How to Write Insanely Popular Articles and Grow Your Online Audience

It all started with a click, a short break to read a couple of articles at lunch. Nearly two hours later as I pulled up from another swim in the endless sea of listicles, I didn’t feel much smarter, but I had the unsettling impression I’d discovered The 5 Keys to Writing a Massively Popular Article.

To be clear, I find myself simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by this kind of content. On one hand it’s addicting to read and I’m envious of the authors’ success in leveraging it to gain popularity. On the other hand, it’s linkbait that exists to get clicks, and I am guilty of perpetuating its existence by reading it.

Before I lose you (since humans have officially lost to goldfish in the attention-span game), here’s a breakdown of the formula for popularity:

  1. A catchy headline that guarantees to prevent disaster or deliver abundance. Make big promises in list form using this formula from Jeff Goins: Number or Trigger word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise.
  2. A powerful introduction that talks a big game about how much better (or not worse) your reader’s life will be when they’re done reading.
  3. A random length list to outline your piece will be the only thing most people see as they scan quickly down the page. Make it count.
  4. Strong body copy doesn’t really matter, nobody is really reading it anyway. They’re just skimming for key points before heading off to learn The 7 Secrets to Making A Million Dollars by This Afternoon, or whatever.
  5. The perfect conclusion is always that people should read more articles just like this one by signing up over at your website. Be sure there’s a huge pop up to catch their email address. (Just offer an ebook download of your must know success tactics to gain another future unsubscriber!)

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” — Marshall McLuhan

The dollar menu wouldn’t exist if people weren’t cheap. This article format wouldn’t be popular if it didn’t get opens and clicks. We’ve encouraged the internet to become this way by consuming loads of cheap content.

The beast is awake and chugging pints of coffee, so what can we do?

If you have something to share and you want it to be read, it apparently doesn’t hurt to take the approach outlined above. For a master class on this tactic, see’s most popular content list:

Four of the top ten most popular articles referenced above promise to help you quickly become a millionaire. They contain advice like:

  • Save money
  • Spend money
  • Acquire new skills
  • Be methodical
  • Take risks
  • Make sacrifices
  • Embrace opportunities
  • Decline opportunities
  • Seize ALL opportunities
  • Believe in yourself
  • Follow your passion

Each of those, let’s call them “tips”, sound helpful and are certainly points to consider on your path to making millions. However, these delicious little snacks will ultimately nurture your success in the same way that Cap’n Crunch is a part of a complete breakfast.

The single paragraphs that expand on each point do almost nothing to reveal the iceberg lurking below. They’ll certainly give you a sense of what the author was thinking when they wrote their outline, but you’ll have no idea what happened in their lives that compelled them to share — or what to watch for in your own life to make their advice actionable.

The passing mention of key skills that each take years to master can make an article seem important, but aren’t of any practical use to the reader.

The point of these articles isn’t to actually to deliver on the promise of their headline, it’s to get you to click on the article so the pageviews go up, so the author will get invited back to contribute more of the same content and grow their personal following.

“The map is not the territory” — Alfred Korzybski

Having become millionaires themselves, these authors must certainly have encountered challenges along their own road to riches that would be enlightening if shared in detail. But without this deeper perspective, having achieved a high net worth is just glitter for their byline instead of proof of leadership in action.

Creating truly useful content comes from mapping the paths you’ve walked yourself. Pointing out the obstacles and pitfalls you’ve found along your way and making it easier to navigate for those who would follow you.

Two authors who do an incredible job of this are Paul Graham and Seth Godin. Both write consistently, each with a polar opposite approach.

Paul Graham writes long posts that offer deep perspective on a particular challenge. He provides a comprehensive view of the landscape he has navigated personally, sharing valuable insights from his own journeys.

Seth Godin writes short posts with deep questions about a single topic. He regularly shares his perspective on challenges as he encounters them, offering tools to help you navigate similar challenges in your own life.

Both of these authors have developed large followings by continually sharing hard won insights from their own personal failures and successes. They are lighting the paths they’ve walked, and making the world a brighter place for all who would follow in their footsteps.

If your goal is simply to generate attention for its own sake, then by all means follow the formula and make your own version of the Big Mac®.

If your goal is to make an impact on the lives of others, write about the things that have made an impact on yours. People will follow you because they either want to go where you’ve been or go where you’re heading.

We don’t need more maps, we need more explorers willing to light the way.