Digital Tumbleweeds And Virtual Crickets

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If you publish online get ready for a lesson in humility.

Brands quit publishing content for the exact same reason that many individuals stop publishing content: the brutal reality that nobody cares. As someone who creates and publishes a lot of content online (roughly six Blog posts and one audio Podcast every week), there is both a certain humility and instant humiliation that comes along with the process.

The cream rises to the top.

Even in a world where two hundred billion videos get viewed every month, the cream still does rise to the top (as the saying goes). It’s just that we seem to have a lot more cream and it’s fallen into many different niches. With that cream comes a lot of stuff that falls to the bottom. And, that bottom-feeding content, is the vast majority – especially when it comes to content that is related to business – of what populates corporately operated content marketing platforms . Not everyone gets the video viral success of Will It Blend? and few will get the same impact from their corporate Blogs as Dell has had. The other challenge is in maintaining this attention and consistently delivering content that rises to the top.

Content creation can be a humiliating process.

I’ve spent many evenings tapping away at the keyboard, as the ideas flowed in a fast and furious pace. I’ve hit the “publish” button thinking to myself, “this could well be my best Blog post to date,” only to find out a short while later that nobody cared. The post wasn’t picked up, tweeted about on Twitter, shared, liked on Facebook and only generated a few (if any) comments.

What did I get? Digital tumbleweeds or virtual crickets.

I don’t care what Simon & Garfunkel tell you, the sound of silence is not pretty a pretty sound at all. In the pre-Social Media world, we used to publish our thoughts, but before that stage we had a semblance of validation. The publishers, editors and fellow content creators gave that validation to us, by agreeing to publish our work in the first place. Even when the work may have been sub-par, sometimes the brand that published the content helped carry it. I’d even argue that the public’s reaction to that content mattered significantly less than the fact that it was published. The validation of content came from it being published more than it’s widely accepted appeal to the masses. Now – in a world where the half-life of a Blog post can be less than twelve hours – you can tell if your work resonates… or if it’s digital tumbleweeds.

How to win friends and influence people.

Countless Blog posts and seminars have been produced on how to get your content to rise up and be heard. While there are certain “tricks” that can be pulled off (a catchy headline, a cute picture of a puppy, a how-to-list, something that will make people laugh, cry, think… or all of the above), there is still a “secret sauce” that makes some content work. Having conducted over three hundred interviews with industry leaders, one common thread of thought is pervasive: the majority of content creators are just as surprised as anyone else is when one piece of content works while another is met with digital tumbleweeds. They often feel like their best work is not met with the attention they anticipated and that the content they felt was filler is the stuff that their community ran with.

The real-time analytics is us.

The true humility and humiliation of Social Media is not what the web analytics tell us… it’s what the audience does (or doesn’t do) with the content. You can buy audience, links and clicks, but you can’t buy people who care and want to share whatever it is that you are doing. Ultimately, the humiliation should not stop us… it should drive us. Everyday is a new opportunity to connect and engage, so the brands that give up, don’t try or tinker with their content are completely missing the point. Some stuff will rise to the top while other stuff will be met with digital tumbleweeds. It’s the nature of the beast. The trick is in being able to identify that – over the long-haul (and yes, it takes a significant amount of time to garner any semblance of traction) – you need to look at the entire body of work as a benchmark for if your content resonates. It’s also wise to use those daily moments of humiliation from digital tumbleweeds as a compass for what resonates… and what doesn’t.

How do you deal with the digital tumbleweeds and virtual crickets?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. I think the people cares more about the comments and opinions of people of a given topic than an opinion of a web page or even google. I think the failure is that the peole just read the articles and not give their opinion about it and if they agree or not.
    Thank you

  2. It’s happen to me right now with my Secret Show. I’m super proud of my video over there, and barely anyone is watching. It’s more fun than my blog, and yet, people haven’t rushed to pick it up. I know the feeling.

  3. How many times have you read interesting blog posts and been inspired to respond? I have, time and time again.
    Sadly, even prominent bloggers who seem to understand that the objective is to get a conversation going, don’t participate in igniting the flame (this is not directed at you, Mitch). Perhaps they think all they have to do is write the post. I think it takes more. I believe that if someone takes the time to provide insightful comments, in response to a post, perhaps raising questions of their own, they at least deserve a tip of the hat from the blog author in hopes of inspiring others to chime in.
    I know, from a recent podcast #287 with Gini Dietrich of Spin Sucks, you seemed impressed with how involved she is in responding to her readers. I was too. Obviously, an author’s involvement isn’t always necessary. For example, I’m not suggesting that a lame comment like, “Hey Mitch, nice post!” deserves recognition.
    However, if a blog isn’t generating conversations amongst readers, why not?
    On Facebook, I tend to get a lot of “Likes” when I post things. I’ve wondered if readers are just too busy to put in their own two cents or, perhaps, intimidated.
    Do you participate in the comment section of blogs or are you just a consumer of the information?

