Shawn Blanc on Content Strategy

First and foremost: your content strategy should be focused on serving your audience.

Does your content strategy have only the best in mind for your audience?

Consider if your content strategy does the following…?

  1. Does it provide value at all times…?
  2. Is it relevant at the readers’ time of need…?
  3. Does it serve your business goals…?

Shawn Blanc has been making a living from his blog and various products for the past five years. He recently put out a three-part series on content strategy that is worth a read if you’re serious about making a living from your writing (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Shawn draws from real expertise built up over years of doing the work.

Buy the Internet You Want to Read

Each month, I donate somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$20 to publishers across the internet. It’s no large sum by any means. In reality, if I just refrain from eating one meal out or make an espresso at home a few afternoons during the week, that money will fully be recouped. Why dish out $20 a month to writers and bloggers that I’ve never met or really know at all outside of their Twitter handle and online content?

It’s simple; I believe in buying the internet you want to read and supporting publishers that you enjoy/gain insight from.

The publishing landscape has changed quite a bit over the last decade. There’s been a dramatic shift away from print material in favor of online content. Alongside of the shift in medium has come a growing level of content availability. It’s easier than ever now for someone to log on to a content platform like WordPress.com, Squarespace, etc and create a website. Within minutes (seconds even), they can be posting their words out there for everyone to see contributing to the ever-growing amount of content in the world.

The change in content medium and competition isn’t the only shift that has occurred. There’s been a dramatic shift in publisher revenue as well. The general idea among novice bloggers and general readers is that blogging is a relatively easy and lucrative adventure. Create a site, throw some adds up, string a few words together, and boom – an income-generating blog is born.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Before I started at Automattic, I was fortunate to work for Federated Media (now called Sovrn). In my entry role, I was a sales associate that spoke with publishers asking them to join our display advertising network. If they joined, I sent over some code for ad tags, they threw the code up on their site, and we both waited for the riches to come pouring in (My pay was somewhat related to their performance).

Often times, instead of getting elated emails (“We did it!” “Thanks for the new car!”) from bloggers, I’d get the dreaded phone call I had hoped to avoid – “How in hell did I only make $0.80 last month?” The answer was a hard one to explain and involved educating them a bit about how ads actually generate revenue.

When you visit a webpage that has ad codes embedded, your information is immediately pinged across the internet in the form of a cookie. Advertisers “bid” on the ability to show you an ad based on a variety of factors including your past browsing history and internet purchases among other things. If multiple advertisers want to show you an ad, there is a quick bidding war and the winner returns an ad that pops up on your screen as the page loads. This all happens in fractions of a second, so quickly that you don’t even notice it slowing down your page load. This is happening billions of times a day across millions of sites on the internet.

So, how much are you worth to the advertiser on average? Probably not as much as you may think.

Advertising spend is tracked in what’s referred to as CPM or cost per thousand (the actual acronym stands for cost per mille, which means thousand in Latin). The acronym isn’t important; what is important is that this number reflects what publishers can expect to earn on average for one thousand visitors. CPMs ranges depend on many factors, but average numbers are in the neighborhood of $0.60-$4.00. Remember, that price is for one thousand visitors. So, say you have five thousand hits on your site on a daily basis (a solid size for an independent blogger). You’re probably feeling pretty accomplished (as you should!), but at the end of the day, that traffic level is bringing home $10.00 (based on a $2.00 CPM with one ad on a page). Not quite the dream many publishers envision.

If you’re running the numbers in your head, you’ll understand that sites need to have considerable levels of traffic in order to depend on display advertising for their main source of income.

Most publishers have figured out that they can’t rely solely on display advertising to pay the bills. Depending on one source of income for your livelihood is a dangerous game, particularly when that source is display advertising. You’re virtually living at the mercy of powerhouses like Google, which has proved to be an ineffective method in the long haul.

So, in come other advertising methods: affiliate links, direct sponsorships, video pre-roll ads (the kind that tries to get you to buy something before a YouTube video plays), rising star units (the kind that drops down at the top of a website), skins (a background image that sites behind your favorite site) to name a few. In short, advertisers are trying new and innovative ways to get advertisements in front of your face.

You can’t blame them.

This puts publishers in a bit of a bind. Regardless of how much you cut down on overhead, you have to keep the lights on at night and food on the table. The drive for higher revenue means publishers most resort to one of a few options:

  1. Generate higher levels of traffic to drive more ad revenue
  2. More ad spaces on their site (Average CPM * # of ad units = ad revenue)
  3. More intrusive ads on their page (forced ads like video pre-roll pay more than display ads)

None of those options improve the user experience.

Many publishers have now started offering memberships and accepting donations from their readers in an attempt to keep the lights on while also not lowering their publishing standards or covering up their site with unnecessary ads. It’s easy to sit back and shake your head while these publishers have their hand out looking for supplementary income. However, it puts part of the responsibility for improving the internet in the hands of the reader, and that’s a magical thing.

