In today’s post I’d like to begin exploring a somewhat complex subject together. How our current state of rapid innovation in digital communications technology–both as mediums of personal expression and platforms of mass communication/distribution–should prompt a shift in our perspective on content creation for the web and connected devices in 2014 and beyond.
The digital publishing landscape (of which social media and blogging with WordPress are but subsets) changes fast. Of course we’ve known this from the start. The evidence bombards us on a daily basis via the large number of popular blogs and social media outlets solely dedicated to keeping us informed on how best to continue to use the digital mediums of expression we are at that moment using. It really has become that fluid.
However, when it comes to understanding the really big changes–like what I believe we are in the process of undergoing right now–a surface commentary or simple list of tips and tricks won’t cut it. We have to step back and reflect on the big picture, take note of emerging patterns over time, and be able to draw contextualized conclusions. Conclusions that, while certainly not final, can at least begin to point us in the right direction.
Specifically, I’ll be talking about blogging with WordPress in this post, but the principles discussed should apply equally to every kind of digital content creation and distribution moving forward. I realize that probably sounds overly ambitious (if not downright impossible) but that is precisely what makes this approach so appealing to me and the reason I’m excited to share it today.
It has the potential to provide an elegant solution to the problem of needing–as an individual or a brand–to communicate effectively across a wide variety of digital mediums and platforms that are constantly in flux; right down to their core behaviors and algorithms. In an environment of such overwhelming uncertainty, insights into what it means to communicate with and connect to other human beings (perhaps even on a biological level) becomes absolutely essential.
These types of broad insights are possible when we begin to take note of the ways in which human beings have adopted (and adapted) the use of new mediums of communication and distribution over time. In this way we can begin to discover the underlying principles that have guided effective communication since its very inception–however many hundreds of thousands of years ago that might be. Principles so deeply rooted in the human experience that we can apply them to any medium or platform, even those as fluid as our current array of digital communications technology.
The required shift in our perspective, is to recognize the importance of creating and refining the story or message behind a piece of content before attempting to determine its medium or distribution channels.
That said, I’ll be the first to admit that the ideas I express in this post are a mixture of my own creative thinking, extensive research, observation and speculation. I personally have completed no hard science in this area (though I plan to). Rather, what I’m attempting in this post is to bring a wider variety of factors and variables into play when considering the ways in which we approach creating content for the web and connected devices.
Recognizing The Significance of Stories
If you read my last post here on the Elegant Themes blog then you may remember me making the observation that every medium we (by which I mean human beings) have ever invented, has eventually been used as a means to tell each other stories; that is, to make art for each other in meaningful/contextualized ways.
The same is becoming true of WordPress. Which is the topic I began to explore in that post. However, if we continue to consider the implications of this artistic phenomenon and its various permutations in our collective past, another interesting observation can be made:
Every form of communication eventually reaches a point of saturation (of basic awareness, knowledge and skill) within the general public. After which, its use–no matter how efficient–is no longer novel or compelling unless it is presented in a meaningful way.
A good example is the advent of writing itself, approximately 5,000 years ago. In his series of lectures titled Writing and Civilization, the adorably Canadian professor Marc Zender explains how in its earliest forms (and for centuries later, before the general population of given regions gained a relatively high literacy rate) the use of written language was closely associated with magic (i.e. novelty, mystique and power), a high social class, and declarations of identity and/or personal ownership. As well as some other utilitarian uses–like keeping government records.
As human beings living in the year 2014, it’s hard to imagine written language as an invention at all. For us, there has never been a time in which it was not an integral part of our everyday lives and the functioning of society at large. We take for granted that if we have an idea or a series of ideas that we can simply write them down and share them with others easily. And yet, it was not possible–for anyone–just a little over 5,000 years ago. It’s a great example of how one form of communication has so thoroughly saturated mankind that we forget it wasn’t always at our disposal.
