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“If you had a Gun against your Head to Double your Readership in Two Weeks, What Would you Do?” – An Interview with Tim Ferriss

Tim FerrissTwo of the most popular posts on ProBlogger over the last couple of months were an interview that I conducted in April with author Timothy Ferriss who wrote the best selling book The 4-Hour work Week. Tim’s also been developing a blog as part of his 4-Hour Work Week site and has seen some amazing traffic growth over the last few months.

I thought that it might be time for a follow up interview to see how the book launch has gone and what Tim has been learning about blogging. I hope you enjoy this chat with Tim.

How’s the 4 Hour Work Week Launch Going?

The books is screaming along. It’s been an unexpected and incredible ride thus far. From hitting #1 on the Wall Street Journal list and nailing the NY Times, it’s been a string of firsts for me. I was #2 on the NY Times business bestseller list for June, and the #1 slot was a political book. Very odd. So I’m hoping to move some mountains this week and hit #1 there, which would be a lifelong dream fulfilled. Fun stuff, to be sure.

Congratulations on that – How long have you been blogging now?

My current “real” blog has been up since early April in earnest, so about 3-4 months. I did play with another WordPress blog for a few months before that, but it was mostly to get comfortable with the tools vs. building a reader base. I would say 3-4 months of serious traffic creation and real posts.

Why did you start your 4 hour work week blog and have your reasons for doing it changed since you started?

I started it to create a community, a sense of belonging for not only others… but for myself. I wanted to attract like minded folk to discuss cool topics. More recently, this has moved towards having fun but also catalyzing some serious world change. It sounds ridiculously naive, but I used the blog to help get http://www.donorschoose.org, an educational non-profit, into the finals for American Express’s competition for $1-5 million in funding. There is some serious power in numbers and proactive readers.

I’m also beginning to realize that you can monetize a blog without bastardizing your vision, sacrificing editorial purity, or otherwise “selling out.” There’s no need to sacrifice on either end.

Tell us a little more about how you think this is possible – ie” monetize a blog without bastardizing your vision”

Step one is understanding your readers. by this, i mean defining them psychographically and demographically. What would they buy? Then, it’s a simple matter of finding advertisers who would pay for “sponsor”-level access to this market. Choose someone who belongs to an industry that you’ll likely never write about. Problem solved.

There are certainly other avenues — affiliate programs, Amazon Associates, etc. — that add additional revenue with marginal additional effort. Last, and few bloggers consider this, is launching and offering your own products to your audience. I get hundreds of emails per week requesting the same types of help. There will be online educational modules or other products on the way to help these readers, and I will launch them on the blog.

The aforementioned sources of income would be “direct” income sources from the blog. “Indirect” income sources — those that result from the credibility your blog creates — are much broader and can be even more profitable and fun: speaking gigs for $10-30K, corporate training in foreign countries, etc.

I’ve been watching your alexa ranking and you’ve seen some nice growth (over 10000) – what’s behind it?

It’s just direct response advertising meets PR.

Study the top stories at Digg or MSN.com and you’ll notice a pattern: the top stories all polarize people. Do not try to appeal to everyone. Instead, take a strong stance and polarize people: make some love you and some hate you. Hate is an extreme, but here’s the gist: what you write, in order to create the highest pass-along value, needs to be “remarkable”. Is it something that is worth remarking upon?

If you make it threaten people’s 3 Bs — behavior, belief, or belongings — you get a huge virus-like dispersion. Most of my explosive posts, which have brought in 1000s of new Feedburner subscribers, have nothing to do with my book. “Geek to Freak” is about how I gained 34 lbs. of muscle in 4 weeks. “How to Travel the World with 10 lbs. or Less” is obviously not (though a great case study in how to use Amazon Associates naturally).

Polarize your audience, elicit some attacks — which create disagreement and rebukes and debate — and be anal about the numbers. Track what works and what doesn’t. Fine tune what works and test it again. Rinse and repeat.

I also gauge my progress by…

1) Feedster subscribers
2) Alexa ranking
3) comments, in descending order of importance

What’s your biggest source of traffic?

Trackbacks from diverse leading blogs and guest posts on popular sites like Huffington Post. To the first point, I write on a diverse range of topics, so I can get linked to from more social circles. From muscle building to ultralight travel, I tie it all into a larger concept of “lifestyle design.”

