Why You Should Start a Swipe File Today 137

Yesterday’s list of 70 sources of inspiration was mainly composed of examples. In this post, I want to explain why the ability to learn from others is essential to your development as a blogger or webmaster.

Here, I’ll outline the process for creating and using something I strongly believe every web publisher should maintain: a swipe file of things they can learn from or use.

What’s a swipe file?

In the copywriting business, a swipe file is a folder (online or offline) the writer uses to collect examples of good copy. Its stated use is for inspiration, but that’s only about half of its true usefulness.

All good examples contain lessons. The key is in unlocking them.

The swipe file idea is aimed at copywriters, but let’s transplant it to our own field: web publishing. What would a web publisher’s swipe file look like and how would it be maintained?

The kind of swipe file we can use is a collection of content, images, design elements, headlines, quotes and resources we like. Think of it like a digital scrap-book: as you browse, you paste items into your swipe file (often literally, via Cut + Paste).

Your own swipe file could take on a myriad of forms: you might use your del.icio.us account, or any other social bookmarking service, for that matter. You could use your browser bookmarks, or a document.

I keep my swipe file with Tumblr, as it allows me to add any element of the page I’m visiting (whether it be quotes, links, images or video) by clicking a button in my toolbar. I don’t have to log in or visit the dashboard at all. I can also follow the tumblelogs of Skelliewag readers and they can follow my updates in return.

The role of the swipe file itself is to aggregate examples of great web content, design, useful articles and quotes, or to keep track of ideas. It’s fun, useful and can be updated on the fly.

The real value of a swipe file, though, is in how you use it.

How to learn by example

When you like something, it’s not simply because it’s good, or because you just do. There are always identifiable factors which add up to a feeling of positivity towards something. Each of these is a lesson waiting to be learned. You can de-construct your positive feeling down to reasons for that feeling, and de-construct each of those reasons down into little, actionable ideas for your own work.

Yes, I just said ‘de-construct’ enough times to make your grimace, but it’s a lot easier than it sounds. I’ll give you an example based on the last thing I added to my swipe file, which is… 40+ Excellent Free Fonts For Professional Design, taken from the notorious Smashing Magazine. There’s no reason behind picking this specific example. You can repeat the process with anything.

I must like the content I’ve chosen, otherwise I wouldn’t have saved it. Things get interesting (and useful) when I start to de-construct why I was moved to save it.

  • I’m writing an eBook and want to make it look good, but I don’t have the money to pay for a professional font. I think I might be able to find a few good choices here.
  • There are more than 40 fonts listed, which promises to provide me with a lot of choice. With that many options I’m confident I’ll find something I like.
  • The list provides useful previews of each font, rather than making me click on each one before I know whether I’m wasting my time or not.
  • From an aesthetic stand-point, the list is visually interesting. I like typography so I really enjoy looking at it.
  • The list could have been longer (there are thousands of free fonts out there) but it seems as if the emphasis is on value over quantity. Every font looks well suited to professional design work.

How to find lessons in what you like

How could a list of free fonts have an impact on Skelliewag? No, I’m not planning on constructing any typographical lists. I can, however, draw out a number of ideas which are directly translatable:

  • A good resource list is constructed with a target audience in mind.
  • Lots of choices is better than few: it increases the chance that the user will find something they love (at least in their own mind.)
  • A good resource list includes previews of each item to help the user make an educated choice.
  • Visually interesting lists are more enjoyable to interact with (this thinking influenced my decision to include thumbnail images in my 110+ Resources for Creative Minds post).
  • The advantages of choice are best weighed against the benefits of consistent value. Anyone can produce a mammoth list with some work, but every sub-standard item devalues the finished product.

How to find lessons in everything

The above process can be repeated for any entry in your swipe file. You can de-construct why a piece of linkbait worked, why a story moved you, why you find a web design attractive, or a million different things. The next (and most important step) is to draw out the ideas you can translate to your own site.

Ideally, you want this to become a natural habit: something you’ll do internally and almost without thinking as you browse.

As you develop this habit, though, a similar exercise to the one I’ve completed above will be really useful. By writing down the de-construction process you’ll train your mind not only to appreciate and enjoy good content but to understand what made it work, and most importantly, to translate those factors into what you do.

So, let’s do it!

If you create a swipe file with Tumblr you can follow my swipe file and I’ll keep track of the updates in yours.

I’ll also use my own swipe file to link out to swipe files from other Skelliewag readers (whether they are on Tumblr or elsewhere).

If you decide to go with Tumblr (and I guess you can tell that’s what I recommend), you can ‘follow’ the Skelliewag tumblelog and I’ll follow yours. If you decide to use another service then leave the address of your swipe file in the comments here and I’ll link out to that as well.

I think a swipe file community could be a great way for Skelliewag readers to connect outside the blog, and for me to get to know you better, and vice versa. Why not share your swipe file with your readers, too?

A bonus tip: De-constructing the process of disliking something is just as useful. It tells you what not to do!

Why Great Writing Doesnt Matter online 246

When I studied journalism last year I learned that your ability to write is largely irrelevant when it comes to producing hard news stories (e.g. a young male driver was killed last night when he collided with a passenger bus… those kinds of stories). The words you use are just a vehicle for what’s really important: facts, which ones you include, which ones you leave out and how you present them. In many ways, the words you choose are expected to convey the facts of the matter without getting in their way.

