When you’re starting out blogging, you’ll need some hard-working faithful friends of tools in the background doing all manner of support roles. This round up of 10 free tools every blogger needs is designed to give you a bootstrapping good start to your blogging career.
Most bloggers aiming to make money from their efforts are solopreneurs and don’t have anyone to call upon to help. We all end up being copywriters, editors, graphic designers, WordPress and SEO specialists, advertisers, marketeers, PR and sales people and sometimes self-taught coders, video makers and even event organisers. And lest we forget, we need to keep up with our areas of expertise for our blog niche if we’re to make our mark and sustain a following.
And, here’s the punchline, we do all those jobs for FREE! Because we love our blogs, and see them as life-changers for us and we hope for the good they will do others (and our bank balances) longer term.
Bootstrapping Blogging Tools at their Best
Short term though, we’re cash poor which means we’ll need every possible bootstrapping tool at our disposal until we make a sustainable, regular monthly income and buy in more assistance or upgrade our tools. For now, let’s concentrate on some quick-hit wonder tools that can make a huge difference to the quality of your blog and your time management.
Remember, you’re blogging smart not stressy from day one of your blog.
Beware Free Trials
My 10 free tools below are genuinely free lunches. However, I’ve often signed up for a 2-week or 30-day free trial of tools such as social media dashboards, graphic design software, email services, stock photography and so on and had to key in my credit card deets.
I always ensure I opt out of the service when the trial period ends. Be aware though that many times your credit card will be charged by direct debit to roll over your free trial into a monthly or even an annual subscription. Most companies do send you an email alert saying your trial is over and that you”ll be charged. But you may miss the mail, not read the small print nor realise the implications of giving your deets.
Use trials by all means but just keep track of them. Now, I tend to avoid any free trials unless seriously interested in the premium product. I do my homework on them. Generally, I give any a miss that ask for CC deets up front rather than as a later opt-in. I never like having to remember to opt out; I prefer actively opting in.
Drum roll….for my 10 fave free tools for bloggers
Below are my top 10 free tools every blogger needs. These are your day-to-day lifeline and once you’ve mastered the basics – which you always get in the free versions – you’ll be equipped to go from amateur hobbyist to businesslike solopreneur. Some have a bit of a learning curve so I’ll be creating tutorials on the trickiest, like Mailchimp, Google Analytics and the ins and outs of Picmonkey.
My advice, implement or use one a day for the next 10 days and see how much stronger your site is and how much time and angst you’ll save.
10 Free Tools Every Blogger Needs
1. Canva and Picmonkey
Canva and Picmonkey are cloud-based graphics services (ie. not software you download) that give you easy-to-use design tools to create logos, manipulate photos, design social media profile images, opt-in banners and zillions more useful graphics. I am a long-time Photoshop user but still don’t know one nth of the vast program. I put off using Canva and Picmonkey but am now a huge fan as their interfaces are intuitive and use mostly a drag-and-drop approach. They are great for creating social media graphics for Pinterest or Instagram.
Why I use both and for what?
Canva has amazing pre-set templates for ebooks, infographics and e-magazine design as well as for all those confusingly sized social media banners for Twitter, Facebook, Google + etc. You can use custom sizing too. It’s my go-to tool for ezines and ebooks as I love the way you can choose a cover style and then mix and match with various internal templates for contents pages for instance. I also love its very cheap stock photography. Loads of images and templates are free and those you pay for are only $1 a shot. Think what iStock charges for an image and you’ll see how amazing Canva is!
Picmonkey I use for manipulating photos as I love the vast choice of filters you can use, and the fact it’s so easy to overlay a photo with some graphics. It’s great for manipulating your mug shots for personal branding banners.
2. Pexels and Unsplash
Pexels and Unsplash are both free stock photo sites with a limited, but generally useful and awesome range of photos. If you’re running a blog that is a service, you will need to grab photos to express your ideas, however abstract they are.
For my food blog, I take all my own photos so don’t need stock, but if you’re into parenting, coaching, self-help or similar areas, then having free stock at your fingertips is very important. Photos help rank up your post shares. With free image sites like these, there’s no excuse for not placing images in your content.
