This isn’t a recipe.
I’m not saying “If you do it my way, you’ll succeed too.” These aren’t tricks. This isn’t necessarily repeatable exactly this way.
[Update: A year later, my RSS count is north of 20,000. Yet everything here still applies.]
I’m not arrogant enough to think luck didn’t play a big part — maybe the biggest. Still, here’s my RSS/email subscriber chart from FeedBurner:
The short version: I don’t know which of the following techniques were responsible, or what percentage of the effect was pure luck.
All I can do is tell you what I did, and what I still do.
Make your own rules
Initially I was obsessed with the “rules” of blogging, but none of those rules actually got me more readers. What worked in the end was just doing whatever I was most proud of; something that reflected my personality and perspective.
- They said to build readership you have to blog at least a few times a week (5-10 times is better). I post at most once a week, sometimes skipping a week.
- They said anything over 700 words is just skimmed and will intimidate most people to the point of not reading at all. I don’t disagree, but I write for those who want more than just a snippet of a concept or a shallow list of 10 ideas with no meat. I’d rather engage a few people in interesting discussion than a lot of people with no depth.
- They said content is important, but so is writing a lot; you need to build a large corpus of posts for cross-linking, SEO, inbound links, etc.. But I feel that posting frequently necessarily means lower quality. I’d rather post infrequently but obsess over each article. I’d rather get 100 re-tweets on one article (because people really enjoyed it) than 10 on each of 10 articles.
- They said you need a variety of posts — lists, essays, links, guest-posts, videos. I posted just essays for a while. More recently I’ve started adding some how-to’s but I feel no need to e.g. make a video.
- Some say you should do guest posts to involve other people and lighten your own load. I want my blog to reflect my own voice; folks can subscribe to other blogs for other voices.
- Some say you should use short, choppy sentences, never use fancy constructs like semi-colons, always structure for skimming (section dividers and bullets), and have a picture even if it means nothing. I mostly use essay-form (although sometimes I use sections/bullets — like in this post — but always with further discussion), I love semi-colons, and I like the rhythm a long sentence provides.
I’m not saying any of these rules are wrong! I’m saying you need to decide for yourself what kind of blog you want, and go for it. Don’t blindly apply any rules.
Wouldn’t you rather make something you’re proud of than something that has X readers? Of course “both” is best, but for me the former is more important. I’m coming to believe that the latter comes more easily when you work on the former, because the former means good content, written from the heart. And content is everything…
Content über alles
No surprise — most blog advice says that “great content” is the most important thing, and I agree.
But then it’s often tempered by other advice like the necessity of a posting schedule, how you need multiple channels of presence (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, forums), how you need a good blogging platform with various widgets and “subscribe now” prompts, and so forth.
Those things are fine, but secondary. Without any doubt, content beats them all. Many of the following sections are really variations on this theme.
My biggest argument for content being paramount is embedded in the subscriber graph above. Upon seeing that graph, your first question is probably: What happened around Jan 09, May 09, and especially Aug 09 that caused a sudden jump in readers and increase in slope?
Answer: Nothing. I did nothing.
Real answer: Articles went viral by the grace of readers. The new influx of people not only subscribed but read some older posts and helped revive them. As time passed there were more and more “older posts” that could be spread and more people to spread them, causing a virtuous circle.
But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t pay for traffic, I didn’t submit an article to the right place, I didn’t convince someone to post it on their blog, I didn’t get credibility with a link-sharing site, … I didn’t do anything. Other people did stuff (more below), and they did it on their own only because they loved the content.
The only thing under my control is content. The rest is luck, and maybe a few techniques described below. But mostly luck. And without good content, luck won’t help you either.
Spreading links yourself doesn’t work
There are great articles about getting on the front page of Digg, developing a consistent culture of link-sharing, the recurring swarms of traffic from StumbleUpon spurred on by paid views, and the chaos of Reddit.
So naturally after every post I ran out and posted my article on a myriad of link-sharing sites (and others).
And naturally, no one cared. Sure I got a few votes here and there, and a few dozen inbound hits if I was lucky, but it didn’t move the needle.
But every once in a while an article would take off — on one of the sites above or on a site I had never heard of (and wouldn’t hear of again) or some reasonably popular blogger would mention the article.
