Train Wreck Blogging: Ain’t Nothing To See Here Folks

Train Wreck

It’s the reason people love NASCAR and read National Enquirer.

We don’t want to admit it. We’re not supposed to feel that way. But secretly buried, deep down inside, we all want a front row seat to the wipe out of the season.

It’s not that we want to see anyone get hurt. It’s not that we wish failure or disaster on anyone (let’s keep our in-laws and competitors out of this). We just want to know all the juicy details once it’s already gone down.

We even feel bad about this irrepressible urge…but we just gotta know!

And, understanding this impulse will let you tap a side of blogging that holds the potential to explode readership… if you have the will.

It’s a bummer we’re wired with a negativity bias.

According to Wikipedia,

Negativity bias is the name for a psychological phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative than positive experiences or other kinds of information.

This is why for decades, The National Enquirer has outsold every other hard-news daily newspaper by a mile. Have you seen their headlines?

And, it’s one of the reasons millions of personal journal-style blogs never get any traction, while a small handful of others take over the world.

Think about it.

What are the top personal blogs today?

And, when I say “personal” I’m talking about blogs that may masquerade as business, marketing or tech, but, hey, we all know why we really read them. Because these courageous bloggers are so wildly transparent about their personal lives on their blogs and they are real people, meaning their lives aren’t all pink and sugary-sweet.

They are human and their days often look like what Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof called life’s “full catastrophe.” Wild rides, out of control kids, parents, partners or lovers, crazy nights on the town, businesses going bust and boom, heart-wrenching stories or triumph, success and a stunning willingness to reveal the gloriously imperfect side of life.

We read about these people, these experiences, in large part because of the negativity bias.

They remind us we’re not alone.

They let us commiserate. We’re right there in front of the screen crying over our own lives with them. And they let us feel comfort when we realize that, at times, compared to them, things are pretty damn good.

Full catastrophe blogging is an amazingly powerful way to draw eyeballs and turn readers into devoted subscribers, community members and buzz-generators.

To do it on a level that makes for kick-ass blogging requires:

  • A level of transparency that most people can’t handle, and
  • The ability to write about your life in a compelling, emotional way.

But, here’s the thing. Because so few people are willing to be the Heather Armstrongs, Penelope Trunks or Naomi Dunfords of the blogging world, if you are willing to take the reins and reveal your humanity to the world, the competition for attention is vastly smaller.

There aren’t nearly as many full-catastrophe bloggers as there are advice bloggers. It requires better writing. And, done right, it’s far easier to shine.

Does this mean we should all run out and start pouring the intimate details of our personal lives into our blogs? No. Some people are comfortable with this approach, but most aren’t. I count myself in the camp of those who’d rather keep most of my personal life, well, personal.

But…

Understanding the negativity bias can help build readership in other ways.

Most specifically, in crafting headlines that’ll get people to open, then read your posts.

Think about it, which post would you be more inclined to open?

  1. “A-List Blogger Taken Down By Vicious Allegations Of Slander”
  2. “Five Things Bloggers Should Know About Slander”

We all know which one you’re clicking. You don’t have to feel bad about it, it’s just human nature. Guaranteed the open rate on the first post title would be way higher. The negativity bias is just that strong.

But, here’s the thing.

If you choose to build post titles that tap the negativity bias, a second job awaits.

Once your reader has clicked over to your post, you’ve got to:

  • Tie the title effectively to the content of the post. And…
  • If the overall message is more prescriptive or positive (and I suggest it often should be), you’ll need to effectively transition from the negative energy of the headline into the positive/instructive energy of the post.

These things take practice to do well. And I wouldn’t suggest making every post a graphic exposition on your daily personal angst or make every headline a train wreck.

But, I would suggest trying to have a little fun with your post headlines here and there. Mix in the occasional stunner. And, if you’re up to the challenge of head-on train-wreck blogging and you have some serious writing chops, have at it.

So, what do you think?

Have you experimented with this phenomenon before?

Share away in the comments below…

About the Author: Jonathan Fields writes Career Renegade and Awake@TheWheel and is the author of the forthcoming book, Career Renegade: How To Make A Great Living Doing What You Love.

