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February 2018 Goals

We’re a week into February, so I’m right on time (ha) with my February goals.

Let’s start with a quick check-in on my year-end 2018 goals.

2018 Goals Check-in

1. Alana Le brand – publish first two books in series of practical, encouraging books for entrepreneurs

Scratch that! I realized at the end of January that this goal was unnecessarily ambitious. 😉 Eating some humble pie and changing this goal to writing the outline only for this series. I am the poster child for biting off more than you can chew. Hoping to learn from my past mistakes and work smarter this year.

2. Genre fiction brand – publish four novels and three novellas (finish the series I launched in 2017)

On track! More on that goal below. Feeling good about this one.

3. The Six Box – grow to the point where my co-founder and I can pay ourselves monthly salaries of [REDACTED]

On track.

4. Health – lift 3+ days per week throughout the whole year

Hit a speed bump in January, but I’m back on track now.

5. Family – keep a family diary to track what’s working and what’s not (especially when it comes to toddler routines and behavior)

On track.

6. Faith – 15+ minutes of Bible and prayer time each day

On track.

As you can see, so far – one month in – things are going well! For the most part. I’ll share more details below, but suffice it to say, I am pleased with my 2018 goals and happy with my progress. They’re definitely stretch goals, but in a fun and exciting, not stressful, way.

January 2018 Goals Recap

1. Alana Le brand – Set timer and spend 30 minutes per day, 6 days per week, advancing my 2018 big goals.

According to my weekly miracle sheets, I did this 11 out of 27 days (excluding Sundays) in January. Ouch. Not great! But to be honest, my blog is my lowest priority right now, and things were pretty crazy in January, so it was to be expected.

2. Genre fiction brand – Send Book 3 to my editor.

DONE. Not only that, I already got it back from my editor! So excited to publish it in the next couple of weeks. Formatting, proofreading, and cover designs take longer than you’d think…

3. The Six Box – Set timer and spend 30 minutes per day on 2018 goals.

This one was better! I did a Six Box power session 16 out of 27 work days in January. Okay, not great. But not terrible, given what we had going on. More below. (By the way, in case you are curious, some of my power sessions last more like 90 minutes – but a minimum of 30 straight minutes is my goal.)

4. Health – Lift weights 5 times per week, do two short HIIT runs per week, and hit my target calories & macros each day, with one “untracked” day per week (for the sake of my sanity!).

This one was mixed. I hit my target calories/macros 22 out of 27 days in January. Pretty good. Unfortunately, after only 6 lifting sessions and 2 HIIT runs, I ended up getting injured. Super frustrating! The injury is completely unrelated to lifting and running, but I had to stop all those activities and start going to physical therapy. Thankfully, it has improved enough that I can do a few lifts, so I am back in the [garage] gym this month. Definitely no running on the schedule, though. (Not very sad about that, TBH.)

5. Family – Write at least one daily entry in our family diary.

I only added 9 entries last month, but even just keeping this diary has been incredibly helpful!

6. Faith – Have 15+ minutes of Bible and prayer time each day.

Crushed this one. I spent 15+ minutes in “quiet time” 29 out of 31 days in January. No, it’s not a perfect 100%, but close enough! I was thankful for more time in the Word and prayer last month, because I definitely needed it. My daughter was very sick partway through January. It was scary for all of us. This is part of the reason why I haven’t been logging a ton of consistent time on my blog or my e-commerce business.

Done with the recap, on to the fun stuff – this month’s goals!

My February 2018 Goals

1. Blog – 30+ minute power session 6 days a week

Same goal as last month, but hopefully I’ll hit it a little harder this time.

2. Genre fiction brand – Finish the first draft of Book 4 by writing 2,000 words per day, 6 days per week

I’m following a new approach I read about in this book – writing a “lean” first draft about 60% of my target length, so 48,000 words (out of my 80,000 word goal). The idea, which I LOVE, is to focus only on getting the story on the page in the first draft. Think action, dialogue, plot – no worldbuilding, characterization, description, etc. This might sound horrible, but when I was editing my third novel, I ended up throwing away the entire first draft (50,000 words) and 20,000 words of the second draft because of plot holes. It was heartbreaking and frustrating, because I am not a full time author. I had sacrificed a lot to create those words, and wasting them felt tragic. This time, I am hoping to deal with the plot holes before I spend extra time on descriptions, etc., which I will then add in during my editing in March and April, when I will flesh out the first draft and bring it up to my target length. That’s the plan, anyway…

3. The Six Box – 30+ minute power session 6 days each week, plus launch our super secret special project (yay!). 

Can’t wait to show off our special project at the end of this month! I’ll link it in my next goals blog post…

4. Health – maintain weight without tracking macros, and lift 3 days per week.

I’m taking a diet break this month. I’m below my pre-pregnancy weight (YES!!) and pretty tired of shredded chicken breast, egg whites, and oatmeal. (Just kidding! I ate plenty of yummy food to get here, I promise.) My goal is to maintain my weight this month without weighing my food, then work on losing a bit more fat later this year.

5. Family – tidy up the house before dinner. 

You know when you have company for dinner, and you run around like a crazy person tidying up, making yummy food, and getting the lighting just so? Oh, maybe that’s just me. Well, I love that feeling right before company comes over, when you look around your home and think, “Wow, it looks so pretty.” Then it hit me. We’re the ones who live here – why don’t we ever do that just for ourselves?! Maybe because we have a 2.5 year old and a 3 month old. Ha. But anyway, I’d like to find a way to enjoy our home each evening, and I think do a quick clean-up before dinner each evening might help.

6. Faith – 20+ minutes of Bible and prayer time each day

Adding 5 minutes to last month’s goal. Maybe this sounds legalistic, but setting a time goal (rather than a number of chapters to read) has helped me to do more of the things that build my faith – worship music, memory verses, journaling, more prayer time, etc.

So, those are my February 2018 goals. We’ll see how this month goes…more to come in March!

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January 2018 Goals

I recently shared some of my big goals for 2018, and I’m planning to post monthly updates on them throughout this year. Why?

  1. I need the accountability 😉
  2. I want to share my journey with you. I think it’s fun to peek behind the curtain and find out how other entrepreneurs approach their goals, so this year, I’m going to attempt to do the same.

Here are my big picture 2018 goals (just a quick recap of this blog post):

1. Alana Le brand – publish first two books in series of practical, encouraging books for entrepreneurs

2. Genre fiction brand – publish four novels and three novellas (finish the series I launched in 2017)

3. The Six Box – grow to the point where my co-founder and I can pay ourselves monthly salaries of [REDACTED]

4. Health – lift 3+ days per week throughout the whole year

5. Family – keep a family diary to track what’s working and what’s not (especially when it comes to toddler routines and behavior)

6. Faith – 15+ minutes of Bible and prayer time each day

Goals, habits, or milestones?

You’ll notice that some of these goals are habits/systems, and others are milestones. Normally, I would try to choose a single, measurable, milestone goal for each area, but some areas—like faith, family, and good health—are difficult to measure. For those, if I just incorporate the habits above into my life, I know I’ll make progress, and that is good enough for me right now.

When it comes to monthly goals, however, I’m focusing on habits and systems instead of milestones. This is new for me, but I like it!

According to James Clear,

I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress. [emphasis mine]

Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.

I like this concept, and it’s something that my own personal life experience definitely supports. As much as I’d love to daydream constantly about accomplishing a big goal, the real progress in my life and work seems to come from small, consistent, daily steps.

When I decided to write four books in 2017, I didn’t think I’d ever accomplish that goal, and if I’d spent a lot of time obsessing about that goal, I would have gotten discouraged because of how much work it represented.

