A ‘Simple Web’ Philosophy For Getting What You Want

getting what you wantPhotography by d’n’c

Most hard questions have simple answers. The hard part is in the doing.

The question: how can I lose weight? can be answered truthfully in one sentence: eat three modest, healthy meals each day (and no more), and make exercising a habit.

But that isn’t good enough. It’s the how that gets us. It’s not enough to say what we have to do. We need to know how to do it.

As bloggers and webmasters, we want most or all of these things: more visitors, more subscribers, more comments, more money, more inbound links, and more people saying good things about us. Our wants aren’t in question. It’s the how that gets us. It’s the how that has us reading a dozen blogs a day, trying to find the answer (or at least a little piece of it).

You can stop searching, for now. The answer is in this post.

The Question

How can I get visitors, subscribers, comments, inbound links, and people saying good things about what I do?

The Answer

Evaluate every action, every possible change, and every existing feature of your blog or website, and ask: Is it gripping? Can the reader resonate with it? Does it make it easy (and rewarding) to interact? And most importantly: is it easy (or rewarding) to talk about?

That’s all you need to know. Do these things, and you’ll get everything you want.

Not satisfied?

Keep reading if you feel underwhelmed or disappointed.

Of course you do. If you don’t, you’ve probably got everything you want already.

There’s nothing wrong with the above answer. After all, it’s true. If you did all those things, you’d get what you wanted (and more).

Trouble is, like the answer to all our weight-loss woes above, it deals with the What, not the How. It’s all very well to want to write something worth talking about, but how do we do it?

That’s where the idea of the Simple Web comes in.

What is the Simple Web?

It’s my name for a practical philosophy of actions and results. As the name implies, it’s simple enough for anyone to follow.

Every website or blog has elements that help you get what you want, and elements that are obstacles to doing so. Those elements which help you fall into four distinct categories, and I’ll be discussing each of them in more detail in a series of posts after this one.

#1 — Gripping

Each new visitor has a limited amount of attention to give. Are you focusing it on elements which further your message, or squandering it away on distractions?

If your site — and I use this to mean blog or website — isn’t gripping, readers aren’t going to engage with your content. If they don’t engage with your content, they’ll forget about you.

If your site isn’t gripping, your other actions are wasted. Your articles might be top-notch, but if few visitors are gripped enough to read them from start to finish, you’ll never see the rewards those articles deserve. I don’t mean to sound dire, but a failure to ‘grip’ readers is something I often see crippling otherwise excellent sites.

The key question is: how can I make sure every element of my site is gripping, and how can I remove the elements that aren’t?

Building a gripping layout

1. Make it memorable. How distinctive is your site? Do you have your own logo, or a unique header? People remember visuals much more strongly than names — that’s why big brands place such an emphasis on their logo.

2. Use eye-catching headline presentation. We’re not yet talking about the content of those headlines, but simply how they’re presented. Are they eye-catching, distinctive, and do they stand out from your content? [See it: Cornwall SEO]

3. Put your best foot forward. Work your best content into your design. Are your most popular, or favorite posts, highlighted enough that the average visitor will see them? A ‘Popular Posts’ widget is more gripping than a ‘Recent Posts’ widget. If visitors were looking to find your most recent posts, they’d be scrolling down the page.

4. Work images into your articles. As Robert Scoble said when explaining how he reads feeds, images slow the eye down. They’re magnetic when it comes to eye contact, and do a lot to encourage readers to focus on your articles.

Repairing non-gripping layout elements

1. Simplify down only to the elements that will grip visitors. MyBlogLog widgets, Recent Comments, long Archive lists and blogrolls in the sidebar, too many (or boring) ads and other unessential layout elements all fail to grip visitors.

Gripping layout elements provide concise doorways to essential functions and content. Non-gripping elements distract from what is essential, and can work to make the rest of your site less gripping.

Build gripping content

1. Craft attention-grabbing or interesting headlines. I like to think of each headline as the sign on a door you want readers to open. If the sign promises something good/interesting in the room ahead, readers will peek inside. If not, they’ll move on to the next door.

If you feel like too much of a sell-out going for the jugular with big-numbered headlines then you might simply settle for ‘interesting’ — a headline which works to pique interest in a subtle way. I’d recommend switching between the two strategies so neither overstay their welcome.

Get Off Your Butt: 16 Ways to Get Motivated When You’re In a Slump

The finger moustache virus

2. Create content with your ‘Most Popular’ list in mind. Build a collection of 5 or so really impressive posts with headlines that promise immense value and display them somewhere highly visible on your site (preferable ‘above the fold’). These posts will be magnetic to new visitors, and instantly communicate that your site is packed with value.

3. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. If your headline is good or relevant, readers will ‘open the door’. Before stepping completely inside they’ll take a peek at what the article has to offer. This peek is your first few paragraphs — or better, your first paragraph.

Don’t be afraid to ‘spoil’ your readers. If your article was a short story, you’d start with telling the reader what happens in the end. Why? Because the value doesn’t lie in the what, it lies in the how.

If a potential reader is clear on what she stands to gain by finishing the article, she’s more likely to do so. And that’s what we want — reading, not scanning.

4. Write for the new visitor. Would your article be gripping to someone who had never visited your site before? Is it likely to be submitted to social media?

Articles that don’t make sense without background information generally have little success on social media services, where content needs to be self-sustaining. If it’s not self-sustaining, new visitors are unlikely to be gripped by it.

5. Write for your target audience. Who is the ideal visitor to your site, and what kind of content would they want? What answers would they be searching for?

