Oliver Emberton’s articles have been read over 9 million times in the last year, and featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, TIME, and many more. Yet he started writing entirely by accident only 2 years ago. How did he go from Internet nobody to wildly successful blogger?
The evil genius that started it all
It all started with a website called Quora.
“Quora was what got me into writing in the first place. At the time it was just a place to hang out, a place where I found a lot of unknown but fascinating people answering the questions of strangers. I decided to try writing a few answers of my own” he says. “Quora became a very addictive game to me. Answers were rewarded with upvotes, or punished with obscurity. It soon taught me most of what I know about writing.”
Things were rather slow in the early months – his first answer got 6 upvotes, his second just 21. Everything changed on September 11th, 2012, when Oliver wrote a short story as an answer to the question “What would a modern-day evil genius have to do in order to take over the world?”
The answer went viral with over half a million views, and within days, Oliver was approached by multiple publishers about book, movie, and TV rights. He had written that short story on his phone, in between helping his girlfriend move home.
“I soon realised Quora – and writing – could open doors.” Oliver said. That viral post would become his first novel.
The first 20,000 followers
Oliver knew that one answer going viral was not going to be enough to build an audience. He began furiously studying top writers, their best work, and scientifically testing his own writing. It took less than 6 months for him to write the most upvoted answer in Quora’s history.
“The wonderful thing about Quora is it can give a total nobody an audience. Like me. My top tip for wannabe writers is to start writing on Quora. If you start by writing on your own website no-one will see you but your mum, and your mum makes for lousy feedback.”
But how do you write successful Quora posts? “You can usually tell if something is going to be successful from just the first paragraph” Oliver says, “because if the opening doesn’t hook, the rest won’t even matter.” His answer to “How do I get over my bad habit of procrastinating?” opens with “I’ll answer your question, but first I need to explain all of human civilization in two minutes with the aid of a cartoon snake.”
That one answer has been viewed almost 750,000 times. And it persuaded Oliver to experiment outside Quora, and start his own blog.
A cold dose of reality
It didn’t begin well.
“I made the mistake of thinking that my following on Quora would translate into easy success elsewhere. I didn’t realise how less ‘fair’ blogging can be. Quora tends to reward content just for being good; on a new blog, that same content can die in obscurity.”
“In my first month of blogging, I got around 37k views – which sounds pretty good – but in that same month I had around 500k views on Quora. Most of that audience didn’t even know I’d launched a blog at all.”
Linking to his blog on Quora and Facebook resulted in a trickle of visitors. “Only about 10% of what you post on Facebook, or Twitter even gets seen by the people who follow you.” This realisation led Oliver to start a mailing list. “Emails are a better way. If you can deliver the right content, almost half your readers will see everything you write. Once I put my focus into growing that list, it compounded my audience every day.”
Oliver made constant refinements to his writing formula, gradually putting more and more effort into less frequent, so called ‘mega’ posts, rich with illustrations. Traffic soon followed. In the first 7 months, the number of visitors looked like this: 37k views, 48k views, 75k views, 96k views, 159k views, 737k views, 3.4m views.
So what’s his secret?
The magic formula: 1,000 ideas, 12 hours a post
In that first month of blogging Oliver was writing 3 articles a week. “I was burning out with all-nighters, trying to balance running a company, writing my first novel – and I felt like the quality wasn’t there.” He reluctantly reduced his commitment to two articles per week, and eventually one, putting more time and effort into each post.
“It turns out that was the best thing I could do. All my most successful work has come from spending more time than might seem reasonable on a single thing – and there are so many opportunities available to anyone who is willing to do that.”
“Let’s say that you decided to write a post called ‘100 Most Motivational Quotes of All Time’. You can poop a post like that out in an hour with some elementary Googling. Don’t. Decide to take longer. Maybe you carefully pick out obscure yet brilliant quotes, avoiding the cliches. Maybe you wrap them up in a theme, or illustrate each quote, or tell a story through them. Maybe you filter it all down to just ten unbelievable quotes. You might end up taking four hours, but the difference in quality – and, likely, results – will be off the charts. Most people aren’t willing to do that, though. They go ‘Okay, I’ve written this article as quickly as possible, boom, why it’s not successful?’”
With time, Oliver’s writing process has developed. He currently has 38 articles in varying states of draft, plus another 1,655 notes.
“For me it’s a distillation process: I have ideas, some of them grow or interbreed into something interesting, a few become drafts, a handful of those become full fledged posts.
I write down any ideas I have immediately. If I’m driving, I’ll tell Siri to make a reminder. If I’m drifting to sleep I scribble by my bedside. Whenever I need an idea, I’ve always got a mountain waiting.
As for the writing itself, ideally, I find an empty room, turn off the Internet, and just type. And if I sit down for 4, 6, 8 hours, eventually something good is gonna come. My best posts took 12 hours each.
At least 70% of what I write ends up in the bin, I never share it with anyone, and that’s okay. It’s not that I have magical powers to write great stuff, it’s that I’m willing to throw away so much that isn’t good enough. You have to be willing to do that, otherwise your quality is going to be all over the place. Keeping your standards high is the fastest way to build a loyal following.”
Half a million shares in one post
Oliver’s most successful article – Life is a game. This is your strategy guide – has 549k shares and was syndicated by Huffington Post, The Verge, and Kotaku, among others. How does Oliver promote his posts?
“I do very little. Like most bloggers, I’ve had plenty of moments when I think my next article will be perfect for Reddit or whatever, shared it, and wept in despair as it obtains precisely zero upvotes.
My richest sources of traffic have been Facebook and StumbleUpon. I pay a little bit to promote each article on Facebook (typically $20-30) which helps kick them off. For StumbleUpon I just encourage people to ‘Stumble’ with a small share button. Only a small percentage of my audience bother, but those few can tip into a big source of traffic. A viral post on StumbleUpon can easily receive a million hits in a day.
I repost all my articles verbatim to Quora, and syndicate in virtually every publication that will take them, from TIME to Huffington Post to Business Insider. I lose nothing from sharing my posts with a wider audience, and as each post contains a link to my blog, I gain credibility, SEO potency and some new subscribers.
I didn’t try approaching these big publications much, and I was largely rebuffed when I did (thanks, Mashable). Eventually they came to me. It just took enough articles with enough success to get noticed.”
7 final tips to get your blog rolling
We asked Oliver to wrap up with his advice for aspiring bloggers:
1. Get on Quora, and write a lot. Learn from what gains upvotes. Quora is fairer version of real blogging, and it’s easier to succeed there from scratch. The audience you build on Quora can be slowly directed towards your blog, and can get you inroads to big publications like TIME.
2. Write down all of your ideas, all the time. Read diversely. Take notes. In a few months you’ll accumulate more ideas than you could ever write.
3. Start an email list immediately. Make growing it your top marketing priority. Facebook and Twitter followers are vanity metrics and matter far less.
4. Every success starts from a great title. Half of the traffic to any article comes from its title. If you read your title out to a stranger, they should burn to click it. Otherwise, even with the best content in the world, it’s not going anywhere.
5. Don’t write about yourself, unless you’re the kind of person who just climbed Everest naked with Miley Cyrus sellotaped to your back. Strangers are less interesting than they think to other strangers.
6. Practice reading your own article like a cynical and distracted person who has a screaming baby on their lap and million browser tabs open. Edit relentlessly until that mythical reader can’t leave your page. A good start is to halve your word count. What’s left is almost always better for it.
And finally: we all overestimate what we can do in a short time and underestimate what we can do in a long time. As long as you can keep learning from it, keep writing.
Now it’s all up to you.