TheStocks.Im is an aggregator of lots of free stock image sites so a good place to start your search. It runs Pexels, Unsplash and the lot!
Just one caveat on these sites: they do get overused. So try to scroll down and think laterally about what can express your point.
Final tip: click through on the photographer’s link when you find a photo you kind of like. The photographer’s own site can often have other free images to use. Read their small print and ensure you adhere to their T&Cs.
Hootsuite is a social media management dashboard; it helps you keep track of and manage your many social network channels attached to your blog, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google + and now Instagram too.
You can search for keywords related to your blog niche / interests and ‘listen’ real time to the babble, picking up on things to retweet and share. I find Hootsuite invaluable as a research tool – I am amazed at the connections I’ve made from its search and listening aspect alone.
Its power also lies in letting you schedule your posts to Twitter, Facebook etc. If you batch up your Tweets, you can get on with other work (of producing more incredible content) while it beams your blog posts to the world. There are even more powerful, subscription service tools such as MeetEdgar. I might upgrade to MeetEdgar soon, but for start-ups and cash-strapped new bloggers, Hootsuite is your Nr1 social media management friend.
Pinterest can be one of your main sources of traffic! Listen, up, it can do this even if you’re not in a hugely, graphic or photo friendly blog niche. Pinterest is at its simplest a photo sharing social network. You create boards (just like physical pinboards on your kitchen wall) and ‘pin’ what takes your fancy either from other people’s boards within the Pinterest site, or by using a PIN button – social share button – on sites or sitting on your browser bar (that you’ve downloaded to Chrome for example). It’s a place you can spend hours drooling over incredibly beautiful images! Dreaming of that ideal wardrobe, dream kitchen and so on. Or, you can use it for research. I pin infographics, quotes and even photos linking back to seriously long, text posts on even mundane things like SEO. PIN one of my images on this post so you have it stored and can refer back to it from Pinterest!
As somewhere like 65% of us prefer visual learning to text, Pinterest is a vital tool to engage with your tribe. Don’t think Pinterest isn’t for you if you aren’t taking drop dead gorgeous photos! Just repinning and being a curator of top traffic boards can garner you a following that brands take notice of.
WordFence is the Nr1 WordPress security plugin and for good reason. Imagine how gutted you’d be if your hard-worked-for blog were hacked and Google blacklisted you. It takes time and money to get your site cleaned and cleared for business again as you’ll likely need to hire a specialist to get it sorted. Wordfence takes the worry off your shoulders as it alerts you real time via email to any suspected bogus logins. It will tell you if someone from a dodgy IP in a far-flung part of the world is attempting to work out your password. Wordfence’s basic (free) plugin service is good enough to give you peace of mind.
Tip: also, ensure your WordPress site login username isn’t ‘admin’ and write a whole weird sentence for your password: one you can remember and note down, but not one anyone with tools to hack semantics would be within a whisker of deciphering!
6. Google Analytics
Google Analytics isn’t just for big business, let’s get that straight. I know it sounds very techie but don’t think you have to be an expert webmaster or social marketer to use it!
It may be a powerful tool giving in-depth insights into the nth degree of site traffic behaviour, but I generally look at just a few areas of its back-end: overall traffic; particularly the percentage of new users (your growth indicator); the average time users spend on my blog; number of pages viewed each session (ie, is my blog content sticky enough to get my audience to click to more pages?); and also which blog posts are performing best (top content).
These few stats take around three minutes to glance over and give you a good sense of the who, where, what and whys of your blog; how users are interacting with you. Don’t go in every day as it’s a waste of time and don’t get hung up on stats in your very early weeks of blogging (you may be amazed but more likely depressed by them!). Add Google Analytics early on though so it’s there ready. Then, schedule a couple of times a week to review them and use them to revise your content plan and channels of engagement via social media. Just see what’s working and what’s not.
It’s not difficult to place the analytics code in your template, but check your particular template’s set-up instructions to find out where to copy and paste it in. Of course, you need to be on Gmail to register your blog for analytics.
