How Not to Sell Out 583

Here’s the most inspiring blog post I’ve read in a really long time: Merlin Mann reflecting on 4 years of 43folders. It really is worth reading all of it, but if you’re too busy now, the general gist is that the productivity niche has largely sold-out, and so have bloggers in many other niches. The general malaise: bloggers writing what they think people want to read in order to get traffic and cash in on it, resulting in a whole lot of unoriginal and shallow content, and even more wasted talent.

When something good happens as the result of an action, we’re inclined to repeat that action. We write a list of ‘50 Firefox Extensions to Help You Do ________’ and get a burst of traffic from StumbleUpon. We assume that kind of content is working for us and that we should bring that formula to our blogs/websites in other ways.

Think about this for a second though: if you use any kind of social media, have you ever voted for content without fully reading it because it seemed like something ‘other people with more time would enjoy’, or ’something that would do well on social media’, or something that you ‘appreciated the idea of’ but didn’t make the time to fully read, watch, or listen to? My next question is: do you think you’re the only one? You’re bringing traffic to the blog and probably revenue, but you’re not bringing it your full attention and understanding. Thousands of other people are doing exactly the same thing.

If bloggers are being boxed in by all the strategies and formulas placed in front of them, blog readers are also being heavily influenced by the culture around social media and blogging. A blog post title looks like something you’d see on the front page of Digg, and thus we assume it belongs there. Other people with similar interests love a particular blogger, so we read them too, even though they don’t truthfully resonate with us. I want to suggest that blog readers are not just reading and interacting with blogs, but constructing an identity as they do so, and behaving in ways they feel are consistent with that identity, even if the behaviors aren’t 100% authentic. Sometimes your blog, and that social media vote they just gave you, is only a means to an end for them. Extrapolating that, your most popular post–traffic-spike wise–may have done the least of all your posts to grow your blog long-term.

Consider again the ‘50 Firefox Extensions to Help You _______’ post. You might need to alter the number and the wording slightly, but the premise is the same. I’ve written this post at least three times in my blogging career. Maybe you’ve written it once or twice too? Yet, we have to truthfully admit that the post does what could be achieved with a few minutes of Googling, either for individual Firefox extensions or for one of many other (already written posts) on the same topic.

Is the reader who just voted for the latest list of Firefox extensions for writers oblivious to this? Certainly not–at least on some level. But the culture around social media and blogging tells us that this kind of content has value. We’ve seen its type before on big-name, popular blogs, and climbing the charts on social media. In truth, though, such a post would have only had real value in the early days of Firefox, when extensions were unfamiliar to most. At that point they went viral because people needed and wanted them. It was at that point the perception of value was created, and the lifespan of that perception tends to outlast the actual value of such content. We see a post like that and to this day assume it’s a great post with a solid chance on social media. We forget to notice that we only read the introduction before hitting ‘Thumbs Up’ and browsing somewhere else.

It probably sounds like I’m talking about list-posts specifically, but I’m not–I’m talking about any type of content that has been done before, and done to death. If I wrote a post about ‘10 Fast Ways to Boost Your RSS Subscribers’ I’m certain it would be a hit on StumbleUpon, yet it would say nothing that couldn’t be found with a quick Google search bringing up twenty brilliant articles on the same topic. I’m also certain that the people who thumbed it up, on some level, know that. But we’re human beings, and our judgments of value are rarely uninfluenced by their context.

One scenario I want to raise is the possibility of writing exactly what we most want to say even if it meant traffic stopped climbing (temporarily), or slowed to a crawl. I want to suggest that this might actually be the route to the highest echelons of reach and influence as a blogger.

For many bloggers, our content is shaped over time by the peaks in our analytics program of choice. “Oh wow, I got 20,000 visitors when I wrote that controversial post on Apple’s launch of MobileMe… I should be more controversial” or “Top 10 posts always give me a spike–I should keep doing those.” We assume that the peaks in traffic mean the snowball is getting bigger, so we start ‘chasing peaks’: a method of blogging whereby we create posts in the hope of simultaneously creating peaks in our stats, rather than to say what we’re most burning to say. We sell-out. There’s also a reason why ’sell-out’ and ‘burn-out’ sound so similar.

The opposite form, and what I want you to think about, is what I’ll call ‘Creative blogging’. We write what we’re most burning to say and what we truly believe will help people the most, or what will have the most positive impact on them, whether by making them laugh, learn or think. A lot of the time there will be no way to give these posts any kind of all-powerful title, or irresistible hook to pull people in. Some of them will be incompatible with bullet-points and take away quotes. Most of them will not lead to any kind of spike in your statistics.

Yet, what’s invisible in your statistics app (unless you take a long-term view) is the slow snowball that is building behind the scenes. Because you’re saying something new and unprecedented, something with substance and maybe a little dynamism, you’re beginning to stand out from the other blogs in your niche. People will begin to tweet about you, send a post in an email to a friend, or link to you from their blog and expand upon your thoughts.

You don’t have a chance on Digg, and perhaps not on StumbleUpon either, but grassroots, person to person word of mouth is all-together more powerful than those. The key thing that makes it so often overlooked is that it builds slowly but surely. Because you’re not following a formula people have already been conditioned to respond to, it’s going to take time for the value of what you’re doing to spread. But it will do so inexorably. And when it does, your slow rising star will overtake those of other bloggers who have been chasing peaks without building something never seen before.

If you think about the bloggers and thought-leaders currently making waves at the moment–the people everyone is currently talking about–you’ll notice that they are unashamedly individual and unashamedly confident. You have to be. Believing that people will listen to and find value in what you really want to say requires that. As Merlin Mann says in his fantastic rant, all the best posts on his 121k subscriber blog started out as a letter to himself.

Lately I’ve developed a tendency to try to tackle huge issues in altogether too few words, so if any of this doesn’t make sense or is unclear, please call me up on it in the comments and I’ll see if I can answer your question more clearly. I’m not quite sure if my comments about the way blog readers construct an identity through their interactions with content make sense to anyone but myself, for example!

Glen Allsop asked me to link to his post called ‘4,439 Words on Driving Traffic to Your Blog‘. Since he is a bona fide social media expert I’m happy to oblige!