Confessions of an A-List Blogger

May 15th, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

Since I receive many questions about this topic, I thought it would be fun to share a candid insider’s look at the reality of being an A-list blogger.  These are my personal observations, so I’m not saying they’re true of other high-traffic bloggers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of these patterns held up.  While I normally prefer not to write about blogging as a topic unto itself — it’s my medium, not my message — I think you’ll find plenty of personal growth lessons here as well.  Many of these “confessions” have to do with finding ways to maintain balance in a lifestyle that can so easily become unbalanced.

If you’re new to this site, just be aware that this blog is run by an individual (not a team of bloggers), that I focus on writing original content (not links or commentary about other blogs’ content), and that the topic is “Personal development for smart people.”

In writing an article like this, it’s a challenge not to come across as either too arrogant or awkwardly modest.  My goal is simply to share what is true for me in the hopes you’ll derive some value from it, painting a realistic picture as opposed to skewing it for greater social validation.

Tons of traffic

To my knowledge there’s no cast-in-stone definition of an A-list blogger, but the key defining element would certainly be traffic, i.e. the size of the blog’s readership.  It’s really just a popularity contest.  This blog gets about 2 million monthly visitors and has an Alexa rank of about 4,000, which by any reasonable definition would put it into the A-list category.  As far as I can tell, StevePavlina.com is currently the most popular personal development web site in the world as well.  The main reason for that is its 600+ in-depth articles on a variety of growth-related topics — all of them freely available.

Now imagine being an individual who enjoys writing and has some knowledge to share, and within a fairly short period of time — just a couple years — you’ve got your very own global audience of millions of people.  That’s quite a soapbox, almost like having your own TV show.

While building traffic can be a challenge, maintaining traffic is much easier.  You basically just have to keep doing what you’ve been doing that got you there in the first place.  Soon it hits you that unless you do something really lame to screw it up (*cough* *Wil Wheaton* *cough*), you’re going to have this audience for a very, very long time, possibly for the rest of your life if you so desire.  If anything your audience will continue to grow, even if it just tracks the growth rate of blogging in general or the Internet itself.

While many bloggers are hungry for more traffic, I don’t think most are prepared for what would happen if they actually succeeded.  A-list blogging has some major oddities, the consequences of having direct access to a large readership with no middlemen.

Feedback

Perhaps the greatest social consequence of A-list blogging is that you get tons of feedback, whether you solicit it or not.  Every day I receive feedback through email, phone calls, and posts on other blogs, even if I haven’t posted anything new for several days.  I also get at least a few cards and letters in the mail every week.

In a typical day, about 10-20 other blogs write something about me or one of my articles.  If I have a hit post, that number can surge to more than 50 in a day.  Knowing that somebody somewhere is writing something about you or your ideas every single day takes some getting used to.

When I first started blogging, I loved the feedback.  The more, the better.  Then it got to be so much I grew to hate it.  Then I started loving it again.  Then I hated it again.  At various times I even modified my contact form to be more or less inviting, depending on how much feedback I wanted to get.  I learned that tweaking the contact form text in different ways could affect feedback volume by at least a factor of 5.

I cycled a few more times through the love-hate extremes before I was able to put high-volume feedback into a more healthy perspective.  One problem is that most feedback, although it may be new to the sender, isn’t new to me — I’ve seen so much of it that it almost always falls into one of a couple dozen patterns.  I eventually noticed that even when people seem to be writing about me, they’re really writing about themselves.  Even when something is addressed to me in the guise of genuine feedback, it’s hardly ever about me, and it’s seldom actionable.  In virtually all cases, feedback is the other person’s unique response to the stimulus I provided, not an evaluation of the stimulus itself.  Consequently, most feedback isn’t really that helpful to me in terms of improving what I do.  I’ll readily acknowledge that some great ideas came from reader feedback, but on balance I’m not sure the effort required to find those gems has been worth it.

Whether the feedback I get is positive or negative, I’ve learned to see it not as something addressed to me but rather as part of the other person’s story.  In that light I end up feeling grateful and appreciative for feedback because it shows me what kinds of issues people are struggling with, and that does help me generate ideas for future articles.  On average I spend about 2-5 seconds reading each piece of feedback email, regardless of the length.  I don’t want to disrespect the time the sender spent crafting it, but within a few seconds I can identify the pattern of the email.  In reviewing feedback email, I generally watch for long-term trends and aim to assess the big picture.

