Why Value Rules the Attention Economy-178

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”
– (Herbert Simon 1971, p. 40-41)

You’ll never read every good, relevant post in the blogosphere on any given day. You’ll never be able to view all the websites you’d be likely to enjoy.

As web users working in a Web 2.0 environment, we’re offered a proliferation of choices every time we jump online. What to read (or what to scan), where to go, what updates to check, what news to follow, how long to spend in our email accounts, whether to search for new content from new sources or stick with the sources we trust.

As much as this dilemma applies to us, this is also the kind of environment our blog or website’s visitors are trying to manage. Among such a proliferation of choices, how can we ensure that wemake the cut?

In this post, I want to explain how the Attention Economy must change the kind of content you produce and how you should market it.

I’ll also explain why I believe providing ‘concentrated value’ is the best way to get attention in this climate.

The rules of the game

In mid-2006, Technorati published a graph showing that the blogosphere was then 100 times bigger than in 2003.

If you’re competing for attention in this environment, you have a whole lot of competitors.

If you’re viewing the situation through the lens of your average web user, certain coping mechanisms have been developed to make the proliferation of choices manageable:

  • A tendency to scan all but the best and most relevant content.
  • A willingness to make decisions about the worth of content before every word in a headline has been read.
  • A desire for social media to take the burden of choice away from us by allowing a crowd of (somewhat) like-minded people to choose on our behalf, or at least, provide a short-list of choices — ala the Digg front page.

Another central development, something that will be difficult to explain in bullet point form, has been the de-emphasizing of the whole.

Websites and blogs receive attention-share based on the worth and performance of each individual article, rather than the collected product.

There isn’t enough attention available to consider the collective value of a blog or website if that value is spread thinly. We divide our attention one headline and one post at a time.

Why value reigns supreme

Web users will pay attention to something based on its perceived value. There’s no other metric, and no other currency you can use to gain attention. Of course, there are many different types of value: entertainment value, knowledge value, and so on.

If attention is generally divided between specific content items, rather than whole blogs or websites (unless the whole has a very simple premise), the next step in optimizing for attention is to concentrate value within specific content items.

If we accept that, a few important revelations follow:

  • Among the proliferation of choices, the decision to read or discard is primarily made within the headline of a single content item. The primary function of a headline is now to promise value — and more value than everybody else.
  • Social media ranks and rewards articles based around perceptions of value.

One really big revelation is that, in most cases, posting often can be a handicap. In fact, by spreading value thinly rather than concentrating it, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. (News is the exception for which the opposite is the case.)

A grass planet.

Why grassroots growth is no longer enough

1,000 links from small blogs will probably bring you about as much traffic as one moderately successful article on StumbleUpon. The first route could take a year or more. The second route could take just a few hours.

Bottom-up growth is still possible in a Web 2.0 environment — it just can’t compare with top-down events. Social media, popular websites and A-list blogs can control and direct the flow of huge swarms of traffic. If you want to reach the upper echelons of growth, you need to capture some of those swarms.

Not everyone wants that. But if you do, once again, concentrating value is the only way to get it.

How do I concentrate value?

That’s the question implicit throughout the article and one I have every intention of answering.

Take a day or two to mull over the ideas in this post, if they interest you. You’re also encouraged to clear up any uncertainties you have in the comments section (I’ll answer any questions you have there).

In my next post, I’ll be explaining how you can create the kind of content that dominates in the attention economy.

The blog Usability Checklist 95

In light of the positive feedback received for A Beginner’s Guide to Making Your Site More Usable, I’ve composed a 19 point checklist that should be useful to any blogger looking for a practical way to evaluate (and improve) the usability of their blog. Many of the principles here will apply to websites, as well.

1. Does your site have an ‘About’ page?

The importance of this element is succinctly explained by usability expert, Jakob Neilsen:

It’s a simple matter of trust. Anonymous writings have less credence than something that’s signed. And, unless a person’s extraordinarily famous, it’s not enough to simply say that Joe Blogger writes the content. Readers want to know more about Joe. Does he have any credentials or experience in the field he’s commenting on? (Even if you don’t have formal credentials, readers will trust you more if you’re honest about that fact, set forth your informal experience, and explain the reason for your enthusiasm.) [Source]

2. Does your site have a ‘Contact’ page?

This page will be a first port of call for readers wanting to connect with you. Bloggers do tend to include contact information, but often as part of their ‘About’ page. This is quite counter-intuitive for the user. For example, if you wanted to ask someone for their email address, would you do it by asking: “Could you tell me about yourself?”

3. Are your headlines a meaningful preview of the article?

Vague headlines like “You Won’t Believe This” or “Some Thoughts on Politics” are bad usability and about as gripping as a waxed floor. Your headlines should encapsulate why a reader should pay attention to your article, and if possible, preview what they will find there.

4. Is the function of each element on your site obvious to your target audience?

An Alexa widget on a cooking blog is bad usability. In fact, Alexa, Technorati, and any other blogger/webmaster widgets are usability stumbling blocks on any site not about blogging/webmaster topics.

Two popular WordPress plug-ins I think well-and-truly break this usability principle in all contexts are the Share This! social media plug-in and Popularity Contest.

Share This! is an incredibly ambiguous term. It could mean any number of things, and when a reader isn’t sure what clicking on something will do, chances are she will not do it. My advice would be to stick with specific buttons for each social media service instead.

The Popularity Contest plug-in sticks ‘Popularity: 3%’ or another low percentile at the bottom of each post, and is broken in two ways: it makes no sense to those who don’t have the plug-in, and secondly, no-one wants to see a positive variable and a low percentile (i.e. Honesty: 2%)

5. Is it clear where each link will lead?

Regular readers will know this is a habit I’m trying to develop over time. Even if you want to hyperlink the text ‘click here’ (a strategy Copyblogger has suggested will increase click-throughs) it’s important that the text leading up to the link explains where the ‘click here’ will lead. If you’re using keyworded anchor text it should serve as a mini-preview of what you’re linking to.

6. Is your text readable?

If you suspect visitors are not thoroughly reading your articles, perhaps because their comments indicate only a partial understanding of what you’ve written, it may be because your text is difficult to read. This is an endemic problem because many bloggers only read their posts as they’re composing them and not once they’re published. I’d suggest getting a few friends to look at your posts and describe whether or not it is easy to read for them.

If you’re using a small font, or a serif font (like Georgia, or Times New Roman) — two trends I’ve seen growing more prevalent in recent times — then your content may be difficult to read.

7. Do your posts contain whitespace or images?

It’s important to use frequent paragraph breaks in web writing. Images will also make your posts easier to read. Each post is a wall of text in its unformatted form. Your goal should be to break it up into a series of bite-sized chunks.

8. Are you making good use of sub-headings?

I don’t think we should ever settle for scannable content. Sub-headings work to signpost your logic, to give readers an angle to approach the following paragraph, and to lay out your sequence of ideas. Sub-headings don’t make it easier to scan — they make it easier to read. If you want readers only to scan your posts, don’t format them.

9. Do your posts fluidly allow readers to comment when finished?

This is as simple as adding a comment link to the bottom of your posts. Most blog designs readily accommodate this but I still encounter some that don’t. If your comment link is under your headline, it’s in the wrong place.

10. Is your feed icon above the fold?

There’s a compelling reason to adhere to this standard: you will get more subscribers. Your feed button should be prominent, but it should never insult the intelligence of your readers: (I’ve occasionally seen feed buttons as big as a child’s hand!).