  4. “Publisher validation” is still alive and well today, even in the social sphere. In an ever more competitive online world where we are all fighting for attention consumers will look to content gateways and curators to sort the wheat from the chaff. Those gateways are often the major blog organisations – Mashable, RWW, TechCrunch, Engadget etc. Even HuffPo.
    Post on your own site and feedback or shares will generally be limited. The same post, or even an inferior one, on a content gateway will benefit from publisher validation just by being there. 2 likes here (3 now including me) – 31 likes there for example.
    Chris – with the Secret Show people have to invest more time and effort. The content may be great and better than a blog post but they can’t skim it for key words as easily or, in some cases, check it out on the go on mobile so, even though you’re an established voice, the medium can be just as important in getting the consumer’s attention.

  5. Do you think that, like Mitch said in his interview with Michael Steizner in his Examining Social Media podcast (#290), readers have filter failure making it harder for the cream to float to the top.

  6. The discourse or engagement is not for everyone. For every hundred Blog posts that I read, I probably only comment on a few (if that). Commenting is hard, but sharing is not. We now have many more tools to amplify this content (Twitter, Facebook, etc…). How hard is it to tweet, like or +1 something? That being said, there needs to be a fine balance so that it’s not annoying.

  7. I think getting attention to things like a video Podcast is extremely hard. I know that I feel the same way about my Podcast. I think the conversations on the show are so much better than the Blog posts, but there’s still something about audio and video that feels more like a “destination” than being able to grab it “on the fly”.

  8. I’m on the fence with this comment, Bob. I’ve done both: engaged in comments and not. The results for me have been split. While I think many people like being acknowledged, I have not seen it get the content to connect more with people.
    Ultimately, I don’t think content lives or dies by the amount of comments that it generates or the discourse it creates from within. I think the success can be somewhat ambiguous and is (more often than not) driven by how linkbaity the title is and how snappy the content is. Longer/deeper content rarely finds the same market as the fluff… as sad as that makes me feel.

  9. Publisher validation even transcends the digital channel. We tend to be more impressed with people on Twitter or Facebook who work at some of these more traditional media empires. Old habits die hard.

  10. Digital tumbleweeds are a challenge but two things keep me going.
    (1) it may be an instant gratification culture but I don’t have to succumb. Sometimes my post finds an audience over time, especially when I am writing about something that is not time sensitive. Content lives on in the Internet.
    (2) I recently ran into 2 people who I respect deeply who harangued me for getting slack the last few weeks. I didn’t know they were following so closely. Do I wish they liked, +1 and commented more? Sure, but those are just one type of metric.

  11. I’m interested in blogging and, after a long time on the sidelines trying to “find my voice”, I’ve refined my approach and look forward to getting on a regular schedule. However, when I see how consistent and prolific you (and Chris Brogan) are and yet the comments are sparse, I wonder how you keep motivated to keep producing. Can I keep motivated?
    If I were a blogger, ask probing questions, specifically asking for feedback, I would feel a sense of obligation to respond. An example is Jeffrey Hollander, co-founder of Seventh Generation, and his blog – A very insightful blogger and I always look forward to reading his posts. Yet when people respond to his questions and get no further participation, it makes me feel like it’s not worth it or that he’s only “taking”.
    Mashable does something similar. They ask a question like, “What’s your favorite paperclip color?” and then write an article “publishing the results”. It doesn’t seem quite fair…

  12. That’s a really good point… good content lives forever online. It could be your ideas just aren’t ready for prime time. Thanks Richard, that was helpful for an aspiring blogger!

  13. On a personal level, I Blog for my own satisfaction to publish my critical thinking. If people want to engage, great. For some people, that engagement is the reason to publish in the first place (it’s certainly not mine).
    Also, it’s somewhat humorous to me that people talk about “community” but it’s not. Most of the content is really a back and forth. I Blog, you comment, I respond… maybe you respond back (most do not). I often lament that it would be nice to have a world where everyone comments back and forth to one another… not just the Blogger.

  14. I see the half-life of Blog posts (and even free ebooks) shortening. Yes, certain posts get read by individuals in the future, but Twitter has made everything happen in the now. It’s a rare anomaly that old Blog post suddenly gets a whole lot of traction in the now. In fact, I can’t even recall a situation where this happened recently.

  15. So, would you say that this is one of your better posts, Mitch? 😉
    I’ve witnessed the humiliation part of this equation far too many times, given that I’ve spent quite a long time on the frontlines of the book publishing business. Come to think of it, it’s hard to picture another industry capable of as swiftly dispossessing people of their delusions of relevance as this business can (apart from politics perhaps?). There’s no way of getting around it – the abundance of content is creating tremendous scarcity of attention – and that’s something that all brands, authors and content creators of any kind have to learn to grapple with and adjust their expectations accordingly. Great content most definitely pretty much always comes up to the top of the market it is relevant to but not necessarily the masses as we know them in the traditional sense of the term. The ongoing fragmentation will only further exacerbate this challenge.