In late 2005 I wrote a piece about two email templates visitors could use to send me feedback, one positive and one critical.  Although the piece was meant to be humorous, much of the feedback I receive still fits the general pattern of those templates.

If I took every piece of feedback personally instead of focusing on overall trends, it would drive me in circles.  For many articles I write, at least one person will tell me it’s the best article I’ve ever written, while someone else will slam it as junk.  They’re both right because they’re writing about their reactions, not the article itself.

In truth virtually all the feedback I get falls into a relatively small number of common patterns.  I even have mental labels for them, including the convert (high praise from a new reader), the whiner (my life sucks, woe is me), the disgruntled teen (aka traffic from Digg), the life story (emails that are longer than my articles), the cross-examiner (let me nitpick each of your ideas one sentence at a time), and so on.  To each individual it seems unique, and although the details change, the underlying themes are universal and cross-cultural.

Figuring out how to process high-volume feedback isn’t easy.  While it might sound cold to treat feedback as some sort of collective entity rather than as individual pieces of communication, I find the alternatives much worse.  I believe the best role of feedback is to serve as a vehicle for staying connected with my audience and to look for ways to improve while at the same time not getting phased by the emotional drama it may contain.

Requests

Many people regard my site as a potential media outlet and myself as a good person to network with, so I receive a lot of PR-related requests.  Authors and publishers send me new personal development books, audio programs, and DVDs in the mail every week in the hopes they may get a mention or a review on my site.  Some have even succeeded, although that’s rare because I’m extremely picky about what I’ll recommend.  I also receive unsolicited press releases, invitations to various events, interview requests, and lunch invites.  And then there are the frequent link swap and site review requests.  On the other hand, I also get a lot of non-PR items, such as requests for personal advice.

After a few rounds of cycling through the basic love-hate patterns, I found the best approach was to set standards for the kinds of requests I’ll accept and just decline anything that doesn’t meet those standards.  This saves me time and keeps me focused while still allowing me to accept the items that really deserve a yes.  There are far too many requests to say yes to all of them.

For example, when I get a same-day request to do a 5-10 minute radio interview, I know it’s likely to be a waste of time.  The producer is just looking to fill a gap with anyone they can find at the last minute, the DJ won’t be well prepared, and the interview will be very shallow.  On the other hand, when an interview is scheduled well in advance with a qualified host and a decent time allotment, that will usually be a more worthwhile endeavor.  Yanik Silver recently did an hour-long interview with me about Internet marketing, and I think it came out very well.

Here are a few things I’ve found helpful to consider when evaluating requests:

My investment – If I say yes, how much time/money/effort will this require?  Is this a one-shot time investment, or will it create an ongoing commitment?  Is this investment congruent with my goals, or will it take me off course?

Impact - What’s the likely impact of this request?  Is this only going to benefit one person in a small way, or could it have a positive impact on thousands?  I favor the more impactful, contributing requests.  A college student who wants to interview me for a school paper gets an automatic no (too little leverage), while a high-traffic blog asking for that same interview will often get a yes.  I want to see my efforts help as many people as possible.

Time to evaluate – How long will it take me to intelligently evaluate this request?  Is the request so complicated that it would take me longer to evaluate it than I think it’s worth?  If I have to spend 30 minutes reading a PDF just to figure out what’s being asked of me, it’s going to be an automatic no unless the other factors suggest it could be extremely worthwhile.

Clarity – Is the request clear, specific, and actionable?  “We both work in the same field, so we should do something together” gets an automatic decline.  I’ve learned from experience that people who make very general, open-ended requests just aren’t clear enough about their own goals, and they’ll only run me in circles if I get involved with them.

Reasonableness - Is the request fair and reasonable?  Requesting a link swap for a site that gets little or no traffic is obviously not a fair exchange, unless you think it’s fair to trade a marshmallow for a Porsche.

Person making the request – Does this person seem like someone I’d want to work with?  Is this just a cold call, or has s/he been referred by someone I trust?

