This is an important blog post, because it makes a prediction. A prediction about the future of blogging; a platform actively used by over 181 million people (Nielsen data for October 2011). Not only will you learn why I think most blogging advice is dated and ineffective, but I’ll also reveal where I believe this entire industry is heading, so you can stay ahead of the competition.
This is not only an important post, but also the longest I have ever written. It’s more like a mini-eBook, without the price tag. Don’t let its lack of cost make you doubt the value here though. I will at least sell you on what you’re about to learn:
…and most importantly, how this all helps me to make a prediction about what it now takes to build highly profitable blogs.
Due to the length of this post, I could have given this information away as a product and sold it for a lot of money. The reason I didn’t sell this is because I want more feedback. It’s public, and you can comment. I hope when you reach the end you’ll let me know your thoughts.
In a room full of 100 people there will statistically be at least two active bloggers. Multiply that by ten of fifteen times if you live in Europe or America. I think it’s a shame that an industry which affects so many people gets so little self-analysis and even fewer people trying to uncover where it’s heading.
As mentioned, this is a long article. You might want to bookmark it and come back to it later. If you only ever read one blog post on this entire website in full, make it this one. Hopefully the length will deter your competitors from reading it, because there are a number of insights here which I have no doubt will give you an edge.
There are three reasons why this analysis includes so much information. The first is that some people trust what I have to say, and because they trust it, they follow it. I’m not going to make any claims about what I think is happening without doing a ton of research.
The second is because this affects a lot of people. I can’t just be immersed in the tech and marketing fields and claim I’ve figured it all out. Though, these industries are generally ahead of the curve that others follow, as you’ll soon see. We are closing in on having 200 million active bloggers online, so I want my advice to be relevant and useful for people in the majority of industries. That’s a lot of exceptions I have to consider.
The third reason is because this is ViperChill, and despite the strange rise in how many people are telling me my blog posts are too long, there’s at least one person that is really glad I’m about to go into such detail.
Whoever you are, it’s nice to meet you. You’ll soon learn why writing this post was actually a huge contradiction to everything I’m about to preach. But there’s a reason…
I’ll get the obvious one out of the way first and say that, honestly, I did a lot of this for myself. Though I really want you to get value from this article, it’s creation wasn’t entirely selfless. I have a very open schedule for the rest of 2012 and, simply, I want to spend a large part of that continuing to grow the readership of this blog.
Social networks are growing at record-breaking speeds. Brand new blogs like The Verge are being flooded with more traffic than those that have been around for the best part of a decade. For the first time ever, more time is being spent on Apps than it is on the internet.
Every single day I take notes about the big changes that are happening online, but I very rarely look at how they might affect my own businesses. This is my attempt to change that. There are more quotes, examples and data excerpts in this post than any other I have written. Some of it was gathered 12 months ago, some in the last 12 days. Now it’s time to link it all together.
A lot has changed from the days when Digg was the only share button people used on their posts and – besides going directly to a website – RSS was the most common way to consume blog content.
Now, bloggers have access to trending analytics data so they can predict which hot topics they should be writing about next. Newspaper websites like the Daily Mail automatically rearrange the content on their homepage based on how many people are clicking on which articles.
Bloggers are packaging their content in different formats like podcasts, video and infographics to reach a wider audience. The magazine industry is crumbling. Partly due to how accessible content is online, and partly because we can now pick which author we want to cover our favourite, hyper-targeted interests.
Change is one of the reasons I love this industry, and it’s only going to continue. I want to know how this is likely to affect my own endeavours.
The final reason I have put so much work into this topic is because of a simple truth: People do not have the time to read your content. They really don’t. We’re busier than ever, have shorter attention spans and more people in our entire history own websites they want us to visit.
How many marketing bloggers do you think wrote something today hoping that you’ll read it. 5,000? 50,000? I don’t know, but it’s a lot. If you did nothing but attempt to read all of the marketing content that is published today, you wouldn’t be finished this year. In other words, it’s no longer enough to be part of the top 1%. You have to be in the top 0.1%.
Before I start to overload your brain with data and ideas, there are just two last things I want to say. The first is that this guide is really for people looking to make money from blogs over the long-term. It’s a guide on building sites which withstand any search, social or platform changes.
If you rely on getting masses of search traffic through some Google Hot Trends stalking or scrape half of your content from other blogs, I’m afraid I can’t help you. If on the other hand you have legitimate value to offer your industry, this guide will make sure you get noticed.
The second is that this post really is best read in full, no matter what your tendencies are to skim. I’ve tried to plant little ‘Aha’ moments throughout the content here as the relevant research points them out to me. There isn’t a huge climax at the end of the post where I unravel tons of “secrets”.
Though I’ve come to my own conclusions, I’ve included enough information to help you form your own ideas as well if you aren’t satisfied with mine. Ready?
The Daily Mail’s website, the online alternative to the British newspaper that was first published in 1896, covers all things news, gossip and viral online. They produce the kind of content you won’t always like to admit you enjoy reading. I’m actually hesitant to link directly to them because you might not get any work done today; that’s how enticing some of their stories are. http://DailyMail.co.uk is the URL.
The quality of their work is generally quite poor. You’ll find a typo on every visit, image captions often talk about the wrong people, and authors in the Entertainment section don’t even get their names put next to the content they create. Probably due to the nature of what they’re having to say just for clicks. It’s unlikely you would see any of these things on the New York Times.
Many headlines will come with a strong opinion that most Mail Online readers love to complain about. They spike reader emotions, and people keep coming back for that.
One thing the Daily Mail do that I haven’t seen anyone else pick up on is basically what I call ‘article clustering’. It’s a tactic that allows them to create viral, meaty content faster than ever before, despite what SEO and readership implications it may have.
Article clustering is basically this: They write a huge piece on a hot news item, and constantly use that same information whenever they cover the story again. For example, they might write a detailed piece about the Royal Wedding, and then later they’ll write a story specifically about the dress that was worn. They’ll then take 50-75% of the content from the original article and simply paste it into the new one.
This enables them to write long stories on the same topic — just taken from a different angle. Increasing their pageviews and improving the ‘quality’ of the article if you’ve just landed on their website (and didn’t read the other related news).
