This post was originally published on Live to Write – Write to Live where I blog about writing and publishing with a diverse group of literary friends.

In the first two parts of this series, we covered identifying features and social graces. This installment is all about blogging “side orders” – all those widgets and extras that live, typically, in the sidebar of your blog.

First, in case you have no idea what a “sidebar” is, it’s the area of your blog – usually on the right-hand side of the page – that lives off to the side of your main content area. This is where visitors to your blog will automatically look for certain information about you and your writing. There are dozens of different things you can put in this space; deciding which ones to use can be confusing. There are, however, a core set of tools that can help you boost engagement with your blog and your brand around the web. Here’s my list of faves in order of priority (top to bottom on your blog page) and what they can do for your readers:

Help readers connect with you: Before anything else, give people an easy way to friend/follow you and subscribe to your blog and/or newsletter. You can get all the details in part 2 of this series, but the basic idea is to give readers one-click access to staying in touch with you.

Make readers an offer: If you’ve got something to sell or give away, don’t bury it! Have you published a book? Feature an image of the book with a link to your indie or Amazon page. Do you have a downloadable e-book? Put the image, a brief descriptor, and link front and center. Do you offer coaching, editing, or some other service? Write up a little blurb with a link to an offer-specific page on your site.

Welcome new readers: First-time visitors to your blog will want to know what you’re all about. In addition to the identifying features we talked about in part 1 of this series, you can give newbies a customized list of posts and pages that will act as a virtual tour of your blog and help them get to know you quickly. This is often labeled as the “start here” content and can include links to everything from your about page, a custom welcome message page, to your all-time top posts.

Keep readers up-to-date: Do you participate in real-world or virtual events like readings, classes, webinars, book signings, etc? Dedicate some of your sidebar space to highlight upcoming events with links to more information, registration pages, etc.

Encourage readers to dig deeper: In most cases, a new visitor to your blog will have arrived there because one of your posts attracted her attention. Once you have her on your site, you want to encourage her to explore more of your writing. For your sidebar, you can use “recent posts” and “recent comments” feeds to provide a snapshot of your most current topics and where people are engaging in conversation. “Most popular posts” is another common feed that features posts with the most visits or comments. Many blog themes come with these tools built-in, but there are also various widgets that will perform the function for themes that don’t include the functionality. Another popular tactic for getting readers to engage with you is to import your Twitter feed to your sidebar. This will take readers off your blog, but it has the benefit of engaging them on an additional platform. Finally, though not technically a sidebar tool, the “More posts like this” plug-in is another great way to gently lead people further into your site. Available in a variety of formats, the purpose of this tool is to serve up links (and sometimes image thumbnails) to other posts on your site that might be relevant to the post the reader just read. These links appear at the bottom of your posts and make it easy for readers to “hop” from post to post.

There are many (many!) more widgets, plug-ins, and tools that you can use in your sidebar, but these are some of the most effective for getting readers to engage more actively with your content (and you!). Although they can be interesting, I shy away from lengthy blog rolls, photo streams, badges, and tag clouds. I prefer to focus on side orders that will give my readers a way to actively participate in my community or interact with my content. Give these tools some real estate on your blog and you’ll be all that and a side of fries!

What are your favorite ways to encourage engagement with side orders? Have you had success with any of these tools on your own blog? Have you used these tools as a reader of someone else’s blog? 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She helps creative entrepreneurs (artists, writers, idea people, and creative consultants) discover their “natural” marketing groove so they can build their business with passion, story, and connection. She also blogs. A lot. She is a mom, a singer, and a dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: waggaway