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What I Learned From Liars and Journalists, and How it Made Me a Better Blogger

This guest post is by Austin Gunter, of WP Engine.

Trust Me, I’m Lying – Confessions of a Media Manipulator is the title of Ryan Holiday’s new book about the tactics cutting-edge bloggers use to drive hundreds of thousands of viewers to their blogs, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Ryan, author of controversial posts like The Top 5 Performing American Apparel Ads, And How They Get PR For Free (NSFW), is the Director of Marketing at American Apparel, and is a self-proclaimed “media manipulator.” He has made a high-flying career serving irresistible blog content to places like the Huffington Post, Gawker, and Jezebel.

I waited more than a year for Trust Me, I’m Lying to hit the shelves. The book has pushed my limits as a marketer and as a person from the second it arrived in my mailbox. You must read the book. I’ve personally poured through the book late at night to wring every last bit of knowledge from its pages and make my own blogging irresistible.

From my reading, I’ve picked out a set of unexpected tactics that I want to share with the Problogger audience. In this post, we’ll go in-depth with these unexpected methods, how you can use them to make your page views spike every single day.

Way back in history…

Way back in American History, nearly 150 years ago, newspapers were run by incredibly brilliant marketers. Folks like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer learned how to sell newspapers one copy at a time using headlines and sensational stories to entice businessmen to spend their hard-earned money on a paper.

19th century newspapers like The New York Sun and The New York Journal were sold one paper at a time, their success riding on how compelling the front page was. The more engaging the content, the better the paper sold.

Sound familiar? That’s because blogs live and die by the pageview. Every page on a blog has to stand on its own, or get lost in the shuffle of the Internet. Blogging and the “Yellow Journalism” of the mid-19th century are ridiculously similar.

Selling newspapers one copy at a time, in the hustle and bustle of the already-hectic, and often inhospitable island of Manhattan, for example, is the same hustle that bloggers must have to be successful.

There’s money to be made, but how is a single blog supposed to stand out from the crowd and draw page views amidst the hustle and bustle of Twitter, Facebook, and Business-Insider’s link-bait photo galleries?

How did The New York Journal and The New York Sun sell millions of copies of their papers?

And how can you, the blogger, use old-school journalistic tactics and a bit of sensationalism to draw traffic to the valuable content of your blog? Here are some suggestions.

Yellow journalism tactics that generate pageviews

Before I lay out these incredibly powerful blogging tactics, I want to issue a warning.

While the methods we’re about to explore flat-out work, and can generate six-figure pageviews for your blog, many of them are inspired by the dark history of American journalism. Please know your limits before you go crazy injecting your writing with the the methods I share with you in this post.

Focus on the fear

Use headlines that might threaten your audience’s way of life. Fear is a powerful motivator for immediate action. Writing a headline that invokes fear makes it nearly impossible for your audience to look away. This example from The New York Journal shows an irresistible headline.

Get news faster

“Special Edition” papers that broke the news sold in incredible numbers. Social media platforms make breaking news a minute-by-minute affair. If you can publish the story immediately, you benefit from the pageviews.

  • Liveblog the conferences you attend, embedding tweets and social shares on your blog using WordPress and Storify.
  • Publish short post quickly, and follow up with a more detailed analysis when the dust settles.
  • On the move? Use the mobile WordPress app to publish photos of news unfolding in front of you.

Even if the story is you sharing your opinion, you still posted first. As The Huffington Post advertises on their homepage: “Breaking News and Opinion…”

Get exclusives

Can you publish a story that nobody else can access? The story must be relevant and valuable to your audience, so if you write about WordPress, your exclusive can’t be about Fantasy Football. But, if you have the inside scoop on WordPress 3.5, or you run an Apple Rumor blog and you know about secret bug fixes in Mountain Lion, that’s big news that literally millions of people care about.

Ask the question, “Would this exclusive affect my audience’s business or behavior?,” if you’re unclear whether the exclusive will be attention-grabbing.

Give away the story in the headline

You want the headline to contain the entire story. If you can tell the whole story in the headline, you’ll still get the click. The art is in succinctly telling the story, with details, in about 110 characters, short enough to fit into a tweet without editing.

Here’s a 19th century example from The New York Journal:

“CALL TO DUTY: 250,000 VOLUNTEERS ARE ASSIGNED TO WAR STATIONS. Preparing for the final blow at Cuba, New York Furnishes Twelve Regiments.”

Here’s a recent one from The Huffington Post this August:

“A PALL OVER PAUL. GOP PROS FUME: Romney Ceded Election With Ryan Pick.”

That’s a headline built for tweeting.

Embrace the controversy

Just like fear, outrage is a powerful motivator. The perfect recipe for controversy is to highlight the extreme position of a particular issue. Nuance won’t inspire immediate action, and unfortunately anything that takes longer than “immediately” takes too long to tweet.