On those days traffic would be 100x normal! And frequently I’d see a sizable bump in subscribers. Hurrah! But never did that bump come from a link-share I initiated myself. It was always someone else who posted the article and started the snowball of votes. Always.
The lesson: Content content content. Because content is the reason that someone would post it or link to it, not because you spread it yourself.
And anyway, link-sharing traffic sucks
Here’s what I’ve found empirically from “going viral” on the various link-sharing sites:
- It’s really hard to get any Digg traffic. Even when I’ve gotten 100+ diggs, the referring link count from Digg is typically only 10% more than the number of votes, which means essentially no new traffic.
- Digg traffic isn’t sticky or active (subscribing, commenting, clicking ads, …)
- It’s easy to get 30-300 hits from Reddit even from the front page, so long as you have a reasonably interesting post title. But hard to get more.
- StumbleUpon is the best in terms of total amount of traffic, because besides the initial influx you get a recurring “long tail” of traffic forever more. This has been observed by others. I’ve not only witnessed a long tail trickle but, as in the case of my more general post about Susan Boyle, recurring big bumps in traffic resulting in over 100,000 hits over 6 months.
- But it doesn’t matter because none of it sticks. My web analytics tells me fewer than 1 in 1000 StumbleUpon visitors subscribes.
Bottom line: You can’t force a post to get shared, and even when it does the traffic isn’t that good. Every second spent screwing with a link sharing site was always a waste of my time.
When I wrote good posts I had a chance to thrill someone, possibly getting a valuable referral from Twitter or another blog. All the time I spent failing to force posts to be noticed could have been used to write more, better posts.
Except Twitter. Twitter is good.
There’s something magical about Twitter traffic. Twitterers like to comment, like to spread the word, and like to subscribe to stuff.
Maybe it’s because Twitter is so personal compared to those other sites. Maybe it’s because identity leads to accountability which leads to trust. Maybe because the attitude is “This is a good read” rather than “Who has the most votes.”
In any case, encourage Twittering. Take the time to add one of those “Tweet This” widgets; I (like most bloggers) use TweetMeme, although I wrote some custom PHP code to get it to work just like I wanted.
(See, from my own advice I probably shouldn’t bother with custom Twitter code, but I’m still a geek… sometimes I have to reinvent the wheel, or spin my wheels, or otherwise screw with wheels…)
Guest posting, done right
Some of the big initial bumps of traffic you see on the chart came from guest-posting, but sometimes a guest-post didn’t move the needle at all. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Your guest posts have to be your best work. Don’t save your best article for your own blog — use it for a guest-post! I know that feels wrong, but every time I’ve gone ahead with a post that I felt I ought to “save for myself” I’ve gotten a ton of traffic — far more traffic than I would have gotten otherwise, and traffic that’s highly sticky.Three examples for me: Why you shouldn’t copy 37signals or FogCreek (OnStartups blog), How to write a cover letter that actually gets read (WorkAwesome), and 4 ways to get instantly rejected by an angel investor (VentureBeat). In my own opinion some of my best writing, and none of these articles are republished here, but I can attribute hundreds of subscribers to each of these posts. Remember, a guest-post is going in front of thousands of people who couldn’t care less who you are, so your goal is to completely and utterly thrill them. I’ve had people say “I immediately subscribed to your blog without reading any other articles, just because I loved that article so much.”
- Have a great post featured on your own blog before a big guest post goes live. You want that influx of high-quality traffic to see something solid. For example, don’t show them a general announcement or a “vote for me in this contest” post. More specifically, do not say “I just published a guest post.” Say that later, or have a “guest post round-up” later in the week.
- Get to know the blogger first. Meet in person, link to that blogger a few times, send genuinely useful stuff to them over Twitter, review something that blogger is doing, mention a blogger in a different guest post, etc.. All this opens the door to a real relationship. Remember that popular bloggers get guest-post offers all the time, so it helps to make yourself known. I’ve done all of the above.
- Maniacally follow the “guest post guidelines“ if there are any. Sounds obvious I know, but popular bloggers constantly complain that people don’t do this. Duh.
- If there are no guidelines, send a fully completed ready-to-post article with your initial email. “Ready” means using plain-Jane HTML (so it can be copy/pasted into any blogging platform), including good images (attached to the email or hosted), a catchy title, outbound links, and a good question at the bottom to encourage comments.
