"Free" is the most awesome price of all. "Free" gets you started when you have nothing. "Free" took me from 0 to the first 1,000,000 visitors to my blog.
"Free" is also the price that most people gravitate to when they are first starting out. But, the trouble is, most of those people also think that you have sign up for some big, expensive service once your audience numbers get serious.
You don’t have any excuses, because free web services and products available today are so good that you can easily use them to build up your own blog to 1 million visitors. You can start today, from scratch, and use every single one of these every day along your journey. From idea creation, to producing, publishing and designing your content, to sharing, marketing and promoting your brand, you'll find these tools free and accessible. Here are the 17 best ones I myself used to grow my blog at iDoneThis:
At its most basic Quora is a Q&A site -- you go there, ask a question and get an answer. It offers a seemingly infinite array of knowledge. But, when you start using the site properly, and you're interacting with others, Quora blossoms into so much more.
Quora is a great place for content ideas. You can search for a topic, see what others are asking, and answering and then write it up, adding to the conversation. But there's more: Kevan Lee at Buffer recently set out all the ways you can use Quora to market yourself for your business. Quora helps you establish yourself as a leader in your area, if you use it right. If you have a product, you can use the site to get feedback from users and to generate new feature ideas.
Feedly is the best blog reader around. You have to be reading a lot of other blogs if you want yours to stand out. Once you start reading the top blogs from key influencers, you will learn the right style that drives traffic, and what sets top blogs apart from the rest.
When Google Reader shut its door a couple of years ago, almost everyone flocked to the then-new Feedly app. You can sign up for blog feeds from the app, share your favorite posts, bookmark the ones you still have to read and read them, in Feedly's intuitive, magazine style.
BuzzSumo is an awesome tool,with one simple aim: It helps you find what articles people are sharing, and who is sharing them. From this simple start, you can gain a wealth of information: the best length, type and content for a POS. With the free account , you can only get limited information, but definitely enough to find out what works and what doesn't.
The site can also help you target the key influencers in your area of expertise. One of the reasons I love BuzzSumo is that data is at the heart of it. The folks behind the site recently analyzed all their data to find out what goes viral. They found that having just one key influencer share your post can increase your number of shares by over 30 percent. Just having three will double the number of times your post is shared.
There are a trillion word processing apps available, but Quip has my vote as the easiest and most intuitive app to use. It is by your words that you are going to live or die. So, write them in style.
What's unique about Quip is that it was designed, from the ground-up, to be a mobile-first word-processing app. Bret Taylor, the co-founder, says that, “Offline and online are no longer separate binary states.” Quip works as quickly as a local app, but everything is in the cloud. This particularly works well for companies like iDoneThis, where team members might be thousands of miles apart but working on the same post. With Quip, we can all edit documents as if they were on our local machines.
The Hemingway app is all about making your writing clearer and more accessible. For some people, writing flows naturally through their fingers; for the rest of us there is Hemingway. The app helps you avoid complicated, hard-to-read sentences, passive voice and adverbs. Hemingway is ideal for people who have to explain complicated ideas to a lay audience.
Trello is an organizational tool, letting you organize work via "boards" where different ideas, pitches, outlines, drafts and articles are in your publishing pipeline. Richard White, CEO of UserVoice, described Trello as “a very open-ended product.” Yep. When you first open Trello, it seems both simple and daunting. But what wins me over to Trello is that so much of the organization is left up to you -- there is no right way to use Trello, just your way.
There are countless content management system (CMS) options, but WordPress is still the best. Once you have got your site up and running, you need a way to publish your stories. Somewhere like Tumblr is great for your own personal blog, but if you are looking to get north of a million visitors, then you need the type of platform WordPress provides.
On WordPress you can customize your site and add plugins for a ton of different needs, from SEO optimization to image presentation, from email forms to capture. Plus, other apps on this list, like SumoMe and Google Analytics, have one-click setup plugins to get you up and running immediately.
Canva is a design service for people who can’t design. An image in a post will increase shares, and increased shares means more visitors. Ergo, you need images. So what happens if you are artistically-challenged? Welcome, Canva. Anyone can use it for anything: A sheriff even used the site to design a wanted poster. The site uses simple drag-and-drop principles to help you create art and design for your site, allowing you to choose from thousands of images, fonts and colors to get exactly what you need to illustrate your story.
9. Share As Image
Images are also the best way to share ideas on social media, and Share As Image lets you create amazing text-based images, helping you get more engagement and shares on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.