One thing to note as that you are (probably) part of your target audience. Most of us write for those with the same interests and goals as us.

What kinds of articles would you most love to read? What kind of site would you most wish to discover?

The next step in the process is to start creating a site that resembles the ideal. Chances are others in your target audience will appreciate it, too.

6. Create an About page that promises value. A good About page explains what kinds of topics you write on and why you’re qualified to write about them. A great About page explains what visitors to your site stand to gain by reading its content.

Repairing non-gripping content

1. Change what isn’t working. If a particular type of content consistently generates little interest, either change the way you do it or do something else.

Uninteresting content doesn’t merely sit there, neutral, neither adding nor detracting from your site. If a great article is a +1, a boring one is a -1. Boring articles have the potential to outweigh the benefits of good ones.

You often won’t know an article is boring until you hear the chirping of crickets in the comments section. It’s a distinctive and valuable message: don’t do the same thing again.

2. If in doubt, don’t publish it. It’s better to not post (which has a neutral effect on your site), than post something sub-standard merely to show signs of life, or because you should.

How this ties into the ‘Simple Web’

Simplify down to the design elements and content that will grip your readers. If it’s not gripping, it’s distracting, or boring — the opposite of gripping.

Allowing non-gripping elements to stand, or non-gripping actions to continue, is often mistaken as being harmless — as neither hurting nor harming your site. This isn’t the case.

Every boring, distracting or irrelevant inch of your site and its content will weaken what is gripping about it.

Ask yourself: is this element/action +1, or -1? If it’s not one, it’s the other. The belief in zero, in certain things being neither one nor the other, and therefore acceptable, causes us to waste time and visitor attention on actions and elements that simply don’t contribute to the growth of your site.

A challenge, if you’d like to try it: Eliminate every zero or -1 action from yourself and your site.

#2 — Resonating

If your content or design can’t be understood, it has failed, and complex ideas are no excuse. The only obstacle to expressing a complex idea in simple terms is laziness. If visitors don’t understand your message, how can they interact with it, or talk about it?

Once you’ve created gripping content and a gripping environment for it, the next step is to construct a site that resonates with your reader.

You might have the most clickable headlines in the world coupled with a flawlessly simple and usable design, but if your ideas don’t resonate, it won’t count for much.

Resonance is a prerequisite for every reader action that works to grow your site. The behavioral flow is: entry — grip — resonance — interaction — talk, and resonance is arguably the most important link in the chain.

Readers won’t interact with the site if they don’t resonate with it. Readers won’t talk about it if they don’t resonate with it. But a reader can talk about it without interacting, and vice versa.

In other words, resonance is key. In this post, I want to show you how to create a site with the resonance of a bell.

What is resonance?

Resonance is not the same as agreement, or even disagreement — though it may involve either. Resonance is understanding followed by an internal reaction.

Content with this resonance is at first understood, but what happens after is more unpredictable. Does it link-in with feelings of self-confidence, or feelings of inadequacy?

Does it make a point the reader has always felt, but never been able to articulate? Does it arouse emotions? Approval? Amusement? Does it seem as if the information will contribute to ‘being better’ at something?

Any kind of understanding and internal reaction is resonance, whatever form it may take. Understanding alone is not enough.

Your words must mean something to the reader. When I tell you “The sky is blue,” you certainly understand, but it won’t resonate because it’s old knowledge.

Building a design that resonates

1. Create an About page that resonates. Don’t simply list the topics you write about — explain your core message, your mission statement, and what you hope to bring. Make sure it’s something no-one has seen before.

I’d argue that there are two types of resonance: resonance with a general message and resonance with a specific one.

A reader might resonate with the idea of making money online, but how can you be unique enough with your mission statement that the reader will also build specific resonance with your site alone?

2. Create a design that resonates with your message. Once you’ve worked out your unique message and mission statement, take some time to think about how you could use your design to further that message.

For me, it’s incredibly important to have a simple, minimalist design because simplicity is something I often advocate. If my design were messy and cluttered, my calls for simplicity wouldn’t resonate at all.

To extend the make money online example earlier, a blog I think does this particularly well is Dosh Dosh.

The site has built itself around approaching the topic in a friendly and fun way, and the design reflects that perfectly. Does your design suit your message?

3. Do the words and structure resonate? It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that your design and navigation is hinged on words and expressions you can change, and structures that can be rebuilt in different ways. Can you mine opportunities to resonate from these elements?

Repairing a design that doesn’t resonate

1. If your design says “I’m not serious”, rebuild it. If it’s messy, cluttered, sloppy, or jarring in any way, your design is an obstacle. It’s what your content comes clothed in. If your content is badly dressed, it appears less trustworthy and informed.

WordPress users are spoiled for choice when it comes to gorgeous, easy-to-use themes. There’s really no excuse for a bad design.

2. Fix elements that say “I’m in this for me.” Nothing spoils the resonance of a blog that tells the reader “I’m doing this for you” like ad placement which impedes usability.

In-text advertising, or blocks of AdSense within blog posts, say: “This content comes at a cost.” This loss of resonance will be crippling in the long-term.

A simple, suggested solution: less ads + less clutter = less ad-blindness + more clicks.

Build content that resonates

1. Focus on clarity. Your idea might be a great one, but it won’t mean much if readers can’t understand it. I’m a firm believer in the principle that even complicated ideas can be expressed in simple terms if enough care and attention is put into the process.

Readers won’t resonate with your content if its meaning isn’t clear to them. What you think is over-simplification is probably just right; after all, you already understand.

