The reason I included the parenthesis in the ‘viral’ is because while people tell me my content is viral, I believe anyone who says they can predictably do it is a lying moron.
No one can. However, there are a few ways to increase the chances that people will actually want to read your content and share it without you ever having to ask. And that, my dear friend, is what this post is about.
Our entire business (we make money through ads) is reliant upon making millions upon millions of people read the things that I write.
In just 3 months, The Hustle has had millions of unique visitors and grown our email list from 0 to 45,000 subscribers.
To put this in perspective, we’re growing at the same pace that the fastest media companies in the world grew at. We haven’t spent a dime on marketing and have had (unfortunately) zero PR.
So who am I? I’m Sam Parr. I’m the Co-founder and CEO of The Hustle, a Vice + Fast Company style media company that creates daily content delivered to your email box.
And now that the humblebrags are out of the way, I want to teach you step-by-step how we create the content that has gotten us to where we are right now.
Before I go any further, I need to fill you in on a disclaimer.
While I do consider myself slightly above average when it comes to this stuff, most everything I’m about to tell you I have learned from people who are much smarter than me. Robert Cialdini, Stephen King, David Ogilvy and many more -- I’ve stolen all of their best techniques.
So please thank them for the bombs that I’m about to drop on you, not I.
If you’re reading this right now then I’m going to make a few assumptions about you:
- You’re newish to blogging
- Your blog promotes your product
- You have a personal blog that you want to get popular
If you already have 1,000,000+ monthly visitors this isn’t for you. Now to the writing. One big post on how to write real good from start to finish in 21 steps.
Here’s what we do before we start, to how we write, edit and of course distribute so that you can use it too:
#1 Before you start: Find Shareable Ideas
You’re new to writing. One day you’ll create your masterpiece. But until you do, the easiest way to come up with shareable content is to “borrow” from others. No need to come up with anything unique or fancy. Instead, find things that have worked for other folks but put your twist in it.
Here’s where I go for ideas:
Quora- I discover facts and explore ideas using Quora. I only write about the most upvoted topics. This way I know that people like it. I don’t take what they’ve written exactly, I just allow the Quora audience’s upvotes to validate what types of subjects people like.
Hacker News- Nerd heaven. Same as Quora.
Medium- Startup nerd heaven. A lot of Medium’s posts are fluffy as hell, but you can still find lots of great ideas. Beware - you will read at least 50 headlines that say “I just did this, here’s what I learned.”
Buzzsumo- I flock to BuzzSumo like a fly on shit. It’s golden. Search any idea and you can find the most popular article ever.
And Reddit. Last but far from the least. Reddit is a goldmine of knowledge, facts and ideas that many people are missing out on. A good place starting point on Reddit is the “top” of various subreddits. I usually start by going to MetaReddit.com and finding the proper subreddit.
#2 Before you start: Hit ‘em in the feels
Everything you write should feel like a script for Mad Men or Lost. Your goal is to make people FEEL something. A plain-as-vanilla blog post is a liability, not an asset. If your writing is boring then you might as well not even write it.
What types of feelings should your reader experience? Awe, excitement, and anger do best (in that order). To learn more about this, read Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger.
Say something controversial. Make an awful joke (like my fly on shit one earlier). Tell a riveting story. Just do SOMETHING that makes someone feel. If you can make large groups of people feel then you’re on your way to virality.
#3 Before you start: First person is best
Your 4th grade teacher is wrong. It’s OK to say I, we, or us. Hunter S. Thompson did it, and he’s way cooler than your teacher.
We get millions of views and thousands of shares on posts. Out of our top four performing posts at The Hustle, 3 were first person.
- Google Has A Secret Interview Process... And It Landed Me A Job
- The LinkedIn Hack That Made Me $20,000
- Part 1: Confessions from the Underground World of Kindle eBooks
#4 How we write: Start writing the first draft
Never approach your keyboard lightly. Pounce it like your prey. For the first draft dump everything in your brain onto your paper. Your first draft will be terrible. That’s OK. Don’t think about that...just write everything on your mind. If it’s a long piece you’re writing, try to get 2,000 words on the paper in less than an hour.
#5 How we write: Incubate
This part is magical and tough to explain, but it works really, really well.
After writing your first draft, take at least one hour to step away. Work on something else. This isn’t procrastination. It’s allowing yourself time away to replenish your focus and not get burnt out on one piece of work.
Let the writing “cook” in your unconscious mind. Maybe for a couple hours, ideally overnight.
When you come back to it, you’ll have a fresh view of your writing. If you don’t believe me, you better believe my man Mozart:
‘When I am… completely myself, entirely alone and of good cheer — say, travelling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.
‘Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. Those ideas that please me I retain in memory…[and] if I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn this or that morsel to account…
‘All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodised and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance… What a delight this is I cannot tell! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing, lively dream.”
-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
#6 How we write: Cut
You already have your first draft brain-dump. Now, cut the first 25%. Then cut another 30%.
Cut anything that you don’t love. If you don’t love it, it can be better.
You’ve only written this once so far! It can be a million times better than it currently is. So cut away, my friend.
If I read a sentence back to myself and it doesn’t make me feel anything, I cut it. My first draft never even remotely resembles the final copy because I cut so much.
#7 How we edit: Make sure you do it
This is where the magic happens.
Editing is the bread and butter of good writing. You already dumped your brain on the paper and then cut a lot out, so now you refine. You’re trying to express what you want to express in the fewest words.