But I knew I could write or edit around 1,000 words per day, even on a bad day, so that’s pretty much what I did. Some days it was 800 words, some days it was 3,000, and some days it was zero. I worked my way forward word by word, and guess what? By Christmas 2017, I had published three books under my fiction pen name, one under my Six Box brand, and had just finished the manuscript for a fourth fiction book.

For my January 2018 plan, I’ve tried to continue that mindset by “setting” systems instead of setting month-end goals (for the most part). I’ll let you know next month how it goes…

Here are my January 2018 systems (plus one goal):

1. Alana Le brand

Set timer and spend 30 minutes per day, 6 days per week, advancing my 2018 big goals.

I have two little ones at home now – a 2.5 year old and a 3 month old. As I’m sure you can imagine, this has had a MASSIVE impact on the amount of uninterrupted time I have available to work. There are some days when there is only an hour (or less) when they are both asleep but I’m awake. Since I can’t count on my old rhythm of working in the early morning, during my toddler’s midday nap, and after she goes to bed, I’ve had to get more creative. One of the tricks I’m using right now is to seize a moment when they are both content (baby napping, toddler playing or watching a show), then set a timer for 15-30 minutes and work to get as much done as possible in that time frame. I’m using this approach to make sure I make a little progress on my big 2018 goals every day (except my day off!).

2. Genre fiction brand

Send Book 3 to my editor.

This one is a milestone goal, not a habit – because it really needs to happen this month in order to stick to my 2018 timeline. Next month, when I’m working on the manuscript for book 4, I’ll probably set a daily word count goal instead.

3. The Six Box

Set timer and spend 30 minutes per day on 2018 goals.

See 1. for explanation. I’m taking the same approach with The Six Box to make sure I keep pushing things forward, even on chaotic, busy days.

4. Health

I have three goals for this month: Lift weights 5 times per week, do two short HIIT runs per week, and hit my target calories & macros each day, with one “untracked” day per week (for the sake of my sanity!).

Breaking the ONE thing rule, I know! Sorry. I’m in my last few weeks of “cutting” before I plan to take a break and focus on maintaining my weight for a little while. Planning to push hard this month and hopefully finish strong.

5. Family

Write at least one daily entry in our family diary.

Rather than make a big pretty journal (which is what I really want to do), I’m keeping it simple by just updating a note on my phone when I can. My goal is to make a new entry in the note every day this month.

6. Faith

Have 15+ minutes of Bible and prayer time each day.

To hold myself accountable, I’m setting a timer for this one, too. iPhone clock app FTW this month!

Next: View my January recap and February 2018 goals.

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2017 Recap & 2018 Goals

Update

Follow along with my 2018 journey – check out my monthly goal updates!

It all started with a book.

(That’s how pretty much everything starts for me.)

In The ONE Thing, Gary Keller encourages goal-setters to ask a question:

What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

This simple, unassuming question changed my life.

The ONE thing question takes the Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule) to the extreme. It asks not just what 20% of efforts generate the majority of results, but what one specific thing, when achieved, will drive the greatest benefit for everything else you do?

One year ago, I wrote my 2017 goals based on that question.

Of all the things needed in each of my main “areas” of life, what ONE thing could I do in each area that would make everything else easier or unnecessary?

Here’s what I came up with:

My 2017 Goals

1. Alana Le brand

Goal: Get website and email automation set up in “maintenance mode” so it can continue to grow without daily focus.

I began the process of closing my consulting business and converting this blog to an entrepreneurship-focused brand/shop instead. I knew I wouldn’t have any extra time and effort to devote to it after the baby arrived, so I wanted it to be as self-sustaining as possible.

2. Genre fiction brand

Goal: Publish four books.

I decided to launch a new fiction brand (under a pen name) in YA fantasy in 2017. This was a big, scary goal for me in January 2017 – so big, I was embarrassed to even talk about it even with my closest friends. I’d read in countless sources that the best way for a new author to build up sales on Amazon was to release a new book every 3-4 months, and I wanted to see if I could do it right out of the gate. What can I say – I’m a go-big-or-go-home kind of girl! (Sometimes. Other times, I’m a just-stay-home-and-go-at-a-glacial-pace kind of girl…)

3. The Six Box

Goal: Ship [REDACTED] care packages per month.  😉

The Six Box is the e-commerce company I run with my friend and fellow military spouse (now veteran spouse) Megan. We send “reverse” care packages to military wives going through a hard season of life like deployment. We picked a number that we felt would challenge us to improve our marketing & operations systems and put us in a good place to grow in 2018.

4. Health

Goal: Gain no more than 22 lbs during pregnancy.

I struggled to lose the baby weight after my first, and while I could set a lot of health goals for the year, I thought if I just achieved that ONE thing – limiting weight gain during my second pregnancy – everything else would have to follow.

So, those were some ambitious goals. For me, at least! To help me avoid distractions, I also picked a word for the year: PLANT. I told myself that I would spend 2017 planting the seeds that would one day grow into a future where I and my family would be thriving and healthy. If that meant less income in the short term, or saying “no” to more things for now, I would do that, in order to plant the right seeds for the future.

Here’s how my 2017 goals played out in real life:

1. Alana Le brand – get website and email automation set up in “maintenance mode” so it can continue to grow without daily focus.

This sooo did not happen. My poor blog got zero love in 2017. Working on fixing that this month!

2. Genre fiction brand – Publish four books.

Almost! I was so close. I published three books in this brand, and finished writing the fourth book just before Christmas. It should come out in March 2018. I ended up releasing one book in August, one in October, and one in December.

3. The Six Box – Ship [REDACTED] care packages per month.

Missed this one too. Megan and I both had babies in 2017, among other adventures, so it wasn’t too surprising. We did ship a lot of care packages to amazing military spouses, so we still call that a win! We also published a book under the Six Box brand called Got Your Six: A 12-Month Journal for Military Spouses. If I consider that one my fourth book, I can cross off goal #2… 😉

4. Health – Gain no more than 22 lbs during pregnancy.

Crushed this goal! YAY! I ended up gaining exactly 22 lbs, then returned to my pre-pregnancy weight just 2 weeks postpartum. Today, less than 3 months after giving birth, I’m within 4 pounds of my goal weight. Hallelujah! After two and a half years of frustration, it feels good to be making progress in this area. I managed this goal by counting macros, lifting weights, and going on tons of stroller walks throughout my pregnancy. Thankfully, I had a good birth experience and recovery and was able to start up again a few weeks after giving birth.

Energized by my solid progress in 2017, I’ve set some pretty ambitious goals for 2018. But first, I came up with a new word for the year:

2018 Word for the Year: Deep

Rather than reaching up for a broad, nebulous idea of well-rounded “perfection,” I want to go deep in just a few areas that are most important to me, and seek to do them as well as they can possibly be done. Here are the areas I picked:

  1. Knowing God
  2. Nurturing my family
  3. Writing
  4. Strength training

I see these four areas as a foundation for everything else I do. If I can make solid progress in each one, my other goals will become much easier.

Based on that focus (going deep instead of staying broad) and the ONE thing question, here’s what I came up with for my 2018 goals:

My 2018 Goals

1. Alana Le brand

Goal: Publish two “self-help” books for entrepreneurs.

I’m working on a series of encouraging, practical books for entrepreneurs. This year, I want to publish a short, promotional freebie and the first full book in the series. I have several other big goals for my blog, but if I can publish those two books, everything else will fall in line as part of that goal, so it covers a ton of work from now until then.

2. Genre fiction brand

Goal: Publish four books and six companion short stories (complete the series I launched in 2017).

Part of this goal is to keep hitting the “publish every 3-4 months” recommendation, and part of it is to create a good reader experience – a binge-worthy series of stories that readers can go through quickly, immersing themselves in the world and characters all at once. For the most part, I’m holding off on marketing my pen name’s books until the series is complete.