Just because you write about PR, for example, doesn’t mean that you can’t tie PR into everything from celebs to current events to political commentary. Broaden your trackback value. To the second, seek out popular blogs and offer to guest post. Most blogs that post multiple times daily are looking for good material and writers. I only post 1-2 times per week, so I don’t have that constant pressure, but hundreds do.

Borrowing traffic is a lot faster than creating it, and the former often leads to the latter.

Apart from what you’ve already mentioned – what have you found works?

Headlines are #1. If you have a great headline, you can get great pass-along. If you have a mediocre headline, even a world-class post will be ignored. I’ll put one version of a headline on my blog and repost the same body copy with a different headline on Huffington Post or elsewhere.

I’ll also tweak headlines after a post has gone up to see if it triggers any spikes. Not good for Google rank, but great for quick and dirty testing. I’ll note here that, in my experience, you should look at unsubscribes more than new subscribes. Why? It’s easier to determine why people have quit vs. jumped onboard. Usually, it’s bad headlines, bad copy, or too many unhelpful comments, which triggers too many worthless email to readers.

I’ll also add graphics, videos, etc., or remove the same, from duplicate posts to see the effect. It’s an imperfect approach, but you can draw some general conclusions, at least for my audience.

In our last interview you talked about how you’d found that posting less often was actually helping your blog. A month or two later – do you still find this to be true?

I think so. It allow comments to accumulate, which reinforces the perception that you blog is popular. It also offers you the breathing room to focus on quality, which creates the popularity and stickiness. People have a lot of crap information being forced upon them, so I only want to add a good dash of fun and education when I have something worthy to say. Definitely still true for me. Last but not least, it takes a while for posts to propagate through the web, and most people simply trackback to your most recent post, so leaving a post up for a few days in pole position has been an important tactic for me. I don’t plan on posting more, but I might do it for a few weeks just to see the effect.

If you were starting your blog again knowing what you now know – what one thing would you do the same and one thing would you do differently?

Posting frequency and philosophy would remain the same. I would add at least one graphic to each post, bold/italicize more to make the posts easier to scan and digest, and I would also discuss more topics that nearly everyone feels they can comment on (e.g. exercise, travel). Educational reform is great, but it shuts a lot of people out of the conversation. I’ll still post on these issues close to my heart, but I think my rise could have been even faster had I focused on pulling more people into disagreeing and commenting.

Just ask yourself: would my mom, dad, best friend, or co-workers try and give me advice on this? If not, you’ll miss a lot of comments. Explore topics where people think — often mistakenly — that they have some real expertise. Fanning the flames this way brings out some brilliant dialogues… and huge traffic jumps. I want at least one person to call me a liar per post or I don’t feel I’m pushing the envelope enough.

What do you like about blogging?

I have learned a ton from my readers. I like the fact that some of my heroes have contacted me through my blog. You can really change the world with one good blog post. I believe that.

What don’t you like about blogging?

What I dislike is anonymous cowardice. There are a lot of weirdos and psychos. Blogs give every genius and every idiot a voice, so you need to be willing to tolerate and filter the latter.

I’ve been promoting educational reform and a few other things that most view as very positive. One of the results? I’ve had a few loonies sending me death threats. It’s ridiculous. If that kind of stuff will really shake you, I don’t recommend trying to build a huge audience of readers. Anonymous cowardice, as well as threats and psychos, bothers me.

Any last tips for ProBlogger readers?

Think big and think fast. If you had a gun against your head to double your readership in two weeks, what would you do? I’m serious. If you absolutely had to, what would you do? It is really possible to ethically build a huge fan base and have some fun along the way. I’ll close with a return to fundamentals: study good headlines. Look at Digg.com, msn.com, and follow a bit of pop culture like E! or the nightly news just to see how they use teasers. The headline doesn’t even need to describe the article or post. It has just one purpose: to get them to read the next sentence.

Think big and don’t settle for what everyone else is doing. Test assumptions and push the envelope. It’s a good ride.

Thanks to Tim for giving his time again for this interview. If you enjoy the way he thinks, check out The 4 Hour Work Week for more Timothy Ferriss Wisdom.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. I love this guy. Recently Read his book, he is definitely leading the way among us younger entrepreneurs. Great stuff!

