Blogging to Build Your Business

I recently gave a presentation to the Online Network of Independent Learning Professionals about blogging to build your business. This is specifically about what I have learned about blogging to build your reputation as a learning consultant over my 9+ years of blogging.

The recording of the presentation and discussion is available on YouTube. Thanks to Patti Bryant for organizing the group and sharing the recordings each week. If you’re a freelancer or consultant, you should join our weekly calls.

Mistakes I Made

I started blogging in December 2006 as a tool for my own professional development. At the time, starting a business wasn’t even on my radar. If I was going back and starting a blog now as a tool to build my brand and my business, I would do several things differently.

Domain: Get your own URL from the start, even if you’re doing a free WordPress account. I didn’t, and I’m so established at my current address that I am afraid I’d lose a lot by moving to a new domain. Now I have my business in one place and my blog in another, which splits my online identity.

Post URLs: If you’re on a platform that gives you a choice, use a simple scheme for post URLs that doesn’t include the date. This gives you shorter URLs than what I have, which includes /year/month/date. If you stop updating later, you can call your blog posts “articles” and hide the dates so it doesn’t look like an abandoned blog.

Lack of Focus: I started with a lack of focus because I was just writing about whatever I was learning or working on at the time. If you’re trying to build a niche for your business or build your personal brand, be more focused. My audience is mostly other people in the L&D field, from new to old. I’m not specifically writing to an audience of clients. However, since mostly the people hiring me have are involved in L&D to some extent, they understand what I’m saying. Right now I’m trying to build my brand around storytelling and scenario-based learning, so I’m posting about that more regularly.

Blogging Platforms

Every business needs a website. If you already have a website that offers a blogging option, use that. If not, these are the three options I recommend, from least to most technical. These aren’t the only options, of course. If you disagree with my recommendations, please leave a comment and explain why.

LinkedIn is the quickest option if you are not technical and don’t want to deal with setting anything up. If you have a profile, you already have the ability to post. It’s a good way to figure out if you enjoy blogging and to get into the routine of posting regularly, and you could move your posts later. If you already have a decent sized network, you have built-in followers. There are several drawbacks. First, it’s not on your business site, so you’re splitting your identity between your business website and your LinkedIn profile. Second, you have no control over the URL beyond your post title. Third, there’s no guarantee LinkedIn will keep hosting that content, and there’s no easy way to export it. If they shut down posting next week, you could lose everything. If you do use LinkedIn, keep copies of all your content as a backup.

WordPress.com is free, but there’s a small charge for your own domain (which you should pay). The hosting is already done, and you can do premium themes. If you are somewhat technical but don’t want to deal with loading things to a server, this is a good option. This could be your whole business website and portfolio with an integrated blog, all at one URL. You can’t load additional plugins on WordPress.com though, so you can’t extend it with something like LifterLMS. You can export everything to host it yourself later if you want. There are also limitations to the types of files you can share, so you may have to host portfolio samples elsewhere and link to them.

WordPress.org is a good choice if you’re more technical and you want the most control over what features are available on your website. If you have enough technical knowledge to self host a WordPress site, this is by far the best of the three options.

What Works For Me

Planning

  • Plan to post regularly and consistently. Whether you post 3 times a week or once a month, be consistent about it. This helps your readers know what to expect and helps your SEO.
  • Schedule time to write. If you don’t schedule time, it’s too easy for other work to come first and to never make time to write. I have a weekly recurring task on my to-do list to work on a blog post each week. You might find it best to blog one morning a month to write multiple posts. You have to make the time for blogging for it to be successful.
  • Schedule your posts.  About a year ago, I started a rough plan for my blog and what topics I’ll write. It’s much easier to have a plan for my topic so I’m not sitting down to a blank screen and no ideas. I also schedule my posts to publish on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday mornings since those times seem to get me the most traffic.
  • Collect and track ideas for posts. I get ideas for blog posts from multiple sources. I collect them all in a simple (albeit messy) Google Doc as the ideas come to me. That means I always have something to write about.
  • Plan to write a series of related posts. This makes it easier to plan ahead and allows you to cross link to your own past posts for more traffic. Some of my most popular posts have been my series, like Instructional Design Careers and Voice Over Scripts.

