Leaving Work Behind

Why Podcasts and Videos Are a Poor Medium for Learning and Taking Action

Written by Tom Ewer on July 30, 2013. 81 Comments

Lego radio

I’ve often thought about launching a Leaving Work Behind podcast.

Why wouldn’t I? Everywhere you turn bloggers are talking about the power of podcasting. It seems a week doesn’t pass without another big name blogger launching their own podcast.

The same goes for video — anyone who’s anyone is on YouTube, publishing content at a prolific rate.

And then there’s me; publishing about one video per month on average.

I’ve always run into an issue with audio and video as a medium for learning and taking action. Put simply, I think they are deficient. In the vast majority of cases, they play second fiddle to written content in terms of efficiency, quality and ease of assimilation.

In this post I want to explain why I feel this way and present you with a challenge to improve your learning, and ultimately, your success.

The Problem With Podcasts and Videos

If you’re familiar with my writing here on Leaving Work Behind then you will know that I am all about efficiency. I like to get things done as quickly as possible.

That’s why podcasts and audio drive me round the bend — for the most part, they are chock full of completely redundant information. Whether it’s introductions, advertisements, promotions, or simply a lack of clear focus, you’ll find that a huge proportion of your time listening to podcasts and watching videos is of no benefit whatsoever.

How many times have you found yourself tracking through a video in order to find the section that actually covers what you want to learn? How many times have you attempted to sit down and listen to a podcast without doing anything else to keep you occupied? That in itself reveals just how useless so much of the content is.

A good example of this, to pick on myself rather than a fellow blogger, is my post on finding freelance writing jobs on online job boards. It contains a whopping 26 minute video in which I go through a bunch of job listings on the ProBlogger Job Board. What would you rather do: Watch the 26 video, or read a concise blog post that lists in detail all of the key points made in the video, complete with relevant screenshots?

I made that video because as a blogger I felt that I should be doing more video. But in reality I was doing my readers a disservice. They shouldn’t have to watch a 26 minute video to get my advice — it should have been presented to them in a blog post that would have taken a quarter of the time to digest.

Finally, consider the way in which audio and video is typically structured. There is no universal structure for these mediums — from one podcast or video to the next you don’t know what to expect. There is no skipping through the fluff to get to the good stuff without a lot of guesswork. You can’t “scan” a podcast or video very effectively at all.

Meanwhile, a good blog post distills vital information down into specific points, clearly delineated by sub-headers and other graphical/typographical elements. You can skim through a good blog post in 30 seconds and know if it has anything to offer you. The same cannot be said of audio or video.

The Power of the Written Word

Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.

~ Rudyard Kipling

Let’s be honest — everyone loves to talk. Put me in front of a microphone and I’ll waffle on all day. And to compound the issue, editing audio or video is a relatively laborious process. Once you’re finished talking for far longer than you should have, you leave all the fluff in place because getting rid of it would be such a pain.

On the other hand, the beauty of writing is that it encourages you to be concise. You can easily hone things down to a fine point. You can cut out of all of the bumf and retain only the core points that you want to make.

Think for a moment of the last time you tried to read something with someone. You probably found that they were either faster or slower than you. Either you or them may have turned the page or moved the screen too early, resulting in one of your losing your place. My point is this: Written content can be easily digested at the reader’s pace — the same cannot be said of audio or video. The stop-start of pausing video or audio is a poor substitute for the seamless and natural ability of human beings to digest written content at whatever speed they desire.

Finally — and in my opinion most importantly — written content is by far the best medium for absorbing information. Read the steps I outline in my post on how to act on what you read in books and blogs and consider how you would adapt that to videos and podcasts. It could be done, but it would take much longer and ultimately be a frustrating experience.

What About the Benefits?

As I alluded to at the top of this post, there is a lot to say about podcasts and videos in terms of building your site’s exposure.

I get that, and I’m not about to tell you not to produce audio and video for your blog if you think that it will help. After all, if the people want it, shouldn’t you produce it for them?

Perhaps. But producing audio and video for your readers doesn’t mean that you should follow in their footsteps. My position with regards to podcasts and videos is simple: My time is too valuable to listen to and/or watch them. I know that I can learn far more from an equivalent book or blog post in a fraction of the time. The last thing I want to be doing is staring at a screen, waiting to learn something that I could be reading without hesitation.

In terms of Leaving Work Behind, I am not planning on launching a podcast or doing loads more videos any time soon, because I don’t think it aligns with what I feel is best for you — the reader. I acknowledge that my actions (or inaction) may prevent me from reaching people that will otherwise not know of me, but my primary goal is to serve my existing readers as best I can.

At the end of the day, whether you publish written content, podcasts or videos does not ultimately define your success — your brand and the quality of your message does. That’s what really makes the difference. With that in mind, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the fact that I don’t do podcasts or videos.

A Caveat

I should say before I wrap this up that it is not my intention to hate on podcasts and videos. I have consumed my fair share in my time and have learned useful tips and information from them. Some podcasts are awesome and some bloggers produce great videos too.

But there are better ways to consume information. Unless these guys are producing stuff that is completely unique and unavailable in written form (which is highly unlikely), I’ll skip it.

There are exceptions to the above — for instance, certain technical information can be better conveyed by video. However, most technical how-to guides are far easier to digest in a step-by-step written format with screenshots, rather than video. For the most part, written content is king.

A Challenge

In my previous post I mentioned that I’m on an information diet — I don’t watch or read the news, engage in personal social media or read blog posts. All I do is read anything that is sent to me from trusted sources, along with highly-rated books by qualified people.

It’s been incredibly liberating and I don’t see myself going back from it. In short, I don’t miss any of the content that I was consuming previously.

Now I challenge you to do the same. Go on an information diet and see how it fits you. Cut out all news, tabloid articles and personal social media (you can still do the blog stuff, but keep it to a minimum). Read only those blogs that you find most informative, and only if they publish articles that you feel could really help you with your current project(s).

