Back in August I quit my job at a communications firm with two goals in mind: Could I launch a website completely from scratch and build a sizable monthly audience? And once I built that audience, could I monetize it to the extent needed so I would never have to return to a traditional day job? Though I’m still a ways away from where I hope to be, I did pass an important milestone a few days ago: my articles reached 100,000 total views. Sure, lots of websites out there receive more traffic than this in a single day, but most of them either have large editorial staffs or have been around much longer than five months. And while I hope to reach a point sometime soon when I’m regularly generating 100,000+ visits a month to my content, I wanted to pause and analyze how I reached this milestone and outline some of the lessons I learned along the way.
One of the brutal truths you learn while writing on the internet is that no matter how great your content, there’s no guarantee it will be seen by anyone. Especially when you’re first launching your website you have to accept that a good portion of your articles will fail to take off. A few days after I started writing full-time, I published one of my most-researched articles to date, but because it was placed on my site when I had virtually no audience, it’s only generated a grand total of 150 pageviews. So in order to overcome this hurdle, you want to begin consistently publishing content so that any new readers you do pull in will have fresh content every time they visit. You want to build momentum, so with each new article you increase your chances of it being seen by the right people who will then go on to share it to their social media streams. I’ve made it my goal to publish something every single weekday, and though most weeks I end up only publishing four pieces of content, the percentage of my articles that generate impressive traffic has increased significantly.
Getting people to visit your website is only half the battle. Your efforts are wasted if you’re not inspiring a sizable percentage of them to share and/or subscribe to your content. You need to optimize your site so there are calls to action. For instance, while I was building the social media strategy at US News & World Report, I noticed that a very high ratio of those who were sharing our content on Twitter were using the Twitter share buttons. Because it’s easy to control the text that’s automatically generated when you hit that button, you can modify it so that every time your content is tweeted it also includes your Twitter handle. This leads to a sharp increase in followers:
There are lots of little tricks like this that can drastically increase the time spent on your site, the number of articles consumed in a single visit, the number of shares your content receives, and the number of subscribers who will come back for more.
Diversify your referral streams
Five years ago you gained a new reader when they either bookmarked your site, subscribed to your RSS feed, or signed up for your email newsletter. Now there are over a dozen major platforms that have millions of users. I was fortunate that when I launched this blog I had already built up a sizable, high quality following on Twitter, which has made it much easier to seed my content within the tech and media community. But starting in August I started looking to beef up my presences on other platforms. Though I’ve been on Facebook since its early days, I hadn’t put much effort into building out a professional audience, and for the longest time I struggled with whether to focus on building a presence on a separate page or encourage people to follow my public updates on my main profile. A few days ago I finally decided that the emphasis needed to be placed on my professional page, and so I removed the follow buttons for my personal profile from my blog.
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When trying to write daily content for a blog, you realize quickly that you only have so much leftover time to invest in other platforms, so it’s important to choose which networks can produce the highest ROI for your content. Though I’ve long been interested in trying out Pinterest, I recognize its network is better for cooking, design, and travel blogs than tech and media news. In the end, I decided to invest my efforts in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and email. I also reprint one article a week at Medium (more on that in a minute).
Quality vs quantity
When I launched my blog, I initially decided that I would publish several aggregated posts a day with very light commentary and then work on longer, well-researched articles that I would post once every few days. But pretty early on I determined this wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. The aggregation posts were sometimes good for short bursts of traffic but I got the sense that it wasn’t high value traffic, the kind that enhanced my personal brand and led to more followers. So about a month in I scrapped that idea, and rather than publishing several posts a day, I would write one longer column per day, a column that strove to look at an issue from a different angle. My decision was vindicated pretty quickly when I saw several of these pieces gain traction. It turned out that my punditry skills were just as strong as my reporting skills.
