How to Use the Web to Succeed in Publishing, Life

NEW YORK — The author of The Four Hour Work Week certainly works hard. In his keynote speech at the Mediabistro Circus here today, he showed audience members how to promote themselves and their business by using social media and other Web tools.

Ferriss’ current career started with the book. He’s big on data, so when his publisher objected to the original title of the book — “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit” — he tested several possible titles using Google AdWords.

He bid on key words like “world travel,” “retire,” and “learning languages.” With the bids, he posted various links, each containing the text of one of more than a dozen possible book titles. The data said that The Four Hour Work Week was the best title.

The he interviewed best-selling and prize-winning writers. He got consistent advice from the best sellers: promote yourself through radio and through the blogs.

“I spent $25,000 on the book launch,” Ferriss said. “I wasted $18,000 on a PR firm. There are good PR firms, but this firm was not accountable or measurable. I spend the rest sending books and galleys to people and meeting people in person. The e-mail channel is too crowded and the phone feels like an intrusion.”

He said that in order to learn about blogging, he attended the CES expo, the largest trade show in the U.S., and spent most of the time in the bloggers’ center learning about blogging.

He said that when you approach people, you must admit what you don’t know, even if asking what “Ruby on Rails” is makes you seem ignorant. It took practice, but he was eventually able to restrain himself, and when people asked what he did, he just said that he was writing a book.

“It was the softest possible pitch. I did not pitch myself. I elicited questions. I emphasized to them that I did not think the book would appeal to them, except for about five pages of it. Now I get promotional requests for thirty books a week and you know that doesn’t work.”

The goal was to obtain 20,000 evangelists — not customers but avid fans — during the three months between when Ferriss started learning about blogging and the publication of the book.

PPC: Phenomenize, Polarize, Communicate

Once Ferriss decided to start a blog, he needed a key phrase to describe it. He decided that the phrase “lifestyle design” worked and did not seek to prohibit others from using the term. “I did not pursue trademark infringement because I wanted to start a trend,” he said.

The next step was polarization. “I would prefer to have a few people who love the product instead of lots who think it’s okay. If you want people to love the product, you also need to have people hate you. You cannot mobilize the haters to do much for you. I encouraged my readers to go to and use the term 4HWW.”

Ferriss had three pieces of advice concerning communication. In order to get noticed, he wanted to appear on the blog he considered the most influential in his area: 43 Folders. Unable to approach the Merlin Mann directly, he succeeded in getting a post on Brian Olberkirch’s blog, which was picked up by Mann. Even though Mann admitted in the post that he had not yet read Ferriss’ book, the post was an important step.

Ferriss noted two virtues of this approach: Mann expended no social capital in mentioning Ferriss and also expended little time, simply linking to Olberkirch’s post.

Getting mentioned by Scoble was a further boost. Success was clear when the launch of the book became its own meme.

Page 2: Getting things done

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Getting things done

Ferris has two blogs, a presence on Twitter and Facebook and a book, but he makes his money from speaking engagements, he said. He occasionally speaks for little or no money, as he did at the Circus, because he’s interested in the audience, but if you want to guarantee that he’ll accept your invitation, he charges five figures for an appearance.

The goal of the blog is to get noticed and known rather than to make money. “I get access to people and resources and I don’t have to pay for them 90 percent of the time,” he said. “I also enjoy it.”

His goal is to create content that people will come back to. “I produce evergreen content whose value goes up over time,” he said.

On the day of the book launch, instead of promoting the book, he posted the story, From Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. of Muscle in 4 Weeks. The article continues to do well on Google in the popular muscle-building category. He explained that he wanted to be such a presence online that his target audience could not avoid learning about him.

He uses a lot of data, some of it visual. “ is my external brain,” he said. “It stores photos and the text in them is searchable, even wine labels.”

Some of the data he uses is quantitative. He tracks site usage with Google Analytics and Crazy Egg.

In spite of all the data he has on visitor behavior, Ferriss said that you never know what will get noticed and what won’t get noticed. A YouTube video called Tim
Ferriss – How to Peel Hard-boiled Eggs without Peeling
that took minutes to make is approaching 2.5 million views. A four part series on chocolate got only a few thousand views.

One obvious difference: the chocolate video is over 7 minutes for just the first part, while the egg video is one minute long. “Videos should be one second to three minutes long,” said Ferriss.

He added that in order to drive traffic to your Web site, you should never tell the whole story in the video, and leave some details to be explained in the text. “That way, people have to link to my site,” he said.

Ferriss gets photos from Flickr that are under creative commons license.

He said that the various referral services will help drive traffic. Digg gives a big short term boost, but StumbleUpon lasts longer. “StumbleUpon drops off more slowly than Digg,” he said. “In my opinion, the cheapest qualified traffic on the net is from StumbleUpon.”

He said that he has found that for him, posting to Digg at 7 a.m. or 6 p.m. PT on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays delivers the best results. He said that posts that are between 250 words and 750 words long work best for the site.

“When you land on the front page of Digg, you get 15 to 30 visitors per second,” he added. “Think about that.”

He said that he moved the date of the post to the bottom of the page so that people would read old content, and it worked.

Although he has an RSS feed, Ferriss said having one may not make sense if you earn more from visitors to the site than from visitors to your feed. “Don’t push people to buy the Yugo if you can sell them a Mercedes,” he said.

Changing the name of the sections block to “topics” increased the clickthough rate of that section of the site dramatically.

He lists current hits first, because if he displayed the all-time favorites, that section would become a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

He advised attendees to ignore most of the advice they hear about social media. He said that people will tell you to accept all comments on the blog, but “I treat my blog like my living room. If you’re being rude to people and you start breaking furniture, you’re not welcome.”

In his comment rules, he asks people not to post URL links and to post under their personal name, not the name of their business. He said he was surprised that most people followed these rules. In the rules of the blog, he notes, “Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff.”

The blog used to have a Twitter plug-in (he’s @tferriss), but it diverted about 15 percent of his site traffic.


“Start small and build way up, like a Katamari, Ferriss said. “Plan big, but test your assumptions.”

“Doing the unthinkable is easier than you think,” he concluded.

Editor’s note: Mediabistro is part of WebMediaBrands, parent company of this Web site.

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