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Impossible that @ChrisBrogan and I are BOTH right, so don’t listen to either of us

Tweet this! — Learn How Human Business Works – Beyond Social MediaChris Brogan, prolific social media how-to author, blogger, and $22,000/day consultant, recently wrote a post describing his “Simple Blogging Formula” in under 1000 words.

In case you needed proof of the efficacy of this formula, know that the post was re-tweeted 700 times and Chris currently enjoys an RSS readership north of 57,000.

Thing is though, I do almost the opposite of his formula. Such as (like, the Iraq, and, such as):

  • Chris: “I try to blog almost every day … first, and foremost, my assumption is that frequency matters.”
    Me: I post once a week, occasionally twice, sometimes less.
  • Chris: “Decide what the post should do for you: [list of possible goals]  I start each post with a plan of what I want it to do.”
    Me: I try to convey something I find interesting and useful, something I didn’t know before my own successes and failures. I have no other “purpose;” rarely is there a call to action. I hope folks will share posts they like and subscribe if they want more, but even that doesn’t have a defined goal.
  • Chris: “I start with a headline … I then find a picture on Flickr … [then I write it]”
    Me: Posts start with a concept, but rarely is my headline still correct by the end of the writing. Pictures or cartoons come last of all, designed to reinforce and enhance the writing rather than define the subject of the content.
  • Chris: “I make sure that post is brief, unless I want bookmarks, and then I make it much longer.”
    Me: My posts are like Fight Club bouts: They go on as long as they have to. And my natural style is to write longer articles. (Read: I like to hear myself bloviate; Or: I’m not good enough to be pithy; Or if you’re feeling generous: I have a lot to say.)

You could point out that I have a paltry 17,000 RSS subscribers instead of his magnificent 57,000 and that this post will be probably be re-tweeted a measly 100 times instead of 700, therefore Chris wins. But aren’t my numbers impressive enough to be called a “success?” Both formulas appear to work.

So who’s right? And how do you pick which formula to copy for yourself?

It’s logical to select Chris’s formula, particularly since it’s nearly identical to that professed by the other power-house how-to blogging sites like Problogger (133,000 subscribers) and Copyblogger (129,000 subscribers). Who could argue with such empirical success? Not me.

And yet, of those hundreds of thousands of adherents, how many enjoy similar levels of RSS devotion and Twitter-powered adulation?  Or even an order of magnitude less like me? Almost none. So is it truly a formula, as in “formula for success?” I don’t think so.

Besides, for every successful site following the “frequent, brief, goal-oriented” formula, there’s another — like mine — that is the opposite (“infrequent, lengthy, purposeless”) with plenty of success as well. But that doesn’t make my style a formula either.

In fact, the only conclusion you can draw is that, like building a startup worth millions, creating a popular blog cannot be accomplished by following a formula. Or rather, there isn’t a single formula which produces success, or even dramatically increases your chance at success over other so-called formulas. (Formulae?)

So instead of following rules about post length, post frequency, writing style, whether bullets points and choppy sentences are good or evil, whether it’s OK to curse, or how many link-sharing icons you promote, none of which seem to actually correlate with the success of a blog, I suggest you ask yourself this:

What easiest for me?

If you don’t have more than 200 words to say, don’t fluff it up. If you love spinning out protracted sentences sewn loosely together with armies of semicolons, do it. If you have a visceral need to provide three specific examples immediately following an a sweeping generalization marked by a large, red font, follow your rhythm.

After all, one thing successful blogs do have in common is that the writing matches the personality and quirks of the author. So embrace your quirks!

When you reinforce your natural behavior instead of cramming yourself into someone else’s box, you’ll automatically write better, write more, communicate better, and be happier doing it. It maximizes your ability to create something awesome.

Indeed, there’s one thing Chris mentions almost as an aside which is echoed in all blogging advice you get anywhere, including from me:

“If you’re not creating great stuff, then people move on.”

I would add:

If you’re not creating great stuff, people won’t subscribe in the first place, and they won’t re-tweet you or otherwise spread your links, and anyway, what are you doing?

As I’ve detailed at length, I believe content + luck = blogging success. Everything else is style. Everything else you can take or leave. Everything else you should mold to your own abilities and preferences and goals.

Less time reading advice, more time doing!

(Except reading my advice, of course! Remember, my ego is inexorably tied to the re-tweet and RSS count. Don’t think for a minute I’m being sarcastic either…)

Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Chris says I need a call to action.  OK, subscribe, then re-tweet, then leave a comment about how this is idiotic or wise or obvious or clarifying or …

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Human + Fallible = Love; Corporate + Sterile = Refund

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A lovely new company/customer etiquette has emerged, and small startups are especially suited for exploiting it. I hope you’re not ignoring it.

Just yesterday someone explained to me what they expect from their website hosting company:

I want someone else making sure the server doesn’t go down. Or, if it does go down, I want someone to apologize to me.

Ten years ago, that bold text would have read: “Or, if it does go down, I want someone to scream at.” Or: “I want someone to give me a refund.”  The new attitude is not “Those assholes better not ever screw up,” but rather “I expect them to try hard, to care, and to treat me well when they inevitably screw up.”

This doesn’t mean you get a free pass to screw your customers, then earn forgiveness from a heartfelt “open letter from the CEO.” Rather, it means:

  • You’re doing your honest, level best to do right by your customers, evidenced continuously through all your communication — blog, tech support, website — not just after a crisis.
  • You’re learning from your mistakes, evidenced by problems tending towards the esoteric, and by explaining in your apology what steps you’ve taken to avoid this and similar classes of error.
  • You’re doing everything in your power to be the best, evidenced by a culture of awesome employees and inventing new ways to make your customers successful, so mistakes are ordinary human error, not negligence or indifference.