A painting can’t exist without a canvas, but the viewer should, ideally, forget the canvas exists.

I want to suggest that writing on the web is much the same. The fast pace of web browsing and the vast amounts of writing available have created a medium unlike any other.

People don’t read online. Nor do they scan. They extract ideas, resonating with some and disregarding others. They do so at breakneck speed, only slowing down when a particular idea truly warrants it.

If you’ve ever fretted about not being a good enough writer, I hope I can convince you to allay your fears. Good writing, clever writing, beautiful writing — all of these things are unnecessary in the creation of great web content. In this medium, writing is just a vehicle for entertaining ideas, useful ideas, novel ideas and practical ideas. All great web writing must do is communicate great ideas without getting in their way.

Great headlines hint at the great ideas to follow.

Great opening sentences hint at the same.

Traditionally ‘good’ writing, clever turns of phrase, immaculate grammar, flawless spelling and crisp sentences are relatively insignificant. Clarity is the only necessary characteristic of good web writing. Humorous pieces and personal stories are the only exceptions: some degree of finesse matters for both, though the ideas behind the writing are still more important than any other factor. We read these more for the experience of ‘reading’, rather than what we can take away from them.

The ideas I’m speaking of don’t have to be new ideas — just ideas, notions, concepts: nuggets of information which affect you in some way, spike your interest, make you feel a certain emotion, start you thinking, persuade you or dissuade you, stoke your biases or challenge them.

Good ideas will shine through ‘bad’ or just ‘OK’ writing.

Good writing can’t save bad ideas (or a lack of ideas).

Traditionally ‘good’ writing can sometimes cloud good ideas. It’s why so many journalists make lackluster bloggers. They aren’t aware that their writing is no longer being read. It’s being mined.

I want to add one caveat, though: clear writing that is just ‘OK’ by traditional standards is enough, but bad writing can be a hindrance because it influences the perception of your ideas. In truth, though, truly bad writing is rare. The vast majority of bloggers fall into the ‘OK’ category. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s most successful bloggers fall into this category — their work wouldn’t pass muster in most mainstream publications, and yet they’re probably read by more people (and read more passionately) than all their staff journalists combined.

Average writing abilities are more than enough to write great web content. Average ideas are not. Your words aren’t your content — they’re just the vehicle for it.

Unless you’re a truly bad writer (and I highly doubt that you are), go easy on yourself. Shelf The Elements of Style. You don’t need it. Your readers aren’t looking for great writing — if they were, they’d look inside a broadsheet newspaper, a well-loved magazine or a Pulitzer Prize Winning novel. They want your best ideas. They want information that means something to them.

Is that what you’re giving your audience?

And another thing: social media is a rapid-fire trade in ideas. Writing doesn’t matter there, either. Different services reward different kinds of ideas. Which service is right for yours?

How to Innovate by Solving Problems 146

Any successful blog or website must be innovative. If you’re not innovating, you’re not offering potential readers a worthwhile choice.

Solve the same problems and fulfill the same needs as a bigger site in your niche and readers will consistently give their attention to your more authoritative counterpart.

Innovation, on the other hand, will make you the only choice suited to solving the problems and fulfilling the needs of your target audience.

Innovation is only worthwhile when it’s useful. It needs to satisfy a need that currently isn’t being met (at least, not in the same way). That’s when you start to stand out.

In this post, I want to describe a simple exercise you can use to create innovative content by problem solving. Don’t worry — this kind of problem solving is a lot easier than the kind you might have done at school.

Starting with problems

A useful starting point for innovation is to list down all the shortcomings of your niche or, alternately, the shortcomings of the most popular site in your niche.

To illustrate how you might look at your niche I’ll complete this innovation exercise using the tech blogging niche as an example. Here are some of the key weaknesses of this niche:

  • The emphasis on breaking news first means the well-staffed and resourced sites with industry contacts dominate the exclusives.
  • The niche has been criticized for being too self-referential.
  • With so much news flowing from the main tech blogs each day it’s almost impossible to keep track of it all.
  • It has often been said that the focus lies too much on what technology means for the industry, rather than what it means for ordinary people.

The tech niche is not unique for its weaknesses. Every niche has weaknesses. What I want to stress is that most weaknesses for one person will be strengths to another.

Let’s say, for example, that the tech niche decided to focus on how technology impacts ordinary people, rather than its impact on the industry. Some would then point out its lack of industry focus as a weakness. It would then be innovative to write content with an industry focus.

No single website can satisfy the needs of an entire niche. Solving one problem creates others.

Focusing on analysis will create a problem for those who want news. Focusing on reflecting on developments after they occur will create problem for those who want up-to-the-minute information.

You can’t be all things to all people: what’s important is to solve different problems, or to solve the same problems in different ways.

Using problems as fuel for innovation

Here are solutions to the above problems. This is where the innovation starts to happen:

  • The big sites will always win at breaking news. What about analyzing what the news actually means?
  • Could you break out of the technology niche’s self-referential loop by sharing the implications of technology outside the niche?
  • With EngadgetGizmodo et al. updating dozens of times each day, could you simplify the key news down to one pithy, daily post?
  • Could you focus on what tech news means for everyday people?