Furthermore, if we take into consideration the fact that the roots of human civilization span back at least 10,000 years (to the emergence of agriculture and the rise of city-states in the mesopotamian region) and the evolution of our species going millions of years beyond that, we must eventually confront the reality that there is a form of communication so basic to us as a species (I like the word primal when thinking in this vain) that we rarely, if ever, stop to contemplate it.
In an attempt to articulate the source of this mystery, Joseph Campbell, the celebrated scholar and comparative mythologist, said:
Myth comes from the same zone as dream…from the great biological ground, whatever it may be. They are energies and they are matters of consciousness.
Christopher Booker, another gifted writer and scholar of stories, had this to say (as well as about 700 pages more) on the mystery of human beings and their stories, in the introduction to his book The Seven Basic Plots:
It is a curious characteristic of our modern civilisation that, whereas we are prepared to devote untold physical and mental resources to reaching out into the furthest recesses of the galaxy, or to delving into the most delicate mysteries of the atom–in an attempt, as we like to think, to plumb every last secret of the universe–one of the greatest and most important mysteries is lying so close beneath our noses that we scarcely even recognise it to be a mystery at all.
At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar of all forms of human activity. In one way or another they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story.
We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence.
Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, films or operas, comic strips or TV ‘soaps’. Through newspapers or television, our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting events of everyday life in the form of stories…
And here’s the big take-away:
…These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives.
In other words:
Stories are somehow inextricably intertwined with what it means to be a human being, and how we have always related that knowledge to ourselves and each other.
So what does that mean for us as bloggers? And in a broader sense as people whose job it is to communicate effectively with other human beings?
The short answer: everything.
But for the purposes of this post I’d like to highlight two logical outcomes of these patterns and attempt to provide a general means by which we can all begin to apply this new perspective to our content strategies.
The Future of Blogging: A Mature Form of Expression
The last ten years have seen the invention, rise to mass appeal, and the many falls and transformations of every social media or blogging platform that’s ever existed, with a few exceptions. As a professional within this rapidly changing industry, I’ve tried to make it my primary responsibility to pay attention to new developments in the tools and strategies of the trade, as well as learn the ins-and-outs of each platform to the best of my ability. It was through this “habit of analysis” that I began to notice a disturbing pattern emerge among a lot of the blogs I wrote for or knew the writers of. I call it plateauing.
Plateauing: A stagnation of traffic and community engagement resulting in poor ROI.
It wasn’t the fact that some blogs were plateauing the nagged at me. Logically, some blogs would never make it big or if they did it was perfectly reasonable to expect some to fade from the spotlight for a variety of good reasons. No, what bothered me was that some of the blogs I was seeing plateau were ostensibly good blogs, with quality content, on relevant topics, with decent to large communities. In other words, they seemed to be doing everything right. Their sites were optimized to the nines, designed by professionals and they hired skilled writers and marketers. Which is why no matter how long I looked for something they were “doing wrong” I could never put my finger on it. Instead, I kept having to ask myself, “what are we missing?”
After years of working (and playing) in this emerging sector of the publishing industry, followed by months of concentrated research and reflection on this one problem, I’ve arrived at an intriguing conclusion. Which is also the first of my two logical outcomes mentioned above.
Blogging, as a medium of personal expression (Art) and of mass communication (Distribution), is beginning to mature.
And that changes everything.
It would seem that when we begin with a basic form of communication (such as facial expression, gesture, symbols, oral language) and add innovative technology (written language, the printing press, video recording, audio recording, the web) you get the perfect environment for an explosion of human expression and connectivity. Over time, each new (magical, novel, mysterious, powerful) form of expression, eventually matures into a common avenue of more thoughtfully crafted content (art) for and by the general public.
This pattern acutely applies to the last ten years of digital publishing. As the rate of innovation–at the intersection of personal expression and content distribution–continues to pick up pace, particularly in the arenas of blogging, social media and connected devices, we’re beginning to see forms of self-expression and mass communication that have never been possible before crop up just about every other day.