11. Does your header image link to your main page?

Many readers expect that clicking on your header will return them to your main page, and it’s become something of a web standard. If this is not possible with your design (for example, if your header image is the background for a cell), make sure there is a prominent link home near your header. Even if your header already links back to your main page, I think an additional text link is good usability.

12. Is there padding between your embedded images and text?

Text running into the sides of images is a nightmare for readers. Sentences are, after all, supposed to end in full-stops, not pictures of boats!

13. Are there wide margins around your posts?

Margins around text are fundamental to readability. If your blog posts run almost into your sidebar, or to the side of the screen, you should make your post column narrower.

14. Are your posts less than 2/3 a screen-length wide?

Contrary to popular belief, wide post margins are not good for readability. There is a reason newspaper columns are as narrow as they are. Compare, for example, the readability of Blogging Tips with that of Signal vs. Noise.

15. Are you making your best posts easily accessible?

Readers shouldn’t have to excavate killer posts from your archives. Further, I think any blogger who’s not highlighting their best stuff is selling short the long-term effort they’ve put into building their blog. A quick list of benefits: it shows readers your site is packed with value, it will ensure your best posts continue to generate comments and inbound links, and it will establish that the sum of your blog is more than just your most recent posts.

16. Are your color choices conducive to usability?

Black text on white is easiest to read, followed by black on light. Any writing on a dark background is hard to read, but worst is light text on a light background, or dark text on a dark background. James Reggio’s personal site is, in my opinion, an example of minimalism winning at the expense of usability. If each line of text was the color of the central two lines, it could be transformed into a usable and functional minimalist design.

17. Are your links easy to pick out?

A good practical tip to unsure this is to double format your links. They could be a different color to the plain text and underlined, or bold and underlined, for example. Often one form of formatting isn’t enough (for example, links only in different colors can be hard to pick out if the color is similar to that of your plain text. Underlined links not in a different color can look like underlined plain text, also.)

18. Are your images meaningful in their context?

Including images in your posts is not a good in and of itself. If they don’t relate, at least tangentially, or metaphorically, to your content, they will distract readers. Images should capture the essence of your content, or create an appropriate atmosphere for consuming it.

19. Are your essential navigational elements easily accessible?

The biggest culprit in breaking this usability principle is what I call the ‘footer ribbon’ (though perhaps designers have another name for it). It’s everywhere — even the ProBlogger redesign! The ‘footer ribbon’, if you have one, is just above your footer, beneath the content, and usually contains navigational elements, categories, and other important stuff.

To me, this is like throwing a party and serving finger-food under the table instead of on it. How many readers will look for important navigational functions in the nether regions of your main page? My advice would be to simplify your sidebar, move only those footer ribbon elements that are essential into your sidebar, and delete the ribbon.

Have I missed anything?

If I included every possible usability gaffe in this post it would be gargantuan, so I’ve tried to strip it down to the most essential principles. If you’ve got ticks next to all these, your site should have a good level of usability.

If I’ve missed anything important, or if you’d like advice on implementing some of these principles, please let me know in the comments section of this post.

Creating Passionate Readers 212

The marketer’s daydream is to ‘evangelize’ products and brands — to create customers who are passionate about what the marketers are trying to sell. When it comes to blogs and websites, having a passionate readership is just as valuable.

By evangelizing your blog, you create an audience who is eager to link, comment and vote for your content. You create an audience who will speak about you with respect and admiration. As Seth Godin recently pointed out, how much you talk about yourself will never compare to the power of others talking about you.

Having a passionate audience is incredibly useful (and rewarding). You don’t need to have many readers or subscribers to grow a passionate audience, either: in fact, I’d suggest that a small, passionate audience is more useful to us than a large, disinterested one. Passionate audiences will rave about your content, link, comment and vote for you more often than is usual. In this post, I want to explain how you can create passionate readers.

Give your audience what they need

Both online and in day life, we find ourselves gravitating towards people who give us what we need, as opposed to what we want. To my mind, ‘wants’ are the things we think we need. Needs are the things we actually do need. Likewise, your readership has its ‘wants’, but satisfying a need will always leave a more significant impression.

For your content to be worth evangelizing, it must focus on needs. “Got it,” you’re probably thinking, but one essential question remains: “How do I work out what my readers need?” There are two strategies you can use to answer this question.

1. Think like a reader

If you weren’t you, you’d read your own blog, right? That sentence is horrible, but it gets my meaning across: there’s a very good chance you’re part of your blog’s target audience. What you need may just be what your readers need.

Any unanswered questions or confusions you have could be questions and confusions shared by your readers. Simple tips, tricks and methods that have helped you immensely might just do the same for your audience. A useful brainstorming session could start with the following questions, viewed through the prism of your blog’s niche:

  • What do I need?
  • What have I needed in the past (but have since found)?
  • What don’t I need?

2. Listen to your audience

The world’s greatest comedians will shape their performance depending on audience reactions. If a joke receives rapturous applause, they’ll extend it longer than they’d planned to, or refer to it again later on in the performance. If a line of joking seems to be falling flat, the comedian will quickly transition to new material. If a particular gesture or facial expression seems to be drawing laughs, the comedian will repeat it again and again until the novelty has worn off.

In many ways, creating content for an audience can be a similar experience. We try to do a lot of what works well, and steer away from what doesn’t. Like comedians, we have an audience there to help us out.

When a particular article becomes very popular, we can ask: “How can I expand on this idea more in another post? Can I recreate this formula on another post topic?” When a different article seems to generate very little interest, we make a mental note not to approach the same topic again (or at least, not in the same way). Listening closely to the way your audience reacts will help you become more attuned to what they do and do not like.

You can also listen in a more traditional sense: by reading comments and emails and looking for questions or frequently mentioned topics. When a topic or question comes up again and again, you can bet a significant portion of your readership needs help with it, or wants to hear more about it.

Go the extra mile

Customers won’t become evangelists for a product or brand unless they see it as exceptional — one of a kind. The same principle applies to blogs or websites.

Here are some ideas for how you can go the extra mile for your readers:

  • Write a post offering to answer every question left in the comments section.
  • Share your best ideas.
  • Give a service away for free.
  • Link to reader-submitted tips on a specific topic.
  • Answer every well-meaning email you receive (even if the answer is a polite no).
  • Get to know your readers outside your blog.
  • Leave comments on reader blogs.
  • Vote up articles on reader blogs.
  • Highlight great comments in posts.
  • Answer comments and questions left on your posts.
  • Ask your readers what they think.


Treat your readers with respect

Perhaps the most important step of all is to treat your readers with respect. While speaking kindly to readers is something you’d hope all bloggers would do, there are a few more things you can do to show readers that you respect them.

1. Respond to feedback. If you write something that gets a lot of constructive criticism, it might be a good idea to acknowledge that in your next post. Have you learned something, or are you determined to stick by your guns? Even if you don’t agree with the criticism, you should acknowledge it (particularly because if your readers like you, leaving constructive criticism is a tricky thing for them to go through.)

2. Highlight gaps in your knowledge. Another common mistake bloggers fall into is ‘marketing their knowledge’. The pressure to be seen as an expert can sometimes lead us to come off sounding as if we think we know everything. However, if we never highlight gaps in our knowledge, or ask readers to fill them, readers may start to feel that their input and presence simply isn’t needed.

3. Show gratitude. A fundamental part of showing respect is to show gratitude when a person helps you out. The same applies to readers. Whether you hit a $100 a month blogging income milestone or the front page of Digg, you would not have reached that goal without your readers. Say thank you earnestly, and at regular intervals. You’d be surprised at how much your readers will appreciate it.