3. The Six Box

Goal: Grow to the point where we can pay ourselves monthly salaries of [REDACTED].

So much needs to happen to hit that goal! That’s the beauty of the ONE thing question – a single goal encapsulates everything we need to do this year.

4. Health

Goal: Lift heavy weights 3+ days per week.

I’ve been lifting inconsistently for the past 3 years, and more consistently for the past 12 months or so. Strength training motivates me to stay on track with nutrition, makes me feel good, and makes everything else in life easier (especially toddler wrangling and car seat lifting). If I can consistently lift throughout this year, everything else in the health arena will come easier.

5. Family

Goal: Keep a daily family diary.

Why does it take 45 minutes to get my toddler out the door to the park? Why did she sleep well one night and wake three times the next? WHO KNOWS?! 😉 I’ve realized that much of the chaos in our family could be lessened by simply being more intentional and strategic – identifying what’s working and what isn’t, tweaking things, paying attention to results, etc. But if I don’t keep track of what is happening, I forget lessons learned and go back to passively reacting to the daily toddler insanity. Writing a daily entry in our family diary will be my way of figuring out what’s working and what needs to change.

6. Faith

Goal: Spend 15+ minutes with the Bible and prayer each day.

I’ve found that I can spend ten minutes reading the Bible easily enough, but it’s harder for me to include extra time dedicated to responding to God in prayer after reading. Fifteen minutes may not seem like much, but if I can consistently do it daily throughout this year, I know it will make a big difference in my faith.

This blog post terrifies me…

I wrote this post three days ago and have been waiting to hit publish this whole time because I don’t want to go public with my 2018 goals! How’s that for fear of failure?! Here’s a good reminder, for me and for anyone else who struggles with perfectionism: if I don’t achieve all of my 2018 goals (or any of them), it is not the end of the world. I’ll learn. I’ll grow. And I’ll set ambitious 2019 goals too. 😉

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What Kind of Future Are You Planting?

What Kind of Future Are You Planting? | Alana Le

One year ago, I sat down with my journal and began to plan and dream for 2017.

Our family had just experienced a loss. I was hurting, and though I wanted to escape the pain by throwing myself into work, I was forced to confront a painful truth: 

Life is short, and there are no guarantees that it will go the way you want it to.

Isn’t it so much easier to be optimistic when you’re young? Even when you’re broke, inexperienced, and clueless, the future stretches out before you like a beautiful landscape, and the world is your oyster. It has to be. You worked so hard for those good grades, that scholarship, that internship. Surely, it will all turn out well, won’t it?

But as the years go by and you survive one crashing wave after another, reality prevails. You realize life is more about sacrifice than celebration, and it’s exhausting.

I’m in a crazy, stressful season right now – a season full of toddlers and infants, looming military trips, worry, loneliness, and uncertainty. Before I can catch my breath on Monday, Friday arrives, and then I blink and it’s Monday morning again. Another coffee, another to-do list, and the whirlwind repeats. What’s that, babe? You’ve got another trip next week? Adjust, reorient, reschedule, pour out my life a little bit more.

Hardships come. Challenges overwhelm. Disappointments, failures, and frustrations abound.

I’m learning that real life is made up of hours of unseen sacrifice and service. Picture-perfect moments and relaxing coffee shop dates? Not so much.

And when I have nothing left to give, life knocks again and asks for more.

What does it mean to live an ambitious, entrepreneurial life in light of this difficult reality? Is there a way for work to still be beautiful and life to still be balanced, when all you see are sacrifices on every side?

I sure don’t have all the answers, but I’ve got two ideas that I’ve been thinking a lot about this past year.

Put relationships first.

No bank account balance, no business success, no milestone will ever be as important as the real, live people in your life. Put them first, because you don’t know what the future holds in this challenging, unpredictable world.

One thing stood out to me loud and clear as I reviewed the past year in my journal that December: the only way to grow my consulting business, as it currently stood, would be to spend less time with my family and more time at work. That’s simply the nature of a client-based business. If I wanted to progress, I would need more daycare hours, more early mornings, more late nights, more weekends.

An image of a field came to mind.

With every choice I’d made that year, I’d planted a seed for the future. Now I would have to cultivate that field and, eventually, the seeds I’d planted would grow. My business would expand. I’d have more of everything – more traffic, more clients, more billable hours, more income. And along with that, I’d have to spend a lot more of my time.

That’s when it hit me.

I’d planted seeds for a future I didn’t actually want.

I’d planted the seeds I was “supposed” to plant, without ever considering whether they were the right seeds for my life – for my family, for myself, for my own unique needs and gifts.

And if I wanted to build toward a future where my family and I would actually thrive, I would need to start planting very different seeds.

Life is short – too short to waste with regret. Are you focusing on the people and things that matter most to you, or letting outside pressure dictate how you spend your time?

Which brings me to my second answer to the questions above:

Find work that makes you come alive.

That December, I opened my journal to a fresh page and began to brainstorm goals for the next year. As my pen poured out onto the page, hopes and dreams took shape – visions of a different future, pulled together from the wildest corners of my imagination. A future where I was thriving and strong, not exhausted and stretched thin.

A pattern began to emerge.

There was one thing I kept returning to as I wrote – one thing I dreamed of spending my time on. “Everything else” had become not only a distraction, but a burdensome chore. 

What was my one thing?

Creating.

I. Love. To. Create.

Stories, art, experiences. For me, creating is energizing.

Administration, task management, networking, sales … these all drain me. (Yes, I know they are good and necessary things. But they still drain me!) Creative work, on the other hand, makes me come alive. 

As I tapped my pen on the page, I stopped writing and began to daydream. What would life be like if I devoted 90% of my working hours to creating? How much more joy would I find in my work? How much more energy would I have to pour into my family and friends?

This question began a seismic shift in my life that continued throughout the following year as I redesigned my entire working life and started planting seeds for a future I wanted to live in. And I planted a lot of new seeds.

Here are some of the new seeds I started planting in 2017:

I began building a passive income rather than depending on consulting hours.

I devoted the majority of my time to creative work.

I used the Pareto Principle to focus on the few things that got the best, most profitable results.

I spent far more time doing creative writing, instead of my usual “marketing” writing.

I launched a new pen name brand in genre fiction (YA fantasy) dedicated to telling the kinds of stories I’ve always wanted to read.

I stopped taking on corporate content ghostwriting clients, and redesigned my blog and shop to entrepreneurship in general, with only some parts devoted to content marketing.

I spent more time on my ecommerce business, creating fun and encouraging care packages for military spouses going through deployments.

The year was a roller coaster of pregnancy complications, toddler antics, hard seasons of solo parenting, and more. But I stuck to that image of a field and continued plant the seeds of my dream future. 

Whenever I had a bit of free time, I focus on creating, even if it meant letting other good things slide. 

In July, I released my first book – a novelette prequel (longer than a short story, shorter than a novella) to my new fiction series. In August, I released my first full length novel. In September, I released its sequel. And in November, I released my fourth book, a journal for military spouses that I co-wrote with my friends, neighbor, and business partner Megan Casper. 

Oh, and in October, I had a baby.

(What a year!! Whew.)

All that creating ended up being time well-spent: My first novel spent a week in the top 1,000 books on Amazon’s Kindle store, and my books now consistently bring in a 4-figure passive income each month. The week after I had my baby was a week of record sales, even though I did absolutely no promotion and didn’t even crack my laptop open the whole week. I’m sure you can imagine that it felt amazing to be making record sales while snuggling my newborn!

Sound like a crazy year? It was. But trust me, I am not a workaholic. I did a lot of work, but I also spent a good amount of time napping on the couch and snacking, if I’m honest. But there were a lot of things I didn’t do.