A blog focusing on in-depth news analysis rather than news breaking, with a vision reaching outside the self-referential loop, a daily round-up designed to be an antidote to the constant information overload and an emphasis on people rather than industry would be innovative in the tech niche.

It’s possible that such a blog or website already exists (though I’ve not seen it), but it would certainly buck the dominant trend in tech blogging.

In just a few minutes, we’ve developed a model for innovative content in the tech niche. To further show that the same process can be repeated in any niche, I’ll use another, different example.

Nobody is perfect: an opportunity

Earlier I suggested brainstorming the potential shortcomings of the most popular site in your niche. I’ll demonstrate by using Lifehacker.com — the most popular site in the lifehacks niche.

The site essentially aggregates the best news and tips in the lifehacks niche, updating dozens of times a day. It’s a blog I really enjoy but can’t subscribe to because I find the number of updates overwhelming. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Already, we have a problem to start with:

  • Lifehacker updates so frequently that it’s hard to catch all the information without being subscribed to the blog’s feed. The feed raises another problem: it updates so frequently as to be overwhelming.

The key problem here is information overload. Let’s innovate by solving this problem with a daily digest of the lifehacks niche: one post, with links to the best tips, important news and downloads for that day. You could supplement this content with your own lifehacks. The essence of the blog is about providing you with information choice, rather than information overload.

On using this exercise

I’d suggest repeating this process with your niche as a whole, in addition to the most popular site in your niche. What are their main problems? What kind of solutions could you provide?

If you need any help with this process, we can use the comments section of this post to workshop some solutions.

A quick aside: If you have a Technorati account and a few seconds to spare, could you add Skelliewag as a favorite? I’ve been feeling sick the last few days and I think it would help put the spring back in my step. Thanks!

How we got 126,244 Facebook Fans 1216

Some of you may not know this about me, but I work full-time as the manager of Envato’s educational network, including FreelanceSwitch, Nettuts+, Psdtuts+ and 9 other sites. Each of our sites have had Facebook Pages for a while now, but they never really took off until I set aside the time to do an in-depth investigation on Facebook marketing strategies, and worked with my team to implement them. The results surprised all of us.

We saw the number of daily new fans for each site skyrocket, and today these 12 Facebook Pages, as of this writing, have 126,244 Facebook Fans.

I’ve poured all the insights gained from this process into my new book (published through Rockable Press), Successful Facebook Marketing. It was released today, and yes I have been doing my “book launch” happy dance around the house :-).

Since I know not everyone wants to put significant effort into Facebook marketing, I thought I’d briefly share some of the key insights here so that, even if you never pick up a copy of the book, you can still learn the basics of how to knock it out of the park with your Facebook Pages.

The full breakdown

  • 36,891 Fans of Psdtuts+
  • 16,480 Fans of Nettuts+
  • 16,500 Fans of Vectortuts+
  • 4,376 Fans of Audiotuts+
  • 11,554 Fans of Aetuts+
  • 7,479 Fans of Cgtuts+
  • 4,027 Fans of Activetuts+
  • 11,038 Fans of Phototuts+
  • 3,147 Fans of Mobiletuts+
  • 8,230 Fans of Webdesigntuts+
  • 5,294 Fans of FreelanceSwitch
  • 1,228 Fans of RockablePress

Each Facebook Page is run by the editor of the site the Page is dedicated to. Feedback from the editors suggests that running one of these Pages takes on average about 15 minutes a day. We’ve highly automated the process so that minimum labor is required to keep the Pages healthy and growing.

Why this is important

These days there’s a huge focus on Twitter as a source of new visitors to your site, but on our blogs, we’ve discovered that Facebook traffic regularly beats Twitter traffic, even when comparing a Twitter account that is bigger than our Facebook Page. We’ve discovered that, in general, Facebook Fans convert far better into visits and pageviews than Twitter followers.

For example, on Psdtuts+ we have 36,891 Facebook Fans and 42,472 Twitter followers. Even though our Twitter account is bigger, Facebook regularly sends more traffic.

And then there’s this day, where we had 12,638 visits in 24 hours, all from Facebook:

If you’re reading this, you probably care enough about social media and attracting new visitors that you have a Twitter account. With the above in mind, it’s important that you also create a Facebook Page for your website or business as soon as possible. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can begin building your core group of fans.

If you want in-depth advice on how to set up your page for highest conversions from visitors into Facebook fans, well, you’ll need my book for that ;-).

Strategy 1: The Like Box

No single factor bumped up our daily new Facebook fans more than adding a ‘Like Box‘ to each of our sites. Not only does the Like Box give your website some fantastic social proof, it makes it very easy for people to ‘Like’ your Page without ever leaving your site. If you only do one thing to promote your Facebook Page, it should be this.

The Like Box we added to Nettuts+.

The arrow points to the day when we first added the Like Box to Nettuts+.