How to Start or Start Over Building your Personal Brand 877

A ‘personal brand’ is in many ways synonymous with your reputation. It refers to the way other people see you. Are you a genius? An expert? Are you trustworthy? What do you represent? What do you stand for? What ideas and notions pop up as soon as someone hears your name?

If you’ve been around for a while you’ve probably already developed a personal brand. People recognize your name, what you’re working on, what you offer and what you’re about. That being said, your personal brand might be a little weak and disjointed. If you’d like to make it stronger, I’m going to help give you the tools by outlining what I believe to be the components of a strong personal brand.

If you don’t feel like you have a personal brand yet, this post will show you how to go about building one. But first, it might be worth talking a little about the value of your personal brand and why we might want to create one in the first place.

A smart investment

Your personal brand has the potential to last longer than your own lifespan. While the projects you’re working on might get sold onwards or shut down, your personal brand will persist and (hopefully) add value to each new project you create. If you consider yourself to be in this particular game for the long-haul, whether it’s online business or just online creativity, a good personal brand is the single most valuable investment you can make. People will follow your brand from project to project if they feel connected to it.One example from my own experience that highlights the long-term importance of a personal brand occurred when I launched my second blog. I announced it on this one, hoping to give it a little head start but expecting to build up an audience mainly from scratch. Instead I found the second blog had accumulated over 1,100 subscribers in under five days.

When launching new projects, your personal brand has the potential to guarantee you never have to start from scratch again.

Your personal brand is not just you

Because your personal brand is built from the thoughts and words and reactions of other people, it’s shaped by how you present yourself publicly. This is something that you have control over. You can decide how you would like people to see you and then work on publicly being that image.

You should plan your personal brand based on your aims. If you want to sell an expensive course in watercolor painting you’ll need to be seen as someone with the authority to teach others on the topic. If you want to get work for high-end design clients you’ll need to be seen as a runaway talent with a professional attitude. Two useful springboard questions are:

  • How would you like potential customers/clients to think of you?
  • How can you publicly ‘be’ that brand?

The second question is an important one, but a tricky one. Your personal brand is composed of your public actions and output in three main areas:

1. What you’re ‘about’. Seth Godin is about telling stories, being remarkable. Leo Babauta is about simplicity and habit forming. Jonathan Fields is about finding ways to build a career out of what you love doing. Think about the key ideas you would want people to associate with you.

2. Expertise. Every good brand involves the notion of expertise. Nike brand themselves as experts in creating quality and fashionable sportswear. Jeremy Clarkson (host of Top Gear) is an expert on cars. Even if you’re not interested in marketing your advice you need to create the perception that you are very good at what you do.

3. Your style. This is not so much what you communicate about yourself, but rather, how you do it. Are you kind and unusually enthusiastic, like Collis Taeed? Are you witty and raw, like Naomi Dunford? Are you confident and crusading, like Michael Arrington? Hopefully you’re none of these, or at least, not in the same way. Your style of delivery should be as unique as any other aspect of your personal brand. This doesn’t mean you need to sit down and brainstorm how to be different. If you don’t actively imitate anyone else, it will happen naturally.

Starting construction

Even without a large following or audience you can build a strong personal brand. A few people talking about you a lot is better than lots of people not talking about you at all. Here are the steps I’d recommend for creating your brand:

You should be running a blog or website that is all you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your first priority, or even your second priority, but it gives people a place to develop a stronger connection with you. (You might already be doing this!) A good example is Gina Trapani’s new blog Smarterware. Gina is most well known for editing one of the world’s most famous blogs, Lifehacker, but is an author now and probably would like to build a stronger brand in her own right.

Help people learn about the person behind the projects they enjoy. Include a mini-bio at the end of each post, put time and effort into your About page and use it to paint a picture of your ideal personal brand. One About page that does this very confidently but very well is Chris Pirillo’s ‘About’ page.

Don’t just agree with other people you admire. In doing so, you’re building their personal brand, not yours. Focus on topics where you have something new to say or some more value to add.

Think about the most important thing you have to say and become known for that (it needs to be something new, or an old thing in a new way). Truth be told, most people do the latter. What Tim Ferris is ‘about’ is not new (the idea of working less) but it’s communicated in a new way via The Four-Hour Work Week idea. Gary Vaynerchuk’s ‘hard work trumps all’ message is thousands of years old, but the ‘Hustle 2.0′ message makes it seem new and relevant to the web.

Keep adding layers, keep it fresh. The two people I mentioned in the previous point risk seeming stale and repetitive if they don’t continue adding new elements to their brand. You can’t ride one idea forever. Keep adding new layers to what you represent.

Never be hypocritical. Don’t let people know when you’ve done something that goes against what you advocate. Don’t let people know if you fail in your area of expertise. Failing in new areas is OK, because you’re not trying to be an expert in those. That’s the difference between when you should and should not talk about your failures. The exception to this rule is when your failures become public despite your best efforts. If this happens, confront the issue and explain it – don’t avoid it, or you’ll seem deceitful. You’d rather people learn about your failure from you than someone with no sympathy.

Keep learning and updating your knowledge, especially if your expertise is based around the online world. The web changes drastically from month to month. If you were an ‘expert’ two years ago but have since stopped learning and challenging yourself, you’re not an expert anymore.

Try to be personally ubiquitous without over-stretching or over-exposing yourself. If people hear your name enough they will check you out (maybe not the first, second or third time, but they will). Participate in social media but only on services you enjoy. I focus on my Twitter and StumbleUpon and try to use these both in a way that helps me reach out to more people while also being enjoyable.

Help your projects become ubiquitous by writing viral content and guest-writing. Try to make sure your voice is unique and that you’re not imitating someone else (the only way to do this is by reading widely and writing a lot). If there’s one writer you love and read all the time, you’re probably going to ape them a little bit unless you catch yourself. We all do it.

People will only remember a few things about you, so focus on telling the story that contributes most to your brand. Use your personal story as the basis for your expertise. The best example of a personal story doubling as credentials that I can think of is Darren Rowse. An expert in how everyday people can earn a living through blogging, Darren was an ordinary Aussie bloke before becoming a decidedly richer ordinary Aussie bloke through blogging. I suggest you read Darren’s ‘About’ page as an example of this method.

Which three things in your life (personally or professionally) add to your personal brand more than anything else? Use interviews as an opportunity to tell this story. As you become better known, you’ll get interviewed more often.

Get people talking

Think about your personal brand each time you interact with someone – or don’t interact with someone. What impression are you leaving them with? If you don’t want to spend time responding to tweets and emails there’s no reason why you can’t make this part of your personal brand so that people do not expect differently. If you only have the time to answer 1/4 of the emails you get, why not mention this (with apologies) on your Contact page? The greatest source of negative feeling in these situations is disappointment. If you make it clear that you intend to behave in a certain way people have little right to be disappointed when you do so.

Try to build relationships with as many people as possible. Get to know their real names and remember details about them. Not only is this fun and good karma, it leaves a strong impression on the people who interact with you. The ones who you know best and who feel most connected to you will talk about you to others – this is how your personal brand grows stronger.

