How Chris Brogan Built His Content Platform

Chris Brogan is everywhere.

From the outside, it seems that in just a few short years, he’s created an independent publishing and speaking empire with nothing more than his personality and a laptop.

The truth of his story is a lot more compelling.

He spent 10 years writing into the void. He flew to conferences around the country broke, eating leftover granola bars. He struggled to pay the mortgage, to pay the electric bill. After eight years of work, he had an audience of just 100 subscribers.

He eventually created an invaluable content platform that now gets up every hour of every day and goes to work for him.

It didn’t come easy for Chris, and it didn’t come fast, so he’s on the show today laying down some wisdom and advice that can make your own road to creating a content platform that works for you a lot less brutal …

In this episode we discuss:

  • How to write 2,000-4,000 words a day
  • The critical importance of brevity in the digital age
  • Why every online writer should read (and study) The Shipping News
  • 2 ways to find endless content ideas
  • Why it took Chris 8 years to gain his first 100 subscribers
  • Brogan’s best advice on how to create a valuable content platform

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Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

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Robert: You have walked through the front door and right into the living room of Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio . I’m Robert Bruce and I am talking to the ubiquitous and the irrepressible Chris Brogan today.

If you don’t know Chris, I am going to go ahead and immediately direct you to ChrisBrogan.com because he’s on a merciless schedule today, and we’re going to do a lightening round stream of consciousness thing with him based on an impressive list he wrote a few weeks back entitled ”97 Ideas for Building a Valuable Platform”.

More than a collection of facts, more than a mere resume, your content platform is the place from which you publish to the world exactly what you want, with no worries of fickle terms of service changes, unwarranted shut-downs or crazy privacy rules you’d rather not live with.

You own your own platform and, like it or not, it’s how the world now sees you, or doesn’t see you, professionally.

Chris thanks for coming in, man, you ready to burn through some of these ideas of yours on creating a valuable content platform?

Chris: I just can’t get over what you’ve done with this living room. If smart people were going to hang out, they’d be in this living room.

Robert: There is a chair over in the corner there, take a seat for just a moment if you would. I am going to do our sponsor and then I’ll call you back in. Is that cool?

Chris: Let’s go!

Robert: I need to remind everybody out there that this show is brought to you by Internet Marketing for Smart People, , it’s a fast, irresistible marketing course consisting of about 20 lessons delivered by email, and it’s free. Over 70,000 people have signed up for the course and one of the reasons they’ve done it is convenience.

The internet is a big place, Copyblogger alone has over 2,000 articles on every aspect of marketing online. You could patch all that together, post by post, page by page, but do you have the time? And how would you know if you were finding the best stuff out there? It’s just too much.

So we’ve bundled the very best that Copyblogger has written over the years into one simple systematic course. You sign up by email, we send you about 20 of them, and more after that if you decide to stay on, you read and study those emails at your own pace, whether it’s Monday morning or Saturday night, whatever works for you, and by the end of it, you’ve gone through the very best of Copyblogger’s practical marketing wisdom and strategy and you’ll come out the other side knowing more about this stuff then most ever will and it won’t cost you a dime.

If you want in, head over to Copyblogger.com, scroll down to the middle of the home page were you will see the headline, “Grab Our Free 20-part Internet Marketing Course,” drop your email address in the little box you’ll see there and we’ll take care of the rest. Chris do you need coffee or anything? You look comfortable in that chair.

Chris: Oh yeah, it’s great. You know I brought my own gin.

Robert: Perfect. You knew what kind of show this was.

Chris: No question.

How to write 2000-4000 words a day

Robert: Alright, so folks can find your post “97 Ideas for Building a Valuable Platform” over at ChrisBrogan.com/97 but let’s start with number 4, man. You say, “get in the habit of writing daily.” You’re a prolific writer. What does your daily writing practice look like?