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Comments

  1. This reminds me of the movie Hancock, when Will Smith stops that train from hitting the car.

  2. Interesting. This is something I’ve never thought of. I have always been the type to focus on the positives!

  3. Catastrophe Blogging — I like that!

    … and lot’s not forget it’s close cousin — SUPER CONTROVERSY!

    At the end of the day, it’s the emotional hook. Win the heart, the mind follows.

  4. “YOU said kick-ass, that is my word you bastard!”

    Now a comment like that says your heading towards a train wreck.

  5. I’ve attempted to use chihuahuas in a negative light with respect to making money online… ;)

    http://www.looble.com/make-money-online-dont-let-chihuahuas-hold-you-back/

  6. @ Steven – most people don’t know this, but that was actually me stunt-doubling for Will Smith…I’m a way better train stopper than him!

    @ Tom – Thing is, you can be fundamentally optimistic, but still leverage these strategies to draw eyeballs, then deliver readers back into happy, peppy, go-lucky land, once they’re hooked. Respectfully, of course.

    @ J.D. – no doubt, win the heart and the mind follows

    @ Franklin – Sorry, dude, I actually patented, trademarked and copyrighted “kick-ass” in 36 languages…while still in utero, so if you even think of the phrase, you owe me $150,000 for intellectual property infringement

  7. I see alot of trainwreck blogging in my future. Since my blog is entirely based on my experiences and lessons learned in starting a business. After reading this article, I have a better idea about how to ensure my wrecks are entertaining and engaging for others!

  8. New Rule! Blogger signature files should include Twitter handles! ;)

    (So should blog comments)

    Shane
    http://www.twitter.com/shanearthur

  9. I once slept with a pair of live otters, I broke my nose when I hit a car at traffic lights because I was picking it and I like nothing better than wrestling electric eels in a large tub of warm melted chocolate.

    Is that the kind of thing we’re talking about?

    Not sure why I haven’t been inundated then.

  10. I like the idea of “full catastrophe blogging” :)

  11. How about a more negative title for this pst? “A-list blogger declares that blogging sucks!”

  12. “It’s the reason people love NASCAR”

    No – It’s not. To watch a sporting venue waiting for an event that can kill someone is not a viable reason to watch a sport.

    There’s a lot of tactics, timing, style and what-not that goes into that 130 degree incubator of a cockpit.

    Be it as it may, I might be a little biased. So be it!

  13. Oh man… catastrophe blogging? Uh..I could nail that one. LOL… “Blackwater helos circled as I took a celebratory sip of single malt having ridden out the storm….what the levees are breaking? …”

    Hm, so I should put down my brush and say do maybe the top ten ways to get your own ass out of dodge? ;-)

  14. We are certainly interesting creatures. Subconsciously attracted to bad news perhaps? Maybe its the way we were programmed. Either way, we know bad news sells but if there is a way to leverage this knowledge to help with our marketing efforts…why not? I suppose you have to draw your own personal line with regards to ethical boundaries. Great post!
    http://www.justinpopovic.com

  15. sounds like my life. diary of a sex felon.

    http://www.bloggerinterrupted.com

  16. We speak the same language, Jonathan.

    You (and everyone else) might enjoy a recent blog article of mine with a somewhat morbid title: Why Republicans Prefer Twitter Over Suicide (and Online Media Guidance for CNN)

  17. Yes and No! You’re one of the very few (actually only) blogs/bloggers I read “cover to cover” each and every time. You provide full value, even if its not sensational. Thank you for that.

  18. It rings true. For years I’ve posted under an alias and the number of hits and comments would peak on the posts that were 1) semi-erotic short stories & 2) anything involving bare emotions from relationship mistakes or workplace problems.

    Now that I’m using my real name more, I’m careful about what I say. Sometimes it’s quieter than a snowy night. I’m toward the end of a four part series on my car wreck – not a word.

    Perhaps the reality based post of a blogging celebrity is just more fascinating than just another blogger.

  19. So true! I couldn’t figure out why perfectly good posts I wrote failed to get as much readership as others. Then I realized the headline is the key. Fearful flyers are a pretty negative bunch to begin with (they fully expect EVERY plane to crash) so they’ll likely click on “Today Wasn’t A Good Day To Fly” more often than on “You Can Fly.” And if I put “crashing” into the title, wow, that catastrophe really gets them going!