"I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose." David Ogilvy.
#8 How we edit: Headlines
Create a headline – it’s 90% of the battle.
A clickbaity headline ain’t clickbait if your article delivers what it promises, so don’t hold back.
I like to think of five headlines for everything I write. That way if three or four of them suck, I still have one that’s good. And all five might even suck, but at least I have five ideas to work off of.
#9 How we edit: Imagery
Writing needs images. It breaks things up and makes it look easier to read.
Hey, I still choose the picture books over the tiny print, billion-page books, and I don’t stand alone.
Use images, but don’t make it your company’s logo. Make it clickable.
Choose images that you want to stop and click. Images that grab your attention and make you say, “holy shit that’s cool.”
Images are tricky though. You need to make sure you have the rights to anything you’re using. I like to use Unsplash, Unsplash is free and awesome. Also here's Teachable's list of 13 awesome free image sites.
#10 How we edit: Slippery Slope
The sole purpose of the first sentence is to get you to read the second sentence of copy.
The sole purpose of the second sentence is to get you to read the third sentence.
The sole purpose of the third sentence is to…
I want you to read every sentence I write. I’ll make you do that by choosing my words and sentence structures well.
One trick to hooking a person with every new sentence is beginning your sentences with and, but, because, and so. It’s also good to keep each sentence to one idea. That way it’s approachable and easy to understand.
I reread my writing and mark what sentences I love, hate, and which ones start to lose my attention so I know what to revise to achieve that slippery slope.
“Your readers should be so compelled to read your copy that they cannot stop reading until they read all of it as if sliding down a slippery slope.”-Joe Sugarman
#11 How we edit: First sentence
The first sentence is the most important – punch them in the face.
Let’s be honest, when you first meet someone you judge them by their looks. You see someone hot and either want to get to know them or not. Their personality might draw you in later, but at first, it’s the looks.
This same thinking applies to your writing. The first sentence is the looks. If it’s good, readers are invested and want to know more. If not, they’ll stop reading.. Or if you’re lucky they’ll give it a few more lines to see if the personality is better than the looks.
You want your first sentence to be smokin’ hot. Make your first sentence a total babe.
#12 How we edit: Write simple and for readability
Around an 8th-grade reading level.
A great post has C+ writing and A+ storytelling, insight, or analysis.
#13 How we edit: Make it short
Make your post short (<800 words) or really long (>1,500 words).
#14 How we edit: Keep length short
Sentences should be short (25-ish words) and paragraphs should be 3 to 5 sentences long.
Which would you prefer to read?
The one on the right? Yes. The right paragraph looks manageable. The left paragraph looks overwhelming.
Ya know when you’re on a run and you tell yourself to “go ten more feet… No, no ten more… just ten more after that”?
Same deal here. Breaking up your content into chunks not only looks better, but is just easier to read.
#15 How we edit: Hemingway App
Use the Hemingway App - it’s free and will change your life.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – STEPHEN KING
Don’t use adverbs. The Hemingway App will tell you this. Adverbs qualify or modify existing adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs. In other words they don’t add much real impact.
Instead of saying “I was really hungry,” say “I was starving. I was famished. I was so hungry, even the dog food smelled appetizing.”
The latter packs a punch. We like that.
#16 How we edit: Copywork
Before writing, do copywork. And read our post on how to not write like an asshole.
How did you learn to bake cookies?
By following a recipe! You didn’t just throw shit together. A recipe is tried and true.
You mimic what you know works. I do this all the time before I start to write.
I find one of my favorite writer’s work and I copy it. I start with the first paragraph and seriously just type it out. Then the second. And third.
We call this copywork. It’ll get you relaxed and into the swing of writing. Feel the texture and style of the words and then try to write on your own and apply that same feel to your content.
When you’ve done enough copywork, the words will flow more naturally because you’ve already trained your brain to think like a writer.
#17 How we distribute: Email
Email is by far the most effective form of distribution.
Email just works. If you have a large audience that consistently opens your emails and engages with your content, you are powerful.
That’s not just an audience, that’s a following and with a following, you can sell anything you want.
It’s like sailing a pirate ship. Every time you get someone to sign up and come aboard, they’re in your crew for the long haul.
This is because email not only provides a high conversion rate, but as you grow your list you can pitch new products and ideas to your audience.
You can build your audience on Facebook or Google, but then you don’t own them- Facebook and Google do. An email list is a direct line to your own unique audience.
#18 How we distribute: Facebook
Facebook is hands down, without a doubt, the most important social network.
Optimize for that.
Pew Research Center did an awesome study looking back at the year of 2014 that they published early this year. They found that 71% of all adult internet users use Facebook as opposed to 23% adult internet users use Twitter.
Did an alarm just go off in your brain? FACEBOOK is the answer. Everyone is on Facebook so post on Facebook. Establish your following and engage with them. If they share then it gets in front of the real gold: their friends and family, who might then share as well.
#19 How we distribute: Twitter
Twitter? Sure, if you're looking for a .01% click-through rate, post on Twitter and then refer to #18.
#20 How we distribute: Reddit
Reddit and other aggregators.
Remember, Facebook is best, but it never hurts to post your content on Reddit, Medium, LinkedIn and others. I personally love them.
If your content finds its way to any of these sites with great headlines you might just hit virality.
Upworthy has an awesome slideshow on virality. Check it out here.
Now your turn to try.
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When you’re all over the internet and making money, you can come back and thank me. Sam Parr out.