Financial Blogging Secrets: The Bible
- Joshua M Brown
- February 27th, 2011
From January 7th through February 11th 2011, I ran a regular Friday series devoted to sharing my Financial Blogging Secrets. Each installment was a brash, humorous and honest look at how to do things my way. After more than two years and over 2500 posts (not including the hundreds of posts I’ve written elsewhere for the mainstream media) I felt it was time to lay down some of the secrets, tips, tricks and rules that I use to get things popping every day.
Whether you missed it during its original run or you just wanted to revisit it for inspiration, you can find my Financial Blogging Secrets series in its entirety below. Enjoy!
Financial Blogging Secrets: Aesthetics
Template: There are some ridiculously ugly blogs out there, most of them are on Google’s Blogspot platform. Switch to WordPress, take one of their simplest templates and then spend a few hours learning basic HTML so you can manipulate the code and personalize it a bit. This costs you nothing other than time well-spent. You can get a WordPress designer for $500 to whip you up an original looking site if you want.
URL: Buy your own domain for $13 dollars. No more .blogspot or .wordpress or .typepad or .tumbler. If you’re going to do this then really do this.
Color: Stop blogging on black backgrounds. I know it looks cool but I promise you that twice as many people will read your stuff if you listen to me. They will stay on longer and read more. Even Bloomberg went from “noir” to white, do you know more than the most successful financial media company in the world? I’m not saying your background has to be as white as Nicole Kidman’s thighs; FT Alphaville and Barry both write on a light beige and it looks terrific. Just stop with the black.
Text: If your visitor clicks a link, hits your page and is greeted with a wall of text, that visitor is gone. No one wants to read something that looks like homework, no matter well written it is. Your first paragraph should never be more than one or two sentences. Each paragraph thereafter should be 3 to 4 sentences maximum. If you’re over 500 words for the whole post, you better be writing something important or brilliant, otherwise just stop. The markets are moving and people won’t even give your post a chance if it looks unconquerable.
Font: Keep font color or font style changes intra-post to a bare minimum or your stuff will look like a ransom letter. Your post titles and headlines should be huge and bold. They should scream READ ME – there is no captive audience on the web, it’s not like you’re writing a Victorian-era newspaper that gentlemen will be reading cover to cover on a steam locomotive.
Images: Charts are cool if there are three or less, ditto for infographs. Don’t throw lame stock images into a post like you’re the Associated Press or something. Goofy or quasi-pornographic pictures are cheap and a sure way to get serious potential readers to discount you as a credible voice.
Pages: Six is too many, two is too few. An about page is essential even if you’re anonymous. For the third page of a blog, think of something interesting that you want to have its own tab and to be accessible from everywhere. I have a “Managed Assets” page for obvious reasons as well as a “Best Of” page because I’m a vainglorious bastard in love with my own writing.
Widgets: Don’t turn the margins and columns of your blog into a carnival midway. Flashing stuff, data tabs, chunks of other people’s posts all need to go. Blank space is cool, it lends import and directs focus toward the main event – your content. Don’t clutter your page with Geocities-looking nonsense, it’s tacky and takes away from your work. Your blog isn’t a MySpace page, we don’t need to see the cover of every book you’ve read or a running list of your favorite songs that start with the letter D. And your badges are lame, no one cares if you’re a “Super Special Contributor to the Scraped Content Farm Network” so get rid of them.
Ads: This will be controversial but I don’t care. Get the ads out of your text. If I roll over text on your site and an ad pops up in my way while I’m reading it, I’m out. Contextual ads are counterproductive unless you’re writing for ad clicks (if this is the case stop reading because I can’t help you). Also, if you’re gonna pop something up at me, fine, I get it, but just do it at the beginning and get it over with. Nothing is more insulting than a pop up ad that hits me two paragraphs into reading you. As far as banners, keep them – but keep them out of my way. No banners in the middle of a post, it’s beyond gross and can’t possibly be paying you much anyway.
Look at me over 700 words! Gotta go! And I’m right about everything here.
Financial Blogging Secrets: Content
Viewpoint: Let’s start very simply by saying that the world doesn’t need another content farm, especially in the finance vertical. If you’re going to cover markets, companies, stocks, Wall Street and the economy then please make sure you have a point of view. We all get our news from Twitter and TV and you will never compete with The Business Insider or DealBook on straight up news coverage – they don’t have day jobs – this is what they do and they do it well. They will always win on breadth and speed. What they don’t always do well is news analysis and opinion. Journalists and full-time bloggers are sometimes outmatched in formulating the “why this matters” or in noticing connections beneath the surface. That’s where we come in as industry practitioners on trading desks, at banks or in client-facing jobs.
