6 Non-Obvious Blogging Tools I Use to Run Multi-Million Dollar Blogs

Over the years, I’ve run blogs and content marketing programs for small startups to massive public companies like Shopify, where I lead the content and media teams. In these competitive spaces, the right tools can give you a meaningful advantage—but you can also get caught up chasing shiny new software that doesn’t work.

Run a quick search for blogging tools and you’ll see most people are strangely recommending tools and apps that mattered a decade ago. (People still use Evernote?) Or, they do not clearly describe why the tool is valuable and how to incorporate it into your blogging or content marketing strategy.

This list is different: it’s my hand-picked round-up of blogging tools that made my work easier, helped improve my team’s workflows, and, ultimately, helped us drive more impact for the blogs we were responsible for. Let’s jump into the list.

1. Free blog post template

What’s the tool?

The first tool is the free template I built to run my content-driven businesses and what we used for articles at Shopify.

The one important thing that’s missing from this template is the formatting in the final section: otherwise known as the outline or content brief. I removed that because each brief is specific to both the article you’re writing and the type of business you run; most of the people reading don’t need to fill out a brief as extensive as the one we use at Shopify.

Beyond that, this free template is designed to be plug-and-play, so you can add your preferred details to fill out for every brief or cut the sections you don’t use regularly.

Why is it valuable?

I often joke that all good templates are usually built through scar tissue—that is, helpful templates can only be made once you’ve already made the mistakes. I’ve wasted a lot of time chasing down the details that are now baked right into this template; it’s wild how long we operated without a simple review column!

As you add or subtract elements from the template, keep that in mind: you don’t want to over-engineer any template because that just results in people filling out meaningless details or filling in data throughout multiple tools. Use this and any template to reduce low-value questions and speed up production time.

Are there alternatives?

Certainly! In fact, I imagine you and many other readers will create alternatives by taking my template and making the changes you need to fit your own workflow.

2. Surfer SEO

What’s the tool?

Surfer SEO is a content planning and optimization tool that uses natural language processing to give feedback on your written content.

Surfer looks at the current top search results for the keyword you designate and “scores” your content based on how it compares, providing recommendations for what you could include to provide better, more comprehensive information for searchers.

Pros: Why is it valuable?

My data and experience show that content optimization tools like Surfer aren’t some magical tonic for SEO, but they do work—especially in industries with lower competition. For highly competitive topics, every marketer is using these tools already.

Surfer currently offers the best value on the market for what the software provides. The best way to use Surfer for search-driven content is to create a report for the keyword you’re targeting and use the input Surfer provides to ensure your content brief is comprehensive and covers the topic in a way that matches what the searcher is trying to solve.

I would not use any of Surfer’s pre-generated briefs, but this first step will provide a gut check to ensure your own brief covers everything it needs to. Then, I’d add your final draft into Surfer once it’s ready to get a content score. Don’t compromise the draft or focus obsessively on getting a perfect score—instead, use it as a way to flag if the final draft feels incomplete or doesn’t quite answer the questions Google thinks are important for the query.

Cons: What could be better?

Most of the content outlines that these tools provide are really, really bad, and Surfer is no exception. The technology just isn’t there yet, and I can’t imagine a high-performance team seriously using any outline that these tools spit out. I also find Surfer feels more sluggish when compared to competing tools, and the UX is overdesigned and clunky.

Are there alternatives?

Yes, but most of them are pretty expensive. I have experience trialing all of these tools, and I’ve used both Clearscope and MarketMuse for extended periods of time on larger projects. The enterprise features of MarketMuse can make it valuable for large teams, and Clearscope definitely has my favorite user experience—but for most bloggers and small content teams, Surfer SEO offers the best value.

3. Bear

What’s the tool?

Bear is a beautiful note-taking app that allows you to write and sync notes in markdown across all devices. I’m sorry for the Evernote potshot at the beginning of this article, but if you’re looking for a modern alternative, this is the one.

Pros: Why is it valuable?

No matter how streamlined and optimized your blogging workflow gets, you need a place to jot down serendipitous ideas. And more than that, you need note-taking software that’s a delight to live in and that makes organization easy and not a chore. Even if you don’t use Bear, I honestly believe this is true for all bloggers.

What Bear really brings to the table is the best design and UX of all the note-taking apps I’ve used, along with the easiest-to-use apps across devices. Many note apps are fine on desktop but a complete chore on mobile, which defeats a big reason why I use them at all. Bear is great on both mobile and tablet though it’s on iOS only, unfortunately.

Cons: What could be better?

It’s Bear-bones. This negative really depends on what you’re looking for, but Bear won’t serve as a team knowledge base replacement or anything similar. It’s an app that competes on design and simplicity with a “just right” feature set, which means there are likely some odds and ends, or specific integrations, that it’s lacking.

Are there alternatives?

Yes, but none that I particularly love. Notion is too heavyweight (for me) just to take notes. I do find that NoteJoy, Simplenote, and OneNote work pretty well, but I prefer Bear over all three—and Bear Pro is cheaper than all of these options.

4. Jasper AI

What’s the tool?

Jasper AI is an AI-powered writing assistant that uses GPT-3 to generate copy based on the prompts you provide. Jasper can be used to generate AI-written prompts, outlines, headlines, and even full articles with minimal human input.

