In the olden days of the Internet, I used to blog and then watch for my stats. I’d be happy if I had at least 1 comment and 300-400 views on the article I wrote. I didn’t understand why some posts create a big splash on the web with discussions lasting years while others, more often than not, didn’t provoke any response at all.
My colleague Filippo wrote a post with his observations on the subject, focusing on marketing acquisition channels. Pick these and these terms and you’ll appear in Google Search (that’s SEO), pay Facebook for an extra reach (that’s SEM), and you’ll succeed. I absolutely agree with this approach but I feel I have something to add.
You can drive as much traffic as you can but if the content is no good your expensive visitors will switch their attention to something else immediately and leave no trace of their presence other than a number in your Analytics. So while the acquisition is important, content is critical. There will be no chicken without an egg.
Productive Emotions and Biased Algorithms
Certain things make people click and want to say what they can, share your stuff on Facebook, return to see updates, new comments, and responses to their opinion. We kind of want that as bloggers. But what are those things? Ryan Holiday in his book Trust me, I’m lying gives an answer that’s provocative an worth sharing. What engages people, according to him, is productive emotions. Fear. Outrage. Greed. Guilt. No emotion in the text means no social sharing, a dead post. Depressive emotions have the same effect – people wouldn’t share depressive thoughts. So the content that engages needs to be emotionally charged and productive.
Air pollution in the air (Sofia is having smog this week)? That’s hideous, why are those people driving diesel cars? (Fear, Outrage). Bitcoin hits $15000 (Greed, fear, what am I missing?).
Articles written this way have an unexpected ally – the newsfeed algorithms. The algorithms know what makes people click more and are biased towards negative emotions. If a post is “productive”, algorithms for selecting best content would likely give it a preference. Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote a book on the subject called “Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech” that dives into the subject. Despite her focus being on apps being non-inclusive, the book is a good start for learning more about this. Biased algorithms are a very well exploited traffic source these days. Social networks promote false, controversial, or propaganda content because it works.
“The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger”
— Holiday, Ryan. “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.”
Each time I see an article regarding the famous Google Memo, I wonder which emotion should I feel. Should I admire the media manipulation creativity of the author? Should I feel offended or empathetic or what? It’s brilliant in a very sad way to create division between people, to generalize in a way that makes literally everyone feel outraged. Men vs women. East vs West. South vs North. Rich vs Poor. Conservatives vs Liberals. Separatists vs Unionists. Our brains seem to seek this kind of information and make us spend time on it despite our best interest. Compare a negative controversial post to an article about Tesla Model 3 – how many people actually care about electric cars? And how many users would ever be interested in CSS optimisation tricks? “I discovered the Marquee tag. You are not going to believe what happened next.”
Ryan Holiday’s book is bragging about outrage but is exploiting it to the maximum, and that’s one of the reasons why I think about it and share it in this blog post.
Controversy has Price
The problem with controversy is that by writing such things you become one of them. The small number of controversial articles I had on my former blog had lots of comments and page views but I also got threats and started feeling uncomfortable blogging. I feel uncomfortable blogging now that I write this post too. The author of the Google Memo got plenty of reactions but also lost not only his job but his future chances of employment unless he changes his name or something. Using controversy is like selling your soul to the devil of traffic. It bites back.
Positive Emotionally Charged Posts
I believe that it is still possible to create an emotionally charged post without resorting to negativity and controversy. Social networks like Quora, LinkedIn, and Twitter provide us with some good examples of how to do that.
– Curiosity and self-improvement is my favorite, although it might be linked to Greed.
– Life stories – I find these very attractive, however, I can’t tell what exactly is the root emotion. It must be something yellow or media like Sun wouldn’t be full of celebrity gossip.
– Dreams for the future – who doesn’t want to have an electric self-driving car? Or an electric sheep 🙂
– Events and Places – beach photos and beautiful meals are incredible. And let’s not forget recipes.
Productive emotions, in my opinion, are the salt that makes people click. It’s also the poison that transforms Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other big media to be dangerously toxic. Should be used in moderation.