Speaking of reporting, one of the best ways to generate a readership online is to publish original information that can’t be found anywhere else. Luckily, I have years of experience as a journalist; I started my career a newspaper reporter and have written for several major outlets ranging from US News & World Report to The Atlantic. At least once a week I publish an article for which I interviewed multiple people. Not only does this result in articles containing never-before-seen information, but my interview subjects often share my articles to their influential networks.
For the first two months or so, I was dead set on only publishing content exclusively to simonowens.net. The thinking was that I could maximize personal brand recognition if every reader who landed on one of my articles did so on a website that prominently featured my name and photo. But because my website was so new, I was writing extremely high quality articles that came nowhere near realizing their full potential. After interviewing blogger James Clear about his success through syndicating his content to other outlets, I decided to go that route. I began by cross-posting my Monday columns to LinkedIn and my Friday columns to Medium. Though not every post took off, some saw explosive viewership. One post at LinkedIn was chosen for LinkedIn Pulse and received over 50,000 views. A column I posted to Medium last week generated 4,000 views.
In addition to this, I also reached out to my contacts at places like Daily Dot, PBS’ MediaShift, and Harvard University’s Nieman Lab and worked out deals where they could reprint my content.
There were several benefits to this strategy. Because my articles were plugged into much larger networks, my content and byline reached much wider audiences. This usually led to a sharp spike in new followers whenever a piece of content took off. The success of my LinkedIn posts has resulted in hundreds of new subscribers on that influential platform. It also led to emails from potential sources who had seen my content on these platforms. A Nieman Lab reprinting of an article of mine led to an email out of the blue from someone who ended up being a source for one of my most successful articles.
Of course there are downsides as well. Only a small percentage of those who discover your content on these other outlets will even notice your byline. And because they’re more established, they’ll usually outshine you in terms of SEO. For instance, if you Google “James Clear” and “Simon Owens,” you’ll find the reprint of my article at PBS.org. The simonowens.net version is almost impossible to find on Google.
Revisit your archives
This is one I need to improve on. There’s this assumption that once you publish a piece of content you can just share it once and everyone who follows you will see it. But the reality is that only a tiny percentage of your followers will see any given piece of content you share on social media, and though you should be careful to space out your promotions of the same piece of content, you can get away with sharing it several times in order to reach more people. Also, as you begin to accumulate new followers over a period of months, there will be a bunch of people who have signed up to read your content who would have never been exposed to your past articles. Some of my biggest traffic days have come after I shared a piece of content a third or fourth time. Back in August I wrote an article about Reddit’s public dialogues with the world’s top scientists. The piece did pretty well, generating about 2,000 views. But a few weeks ago I noticed someone share the article on Twitter so I decided to retweet him. My retweet was seen and retweeted by one of my most influential followers, and the article just exploded from there, generating an additional 8,000 views. And to think, it was all because I retweeted out an article that I had assumed was long past its expiration date. Vox tried an experiment recently where it began updating and sharing articles that were more than two months old, and it saw half a million visitors as a result.
I have to admit, I’ve experienced many dark days since launching the blog, days when I published articles I had spent weeks researching only for them to completely flop. These were days when I was absolutely convinced that no matter how hard I tried and how much quality content I put out, there was just too much noise on the web for me to break through with a single-author blog. Luckily I’ve had friends and family there to talk me off the ledge, to remind me of the days when my content did extremely well and assure me that they would increase in frequency. That increase has definitely begun to occur, but I know I’m nowhere near where I eventually want to be, and there will be plenty more days in the near future when I get discouraged. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over all these years creating and promoting content on the internet, it’s that building an audience, one that returns to your blog over and over again, takes time, and so you have to be patient. As long as you’re creating great content and exploring all best practices for marketing that content, it will get noticed. And as it gets noticed, slowly but surely people will recognize you as an original voice and sign up for more. So while it’s helpful to pause and reflect on the first 100,000 views, my energy now is to focus on reaching that next 100,000 that much quicker.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.