- Write posts specifically for the target blog. That means appropriate content, the right length, and a subject they haven’t talked about lately. A good way to get an idea for a post is to look at one of their posts from at least 12 months ago. That subject matter is probably still relevant, but the specific topic is now old enough that it could use a refresh. Don’t worry about wasting your time — if the guest post isn’t accepted, try for another blog or just post it on your own blog!
Everyone says to “be authentic” and “admit faults” and “tell stories.” All good advice, but repeated so often it’s hard to know what it means anymore.
With few exceptions, my most popular posts reveal something typically kept secret.
If it’s embarrassing, that’s a good sign. If you’re scared that people will think less of you, that’s a good sign. If you know a lot of people will disagree, that’s a good sign.
It’s the controversial sentiment that thousands of people themselves secretly agree with but never had the courage to say. They appreciate and love you for your courage.
It’s the embarrassing underbelly people love to read about — a peek into a world normally hidden, a peek into a story people don’t want to talk about. When it’s embarrassing it’s honest, and when you tell the truth even when it’s difficult, everyone appreciates it.
It’s the story that makes you seem weaker, dumber, more scared, less sure — that’s the story everyone can relate to, though few will admit it. Be one of the few.
What’s more inspiring: Me confidently instructing you how to run a company, or me admitting that I was scared, unsure, almost gave up more than once, didn’t know what I didn’t know, and yet persevered?
Of course there’s a line between personal and professional, between appropriate and inappropriate, between revealing other people’s secrets and revealing your own. You need to decide where that line is, and it’s not true that you have an obligation to talk about home life in order to be authentic.
The blogging software doesn’t matter
If you forced me to lay down a set of rules — even though I really think it doesn’t matter — I’d say this:
- Start with hosted WordPress. You can customize enough, and you can move to your own server later if you really feel like it. WordPress is the biggest platform with the most plug-ins and the largest community. Sometimes bigger isn’t better, but in this case it is.
- Use your own domain name, not yourname.wordpress.com. Not because it looks better (e.g. sethgodin.typepad.com proves it doesn’t matter) but because it allows you to move off the hosted platform in future without changing your URL.
- Don’t host yourself at first — you’ll spend a ton of time messing with the server instead of working on your blog.
- Only use plug-ins or features that clearly contribute to the quality and spreadability of your content or joy of your readers. For example, I use a “related posts” plugin because I found (empirically) that new readers do find other posts that are interesting to them, which increases the chance they’ll want to subscribe or re-tweet. I use a “recent comments” plugin for the sidebar to highlight commentors, because that rewards folks for commenting. But I don’t have an automated “newsfeed” widget, because people don’t come to my blog for news. Indeed, I actively want to differentiate this site from a news site.
But really, none of this is as important as:
Time × Luck × ( Being there ) == Success
Since I didn’t mastermind the spikes and cusps in the subscriber graph above, you have to chalk it up to luck (that a story was spread) and content (to have a story worth spreading).
Here’s my (completely out of my ass) theory:
- You have to have great content even if no one is looking, otherwise the engine never starts.
- Then when you get lucky, something will happen.
- As time passes, there are more chances to get lucky.
- As you add more great content, there are more chances to get lucky.
- Ergo, the equation above.
It seems from the graph that “time” is a major component; nearly two years are represented. This leads me to the frustrating conclusion that a major component of your sure-fire, hands-on, proactive strategy for success is… waiting.
Do it for yourself
In the end, a blog is a labor of love. It’s hard work, it takes lots of time, it’s frustrating, and the only thing you can control is what’s on the page. (And half the time I second-guess myself so much, I’m not so such about what’s on the page either.)
If you’re doing it for subscribers only, it’s probably not worth it. Rather, try being a guest-poster on an already-popular blog. The readers are already there and you don’t need to worry about things like posting schedules or blogging software.
Write a blog because you want to get better at writing. Write a blog because you want to discover what you think about the world by forcing yourself to hack it out in front of other people. Write a blog because you want to make an argument and see how others respond.
Seek yourself rather than seeking the approval of others in the form of “hits” and “RSS.”
That way, even if you fail at everything else, you can’t fail at improving yourself.
What are your tips for blogging? Do I have something wrong? Leave a comment.