Strategy 2: Fan-only Content

With a little bit of effort, you can create a landing page for your Facebook Page that only triggers when the person visiting it isn’t already a fan. They’ll be greeted with a call to action to Like the Page, and some enticing goodies they’ll receive if they do so. Once they become a fan, the goodies are ‘unlocked’. Here’s the funnel we use on the Psdtuts+ Facebook Page:

As soon as the visitor clicks ‘Like’ and becomes our fan, the page reloads with a fan-only tutorial they can download immediately. This system is another key reason why our fan count has grown so quickly across all our sites. There’s no better way to convert visitors into fans than a call to action and exclusive fan-only content.

Setting up this system requires a little bit of technical savvy (or technical help), but it’s something anyone can do if they know how. You’ll find the instructions for the system we use inside the pages of Successful Facebook Marketing.

Strategy 3: Automation

When people become your fan on Facebook, they’re expressing that they’re interested in what you do. If you run a website, it’s likely that they want to know about new content you publish. If you run a business, they probably want to know about new products or services you offer.

You can save yourself countless hours in admin of your Facebook Page by automating updates as much as possible. The simplest way to do this is to add your RSS feed to your Facebook Page so that new content is automatically cross-posted to Facebook.

Once you’re logged in to your Page, click ‘Edit Page’ and then select ‘Apps’ from the left-hand menu. You should see something that looks like this:

Make sure the ‘Notes’ app is installed, then click ‘Go to App’ underneath the description of the app. You’ll be met with a customized Page for your notes content. You want to look at the bottom of the left-hand sidebar for a small link that says ‘Edit import settings’.

This will take you to a page where you can paste in an RSS feed to import. Once that’s done, Facebook will start automatically publishing new content from the feed to your Facebook Page. If the content has an accompanying image, it will automatically use that image as a thumbnail for the update, meaning that even auto-generated content looks great.

Even though we do publish some great custom content on our Facebook Pages, the majority of content we publish is piped in automatically via RSS. It takes zero time to maintain this, but our fans love being able to keep up with new content this way and are constantly posting comments and ‘Liking’ these automatic updates.

Strategy 4: Targeted Content

As I mentioned above, we publish great custom content alongside our automatic updates.

When we want traffic we publish questions about our content, we ask for opinions on our content, or we recommend our content – and every update has a link back to our site. Not only does this bring traffic, it also heightens the feeling of community on the Page.

When we want discussion we use Facebook’s Questions feature, publish polls and ask for opinions. Comments are extremely important for the growth of your Page because when a user posts a comment it also shows up in their News Feed to be seen by all their friends.

When we want to build loyalty we interact with fans in the comments, thank them for their support, run special promotions and give fan-only gifts and bonuses.

When we want sales we post teaser updates about new products, share images of a products in development, share news about new products, and give fans discount coupons.

And though we are not in this field, if we wanted clients we would post examples of newly completed work, share testimonials from clients, post about our services and talk about what we’re currently working on.

That’s a good start, but…

Though these 4 key strategies are an essential part of building popular Facebook Pages, there are so many more things you can do to grow faster and build a fanbase who adore you, your website or your business. Unfortunately, good information on Facebook Marketing is scarce. Facebook Pages are are only just starting to be understood by marketers, and those that do ‘get it’ are reluctant to share what they know. I guess they don’t want to give up their $500/hour consulting fees… and who can blame them?

Luckily, consulting for big companies is not my thing. I’m a writer. So, when I realized how powerful these strategies were I couldn’t help but to start writing…

Ask the Readers Where are the Holes in your Leaky Bucket 175

As bloggers, webmasters and web workers, none of us are perfect at what we do. From the A-listers to the Z-listers, there are things we all need to work on.

For the sake of illustration, try to think of yourself as a leaky bucket (hopefully something you don’t do too often). The little holes in the bucket are flaws, mistakes, areas in need of improvement.

The water represents lost opportunities — whether those opportunities are new feed subscribers, more traffic, more links, better networking relationships, and so on. Close up more of those holes, and you retain more opportunities to move towards your goals.

You’ll never close them all, but you can work to close as many as possible. The process begins with pin-pointing where you need to improve.

My most critical areas that need improvement are:

  • My off-blog promotion. Since I’ve started freelance blogging I rarely make the time to write guest-posts and ask for links. The way I divide my time also prevents me from commenting elsewhere as much as I’d like.
  • My ability to execute long-term plans. It’s been several weeks since I planned to start writing my eBook and I still haven’t made the time.
  • My methods of processing harsh criticism. 99% of responses to my work are either positive or, if not positive, constructive. There will always be that 1% which is written to deliberately sting. While I’ve become a lot better at dealing with this, it’s still something that gets to me more than it should.
  • My idea generation methods. If anything, I have too many post ideas for Skelliewag and don’t make enough time to use them. The other blogs I write for don’t really suit those ideas. For them, I do find it a weekly struggle to come up with post topics. I need to change the way I approach idea generation in my freelance work.

While it’s difficult to lay out your flaws and mistakes like that (it was for me), I now have four central areas I can focus on improving. I think the exercise has the potential to make anyone a better blogger or webmaster.

Where are the holes in your leaky bucket?

I’ll be picking out another favorite commenter this week. Here’s a quick summary of what I’ll be looking for:

  • A useful and insightful answer — something others can learn from.
  • Engagement with other commenters and reflection on their answers.
  • Active participation in the discussion.