Build name recognition with influencers. In this instance an influencer is any person with an audience that you want to reach. Comment on their writing, keep track of them on social media, help them when they ask for it, if they have a blog try to guest-post (it must be your best stuff!) Not only do you have plenty to learn from people like this, they are the people who can give you that killer testimonial when you launch your product, who can tweet your links to thousands of followers, who can share the best opportunities with you. That being said, don’t pester them and don’t ask for more favors than you give them. If you are useful and not overbearing these influencers will remember you. View this as a long-term process. You can’t expect to become friends with influencers in a week. It takes months. Tip: try to use non-intrusive forms of communication. Don’t write things that require a response in blog comments, that’s what email/Twitter is for.

You don’t need to be big, to be big

There are a number of so-called ‘A-list’ bloggers and web personalities who I consider to have quite weak personal brands (relative to the size of their audience) based on the way they behave and interact with people outside their blog content (arrogantly) and how clearly they communicate what they represent (mainly just ‘making money off people like you’). There are also some people who do not have a huge audience for their projects but have managed to create a personal brand that is ‘bigger’ than what they have built. This is an excellent platform for them to grow their projects into something bigger and better.

How do they do it? By making connections with a lot of people, including influencers. It should be noted, though, that a strong personal brand is not going to provide much benefit unless you have valuable output to pair it with – a great service, a great blog, a great app, great public speaking skills, or something else. You need to spend as much time creating your ‘stuff’ (whether that’s blog posts, videos or artwork) as you do building relationships.

There’s so much more to say…

One topic that fascinates me more and more over time is the way people use strong personal brands as a springboard for profitable online businesses. This is something I’d like to discuss much more in the future, so make sure to subscribe via RSS or you might miss it :).

50 Tips to Unclutter Your Blog 44

Tied to the internet productivity movement is the internet uncluttering movement. There are a slew of new websites dedicated to helping you unclutter your home, your work and your life.

I want to contribute to this movement with a manifesto for defeating blog clutter. Blog clutter is the stuff your readers really don’t need, and it serves mainly to get in the way of your content and other vital information. Your content and important pages are the signal, and blog clutter is the noise. You can enhance the first by cutting out more of the second.

The 50 tips in this article will help you unclutter your sidebar, your footer, your posts, and your blog as a whole, and in doing so, enhance the simplicity and usability of your content-centered blog design.

Read this first

I looked at a lot of blogs when researching this post. It wasn’t my intention to single out elements I thought where bad, but to identify things that a blog could do without and not have a negative impact on readers. I’m not suggesting you strip all 50 elements from your blog, but that if you’re looking to reduce blog clutter, these are all things you might decide to remove.

You will probably have arguments in support of some of these elements and I’m interested to hear them in the comments section. You might also have some additional reasons why some of them have to go!

Unclutter your sidebar

1. Move archives to their own page. There is no real reason that they need to be on your sidebar. A reader who has decided they want to dig deeper into your blog will be willing to navigate to a separate page. Reduce blog clutter by linking to a ‘Monthly Archives’ page instead.

2. Remove ‘meta’ sidebar links. Bookmark your WordPress login page instead. Unless you have multiple user accounts this element is not useful to your readers.

3. Prune your categories list. Categories perform an important navigational function but their use is limited when you have a lot of categories. The longer your list, the less likely readers are to go through it. Prune your categories down to at most 15 or 20.

4. Remove recent trackbacks widgets. They don’t provide value to your readers. Individual posts should already have sufficient trackback records and this ‘doubling up’ is one of the main causes of blog clutter.

5. Replace feed buttons for specific services with one general button. If a reader is savvy enough to read feeds then they will know how to extract a feed link and add it to their reader of choice. You can reduce a lot of clutter by using the universal feed icon.

6. Remove recent comments widgets. Displaying half a sentence of a comment removed from its context is not going to be of much interest to your readers. Displaying a comment count on each post is all the social proof you’ll need from comments.

7. Remove MyBlogLog and similar widgets. I know some people love these. They benefit the blogger (slightly) and provide little (if any) value to readers, particularly for the amount of space they take up. You can still have a thriving community there without displaying the widget.

8. Remove top commenter widgets. I have heard plenty of stories about people spamming blogs with dozens of comments in order to make the list and get a backlink. This undermines community more than it adds to it. If your top commenters have made only a few comments then this can also undermine social proof.

9. Remove reader polls in the sidebar. Polls are fine when included as part of a post, but they serve only as a distraction when included in your sidebar.

10. Put your blogroll on a separate page. You can link to the blogroll or links page from your sidebar. If a reader is interested in seeing your recommended sites they will be willing to travel to a page where they can be easily viewed and returned to.

11. Remove Technorati profile widgets. Once again, they don’t offer anything to your readers. There might be some social proof in a high authority, but most readers won’t be familiar with the Technorati authority system and will confuse a high authority for a low ranking. What does ’8,730′ mean to someone who is not a fellow blogger involved in Technorati?

12. Put counter links in footer or remove them. Your readers aren’t as interested in your daily uniques as you are.

13. Remove Pownce/Twitter widgets. You can link to your Twitter or Pownce profile but out-of-context messages from these services will only distract and possibly confuse your readers. They also take up quite a lot of sidebar real-estate.

14. Put blog directory buttons and links in your footer. Blog directories are of much more use to bloggers than they are to readers.

15. Remove Alexa widgets. These essentially function as a more complicated form of stat counter. Few readers will understand what the widget means.

16. Downsize inordinately huge RSS buttons. I am probably going to be less likely to subscribe if someone is trying to hit me in the face with an RSS button. These buttons are important but become clutter when they’re overbearing.

17. Move your disclosure policy to your ‘About’ page. People will want to know who you are before they’re interested in your disclosure policy. Make it easier by putting all this information in one place.

18. Remove links to automatic translators. This is well-intentioned clutter, but clutter all the same. While the idea of making your site available to non-English speakers is a noble one, in practice, these translators don’t work well enough to be of use. Languages can’t be translated meaningfully word for word, and the result of your translation will be gibberish to the user.

19. Don’t place multiple RSS subscription buttons next to each other. Two buttons will not make readers twice as likely to subscribe.

20. Remove ‘spam blocked’ counts. Do your readers really care how many spam comments Akismet or any other service has blocked? Akismet already comes with every copy of WordPress that is downloaded. It doesn’t really need more advertising.

21. Remove widgets showing which countries your visitors are coming from. The internet is quite old now. It’s no longer amazing to us that people can visit a blog from overseas.

22. Remove ‘Blogshares’ buttons. Your readers are not as interested in how your blog is performing in the simulation as you are.

23. Remove placeholder sidebar headers. If there’s no content yet then remove the header until you have the content or links to go with it.

24. Remove e-mail subscription forms. Many readers report confusing these with search boxes. Diffuse reader frustration and fight clutter by linking to a form on a separate page.

25. Remove calendar widgets. Your archives page already caters for readers who want to dig deeper into your blog.

26. Choose a category cloud or category list, not both. If you have two identical category lists presented in different formats, one of them is clutter.

27. Remove buttons and badges for other sites. You can easily transfer them to your blogroll/links page if you can’t do without them.

Unclutter your posts

28. Remove as much non-link text as possible from your post-footer. The function of a post-footer is to display tags (if necessary), a comment link, a social bookmarking button or two, and the date and author (if not already displayed at the top of the post). There is no reason to write a long preamble to these elements — it only makes the important stuff harder to get to.

29. Remove time-stamps. Unless the reader is from your state or city and knows it then time-stamps lose all meaning. You might write a post at 7am but in the next state it could be 8am. In another country, it might be 8pm. The time of day has little meaning on the internet.

