Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Make You a
Better Blogger

So I’m hanging around an Internet forum the other day.

People there are going on about how they “only write for themselves,” and if the reader doesn’t get it “it’s their problem.”

Was I in a creative writing forum? Or maybe over at Robert Bruce’s place?

Nope. It was a “professional” blogging site.

Frankly, I’ve never heard people involved (or trying to be involved) in business say those types of things before. It blew my mind.

Is it because blogs, even those intended for commercial use, are often still referred to as “online journals?”

Has a simple content-management and publishing tool warped the minds of wannabe entrepreneurs everywhere?

Maybe, but I think it has more to do with the fact that certain so-called “A-list” bloggers, who ostensibly blog about business, tend to prattle on about themselves and other inconsequential topics. People see this and figure, “Hey, if they can do it, so can I.”

Nope.

These bloggers started off 3, 4 or 5 years ago, and built large audiences as early adopters.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and those same bloggers would be unknowns if they started out today with that style.

These bloggers stay popular because, well… they’re popular. But as blogging matures, even the hangers-on will realize that life is short and their feed reader is full, and unsubscribe.

I know I have.

Want to emulate an A-lister? Try these folks:

Guy Kawasaki. Kathy Sierra. Darren Rowse.

Why? They are all insanely focused on delivering reader-focused value.

Back in 1897 (yes, as in the 19th century), Nathanial Fowler wrote these words:

Write your advertisements from the customer’s standpoint.

Now, substitute “blog” for “advertisements” and “readers” for “customers” (or why not leave it as customers?).

See, that didn’t even take the full three minutes.

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Comments

  1. Completely agree. If you want to ‘blog for yourself’, start a diary … or a Myspace blog :P

  2. I must have been in the same forum…I am still cleaning up my screen from the snorting the coffee through my nose.

  3. Yea, i agree with this

  4. It must be my lucky day. Between your excellent post and the one over at Essential Connections, I feel like I have not wasted my rss time this morning.

  5. Thank you, Brian. Patsi and I preach this to our clients constantly. A business blog is about your customers/clients and how you can serve them or solve their problems. Adding some personality and “self” into the mix is OK, if it serves to make a point or teach a lesson. Otherwise, who cares?

  6. So clear, so concise … it’s all about writing to the reader’s self-interest.

  7. I guess it’s just human nature to write about yourself… but if you’re writing for a “professional” blog – spare me the details about your life. I don’t care.

    On a similar note, how many people actually read the mission statements on websites? I know I don’t… because I don’t care what your mission is, I care about how I’m gaining value from visiting your site.

    That’s my .02.

  8. By the way Brian, I just noticed the “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail” checkbox below the “Submit Comment” button…

    I don’t know if that’s always been there – I’ve never noticed it before.

    Great touch. You’ve made my life easier as a reader by giving me another way to stay involved in conversations.

    Thanks!

  9. Nick, a good mission statement tells how you’re gaining value from visiting the site or buying the product… people seem to forget that sometimes as well.

    And the follow-up comments via email thing is new, actually in response to a reader request.

    I’m all about value. :)

  10. Lovin’ that email ‘follerup’ thang !

    Great post. There’s fools everywhere, so we should expect them to be in the blogosphere to.

    Another reason to spread info on your blog and not so much opinion.

  11. It IS their problem… they just need to get over themselves…

    Great post man. Again.

    Almost makes me want to fire up a professional blog.

  12. Great post, Brian. We actually wrote something similar to your entry this morning on our blog.

    Say your business just won a $1,000,000 contract; unless that applies to your readers in some way, they won’t care.

    Say you just met the Donald; unless you can dispense his advice that provides value to your readers, they won’t care.

    Say you just won your state’s lottery; unless you’ll distribute that wealth to your readers, they won’t care.

    Some event could be happening across the country — affecting millions; and the only thing standing between Johnny and that event is: Johnny’s flat tire.

    So if you want to affect your readers and keep them coming back, provide some kick-ass value to their lives. :)

  13. Great post, and why I keep coming back to read what you have to say Brian. I learn something new from every one of your posts. Thank you!