Personal or generic – Is this a personal request addressed to me specifically, or is it a generic request that’s probably being made of others?  I decline generic requests, such as requests to participate in an upcoming book or product launch.  I don’t want to run a generic blog.

Opportunity cost – How does this request stack up against the other items on my plate?  What am I willing to delete or delay to get this done?

Interest – Does this request actually interest me?  Is it something I’d enjoy doing?  Will it challenge me in new ways?

The sheer volume of requests necessitates adopting such criteria.  For a blogger just starting out, you won’t need to be so picky, but it really helps to have standards when you need to make quick yes/no decisions every day.  I think these rules could be applied by anyone who has to process a high volume of requests.

When responding to requests, I basically choose one of four options:

1. Yes – the rarest of replies from me.  But it does happen if a request meets my standards.

2. No – My default response is to reply with a polite but standard decline message.  Here’s the one I currently use:

I appreciate the offer, but I must decline.  I’m committed to various projects for the next several months, and I don’t have the capacity to give this idea the consideration it deserves.

When I decline I usually don’t tell people why except in a very generic way.  In my experience that too often encourages people to go into pushy salesperson mode and begin trying to address my objections, which just wastes my time and theirs.  I get enough requests that I know the angles they’re going to use anyway.

3. No response – If I suspect a decline message will incite the other person to go all kittywampus on me, I’ll send no response at all.  I prefer to give people a quick no, but if the person seems very pushy and unlikely to take no for an answer, they’ll have to talk to the hand.  Also when I’m really busy, I usually default to no response to speed things along, especially if the requests are very generic.

4. Send more info – If I think a request may have merit, but I don’t have enough info to say yes, I’ll request further details.  For example, if it’s a request for a speaking engagement, at the very least I need to know the date and location.

When making requests of busy people, it’s important to be respectful of their time.  This means making clear, concise, reasonable requests that represent genuine opportunities.  Busy people make rapid triage decisions every day, and requests that disrespect their time are likely to be rejected within seconds.

Pressure to post

One artifact of having lots of readers is that there’s this ongoing pressure to post.  Your guaranteed audience is always there, ready to digest the next article you put online.  That’s both a privilege and a responsibility.  If you aren’t prepared for this situation, it can be stressful, making you feel like you always have to be working on your next blog entry.  Even when you’re offline, you’re blogging in your head.  But if you do prepare for it, this can become a gentle, positive pressure — eustress instead of distress.

Fortunately I gave this a lot of thought before I started my blog.  This web site wasn’t my first online business, so I knew from experience that success could be just as challenging as failure.  I outgrew my computer games business, and I wanted to avoid falling into that same trap again.  Perhaps the most important decision I made was to pick a topic I really, really love:  personal development.  But that wasn’t enough by itself.  I loved computer games and got bored with that after a decade.  Personal development is specific enough so as to give my work a solid focus, but it’s also broad enough that I needn’t succumb to boredom.  In truth I can write about anything that interests me as long as I explore it from the perspective of personal growth.  My topic gives my writing a solid focus, but I don’t consider myself a niche blogger.

This flexibility has been crucial to my success as a blogger.  If I start feeling burned out with a certain subtopic like health or spirituality, I can shift to writing about other interests like productivity or time management.  While some readers who become attached to my writing about certain subtopics may complain when I switch gears, at the same time other readers are delighted with the new direction.  The rule that you can’t please everyone certainly applies.

One of the key benefits of writing about diverse topics is that my readers are exposed to ideas and concepts they wouldn’t normally seek out on their own.  They find the site looking for a specific topic and get drawn into reading about many other topics, which expands their awareness and broadens their horizons.

In an average week, I probably spend about 10-15 hours writing articles.  Maintaining this blog doesn’t take a lot of work.  If I wanted to, I could probably get it down to about 5 hours a week or less.  I happen to enjoy writing, but knowing that I don’t have to write and that I can take time off whenever I want is important to me.  I sometimes write a batch of blog entries in advance and then future-post them throughout the week, so I can spend the rest of the week doing other things.  I rarely do any blog-related work on weekends.

For me the pressure to post is no big deal.  I never have to force myself to sit down and write.  I’m fortunate to find myself in a situation where my desire to write is greater than what is required to keep my blog thriving.

