To make money online, don’t write about weight loss; write about physics

It makes sense – right? – to make money online, you must write about popular, high-paying subjects. But actually, especially since 2013, it’s the opposite: blogs, websites that cater a savvy, high-IQ demographic have seen the most rapid organic (non-paid) growth and viralnnes.

To succeed at online publishing (which including blogging, copywriting, and Amazon self-publishing), you must be cognizant of how internet journalism, reader tastes change and evolve; otherwise, your efforts will be wasted on stuff that is ineffective.

You can write about fitness or cooking (two topics that are very popular as measured by broad appeal. A lot of people cook and a lot of people are looking for fitness advance.) Or you can write about data visualizations, science, or ‘shared narrative‘ topics – and boom – tons of viralness, links, and traffic – despite the fact common sense dictates to write about cooking and fitness, because those two things are more popular. Yes, tens of millions of people are looking for cooking and fitness advice, but you’re also competing with huge brands with multi-million dollar marketing budgets and decades of branding, and articles about those topics almost never go viral or get links unless you pay a lot of money for advertising (astroturfing).

However, the market for complicated, esoteric stuff, as well as introspective stuff, is booming by leaps and bounds. Just look at the traffic stats for Medium (a phenomenally popular social blogging platform lunched in 2013 that caters especially to high-IQ, introspective topics), (a philosophy blog that is surprisingly popular despite the complicated content), SlateStarCodex (anther good example of a blog that caters to a very smart readership and generates very good traffic), Priceonomics (a site that combines data visualizations with high-IQ topics and a smart writing style to generate a ton of traffic and viralness), SMBC and XKCD (two web comics that have seen rapid growth over the past two years catering to a high-IQ readership that habitually shares the comics on sites like Reddit), and WaitButWhy (mentioned too many times here, but it’s a good example). Then there are the many popular physics and math blogs: baez, Sean Carroll, and Woit (not even wrong), etc. I can easily name more, but I struggle to find any examples of popular, newly-launched blogs and websites that cater to high-paying subjects. Most popular sites in high-paying niches are quite old and have a lot of branding behind them. You can write about popular topics and get 0% of a hundred-million people. Or you can write about niche, high-IQ topics and get maybe 30% of a couple million people. The choice seems obvious.

To have a popular blog, don’t write about weight loss; write about physics.

The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is the assumption that to succeed you must sell something, and that is completely false. That’s the biggest way to waste time and piss away money on marketing…much better to get viralness (free traffic and links) and then monetize later, as the successes of Snapchat, Pinterest, and Facebook have shown. WaitButWhy does not sell anything, but they have huge traffic and a huge mailing list, and you can be sure that if the writers wanted to cash in they could, and maybe already are. Uber, Airbnb do not sell anything – they are middlemen – and are massively successful companies. Although Disney, Apple, McDonald’s, and Nike make billions selling physical products, the failure rate and initial start-up costs are much higher for tangible products than viral sites, and also the profit margins are lower. It costs maybe $5-10k to create a viral news site (to pay for writers, graphics, hosting, web design, etc.), vs. $100-300k for a store or to build a physical product. Also, affiliate marketing, ads, and mailing lists can turn the viral site profitable from day one, whereas tangible businesses often take much longer to become profitable – if they ever do.

But what if you have a STEM blog but have no traffic? It’s probably because you either didn’t promote it (you need to post a few links on Reddit or on Hacker News, where it should easily go viral), the blog is too new (it takes at least a few months to get a blog going), or you’re using an obsolete template like Blogger (ideally, the template should resemble, with its large font and large header images).

Once you get some traffic, making money should be easy. If you’re blogging about physics, put some Amazon affiliate links for physics textbooks, ideally books you have used and reviewed. Maybe also offer consulting and put some google adsense ads up too.

But going back to the original point, writing about high-paying subjects (and then using SEO to boost rankings) would have been great advice and a viable strategy before 2008, and what’s what I and many others did, but it just doesn’t work as well anymore. Too much competition from big brands, competition from major content sites like Forbes and Fortune that dominate good keywords, as well as competition from social media (Facebook, Twitter) and competition other high-authority sites such as Yelp, IMDB, and Wikipedia. Better to write about smart stuff, to actually see results.