Here are just some of the things I didn’t do – some of the seeds I stopped planting in 2017:

I didn’t post on social media (AT ALL). I even deleted social media apps from my phone in order to give myself more time to write, think, and get organized. 

I didn’t write any blog posts. I didn’t send out any marketing emails. In fact, I did basically no marketing at all.

I didn’t do any networking. I did the bare minimum of business administration to keep my business afloat.

Let’s not even talk about the limited social life, or the dishes and laundry situation most of the time.

I maintained a relentless, tunnel vision focus on planting seeds for my dream future. I devote all my extra energy to creating, and it was glorious.

Is everything perfect now? Not even close.

I have a lot more work to do to build that future I dreamed up. It’s going to be years and years before I get there, if I ever do, and each year I plan to readjust my focus, so that I’m always working on planting exactly the right seeds for the season. Some years, it may mean more creative work; others, more admin and marketing; others, simply focusing on helping my family thrive.

But at least now I’m actively trying to plant the right seeds – the ones I actually want to cultivate, the ones I want to see grow up into something real in my life.

What seeds are you planting? Will they grow into the kind of life where you’ll flourish? Or do you need to plant something different next year?

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Tricks to Creating Unique (and Beautiful) Imagery for Your Business

Just because something looks good does not mean it’s going to ultimately contribute to building a beautiful brand for your business.

In fact, you could spend (and I have spent) hours slaving away on a beautiful image for your blog or social media post and ultimately still not contribute anything to your brand. That’s tragic.

It’s possible to slip away and spent a lot of time and money on gorgeous designs that ultimately don’t accomplish what we really want.

As a business owner, the first thing that you want with any imagery for your business is to build a beautiful, strong brand. If your imagery and your graphic design don’t work in that direction, they are not accomplishing their purpose.

If you’re ready to cry right now, I’m with you. I look back on the many hours I’ve spent in Photoshop and various apps trying to make things for my business and it just breaks my heart.

I wasted so much time trying to come up with blog post images and social media images that were clever and creative and pretty and unique, but in the end they didn’t really build my brand.

Don’t get me wrong, each image, page, and post might look good on its own.

But they didn’t contribute to building a beautiful brand for Alana Le, the author, entrepreneur, and Army wife extraordinaire. 😉

So let me share with you some of the hacks that I have learned the hard way in the last 5 years as a solopreneur. These branding hacks are great ways to make sure that your brand imagery is actually beautiful AND that it’s building a brand for you.

My Best 6 Tricks to Creating Unique and Beautiful Imagery for Your Business

Visual branding hack #1: Relentless consistency

Is visual consistency a hack? I’d argue that it is. It’s easy to do, but most people shy away from it for fear of being boring. In fact, the more consistent you are with your brand imagery, the easier it’s going to be to create images for your brand. You don’t have to make any big decisions for each new image. You simply use your template or look at the images you created before and make something that matches those.

This means using the same filter again and again; choosing the same colors over and over; always going with the same fonts, the same font sizes, and the same types of images.

A lot of people are going to think that sounds boring. And yeah, it might feel boring – to create. But it won’t look boring. It will look professional, attractive, and it will look like you know what you’re doing. Here’s how I use consistency and templates to easily create blog post and social media images that go together:

Consistency – relentless consistency – is the key to beautiful brand imagery that all fits together in an attractive, seamless way.

Visual branding hack #2: Color overlays

So, consistency is great. But what does that mean practically? What are the actual things that you make consistent? That’s a great question, and consistency includes colors, fonts, font sizes, types of imagery (for example, all images of people or all images of fresh flowers), and image size/dimensions. But I’m going to give you my favorite hack for accomplishing consistency with minimal work: color overlays.

Color overlays are one of the most embarrassingly easiest ways to make your brand consistent. You can take a bunch of different photo with pretty much any content and any brightness level, and use color overlays to make them look like they all belong together.

(You should be able to create a cover color overlay in most photo editing apps but definitely in Photoshop and I recommend learning to use Photoshop if you’re going to be creating a lot of images for your business.)

Color overlays are way to put a transparent colored “screen” over any image.

This does two things really well:

1) It makes different images look like they go well together, so that if someone sees a bunch of your posts together in one place (say, on Pinterest), they will send a consistent, attractive, professional message.

2) It makes it easier to read any text that you put on top of the image. And that’s a big issue. Legibility is huge when it comes to good branding.

A note on the importance of legibility:

If you have a lot of beautiful images but then you clutter them up with unattractive text, too much text, or simply illegible text, it will look busy and will be hard to read the text. So basically you took a great image and then messed it up with too much text and it’s not legible anyway! Ouch.

So here’s what you do instead:

You look at your brand and come up with a set of colors to use for your imagery.

This is especially important when it comes to blog post featured images and social media images.

For example, my logo is plain black. But the accent color on my website is coral. So I use a coral overlay on most of my images.

It’s nothing fancy, and you might feel like “wow, that’s a lot of pink!” But if you know me, you would know that it definitely represents my personality and brand well. And the important thing is not that you find a lot of color everyone will love. All that matters is that you choose a color that people will begin to consistently associate with your brand.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what color you choose, as long as it’s not hideously ugly and as long as it’s a color that eventually becomes associated with your brand.

Let’s say you have a website that uses lot of light blues and greens. Choose an even lighter blue or light green shade for your overlay, and every time you make a blog post or social media image, add that color overlay to the image.

How do you do a color overlay?

(The following example uses my old blog graphics, but it’s such a perfect example of the power of a color overlay that I couldn’t resist!) In Photoshop open up the photo or copy it into your template and select the layer that the photo is on. In the example below, I’ve added the photo to a new layer in my template. As you can see, it’s a gorgeous photo but the template text – the blog post title, my website URL – are pretty much impossible to read.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 1 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 1

Then go to Layer Style, Color Overlay and then you’ll see a little color box.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 2 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 2

Select the little color box in order to choose the color you want. I usually paste in the hex number that’s that #down at the bottom with a six character code. You can copy the that text number from another of your brand related images – anything that has the colors that are typically used on your brands like for example your logo or you can even take a screenshot of your website and then copy the color from one of those.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 3 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 3

Then look at the opacity % and adjust it to something that looks good. You want it to be see-through enough that you can clearly see the photo behind the overlay, but opaque enough that you can see text easily when it’s overlaid on the photo. By the way, you can change that anytime so pick up number – for example, 60-something % – as a starting point and then press Okay.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 4 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 4

And we’re done! The text is visible and clearly legible, and the beautiful image shows up too – without overpowering the text.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 5 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 5

Visual branding hack #3: Styled stock photography

We’ve talked about consistency and we’ve talked about ways of color overlays to achieve it.

But what are you actually trying to be consistent with? What do you actually use those cover color overlays on?

It comes down to imagery, of course. That’s the title of the blog post. But where do you get all these images? And how do you know which ones to choose?

First things first: Try Unsplash. It is an amazing source of beautiful free images, and I don’t know what we all did without Unsplash. There are also other great free sites like Pixabay and others, and you can also pay for stock photography if you have a budget for it at sites like iStockPhoto.

But how do you take it to the next level?

Styled stock photography.

Write it down. Memorize it. Google it. This phrase will change your life.

“Styled stock photography” simply means that a photographer put together a bunch of different objects or maybe just one or two specifically to create photographs with a certain feel that you can use for your business.

If you run a business that has physical products, you probably already have styled photos for your products.

For example, if you make a lavender body scrub you might’ve hired a photographer to take pictures of your body scrub with little bits of fresh lavender on a nice white background to use in your shop images.

But if you don’t run a business with physical products, you probably don’t have images like that already. And if you’re like a lot of people, you probably assumed that service businesses don’t have any need for style photography. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Styled stock photography is simply about creating a super attractive, high-quality picture of your brand.