2. Does it bear resonating qualities? These might include: the promise of self-improvement, new but welcome knowledge, humor, interesting facts, a powerful story, or any other qualities likely to elicit an internal reaction.

3. Another option for resonating content: does it articulate something your readers already believe? We spend so much time trying to avoid stating the obvious but, strangely enough, those that do are often rewarded.

What seems like common sense often seems to others like material worthy of the front page of Digg. People have a lot of opinions and beliefs and little time to express them.

They tend to reward those that express what they’ve been thinking but haven’t had time (or the desire) to say.

You can bet that the Miss South Carolina video was most popular among those who already had certain views about blondes and beauty-pageant contestants.

It’s why articles discussing why StumbleUpon is so great do well on StumbleUpon, or why articles about Digg’s greatness do so well on Digg.

In short: people like to see their own world-views reaffirmed.


4. Is it what the reader has been looking for, but didn’t know it? Often content with the potential to become wildly popular is content that taps into a want or need that has not yet been acknowledged in the niche.

Some suggestions on how to pick these up: participate in forums and scrutinize comments on sites in your niche, including your own. You may be able to pick up a problem others have as yet been unable to solve.

Another strategy is to look inwards: what is the most important unanswered question you want answered? The next step is to answer it yourself.

5. Pick a voice that resonates. A humor blog begs for informal language, an authority blog begs for great spelling, grammar and expression, a copywriting blog begs for crisp, lyrical writing. Is your voice betraying your message, or resonating with it?

Repairing content that doesn’t resonate

1. Listen to comments and feedback (or the lack thereof). If it’s clear that readers don’t understand, or have misunderstood you, I’m sure it’s tempting for some to believe that the ‘right’ reader would have understood. Not so.

If readers aren’t resonating with your content, the cause almost always lies in your own practice. How could you have been clearer? How might you have expressed things more simply?

2. Put readers first, social media second. The real reason why Digg-bait and link-bait are almost dirty-words is that they imply content which puts in-bound links before readers.

The mind of the author can be seen too clearly, constructing each sentence, bullet-point, link and screenshot for maximum social media impact.

In truth, link-bait articles are often really valuable to both readers and social media users, but it’s the sense of self-interest behind them which gives them a bad name.

The key is to write content addressed squarely at readers, while simultaneously having the capacity to resonate with social media users, too. It’s tricky, but you can get better at anything with practice.

3. Minimizing content with little resonance. ‘Thanking your sponsors’, paid reviews of products we could all do without, and badly presented link-round ups are all examples of content with little chance for resonance.

Before hitting publish, ask yourself: does this have more value for readers than it does for me? If not, question whether the content is worth publishing.

How this ties into the ‘Simple Web’

Every word that doesn’t resonate is wasted. Like cotton wool around a bell, the elements of your site that don’t resonate will counter-balance the resonance you do achieve. Once again, there are no zero actions.

There is a tendency to think that elements which don’t resonate, but don’t impact on the resonance of other elements, are harmless — that it doesn’t matter whether they exist or not. Surely this is the logic behind self-serving posts, or self-serving advertisements.

The ‘Simple Web’ philosophy doesn’t accept this. What adds nothing to your site also hinders it. It’s an action you could have spent elsewhere. It works against the resonance you’ve achieved.

Will your next action be +1, or -1? Refuse to accept an internal ‘neither’. Your site and your own actions will be sleeker, more focused and more effective because of it.

#3 — Interacting

Every webmaster or blogger wants their visitors to do the following (subtracting those which don’t apply to you): subscribe to their site’s feed, comment, buy — if they’re selling — or click on ads, explore your best stuff, and come back regularly.

Are you making all of these actions as easy (and rewarding) as possible?

Building your subscriber base

1. Move your feed icon to the top of your sidebar. As I discussed on a recent article about basic usability, readers looking to perform an action they’ve repeated elsewhere (such as subscribing to a feed) will first look for the ‘standard’ — in other words, the way things are usually done. Feed icons are usually near the top of the page, so we should look to emulate this.

2. Add a ‘subscribe’ message to the bottom of your articles. I’ve noticed an increase in feed subscribers since adding the message you can see at the bottom of this post (if you’re viewing directly on the site).

I suspect this is for a number of reasons: 1) someone who has taken the time to read to the end of your article is probably feeling good about your content and 2) visitors are still in ‘reading’ mode and will probably take in the message. You might also consider adding a feed icon and even your feed count to add visual impact.

3. Promote incentives. Chris Garrett offers a free eBook to every feed subscriber. Others have run competitions and offered prizes via their feed footer. What’s your incentive?

4. List the benefits. Most site owners advertise their feed as a benefit in itself. Another option might be to tell readers exactly what they’re going to get. To use the example above, ChrisG.com accompanies its subscribe icon with:

Receive more blogging and marketing tips, new media news and a FREE eBook.

Highlighting the value of subscribing to your site is a good way to increase subscriber numbers.

Encourage comments

1. Make leaving a comment the easiest thing to do after finishing an article. This is the time when the reader’s reaction is still fresh, so you want to make the segueway into commenting as smooth as possible.

2. Ask for opinions. Opinions are easy. We all have them, and on non-controversial topics, there’s little personal investment involved in providing them.

Asking for experiences is a little more difficult as it requires readers (to a varying extent) to step out of their comfort zone.

A simple tip: if you want to hear what readers have to say, ask them.

3. Rethink the recent comments widget. The most common format for this widget is ‘name’ commented on ‘headline’. For the reader, this means: “Name I don’t recognize commented on article I haven’t read yet.” Not much value.