I could do this on ViperChill and make each of my stories seem incredible to new readers. For example I could have shared the Matt Cutts blog ranking tip I’m about to reveal in a separate post, then copied 90% of my WordPress SEO article, slapped it on the end and then hit publish. First time visitors would be blown away by this huge, in-depth content and yet it wouldn’t take me more than 20 minutes to put together.
It probably wouldn’t be good for search, but Google makes up a tiny percent of my traffic. It also wouldn’t be good for regular readers seeing the same content again, which is mostly why I don’t do it, but if I blogged more frequently then it’s actually something I would consider testing.
As Ruud Hein points out over at Search Engine People, their homepage is also huge. To be exact, it’s 22,000 (!) pixels long. That’s more than five times the length of the New York Times homepage at 3,900 pixels. The aim is to get you opening as many stories as possible, increasing their pageviews, clicking on ads and hopefully reading their paid ‘Advertorials’ which blend into their regular sidebar.
From a traffic standpoint, what they’re doing is amazing. From a business point of view though, despite the huge growth the website is seeing, things aren’t going to plan. According to this piece in the New Yorker, the Mail Online brought in twenty-five million dollars last year, but still didn’t produce a profit.
They attract one of the lowest forms of website visitor in my opinion – someone looking for a quick ‘gossip hit’ – and, not unlike Facebook with their billions of pageviews, they’re doing all they can to figure out how to monetise that. The last I heard, the Huffington Post with over 30 million unique visitors and 1.2 billion pageviews per month weren’t making a profit either.
Due to some of the clients I’ve worked with, I’ve actually stood in the offices where this mass of content is created. If you look at the work they’re producing and picture dozens of people sitting in front of large rectangle desks churning out articles as quick as they can, you’d be right.
Their situation isn’t too dissimilar to…
TechCrunch and Mashable are two of the most influential tech blogs; both covering a vast majority of the news happening in the start-up and social media world.
To my knowledge, TechCrunch became the first ever blog to reach 1 million subscribers – something they proudly displayed via their Feedburner chicklet. Though both sites have been around since 2005, TechCrunch quickly established itself as the industry leader, with founder Michael Arrington’s personal rants and opinions gaining attention around Silicon Valley and beyond.
It also helped that Arrington had a large number of connections which resulted in just as many scoops, meaning TechCrunch were often the first to report big industry stories. Google’s $1bn+ acquisition of Youtube is one such example which helped to cement their authority and place at the top.
In the last couple of years though, that’s changed. Mashable – still trailing far behind TechCrunch in feed subscriber numbers – began to overtake them in traffic figures. This transition happened most notably in parallel with the rise of Twitter and Facebook as platforms to share content.
Mashable adapted their content to the social media space and started publishing more articles than ever before; not unlike what the Daily Mail has done with the online version of their publication. If you want to find ’21 Angry Birds Toys’ or ’55 Online Apps to Make you More Productive’, Mashable is there for you.
On the Daily Muse profile of Mashable, a member of their team – Brian – has the following job description:
“He keeps Mashable on top of everything viral. That’s right, it’s his job to find out find what videos, memes, and stories are hot right now, and make sure Mashable readers see them first.”
TechCrunch, on the other hand, didn’t fully adopt this strategy. They quickly fell behind Mashable on all social media platforms, with their established (and far larger) RSS readership just not enough to counteract the changing internet landscape. Their site is still huge, of course, but a new leader in the industry emerged.
I prefer to stick with data rather than personal opinion, but I will say that I’m a much bigger fan of TechCrunch than I have ever been of Mashable. In fact, their list posts are the least likely thing I’m going to click on if I ever see them on Twitter. I really love the tech space and prefer industry insider details and unhindered rants over ’11 Steps on How to Install an iPhone App’.
I’m not alone either. MG Siegler, one of the most notable TechCrunch writers (now part-time) would constantly take stabs at the Mashable team and the content strategy that they employ. He himself preferring to focus on his rankings over on TechMeme rather than tweets. Sadly for MG, Twitter and Facebook are far bigger platforms.
His rants were actually rather ironic, since he contributed a lot to TechCrunch’s ‘viral bait’ strategy, refreshing us all on his “people will no longer use computer mice” theory he seemed to post every few months. He also contributed to what I call padding, which is now popular on news websites. An Apple event that could normally be covered in one or two blog posts will be turned into five or ten, purely for pageviews.
More recently, TechCrunch was sold to AOL for $25m. Michael Arrington left, as did their CEO Heather and a bunch of their well-known writing team. Rumours have been circulating for a while now that CNN are looking to purchase Mashable for around $200m. That’s a phenomenal difference for a site that was the underdog for years, and a huge testimony to founder Pete Cashmore for noticing a trend and capitalising on it.
According to a recent post by Arrington, things aren’t looking so good at his old company:
“He [the new CEO] has to get page views up, which have declined by around 50% since I departed last year (with Siegler singlehandedly the majority of the loss). TechCrunch has never cared much about page views. But AOL cares a lot about page views. So TechCrunch needs to start caring about page views too.”
In a recent interview, SEO guru Aaron Wall pointed out how interesting it was that TechCrunch have actually lost so much traffic when you consider their other statistics. Think about this for a second; they have tons of authority, millions of backlinks, huge Google PR, and a previously incredible audience size. None of that enough to stop their numbers falling.
In this social landscape, the story now matters far more than the brand…
“Yesterday, TechCrunch saw record traffic thanks to a few stories on [Steve] Jobs. These posts brought in more readers than any scoop we’ve ever had, any major product review we’ve ever posted, even more than any Apple keynote we’ve ever covered. And our stories were just a few of the thousands upon thousands out there.”
News sites like this – besides doing things like conferences and sponsored posts – have to largely rely on advertising to generate revenue. Since increasing pageviews is the main way to increase income via that channel, why wouldn’t they be writing multiple posts for what could be said in one? Why wouldn’t Mashable keep writing more of the same content that people are sharing in the thousands?