Chris: So I type maybe between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day. Some of that goes into a blog post, some of that might go into my newsletter, some of it goes to articles that I write for different magazine gigs that I suddenly, accidentally have, and quite often I am working on a book.

Although I am just grateful to say that I am not writing a book right now, I am in between, I am getting ready to do the second edition of a book, which is almost like coasting down a hill.

So I do 2,000 to 4,000 words a day. The way I do that, and I know we’ll go into that in a great deal of depth, is that I type. So I just put my fingers on the keys and I know that is immediately a turn-off to people, but yes, you must type to actually get the words typed.

Robert: Right, I can hear people out there listening to this thinking, “yeah, yeah, that’s fine for Brogan, but I’m just not that type of person.” Do you think that you are a certain type, Chris, and that has allowed you to produce so much? Or is it something else?

Chris: There are a lot of people who are not my type of person. There are a lot of people who instead of trying to make money and do business really know what’s going on in American Idol and I wish them well.

I haven’t figured out a way to get paid for that though, and as I have a home and a mortgage and a family and an ex-wife and everything to pay for, I’ve got stuff. Because of this, in between vacuuming up pet dander, I need to earn a living, and so I try to figure out how I can build a platform that lets people come to me so that I don’t always have to look like a leg humping sales person. In between that, I create words and the words are in service of business a great deal of the time.

A lot of people say “Well I don’t write because that’s not my main business, my main business is selling things.” And I go, “Great! How do you sell those things? Do you shake people and say, ‘Here hold this thing. Oh, now give me a dollar?’”

There is a transaction that comes right before the sale, and what I write is in support of that and also in community in between sales, which I think is probably where they forget. I think where we tend to lose some of the words that we’re writing is that we forget that we should actually have community in service of the people who occasionally pay our way. That’s I think, Robert, where we go astray.

Robert: Okay so would it be fair to say then that your 2,000 to 4,000 words a day, typed, are a conscious decision as opposed to something you were born with, some magical ability you possess.

Chris: Right, right. I’m not like a monk with a keyboard. I have a full life, I am doing all kinds of stuff, I have a girlfriend who is a yoga instructor so I am learning yoga and stuff and we just started a band together and I have all kinds of other stuff.

I keynote a lot so I am flying everywhere and doing speeches all over the place, which is another kind of writing. You don’t have to be monastic to put out a lot of words, I mean it’s just a matter of how you are going to spend your calories and your time trying to sell and/or build business, or do whatever you think that you need to do.

Don’t forget, when we talk about marketing and sales and all that sort of thing, I am always telling people not to think of sales only as an expense where dollars pass hands. I am also often thinking about the sale of ideas, so to me churches are selling. To me colleges that are trying to get you convinced of being educated are selling. We sell every single day, and so every time I say words like “sell” or “market” I am always trying to double back and remind people that that’s just in service of moving your ideas forward.

The critical importance of brevity in the digital age

Robert: Alright, second section of your list here is titled “Embrace Brevity”. As a fellow laconic writer, this is my personal favorite out of all of them in your list but why does brevity work so well today?

Chris: Well there is this really kind of weird crap where people are thinking that more words are better. I led by saying how many words I write a day, I didn’t say how many I put in one space in a day.

The other thing is that we are all reading off of a three inch device. It’s baffling to me how many people think that we’re writing for the laptop/desktop set but then when they get up from a conversation or when they get up to go pee or when they are hanging out at a tweet-up or whatever they are doing, that’s when they are flicking through their emails.

It’s on a little tiny three inch device, and so I am forever asking them, “Well then are you sending out 5 to 900 to 1,700 to 3,000 word posts or emails to people?” and if so, if you are reading all kinds of your emails on your phone, then that’s what everyone is doing.

You are not any different than anybody else so brevity matters. The other thing is we’re all sort of turning our social media consumption, and our consumption in general, into a chore. I am finding that people are reading less and less, they are consuming more and more.

