The Houdini Guide to Getting
Noticed Online

image of Harry Houdini

Have you ever planned what you thought would be a brilliant, jaw-dropping week on your blog?

You pour your heart and soul into an ingenious post (or series) then sit back and wait for the praises to come pouring in.

But instead, you hear from just your usual readers, commenting politely and moving on.

Where are the trumpets? The fireworks? The millions of raving reviews and incoming links?

I know how you feel. And so did the legendary magician and “escapist” Harry Houdini.

Houdini started his career working small sideshows and medicine shows. He would perform one airtight magic trick after another. And what was his audience’s reaction? They would clap politely then move on to the next performer.

Sound familiar? (This may be the part where you start banging your head against the desk.)

Houdini couldn’t understand it either, and considered retiring. Only after meeting showman Martin Beck did he learn the secret to captivating an audience. It is the big trick of showmanship. Are you ready for it?

Houdini learned how to create a build.

Once Houdini learned to build up his performances, he did it masterfully. No longer did he perform a long series of equally impressive tricks.

Instead, he developed one spectacular centerpiece, which mainly revolved around . . . waiting.

Houdini would have himself handcuffed, tied with ropes, locked in a box, and submerged in water.

He invited his audiences to hold their breaths along with him and . . . wait. And wait. And wait.

When he finally made his great escape and emerged panting for breath, people couldn’t stop talking about it. Houdini became one of the most successful and famous performers of his or any other time.

That’s a build.

Can you do what Houdini did? Of course you can. (Not the handcuff thing, the captivating-your-audience thing.) And the best part is, it will probably take less sweat and sinew than what you’re doing now.

Here are the five essential strategies for pulling it off.

1. Talk it up

Let me give you an example.

Let’s say I have two people I want to introduce you to. One is my old roommate from college. The other is my tall, beautiful friend who makes the best Danish pastries and tells the funniest stories about going to public spas in Finland.

Now. Who are you most interested in meeting? My roommate Libbie or my roommate Libbie? Yup. They’re the same person. But with the second intro I talked her up, which got you ready to admire her best qualities.

In copywriting terms, “talking it up” is about using specific detail, focusing on benefits to the reader, and articulating a big idea.

2. Get the rhythm

Have you ever watched the ocean? The way it sucks the tide back before a big wave bursts in?

Remember that rhythm and pull back a little before your next big post. Right before you launch your big event, let things go a little quieter and a little simpler.

A never-ending sequence of hype and fanfare will burn out your audience’s attention. (Think of some of the marketing gurus who never seem to let their “limited-time launch” actually end).

Creating a build for that big post or series means you don’t post every day at the same volume. You set off your bigger posts with some smaller (but still great) ones.

3. Revel in the anticipation

I blog about gifts. Last Father’s Day I decided to nearly kill myself crafting, cooking, and photographing every gift I could humanly manage.

Just like throwing a surprise party, I didn’t say a word until the big day. And everyone cared — a little. I got a nice link or two, but that was it. Once I recovered from the exhaustion, I committed to change.

No longer would I dream up a good idea, then keep it a secret from my readers until the day I shared the whole project on my blog.

For example, when I came up with my next big idea, the idea of testing the post office to see what they would mail in first class, I handled things differently.

I introduced the seedlings of the idea in a post. I brainstormed in another post. Only then did I start actually mailing things and blogging about it.

If you have a really big project (say, the launch of an extraordinary new online community), you might start the anticipation sequence weeks or even months in advance.

People like anticipation. Why do we watch thrillers? Why do we like planning for a vacation? Why do we wait expectantly while Paula Dean’s casserole bakes in the oven?

It’s because people like the build. The build is fun. Don’t leave out the build and spoil all the pleasure.

4. Have a signature thing

Take another lesson from Houdini and focus narrowly on what you do best.

Houdini wasn’t escaping a watery death chamber one week and cliff diving the next. No, he developed his unlock-himself-while-nearly-drowning thing and he stuck with it. Find out what people enjoy that you do, and do that.