Spouting Off: Do us all a favor and talk about stuff you know. If you don’t understand the finer points of monetary policy or Federal Reserve history or securities analysis or bond trading or emerging markets, just STFU. You can cover topics that you aren’t strong on the way I do – linking out to more knowledgeable sources and culling together a point of view based on the opinions of those you respect and trust. Like many of the great market commentators, I’ve chosen to make myself a generalist in the hopes that I might become one of the greats one day (you cannot possibly imagine the depth and scope of my ambition in this regard). If you choose to be a specialist in one area, you can probably build a really loyal following even faster than a generalist – but don’t veer away from your raison d’etre too much once you’ve got that following – keep it real.
Piling On: There are certain subjects where to write a post would just be overkill. If Eddy does it and Barry does it and then Zero Hedge does it and 24/7 Wall Street does it…what are you really adding to the equation, know what I mean? Sometimes a topic is so big that it doesn’t matter – have at it. Sometimes you’re just beating a dead horse back to life and then to death again. Find the balance and know when to talk about something different.
Timing: I’m going to let you guys in on one of my timing secrets. It took me 18 months to learn this. Don’t be first, be last (and best). Let’s say Bloomberg puts out a headline that Goldman Sachs has been caught financing a syndicate of Gypsy pickpockets in southern Romania because they don’t yet have every single penny of the world’s wealth under their control yet, or whatever, something like that. You already know that there will be 100+ mainstream media articles about it, a few thousand tweets and then a few hundred blog posts throughout the day. The 50 Cent stock pump is a great example – everyone had something to say, none of it very interesting. And then TRB publishes 50 Cent’s Investment Library and absolutely crushes it – I own that story now because I let everyone else exhaust and repeat themselves, digested it all, and then came out at 9 o’clock at night with a sledgehammer of a post. Booyah, Jim.
Respect: As in the Hip Hop world, you do not come out of the gates and take shots at a legend to try to make a name for yourself. Canabis tried it and LL Cool J put his career in a pine box. Pay your dues, play your position and respect the bigger dogs in the blogosphere and financial media. Don’t rip journalists to shreds just because your mic is on. You will look like a petulant child or one of those cranks who write letters to their congressman that no one reads. Remember what Brand Nubian said, punks jump up to get beat down.
Eclecticism: Whether generalist or specialist, don’t be afraid to incorporate your other interests into your work. Grab interesting stories from science, history, literature, art, technology, sports, pop culture…whatever. Just don’t dilute your content too much; reviews of each week’s episode of Jersey Shore would probably not make much sense on a blog about value stock picking. Your audience will connect with you more when you become a human being with interests outside financial matters. My blog, for example, has a nice following amongst hip hop fans, people with good senses of humor and pop culture junkies. Ritholtz gets a lot of engineering/science/technology/auto enthusiasts on The Big Picture. Paul Kedrosky’s readers are weather man groupies and amateur cartographers at Infectious Greed. Felix Salmon probably has an audience that skews toward those who are interested in finance and also the way the press covers finance. And also etiquette. Tyler Durden’s readership is made up of highly inquisitive and intelligent market participants, and a little overlap with the anarchy hobbyist demo. You get the idea.
Controversy: There is a shortcut in terms of the type of content that will drive traffic. Make really big, bold, controversial statements. Someone will pick up on you fast and if your stuff is wild enough, it’ll circulate. Then what? That becomes what you’re known for and once the traffic dies down, your credibility will have been spent in vain. Look at this guy GoldmanSachs666. I’m sure he’s a nice guy with interesting things to say, but come on, is anyone going to be a loyal reader of that site or turn to him for opinion? If you roll around in mud, you will be covered in it yourself.
Predictions/Performance: Don’t be that guy that tosses out price targets and predictions all day. You will be wrong often no matter how good you are. You will alienate and piss off your readers. And posting performance numbers? Never, unless you can back them up with some kind of verification. Don’t be a putz and make things up about how great you are – no one will believe you or like you.
That’s it, I’m out. Be thoughtful about the content you put out into the world.