30. Remove RSS feeds for individual posts. If a person wishes to track a conversation they can bookmark the permalink. People tend to subscribe to RSS feeds only when they determine a source of content to be ‘for keeps’. The more RSS feeds you offer the more you’re diluting the strength of your central feed.

31. Remove Technorati tags. You already have tags and categories for internal use within your blog. Displaying Technorati tags can point people away from your content and dilute the strength of your own categories.

32. Edit ‘posted by administrator/admin’ text. This is clutter because it’s not giving your visitors any information. Replace ‘administrator’ with your name, or the author’s name.

33. Remove ‘permalink’ links if the post header is already a permalink. Anyone who knows what a permalink is will be able to extract it from the post header.

34. Remove ‘Add to Technorati favorites’ buttons from posts. One link on the sidebar is enough. A link there also makes more sense because you are adding the blog as a whole, not the individual post.

35. Remove permalink forms from the end of your posts. Every blogger worth their salt already has the ability to extract a URL and turn it into a link.

36. Cut down the number of social bookmarking buttons visible at once. With twenty buttons at the bottom of every post the important ones are likely to get lost in the clutter. Use a drop-down menu or a service like AddThis which takes you to a separate page with plenty of options.

37. Remove the ‘Popularity Contest’ plugin post-footer. This adds clutter to the footer of your posts and isn’t self explanatory. How will readers who do not have the plugin know what ‘Popularity: 3%’ means? Out of context, the statistics given usually aren’t very flattering, either. Nobody wants to see a positive combined with a low percentile, i.e. ‘Trustworthiness: 2%’.

38. Remove the ‘Related Posts’ plug-in if you’re light on content. I like this plug-in, but I’ve seen it used on too many blogs that didn’t have enough posts to fill out the list. Wait until you’ve posted a significant body of work and then re-add the plug-in when it’s able to fulfill its purpose.

Unclutter everything

39. Remove welcoming messages. More often than not these are a distraction with the intent of getting you to subscribe to a feed. Sure, they’re a well-intentioned distraction, but I’d recommend letting your readers get straight into your content. At worst, these messages can seem like nagging.

40. Don’t double-up social bookmarking buttons and links. Readers are not twice as likely to submit your articles to Digg because you have a button link and a text link in close proximity. Stick to the little button links. If a reader uses this community they will recognize the icon just fine.

41. Remove bookmark this site links which open up your browser bookmark window. The process is not much more convenient than opening the window from your toolbar.

42. Remove Content Ads. You know, those double-lined links you see on some blog posts which are really ads. These make your content an eye-sore to look at and works on the basis of tricking readers. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

43. Remove all advertising if…. On most new blogs advertisements are simply clutter. Sweep them under the rug until you start getting enough traffic to earn more than small change.

44. Prune under-performing ads. If an ad is making you next to nothing then remove it. This will strengthen the message of those ads you’re displaying that are working.

45. Move biographical details beneath qualifications in your About page. New readers are much more interested in your qualifications for writing on the topic than anything else. Placing less important details first (number of kids, where you were born, and so on) is clutter in the way of the most important stuff. You can include biographical details but insert it after.

46. Don’t bury your e-mail address among a dozen other means of contact. Most readers will contact you via e-mail. Give prominence to your e-mail address and include other forms of contact after.

47. Remove feedburner headlines. If you’re using them as navigation for your own site, replace them with a static recent posts list instead. If you’re using headlines from other sites then consider removing the widget. This is a distraction from your own content.

48. Replace contact forms with your e-mail address as an image. Contact forms prevent readers sending you attachments and decrease the sense that a real person is being contacted. Presenting your e-mail address as an image simplifies your contact page and keeps the spam bots at bay.

Unclutter your footer

49. Put footer ribbon content in your sidebar. Most readers won’t scroll right to the bottom of your main page, so putting important information just above your page footer really isn’t a good idea. Things like categories, a picture, a brief bio and popular posts should be brought up into the sidebar and out of the nether regions of your blog.

50. Remove links to the version of WordPress you’re using. This information is unlikely to be interesting to very many people.

A Complete Guide to Finding and Using Incredible Flickr Images 162

I don’t think this blog would be half of what it is without Flickr. The images included with most posts magnetize the eye to the page and create an atmosphere for the rest of the piece. It’s also one of the most commented-on aspects of the blog — the images are something I think leaves an impression on a lot of people.

A question I get often is: how do you find such great images through Flickr? Most importantly, how do you find such great images that you can use freely?

In this post, I want to share everything I’ve learned about how you can quickly and easily find Flickr’s best images to suit your needs, whether it’s for a blog post, an eBook, a design, an artwork or anything else. Secondly, I want to explain how Creative Commons works for Flickr images — and what that means for you.

Why choose Flickr photos?

The most common alternate options are Google Images and various royalty free and stock photo websites. There are some pretty serious problems with both these options, however.

Google images
It’s hard to guard yourself against copyright infringement when using Google Images. A page does not have to list copyright information for an image to be considered copyrighted. It’s also very difficult to know the original source of an image.

I’ve heard a story about a blogger who used Google Images to fetch an image for one of his blog posts. Unbeknownst to him, the website he’d taken the image from had copied the image from Corbis. Corbis then found out and sued him. I’m not sure whether this is a true story or an internet myth, but it’s entirely possible. It’s just not worth the risk.

Stock photos
While stock photos don’t put you at risk of getting in trouble, there are two key drawbacks: they often cost money, secondly, they’re often bland and formulaic. They’re so well-matched to business-friendly keywords like ‘honesty’, ‘environmentally friendly’ and ’success’ that most seem highly contrived.

Flickr, on the other hand, hosts millions of photos taken by amateur and professional photographers capturing photos of what interests them, not their stock photography bosses. The best of Flickr is vibrant, innovative and dynamic.

Finding images to suit your needs

The kind of photos you want to look for will depend on where you want to use them. Flickr images either fall under a traditional copyright or Creative Commons license.

You’re forbidden to use Flickr images marked as copyrighted (or ‘All rights reserved’) for your own purposes unless you get explicit permission from the author. Most of us don’t have the time or the patience to put up with the hassle. Here, I want to focus on Creative Commons licensed photos.

Statues at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance.
Photo by SplaTT.

Non-copyright images on Flickr come under a different kind of license called Creative Commons. Each image is available under one of six customized licenses built to influence where and how each image can be used.

The starting point of your search for Flickr’s best photos will be the Flickr: Creative Commons page. From there, you can enter search portals for each of the six CC licenses. Below, I’ll explain how you can select which license is appropriate for you.

 Attribution License

The images used at Skelliewag.org all come under this particular license. It allows you to modify the images (by cropping them, or writing on them, for example) and to use them in both commercial and non-commercial spaces. The only requirement is that you credit the author with a link back to their profile.

Link: the search page for Attribution Licensed photos.

  Attribution-NoDerivs License

This license allows you to use the photo freely in any context as long as you credit the photographer. It’s more restricted than a simple Attribution license because you’re forbidden to modify the work in any way (that includes cropping and writing on the image).

Link: the search page for Attribution-NoDerivs Licensed photos.

   Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

This license allows you to use photos in with a credit as long as they’re not modified and as long as you’re not profiting from the context of the image. Examples of such contexts would be: blogs displaying ads, inside products, online stores. In other words, anywhere it could be argued that the image helped increase your income.

If you’re not monetizing the space at the moment but want to leave your options open, it would be a good idea to stick with the more flexible licenses above.

Link: the search page for Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licensed photos.