  2. Brad Isaac says:

    Darren & Tim, Great interview…

    I could use some clarification on one of the points you make though. You say “Just ask yourself: would my mom, dad, best friend, or co-workers try and give me advice on this? If not, you’ll miss a lot of comments.” I’m a little unclear on what you mean. Can you provide an example or further explain? I appreciate it.

  3. Traveler says:

    Here’s a travel-related interview with Tim Ferriss I did a while back on the World’s Cheapest Destinations site. Something tells me he’s working more than 4 hours a day with all this success, but lots of great advice in the above interview. Good stuff!

  4. Samir says:

    It is encouraging to see some external validation of a sparser posting frequency. I myself post very “rarely” by most standards, but I try to make them longer and more interesting posts. Basically, I write when I have something to say, as Tim suggests.

    Great interview Darren. Even though he sticks to tried-and-true basics, Tim gives you plenty to think about and reevaluate about blogging.

  5. Bush Mackel says:

    @Brad – I think the thought here is try to write on stuff that people think they can offer advice on. This idea is explained further, “…Explore topics where people think — often mistakenly — that they have some real expertise”, for instance…When I had my kid, I took him to my grandmother’s house and she basically just started spewing opinions, most of which were contrary to what our pediatrician was saying.

    Again, get people to start talking by asking for advice on something that most people think they can help with.

    @Darren – Pretty serious typo in your link out…”“How to Travel the Worth with 10 lbs. or Less” Should be “How to Travel the WORLD…” at least per the link URL.

    Great post, I think this one is really going to do wonders for my site. (#):)

  6. SpicePuppy says:

    Brad, I think that Tim was suggesting to write on topics that every Tom, Dick, and Harry has a strong opinion on, in order to get a lot of comments. For example, even though he’s interested in educational reform, most people wouldn’t want to comment on it. But many people would be able to comment on posts about exercise or travel.

  7. Buxr.com says:

    I wouldn’t judge any type of success on Alexa ranking.. That being said, good interview.

    Tim has some really great stuff in his book. I’ve only finished half of it, due to my 80 hour work week :)

  8. Steve says:

    Good stuff Darren,

    that was a real eye opener for me. I think my favourite line was when Tim said, “I want at least one person to call me a liar per post or I don’t feel I’m pushing the envelope enough.”

    It’s time for me to start pushing the enevelope….

    Tim, thanks for the inspiration!

    Stephen Martile
    Personal Development with NLP
    http://www.stephenmartile.com

  9. Richard B says:

    Tim’s book was the best $13 I ever spent.

  10. I’m loving Tim Ferriss! I think it’s cool that he is into the societal benefits that he can have as he creates his incredible lifestyle. I think that is changing the tide of young entrepreneurs. we feel more social responsibility, what’d’ya think?

  11. Bachelorium says:

    Thanks Tim and Darren.

    The guys I refer to the most when I need to fill my business motivation bucket.

    Donovan G

  12. Kevin says:

    fantastic post. Thorougly enjoyed it :)

  13. Miguel Vera says:

    Great, great interview. I really like the challenge of the question, got me thinking already.

  14. Shay says:

    This post is great! Thanks guys. I’m gonna read it a few times. :)

  15. Bloggrrl says:

    Mr. Ferris is doubtlessly a very smart man. It especially shows when he makes statements like this: “If you make it threaten people’s 3 Bs — behavior, belief, or belongings — you get a huge virus-like dispersion.” Definitely true.

    That said, a higher level of transparency both on his blog and in his book would be nice. As I go to the links suggested in his book, I continuously find myself thinking, “How much did they pay him to put this link in here?”. He is definitely a brilliant marketer, and the book is well worth reading for the insights into this world alone. As far as being someone I’d trust to advise me about how to make money, well, I’m not too sure about that. Perhaps it is better to do what he does, rather than what he says. That is, if you feel comfortable with that approach.

  16. Jason says:

    What an interesting guy. I liked all the advice about headlines and writing in a way that you will at least have people love you and hate you, and not just bored and wanting to click the x.

  17. Jason says:

    Tim… he wasn’t that crazy pale guy from the Da Vinci Code who whipped himself, right?

  18. Russ says:

    Great interview. It has got me thinking about a lot of things. I will see if they ever come to anything or not…

  19. marquis says:

    This was a very good read.

    http://alltalksports.wordpress.com/

  20. Chuck says:

    Agreed, very interesting read. Thanks.