Next, buy a book on a topic that you would like to know more about, from which you can learn something that you can apply to your online business. Then follow my steps on how to act on what you read for that book.

If you normally listen to podcasts when you’re running, in the car, etc., buy audio and hard copy versions of the book and listen to it when you’re otherwise engaged, then take notes when you’re able to.

Continue your diet until you finish the book (this should take you no longer than two weeks), then ask yourself one simple question: “Did I learn more in this period of time that I can apply to my business than I typically would?”

I would be surprised if the answer is no.

What Are Your Thoughts?

I’d love to read what you think about podcasts, video and written content and how they compare. Are you an avid podcast listener or YouTube addict, or do you agree that written content is the best way to go? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Photo Credit: Lego-LM

My Thoughts on the Future of Leaving Work Behind (And Blogging in General)

Written by Tom Ewer on July 25, 2013. 84 Comments
Photo Credit: Cillian Storm

Photo Credit: Cillian Storm

You can’t beat the rush of an epiphany.

I seem to have them periodically. The first in this chapter of my life (i.e. the “Leaving Work Behind” chapter) was back in May 2011, where I seemingly came to a decision overnight that I needed to quit my job and launch an online business.

The second was in in May 2012 when I decided that I was no longer in a rush to get rich, which was quite a revelation for someone who had grown up thinking that working your ass off and getting rich was the whole point of life.

The third was just a few weeks ago while on vacation in Turkey, where I realized that my business wasn’t performing anywhere near to its potential and that I had to implement some big changes.

That final epiphany leads me to this post. I have spent the past several days putting some serious thought into the future of Leaving Work Behind and how I can make it a more valuable resource for you, my readers.

I have concluded as follows: the conventional model of blogging is not for me and I am going to make some big changes.

The State of Blogging

The other day I stumbled across an engrossing article by a photography enthusiast named Chuq Von Rospach (spectacular name by the way Chuq). Rarely have I encountered something that was so timely and so fitting to my frame of mind — I thoroughly recommend that you read it.

In the article Chuq refers to what he considers the problem (or in fact, problems) with blogging:

  • Too many keyboards chasing too few ideas.
  • Too many people following “the rules” rather than the material.
  • Too many short, shallow, forgettable, thin pieces of crap.
  • Lots of opinions without backing facts or expertise.

I can’t help but agree with Chuq.

That may come as a shock from someone who writes blog posts for a living and has just launched a content marketing agency, but bear with me.

It’s not that “conventional” blogging in itself is redundant — it is in fact a highly effective means of attracting prospective prospects, customers and/or clients. It works. But what is effective may not be what is rewarding to write, nor is it something that I feel brings something new and unique to readers that often.

As a writer working to a schedule you cannot always be at your best. Sometimes you write something that you are truly proud of and that gets a great reception. Other times you write something not so good, or even worse, something while under the influence of ulterior motives (generally financial).

My Involvement in the State of Blogging

I have been as guilty of these shortcomings and sins as any other blogger in the past, but it stops here.

Leaving Work Behind is more than just the little accountability journal on the web that it once was. It is a source of inspiration and perhaps even a beacon of hope for a loyal group of people, either still in their jobs and working to find a way out or already in business and looking to build upon their success to date.

I will not take advantage of the trust and goodwill that I have developed over the past twenty-five months by following the established rules of conventional blogging and online marketing. No more.

Chuq puts it better than I can:

When you boil it all down, blogging today, at least as the so-called experts preach how it ought to be done, has been turned into a big marketing engine. It’s more important that it SEO well than if it’s actually well written. Or interesting.  Short and punchy, and break it up into pieces posted over days, so you can get more hits and pageviews out of it. Blogging has been turned into writing daily press releases in hopes of gaining attention. It’s now a PR function, not a creative one. And frankly, most of the time, it fails miserably at that, too.

Writing stuff every day that someone comes and looks at — for 30 seconds — is pretty easy, actually. But not very fulfilling. I don’t want to write stuff that causes people to come to the site and bounce off to the next site two paragraphs later. I want them to stop and finish the piece and then pass it along to their friends to read. That kind of writing — not so easy. What I want to do doesn’t segment out well into 500 word chunks posted five times a week. I’ve tried in the past to build that cadence into my writing, and what I find it does is it pushes you into writing simple, forgettable, easily created chunks of shallow and not terribly useful words.

The other reason I’ve been wandering photography blogs like a hobo the last few months is I’ve been trying to understand how I could add to the conversation about photography out on the net and not merely repeat it. Lets be honest: nobody, anywhere, under any circumstances needs to write another blog post that tries to explain Aperture mode to a new user. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of people who’ve written about that, so if that’s your idea of useful content to write for your blog, just stop and go get your camera and go take pictures instead.  The universe does not need another blog full of generic 500 word tutorials on basic camera concepts — except that if you follow the best practices experts, that’s the kind of material they tend to push you at, because it’s easy, it’ll SEO well, and it’ll drive PAGEVIEWS. Quality? Good writing? Interesting topics? Kiddo, that stuff doesn’t SEO, why waste your time?

I’m not talking about blogging as a business model; this is about blogging for self-fulfilment and for the greater good of the LWB community. I’m talking about creating a blog based upon the principles of altruism; not focused on how to get more fans, followers and subscribers.

I won’t lie to you — it is my hope that by taking this approach to my blog, it will continue to grow (both in terms of subscribers and revenue). But I am not going to sell my soul to the devil in the hope that I can make an extra few bucks.

Where Has This Come From?

I guess the issue about trust and value has been on my mind since the very first day I started work on this blog.

It has raised its head at times — such as when I first monetized LWB, when I did a couple of webinars that fell flat and most recently when I published an article on email marketing best practices.

It is a search engine optimized post that was written in an attempt to generate affiliate sales. Don’t get me wrong — I feel like I have created something of value — but it’s not the kind of piece that I get excited about producing.

