You’re Worried About Numbers. You Should Be Worried About Engagement.

Take a deep breath and any antibiotics you have handy: We’re jumping into the writer pool. And not the fancy one everybody thinks exists – all white wooden lounge chairs and champagne on silver trays – this is the real one. The one on the front lawn, filled with old hose water and diluted beer. Hold your breath; I think a squirrel died in there this morning.

The biggest worry of any writer I meet, whether that’s an internet blogger trying to get traffic, or a novelist trying to get readers, is pure numbers. How do you get some friggin’ eyes on your friggin’ stuff? Surely, once you accomplish that nigh-on impossible literary feat, the rest is all diamonds and blowjobs and excruciatingly painful but terrifically posh diamond blowjobs.

It is not.

That is the first part of your job. Get eyes on words. Absorbing their meaning. Allowing your thoughts into their brain like little textual parasites. Infecting them. That part is tough, sure. But it’s not the endgame. As David Wong is fond of saying: The internet is a big place. There’s free porn on it. What part of your writing is better than free porn?

There are plenty of advice pieces based entirely around earning big traffic and increasing readership. It’s important stuff, worthy of discussion. But if you manage that slippery numbers trick, you can check back the next day and find out the harsh truth: You have to manage it all over again, from scratch. Those were just eyes, not brains or hearts. They don’t remember you, and they don’t care. It’s a hundred thousand views for one ad click. It’s thirty thousand free previews for one book sale. It’s ten thousand spoons when all you need is one spoon (stop, oh god, you’re going to be crushed to death beneath all these spoons).

I write for the biggest comedy site on the planet. If you take the average of all the metrics together, we passed the Onion, College Humor, and Funny or Die years ago. Every single week, I’m right there on the front of that page:The biggest one in its very broad genre in the entire world. And I defy you to find anybody else in real life that knows my name. I defy you to find anybody else that even knows Cracked.

(Crack? Wait, like Mad?)

We kill on traffic. We are traffic billionaires. We’re fucking traffic philanthropists – “you want some traffic? Got plenty to spare! Hahaha! Traffic for all!”

We will suck your dick in a gas station bathroom for some engagement.

Cracked is getting a lot better about the latter, through a very concerted effort. But I, and many other writers, are now facing the same problem. We may have thousands and thousands of pairs of eyes reading our stuff, but we have a very, very small fanbase. To build it up, we need to focus on engagement. I am not your guru here, I am somebody relating the steps as I learn them. This isn’t 101, this is the remedial class that teaches you to recognize the numbers ‘101.’

There are a few basic ways to build audience engagement: First, find a schtick.

For a lot of writers, this is as simple as picking a genre. You’re the steampunk girl. You’re the urban fantasy guy. You’re the insectile mech erotica guru. Ain’t nobody else does what you do, and if they did, they’d be hung for the worst of genre crimes: Riding coattails. For bloggers, it’s finding subject matter: Advice, comic books, games, movies. If you stick to and actively pursue just that community while pumping out consistent quality work, you may eventually earn a fanbase. But what of us hideous bastard chimeras? What of us writers who will write an op-ed piece about celebrities it’s hard to tell apart one week, and the next week write a fiction piece about huffing paint with the smurfs as a metaphor for the Enron scandal? What of us sci-fi writers who finish the cyberpunk book and think “great! Now, on to horror! To literary! To motherfucking young adult! (Shit, sorry about the language, young adults.)”

For those of us without an easily categorized specialty, we’re left to rely much more on the heinous task of “building a brand.” (I didn’t have to put that last phrase in quote marks. I just found the words themselves so distasteful that I needed to imprison them, somehow; keep them from infecting the rest of this page.) To “build a brand” (rot there, you bastards), you’re going to have to do a lot of things that seem downright unpleasant to your typical crazy-hermit-in-training writer type. You’re going to have to get your literal face out there – literally.

You need to start plastering your ugly mug up everywhere. No more mysterious, half-lit author photos, no abstract user avatars; just your stupid features in front of the world, clear and recognizable. People are built for face recall. Some may remember you from the strength of your writing alone, but not all. For many, names are just meaningless text until there’s a real person to tie them to.

For two, you’re going to have to establish a unique persona. That wasn’t a dig on your bland party anecdotes: Persona is different from personality. A persona has a mythos about it. A story. That story may not be complex or terribly original – Stephen King is the creepy dude from New England (look at his headshots, tell me he’s not nurturing that archetype); Dave Eggers is the hip young liberal with the tragic past (notice the persona is still ‘young,’ even though it has been fifteen years since he developed it); Chuck Palahniuk is the counter-culture crazy — “don’t take your eyes off him, folks! He’s probably rabid!” — even though by all accounts he’s very polite and soft-spoken in reality. Sure, there should be some element of truth to your persona, but think of it like writing a character: Nobody’s compelled by your real, well-adjusted accountant personality. But they friggin’ love the drunken party accountant with the sex addiction persona you developed – that’s intriguing, novel, and most important, memorable.

Hunter S. Thompson was a parody of Hunter S. Thompson. There was a lot of truth to the character, but it was more a boardwalk caricature than a sitting room portrait. He cultivated that persona because it made sense for his books, it made people remember his name, his face, and eventually, his work.

“Branding” is just one aspect of engagement, and this is one small part of “branding.” We’ll talk more about it and engagement in the coming weeks. And of course, all of this is utterly meaningless without consistent, quality work – but that’s waaay harder to help out with. This branding shit is extremely uncomfortable and very unfortunate, but it’s absolutely necessary and relatively easy compared to the whole ‘producing a masterpiece’ thing.