Let’s be real – if you buy that lavender body scrub, you’re probably not going to find sprigs of fresh lavender in your packaging. It’s not about a literal interpretation of the products and what you’re getting. That really would be boring, and people would scroll right past.

It’s about the feel of the product, of the brand. And that is certainly something that you can do even with the least visual business on the planet.

That said, doing custom styled photography shoots can be really expensive. If you’re trying to do everything yourself, you probably don’t have enough money to pay for your own custom photo shoot yet. After all, if you had that kind of money, you wouldn’t be doing all this yourself, would you?

And that’s where sites like Creative Market will be your best friend. Go to Creative Market, search for styled stock photography, and prepare to be amazed:

Creative Market Styled Stock Photography | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Creative Market Styled Stock Photography, click image to visit site

Here are a few of my favorite styled stock photography shops on Creative Market:

White Hart Design Co | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
White Hart Design Co Shop on Creative Market, click image to visit shop
Miss Ollie | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Miss Ollie Shop on Creative Market, click image to visit shop
Kristina and Co | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Kristina and Co Shop on Creative Market, click image to visit shop

There are so many beautiful photographs out there that you can buy to use for your brand, often in bundles that cost between $10 and $20 for a bunch of gorgeous photos along a consistent theme.

There’s also Shay Chochrane’s stock shop, which runs a little pricier but is always amazing:

Shay Chochrane Shop | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Shay Chochrane Shop, click image to visit shop

And finally, Wonderfelle recently launched her Styled Stock Society, which I am pretty excited about because it also offers some really beautiful options and gives members 30 new styled stock photos per month (!!):

Styled Stock Society | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Styled Stock Society, click image to visit shop

You can use them for blog post images, as the main image on your home page, or to share on social media. Of course, this requires you spending a little bit of money but it could be worth it, especially if you have more money than time right now.

But what if you have more time than money? (Been there!)

If you take a look at a lot of the stock style stock photography out there, and if you’re decent with a camera, you might be able to get some of the way there yourself.

Here’s what you do to make your own styled stock photography:

Go to the dollar store and buy a piece of plain white poster board. Go to the grocery store or Target and get a mix of small items that are connected to your brand feel – snacks, flowers, plants, stationary – or just “shop” around your house. Come home and set it all up in an area that receives a lot of natural light but not direct sunlight, to minimize shadows. Preferably set it somewhere out of the way that a toddler or pet won’t be able to reach (good luck with that).

Then play around with the placement of the objects on the poster board and take a bunch of pictures from an overhead angle. Take WAY more pictures than you need, because sometimes you might not realize something looks off until you are editing it in Photoshop or a photo editing app like VSCO.

(If you’d like a more in-depth tutorial, check out this one at PinkPot.)

The DIY method is a great way to get styled photos that are unique to your brand and look really good, but without spending a ton of money. But if you are not artistically inclined AT ALL, and/or if you are pressed for time, you might want to just go the ready-made route. Consider yourself warned. 😉

The moral the story: you need styled photography, whether for your social media or for your blog or website.

The question is just where are you going to get it.

Hire a pro to do a custom styled shoot for your brand, get pre-made photos from a source like Creative Market, or do it yourself. The choice is yours. And have fun with it!

Visual branding hack #4: Lots of white space

We’ve covered images; we’ve covered how to make them consistent; and my primary trick for doing that, which is using the same color overlay or filter every time.

But another trick to making sure your brand imagery always looks good is definitely just that – a trick.

A hack.

It’s ridiculously easy, it’s very counter-intuitive (if you’re not a visual person), and not many people will think to do it on their own; but it will make a massive difference in the visuals on your site and social media.

What’s the trick? White space.

This has got to be the most underutilized design tactic on the Internet.

This is a great way to make sure that the images and colors that you do have pop and look amazing, while making sure that your text is easy to read and clear as well.

Worried that it might feel boring?

That’s the last thing you should be worried about!

If your images look good and they’re consistent, and your copy is both high quality and easily legible, no one’s going to worry that there’s not enough content on the screen. They will be too busy focusing on the content itself, which is what you want.

But on the other hand, if the opposite is true – if your images look bad and there’s too much text and content on the screen at once – it will definitely be noticeable and distracting.

So this “hack” simply means to always err on the side of minimalism and make sure there’s plenty of white space around / in all of your content.

Oh, and if you’re not using a white background, that’s okay; you just need blank space of any muted color. That’s what matters.

Visual branding hack #5: short paragraphs

We’ve talked images; now let’s talk copy.

How can we apply the same principles to make sure that your copy looks good?

Because visual branding isn’t all about imagery.

After all, in today’s content-heavy Internet universe, a lot of what we see on the web is not just images but the text that accompanies them.

You might have to one to three images in a blog post, but 2000 words or more for the actual post.

That means the text itself – the way you present it – will have a huge impact on the visual experience of your content.

Here’s a simple hack that I’m shocked more people don’t use: Short paragraphs and short sentences.

This is the same idea of the “lots of white space” approach. Make your text appear simple, minimalist, and easy to read. Your audience can scan from short paragraph to short paragraph much more easily than they can navigate a solid block of text, and you better believe that will affect your dwell time.

Visual branding hack #6: Pull out quotes

Another great way to break up the copy and to make it more visually appealing and easier to comprehend is to pull out quotes and make them bold or italic, or even a larger size using the quote format that comes with your theme. My personal preference is to make them bold, since it’s easy to read and doesn’t require repeating a sentence.

Sprinkling a few important bold quotes throughout the text will draw that the eye and can make it easier to comprehend the content; but not only that, it will also make the page appear more visually balanced.

This is most important for blog posts. You can’t do this with most social media updates (using all caps for important sentences will come across as tacky most of the time), but you can do this with the images that you share on social media if you’re including text overlayed on the image – just use a different font, size, or weight for the most important word(s) on the image.

I hope these simple (but effective) tips for DIY branding and imagery are helpful to you. They are each concepts I have learned the hard way and wish I had known sooner. I wanted to pass on these lessons because I don’t want anyone else like me spending ages on visual branding only to find that the time was wasted!!

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Easy 30 Minute Content Marketing Projects

Is there anything more humbling that searching for your target keywords and discovering that your beautiful website ranks on the 10th page of search results?

How and where do you even begin to tackle this obstacle, especially in a crowded, noisy online world?

How do you claw your way up the rankings when you’re beginning so low, and there is so competition from the start?

What if I told you there is a way to tackle this problem without getting overwhelmed or discouraged, in just 30 minutes a day?

In this post I’m going to share a series of 30 minute content marketing projects you can tackle whenever you have a free half hour.

These projects are quick, NOT stressful, and will slowly and steadily help you to improve your site’s traffic as you tackle them one day at a time.

But first, a peek behind the curtain into something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:

Control – or rather, the fact that I just don’t have it

There are a lot of things in life that I can’t control.

I can’t control the actions and opinions of others, my own past mistakes, the likelihood of future mistakes and regrets, sickness and suffering and obstacles that come along with everyday life.

But what can I control? I can control what I do right now, in the moment.

Or, more specifically, I can control what I do in the next 30 minutes.

I can’t change the fact that I have insomnia, but I can control what I think about for the next 30 minutes lying awake in bed. 

I can’t go back and undo that mistake, but I can spend the next 30 minutes writing down a list of lessons learned from it. 

I can’t control what other people think of me, but I can spend the next 30 minute working toward my goals and proving them wrong (even if I’m the only one who knows it). 

Sounds like a great self-help book, right? Why am I writing about this on a content marketing blog?!

Because I’ve realized that this concept is so applicable to content marketing.

And it all comes down to this:

The painful, overwhelming feeling that you are so far down in search results and your competitors are so much better equipped/funded that you may as well not even try.