I don’t know if you can still call The Huffington Post a blog, but they somehow still hold the title of being #1 over at Technorati. A former writer shared some interesting insights with Capital New York:
“What we were doing was not journalism. It was taking original content from other sources and rewriting headlines in a way that would give liberals a justification to be indignant about current events. It was also to find what is generally called ‘weird news,’ and also entertainment stories, like a Lindsay Lohan nipple slip, which consistently attracted three times more clicks than any political story.”
I’m not sure what it says about the future of society when we seem to care far more about celebrities than we do about the people governing and making the changes which affect our entire world. Reason aside, people do. And no matter how much criticism Huff Po’ gets for ‘stealing’ content and including little original reporting in lots of stories, it works.
The regular person wants to click on the kind of content they’re creating. And like the Daily Mail, their site is highly optimised to help people get their fix. Huff Po’s strategy works to the tune of almost $300m, thanks to an acquisition by AOL. Who, coincidentally, are betting their entire company on this model with the ownership of TechCrunch, TMZ, Engadget and other well known web properties.
A while ago someone pointed out to me an article on Yahoo News that had received 14,000 comments within 4 hours of going live — there are over 20,000 right now. That’s more comments than I’ve had on this blog in two years of running it. You might expect that the story covered important world news like a natural disaster or a political debate that everyone is chiming in on, but it didn’t.
Instead, it was just 300 words, accompanied by a picture of Jersey Shore’s ‘Snooki’ without any make-up on. Seriously, that was it. The ‘I don’t want to live on this planet anymore’ meme comes to mind. Speaking of memes, the rise of certain websites also seems to mimic this trend. Pinterest, 9Gag, QuickMeme and TinyChat all cater to people looking to fill the gaps in their day and they’re growing at an incredible rate.
The Reddit homepage which was once home to interesting debates on world topics is now more dominated by IMGUR links than ever before. The community choose the ‘news’, and that’s just what the community want to see.
Before I get into how this affects us as bloggers (yes, even if you’re not covering the news or planning to write a dozen posts per day) I want to highlight one final example, Gawker Media. The parent company behind popular blogs like LifeHacker, Jezebel (gossip), Kotaku (gaming) and Gawker (tech / viral news).
Gawker editor A.J Daulerio started an experiment where, each day, a member of their writing team would be responsible for bringing more of this viral, clickbait traffic to the site. The aim purely being to write things they think will generate a lot of pageviews. Andrew Phelps over at Nieman Lab decided to do some research into how this affected their traffic levels, since Gawker publicly show analytics figures for each post.
“On their assigned pageview-duty days, Gawker writers produced a cumulative 72 posts — about 14 posts per writer per day. On their off-duty days — and remember, each had four off days for every “on” day — the same writers cumulatively produced 34, or about 1.3 posts per writer per day.
Those 72 pageview-duty posts produced a combined 3,956,977 pageviews (as of the days I captured data, Friday 3/9 and Monday 3/12), a mean of 54,958 pageviews per post. The 34 off-duty posts produced 2,037,263 pageviews, a mean of 59,920 pageviews per post.”
In other words, this ‘traffic whoring’ strategy worked. Doubling content production resulted in almost double the pageviews. One of the most popular posts was simply an image of a Chinese goat, and nothing more, attracting over 46,000 views. The most popular post in their collection of sites was published on Jezebel, which displayed a photo of Whitney Houston’s coffin, bringing in over 300,000 new visitors to the Gawker network.
People liking celebrity gossip and weird stories isn’t entirely new, but how this landscape and what generates traffic has totally changed the content strategy of big media lends for some interesting insights.
Though it may be sad to see the general web leaning towards the kind of content that Mail Online publishes, quality still matters. The Daily Mail website reportedly brought in $25m revenue in 2011. The New York Times? $200m. Audience numbers aren’t everything. Even in the product world we can see this with Apple ‘only’ holding a 9% share of the smartphone industry, yet they’re bringing in 78% (!) of the profits.
I don’t know if the Mail Online will eventually make a profit, but they’re definitely hoping so. I can’t help but think of them as the Walmart of the internet. The only way people can compete is to be cheaper (create more viral content each day) or different (no ads, faster site, cooler brand, etc).
If you’re looking to start a news website, or at least a niche website which plans on pumping out a lot of content each day, then I wish you the best of luck. There’s a really funny model that I see in the tech world that you can use to your advantage. Whenever there’s a big news story either:
You might lose a little piece of your soul doing this each day, but you’ll definitely get more clicks.
After this post I’m going to be spending some time finishing off the final elements of my Blogging Case Study website, which launched at the end of last year. I haven’t really talked about it much here, but we (myself, Andrea & the Guardian Newspaper) received some amazing results with this project.
We helped animals to get adopted that previously couldn’t find a home. A painter in England made over $1,000 in his first month online by turning his skills into an information product which he then promoted on his brand new blog. Andrea launched her first digital product, created a competition which received hundreds of entries and was recently interviewed on Freelance Switch, a blog with over 50,000 subscribers.
People arranged meet-ups and made friends passionate about the same topics. One blogger quickly reached almost 200,000 pageviews in just a few weeks using only a fraction of the concepts that were shared. We quoted a woman in Germany in the final issue of our newspaper column who had given us some feedback during the updates. She sent Andrea an email saying how shocked and delighted she was to be featured, attaching a photo (right) of herself and her children holding the newspaper to go with it.
That is the reason I spend so much time trying to create actionable value, and this article is very much a continuation of that. I want to read thousands more of those success stories.
This article is for the ‘little guy’. People like me, and you, who aren’t looking to become content robots, but are instead really passionate about their specific industry and want to build a large audience of like-minded people. Even though we aren’t looking to mimic the strategy of these content machines, we can learn a lot of things from them.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve tried to plant a lot of little insights throughout this post to get you thinking, rather than having some brilliant one-liner at the end which will make you more viral than Old Spice Guy. For example when I tell you that the Daily Mail’s homepage is ridiculously long, you might think about whether showing more posts on your blog before pagination kicks in would keep people on your site for longer.
I increased the number of posts that I show on ViperChill from 7 to 25 as an experiment over the last three weeks and looked at how it affected my bounce rate and pageviews. I noticed that when my site was slower because it has to load more information (and I had little Amazon S3 support and no caching plugins), those stats changed for the worst. But, speeding up the site and having more content on display? Well, let’s just say I have been in no rush to show only seven posts again.