  Attribution-NonCommercial License

This license allows you to display and modify the image in any non-commercial space with a link to the photographer’s profile. Once again, if you plan to profit from the space in future, you’re better off sticking with the more flexible Attribution License.

Link: the search page for Attribution-NonCommercial licensed photos.

   Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

This license allows you to use photos in non-commercial spaces with credit. There is one extra requirement, however: that you link to the license page with the image credit (alongside a link to the photographer’s profile). Share Alike means that you need to make clear the license of the image wherever you use it. Here’s a link to the Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license page, though you’d probably just link to it under (license)!

Link: the search page for Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licensed photos.

  Attribution-ShareAlike License

This license allows you to modify the photo and display it in any context as long as you link to the photographer’s profile and the distribution license for the photo. Here’s a link to the Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Link: the search page for Attribution-ShareAlike licensed photos.

Victoria's Twelve Apostles.
Photo by Absolutwade.

Finding the best images to suit your needs

Once you’ve navigated to the search page appropriate to where you want the photo appear it’s time to start sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Let’s use the search page for Attribution Licensed photos as a test case. Open the link in a new window or tab and search for the keyword ‘yellow’. This will search the tags and title of each image for matches. You’ll be returned with a bunch of ‘most relevant’ results, but nothing particularly interesting.

Now, click the ‘most interesting’ link above the thumbnails. The search algorithm changes and returns images for that keyword with the most buzz around them (comments and favorites, I suspect). As you can see, the images are of a much higher quality.

Within seconds, I have a gorgeous, targeted photo to use with a blog post — or wherever you’d like to use it.


Photo by nattu.

A bonus tip: above the images, click ‘Thumbnails’. This will return the images in a small cluster of thumbnails allowing you to get a much quicker overview of the page. It’s more light-weight too — something dial-up users will appreciate.

Whiteboard What Ive Learned About Social Media Success 124

A few days ago you might have noticed that Skelliewag.org’s uptime was a little patchy. This was because a post I wrote — 110+ Resources for Creative Minds — appeared on the front page of Digg and became popular on del.icio.us and StumbleUpon.

I created the post specifically with social media in mind, primarily as an experiment. I wanted to see if it would be possible for me to reach the front page of Digg with a resource post — something anyone with a bit of spare time can create.

If that was the case, I could return to you and outline a model of social media success. The experiment worked, and the above diagram is an attempt to communicate the results.

Keep reading for an analysis of what I’ve learned about social media success.

Time & Effort

The process for creating the post was time-consuming. It took a few hours to gather the links, a few hours to construct the post, and a little longer to make the thumbnail images. I could have taken less time, but I set myself the target of gathering 110+ resources — mainly to see if I could do it!

One thing you might have noticed if you use Digg regularly is that not every resource post that becomes popular needs to contain so many resources. I’ve seen posts with 37 resources reach the front page, and so on. Higher numbers maximize your chances, but you don’t need to go all out.

The key ingredient in a resource post is time. If you don’t have a big chunk of time, you can set aside a few minutes each day to work on your magnum opus.

Networking

From what I’ve observed, who you know is somewhat more important than the content you create when it comes to making the Digg front page.

Unless you have a huge readership, it takes a lot of luck to achieve success on Digg without 1) success on other social bookmarking sites or 2) a network of friends who will give your article a leg-up.

I can confidently say that my article would never have made the front page of Digg without support from my StumbleUpon friends and Skelliewag readers over at Digg.

The first lesson I’ve learned from this is that “you only get out what you put in.” Taking the time to build a network of friends on the social media service you’re targeting — even if it’s only modest — will drastically increase the momentum behind your content.

The second lesson I’ve learned is that, unless you have a large readership, you will need to do much of the beginning leg-work yourself. Send the article to friends, send shouts across Digg, StumbleUpon messages and so on. Once enough people get behind your article things can begin to happen of their own accord.

Category

Unlike StumbleUpon, where content can be democratically recategorized and reviewed as users vote it up, you only get one chance with Digg. Duplicate content is not allowed, so once your article is submitted, that’s it.

If you can, get someone to submit your article who you trust will give it a good headline and description, in addition to submitting in the best-match category (though this is often hard with Digg).

Bad categorizing can hurt your chances of success with a particular piece of content. Returning to StumbleUpon, if I write an article on personal finance and it’s submitted under ‘blogs’ (as is often the case), I will get badly targeted traffic. If someone diggs your personal finance article by submitting it in ‘Video’ it will probably get buried.

What you can do

1. Get active on the social media service you’d like to experience success with. Make friends, share articles, submit good content, and so on.

2. Create a resource post, or other linkbait that relates broadly to the topic of your site.

3. Call in a favor from social media friends and ask them to vote if they like what you’ve created.

4. Before things start heating up, make sure to shore up your site against bursts of traffic. I learned this the hard way. If you can’t afford a good host, WP-Cache is a great alternative. I’ve not had a chance to use it, as it was installed after the rush of traffic, but many people swear by it.

12 Examples of Viral Content and What We Can Learn from Them 101

Viral content spreads via sharing, word of mouth, and reproduction. It is one of the most powerful ways to promote your blog or website, because the content spreads, literally, like a virus: one person views it, it leaves an impression, they share it with two other people, who share it with two other people, and so on, until it has spread far beyond your reach.

In this post I want to examine 12 great examples of viral content and analyze why they were successful, and how we can apply those successful principles to our own content.

Simpsonize Me
see it!

What was it? A Flash program that launched in the lead-up to the Simpsons Movie. You could visit the site, input a photo of yourself and be turned into your own custom Simpson’s character.

Why was it viral? It worked, most of all — the photos were turned into a custom Simpsons character that quite uncannily resembled the photo. It capitalized on all the publicity being given to the Simpsons at the time, and it was free and easy to share. Making Simpsons characters of your friend/yourself was an advertisement for the site: people asked how you did it.

What can we learn from it? 1) Content that capitalizes on the current ‘big thing’ has a good chance of going viral because that thing is, at the moment, occupying a seat in the collective consciousness. 2) Free –> value –> easy to share is a recipe for virality 3) the content resulted in a shareable ‘product’ — people naturally wanted to show others their Simpsonized character and that was, in itself, free advertising for the service.

The Hipster PDA
see it!

What is it? A GTD organizer built from a stack of index cards and a bulldog clip — also the brainchild of productivity guru Merlin Mann. It was introduced via this post at 43Folders and has been further popularized by hacks, new ideas, new Hipster PDA formats and new tutorials.

Why was it viral? Most anyone can get some index cards and a bulldog clip, so it promised Merlin Mann-style productivity for virtually nothing. The original content gave instructions for making and using the PDA, so was a natural place to send those who were curious about your new possession.

The item itself was a conversation piece and asked to be talked about. The content was value-added as third parties began to write tips and hacks for the Hipster PDA — they were all linked to at the bottom of the post and the content became a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for all things related to the PDA.

What can we learn from it? People like cheap objects with a lot of promise, particularly if they’re endorsed by an expert. The process for making the PDA was really simple, which prevented some readers being lost in the loop. Physical objects are conversation pieces and help the spread of virality — they also display membership in a club of people ‘in the know’.

Great Interviews of the 20th Century
see it!

What was it? Over two weeks each copy of The Guardian came with a booklet containing one of the greatest interviews of the 20th Century (not sure who decided which interviews made the cut). They then released the interviews free on the newspaper’s website — supposedly for those who missed one of the day’s papers. In reality, I think The Guardian’s website has a pretty firm handle on creating linkbait.