Robert: So we both know that there is a place for short copy and there is a place for long copy that is still around, but are you finding yourself writing with more brevity in general?

Why every online writer should read (and study) The Shipping News

Chris: All the time. I think one of the ways to do it is you read the book The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx, and then you read it again.

Then by the time you’re finished the second run through of reading The Shipping News you can’t not write three word sentences all the time.

The other thing is that people often confuse long sentence structure with intelligence. If I don’t write a long sentence with a bunch of commas and stuff like that, then I probably am not a smart person.

But you know I had a great teacher, Ken Hadge who told me “Tell it to me like I am six years old.” The one thing I know for sure is that small easy to consume sentences really make that truth happen. I am just forever in the business of trying to make sure that people get the idea I want. I break all the rules, I make little one sentence paragraphs every now and again for emphasis.

How to find endless content ideas

Robert: You’re section called “What to Write” covers one of the biggest questions we get around Copyblogger. How do I find ideas to write about, how am I supposed to create all this content? Give us a couple quick tips about this for folks struggling to find ways to create content, to build their platform.

Chris: You know I read an e-book when I was doing some research on Kindle. I was reading some e-books and I was trying to find all the really crappy 99¢ and $2.99 type e-books out there from names that I maybe knew a little bit, or didn’t know, or people who maybe under-valued their product.

I was looking for something very specific but what I found instead, totally different – it’s almost like the way science goes sometimes – I found some really neat nuggets written into really poorly formatted e-books that I don’t think people will buy just for the look and feel of the product, you know? The cover art and all that was just heinous and whatever.

Out of all that, one of the story lines that I saw there that really worked on what to write about was write around any community’s frequently asked questions. So that’s one. That’s one really simple easy answer.

Look for the frequently asked questions of any community and you will see the meat and the guts of what people want more writing about. The number one searched thing on my website, all the time, besides my name, is how to use Twitter for business. That’s the thing that draws more people to my site, and Twitter has been around since 2006 and the last thing I ever want to do is write yet another article about using Twitter for business, but I can tell you that my search results if I wrote one of those everyday people would come and read it.

The other thing that I do is that the way I like to teach people how to write for their community is write stories that will make their buyer the hero. So if you sell, well I don’t know, the Copyblogger community is a wee-bit different, but let’s pretend that we sell vacuum cleaners, well then I would write “Ways to get twice the life out of your air filter” or “A 10-minute vacuum cleaning hack that makes you feel like you didn’t vacuum” and I would write all kinds of things that just made the product better.

Then I would stop writing about the vacuum cleaner in general, but write about housekeeping hacks and things like that. Things that sort of tie to the ecosystem of the product.

What we’re always doing a little bit wrong is that we’re writing only about our product or only about our service at the expense of forgetting what the buyer is like in all three dimensions.

If you sell jet skis then there are only so many articles that you can write about a jet ski, or there are only so many videos that you can shoot about how cool a jet ski is. But the kind of person who is a jet ski owner is also the person that has a lake front property, that has a little bit of extra money, that has a certain lifestyle that goes around it. So you write around the lifestyle or you write around the ecosystem and you have topics until you are dead.

Tap into your audience’s FAQs for answers

Robert: Okay, let’s double back real quickly for a quick tip. What’s a good way to find the frequently asked questions around a topic, subject, or community?

Chris: There are a few ways to do it, one of the ways that this e-book that I am talking about, I wish I could remember the name, I would love to give the person credit, but they said look at forums. Look at Google groups, and Yahoo groups, and all these old school technologies that exist out there for free, they all come with an FAQ page.

There are tons of bulletin boards services out there with a FAQ page. It just takes a little bit of Google work to start thinking about the frequent asked questions. You can type in a topic name and then space and then FAQ, which stands for “frequently asked questions” and then the minute you do that you’ll see a bunch of serving suggestions of people’s frequently responded to answers.