Writing

  • Write for online with short paragraphs, lists, and headings to break up blocks of text. Keep the F-shaped reading pattern in mind.
  • Reuse content you write for other sources on your blog to save time. Where else are you writing now? Email, eLearning Heroes, LinkedIn groups? If I write a two paragraph answer to a question in one of those places, I already have half a blog post written. I always expand or update the answer on my blog, but I don’t always start from scratch. This post has started with the slide notes from my presentation.
  • You can also use content from your blog for other uses like presentations, workshops, and courses. I submitted a conference presentation based on my Voice Over Scripts series. I would also like to turn that series into a paid course at some point. I’m also planning to write a book about scenario-based learning, and I’m currently effectively writing that book one blog post at a time.
  • Include an image or multimedia in every post. I break this recommendation myself with my automated link posts, but all of my regular posts include images. Your post is much more likely to stand out when it’s shared in other social media if you include an image.

Patience

Remember to be patient. I had fewer than 17,000 views in all of 2007; now I get around 15,000 views each month. Blogging is not a quick marketing strategy where you’ll write a few posts and have lots of new clients next week.

Build Your Community

Respond to and recognize your readers and the blog community.

  • Reply to comments: When someone comments, reply and acknowledge it, preferably within 24 hours. You might also email people to thank them for commenting.
  • Answer reader questions: I get many questions from blog readers via email, some of which later become more blog posts. If someone asks you a question, there’s a pretty good chance other people have the same question. That makes those questions good topics for posts.
  • Promote comments to posts: I haven’t done this recently, but I did use this technique early in my blog to help build the community of readers. When someone leaves a really insightful comment, you can quote that comment in a follow up post along with your response. Make sure you give credit and link to the original author’s website.
  • Link to other people: I pay attention to pingback notifications when someone links to my blog, and I have search alerts notifying me when my name appears online. Many other bloggers do too. Talk about what other people are saying and link to them. Share the love and send some traffic to them. It’s a great way to earn some goodwill and for other bloggers to notice you.
  • Comment on other blogs: This is another way to be part of the broader community of bloggers rather than crafting your own blog in isolation. Read what other people are writing and comment on their posts. They might return the favor.
  • Call to action: I usually end my posts with a “call to action” asking them to comment or answer questions.

Expand Your Reach

I don’t spend much time explicitly promoting my blog, but when you’re just starting out you may need to do more than this.

  • Share links: Automatically share links to your posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. With WordPress this is easy; with other platforms you may need to use IFTTT or another tool.
  • eLearning Learning: Submit your blog to eLearning Learning (submission instructions here). I get more referral traffic from eLearning Learning than from any of the social media channels, partly because eLearning Learning is focused on elearning and there’s so much less noise.
  • SEO: I don’t particularly worry about SEO. If someone is trying to convince you to use tricks or shortcuts, ignore them. Focus on posting regularly and creating quality content, as those are most important. There are other things you can do, but if you’re just starting out the quality of content is more important than SEO.

Your Experiences?

Here’s that call to action I mentioned earlier. Do you use a blog as part of your consulting or freelance business? What lessons have you learned? What strategies are working for you? Please comment and share your experiences.

How Freelance Clients Find Me

Last week I gave a short presentation for the new eLearning Freelancer group on finding clients. You can watch the recording of the presentation.

In reality, I don’t do very much to actively seek out clients; most of my clients find me. Here are the recommendations I shared with the group on how to become visible to clients.

Portfolio

screenshot of my portfolioAn online portfolio is a requirement if you’re freelancing. Prospective clients need to see what kind of work you can do. Your portfolio is a way to tell your story about the work you do and the work you want to do in the future. My portfolio is on my business website.

You don’t need to have lots of full courses on your portfolio. Most clients won’t have time to review long courses. Short snippets or even screenshots are fine. Include a few sentences explaining your projects and the problems you solved with them. If your examples demonstrate specific tools or skills, mention that in your description.

If I was starting over now, I’d register a domain right away and create my blog as part of my website and portfolio. Since I started this blog as a free WordPress site years before I decided to become a consultant, I didn’t think about the domain as a business need at the time. You can still use a free WordPress site for your business and portfolio, but pay for domain registration so you don’t have to change it later. Many free WordPress themes can be used to build portfolios, not to mention the a plethora of paid and custom options.

