Blogging is changing, but some things stay the same. Here’s how you build a blog that hooks people for the long haul.
I saw your sponsored post last week and I was sickened and appalled. APPALLED. I used to read your blog because you were a refreshing voice of Reason in a world gone mad. Now I see you for what you truly are – a self-obsessed, morally vacuous SELL-OUT. I thought you could be trusted. I thought you believed in truth, freedom and justice. Instead, you’re just a soulless spam-trumpet for big companies, and you’re willing to throw us, YOUR READERS, under the bus just so you, YOU, can get paid.
I hereby dedicate the rest of my bitterly disappointed life to bringing you down. Soon the whole world will know your vile crimes. Soon you will pay for this.
Pestilence and woe,
A couple of weeks ago I published a sponsored post, on behalf of my favourite brand of whisky. I think I did an OK job, and I had fun writing it – but I worried how it would be received, because of that problematic word “sponsored.” I’ve never run a sponsored post before, and I’d seen too many of them done badly – so I fully expected to receive e-mails like the one above.
(Edit: at the end of the campaign, the sponsors wanted the post removed. Alas for my story of misery and suffering up on Hadrian’s Wall on New Year’s Eve – although, here’s part of it from way back.)
Some people think readers really hate sponsored posts. Other people think they’re something visitors will tolerate because they understand that bloggers need to get paid, and sponsored posts are better than intrusive, ugly advertising. Does it matter in a general sense that bloggers run sponsored content? I have no idea. Also, it’s none of my damn business what other people do with their own sites.
(It certainly matters about how bloggers disclose sponsorship, but that’s another issue, and one with increasingly pressing legal ramifications.)
Thou Shalt Do This. Thou Shan’t Do That.
It’s easy to write these kinds of discussions off as pointless insider baseball, of no great interest to anyone except bloggers and their critics. It’s equally easy to get dragged into them too, to get all flustered and start shouting about what Those People Over There should be doing – as if “blogging”was a thing with rigidly define rules and identical sets of goals. As if it wasn’t a bunch of wildly different people with ridiculously varied backgrounds, all using the same tools to go in different directions.
So, these discussions lead to arguments that rarely achieve much. They go round and round and then, after a while, nothing happens. So, down with that sort of thing.
Except, there is one reason – perhaps the only reason – we should all care about these issues, all of us putting our words online and all of us reading them. There’s one reason and it’s this:
What do readers think about all this?
Beyond learning the basics (here’s a nice primer), bloggers should be obsessed with what readers care about. There should be entire conferences devoted to the subject. There aren’t (certainly not within travel), and maybe that’s a problem. The focus is usually on tech and tools, sponsors and money-makers, all the stuff over this side of the fence. These are all important things to talk about, but their usefulness is underpinned by reader engagement.
Without readers, a blogger is powerless: no platform, no ability to be heard or influence others, nobody listening or amplifying on the other end. Bloggers with entertained, constantly returning readers have the power to go into upper napkin-space and carve out an exciting new career for themselves. Readers enable that. They let that happen. In many ways, it’s their call what ultimately happens to bloggers.
So, let’s talk about what readers want.
What Do Readers Want?
Wow – what a stupid question. I certainly feel proud I asked it.
Every blog’s readers will want different things. Those blogs should probably ask their readers, like this and this and this, and then act on the results – although, not too closely, because bloggers are supposed to lead, not follow. But when you’re just starting out or you have a modest following (which is most blogs, this one included) – what’s going to grab an audience for the long term? In enormously broad strokes, what works?
Over the last year I’ve been watching and learning (and helping people answer this question for themselves) – and I reckon these four factors are absolutely critical.
I’ve recently been working at Plansify, a travel advice service that lets people pick the brains of long-term travellers (including travel bloggers) – and one of the greatest things about it is that you can Google-stalk its travel advisors.
No, really. The advisors aren’t anonymous employees. They’re established experts elsewhere, and you can go check that out for yourself by going to their profile page, reading their openly welcoming, check-me-out-over-here description, clicking through to their own website, and deciding for yourself if they’re the authority they claim to be. Then you come back to Plansify and book a session with them.
It’s a system based on trust, and it really works. (Plansify’s feedback has been great.)
And of course the opposite is true too.
As I strode over the hillside and the icy November wind tore at me, I thought to myself, “If only I was safely at home with a Jackson SuperHEAT Triple-Insulating Immersion Heater Cover making my house incredibly warm for less than £0.06 a week (subject to existing plumbing and cladding).”