Politics has always been a good way to stir the controversy. Take this headline for example:

“BOTH HOUSES, In Uproar, Threatening Revolt, WARN M’KINLEY”

The emphasis is from the headline, not my own. Notice how the upper-case words focus the reader on the controversy at hand, while the lower-case words contain the nuance that requires a bit more time to process?

Don’t be limited to the politics of presidential elections. Your online community has its own politics that you can engage. If the content gets people talking in the comments, there was a good chance it was controversial.

For example, this recent post engages the gender controversy, and generates some rather insightful and open discussions in the comments.

Use pictures!

Call it Industrial Revolution Link-Bait. The front pages of The New York Journal were full of images designed to push the limits on cultural mores, including illustrations of nearly-nude women and explosions from the wars that were happening.

Spain

Image courtesy Wikipedia

World

Image courtesy Wikipedia

By contrast, here’s a post I wrote about the bodies of the summer Olympic athletes.

Conclusion

The tactics that I’ve laid out here are inspired by Ryan Holiday’s exposé of the industry, Trust Me, I’m Lying. I’ve only scratched the surface of what he covers in the book, which is recommended reading for writers, from PR to bloggers, to community mangers, making their livings on the Internet.

Many of these tactics are controversial at best, and some of them may push our boundaries as writers. My goal isn’t to write a post that makes you feel comfortable, but instead to provide insight into what it takes to generate page views for your blog. I do encourage you to know where your own limits are, and to decide how you want to define “success” for your online content.

Blogs live and die by the page view, just like Yellow Journalism, which was measured based on how many papers were sold each day. The question is: how much is one page view worth to your site?

Tell me in the comments how far you’re willing to go for a click. I’m curious to see the spectrum of spectacle. On balance, who is a successful blogger that would never use any of these tactics?

Austin Gunter is a blogger, a writer, and a massive extravert. He works and lives as the Brand Ambassador for WP Engine, managing the marketing, branding, and PR for their Managed WordPress Hosting Platform. Austin drinks yerba maté daily and is really good at twitter You should follow him, @austingunter. His own WordPress is found at austingunter.com.

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Comments

  1. I was never good at marketing or selling but after a long period of ups and downs in my life I have just become good at both. So experience comes when you actually face it.

    • Hey Kundan,

      I would agree with that 100% I know a lot of developers who started companies and learned how to become amazing sales people and marketers after working consistently at it.

  2. At this point, I’m willing to push the boundaries for the sake of a fresh yet audacious angle on a topic.

  3. Hi Austin,

    Keen points here.

    Push emotional buttons. Do it from either a low or high energy place. Either way, karma’s in effect, so avoid lying.

    If you lie karma will smack you. If you tell the truth in a creative, emotionally-appealing manner, you will be rewarded…in a good way ;)

    Desperate tactics might bring bigger numbers but desperate results aren’t too pretty.

    You become a magnet to more readers, and crap too. Because force negates.

    The idea of what constitutes a lie and the truth is up for debate. But you know on a deeper level.

    Some might read this post. Think it through…and coming from a place of desperation, to snag more readers, will employ questionable techniques, at best, to grab readers.

    They might grab readers…with a ton of resistance as well.

    I’d pass on the ton of resistance, thank you. Because although resistance pops up no matter what, as you grow, the negative energy associated with putting out dishonest work, manipulative work, is a bit much for me ;)

    Thanks!

    RB

    • Great summary Ryan. I think you’re onto the spirit of what I’m writing about. However, I would make the point that these tactics aren’t necessarily the source of resistance in your readers. Quite the contrary, if you wrote something less urgent but more thoughtful, you’d inspire a great deal of resistance. For example, what would be easier for me to ask you to do: read the NSFW link at the top of the post, or to pick up a copy of The Brother’s Karamazov and get through the first 40 pages.

      Not to knock the Brothers K, it’s my favorite book, but it’s dense Russian prose at its finest. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t inspire immediate action. But the link is tantalizing because you want to know what exactly isn’t SFW in there (nudity).

      Now, to make the case, based on the above, who is going to read the Brothers Karamasov and who is going back to click the link?

      Did I create any negative energy?

  4. Blogging basically means narrating a story in an interesting way, so that it holds the reader’s attention.

  5. Drewry says:

    I know a few liars who are rich, and only use their negative energy to move forward faithfully in my positive online business building endeavors. If you look @ the bigger picture in life, liars can help you indirectly be more successful than hoped for, in addition to humbling you. Liars are the best teachers in life, because they also teach you quietly to depend on GOD for your blessings. Just sharing humble 2 cents :-)

    • Hey Drewry,

      Great point. We can learn from positive examples as well as negative ones. It’s also important to be humble about what we work for.