Every time you visit a site, read an article, or share a link, you’re casting a vote. You’re saying, in effect, that you want more of this type of content. If you spend the majority of your day perusing YouTube channels like Dom Mazzetti, you’re telling Dom that you want him to make more videos and produce more content.

Over time, these individual votes help shape the content of the internet.

This isn’t some impassioned plea asking you not to visit Buzzfeed or fill your browser history with meme sites. Instead, it’s meant to point out the critical role that readers play in shaping the internet. It’s getting harder and harder for large publications and independent publishers alike to stay afloat and continue kicking out awesome content.

If you’re a big fan of a certain site or a certain publisher, consider kicking them a few bucks each month or staying subscribed to their magazine. It’s likely not going to affect your situation very much, but it may have a profound effect on them.

You have a vote in shaping the internet.  Cast it wisely.

Your Words Matter

Jeff Goins wrote a tremendous blog post detailing one of the biggest struggles for writers and bloggers:

Most writers struggle with the same thing. It’s one little thought that threatens to destroy their message before it ever leaves their fingertips:

What I say doesn’t matter.

I’ve struggled with this many times over the past few years, wondering why I even take the time to post content here on my blog when maybe only a handful of people will ever read the words. Then, I remind myself of two things:

Writing is for you.

It’s not all about the audience. Regardless of whether you’re trying to build a large following or just keep your family up-to-date with photos of your kid’s latest antics, writing and blogging can be intended for you, the writer. I’m a firm believer that everyone should write. There’s a lot to learn from sharing your experiences with others. You can reminisce about the past, bringing old memories to life or reflect on past decisions, weighing the pro’s and the con’s. Whatever you’re sharing, the process of writing or typing out your thoughts makes you think about them more. Everyone can benefit from that.

Shooting for one.

When I sit down to share something or write a blog post, I never hope to inspire millions by clicking publish. Instead, I shoot to influence one person. If one person reads something from me and is inspired to take action, I have achieved success. The thought is that one person could inspire another person, who inspires another, and so on. All of the sudden, a few words have inspired a handful of individuals to do something they otherwise may not have done.

Writing Routine

One of my main goals throughout all of 2014 is to improve my writing. I started back in 2011 as an outlet to share some fitness ideas and knowledge that I was attaining through my own research and working with clients. Eventually, it spawned into something bigger, allowing me to freelance quite a bit in 2012-2013. Despite writing a few hundred words on most days for other publications during those years, the amount that I write has tailed off quite a bit recently. As a result, I feel rusty.

I recently stumbled across my notes from Talent is Overrated, wherein Geoffrey Colvin covers five key elements that define deliberate practice. I started thinking about how I could apply those elements to my writing habit to improve on a daily basis. Here are my thoughts so far and how I’m planning on integrating the key elements into my writing routine:

Designed Specifically to Improve Performance

This was perhaps the hardest element to address within my writing habit. One of the main reasons I enjoy writing and blogging is that I find it fun and enjoyable. As a result, much of my writing is off the cuff, particularly on this blog. That’s not really going to change as I view this blog as a personal outlet, not a professional piece of work that I want to scrutinize over. However, I am taking a new approach to my freelance writing.

Previously, much of my freelance pieces started off the cuff as well. I would have a topic in mind and a rough idea of how I wanted to structure the piece. Then, I’d sit down and start writing. Initially, the piece would be terrible. But, over time, it would shape into something that was suitable for public consumption. However, recently, I’ve begun to put a lot more effort into the planning stages. Stealing some of Austin Kleon’s advice for creative professionals, I’ve begun to start each piece in a notebook. I take 30-40 minutes to write down every piece of information I want to convey in the article. I draw, annotate, scratch out, and scribble my thoughts as fast as possible. I make a point during this phase not to touch my computer. I don’t want to take any time to look anything up online. This serves mainly as a brain dump to get everything on paper. Then, I take that paper and rearrange the topics into a semi-coherent format. That’s allowed me to jump into writing with a better idea of what I want to say.

Another way I’m attempting to improve is by reading the work of others. This is a pretty obvious technique – read the work of writers you enjoy to hopefully adopt some pearls of genius from their words. Lately, I’ve been taking it a step further, stealing an approach from Ben Franklin. In order to improve his writing, Franklin famously would rewrite essays from writers he enjoyed. Then, he would cut out the sentences and scramble them up. After a little while, he would attempt to rearrange the slips of paper back into the “correct” order. In doing this, he hoped to learn how to structure sentences and thoughts in the best way possible.

I’m not going that far, but I have made it a point to slow down when I’m reading and take a deeper look at the intricacies of a post/article (sentence structure, organization, etc) rather than just getting a sense of the general idea.