Why was it viral? It contained interviews from incredibly famous or notorious individuals. It promised ‘the greatest’ of the 20th Century. You could share one interview, or share all of them.

What can we learn from it? The internet is overflowing with facts, figures and content related to some of the world’s (or your niche’s) most famous or important people. Sometimes all you need to do is gather the best ones in one place, write a great headline, make it easy to share, and wait.

Unleashing the IdeaVirus
get it!

What is it? A 197 page eBook by thought-leader Seth Godin (though it should be noted, he was not as well-known then as he is now). The topic? Viral marketing.

Why was it viral? It was free, and Godin actively encouraged and enabled sharing. The book disseminated freely among Godin’s core group of followers and spread outwards. It was under a megabyte and could be quickly shared via email. It coined a phrase, ‘ideavirus’, which generated over two-hundred thousand links back to Godin’s blog and various websites as it was used. Its ideas are still being talked about today (in fact, they’re being talked about now).

What can we learn from it? Free things of value that are easy to share spread like wildfire among the right audience. The process is accelerated if you have a core group of fans who will eagerly support what you do. Coining a phrase and raising useful ideas are great ways to get talked about. You won’t make any income directly but it can significantly raise your profile and open up future opportunities — for example, the eBook was later turned into a paperback and became a bestseller.

Recounting Remarkable Actions
see it!

What is it? Captain Denny Flanagan of United Airlines provides his passengers with a word-of-mouth worthy experience, going the extra step and then some when it comes to customer service. Here’s a break-down of the story. Content with similar characteristics: a doctor who only does housecalls.

Why was it viral? Remarkable actions, people and behaviors get talked about. These individuals not only differ from the norm, they rise above it.

What can we learn from it? If you can’t be that remarkable person, and attempt something great, different, generous, or otherwise remarkable, then you can document the actions of others who bear those qualities. Tell a story about an amazing real-life character your readers might not be familiar with. If it’s interesting and worth talking about the story will get told to others. Good stories spread with absolute ease.

Miss Teen USA (video)
see it!

What is it? A demonstration of YouTube’s ability to ensure any mistake made in public by someone of any kind of notoriety will be documented, both spreading and prolonging the embarrassment. It’s also hilarious. Miss South Carolina not only has no answer to the question: “Why can’t 20% of Americans find the US on the map?”, she mauls the English language and common sense in under 40 seconds.

Why was it viral? It’s really funny — unless you’re one of those people who is only overwhelmed with sympathy when they see it. But there are a lot of funny videos on YouTube. This one went viral because it confirmed every single stereotype people hold about blondes and beauty pageant contestants.

What can we learn from it? People like their world-view confirmed, particularly when it’s a contested world-view. Those who like your words or evidence will share them with others who have the same beliefs. Rather than writing out their own statement of why they believe something, in future, they might just link to your content.

If Clicks Were Votes
see it!

What is it? A visualization of hits to US Presidential candidate websites, with each dot representing 100 visits. It provides a quick overview of areas expressing the most interest in each candidate — at least in Web form. Viewing the maps side-by side also makes apparent the geographical partisanship in American politics.

Why was it viral? The image conveys a lot of information very quickly. It tells us where people are interested in a particular candidate and how intensely. It also shows how support for different candidates and parties is distributed along geographic lines. It capitalizes on a new area of interest: the interplay between politics and the web.

What can we learn from it? A picture can speak a thousand words in an instant, and when the information conveyed is of immense interest to your niche, there’s a good chance those images will be shared. Visualizations are great viral content because the have the potential to present interesting facts and data in a way that won’t bore readers. Can you imagine the ‘If Clicks Were Votes’ content going viral had it been a screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet?

DylanMessaging.com
see it!

What is it? Add your own words to the card scene from Don’t Look Back. Each card will display words of your choosing, and the words will appear in a video of Bob Dylan cycling through the cards. You can then email the message to friends.

Why was it viral? It’s a great way to send a message to someone, particularly if they’re a Dylan fan. Promotion for Dylan’s new album rides on the back of social interaction.

What can we learn from it? Great viral content, by its nature, encourages communication. It is designed to be shared and talked about. What can you do to build your content for fluid and simple sharing? What can you do to make people want to share your content? (Hint: it involves making the act of sharing rewarding in itself).

101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less
see it!

What is it? A gem unearthed when the tape around Times Select was revealed, Mark Bittman’s list of 101 quick and delicious meals has been doing the rounds.

Why was it viral? It presented lots of value in one place: 101 quick recipes from a food expert. It promised to be the reader’s first port of call the next time they needed a nice meal quickly.

What can we learn from it? Packing your content full of value, or putting what could be material for five or ten articles into one place, can be a key element of virality. Numbered headlines and listed information can work wonders, but only as long as the information is interesting and useful. Big resources written by experts are always going to be more popular than 101 lists written by the average person. If your content starts to go viral, how are new visitors going to know your credentials? Consider including them early in the piece. It will add value to everything that follows.

Pigeon Loves Monkey (photo)
read the story behind it

What is it? A 12-week-old orphaned macaque was given over to an animal hospital in China. The baby monkey seemed depressed until it developed a friendship with a white pigeon. The above is the resulting inter-species friendship, captured on film.

Why was it viral? Images are instant, effortless entertainment. Words take time to read, effort to comprehend the information, and the time investment (if the story is lacklustre) doesn’t always pay off. A great image or photo has an instant, powerful effect. It can easily be reproduced on other sites, or shared via email/chat.

What can we learn from it? A great image (or a collection of great images) is incredibly easy to consume and share. If you can’t, or don’t want to, make your own images, you can assemble a collection others have taken. Make sure to check copyrights first, though.

PostSecret
see it!

What is it? A blog made up of mailed-in anonymous secrets on artfully decorated postcards. The blog as a whole is viral, rather than each specific postcard (unless it’s a particularly good one).

Why is it viral? The postcards are easy to share and each postcard encapsulates the premise of the site. They combine interesting visuals with juicy secrets, also satisfying the same desire that causes us to watch reality television! There are no ads on the site, but the secrets have been compiled in a book I saw at my local bookstore, all the way down in Melbourne, Australia.

What can we learn from it? I think HughMcLeod’s gaping void blog is viral in the same way: most of the content is embedded in or delivered by imagery. Imagery is easy to share and provides quick and easy entertainment. Your site’s content could be attached to emails, sent via chat, and reproduced elsewhere. You certainly don’t need to make every post like this, but the occasional easy to share image post could add an element of virality to your site.

ICanHasCheezburger.com
see it!

What is it? Pictures of cats, and sometimes animals, with captions written in a particular LOLcats style. The images are funny and easy to share, and they come with the site URL embedded in the bottom, so each reproduction is an ad for the site.

Why is it viral? LOLcats are a relatively recent, new kind of humor. The images have helped make it viral because they’re easy to share. Vast amounts of funny images can be made because the site contains a LOLcats generator that allows readers to quickly create and submit their own captioned LOLcats. Use of the language and slang in forums, on blogs, in headlines and on images has ensure the LOLcats idea spreads far outside the confines of the images.

What can we learn from it? LOLcats are a novelty — a new way of doing an old thing (in this case, being funny). The key to its success, I think, is the LOLcats builder: people will share their own LOLcats even if they don’t make it on to the site. Can you create content that implicitly encourages others to add to it, or build on your foundation?

What can we learn from these examples?

In the next few days I intend to write up some general lessons we can learn from these examples: lessons we can hopefully utilize when crafting our own viral content. I’d also like to release another batch of examples in future in the hope that they’ll provide additional insight into what makes something ‘viral’.