Be distinctive. Great artists do it, accomplished actors do it, and so should you. Soon you’ll find other blogs know what to expect from you and give you credit for doing your thing better than anyone else. Readers will know you for it and happily point you to new ideas that you just might like.

5. Give your signature thing a name

Names are important. If people want to talk about your idea, they need it to have a handle.

Houdini billed himself as “The Handcuff King.”

I named my series about mail “13 Ounces or Less.” Clear, descriptive, repeatable, and easy to Google.

The simple act of giving an idea a name solidifies it in your readers’ brains and in search engine results.

Sound easy enough? Trust me, once you try it, you’ll get happy readers and bigger reactions, all with less work on your part.

Don’t be afraid to build. We all like being told we’re part of something big and exciting. It’s a nice break from the less big and exciting parts of our lives.

Happy building!

About the Author AmberLee Fawson blogs about things like mailing a Frisbee with no envelope, doodling on a cake, printing on post it notes, and making hot chocolate on a stick.

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Reader Comments (67)

  1. says

    Hey Amber,

    Thanks for sharing these points with us. It’s pretty cool how you tied it with Houdini. I’ll have to print this one out.

    Chat with you later…

  2. says

    As a HUGE fan of Houdini (as well as PT Barnum) for their powerful legacies in marketing, thanks!

    You mentioned antcipation. That is where the money is. When you sell with anticipation, your audience will barely need to read your sales letter once your product is finally revealed.

    It’s just like waiting for something to come in the mail after you have saved up enough box tops or gum wrappers. When that thing finally arrives, you really don’t care that much about it. It was the anticipation that sealed the deal.

    As we carefully take our products and seal them up in a milk canister, covering them with chains and dunking them into the river; it’s the anticipation of the waiting audience that will sell the stuff in the end.

    …just make sure you open up the canister at the right time so that your audience will make the purchase. Open it too early and their isn’t enough anticipation. Open it too late, and they will have already gone on to watch the fat lady swallow the flaming swords.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  3. Deanna says

    Great article!! Thanks so much for the info – I do that ‘secret’ thing too – gonna stop!! :)

  4. Kris R. says

    Awesome post, I am a new copywriter always looking for tips to push my craft to the next nevel. I love your creativity and messages, I’m always learning something. Keep it up!

  5. says

    Hi, Amber. I’m putting my first ebook together and was thinking along these lines already so it’s great to hear your take. A couple of friends suggested I give away a chapter or 2 in advance, and I’m good with that, but I was looking for ideas that could build anticipation even more. Your tie in with Houdini is just what I needed to get my own ideas flowing. Thx!!

  6. Diego says

    I suscribed to your blog months ago.
    Sincerely, never read your updates untill this title catch my eyes.
    I read it and love it.
    Now I have great expectations about all the posts I have to read.
    Thanks, worth a lot.

  7. says

    What a cool analogy. I like the idea of engaging your audience in the process and letting them be part of the experience or end result.

  8. says

    Reveling in the anticipation is important, as you detailed. I also think it’s the most difficult for people to do. There’s always that nagging fear of, “What if this thing that I said is going to be great really isn’t?” I guess the best way to overcome this is by over-delivering.

  9. Hugo says

    The Simpsons would probably call this “The Gabbo Strategy.” Gosh, that show is so ahead of its time.

  10. says

    Just yesterday my kids were asking me why the monster/zombie/mummy in a movie comes at you slowly. It’s the build. It gives your imagination time to think of all the possible outcomes once the creature arrives.

    Unfortunately, it often happens that the best part of vacation might actually be the anticipation. Guess I’d better make sure that doesn’t happen in my blog.

  11. says

    I heard the message before about the power of building anticipation with the many product launches you see on the web however your example using Houdini was spot on. The anticipation separates the big acts from the routine. There were probably many people as talented as Houdini but whose names can’t be remembered because he made his acts an event while others had a routine. Good job.

  12. says

    This was good. Thanks Amber. I like the correlation between Houdini’s build and that of building reader suspense on the blog. I thought I had been doing that but I think a big part of the problem for us new bloggers is we could be writing amazing content on a regular basis but if little to nobody sees it (because of low to no traffic) it feels like blogging in vain.