In the web’s early days, instead of magicians and nobility we had (and still have) “social media mavens” “blogging experts” and “gurus” of all shapes and sizes. Their empires (to varying degrees) are all built upon the advantage of their superior knowledge of these new mediums and their unique use of digital platforms for distribution.
Mashable is a great example. They’re a blog that exploded in popularity around the same time that Twitter and Facebook were gaining mass appeal. They accomplished this rapid growth by flooding their distribution channels with real-time news, tricks, tips and best practices aimed at empowering their readers to understand and use these new and interesting mediums of expression.
Their motto could have been (along with countless other “experts” since):
If you will just follow a simple collection of best practices we’ve discovered and compiled, you too can master this medium and become a rich and successful blogger/social media maven/marketing guru.
That was then though. Now it’s just a story people use to sell us stuff. This particular narrative is one we need to stop believing in if we want to move forward instead of get left behind. After all, who is writing about “how to send your first tweet” today? Nobody. Because there is now a saturation of basic awareness, knowledge and skill within the general public concerning the use of social media. Blogging on the other hand, due to its more complex nature, still garners quite a few of those types of posts. But their days are numbered too.
In our current digital landscape, these processes of saturation take much less time than the rate at which human beings have adopted and adapted other mediums of expression or harnessed other platforms of distribution in the past. We’re seeing something happen in a mere handful of years (or less) that, until recently, has always taken centuries or even thousands of years to accomplish.
In the case of written language, it took thousands of years before Gutenberg’s printing press made mass distribution of books, essays and pamphlets a possibility. And roughly another hundred years or so before normal citizens were empowered to use it for those purposes; turning the world on its head in the process.
Now lets consider that before the internet and social networks took over the world, moving pictures and recorded audio were mankind’s newest innovation at the intersection of personal expression and mass communication. Come the 2020’s, movies (as we know them today, i.e. “talkies”) will have had over a hundred years to mature as an art. And yet, we’re still making new advances every year–with no signs of stopping. And with each new innovation, the pace of saturation quickens.
Just 15 years ago the average human being would have had no concept of what the terms “online social network” or “blog” meant. They either didn’t exist yet or were in such early stages of development as to be unrecognizable to us now. Yet today, a far cry from even one century later, over a billion people worldwide (roughly one seventh of the Earth’s total population) use and interact with them each and every day. That’s a rate of saturation only possible, in all of human history, within the last 10 years!
I think it is safe to say that when it comes to technology, and communications technology in particular, constant change is the new norm. Adaptation has never been more necessary for survival. Developing our ability to maintain clarity and relevance in the face of such rapid innovation and saturation should become our primary concern. That’s why I believe that the future of blogging (and all of content marketing, really) lies not in simply being able to use new communications technology but in mastering a variety of ways in which we are able to creatively apply the underlying principles of good (human) communication to any medium, in meaningful ways.
So if you’re plateauing (but still doing everything on the technical/best practices side of things right) then you may be experiencing a symptom of this maturation of the blogging medium. To me, it’s a clear sign that mastery of the basics are no longer going to cut it. In this new era, best practices (while necessary) equate to a paint-by-the-numbers watercolor or a squiggle of graffiti on an alley wall. Sure, they’re technically communicating something–insofar as they are using a medium of human expression–but they’re not impressing anyone and they’re certainly not changing the world.
Which brings us to our second logical outcome.
Today’s Reality: If You Want to Thrive You’ll Have to Win the Story Wars
To recap: the rapid innovation across the digital publishing landscape that we’ve been discussing is ushering in a new era of human communication. Jonah Sachs, in his book Winning the Story Wars, calls this era the “Digitoral Era” which is a good enough term for me.
This new era is strikingly similar to the oral tradition that dominated the communications landscape of our species for what many scholars believe to be hundreds of thousands of years, in which “ideas spread from person to person. Where each briefly owns, modifies, and can choose to pass it on via social networks or let it die. It’s survival of the fittest and only the most compelling ideas thrive.”
In the digitoral era, as in all others that have come before it, stories remain the best way for human beings to contextualize information and relay it to others in a meaningful way. Which means that moving forward, if we want to thrive, we all have to learn how to tell compelling stories that effectively communicate our ideas and values to the rest of the world.