That post has produced just nine comments (including my own) and zero affiliate sales. I didn’t really enjoy creating it and the lack of interest left me feeling pretty dejected.

The truth is this: I never felt “right” about publishing that post, and my gut feeling was validated by its failure both in terms of financial goals and engagement.

Is doing something unrewarding that I do not feel best serves my audience worth the potential affiliate earnings? I’ve decided that the clear answer is no. It’s the same reason why I’ve never written a post on my affiliate strategy despite having been asked a few times — my heart’s not in it. I don’t feel like a deliberate affiliate marketing strategy is “me.” It’s not how I like to operate.

The only way in which I find affiliate marketing truly rewarding is when it ties in perfectly with a topic that I want to write about — a topic in which I feel I can add value and help my readers. An example of that would be this post: How I Attracted 10,000 Twitter Followers in a Year (My 5 Step Process).

Guess what — that post was shared a load of times, received over fifty comments and resulted in a healthy number of affiliate sales. Take from that what you will.

So What Next?

I’m following Chuq’s lead:

So what I’m going to do is this. I’m going to stop blogging. Any pretense of it. I’m going to write.

I am setting out to create the world’s greatest resource for those who are interested in quitting their jobs and building successful online businesses that afford them the freedom to live as they please. I intend to do that in a manner that I am 100% comfortable with and at no point will I compromise my principles, nor will I do anything to divert my attention from that goal.

No more set blogging schedule. No more sheer volume of content in the hope of attracting more search engine referrals. No more cookie cutter blog posts. No more picking topics on the basis of what I think might rank in Google. No more writing posts in the hope of generating affiliate earnings.

Instead, I will only produce content when I believe it is truly unique and/or adds value to my readers in a way that they could not easily find elsewhere. I will be driven by a perpetual desire to help as many of you as possible to leave work behind.

In a nutshell, this means that you will be seeing less content on the blog — probably just one post per week on average or perhaps even less. But when I do hit publish on something, you will know that it is the best possible content that I can produce.

But What About Making Money?

The last thing I want to do is mislead you and make it seem like I’m presenting myself as some kind of philanthropist. Don’t get me wrong — I want to help you, but I want to make a living too. That’s where the element choice comes in for you.

Here’s the deal: the vast majority of the content on this site is free. There is over two years worth of content packaged into well over two hundred blog posts available at your fingertips right now. That number will only continue to grow. But if I create something I deem valuable enough, I will charge for it (such as I did with my freelance writing guide). I believe that to be an utterly transparent model of creating and providing value.

That won’t stop me from writing free content on the same topic (as I have done to a great extent with my considerable collection of articles on freelance writing), but if you decide that you want to pay for premium content organized and presented in a logical structure, you have the option to do so.

As a brief aside, that brings me onto the great irony of the affiliate marketing system: A system that many claim is far more “transparent” than the “salesy” techniques that so many bloggers pursue in trying to sell their products. But ask yourself this: What is potentially more insidious — someone who says, “Hey, buy my product if you want!” or someone who says, “You should buy this product — I’ll get money if you do so, but don’t worry — my recommendation isn’t biased at all.” As far as I am concerned, you should only trust someone’s affiliate recommendation if they demonstrate that they still use it and have gained positive effects from its use.

Why Blogging is a Terrible Medium for Information Consumption

I’ve got a little secret to tell: I’m not subscribed to a single blog right now.

I am on an “information diet” — I don’t read or watch the news, I don’t engage in personal social media (although I am of course still on Facebook and Twitter in my LWB capacity) and I don’t read blogs. While I still share links to blog posts from those handful of blogs that I love the most, I’m not reading them.

Why? Because when you read a blog you are taking part in the world’s greatest ever exercise of random information consumption.

The reality is this: anyone can blog and there is a lot of crap out there. Even the “best” bloggers publish a high ratio of poor to good content, because there is no real editorial oversight (after all, today’s terrible article is history by tomorrow).

Furthermore, the consumption of blog articles is largely a random act. What your favorite bloggers decide to write about, you read, leading you down paths you never chose. It’s a recipe for paralysis by analysis – one of the most dangerous conditions you can suffer from as a budding entrepreneur.

This may seem pretty crazy coming from a blogger, but I intend to be the exception to the blogging rule.

I encourage you to keep reading Leaving Work Behind, but if you feel that a post isn’t applicable to what you are trying to achieve, don’t read it. Carry on with what you’re doing. That post will still be there in the Archives if you need it in the future. I’ll be waiting if you need help with anything.

So How Am I Supposed to Leave Work Behind?

As a reader of my blog, that is the key question for you. How am I going to the promise of my tagline: “Quit Your Job and Build Your Best Life”?

All I’ll say for now is that I have a plan. A big plan. Something that I am extremely excited about. This plan will come into fruition within the next few months, at which point we could see this blog go in an extraordinary new direction.

I hope to see you there along for the ride. But in the meantime, take a mental note: Leaving Work Behind is about to change.

Who’s with me?

Online Writing 101: 14 Errors That Are Preventing You From Blogging Success

Written by Tom Ewer on July 22, 2013. 112 Comments

Escape KeyI have worked alongside other online writers ever since I began my freelancing career in September 2011. However, my direct involvement with their work was limited up until early 2013, when I took on a more editorial role for the ManageWP Blog.

Fast-forward a few months and I re-launched my One Hour Authority Site project by taking on LWB readers as writers for the site. That experience taught me two things:

  1. There are lots of talented writers out there (far more than I thought in fact).
  2. Their chances of success are often hamstrung by technical issues relating to online writing.

Here is what I found most fascinating though: most of the issues are easily noticeable (once revealed) and simple to fix. That is good news folks. In fact, the news was good enough to galvanize me into launching a new content marketing agency (more on that in the near future). I felt that I could take such innately talented but rough-around-the-edges writers, help them to become successful bloggers and ultimately grow my business.

