Ever wonder how some bloggers seem to suddenly take off — or come out of nowhere and steal your attention and your audience?
Their subscriber numbers blow up into the six-figure digits … they garner a gargantuan mob of Twitter followers … and everywhere you look people are talking about them.
To top it all off, they land the book deal, the sweet speaking gigs, and the adulation by big media.
And here’s the deal. They aren’t necessarily a grammarian’s best friend. They send Dutch Puritans into coronary failure with their crude language (read: profanity). And they routinely break some of the fundamental rules of great content creation.
But they don’t care. Their blog is so irresistible that readers go nuts waiting for the next post. What gives?
Here’s a few ideas on how they get it done …
What makes some blogs grow
If you are from around these parts, then you understand the secret behind Copyblogger’s success: smart, sexy, and super-useful content. Brian Clark and the community of great Copyblogger guest writers have built an empire by writing top-notch articles year after year.
This is a smart model to build a business around. It builds trust and attracts customers.
These sites dominate because they publish tons of high-quality, useful material that seduces readers.
Their success is an open secret. It’s what we talk about 99% of the time on Copyblogger.
But it’s not what we’re going to talk about today. There is another breed of writers who dominate blogs for an entirely different set of reasons.
What makes other blogs grow
For this breed of bloggers, failure is their preeminent theme. Their own failure. Their failure with jobs, relationships, money, children, responsibility, parents, bosses, landlords, pets, writing.
You name it — they’ve failed at it.
It’s all about struggle. But their struggle isn’t hopeless. They have reasons for blogging. They must tell their story. They love to write. They need the applause. They want the revenge.
More importantly, they want people to learn from their mistakes. To rebound and bloom.
Some of these writers blog anonymously. Milking dysfunctions in public is entirely too risky. Others do it openly without shame.
But they all share one thing in common: a dead-on recognition of their weaknesses. And this makes them a powerful audience magnet.
Want to learn one powerful way to become an audience magnet? I’ll show you in a minute. In the mean time, let me introduce some bloggers who do a nice job of milking dysfunctions.
The Altucher Confidential
James Altucher is not just another financial commentator. He was thrown out of graduate school, interviewed prostitutes, druggies and homeless kids at 3 in the morning for HBO, blew through sixteen failed companies, and screwed Yasser Arafat out of two million dollars.
We know all of this because he wrote about it on his blog. He’s a pretty darn good writer, too. And he has a nose for a story. Take a peek at a few of the titles for his blog posts:
- I Want My Daughters to Be Lesbians
- My Dating Techniques in 1996
- Why a Grenade Needs to Be Thrown at Me
None of those articles go the direction you think they will. What they share in common is James’s self-effacing confessional style.
He doesn’t just trade in confessions. He also offers advice. He’s got a weekly Twitter advice routine that’s growing in popularity and offers up unorthodox wisdom on topics like college, writing and being an entrepreneur.
Hyperbole and a Half
All we know about Allie Brosh is that she went to the University of Montana, lives in Bend, and is/was “heroic, caring, alert, and flammable.” She’s also deeply personal and very popular.
Here are a few of her most popular posts:
- A LONG cartoon on conquering depression garnered over 4,000 comments.
- A LONG tale about a 4-year-old child who will not be told not to eat the cake got 1,145 comments.
- And how we (read: her) officially lose control and become monsters landed 529 comments.
Did I mention she was popular?
All that popularity landed her a book deal with Touchstone (Division of Simon and Schuster) — in less than two years.
Allie, keep writing. Please.
The Year of Blogging Dangerously
Here we have a young professional female with four kids and a husband. Because she is a professional at a top-notch corporation with an office in New York City, there is no way she could be personal on a blog.
But she really, really wants to be personal.
So, here’s what she did: “One night I turned my monitor so my husband couldn’t see it and I met you, INTERNET, my secret love, the one who wouldn’t judge me.”
Now she can be herself.
- She can grin and nod as her neighbor brags about their boat rides and daily trips to the beach while she is mentally stabbing her.
- Or fight back tears thinking that Friday doesn’t signal the weekend is here — rather chores, soccer games, and meals to be made in The Ugly Scream.
- Or watch her son moon her as she backs out of the driveway to go to work — an obvious downside when her husband is a stay at home dad.
Then there are blog posts that I don’t dare mention in mixed company. Or any company for that matter. Yet, this confessional style earned her a Bloggie award in 2011.