A far better option, I think, would be to include a 50 word excerpt of the most recent comment in the sidebar.

This provides some interesting reading in its own right and may encourage the reader to want to give the comment some context. You can see another alternative I quite like at this personal finance blog.

The key is that the widget shows other people are not just commenting in general, but leaving interesting and insightful comments on the site.

4. Make commenting worthwhile. If you participate in comments on blogs you read, you’ll probably notice that there is a ‘polite’ culture on non-political/controversial blogs, where commenters tend to restrict themselves to addressing either the post or its author, but rarely engage with other commenters.

This means that if you don’t respond to commenters you can’t count on others responding for you. If you don’t respond, the commenter will never know if you even read their input or not. This doesn’t make the act of commenting very rewarding for them.

Even a one word response (if you’re strapped for time) will show the commenter you’ve acknowledged their opinion.

A blogger who interacts with commenters in a meaningful way, and gets plenty of comments because of it, is Michael Martin. You can see some examples at his excellent blog customization blog.

Build a site readers want to explore

1. Offer your best content to each new visitor. I’m a big fan of the ‘Popular Posts’ sidebar addition and all its variants. I don’t recommend using a plug-in for this, however.

Most of us know which of our posts caught fire with readers and which didn’t. Construct your own selection of great posts and make them as prominent as possible. I’d recommend putting them under your feed button.

Why? Because impressive headlines show the new visitor just how much your site has to offer. They provide an entry into the depths of your site after the reader has finished with the main page.

2. Simplify and be picky. A long list of great content is less likely to be engaged with than a short one. A short one is manageable, it makes the headlines easier to read, and it allows the reader the possibility of reading all of them if they so choose.

A long list can be intimidating and will make it harder for your really stellar articles to stand-out. I’d recommend having around five great articles showcased in your design, but you might experiment with other numbers.

3. There are better alternatives to ‘Most Recent’ posts. Unless your articles are really long a ‘Recent Posts’ sidebar area probably won’t be interacted with. It’s much easier to scroll down and get an overview of posts as a whole than try to pick-out headlines from the sidebar.

My suggestion would be to replace the ‘Recent Posts’ widget with a ‘Popular’ or ‘Favorite posts’ list. Readers already have access to your recent posts, but should never have to dig into your archives to uncover your best stuff.

How this ties into the ‘Simple Web’

If your site doesn’t grip readers, it won’t have a chance to resonate with them. If it doesn’t resonate, readers won’t feel compelled to interact in the ways described above.

If it doesn’t resonate, readers won’t feel compelled to talk about you.

Two challenges, if you’d like them:

  • Do something to make it easier to interact with your site
  • Remove an obstacle to interaction


#4 — Talking

All of us want visitors to recommend and promote our site. This might involve sharing with social media, telling friends, or blogging about it.

Does your content and design make this easy by being worth talking about? Are you helping to start the conversation, both on your site and off it?

Building a talk-worthy site

1. Create a unique or novel premise
Sometimes what your site promises to provide is sensational enough that it will get talked about. A number of bloggers put a new twist on the ‘make money online’ niche by promising to document their journey to a full-time income online.

Ambition is something that will be talked about. So will a site that promises something which has never been offered before (or at least, not in that way).

Can you make your premise unique, or novel, without changing your content?

2. Attempt something spectacular
A group writing project, a mammoth post-series, an ambitious goal, a remarkable act, a valuable resource given away. All have the potential to be spectacular, all have the potential to fail.

That’s usually why things like that aren’t attempted very often. What people often overlook is that it doesn’t matter. People will talk about you for trying — just in case you do succeed.

I can see something along these lines unfolding at Dosh Dosh right now: Maki is trying to build a free community compendium on making money online. Whether the idea works or not, the process promises to be fascinating.

3. Be controversial
Sure, it’s the oldest trick in the book. That’s because it works. Those who agree with you might link to you.

Those who disagree might link to you, and then try to disassemble your points in the same post. Those who agree might also share what you’ve written with social media, as everyone likes their world-view affirmed.

A final tip: trying to create controversy for its own sake won’t work. I’m simply advocating the benefits of being brave enough to state your beliefs (when relevant to your niche).

4. Coin a word or phrase
Seth Godin invented the term ‘ideavirus‘, and there are 212,000 Google search results for the term. How many of those mentions, do you think, included a link to Godin as the term’s inventor?

Surely not all — we could never expect so much from the Web — but I’ve got no doubt that many did. In fact, a specific search for “seth godin ideavirus” returns 196,000 results.

A significant majority of those talking about an ‘ideavirus’ are mentioning Godin in the same breath.

Can you coin a word or phrase that describes what others in your niche have wanted to say, but haven’t had the words?

5. Introduce a new (good) idea
Good ideas excite people. Those who like them will want them to gain traction: they’ll tell others, expand on your thoughts, and otherwise get behind your cause.

If you have ideas, give them away. If you think an idea is truly great, that’s all the more reason not to hoard it. Besides, are you really ever going to have the time to make it a reality?

6. Make yourself useful
Every person who reads web content finds some value in it for themselves. (Yes — even the three readers of your cat blog). Lifehacks are so popular because they promise incredible value: to make the act of living better.

Why are numbered lists so big? Because they’re an excellent preview of the value the article will present to the reader.

Resource lists? Valuable — you’ve done the work for the reader, and saved them a few hours of time.

When writing, your compass should always be oriented towards providing value for your target audience. Value is more important than your writing style, or your spelling and grammar, or any other factor.

