Back in May I was asked to speak at the Polyglot Conference in Budapest, and since there were pretty impressive polyglots there with huge numbers of languages under their belts, excellent accents in their target languages, mastery level in a bunch of languages, and lots of people with inspirational stories, I had to decide what message I could uniquely give, and the one I went with was this idea of How to go Viral without being a Virus.
I wanted to be able to help other polyglots to help spread their own language learning encouragement better, based on what I’ve learned in doing it pretty much full time for the last four and a half years. I also thought they would be interested in understanding how my site and audience have grown so much in just a few years.
Growing an audience and what you can do with it
I travel for people, and how people think individually or in crowds has always fascinated me.
On the individual level, it has helped me find ways to blend in and make friends quicker, and on the much larger scale it has helped me to very quickly grow a blog that still averages about a half a million uniquely monthly visitors, and ultimately led to lots of fascinating opportunities like the National Geographic Traveler of the Year award (by the way, if you have a second, I can get a “People’s choice” addition to that title if you click to vote for me on this page – it will only take a second), two TEDx talk speaking opportunities, a prime time TV chat show appearance and countless radio and newspaper interviews, and features on very big sites.
There are many things you can do with a big audience, but if you make it all about selling to people, then you will lose your momentum quickly. That’s why I have only made a single main digital product in the history of the blog, and I don’t even promote it obviously on the site (many people have told me that they have to dig around the site to find it). There are no banner ads for it, no pop-up spammy messages to annoy you to buy it, no promotional posts, and I don’t have to do any side advertising by promoting other people’s stuff on any landing pages. And yet enough people end up on the sales page that I can cover my minimalist lifestyle with the proceeds.
With aggressive marketing, I could actually be making a six or even a seven figure salary very easily with my current audience, but I prefer to focus on encouraging people to learn their languages, and making the blog sharable so it continues to grow and so that I can use it as a platform to share my message.
In fact, I have really big plans to make a huge difference with this site, one of which involves the secret Berlin mission from earlier this year, which I’ll announce at the start of next year. Making a real difference and encouraging as many people as possible to get into language learning (they don’t have to do it my way, which is why I prefer to focus on encouragement rather than religious devotion to particular methods) is obviously a much greater goal than simply using the site to make as much money as possible.
Growing the audience in a non-spammy way
While I tend to stick to language learning on this blog, I have in fact spoken at a bunch of conferences and focus my consultation calls, not just on giving language learning advice, but on helping people understand how to grow an audience in a non-spammy and effective way if they have a genuine message worth spreading.
A lot of my American blogger friends have a way of sharing their message that I find a little hard to swallow. Advertising in America is much more in your face than in Europe, so you have to be even louder to get through to people. This doesn’t work as well online with international readership when your audience isn’t used to aggressive marketing.
As such, pop-up ads that block the site content, very prominent advertising, promotional posts that don’t benefit the reader, and “funnelling” people through intensive “A/B testing” to “convert” them to a sale, becomes the bottom line. Ultimately, it’s about how much money you can make. Many people make it the majority of their focus to test and tweak until this variable increases. I’ve found this way of working depressing and it makes me consistently cynical of so many websites when I feel myself being “funnelled”.
What about the individual? Maybe those who don’t buy from you are still worthwhile readers or viewers, who can enthusiastically promote your message? This point of view doesn’t sit well with bottom-line marketers, and has lead to many frustrating conversations. I find it a really impersonal way to approach writing, and very selfish and greedy to only care about how much money you earn.
There is so much more potential to make a difference when people use a platform like a blog or Youtube channel right!
Going viral without being a virus
This idea of going viral without being a virus is one I’ve discussed on many sites (almost never my own one), such as when I wrote this guest post on Think Traffic about how my Life Lessons post exploded.
I do think it’s possible to reach a huge number of people without being too aggressive in doing so. A few tips that I’d highly recommend to people include:
- Try to make the presentation as professional, simple and nice looking as possible.
While your content (what you write and make videos about) is what people arrive for, they need to not want to vomit when they see how you are visually presenting your site.
On a blog this means that you should have a nice theme set up (many of which are completely free, and you can set up through WordPress). If you look at the Wayback machine, you can see what my site looked like back in 2009, and then a year later in 2010. Both of these were free themes that could hold my site fine, but I decided to take a large chunk of what I earned from sales of my ebook and invest it back into the site to hire a professional designer for the current look.
In fact, I have invested quite a lot of my money into keeping this site looking and running well. Hosting on a self-contained server that can manage the traffic I get is quite expensive, and several aspects of what I do involve outsourcing to programmers and coders to make sure the site is constantly improving to help people appreciate it all the more. And when it comes to videos, I hire someone to do the captioning so that they can be followed even if you aren’t learning that language.
Test out what works, and try to keep it as simple as possible. A mistake I see other blogs make is to add way too much information, and it can get very distracting for people. I used to have a banner ad to my ebook, but I ran a survey of my readers, and they told me that it gave a bad impression of the site when they first arrived on it, so I took it away.
- Ditch perfectionism and write a lot or make a lot of videos all the time
As I said in the talk, I could have started blogging much earlier, but I felt that I wasn’t a good enough writer. I got inspired by a bad blog post I read once on a popular blog that reminded me that making mistakes is OK, and if that person can write, why can’t I?