      Thanks for the comment :-)

  6. Austin, I am sold. I’m definitely jumping on board and grabbing this book.

    Along the same lines, I’m always encouraging those starting out with blogging to go read marketing books. There is so much to be learned in between the covers of these and just like a business in the real world, marketing has to be a focal point of your online strategy to be successful.

    A great write!

    • Thanks! I’d love to hear what you have to say about the book when you’re done. Do you have favorite recommendations for marketing books? I’d love to get a recommendation from you.

  7. good.. there is a lot to be learned.

  8. Brad Dalton says:

    I like to focus on the frustrations by providing a solution to the problem.

    I also go through the frustration when finding a solution that works and testing that it really works.

    That’s why i think its a good idea to base your content on your own personal experience.

    I did notice one of my posts which included the words ‘Avoid Pitfalls’ did get a lot of attention which probably had something to do with the headline including the fear factor. But the content needs to also provide a solution to reall problems which really do help people avoid pitfalls.

    • One of the ways successful marketers write content that converts is by immersing themselves in the world of their audience. The better we can understand the cares and concerns of our audience, the more effective our writing will be.

  9. Luca Zanni says:

    Love this article! It always reminds me that blogging should be treated like journalism. All the tactics and copy they use, we should use them too for more exposure of our blogs.

    I’m going to grab that book, looks like an interesting reading.

    • Luca, I wish blogging had certain elements of Journalism in it, like the way journalists could take their time investigating a story before they broke it. One big part of why Holiday wrote the book is because he saw a problem with bloggers, to whom success means being the first to publish, not the one who got the story correct, caring less about accuracy and upholding journalistic standards, and caring more about getting backlinks to each piece they publish.

      Here’s a perfect example of blogging masquerading as journalism, creating a story where there was none, all in an effort to get pageviews (I’m almost tempted to not link to the example): http://techcrunch.com/2012/08/24/the-lyft-launch-that-coulda-been/

      That story is journalism gone awry, gone too far.

      Now, I realize that I’m right on the edge of advocating those manipulative techniques to be successful as a blogger. While I am walking a fine line, I do advocate learning from everyone, even the dark artists of their craft. Some of my best lessons came from exploring interesting subcultures like Pick-Up Artists, but that’s a story for another post.

  10. I didn’t got the liar part in this article but the journal was quite nice I really felt to read & read till it gets end. I started reading without being distracted by FB and completed the full article with loads of new improved thoughts.

    I wish my friends too give a look here to read such an outstanding article so I’m sharing it with others on FB & twitter may you get loads of readers in this post.

    :)

  11. Ehsan Ullah says:

    Hi Austin,

    I do agree with every point of this article. I’ve been reading Ryan Holiday’s E-book and found some really great lessons.

    If you check my blog, I have also written a similar post in this topic.

  12. J. Delancy says:

    Having worked at a newspaper for years, I’m well aware of how editors grab attention. I’ve used Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks a number of times to generate interesting headlines. There is a point however when a writer, journalist, blogger can cross into tabloid territory. Once there, only two choices remain, apologize and recant thus staying within the mainstream, or keep going deeper into the forbidden zone, polarizing readers even more.
    The biggest problem though, is that in today’s world there is no shortage of shock jocks willing to lower standards even further. I’d advise everyone to be careful or be smart about what they publish.

    • That’s a fantastic word of caution, J.

      I would pose a question back to you: What’s the difference in pageviews between a shock jock and someone who is careful about what they publish? Who wins the war of the pageviews, and therefore the ad revenue?

      Blogging favors the sensationalists, and this means we lack for quality reporting in favor of the Huffington Post’s link bait with actresses in Bikinis.

  13. Tom Clark says:

    My blog has always worked in the opposite way, tame titles which you may find in an instructional book. I do however know that there is a spectrum and I’m at the far left and going to move to the right. It simply does work by pushing the emotions, we are only human.

    Great stuff!

    Tom

    • Hey Tom, I’d love to know what your blog covers and the goals of your audience. I could learn something from your example.

      Thanks for the comment!

  14. Jeff says:

    Nice post, I think it is important to remember that when it come down to it, we are all journalists, and that is the mindset it takes to get the pageviews. Its all about the numbers, kind of…lol

  15. Ayaz says:

    Hi Austin!

    For me its better to struggle a bit longer period but not to adopt such tactics that would give benefit to you just for the shorter period of time rather than make a plan and strategy to get benefit for the longer period of time and that’s a bit hard work to do but if you managed to get that thing done you will be success full.

    • Ayaz,

      I think there’s definitely a balance between the “quick fix” and taking the long road to success. I always build for long-term value, and I think that serves my needs not only today, but in the future as well.