When writers ask me how to start a blog, I usually start talking about blog-post topics, ideal blog-post format, monetizing strategies, and such…and then realize I’m on the wrong track. Writers have topic ideas! What many need to know is technically, how to blog.
As in: If you write a post, how does it show up on the Internet? What tools are behind the curtain, that make your blog go?
Over the years, as my blog has grown, sprouted my writer community, courses, coaching, and more…lots of new tools came into play. I’ve been meaning to share everything I’m using for a while, because I know bloggers want tips on the best tools.
So, here it finally is! A look at the many blog software tools that work behind the scenes at Make a Living Writing, grouped by topic for easy reference. I’ve included tools I used as a newbie, as well as more robust tools my blog uses today.
Many of these apps and blog software bits are free, some have free trials, some you’ll need to pay.
And yes, there certainly are affiliate links included here, since I personally use and happily recommend these. If you’re a technical noob and have wondered how to blog like a pro, your questions should be answered below.
Even if you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to track payments and send invoices. I’ve been a longtime fan of using the accounting software Freshbooks, which makes easy, pro-looking invoices, and tracks my payments beautifully. But recently, changes have come.
Freshbooks used to have this nifty Paypal Business Payments plan, where if you invoiced through Freshbooks, you only paid $.50 cents per transaction of any size. I know! I have saved thousands using this, over the years. But it’s ending, as Freshbooks transitions to a new iteration.
Now, rival Harvest has the Paypal Business Payments deal. So check that out.
When I started learning how to blog, I began on a host that got crashy, and I quickly outgrew it. So I’m going to point you instead to the ONLY blog-hosting platform that I have never heard a bad word about: Bluehost. Bonus: They’re also darn cheap.
If you get bigger, and need virtual private servers to keep your site from crashing, like I do, I’ve been super-happy for many years now with blog hosting from Knownhost. Their help desk has bailed us out in more than one hack-attack/site outage emergency.
If you’re a blogger worth your salt, once you learn how to blog, you’ll listen to your readers, learn what they need, and then create a useful thing for them.
Then, you will want to sell that thing. Next, you’ll want to offer your loyal blog subscribers a discount on it.
I’ve been using E-junkie for years, to create easy discount codes. You can easily give your peeps a dollar-amount or percentage-off deal. It’s easy!
P.S. You can also use e-junkie to run/manage an affiliate program, if you want to give folks a commission if they sell your thing. I use my membership software to run my affiliate program — see below for more.
When you’re starting a blog, it will need a name. And you will need to buy that website address (a/k/a URL) from somewhere. I recommend Dreamhost — they’re cheap, and it’s got a good tool for searching up what’s available and suggesting similar titles, in case your fave is taken.
If you’re wondering how to blog your way to riches, that journey begins with the email-management program Mailchimp. It’s free for the first 2,000 subscribers — what’s not to like? That little monkey took me a long way (his name’s Freddy, BTW).
You can’t sell to your audience if you don’t have their emails, and Mailchimp makes it easy to keep track of ’em.
Eventually, I needed a more robust email system that could send a lot of stuff automagically to various segments of my readers. When you hit that point, it’s time to graduate to Infusionsoft.
This platform is so robust they give you a 3-day training in how to use it! Does everything but cook your eggs.
GIFs and Screenshots
I had a freelance assignment recently, where I had to create GIFs…and they told me to use CloudApp . And now I’m in love. I’m going to show you how great CloudApp is with a GIF that’s in this very post — watch for it!
CloudApp is super-easy — when you want to screenshot something, you click the little cloud icon from your desktop and follow the steps to create a GIF, screenshot, short video, whatever!
I know, some people hate Google and think it’s evil and taking over the planet. All I know is, it has some useful tools I couldn’t live without, as a blogger.
Let’s start with Google Analytics, a great source of juicy data about:
- Who’s on your blog
- What they read
- How many visit
- Where they come from
- What search terms lured them to your site, and more.
My team and I use Google Docs and Sheets (their answer to Word docs and Excel) to share info and plan marketing campaigns…a lot. Need to pop a PDF onto your blog? The WordPress plug-in Google Document Embedder is my choice there.
Lastly, IMO email is handled best by Google. Whether you have the basic, free Gmail or a pretty email using your domain with G Suite – Google does the best job at filtering out evil spam.
If you ever start a paid community — which can be an awesome way to monetize your blog! — you’ll need some way to keep track of who’s a member. For that, there’s Digital Access Pass, from Wicked Cool Plugins.
It’s another WordPress plug-in (see below for my platform recommendations).
Other membership-management tools cost waaay more. But DAP does all I need — we can create endless levels and prices for different bootcamps or membership drives.
As I mentioned above, I also use DAP to run my affiliate program. If you let affiliates sell your stuff, you will definitely want a piece of software that tracks it for you.
Once you make that thing and start charging for it, you’ll want a way to electronically collect payments. I’ve gone with the gold standard on that, Paypal. It’s kind of a love-hate thing, and Paypal definitely has its limits. But it’s the best-known tool, so more people are comfortable using it than about any other place.
Hint: Drive a lot of sales, and get Mass Pay from Paypal. Then you can send money to people (say, affiliates, or peeps who help you make your blog) without their getting charged the usual 2.9%. Fees to you are smaller, too.
P.S.: If you want to accept credit cards outside of Paypal, I like Square.
Good blog posts today have images. When you’re starting out, you’ll want those to be free. I’ve got three recommends here:
Loads of folks use Flickr Creative Commons for this, but then you have to include an attribution link, which looks sorta cheeseball. These sites don’t need that, which is nice.
