God Doesn’t Exist in a Niche: Neither Should You

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Finding your niche. Define your niche. Know your niche.

Niche.

Niche is hands down the official buzzword of the blogosphere. What it mean? Essentially, the number one piece of blogging advice given at conferences, classes, and all over Pinterest boils down to this: find a specifically defined and branded area of the internet where you can establish yourself as an expert, and then stay in your lane. If you blog about recipes? Don’t post about home decor. If you’re a graphic designer? Don’t talk about your parenting. Pick an area of expertise, and then streamline your posts to stay within your sphere so that you have a clearly defined audience and an established brand.

So what’s my niche here at The Joy Parade?

I don’t have one.
photo-1461773518188-b3e86f98242fWhen I started this blog, I hired an amazing designer who specialized in branding. I created a Pinterest board while working with her to brainstorm what I wanted my branding to communicate. Sure, some of that work is about color palettes and graphics and such, but much of it is defining how you want to make people feel. It’s imagining what your readers will experience when they go to your website, scroll through your Instagram, or otherwise engage with your brand online.

If you’ve ever clicked on the Meet Stephanie page, you may have seen this verse: “So being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” The verse serves as a manifesto of sorts for my purpose behind the Joy Parade. It’s a place where I get to share myself with my readers in an authentic way, letting each and every one of you into my story to see what God is teaching me and how He’s showing Himself to our little family. It’s an extension of who I am – spilled out to take form in these words and images, and sent lovingly outward to travel the web and onto the screens of whoever God would have them for.

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People of the Internet, You’ve Been Had

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People of Internet,

You’ve been had.

In the past couple years we’ve borne witness to an interesting set of trends. Various hashtags started gaining popularity that claimed to be celebrating the #authenticlife, but they were unusually ripe with photos of farm to table feasts on custom built farmhouse tables, cleverly staged journals with pristine latte art, and gorgeous minimalist home decor without a trace of evidence that real live people actually inhabited these homes. We saw an Instagram “celebrity” go viral for posting an extremely public breakup video to the very app that gave her a platform, only to start rapidly growing a following on her very well marketed (and highly monetized) site promoting her newfound position as a leading voice for being “real” online. Conferences and retreats have popped up left and right with speakers who market themselves brilliantly as experts and success stories of their supposed fields and vocations, but if you peek behind the curtain you discover the only job they actually hold is that very self marketing, speaking, and teaching. It’s a bit like when we find Dorothy pulling back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard of Oz is in fact a tiny little man pulling levers and dials, and its all been a cleverly designed trick all along.

There is no Wizard folks.

photo-1449535423830-de3f6546aabdThe internet doesn’t actually care about authenticity. Social media isn’t actually growing more appreciative of the vulnerable and exposed. Many of the biggest names who claim to have a way to sell you a path to success don’t actually have success in anything other than selling success.

Yeah… kind of Debbie Downer today, right?

But hear me out fellow citizens of this crazy online world. I am NOT advocating for cynicism or apathy. I’m in no way hoping to simply burst the bubble only to sit back and watch the damage. This isn’t just a case of “misery loves company.” Rather, I’m hoping we can all find a little Dorothy in ourselves right now and be brave enough to pull back that curtain, call out a clever con for exactly what it is, and put the illusion to bed in order to make way for something better to rise in its place.

The good news is this: the underlying reason for this trend’s success is that so many people ARE in fact craving a more authentic experience online. The bad news however is that its going to be much scarier to achieve than we hoped or expected. We like when we are seen as brave and vulnerable, but we’re not nearly as in love with the reality of living that out. It’s messy. It’s embarrassing. It’s anything but glamorous. It’s counter cultural in every way. And yet the only way we can hope to see a more authentic form of community online is to be willing to come to the table first, knowing full well we might be out there alone and exposed. It’s risky, but all the best things certainly are.

photo-1447914178647-198e7e4a70b5Can you imagine if we all stood up and saw the false hashtag #authenticity for what it really is and demanded something better? What if we stopped celebrating pseudo-vulnerability and held ourselves to a higher standard of bravery? What if we didn’t just share the carefully curated highlight reel that fit the persona we worked so diligently to cultivate, but opened our personal closets and admitted we aren’t any more on top of things than anyone else? What if instead of self promotion and viral marketing, we just put our work out there and let it speak for itself? What if we actually created the #authenticlife we claim we so desperately crave?