You can create quotes and daily inspiration messages, or just have a line from your latest blog post as a teaser. You can also take in information from images ten times faster than from text alone; and because visual processing is what our brains are designed for, sharing ideas as images immediately invokes a reaction in your audience.
10. Death to Stock Photo
When the Wired article came, out Death To Stock quickly contacted the editors to say that not all stock services are bad. And they were right. Death To Stock Photo shows that you can have awesome image content for your site for free. As I said earlier, images increase shares, and having great images will definitely get your blog noticed more.
Typeform helps you build contact forms and surveys, meaning you can interact with your audience and become a meaningful place for dialog. Tasked with surveying some of the top business leaders in the world, Mia Mabanta at Quartz turned to Typeform. She got a survey completion rate of 55 percent (which is awesome) and surveyed 940 top executives. She spent zero dollars doing this.
Her team chose Typeform because responders could easily navigate it whether they were on a desktop or mobile, and users could stay on the page throughout, rather than wait for the next page to load -- one of the main reasons people bug-out on a survey.
TinyLetter is a super-simple app that lets you create and distribute email newsletters, which are a great way to get your ideas into everyone's inboxes each week.
Alexis Madrigal, deputy editor at The Atlantic, has grown his own newsletter to thousands and thousands of readers using this tool. TinyLetter let him get set up the moment he had the idea and distribute the newsletter to all his readers; it even lets people sign up straight from Twitter. The simplicity and ease of use of TinyLetter is why it is a great place to start building a following.
SumoMe is a suite of apps that lets people interact with your site better using share and social buttons. It also helps you build up an email list with popups, and can even tell you where people are clicking on your site. Noah Kagan, founder of SumoMe and AppSumo, and employee #30 at Facebook, built a massive email list of over a million emails for AppSumo, so he obviously knows what he is talking about.
SumoMe gives you an in-depth analysis of what works on your blog and what doesn't. It also integrates with other services' email lists so you can seamlessly build your email list to grab all your visitors.
Wisestamp lets you link to your online presence automagically in your email signature, adding links to your social media, blog and latest posts.
A story illustrates its use: British Cycling used to be terrible. When Dave Brailsford took over as performance director in 2003, Britain’s best Olympics haul in cycling was still the one it had achieved in 1908. But since 2003, British cyclists have won 18 Olympic gold medals, 59 World Championships and -- though it hadn't ever won the Tour de France in the race's 112-year history -- British cyclists have won it three out of the last four years.
Brailsford puts this down to marginal gains: If you break every problem down to its components and improve each by just 1 percent, you will have a significant improvement when you put it all back together.
When I saw Wisestamp, it reminded me of this story. Most people won’t see their email signature as a way to gain traffic, but that is exactly how Wisestamp sees it. If you want to hit a million users, you have to look for every single marginal gain. Find all of Brailsford’s 1 percent improvements and add them up and they will eventually lead you to your million visitors.
15. Print Friendly and a PDF
Print Friendly is a Chrome extension that will transform your blog into a PDF, getting rid of all the extra crap and just leaving your audience with a well-formatted booklet of your posts. A great way to gain a following is to create an ebook that's a "content upgrade," in the form of a PDF that visitors can download and read offline -- in exchange for their email address.
This is an awesome trick that Noah Kagan used to gain thousands of more subscribers from his guest posts. This might seem like an major extra hassle, but thanks to Print Friendly, it doesn't have to be. The strategy is particularly great if you have a long, detailed post that would work well as an ebook. You just need a couple of clicks with Print Friendly.
Buffer seems like a simple tool to manage your online social media presence. But, in the right hands it can be turned into a demon of analysis, allowing you to reach more people with your posts and tweets and optimize your content for social sharing.
Madhav Bhandari handles growth at Hubstaff, and is using Buffer to analyze the site's posts. Hubstaff has used Buffer to boost its social traffic by 350 percent, simply by analyzing what makes posts shareable and what doesn't. Once you start to analyze your posts at this level of depth, you will quickly realize what is worth the effort, and what is a waste.
17. Google Analytics
So, how do you know when you have hit that cool million? You need Google Analytics. In fact, you need it way before then. You should be checking out your visitor numbers from your very first post, analyzing what posts get the highest views and where those views are coming from. Then, you can start to tailor your operation around those ideas. Keep what works, and throw out the rest.
Google Analytics is the most extensive suite out there, and even the biggest sites are still using it. Google obviously knows its numbers, and if this is a major place your visitors are coming from, who better to tell you the good news?
Over to you
What do you use to grow your blog traffic? I'd love to hear about what you think the best free services and products out there are to grow your audience.