Look at every single one of those answers as fodder for a big post or a big article or a newsletter, whatever you want to do. Don’t recycle, don’t take the answer as it was provided on that site.

One, I mean don’t plagiarize, but two, you can come up with a much fresher answer than whatever is out there. No question about it, it’s baffling how many people come up with the idea of “Wow that’s not bad” and then they start with the Chef Boyardee quality, as opposed to cooking something fresh in the kitchen.

The myth of Chris Brogan’s “overnight success”

Robert: Alright. Next is “overnight success”. Anybody who knows you, knows your story, that you started this whole online publishing thing like two or three years ago and it’s come really easy for you, right? In a nutshell, that’s your story right?

Chris: That’s pretty much it. I just turn on the system one day and I just started cashing checks.

Robert: That is awesome! I think there is a book in there somewhere. No, really, this is actually one of my favorite stories of yours; it was a while ago that I heard you tell it and I don’t remember where it was exactly but what was it? It was a number of years to your first 100 subscribers? Can you tell that story?

Chris: Sure. I probably have a little bucket of these stories for you. It took eight years to get my first 100 subscribers, so first I have to give myself a little credit because there wasn’t RSS when I started. I started blogging back in 1998 and it was called journaling and people just basically had to go site to site to see everything.

There wasn’t a subscription mechanism per se, if I was really a pioneer I would have done an email list back then, but I wasn’t that smart. So, it took eight years to get my first 100 readers. Even today, people are like, “Man, Chris Brogan can write about a piece of poopy sitting on the sidewalk and he gets 50 comments, that’s amazing.”

Robert: I said that just the other day!

Chris: It’s true, by the way. If I write about a piece of poop there would be 50 comments. The thing is, people look at that 50 like that’s a huge number, but I get 200,000 unique visitors a month and I get about 70,000 RSS readers a day. Fifty comments out of any of those two numbers means way less than .001%, so you probably do get that many comments a day relative to your community size.

The other thing, the other overnight success story that I like to tell a lot, the first time I told this was in an interview with this guy Barry Moltz who has a new book coming out with Becky McCray, Small Town Rules: How Big Brands and Small Businesses Can Prosper in a Connected Economy .

We were talking about the fact that I couldn’t afford to be at half of the conferences that I was at. I was paying out of my mortgage and I was paying out of my bank account, such that when I’d land in Manhattan, I would have like a negative $120 balance in the bank or something. I didn’t even have the money to get the cab from JFK to the hotel and then if there wasn’t decent conference food at the event I would be stuck eating whatever might have still been in my bag, like a granola bar or toothpaste.

I went from really seriously not having the rent and being two months behind on a mortgage or something like that, from ramen noodles and all that, to five star hotels and as much steak as I could put in my belly and still have a liver. I did that the hard way, I did that with well over a decade of hard work, and to your point about the overnight success, it’s baffling how many people really honestly think that we all just started, that Brian Clark just started one day and started Copyblogger and was wealthy, and I just turned on my thing and was wealthy, and Gary Vaynerchuk was just handed all his money.

It’s a lot of hard work and I guess the one difference between our stories and people who are in the beginning is that people at the beginning seem to have this unrealistic belief that it’s going to happen a lot faster than it does.

It’s just like everything in life that’s worth anything, you start by planting seeds and nurturing them and you have to wait until the harvest.

Brogan’s philosophy on building a valuable content platform

Robert: Alright, last question. Let’s embrace brevity here. If you could boil down your philosophy of building a valuable content platform into one or two sentences, what would it be?

Chris: Be helpful, do it often. That’s easy. I give that advice to people as often as I can. When I say be helpful, by the way, it’s fascinating how many people think “be helpful” equals standing around asking, “how can I help?” That is the least helpful sentence in the whole universe.

Helpful is, “I was thinking about you the other day and I realized that it would probably benefit you to meet this person who can probably find you some business. Would you like an introduction?” That’s helpful! Not, “How can I help?” So be helpful to the people who you want to serve and that will change the universe.