And therein lies the bigger challenge. It’s easy to criticize what we’re against, it’s a lot more difficult to actually do something about it. I could get up on stage after stage speaking against false authenticity and write blog after blog calling out the online culture of deception, but what can we actually DO about it? It’s not good enough to know where we don’t want to go if we still don’t have a plan for where we should – it only leaves us stalled and stagnant.

Claim your personal stake as part of the solution:

Calling out pseudo-authenticity doesn’t solve nearly as much as stepping up to the plate with the real thing. The only social media accounts you have any certainty of affecting for change are your own. Make a commitment to take personal responsibility for your online citizenry and focus on your own domain. Lead by example.

Don’t misinterpret inappropriate sharing as authenticity:

No, you don’t need to post all your dirty laundry on facebook in the name of being more authentic. There are most definitely situations that call for privacy, especially in the name of respect. No one enjoys seeing martial spats played out over social media, and disputes with friends are always better handled face to face rather than publicly on facebook. Most importantly: authentic sharing is NEVER sharing information that isn’t about you or isn’t yours to share. Gossip isn’t a tool to better community, it only encourages people to hide their vulnerabilities even more, lest they become ammunition in the wrong hands later

Take regular stock of your social media “big picture,” and compare to the real story:

There’s a difference between not airing your dirty laundry and presenting the false idea that you don’t have any laundry to begin with. It can be a tightrope walk for sure, but it CAN be done. Look over your social media account regularly and ask yourself if the story you present overall is an accurate representation of the real life person behind the screen. If you aren’t sure, find a close friend you trust and ask them to weigh in. Ask yourself: if someone who had only known you online were to come spend a week in your home, do you think they would be at all surprised at the person they would see? If your answer is yes, ask yourself which parts of yourself would be most surprising, and how your might more accurately represent them moving forward.

Real authenticity is almost always scary to some degree:

If you have never experienced that nagging instinct to self preservation, or had to will yourself to press post on some less than flattering aspect of yourself, its a good idea to examine just how authentic you’re willing to be. Yes, there are those rare folks among us who maintain such an incredibly healthy self esteem that no amount of unflattering photos or admitting of their flaws holds any sort of fear. These are the exception though, and not the norm. For most of us, the idea of sharing our mistakes with the world gives us more than a little bit of pause. For many its outright terrifying. If you’ve never had to urge to hit delete or felt the weight of just how vulnerable it is to feel exposed? Challenge yourself to share something uncomfortable and see how folks respond.

Resist the urge to adhere to a label or niche:

One of the most insidious ways we start to take on false personas is by allowing ourselves to step into a comfortable label online. Nobody is just a DIYer, just a Christian, just an attachment parent, just a #girlboss… the list could go on and on. When we take on a label its often too easy to take it on as a role to be played, with proper costumes and guidelines for who the character should and shouldn’t be. Theres a reason that you’ll see so many similarities between bloggers who blog in similar niches – it can be all to tempting to let those labels define us and start to filter our other choices through those roles. Authentic people are much harder to fit into a box. You might be a blogger who doesn’t like coffee, a hippy mom who also enjoys rap music, or a fantastic designer who’s living room usually looks more like an abandoned daycare than a plug for HGTV. Real people are more than one thing, and we wont all look the same.

The Best Question to ask before EVERY post:

“Are you sharing this to build better community or to build up yourself?” Real authenticity is always about building connections, not building a platform. Authenticity is never about gaining the high ground, but about leveling the playing field. Authenticity is never about being liked, but about being known. Authenticity cant be planned, staged, coached, or branded. It has no cares of what will be retweeted, repined, reposted, or double tapped. It is because it IS. It’s truthful, it’s real, and it’s without agenda. Anything less simply misses the mark.

We can do this, people of the internet, I know we can. It’s not too late! With bravery and intention we can still right this ship.

The only question that remains is whether we really want to.

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When Your Worst Day Goes Viral

Click to Read the Post That Sparked It All

Click to Read the Post That Sparked It All

Friday, February 27th was one of my worst days. We were already walking one of the hardest seasons of our life, but we had been doing our best to keep our heads up and choose joy regardless. It was then that a trip to the grocery store turned into one of the most difficult experiences of my life so far, and threatened to shake not only myself by my 5 year old son to the core. Shaken and reeling, I took to the one place I could openly speak my mind in a way I simply couldn’t when the incident occurred – my blog, my little corner of internet real estate where I could openly share anything and feel like I had a tiny platform to be heard, maybe even understood. So a sat down for 30 minutes, watching my boys playing out the window behind my screen, and put my feelings into words. It was off the cuff and right from the heart, words going directly from my brain to the page, and I simply pressed “post” and returned to my day, feeling a little relief at letting my go of that burden of words unspoken. Little could I have predicted what would happen next.

