Branding and Audience Growth Developing My Road Runner Rules
Published on Sep 17, 2017
How often do any of us look at our own blogs and critically think about the changes that we should be making? Changes to provide a more captivating, more influential, and more valuable experience to our readers? If you're like me then the answer is "not often."
That helps explain my constant cycling of directions. I’ve never taken the time to outline what my site is, who it’s for, how I want to help, what my rules are, and so much more. But that changes today.
This chapter is about my personal brand, Pat On Purpose, not about any of the new ideas I’m coming up with. That’s because growing my personal audience will be, I hypothesize, a key part of gaining traction with any idea I launch.
This is what should be clearly defined by the end of this chapter:
- Content guidelines. i.e. what I will and won’t talk about, and what value I’m adding to the world.
- Branding and style guidelines. i.e. how I present myself to the world.
- Fan acquisition strategy. i.e. how to build an email (or sms or whatever) list.
- Fan connection strategy. i.e. how to talk to fans.
- Distribution strategy. i.e. when and where do I want to put my art?
- Road-runner rules. i.e. rules that I never, ever break.
Last week I read (and of course by read I mean listened to) Influence by Robert Cialdini. I liked it. (You can read my full notes on the book if you wish.)
Had I not listened to that book I would not be writing this chapter. So, before getting to the seven points outlined above, I will start by addressing the book that made this chapter possible.
The book discusses six principles of influence. They are reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consensus, consistency, and friendship. I’ve been a man of action lately. More show and less tell. So I’m going to alter my blog right in front of your eyes so that each principle is included authentically. “Smuggling” (the author’s term) these rules into a situation artificially is bad news bears (not the author’s term).
One sentence summary: Be good to others and they’ll be good to you.
This is the essence of building an audience. Give away free value with the idea that people will then like you and consider paying you for your paid content at some point down the road.
But can I amplify that model somehow? Yes. I can answer every email. I can send personal emails in addition to automated ones. I can send handwritten physical mail.
One sentence summary: People want what they can’t have, or more accurately what they soon won’t be able to have if they don’t act quickly.
Scarcity and blogging don’t go hand in hand. But what if they did?
It’s easy to provide value that’s exclusive to fans. But it’s hard to make that exclusive value scarce. You could become a fan today or tomorrow or two months from now and start getting that exclusive value. There’s not a super compelling “today” argument.
Sure, I could limit the number of fans. And I might (for legitimate reasons). But “I’m only allowing 1,000 fans” is hardly scarcity-producing when I have 35 fans.
I can’t think of a compelling, genuine way to excite the act-now-or-lose-out part of a reader’s brain. I can’t force you to make a decision in the same way that a used car salesman can. But I can go in a direction that’s almost as good.
I’m going to take away a reader’s access to my site if he doesn’t officially become a fan by providing his email address. I will not do this right away. Instead I will first let him read 4-5 articles. During that 4-5 article phase I will not annoy him with popups or welcome mats or any of that stuff. But after that phase I will require an email address to continue. I’m granting a get-to-know me period. After that period I’m forcing his hand. I might lose him, but haven’t yet decided why I should care. If he doesn’t like me enough after 4-5 articles to make that tiny commitment then we aren’t right for each other.
But crap, can’t he skirt the system by deleting his cookies? Yes he can. And my response to that is: Go ahead! I want him to do that. By doing that he’s taking a stance (see “consistency” below) that my words are so valuable that he’s willing to go through all of that trouble to read them.
One sentence summary: People will only listen to you if you know your stuff (expertise) and if you don’t have an agenda (trustworthiness).
In what am I an expert? I’m not an expert writer or an expert entrepreneur. But I am an expert launcher of websites (even though they never go anywhere thereafter). I am an expert creator.
To directly help people become successful entrepreneurs is out of my scope. That would be phony if I tried. But I can authentically help people launch. I can help them get over their fears and put themselves out into the world. And those things may indirectly lead to something like successful entrepreneurship.
We are all biased. I want my readers to do something specific so everything I present is biased to make that happen. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still be trustworthy in people’s eyes. The key is to present the bad as well as the good.
Why shouldn’t people read my blog? Because I’m not successful. I don’t always follow through. I change my mind. I pivot. I don’t know who I am or where I’m going.
And then why should people read my blog? Because, more than anybody I know, I have dealt with the problems (follow-through, motivation, accountability) that I talk about. And I have hacked and continue to hack together solutions to mitigate these problems.