Whether Clear Blogging Solutions proves to be successful remains to be seen but in my opinion one thing is for certain: any aspiring blogger or freelance writer can vastly boost their chances of success by getting the basics of online writing right. And those basics are exactly what I want to cover in this post.

Two Years of Pet Peeves Distilled Into One Post

One thing I quickly learned from working in an editorial capacity for both ManageWP and my authority site was that I am really anal when it comes to certain aspects of online writing. I sweat the small stuff in terms of structure, style, formatting and punctuation more than most seem to.

But as I say to my writers, I am loathe to release myself of my often fastidious approach because I have a strong hunch that it has been a huge contributor towards my success to date.

Look at it this way: As a freelance writer your primary job is not to write for the client; your primary job is to provide a solution. If you write a generally great piece of work that requires extensive editing due to structure and formatting issues, you are not providing a solution — you are providing a problem.

I would much rather work with a good writer who provides a neat-and-tidy end product than a great writer who is happy to provide the kind of product that requires editing to fit into what I consider the “correct” style for online writing.

Although being a good writer is of course important (and I do cover some technical aspects of writing below), you must aim to adhere to most (if not all) of the stylistic considerations that make up the “rulebook” of online writing if you want to become a successful freelance writer.

In short: I don’t want to hire good writers, I want to hire great online writers. This post is intended to create great online writers out of good writers. It is compulsory reading for my writers and perhaps it should be for you too — whether you are pursuing a career in freelance writing or simply want to become a better blogger.

N.B.: I do not claim to be a “great” writer, nor do I consider myself impervious to errors in writing. In fact, I have been guilty of many (probably all) of the errors below at one time or another. This is about us all bettering ourselves as writers, not about me putting myself on a pedestal.

Online Writing 101: 14 Errors That Are Preventing You From Blogging Success

The following are the most common (and costly) online writing errors that I have come across in the last two years or so.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but given my relative breadth of experience in blogging (some ~1,000 blog posts published across ~100 blogs), I do feel that it makes up a healthy percentage of the most grievous errors that online writers can make.

1. Inconsistent Header Capitalization

There are three main styles of capitalization used online:

  1. Sentence case (e.g. Three common causes of the common cold)
  2. Title case (e.g. Three Common Causes of the Common Cold)
  3. All uppercase (e.g. THREE COMMON CAUSES OF THE COMMON COLD)

You can pick whichever one you like, although personally I always use title case — I think it looks the best by a distance. (If you are concerned with which words should and shouldn’t be capitalized, just use my Title Case Convertor tool).

That aside, my main point is this: pick a style and stick with it. While you can use one style of capitalization for headers and another for sub-headers, make sure that they consistently remain the same across all articles on a website.

If you are working for a client, check out which form they are using and adhere to it. That’s the kind of attention to detail that really makes you stick out.

2. Using “Clever” Headlines

When it comes to online writing, creativity isn’t dead, but it has its place. With that in mind, when it comes to writing headlines, one must put function before form.

The job of a headline is to “sell” the article. Although that should be done in a compelling and creative fashion, that creativity must be exercised within the bounds of the headline’s primary job. Ambiguity has no place in headline writing.

Imagine for example that you were writing an article on how to take the perfect free kick in soccer. Consider this headline:

How to Bend It Like Beckham

If you don’t know who David Beckham is then this headline will mean nothing to you. If you do know who David Beckham is but are unfamiliar with the phrase “Bend it like Beckham” then the headline will also mean nothing to you.

Now consider this headline:

How to Take the Perfect Free Kick

Much improved, right? If the reader is a soccer fan, they will be in little doubt as to the potential benefit of the article. But there is still potentially room for ambiguity, so let’s make it easier still for the reader:

Soccer Skills: How to Take the Perfect Free Kick

Even better. You could even take it a step further by adding one more element:

Soccer Skills: How to Take the Perfect Free Kick [In 3 Steps]

The additional clarity of “3 Steps” makes it somehow seem like the article will be easier to digest and/or the skill will be easier to learn. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how the human brain processes it. We like steps.

The same general rules apply to sub-headers too — stick to the point and leave the reader in no doubt as to what they can expect from reading on.

3. Not Including an Introduction

Let’s start with the absolute basics: any blog post must have an introduction. Seems obvious, right? And yet, I have seen my fair share of blog posts that just launch straight into the content.

Beyond the obvious statement that any article deserves an introduction, there is something more vital at play here that is highly appropriate to an online audience: many people simply don’t have the patience to read an article if its purpose is not immediately obvious.

An introduction should serve a blog post’s “hook” — a lead into the bulk of the article that explains exactly what a reader has to benefit from it.

Consider for instance the introduction of this post and the part it played in ensuring that you are still reading. In a few short paragraphs I introduced a problem (poor technical writing skills) and promised a solution with a positive outcome (eradicate errors, become more successful). That is the power of a good introduction.

4. Including a Long Introduction

Ideally, your introduction should be just long enough to make the benefits of reading the article obvious, but short enough to get that message across in an immediate and compelling fashion.

I’m not going to prescribe a precise word count or number of paragraphs, as that would be entirely subjective. However, to serve as an example, consider this: In an ideal world I would prefer that the introduction of this post was a little shorter. In terms of length I feel that it is pushing the boundaries a bit.

Don’t worry unduly about this aspect of online writing. As long as your introduction isn’t six extended paragraphs long (I’ve seen that, and worse), you’ll probably be fine. But when writing introductions, remembers these two words: Immediate and compelling.

5. Not Using Sub-Headers

There is just about no excuse not to use sub-headers in blog posts. This can trip even experienced writers up, as they may feel (quite reasonably) that adding sub-headers doesn’t necessarily add anything to the reading experience.

Guess what? They’re often right (in a sense). But sub-headers aren’t just about the reading experience — they’re for those hefty proportion of internet users who scan content.