This of course highlights the heightened threat we now face from intentional deception. If we, as a species, have evolved to rely on stories for contextualization of important information, we leave ourselves open to being tricked by those who are good storytellers but ultimately manipulating the facts to suit their own purposes.
Mr. Sachs calls this the “dark art of marketing” but really it’s just lying with the added advantage of new mediums of expression and platforms of distribution. Which is why I am not surprised at all that many individuals, brands and movements today are opting for what in the past would have been considered extreme levels of transparency. It may be the only way we have to assure the world we are not trying to deceive them. Which, in my opinion, is a great thing and I hope to see a lot more of it. But that’s a topic for another post.
With the remainder of this post, what I’d like to do is outline a general means by which anyone can begin to gather and shape the core elements (i.e. deeply held values) of influential stories and inject them into their blogging (and other) content strategies. But before I do, I’d like to offer a fair warning of what you’re getting into.
The journey required of us to discover our deepest values and the ways in which we are most passionate about expressing them is a long, difficult and deeply personal one. It’s a process that requires us to systematically reveal the parts of ourselves we hold dearest; the parts we are, potentially at least, most insecure about. First to ourselves and then to our community. A journey through which we find that inner geek, fashion diva, drag queen, lover of art, the sincere science enthusiast, music junkie, sex writer, comic artist and the list could go on.
Whatever it is, it’s unique. It’s who we really are and since no one else is exactly that thing, not only is it impossible to teach but it’s hard to know how the world will react to it. So of course fear and reluctance at this point are only natural.
The good news though, is that when we do overcome that fear, what we find is that while we are a unique individual, we’re also strikingly similar (which is altogether different than being the same) as vast swaths of other human beings. Those people are your audience, your community, and potentially your friends. The rest of this post is about how to find them, by finding yourself, and then blogging about it with WordPress.
Start by Discovering Clues to Your Fiercest Passions & Deepest Values
How exactly does one “find themselves”? Countless religions, philosophies, self-help courses and movements of every shape and size have been created in an attempt to answer this one question. This post is long enough as it is, I won’t try to accomplish that here too! And like I said above, I’m not convinced it can be taught anyways. Instead, all I want to do is share a few common ways in which other artists have accomplished this in the past. So you can expect me to continue quoting other artist throughout, beginning with this:
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.
― Ernest Hemingway
Of course, Hemingway was talking about how to begin writing in a broader sense, most likely for the purpose of writing a short story or a novel, but I think the sentiment is appropriate here as well. All we have to do is allow for digital publishing (and blogging in particular) to be understood as an art created with the same intent one might bring to bear on a classic oil painting, a gallery installation, or a novel by Ernest Hemingway. At that point there’s really no difference between a blog post and any other medium one might choose to express themselves through. And so when we want to approach the problem of discovering that one topic, that one thing we could blog endlessly about, it requires a raw sort of honesty with ourselves.
You might have to ask yourself the right question before you can write that one true sentence. One of my favorite questions is the one posed by the late philosopher and professor Alan Watts: What would you do if money were no object?
Whatever your sentence (or sentences) look like, you’ll know you’ve hit your mark when you begin to experience something known as catharsis.
[Catharsis:] A sudden emotional release that can be brought about by good entertainment, great art, or probing for psychological insight.
-Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey
Some examples that come to mind are: how you feel when you’re outside on that first sunny day of spring and suddenly the heavy spell of winter depression is lifted–flooding you with good vibes. Or a poignant moment at church. A good joke. A TED talk that knocks your socks off. A song that elevates your spirits and makes you want to wiggle. Or when you get the sense that you’re somehow doing what you’re meant to be doing. These are moments that give us a deeper insight into and/or a heightened experience of what it means to be alive.
My sentences, for example, began as:
If I could do whatever I wanted, I’d hang out with my friends and make art. Come to think of it, I like art A LOT. What’s that about?