I call this ‘vital content‘ (as opposed to viral, though they’re often one and the same). People judge content by the value it presents to them. The more valuable your content seems, the more likely it is to be talked about.

7. Invest time in your content
We all appreciate those who do hard work for us. We tend to appreciate web writers who do the same.

If you take the time to assemble 100 tips, or 50 links, or 25 resources, on any topic, there’s a pretty good chance others will link to it. The great thing about this type of content is thatanyone can produce it. The only ingredient is time.

8. Write lyrically
No, you don’t have to rhyme, but taking the time to make the simple act of reading your writing a pleasure can pay great dividends.

Every niche suffers from a hefty dose of repetition. Often the writer who succeeds amongst repetition is one who can write in such a way that every article seems fresh and scintillating, regardless of the topic.

Plenty of personal bloggers with relatively boring lives have built huge success on the back of sharp, witty writing. Imagine if we started combining vital content with writing that was, in itself, a pleasure to read?

9. Talk about yourself
Too much of this is usually frowned upon in social circles, and I’d argue that the same applies to social media. In most cases, though, talking about yourself indirectly is a great way to build your blog.

When you write a comment addressed to someone else’s post, you’re also talking about yourself: you’re saying something about the worth of your opinions, your expertise, and your ability to write.

When you guest-post, you’re talking about yourself once again, and demonstrating to potential readers what you have to offer. In the beginning, talking about yourself is the best way to get the conversation rolling.

How this ties into the ‘Simple Web’

Does your site ask to be talked about as much as it could?

Is everything you do worth talking about?

What do you do that isn’t worth talking about? Do you write articles with little chance of inbound links, or social media success? Could you replace them with something more talk-worthy?

Talk builds your site. It sends you traffic, and increases your exposure. It will build a name people recognize.

The core behavioral habit the ‘Simple Web’ attempts to introduce is the elimination of all actions that hurt or stagnate the growth of your site.

Stagnating actions don’t run counter to growth, but don’t contribute to it, either. If each of us replaced every stagnating action with a proactive one I have no doubt that the result of our efforts would improve dramatically.

Some suggestions for getting started with the ‘Simple Web’:

  • In the time you’d usually use to write a speed-links article, pitch a guest-post at another site instead.
  • Create a gripping ‘About’ page.
  • Simplify your layout to enhance what’s best about your site.
  • Share an idea others might be enthusiastic about.
  • Create a valuable resource for your readers.
  • Showcase your best content in a place new visitors will see it.
  • Start to categorize your actions as +1 (growing), zero (stagnating) and -1 (detrimental). You’ve hopefully eliminated the latter — your next target is to eliminate zero. Replace every stagnating action with a growing one.



Every design element, every function, every blog post or article, which does not fulfill one of the actions above, is holding you down.

They serve only to distract, and to suck away attention from what is important. The actions in this category don’t merely sit there, ineffective and neutral. They hurt your site.

What makes it simple?

The ‘Simple Web’ is about simplifying both our sites and ourselves (as bloggers and webmasters) down to doing and adding only things which help us get what we want.

These actions are divided into four practical spheres. This makes it easier to work out whether an action fits into the philosophy. If it doesn’t, drop it, and do something that does.

What will I end up with?

  • A site layout in which every element fulfills an important function in growing your blog or website.
  • A site layout which squanders zero reader attention.
  • Content which is always worth talking about.
  • Content which will turn casual visitors into loyal readers.

Where to now?

If you have any reflections or questions about the ‘Simple Web’, please let me know in the comments section.

70 Unique Places to Find Ideas: No Metablogs Allowed

I have my best ideas and learn my most valuable lessons when reading outside the metablog niche.

Step outside the walled garden and there’s a thousand sources of inspiration waiting to be tapped. You just need to know where (and how) to look.

There are no new ideas. The essence of creativity is taking two or more existing ideas and combining them in ways that have never been seen before.

Can you bring the best elements of other niches — and other bloggers and webmasters — into your own niche? Absolutely.

What follows is a bite-sized list of 70 places to find inspiration for your blog or website outside the blogs-about-blogging niche.

Making every word count & brevity

A Brief Message
Seth’s Blog
Your nearest metropolitan

Fine writing

A List Apart
Feature articles in magazines
Books on journalism
Books on copywriting

For personal bloggers

Memoirs and autobiographies
Newspaper profiles
Magazine columns
Stories other people tell
Stories you tell others
Chelsea Peretti
Documentaries about people

New marketing

If you blog or own a website
and you want people to visit
you’re a marketer
(or sorry).
Church of the Customer
Seth’s Blog
Seth’s books, being:
Purple Cow
Small is the New Big
Unleashing the IdeaVirus (free download)
All Marketers Are Liars
et al.
Other new marketing books


Web Worker Daily
Zen Habits
Getting Things Done
Make a time budget and
treat your time like you treat your money:
cut out unnecessary expenses.


Coding Horror

Outstanding content

Twitter profiles of those with good taste or
similar interests.
Content your friends stumble.


Freelance Folder
Freelance Switch
Instructional books
Self-improvement books
Academic textbooks
How-to books


Rainfall Daffinson: Minimalism
New book covers


Smashing Magazine
Your bookmarks
The Digg front page

Creativity & innovation

The essays at ScottBerkun.com
Tim Ferriss’ Blog
The Laws of Simplicity
gaping void
Boing Boing
Outline where your niche falls short
then brainstorm solutions.
Combine two existing ideas to make
a new one. For example:
News + extreme brevity.
Companies + value-blogging.


