Here’s a story about an entrepreneurial twenty-something writer from London, whose stuff you really should read. No exaggeration: he’s changing the world.
His name is Boz – and he started out as a kind of local travel writer. He released a series of 56 portraits of Londoners and their environment, a mixture of the true and fictional, accompanied by beautiful illustrations and eventually bundled together in collections. Marketing them was easy: pretty much all the major London newspapers and magazines eagerly agreed to run individual “sketches” – because they were already wildly popular. (Think of it as a British version of Humans Of New York, with a similar level of fame).
And by the time the books were ready, the reading public was as close to excited as British people ever get.
However, that wasn’t Boz’s master-stroke. Seeing the massive potential for serialized content, he’d been working on another title – an existing fiction project he’d joined and was re-engineering using his flair for crafting sympathetic, fully rounded characters. Under his steerage, a new segment of the story was released every month – and this would go on for nearly two years.
Sales went nuts – and, of course, so did piracy. Bootlegs, ripped-off characters, blatantly unofficial merchandising – basically, everything you’ve already used to seeing when something’s a big hit. The first instalment shifted a healthy 1,000 copies; the last sold about 40,000 – and since Boz quickly saw the value of bundling the instalments into a single book at the end, he started his next series with that book firmly in mind – while continuing to play on all the strengths of serialization that he’d discovered with the previous story.
It was a career-building model. At the age of 25, Boz was a massive success.
I said he has changed the world – so why haven’t you heard of him? Well, you have. That first fiction project was called “The Posthumous Papers Of The Pickwick Club” – and Boz’s real name is Charles Dickens.
If you’re trying to get attention to your business in the online world, you’re probably attempting to do something like this:
1) Create something (an ebook, an blog post, a product launch, something) that will immediately “go viral” and get you a massive amount of attention.
2) Divert some of that torrent of visitors over to your most important stuff, in order to instantly convert them into customers and/or evangelists.
3) Become massively rich, retire to the Bahamas, partner up with Elon Musk, etc.
In fact, this isn’t how it works.
“Going viral” is tricky. You have to hit a very, very small target in the intersection of social media popularity, newsworthiness and flat-out luck. If you’re a big, smart publication (say the New York Times, or this young upstart), you have a team of people who are experts at making stories as interesting and shareworthy as possible, dramatically improving their chances of reaching a big audience – but none of them would claim they can make anything go viral.
And that’s the professionals. For the rest of us, banking our blogging hopes on a lottery-win scenario is a big, big risk.
Even if your thing gets shared everywhere, even if traffic goes nuts and your server emits greasy black smoke for a few days – if you try diverting people straight to your sales page, you’re misunderstanding the true value of this kind of attention. Most people aren’t going to obsess over your work after a single visit. Hell, they only just met you. It’s way too early in that relationship.
In fact, as Moz’s Rand Fishkin says in this video, the ‘divert & convert’ model is mostly a myth – and a damaging one, if it leads you to expect overnight results.
What really builds your longterm business is trust, via constant “touches with your brand” (eg. repeat reading of your work, newly published content, the occasional unexpected & unpredictable viral success, and so on).
In other words, trust is the result of a sustained performance.
Say, with a serial.
In my Storytelling For Bloggers e-mail course (this post is an excerpt from it) I rant about the importance about Breaking Bad, and the rise of Netflix. These shows are more popular than any blog will ever be. There are now over 60 million subscribers to Netflix watching over a billion hours a month – and the company is investing millions of dollars into its own original serialized storytelling. Vast numbers of people are getting hooked by these kind of strung-out, bite-sized stories. It’s what the public wants.
Unsurprisingly, this is working really well with digital books too. The authors of the terrific self-publishing manual Write. Publish. Repeat. have umpteen fiction serials on the go, each comprised of standalone “episodes” sold for a tiny amount (like this one), released weekly, which they later bundle into “seasons” (like this). Note their use of TV language to describe book titles. Because of that approach, their audience instantly gets it – and the authors constantly sink their narrative hooks into them, in much the same way a TV show does.
This strategy is working so well that in 2013 they were out-downloading Stephen King at Amazon.
You’re going to see this format spreading out to other genres, other delivery systems. In every sense, serialized storytelling is “Coming Soon, Everywhere”.
But why should bloggers care what authors and scriptwriters are doing? Aren’t blogs non-fiction? Isn’t this trying to draw parallels between a bunch of wildly different things?
OK, let’s ask – what is a blog?
Here’s what Urban Dictionary has to say:
A meandering, cringeworthy online diary that fools the author into thinking hordes of readers are interested in the mundane details of the author’s life. Consists of such riveting entries as “homework sucks” and “I slept until noon today, LOL.”