Pros: Why is it valuable?

The increased access to OpenAI’s GPT-3 has given rise to a bevy of new AI writing tools that promise to make content creation quicker and easier. You’d be wise to not dismiss the recent progress this technology has made: it’s far better than it was even a few years ago and definitely capable of writing sentences, paragraphs, and full articles that sound like a human being.

Google has said that purely AI-created content is against their guidelines, so there’s bound to be some tension with these tools in the future. But I wouldn’t be too worried because what makes tools like Jasper actually valuable is how they help equip human writers with better prompts and faster ideation.

What that means is Jasper is very helpful for either creating the foundation for a short piece of written content or in helping with ideation. Jasper is better used as a writing partner or a junior writer for short, descriptive copy. If you try to use Jasper, or any other current tool, for writing long-form essays or thought leadership, you’ll end up disappointed.

Cons: What could be better?

Jasper’s pricing can be frustrating for some users because it’s quite high, and it’s based on a credit system like a lot of AI-powered tools. That means if Jasper produces copy that’s unusable or that you don’t like, you can get refunded a percentage. However, the tool does make mistakes and will duplicate ideas and paragraphs from time to time, so the human element—being able to provide clear, articulate prompts—is actually a factor in the overall pricing, which isn’t what most people are used to.

Are there alternatives?

I’ve trialed most of the main Jasper alternatives, and although none of them quite met my needs, I can see many bloggers and marketers getting value from WriteSonic and Copy AI. The bottom line is that I just don’t feel the copy ideas they generate are as good as Jasper’s, but because of the opaque way these tools work, it could have been the way I wrote and described my prompts. I plan on trying Writer, a relatively new tool, in the future.

5. Coda

What’s the tool?

Coda is an online word processor that lets you create documents that feel like apps. What that means is that Coda docs can include interactive tables, databases, charts, automation, and more.

Pros: Why is it valuable?

The main value of Coda is that it allows you to build a document with a bevy of interconnected blocks, rather than just write in a document. Have you ever come across an old Word or Google Doc at your company that contained outdated data? In Coda, you can pull the data that appears in charts and graphs directly from a database or a spreadsheet within Coda.

In this way, Coda offers the flexibility of docs and sheets but feels much more akin to an internal knowledge base in that it’s designed around having your docs live and work together. So as you use Coda to store notes, docs, data, and more, your other Coda docs actually get more powerful, as they have more information to pull in. This is in stark contrast to other word processors where a doc or spreadsheet feels like it lives in isolation.

Once you have Coda embedded in your workflow, you can use it to replace all of the following tools: document editors, (many) spreadsheets, project management tools, internal knowledge base software, and internal email tools. It’s that powerful.

Cons: What could be better?

Coda solves an interconnected set of problems—disparate internal tools that don’t work together—and so it’s not exactly a simple product. If you sit down and stare at a blank Coda workspace, it can feel a little overwhelming, and there’s definitely a learning curve involved. That’s my main caution with the product right now: the individual learning curve will take you some time, and adoption within teams may require some training.

Are there alternatives?

Coda is a bit of a strange tool in that it fits so many workflows and outcomes. I suppose you could say everything from Google Docs to Notion to even Fellow are potential competitors to Coda, but in my opinion, Coda’s value is in stitching together the right set of features from each tool. For example, Notion may offer a more powerful way to create and sync databases within docs, but Coda is a more useful product for creating docs for every purpose.

6. Airtable

What’s the tool?

Airtable is a low-code solution that allows users to build simple apps that function similarly to rich, interactive spreadsheets. Although Airtable has moved away from positioning itself as a spreadsheet, I think most people will end up using Airtable in the same way that most bloggers use a WYSIWYG editor in lieu of writing in plain HTML—it’s like a rich spreadsheet with a better interface and project management features built in.

Pros: Why is it valuable?

Airtable is the kind of app that you can build the entire backend of your business around. Right now, if there is any data flowing through my business, I try to get it inside of Airtable. You can create workflows, automation, project trackers, databases, calendars—nearly everything—from a single piece of software.

Airtable currently acts as both our content calendar and our dashboard for many content properties, and I can’t think of a single tool with that range. The more you invest in getting data and information inside of Airtable, the more powerful it becomes.

Cons: What could be better?

Airtable is far and away the most complicated product on this list. I imagine the Airtable team has had a hard time positioning the product because it can be used to do so much. If you’re already a spreadsheet wiz, you’ll probably find your footing in Airtable pretty quickly, but if you’re just looking for a more robust tool to organize things, you may end up with two learning curves: how to use a spreadsheet, and then how to augment your spreadsheets within Airtable. Once you’ve gotten a handle on how Airtable works, though, the sky’s the limit.

Are there alternatives?

Honestly, no. There are lots of alternatives for individual aspects of Airtable, like project management tools that also have e.g., a Kanban view, but there’s no product I’ve found that does everything Airtable does in a single product. It’s fantastic for content operations and running a growing blog, so I highly encourage you to try it.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is the executive editor on Shopify’s communications team, working on projects like Shopify Magazine. Before that, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team. Greg is a fan of simple websites, spicy food, and writing that’s clear as a country creek.

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