Portfolio links:

Networking = Relationships

Two women chatting in a coffee shop When I say “networking,” don’t picture handing out business cards at so-called networking events where everyone is trying to get something from everyone else. Networking is about building and maintaining relationships. I’ve found it helpful to approach networking with a focus on how I can give to other people, rather than what I can get. Being helpful to others shows people that you’re good to work with, and it demonstrates your expertise.

A significant portion of my work comes via people I’ve worked with before or through those connections. Keep in touch with your former colleagues from when you were an employee, especially when they move to new jobs themselves. Spend time connecting with others in the e-learning field too. Everyone gets overbooked sometimes. I refer work to others when I’m too busy or it isn’t a good fit, and others return the favor.

Social Media and Online Communities

Man typing on laptopThe primary way prospective clients find me is via my blog. They usually search for “instructional design” or “instructional designers,” read one of my posts, and follow that to my portfolio and business site. A blog gives you credibility and makes it easier for people to find you.

I’ve heard from other IDs and e-learning freelancers that they find clients via Twitter connections. LinkedIn Pulse is another possible channel for publishing; this has the advantages of being free and reaching a built-in audience of your connections.

Online communities like LinkedIn groups and eLearning Heroes are also great ways to connect with people. You can demonstrate your expertise. I once got a major project as a result of a question I answered in a LinkedIn group. It wasn’t the person who asked the question who hired me; it was a third part who was reading the discussion. Because I was helpful to someone else, he saw that I knew what I was talking about, and he hired me.

Be A Good Neighbor

Neighborhood housesI’ve found that when I’m helpful to others and act like a good online “neighbor,” clients just find me. In her post on finding work, Jackie Van Nice explains,

How does all of this lead to work? It just does. Whether it comes from your peers who know of a project you might be right for – or from those silent watchers in the community, on your website, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or wherever else you’re active – the people with the work will find you.

My experience is very similar to Jackie’s; by putting myself out there and being active and visible, work finds me.

Read More

Props to Patti Bryant for doing an amazing job organizing this freelancer group.

Images (except the portfolio screenshot) from GraphicStock.com (unlimited downloads $99/year)

ID Badges: My Experience with TIfPI’s Certification

Last month, I earned my badge for Instructional Design: Goal- or Problem-Based Scenarios [ID(GPS+)] from The Institute for Performance Improvement (TIfPI). The “plus” and gold color signify that this is an outstanding level badge, meaning I received an outstanding rating on at least 7 of the 9 standards.

Certified GPS PlusHow It Works

TIfPI uses 9 standards to measure and rate ID work samples. Each of these standards is mapped to performance behaviors, detailed in a Word document.

  • Addresses Sustainability: Considers the best usage of resources (time, money, materials, staffing, technologies, etc.) now and in the future.
  • Aligns Solution: To create or change relationships among parts of the solution (internal to the solution) or between the solution and its parent organization or sponsors (external to the solution).
  • Assesses Performance: Evaluate what the learner does within the learning environment using a specific set of criteria as the measure or standard for the learner’s progress.
  • Collaborates and Partners: Works jointly with sponsors and other members of the solution development team to develop the solution.
  • Elicits Performance “Practice”: Ensures that the learning environment and practice opportunities reflect the actual environment in which the performance will occur.
  • Engages Learner: Captures and keeps the participant’s attention and interest through active participation, practice opportunities, feedback, and reflection.
  • Enhances Retention and Transfer: Ensures that the learning environment creates and measures recall, recognition, and replication of desired outcomes.
  • Ensures Context Sensitivity: Considers the conditions and circumstances that are relevant to the learning content, event, process, and outcomes.
  • Ensures Relevance: Creates content and activities that address the learner’s background and work experiences.

Instead of providing a single broad certification covering all aspects of instructional design, TIfPI decided to create microcredentials or badges. Currently, the badges are all based on different types of deliverables: asynchronous e-learning, instructor-led training, coaching, job aids, community of practice, mobile learning, etc. They plan to add additional badges in the future.

To earn a badge, you complete an application form explaining how you met all of the standards in a project. You provide samples of content (screenshots, a page from a storyboard, planning documents, a short video, etc.) to demonstrate what you say you did.