OK. Well, that’s not terribly useful (or polite), so let’s try Wikipedia:
…consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order (the most recent post appears first).
Bingo. THAT’S what we’re after.
Blogging is about publishing new content, again and again. It’s therefore not surprising that too many bloggers assume they only have one shot at getting everyone’s attention – because the next time they post something, their previous stuff is shoved out of the limelight, buried down the page, out of sight and out of mind. (Maybe this is where the obsession for “going viral” has come from.)
And it’s wrong.
Here’s one of Problogger’s most popular pages – “31 Days To Building A Better Blog” – an updated version of a series Darren Rowse first ran in 2005.
Since then, he’s tweaked this page dozens of times, making it more and more useful, even adding links to posts that aren’t hosted at Problogger. This would make no sense if he was treating his site like a stream of one-off posts, each dead in the water as soon as the next went up.
Instead, this happened. Out of 337 million entries for the phrase “build a better blog”, that Problogger page is number 1. Which means it’s getting a stonking amount of traffic and incoming links pointing towards it every day – in other words, it’s a prime piece of flagship content.
The biggest blogs out there are fuelled by this kind of evergreen material – but they’re also powered by flagship storylines.
If you landed on a post in the middle of 31 Days, you’d have to read the rest of them – and it’s easy, by clicking the link at the bottom of the article that sends you back to that hub page. 31 posts later (at least 31 posts later, because he updated the whole thing in 2009), well – would you trust Darren?
Sure you would – and that’s how he sold an updated version as an ebook ($29.99), and shifted 19,000 copies of it. (Yes, that’s nearly $600,000. Insane.)
Flagship storylines cast a wide net. If you read part of a series, and it’s really good, and the author has made it obvious where the rest of the series is, you’ll go check it out. Flagship storylines give a direction – and they have an ending. (Remember how important endings are?) They’re also awesome for getting noticed by search engines, for all sorts of hyperlink-related reasons.
There’s no downside to creating flagship storylines. It’s all win.
Including the fact that some people will shamelessly rip off your ideas.
A few years back I was giving a talk at a conference. My room was sandwiched between two other conference rooms – and the walls weren’t terribly thick. I was about ten minutes into my talk when a cheer erupted in the next room – a holler, clapping, HOOYAH! kind of cheer. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but since that audience was currently being steered by Dan and Audrey of Uncornered Market, and since I knew they were experts at motivating a crowd, I figured they’d just said something like, “Let’s show Sowden’s lot in the next room how much more fun we’re having!”
So I turned to my group and yelled, “We can do better than that. RIGHT?” And so they did – followed by a big laugh from next door.
And then – of course – in the other room going the other way, the group led by Paul Dow of TravMonkey let out their own defiant roar.
(It’s just a shame there were only three rooms. I’d love to know how far this would have gone.)
This is the other kind of ‘viral’ – what Seth Godin calls “Unleashing The Idea Virus.” You do something, other people totally get it, falling so completely in love with your idea that they want to use it themselves. Pretty soon lots of people are copying you – hopefully respectfully, with appropriate credit.
And if that happens in such a big way that they’re all talking to each other about your idea, even when you’re not there? Congratulations! You have yourself a community, rallied around what you do.
So how do you “transmit” this “idea virus”? Well, one way is to reinforce the same things on your blog, again and again, until they really sink in – and another is to guide your readers to your most important pages where that idea is at its most virulent. (In each case, you’re hoping for an epidemic.)
And flagship storylines are awesome at doing both of these things.
How To Create A Flagship Storyline
1. Decide what you want to say, and why it’s useful to your target readership. (Obviously, this is the most important part of the process. Without this nailed, nothing happens.)
2. Break it up. Chop it into bite-sized pieces, easily digested by your audience, each part of a greater whole, but standalone-valuable in their own right.
3. Connect all the pieces together, using internal and external links. String ’em up, clearly and logically.
4. Make sure you lead your readers in one direction – towards a place on your site where your idea is strongest. Say, that product you’ve made to solve that problem they’re having, or that page of terrific advice you want to give them for free. Make sure all roads lead to your very own Rome.
5. Make sure at every point, it’s incredibly obvious what to do next. Hook them with every storytelling trick you can; direct them onwards with the most obvious (but non-obnoxious) navigation buttons available. Oh, and make sure you prove your value on this page, because they won’t ask for seconds if you serve them a bowl of crap.
6. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Build enough of these kinds of connections, and magical things will start to happen to your blog.
Get out there and infect the world.