It is so discouraging to know that you have a great business, and incredible value to offer customers, but to be utterly lost in the sea of noise online, even losing business to companies that you know aren’t offering as much value as you offer.

Now time for some tough love. Here’s the truth:

You can’t control what your competitors do, or technical issues that come up with your website, or the many problems and tasks that take time away from your content marketing every day, week, and month.

But that’s just part of the story, because…

You can control what you do right now, in the present.

You can control what you do in the next 30 minutes.

And when you’re facing the seemingly insurmountable challenge of content marketing in a noisy world, just taking it 30 minutes at a time might be the best – and only – way to move forward.

Think about it:

What is going to result in more progress as you tackle a mountain of content marketing that may very well take years to move?

Should you go down the rabbit hole, neglect your business as you blog and promote late into the night until your eyes bleed?

Or should you focus on running your business well, making money and making your customers happy, and breaking off pieces of content marketing one manageable, tasty bite at a time?

Let’s see. The first one is definitely my innate leaning, but it tends to result in burnout, bad decisions, frustration, and no near term sales growth. (Oh, and poor sleep, poor health, poor mood, and grumpiness – fun!)

But the second one, while counter-intuitive (aren’t entrepreneurs supposed to work all the time?) allows me to stay fresh, motivated, relaxed, and removes a ton of pressure from my day to day work.

Oh, and it actually gets results in the long term.

Why’s that?

Because effective, sustainable content marketing depends on two major things:

  1. Creating super high quality, engaging content
  2. Getting backlinks to said content

And the plain truth is, valuable content and valuable relationships simply can’t be wished into being.

You won’t manufacture them with a few all nighters in front of your laptop.

You can’t buckle down and become an authority online within 6 months of starting your business blog.

Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint; so pace yourself and you’ll have a much better chance of finishing well.

So if all you have is 30 minutes today or this week (or this month), what can you do to advance your content marketing?

Create more content

Brainstorm blog post titles and topics

Sit down in a comfortable chair, open up a notebook or grab a piece of paper and pen, and brainstorm blog post titles. Throw in a blank _____ anytime you are stuck on a specific word or title.

Outline a blog post

You most likely can’t write a full blog post in 30 mins, but if you spend 30 straight minutes writing a killer, thorough outline, you’ll be able to actually write the blog post pretty quickly the next time you sit down to write. So spend 30 mins outlining a single blog post, beginning with your target audience and the ultimate value you want to offer that audience through your blog post. Or you can cheat by downloading some of my pre-made blog post outlines. 🙂

Search for and save links to blog posts other people have written in your niche that you can do better

What are some keywords you want to rank for? (Long tail is always better – for example, go for “affordable event planner in Seattle” instead of “event planner”.) Spend 30 minutes searching for those keywords and saving links to blog posts, articles, and pages other people have written that rank well for those keywords. Later on, when you’re thinking of blog post topics, you can revisit these articles and think of ways you can write a better version. Not copying their content but creating new content that does what their content fails to do – make a hard topic more accessible, or a watered-down topic more meaty, or an outdated topic more current.

Draft a blog post

Again, 30 mins isn’t really enough time to write a full length blog post, BUT you can write a solid draft in 30 mins if you put your mind to it. Here’s my approach: open up Word, turn your font color white so you won’t be tempted to stop and reread your draft, and then write down everything that pops into your head. Do it as quickly as possible without stopping to correct typos or fix weird phrasing. If you get stuck mid-sentence or mid-paragraph and can’t figure out what to say next, just write “…” or hit enter and start a completely new sentence. You’d be amazed at how quickly you can churn out a 1000+ word draft that way. You can always edit later!

Do something else while thinking about a blog post

This might be a little counter-intuitive, but science actually backs this up: sometimes the best way to make progress on your content marketing is to spend 30 minutes NOT doing it. Step back and do something relaxing and physical, like yoga or running. Think about your content, but let your mind wander, and don’t write down anything at all. Procrastination, when wielded properly, can actually be the key to greater creativity and higher quality content.

Promote your existing content

Make a list of blogs to contact

Spend 30 minutes making a list of links in Excel. Search for and save links to blogs that fall in one of these two categories: bloggers that have linked to posts similar to one of your posts, who might be interested in the better/newer/more thorough post you just created (do this by searching for the URL of a similar post in SEMrush); or bloggers who write about related topics and might want to share your post with their audience. If you have time/energy for guest blogging (and some real value to offer!) you can also make a list of blogs to contact to offer to write a guest post.

Send outreach / networking emails

If you have a list of blogs to contact, you can spend 30 minutes sending as many emails as you can to reach out to those bloggers. Use a CRM like Hubspot Sales to keep track of everything, or just use Excel.

Subscribe to / comment on / share content from the bloggers on your lists

Take that list of blogs and spend 30 minutes engaging with them. Subscribe to email lists, reply to a recent newsletter email you’ve gotten, comment on a recent blog post, share their content on your social media pages. If you’re like me (and many non-full time bloggers), you don’t have time to do things like this every day, but even spending 30 minutes on this every once in a while will show these bloggers that you are serious about supporting them and you care enough about their work to share it with other people.

Improve your existing content

Set up + explore Google Analytics

If you haven’t already done this, do it the next time you have a few minutes. It won’t take a full 30 minutes but depending on what website platform and theme you’re using, it might take a bit of time to figure out. If you already have Google Analytics set up and have a few weeks or months worth of data, simply spend 30 minutes poking around and exploring your site’s analytics. What pages do most visitors land on? Where does most of your traffic come from? How long do visitors stay? Where do they tend to go after landing on one of your pages? Take notes on anything that stands out to you.

Set up + explore Google Webmaster Tools

Same deal with this one. Google Analytics tells you a lot, but it doesn’t tell you much about how you’re doing in search results. The important thing to note in Google Webmaster Tools is what position you rank in for different keywords and what your click through rate (CTR) is for that keyword. You may be surprised by how well you rank for one keyword or phrase, and conversely, how poorly you rank for another one. But you can use this to your advantage by creating more and better content for the keywords where you rank poorly, and enhancing content for the keywords where you’re doing well, including creating content upgrades for that content to take better advantage of the traffic you’re already getting. For now, just spend 30 minutes either setting up your Webmaster Tools or exploring the data and taking notes on what stands out.

Add internal links

Spend 30 minutes going back to older posts and adding relevant internal links to new posts you have written or relevant resources you have created.

Refine an older post

Pick a post you have already written and spend 30 minutes making as many improvements as possible. Correct grammar, improve the writing, break up overly long sentences and paragraphs, make it more easily skim-able by pulling out quotes and adding better headlines, etc. If you’re overwhelmed and not sure where to start, look at your analytics and pick one of your posts that receives the most traffic.

Enhance an older post with a new content upgrade

Spend 30 minutes creating a quick PDF download (checklists and worksheets are easy to make quickly) and add it as an opt-in lead magnet to one of your existing posts. Again, pick a post that is already getting more traffic if you aren’t sure where to start. Click here for some tips on how to create printables without design software.

Take it one step at a time

Listen – this is not a checklist.

You don’t have to do all of this (or any of this) to be successful.

If there are aspects of your content marketing that keep you up at night or make you cringe with embarrassment, please stop, take a deep breath, and relax. Content marketing is simply a tool to help you get more and happier customers. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective.

You can’t control where you are in your business right now, and you can’t control what your customers think and do or the resources your competitors have to invest in content marketing.

But you can control what you do in the next 30 minutes, so why not start with something on this list?

Content marketing – and successful entrepreneurship in general – is an epic long term play, with no true shortcuts. So consider the next 30 minutes a single step in a long journey with plenty of twists and turns. It doesn’t really matter how many steps you take this week or month, as long as you keep on moving – one single step at a time. 