Trust is 90% of a mouse-click. Ever been enticed by the promise of a website and then had Google flash up a warning that “the website you’re trying to visit may have malware”? The phrase ‘may have’ is enough to stop everyone. That’s because everyone (more or less) trusts Google – partly because they don’t have much of a choice, of course. But generally, it’s assumed that Google’s word is good.
We click on blog links for the same reasons. Any whiff of insincerity, any hint of spammy salesmanship in the air, and we either won’t click, or we’ll do so in exactly the wrong frame of mind. We’ll click through in a distrustful, even hostile state, hunting for incriminating evidence, looking for a fight.
Unfortunately, this is often what the word “sponsored” does. The online world is prejudiced against it – unfairly in some cases. That’s why publishers are shifting to new phrases like “native advertising“, “native content” and so on. This is just something website owners need to deal with, usually by working extra-hard to make that sponsored stuff simply amazing. I think that’s what sponsored content entails. Bloggers get paid, but they have to work at least twice as hard to serve their audience’s need and maintain their trust in the face of THAT word. Seems like a fair deal if you’re prepared to put the hours in.
Anyway, here are a few people I trust. I read Brain Pickings and it’s obvious to me that Maria is more interested in filling my head with amazing new thoughts than making money off the Amazon affiliate links on all her book recommendations. It’s obvious. Nobody writes like that and doesn’t care that much. I read Jenny at The Bloggess and Geraldine at Everywhereist because they’re smart and funny and that’s a great way to be honest and get epic shit done for Christmas. I read people who are open about when things are tough – but remain hopeful and open-minded despite their struggles.
I read some blogs for business ideas, some for fun, some for a kick in the pants when I need it, and I read all of them because their writers seem to care about what I’m getting out of this. Even when it’s all about them, and even when they’re trying to get me to do something, they take the time to make it worthwhile to me.
That’s how it feels, and that’s why I trust them.
As Jason Kottke said last year, everywhere online has blog DNA these days. The same chatty tone, the same freedom to goof around, the same attempted intimacy. This is no bad thing – except intimacy comes from a relationship. Bad blog-like writing assumes you already care. The author missed the whole point of what a blog is. It’s not a press release – it’s a conversation.
And for younger web-users, most of the conversation is taking place elsewhere:
In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.
(Where are teens going to write their online diaries these days – or is that kind of thing on the wane? Is social media enough for them?)
What hasn’t changed is everyone’s voracious appetite for good stories. Look at the explosion of people reading fiction on Kindle. Look at Wattpad. Demand isn’t changing – it’s just the way those stories are delivered.
Meanwhile, the blogs that stand out are the ones where the authors are fully present. They’re open about who they are, and they’re on a mission. Take Chris Guillebeau visiting every country in the world, or Steve Kamb levelling up his life like a proper nerd. One of my favourite blog-like stories is in book form: The Geography Of Bliss: One Grump’s Search For The Happiest Places In The World by Eric Weiner. Done right, blogs can easily boil down into books (take Gretchen Rubin’s “Happiness Project“).
But the key requirement is that those authors understand how to answer the question, “Where are you going with this?” They answer it beforehand, getting readers invested, and they answer it afterwards, when they summarise.
Readers care about endings. The best bloggers present them with a ton of them.
3. Good Salesmanship
I know, I know: ugh. Right? Nobody likes being sold to. And what about bloggers who don’t want to make money? Shut your blasphemous food-hole, Sowden.
However, if you’re writing for an audience, you’re using exactly the same persuasive toolkit as great marketeers. If you want to get your words out into the world, you need to understand the basics – and yes, the word is need.
Take these guys (also here). They write serialized fiction on Kindle, and they’re making a highly successful living from it. Part of the reason is they have a terrific podcast, they do things like this, and they experiment creatively and bravely with their marketing all the time. They regularly lock themselves in rooms to get the words out, but they also know the value of flinging their doors as wide as possible to let the world in – and, more importantly, they understand what works, through relentless testing. They’re great salesmen, and they know how to make their marketing efficient and fun so it doesn’t distract them from their main task at hand, which is writing fiction.
Feeling like you’re being sold to: yes, that really sucks. Everyone hates it – but the curious paradox is, everyone loves buying stuff. I can clearly remember when it was freakish to pay for things online. “You’re giving your credit card details – over the internet – to a stranger?” Now it’s commonplace, and thanks to services like PayPal and Google Wallet, it’s one click and no brain required. Micropayment purchases ($5 or less)? The world is increasingly addicted to them.
That is an amazingly exciting thing if you’re a modern writer.