Maybe you’ll now try adding enticing graphics to your sidebar to get people clicking on your other articles. Maybe you’ll start experimenting with more provocative headlines to see if they help your content get noticed. Maybe you’ll think about different ways to package your knowledge in a way that gets people talking. Maybe you’ll see if the article clustering concept has room in your own content strategy.
For me personally, this research and data really cemented a belief I’ve had for a long time. My conclusion being that this blog post – from an audience growth point of view – was a terrible idea. Do you know how many hit posts I could have created just from this one article?
I could have written:
And so on and so on. When I cover why the likes of John Chow and Shoemoney have lost some of their authority in the last few years, I could have made that a separate post too. “How to Make Sure You Don’t End up like the Ex-A-List Bloggers” could have been a pretty popular article.
I really wish that wasn’t the case. I wish the people spending days on their articles for the New York Times wouldn’t lose their traffic to someone copying the meat of their story and wrapping it in a better headline. I wish that people cared more about politics and the world we live in than celebrity nipples or make-up-free Snooki. I wish one longer post that I love to write could generate as much traffic as five articles created from it.
But I can’t change that, I can only look at how I deal with it once I have the knowledge.
One thing that has been clear to me throughout writing this post and doing more research than I would like to admit, is the constant. With so much change, surely there has to be something that isn’t going to disappear any time soon. Well, there is, and that’s people.
I strongly believe that no matter what it is you’re really passionate about and covering, there’s someone else out there who cares as much about it as you. In fact, there are thousands if not millions of people out there who want to read your content; you just haven’t reached them yet.
It’s important to keep this in mind mostly because of how much the rest of the web and other traffic-generation platforms are changing.
Let’s start with search. Do you know what the hot topics were when I was first getting involved in SEO? People were putting huge importance on the keywords in meta data and creating crafty subdomains for different phrases because Google were giving them so much credit in the search results. If anyone is still stressing the value of those tactics these days, find another SEO blog to read.
There was also tons of discussion on ‘fresh content’. We were so used to company and personal websites being static before the likes of blogging came along, that ‘fresh’ content was deemed just what the search engines were looking for to increase your rankings. I started playing around with something called Magpie RSS so I could hack together a way to import my latest blog posts into the sidebar of my static homepage. Every time I wrote an article, my homepage would change a few minutes later.
Once I had finished, people on the biggest SEO forum at the time were telling me how good it was that Google would see that my site had changed since their last crawl, even if it was just one text link in my sidebar. Besides acquiring links, that was one of the top tactics people recommended. It makes me laugh thinking about it now.
With things like the Panda update and the many other Google changes we have to keep up with, worrying too much about search engines tweaks is rarely your best strategy. After all, there are a ton of them, “Just last year we launched over 500 changes to our algorithm so by some count we change our algorithm almost every day, almost twice over” – Amit Singhal, Google
“There are almost always a set of motivating searches and these searches are not performing as well as we’d like. Ranking engineers then come up with a hypothesis about what signal, what data could we integrate into our algorithm.” – Scott Huffman, Google
To further prove how difficult it is to keep up with every minor search ranking detail, let me tell you about that ‘tip-off’ I received from Google’s Matt Cutts which brought back a large number of my ViperChill search rankings to the number one spot.
When writing another ridiculously long article, I did a quick Google search for one of my blog posts so that I could link to it. “ViperChill Superblog” was the query, something I should have ranked first for since this is my domain and Superblog was used in the title of one of my articles. Yet, I was 4th. Ranked behind three spammy sites doing nothing but quoting a line or two of my article and then linking to me. They had done this for millions of sites and judging by their Alexa rank, it was working really really well.
I performed another ‘viperchill [blog post]’ query, and the same result occurred. I tweeted that I found it funny how people still think crappy websites can’t rank, and included a link to the search results. I received a personal reply from Google’s head of web-spam, Matt, who asked me if, when a blog posts goes live, I ping certain services.
If you’re wondering what that is, basically it’s something that I think of as so little and irrelevant that I cannot believe it was questioned. If you log into your WordPress Admin area and go to Settings > Writing, you’ll see a list of ‘services’ that you can ping (alert) whenever a new article of yours goes live. It’s something I set up years ago and have never touched or thought about since.
Though I wasn’t pinging the services Matt asked me about, I was pinging a few with a foreign domain extension that he had mentioned and a lot of others, so I decided to remove all but a couple of them from my list. A few days later and my rankings were back where they should be. How crazy is it that some behind the scenes WordPress setting was costing me search rankings for my own brand name? Even crazier is that I would have never, ever figured this out on my own, and Matt’s personal attention is not exactly scalable.
Maybe one of my smarter readers has some logical explanation for this, but it reminded me how little I want my businesses to ever rely on search traffic. Even though this is over four years old, I have a feeling that things like linking to the wrong domains is also costing people rankings, but you just haven’t realised it.
It’s not just search that’s changing. Recent changes to Facebook fan pages made it so that you can no longer set a default landing page where you can offer welcome information or get people to subscribe to your site. Something that myself and others have spent a lot of time on. Even if you do get a huge audience on their platform, a November article on TechCrunch highlighted the fact that links posted by large brands on Facebook have a 0.14% CTR. That’s 1 click per 1,000 fans. Or, just 1,000 clicks if you have a page with one million fans.
The launch of Google+ and record growth of sites like Pinterest are giving us even more places where we should be spending our time online. The best takeaway I can see from all of this is to focus on who is on the heart of it all: The people who are going to become loyal passionate followers and how to best interact with them, so you’re not relying on pageviews or specific rankings to turn blogging into a profitable business.
I’m not at all saying you should be abandoning these services, but this does lead nicely into my next prediction…
I’ve been a huge advocate of bloggers using email lists, writing multiple posts on the subject. The benefits of having a list have been well documented, but let me refresh you on the basics:
When I first started writing about this topic over a year ago, I noticed a reader of this site tweet about how everyone is talking about attaching an email list to a blog. I think it was more likely the case that just the people they follow were talking about it, showing a deceiving popularity. Kind of like how if you saw five people tomorrow wearing the same bright green sneakers, you might think there’s a huge luminous footwear trend emerging. Unbeknownst to you, there was a shop down the street trying to clear their stock and were selling them for a dollar.