What I won’t be taking into consideration:

  • Names, identities and affiliations. I’ll be judging by comments alone.

* * *

On success

Last week’s discussion on what’s your definition of success? has probably been the most interesting ‘Ask the Readers’ session we’ve had here. Aside from setting out our own ideas of what we require to feel successful, there was also a rather philosophical side discussion about the very nature of success.

My definition of success was to publish an eBook/book and use it to generate an income significant enough to quit my part-time job and support myself financially doing something I love.

A few commenters felt this was too modest or not really success, as it’s just the fulfillment of a goal that seems quite achievable, rather than a really big goal, or a long-term journey.

I want to take a moment to explain why I still stand behind this definition.

If you don’t allow for multiple successes in different stages and areas of your life, or if you define success only as an end-point — the last goal — my question in return would be, when are you ever able to feel successful? If you define success as a journey, where does it end? Does it ever end?

I suspect the idea that success is something that must be constantly just out of reach is what keeps millionaires feeling poor. If I generate enough income blogging to quit my part-time job, I will have achieved something I never really thought possible when I started Skelliewag several months ago.

Just because it now seems like an attainable goal, I don’t think I should move my success marker out of reach. I want to be able to experience that feeling of success. Of course, I won’t stop blogging after it happens. I’ll set new goals and work towards them. But I will already consider myself having succeeded in what I set out to do.

I was particularly impressed with the quality of the comments this week, and how fluidly commenters were engaging with what others had written.

Though we disagreed in our ideas about success, this week’s most valuable commenter is Alfa King, who blogs about writing. He provided thoughtful answers in the thread and expanded them on his own blog. I particularly liked his blueprint of what we need to do in order to be successful:

(i) have an intense desire to work towards the goal(s);
(ii) have conviction in what we are doing;
(iii) have commitment and enthusiasm to achieve the goal(s);
(iv) be dedicated in our action;
(v) indulge in hard work to make things happen; (don’t wait for things to happen)
(vi) be persistent;
(vii) be consistent;
(viii) be responsible;
(ix) have positive belief; (have inspiration not desperation); and last but not least,
(x) be prepared to give more than we expect to get.

One thing the discussion illustrated is that success is subjective. It’s a word that gets used a lot, but it seems like few people give it the same meaning. It’s something to think about, and it has ramifications across all areas of our lives. When you talk about success with others, are you really talking about the same thing?

If you’d like to continue the discussion about success (and whether my definition is really success at all), I’ll be responding to comments in last week’s thread. I’d like to keep the comments here reserved for the leaky bucket question, to avoid things getting muddled.

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!

A guide to Creating a Minimalist Website 63

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I’m a big fan of simplicity, usability and removing web clutter.

I recently read A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home at Zen Habits and it had quite an effect on me — and others too, if 2399 Diggs are anything to go by. There are clearly a number of strong benefits to simplicity in the home, but what about simplicity on the web?

This question got me thinking about the benefits of approaching our blogs, websites and content with a minimalist mindset. What follows will be a complete guide to creating a minimalist website. The guide is broken up into individual elements.

Complete minimalism isn’t for everyone but I hope you’ll consider each element individually and on its own merits. There may be just one or two minimalist things you could do to imbue your website with a little more simplicity and clarity.

What is minimalism?

For some, minimalism recalls images of white rooms with no color or features. In other words, reduction for its own case. Its correct meaning refers to the art movement of the same name, but it’s often used colloquially to “designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials.”

It’s this colloquial meaning which I’m discussing here. For me, minimalism means:

“… subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.” [Source] / removing any elements or words which do not support your content’s raison d’être / merging aesthetics and functionality / “… consciously choosing to have fewer things, but knowing that what you do have will be of high quality and truly worth cherishing.” [Source] / focusing on what is essential.

What are the advantages of web minimalism?

Most websites and blogs are filled with noise. Extraneous images, widgets, flashing advertisements and waffling text can be seen everywhere. In comparison, websites which focus on clarity and essential features can seem like zen gardens. They provide a refreshing break from the rest of the web and your readers will appreciate this sense of calm.

More importantly, stripping down your website will give more focus and strength to the things you want visitors to interact with most of all: its content, and other vital features.

The elements of simplicity

Saying more in less words. A refreshing minimalist design will not count for much if your content is puffy and bloated. Muhammad Saleem has given some excellent advice on communicating more meaning in less words.

The advantages of saying more in less words is that it increases clarity while decreasing the time investment needed to extract meaning from your content. This will add extra value to everything you write.

See it: [Copyblogger and The Laws of Simplicity]

. . .

Greater focus on content. A minimalist design means there is less to distract readers from interacting with your content. A minimalist design can also mean you need to do less work to make your text look visually interesting. If your website is covered in images and other high-intensity items then text will inevitably look bland in comparison. If the opposite tack is taken and the text is allowed to speak for itself the result can be quite elegant.

See it: [Daring Fireballkottke.org and JustinBlanton.com]

. . .

Merging aesthetics and functionality. Most websites do both separately, housing content and navigational elements inside images and color arrangements which serve no other purpose than to be pretty.