Financial Blogging Secrets: Style
Titles: Post titles are extremely important on the web. Anything with someone’s name in it will get clicked. Anything with a number implying that there is some kind of list will also get clicked. Phrases like The Secret Behind, The Truth About, The Most Important, The Real Reason etc will get your headline clicked. But use these tricks sparingly; don’t be a dickhead about it or people will eventually condition themselves to ignore you. You know who you are. I’ve always tried to be clever and attention-grabbing with my post titles. The most clever title writer on the planet is John Paczkowski at All Things Digital. I have no idea how to pronounce his name. His titles are consistently playful, funny and interesting. They advertise what the article is actually about as opposed to this deleterious piece of spam which asks the question “Commodities Continued to Sizzle in 2010, But What’s In Store For 2011?” and then proceeds to waste 10 minutes of your time without answering it. That’s another thing, don’t you ever in your life ask a question in a post title that you don’t intend to answer, it makes people want to punch you.
Ledes: What is a lede? It’s the opener of your post, the sentence or two that hooks a reader in and doesn’t let them go. It should be witty, exciting, adroit and an encompassing statement about the piece they’re about to read. Here’s an example of one of my ledes (from Miami Hate):
“Miami is a lot like The Snorks – it hasn’t been cool since the 80′s and everyone’s house is underwater.”
If you click away after reading that, you probably suck and don’t deserve to read the rest anyway. Here’s a killer lede from Andrew Bary writing in Barron’s this past weekend:
“Some 84-year-old men fantasize about marrying a beautiful 24-year-old blonde. And maybe a few dream of regaining control of a company that they once owned completely. But only one—Playboy’s Hugh Hefner —is about to do both.”
Gangsta. Get it now?
Tone: This point is easier to make by just saying what not to do. Don’t be holier-than-thou, don’t act like you don’t make mistakes, don’t repeat yourself endlessly in an attempt to emphasize a point, don’t be bitter (or at least don’t let your bitterness show too much), don’t be nasty for the sake of being nasty, don’t be a sycophant when giving praise – just give praise. And most importantly, before you push Publish, make sure that you sound like someone that you would personally want to be around. If what you’ve just written makes you sound arrogant, overly negative, naive, hysterical or simple then go back and edit it. There are bloggers I won’t ever read again because of a glimpse of their true personality that really turned me off in one of their posts.
Emotion: Write how you feel. If you’re in a bad mood, make it come out in your writing. If you’re disgusted with something, convey that. If your subject matter is fun or lighthearted, then let that feeling ooze through you into the keyboard. People will remember your post and how real it felt and how different it was from all the other stuff they read that day. Be a goddamn writer.
Personality: Personality, as in Do You Have One? You should probably be a fairly three-dimensional and dynamic individual if you’re going to really do this, you need some degree of magnetism to build an audience. If no one likes you in real life, they probably won’t like your blog. Sorry, just how it is.
Grammar/Syntax: Use your head, there is a time to write in perfect English and a time to write more conversationally. You know how you’ll know? The subject matter will dictate it. I play golf with my baseball cap on straight, but that cap gets turned backwards (sideways even!) when that Up All Night Remix with Nicki Minaj comes on. By the same token, I have a pretty good idea of who my audience will be for certain types of posts and how I want to come across. Slang terms, misspellings and little nuggets of Wall Street/Hip Hop patois that appear to be randomly placed are actually being used very deliberately – I don’t write for your grandfather, I write for you.
Conclusions: Not every post has to make a point but the ones that do need to be at least loosely structured in a coherent fashion. Otherwise gang, it’s just a rant. I’m not interested in anyone’s rants and no one is interested in mine unless there is a point being made. So open with your point, make your point and close strong. I want to slap the desk after I read one of your posts and say “that boy good.” I’ve made my points here in this post without ever once saying “Here’s the point”. Except just now but that doesn’t count, it was expository.
I’m out, be yourself when you write (so long as ‘yourself’ is an interesting person).
Financial Blogging Secrets: Linking
Excerpting: Blogging is essentially a derivative form. From a foundational standpoint, it makes use of article excerpts the way early Hip Hop was built on soul music samples and rock song break beats. Most financial blogging is predicated on the blogger being able to tease truth and meaning out of traditional articles and reporting. At its core, financial blogging is taking third-party market data and journalism, often from mainstream outlets, and using it as the basis for further comment, disagreement, or elucidation. There is plenty of room for your original writing but if you’re not building around the constant news flow then you’ll quickly find yourself running out of things to blog about. You will also become irrelevant as the reader is looking for news reaction and analysis, not just the cloistered remarks of a disconnected Man Apart.