  21. Great read man.

  22. Chris says:

    Great interview. I really enjoyed reading this and felt like I came away with alot of good advice. I’ve been working on starting my own blog and progress has been slow going – most likely because of my perfectionistic nature which I’m discovering is a reall disadvantage in blogging. Tim helped to put things into perspective for me, especially the concept that it’s actually good to take time between posts (posting frequency has been a huge weight on my mind). Anyways, thanks for the interview, and keep them coming.

  23. CatherineL says:

    Great interview. I loved the book. The funny thing is, I didn’t realise how young Tim was until I got to the end of the book. If I had, it would probably have put me off reading it, which would have been a shame. It made a great change from the many business books around that encourage you to put yourself into an early grave to be “successful”.

  24. Shine says:

    Smart interview, smart interviewer, smart interviewee, smart ideas and very smart strategies!

    What I’m going to do: (1) Buy his book; (2) Read his blog; (3) Rethink my strategies accordingly.

    Thanks both!

  25. David Mackey says:

    I’ve just started seriously reading ProBlogger in the last two days or so…But I think its already time to add you to my blogroll – I love this stuff!

  26. WheelHound says:

    I too was initially attracted to Tim Ferriss–especially the romantic notion of his book’s title. That said, I think this interview summarized exactly what Tim is good at–headlines. Substance is seriously lacking in much of his book, his posts, and his interviews. It’s typical of business and “lifestyle” books. For some reason, there’s some sixth sense I get about Tim Ferriss that makes me think we’re onto another James Frey. Indeed, in a couple of sections, Mr. Ferriss’ own book serves as a bit of a handbook on how to establish yourself as an “expert” even if your not.

    From a macro level and from a conceptual level, I believe there’s a lot to be learned from the “4 Hour Work Week” but it fails to fully deliver the mail in my opinion. YMMV

  27. Thanks Darren, I’ll put his book on my list!

  28. Those are great tips from personal experience. However, I cannot help but wonder if the success of his blog is tied to his fame from his books, which makes it not so relevant for many bloggers starting out from scratch. Many bloggers, though following all these tips, will certainly not be able to replicate his success …..

  29. NRL News says:

    Yeah here here.

    Certainly enjoyed this post – amazing this guy has done so much in 29 years. Made me feel a little inadequate at the same age!

    Good motivation tho!

  30. Thanks for the insights. It’s always good to get some feedback from those with hands on experience, and success.

  31. Donnie5 says:

    I like reading the guys blog. I also like the way he gives you a trackback link if you link to him automatically. I received a dozen readers from his blog from the link. I must say, he is a classy guy. Thanks Tim!

  32. Dimitris says:

    Well, hardly anyone’s called Tim a liar in this post (basically written by him) – kind of defeats it’s own purpose… Or not?

  33. Matt says:

    great interview. “If you make it threaten people’s 3 Bs — behavior, belief, or belongings” is a really good piece of advice. That’s pretty much what plasters the front page of sites like digg, mostly being political. Another thing I’ve noticed pops up on the front page of those sites are outrageous new stories that everyone can agree on and can get angry about or really happy about (such as iphone news).

  34. Joe says:

    “If you had a gun against your head to double your readership in two weeks, what would you do? I’m serious. If you absolutely had to, what would you do?”

    I like people like this. Most of us have the grind mentality. We just assume “long hard work”. We don’t seriously think about getting the most for the least. Life flies by. What the hell are we waiting for?

    Cool post.

  35. Brown Baron says:

    Loved the interview. That last part really got me thinking. Thanks Darren.

  36. Deb says:

    Sorry, but I don’t love this guy nor do I believe in his “system.” He reminds me of too many televangelists.

  37. ZechAryW says:

    The headline doesn’t even need to describe the article or post. It has just one purpose: to get them to read the next sentence.

    This is a good point which I gotta pay attention to. Thanks, Tim.

  38. I really enjoyed reading this inspirational interview. Lots of great ideas and encouraging tips. I’m still very new to the blogging world but topics like this are a fantastic way to bring about awareness. Thanks for shortening the learning curve. :-)

  39. Good stuff.Clarity of the topic is evident in the answers.It is a responsible and clear explanation.

  40. therapydoc says:

    I love that thought, one good blog post can change the world.