  20. There is a fine line between being transparent and being just plain weird. Title will serve as link bait but as brian said you have to tie it in, you have to give them some satisfaction for the desire to find out about the title.

    Transparency works b/c people know what and who they are putting their trust in. People will follow those they shouldn’t for the simple fact that those leaders are willing to say and show, “hey, I human just like you.”

  21. Man, I am really going to have to come up with a good gut-crunching negative title for a post. This is too good to resist.

  22. Great perspective on human nature and so totally true. I unintentionally used this strategy on a title for a blog post and it got more attention than usual…I just didn’t give it much thought as to why. Thanks for the tip.

  23. This is cool stuff, mahalo (thanks) Jonathan. I like the fact that you presented a balance of the two blogging options (prescriptive and catastrophe). I’m getting really sick of all this happy-go-lucky how-to blogging advice, and the formulas we follow to “craft magnetic content.”

    While it’s good to be useful, in fact — indispensable, it also helps to be entertaining. For some people, this means catastrophe blogging.

  24. You’ve nailed it, Jonathan. Humans are attracted to “vulnerability” like bees to honey.

    I’ve experienced this time and again on the phone and in person with one-on-one and group coaching clients, and at live seminars. Whenever I relate personal challenges to make or clarify a point, people pay closer attention and do a much better job of absorbing and applying the information.

    I’m new to blogging and translating this approach into the written word has been a bit challenging for me. Your final tip about just having a little fun with post headlines seems like a perfect starting point.

    Thanks for this delightful, insightful post.

  25. Excellent post. It seems that when you open up and expose your vulnerable side, that gets the most comments. The trouble is, who wants to always show this side?

  26. Great post. Have to agree with this. I always like to read blogs beginning “Confessions of…” so tried it myself – it’s the most personal blog yet and I think people like the honesty and the fact that I can have a laugh at my own expense!

  27. You have some really good content here, i will link you back to my blog at http://www.danbriffa.com so my readers can come see what you have going on!

    I’m currently creating an online business from scratch and im sure your ocntent will come handy.

    Thanks, keep up the great work!

    Dan

  28. Hmm, maybe it’s time to be more personal with my blog :)

  29. Okay, this is very smart. I never thought of using this before and it makes absolute sense. Thanks for the suggestion, Jon.

  30. I believe a main reason my blog Back in Skinny Jeans has risen to the top on the healthy living niche is because I have shared my own personal struggles & fall downs. Trying to get rid of that muffin top is not easy, and who hasn’t thought lipo started looking like a good option. Last year I had a HUGE one, and almost shut down my blog because I had an ED relapse after a breakup with my boyfriend, business partner, and best friend all at the same time. Yet here I was top healthy living blogger giving people tips, advice, and stay positive. You can imagine the hypocrisy and guilt I was feeling.

    I did a confession post to come clean with my audience to get their feedback before shutting down. The response I got went beyond my wildest expectations and even more surprising to me was how many of my readers said they had more respect for me now than they did before mainly because I showed my humaness especially around something that is often filled with shame and stigma. But that’s a big reason I got into blogging, to help others feel less alone. And you’re right, it’s not easy, but when you do, do it, traffic does indeed go up. It’s also a difference in wanting to be good or great, and really putting that authenticity thing to the test.

    To note too, as a result of that coming clean post, I was asked to speak at BlogHer 08, got interviewed by a NY Times reporter, and got picked to be in Oprah’s new digital network because one of her digital reps was in the audience at my BlogHer panel.

  31. It’s a useful concept to keep in mind for that occasional train wreck title. Good read.

  32. very nice idea….. great tips today,thanks

  33. If my favourite blog started using train wreck titles, I think I’d lose a little bit of respect for them. In moderation it’s fine, as long as it’s relevant. But it’s very easy for it to become ridiculous (which I think you have warned against!).

    Interestingly, the BBC does this with their News website but in a very subtle way. Just check out the most popular articles and you’ll find that the title of the post usually intrigues you enough that you have to click it.