Yoast is a search engine optimisation plugin for WordPress and the second plugin I install when setting up a new site – after Askimet, the spam catcher. Yoast, like Google Analytics, is a detailed SEO tool but again, you can skip the more obtuse aspects and just stick to using it to optimise your writing of posts and pages. I know, SEO is a minefield and rather boring, but before you get into panic mode, let me say that Yaost can be use light version (my term) without you needing to swot up on SEO marketing for the next month!
It conveniently has a ‘green light’ button which indicates if your post or page content, url, keywords are sufficiently optimised. Once activated, Yoast shows fields under each post and page for you to key in your keyword(s). It also has a meta description field (where you key in the line or two Google will pull up under your page url in search). I particularly love its ‘excerpt’ box where you write a handcrafted intro to your posts / pages. This avoids your featured post / page widget pulling up automatically the first line or so of content, which may or may not make sense stand alone in a homepage featured widget or in your post archives.
Enews /Mailing Lists
Mailchimp is an email marketing provider giving you the option of pre-set or custom templates for your mailouts. I recommend putting a decent and visible subscribe / join me / opt-in box on your blog as soon as possible when you’re starting out. Mailchimp helps you do that quickly and with little experience.
Mailchimp is a love or hate affair and reviewers sit in both camps. Once you get into mailing more, you’ll need to dig deeper into the pros and cons of various providers and Mailchimp does have some cons for business bloggers. You can of course use other services like Aweber but you get only a free trial period with them. But for early list building and getting your emarketing up and running, Mailchimp is ideal.
I particularly like Mailchimp as it’s free for up to 2,000 subscribers and let’s face it, it takes a while to worry about going over that figure so you’re on safe ground as a new blogger before needing to a) pay or b) swap to another mailout service. One big advantage of Mailchimp is the flexibility it gives you to create subscribe and opt-in forms with visuals. Using graphics rather than relying on the boring old blank field and box configuration is far more eye-catching and alluring. You can add for example a small graphic of your freebie ebook cover. Mailchimp is relatively straightforward to set up though will need some trial and error. I’ve a tutorial on it in the pipeline.
9. Ninja Forms
Ninja Forms is another great free plugin that gives you a pro-looking contact form for WordPress. No need now to put your actual email and phone number on your blog if you don’t wish to. Ninja Forms hides your deets as people just use the form fields to contact you. I suggest you create a separate email for your blog anyway, so mail there is in a silo and not mixed up with your personal mail. Just create a gmail account for your blog to link to Ninja.
Research / Ideas
10. Evernote and Pearltrees
Evernote and Pearltrees are both cloud-based apps that synch across devices and help you organise all your interest. Between the two of them they save, tag and help you retrieve all sorts of web info from entire web pages to photos, files, docs, PDFs, notes and more. You can create notebooks or collections, annotate or share documents and generally build a neat, virtual filing cabinet of ideas, resources and draft content for your blog. I tend to use Evernote but my husband, who lectures at a university, prefers Pearltrees as he finds it great amazing to use as student collaboration tool. There’s horses for courses and each has its place.
Pearltrees is really a curation or collection tool and works a bit like Pinterest. It can replace your bookmarks bar and is a more intuitive way to find things later. Evernote is highly visual and screen grabs the webpage with links, so you can easily pop back later to review it when you’ve time (on your mobile in the train or school carpark!).
Both are indispensable for doing your homework in your blog niche. With Evernote, I can create a doc to put my own thoughts on the fly when I am browsing a webpage too.
And Nr 11 – your bonus tool
Friends are your best insurance when you need to test your site out, however informally. When I first got into blogging and website content and architecture, Jakob Nielsen was a name you couldn’t miss. He’s a guru of usability. Agencies sprang up offering complicated usability testing. Basically, just ask a few friends in your sphere to give you feedback. Don’t take it harshly. Remember, it’s free and they’re there to help – Gordon Ramsay style perhaps! But you sure need some feedback from friends who ultimately wish you well on your blogging career! Last caveat – of course, your friends may not be in your particular market so bear that in mind!