I gave serious thought to my exit strategy before I started blogging, and I realized I didn’t really need one in the traditional entrepreneurial sense because I designed this business to be able to grow with me.  For bloggers who pick very specific niche topics though, I think it’s important to have an exit strategy if you someday see yourself getting burned out on the topic you’ve chosen.  Burning out is very common within the first two years.

The business of blogging

As someone who hasn’t had a job since 1992, I’ve never been interested in a traditional career path.  I love the business model of blogging because it’s so flexible.  I can work as little or as much as I want, when I want, and where I want.  There are zillions of ways to monetize a high-traffic web site, and technology handles all the tedious parts.

Business success with blogging is mainly a function of traffic.  No traffic, no income.  Lots of traffic, plenty of income.  Sure there are other variables, but traffic is the most important single factor.  If you can build a successful blog, it’s not that difficult to turn it into a successful business.

Consider my current business model.  I have no products, no inventory, no customers, no sales, no employees, and no office outside my home.  I haven’t spent a dime on marketing since I launched this site in October 2004.  But I earn about $40K per month, mostly from joint-venture promotions, advertising, affiliate programs, and donations.  Two years ago this site was bringing in about $150/month, and one year ago it was earning around $6K/month, so that’s a pretty nice rate of growth.  The income does fluctuate from month to month, but the positive cashflow is high enough that the fluctuations don’t matter.  I maintain a substantial cash reserve too, so I could survive a very long time even if all my income suddenly shut off.  This is much less risky than having a job.

The expense of running this blog is negligible.  I pay around $220/month for a dedicated server with 1.5 TB (1500 GB) of available bandwidth, and that’s my main expense.  Sure I bought other things like podcasting equipment, but that certainly isn’t essential.

A high-traffic blog is a wonderful vehicle for wealth building.  First, it’s an asset you own.  I’ve seen various evaluations that StevePavlina.com is worth anywhere from $1.6 million to over $5 million.  That nice to see, but it’s odd to have so much wealth tied up in an asset I don’t plan to sell, so to me the cashflow is what matters from a financial standpoint.  I doubt too many banks would feel comfortable lending money against my web site as collateral.

A year ago I wrote an extensive article called How to Make Money From Your Blog, which has since become one of the most widely referenced articles of its kind.  The content is slightly dated, since most of my income now comes from commissions on joint-venture deals, not advertising, but overall the advice in that article is still valid.  Dozens of bloggers credit that article for getting them started blogging for income, and some are generating results much faster than I did.  While some people tell me it’s foolish to give away such information, especially for free, I’m more interested in helping others succeed than in worrying about competition.  To me the notion of turf protection is rooted in scarcity thinking.  More competition is only going to push me to keep growing, which is what I want anyway.

If there’s one insider’s secret I can offer to how to become an A-list blogger, this is it:  Treat your blog as your primary outlet for contribution to the world.  Make it your legacy.  Write to pass on knowledge and ideas that you think will really benefit people.  Focus first and foremost on providing value.  If you can do that, the rest is relatively easy.  Value builds referrals.  Referrals build traffic.  Traffic generates income.  Income increases your ability to contribute, which in turn helps you provide even more value.  The keys to unlocking this positive spiral are contribution, contribution, contribution.

Responsibility

I’m not sure if other bloggers feel the same as I do about this, but I feel a strong sense of responsibility to my readers.  When writing a new article, I sometimes imagine standing on a stage in front of an audience of millions of people from all over the world.  What shall I say to them?  That simple visualization helps me focus on providing value instead of just writing for the sake of writing.  I’ve summarily deleted a number of articles in progress when I realized they weren’t worthy of my readers.

At the same time, I think it’s important not to let that responsibility go to my head.  I prefer to communicate on a personal level instead of going into soapbox mode.  Even though I’m writing for a large group of people, to each individual reader it’s still a form of one-on-one communication.  It’s ironic that I endeavor to write on an individual level, while I process feedback on a more collective level.

Lifestyle

In the recent book The 4-Hour Workweek (I received a free promo copy in the mail), author Tim Ferriss writes about the importance of having a decent income as well as the time to enjoy it.  What good will it do you to earn lots of money if you have to perpetually put in 40+ hours a week to get it?  Would you rather earn $5,000/month working 5 hours/week or $10,000/month working 50 hours/week?  The second option may give you more cash, but the first option gives you a lot more time to enjoy it.  Tim debunks the idea of working long hours to save up for a retirement that may never come.  He proposes taking mini-retirements throughout life in order to strike a balance between work and play.