#youremyheroaidanIn the next 48 hours the post went absolutely viral. In fact, 90% of the TOTAL page hits to my blog in its first month? All of them came from this one post. But it didn’t stop there. A reporter from our state newspaper spoke to me over the phone and penned an article about our experience. Other blogs and websites that run guest content offered to run the piece for us on their own pages. I started “Project Aidan” and the responses only grew. People posted comments, sent private emails, and posted to the #youremyheroaidan hashtag on various social media outlets. Kids mailed us drawings for Aidan’s. People sent letters. A microscope company contacted us to applaud Aidan’s unique love of science and sent us a gift pack to cheer him up. A middle school in another state spent class time making cards and a video to tell Aidan how special he was. Aidan even had a Skype date recently with a producer from the Ellen show about possibly appearing on the program, and now Aidan will be featured on The World Needs More Love Letters where he will receive even more outpourings of love, encouragement, and acceptance. I’ve made connections in the Autism and Hyperlexia communities I never could have dreamed of. I’ve received countless emails from parents saying they cried tears of their own because they’ve been in our shoes, and the post gave them the words they couldn’t find on their own. The response continues to grow and messages keep coming in.

Aidan is still working through a lot in response to the issue. In fact I just this past Monday afternoon had a meeting with his support team at our school, and its clear he’s still grappling with so many issues related to self esteem and how he perceives himself. For Aidan, its difficult to see the difference between different from other kids, and being somehow lesser than other kids. It’s something we work every day to try to address, and Lord knows this situation made it exponentially harder right now. But Aidan is an incredible kid, with so much strength and resilience underneath it all, and every time he reads a message telling him how incredible he is or gets a card in the mail to tape up in his reading fort? I can SEE the response. It’s very real and its incredibly apparent. Every message of acceptance helps outweigh the messages that convince him he’s not good enough, and every note of encouragement helps show him that not everyone shares the opinions he was burdened with that horrible day.

disagreeThe reality of a post going viral though, is not every response will be positive. There have been emails and comments that for a brief moment make me question it all – mothers of other children on the spectrum chastising me for what they view as exploitation by sharing our story publicly, people telling me I’m oversensitive and should have simply ignored it and moved on, people lamenting bloggers in general and how ridiculous they perceive the entire idea of sharing life online, even people who said the incident seemed too exaggerated to be true and suggested I made the whole thing up for our 15 minutes of internet fame. Any time you have a post that gets as much exposure as this one has, you’re bound to find voices that aren’t encouraging or supportive. It’s been an important set of lessons for me to learn as a new blogger: when and how to let those comments slide, to always ask where I get my value from and who I allow to define me, and how to keep the opinions of other keep me from changing my online voice and the message I use this platform to share. Ultimately I had to decide that if you’ve never experienced people disagreeing with something you’ve written, you might not being saying a whole lot. Criticism comes with the territory, and it’s just a speedbump, not a roadblock.

Im excited to see where this journey leads as this story continues to unfold, but for now I encouraged that God has me exactly where he meant me to be: writing, sharing our stories, and living our life as an open book to be used in ministry to others – nothing to hide, nothing to fear. I appreciate each and every message to the #youremyheroaidan hashtag, every card or drawing or gift we receive, but mostly I appreciate knowing we aren’t alone, and that there are still so many good people in this world ready to encourage the brokenhearted and speak love where its most desperately needed. Day by day its helping us erase the memory of what happened that day, and we’re confident God is using even our worst day for good. And ultimately, thats what it’s all really about.

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3 Baby Steps for Starting a Blog

Thinking of starting a blog? It can be overwhelming to know where to begin! With so much advice out there on what a blog should be, how it should look, whether or not to monetize, WHEN to monetize… well it can be easy to feel defeated before you even start. And so much of the information out there is either super specific to a certain niche or business model, or it’s exceptionally vague and doesn’t give you the tools to really apply the ideas. I’m a big believer that the best way to reach goals it to break the big picture down into attainable baby steps, and look for benchmarks that have progress that’s quantifiable and can be tracked as you go. So today Im giving you my 3 baby steps for starting a new blog.