Whatever your opinion is of Charles Johnson, it’s likely changed at some point in the last decade. The California-based blogger launched Little Green Footballs in 2001, and though it was initially a blog about computer programming, after 9/11 he took a rightward political turn. He was one of the central bloggers in Rathergate, the online investigation that exposed memos featured on 60 Minutes as being possibly fabricated and ultimately led to CBS News anchor Dan Rather’s resignation. The investigation was considered a major turning point for the blogosphere in terms of how it could impact and compete with mainstream news. During the Bush years, Johnson was a steadfast critic of radical Islam and one of the web’s most prominent conservative bloggers, helping to launch an early conservative blog advertising network. Then, quite suddenly, his views shifted to the left, and those conservatives who were once his allies found themselves on the receiving end of his ire. His apostasy was documented at length in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article. I recently interviewed Johnson by phone about his early days in the blogosphere and how the web has evolved with the rise of social media. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Simon Owens: What fascinates me about you is that you were one of the original bloggers. You started very early before people even knew what a blog was. So you had this unique perspective, I think, about the rise of early Web 2.0 and then how it started to transform once more mainstream websites started to launch their own blogs, and then you saw the rise of social media. I’d love to hear about the early days of blogging. What compelled you to start? When did you start realizing you were amassing some kind of regular readership?
Charles Johnson: Well when I started, they didn’t actually have the term “blog” yet. It hadn’t been invented. It was called a web log. It got shortened to blog and originally I was agitating against using that title because I didn’t like it. I guess the reason I got started was because I wanted to learn about the technology of blogging. I’ve always been a computer programmer, and that’s actually why I started doing it, to get some hands-on experience with all this technology.
Simon Owens: Do you remember which bloggers you were reading back then? Like were you a Dave Winer fan back then?
Charles Johnson: Oh gosh, yeah, I was aware of Dave Winer. Who else was blogging really early back then? Not a whole lot of people. I was reading mostly programming blogs. That sort of thing. I’m sure most of those blogs aren’t even around anymore. I go look at those early entries and the links don’t even work anymore.
Simon Owens: And then obviously 9/11 happened and it seemed like it kind of radicalized you in some ways. What was your experience writing right after 9/11? It seems like that’s when people really started to find you.
Charles Johnson: There’s no doubt that I was angry about that, like a lot of people. My reaction to it was to really try to learn as much as possible. As I go back and look at those early days after 9/11, what I was doing was posting all these links to articles about radical Islam. So I was trying to amass as much information as possible. I guess over the years I started to identify with a rightwing anti-Islam movement. Realizing that, being pulled into all that, it’s a long story, but sometimes life takes you down paths that you don’t entirely mean to be on. And there was a point in which I realized that some of the people who I thought were authorities on Islam were actually connected to some very dark kind of forces. So that kind of changed me, and I had a real change of heart about what I was doing. And I started to look back at it all and see it within a different context.
Simon Owens: Do you feel like you had this early-mover advantage? I feel like if you started a blog back then, not every news site was really freely available on the web and there weren’t as many blogs back then, do you think you benefited because there was a dearth of information online after 9/11 and that’s how people found you?
Charles Johnson: Yes, I think that’s probably true. And also the technology wasn’t highly evolved back then. So people who were even capable of setting up a blog were kind of rare. This was right around the time Blogger started to come out, and the whole scene kind of exploded around then. I think what I was doing showed a lot of people that they could do that too.
Simon Owens: How were people finding your blog? Was it people coming in from Google or were there other major websites linking to you?
Charles Johnson: You know, it all just sort of happened. I couldn’t tell you exactly. I think a lot of it did come from Google, people searching for information. And a lot of it was just word of mouth. It really exploded in 2004 when the Dan Rather story broke.
Simon Owens: I’d love to talk about Rathergate. It’s now referenced all the time in that bloggers played a key role, but you were in the thick of it. What was happening on the ground when the report aired? How did it start bubbling up in the blogosphere?