Sub-headers perform three main tasks tasks. They:

  1. Help to separate distinct sections of an article
  2. Make the scanning of content far more straightforward
  3. Break up text into more easily readable chunks

Use sub-headers liberally for the above three reasons and your blog posts will not only look better, but will be easier to digest for everyone.

6. Using Sub-Headers With Inconsistent Phrasing

This mistake makes articles look ragged and makes them far more difficult to read than they should be. But before I reveal why, I’ll explain exactly what I mean by “sub-headers with inconsistent phrasing” by giving you an example.

Say you were writing an article for your cat blog entitled: 5 Things Cat Haters Say About Our Feline Friends and your sub-headers were as follows:

  1. They Tear Up Your Furniture!
  2. They Miss the Litter Tray!
  3. But They’re So Cute!
  4. They Bring Dead Animals Into the House!
  5. They Give Me the Evil-Eye!

Can you spot the odd one out? That’s right — sub-header number three isn’t actually a thing cat haters say; it’s something that a cat lover would say to a cat hater. This kind of inconsistency can really throw a reader.

The above is a pretty obvious example but inconsistent phrasing can be done in more subtle yet still erroneous manner. I advise that as part of your proof-reading process you read through your sub-headers and make sure that they are consistent with each other.

7. Writing Bulky Paragraphs

The first thing I’ll tell a newbie online writer who wants to improve their skills is this maxim:

Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. (Tweet this)

Of those three elements of style that I feel are so important to online writing, the third is the one I would pick out as the most important. In my opinion, few things look worse on a page than enormous paragraphs. For many web users, it’s practically an invitation not to read.

I would advise you to rarely write paragraphs that extend beyond 6-7 lines; many of them can be as little as one line. The benefits for this are threefold:

  1. Smaller paragraphs are more aesthetically pleasing
  2. By making only one main point per paragraph you enable the reader to digest your content more easily
  3. Smaller paragraphs are easier to scan

On the flip side, a minor pet peeve of mine practiced by some writers is the overuse of paragraphs — i.e. including multiple one or two line paragraphs consistently throughout an article. In my opinion this serves to negate the benefits listed above. Having said that, I would much rather that you use excessively small paragraphs than excessively large ones.

8. Not Using Lists

I have yet to find an academic study that validates my position regarding lists but I still maintain that they are a reader’s best friend and should be used at every possible opportunity. For anecdotal proof of their efficacy just reflect upon the lists you have read through in this post so far. Do you feel they helped or hindered your understanding of the points that I made?

It only seems right that I wax lyrical about lists through the medium of (you guessed it) a list. So, what makes lists so effective in online writing?

Consider for instance the above list and preceding paragraph, delivered in a non-list format:

What makes lists so effective in online writing? They are attention grabbing, they imply the delivery of valuable and/or actionable information, they make text easier to read and scan, they add aesthetically pleasing white space, they shorten copy, they allow you to present relatable items in a clear format and they can demonstrate a sequence or order of importance (through numbered lists).

Which one is easier to read and digest?

9. Using Inconsistent Numbering

Ninety-nine percent or more of online writers use numbered lists rather than one of the alternatives that can be achieved through CSS (Roman numerals, letters, etc). Furthermore, those numbers are presented in very particular style: (e.g. “1.”).

So why is it that some writers insist on varying from that format with the numbers they put into headers? Why should a sub-header be preceded by “1)” when the lists included within the post use the format “1.”? It is inconsistent and unattractive. In fact, I recently edited an article that listed numbers within sub-headers as follows: “1).” (to cover all bases perhaps?).

So ensure that your numbering is consistent. That rule applies both ways too — don’t start creating alphabetical lists when your sub-headers are ordered numerically unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

10. Using ALL CAPS Within Content

USING ALL CAPS MAKES IT SEEM LIKE YOU ARE SHOUTING.

See what I mean? It’s difficult to read, looks unprofessional and instinctively “feels” negative. Never use all caps.

But what if you want to emphasise a specific word? That’s what italics are for. In fact, quite incidentally, I just used it above. I said: “Never use all caps” rather than “NEVER use all caps.” Which one do you think looks more appealing and professional?

11. The Incorrect Usage of Quotation Marks

Believe it or not, quotation marks are seriously complicated. Those complications are compounded by the fact that American English and British English have different approaches to using quotation marks.

I don’t have room here to go into the intricacies of their myriad uses of quotation marks; instead I want to hone down on their most common use. I am talking about the use of single and double quotation marks. My advice is straightforward: pick a style and stick with it. Personally I always use double quotation marks, but it is perfectly valid to use single.

If you want to use single quotation marks to denote speech or a quote, do so. but don’t switch to double quotation marks half way through the article. If you need to denote quotes within a quote, employ the quotation mark that you don’t usually use. If you want to denote a quote within a quote within a quote, go outside and take a walk — you’re going crazy.

12. The Odd Use of Italics

There is a multitude of ways in which italics are abused; most likely down to a lack of agreement amongst writing experts as to how they should be used.

My position is as follows — italics should be used for the following:

Here are some ways that I see italics being used that I don’t approve of:

  1. For questions (e.g. “In my opinion the government should reduce taxes. What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below!”)
  2. For quoted text within a paragraph (you will often see italics used to denote block quotes — this is acceptable)
  3. To emphasise phrases and/or sentences (e.g. “In my opinion there is no way that the government should reduce taxes.”)
  4. To indicate internal monologue (e.g. “I often say to myself, What would I do in that situation?“)

For each of the above usages of italics I consider there to be clear alternatives:

  1. If you feel the question is important, use bold to highlight it (i.e. “In my opinion the government should reduce taxes. What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below!”)
  2. Italics are not necessary — it is already clear to the reader that the phrase or sentence is a quote
  3. Again, use bold to highlight importance phrases and/or sentences (i.e. “In my opinion there is no way that the government should reduce taxes.”)
  4. Use quotation marks to indicate internal monologue (i.e. “I often say to myself, ‘What would I do in that situation?'”)