Bloggers can’t get paid for their articles by their readers. There are all sorts of crowdfunding platforms – eg. Patreon – allowing bloggers to experiment with this stuff, but as far as I know, nothing has really taken hold. (I’d love to be corrected on this.) After years of blogs being free to read, it’s too jarring to have them shift to pay-to-play. That’s not how top bloggers are raking in money, and it won’t be for a good while yet, if ever.
Here’s a very common way the top bloggers are making huge amounts of cash:
1) Build a massive e-mail list. (Not just social media numbers – an e-mail list.)
2) Come up with some service or digital product that their readers will really, really want.
3) Sell it directly or indirectly through that e-mail list.
That’s pretty much it. It’s easy to sketch out, a ton of hard work to do and build an engaging ecosystem around – but it works. And it works because their target readers care enough about what they’re getting – and in a lesser sense, who they’re supporting – that they’ll hand over money for it, either small numbers of them paying big sums, or huge numbers paying the price of a Starbucks coffee.
Buying is never the problem. Selling can be, if crappy, tone-deaf marketing tactics are used that burn trust and make the other person feel like click-meat. (I unsubscribed to a list last night because someone was launching a product and sent four e-mails out in one evening to remind people, each one more frenzied than the last. I was getting scared they’d turn up in person, yelling outside my window until the East Yorkshire police dragged them away. That’s not an ideal vibe to give your customer.)
This is the biggie.
Author and motivational speaker Danielle LaPorte has this product she calls a “Desire Map“. It tells people to ignore 90% of conventional business wisdom and think about how they eventually want to feel.
First time I heard about it, I thought, “Wow, that sounds lame. What about money? Last time I checked, you can’t eat feelings.”
But it’s actually incredibly smart, and I missed it. I forgot how important emotions are for making smart business decisions. And I forgot how driven by emotion we all are.
As Geraldine DeRuiter said at MozCon this year, it’s not rare for a reader to fall in love with a blog and/or website that serves no functional purpose in their life other than to delight them. That’s what love sometimes is. It’s whimsical and illogical and you just go with it if you want to be happy.
(I can’t find the video, so go watch Geraldine’s Ignite Seattle talk from 2013 instead. You should very much do that, at least once.)
If a blog makes you feel something, you’ll cleave to it in a way that mere facts cannot achieve. If it makes you feel something and it’s super-useful, you’ll probably become totally obsessed – but utility isn’t a requirement for you to become besotted with it.
A common feeling is hope. You really want to do something, you’re riddled with insecurity about doing it – and then you read how someone else got there and decided to document the whole journey online. I normally hate the “i” word, but…that’s usually really inspiring. It may even inspire you to act on that feeling – at which point, no bullshit, that blog just changed your life. (Woah.)
The more you trust them, the more hope they’ll instil in you that you can get there too. They may even be tackling something you have no interest in doing yourself, but you’re still hooked because you love how gutsy they’re being. You’re inspired that some people are that gutsy (and a flicker of rebellion lights within you).
However they do it, whatever reaction you have, they really get to you.
Back to LaPorte’s Desire Map. It tells you to base your decision-making on the specific set of feelings you eventually want to feel. (Note: I haven’t read the book so I’m not endorsing it – I just think it’s a smart idea.)
Here’s why that’s a good move. “Money” as a goal is a thing. Feelings are experiences. And we’re happiest when we’re spending our time and energy chasing experiences, not things.
That’s really why blogs still matter, and why readers still stick around. The best blog authors work hard to help their audience feel the things they do – to inspire trust and story-addiction and everything already mentioned, but most of all to get emotional in some way. (And maybe even a little blinky and nose-blowy. That’s a sign, right there.)
A personal example: for bug-eyed wonder about how fascinating this planet is and how rich its travel stories are, I turn to Roads & Kingdoms and Maptia – two sites that aren’t exactly blogs, but are built from blog DNA. I look at Candace Rardon’s sketches, and Jodi Ettenberg’s street food, and Ethiopian churches carved from a single piece of solid rock. (Also qualifying: the sadly now defunct Krulwich Wonders, and Paul Salopek’s ongoing Out Of Eden walk.)
I read all these sites because they remind me that I know next to nothing, and all the fun of learning is ahead of me, and I really should spend more time learning and less time messing around on bloody Facebook.
To summarise: great blogs…
1. Instil Trust.
2. Have A Direction.
3. Persuade With Elegant Salesmanship.
4. Stir Up Feelings.
That’s how blogs stick around.
Thanks for reading.
Images: Waleed Alzuhair, Garry Knight.