Charles Johnson: Around that time I had started to read other popular blogs, and one of them was Powerline, and they had posted about someone who commented at Free Republic who said those documents on 60 Minutes didn’t look like they were typed on a typewriter. And that piqued my interest. CBS had actually posted the documents on their website and I went and downloaded them — they were in PDF form. I guess the very instant I opened them up they I knew they weren’t type-written. They were done on a computer. So that’s how it began for me.
Simon Owens: I remember there was some delay when the original 60 Minutes episode aired and then 60 Minutes was hedging their bets in terms of how they responded. And then finally Dan Rather finally came out and admitted that he couldn’t stand behind the story. How as the media reacting to you guys?
Charles Johnson: There was a lot of negative reaction, I remember. They didn’t really want to believe it. But like I said, it was obvious they were faked. I knew at the time that they’d eventually come around, but I think it took them about a week.
Simon Owens: Do you feel like that was a big turning point for the blogosphere?
Charles Johnson: Yeah, I do, actually. It legitimized blogging, and you’ll notice that after that a lot of media started incorporating blogs on their sites.
Simon Owens: For a long time after that there was still a lot of debate over the value of blogging. You always heard about these references to bloggers in their pajamas.
Charles Johnson: Which is actually understandable and I don’t blame them. The fact that the barriers to entry were so low, there is going to be a lot of not very good stuff out there. If you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people doing this, not all of them are going to be Edward R. Murrow. So I actually understood that negative reaction, but on the other hand a lot of it sort of felt like the old guard trying to keep control of their domain.
Simon Owens: Like they were still convinced this internet thing was a fad or something.
Charles Johnson: Yeah.
Simon Owens: I feel like in the mid-aughts, it got to the point where you saw places like the New York Times launch all these blogs. And then you saw the rise of Twitter and Facebook, and in some ways it completely mainstreamed blogging, because what is Twitter but a form of blogging? Circa 2006 there was this very vibrant blogosphere, and it doesn’t really feel like there’s that kind of conversation going on anymore.
Charles Johnson: I totally agree. The whole thing changed. It began changing right around 2006. Part of it for me is I saw a lot of crazies getting popular. Like nuts. People who believed in conspiracy theories.
Simon Owens: So we saw the results of what journalists were warning of. It brought in the good and bad. You saw the rise of people who would have otherwise been marginalized and wouldn’t have had access to a printing press.
Charles Johnson: Yeah, I think so. And then actually after the election of Barack Obama, I saw a real turn on the right side of the blogosphere.
Simon Owens: Do you think Twitter gave an avenue for those who had small blogs to say, “Eh, I’ll just use Twitter, I’m not going to bother with blogging”?
Charles Johnson: Yeah, I think Twitter sucked a lot of oxygen out of the atmosphere for blogs.
Simon Owens: Part of the reason you’re famous is for your shifting ideology. You were famously profiled in the New York Times about it. What did you notice as you started to shift? You have a very vibrant community of commenters. What did you notice with your readers as your views evolved?
Charles Johnson: If I go back to 2006, 2007, we had some huge battles at my site on issues like creationism and climate change. And I came down heavy on the side of science in these battles. It was to my great surprise that I had a sizable contingent of creationists among my readers, which I had not known because the subject had never come up before. A lot of people did not like that I was pro-science.
Simon Owens: So did you start getting new readers who were more left-of-center?
Charles Johnson: That’s honestly not something I keep track of a lot. I try to do things not in response to what’s popular or not. I’m trying to write as much as I can without pandering to popularity. I don’t really pay too much attention to that. Definitely a lot of people did get angry at me for that. Some of them are still stalking me on the web today.
Simon Owens: I remember that conservative bloggers like Michelle Malkin used to link to you all the time. Have all your ties to the conservative blogosphere basically been severed?
Charles Johnson: Oh yeah, definitely. There’s no doubt about that. When I say people are stalking me, I’m not hallucinating. There’s a website, and they post about me all the time. They take screenshots every single day. For years now. I’d say close to seven years.
Simon Owens: Do you feel they felt betrayed? If you’d always been a liberal blogger that might not have happened?