Minimalist websites, however, do both at the same time, often allowing content and navigational elements to enter the realm of the aesthetic. This can be achieved by using text and fonts to create visual interest, or by using images as navigational elements. Text can also be used to create color and shape.

These approaches ensure visual elements don’t distract from your site’s essentials because they are your site’s essentials.

See it: [Huddle TogetherHappy CogBokardo and Readme.cc]

. . .

Make use of whitespace. The empty areas of your screen are called ‘whitespace’. Whitespace is often treated like a space waiting to be filled, or as wasted space. This is not so at all: after all, why do you think the pages of most books have such big margins?

White space helps to frame the elements on the page and focus our eyes. It also prevents the page from becoming so busy that our eyes find it difficult to navigate.

A note: whitespace does not have to be white!

See it: [Airbag IndustriesJeremyBoles.comDesign Notes]

. . .

Make graphics useful. If you like graphics and want to use many of them, make sure most are useful beyond aesthetics. Use them to represent something, to link somewhere, or to help your visitors interact with your site. Graphics for their own sake can distract from the central message of your content.

See it: [ExtratastyMark Bixby]

. . .

Make your content tall. A thinner header image allows more of your content to be seen in the first screen impression of your website. This can help to draw in new visitors to your site straight away, and increase the visual strength of your content.

See it: [Seth’s BlogPaul Stamatiou’s Blogkottke.orgJustinBlanton.com]

. . .

Declutter. The most important element of a minimalist website is that it be free of clutter. I’ve written 50 tips on removing clutter from your website which should give you some pointers on where to start.

Visitors do not come to your site for pretty widgets and bells and whistles. They come for the content and the essentials of any website: the comments, an about page, a contact page, archives, categories, RSS link, and a few other creative things. Removing unnecessary elements will increase the strength and potency of what’s important.

See it: [37signalsCoding HorrorWebreakstuff]

Some inspiration

Here is a list of 10 minimalist blogs and 27 minimalist websites I drew on for some of the above examples. I also recommend A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home, which inspired this post. It explains in more detail some of the benefits and principles of minimalism, and this post is respectfully named after it.

How to Write the Perfect About Page by Numbers 150

New visitors to your site want to know straight away what your site has to offer them. A prominent link to an ‘About’ page says: “Want to know what this site is about? The answer is right here.”

Usability should be conversational. A new visitor asks, internally: “What is this site about?” Your About page provides a quick and obvious answer. It’s one of the most powerful tools you can use to turn first-time visitors into loyal readers.

Once you have an ‘About’ page, though, the question becomes: what on earth do I put here?

The current model is a hang-over from the days when blogs were nothing more than personal journals. ‘About’ inevitably meant a short bio of the author written in uneasy 3rd person. This was probably carried over from its nearest offline equivalent: the kind of short author bio you see on the glossy sleeves of book-covers.

There’s nothing wrong with using books as a model, but most ‘About’ pages miss the most important half of the equation. Every good book has a ‘blurb’ on the back or inside sleeve, hinting at the value inside. This is the thing readers are most interested in. The same applies for blogs and websites.

Think of your ‘About’ page like the selling text in a book. The selling text (blurb and author bio) is designed to persuade the reader of the book’s value and the author’s credentials. Your ‘About’ page should be no different.

Writing a good About page isn’t as hard as it sounds. Here’s a simple formula for you. There’s no need to include the questions: the sequence of answers should form the building blocks of a really solid ‘About’ page.

A note: personal bloggers don’t get out of this one. You still need a blurb, you can still explain what your site has to offer, who it’s written for and what the benefits are. You’re writing for an audience, just like anyone else.

The blurb should always come first

1. What does your site have to offer?

Do you keep readers up to date with the latest news in your niche? Do you publish tips and guides? How often? In other words: what kind of content do you produce?

2. Who is it written for?

If you can, describe what kinds of people your site should appeal to. Keep it broad enough that anyone interested in your topics would be included in at least one of the types of people you’ve listed.

3. What are the benefits?

This is where you describe the benefits of reading your content. You don’t just write about getting out of debt – you give readers helpful tips to overcome their own debt. You don’t just write about current events – you keep readers informed about what’s important.

Below it, the bio

Now potential readers have an idea of what you have to offer them, they might just be interested enough to find out whether you’re worth listening to or not.

Pick out a book from your bookshelf and find the author’s biography. A good bio will be written in order of interest to the reader. For example:

How many other books the author has written.

How many awards they’ve won (if any).

The titles of other books you may have heard of by that author.

How old the author is.

Their interests and hobbies.

Where they live, and with whom.

As someone trying to decide whether you should listen to what this author has to say, the above few lines are very useful. If they’ve written other books before, or won awards, you can deduce that they’re a writer worth taking seriously.

On the web, however, most author bios are written upside down. If they were a bio on the inside sleeve of a book, they’d probably look something like this:

Where they live, and with whom.

Their interests and hobbies.

How old the author is.

The titles of other books you may have heard of by that author.

How many awards they’ve won (if any).

How many other books the author has written.