I still think that most bloggers haven’t caught on to this, but in time it’s going to change. The suggestion of having an email list sucks for people who aren’t offering value to their audience. That’s because people are generally really picky about what they will allow to come to them via this channel, and a loyal reader can quickly discard you if what you produce is no longer relevant to them.
Skipping tweets or Facebook updates isn’t such a big deal.
Before being acquired by Google for $100m, Feedburner dominated the controlling of blog RSS feeds by showing bloggers how many people were subscribing to their site, and from which services. The numbers are pretty deceiving though. I’ll be the first to admit that although my chicklet shows 22,000+ subscribed RSS readers, there’s no way that 22,000 people are actually following it.
I’ll bet my blog that the same goes for any other site which proudly displays their count. With an email based audience, you can produce far more stats, and they’re far more accurate.
You don’t have to be some computer whizz-kid to take advantage of the benefits that email marketing provides either. Andrea of Butterflyist was more than happy to acknowledge her technical limitations when we started the Case Study project. Now she’s easily able to analyse the subject lines of the emails she’s sending to see which one gets her more opens.
Once her list is bigger she can also take advantage of smaller tests, like sending 10% of her audience one subject line and then 10% of her audience another. Then using the winning line to email the other 80% in order to get more people reading her content.
Recently, popular internet marketer Ryan Deiss sent out an email to his list about my product, OptinSkin. Ryan is someone who has made millions of dollars in the Forex industry and beyond, and brought us hundreds of new customers in just a couple of days.
In the mail he sent out, he said “One of the single biggest assets I have in my business
is my email list. If you took away everything I had in business but left me with my email list, I could be back in business the very same day by making an offer to that list.”
He couldn’t say that about Twitter followers, Facebook fans or how many people are waiting to re-pin him on Pinterest. It’s just not the same.
Speaking of OptinSkin, I was honoured to see that New York Times bestselling author Ramit Sethi recently purchased a copy of the software. I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time now so quickly offered to refund his purchase but keep his license active, which he politely declined.
When I checked out his homepage, I really wasn’t surprised to see that its entire focus is now based on one thing. You guessed it: collecting emails.
When I was giving my friend Diggy advice on his new direction with a Forex site, we checked out the blog of Timothy Sykes who has been known to be pulling in upwards of $80,000 per month from his web presence in the niche. He too has now dedicated his entire homepage to collecting emails.
Neil Patel, who has consulted for eBay, Amazon, TechCrunch and other large web-based companies has completely changed the design of his sidebar and post footer to cater for this trend as well.
I didn’t come up with the idea for OptinSkin six months ago with the aim of building it and then trying to convince everyone that they should be doing all they can to collect email addresses. I built it because people should be doing all they can to collect email addresses.
That being said, it’s not for everyone. Even Pete Cashmore doesn’t want to receive every Mashable article in his inbox; they just produce too much content. They can offer a daily summary of their stories like other news services, and while many have a good uptake for this, people generally want to read news as it’s happening. Not a day later. Further proven by how popular they are on social networks where, again, unwanted information is easier to skip.
Email gives us “little guys” a chance to have highly personal interactions with our readers, and that’s an advantage we’ll always have over big media.
One thing I really tried to stress when running the Blogging Case Study is that the design of your blog is more important now than it has ever been. The way your site looks is a huge factor which determines whether people stick around for more than a few seconds to check out what you have to say.
It is not and never will be as important as the content you’re producing, but it’s something I think the majority of bloggers overlook. A good enough design is not good enough.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you can find a successful blog that is ugly. They’ve either been ugly for a really long time when other sites in their industry were ugly too, or you found an exception. We’re 181 million strong, so that shouldn’t be a total surprise.
Markus Frind of PlentyofFish was always someone people looked to whenever the ‘build a good looking website’ argument comes up. His hugely popular dating site looked terrible compared to his competitors. Looked terrible. Even he eventually caved in and redesigned the site to give it a more modern feel.
Steve Pavlina, who has been pulling in five-figures from his blog every month for years now has been rocking the same basic design for just as long. He would often comment on how he has no desire to make any changes. A few months ago he changed his header, modernised his sidebar and added more emphasis on social sharing; something he had never done before.
I’m not saying you have to produce something worthy of winning design contests, but if you’re aiming to be one of the top sites in your industry, then please, look like one of the top sites in your industry.
One of the main reasons that WordPress is the most popular choice of blogging software out there is because of how open and customisable it is. If you have an idea or want a certain feature, there’s a good chance that someone has already discussed or created a plugin for exactly what you’re looking to do.
You can take a plain, default site and turn it into the most beautiful, technically complex but minimal blog of your dreams. The first customisations made by most people include caching, SEO and comment subscription plugins, to name a few. But there’s so much more that we can do.
The core aspects of blogging are so simple. You publish posts and they appear on your homepage in reverse chronological order. People can leave comments, and they can subscribe to your updates via RSS. Now, for your industry, please look at how you can take that further. You can find a programmer to do pretty much anything you could ever think of, if it hasn’t been released already, so there’s no reason to think small on this one. After all, the big guys are doing something.
Mashable spent months working on ‘Mashable Follow’, a feature which allows their readers just to subscribe to certain categories. It’s used by a large part of their audience, since some topics have thousands of ‘followers’, and it gives the Mashable team a better idea of the content that their audience want to read about.
There have been over 140 million comments left on the Huffington Post, and they’ve taken advantage of that by totally overwriting their comment system, creating badges for specific types of users and implementing advanced, automated spam checking controls. Regular visitors love showing off their status and accumulating new “rewards”.
Venture Beat and The Next Web in the tech space add a little white share bar to the top of their website that never leaves your screen when you scroll down far enough. It’s annoying as hell, and I personally hate things that move with my mouse. But with the kind of traffic they get on a daily basis, I’m sure they could see within a few hours whether their audience are using it. Who cares whether I like it or not? It clearly works.