Eclecticism: You will routinely find a mixture of familiar sources and off-the-beaten-path content on my website. Because I take great pride in keeping things interesting and varied. If you’re going to link to the same 5 sites every day, don’t bother. If your linkage will be limited to 4 or 5 mainstream media outlets, don’t bother. If you have no interesting reading material to point us toward other than market-related stuff, skip the blog. I want all of you when you blog, mix it up and give yourself to me. I’m so weird when I write these things.
Attribution: If you’re going to build your platform on a variety of the world’s available content, you’d better get damn good at giving props or at least credit for where this stuff is coming from. This is accomplished in two ways, a link within the body of your text (a la Felix Salmon) or a source list at the footer of your post (a la Barry Ritholtz). I personally do both, though a lot more of the latter. Although I recognize the value of having a particular word or phrase underlined and hyperlinked, I tend to want to be able to finish my post before anyone can jump anywhere. I also will rarely excerpt or sample from more than one or two places in any single post so the source list below doesn’t get carried away.
Linkfests: Let’s talk about the Why. The reason for a links post, whether a regularly scheduled one like mine or a random one, should be to give your readers access to a broader scope of content and insight. I cannot possibly discuss every single facet of the economy and market every day, but I think it’s important to know what’s going on at all times. I’m not an expert in everything and so I would much rather point you toward the opinions of those I trust on certain subjects. I could very happily write blog posts on technical analysis and monetary policy and the machinations of the Federal Reserve and the implications of iron ore tariffs in Latin America – but the fact of the matter is that I would be coming to a gun fight armed with a toothpick and doing you no good whatsoever. I also have no monopoly on all the interesting ideas and opinions out there, so why not bring this stuff to your attention each day and keep you happy and satisfied as a reader. Your blogger is only as good as what he reads each day and is only as cool as the reading he shares with you, remember that.
Hyperlinks: There are a million wrong ways to write a links post and then there is my way, the right one. We can debate if you’d like, but you will not win – my linking Kung-Fu is way stronger than yours – learned from the Master (Tadas Viskanta) and honed on the thousand or so link posts I’ve thrown up over two years on my own site and at Wall Street Journal. I am gathering links 24 hours a day, storing them in folders and files, and awake at 5:30 am to harvest and curate them into posts before you have even lifted your head off the pillow – so don’t f*ck with me about this stuff. The daily Abnormal Returns linkfest is the linkfest against which all others should be judged in the financial blogosphere. No one else matches the depth, breadth, consistency of content, dependability of timing and attention to detail. No one even comes close. This is important because I want you to look at how he lays a hyperlink down:
Top performing hedge fund managers are reported to have been huffing octopus blood in the 3rd quarter. (Farnam Street)
See how the executive summary-ish description of the story precedes the link itself, which is credited to the site where the post appears. See how the name of the site is boldfaced to distinguish it at a glance from the text of the sentence? That’s all folks. There are plenty of ways to screw that up, but why not do this simple thing correctly?
OK, that’s it from me on linking. I know this stuff may start sounding pedantic but I am writing this series to provide a structure for those looking to up their game.
Financial Blogging Secrets: Everything Else
Purpose: Decide right now – do you want to write a few financial blog posts or do you want to be a financial blogger? There is a difference. Your little sister can go get a communications degree from University of Arizona and start cranking out blog posts on the stock market. Does that make her Yves Smith? Hell no. A real financial blogger, not just someone who writes blog posts, has made a choice – a commitment to enlighten and take a stand. Have you? Or are you writing for banner ad clicks? There is nothing wrong with casually blogging here and there, and of course, we all have time constraints imposed by work, family, quality of life etc. Figure out how serious you are about this before reading any further.
Resolve: OK, so you’ve resolved to actually do this and be a financial blogger, good. Now find your voice. This will take six months of hard work, writing everyday and failing all the time…know that going in and don’t be a pussy. Don’t be afraid to say things that you wish you could take back – let them stand. Be bold in your presentation, forceful in your opinions and honest in your apologies. And keep writing when no one is reading. Force them to listen to you. That’s what I did and still do. When it’s all over, I will never let it be said that people didn’t know what I stood for.
