How I grew my blog by 500% in 8 months (not really)

Disclaimer: It’s going to be a long one.

“One Budding Entrepreneur’s Story” turned 8 months on October 2nd, and I feel like enough time has elapsed to sum up my experiences writing and promoting this hodgepodge of musings, commentary, thoughts and shameful self-promotion.

A lot has already been said about the blessings bestowed on entrepreneurs by writing regularly, so I am not going to restate those points here even though I agree with most of them. The value is indeed there and you should seriously consider starting a blog even if you have hated writing all your life and thought turning in that last college essay was a beginning of a new and wonderful period of your life.  At least that’s the way I felt back then.

The trouble with all blogging advice is that it sets up unreasonable expectations of meteoric rise to blogging stardom because the advice, inadvertently, comes from the stars themselves. Those are the people everyone reads anyways. The advice I stumbled upon is rarely from the people months into the adventure and lacking prior experience or trusted network of promoters for their newly founded blog.

Hopefully, this is where I come with a blog post from someone starting from a very literal 0 followers, 0 readers, 0 interest and 0 reputation.

I’ve kept an obsessive watch over the blog’s performance since the start, and although I don’t consider it a runaway success by any stretch of imagination, I’d say it’s done pretty well. Reading the blogging advice it’s tempting to be lulled into “content is king” argument — namely, if you keep churning out good content, the readers will knock your doors down and spread the word.

It’s not exactly bullshit, but it’s not the whole truth either. The whole picture is more like:

  1. The growth curve is much flatter than you would expect.
  2. Content is still king, but it’s Lady Luck who will give those first few crucial breaks.
  3. Drama sells. Startup drama sells especially well.
  4. When you are desperate for readers, readers will notice. Measured progress while not trying too hard is the best approach.

Growth Curve

The blog grew from 154 visits in the first month of its existence to almost 800 visits in October. It seems remarkable, but I would be lying if I told you that it grew over 500% over this period because August brought only 195 visits. And if that’s not surprising enough – June brought 1600 visits.

As you can see the growth curve is not a curve at all. It’s more of a jagged graph with peaks that eclipse surrounding months by  as much as 800%. What gives?

Well, it’s just luck. My content hasn’t improved dramatically over this period of time. My returning readers are still 20-30 people, and my Twitter following only grew from 40-100 people. The sole reason for these peaks is that content promotion is always hit or miss. Every hit is a dramatic but short lived change. I’ve also noticed that subsequent hits tend to get bigger too.

King Content and Lady Luck

First time I lucked out was in June. I tried several times to submit my own blog posts to Hacker News where they languished on the “new” page for 20-30 minutes and brought 20-50 visits on that day and almost no appreciable difference afterwards. I struck gold “Fail Slower – The Danger of Punting Too Early”.

Somehow the word punt has piqued the interest of HN crowd, and a lively discussion ensued in the comments. That brought the post to the front page where it got me 1300 visits in a couple of hours. That was more visits than my blog has seen in the prior 4 months.

I am not advocating posting cryptic headlines to Hacker News. I am merely pointing out how much of it is due to luck, and what ridiculous form luck can assume. In September miraculously I got re-tweeted by Eric Ries, bless his soul. That man alone brought me 400 visits in the next week. Then I also got to the front page of HN for the second time, which brought me 3,000+ visits. All and all I netted over 4,000 visitors in September alone.

Nobody wants to think of their content as anything less than stellar, but trying to get readers will quickly disabuse you of that notion. For me it’s enough to look at some of my earlier blog post (e.g. linklink) to convince myself that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. What I thought I was doing at the time was putting out something decent. I wasn’t.

In any case, my own story hints that it’s not so much marginal improvements in content as the big breaks which happen when your promotional efforts strike the right cord.

Drama Sells

Of course, it does. My own experience confirms this truth loud and clear. My three highest read blog posts of all time are:

I could probably stop right here because the titles speak for themselves (by the way, there has been 40 posts over 8 months). These three are by far the highest grossers. It could be morbid curiosity of people in general or some deep-seated fascination with startups, or maybe it’s fascination with bare-faced, honest stories. I don’t know what the core reason is but I do know these posts attract a lot of attention.

Despair and Desperation

Many readers, it seems, can sense a desperate tone a mile away and can sniff someone trying too hard a few sentences into an essay. Although this may sound paranoid, this theory seems to agree with my data. Strained, forced, trying-too-hard writing is consistently shunned by readers. Of course, I am subjective in deciding which of my posts are forced and which are not, but this much is true: the ones I write “without heart” end up flaming badly.

Same theory applies to promotional activities. Measured and steady progress means no nagging on Twitter, taking it easy with re-tweet requests or DMs to influencers, no constant posting to Hacker News. I’ve done all of these to some degree, and they never got me anything. The only times my promotional efforts paid off when I wasn’t trying too hard. I was just lucky, but it’s much better to be lucky than to be lucky and an asshole.

In the end, these 8 months have been a continuous learning experience. Even if we ignore the side benefit of 100s of people visiting my project pages, there are still tangible benefits to be had here. The main benefit is that I actually started, for the first time in my life, to enjoy writing just for the sake of writing.

What I’ve also learned is that not having a particular personal or commercial goal or target (e.g. # of visitors) in mind when writing usually helps the quality of content as well.  It frees you from an overly pitch-y tone and makes your thoughts more accessible and reader-friendly.

Lastly, I want to thank all of my readers for the time spent reading and commenting on this here effort. I do hope you find this resource valuable (merely harmless would be OK in my book too :).

Here is to more great posts, I guess.

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6 responses to “How I grew my blog by 500% in 8 months (not really)

  1. I like your story about blogging. Content is king and thats true but the king needs to be shared and spread across the web. Your blog is also inspiring. my first time here and like your writing style.

  2. You talk about Twitter etc but what’s your opinion of feeds RSS/Atom do you have many readers there? what your point of view on it!

    • Getting returning visitors is much harder, as you can imagine.

      I’ve “amassed” a small group of subscribers (approximately 20-30) who read every post. These are the people who on average are much more aware of the blog, and they are more likely to interact by commenting or re-tweeting, etc. I haven’t really found a repeatable formula for growing this permanent audience apart of converting a small percentage (currently about 0.4%) of casual clickers who come from NH or Twitter.

      This has been my experience, and your mileage may vary. :)

  3. Transparency is key, you’ve told a very honest tale. Consider this a +1 for recurring readership!

    Thanks,

    -Mike

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