I didn’t know why art and community fascinated me as much as they do, but I trusted that if I kept “learning in that direction” I’d gather more clues. And in putting them together, I’d begin to understand myself and the community I really belonged to.
Crystallize Those Clues Into a Working Premise
When it comes to blogging you need to realize that you will be writing about the same topic or cluster of topics over and over again, possibly for years. So it’s not as if you can simply pull a topic out of a hat. You will need to write meaningfully about it for a long time and that won’t be possible unless you are truly moved and shaped by the source material.
You’ll need to find a way, an angle, to approach your subject matter that connects with your deepest held values and the activities you are most passionate about in life, in such a precise way that you can then interpret that meaning in a million different ways through a million different blog posts and accompanying media. This is when having a clear premise becomes critical.
In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, author Lajos Egri embraces the idea that everything has a purpose, or premise, that they are always communicating either consciously or unconsciously.
Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there.
We may not succeed in proving each tiny premise, but that in no way alters the fact that there was one we meant to prove. Our attempt to cross the room may be impeded by an unobserved foot stool, but our premise existed nevertheless.
I have come to believe the same is true of individuals, brands and movements. Who, even if unaware, are constantly communicating their underlying values and beliefs to the world through their actions and communications; the most successful of which have aligned the two to tell the same story.
However, for us to really understand this concept–and more importantly–for us to be able to apply it to our endeavor of blogging, we’ll need a more precise definition of the word premise and some accompanying examples.
A premise is defined by Webster’s as:
A proposition supposed or proved; a basis of argument. A proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion.
In writing a story, a premise (while not always the first thing we “discover” or define) is a crystallization of our story’s purpose. When executed properly, a premise should provide a “thumbnail synopsis” of a story. Representing its beginning, middle and end.
Example: Adversity results in personal transformation. This premise clearly states what we are setting out to prove, in the form of a story. The way in which a series of trials and difficulties change us as human beings—resulting in personal transformation; from who we used to be, into who we will become.
The beginning of the story will present the character as who they used to be. The middle of the story is concerned with a series of trials and difficulties that force our characters to show their “true colors” and either choose to double-down on the person they are or to become “someone else” as a form of adaptation. The end of the story is the full realization of this new person (which may simply be a more mature or fully realized version of the original self) for better or worse. The Harry Potter and Breaking Bad movies/series are two popular examples of how this simple premise was used in two strikingly different (but successful) ways.
Whether in life or in art, arriving at a premise which is as crisp and clear, as precise and effective, as a premise we might discover through the analysis of a particularly fortunate form of expression–such as a well written story–takes a lot of time, reflection and careful revision. That’s why it’s really important to recognize that there is necessarily a span of time between the moment you discover those first clues of your deepest held values and when you are able to clearly communicate those values to others. First in the form of a premise and then through the expression of it. Namely, that time in which you are still learning what those values are and communicating them to yourself.
It is in this in-between period (which, in part, is also an ongoing process that the late Joseph Campbell referred to as following your bliss) where we spend the bulk of our time learning and breaking new grounds of self-discovery until finally we arrive at our personal premise. To navigate that period of time we need what I’ve come to call a working premise. A concise declaration of your firmest belief or beliefs.
My first crack at crafting my own deeply held values and passions into a premise was something along the lines of:
While I love art in general, I’ve always been deeply fascinated with stories; experiencing them, sharing them and seeing the results of my imagination at work in the world. I think they’re somehow essential to human life. Or at the very least, I’ve come to believe that they’re essential to my life.
Eventually, I was able to crystallize those sentences into this:
I believe in stories.
Obviously, according to the definition and examples above, this isn’t a very good premise. It does not offer a beginning, middle or end. But it’s a great working premise because it provides me with a personal mystery to be unraveled; something very specific I can work towards understanding.
Once I’d written those words, I knew my path ran in the direction of stories and storytelling–whatever that might come to mean over time. So I began reading books about different types of stories, what elements they’re made up of, what mediums they have been told through and how long mankind as a whole has had to “perfect” or “master” each form of storytelling–from ancient cave paintings all the way up to present day.