I agree that people spend way too much time spinning their wheels at work.  It doesn’t matter how much time you spend at the office — the results are what matters.  With a shift in thinking, it’s entirely possible to generate greater results in much less time.  You just have to be really clear about what you’re trying to accomplish.  I like that blogging allows me to create value once (by writing an article), and computers deliver that value again and again for virtually no cost.  Whenever I feel the urge, I can write something that will be read by thousands of people within 24 hours.  That’s massive leverage.

The key to leverage is to generate income as a function of the value you provide, not the number of hours you work.

I learned of another interesting work model from a Jay Abraham seminar recording I heard many years ago.  Jay reported that some of the most financially successful people used a pattern of alternating weeks between their work and personal life.  So they’ll work hard one week, and the next week they won’t even go into the office at all.  During their off weeks, they’ll travel or play golf or spend time with their families.  Some do one week on, two weeks off.  And others can manage one week on, three weeks off.  I can see this working well for certain business models.  For example, if I wrote like mad for a week, I could create a month’s worth of articles and then future-post them.  I could spend the next few weeks traveling or doing other things, and the blog would automatically post new content during my absence according to the schedule I provided.  Unfortunately I’m not into golf, although I do enjoy disc golf.

Blogging affords very flexible work patterns, and I really like that it can grow along with me.  When I want to write a lot, it’s nice to have a guaranteed audience that’s bigger than most best-selling authors will ever see.  When I want to spend more time on personal pursuits, I can do so guilt-free, knowing that there are 600+ articles in the archives for people to explore — enough to fill several books.  And the discussion forums are available 24/7 for anyone in need of extra advice or encouragement.  So even when I’m not working, that value is still being provided.

There’s still a potential dark side to this lifestyle, however.  I’ve seen many bloggers fall into the trap of turning their blogs into their lives.  They sit at their computers all day, answering email, reading RSS feeds, and cranking out posts.  That’s not a lifestyle I’d choose to emulate.  I had my RSS subscriptions down to just 5 feeds total, and I recently eliminated those as well, so I don’t subscribe to any other feeds at all, nor do I read or watch the news or visit any daily web sites.  I prefer to use real life, not cyberspace, as my primary source of inspiration.  I also try to limit my email to about 15 minutes a day, 30 minutes max.  On weekends I like to get away from the computer and go out with my family.  When I want more input, I read books or talk to people face to face.  Blogging can too easily devolve into a pattern of Internet addiction, and I want to steer clear of that.

Because of my blog’s topic, my work and personal life have fuzzy divisions.  Almost any of my personal pursuits, such as Toastmasters or martial arts, can become topics for future articles.  So I don’t feel the need to separate work life and personal life as much as other bloggers might.  Most of my work involves simply doing what I naturally enjoy.

Cyberfame

Popular bloggers achieve a strange kind of fame.  On the one hand, I have this massive worldwide readership, my work has been translated into a dozen different languages, and people I’ve never met are writing and talking about me every day.  On the other hand, if I’m just walking down the street, nobody will even recognize me.

There’s a strange dichotomy between my online blogging persona and my personal life.  When I first started out, they remained fairly separate.  Even as I was building a large online readership, to my local friends I was just plain Steve.  If people asked me what I did for a living, I’d just tell them I ran an Internet business.  I didn’t want to have to define blogging to everyone I met.

Over time, however, my work and personal life have been intersecting with increasing frequency, and the clear dividing line between them is no longer present.