Charles Johnson: I think that was a big part of it. Yeah.
Simon Owens: What happened to your web traffic as your ideology shifted?
Charles Johnson: It’s definitely not what it was back in the heyday of the Rathergate years. And I think part of that was because of the shift. It’s not bad in any case. It’s about a half million a month or so.
Simon Owens: You were one of the early founders of Pajamas Media, which started out as a conservative blog advertising network. And it wasn’t just Pajamas Media — there was Federated Media, Blogads — there was this idea that if bloggers could band together, even if they were just independent bloggers with not huge traffic, then they could become strong enough as an advertising bloc. Obviously Pajamas Media ended its relationship with a lot of its bloggers and became a standalone news site. What are your thoughts on that in terms of how well Pajamas Media is doing now?
Charles Johnson: The original thought was to leverage that long tail, where as long as you have enough of a tail, then not everyone would need to have massive traffic. And when it came to bloggers and all that we didn’t want it to be exclusively right wing or left wing, and we were sort of trying to be post-wing. That’s all gone by the wayside now. It’s now all under new management. It didn’t turn out at all like I’d hoped it would.
Simon Owens: Do you think that long tail dream was never really possible?
Charles Johnson: After my experience with it I think it’s probably not a valid way to go about advertising.
Simon Owens: You monetize your site, right?
Charles Johnson: Yes, I do have ads and all that.
Simon Owens: Does it bring enough to make a full-time living? As a standalone website with a lot of readers, can you make a full-time living off that?
Charles Johnson: I have been. It goes up and down. Advertising is variable. I’m managing to keep my head above water.
Simon Owens: We talked about how there’s the end of the independent website, but lately I feel like it’s been making a comeback. There are a lot of new small news startups. We have Andrew Sullivan returning to his own website. There’s Daring Fireball which has continued to thrive. Every day I see these old school bloggers returning to their own websites and promising to pen their own stuff again. Do you feel like we’re trying to return back to the longer-form thinking, and we’ve realize that we’re giving Twitter and Facebook too much power and we need to start establishing our own websites again?
Charles Johnson: Well that would be great, wouldn’t it? I’m not sure we’re at that point just yet. I think people are starting to realize that 140 characters can only express so much. And if you want to do more you’ve got to write more. Some people go to Tumblr. The thing is nowadays there’s almost no entry barrier at all. It’s extremely easy to set up a blog at WordPress. My blog is all completely self-programmed. I don’t use WordPress or any of those. I’m kind of unique in that way.
Simon Owens: You keep seeing news about how sites have become incredibly reliant on getting traffic from Facebook. Maybe this is recognition that we’ve been giving it too much power?
Charles Johnson: Oh I’ve seen my traffic shift almost entirely to Twitter and Facebook. But some of the changes that Google has made recently has made it hard to track where traffic is coming from. They run their entire site now in https mode, which means that if someone clicks on a link from Google to your site, you don’t get the referrer information. You can’t tell. All you know is it came from Google.
Simon Owens: Yeah, I’ve noticed in Google Analytics you can no longer tell the keywords that people are Googling to get to my site.
Charles Johnson: That’s why it’s getting difficult to track. What I do know is that a lot of my traffic is coming from Twitter and Facebook links.
Simon Owens: Speaking of the return to the independent website, one thing you’ve become well-known for lately is you’ve been one of the highest-profile critics of the other Charles Johnson. What do you think he signifies? He seems like an evolution, like the next rung down from Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe.
Charles Johnson: I would call it a devolution, actually. [Laughs]. What he’s doing is flat-out lying. He’s posting stuff he knows is false and not correcting it all and even acknowledging it’s false. Or even mistaken. I feel like in a way he’s damaging my brand because he has the same name. It’s the only reason I focus on him.
Simon Owens: I don’t know if it’s complete bullshit or not, but he seems to be making a living off it. The same thing with James O’Keefe. It seems like what makes the internet great is that we can find our niches, but these people can also find the very small but vibrant minority that’s willing to open up their checkbooks. Do you think that’s one of the trade-offs of the greatness of the internet? That you can find your niche but that also allows some of the horrible racists or polemicists to find their niche as well?