  14. You might SAY it only takes three minutes, but by the time I have thought about the importance of the stuff you say and re-written all the draft posts I have, half my morning is gone. Damn you.

  15. Whoever said ‘if the reader doesn’t get it “it’s their problem” just doesn’t get it themselves.

  16. I’m glad I took the (less than) 3 minutes to read this. Although I do prattle on about inconsequential matters much of the time, it’s always with a plan: make readers smile or make them think (preferably both!). And do it with a reference to hats (the main product I sell).

    Also thanks for the links to the A-listers: they’ll go on my feed under your blog!

  17. Steve, that doesn’t sound inconsequential to me. That sounds like your blog has a specific and beneficial point that helps you sell hats and keeps your readers happy at the same time.

    I’d much rather have someone make me smile and sell me a hat then ramble on about nothing and have nothing to sell but delusional thoughts. :)

  18. Brian, as I’m sure you know, it’s surprising how often this sentiment is echoed in a lot of business “crafts” – writing, design, etc. It floors me when someone who is suppose to be offering a service seems to forget that the LAST person it should be about is themselves. I’ve run into designers too stuck on the coolness factor to see that their customers prefer simple. I’ve also worked with copywriters who still prefer to use a literary voice for, say, a technical report.

    If you are doing if for fun, then that makes sense. It’s all about you. But if you are a professional, it comes down to one thing – value. What’s in it for your reader or customer? I’ve never met a business person, who consistently provides value, scrambling to find customers.

  19. Wow, I’ve heard that before never from professionals.

    I think there probably are people who write for themselves, but business folk who do so must certainly see a drop in numbers.

    I’ll admit, sometimes when I post it’s on a subject I may care about more than my readers. For example, my first wedding anniversary is coming up and I’d like to post about it. I know nobody else cares. But in such a case I’ll put even more thought into the writing. Try to make it entertaining or witty or pull at the heart strings, something. Because I know that my readers aren’t there for me…they’re there for them.

    Great post, Brian!

  20. You know I luv ya Brian & you are always on the money with your advice. And while you are 110% right that blogs (entrepreneurs) looking for business, or customers should write with a customer need point of view (it’s the safe & time tested way to go), I want to speak for the non-conformist business/entrepreneur blogger.

    There is room in the blogosphere for the individual who writes for themselves, the outsider, the obscure, weird or whatever label you care to affix on those that don’t want to emulate the A-lister. In fact, it’s much easier (and possibly more personally rewarding) to just write this way. And you never know, the non-emulator (is that a word?) may one day be emulated. While the non-conformist business blogger may have a long & harder road to financial success, it’s not a fait accompli & I don’t know whether they would lack for readers. And with readership, anything is possible.
    Perhaps this point of view comes from being a child of the sixties.

    Do not follow in the footsteps of the men of old; Seek what they sought. (Basho)

    I am Arnaut who gathers the wind
    and hunts the hare with the fox
    and swims against the incoming tide
    (Arnaut Daniel)

  21. Joseph, I was waiting for the first person to make this argument. Didn’t guess that it would be you. :)

    I didn’t say to emulate an A-lister. I said people do, and if that’s what you want to do, emulate the A-listers who provide value.

    However, any non-emulator that simply does their own thing and connects with people has indeed found a way to deliver value. It doesn’t change basic human nature just because someone “accidently” delivers something of value to people.

    It’s just a whole lot harder to pull off, and I know a lot of other “children of the sixties” who gave up and sold out — that’s the stereotypical view of the Baby Boomers, right?

    But that stereotype has more to do with materialism than value. It doesn’t ultimately matter what approach is taken–value is delivered or it is not.

    But being unconcerned with whether value is delivered is a big gamble. I guess it just depends on how much risk you are willing to accept in a business endevour.