My current tagline is “change your world one challenge at a time” which is neither enticing nor trust-building. It doesn’t say how I’m going to help nor does it offer any vulnerability. How could I change that? How about:
My failures help creatives create. My dreams fail because I don’t follow through. I’m easily distracted. I lack purpose and clarity. I suffer from imposter’s syndrome, shiny object syndrome, and perfectionism. But I launch. Every single day. And I will help you do the same.
One sentence summary: we're more likely to hop on board if other people (especially people similar to ourselves) have hopped on board first.
I can’t show an impressive subscriber count. There aren’t any companies with recognizable logos that I’ve written for. But many people have commended my writing over the years. For some reason I’ve never considered putting these compliments on the site as testimonials. Dumb.
Within 10 days of the completion of this chapter I vow to reach out to readers who I know like my stuff and make this ask (if you’re reading this and want to email me a testimonial that’d be great).
Is there a unique way to hammer this point home? For now (aka soon) I’ll scatter some on my home page and maybe one toward the footer of each page, but I’ll be thinking of ways to enhance this.
One sentence summary: Once you take a stance, however small, you’re likely to go out of your way to uphold that stance.
If I can someone to say that she likes my writing then that commitment will make her like my writing even more. And she’ll be more likely to like my future writing. Her brain will want to be consistent with what she said.
What stance do I want people to take? I want people to like my writing so much that they become a bona fide fan. After that I’ll take more steps to get them to commit to me further.
In the “scarcity” block above I talked about how I planned to do this. More or less it will be: Hey, if you liked those 5 articles give me your email address so that I can communicate with you more deeply. If you didn’t, then don’t.
One sentence summary: We like people who like us, we like people who are like us, and we like people with whom we share a common goal.
I must speak from a place of vulnerability, authenticity, and experience. I must be relatable. I must never speak as though I have all of the answers. I must present a solution but never the solution.
On top of all of that, I must pour myself everywhere I fit. Not only must my voice be real, but my presence must be present. It should be obvious who is writing and what kind of guy he is.
Further, I must take advantage of any chance I get to talk with people. That seems like a good way to solidify friendship.
Every post I publish shall be either about me creating something or about me confronting/tackling/defeating a demon that is preventing or has prevented me from creating. This does not include auxiliary posts in a “side projects” category.
This means that I don't have to provide solutions in all of my posts. Talking about what I'm making (as I'm making it) is acceptable. I trust that readers will be able to figure out how to extract value from that somehow.
If I'm not talking about making something, though, then I want to be solving a problem that holds me back from making. All content should start with me defining the problem (that I've personally faced), and then how I went about making it better.
I'll continue to write posts that have nothing to do with anything, but, as mentioned above, they'll go in a "side projects" category.
Branding and Style Guidelines
This isn’t where I list colors and typographical constraints and all of that stuff. Not that that’s unimportant, but I already have that in my
_variables.scss file. I never define colors elsewhere by hex values. I do so only by the variables defined in that file. Same is true of fonts. So I’m never at risk of being untrue to my color scheme or my font scheme.
Instead this is where I strategize the higher level picture of what my brand and my style looks like.
- Be relatable. Even when talking from a position of experience and authority never talk from a position of absolute authority.
- Never promise anything or say that I’m going to accomplish something. Document my accomplishments in real time, but don’t share them until after. Otherwise the excitement that I spray all over the internet might take from the excitement that I have within. And then I don’t follow through. And then I look like an idiot. The exception to this is a single live challenge/book at a given time that is directly related to my value direction. In other words: This current book is acceptable, but never again do another version of the ultramarathon challenge (which I’m still doing but have largely fizzled out on) in real time. Do it first, post it after.
- Provide consistent value. I can always provide some value. Sometimes I won’t be able to provide the world’s most valuable post. That’s okay. Still provide value, consistently, even if it’s only 40 words of value.
- Maximize for ease of consumption even if that makes certain things look silly.
- The difference between H2s and H3s must be blatant. There’s nothing more frustrating (or is that just me) than not knowing which heading delineates which section. I’ve been frustrated by this multiple times reading my own damn site.
- I must have a single objective in mind for the reader at all times. Maybe that’s reading the current article. Maybe that’s clicking through to another article. Maybe that’s giving me an email address. Maybe that’s sharing my site with a friend. Regardless, only one at a time.
- Each line must have 40-70 characters.
- Get the hell out of the way and let the words (or other art) tell the story.