Or what about Neiman Lab. Start reading a random article and you’ll notice that within a few seconds, their sidebar does something pretty damn cool. It fades away to a low opacity, and puts more focus on the content for people who are clearly immersed in what they’re reading.
The homepage of Copyblogger went from your typical blog format to, surprise surprise, focusing heavily on collecting emails, and then showing blog posts which you can navigate with a cool slider.
I’ve tried to do little things like that here and there. Like when I added testimonials to my ViperChill sidebar and found that it had a positive affect on my subscriber numbers. Anyone can talk big about themselves, but it’s different when you have big brands saying positive things about you. Or even the little stats in the bottom right of my footer, showing how many posts, comments and followers I have around the web. They’re just little details, but I really think that they make a difference.
I once saw a cool feature on a site which showed you how far you were away from certain members of their team. For example, right now there are three people working with me on ViperChill (mostly OptinSkin). I could map where they are, and then when you come to my website I could have a little line of text which shows you which member of the team you’re closest to based on your I.P. address, and even show you an approximate distance.
If you come to this site and there’s a message in the sidebar telling you “Welcome! You’re only 10km away from our lead programmer, Graeme”, that’s going to have a small but more than likely positive affect on whether you stick around and see what the website is about.
Why leave it to the ‘big guys’ to be experimenting with all of these ideas? Now really is the time to start thinking beyond the blog.
Though a lot of this article is about looking at where things are heading and what we can learn from the documented success stories out there, not everything I tell you is going to be new. Sometimes I’ve just had a point made clear to me over and over again that I think it’s necessary to reiterate it once more.
It doesn’t matter whether I’ve helped cultivate a blogging success or I’ve read about it on some other site, every single one seems to follow the same pattern: The people behind them really love what they’re doing. Or in other words, I haven’t had a single success sent to my inbox where the person involved slaved away and hated every minute of the process.
I guess even if I had, you can’t really call it a success.
If you have a blog in an industry you do not love reading about, talking about and learning more about, then you’re probably going to fail. I don’t care about any automated exceptions or even my own example of getting 1 million search visitors in three months. If you do not love this, then to save you time later down the road, just do something else.
I should probably back this up with a few examples.
Many of you will be aware of Adam Baker of Man vs Debt as he’s someone I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog. Adam makes a very good income helping people to reduce the junk and debt in their lives through his website, and he has one hell of a fun time doing it. I’ve came across almost as many finance blogs as I have those on marketing, but Adam shines through a saturated industry because he’s different.
Not only does his give a shit about his readers, but he thinks outside the box. When everyone else is following their usual strategies pumping out the same old content, he’s leaving his wife and kids at home to travel around the US in an RV to shoot a documentary on living an unscripted life. It could be the most expensive failed project he has undertaken yet, or he might just end up with tens of thousands of people paying for his work.
Whatever happens, you can be sure he wont be regretting the process in-between.
Or what about Marshall? I can only describe Marshall as a “nerdy genius”, and one of the best writers in the tech space. Mr. Kirkpatrick is an ex-TechCrunch writer now over at ReadWriteWeb. He knows more about what is happening in the tech world than anyone who will ever read this article. Why? Because, like Adam, he really loves his topic.
Marshall was hired by TechCrunch after constantly finding hot news stories before anyone else. His RSS and news reading set-up is so comprehensive that he knows when certain venture capitalists leave blog comments anywhere on the web. He knows when some guy who worked for Apple sometime on some side project or something makes a tweet that might give a heads up on what they’re working on next.
He knows the instant Larry Page finally makes an update on this G+ thing he’s supposed to be “betting the company” on.
Matthew Inman is another good example. You might know Matthew by his internet alter-ego, The Oatmeal. With his millions of unique visitors per month to funny and seemingly random comic drawings, you may be mistaken for thinking that Matt got lucky, and anyone with a bit of experience in Adobe Illustrator can replicate what he does. I’ve watched a few people try.
What’s missing from the equation isn’t better drawing skills or funnier ideas or a “huge brand” to compete against but – you guessed it – this is Matt’s thing. Matt is the former CTO of SEOmoz, that company I recently highlighted making over one million dollars per month offering SEO software as a service.
Before software, they worked with clients, and one of Matt’s specialities was creating viral content that would drive thousands of links to their websites. He had so much success that he left SEOmoz and went on to partner with a dating website, Mingle2. Again he used his viral bait skills coupled with excellent programming and design ability to flood the site with traffic and make it a huge, albeit temporary success.
One look at the Oatmeal and you’ll know he continued with his winning performance. He isn’t thinking “hurrr durr I want to draw comics and be like that Oatmeal dude”. He’s dicking around with his notepad drawing designs all day based on what he knows people like to share.
The guys from iFixit flew to Australia on the day that the latest iPad came out so they could get it before their American competitors and give their audience the juicy details first. When six-figure fitness blogger Steve Kamb is travelling around the world, keeping fit never leaves his mind.
Aaron Wall consistently makes well over $50,000/m from his SEOBook forums, yet he’s still writing posts, browsing the web on his topic and researching the latest algorithm changes. In his words from a recent interview, “I write in part to make my thoughts more concrete and to get feedback. As much as anything else the site is a list of notes to myself.”
I wrote the introduction to this post before I saw his answers so I was surprised to see how eerily similar his words were to my own.
Or finally, what about Michael Arrington after selling his beloved TechCrunch to AOL for $25m. I really have no idea how much money he was personally left with after taxes and sharing the wealth with his team, but let’s just place a plausible guess and say that he’s sitting on 15 million. Fifteen MILLION dollars was not enough to get him to stop writing about startups. Probably because he didn’t start with the intention of cashing out.
How’s that for a “love test”. Would you still keep producing content if you had 15 million in the bank?
You can fake the passion, but it’s impossible to force.
If I’m looking at what the future holds for bloggers, it makes sense to look at the people who were once at the top of their industry but have lost some of the authority they once had. My best examples come from the make money online niche, purely because it’s something I spent a lot of time immersed in when I was much younger.