    Make sense? :)

  22. You all kind of forget that blogs started as personal online diaries, notepads if you will. It was the rise and rise of Adsense that suddenly attracted all the ‘professional’ bloggers on to the scene. Blogging at its heart is not commercial, no matter how many Gizmodos, Engadgets, Instapundits there are. It is a personal voice vs a commercial voice, that’s why people are drifting slowly away from traditional media towards online. Start talking about ‘writing for your customer’ and you lose the very thing that makes blogs unique. Newspapers write for their customers – i.e. they pander to their reader’s beliefs – and watch where their circulation is going. Popular – and even classical – music is written for it’s customers today, and watch where that is leading. Nope sorry, this is hogwash. If you’re going to blog for money, call it what it is, and that’s a web magazine, webzine, or whatever other name you want. But don’t look down your nose at the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people who blog to connect, to express, to declaim, to confess without commercial or business motives. I’m sorry but it’s typical of your American attitudes that everything is for sale. So sad!

  23. Right on, Nick. I was sitting here reading the lengthy comments and thinking, “keep drinking the kool-aid, pod people, and soon you too will be a robot.” NO THANK YOU! My personal notes to customers have ALWAYS had a fantastic CTR and sales rate… in fact the personal, supposedly “who cares” bits have the HIGHEST CTRs and generate the most comments/feedback from customers! Our sales are doing just fine, thank you … but our sales letters without personal bits and other “inconsequentials,” tank. Add what you folks call senseless “prattle” or other poo-poo label du jour, and BAM! the post pulls like crazy.

    So keep drinkin’ the kool-aid, kids. The more you drink, the less competition for me. ;) LOL

  24. Bailey, I’ll take you on any day of the week with any product and we’ll see who is a “pod person” and who converts. :)

    Delivering value does not make you a robot. Personal notes to customers are not the same as writing a blog that builds a relationship with cold prospects. But, read my response to Joseph — if you’re getting good results, then you must be delivering value, and therefore I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT YOU.

    I am talking about people who are (a) unsuccessful and can’t figure out why, and (b) bloggers who preach business blogging but are completely clueless about actual commerce, at least as practiced on their blog.

    You and Nick both seem more intent on sharing your knee-jerk opinions rather than comprehending what I actually wrote.

    And you’re not making ME look bad.

  25. Value is in the eye of the beholder. So your argument is on the money once again.

  26. It is one thing to embrace one’s inner sophist, but it is not always necessary to follow dictums so strictly. (And why do so many commenters here “completely agree” like a Greek chorus? Are there no skeptics in this crowd?)

    There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of voices (and all kinds of purposes for blogging), many of which are quite professional endeavors (by professional writers and journalists, no less!), yet they do not require begging for subscribers, dropping names, maximizing for SEO, or making every single post a numbered “how to” prescription, as if one were declaring oneself an instantly proclaimed authority on one’s “whatever.” (insert your topic here, and follow the bouncing ball through these tutorials)

    What is the basis of presumed authoritarianism? Would a true sophist embrace authoritarianism, or perhaps live more in sliding scale gray areas?

    Lastly, when does the advice column genre cross over into a variation on selling Amway?

    Does it necessarily follow that this advice (follow my path, imitate this tutorial dictum writing style) is any more scalable than what A-listers might suggest from their POV in the land of the uncluttered Blogosphere?

    Or is this copywriting style of blurbed women’s magazine “how to” prescriptions just another pyramid (everybody must blog, a set of the whole, so get in now, start selling Amway before the pyramid gets too full!)

    just raising some provocative questions…

    Miasma in the House of Bite Me

  27. Ahhh, thanks for the laughs Miasma. I’m in a better mood already. :)

  28. Hey… thanks so much for including me in your little list there Brian–I’m honored! And you already know that I agree with what you said here. Writing to offer value — to teach or inspire or be a filter or whatever — is not the same as “pandering to an audience.” And there’s also a difference between including your personality in your writing and telling everyone what you ate for breakfast that day.