My message here is not that the metablogging (blogs about blogging) niche can’t be a source of inspiration. It absolutely can. You’d be silly not to take advantage of blogs and websites tailored specifically to you.

What I’m suggesting, however, is that valuable lessons about creating web content can be found everywhere.

You just need to know how to see them — just like we might train ourselves to recognize the 3D image hidden in a pattern.

If you confine yourself to the metablog niche only you’ll never expose yourself to the full range of ideas and possibilities available.

There are several skills to help you do this. I’ll be writing about the following in the next few days:

  • How to learn by example.
  • How to innovate by combining existing ideas to form new ones.
  • What bloggers and webmasters can learn from new marketing.

Top 20 Ways to Come Up With Amazing Ideas

coming up with ideasPhoto by mugley.

I’m a pretty prolific blogger — between regular posts at Zen Habits, and writing regularly for blogs such as Web Worker Daily, FreelanceSwitch, and more, and writing guest posts for other blogs, I write a lot of posts every week.

And what’s asked of me most often, besides “How can you write so much?”, is the more difficult question: “How do you come up with so many ideas for posts?”

That’s not so easy to answer.


Coming up with ideas is a skill, actually, something that’s become easier with practice. And I don’t have one single method of coming up with great ideas for articles, except this one:

I’m ALWAYS on the lookout.

Seriously. Always. Whether I’m in the shower, eating, reading, driving, exercising, talking, IMing, emailing, working, writing or playing with my kids, I always think to myself, “You know, that would make a great post!” It’s a bit sad, actually.

With that in mind, if you’re trying to find sources of great, wonderful, unique ideas, whether that’s for a blog post or a painting or a poem or a new product … here are my favorite ways.

Idea #1. Carry a notebook.

Seriously, carry it everywhere. I can’t tell you how many awesome ideas I’ve lost simply because I forgot to bring my notebook.

And you know why I can’t tell you? Because I didn’t write them down. Carry your notebook everywhere, always have some kind of writing implement, and write things down immediately.

Of course, you may need to pull your car over to avoid an accident … or just start riding mass transit instead, to avoid that problem. Another good article on capturing ideas.

Idea #2. Keep a list.

I have a simple Google Doc that I can pull up at any time with a few keystrokes (I use AutoHotKey to open all my most commonly used documents and programs instantly).

On this list, I write down all my ideas. When I need to write a post, I am never short of ideas. Actually, I have dozens more ideas than I can ever use, so if anyone needs any, let me know. Just $5 an idea. :)

Idea #3. Exercise.

OK, you’re going to skip past this one. That’s OK. I’m not saying you have to start exercising to have amazing ideas, but from personal experience, exercise is one of the absolute best ways to come up with ideas.

It seems it is literally impossible to go for a run or a walk without coming up with an idea that will knock you on your butt. Which is why I now wear padded running shorts.

Idea #4. Driving.

There’s something about the mindlessness of driving that allows me to come up with some of my better ideas in the car.

To make this work, you have to drive slower than some of the maniacs out there (try it, it’s calming), and ignore the rude antics of your fellow drivers.

Concentrate on avoiding an accident, but don’t worry if someone cuts you off or is driving slower than your average toddler can walk. Just stay in your Zen zone, and watch the ideas come to you effortlessly.

Idea #5. Read a lot.

I’m reading a book every day, several times a day. It might take me a week to finish the book, but that’s because I take my time and enjoy the book.

In addition, I’m always reading stuff on the Internet. Reading is one of the very best ways to find new ideas. And yes, you have to read the articles, not just the pictures. :)

Idea #6. Find inspiration.

I find inspiration from many sources, including other bloggers, from friends and family, from life itself.

Sometimes, an idea can be totally unrelated to the source of your inspiration, but the key is that spark, that energy, that ignition that gets your mind going.

Whatever does that for you is worth its weight in gold. Failing inspiration, just rip off ideas (and make them your own).

Idea #7. Listen.

One of my favorite ways to get ideas is by listening to other people talk. When someone talks to me, I try to talk as little as possible, and just listen to them and understand.

That’s difficult when talking to engineers, of course. Those guys can talk! I also like to eavesdrop on conversations held by loud people when I’m in public places. Yes, that makes me weird.

Idea #8. Find twists.

Found a great idea by someone else? As mentioned before, if you aren’t inspired by someone else, just rip off their ideas.

But don’t just spit out the ideas verbatim — take them to another level by finding new twists on those ideas. How can you take this great idea (or even a common idea) and give it a new twist?

Sometimes you can find the best ideas by putting a new spin on an old idea.

Idea #9. Examine your life.

Take a few minutes now and then to step back and take a look at your life. What are you doing? Where are you going? Who are you? What are you all about? What’s important? What are you trying to achieve? What are you doing right and wrong?

Ask yourself these types of questions, think about what it is you do every day and why. This kind of examination can produce dozens of new ideas.

Idea #10. Question everything.

When you find yourself thinking or following traditional ideas that everyone assumes are right, question them. Ask yourself if it’s really true, and if so, why? Why does everyone think this?

Is it possible there are other ways of doing things? Question everything, and you might come up with some surprising answers.

Idea #11. Trawl through fresh sources.

Sometimes, if you drive home the same route every single day, it’s good to drive a new route, even if it’s a little longer.

Change things up. Similarly, you should visit new web sites, read new authors, break out of your niche, talk to new people, start clicking on links in blogrolls and see where they take you.

Get outside your familiar territory, and find new ideas in new places.

Idea #12. Bounce stuff off others.