It can be repeated a lot

I’m a firm believer in the idea that writing and creative adventures are like a muscle; they respond and improve after being worked. As a result, I’ve been making a point to use them as much as possible. This includes writing on a daily basis (goal is 500 words) and flexing my idea muscles as much as possible.

Lately, I’ve been carrying around a small pocket journal and making myself write down as many ideas as I can come up with on a daily basis. This includes pitches for freelance articles, blog posts, and the occasional business idea. To quote James Altucher:

Every day I wake up and write down ten ideas. I’m a firm believe the only way to have good ideas is to every day exercise the idea muscle.

Feedback on results is continuously available

Feedback for blog posts is available in the form of shares, views, and comments. However, I don’t think those elements really reflect accurate and thoughtful feedback. As a result, I’m starting to ask specific individuals that I look up to writing-wise for specific feedback on a piece. Rather than just passing off the article and asking for overall thoughts, I accompany the piece with specific directions. “Do you think I communicated XYZ clearly enough?” “Does the ordering make sense or could it be improved?” This type of direct feedback on specific elements helps to get another opinion on my writing.

It’s highly demanding mentally AND it isn’t much fun

I wrapped these two elements into one as I think they are similar in practice. The truth is writing can really suck at certain times. While I do enjoy it, some days at the computer are an absolute drag. It seems like I’ll never be able to put together a coherent sentence that anyone else would want to read. This type of day exists in any profession or hobby. I remember when I was racing competitively, there would be days where I would go out on a run and feel absolutely terrible. My legs would feel like jello, and I would feel like I had absolutely no energy in my body. Those days were the worst. I have days exactly like that in front of the computer screen.

There isn’t a magical solution or strategy that will make writing fun and productive at any and all points. The key is to push through the terrible days so that you can enjoy the good days. So, I don’t have a strategy here other than just writing on a daily basis.

Creature of Habit

There’s a very solid chance that if you were to ask me what I’m doing between 5am and 7am, I’m writing something. When the clock strikes 12pm, I’ll probably be headed to the dog park. 3:30pm? I’m likely at the gym.

With the exception of the weekend (where I have a different schedule of sorts) and vacations, I have a very solid routine in place that helps me stay sane. The regular occurrences help me to be more productive. They also help to reduce my stress level and therefore create a healthier, happier me. I’m not alone in my dependence on a routine. If you look back at many famous entrepreneurs, you’ll find that many of them have routines they follow.

As 2014 kicks off, many eager individuals will look to set New Year’s resolutions. Yet, a great deal of those resolutions will fall flat within the first few months. Most don’t even make it that far. The reason: Change is damn hard.

Continue reading “Creature of Habit”

Evolution of Blogging

Let’s face it — in the past 12 years or so, the idea of blogging has been bastardized by one and all. We continue to confuse blogging as using “WordPress” or using phrases like “told me” or “I asked.” It is news releases repackaged and republished, and it is a vast sea of editorial sameness. What started as a way to break away from the tyranny of the established order — formats and rules — has been brought to its knees. Blogging is much more than that. #via

I thought Om had some great thoughts on the subject of blogging. It’s been interesting to watch blogging grow although I’ve only been part of the “blogosphere” for a short time. We’ve morphed from a time when writing and blogging were restricted to the few to now, where literally anyone and everyone has a blog or website of some sort. Anyone that doesn’t have a blog likely still posts small insights into their life on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Are these outlets necessarily bad? I don’t think so. Obviously, to each their own. I’ve shared my thoughts on the idea of condensing your sharing outlets before when I decided to drop Facebook and primarily share things either here or on Twitter.

Since I’ve been posting and maintaining my own piece of land on the internet, my own vision of and purpose for blogging have changed quite dramatically. In the past, my entire focus was on driving traffic, attracting readers, building an email list, and (eventually) selling them something. I looked at blogging as primarily a means of generating revenue.

Fast-forward to today, my primary purpose is just to share things that I find interesting. Those “things” range from technology to fitness to lifestyle design, and honestly, I’m not concerned with locking down a central theme. Obviously, some readers likely don’t appreciate the fact that my topics can jump all over the place, but I’m okay with that. As Om describes, a blog is “a central location where you fit together all the Lego pieces.” I couldn’t agree more, and I enjoy putting the lego pieces together for everyone to see.

If anything, I hope more people adopt the art of blogging and begin to share more on their own personal blogs. There’s something empowering about posting to your own little corner of the internet. 

If you’re interested in getting started, might I suggest WordPress?

The Writer-Reader Connection

Over the past two weeks, Mr. Grunberg has spent several hours a day writing his novella, while a battery of sensors and cameras tracked his brain waves, heart rate, galvanic skin response (an electrical measure of emotional arousal) and facial expressions. Next fall, when the book is published, some 50 ordinary people in the Netherlands will read it under similarly controlled circumstances, sensors and all.

