Blogging 101: Build an Audience Like a Comedian

  •    Tim is a freelance business writer. He writes about the business of innovation, comics and genre entertainment on The Full Bleed.

If you've ever watched a standup comedy special, you know that good comedians spend hours writing their routines. From story to set-up to punchline, over and over and over again — comedians are always working on new ideas.

There are novelists who write with less frequency -- and who produce less original material -- than a working standup comedian. Why? Because comedians need to draw crowds consistently, and audiences can be fleeting. As a blogger, you'll face the same problem. Great comedians can teach you how to solve it. Here are four strategies they use to keep fans coming back for more:

  1. Develop a niche. No two acts are the same. Well, at least no two good acts. Watching Louis C.K. work is different than watching Jerry Seinfeld work. Chris Rock doesn't copy Marc Maron's bits. And Amy Miller, though very funny, is nothing like Amy Schumer. All of them tell different jokes at different cadences and find appeal in different audiences. Sure, there's crossover -- funny is funny. The point is that, like a good comedian, your blog should feel and sound unique. Readers should recognize your voice on the page after scanning the first two sentences. Take a look at Seth Godin's daily blog to get a sense of how this works. Short, conversationally distinct and full of useful wisdom, his posts are written in the same voice he uses to speak, which makes his writing all the more engaging and enjoyable.
  2. Constantly work on new material. A lot of working comedians spend their year traveling around testing new jokes or bits to add to their act. The most ambitious hope to develop an hour's worth of entirely new material that can form the basis of a special on Netflix or elsewhere. Maron went so far as to use his well-regarded podcast, WTF, as the basis for a television show that's now entering its fourth season on IFC. What if you were blogging with the aim of developing material that could live elsewhere? Every post would have purpose, regardless of whether the endgame was a book, a speech, a webinar series, or something still to be defined. Godin kicked off his altMBA online course in 2015 after years of blogging about the limitations of the traditional MBA.
  3. Always look for feedback. Audiences laugh or they don't. Working comedians tune their act to get the most laughs. Get the mix right, and they get to headline and earn the premium that comes with being a top billed performer. The most creative comedians also earn in unexpected ways — Louis C.K. sold $1 million worth of downloads in 12 days by offering direct to digital copies of his "Live at the Beacon Theater" standup special on his website. Bloggers who attract loyal audiences may not earn as much, but the opportunity is the same. Look at Copyblogger, which has built a $10 million business just by engaging directly with its readers.
  4. Communicate with your audience. Finally, when you have a lot of material to work with, and a good routine for producing more on a regular basis, it's a good idea to put a system in place for engaging directly with your audience. Social media is a popular choice for many but email marketing can be even more effective. Maron's weekly email newsletter arrives each Monday, informing listeners of who'll be on WTF that week.

Like a good comedian, a good blogger offers something unique to readers on a predictable schedule. They're always working on new material and new ways to engage, using feedback to inform the process. But they don't stop there. They also get to know their regulars -- the audience members who come back for every post and comment on new material.

​Managing your audience won't always be easy. Some will heckle you just for the fun of it or because they have nothing better to do. But others will stick around, spread the word about you, and offer encouragement when you need it. Find enough of those fans and keep them engaged, and like a touring comedian working on a new hour, you may be able to earn a living from your ideas.