  13. says

    The title of this post completely dragged me in, and I’m so glad I read it; I never would have thought about blogging that way, nor will I think of it the same way again. Thanks!

  14. says

    Wow, Thanks. Everybody has to hear things a certain way before they get it. I needed you and your Houdini example. I can bet I heard it before, but it never sunk in until now.
    nice work, Donahue

  15. ridgely johnson says

    Just realizing the likelihood of a reader actually stopping and reading your post a long shot, you recognize what you are up against. Many bloggers do not. They believe it is their content, or zippy header… Readers MUST look forward to your posts- anticipate and wait for your next morsel of intel- your analogy to Houdini’s performances is perfect. I also would not worry so much about the timing- be conscious of it, use Houdini’s performance as a guide- and let it go.
    Terrific post

  16. says

    You made a couple of solid points that I really love.

    Find out what people enjoy that you do, and do that,
    and “The Handcuff King”.

    Those really hit home with me. It’s kind of like looking at what brings you the most traffic in google and really pushing that. Coming up with a great tag line. I like it.

    P.S. I held my breath this whole blog. :)

  17. says

    Bravo. Very creatively said. I am appreciative of all the suggestions and pointers the seasoned bloggers are so willing to share with us “newbies”. I’ve already started doing a couple of these things but now have even more ideas.

  18. says

    Great advice for creating “build.” Next time I come up with a brilliant blog post I am definitely going to take my time with it. I just get too excited or anxious to post it. I really connected with the ocean analogy. Enjoyed this read!

  19. says

    Without realising it – I did exactly that ‘signature thing’ right at the start of my on-line presence … people, when they meet me, often say “oh you’re My Dog Ate Art” – which is very gratifying, but more importantly they also say – ” it’s a brilliant name – I always remember it” .. it wasn’t crafted – I was lucky – but remember – MY DOG ATE ART :-)

  20. Paige Jeffrey says

    Loved this! Really great lessons to take away for when I get my website launched and rolling.

    And I’m glad I followed through to your website too. :)

  21. says

    Fantastic entry. I especially like the idea of scrapping “secrets”–increased transparency will make people feel included “behind the scenes” with your brand, but they will also feel connected to goings on and projects you’re working on. What a great tip!

  22. says

    Amber, there is so much wisdom in the simple things you say that I found myself reading with my mouth agape. Not something I do very often.

    Thank you for writing so simply and so constructively. You are inspiring.

  23. says

    Amber… You did a good job.

    I think the key point you hit on through your post is anticipation… From blogging to sex, the more anticipation one has… the better the experience… Well, at least with blogging anyway.

  24. Rachelle says

    Amber, you’re the best!! Your ideas, personality, insight…the list goes on! You’re the real deal. Great article!

  25. says

    Build, build, build. Thx Amber 4 making the point. Love the Houdini analogy. Used it in a sermon once about Christ escaping death. God is the author of the big build! Happy Easter.

  26. Richard Lapointe says

    Hu! Actually learned something; should have read you before ;-(. Nothing bad, really, but I probably burned too much fuses at the same time. Lesson learned. Thanks for your advice, great no-nonsense stuff.

  27. says

    Amber, great post. I enjoyed reading it and thought it made a lot of sense.

    What did confuse me a little was reconciling your post with all those posts I’ve read about “getting to the point.” If our audiences are so busy that we need to feed them information in bullets, then how can we expect them to “hold their breadth” while we meander to “The Big Finish.”

    Maybe we’re talking about two different audiences? I don’t know…

  28. says

    Great article and makes me want to go out and get a coffee and come back and sit down in front of the computer and keep learning this stuff. Anyway, good thing I’m not sea sick when I read the 2. Get the Rhythm about the waves back and forth, lol. Overall, good article and very good points which even I am guilty of not doing (and should).

  29. says

    Fantastic. Plus this is a great lesson in copywriting purely from the way the post is structured. Thank you for your wisdom.