Your application receives a double blind review by two peers in the field. These reviewers use a rubric to determine how many of the performance behaviors for each standard you demonstrated. For each standard, you can receive an Outstanding, Acceptable, or Insufficient rating. If you get at least 7 Outstanding ratings, your badge is gold instead of blue, and your designation has a plus sign. For example, a normal badge for asynchronous e-learning would be ID(AEL); an outstanding badge would be ID(AEL+).

There’s a few other pieces of paperwork too: an attestation from a supervisor or client saying you did the work you said you did, a code of ethics, etc. The badge is valid for three years, after which it must be renewed by either doing professional development or earning a badge in another area. The badge costs $295.

My Process

To start, I attended a webinar explaining the process. I spent time reviewing the handbook and all the standards. I had a project in mind for the certification. This was an e-learning course which included a branching scenario and a job aid. I debated between going for the Asynchronous E-learning (AEL) badge and the Goal- or Problem-Based Scenario (GPS) badge. I think I could have done both badges with this course. Initially, I wasn’t sure if this would really meet the requirements for the scenario badge. The branching scenario is a 10-minute activity within a 60-minute course. I’m focusing my business on scenario-based learning though, and I wanted the more specific credential to match my specialization. After some discussion with Sharon Gander at TIfPI,  I decided to go for the GPS badge and really concentrate on the branching scenario within the context of the larger course.

The application took me about 10 hours to complete, and I did the entire process from webinar to application in about a month. In comparison to the CPLP, which takes 120+ hours and a year to complete, this seemed quite reasonable. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I chose this certification.

After submitting the application, I found out in about two weeks that I not only earned the badge, but earned it at the outstanding level. I added the badge to my website, LinkedIn profile, and the About page of my blog. The badge includes verification so you can click a link or image to check that it’s authentic.

Why I Chose This Certification

In the field of ID, we perennially debate whether everyone needs a degree in instructional design or not. I don’t have one (I have a bachelor’s of music education), so you can guess which side of the debate I’m on. I first posted about this back in 2008, and I’ve periodically joined this discussion since then. I’ve argued that although master’s degrees are valuable, that shouldn’t be the only path to this field. There are lots of “accidental instructional designers” who didn’t set out to be IDs, but found their way to this field, usually switching from another career. Although I don’t think a master’s degree should be mandatory, the industry would benefit from a way to differentiate between IDs who are deliberate and reflective in their practice and those who aren’t working to improve. Seven years ago, I argued that if we had an evidence-based certification, that could be one tool for people who came to ID from an alternate path.

The ID Badges are an evidence-based certification; it’s based on a real work product that you created. I didn’t want to do something with an exam; I wanted this to be about the work I actually do. Although I have some other certifications from previous jobs (CTT+ and Expert Synchronous Producer), I didn’t have anything formal saying I knew how to do instructional design. The market for IDs can be crowded at times. A certification is one way to differentiate myself; I can show prospective clients how my work has been reviewed by my peers and deemed “outstanding.”

Realistically, I didn’t want to spend $800 or $1000 on a CPLP, not to mention the time commitment. The CPLP is a bigger certification that measures more, and it’s certainly more well-known (at least in the US). TIfPI’s ID Badges are a relatively new certification program. They don’t have the name recognition of ATD and the CPLP, although I hope in time the ID Badges will become more recognized.

Even without wide recognition, I wanted that double blind peer review of my work. I wanted to see what someone thinks of my work when they don’t know my blog or my online brand. I wanted to validate that what I’m doing is on the right track. This certification gives me that personal validation.

Your Thoughts?

Have you considered a certification? What was your experience? Does it help you get more work or justify the work you do? If you hire IDs, do you look at certifications when making decisions? Tell me in the comments.

Time Tracking Template for Instructional Design

As an instructional designer, I often need to estimate the time it will take to complete a project. One tool I use for determining my estimates is records of how long past projects have taken. Having everything together in a spreadsheet also simplifies my invoicing to clients. In addition, I track non-billable time. That’s primarily for my own interest; I want to see how long I spend on administrative tasks like invoicing as well as networking and marketing tasks.

I use a Google spreadsheet for this. You can view and save the template yourself. If you’re logged in with a Google account, choose File > Make a Copy to add the template to your Google Drive. You can also download the template for Excel.