For you it could be the exact same thing, or anything at all. Whatever it is, your personal touch will set it apart from everyone else’s choice of expression–even of an identical premise. The biggest challenge will be sticking to it and staying true to your own vision.
Continue Following Your Bliss, Revise Your Premise & Plot Your Story
At this point I’d like to pause and make sure we’re all on the same page. I want to refocus on the differences between passions and values as well as how they combine to form a premise. I’d also like to clarify what I mean by follow your bliss.
A passion is a thing you enjoy doing. For me that is telling, experiencing and analysing stories. For you, it may be anything.
A value, in the sense that I am using the term, is a personal standard of behavior. Which is why things like “integrity” or “courage” mean a great many things to a great many people.
It is in aligning your personal passions with your personal values that you find your bliss; i.e. fulfillment.
Example: a person who is passionate about and talented at writing may take a job at an advertising agency in order to “do what they love for a living”. Only to find out that the company they are working for has few if any overlapping values with them. As a result, they hate their job–even though they are “doing what they love”.
So when I say, follow your bliss, I’m talking about doing what you are passionate about in a way that empowers you to live out your deepest held values. Anything else leads to a crummy experience for you and art or expression that’s lost its heart. Which is important on more than a personal level, since your community (i.e. your readers/customers/etc.) expect to find resonance with you and your brand. Which is impossible if you don’t really believe in what you’re doing and the values you supposedly share with them.
For some of you this whole process might take place in the span of an afternoon. Or by accident! For me, it has taken my entire life leading up to this point. And I know I still have a lot of refining to do, but I’ve at last arrived at a clear(ish) premise.
My personal premise is this:
I believe that stories (their creation, experience and analysis) have the power to propel human beings toward their full potential.
It has a beginning: “the creation, experience and analysis of stories” which (like our adversity example) implies action. It has a middle: “the power to propel” which implies the function of my brand gift (empowerment). And it has an ending: “human beings reaching their full potential” which is what I hope to accomplish for myself and my community.
Whatever your premise turns out to be, you’ll know you are on the right track if you are regularly experiencing personal catharsis and the exchanges between yourself and like-minded individuals results in more of the same. At this stage, expressing yourself in a way that communicates your personal premise should begin to come as naturally as breathing.
Which is a sign that it’s time to actively engage your new audience in an organized, intentional way. But first, it’s a good idea to re-visit (or if you’re completely new to blogging, begin familiarizing yourself with) some standard blogging best practices so that you can begin to see how your new vision will flow through the conduit of your chosen medium.
Creatively Apply Standard Best Practices in Ways that Highlight The Deep Values You Share with Your Community
It’s time to create a framework through which you and the community you desire to foster can most effectively communicate with each other. This is the point in time where you begin to look at the various mediums and platforms available to you–a WordPress blog and accompanying social media platforms (in this instance)–and start customizing their use to fit your vision and prove your premise.
These resources and checklists of standard blogging best practices can help. Just remember: these resources and best practices, while essential in the beginning, now represent the barrier to entry when it comes to expressing yourself through a WordPress blog. As in the movie King’s Speech, the most important thing you can bring to the table is your own unique voice.
Understanding How WordPress Works:
Blog Launch (or Relaunch) and Ongoing Promotion:
Begin Engaging Your Audience In Organized, Intentional Ways
At this point, if you’ve been following your bliss and chasing down those cathartic experiences (the kind that lead to personal growth and naturally forming community) then chances are you’ve already found a lot of people who just get you and vise-versa. But now it’s time to be intentional about it.
This is where you begin to test your premise in public, but not necessarily through a full blog launch or relaunch. A good action step at this point might be to become more vocal via your social media channels. Share relevant content and provide commentary through the lens of your premise. See how people respond and take those responses into account when crafting your final push, which is your full launch or relaunch.