    I’m sure some of my regular readers have a casual interest in knowing a bit more about me, but really… nobody cares about the mundane details of my life. And unless it’s in the context of offering something helpful that readers can use, they ALSO don’t care to hear my personal opinions on most things. I have no illusions about this… it’s just not worth anyone’s time to read that crap, unless I were a fabulous writer who could make any aspect of my day fascinating. I’m not, and I can’t.

    I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want and enjoy (and sometimes actively encourage) more readers, but that’s because I love figuring out ways to share information and knowledge in a way that makes sense and can be applied.

    I’m becoming less surprised that there are people who confuse “caring about the readers” with “selling out,” however much I disagree. I write what I want to write, but this is not the same as writing “for myself”. I write to help others in areas I’m passionate about, and I get much more back from readers than I give. If readers give me their precious time and attention (and thoughts and comments), the least I can do is offer something in return.

    Thanks for bringing this up Brian.

  29. Kathy, thanks for stopping by. I’m a big fan of yours, and I WILL have an Airstream office of my own soon. :)

  30. K, then I guess that leaves me with the Gulfstream!

    Yessssssssssssssssssss

  31. I quite understand Brian the essence of your advice. It is what it always is—provide value. And my comment, seemingly against the grain, was only to make the point clear that value can be found in the nonconformist individualist–call it the Howard Stern effect, or maybe the Farker effect. In my day it was the Zappa effect. It’s the don’t follow the crowd crowd, if you get my meaning.
    And value to one is not value to another. The key I think is that business blogging success may be susceptible to formulated methods, but not always. Doing what has not been done before cannot be taught. And doing it in a medium this young makes formulation hazardous to innovation and creativity that streams from outside the lines.
    Are the risks greater–yes indeed…but so are the rewards.
    Still luv ya :)

  32. To Kathy,

    Perhaps the problem lies not with the quality of one’s blog writing so much as getting it before the eyes of enough web readers. In the world of bricks & mortars, book publishers promote, you have your nice book tours, book signings, some shelf space, maybe some airtime & you get a little boost. I know this firsthand since my law partner is a writer with a bestseller & Pulitzer Prize nomination under his belt.
    But on the web you spin alone.

  33. The answer is simple: multiple blogs.

    One for my business/technology stuff, one for my personal musings and family stuff, and one for my religious/political stuff.

    Audiences will sort themselves out, and I can write whatever I want to write whenever I want to write it.

    I just have to post it in the right spot.

  34. Joseph, I hear you. It’s not like there were too many blogs that talked about applying copywriting techniques to blogging before this year, for instance. :)

    And I don’t know how familiar you are with Kathy Sierra, but she’s a published author in the bricks and mortar world too, and its precisely because publishers DON’T promote books that she has that excellent blog.

    I think ultimately, everyone is on their own. Luckily, it’s never been easier to get the word out.

  35. Brian, you have been one of the forces showing the true value of copywriting, especially on the web. We all thank you.

  36. Brian, one thing you also did with this post; demonstrate the power of a good headline.

  37. Nicely done, Brian! I think I like the discussion even more than the post, especially now that I see the context for your comment on my post regarding Scoble.

    Just a few quick thoughts:

    1. Blogs are a publishing technology, whether they can be called a genre remains to be seen. What that means is that arguments such as “you can’t do X with a blog, only Y is the right way of doing things!” are flawed. Sorry, blog purists, I’m you lose that one.

    2. Blogs are used for a variety of different purposes and can target any audience, including yourself. Sounds crazy? Well, I partly write my blog as a sort of outline for my PhD thesis. If others like my writing that’s fine, if not that doesn’t impair the blog’s usefulness for myself (as a replacement for notes in my drawer, basically). Have a look at the recent Pew Report on blogging (http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/186/report_display.asp) and you’ll see that most people update their blogs infrequently and write mostly for their friends and family.

    3. Professional bloggers (well, successful ones) essentially conflate the following roles into one juicy package:
    – journalist
    – salesman
    – novelist
    – expert
    – poet
    – pundit
    – entertainer
    – rumor mill
    – guru
    and a whole bunch of others – I’m sure you can think of a few. So it’s hard to come up with a recipe to explain their success, as the recipes are never exactly identical.