Once you’ve got an awesome free photo, you’ll probably want to improve it–say, put your blog’s URL on it for social sharing, at least. You’ll want a nice, free place to crop, resize, or otherwise alter your image. That’s where these sites come in:
Free trials galore there, so rotate around and you can save money.
My own designers — who make the cool cartoons for these posts — report they use Adobe Creative Cloud. Way too fancy for me, but good if you’re a visual pro.
If you become a popular blogger, people will want to talk to you. To make it easy to schedule time, and avoid getting double-booked (or people booking time when you’re out of the office), there’s Calendly.
What I like: it syncs with my calendar, so the booking notice pops right onto my iCal.
Want to know how to blog your heart out and then suddenly, one day, lose everything you ever wrote? Just don’t have a backup program. Boom! Done.
If you have a Mac (and you should!), your computer comes with a backup system known as Time Machine. It’s awesome and allows you to go back in time to a particular day and get what was on your computer back when.
What if that computer fails, and you can’t use Time Machine to find stuff you shouldn’ta deleted?
Then you need Carbonite — backup in the cloud, away from your locale.
I’ve been using Yoast SEO WordPress plugin for a long time — it’s a handy guide to optimizing your post to help Google send you readers. Consider learning SEO a critical skill, if you want to learn how to blog.
For finding good keyword phrases to use in your posts, I like KWFinder (recently broke down and got a paid plan).
KW shows you how many searches per month your phrase gets, related phrases that might work better, and how degree of difficulty for ranking well on that term (as well as who’s ranking tops for it).
Looking for long-tail question or phrases people search on in your topic, to give your posts more SEO boost? There’s a hilarious-yet-fascinating site called AnswerThePublic — enjoy the cranky old man who oversees your search (told ya you were getting a GIF!):
Social media marketing
Social media is one of the easiest ways to promote your blog and get new readers.
You’ll want to use social every way you can. I often see blogs with no social share buttons, and I just think, ‘You don’t know how to blog!’
For share buttons on your posts, I love the AddThis plugin. The secret sauce? It customizes for each user, based on what social channels they use most. Sweet!
For proactive social-media marketing automation, I like Missinglettr. It automagically generates share content you can edit and customize, for each blog post you write. Then, it automatically shares them nine more times over the course of the next year, in your choice of social channels.
Here’s a peek at their content approval system, at work on one of my recent posts:
Say you’ve got a big list — like all the tools I’m mentioning in this post. And you want to tweet it individually to every company mentioned. For this, there’s HootSuite.
This handy scheduler allows you to plan social posts weeks ahead, and easily combine it with re-shared content from others in your timeline, to keep it more useful and less spammy.
That’s right, I’ve got so much to store (200 emails a day! Videos and podcasts for Den members!) that I’ve purchased two different storage solutions.
I recently went to a paid G Suite level to get more storage, and also have a business plan on Dropbox. If you’re sharing outside your team a lot, I’d say go with Dropbox.
Do you notice a monkey theme going on? I think the cool companies like monkey mascots.
Which is my way of saying SurveyMonkey is the greatest, if you need to survey your readers and learn more about how to serve them better. Totally do that.
As your blog grows, you will acquire helpers. (Note: Don’t forget to hire helpers ASAP.)
Then, you will need to assign them tasks and give them deadlines. A good place to do that is in Asana.
Or, if you want to chat back and forth all day with teammates without clogging email inboxes, all of us here at MALW love Slack.
Ever wonder if title tag you’re giving your blog post page is too long? Moz has a great tag checker that shows you how your title will look on Google.
Hint: You don’t want it to get cut off in the middle. You want the whole title to show up.
We all know audio and video really help get readers engaged in your blog. I am a loyal Camtasia user — TechSmith makes this an easy tool for recording screencast videos.
If you make long videos, you may find yourself with a very large file size. To shrink it down, use Handbrake.
One of the best ways to sell a thing is through a live Webinar. I have used many, many platforms, and tested many more. All the costly biggies, GoToWebinar, AnyMeeting, WebEx, and more.
And the winner is? Instant Teleseminar. Made by longtime UX pros, it’s simple to operate, and only $67 a month (a fraction of the price at many of the ‘top guys’). Its one drawback — no screensharing or talking heads with your computer camera. Just slides.
If you need to screenshare, you can run a Webinar on Zoom. I tried it out recently, because I needed to teach something where screensharing was essential. Worked great! I also use Zoom for all my masterminds and coaching.
My designer Keira Dooley reports she and her team use Sketch for planning blog design (if you need a writer website done, check out her proven-to-convert template).
This really should go first in any ‘how to blog’ tools post, because you can’t do anything until you have a creation platform in which to build your blog. But this list is alphabetical by topic. So…
One platform dominates the blog space, and it’s the one I use and love: WordPress. It’s open source, you can start on it free, and it’s dominance means there are umpteen great themes, plugins, and developers that can help you make your blog look awesome.
WordPress is a two-edged sword though — it’s highly flexible, and that means it’s also pretty complex blog software.
I meet people who feel overwhelmed by WordPress, so I’ll tell you the only other platform I think looks pro — Squarespace. There are some limitations here, including ability to use ads. But their sites look nice.
Choose the right blog software for you
Obviously, not every tool in this roundup is right for every blogger. But hopefully, this answer the mechanics of how to blog for you — and shows you how many blogging tools are available to make your blog look better and reach more people.
Considering that I’m a very non-technical person, it’s a badge of honor to me, that I’ve learned to use so many different blog software tools — there are 48 mentioned here!
Trust me, if I can learn how to blog, and how to use all this stuff, you can, too. And they’ll make your blog more effective and better-looking. Who doesn’t want that?
Got a favorite blogging tool not covered here? Let’s discuss on Facebook or LinkedIn!