Get all these 30 minute content marketing projects in a printable list

Keep it by your workspace and look to it whenever you have 30 minutes to spend.

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What Stands In The Way Becomes The Way

The other day I stumbled across a reference to Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is The Way, which is a bestseller based on this famous quote from Marcus Aurelius:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

I’m working with a friend on a big project that we are hoping to launch this summer, and a few days after reading that Marcus Aurelius quote, I was telling her how much easier our lives would be if we had started working on it before we both had babies (our daughters were born around the same time).

Then I realized something: while we might have had more free time and more energy for the project before we became moms, we have better insights into this project now that we are moms.

Because our project requires us to have a lot of insight into the lives of women going through hard life seasons, the fact that we’re each in the trenches right now too is not just an obstacle – it’s an asset. We are also more decisive and efficient now that we have so little extra time in the margins to waste on unnecessary or low priority work. That means we’ve made far more progress on our project than we would have expected had we started a few years ago. So yes, it’s harder now that we’re moms – but also better because we’re moms.

The very thing that makes it hard for us to do what we want to do also makes us better at what we want to do. 

I have found myself thinking about this concept constantly over the past several weeks.

What else have I missed?

Where else do I have secret assets hidden in the obstacles that abound in my life and work?

Where else have I been stumped when I could have used the very thing that stumped me to become stronger, cleverer, more competitive?

Here are a few of the things I’ve come up with since that conversation with my friend:

  • Challenging work projects have forced me to learn more and be more humble than if everything had gone smoothly
  • Being constantly pressed for time has given me insight into the need for more marketing resources out there that remove extra work instead of adding it
  • Not living in a major metropolitan area the way I used to has given me an outsider perspective that helps me see clearly into short term trends vs long term market changes

As Holiday puts it in his book, this isn’t a glass-half-full mentality – it’s a complete flip, from seeing only the obstacle to seeing only the benefit within the obstacle.

This is a simple concept, but it’s a game changer for entrepreneurs. We are constantly feeling like we fall short, don’t measure up, don’t meet our own standards. But at the same time we are searching for competitive advantages that help us stand out in the crowd. What if we could kill two birds with one stone? What if the very things that we think hold us back actually make us more unique, push us to work harder, or give us opportunities and insights that those who have it easy will miss?

Just for fun, I made a typography print with this quote for my workspace. Click the image to download it and use it for yourself. Hope it brings you inspiration and encouragement when you need it most!

What stands in the way becomes the way | Quote typography download | Alana Le

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Infographic – Steps To A Great Blog Post

Blogging whimsically feels natural. It feels genuine. It feels easy, creative, and fun.

But after you’ve spent a few days, weeks, or months churning out amazing, whimsical blog posts that don’t get any traffic, you might start to feel a little (a lot) discouraged.

Here’s the thing – you need your unique insights and creative spirit to come up with solid blog post ideas; that’s what will set your blog apart from the rest of the noise out there. But there’s no reason you can’t also learn from successful bloggers to ensure you are making the most of all the content you work so hard to create.

The next time you sit down to write a blog post, plan to take a little more time and follow these steps to make it a truly great one. For example, if you usually spend a few hours on a single blog post, this time plan to spend a few hours every day for a week on a single post and complete every one of these steps. You are very likely to see a difference when you follow these techniques – I know I have!

Blogging Infographic – Steps To A Great Blog Post

Content Marketing Infographic - Steps To A Great Blog Post | Alana Le | Content Marketing For The Rest Of Us

 

Follow These 11 Steps To A Great Blog Post

Tired of creating amazing blog posts that don’t seem to go anywhere after you hit “Publish”? Follow these 11 steps that the pros use to create great blog posts that get real engagement and build your brand. Read on for more detail into each step.

I’ve also added some really great resources for each of these crucial steps. You don’t have to read all of the links – there’s plenty of overlap – but if there is a step where your knowledge is a little shaky or it’s outside your comfort zone, definitely take a look at some of the links I’ve added. I’m a researcher (is that a personality type? It should be!) and these are the resources that have taught me a lot about blogging and I wanted to share them with anyone else who wants to learn.

1 – Find Great Topic Ideas

Search for your target keywords, see what posts are out there already and identify what they’re missing. Or, think of a strong stance that you need to take about what’s happening in your field. This is where you need to apply your own unique crazy creative insights and combine them with a realistic look at the content that is already available.

Think about it not as mimicking other content or restricting your creativity to the mainstream, but more as leveraging your creativity by focusing on sharing insights that will have the greatest possible impact. The important thing is to remember that a great blog post is usually not created in a vacuum – it’s aware of its larger context, but brings something new and better to the table. Do your research, see what kind of content already ranks well for your keywords or is being shared by influencers, and build on that.

More tips on doing keyword research:

Help for coming up with blog post topics:

2 – Define Your Ideal Target Audience

Before you even start writing, it’s a good idea to have a single reader in mind – that way your tone will be more natural and your content more useful than if you wrote for the thousands of people you’d love to attract to your blog. So get in detail if you can.

I sometimes like to fill out a profile for my target as though I were creating a fictional character, imagining things like their personality type, hobbies, etc. But not everyone loves getting into all the imaginary details like I do. 🙂 The important thing is to just be as specific as you can. For example, instead of targeting “anyone who needs help with office organization”, you could target “working moms in their 30s who need help getting organized”, or even better – “bloggers who write about home organization for working moms in their 30s”. With the last group, you would be targeting influencers looking for content to share with their followers, rather than a general audience (who may not share your blog post no matter how good it is).

Also, try to be very clear from the get-go on what value your target reader will get from your post. What are you going to offer in this post that they can’t find elsewhere? How will you improve their lives with this post or make things easier for them?

Here are some of my favorite guides on creating a target audience profile for your blog:

3 – Write A Solid Outline

Posts that are more emotionally meaningful tend to get more engagement on social media, while posts that go deep into a single subject tend to rank better in search engines. Either way, your post should be well-organized and broken into clear, logical sections, with several practical examples.

The best way to make sure this happens is to start with a logical outline and then fill it in later. Check out these resources for outlining a great blog post:

4 – Write + Rewrite Your Post

Flesh out your outline, then edit, rewrite, and edit some more. It’s better to take more time and write an excellent post than to churn out a substandard post every day or week. You’re not looking for perfection by any means, but there’s really no way to fake or substitute the kind of polish and quality that shows in a post that has received a ton of TLC. The Elements of Style is the classic handbook on good writing, but my favorite resource right now is this amazing compilation of writing tips from famous writers: Tips From The Masters (Gotham Writers).

5 – Add Relevant Links

Now go through your post and add in relevant links, being sure to make the anchor text (the underlined text for the link) long and descriptive. Your post should include some of the following types of links: outbound links to quality, authoritative sites for reference and examples; internal links to related content on your own site; and links to other relevant blogs/sites that might be good promotional partners for you. (You can contact these sites later to let them know they were featured in your post.)

More info on how a good relevant link strategy can improve your post:

6 – Create Accompanying Media & Call to Action (CTA)

Create a Pinterest-friendly featured image (longer than it is wide), plus any other images you’ll want for social media like quotes or images for Facebook etc. It’s also a really good idea to take a little extra time (okay, a LOT of extra time) and create a content upgrade like a downloadable worksheet, checklist, or ebook to go with your post. You can offer this in exchange for subscribing to your email list and allow readers to go deeper with your subject. Click here to get my tips on creating a good content upgrade without any special design software. Drawing a blank when it comes to making up a content upgrade and how to offer it? Here are some really good ideas for content upgrades plus tips on how to implement them:

7 – Run Through A Quick SEO Checklist

Here’s a quick SEO checklist I try to use before each post I publish:

  • Length – Your post length should be at least 1800 words. I know, that’s a lot. It’s okay if it’s not that long when you initially publish it, but take time to come back later on when you have time and add more content. And not just content for the sake of content – add better examples, more explanation, anecdotes, more helpful tips or links, etc.
  • Organization – Organization is crucial because if someone is in a hurry, they may only glance at your post for a few seconds to decide whether or not to read it. So to make it easier for a reader to know what your post contains in a single glance, be sure to include subheadings and lists to break up the content and organize it well; make the subheadings logical and descriptive; and make the paragraphs short and easy to skim.
  • Keywords – It’s also important that you incorporate your target keywords and variations on those keywords early in your post, in some of your link anchor text, in your post title and URL, in your meta description, and in the featured image title & alt tag.

