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July 25, 2007

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

Posted in: Pro Blogger Interviews

Tim FerrissTwo of the most popular posts on enternetusers 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 enternetusers 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.


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