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Curious Babies and Stick Figures: The Keys to Viral Blogging Success According to Tim Urban

Inbound Marketing

My favorite session at the INBOUND16 Conference in Boston was the spotlight session with blogger and stick figure artist, Tim Urban, the creator and writer behind the blog waitbutwhy.com. His blog stands out for several reasons, most blatantly, his inclusion of stick figures and drawings reminiscent of the Microsoft Paint era. That may sound juvenile and ridiculous–why would stick figures be a major draw for readers? The answer is in Tim’s perception of himself as a “curious baby” and believes that at our core, most of us approach online content consumption with a similar attitude. While doing research for this post I frequently found myself in this situation, in particular while reading one of his most popular posts on The Fermi Paradox:

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Even though the posts on waitbuywhy.com are much longer than most blogs I typically read (and many have two parts), I couldn’t stop myself from scrolling and going to another one once I finished. As a marketer this phenomenon had me asking myself,

"Why is this kind of blog so rare?"


"Is Tim Urban’s unconventional, non-SEO-centric approach hindering his success?"

(Hint: He has over a million readers and 450,000 subscribers)

When you read a post over at waitbutwhy.com you don't ever feel like Tim is trying to trick you into reading a post that's disguised as helpful information but is actually promoting a product or service, or exists only for on-page SEO value. As marketers, who are under pressure to provide results, I believe we fall into these blogging habits and can turn into marketing cavemen–only seeking the short term wins we can hunt, kill and drag home at the end of the day. These short term prey we’re hunting are the subscribers, visits, rankings or views that we track at the end of the day, week, month, or whenever it happens to occur to us.

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Tim, however, is no caveman marketer, or blogger. He has built a massive following by creating content that people enjoy consuming. He provides the information we seek married with the entertainment we crave, and the visitors pour in.

The Why Behind waitbutwhy.com

He says that his goal to attract subscribers for waitbutwhy.com, was to move people beyond feeling only mild positive emotions into the realm of strong positive emotions while he is “in their brain.” He says in order to get people to do that, there’s a jump we have to make. Here's a chart from his keynote to demonstrate the gaps we have to overcome as bloggers:

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©Tim Urban 

Mild positive emotions = may click on you again

Strong positive emotions = where the magic starts to happen:
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Obsessed = viral

Just eight posts into waitbutwhy.com a post went extremely viral and his subscriber list grew from 300 to 27,000 in one week. To quote Tim,

“One super viral post changes everything.”

As you can see from the scale above, it doesn’t take much to move your readers from “ugh” to “meh” or even, from “meh” to “mild positive emotions”. However, creating content that carries visitors from “mild positive emotions” into the magical realm of “strong positive emotions” (where the results are) is a large jump, and to make the move up to "obsessed" requires 10x more postive emotions than "strong." Tim reminded us that

"...people only let you into their brain for a second, and if people don't like it when you're in there, they're going to kick you out and x-out the window, likely to never return."
To move up the scale into the realm of results, Tim says this is what we need to pay attention to–
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Prepping for a Blog

He names two main buckets for topic choices for blogs: 1) Human nature and 2) Gathering info (or what he calls, “what’s going on with humanity”). His human nature blogs are topics that many of us easily relate to such as Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy, and 7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook.

For the latter he establishes for himself what he calls a “tree trunk” of knowledge before even beginning to build out the structure of his post. He starts with understanding the base of the topic, and expands his base “trunk” of knowledge with the “leaves” which are the supporting articles. The goal for his blogs, focusing on informational topics, is to help his readers establish that same “tree trunk.”

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Designing and Building the Experience

One of Tim’s key points is that he is a “curious baby” and that he’s trying to attract all of the other curious babies out there. He started off waitbutwhy.com with the conjecture that there are at least a million other curious babies out there, and his theory was confirmed because he discovered that most people want depth AND fun. It’s not just that we want to read something informative, we want to have fun and be entertained while being taught. After gathering and dumping all the information he can find into a Word doc, he first designs the experience (format) of the topic to speak to the “curious” aspect of his readers, and then builds the experience in a way that will appeal to the “baby” in all of us that craves simplicity and entertainment. He recommends implementing components of fiction that make those stories exciting­­­­–cliffhangers, climax, resolution, and mystery.

Visuals are a main component of waitbuywhy.com–not only separating his blog apart from others–they create an experience that’s memorable and easy to digest. By creating symbols, charts or stick figures, the concepts become understandable and sticky.

And that’s the basis of his blog’s massive success.

Tim didn’t mention SEO or keywords one time during his 45-minute keynote.

Of course as good inbound marketers we should always optimize our blog posts for keywords, but they should not dictate or even direct our content creation strategy. Keywords are not the king, and when they reign over our inbound marketing strategy our content becomes unlovable (see how scared that girl is?) which is the opposite of inbound.
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So, can we all stop being marketing cavemen and create content that our buyer personas enjoy and find valuable?

If we don’t, our competitors will.

You can watch part of Tim’s keynote here.


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