    4. People look for value, one guy’s value is another guy’s waste of time. I absolutely agree that a blog written purely for yourself is unlikely to draw a big readership. But what about the rest? Where the hell is the value in American Idol? Aren’t a lot of reality shows about utterly boring personal stuff, with people that you don’t really know or have any rational reason to care about? And yet some people do care. Because we’re social animals. Knowing something about someone, even if it’s the most mundane personal thing *is* value in the right context, because our relationship with others is based on what they have for breakfast (to quote an earlier comment) at least as much as on what their abstract ideas about some issue are.

    That doesn’t in the least go against your opinion that bloggers should value their readers and understand what they want. I don’t ever post about personal stuff in my blog for that very reason. But I’d reduce it to the simple formula: “Talk if you have something to say”, with the addendum “and trust your intuition as to whether it will be relevant to your readers”. You’ve got the secret sauce when you can fulfill expectations without thinking about them.

    Not to defend “professional bloggers” (hopefully they can do that themselves) – I just find this “new school” vs. “old school” blogging-philosophy wrestling implausible. The next teenage girl who writes about her collection of stuffed animals and draws a globe-spanning readership will leave us all in the dust, moaning that it all makes no sense.

  38. >>The next teenage girl who writes about her collection of stuffed animals and draws a globe-spanning readership will leave us all in the dust, moaning that it all makes no sense.

    No, she won’t, because that’s not what we’re talking about here.

    I agree with much of your thesis, but again, it’s important to examine one’s premises.

    You lost me at the close. :)

  39. I’ll give ol’ CP one thing, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘conflate’ used in a sentence. Touche.

    Points for that, but the rest was puffery, as is the custom for those that blog about blogs.

  40. “ol'”? I’m 28, Mike.
    No need to make it worse. ;-)

  41. Sorry there CP, I meant that as a term of endearment, not as a reference to your age, which is about 15 years less than mine.

    Don’t let age stop you from doing anything worthwhile… as you can see, you can start a successful blog and create new avenues for expression of your learnin’s even at 40.

    Ain’t that right BC ?

  42. 39 Mike. 39 forever. :)

  43. Delusion can be a good thang BC. Don’t ever let go of it. :-)

    I certainly haven’t !

  44. Hmm, maybe my theories don’t fly here because I’m too full of youth’s idealism. Either that, or they just suck ;-)

  45. Theories don’t fly CP, pigs do.

    Maybe it’s the PhD that’s weighs too much to allow your theories to gain altitude.

    Maybe you need to simple up your learnin’.

    Or maybe it was that your comment was longer than a lot of blog posts and really hard to follow.

    Simple seems satisfactory sometimes.

    :-)

    PS – Today’s a big football day in the USofA. Here’s a lesson from them – sometimes you can’t throw deep until you establish the run.

    Get it ?
    Got it.
    Good.

    2 X PS – Sorry BC, didn’t mean to act like I belong here ;-)

  46. Brian,

    Good post as always. I think I have a focused blog and good readership. But, I never seemed to have cracked the “comment” code – I may get 1 or 2 here and there. Do you have some “comment bait” advice?

  47. Which is probably why good writer/ bloggers have nothing to worry about from the multitudes who start up thinking they can make money. They won’t stick with it. Those who do will eventually succeed. It’s the same in every business.

  48. I gave you my three minutes- and the comments here are taking me extra minutes…

    I did subscribe your feed…

  49. William Zinsser writes a book, On Writing Well. Chapter 5, The Audience, directly contradicts your advice to write for the audience. Sorry to say it but I choose sides with the guy with a 30th Anniversary edition book on writing.

  50. Thanks, Brian! That was really useful. Subscribing to your blog.

  51. Have you ever thought of posting more videos to your weblog posts to keep the readers even more interested? What i’m saying is I just went through the entire content of yours and it absolutely was pretty excellent but since I’m a lot more of a visual learner, I found that way to be alot more helpful. well, let me know what you feel.