  34. It was well actually “IS” my intention to compliment you on this post so, nice job. Unfortunately I was distracted by some of the comments sorry. If only I lived a healthier lifestyle I would have known about Stephanie Quilao’s blog “I will try harder Stephanie”! I also found Tim Brownson’s comments disturbing as clearly a translucent substance would be clearly better for visibility. I like Dan linking back is good Dan good for you! I think most if not all would certainly agree that we all secretly want to attract and capture the attention if only for a moment using the train wreck,blogging sucks, you have a virus and let’s drag the guy out of the rig and kick his “oh my toast popped up”.

  35. I never attempt to make an negativity bias, never ever will and thanks for advice me to choose the correct post title, really really appreciated that

  36. I have just started exploring ways to mix in some provocative headlines in my blog posts, so this article was timely for me. Nicely written.

    My problem with some of them is that the promise in the headline is not fulfilled in the post and so I feel tricked.

    This does, indeed, go back to even the early days of the National Enquirer. I read once that the Enquirer screamed out “Lucille Ball throws her life away!”: on the front cover and in the story in the inside pages, it turns out it was her Life magazine. Exaggerated, but you get the idea.

    Thanks for making me think.

  37. My life is a train wreck. So is the business i’m in. That’s just one of the reasons I decided to Reinvent Advertising at http://HarryWebberIsReinventingAdvertising.wordpress.com.
    I can’t say that it’s been fun. Nobody wants to hear that their profession sucks and nobody is paying attention. And that’s the easy part. The hard part is coming up with what comes next. That’s where it gets hard keeping the train on the tracks.

    Harry Webber
    http://MadisonAveNew.com

  38. This post is so interesting, it has given me so many ideas on how to apply negative bias into the things that I do daily.

    I can see great applications for this in article headlines, email subject lines, social site posts and tweets.

    As a student of Alex Jeffreys I fully intend to utilize this information to swipe a $1000 from Alex himself. You can watch me do this daily on my blog.

    Being fully transparent in my methods I will also provide a linkback from my blog to this site so all my fellow contestants can read your content and gain the same advantage that I have just gained.

    Thank you
    You have given me what few others could. The Win.

    Thomas Northrop
    http://www.thomasnorthrop.com

  39. Great post. Is that why I am (was) so fascinated with Britney Spears and Sarah Palin? Also why tragedies in general exert such a pull on us? Ok, now I am off to write a post for Huffington Post. Let’s see what I can come up with, in vein discussed above :)

  40. For anyone who want’s a prime offline example of this crystal clear transparency, let you behind the curtains, bare all for everyone to see approach… look no further than Dan Kennedy.

    He talks about this in his “Personality in Copy” program. This is a set of CD’s anyone committed to creating a raving fan following online or offline would do themselves a tremendous favor reviewing at least once a month.

    This product is OUTSTANDING.

    Dan openly admits in Renegade Millionaire that if you have that program and a years worth of his newsletters you’ve got everything he knows.

    Then he admits what keeps people with him for years is weaving in real life tidbits about himself and his evolution as a person throughout his material.

    And if you want a real “train wreck” life story get a hold of his autobiography “My Unfinished Business”.

    This is a book it took big balls to write. He let’s you in on the good the bad and the really ugly. With the good you laugh your ass off. With the bad you may be able to relate and see your problems aren’t so bad.

    Get your hands on both of these. You’ll be a happy you did.

    Note Taking Nerd #2
    http://www.mynotetakingnerd.wordpress.com

  41. This is so true. In the UK we use the term “rubber necking”. This describes the phenomenon that occurs when there is a road accident on the motorway, the traffic on the other carriageway slows down to “have a look”. This causes a hold up on the unaffected carriageway. This is raw human nature. The transistion from real life to headlines has never occurred to me before, but now you have brought it to my attention I will certainly consider how I write my headlines in the future. Fascinating!

  42. Hi Jonathan, how right you are.

    It’s not only the National Enquirer, but it seems that every news program, every news channel and most newspaper articles do the exact same.

    I never really thought about that, but I’ll be trying your idea shortly of a negativistic headline for one of my posts and then turn it around inside the post.