Rather than make my blog build up to the one post a month that is going to be “amazing”, I prefer to write very good and informative posts (or make good videos) every single week. Some will resonate with people and some won’t, and that’s OK. Keep writing and something you create will help someone.
In fact, my site’s most popular post about the 29 life lessons I’ve learned, was “just another blog post” as I was writing it. I gave it the same attention as any other blog post, not expecting it to do hugely better at the time I was writing it. But that idea just happened to catch on well with people.
The same with my videos, I put a lot of work into each one, but don’t expect it to be the one that amazing viral result everything else was leading up to. For instance, I put weeks of work (and even hired a professional video editor) into preparing my 10 year travel anniversary video, and yet it’s still got way less views than a silly video I made in just a couple of minutes using nothing more than props.
The trick is that the more stuff you make, the better chance you have that something you do will inspire people enough for it to get spread. You will also see from people’s comments and reactions what works well, and what doesn’t. Every video or blog post doesn’t have to be perfect; make it as good as you can and then post it and get started on the next one.
- Make it as personal as possible
A routine I’ve kept up in every single article since I started the site is to always include a photo or video of me (or the guest poster) in each and every single blog post. This personal connection shows people whose writing they are reading, and it gives them a human face to associate with everything. I find too many sites with no images of the author to be quite impersonal.
As well as this, you should engage with people, and ask questions in your post or video, reply to comments, and encourage people to be social with you on Facebook or other social media so they can engage with you elsewhere.
You don’t have to do this alone though – host guest posts (I like to have regular guest posts on this site, as long as the idea is good), and offer to write guest posts on other sites. Record videos with other language learners and the two of you interacting can be interesting in itself (two of my biggest Youtube videos by far are the one where I hang out with Moses speaking a bunch of languages in a mall, and the Skype me Maybe music video collaboration I did with other polyglots).
This also goes into parts of your site that you can improve through the help of others. When I wanted a better site design, but couldn’t afford to hire a designer, I gave a website designer some Spanish lessons in exchange for him to edit a pre-made theme to work better for me.
Nowadays, I work with others in many other ways, some of which are paid (so, as I said above, a lot of what I make via ebook sales actually ends up back in the site), such as hiring someone to create a nice intro animation and song for my videos (see the intro in my Japanese videos to see what I mean, about how it makes them more watchable), or since I am too busy learning Japanese to be editing photos, I have someone on fiverr.com edit several images for me at once for a cheap price, which I can share on Facebook to encourage language learners.
I try to collaborate with people from as many fields as possible – I go out of my way to meet bloggers from completely different topics to mine, and I try to see what aspects of people’s blogs and videos I could adapt to my own if I like it elsewhere. While my site is completely original, many aspects of it are inspired by other sites.
- Have a sharable story
While cynics would like to think that my site is as big as it is due to nothing more than a clever domain name registration, the truth is that my site would have been long forgotten immediately if that’s what I relied on. As well as an attempt at a good professional and encouraging presentation, it’s also the story that keeps people reading this site.
Right now, I am of course learning Japanese in Spain and updating with very regular video and blog posts (I would have had a video update today if I hadn’t been sick for an entire week). This is what keeps people hanging around – seeing my progress, reading my thoughts on how I’m doing, waiting for the final videos when I’m in the country to see how far I got, and relating to me as a beginner learner once again.
This has been the theme of the blog from the start – a zero-to-hero attempt at succeeding at a project. Success is never guaranteed, but always aimed for, and the results will be shared no matter what they are.
A blog that does nothing but share pure advice posts is not something you may subscribe to after you have read all the advice you wanted. I know that many of you reading my blog are well aware of my language learning advice by now, but you stick around to see how my project will turn out. This story gives me loads of things to blog and vlog about, without necessarily having to “educate” people – sometimes the narrative itself is all people want to see.
I know plenty of my readers are very accomplished language learners – some much more than I am, and that’s OK because I can still have a unique story worth following.
- Use the platform well
A few things you’ll have heard me mention in the video above is that I encourage people to become Youtube partners (and then disable the advertising option) for the benefits you get from it, and then to make sure the start of your video is a good teaser with a summary of what the entire video is, and then if possible have an animation or jingle, like they have on TV shows.
You can also branch out and try to work well on other social media platforms. There are so many ways that you may not have considered that can help you spread your message in a unique way!
I hope this sidebar to talk about my blogging philosophy was interesting! As I said, I have big plans for next year (after learning Japanese) that I can’t wait to share with you.
Until then, I hope you continue to read along and watch along with my Japanese video updates!
I plan to attend the Polyglot Conference in Berlin next June too, so what kind of talk would you like me to give while there? Something similar to the theme of this post and the video, or something related to my language learning projects? Let me know your ideas in the comments below!
I am also interested to hear your suggestions for what kinds of videos you’d like to see for the rest of my Japanese project, so share those ideas below too! I may make one more scripted video next week at my one month point, and then the rest would be spontaneous conversations via Skype.
Thanks as always for reading, and I’m always interested to hear your thoughts on how you’d like the blog and Fluent in 3 months community to expand, so always feel free to share those thoughts with me!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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