Oh god, it’s escaped the quote marks!


16 thoughts on “You’re Worried About Numbers. You Should Be Worried About Engagement.

  1. Travis Lujan

    Hey just wanted to say that I actively sought your web postings out after reading several on cracked. I thought about writing for a while, still thinking about it; which according to everything I have read makes me “not a writer” but instead a “dreamer”. what the fuck ever. I write. I fail to write anything worth publishing; which of course, is the real burden.

    Regardless of my serious lack regarding literary arts, I felt that I should write you directly as a response to this article about engagement, it seemed fitting; much like discussing anonymity at a twelve step program; fitting non the less. So to reiterate this nonsensical equation that is my blabbering about what ever the fuck I feel like: Thanks for making me laugh, thanks for making it ok that I notice the most absurd things in day to day life and choose to rip them apart for their ludicrousness (not the Rapper/Actor/Pimp-tastic mau’fuka’). There’s your engagement, still waiting for my B.J. in a gas station stall

    Travis J. Lujan

  2. Kyle

    Branding sounds very complicated at it’s core. For instance, how do you maintain your persona in the reality we live in now? Do you create the a facade persona or just go balls out? And by balls out I mean it’s obvious I have no idea how to create a brand.

    Stephen King built his insane face persona over an insanely large amount of typed words squeezed into aptly named large books. It took years for him to build up to that state where folks said I want to see if his face is as crazy as his words. They were not let down, of course. I am curious as to how you create this persona to brand yourself with.

    In saying that, what exactly is your brand? To me you are the funniest writer I’ve ever read (I don’t give bj’s on the first date), however, i don’t know exactly what your brand is. Did I miss something? If so, i sincerely apologize.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      You didn’t miss anything. I don’t really have a brand. Going by numbers alone (and I realize that’s grossly over-simplified), I am one of the most read authors in human history. Not good, not worthwhile, influential, or successful – but most read. I bounce all over the map to whatever amuses me and I couldn’t want fame or personal attention less, so I’m kind of a hermit. This is me realizing and struggling against those qualities, trying to accept they’re what you have to do away with to establish yourself. That’s kind of what this site is: Where I’m at, as a writer, and hopefully it helps others where they’re at.

        1. Travis Lujan

          agreed. I have my own personal “brand” of crazy, and you Kyle have your own “brand” its who we are when we are in front of people, or behind a keyboard, its the persona that tells people to “enjoy a hot cup of STFU!” online and its the persona that says “excuse me” when they fart in the living room. We all have a brand, some of us just utilize more than one.

  3. Jeremy Ryan Harper

    Honestly I was just reading your latest article and I swear it was the first time I’ve seen you advertise your website and I’ve been an everyday reader for four years now.I’m not a writer or anything of that nature, but I do want to thank you because you’ve been a huge influence on what I consider have literally made me a funnier person and for that you have free reign on any and all orifices of your choosing that are on or around my body.

  4. Jason Goates

    So glad I stumbled across this. You are my favorite cracked writer and I’ve enjoyed your books, I buy extra copies for friends in the hopes the madness will spread and leave me be. Keep up the great work, you’ve got my dollar and hearty thanks for the great laughs.

  5. McKinley

    What you say about personas is common to a lot of occupations. Comedians don’t just write funny words, they play exaggerated versions of themselves. Dylan Moran’s stage persona is a misanthropic alcoholic, and a friend of mine described feeling betrayed upon finding out he had become a teetotaller years ago (I’m not. He’ll live longer). The good uni lecturers I’ve asked about this report having a more-or-less deliberate persona. Most good bartenders do it too (this is what originally got me thinking about it), and they set the tone for the bar and are part of why people come back. But these are all varieties of *performance* – how do you do it as a writer, assuming your writing’s not autobiographical?

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Oh, I’ve definitely always done it as a writer. I’m nothing like the Cracked version of Brockway. Elements of me are folded into that persona, obviously – random thoughts, bits of personality traits, partial anecdotes – but Cracked Brockway is an amalgam of friends I used to know, people I used to be and stuff I’m afraid to admit to. He’s just fun to write. In life, I’m nowhere near as interesting. I hang out with my wife and my dogs. I read, write, play games and ride my bike and that’s about it. I’m kind of a hermit. I work a lot. I don’t get hammered often and the last “drug-fueled adventure” I had was a pleasant conversation with a girl at a bar after like, two hits on a joint. That was several months ago. And I hate to burst anybody’s bubble, but all of the Cracked team is exactly the same way. We’re very mellow, most of the humor is low-key and dry, and 99% of the time spent at the ‘Cracked office’ wasn’t us having hilarious adventures or even savvy pop culture dissections. It was quietly and politely tapping on keyboards. We asked Soren about stocks a lot, because he’s the only one that understands them. We’re just kind of boring. Well, except for Seanbaby. Seanbaby’s persona is, if anything, a toned-down version of the real Seanbaby. I don’t know that I’ve seen him anywhere without a porn star. That is not a joke.

      1. McKinley

        I think that’s more comforting than bubble-bursting. The idea that you can still be a decent writer of you’re not constantly and acutely hilarious in day-to-day life.

  6. jeremy

    I desperately hope that little anecdote about Seanbaby going around everywhere with at least one porn star is completely true. I wish it with my dearest, most secret heart.

    Also, I love your work. You’re easily my favourite writer on Cracked and your blog here is all kinds of amazing. Thank you for all the asthma-inducing laughs you’ve gifted me.


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