Robert: Alright Chris, let’s get out of here. If people want you, as they should, they can get more of you over at ChrisBrogan.com. Anywhere else, you want to hook up with people?

Chris: Not at all. But if you go there I use the Genesis Generate theme, sign up to my email. My email is actually the coolest thing going on right now. I write back to people all the time, it’s a very personal email newsletter and every week I am giving away the secrets behind the wall. Go there. Hey, let’s get out of this living room, I think it’s time to go out and enjoy the rest of the day.

Robert: Yes. Thanks for listening everybody. Wherever and whenever you are, if you want to keep this operation going, the best way to do it is to leave us a rating or a comment on iTunes. Thanks for that if you do it. Mr. Brogan, you are a wild man and a player. Thank you.

Chris: Thank you, I’ve had the best time ever, and I ate popcorn the whole time.

Other listening options:

The Show Notes:

About the Author: Robert Bruce is Copyblogger Media’s Chief Copywriter and Resident Recluse.

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Comments

  1. I just love how Chris injects fun wherever he goes.

  2. Chris who? :)

    That’s amazing. Didn’t realize that it took that long just to get a handful of subscribers! So much for overnight success… it says a lot for his commitment and perseverance.

  3. Robert, Thank you for the reminder that doing the work, over the long term matters. Sometimes it can be intimidating to see from the outside what looks like an overnight success, and it’s really inspiring to glimpse the actual journey behind that success. (And his advice on writing 2000-4000 words/day is great–I’m always looking for ways to meet my writing goals.)

  4. Starting with content marketing seems to be the longest way into a business for a beginner. Brogan’s interview sealed that for me.

    It seems better to start quickly using advertising, then make the marketing better and cheaper using content.

    • Brogan’s story is one of many Hashim, and one that started long before the web evolved even further socially.

      You can spend money, or you can spend sweat… one is merciless in it’s demands, the other limitless in it’s potential reach.

  5. In this day of “overnight success” it’s good to see a reminder that almost every great success story involves persistence and committment. Kudos to Chris for plugging through the tough times when I’m sure he was told to give it up.

  6. Really nice interview, guys. And Chris can consider the phrase “leg-humping salesman” officially stolen :)

  7. Chris You Are A Machine! I Love It!:)

    Makes Me Realise Quite How Productive I ‘Can’ be If I Get More Organised.

    Very Inspiring Stuff, Cheers For The Info.

    Greg

  8. “Start helping. Do it often.”

    Will do. Thanks!

  9. Great interview. I love how down to earth Chris is. Would love to hear his thoughts on how to maintain persistence, especially when the going gets tough – it’s hard! :)

  10. I had no idea it took him so long! I always just thought he was super huge from the beginning.

    Thanks for this.

  11. That’s amazing!!! Thanks Chris! We spent more than 3 years to get the kids jumbo workbooks from concept to being published on Amazon, it took so many late nights but today we looked back – it’s all worth it! Persistence and commitment.

  12. This was seriously great. I loved listening to it and went and downloaded Chris’s book on Google Plus from Audible and it was a just as fun to listen to.

    As a creative writer, I’ve always been prolific but now I’ve discovered that turning out 2,000 words a day of content isn’t as hard as I thought. I just spent 15 minutes and got an entire post (perfectly optimized with Scribe!).

    Thanks for the inspiration. I love Copyblogger Radio!

  13. Really nice words from Chris… I have really learnt a lot…. No such thing as over night success like most newbies believe

  14. I really enjoyed this interview, not least because of the energy Chris (and Robert!) inject into it.

    I’ve been struggling to find inspiration for blog posts recently. So I loved the notion of writing in my niche’s ecosystem rather than limiting my blog posts to subjects which are directly related to, or about, my services. Thank you!

  15. Is that “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx? I’d like to get a copy of the book, but I wanted to double-check first. Thanks!