- Readers must be made super aware (via design) of new/unread posts. This could be done by badge count notifications or some other technique.
Fan Acquisition Strategy
My strategy is to offer fans more than I offer non-fans.
Fans will get: 1. Unlimited access to my articles. 2. Access to drafts that haven't yet been published. 3. 40 words or less of compressed value in their inbox every day.
Non-fans will get: 1. Blocked after viewing five articles.
I'm going to work on making a custom script to publish my words to my MySQL database as I'm writing them on my local computer in Bear Writer, IA Writer, Ulysses, or whatever app makes this easiest.
This script hasn't yet been written. I'll talk about it, and its many benefits, in another post.
As I write words on my local computer via Bear Writer (or IA Writer or Ulysses or whatever) they will be automatically published to my live MySQL database. Each post will contain a tag of "live", "draft", or "hidden". Live posts will be viewable to anyone. Drafts will be viewable only by fans. Hidden posts will be hidden from all.
Drafts will appear to all readers, including non-fans. But only fans will be able to open and read them. When non-fans attempt to do the same they'll be prompted to become fans in order to continue.
Drafts will be distinguished stylistically from live posts. Something along the lines of a #f0f0f0 background and a page opacity of 0.8 or so.
In addition to the above I want to make it easy to contact me. And whenever someone does contact me I’ll ask if he wants to be added to my list.
Fan Connection Strategy
Email marketing has been unappealing to me for a long time. My inability to grow a large email fanbase biases me, for sure, but there’s something else deep down inside of me that’s not a fan of gaining “fans” this way. Perhaps this is part of the reason for my lack of success. How can I succeed at that which I do not embrace?
Without thinking I put the word “fans” in quotations when I described “gaining ‘fans’” via email marketing. This sums it up. I don’t think it’s a good way to make true fans. But why do I think that?
- Almost every email list I belong to is a blog-post-to-email service. What’s the point? I mean, there is some point. It serves to notify people of new content. But it’s no better than an RSS reader or a browser push notification.
- Some email lists provide their exclusivity by sending articles to their readers a few days before they publish them online. Who cares?
- My favorite email lists, which I still don’t read often, are those that add a paragraph or so of additional content in addition to the inevitable copied and pasted blog post.
All of that can work. Clearly. I don’t mean to claim otherwise. And I hope I’m not coming across as petty or jealous or vindictive. That’s not my intent. I personally don’t get it. That’s all.
Those points above address the one-way value-add. But there’s another problem. When I get an email I don’t feel inclined to respond even when the email asks for a response. Why is that?
- When I respond to an email I feel pressure to respond with a similar amount of words as contained in the email to which I’m responding. That makes it a daunting task which I skip.
- When someone adds an otherwise engaging line at the end of a long email it gets lost on me. I don’t believe you if you write me a 2,000 word email and then put in 30 words asking me about something. I can’t say for certain why that is, but I know that it is.
Because of all of the above I switched to an SMS list last month. It’s been more than I could have hoped for in many ways. I get responses. But I figured post-development (of course) that there is no way to send a large quantity (more than 100 or so) of mass messages at a given time without getting sucked in by the spam filters of the phone carriers. Or in other words: it’s great for personalized communication but doesn’t serve the purpose of mass communication.
How can I combine everything I love about email and SMS into one? I am considering my own solution to be sold as a SaaS. That will be a long build, though, and will most likely never happen. I don’t want to switch back and forth between mediums any more than I already have to, but I’ll give myself a free pass if that happens. For now, though, I want to operate under the assumption that that is not going to happen.
So it’s back to email for me. Ugh. I know. But there will be a few differences this time:
- Daily emails. That’s a big change from my short-lived weekly strategy and my long-lived once-every-4-months strategy.
- 40 words or less per email. My thought is that these emails will be easier to consume and more compelling to respond to. We’ll see.
- Some sort of relationship management system to make sure I send a personalized message to each fan at least once a month. I’ve never use a CRM and don’t know if there are any that fit what I need to do, but I’ll look. If not I’ll have to build something in a spreadsheet or figure out some good way of notifying myself to contact someone a month from when I last contacted them. Maybe there’s an email plugin for this.
After I publish an article on my site I have the ability to then post to Medium, Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, and hundreds of other places.
This may be important or not. I don’t know. Regardless, I want to decide this once and for all right now. I’ve spent too much time being indecisive and inconsistent about this.
First off, I’m not going to post on Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn or Pinterest. I hate those platforms too much and I refuse to submit myself to that regardless of any possible benefit.