Attack of the Redneck Mommy
The Redneck Mommy blog is a classic story of nerd who wins — no matter what life throws at her. She lives in the middle of nowhere in Alberta, Canada with her family. And I’d say she gets the confessional blogging thing:
Blogging. The place you can work out your issues when you’re too poor to pay to sit on a therapist’s couch.
- The Road to Forgiveness Is Paved with Keys to My Car.
A lot of her content revolves around her inadequacies as a parent, especially to a sixteen year old daughter. And she fills plenty of pixels with the woes and utter wonder of raising a severely disabled son.
Her struggles draw our sympathy, which in turn builds her audience. She also won a Bloggie.
The cartoonist Hugh MacLeod is the brains behind Gapingvoid — a blog about business, startups, social media and life.
He’s managed to turn that slant into a profitable business model. He’s done work for Microsoft, Intel, Rackspace. He’s got art work in galleries. People commission him to create unique business cards. People love his cube grenades.
And this all started with a story about a young, restless man sleeping in a YMCA at night and drawing cartoons on the back of business cards by day. Back in 2006 he started blogging with a no-holds barred attitude.
- He penned insulting cartoons about clients
- Toyed with the divine
- Exposed the excesses of the male libido
Then a series of posts on creativity landed him a book deal with Portfolio. Two more books followed after that.
Hugh isn’t a PhD. He’s not a hot shot executive. He’s an artist who wore his emotions and thoughts on his sleeve, which lead to massive attention, money, book deals, a great business, devoted followers, and (most prestigious of all) three Copyblogger guest posts.
Take notes, bloggers. Copious notes.
Here’s a unique one. Joel Robinson is a photographer who lives in a valley in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. And since 2005 he’s been posting one picture a day on his Flickr photostream.
But there are a lot of people who post a photo a day on Flickr. Joel’s just happen to be really good. He even got a link from Maria Popova of Brain Picking’s fame.
Yet, it’s how he drags his dysfunctions into the light that makes him popular.
For instance, in My Heart Beats he writes:
This theme couldn’t have come at a better time, a time when I feel my heart is strong and pushing me to find what I really want in my life. It knows where I should go, it’s just convincing the rest of my body to follow.
His photos stand on their own. The added dimension of his inner life in writing makes him accessible, vulnerable — and his fans love him for it. His fame is only growing.
This is the confessional cautionary tale to end all cautionary tales.
You might have heard of former xoJane writer Cat Marnell. She has a little bit of fame for her drug abuse. Especially in New York City. And she has milked that dysfunction for great affect.
She mourned the OD death of Whitney Houston — and painted a compelling picture of her own addiction and love affair with bathtubs while on drugs.
She taught us how to pass drug tests with hair products in Gonna Wash That Angel Dust Right Out of My Hair.
She also gets how to write compelling content. She has a PT Barnum nose for business. Her line of work — beauty products — is neck-high in copycats, and can be very boring. So her pieces must stand out like this: It’s Makeup Monday: 3 Secret Weapons for My Black-on-Black “Vampy Weekend Eyes” Look!
But that level of vulnerability takes a toll. When it comes time to pay the piper, I’m afraid Marnell may not be able to pay. Sarah Hepola summed it up best in her New York Times piece Watching a Spectacular Public Meltdown With Just a Hint of Jealousy:
I worry about anyone who is lighting themselves on fire for our enjoyment. I worry about the bloggers and viral stars who have burned up so much of themselves for the prize of a few thousand followers. Our attention span is so short these days. One minute you’re a meteorite lighting up Google Trends, the next minute you fall back to earth, another piece of ugly, busted-up coal.
I would find myself excising the grimmest parts of personal essays, torn between my desire to protect the human being and my knowledge that such unforgettable detail would boost a story’s click-through rate.
This summer Marnell quit xoJane. She now writes for Vice. She’s reached the basement there. It’s absolutely awful. I won’t even link to it.
Why do dysfunctions attract people?
Here’s the deal: milking your dysfunctions is nothing more than being transparent. Transparency works because you are vulnerable.
You show people you are just like them — a human with endless faults.
Transparency is effective in persuasion. It lowers barriers. People start to like you because they realize you are not that much different than they are.
That’s what every single one of those bloggers above demonstrated. They think the same dark thoughts as you. They say the same dumb things you do. They do the same goofy things you do.
They were just brave enough to confess it online. And then people stampede their subscriber form.
Here’s how this works in the business world
Credibility is hard to come by in the business world. When you are trying to convince people to part with their hard earned money for your product — you need credibility.
You need people to trust you.
Unfortunately our tendency is to hide the ugly truth from people. If our product has defects, our instinct is to downplay those attributes and lead with the eye-popping promises.