At the time, John Chow and Shoemoney were really the A-List bloggers in this space. Everyone read them, everyone talked about them, and people visited their sites in the hundreds of thousands. John’s popularity was helped by his monthly updates showing how much money he was making from teaching people how to make money. Although it’s a weird thing to show off, his numbers were inspiring to say the least. Especially when you watched him go from his first few thousand dollars in a month to regularly pulling in close to $40K.
Shoemoney also owes a lot of his fame to revealing how much money he makes. His $120,000+ Adsense check for one month is the most viewed image on his entire site, and something that really got the blogosphere talking.
There was a time when each of their posts would receive hundreds of comments, links and attention from other blogs. But for the most part, those days have gone. Comments are down, traffic looks to be down, and I would be amazed if they have even a fraction of the true RSS audience that they used to have.
I’m not saying they’ve fallen off their path to be a douche. I have massive respect for both of them, and from reading Shoemoney’s blog enough I’m 99.98% sure he doesn’t care whether people read his site or not. Some of his articles on affiliate marketing are part of the reason I am where I am today, and I love his rants, no matter how rare they may be. These days though he’s resorted to asking people whether they would look at Mark Zuckerberg’s junk if they were standing next to him at a urinal, so his content focus has definitely changed.
And that’s really the main reason they’ve lost the authority and the audience they once had. It’s because they no longer produce enough valuable information that their audience wants to read about. After John’s blog had seemingly started to decline he posted a huge guide to making money on Clickbank which received hundreds of comments. Many of them telling him how much they wanted to read more posts like this, and it’s why they follow him.
For whatever reason, it was a one-off return to his old style.
As with the case for TechCrunch, your brand does not matter like it used to. People share the story that brand is producing, and if those “stories” are no longer relevant to your audience, then they’ll quickly go elsewhere to find what they’re looking for. Especially when it’s now so easy to find alternatives.
You can have all the passion in the world, but it means nothing if you aren’t telling your readers something new.
“But, even though bloggers are selfless, blog readers are selfish. They (we) really have very little choice when you think about it. We are selfish because we only have a little bit of time and there’s too much to read. So, as a result, we are very strict about what’s on our shortlist. We are merciless in deleting a blog from our reader if the blogger posts too often about stuff that’s not relevant to us. We are always hovering over the mouse button, ready to flee a site at a moment’s notice.
Boingboing.net is one of the most popular blogs online, and for good reason. It’s funny and interesting and everyone else reads it, so I do too. But when I get to my blog reader and there are 125 new posts, well, you pause for a moment and decide whether it’s worth keeping up. One day, it might not be.” – Seth Godin
Many of you know about the personal development blog that I used to own, PluginID. After I sold it for a mid-five-figure fee, it has been sold on again multiple times. Now, the site is pretty much a failure. Gone are the days where it was receiving dozens of links on a weekly basis and held top rankings for highly popular search terms.
The person who bought the site from me sold it on after just a few months, making a tidy profit from his investment. I had agreed to help the new, new owner take the site to the next level at no cost. I noticed they had stopped using the same image style in posts, didn’t reply to commenters and the content that was being pumped out was pretty generic.
I spent hours of my time giving advice on what to do next via Skype, with lots of simple but important things to work on. Not a single thing was ever done. The content focus changed and now articles were covering Jesus and praying more than they were on how to take your life to the next level.
These days, even my custom branded design has been replaced by a basic theme, and the content being produced is just…meh. It doesn’t matter that it was once receiving hundreds of thousands of pageviews, had loyal readers who would comment on every post and had 7,000+ RSS subscribers.
Once the content value disappeared, so did the audience.
By explosive, I mean that what you’re producing needs to have an impact. It needs to spread. It needs to have some real, shareable power to it. You know when you put a full stop suddenly in a sentence and it just ends so abruptly? That. Kind. Of. Power.
Content does not always mean words, of course. My friend who owns Freshome gets hundreds of thousands of unique visitors per month and makes thousands of dollars from the mostly image based content he and his team are producing. It has an impact on his readers, they want to share it with their friends and it’s exactly the kind of content that people come to his site for. It’s explosive.
I can’t emphasise enough how your content is everything to your blogging success, especially in a time where people are more critical than ever of where and how they spend their time online.
One of my best litmus tests for knowing whether an article is going to be well received is if you’re really excited to hit publish. If you know that your ideal visitor is going to really get something from what you’re producing. While writing this article I would randomly run back to my computer during arbitrary tasks just to write down notes and ideas that came to me because I didn’t want to forget them.
That’s the kind of passion which leads to explosive content. Or maybe I’m wrong, and a 12,000 word article is pushing things a little bit ;].
But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? I mean, I could go and steal that photo of Snooki from Yahoo news and there’s a good chance I’ll get a ton of shares on my post. It will be “explosive”. If I keep doing that though, it’s going to be really difficult to sell a premium WordPress plugin down the road.
The ads on the Daily Mail that I can see right now are for Snickers bars and face creams. The ads on the New York Times? Chevrolet and Gucci.
More than content just having a viral aspect to it, it has to be relevant to your niche, and lead to your preferred conversion. If you don’t know what you’re hoping visitors are going to do on your site and how you plan on monetising your traffic, then stop reading for a few minutes and start writing down some notes.
A great example of relevant, viral content that is likely to lead to product conversions comes via Benny over at Fluent in 3 months. He produced a very clever article on why he has no desire to ever live in America, which received over 1,700 comments, 11K likes, 157,000 views from StumbleUpon and resulted in a huge corner of the web finding out about his language learning products.
The important part wasn’t just his headline, but that he had real solid reasons to back up what he was saying. It created a ton of controversy, and definitely separates him from other blogs in his industry who are too scared or too unimaginative to stray from the norm.
Tim Ferris is a great example of someone who regularly produces explosive content, too. You may think that he got some great head start because of the success of his Four Hour Workweek book, but he’s said on numerous occasions that his blog “did more for his book than the book ever did for the blog.”
It’s not just about the content you’re writing either. How often you’re publishing matters too. If Gawker Media’s pageview hunting tactics continue to work, you can be sure that they’re going to keep producing content in such huge volume.
