The most common criticism of my blog (which has 60,000 subscribers) is that I write controversial headlines just to get traffic. I usually ignore this criticism because it’s so ignorant. But today I’m going to tell you why writing controversial headlines just to be controversial is totally stupid.
There is no formula for a wildly popular post.
Look, if I knew how to write a controversial headline that would get a ton of traffic then I’d be writing them every day. But really I’d be retired, living in Bermuda, not even writing headlines.
The most successful posts are posts that people email to their friends. Every day, whatever number of subscribers a blog has, that’s how many people read the blog post. The only way you get more readers is if people start telling their friends about the post.
So, let’s do a case study. Here’s the most grabbing headline I can think of: “Martians Take over Google and do Forced Abortions.” It hits on a popular tech company, a popular political topic, and it caters to the freak-show fringe that spends all day online commenting about supernatural events. But you know what? A post with this headline would fail. Because the content can’t support it, so no one would forward it to their friends.
The John Tierney, writing in the New York Times, reports a study about what online content people forward to their friends. The stuff people forward is stuff that inspires them. People like to be inspired to think in new, positive ways that help them to sort out their life and see things differently. People want to better understand themselves and the world around them. Successful posts do this.
It’s difficult to do. The first thing is that you need to really say something, beyond a headline. The second thing is that you need to say something the person hasn’t heard before. In general, if you are saying something someone has not heard before, it’s going to be controversial. Because it’s new.
So here’s a test I do for myself: If I am not a little nervous to post what I’m writing, then I’m probably not saying anything new. It’s fun to be nervous. It’s fun to be maybe wrong. That is not being controversial. That is being engaged and curious and committed to conversation to the point that you’ll put yourself on the line. That’s the gift a good blogger gives to readers, and that’s what makes a good post appear to be controversial.
But here’s something to consider: The most controversial thing a blogger could do, really, is post something that the reader already knows. Because it’s a total waste of time for the reader. Also, it’s controversial for the writer to be so dishonest with herself that she is willing to sit in a room and type stuff that is not even interesting to her. If the content does not scare the author, it’s just plain boring.
You can say that I just post stuff to be controversial. But you try it. Try to think of a topic that is genuinely controversial, that you can write about in a way that makes people want to forward it to their friends.
It’s very, very hard. And when I am able to do it, I am shocked. I try every day, but I succeed in a big way only about 10% of the time.
Hey, did you notice the title of my post? Did you know that I get 1000 readers a day from people typing in “Tim Ferriss Scam” and getting sent to my blog? Here’s the post: 5 Time Management Tricks I Learned From Years of Hating Tim Ferriss.
He just came out with a new book. It’s just as slimy as the first book. The reason is that Tim has no soul. He thinks life is a game, and he is going to be the winner every time, and we want to know how to do it.
The problem is that Tim makes the rules. He’s like a four-year-old playing Candyland and making sure that he gets the Gingerbread man, and the candy cane, and the sort-of-melty ice cream at the end.
So for the Four-Hour-Work-Week the rule is that it’s only work if you hate what you’re doing. So Tim only does stuff he hates four hours a week. He can do this because he has no relationships, so he doesn’t have to accommodate anyone else in his life. It’s amazing, actually, that he even has to “work” for four hours given that he runs his life like a four-year-old.
Now, with the diet book, Tim tells us how we can take out all the emotional and mental health benefits of fitness and understanding your own body. (That’s him up there in the photo, in an ice bath, which increases his metabolism.) But look. I have a better plan. You can get plastic surgery, and you can take Creatine, and you can use diuretics, and you will get the physical fitness results Tim promises in LESS than four hours a week. I should write a book.
But you know why I am not doing that? Because you want to be inspired. And so do I. If I spend four hours a week at the gym, I want to know how it improves what I really care about: my mental health, my personal relationships, my ability to feel inspired on a daily basis.
But, do you know the most inspired part of this post? My headline is not controversial, but I’ll get a lot of traffic, because I rank almost as high in Google for Tim Ferriss as Tim Ferriss does.