Sounds intuitive, right? But in reality that doesn’t really work. Most consumers are skeptical. They look for the flaws because they know they are there. They want an excuse not to buy.
Here’s a classic example.
Selling the world’s ugliest car
Back in the early 60’s ad agency Doyle Dane + Bernbach won the account for the old Volkswagen sedan.
The sedan with the rag top. The one without a gas gauge. The one that hadn’t evolved in 20 years.
It was truly one of the ugliest cars EVER.
“Winning” that account may be an overstatement. “Punishment” might be more fitting. I mean, why in the world would an international ad agency want such an account?
Well, they wanted it because they knew how to sell the car. And make a fortune doing it.
First, they knew that it was reliable and cheap to run. But everyone else knew that, too. So what could they say to make this automobile stand out? Easy. They could tell the truth.
Their ads were simple. A photo of a Volkswagen sedan with these words:
This car is ugly. It looks like a bug. A beetle.
This car is slow. You’ll be lucky if you ever get a ticket.
The results to the ads were off the charts. Sales shot up because people were drawn to the astounding force of simple and pristine truth.
That’s an important key to persuasion: when you point out the defects of your product (whether it is you or an object), everything else you say is going to be easier to swallow.
The law of diminishing credibility
Let me show you how this works on Copyblogger. Take the post How to Write an Article in Twenty Minutes by Jim Estill.
Be honest: how many of you believe that is true?
I think its baloney. Yet, even though Jim’s statement is outrageous, it’s a powerful promise. We wonder if it could be true, so we decide to read it.
Now, let’s say Jim said forty minutes. That really doesn’t make us flinch. It seems more reasonable. But not quite as intriguing.
But what if he had said fifteen minutes? We might spray the screen with chunks of our authentic artisan biscuit and wonder if the old boy hadn’t got a BB loose in the can.
Ten minutes and he’s obviously snorting bath salts.
Five minutes and we know he’d left the planet (but we’d read the article anyway just to witness the breakdown — who doesn’t like a little emotional wreckage?).
But imagine Jim really can write a decent article in five minutes — it would still be in his best benefit not to mention that because it looks like nothing but hype. Credibility plummets.
Introduce the defects first, however, and five minutes doesn’t sound unreasonable.
When you sin and suffer
Transparency can also help you recover from a disaster. David Neeleman, founder and CEO of JetBlue, confessed in a New York Times interview that he was “humiliated and mortified” with the way his company was stranding fliers.
Next, he listed a litany of problems with the organization, suggested it was in a meltdown and even bashed their low-cost model — the model that he created.
I’m sure his lawyers went white with that interview.
That story is a case study for a CEO and an airline. But it is also sound advice for a blog. JetBlue sinned. It suffered. But it publicly repented.
When you screw up — admit it. Immediately. Make a decent apology. And you’ll recover. Stay natural, open, honest, and transparent. And don’t forget to milk those dysfunctions.
Is dysfunction milking the key to post popularity?
I think it is. It was for the coming-out-of-the-closet (so to speak) Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underwear post — easily one of the most commented upon posts in Copyblogger history.
It’s a great story with great conflict: against all odds a single mother beats the system. And that’s what happens when we are vulnerable.
Another Copyblogger contributer, Jon Morrow, also understands the power of sharing his weaknesses and struggles. His blog posts take off like something coming off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral when he’s brutally honest about making a living online.
You can’t fake that kind of success.
Here’s my question to you: Are you faking your blog? Are you natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking on your blog?
My love affair with transparency
I run a small blog called The Copybot. My purpose is to hustle the finer points of writing for the web. But after about six months of grinding out technical pieces on the art of writing for the web I got bored.
So I decided to start writing about my life.
Those posts quickly become some of the most popular I ever wrote. Posts like How to Outsmart Obsolescence and Writing Advice from a Rock Climber, Monk and Bonehead — Really?
Now, these posts aren’t comment circuses or click-through rockets like a James Altucher, Cat Marnell, or James Chartrand post.
I’m okay with that, though.
To be honest, I don’t have the stomach to be a hard-core exhibitionist. I’m a private guy. I have a thing for obscurity. I DO NOT like talking about myself (very much for very long day after day).
But I do enjoy telling stories, and sharing stories about my faults is a brilliant way to bridge the gap between me and my readers.
Over to you …
So, how have you seen radical transparency work on your blog?
What are some good stories you can share about transparency? What are the risks behind publicly milking your dysfunctions?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Brutal or otherwise …