13. The Incorrect Usage of Hyphens and Dashes

In simple terms, hyphens have two uses:

  1. To form compounds of two or more words (e.g. “Well-behaved”)
  2. To separate prefixes and suffixes from their root word (e.g. “Pre-1940s”)

Hyphens should absolutely not be used to indicate a break in a sentence (such as the one you are about to see) — that is what dashes is for.

But that’s where it begins to get complicated, as there are two types of dashes: en and em. Furthermore, there are additional circumstances under which hyphens or dashes (of either type) might be used.

I’ve got to be honest — even get a little bored at this point. As such I like to keep it simple: I use a hyphen as per the two uses above and I use a double hyphen (–) for everything else. Within WordPress, the double hyphen is often automatically converted into an en or em dash (as it is above). That’s good enough for me.

Even in my world of writing, practicality occasionally reigns supreme.

14. Not Including a Conclusion

The vast majority of blog posts and online articles should have a conclusion. Without a conclusion you are likely to leave the reader undecided as to what they should do next.

And make no mistake: when it comes to online writing, your job is always to demonstrate to the reader what they should do next. If you do not, they are more likely to get on with their day than carry out a desired action (such as subscribe to your newsletter or purchase a product).

Just with the essays you used to write at school, the job of a conclusion is to sum up the most relevant points within the article. This summing-up should typically result in you advising the reader to take one or more steps.

Ideally, these steps should result in the reader remaining engaged with your content or taking a desired action. Often you enable this by using a Call To Action (CTA) such as, “If you enjoyed this article then please subscribe to our mailing list to receive our future updates in your email inbox!” Such CTAs should be varied in order to prevent the reader feeling like they’re being battered with the same message every time they read one of your articles.

Over to You

I find it unsurprising that this post is one of the longest I have ever written here on Leaving Work Behind, because it highlights a huge number of pet peeves that I hate to see within people’s writing. I am certain that if online writers eradicate the above errors in their writing, they will create better looking blog posts and, most importantly, increase their value to clients.

But I don’t want this to end here — this is your chance to voice your opinion! If you disagree with any of the points I’ve made above please feel free to offer your constructive criticism in the comments section below. And if you have additional points that you feel should be listed above, let me know and I’ll consider them.

I look forward to reading your thoughts!

The Mystery of the Single Post That Attracts 46% of All My Google Traffic

Written by Tom Ewer on July 18, 2013. 38 Comments
Photo Credit: Ryan Milani

Photo Credit: Ryan Milani

Over the past month Leaving Work Behind has attracted nearly ten thousand visitors from search engines. Of those ten thousand visitors, almost half entered the site via the same post — a relatively inconspicuous guide to finding your first freelance writing job.

I discovered a few weeks ago that the post was ranking #2 in Google for the term “freelance writing jobs”, which attracts in the region of eighteen thousand exact match searches every month. It’s a pretty popular keyword — certainly more popular than anything I’ve ever ranked for before. The post has stayed at #2 (excluding the occasional fluctuation) for over a month now.

The success of this post has raised all sorts of questions in my head. Why does it rank so high? How did it manage to rank for a keyword I wasn’t even targeting? Why haven’t other posts in which I have focused equally on onsite SEO not performed as well?

In this post I intend to discover the answer to those questions in the hope that I can duplicate the post’s success. Read on to find out whether I did!

There are affiliate links in this post. If you purchase a product through one of them I will receive a commission. It will cost you nothing extra. I only ever endorse products that I have personally used and tested extensively. Thank you!

The Power of One Post

As you will know if you are a regular LWB reader, I write about freelance writing here on a pretty regular basis. After I released my freelance writing guide back in November 2012, I realized that in theory I could boost sales by attracting search engine visitors through freelance writing-related posts.

So over the period of several months I published a number of freelance writing posts that targeted specific keywords relating to freelance writing. Here are a handful which you can find on this blog:

WordPress SEO

A couple of these posts do okay — one attracted 700 visitors in the past month, another attracted 250. But for the most part they don’t bring in a particularly high number of visitors; especially compared to the beast that is Freelance Writing: How To Find Your First Job.

That post alone attracted 4,500 clicks in the past month — almost 50% of total search engine traffic:

Search Engine Visitors

As you can see, the second most popular post (which also covers freelance writing) attracts just 700 clicks per month. Its contribution is puny by comparison. If the top post were to lose its rankings tomorrow, my monthly search engine traffic would drop by approximately half.

The performance of this post is a bit of a mystery to me, but there must be some underlying cause. Most importantly, if I can understand the cause I can attempt to replicate it, which means more search engine visitors.

The Big Picture

First of all, let’s see how Leaving Work Behind has fared in terms of search engine traffic over the past year or so.

It’s worth noting that me and Google have rarely got along. This blog was “Google slapped” back in April 2012 (ironically, the same month that my monster freelancing post was published). In that month LWB attracted just 1,408 visitors from Google.

Search engine traffic actually declined from that point to a low of just 1,052 visitors in July 2012. But later in the year referrals began to pick up and gained momentum from then on:

Search Engine Traffic

As you can see, from December 2012 search engine traffic has been consistently on the rise, increasing by 360% up to the end of June 2013. That’s a pretty impressive climb relative to the stagnancy that preceded it.

So it’s not like my monster post led the increase in search engine traffic — after all, it only attained its lofty rating for “freelance writing jobs” around six weeks ago. It seems that Google has been growing more and more comfortable with my site over the past ten months or so.

But that’s not all — Google seems to have been growing more and more comfortable with my site specifically as a resource for freelance writers. How do I know this? Simple — just check out the top queries by the number of clicks over the past fourteen months:

Keywords

Five of the top ten queries relate to freelance writing, and three of the remaining are branded keywords. If you exclude the wild card at number seven (boring? Me?) you have to go down to number ten to find the first non freelance writing related keyword that I have specifically targeted in a post (this post). It has attracted just 90 clicks in over a year.