Got an idea? Bounce it off a friend or colleague. Sometimes their responses can spur new ideas in you, and vice versa.

It’s amazing what can form when two people put their heads together. Avoid more than three people talking about ideas, though … “ideas by committee” is not a smart approach.

Idea #13. Reader emails.

I get lots of emails from readers, and while it can take a lot of my time to read and answer them, it’s well worth the effort. Some of my best post ideas have come from the suggestions of others.

If you don’t get a lot of reader emails, don’t let that stop you … find a way to solicit suggestions from others, asking for emails or comments on your blog or whatever it is you do.

Let others come up with the ideas!

Idea #14. Forums.

Similar to some of the items above, online forums can be amazing places for ideas. You can get suggestions from others, you can bounce ideas off people, you can read and be inspired by great ideas from people on the forums.

And there are so many forums online that it’s practically impossible to run out of ideas from them.

Idea 15. Ask.

When I’m running dry, or need a fresh source of ideas, I’ll ask my readers. I’ll do a post and ask them for suggestions for different topics. And let me tell you, there is no shortage of great topics when I do this.

A few months ago I asked if they had “health and fitness” topics they’d like me to write about. I haven’t even gotten halfway through the list of ideas yet!

Idea #16. Magazine rack.

When I go into a bookstore or grocery store, I like to spend a few minutes at the magazine rack. I don’t even read all the articles … I just read the headlines on the cover, or flip through the magazines.

And I don’t just read the ones I’m interested in … I glance at them all. I’ve found some amazing ideas in these racks.

Idea #17. Look deep inside yourself.

This is a difficult one. It’s similar to the “examine your life” suggestion, but it’s a deeper look at yourself.

Really reach deep inside, and search the person you are, search your soul for your deepest desires, your innermost secrets, your most secret dreams and ambitions. You can find some of the most wonderful ideas deep within yourself.

Idea #18. Learn from your mistakes.

While mistakes can be embarrassing, I love making mistakes. Sure, they’re sloppy and painful, but they’re anything but unproductive.

Mistakes are the way we learn, and if we can harvest the power of mistakes to come up with great ideas, we are using our mistakes to their fullest potential.

Think about the mistakes you’ve made in your life, recently and over the years. What can you learn from them? What can others learn?

Idea #19. Be inspired by nature.

I love going outside, to take a breath of fresh air, to stretch, to get natural light into my computer-strained eyes. And to take a look at the beauty of the nature around me.

Our world has some of the most incredible natural beauty in the universe … take advantage of the nature around you, and find inspiration in it!

Idea #20. Music.

I like to play a good CD or tune in to my favorite radio station, to get myself moving, to sooth my savage beast, to make my soul leap with joy.

Music can be the most inspiring thing in our lives, if we open up our hearts and minds to it.

If You Want to Have Great Ideas, Stop Working

getting great ideasImage from ajourneyroundmyskull

There are no new ideas. When we create, we dig into our well of knowledge and experience, grab a hand full of stuff, mash it up and recombine it in new ways.

But the idea is still built out of other ideas that came before – ideas we’ve consumed.

The quality of our ideas depends only on what we build them from. What we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, what we’ve felt. To have better ideas, we need richer experiences.

But most importantly, like stoking a fire, we must constantly add more fuel to keep the fire vigorous. When we stop, old materials build nothing but old ideas.

What does this mean for the mantra we hear humming beneath all the advice we read online?

The mantra that says: “Don’t watch TV, don’t spend too much time reading, don’t play games, don’t waste time on Twitter. Stop consuming other people’s ideas and creativity – if you want to be successful, you have to produce.”

If you want to have stale ideas, follow this advice. Put nothing in, get rubbish out. Get burnt out. When you burn more creative fuel than you add, what do you expect to happen?

But if you want to build something truly creative and meaningful, do the opposite. Great stuff in, great stuff out.

Watch breathtaking movies and mind-bending TV shows.

Read incredible books.

Listen to great music, with the volume up loud.

Play exhilarating video games.

Study your idols.

Drench yourself in ideas.

Go somewhere you’ve never seen.

Walk to the top of a mountain and breathe in strange and wondrous air.

Consume, consume, consume, and do so unapologetically.

Become a connoisseur of the best things other people have done.

Absorb everything the world has to offer you. Do this for as long as you can bear.

Only then will you have collected the raw materials needed to produce something you can be proud of.

10 Breeds of PC User Identified and Explained

They are: the traumatized virus victim, the two-fingered typist, the DIY optimist, the blinkered office-worker, the obnoxious expert, the upgrade fanatic, the fixer, the PC evangelist, the addict and the GTD maniac.

It’s time for a bit of fun with our first ‘Unplug’ column.

Which one are you?

If you’re a Mac user, you probably have a friend who matches one of these descriptions.

* Note: I use a PC for gaming/media and a Mac for work, and I like them both. This isn’t an anti-PC article.

PC user breed #1

The traumatized virus victim

How to spot one:

Will not open any email attachments you send, including images, documents and MP3s. Burn them a CD of music and they’ll ask if they can get a virus from it.

Will decline to accept images and MP3s sent over IM “Just in case”. Will usually be running five or six Anti-Virus programs which pop up every few seconds, but somehow manage to get a new virus every other day.

Have stopped deleting the ‘Online Casino’ shortcuts from their desktop. Have not yet discovered how to turn on a Firewall and have no desire to learn.

The highs:

Easily impressed by any computer that works.

The lows:

Will remain paranoid and impervious to logic on any computer-related topic.

