For aspiring bloggers, "Wait But Why" is the stuff of dreams: it's attracted over 10 million unique visitors during peak months, and garnered the attention (and patronage) of some of the biggest names in tech, such as Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
And this is a feat that Tim Urban, the blog's founder, achieved without a huge advertising budget or elaborate marketing strategy. With little more than his words and now-iconic stick figure drawings, Urban has grown his email list to well over 400,000 subscribers, and has managed to make blogging his full-time gig -- a journey he'll recount as a featured speaker at the upcoming INBOUND event in Boston.
Just three years ago, however, "Wait But Why" was just starting out as yet another blip in the increasingly crowded blogosphere. In a recent interview I had with him, Urban shares his insight to small-time bloggers trying to make it to the big leagues.
1. Recognize that it's a long process.
When it comes to blogging, there are few overnight successes. Urban ran a personal blog on the side for six years before he founded "Wait But Why," which gave him plenty of time to discover his unique writerly voice. Allow your inner writer space to grow and evolve: the more you write, the more you learn what resonates with your audience -- and, most importantly, what resonates with you.
2. Be your authentic self.
"It's not fun to write when you're pretending to be something you're not," Urban remarks. Yet many bloggers feel pressure to do just that, hoping to stand out by presenting themselves with icy journalistic perfectionism. The result is an affected, inauthentic writing style that doesn't truly convey their personality.
In a world saturated with mindless promotional content and fluff pieces, what stands out most is authenticity. "Remember that everyone who's reading your stuff is a flawed human being who knows that you're a flawed human being too," Urban remarks. To that end, instead of trying to imitate what you see in the Wall Street Journal, he suggests approaching your writing as if you're sending an email to your good friends, and letting your personality shine.
3. Put your energy into writing, not marketing.
"If I write an A+ post but hardly promote it at all, it will still do better than an A- post that uses all the marketing strategies in the world," Urban notes. Instead of thinking of promoting your blog as convincing people to read your stuff, focus on writing high-quality material that connects with people of the same mindset.
Urban's 2013 article about disgruntled Generation Y yuppies is a perfect example of this philosophy. With hardly any promotion at all, his post went viral because it tapped into something that his audience related to. As a result, his email list increased from 300 to 30,000: not even hiring a full-time marketing team for a year could achieve those kinds of results.
4. Focus on your friends, not your foes.
Everybody who makes any kind of meaningful foray into the internet will deal with their fair share of haters and trolls. But in the words of YouTube sensation Miranda Sings: Haters, back off!
As Urban has experienced, what turns some people off -- for instance, his carefree use of profanity in blog posts -- might totally click with others. Urban elaborates: "Even if 999 out of 1000 people don't like it, that one person who does like it will forward it to their friends, who will forward it to their friends." Suddenly, you've got a following on your hands.
The internet is a double-edged sword: its anonymity allows people to be cruel without consequences, but it also allows you to reach a potentially limitless audience, to find people all over the globe who share your interests, humor, and passions. Those people -- not the trolls -- are the ones you should pay attention to.
Indeed, in an era where people's attention spans seem to end at 140 characters, amateur bloggers face plenty of frustrations. It can be downright infuriating to see low-quality clickbait go viral, while your deep thinkpieces pass by unnoticed. But Urban's experience shows that blogging is an art form that hasn't been totally reduced to fluff and clickbait -- and that even in 2016, bloggers still have a fighting chance of making their mark.
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