This is one section where I can’t really give you a specific answer, since it depends so much on the kind of content you’re creating and how difficult it is to consume. Going back to my Freshome example, since the ‘meat’ of their content is graphic focused, you can go through ten posts in a minute or two just by scrolling your mouse wheel. It would take a lot more time and attention to get through ten ViperChill articles.
Even in the same industries producing the same kind of media, there are totally different posting schedules you can employ. Take for example the strategy for one of my competitors, Problogger. Note that when I say competitor I simply mean they are competing for the same eyeballs in this space and I think their audiences would enjoy my content. I don’t have Darren’s face printed out on my dartboard — that spot is reserved for an ex-girlfriend (I kid!).
When I go all out on a post on guest blogging I don’t really expect to write about it again. I’ve covered all I need to say. My ‘competitors’ like to look at things from another angle. I’ll admit there is more I probably could have said about guest posting, so how many posts would it take to cover all angles? Two or three? Maybe five if you’re pushing it.
There are fifty-two posts on Problogger about guest blogging. 52! Though it’s over a longer timeframe, that’s a lot of writing on one topic. If I wrote 52 articles on guest posting, every other article in the last two years would have been on the subject. The sad fact (for me) is that my blog would probably have grown faster if I was closer to their side of the scale rather than my own.
Reason being is that every thing you produce has the potential to bring in more visitors from search, social media and your current audience. I would love to tell you that things are going to change, and writing content as infrequently as I do is the next big thing, but I really don’t see that happening anytime soon.
I do however see people making even more clear cut decisions about who they’ll allow to interrupt them with new information. Think about that.
The final piece of the blogging puzzle, as many of you will know, is consistency. Everything else is irrelevant if you aren’t sticking to the plan. Consistent posting (or lack of it) has been a big hurdle to the growth of my site. I have no complaints about the audience we have here (and you’re all ridiculously good-looking) but there’s no doubt I would be talking to a lot more people if my posts had been closer together.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the success of Angry Birds which has pulled in over $100m for its creators, Rovio. What you might not know is that it was their 50th game. How’s that for consistent dedication?
A man named Satoshi Tajiri was obsessed with playing and developing video games from a young age, always trying to reverse-engineer other peoples work so he could see how they did what they did, and how he could make better games. Though he had success with a number of the projects he worked on, there was just one game, one idea, that he really wanted to make.
He was so obsessed with it that it took him six years to put together, forcing him into near bankruptcy while living with his father, a Nissan car salesman. Eventually, he released his dream project via Nintendo, and I think it’s fair to say that it did pretty well. You’ve heard of Pokemon, right?
A lot of you reading this right now came from Twitter. It took them years to convince you to create an account. The founder of OMGpop had just laid off a large portion of his staff and had $1,800 left in the bank when they released Draw Something two months ago. It became the fastest selling download in the history of Apple’s App store before they sold to Zynga for $180m. Oh, and he hired those staff back and gave them stock options just hours before the deal closed.
ViperChill was a huge failure in the blogging sense when I started it back at 16. I had no comments, about 30 subscribers and nobody gave a damn about what I was publishing. My passion for the industry fueled my consistency, and finally, 6 years later after relaunching the site, it’s doing slightly better than that.
It’s not just about doing what you’re doing already and staying consistent with that though. I had to make changes to my approach, and so do you. With enough testing, you’ll find out what really works for you, and then stick with that.
Leo Babauta did this brilliantly when he first started his website, ZenHabits. Digg was the biggest social news site on the web and everyone wanted to be on their homepage. He hit it once, and then again, and again with list post after list post. His strategy worked, and he took it for all he could, quickly growing to over 28,000 subscribers in just 6 months of launching his blog. He might not have social share buttons on his blog anymore, but you can be sure there was a big Digg button on those past articles.
Collis Ta’eed of PSD Tuts did the exact same thing. He dominated Digg, got picked up by everyone else and didn’t just continue the strategy on one site, but expanded it across a huge network. He’s now sitting on some enviable monthly revenue figures.
Danny Sullivan is pretty much the ‘father’ of search news, first building and selling the popular Search Engine Watch, and now running the hugely successful Search Engine Land and SMX conference series. He is so good at turning his passion into a business that last year his company made the Inc 5,000 list, reporting over $3m in revenue.
He brought brilliant people on his team like Barry Schwartz and Matt McGee who love the industry so much that they would keep writing about it for free. This is his thing, and he has stuck to it for a really long time. He’s so involved in his industry that he was invited to Google’s headquarters so that they could show him that Bing were “stealing” Google search results, meaning he got to break the biggest search story of 2011 which the whole web was seemingly talking about.
One of the bullet points in the introduction promised to reveal more about how Steve Kamb had turned Nerd Fitness into such a huge success. Well, it fits into this section and finishes this post perfectly.
“When I started my site, I spent the first nine months writing five short, generic articles a week because I thought that was what was required to build an audience. I spent all of that time writing the wrong stuff, but I needed that time to learn exactly what DIDN’T work. Eventually I realized that I needed to make a change, so I switched to far longer, in-depth, more-researched articles full of nerdy personality that attracted the right kind of passionate reader. It was the constant analysis and desire to improve that lead me to try different styles and types of articles until I found a method that worked for me AND resonated with my target audience.
Since then, it’s been two articles a week, every week, for the past 2.5 years..two articles every week, even while traveling the world or going off the grid, that tackle a new subject, explore a nerdy analogy, or solve a problem in a unique, enjoyable way. Persistence kept me going during the slow months…but intelligent persistence taught me that changes needed to be made in order to be successful in growing the blog, community, and business.”
Finally, I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who patiently waited for this post after I had talked about it a few weeks ago. Hopefully you can see why it took me so long, and hopefully it was worth the wait.
P.S. If there are any publishers reading this, there’s another 20,000 words that I can say on this topic (I haven’t even started on mobile). I can see the “How a P.S. In a Blog Post Landed Me a Book Deal” headlines already ;). Just a crazy idea to make life interesting…
Update: I’m blown away by how much feedback and attention this post is getting. I just wanted to thank everyone who has taken the time to leave a comment. Though I can’t get back to every single one, I do read them all (since I have to approve them) and it’s much appreciated!
Oh, and Seth Godin emailed me to say he still reads Boing Boing.