Tools: What do you mean you don’t have a fully-loaded Google Reader? I follow 180 feeds, I know EVERYTHING before you do. I’ve got every site I follow categorized for quick and easy reference. The problem is, I don’t have time to deal with every article I want to read – but wait, now I do – because I’ve let InstaPaper into my life. You should too. Without Google Reader and Instapaper, you’re really just flailing and people like me will blog triangles around you, B. Twitter is key, too. By the time you’ve read this, I will be crossing the 5000 follower mark. And I earned every single one of them with my wit, wisdom and quality linkage – I ain’t never been on a reality show. Your Twitter stream is an extension of your site, you must build your Twitter presence with the same care as any other aspect of your online persona. And tweet your links through StockTwits no matter what anyone says – we’re the Cool Kids, period.
Self-References: Regardless of what you write about, make sure the content of your post has a link to something else you’ve already written about when possible/practical. No one is going to reference your work like you will. The key is to keep the reader on your site and interested in your point of view – you’re not breaking the news, you are analyzing it for those who are busy and need the reaction from someone they trust.
Mainstream: It’s 2011, people who work for the mainstream media have grown up reading blogs – they get it now and the younger generation is starting to run the show, the dinosaurs have all sauntered off to the graveyard. Be friends with the mainstream media, they are smart, great at what they do and their role is very different from yours – there is no competition, there is only a partnership that is as symbiotic as that of the clownfish and the sea anemone or Charles in Charge and Buddy Lembeck. Don’t arbitrarily pick fights with the media; you want to be a rebel, go rip the tag off a mattress – when it comes to blogging finance, you need links and shouts from the big boys to rise above. Play the game, tough guy.
Frequency: Once again, are you looking to write financial blog posts or are you looking to be a financial blogger? If your answer is the latter, then one post a day is a waste of time, you may as well write none, don’t bother. You are not so brilliant that 5 posts a week will ever amount to anything; I write 5 a day. By this spring, the number will be 7 to 10. Quantity in and of itself is not the point (don’t you ever accuse me of spam posting as I am at the forefront of denouncing that stuff) – the goal is to get to the point where your site is an all-encompassing glimpse of the financial world. Cullen Roche of The Pragmatic Capitalist is well on his way to accomplishing this. I have not yet gotten to that point but I try everyday. My regular readers get this sense and they come back because they know that I will give them every ounce of strength and insight I have. You want people to feel like they need to check in throughout the day, if you only throw up a post once a day then your site is not habit-forming and its growth will be stunted.
Comments: You will be criticized in the comments section of your posts. LET THOSE CRITICISMS STAND, UNEDITED. I don’t erase anything, haters can say whatever they want provided they are not making racial or ethnically derogatory comments (which have no place on my site). You want to disagree with me? Good. Think I’m fat? I am. Just keep it ideas-based and not personal and we can spar – I love it.
Enjoyment: Being a financial blogger is not going to support your lifestyle and will probably never be a full-time business for anyone. With that in mind, never finish a post that feels like a chore – just leave it in Drafts and move on. Never write something just because you feel an obligation to. The minute your site feels more like homework than creative expression just shut the whole thing down. Fred Wilson (A VC), possibly the best to ever do it, has a post up today about whether he ever gets bored of blogging. You know what the answer is. Can you imagine Jay at Market Folly going through hundreds of 13D filings every quarter if he hated it? Do you think David Merkel (Aleph Blog) is laying down that much knowledge every day for any reason other than the love of the work itself? Life is short – if you don’t love running the blog, then focus on what you do love before another second goes by. And read my site instead ’cause I ain’t going nowhere.
Thanks for reading this series, guys. I really enjoyed writing it and the feedback I’ve gotten has been incredible. Take care and brush your hair
Thanks for reading this series, guys. There’s more I’ll be sharing on finance blogonometry here on TRB as well as in an upcoming book that I have no idea when I’ll have time to write. For the original posts themselves, use the below links:
Full Disclosure: Nothing on this site should ever be considered to be advice, research or an invitation to buy or sell any securities, please see my Terms & Conditions page for a full disclaimer.blog comments powered by Disqus
The Reformed Broker is a blog about financial markets and the economy. Joshua Brown is a New York City-based investment advisor for high net worth individuals, charitable foundations, retirement plans and corporations... More.