Finally, Tell Them The Story You’ve Chosen to Live & Invite Them to Be an Important Part of It
This part of the process will look so different from case to case that at this point in my own journey, it’s hard to give concrete advice that applies to everyone. It’s your vision, your art, and your premise. Run with it.
The only element that will be the same for everyone at this stage is that you present your vision in a compelling way (via your story) and offer your new community an empowering brand gift (as mentioned in the story wars video above).
Analyse, Iterate & Repeat
A perfect example of a company who is doing this whole process right is Buzzfeed. Netflix, NPR, TED, Bill Moyers, Brain Pickings, Humans of New York, Bill Nye the Science Guy, I Fucking Love Science and a few others top my personal list of brands putting these insights into action (though probably more unconsciously than consciously). But Buzzfeed is in a league of their own and probably the best example for this post. Primarily because their execution is loud and easy to point out. It’s like an art and technology fueled blitzkrieg on the primal centers of our brains and we cannot seem to get enough of it.
Our common reactions to their content are of the cathartic variety, making it irresistibly sharable, and has resulted in their rapid growth. So what, exactly, are they doing?
They’re telling stories. Which, I’m sure, you knew I was going to say. But more specifically they are telling our story back to us (usually via pop-culture references and shared digital experiences) in ways that–through the use of new media and standard blogging best practices–highlight their implied value overlap with a mostly millennial audience. Clever, right?
I realize it’s actually more nuanced than that, but I think that’s getting pretty close to expressing what’s going on behind the scenes there. This is, after all, still speculation. But while I’m at it, let me explain why I believe this line of thought to be true:
I imagine that in their early days they probably did what everyone else does to get a bead on what their audience wants. By paying attention to the collective response (via sharing stats and analytics) to whatever it was they came up with and published. However, they’ve now moved on to something much more ingenious.
They’re using archetypal character analysis and aggregate personality profiles to predict with greater accuracy what their audience will enjoy. And they’re doing it in such a way as to make the gathering of this data itself a cathartic experience!
Let me unpack that for you. When I say archetypal character analysis what I’m getting at is that they are analysing the basic personalities present in the popular media of their target audience (movies, music, celebrity gossip culture, etc.) and using them to create all of the quizzes you’ve probably seen cluttering up your newsfeed. When a reader takes a quiz, they feel like Buzzfeed understands them and where they are at in their life, which results in a cathartic experience and the compulsion to share that experience with others. This also functions as a sort of brand gift (psychological insight and a good laugh) that they receive, can give to others and come back for more of at any time.
Buzzfeed is then able to take an aggregate of the various personality quiz results and uses them to create a very specific profile of who their ideal reader is AND determine with a greater certainty how those readers will respond to future efforts. Which of course is the source of the data driven insights they use to craft all of their other content. It’s a perfect feedback loop of analysis, iteration and publication. And it must be working well because they recently made those new personality quizzes a permanent part of their blog. You can bet I’ll be keeping up with this as it develops!
In the mean time though, where does that leave the rest of us? We can’t all be Buzzfeed and that solution seems to be custom tailored for their brand. Which is precisely the point of this entire post. Blogging is no longer a simple checklist. Those who succeed moving forward will have to be just as creative and ingenious in their tactics if they want to compete. We will have to learn the ins-and-outs not just of a given medium or platform, but of the human mind. We will then have to connect that knowledge in a meaningful way to the collective human experience of our target audience. On top of that, we will most likely have to adopt extreme levels of transparency, as most people do not like the concept of being brainwashed or manipulated by media. It’ll be a fine line to walk for everyone. A brave new world indeed. And conversation worth continuing.
In closing, there is another great quote by Ernest Hemingway that I feel is appropriate when considering the future of blogging and online content creation:
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.
― Ernest Hemingway
Though, if I could alter it a bit to better suit our topic, I might paraphrase its essence this way:
All good blogs are alike in that they begin by being true to the fiercest passions and the deepest values of their creator. Over time they become more true to the collective human experience of their readership than to any one author, resulting in the organic formation of a passionate and fully engaged community. If you can get so that you can give that experience to others through your blog, then you are a successful blogger.