Biographical information won’t be of interest to your readers until they’ve developed an attachment to the author. In the beginning, you simply want to know whether they know their stuff. I suspect the reason many bloggers and webmasters trip up on this point is that they feel uneasy selling themselves, or feel as if they’re boasting. Not so. You’re doing something very important: helping the reader to trust you.

The perfect bio

1. What qualifies you to write on the topics you cover?

If you have formal credentials, list them. If you’ve participated in your niche informally (as a hobby, for example) explain how you’ve engaged with it and for how long. If you have no qualifications other than your passion, explain that. If you’re a complete beginner then make it clear. Nothing qualifies you better to write for other beginners.

2. Do you have any other claims to fame?

If you’ve written for other blogs or websites, list them. Have you been published? Quoted? Received an award or a prize? Anything else that might persuade readers that you’re worth listening to goes here.

3. Who are you?

This is where you put the stuff that usually comes first: where you live, your interests, your story, etc. Most prospective readers won’t go through this. Instead, it’s mainly for the benefit of loyal readers who want to get to know you a little better.

At Skelliewag.org, my About page mentions that I’m a woman towards the bottom of the author bio section. First-time visitors often refer to me as ‘he’ – assuming that, in the absence of a distinctly feminine name, I’m male (most if not all popular bloggers in my niche are).

Loyal readers on the other hand almost always know I’m a woman and a few other things about me from my author bio. I suspect prospective readers take in only enough to work out what the site is about and how I’m qualified, while repeat visitors re-visit the About page to learn more about me, now that they have a reason to care.

The kind of ‘About’ page outlined above gives new visitors the information they want while also allowing established readers to get to know you better. That’s why I think it’s the perfect ‘About’ page.

How to Create and Publish Your Own eBook with a 0 budget 53

eBooks are books or pamphlets in a digital format. They’re a unique form of web content because they’re inherently portable. An eBook can be shared and spread far beyond your web presence.

There are a number of ways bloggers, webmasters or any web user can leverage an eBook to achieve a variety of outcomes, from building a brand to attracting traffic, and everything in between.

In this post I want to present a guide to creating your own eBooks from the idea stage right up until distribution. I’ll also describe various ways you can use the eBooks you create to build buzz and achieve individual outcomes. Best of all, the process can be completed without spending a cent.

What could I do with an eBook?

  • Encourage RSS subscriptions — you could use the Feedburner FeedFlare service (accessible via the ‘Optimize’ tab inside your Feedburner control panel) to add a link to your eBook at the bottom of each feed you publish. Let your readers know that each feed subscription comes with a bonus eBook. You can see this method in action at ChrisG.com. Here are instructions on how to do it.
  • Package archives — you could celebrate each year by offering your blog or website’s archives in eBook format. This is a great way to get new visitors up to speed on what you do. You can see this method in action at Boing Boing.
  • Publicize your brand — encourage those who download your eBook to share it however they like. As long as it clearly features what you want to promote (yourself, your site, or your products) you will be benefiting from the free advertising.
  • Go viral – Seth Godin’s eBooks have been instrumental to his success. If your ideas are interesting enough they could go viral — an incredibly powerful promotion of both yourself and your product. Seth’s most famous eBook, Unleashing the Ideavirus, was later published in both paperback and hardcover.
  • And more — take some time to think about how you could best leverage your eBook. What are you trying to do with it? What will be the best method to achieve your goal?

What form could my eBook take?

What you include in your eBook will depend on what you’re trying to achieve with it. I’ll list some broad approaches and describe how they could be useful.

  • Digital book — the most traditional form of eBook, the digital book, is usually upwards of a hundred pages and presents itself as the kind of book you might buy at a bookstore. Unleashing the Ideavirus, for example, is 197 pages. This type of eBook is your best bet at going viral or being widely circulated because it packs a lot of value. This type of eBook will typically be broken into chapters on particular topics and contain more than one idea. While it has the potential for the greatest gains, it is also obviously the most time consuming option.
  • Manifesto — this type of eBook is less time consuming to create but also retains the potential to go viral because it focuses on communicating one idea in 1 to 25 pages. A great example of a manifesto-style eBook is Tim Ferriss’ The Low Information Diet, at 16 pages. What is your best idea? Your number one tip? It may just be the perfect idea for a manifesto. Here’s another example, this time written for bloggers: Killer Flagship Content. That one is 17 pages.
  • Bonus or archived content — if you’re a blogger or webmaster you could create a bonus content eBook. This simply involves packaging a quantity of new content in an eBook rather than publishing it on your site. You could use this as an incentive to subscribe or encourage readers to distribute it freely.

How do I make an eBook?

The best format for an eBook is PDF. These files best re-create the effect of reading the pages of a book on screen. You can create PDF files directly with Adobe Acrobat if you’re lucky enough to have access to the program. This is a $0 budget guide, however, so I want to suggest some free resources we can use to achieve the same effect.

If you have Microsoft Word I’d recommend creating your eBook in .doc format. If you use a different Word processor you can create your eBooks in .rtf format. These can be converted to PDFs with the help of some free online programs, but first, let’s discuss formatting.

Number and link
Ideally, the footer of each page in your eBook should be numbered and contain a link to your web presence, your logo or your name. Your choice will depend on what your eBook is designed to promote.

