you’d like more info on what I see as the pros and cons of each.

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Pamela April 21, 2012 at 12:31 am

Decide whether your search will involve general or specialized information. Many databases are highly specialized.

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margie clayman (@margieclayman) April 21, 2012 at 6:53 pm

This is a very important post, especially for folks who are new to the blogging circuit.

For about the first 6 or 7 months, I’d say, of my blog, I literally could not BUY a comment. I tried everything. I tried asking questions. I tried asking people what they wanted me to write about. I tried to be funny, angry, trippy…lord only knows what I deleted instead of publish :) I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.

Then I moved to my self-hosted domain and suddenly people started commenting. I felt like I was writing the same way. One explanation could be that my Twitter community was growing, but even so, people in your Twitter world don’t always follow you to your blog. I wish I could pinpoint what changed.

What’s interesting is that even though I have a community I adore on my own site now, when I post other places, I often start right back where I was on my own blog. I very seldom get a lot of comments on guest posts, and I can’t figure out why. It’s an interesting conundrum, but the best I can figure is that it’s not MY community there. I’m as new to them as I was to people when I first started.

Sometimes things just take time to develop. And I think different things work for different people. I know that certain kinds of topics tend to garner a lot of comments, like “call-out” posts, but that’s not a great way to build community. That’s just a good way to get comments/flash mobs.

I would just add that there’s a difference between comments and community. You got the reactions you did to your webinar offer because your community knows that you will offer good stuff. If a new blogger tries that, the response might not be as good, and that shouldn’t be discouraging.

Great post as always, Sir Lion :)

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Pete Goumas April 22, 2012 at 8:55 am

Hi Marcus,
I heard many times the importance of list building and When I first build list then I found significant change in audience response and it is the best thing to tap into our email community and grow our list. Many people like privacy and they don’t want to share their opinion in front of others without privacy so it’s best to communicate through emails.

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Shitij April 22, 2012 at 9:21 am

A highly enlightening post sir lion…Please continue to provide us with your valuable knowledge

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Marcus Sheridan April 23, 2012 at 10:04 am

Glad you like it Shitij, hope you’ll keep coming back. :)

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Ruth Zive April 22, 2012 at 10:59 am

You’ve touched on an even bigger notion here Marcus – in my opinion, you’re really talking about sales.

And to succeed in sales, you have to build and nurture relationships that are authentic and engaged.

I came from the professional fundraising world. Fundraising is the nonprofit industry’s version of sales. And if your ‘prospect’ (or community) doesn’t feel engaged, invested, valued, respected – you will fail.

The ‘build it and they will come’ model is a fallacy when it comes to business, and especially online business.

So asking questions, posting meaningful (and free) content, reciprocating, responding to concerns and objections – all relationship-building tools. And Marcus, you’ve proven that those tools work.

Can’t wait to hear about the VA. I just took an office (a big step). I’m hoping in 6 months I’ll need to take a VA.

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Marcus Sheridan April 23, 2012 at 10:02 am

An office Ruth? Really? Go girl! I think that’s great and it sounds like you’re making more and more progress, even though times are a little tough.

Keep rockin lady! :)

Marcus

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Jen Gresham April 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Marcus,
I’ve been a long time reader of your blog, always enjoyed, but also always had you on my RSS reader. That’s simply how I like to process the few blogs I read regularly, especially with an out of control email account already.

That said, this post really hit home for me, and was enough to convince me to sign up for your email list. Besides, it seems high time we got to know each other better, since we seem to have so many of the same friends.

Cheers and thanks for the great posts!

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Marcus Sheridan April 23, 2012 at 10:00 am

Hey Jen! Thanks so much for the kind comment and I do hope you’ll enjoy the newsletter as it comes out. :)

To getting to know each other…. :)

Marcus

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Mark Evans April 23, 2012 at 7:22 am

Another good post. I just launched a weekly newsletter – “This Week in Canadian Startups” – as a way to offer something new and different. I’m also putting together a mini-ebook to build up my list, while providing more value to the community.

Makr

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Marcus Sheridan April 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

Sweet Mark! I think that’s a great idea man and will certainly pay dividends!

Let me know how it goes,

Marcus

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Gail Rogers April 23, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Great post. Never though that there’s such thing as hidden community in blogging. Thanks for pointing everything out. Kudos! :)

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Dickie April 24, 2012 at 11:24 am

From the moment I started reading this post, it was like you were speaking directly to me. I’ve been struggling with the exact same thing on my blog as you once did in terms of building a community and getting comments. I did recently discover Derek Halpern and some of his stuff is helping, but I haven’t tried his tip that you used in your first email asking what the person was struggling with most. How did that work for you in terms of generating responses?

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Danny April 25, 2012 at 4:56 am

Great article Marcus

Marcus, from your experience, what are 5 key factors to making money from blogging?

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Marcus Sheridan April 30, 2012 at 8:47 am

that’s a whole post Danny, so I don’t think I can answer it all now, but here are a few:

1. Have guts
2. Be relentless
3. Understand content is your best sales tool
4. Learn to think just like a consumer thinks
5. Call it like you see it

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Jeff April 27, 2012 at 11:31 am

All the markets we enter we put in place a combination blog and email lead generation funnel. There is definitely an art to developing content for both.

What we have found works well is to have a definite and immediate benefit for the email subscriber (7-part course, pdf giveaway with follow-up posts on the giveaway, a tip of the week, etc…) and then we also put together a blog digest each week that takes a couple of the highlighted posts and summarize them with a small forward (for those that don’t read every single blog post, it reminds them were are there :-)

This back and forth marketing really is a situation where 1+1=3 – at least it has been for us.

Jeff

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Wendy Bottrell May 9, 2012 at 4:03 pm

As a fairly new blogger thank you!

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George Mackie May 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Well it’s not common but it’s upto us to find it out..

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