One question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is: what sets the top blogs and websites apart, from a visitor’s perspective?
The question has an astonishing answer. It’s not traffic, it’s often not subscriber numbers and it’s not advertising revenue. These are the things visitors don’t see, or don’t have to see.
If what visitors do see makes your blog or website look popular and successful, to visitors, it becomes popular and successful. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before the numbers begin to fall into line with the way people see you.
I call this The Matrix model because, as we saw in the film, we accept what we see and experience as reality (even if that’s not the case beneath the surface). If you can influence the way visitors perceive your site, a blog or website with modest traffic and little advertising revenue can start to look like a niche authority.
In this post, I want to explain how you can apply The Matrix model to your own site.
Down the rabbit hole: thinking like daily visitor #134
We’ll start by looking at the evaluation process. What causes a visitor to see a website or blog as a niche authority?
As an experiment, let’s imagine you’re first-time visitor to Copyblogger (or maybe you are). It’s one of the most popular blogs in the world. As a visitor, you’d probably be able to guess this, even if you didn’t know. It ‘looks’ like a popular blog in a number of ways:
- The average comment count on posts is around 30.
- It has between 25,000 and 30,000 subscribers.
- It has a professional-looking and unique design.
- It displays 125 x 125 pixel banner ads — an advertising method common on well-known blogs and websites.
There are enough supporting characteristics that Copyblogger would still look like an authority, even if it didn’t display its hefty subscriber count. For the same reason, you’d know Dosh Dosh and Freelance Folder were niche authorities, even though neither blog shares its subscriber numbers.
As a visitor, you’d assume both blogs had several thousand subscribers — even if this wasn’t nearly the case. You’d also assume all the above blogs were turning a profit — but do we really know they aren’t running in the red?
What I’m trying to get across is that much of what a visitor perceives a website or blog to be is (necessarily) based on assumption. The assumption is based on characteristics common across popular blogs and website. Characteristics you can work to introduce into your own site, regardless of what the statistics below the surface look like.
Your site can tell a different story than the one told by your statistics. Your site can be a lot more than the sum of your traffic, subscribers and revenue.
The subscriber count/comment count see-saw
Let’s do another quick experiment. Open Church of the Customer in a new tab or window. One of the first things you’ll notice is a subscriber count we’d all die for. As I write this, it’s at 121K.
Forget about it for a moment. Imagine the blog didn’t display its subscriber count at all. Scroll down the posts, taking in the number of comments on each. While it’s not bad, it’s not what you’d expect from a 121K subscriber base. Most posts have less than ten comments.
If the subscriber count wasn’t displayed, you’d probably assume the blog was somewhere in the middle band of the marketing niche — not a niche leader, as CotC really is.
Here’s the see-saw: if you have an authority-level subscriber count, comments don’t matter so much. If you don’t have an authority-level subscriber count, your comments will need to tell the story you want them to.
Some tips to help you do this:
- If you respond to every comment made, you double your comment count.
- If you engage with commenters, they have a reason to comment again.
- If you ask questions, you’ll get answers.
- If you make commenting more rewarding, you’ll get more comments.
Practicing each of these strategies can raise your comment count to levels rarely seen on A-list blogs, even when your traffic and subscriber count is modest. Acknowledgment matters much more than traffic when it comes to comments.
Looking beneath the surface of a hallway in The Matrix (1999).
The truth about subscribers: your visitors will assume
One mistake I made with Skelliewag, now that I’m following The Matrix model, was to show my subscriber count too early. I starting showing it at about 300 subscribers.
Looking back on it, the community participation at the time (in terms of comments) would have made the blog seem a lot more popular than the story told by my 300 subscribers.
If I hadn’t shown my subscriber count early on, visitors may well have assumed it was significantly higher than that.
If your comments tell the story of a bigger blog or website, let your visitors assume your subscriber popularity — at least until the number starts to fall in line with assumptions.
Design matters: here’s why
Something we’ve all heard is that if you want to build a popular site, you need to take design seriously.
I agree, but it’s not just because there’s something intrinsically good about a unique design. It’s because clever and professional design is a characteristic of the world’s most popular blogs and websites.
As you’ll remember, The Matrix model hinges on imbuing your site with all the characteristics of a niche authority. Good design is one of them.
If you don’t know how to code or can’t afford a designer, pick a rarely used but high quality theme and design a custom header image for it. If you don’t have the ability or the resources, get someone to do that for you. It will be a lot cheaper than buying a design from scratch.
Do anything to avoid using themes that we see everywhere. They’ll quash the uniqueness of your site.
Make money like you don’t need it
Take a look at the most popular blogs in your niche and pay some attention to how they advertise.
If they use AdSense, it’s often tastefully blended with the site design and color scheme.
They might also be using 125 x 125 banner ads, which you’ve probably seen at ProBlogger (a blog I know many of you read). These are probably the most visually pleasing ad styles and have become increasingly popular with well-established sites.
Even if your blog or website shares many characteristics with the main players in your niche, a gaudy or unsophisticated advertising strategy can make your site look cheap and desperate for money.
The most popular blogs and websites tend to opt for a less-is-more strategy. They have less ads, but are able to charge more for each.
On a smaller scale, there’s no reason why you couldn’t emulate this. The reason most young blogs and websites end up using AdSense is because they assume no other advertisers are going to be interested. You’d be surprised at what you can achieve by being audacious.
You are what you do
You’ll never be seen as an authority unless you act like one. If no-one ever talks about you, if you’re not remarkable, people simply aren’t going to take notice.
In the beginning, few people will know about you, so you won’t be mentioned often. In that space, you need to do a lot of talking about yourself. Guest-post, join forums, leave comments.
I don’t want you to talk about yourself in the traditional sense. Instead, I’m referring to the things you do to reach out to new audiences.
Carry yourself like an authority. Communicate professionally and politely. Share your knowledge and insight. Most of all, help people. You can’t make a stronger connection with your audience than that.
Because you can’t do all the talking yourself, start doings remarkable things once you have a base to work from. Write your most popular post ever and send it out to your niche’s main players. Elevate the places you talk about yourself. Guest-post on a huge blog. Write something you want to see on the front page of Digg. It’s easier than you think (the key ingredient is time).
Like most things, all you’ve got to do is ask. If you want a link, ask for it. If you want social media votes, ask for them. If you make a habit of giving more than you take, people will be eager to help you in return.
Once people begin to see you everywhere, they’ll assume you’re a dominant force in your niche. If your blog or website tells the same story, to them, you are dominant in your niche.
What this all means
You can create reality for your visitors by presenting your blog or website in the way you’d like it to be seen.
Feel liberated by the fact that your visitors can’t see your traffic, your subscribers and your profits unless you decide to share them. Don’t let these factors constrain you.
If your visitors perceive you as a niche authority, they’re more likely to subscribe, to read what you have to say, to vote for your articles and link to your content. Soon enough, the statistics beneath the surface will begin to reflect the story you tell.
If you have any questions about The Matrix model, I’d like to answer them in the comments here.