Here are some other blog post SEO checklists that will take a little longer, but really help your post:

8 – Publish + Share

Publish! Nice job! Now share your new post on social media and/or with your email list. If applicable, include a special download to go with your post that is only available to your email list. In case you don’t normally send things to an email list, here are two good articles to check out:

9 – Find Promotional Opportunities (aka Link Building)

Find influencers who might share your post on their blog: people who have linked to similar posts, written about something tangentially related to yours, or whose readers might be very interested in your post. Backlinko has the most helpful post I’ve read on promotion (for steps 9 and 10) so be sure to read it here: Link Building Case Study: How I Increased My Search Traffic by 110% in 14 Days. If you have more time/interest, I also recommend his post on link building: Link Building: The Definitive Guide, which has a bunch of additional resources to check out.

10 – Promote Your Post

Send outreach emails to influencers and share the link to your post; explain why you thought they’d be interested and ask what they think of your post. Offer to write a guest post on the same topic for their blog. Again, check out the Backlinko post for more tips on this: Link Building Case Study: How I Increased My Search Traffic by 110% in 14 Days.

11 – Continually Improve

A truly great blog post is never complete, because the more feedback you get from readers & analytics, the better you can make it. One strategy I often use is to see what kinds of keywords are generating the most traffic for one of my existing pages, and then add more content around those keywords when I have time. I have seen this strategy significantly improve my search engine traffic for specific pages. And as you think more about your topic or learn from other sources, you can go back to add better examples, new stats & reference links, relevant new internal links, new content upgrades, and more. You can also submit your post to Google to be indexed again if you’ve changed it significantly, rather than waiting for Google to get around to crawling your site again.

Need Writing Prompts & Blog Post Outlines? Click Here To Download A Bundle of 5 Free Blog Post Templates

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Shareable Blog Post Ideas That Really Work

Lately it seems like all I hear about is the importance of high quality content that will naturally be shared and generate backlinks if it’s “good enough”. But as anyone who has tried content marketing knows, just writing great content and hoping for the best doesn’t always get real results. That’s because there’s a missing step that is probably equally important to writing good content: promoting it.

Ick. Promoting. No one likes that word! I’m sure we can all think of bad experiences from friends or pushy salespeople trying to promote things to you when you really weren’t interested.

But promoting your content – if it really is good content – doesn’t have to feel icky.

It can just be as simple as sending a message to someone who might be in a position to share your content and saying “Hey, I wrote this and thought you might find it interesting. What do you think?”.

If you’re willing to put in the work to promote your content on social media and in other ways, there’s another step you can take to make things a bit easier: focus on creating content that is highly shareable in the first place.

Here are three very effective ideas for creating highly shareable blog posts:

Improve the most popular posts already out there for your target keywords

This is so basic, but easy to overlook. Instead of just blogging about what is currently on your mind, search for your target keywords and see what blog posts rank the highest.

Evaluate those posts. How could they be better? Prettier graphics? More up-to-date? More statistics to bring the point home? Longer, more ideas, more options, more visuals? You get the idea.

Start by making what’s already out there even better, and that way you’ll know you are creating something that is more likely to be popular. Plus you can search for anyone who has linked to those popular posts using a tool like SEMrush and send them the link to your updated post. Brian Dean from Backlinko calls this the skyscraper technique and provides a ton of detail here.

Compile a list of statistics that convey current trends

Again, instead of focusing on what you want to write about today, start by looking at what other people are writing about in your industry. Do you see any trends that seem to be getting a lot of coverage by the most popular bloggers in your industry? Do your own research and write a post that compiles statistics and sources that support those trends. That way you’ve created a resource that other influencers will want to share (because it gives more support to what they’ve already been saying), rather than another competing trend piece. It’s also really helpful for readers to see all the latest statistics in one place.

Significantly improve and update your most popular old blog content

Take a look at your blog analytics. What blog posts are getting the most traffic (or have been in the past few months)?

Rather than write a new post, throw your energy into improving those posts that are already getting good traffic. Update your information, improve and expand your explanations, add length (if it’s helpful), and create a new downloadable resource to go along with your post so readers can get even more out of it.

Good content marketing takes time, so be patient!

If you start to attempt one of those ideas, you’ll probably realize very quickly that they will take a LOT of time to implement.

It’s true. Writing content that is going to really be worth sharing isn’t easy and it takes a ton of time. But rather than trying to churn out a new blog post every day or week, what if you spent 2-3 weeks just focused on making one really amazing blog post and promoting it well? That might actually do more for your marketing than keeping up your frequency at the expense of creating shareable content…

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Creative Ideas For Awesome Email Automation

If you’re a blogger or entrepreneur working on email marketing, you might have tried setting up a sequence for new subscribers, like Day 1 – helpful links, Day 2 – product benefits, Day 3 – soft sell, etc.

But just sticking to a generic series for all new subscribers can be limiting, especially because the sequence isn’t connected with the unique, individual reason they have for signing up for your list.

Email automation doesn’t have to be boring and sales-y!!

Here are 5 creative ways to use email automation to engage with your subscribers and provide greater real value for their unique needs:

How To Guides

Teach your subscribers a process or new skill or habit that is hard – “How To Become A More Efficient Cook” or “How to Start Doing Yoga When You Hate Yoga” (someone please create that course for me to take). Each email should provide a few paragraphs of helpful how-to info, followed by an exercise or response for them to take action and practice what they learned.

Exploration Series

Challenge subscribers to do something they won’t do on their own, such as explore outside their immediate area, or try new types of restaurants, or read books or blogs they wouldn’t normally read. In each email send them on a mission to step outside their comfort zone and try another new thing.

Daily/Weekly Challenge

This is probably one of the most common email automation tactics out there, and I love it because sometimes it really does help to have someone email you daily when you’re trying to do something more or make a change in your life. But here are some ideas to take this to the next level and stand out from similar challenges:

  • Include accountability with a link they can click to let you know they completed the day’s or week’s challenge – check out Whole30 for a great example of accountability links
  • Make it weekly with daily challenges in each email so the daily emails don’t stack up
  • Build in community by inviting people to subscribe along with a small group of friends who plan on doing the challenge at the same time

Discovery Guide

Walk subscribers through a process of figuring out what they enjoy or prefer in a field they don’t know much about. “Discover Your Home Decor Style”, “Discover Your Ideal Work Environment”, “Discover Your Unique Strengths As A ___”, etc. This could be broken down into multiple emails to give subscribers a chance to do an activity or exercise to learn more about themselves and what they enjoy or to contemplate some questions you’ve given them.

Guide to Overcoming

What is a struggle your subscribers have? Poor budgeting habits? Not having enough energy to work out regularly? Afraid to market themselves because they feel self conscious? Create an email series to help them overcome this struggle. This works because something like this will take more than a single day or decision to fix – but if you walk them through the process with regular emails containing the info and encouragement they need, the will be able to take the time they need to change.

Looking for examples of email automation?

Try out my 21 Day Blogging Challenge or my free 6 day course Create Your Own Content Marketing Plan, and let me know what you think!