I have no problem with Twitter, Medium, and Reddit, though. Is there value in posting to those networks? A little bit, at least, yes. Every time I post a link on Twitter I get at least a handful of clicks (not that clicks translate directly to value). I’ve gotten thousands of clicks before from Reddit, in only fewer than 10 times trying. I haven’t experimented much with Medium, but it seems like it could be a valuable outlet.
I’m going to assume that there is some non-zero value from posting on those three sites. The question, then, is “is it worth it?” How much value is there to be had versus the opportunity cost?
The problem (for my selfish purposes) of all of these sites is that you can’t just post your content and forget it. You have to participate. But I don’t want to participate.
What I want to do is simple:
- Create and publish thing.
- Tell fans about thing.
But is it feasible to rely solely on my fanbase to get the word out? I have 30-something fans at the moment. Might I need to supplement that in some way for some time?
Maybe. But those outlets aren’t the answer. The time they take isn’t worth it. I’d rather spend that time sending a personalized email or letter to an existing fan. That seems more valuable. They key is to actually do that.
But I’ll take that a step further and go with this distribution plan:
- Create and publish thing.
- Tell fans about thing.
- Scour the web for at least one fellow blogger who I think would genuinely benefit from the thing I just published.
- Make an incredibly small personalized ask that takes that blogger less than 60 seconds if they agree (eg if I wanted a link I would tell them the exact words on the exact article of theirs that would be perfect to link), preferably via handwritten letter.
- Repeat steps 1-4 for 5-10 years.
This is the most important section. It’s last because it couldn’t have been defined without first addressing the above.
Creativity sometimes needs constraints in order to flourish. The creator of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Chuck Jones, famously assigned the above constraints to himself. Those constraints allowed him to stay true to his direction, which is something I’d like to emulate.
I also looked over Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling more than once.
- Find the edges. Avoid the middle. (thanks, Seth Godin)
- Respect myself and the value of my work, and don’t be afraid to ask for what I want.
- Deliver value or don’t deliver anything.
- Make my work easy to consume.
I’ve never shown up consistently before. That’s my main focus. These rules will make it so that I know what to do when I show up, which will in turn make it easier to show up.
- I shall email my fanbase 40 words or less every single day at 12pm MT (but no rule about blogging frequency). I find long emails to be a burden, and I don’t want to place that burden on my fans. 40 is arbitrary, but having a finite limit is not.
- I shall respond to every non-offensive email I receive, even if it’s simply to say that I can’t respond properly.
- I shall treat readers as I would romantic dates (thanks again, Seth). I shall not throw annoyances at new readers who have not yet gotten to know me. But I shall require a commitment or a break-up after the initial courtship. In less cryptic words: I won’t annoy you with welcome mats and popups on your first pageview, but eventually I’ll force you to give me your email address if you want to keep reading.
- I shall send personal (non-automated) emails to each of my fans at least once per month. If this grows to be too exhausting then I shall start deleting fans who aren’t true fans. I’d rather not have a fan than have a fan with whom I don’t engage.
- I shall send handwritten physical mail to all subscribers in the United States who provide their mailing addresses. I shall send these upon initial signup and then one per quarter thereafter. Again, if it gets to the point where I can't keep up with this then it's time to cut back on my number of two-way fans. I will ask for physical address after signup and then repeatedly ask until I get it.
- I shall unsubscribe fans who do not appreciate my personalized communication such that I have more time and energy to give to fans who do appreciate it.
- I shall offer to help fans in a specific way at least once per month, and I shall ask fans to help me in a specific way at least once per month.
- I shall begin every article with a personal anecdote expressing vulnerability in regards to the thing I'm about to talk about.
- Every post I publish shall be either about me creating something or about me confronting/tackling/defeating a demon that is preventing or has prevented me from creating. This does not include auxiliary posts in a “side projects” category.
- My full name and my face shall appear on every page along with a small fact about myself (there will be many facts on rotation) and an absurdly easy way to contact me.
- I shall ask myself out loud “Patrick, why the hell should people care about this?“ before creating anything and again before publishing that same thing. If I can’t answer that question enthusiastically then I shall not publish.
- I shall never use adverbs to soften my position without adding characters to them to make them reallllly apparent. I shall own my stances, even if I change them later. Adverbs that add clarity or emphasis are fine.
My site breaks a lot of these rules right now. That’s okay. My next step is to modify my design, communication and articles to make the above rules hold true.