Make it visually interesting
One advantage to the eBook format is that printing costs aren’t an issue. You can use slick fonts, colored headings, photographs, and other items to add visual interest, but keep in mind that detailed elements like images will increase the download size of your eBook.

Read a little
Download good eBooks and look at paperback copies of books you think look good. Write down what you like best about the formatting and try to emulate that in your own work. Don’t be afraid to use chapters, sub-headings, introductions, and so on.

Craft it
Most of us like the idea of publishing a best-selling book, if only in the realm of fantasy. I’d recommend taking the presentation of your eBook as seriously as you would a potential best-seller. Readers will notice (and appreciate) the care you’ve put into what you create.

If you’re not a Word Processing genius…

If you’re not sure how to translate your vision into reality it’s worth gathering the skills required to do so. Try to locate specific sources of information as you need them, rather than wasting time learning about features you may not need.

If you want to know how to add a footer to each page, for example, Google what you want to do and the Word Processor you’re using (ex: “add footer to each page in Open Office”). In most cases this will be enough to answer your question. If not, try searching for a general guide/tutorial directory for your Word Processor of choice. Here are some example tutorials for Microsoft Word.

Edit, edit, edit

Unlike a blog post or web-page you can’t re-edit an eBook to your heart’s content. Once people begin to download and share copies of your eBook you can’t exactly ask them to give it back in exchange for a fixed copy. It’s essential that you get it right the first time.

  • Rigorously edit what you’ve written. Draft, re-draft, check spelling, check grammar. Let your eBook sit for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes. Print it out and carefully go over the paper copy. Sometimes things you missed on screen will be glaringly obvious on paper.
  • Enlist the help of others. Give it to family and friends to read through. They will likely notice some errors you missed. They can also tell you which bits were unclear to them. If your eBook isn’t targeted at the average person you could instead share it with some trusted friends or readers who are within the target demographic for your book.

Convert your document to .PDF

Once you’re confident that you’ve created a solid final draft you can start to think about converting that into the finished product. There are a myriad of online converters and freeware programs you can use to quickly change document files into PDFs. It’s worth experimenting with a few to see which one works best for you.

Adobe, the creator of the .PDF format, allows you to convert 5 documents to PDF for free via this page. Another free program I like is PrimoPDF, which allows you to create PDFs directly from your source document via the ‘Print’ option.

If you’re not satisfied with either of these options you’ll be able to locate many others by Googling “document to .pdf converters”. A good strategy is to copy some of your eBook into a sample document of three or four pages and use that to test how different converters will present your eBook.

What you’re looking for

  • Clarity. You want the PDF file you create to display your text clearly and crisply. Some converters will blur your text — avoid them.
  • Retention of formatting. Your PDF should look as much like your source document as possible. Check that fonts, colors, images and columns are displaying correctly.
  • Small size. The smaller your PDF is the easier it will be for people to attach it to e-mails, host it on their own site, or spread it through other viral methods. An ideal size is below 1 megabyte, but anything below 5 megabytes is acceptable. I would hesitate before releasing a PDF larger than that size. Consider cutting out unnecessary images or decreasing their quality.

Distribution methods

Once your PDF eBook is looking and reading exactly how you want it you can start thinking about distribution. The first step in this process is to upload it to your webhost (if you have one). If not, there are a number of free file-hosting services you can use.

  • Scribd — free document hosting, kinda like YouTube for PDFs.
  • TinyLoad — host 300mb worth of files with no bandwidth limit.

Rewards based distribution
If you only want your PDF to be available to certain people (usually as a result of them completing a certain action, such as subscribing to your feed, reviewing your site, etc.) you should make the file available for download on a section of your site not connected to the main navigation network. This allows you to control who has access to your eBook.

For extra security you could make the download page password protected. Choosing a complicated password (something that is unlikely to produce any search results, such as a random combination of letters and numbers) should help you track down anyone providing the password to your download page. A Google search for your password should be all you need. You might consider changing the password if this kind of theft occurs.

Viral distribution
This kind of distribution aims to get people actively sharing and propagating your eBook. Here are some tips to help your eBook go viral.

  • Ask them. Encourage readers to share your eBook inside the document.
  • Edit the file name. Add ‘ReadandShare’ to your document’s filename. Seth Godin uses ‘IdeavirusReadandShare.pdf’.
  • Change the context. Emphasize that your eBook is free to download and share in each location that you offer it (static pages, forum posts, e-mails, etc.)
  • E-mail list. Create an email list for eBook owners. Offer the link to the join page for this list inside your eBook. This creates a feeling of exclusivity and will allow you to leverage your existing audience if you release another eBook in future.
  • Leverage traffic. Publicize your eBook on your blog or website. Make it as easy as possible for readers to download it.
  • Provide ideas. Suggest ways your eBook could be shared. Encourage readers to host it on their own site, e-mail it to friends, and link to your download page.

The end result

It’s entirely possible to complete all these steps and end up with a high quality eBook that cost you absolutely nothing to make.

Feel free to direct any questions, ideas or concerns into the comments section below. If you do publish an eBook as a result of reading this post, or have published one in the past, feel free to link to it here, also. It certainly can’t hurt your viral campaign!