Looking Under the Hood

This newsletter was written by Steve Pavlina, sent on February 18, 2010. It’s re-published here for achival purposes, with permission.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

Many of your beliefs are inherited. You pick them up from others second-hand. Your mind is full of such beliefs, and you rarely notice them operating. But quite often such beliefs limit your results. You act on them without questioning them.

I see this problem a lot in the blogosphere. Amateur bloggers get their minds loaded with tips and tricks from other bloggers, and then they set to work on trying to build traffic to their sites. The only problem is that many of the tips they learn are based on falsehoods. The tips don’t work consistently because the underlying assumptions simply aren’t correct.

Many bloggers have shared advice on the importance of posting frequency, emphasizing that it’s a bad idea to go more than a few days without posting some fresh content. Bloggers that follow this advice end up posting a lot of content just to maintain a certain pacing. They often pressure themselves to get something new online every day or two, whether or not they feel inspired to write. But in the long run, the average quality of their posts tends to go down, and they dilute their brand with lots of weak content. Their traffic grows initially but then stagnates. Maintaining their blog becomes like running on a treadmill.

Posting something new every day or two sounds like good advice on the surface. But you can just as easily argue that posting less frequently is the better choice. This means you can put more thought into each new piece of content, so the average quality should be higher. Higher quality content generates more referrals and links. More links means higher search engine rankings and more traffic. Also, with less frequent posting, visitors may be more inclined to read your content as opposed to just skimming it, so hopefully they’ll get more value out of it.

So which mindset is actually correct?

The best way to find out is to try both approaches and look at the data. What happens to your web traffic if you post more frequently vs. less? This is something that you can actually measure over a period of months and years simply by experimenting. Then you’ll have your answers, and you’ll probably learn a lot more than you expected.

In my case posting more or less frequently is largely irrelevant. Posting frequency simply isn’t a significant factor in terms of traffic growth. It really doesn’t make a difference how often I post or don’t post. Sometimes I’ll post new articles for a few days in a row. Other times I’ll go 7-10 days without posting anything at all. Neither approach makes a significant difference in overall traffic as far as the data indicates, at least not when compared to more significant factors. So when bloggers proselytize about the importance of posting frequency, I just roll my eyes at them. My data tells me this isn’t a factor worth focusing on and that frequency of posting is meaningless.

In January 2010, I only posted 5 new blog entries. That’s about one post every 6 days on average. And yet it was my highest month ever for web traffic. StevePavlina.com served up more than 9.1 million page views that month. And February is still maintaining that level at about 300,000 page views per day, even though I haven’t been writing many posts this month either (only 4 so far). But I’ve seen other months where I hit new traffic highs, and I posted a lot more frequently during those times. However, I can explain those increases without taking into account the posting volume during those months. Posting frequency is largely irrelevant as a factor in traffic growth as far as I can tell.

Since I’ve been blogging for 5+ years now, I have plenty of data to look at. I don’t have to guess. I don’t have to take advice from questionable experts. I can see the patterns clearly enough now. Post quality is important, sure. So is providing value. But neither of those are actually the most significant factor when it comes to traffic building.

Would you like to know what my data suggests the #1 traffic-building strategy to be?

The best way to describe it is: violating expectations. When I post something that violates people’s expectations, my traffic usually goes up. But when I meet or satisfy people’s expectations, traffic typically stays flat. One explanation for this effect is that when you violate people’s expectations, they remember it. They can’t help but remember it because our brains are wired to notice that which violates our expectations. When something satisfies our expectations, our brains forget the specific details, and the general higher-level patterns get reinforced. When articles violate people’s expectations, they’re more memorable, and people talk about them more and refer others to them more often. You can’t get many referrals to content that people forget about the next day.

For example, the article 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job violates expectations. Even the title achieves that. The style of the article wasn’t what people expected. However, this article has generated massive numbers of referrals to my website. I wrote it in 2006, and people still discuss it every day. It has also helped spawn dozens of new businesses. I even have the T-shirt to prove it because someone started a motivational T-shirt business after reading that article and gave me a free T-shirt.

Other things I write about that violate people’s expectations on some level include: eating a raw vegan diet, making money without a job, separating from my wife, exploring domination-submission with a willing partner (and sharing her identity, with her permission of course), experimenting with polyphasic sleep, blogging about how to graduate from Christianity, dropping all third-party advertising from my site, and doing Conscious Growth Workshops in Las Vegas (i.e. Sin City).

At first I stumbled upon this principle by accident. I looked at the data year after year, and the pattern gradually became clear. Then I started dipping my toes in it to see if I could deliberately write new content that violated people’s expectations. That worked well, but I was still hesitant to fully accept it. Eventually I decided to fully embrace this idea, not just in terms of blogging but also in terms of my lifestyle choices. I realized that violating expectations offered some major personal growth advantages too; it wasn’t merely a traffic-building strategy. It would push me to build my courage, deal with social resistance, and cultivate a lifestyle that was uniquely my own without holding back due to worrying about what others might think. Over time the personal reasons for violating expectations became a lot more important than the professional ones.

I never would have known that violating expectations was a good idea unless I took the time to look under the hood and see what was really going on traffic-wise. It took a while to understand why certain posts caused a surge in traffic and why most posts didn’t. It was hard to accept that providing value by itself wasn’t enough to grow traffic. I didn’t see any other bloggers recommending that it was a good idea to write content that violated people’s expectations. Many recommended doing the exact opposite, suggesting that it was best to play it safe so as not to alienate any readers. My data tells me the opposite is true. The more I do things that would seem to alienate readers, the more readers my website attracts. When I write content that people expect to see, they digest it and then forget it the next day.

This traffic-building strategy is the main reason I’ve been able to build such a high-traffic website without spending a dime on marketing, promotion, or PR. My traffic growth comes mainly from referrals. My content gets under people’s skin, so they keep talking about it. I’ve learned how to provide value through my content while also packaging the ideas in ways that generate large numbers of referrals. I don’t aim to write gratuitous content just for traffic — it’s very important to provide strong value as well — but it helps more people if that value is delivered in a form that will shake them up a bit and get them past their complacency, so they will be more likely to act on it.

I’ve also seen that content that violates expectations also tends to give people the best breakthroughs. Having to deal with the unexpected knocks people out of their comfort zones. It pushes people’s buttons and sets them up for making new decisions. One consequence is that people direct a lot more personal attacks and criticism my way (they love to attack the messenger sometimes), but I’ve learned to accept that. It’s not really a bad thing because it means people are digesting and remembering these ideas. It would be worse if nobody said anything.

I’ll probably share more detail about the strategy of violating expectations on my blog at some point, but the point of this article is to emphasize the importance of looking at your actual data and figuring out what’s really going on in your life. That’s how you’ll discover some of your greatest insights.

What patterns of eating and exercising cause you to lose weight vs. gain weight? What daily routine gives you the greatest level of satisfaction at the end of the day (rated on a scale of 1 to 10)? What’s the fastest route to your workplace? These are all things you can figure out by gathering and looking at the data. Don’t rely so much on experts, including me. Look at the real truth of your specific situation. See what the data is telling you.

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