Charles Johnson: Or even the grifters who are preying on people’s prejudices to extract money from them. Which is kind of what I think Chuck does. I have no idea how much of it he really believes. I think a lot of it is just red meat for the audience.
Simon Owens: I guess he’s here to stay. It’s like Rush Limbaugh. The guy is always going to have enough of a right-wing audience.
Charles Johnson: It looks like it, unfortunately. I haven’t had much success driving him off the internet, and I don’t expect to. Not that I would even if I could, he’s definitely here to stay. Rush Limbaugh is promoting Chuck Johnson now. People like him are very useful to the right wing.
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In my article on how the blogging platform Medium is bringing back the web we lost, I describe how Facebook and Twitter, while opening up blog-like tools to millions of casual users, have confined us to a world where our content is beleaguered by so many artificial restrictions:
It makes sense that so many abandoned their blogs for Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. These platforms offered an extended network where your writing actually had the opportunity to be read and commented on. Publishing a blog post on your personal blog sometimes felt like launching it into the ether. Unless you wrote every day it was very difficult to amass an audience. Many bloggers complained of burnout or wrote posts apologizing for lengthy hiatuses. With Facebook and Twitter you had none of that; you could go several days without posting and then have a network of friends and colleagues waiting to engage with future posts.
But by migrating to these platforms, we gave up much of the control of how our content was presented. We couldn’t hyperlink and we couldn’t arrange photos within text. With Twitter we couldn’t even write more than 140 characters, and though this can be a good thing in some respects, many ideas deserve way more space than a sentence or two. Facebook has always had terrible internal search functionality and is pretty much a black box to outside search engines like Google. The blogosphere, while still flourishing in some ways, has seemingly become the domain of professional writers and corporate media companies. It’s rare that I find myself wading into the WordPress.com and Blogspot ghettos where the web’s remaining independent bloggers still reside.
This is why I was heartened to read that Dave Winer has teamed up with Facebook to produce better publishing tools. Winer was one of the original bloggers and an early pioneer in RSS and podcasting. He has been one of the most vocal critics of social media platforms that have continued to restrict their APIs in their extended corporate battles. On his blog, Winer has a list of reasons why he decided to work with Facebook and why this is such an important move for the company.
I don’t think Facebook is hurt by a vibrant competitive market in publishing tools that post to Facebook and post elsewhere, simultaneously. This is where development happens fastest, without the huge installed base to bring along. If this is cut off, that cuts off growth. I think we’ve already been dealing with this, for a long time. I believe if Facebook opens up more, the lights will start coming back on in new content management tools.
So the web and Facebook can co-exist and feed off each others’ growth. Seems like a win-win. Facebook readers get higher fidelity content, more beautiful, easier to read. It’s more effective for authors. And blogs and news organizations can easily publish and maintain their content in two or more places. When you’re liveblogging an event, for example, you can’t manually copy and paste every time something new happens.
One of the themes I touched on yesterday in my article on how Medium is trying to bring back the web we lost is that we’ve essentially outsourced our identities to multiple corporate entities (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) who control the format and type of content we can produce. In addition to this blog, I maintain at least somewhat-regularly-updated profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Foursquare, and LinkedIn. With your eggs spread across so many baskets, it can be difficult to every truly master a particular platform, and it makes it difficult to provide a holistic representation of yourself. Dave Winer, an early pioneering blogger, recognizes this incongruity and wants to find a way to unite his online identities under one roof:
Today there are lots of ways to scatter all kinds of stuff to the wind. If you do a search on a person, you’ll get a lot of random stuff, but for most people there’s no single place that represents the person.#
So for me, until further notice, my blog is where all my scatterings come together. Usually it’ll just be stuff that I’ve created, but occasionally I’ll point to something from someone else that’s connected to what I do.