I thought this was a fascinating article in the NY Times covering a study currently being conducted by Dutch researchers on the author Arnon Grunberg. The electrode cap captures the electrical stimulation in Arnon’s brain as he writes the book. Then, researches are going to toss the hat on readers when they actually sit down to read the book. The goal is to highlight a link between the way “art is created and consumed”.

I think this experiment is interesting for two main reasons:

  1. The idea of quantified self is becoming more and more popular and prevalent in our society. We’re tracking everything from the major to the minutia including steps walked, glasses of water consumed, miles run, words written, etc. I’m interested to see what can be done with that data as right now, I don’t think we’re utilizing it very well.
  2. With the rise of the internet and specifically blogging, it’s never been easier to create content. Nearly everyone that blogs has an interest in sharing their thoughts and feelings with the world. Some are better than others at portraying their feelings and getting across their argument. It’s easy to sit at your desk, type out some words, and hit publish. It’s harder to quantify the impact you’re having on others through your writing. The metrics in place now (social stats, page views, comments) aren’t really a fantastic indicator of the perceived value of what you’ve written. Were your readers engaged? Did they share the same thoughts and feelings? If they don’t write a comment, you’ll never know.I think the experiment with Arnon showcases some exciting new data that can be used to impact the effectiveness of writers and bloggers everywhere (even if we don’t all have access to a sweet looking hat).

I’m not extremely interested in the quantified self movement just yet because I feel like the applications aren’t very useful as we have them set-up. However, this is an exciting experiment that showcases our ability to track how other individuals think and feel. To me, that’s a much more exciting piece of information than how many steps you take in a day.

Headline Hyperbole

The headline is what convinces you whether or not to click on a link, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or even that old dinosaur, email (where it is referred to as a subject line).

But I can’t help but feel that we’re nearing “peak headline.”  Too many companies are strip-mining the psychology of headlines for traffic; the result will be a jaded and cynical audience that will stop clicking on anything.

Once upon a time, Huffington Post was criticized for simply republishing content.  Now we long for those halcyon days.  Upworthy doesn’t even bother with republishing–the typical Upworthy post is simply a YouTube video with a catchy headline. #via

In his post, Chris Yeh makes some great points. I’m constantly impressed at the headlines of articles as I scan my RSS feed, the NY Times, or my local newspaper. Headlines appear to be the main way used to catch a reader’s attention.

In the past, when I’ve contributed to various websites and online magazines, the headlines were typically high on the priority list. I’d pitch ideas with the headline in mind. These were used both to catch a reader’s attention, but also to generate the highest SEO ranking possible. Typically, the titles followed this format (or something close to it):

or

In the above scenarios, the goal was either to entice the reader into clicking (after all, who doesn’t want to see how they stack up against every other man) or to create a knowledge gap (are you doing cardio stupidly?). Sure, the titles were related to the content. In the flexibility marks example, I did indeed cover five flexibility assessments that every “man” should be able to pass. However, as is often the case, I think I started with the title in mind and created the article to match rather than the other way around.

With all of the title hyperbole taking place in the media, readers will soon become immune to popular click-baiting tactics. There’s only so many articles you can read that describe the 10 best abdominal exercises to lose your gut. The title formats often become repetitive in nature. It also forces editors and writers to go bigger and bolder with each new title (a cycle that Chris alludes to).

The bottom line: headlines used to be a tremendous tactic to get readers to click and read (or at least skim) your article. Do they still work? Absolutely. But, eventually, there has to be a better way. I’m of the crowd that thinks that “better way” is through producing trusted content and becoming a go-to source within your industry for insights, and opinions that aren’t available elsewhere. It’s not so much of getting an “exclusive” (because those are hard to come by), but more of creating something unique rather than following in the footsteps of those that have gone before. SEO and headline hyperbole (my title for this problem) are eventually going to die off unless writers can continually come up with more descriptive adjectives. In that scenario, more time will be spent on the title than on the actual article itself. Those roles should be reversed. Keep the catchy headlines for Twitter. Save the bulk of your time to present quality information.

Are Affiliate Links Ruining Your Reader Relationship?

Let’s discuss a scenario.

A good friend of yours invites you over to have dinner with him and his wife. Not wanting to be rude, you accept the invitation. Plus, you’ve been friends with this individual for a few years now. You’ve exchanged jokes, shared stories, and had some great moments.
 
Dinner goes well. The conversation and the wine are both flowing. Suddenly, the topics start to shift.
 
You learn that your friend is now a sales rep for Advocare – a health and wellness company. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever tried,” he says. “So much energy!” you’re promised. Slowly, the conversation shifts to prices, and your “friend” promises you a low introductory rate. 
 

What would you do? Buy? Stay? Say yes? Ask for more info?

Continue reading “Are Affiliate Links Ruining Your Reader Relationship?”