When I was a sportswriter, my most-clicked article addressed an unsubstantiated rumor that Aaron Rodgers was gay.
I didn’t want to write about it. But when your job is to generate clicks, you can’t ignore a “story” like that. It got over 2 million views. Most of my articles got a couple thousand.
We can all complain about “fake news” or whatever the term du jour is, but the reality is: big websites need clicks. Provocation gets clicks. This is not new (read Ryan Holiday’s book for a primer) or weird. It’s the simple economics of entities responding to incentives.
And yet, if you don’t work for a big website, it’s irrelevant.
Chasing clicks felt awful and unfulfilling, obviously, so I quit.
My next project was writing a book on sports betting. My sports betting columns averaged around 25,000 clicks. I asked readers to email me if they were interested. I got about 25 emails (0.1%).
… and yet, that book has made $10,376 (and counting) in passive income.
If I had written a book about Aaron Rodgers’ gay rumors, nobody would have read it.
P rovocation — clickbait — is like checking your reflexes with a hammer. You will kick (click). But Quality is like a massage — you’ll react slowly, but the impact will be real. It will last, and you won’t forget it.
I don’t follow the news. Chastise me all you want with your need to be “informed.” You’re wrong.
“Consider the iatrogenics of newspapers. They need to fill their pages every day with a set of news items — particularly those news items also dealt with by other newspapers. But to do things right, they ought to learn to keep silent in the absence of news of significance. Newspapers should be of two-line length on some days, two hundred pages on others — in proportion with the intensity of the signal. But of course they want to make money and need to sell us junk food. And junk food is iatrogenic.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile
Most days, nothing important happens. 90+% of “news” is noise, tidbits that may seem meaningful, but you’ll forget about in a week, if not an hour.
And the noise carries negative externalities. It clutters, scares, misinforms.
When something big happens, you hear about it. Maybe slightly later than the masses.
I’d rather read a book. Or watch Netflix.
I would guess fewer than 1% of my sports betting column readers read my book. Yet it was a big success (at least by my standards, while 23 and unemployed).
There are two games you can play.
Quantity — junk-food content with an expiration date of days or minutes. A race to the bottom.
Quality — going for engagement and affect rather than provocation.
Impacting a few people a lot, rather than impacting a lot of people a little.
None of those 2 million people remember I wrote the levelheaded evaluation of a stupid Aaron Rodgers rumor. Most probably stopped after the first sentence. The rest surely forgot within days.
Quality is about affecting your reader. Building a relationship. Getting them to think, feel, stay on the page, ask for more.
Nobody emailed me after the gay-rumors piece. Many people emailed me about my book.
You can control what type of readers you want to attract. Do you want to attract someone who was provoked for a second, and will calm down 12 seconds later? Or do you want to attract someone whose interest is piqued … and then hooked for minutes, days, months, years?
You don’t need a lot of those readers to be successful, if you’re a small shop.
Attract the few gems. Ignore the masses.
Now, for those 10 Famous People Who Are Definitely Gay. John, Steve, Joe, Bill, Billy, William, Will, Wilton, Wilbur … and you WON’T BELIEVE the 10th after clicking below…