Here are some examples of a few things that have been happening:

  • Hey, I know that guy!  Old friends contact me out of the blue because copies of my productivity articles were floating around their workplace.  They find my contact info and look me up.
  • Friends and business.  Discussing business with friends who also do business online can be awkward because we both know I can potentially help them simply by linking to them.  I have to balance my desire to help a friend vs. the needs of my readers and the purpose of the site.
  • Local events.  When it comes to promoting local events, I have an obvious advantage if I utiltize my blog, which can feel a bit like using a bazooka to kill a cockroach.  In November 2006, I gave an all-day workshop on blogging for the Las Vegas National Speakers Association, and I mentioned it on my blog with only a very short advance notice.  These local NSA workshops drew about 20 attendees at the time, whereas mine had 50 people show up, including several from out of state.  My NSA friends were very pleased, and the successful workshop raised a lot of money for the club.  This led to my being invited to speak at an upcoming NSA symposium in Palm Springs.  I’m not even qualified to join the national NSA yet, and I’m being invited to speak at one of their main events.  On the one hand, I’m grateful for these types of opportunities, but it feels a bit awkward using my blog to get there, as if I’m unfairly bypassing those who’d be even more honored to receive those same invitations.
  • Struggling friends.  It can be tough seeing friends who are struggling financially while I’m enjoying so much abundance.  After working hard on my own thinking about money, it’s become very obvious how other people’s own financial beliefs hold them back, especially their fears.  I can spot the seeds of abundance within everyone, but not many are watering those seeds correctly.  On the one hand I really want to show people how to water those seeds, but I don’t want to push so hard that it damages our relationship.  So I generally keep my mouth shut unless someone specifically requests my help.  I’m not out to judge people or to push my ideas on them.
  • Networking.  My blog is helping me build high-leverage relationships with people that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to get access to.  For example, I’ve been spending more time on the phone with multi-millionaire entrepreneurs who’ve built very successful businesses.  I probably connect with at least one such person every week now, usually by phone but occasionally in person.  For the most part, they approach me, usually because they heard about me from word of mouth.  I enjoy these interactions very much because we can both help each other, if only in the sharing of advice and ideas.  I’m particularly good at giving people ideas on how they can better leverage the Internet.  Invariably these have been some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, but they tend to be very busy and are extremely selective in how they use their time… something I can certainly understand.
  • Facing the future.  When Erin and the kids and I are out and about in Vegas, it can feel strange if we’ve previously been spending a lot of time in cyberspace.  It takes us a while to transition out of our blogging duo mindset and back into family mode.  We can see where our momentum is headed and that our situation is constantly changing.  We sense that it’s only a matter of time before our online reputation overflows so much into the offline world that we start getting recognized in public.  Erin already had this happen once or twice due to her TV appearance on the Criss Angel show.  It feels like we’re sitting in the eye of a storm, knowing that the winds are only going to pick up.

All these factors add up to an unusual situation, one that is difficult to fully fathom and predict.  Overall these are very positive developments, and I enjoy their many challenges.  One of those challenges is maintaining perspective, staying grounded and balanced even while confronting a rather unbalanced situation.  On the one hand, it’s important not to let cyberfame go to one’s head and become an ego-feeding monster.  But on the other hand, it’s equally foolish to deny the existence of one’s fame and the ability to leverage it intelligently, both for personal growth and for contributing to others.

Staying focused

Overall my greatest challenge as a blogger is staying focused.  So much input comes my way each day that it’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of activity.  There’s always something new that can be added to my plate, and in the moment of decision, everything may seem like a good idea.  But seemingly good ideas are seldom the best choices.

I find it most helpful to stay focused by returning to the fundamentals of personal development.  Sometimes when I notice I’m getting off track, I’ll go back and re-read some of my old articles on topics like setting goals, making plans, taking action, tracking progress, and adjusting course as needed.  This helps me regain my perspective and get back on track.  I also do a lot of journaling to work through specific issues as they arise.

Whenever I need to make tough decisions, I keep coming back to the purpose of my work, which is to help people grow.  That simple purpose helps me stay committed to my long-term strategy instead of drowning in short-term tactical thinking.  When I feel my life is becoming too complicated and confusion sets in, I review my to-do list, asking for each item, “Is this going to help people grow?”  Then I start deleting items that don’t respond with a resounding yes.

Final thoughts

Being an A-list blogger is a privilege, one I believe must be earned with every post.  Ultimately it’s a position of responsibility, not of status.  I encourage those of you who achieve such a position to take that responsibility seriously.  Use your influence to make a positive difference in people’s lives, but find a balanced and sustainable way to do it, so you enjoy the process without burning out or blowing up.  Enjoy the rewards that come your way, but don’t lose sight of the fact that those rewards are a product of your service.


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