PC user breed #2

The two-fingered typist

How to spot one:

As per this breed’s namesake, the two-fingered typist will use the index finger of each hand for all keyboard use, usually involving much more force than is necessary. This also goes for clicking the mouse.

Two-fingered typists don’t understand computers and are proud of the fact. They won’t retain any computer related information, so don’t bother trying to teach them.

They’ll routinely (and possibly deliberately) mispronounce common computer terms or use them in the wrong context. My mother calls Firefox “Mottzilla”.

The highs:

Endlessly amusing.

The lows:

Showing your dad how to send an email for literally the fifth or sixth time.

PC User breed #3

The DIY optimist

How to spot one:

Excited by the prospect of maximum performance and low-cost repairs, the DIY optimist sees actual technical knowledge as unnecessary in the pursuit of PC perfection.

BIOS is not a computer’s central nervous system — to the DIY optimist, it’s a playground: a place to change variables and “See what happens.”

The occasional BSOD is to be expected. It will usually take the destruction of one or more CPUs before this breed will concede defeat and call a repair shop.

The highs:

When it works, it works. DIY optimists tend to get there eventually (though a few parts might be confined to the scrap-heap along the way).

The lows:

When it fails, it fails catastrophically. DIY optimists can turn a minor RAM allocation problem into a hazardous electrical fire with seemingly very little effort.

PC User breed #4

The blinkered office-worker

How to spot one:

Has been using a computer for 12 years but will rave to you about a cute little program they just discovered called ‘Paint’.

Can create multi-layered tables and a complicated footnote system in Word but can’t work out how to change their screen resolution.

Will use the internet only to do things they already know how to do offline (i.e. read the paper, check weather and send greeting cards). Discovered ‘Solitaire’ five years ago and have never turned back.

The highs:

Associate computers with mind-numbing work and thus spend as little time as possible using them after hours. Tend to be more tanned than the rest of us.

The lows:

Extremely adverse to trying anything new and computer-related.

PC User breed #5

The obnoxious expert

How to spot one:

Knows a lot about computers and is not content to do so quietly. Can usually be found accumulating an insanely high forum post count primarily by answering tech or gaming related questions with a heavy dose of subtle humiliation.

Will disagree with everything and everyone. Uses the word “Obviously” as much as possible.

The highs:

When you can wade through the disdain far enough to extract a nugget of useful advice.

The lows:

When you find out that the freelancer you just contracted is one of these guys.

PC user breed #6

The upgrade fanatic

How to spot one:

You’ll usually spot their PC tower first as a beam of neon shoots into your eye and temporarily blinds you.

When you regain your vision you’ll see a vaguely rectangular object which looks a little bit like a miniature alien spaceship with spinning objects, lasers and drifting motes of dry ice inside.

If the owner isn’t around, he’ll probably be at the mailbox picking up a new shipment of neon tubing. The crazed modder’s PC will usually be worth at least twice as much as their car.

The highs:

Will eagerly install new hardware for you and may even give you hand-me-down parts which are probably three or four times better than what you’re currently using.

The lows:

They pour thousands upon thousands of dollars into an object that, over time, depreciates almost as fast as underwear.

PC user breed #7

The fixer

How to spot one:

Their PC runs like a dream. They Defrag several times a month, perform regular virus checks and have installed a complicated network of firewalls.

If something does go wrong, will insist on fixing the problem personally rather than pay a repair center to do it, almost as a matter of honor.

Will volunteer to “help fix” any computer that doesn’t run to their high standards (i.e. any computer other than their own).

The highs:

Can be genuinely useful, particularly when paired with a traumatized virus victim or two-fingered typist.

The lows:

Will chastise you for not fixing that critical hard drive failure yourself.

PC user breed #8

The PC evangelist

How to spot one:

Hates Macs with remarkable intensity, despite having never used one long enough to understand how they work. Will start an argument with every Mac user they encounter and belittle them for their choice of OS.

Will claim that PCs must be superior because so many more people use them (logic that also makes Akon a superior musician to Sufjan Stevens, because more people buy Akon’s albums).

Can usually be seen with an iPod in one ear and an iPhone pressed to the other.

* Note: Mac evangelists are just as annoying.

The highs:

Great conversation-starter for fellow PC users.

The lows:

Does not mix well with Mac users.

PC user breed #9

The addict

How to spot one:

All phone conversations with addicts will be characterized by the faint sound of typing and delayed one-word responses that often don’t quite line up with the question you asked.

Will usually only leave the room containing their computer to relieve themselves or scavenge for food and water (unless they’re playing World of Warcraft, in which case these things are not always sufficient motivations… ouch).

Will indicate that they want you to stop bothering them by looking intently at the computer screen as they answer your questions. You probably won’t see the person much for the duration of the addiction.

The highs:

Quite good if you don’t like the person much (for example, a weird house-mate).

The lows:

Bad if you like the person (for example, a spouse).

PC user breed #10

The GTD maniac

How to spot one:

Will spend many hours setting up and refining a complicated folder system which saves less time than is spent on maintaining it.

Is plagued by constant guilt because they’re “Not doing it properly.” Regards anything other than a blank desktop as “clutter”.

Will allocate a weekly “clean up” session, even if there’s nothing to clean. Will delete important files rather than store them, even if they have a 400 Gigabyte hard drive with 380 Gigabytes free.

The highs:

Will achieve occasional ’serene’ states where they feel like everything is perfectly ordered and as it should be.

The lows:

Usually fail to realize that a highly complicated, regimental productivity system is a symptom of over-work, not a cure for it.

* * *

Kudos to Jack Knight for the inspiration.

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