I have written plenty of non freelance writing posts that target specific keywords for SEO purposes, but barely any have managed to elevate themselves into a position of any real relevance. Consider for example the top landing pages from search engine referrals in June 2013:

Top Landing Pages

Three of the top four landing pages are about freelance writing (with the other being the homepage). Both the first and second post are in fact the same post — I changed the permalink to optimize it further. Fifth and sixth are non writing related, but then seventh and eighth spots are taken over again by more freelancing posts.

Out of the top ten landing pages above (excluding the homepage), non writing related posts account for just 11% of total clicks. Furthermore, writing related posts accounted for 56% of total search engine traffic in June. With the subsequent higher ranking of just that one post, I can expect the proportion to be much higher in July.

It’s not like I haven’t targeted other keywords — I have targeted all sorts. Furthermore, my onsite SEO methodology has remained largely unchanged for the past year or so. The logical conclusion therefore is that Google considers my blog to be more of an authority on freelance writing than it is any other. While it is possible that I have selected a healthy handful of freelance writing keywords that happen to have performed relatively well for me, the performance of freelance writing related posts compared to others seems more than just a coincidence.

However, Google’s favor certainly isn’t all that is at play here. After all, if we strip out the most popular post, the proportion of search engine clicks that are freelance writing related drops to just 34%, which is far more representative of the balance of search engine optimized content on the site.

It would seem to me that there is something special about that one post in particular. But what?

Examining a Winner

The post in question is a guide for beginner freelance writers to finding their first job. I think it’s a good post, but no better than many other freelance writing posts I’ve written on LWB. At 1,636 words it is relatively long, but again no longer than many other posts I’ve written here.

Let’s examine the guts of the post, SEO-wise. It gets the green light from the SEO by Yoast plugin and enjoys decent ratings on various criteria:

Page Analysis

As you can see, there is only one red light, a couple of ambers, one yellow and a whole bunch of green. Quantifiably speaking, it’s a pretty well optimized post. In reality though, it was never that well optimized for the keyword in question (“freelance writing jobs”) as I never actually optimized it for that keyword! It was however a derivative of that keyword, so one could argue that the effect is largely the same.

Speaking of the keyword, how competitive is it? Let’s take a look with Market Samurai:

SEO Competition

There’s my post, listed in third place behind two aged domains with far more content and referring domains than me.

It’s a relatively competitive keyword — although onsite optimization and backlinks to pages aren’t massively intimidating, you’d want to have a domain with some weight behind it to hope to rank (at least, that would be my thinking).

How about backlinks? Market Samurai shows that it has just two referring domains pointing to it, which certainly seems low. Ahrefs shows zero backlinks pointing to the page, while Open Site Explorer shows just one link from this page. There are two interesting things to note here:

  1. The site linking to the page is simply a content aggregator — it’s not adding unique content.
  2. It also links to two other posts on my site — neither of which have experienced anywhere near the same amount of success.

Having examined the above evidence, it seems that a pretty unremarkable post, with unremarkable SEO (both offsite and onsite) has managed to rank for a pretty remarkable keyword. And after all of this I feel like I am no closer to understanding why.

So, it’s time to move onto the next step.

Comparisons

I figure that if there is something special about this post, perhaps it will stand out when put side-by-side against others. So, I made a list of ten posts from LWB, all which were written to target a specific keyword, and set out to produce a table that would quantifiably compare them. Here’s what I came up with:

PostWordsKwd in HeadlineKwd in Page TitleKwd in URLKwd in SubheaderKwd Density
WordPress Security: Everything You Need To Know2,461YesYesYesNo0.24%
Top Five Regrets Of The Dying - What It Can Teach Us About Living1,084YesYesYesNo0.09%
Organic Search Engine Optimization: How I'm Doing It1,582YesYesYesYes0.12%
How to Start a Mastermind Group (and Why You Should)1,676YesYesYesYes1.32%
5 Things I Have Learned from a Successful Information Product Launch1,998YesYesYesNo0.20%
Why All Bloggers Should Consider Creating an Information Product1,169NoYesYesYes0.17%
9 Steps to Writing Blog Posts Quickly (and Making Much More Money)1,750NoYesYesNo0.00%
How to Succeed in Business (and Life)1,014YesYesYesNo0.00%
How to Start Blogging: Everything You Need to Know1,768YesYesYesYes0.11%
Freelance Writing: How To Find Your First Job1,636NoYesYesNo0.24%

When comparing the highly-ranked post against others on this blog, it is utterly unremarkable. Both the word count and keyword density are almost bang on average and it actually performs pretty poorly in terms of other optimization factors.

So no magic formula is unveiled there. So how about the competition of each of the relevant keywords pertaining to each post? Using Market Samurai I compiled the totals of relevant offsite and onsite factors for the top ten pages of each keyword. Here were the results:

SEO Data

Don’t worry too much about that mess of numbers — what I was really interested in was the average of each field compared to the results for “freelance writing jobs”. The results were interesting. Some of the numbers were within ~20% of the average and thus were relatively unremarkable, but there were a few discrepancies:

However, there were much bigger discrepancies the other way, such as:

But over all, and just like the onsite SEO factors I covered above, my high-ranking post is almost bang on the average for both onsite and offsite SEO factors collected by Market Samurai when compared against another nine posts on my blog.

Obviously that is an extremely small sample size, but I am nonetheless left completely clueless as to what is causing this one post to rank so well.

Over to You

So now it’s your turn.

I am appealing to all SEO experts out there to unload their wisdom in the comments section. As a relative SEO amateur I have done my very best to uncover the reason(s) as to why just one single post on this blog has ranked so highly for such a relatively valuable keyword, but I have come up with no answers.