Columns in the time tracking template

Additional columns in the time tracking template

Tips

  • I use Ctrl+; to add the current date quickly.
  • Time Spent will automatically calculate once you add your Start Time and End Time.
  • Leave the Invoiced column blank until you have actually sent the invoice. This lets you filter for work you haven’t invoiced yet by filtering for “blank.”
  • By default, the template is set up with ADDIE phases plus administrative, project management, and business development tasks. You can edit this list of Phases on the Named ranges tab. If you do change it, you may also need to adjust the data validation in the Phases column. (The numbers in front of the ADDIE phases make them sort properly in the pivot table.)

Pivot Table

I use a pivot table to analyze how I spend my time. The template is set up to group data by quarter and month for invoicing purposes. (Quarter and Month are calculated in hidden columns B & C of the Tracking tab.)

Pivot Table organized by Quarter and MonthYou can adjust the pivot table to group by phases instead of quarter and month. This is especially useful when you’re estimating time for future projects. You can see how long each phase took for similar past projects and use that as the basis for your estimate.

Time Tracking Pivot Table organized by ADDIE phases

You can also filter the pivot table by whether tasks or billable or not, client, phase, etc.

Feel free to use this template yourself. Edit it to make it compatible with your workflow and needs. If you have questions or suggestions for improvement, ask them below in the comments. Read more about how I determine my time estimates for designing and developing e-learning.

Instructional Design Hourly Rates and Salary

Money 2What is your hourly rate as an instructional designer? What do you make if you’re a full-time salaried employee? People frequently ask me these questions, and I always refer people to the same resources. These are all just benchmarks to use as a starting point, so you need to adjust for your experience, education, skills, industry, whether you’re a full-time employee or freelance consultant, etc.

Hourly Rate

Harold Jarche’s “So You Want To Be an ELearning Consultant?” article is several years old, but the rates for different activities aren’t too far off. Click the table at the bottom to expand it and see the details. Design tasks are $50-100 on his chart; development tasks are $30-60. Technological and business analytical tasks can earn you up to $200.

Writing Assistance Inc lists rates from $65-90+, with an average of $80. I believe those rates are what companies pay to them, rather than what the ID actually makes, so assume there’s a fee taken off the top.

Don Clark has collected highlights from several sources on how to estimate instructional design cost and time. He lists the rate for an e-learning designer as $37/hour, based on a salary of $78,000. That’s clearly a full-time employee salary and not a consultant rate.

Salary

The eLearning Guild Salary Calculator is one of the best tools for comparing the variables that affect salary. Enter your location, education, time in position, job focus, etc. and get a benchmark salary to compare. The 2016 calculator puts the average salary for instructional designers in the US at $76,502. Those who have been in their position for more than 5 years have a benchmark of $84,377. In the 2014 calculator, they used experience in the field rather than time in position and found that with 0-4 years of experience, it’s $58,489; 20 or more years of experience brings it up to $92,429. All membership levels in the eLearning Guild (including a free Associate membership) include the more detailed salary survey for those interested in digging deeper.

Other Resources

Brennan Dunn provides articles, resources, and courses about how to price yourself as a consultant and get paid what you’re worth regardless of your specialty. Start with the Freelance Rate Calculator to see if your rate is sufficient to meet your annual goals. This calculator provides comparisons of how much you’ll make if you increase your rate by different percentages. If your rate is too low to meet your goals, sign up for the free email course to learn strategies to price yourself better.

Jeffrey Rhodes’ presentation on how to price consulting work explains how to determine your hourly rate as a consultant and how to estimate and price services.

Bryan Chapman includes some cost estimates with his benchmarks for how long it takes to create learning. In his survey, one hour of level 2 e-learning cost an average of $18,583. At the 184:1 ratio for that level of learning, that’s about a $100/hour rate, but that includes everyone on the team (IDs, project managers, SMEs, developers, etc.).

Although it isn’t specific to instructional design or e-learning, Flying Solo’s Hourly Rate Calculator is a useful tool to determine your hourly rate as a freelancer based on your expenses.

Image Credit: Money 2 by Daniel Borman

You may be interested in my other posts on instructional design careers.

Need an instructional designer? Visit my Syniad Learning website to hire me.