What Makes a Blog Popular?

A couple of years ago I asked myself that question, did some research and came up with the What the Blogosphere Wants More Of list shown at the bottom of my right sidebar. Since that time, as the chart above shows, my blog’s popularity has increased steadily: 1500 people subscribe to my blog via Bloglines (the leading RSS subscription reader) or Rmail (the leading RSS e-mail subscription utility) alone. According to Sitemeter (the leading web traffic utility), my ‘average’ reader spends 2m30s reading my blog. That’s several times the blogosphere average, and collectively (excluding my subscribers, whose reading time is unknown) people spend between 60 and 70 hours per day reading How to Save the World. That’s pretty astonishing, as it’s more than the attention some community newspapers get*. Talk about responsibility!

But in the past year or so, some newer blogs have surged past mine in popularity. One of my favourites is Kathy Sierra’s blog Creating Passionate Users. Kathy recently asked her readers why her blog has become so popular. She has received over 100 insightful responses.

For those who don’t have the time or patience to wade through them, here is my synthesis of what her readers said, in approximate order of frequency and passion of mention:

  1. Engaging (Style): Light, friendly, conversational, down-to-earth. Real, not preachy. Personal, passionate, fun, fresh. Doesn’t take itself too seriously. Creates a sense that “we’re all in this together”. 
  2. Accessible: Simple, tight, articulate, interesting, easy to read. Compare Kathy’s writing to mine using established readability criteria:
How to Save the World Creating Passionate Users
Average Characters per Word 5.1 4.6
Average Words per Sentence 25 (ouch) 18
Average Sentences per Paragraph 5 3
Flesch Readability Score (target 60-70) 35 62
Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade (target 8-9) 12 9
  1. Useful: Practical, broadly applicable, not just informative. Actionable.
  2. Original: Unique, fresh, stuff you can’t find anywhere else.
  3. Uses Images Effectively: Graphics that are attractive, valuable, easy to understand, amusing.
  4. Thoughtful and Thought-Provoking: Brings a unique point-of-view. Provides context. Not afraid to be provocative, but not in your face about it. Not knee-jerk or dismissive. Carefully worded. A conversation-starter — gives you something to talk with others about, and to send to others to invite them to a conversation.
  5. Generous: Respectful, giving, modest, no bullshit or condescension. 
  6. Focusing on What’s Important: Asks and answers the questions others are asking themselves, or should be asking themselves. Gets to the point.
  7. Positive: Upbeat. Enthusiastic. Energized. Makes the reader feel good, empowered.
  8. Credible: Not beyond the author’s competencies. Reinforced with relevant, valuable first-person stories.
  9. Just the Right Length: Not cryptic, cute, obscure or verbose.
  10. Honest: Not afraid to tackle complex issues or admit not having all the answers. Candid. Reasonable. Balanced. Open. Genuine.

I can hear some well-established bloggers, both A-listers and those struggling in obscurity, reading this list and dismissing it. “Not my style”. “Not edgy enough”. “Who has time for this?” “I do this, it’s just not appreciated”. “Doesn’t apply to my genre of blog”.

But this is the future of blogging. Not off-the-cuff simplistic echo-chamber rants about things the author doesn’t really know anything about, but instead, journalism as invitation to knowledgeable, actionable, interesting conversations. In this kind of journalism, insight trumps mere cleverness, what it means is more important than what happened, and collaboration, consensus and resolution are valued over scoops, scandals and vituperation.

If you’re a blogger (or any other kind of journalist), try this: Score yourself honestly on a scale of 1-10 on each of the twelve criteria above. Then, for any criterion for which you’ve scored yourself 7 or less, identify one step you could take to improve that score. Keep the list in front of you while you write your blog posts. My list (gulp) is as follows:

Criterion #1: Re-read each article as if it were my side of a conversation. If it’s stiff, forced, or strident, loosen it up.
Criterion #2: Don’t publish any articles until their readability scores are in target range. It should average less than 20 words per sentence, with a readability score >60 and grade <11).
Criterion #7: Think about the readers who are going to collectively spend 60 or 70 hours reading this article. Ask myself if I’m giving them enough to reward their attention.
Criterion #9: Without compromising honesty, focus on what’s possible. Be kinder to my readers. Don’t make them work so hard.
Criterion #10: If I’m writing about something I know little about, or writing just to organize my thoughts, be upfront about that and ask myself whether my synthesis, my second-hand information, is really more useful than simply directing to readers to people and written work by those who know much more about it than I ever will.
Criterion #11: Make it shorter. I need to become a much better, more ruthless self-editor.

With so many bloggers out there, it’s getting harder and harder for new bloggers to get attention. Kathy has shown that it’s possible, and how to do it.

The toughest of the twelve criteria, I think, is #4. By its nature, journalism is first-person stuff, and rehashing other people’s news and material just isn’t enough to be truly and consistently original. The only advice I would presume to give (and to take more often myself) on this score is to get out more.

I see blogging morphing considerably in the coming years from interactive journalism to genuine conversation. When that happens, the rules will change and a new set of criteria will apply. In the meantime, my kudos and thanks to Kathy for being a great role model for successful blogging. Thanks, too, to her thoughtful and articulate readers for telling us why she is such a great one. And most of all, thanks to my own readers, for their patience as I strive to become one, too.

*The number of ‘inbound blogs’ (other bloggers linking to me in the last 6 months) per Technorati has dropped off. However, David Sifry of Technorati has acknowledged that this drop-off doesn’t make sense and is investigating. If you use Technorati data to assess your blog’spopularity, stay tuned.

P.S. Readability scores for this article: Average Words per Sentence 12. Readability 50. Grade level 9. Getting closer!

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5 Responses to What Makes a Blog Popular?

  1. Robert Gable says:

    While clarity of message is important, all I ask is that you don’t get too upbeat and cheerful in your presentation.

  2. Octavio Lima says:

    Thanks for your excellent hints. Your post made my day.

  3. Barry Vornbrock says:

    Thanks for sharing this info. The Flesch and Flesch-Kincaid details are common guides for engaging with a broad audience. First came across them, via my great advisor – Bill Swenson, while writing my Master’s thesis.Your other tips are great as well. Thanks for a succinct reminder. Also, have you seen this article: “How to Wow’em Like Steve Jobs” at http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/apr2006/sb20060406_865110.htm ?I thought there were some crossover items in there.Barry

  4. jason Davis says:

    This is a very good post.

  5. Bob Glaza says:

    I thought about blogging for a long time. Your blog is one reason why I took the plunge. This article reminds me of how sharing knowledge is valuable. I’m glad I saved it to del.icio.ous. At this moment, imagining any single blog being read 70 – 80 hours is amazing! I have subscribed to “how to save the world” for 3 months. I am among the uncounted. I use a different reader than Bloglines. Your thoughtful and clear approach, Dave, is always welcome. This particular post offers worthy and actionable goals. I’m also big believer in stealing ideas. We’ll see what happens! Thank you –

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