If you’ve seen any viral content lately, I’d be very interested to see it. You can email me or leave the link in the comments section of this post. I’m hoping the suggestions will include some that I never would have thought of!

The Top 20 Ways to Come Up with Amazing Ideas 157

I’m a pretty prolific blogger — between regular posts at Zen Habits, and writing regularly for blogs such as Web Worker DailyFreelanceSwitchNorthxEast and more, and writing guest posts for other blogs (such as the excellent Skelliewag), I write a lot of posts every week.

And what’s asked of me most often, besides “How can you write so much?”, is the more difficult question: “How do you come up with so many ideas for posts?”

That’s not so easy to answer.

Coming up with ideas is a skill, actually, something that’s become easier with practice. And I don’t have one single method of coming up with great ideas for articles, except this one:

I’m ALWAYS on the lookout.

Seriously. Always. Whether I’m in the shower, eating, reading, driving, exercising, talking, IMing, emailing, working, writing or playing with my kids, I always think to myself, “You know, that would make a great post!” It’s a bit sad, actually.

With that in mind, if you’re trying to find sources of great, wonderful, unique ideas, whether that’s for a blog post or a painting or a poem or a new product … here are my favorite ways.

1. Carry a notebook. Seriously, carry it everywhere. I can’t tell you how many awesome ideas I’ve lost simply because I forgot to bring my notebook. And you know why I can’t tell you? Because I didn’t write them down. Carry your notebook everywhere, always have some kind of writing implement, and write things down immediately. Of course, you may need to pull your car over to avoid an accident … or just start riding mass transit instead, to avoid that problem. Another good article on capturing ideas.

2. Keep a list. I have a simple Google Doc that I can pull up at any time with a few keystrokes (I use AutoHotKey to open all my most commonly used documents and programs instantly). On this list, I write down all my ideas. When I need to write a post, I am never short of ideas. Actually, I have dozens more ideas than I can ever use, so if anyone needs any, let me know. Just $5 an idea. 🙂

3. Exercise. OK, you’re going to skip past this one. That’s OK. I’m not saying you have to start exercising to have amazing ideas, but from personal experience, exercise is one of the absolute best ways to come up with ideas. It seems it is literally impossible to go for a run or a walk without coming up with an idea that will knock you on your butt. Which is why I now wear padded running shorts.

4. Driving. There’s something about the mindlessness of driving that allows me to come up with some of my better ideas in the car. To make this work, you have to drive slower than some of the maniacs out there (try it, it’s calming), and ignore the rude antics of your fellow drivers. Concentrate on avoiding an accident, but don’t worry if someone cuts you off or is driving slower than your average toddler can walk. Just stay in your Zen zone, and watch the ideas come to you effortlessly.

5. Read a lot. I’m reading a book every day, several times a day. It might take me a week to finish the book, but that’s because I take my time and enjoy the book. In addition, I’m always reading stuff on the Internet. Reading is one of the very best ways to find new ideas. And yes, you have to read the articles, not just the pictures. 🙂

6. Find inspiration. I find inspiration from many sources, including other bloggers, from friends and family, from life itself. Sometimes, an idea can be totally unrelated to the source of your inspiration, but the key is that spark, that energy, that ignition that gets your mind going. Whatever does that for you is worth its weight in gold. Failing inspiration, just rip off ideas (and make them your own).

7. Listen. One of my favorite ways to get ideas is by listening to other people talk. When someone talks to me, I try to talk as little as possible, and just listen to them and understand. That’s difficult when talking to engineers, of course. Those guys can talk! I also like to eavesdrop on conversations held by loud people when I’m in public places. Yes, that makes me weird.

8. Find twists. Found a great idea by someone else? As mentioned before, if you aren’t inspired by someone else, just rip off their ideas. But don’t just spit out the ideas verbatim — take them to another level by finding new twists on those ideas. How can you take this great idea (or even a common idea) and give it a new twist? Sometimes you can find the best ideas by putting a new spin on an old idea.

9. Examine your life. Take a few minutes now and then to step back and take a look at your life. What are you doing? Where are you going? Who are you? What are you all about? What’s important? What are you trying to achieve? What are you doing right and wrong? Ask yourself these types of questions, think about what it is you do every day and why. This kind of examination can produce dozens of new ideas.

10. Question everything. When you find yourself thinking or following traditional ideas that everyone assumes are right, question them. Ask yourself if it’s really true, and if so, why? Why does everyone think this? Is it possible there are other ways of doing things? Question everything, and you might come up with some surprising answers.

11. Trawl through fresh sources. Sometimes, if you drive home the same route every single day, it’s good to drive a new route, even if it’s a little longer. Change things up. Similarly, you should visit new web sites, read new authors, break out of your niche, talk to new people, start clicking on links in blogrolls and see where they take you. Get outside your familiar territory, and find new ideas in new places.

12. Bounce stuff off others. Got an idea? Bounce it off a friend or colleague. Sometimes their responses can spur new ideas in you, and vice versa. It’s amazing what can form when two people put their heads together. Avoid more than three people talking about ideas, though … “ideas by committee” is not a smart approach.

13. Reader emails. I get lots of emails from readers, and while it can take a lot of my time to read and answer them, it’s well worth the effort. Some of my best post ideas have come from the suggestions of others. If you don’t get a lot of reader emails, don’t let that stop you … find a way to solicit suggestions from others, asking for emails or comments on your blog or whatever it is you do. Let others come up with the ideas!

14. Forums. Similar to some of the items above, online forums can be amazing places for ideas. You can get suggestions from others, you can bounce ideas off people, you can read and be inspired by great ideas from people on the forums. And there are so many forums online that it’s practically impossible to run out of ideas from them.

15. Ask. When I’m running dry, or need a fresh source of ideas, I’ll ask my readers. I’ll do a post and ask them for suggestions for different topics. And let me tell you, there is no shortage of great topics when I do this. A few months ago I asked if they had “health and fitness” topics they’d like me to write about. I haven’t even gotten halfway through the list of ideas yet!

16. Magazine rack. When I go into a bookstore or grocery store, I like to spend a few minutes at the magazine rack. I don’t even read all the articles … I just read the headlines on the cover, or flip through the magazines. And I don’t just read the ones I’m interested in … I glance at them all. I’ve found some amazing ideas in these racks.

17. Look deep inside yourself. This is a difficult one. It’s similar to the “examine your life” suggestion, but it’s a deeper look at yourself. Really reach deep inside, and search the person you are, search your soul for your deepest desires, your innermost secrets, your most secret dreams and ambitions. You can find some of the most wonderful ideas deep within yourself.

18. Learn from your mistakes. While mistakes can be embarrassing, I love making mistakes. Sure, they’re sloppy and painful, but they’re anything but unproductive. Mistakes are the way we learn, and if we can harvest the power of mistakes to come up with great ideas, we are using our mistakes to their fullest potential. Think about the mistakes you’ve made in your life, recently and over the years. What can you learn from them? What can others learn?

19. Be inspired by nature. I love going outside, to take a breath of fresh air, to stretch, to get natural light into my computer-strained eyes. And to take a look at the beauty of the nature around me. Our world has some of the most incredible natural beauty in the universe … take advantage of the nature around you, and find inspiration in it!

20. Music. I like to play a good CD or tune in to my favorite radio station, to get myself moving, to sooth my savage beast, to make my soul leap with joy. Music can be the most inspiring thing in our lives, if we open up our hearts and minds to it.