Baby Step #1 – Your blog begins and ends with it’s name.

stephanietaitwritingThe single most important choice you will make when launching your blog is also the very first – the name. Don’t rush this essential step! It will define every aspect of your brand moving forward. Grab a cup of coffee, a notepad and pen, and sit down in a place that makes you feel inspired, because it’s time to brainstorm. Ask yourself the key questions: What do I want to blog about? Who do I want my readers to be? What am I hoping to say with this blog? As you work through these questions, write down any and all keywords that come into your head. These don’t need to be names or taglines right now, just any word or theme you find yourself drawn to as you work through the broad strokes of what your concept is really about. Once you’ve completed this list, tear it off the pad and set it next to a fresh blank sheet. Work through the words you’ve written and try to create thoughtful name ideas that incorporate these themes. Don’t censor yourself – any idea, no matter how ridiculous, is valid at this stage. You never know what later concepts they may end up birthing. When you feel yourself closing in on a central idea, begin to narrow it down to your top three. When selecting ideas to be in this final trio, now’s a good time to start googling your ideas to see if any other recognizable brands are using your name already. It’s never fun to get all set to launch your brand, only to discover all of the relevant domain names and social media handles have long since been taken. So make sure each itm that makes your top three has been checked for these sorts of issues already. Once you have your top three, your first brainstorming session is done. Don’t choose your winner at this point! Its a good idea to play with all three for at least a few days. Talk to friends and family about them. Run them by people who read blogs in your niche. See what gets traction until a clear winner surfaces. Then pat yourself on the back – because you’ve just completed the most important step!

Baby Step #2 – Own your social real estate.

handyicons-colour-sketch-social-media-icons.jpegOnce you’ve chosen your name, the next step is crucial. No matter what your current plans for your blog, don’t take another step until you grab up not only the domain name for your blog, but also ALL the relevant social media handles. The most common mistake I see too many bloggers making is to wait until they’ve “made it” before taking this next step, and in too many cases that’s simply too late and the real estate is already occupied by someone else by then. Even if your current plan is to stay small, don’t give up your options before you’ve even launched your site. You simply never know where this blog may lead, and it’s important to own all the social media real estate you may need to keep your brand cohesive down the line. You don’t even have to use them yet, but make sure you plant your flag before they get snatched up from under you. The most important places to grab up a plot for your blog?

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • yourblogname@gmail.com
  • (Google+ – It’s better safe than sorry to grab this up, but I personally don’t use the platform)

Baby Step #3 – Define your brand visually

branding inspirationNow that you’ve taken care of some of the early logistics, its back to that brainstorming phase. Before a word  is typed or photo is posted, your blog needs a beautiful design. The number one factor readers and advertisers take into account before they even consider your content? How your blog looks when they get there. The visual identity of your brand is the main way people determine what your brand is really about, and more importantly how it makes them feel. The best way to tackle this step is to create a Pinterest board. Remember collaging all sorts of cut out magazine pictures and fabric swatches on bulletin boards for inspiration? This is sort of like that, but updated for the digital age. You can even keep this board secret if you’re not ready to share your plans, but keeping it public can also help increase excitement for your brand and get potential readers invested in the behind the scenes process before launch day. Consider if you have a color palette in mind. Pull together images that give you the emotional feeling you want your brand to portray. Decide if you’re looking for sassy or sophisticated, muted or bold. This is where your dreams really start to come into view, so really put some time into your board. If you are hoping to blog for profit, it’s absolutely paramount to invest in a designer. A designer can come at many different price points and levels of investment, but its the single most important investment you can make into establishing a blog that will be taken seriously by readers and advertisers alike. (And if you’re in the market for a designer, can I take two seconds to say that working with Whitney of Heart & Arrow to create my brand was a dream. Cant recommend her enough.) Your branding board will be the jumping off point when you are ready to hire a designer, so make sure you’re pulling together a clear and consistent feel of how you see your design taking shape. To see the branding board I created for The Joy Parade, just look here.

So those are my three baby steps to get you started down the road to launching your very own blog. Whether you’re looking to blog for profit, as a hobby, or somewhere in between, these three important steps will help set you up for success wherever your blog ends up taking you. Stay tuned for regular features giving my insights in tips into launching and maintaining a successful blog. Feel free to tell me in the comments below what blog related topics YOU’D like to see me tackle!