It’s not even the apology itself; no one’s convinced when a large company issues an insincere, legally-vetted “official apology” that you know doesn’t fix anything. What that quote above really means is: “I want to work with other people who behave like real people, who are obviously trying their best, and who respond to problems as earnestly and quickly as can be expected.”

In short: People readily forgive honest human error, but become adversarial and distrustful with the typical, sterile customer/provider relationship.

This is why every blog-about-blogging sternly instructs you to “be human.” Umm, what? Compared to what, being feline?

(Isn’t it weird that we have to be told how to “be human?” WTF?)

“No no,” they say, “it means let your humanity show — be authentic.” Oh brother, ok, how do I do that?

The typical advice for “being authentic” is to “just be yourself,” but I don’t know what that means. Thales said the most difficult thing is to “Know Thyself,” so it must be really hard to do that over Twitter and AdWords. (By the way, Thales also said the easiest thing is “To Give Advice.” I’ll let you bask in the irony for a minute…)

So I suppose one route to “finding your voice” is to take stock of your total life experience together with your ten-year goals, then synthesize a compelling, internally-consistent philosophy, apply that to all your actions and communications, and summarize it in four punchy words on your home page.

Yeah right, who can do that? Not me, I can’t even decide what to have for lunch.

So instead, here’s a few more practical ways to discover what’s essential to your personality and point of view:

  • Criticize others.
    If you especially enjoy someone’s slogan, why? Is it because it’s funny, clever, specific, unwavering, simple, conservative, confident, or ballsy? Conversely if you loathe someone’s “About Us” page, why? Is it because it’s too personal, not personal enough, too detailed, not detailed enough, silly, formal, useless, childish, lengthy, or arrogant? When you see something that strikes a nerve, complete the sentence: “I absolutely [love|hate] that because ….”
  • Decide what you are not.
    For example, you might say “I hate companies who use formal language; I’m never going to allow formality to dictate how I communicate.” Or the opposite: “I hate companies who think it’s funny and clever to use informal language; I’m going to instill confidence by showing that we behave like grown-ups.” It’s easy to identify corporate stuff that pisses you off; use that to decide both what not to do and what to do instead.
  • Copy something you love.
    Sounds weird I know — how can copying lead to a unique, personal style? But if you think about why you love something — a company, an attitude, a writing style, a philosophy — it’s because you identify with it so completely. It is you! Of course over time you’ll morph that copy into something unique, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a head start by imitating something you wish you had thought of yourself. Careful though — I’m not advocating plagiarism! The goal is mimicry, not theft, influence, not carbon-copy. Your mindset should be: The thing I’m copying is a rough draft that needs extensive editing but whose heart is in the right place.

Even assuming you successful identify what “being human” means to you, it’s still surprisingly difficult to implement because every strong decision you make will necessarily alienate many people even while it’s thrilling others.

If you adopt an informal style, some people will find it refreshing while others find you untrustworthy. If you’re proactive in announcing bugs, some people will reciprocate by gracefully putting up with the problems, while others will be shocked — shocked! — and will Twitter that you sell shoddy software. If you admit the entire company consists of two people, some folks will smile knowing they’ll get primo customer service while others will flee because of the low probability you’ll still be around next year. If you curse on your blog, many people will wince and click “Back” but others will laugh and click “Subscribe.”

And yet, strong, specific, and honest you must be. Yes it means turning off some people, but the remainder will love you all the more (and make sure their Facebook “friends” know it).

What’s the alternative — having no persona at all? Then why would anyone get excited about you? Why would they put up with your faults? Why would they tell their friends about you?

Is your goal is to become a soulless corporation? No? Well then, do whatever it takes to be soulful.

Continued in the comments… How do you find your voice? How do you decide which people to alienate? Do you disagree with the premise? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

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Taking "Fail Fast" to a whole… ‘nutha… level

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your word against theirs

I hate it when writers resort to dictionary definitions to make a point.

“The New Oxford American Dictionary defines ‘authentic’ as ‘relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.’

“So true, so true, and that’s the perspective you must adopt to become adroit in social media.”

Yeah? ‘Cause from what I can tell “authentic” actually means “pretending to care about what other people think so that they’ll mention you on Twitter.”

But when I saw this thesaurus entry for the word “human,” I had to share (my emphasis obviously):

HUMAN — they’re only human — mortal, flesh and blood; fallible, weak, frail, imperfect, vulnerable, susceptible, erring, error-prone.

So basically, “human” means “full of error.” Couldn’t we — the entire English-speaking population of the last 200 years — have attached our species to a more uplifting synonym group?

But there you go. And where there’s smoke there’s fire.

So now back to those tired-but-true platitudes: Fail early, fail fast, fail often.

It’s not that you should fail, but rather that, like it or not, you are constantly failing. The platitutes are really saying: Admit it, then act accordingly.

Your assumptions are mistaken; are you testing them? Your gut knows your logic isn’t airtight; are you listening? Your current ideas lead you to better ideas; are you adopting them?

Success doesn’t come to those with the best ideas, but those most willing to seek better ideas.

It’s not about being smart or having the best theory. It’s about constantly looking for evidence that you’re wrong, that you could improve, that you should adapt, eagerly incorporating new information instead of wasting time rationalizing your old ideas.

You’re pathetically, irreparably, hopelessly human.  Ignore at your peril.

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