    I’m a brand new blogger, but I already installed Google Analytics and it should tell me if that post gets more clicks than the other ones.

    Warm regards and thanks for a your post and a good idea.

    I can’t wait to try it out :)

    Rov
    http://FromSuccessfoolToSuccessful.com

  43. Some nice insights Jonathan, but I think there’s an important balance to strike that goes beyond tying the negative headline to positive content. If you’re constantly demonstrating how much of a train-wreck, rollercoaster, flying by the seat of your pants, barely holding onto sanity your life is, the audience becomes tired.

    I know I’m sick and tired of constant headlines about how screwed the world financial system is. Yeah, okay, I get it, now let’s get on with our lives!

    That said, I think my own blogging balance has been too skewed towards straight advice, and I’ll be balancing that with more transparency about my own life and experience.

  44. @ Everyone – Glad you guys are exploring the effect of the negativity bias. Just to reiterate (whatever that means), it’s not for everyone and absolutely not for every post…unless you write a celebrity gossip blog.

    But understanding the fundamental psychology behind this quirk of human nature may help you craft more compelling headlines and content. It’s just another tool in the attention arsenal to be used…but not abused.

    Like copywriting legend Joe Sugarman often said, the purpose of the headline is to get people to read the next line. And, the purpose of the next line is…you get the picture.

    Oh, and a quick correction. Apparently I mixed up frock-wearing old dudes. According to more a literary CB reader than I (not hard to do), “Full catastrophe” comes not from the lips of Fiddler’s Tevye, but Zorba the Greek. Who knew? thanks for the fix!

  45. Spoken like somebody who has never watched NASCAR.

  46. While we’re throwing out analogies, it’s also the reason we secretly hope the Detroit Lions go 0-16.

  47. So true… We live in a world where people are gravitated towards all the negative headlines then we wonder why we feel so bad after reading all them.

    I’m surprised that the financial system is not completely melted yet as many times as I’ve heard about it!

  48. Works in getting people to open your emails, too. Do it in the subject line. :-)

  49. I’ve always been a little scared to lean on negativity to get traffic and subscribers. I like how you suggest transitioning from the negative to the positive in your post. I guess the only risk you really run is readers not reading the whole thing to get the message.

  50. Amen, brother!

    I have a spirituality blog that tries to focus on the positive. I have articles that help people with depression, change the way the look at life, and I give them regular affirmations they can use to “program” their mind to recognize the “good” in life.

    It does okay; I haven’t been promoting it much yet, but here’s the rub…

    One article I wrote in particular got about 7 or 8 times as many hits as all my other posts. The title? “God’s Getting Sued!”

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this one…it seems people can’t resist the “train wreck” / Tabloid style headline. Great article.

  51. Aha – sometimes you just need someone to tell you what you are & then it all becomes so clear! Stay tuned for my take on trainwreck blogging and the politics of mirth and misrule.

  52. Excellent! I love the whole concept of catastrophe blogging. Hit home for me as I am both a catastrophe blogger and an advice blogger in the one site! Early days yet, and I may be a train wreck, or it may be the best idea ever!

  53. Excellent post.

    I was inspired to go public by this article and begin my own ‘full-catastrophe’ blogging. I’m now a little freaked out by sending my words onto the interwebz and giving people a little glimpse of my ‘train wreck’, but what’s done is done…

    Thank you.

  54. Negative headlines are a common technique in traditional ad agency circles and direct response writing. But yes, the trick is to circle back effectively. (A lot of ads don’t quite get there.)

    Thankfully, bloggers have plenty of room to write long copy.
    My most recent post is a good example of that negative technique… check it out at http://www.BrandInsightBlog.com

    I just wish the press didn’t have such a negativity bias. Maybe they’d find something else to write about besides the economic train wreck.

  55. Cripes, I have this great idea for a blog post, and here it is on Copyblogger. Is there anywhere in Blogistan not bearing the rut marks of Clark & Company? I guess this one is old enough now that the ruts, in blog years, are sort of like those old conestoga trails. Kind of grown over.

    Heck with it. I’m gonna write the darn thing anyway. But it’s going behind an email wall, subscribers only.

    Clark & Company… Pioneers Blazing the Blogging Trail… I like that.