  16. Great post! And so very true. Social media has given billions a voice – and it’s gotten very loud with billions talking at once!
    In my Social Media Marketing class at UCLA Extension the students are asked to create a blog. They worry about privacy and security. Little do they know, the following week, they’ll be complaining that NO ONE is visiting their blog! “How do I get people to visit my blog?” becomes the hot topic – not protecting their content….very interesting.
    I’m interested in “Curation and Aggregation 3.0”. What do I mean by that? There has to be a better way than simply listing links or shouting louder, don’t you think? Someone is going to do something totally brilliant to blaze a trail through the clutter.
    Maybe it’s Collective Content that’s the next new thing? At any rate, we’re at an important crossroads in the evolution of social and media. Can’t wait to ‘hear’ what happens!

  17. I think this is a great post with excellent points to consider in the comments. I think that validation is key. As Mitch points out for some on Twitter that validation is the fact that they’re, for example, a sports reporter on TSN. They have a publisher which moves people up the validation ladder – others have to use the Gladwell Hours (10,000) to build that validation. And once that validation has been established – the comments might be easier to get.

  18. Great post Mitch, you must be in my head. I’ve actually given up trying to figure out which posts will be big and which ones won’t because most of the time, I’m wrong and it only seems to be getting harder to gauge. It might not even have anything to do with the content either, everyone’s so busy that you have nanoseconds to catch their attention and if you miss it, the moments gone.

  19. There’s a thought here about the re-definition of the word “masses”. We need to look at not only “how many” people but “who.” And in that “who” find what the mass number in that niche truly is. It’s also a lesson for all of us, that as media fragments we have to get comfortable with looking at something else beyond just the raw numbers.

  20. I’m curious to see how this curation and aggregation will come to be. It may have worked at the moment that the masses became fragmented, but I’m not even sure that this will be possible at this point in time – with so many of us creating content. It’s amazing how hard it is to consistently follow the same Blogs we followed just a few years back. Now, these Bloggers are everywhere (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, G+, etc…). We’re actually adding noise to our own noise!

  21. The challenge is that you can also game the system, rig the bio and make things seem bigger than they are. I’ve seen this work for many. I’m often confused for someone who is a solopreneur – working from the local Starbucks, when nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is not that I’ve done a poor job of positioning, but that others who are working from their local Panera have done a better job or creating that social proof.

  22. Great point, Tac… we shouldn’t assume that even the half-life of a Blog post is the same from day to day. It’s not. It’s changes and morph as our lives do. Great, another moving target 😉

  23. Mitch, I read this post mere minutes after checking my blog’s subscriber stats for the first time in months and finding only one subscriber. So, I know the pain of feeling like you’re creating for no one.
    I think some of this can be self-caused by many people (myself included) because they don’t feel their “stuff” is good enough to promote to other people to try to build that audience. That might be part of the reason that so many people are surprised when one creation catches on over another. They may think that none of it is good enough to catch on.
    Or, that might just be me.

  24. I think the ones who are able to successfully surpass the digital tumbleweeds and virtual crickets will prove to be:
    1) the most resilient
    2) the most humble
    3) the most relevant
    You can’t be successful without these three features, I think. If you’re resilient and relevant but not humble, you’ll drive people away; if you’re resilient and humble but not relevant, you’re not going anywhere; if you’re humble and relevant but not resilient, at the first sign of “uh oh, this didn’t go so well” you give up. My two cents, your thoughts?

  25. enjoyed this post very much. Especially the end when you suggest to be driven by the humiliation. So many of us want instant gratification and we are misinformed about social media. I say BRAND YOUR FIRE and let your inner spark show in everything you do and write.

  26. Bob (and Mitch while I’m at it),
    Some people hit ‘publish’ and don’t look back. I tend to consider that being in love with the sound of your own typing, but realize that not every blog/post is about community, engagement. If I got some value from reading it, that’s enough.
    Then there’s the ‘tree falling in the woods’ scenario: if a good post is written, but there’s no one there to search it, find it, comment or share, does anyone notice? It does bug me that a random list of quotes on how to use cute kitten pictures ‘seems’ to get all the traction; but then, take a look at some of those Mashable posts – the comments leave a lot to be desired and I’d wager most of the RTs are mindless clicks and automated noise, nothing more.
    There will be crickets, there will be tumbleweeds. I do consider my reasons – personal and professional – for blogging, and absolutely let the feedback – or lack thereof – drive me to write better, try to lure out the lurkers and create lasting content. FWIW.

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