Running a blog is kind of a ballet.
It integrates a lot of different tasks into the creation of one final product. There’s some technical knowledge to get the blog hosted and keep it running, a little bit of procedural skill in editing and formatting, and even a dash of design know-how in putting elements together into an attractive package.
But, unless you’re running your blog for purely recreational reasons, and it truly doesn’t matter to you if anyone ever reads it – sort of like your own self-published Scandinavian Ocean Poetry Quarterly – what you also need is some talent at finding, attracting, retaining, and growing an audience.
That’s a tough nut to crack, and there’s no shortage of marketing-type people who are willing to give you their take on it if you $ubscribe to their $ervice or hire them ($$$) to hold your hand.
But I’m going to short circuit that train and just tell you what I think is the biggest “secret” to growing user engagement and building communities around your content.
Are you ready?
You need to be a hell of story teller, and you need a hell of story to tell.
Great Story Tellers Get All the Love
If you think about it, the simple act of getting people to their blog is not what’s actually happening in any of these cases. I mean, people certainly are getting to the blog, but they’re doing way more than that. They’re coming back – again and again – and a lot of them are even taking time out of their own day to post comments, link to content, and participate in the community.
This is called user engagement.
Engagement is the magical fairy dust that swirls and coalesces when readers visit a site, become interested, and feel interested or connected enough to return and even interact with the content. Engagement turns readers – content consumers – into a community of content enablers.
User engagement is kind of a buzzword right now, and it’s actually been algorithmically metric-ified into a series of statistics that a lot of big (like, big big) sites are tracking kind of obsessively. But, when you boil it down to a demi glace, engagement reflects how connected readers feel to a particular community and how willing they are to participate in that community by reading things, viewing things, and contributing things. Engaged users are active users, and active users contribute.
Brand building – which we’re not going to talk about here – has a lot to do with user engagement, and the two are very closely linked. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that brand building, really, is a kind of goal-oriented engagement building. Brand building is about getting people to feel some kind of emotional or intellectual connection to a specific product or community.
Story Telling in the Old Economy
Think about Coke. Coke is an enormous company that sells a dark colored sugar water which is marginally different from the dark colored sugar water sold by many other companies. Also, they make billions and billions of dollars.
Coke is about as blue chip and “old economy” as they come. A Wall Street stalwart and the darling of Warren Buffet (who not only owns a lot of Coke stock, but also drinks a Cherry Coke every day with lunch).
Did you know that most of the things an average American pictures when they think about Christmas were created by Coke? Fo rizzle.
Our view of Santa? Coke made it up. Trundling out to the mall to have kids sit on Santa’s lap? Thanks, Coke. The “home for the holidays” motif of comfort, snow, and crackling fires? Yup, Coke. How they did this is truly interesting, and weaves together a lot of different threads – a newly sophisticated advertising mindset in the 20s and 30s, the wartime sentiments of the 40s, etc – but the end result was massively powerful.
Coke built a brand to which hundreds of millions of people feel an emotional connection. A connection so strong that it even transcends generational boundaries. And you know how they did it? By telling a great story.
Story Telling in the Internet Age
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Mr. Money Mustache, but he’s a wildly popular dude who writes about the myth of early retirement. I mean, he writes about early retirement, the myth descriptor is just my personal opinion and is totally out of scope for this entire blog.
He’s a pretty good writer, but so are a lot of the other ten gazillion people who also try to write about this topic. Yet, Bobby-Jo’s Early Retirement Blog-O-Rama gets like 50 views a year and Mr. Money Mustache pulls in like 500,000 people a month.
Because he’s got a damn good story to tell.
Average guy, little bit of money, no special or uniquely qualifying skills/education/background. Yet, he manages to save enough money to quit his job, become a property baron, raise his kid, and generally do whatever he wants every day while earning a million dollars a year from the blog he runs to promote his hippy dippy ideas on bike riding and rudimentary financial advice.
That reads like a pitch to NBC’s newest millennial-targeted drama-lite sitcom. But it’s all true. He really did all of those things.
At the end of the day, what’s drawing people to Mr. Money Mustache’s community is not the relatively straightforward financial advice he offers or his overtly judgmental outlook on how other people live their lives (he’s kind of jerk, in my opinion). It’s the fact that he has a good story to tell and he does a good job telling it. (Mr. Stache, if you’re reading, it’s a free country, and you go on and do/say/live whatever/however you want. Thumbs up for embodying the American Dream)
It’s the same all over the place, across all kinds of different content genres. Neil Patel is a blogger-turned-millionaire-turned-angel-investor who, on the surface, writes about marketing, but is really telling a story about how his insights and experiences can help you grow your own future.