  30. says

    Copywriting? Copywriting? This article isn’t about copywriting. It’s about persuasion. This is right out of persuasion 101. What great salesperson doesn’t do this on a appointment by appointment basis!? I have news for you, every great one that I’ve seen in action, that’s which ones. Questions about needs, then tracking back what they’ve said is one way customers are conditioned to assume that by understanding their needs thorougly, “you must have a solution, so what is it?” -Simple, but not simpler

  31. says

    Who does not know Hudini? An ilusioner unfurled a famous name around the world. Until now, he has become the inspiration of many, not least the author who takes a certain technique in getting the reader’s sympathy. Very interesting!

  32. says

    Hi guys,

    Learning how to create a build is very important. Because it makes your readers look forward to reading your blog every week.

    Kind regards,


  33. says

    AmberLee, this is a great post. I am an avid 5-post-a-week blogger, and I am still occasionally surprised by which posts elicit the strongest reactions. It can be extremely frustrating to present a culmination of personal work to a mediocre response. I agree that the best way to get readers excited for a big post is to introduce it in earlier posts, planting the seed in their mind. This includes the readers in the anticipation, creating a more enthusiastic reaction when the big piece is finally published.

  34. says

    Good article. I agree a build is very important. But don’t you also need a great trick at the end of it? If you don’t deliver on your big build up, you’ll lose your audience’s trust and respect forever. Remember when Evel Knievel said he was going to jump Snake River Canyon and didn’t? People all over the world tuned in to watch his attempt after one of the biggest showbiz builds ever, only to be sadly disappointed. So by all means promise a big event – but make sure you can deliver!

  35. says

    Today was a prime example with the launch of the iPad. I thought the thing had already been on the shelves with all the promotion, but not at all. They even talked about it on an episode of Family Guy. Once I arrived at the mall to pick up my friend’s iPad. The lines were already there, with the vip line for customers with reservations. I remember thinking to myself, what a bunch of trouble to go through just to create a crowd and a wait which would seem to lessen the customer experience. Little was I thinking that this actually builds the customer’s experience.

  36. says

    Excellent post, Amber. It’s funny, I employ these tactics all the time in client work, but when it came to my own blog, I implemented very little of it. I’m not much into written foreplay, yet that is precisely what my new branding blog needs. Thanks for the reminder!

  37. says

    Inspiring stuff. The Ocean analogy was particularly excellent. It’s almost: How to use silence to build excitement.
    The quiet before the storm. Like when you go on one of those huge roller-coaster rides at the theme park, your stomach clenches from the minute you get into the car – before you’ve even moved, and your anticipation builds all the way to the top of the first big drop – and you don’t get your breath back until the end of the ride.

  38. says

    In Santa Fe 10+ years ago a storyteller mesmerized an auditorium full of high school students. He was an extraordinary raconteur, but it wasn’t the story he told that focused the distracted, hormone-frenzied teenagers. It was his ability quickly and efficiently to accomplish #2 and #3.

    After being introduced amid whispering and laughter and foot shuffling, he told everyone in the room to raise their arms in the air like we were doing the wave. And while we were in the air we were supposed to laugh and talk and shout. To demonstrate, he lifted his arms and waved them over his head while chattering maniacally and laughing at himself. Suddenly he dropped his hands and was totally silent. We understood the drill, and followed his lead several times, flailing arms and raising the roof while his arms were high and instantly becoming quiet and lowering arms to mimic him. He repeated this several times, varying the length of time we made noise and were silent. Then he had us remove our hand motion and just follow his rhythm with our voices, repeating several times until we became good at stopping the noise in unison. And then in the quiet, he spoke just loud enough for us to hear him, “Sometimes silence is louder that noise. Sometimes we communicate more with what we don’t say than what we do.” The room was quiet. He had our attention, and we were curious what he would say next. We were focused and eager. He made us wait for thirty seconds, maybe even a minute before he started telling his story. Our anticipation gathered our attention around a single point, a single focus with him at the center. And for the next half hour he transported everyone out of the warm, dusty auditorium and into the flowing stream of his tale…

  39. says

    Houdini and P.T. Barnum: that’s where Steve Jobs learned his magic.
    The artist formerly known as Steve Jobs mainly uses this build technique.

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