Albert Camus said that the most fundamental question in philosophy was, Why not kill yourself?
In blogging, that question is, Why start yet another blog?
As part of sharing what I’ve learned in nearly a decade of writing for an internet audience, today I’ll give the most important thing you need if you want to grow an audience online: something unique and compelling to say.
A lot of urbanist blogs started about the same time as mine, but few of them took off at scale. I pondered why mine did and came up with a few factors.
One is that from the start I was a regionally focused blog, looking at Midwest cities. I didn’t really conceptualize it that way. It was really more of an Indianapolis blog in my mind, but I saw that few people in Indianapolis had any idea what was going on down the road in Cincinnati or Louisville. So they had no context for evaluating Indianapolis. I made it a regional blog to provide a sort of competitive intelligence function that I thought was lacking. That paid dividends.
Being a regional blog let me expand to a national and global audience easily, because I was already multi-city.
Another factor is that I picked a region that didn’t get much love and focus from the existing urbanist media. That wasn’t a strategy per se. I picked the Midwest because it was where I lived. But it was a good pick – I went after a whitespace market.
It also helped that I actually enjoy writing, as opposed to simply seeing my name in print or online (though that’s nice too).
But the most important factor was that I made the commitment to myself early on to produce insight and analysis that was simply not available elsewhere. In fact, this post is in part a reprise of my very first blog post when I laid out that mission:
This blog is going to be something I’ve seen no where else: a no-hold’s barred, spare no illusions look at aspiring cities, focused on the smaller cities of the Midwest and Indiana. You’ll find my ofttimes contrarian take on urban planning, economic development, transportation, what it means to be “world class”, and how places measure up against that standard. But beyond that you’ll get unique data and analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
I’ve often said the measure of a newspaper column is, having seen the title and the author, whether or not you even need to read it. So often there’s no point. You already know what the person in question is going to say and there’s nothing new to be gained. I’m going to strive to be judged by that standard. Over time, you will no doubt come to know my opinions and principles, which will allow you to predict my opinion on a subject. But I hope you’ll always find the posts worth reading because there is something in there you didn’t know and didn’t expect.
I wanted to look at Midwest cities on their own terms, using my framework for thinking about the world, not just repeat the same conventional wisdom I could already get elsewhere, or just becoming a repetitive content extruder.
Most of the individual or small group sites I’ve seen that succeed had this X-factor of uniqueness. They had something they were writing about that no one else was doing in the same way. Some of these are local blogs like UrbanCincy – their unique market was writing about their city. Others like Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observations are global. But whatever your scope, that sort of uniqueness needs to be there unless you’ve got something else incredible going on.
Why read some new internet writer who doesn’t have a platform like the New York Times behind them? There has to be a reason. Most of us are already overwhelmed by content. Why make room for another source? You won’t, particularly if that source is giving you the exact same message that you can already get from somebody established and credentialed, like a Brookings Institution fellow or something.
Your uniqueness can be in a variety of dimensions: geographic scope, topical focus, analytical lens, etc. But unless you are an unbelievable super-star stylist or something, you’ve got to have something where you are providing unique content people can’t easily get elsewhere.
Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re being paid to write for someone else. Then you just produce what your client or employer wants (ad copy, a newspaper article, etc). But if you go that route, don’t be surprised if your own brand in the market doesn’t attract if you lose that sponsor arrangement.
The most important commandment of writing on the internet is that you have to have something to say.