The guy who runs Millenial Money was kind of a bum in his previous life, but turned his shiz around and is now also a millionaire who is successful in capturing and relaying his story to lots of other average people striving to do the same thing. He’s kind of changed course recently to shilling some kind of book he wrote, but the basic idea is unchanged.
Here on BlogReactor, the story I’m trying to craft – the story I believe – is that anyone can do what these guys did. With elbow grease and time (and a little bit of money along the way), anyone can be the next superstar blogger.
I think truly anyone could come to this blog, read all of the articles we have about writing, hosting, tools, etc and set something up that would generate a few thousand dollars a month after a year or so. You don’t need any special story telling skills or user engagement kung fu to do that. Which is kind of a beautiful thing, I think. In my heart, I hope tons and tons of people do exactly that. That’s kind of my mission, to be honest.
But, even more, I’m willing to bet that a non-trivial number of people reading this article have what it takes to truly be a big deal in the internet universe. The kind of big deal who can quit their dumb day job and turn a blog into a career.
I’m further willing to bet that those people – the next-big-things – are not going to do this by writing yet another financial advice blog or adding one more anonymous voice to the blog marketing ecosystem. They’re going to find their voice and bring their own great story to the landscape.
Content and insight may get you some viewers, but building compelling stories is going to get you a community, and that community is the unstoppable force that will make you the next big thing.
How to Tell Great Stories
Telling you to be a great story teller doesn’t exactly tell you how to tell great stories. You know why? Because I am neither an English professor nor an undergraduate education nor the force of inspiration. I’m just a dude writing a blog.
I know enough to tell you what you have to do, but I can’t be a substitute for being educated, clever, experienced, funny or hard working. And to be clear, I don’t think you need to be all of those things, but you do need to be some of them.
If you’ve got an Ivy League degree and are funny, but you’re really freaking lazy, you’re not going to be able to practice enough to tell great stories and you will fail. It’s cool, just ask your dad for more money or something.
If you’re hard working but not very clever, you’re probably not going to be the next big thing, but if you can follow instructions you can definitely can build a decent side business through running a blog. Plus, pewdiepie makes like ten million dollars a year, so there’s always a chance, right?
If you’re clever and hard working, but don’t have a lot of formal education, you’ve got a decent shot at being a great story teller. Experience in your area of interest is almost certainly able to substitute for formal education. Go try some stuff, fail, try again, and you’ll get experience along the way.
If you happen to be clever, a little bit funny, graduated from high school, and you’re hard working? My friend, you just need time and practice and your success is practically guaranteed.
Though I can’t reach through a screen and give you any of those things, what I can do is give you a few pointers. A nudge along the way. Here are a few elements that can help you build great stories, the telling has to come from you.
- Know what you’re talking about, or be willing to say that you don’t know what you’re talking about AND be able to write about not-knowing in an interesting way. There’s a ton I don’t know about audience building, networking, monetizing, etc etc, but learning those things is the whole reason this blog exists. I’m super honest about the things I don’t know, and when I do figure them out, I write about what I learned and how other people can replicate my successes without repeating my failures.
- Don’t be super formal. Formal voicing makes writing sound like a textbook. The internet is a relatively informal medium, and communicating with your viewers should feel more like a conversation than an essay. My editing process includes a lot of out-loud reading, which helps me with this. As I’ve mentioned before, my own “native” writing style tends to be dense and technical, so it’s a little work for me to relax and write like I’m talking rather than write like I’m writing.
- Figure out specific things to write about that people might think are hard but which you can show them are easy. Even if they’re not easy to start with, show people how to do them in a way that they understand and which makes them easy.
- Practice. Stephen King says that he writes every day, and that the only real piece of advice he feels like he can offer to new writers who want a career in writing is…to write. A lot.
- Find a voice. You probably remember your high school English teacher telling you this. People have personalities, and your writing should have a personality, too. Unless you’re writing technical manuals for astronauts or legislation that applies to everyone except the very rich, don’t be afraid to let your personality come through in your writing. Even being kind of jerk can work, as we’ve seen.
- Build a Narrative hook. Another way to say this – figure out what your story is. The BlogReactor story is that anyone can read instructions and build something that’s at least moderately successful, and I try to work this basic idea in to most of the longer articles I write.
- Express your ideas through multiple formats and let people add their own voices. Instead of just writing an article, write an article and make a video. Instead of viewing your content as a one way street, encourage your audience to participate. This adds richness and depth to content and helps to organize people into communities.
So there you go. You’ve spent ten minutes reading this article and you now understand what you’re trying to do, why it’s important, and how it will help you along your way. You’ve also picked up a few concrete ways to start practicing. Time to try it out. If you find something that works well for you, please share it, so we can all be wiser.