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My friend Cindy is a San Francisco middle school teacher. We got to talking about how to best get our thoughts across to our respective audiences. Middle school kids are notorious for misbehaving. Meanwhile, some blog readers frequently leave commentary that completely misses the point or argues the thesis with no background.

Cindy mentioned a communications strategy she’s been using ever since she started. The strategy is to always speak to the “lowest denominator.” This may sound bad, but it’s not. What Cindy means is to never assume our audience knows anything about what we are writing, especially when it comes to personal finance topics like how to legally paying less taxes. Instead, identify the least knowledgeable person in the class and speak or write as if we are talking to him or her.

THE NORMAL DISTRIBUTION IS INESCAPABLE

There’s a bell curve in everything we do. We could be in the top 10% of our high school class, but as soon as we go to college, we probably end up being back in the middle again. Most of us will fit right back in the 68% range of mediocrity. I know I often struggle to just get out of the bottom 14% when it comes to solving statistics equations. Don’t tell my college professor, but my partner and I went a couple hours over our open book, take home final exam because we were that stupid. Funny thing is, my partner is now getting a second post doctorate fellowship in cardiology in NYC.

Here’s a simple IQ Normal Distribution chart to help illustrate my point.

IQ-score-distribution

As you can see from the chart, most of us have an IQ of between 85 to 115. What Cindy is talking about is giving ourselves the flexibility of going from left to right in the chart. In other words, if we speak at a 70 IQ level, we will be able to effectively communicate with 86% of the class. Conversely, if we speak at a level only understandable to those with an IQ of 130 or higher, we will miss 98% of the population! Now you know why writers are often encouraged to write at a high school grade level or lower.

Please note that IQ level is just one of many of examples where the normal distribution applies. The actual IQ level is not the point. The point is that the normal distribution / bell curve is inevitable. Most of us are average, which is why politicians pander to the middle class for votes. Getting 100% of the top 1% to vote for you won’t win you the election if you don’t get at least half the middle class on your side!

EXPERIMENTATION ON FINANCIAL SAMURAI

Most of us write on par with high school level English. We’re bloggers after all, not Pulitzer Prize winning journalists with the world’s greatest editors to make our prose sing. Although we lack the resources of our sisters and brothers in traditional media, we make up for our deficiency  with three things: 1) Creativity, 2) Opinions, and 3) Marketing.

Many people have asked how I manage to regularly generate so many comments on so many posts ever since the site launched in 2009. The answer lies in reporting as close to the truth as possible about a subject which is evenly split.

Example #1: Retirement Savings

Take for an example the article, “How Much Should People Have Saved In Their 401Ks At Different Ages?” The article has over 400 comments debating my chart on how much I think the average person should have at various stages of their lives. There are a tremendous amount of dissenters who believe it’s impossible to have $215,000 – $331,000 by the age of 35, even though they have no idea because they are still in their 20s! Meanwhile, the older the reader is, the more she or he is likely to agree with my 401K guidelines largely because the reader is within my guidelines.

The truth of the article lies in the fact that if you don’t have close to what I’ve suggested in savings by age, you will have a very difficult time living a financially comfortable retirement. Simply do the math yourself. Do you really think the average savings amount of $100,000 at the age of 65 will last very long, even with Social Security? Of course not. $100,000 generates only $1,800 a year in risk free interest. Even in inexpensive places like Des Moines, $100,000 won’t last much longer than five years.

The topic of retirement savings pertains to practically everyone who didn’t win the lottery. In essence, retirement savings starts off at the very left of the normal distribution curve and allows me to move to the right with various talking points.

Example #2: Structured Notes

What the hell are structured notes? They are a type of derivative investment product sold by financial institutions to those who are willing to give up some upside for some downside protection. Very few people have heard of structured notes as a viable investment class. When I called E*Trade to ask if they sell structured notes, the representative didn’t even know what I was talking about!

Structured notes is becoming a larger part of my net worth as my CDs begin to roll off. As I enjoy using my investments for my writing topics, I introduced the article, “Example Of How A Structured Note Works” as a way to educate readers about derivative investing. There were no comments on the posts for the first several hours, compared to at least 10 comments usually. After several days of existence, the post garnered a whopping 15 comments because nobody really cares about reducing risk and making money in a complex way. It’s boring!

My structured notes post started off at two standard deviations to the right of the normal distribution curve. Only those readers who have a rabid interest in investing in stocks and bonds showed any enthusiasm. Furthermore, readers need to save money in order to have money to invest. We know saving is a big problem in America, which is why writing about archaic topics on what to do with one’s savings is a losing proposition for building robust traffic and conversation.

Example #3: Lavishly Spending Money

Given America has a savings problem, most of us are by default spending experts. We tend to comment on posts where we show an interest or can add value, therefore, it comes to no surprise how well received the post, “How To Blow Lots Of Money And Not Give A Damn” was well received with about 47 comments.

The post was obviously a facetious response to CD Investment Alternatives given only people who save would care about CD investment alternatives. The problem with my “How To Blow Lots Of Money” post is that I wrote it in a way that provides TOO much truth. For example, one point I made was that people who blow lots of money on themselves or who are always in debt don’t care about the poor. Nobody argued against this point because the fact of the matter is, people who spend more than they make are selfish and don’t have money left over to help someone in need. Maybe they can volunteer their time, but so can everybody else so that’s a wash.

LOOK AT THE BIGGEST BLOGS

Instead of talking about how to make money work for you so you don’t have to, let’s talk about more ways to be frugal! Making money is easy compared to making money from money. As a result, I don’t think very many people will care or try. On the flip side, everybody can easily follow tips on how to cut costs. It may be maddeningly boring to talk about how to save money. I can see some of you shaking your heads now. But if you notice carefully, the biggest blogs in our space all focus on telling stories of frugality.

Of course we can’t just copy what the biggest blogs do in the space. 10 ways to save on soap has already been written already. We’ve got to put our own unique spin on things such as, “8 ways to save on liquid soap.” See the subtle difference? I’ve been stubbornly opinionated and focused on a small niche for a while. Perhaps it’s time to broaden out a bit to ensure growth.

TOPICS THAT ENABLE YOU TO GO FROM LEFT TO RIGHT

* Creating a budget.

* Getting out of debt.

* Buying a car, saving on car insurance, maintaining a car.

* Saving money on groceries, couponing, and eating out.

* Getting a job, getting promoted, interviewing well.

* Saving for retirement.

* Renting or homeownership.

* Dealing with setbacks, sadness, depression.

* Taking care of a family and aging parents.

* Selling the dream of being rich by doing minimal work.

* Finding happiness and love.

* Regurgitating the latest headlines.

TOPICS THAT LOSE YOUR AUDIENCE

* Anything that takes a tremendous amount of effort to understand.

* Anything that takes a lot of work to implement even if it helps the reader tremendously down the road.

Publishers, what are some strategies you’ve employed for developing robust traffic and dialogue on your sites? How do you balance keeping your site interesting and writing about topics that relate to the most people to build traffic?

Regards,

Sam