If you think that one of your Twitter followers may be able to solve the mystery (or if you just like challenging people ;-)) then tweet the following out to them by clicking on it:

Can you solve this SEO mystery?

If you’re not an SEO expert then please don’t feel like I am excluding you from the debate; please feel free to chime in with your comments and questions below too! As always, I look forward to hearing from you all 🙂

Email Marketing Best Practices (My 5 Step Guide to a Successful Campaign)

Written by Tom Ewer on July 15, 2013. 18 Comments
Email Me

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC

The internet marketing world is packed full of catchphrases that tend to annoy me.

One such catchphrase is, “The money is in the list!” It really bugs me; especially because I relate it to those internet marketers who create the kind of contrived email autoresponder series that I hate. When I first launched this blog back in June 2011 I made a promise to myself to not go down that road.

Which brings me to the present day and my email list. In my time I have created three different email autoresponder series (two of which I have scrapped) and ten different lists. At the time of writing I have a total of 3,668 subscribers, which may not be a lot but it is enough to make me a good income.

With that in mind, in this post I want to share with you a five step guide to email marketing best practices — the process I have followed (through trial and error) to establish what I consider to be a successful email list.

There are affiliate links in this post. If you purchase a product through one of them I will receive a commission. It will cost you nothing extra. I only ever endorse products that I have personally used and tested extensively. Thank you!

Step 1: Sign Up With AWeber

The first thing you need to do when you have decided to build an email list is to find a service that will handle the technical side of things — I’m afraid that simply sending an email to a hundred people from Gmail is not going to cut it.

And while there are plenty of options out there, I have just one recommendation: AWeber. I have been an AWeber user from the very start and have never regretted it. I have used many of the alternatives (including arguably its biggest competitor, MailChimp) and in my opinion it stands head and shoulder above them all.

You can sign up now and get your first month for just $1. After that it’s $19 per month, but in my opinion that’s a relatively paltry amount of money well spent. Along with web hosting, it’s one of the two things I do not think you should compromise on when it comes to building a successful blog.

Click here to sign up to AWeber now.

Step 2: Create Your List

Once you’re up and running with AWeber you’ll need to create a list. Lists are used to store subscribers’ details, web form designs, the emails sent to those subscribers, and plenty more. You’re going to need one for your first email marketing campaign.

Fortunately, they’re really easy to set up. In the following video I take you through the entire process, skipping all the unnecessary fluff and sticking to what you need to do.

Step 3: Create a Web Form

Once your list is up and running, people need to be able to subscribe to it! And although you can manually add subscribers on a small scale, the real key is in creating a web form that people can use to subscribe themselves.

You can either create a web form that is hosted by AWeber (and that you can link to) or embed one within your blog. In this next video I’ll show you how to create a web form that you can embed on your own blog

Easy, right? You can include the form within posts, pages, and even text widgets show you can include the form in your sidebar and/or footer — all you need to do is copy and paste!

Step 4: Create Your Autoresponder Series

Now we get down to what really matters — the content that you create. The work you do here makes all the difference between a profitable or a “dead” list.

First of all, consider what you want out of your email list. What you shouldn’t primarily be looking for is volume — you want quality. What I mean by this is that a hundred high-quality subscribers is far better than a thousand who have no interest in what you have to say.

Secondly, you need to make a decision up front about what type of email marketer you are going to be. There are (in my opinion) two broad types:

  1. Salesy
  2. Non-salesy

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with being a salesy email marketer — there are a huge number of people out there who are very successful at it. But if your blog is anything like mine (i.e. focused on a personal approach), a salesy autoresponder series will seem out of place.

I advocate a non-salesy approach. While I still make money out of my list, it is very much through a “softly softly” method that focuses on building a relationship with the subscriber first, then promoting products to them second (and when I do, it is in a very non-pushy way).

To give you an idea of what I mean, I’m going to take you through the first email in the Leaving Work Behind autoresponder series (and also show you how to create these autoresponder emails yourself).

If you subscribe to my autoresponder series you will note that I don’t try to sell anything to you for the first few emails. All I try to do is offer tremendous value. When someone subscribes, that should be your cue to build trust, not sell to them.

And when I do recommend something via my autoresponder, it is very much a softly-softly approach. It’s not until email number eight in my series (6 Books You Should Read If You Want to Leave Work Behind) that I actually try to sell anything.

The key question you should ask yourself when creating an autoresponder email in which you intend to promote something that you can make an income off is this: would you still send it if you couldn’t make money from it? The answer to that question is what you should pay attention to.

So my strategy is simple really — offer loads of value and occasionally promote products. There isn’t a great deal more to it than that! I really see my autoresponder series as an extension to the blog and I treat it as such. I’d like to think that a lot of the content I send to my email subscribers is as good as (and sometimes better) than what I publish here on the blog. After all, don’t your most loyal subscribers deserve something a little special?

To be honest, the best way you’ll get a solid idea of my email marketing strategy is to sign up to my list. You can always unsubscribe if you don’t like what I send you!

Step 5: Broadcasts

If you’re anything like me then you’ll want to keep in regular touch with your subscribers via broadcast emails. This is something that many bloggers do not do (they’ll stick solely to their autoresponder series), but I see not doing it as an opportunity lost.

For one reason, consider the opportunity cost in terms of traffic. Monday is almost always the highest traffic day for Leaving Work Behind, because that is the day I send out my weekly broadcast email. I’ll get a few hundred extra people visiting my blog just because of that broadcast email. Furthermore, when I polled my subscribers I discovered that the majority of them wanted this email. A lot of people will sign up to your email list in the expectation that they will receive blog updates, so don’t disappoint them!

In the following video I show you how I created the broadcast email for this week’s update (i.e. the one promoting this particular post).

Any Questions?

So that’s it! By now you know everything you need to know about email marketing best practices (at least, how I do it). But if you have any comments or questions please do not hesitate to leave them below — as always, I love to read and respond to what you have to say!