The Death Of The “How To” Article

The Death of the "How To" Article

This is a guest post by Tommy Walker, host of Inside The Mind.

The “How To” article is suffocating the blogosphere.

One look at Google explains why: “How To” returns nearly 13 BILLION results.

In the past hour Google reports 55,100 results & Twitter shows “How to” updating at nearly 200 results/minute.

“How to” has saturated the internet.

“How To” with it’s Wal-mart instruction manual voice is sucking the life out of your blog. It restrains your personality by limiting you to “step by step” and invites conversation only from the clueless and contrarian.

Yes, “How to” is essential to a blogger’s toolbox, but as a tool, it is misunderstood. “How to” is most effective as search engine bait for trend spotters and The Established.

If you don’t have a large following and you’re not the first to publish the “How to”, you’re wasting your time.

In this article, I aim to break you of the mindset that the “How to” article alone will establish you as an authority or a thought leader.

I want to encourage you to use your voice and find strength in your stories, because that’s what the social web should be all about right?

To break the stranglehold the “How To” Article has placed on the internet, I’m going to break this up into two sections.

  1. Showing your Personality While Remaining Informative.
  2. Alternatives to the How To Article.

First – let’s get this out of the way, the “How to” article is a crutch.  We use it on days we don’t particularly feel like writing with emotion.

The problem is – it’s everywhere.

The “How to” and it’s instructable nature has assimilated a large percentage of the blogosphere into an amorphous blogger borg. ( At least, it’s the only way I rationalize why so many blogs sound exactly the same -but I digress.)

Part 1 – Showing Your Personality While Remaining Informative.

When a blogger writes a “how to” article, their intentions are good.

You share the steps so readers can share your sense of accomplishment.

Got a bunch of comments? Write a “How To.” Learned a new Twitter strategy? Write a “How To…”

But if you’re only sharing steps you lose the context and motivation that -more often than not – is the reason why anything worked in the first place.

Your readers have the directions, sure, but they’re lacking purpose. They’re missing the why & that “why” is not always self evident for most people.

For Example: let’s consider “How to Get More Twitter Followers.” If you have specific goals for growing your own following, this article is a FANTASTIC resource. But even the very first paragraph say

“I’m not going to get into why you might want to get more followers on Twitter, maybe you want to increase your traffic or because it represents more business opportunities… I’ll leave that to you.”

Unfortunately, if you were to ask most people WHY they would want more Twitter followers, you might be met with something like

 

It’s not uncommon, and nobody’s at fault. Just remember that most people are in love with the benefits but don’t understand the process

And 9 times out of 10, the process begins well before “step 1”

What To Do Instead.

Instead of writing a straight “How To” – tell a story.

DIY blogs – in my opinion – do this best. Many of them don’t just tell the story about what they’re working on, but give you a real personal look into personalities.

In this “How to redu outdoor furniture” tutorial, Jaderbomb shares how she gave new life to hand me down furniture. But before she gets into the “How To” she starts with…

“OK! So I just had to share this with all my jaderbugs because it is so fantastic!!! I totally had this old chair from my mom and this little dingy outdoor table from a friend and they have been “hidden” for quite some time because they were {not pretty to look at}….”

Seriously, Who can’t relate to that?

Does this article show up anywhere within the first 10 pages of Google? No – the top two spots are taken up by a Youtube video and Discovery.com

And let’s be real – there’s no competing with either of these sites on an SEO front, so Jaderbomb does the next best thing which is being well, human.

Which sounds more exciting? The quote from above or…

“There are so many ways to restore or reclaim old ugly furniture. Whether you have furniture hand me downs that need work, or have found a beat up piece of furniture with good bones in the thrift store, here are some great transformations to inspire you.”

If you picked # 1 it’s because you’re not a robot. Excerpt # 2 uses that borg speak I was talking about earlier.

If you structure a blog post with the “telling a story like a human being” format, it would look something like this:

  • Presentation of problem
  • tutorial
  • resolution or…
  • failure and what you learned from it

Telling the story with the problem first instantly humanizes the “How to” and gives your readers something  they can relate to. It also allows them to appreciate the process and lets you to be imperfect.

If you’re sharing your failures & shortcomings along with your successes, you give your readers someone real to relate to and someone whose story is worth following.

Let’s consider the “How to get more Twitter followers” example again, but following the storytelling format.

How I got my first 2,000 followers on Twitter.

Early on in my career, I didn’t have any followers on Twitter. I knew that if potential clients were going to take me seriously as a consultant, I would have to have a respectable following of my own.

From my research, I noticed people with 2,000 followers seemed to be taken more seriously, and so my goal was to amass 2k followers in the first 2 months.

You may think this was no easy task, neither did I, but I was shocked when I was able to reach my target within 6 weeks and grow even further and faster than I could have imagined.

This is what I did…

Part 2 – Alternatives to the How To Article.

So at this point you may be thinking, “You didn’t really kill the ‘How to’ you just gave it a different opening.” – and you would be right.

Like I said in the beginning, the “How to” article alone isn’t going to make your career.

Infusing your real personality – anger, elation, sadness, confusion – and bringing people along for a journey will.

The first half of this article was about infusing your personality and journey to remove the stiffness from the “How To” article

Part 2 will be about applying that to other (ab)used blog topics so that you – and your readers – can develop a deeper relationship while still working towards a business-like goal.

Let’s begin.

Book Reviews

It seems like every “blog post idea” article you read, somewhere in there they’ll say “review the book of an author who uses social media, then tweet them the link.”

While this is pretty good advice – most “socially active” authors are going to put the most mental stock into their book around launch, because that’s when they see the most sales. So if your review comes out a year (or more) since their last book, (depending on the author) you’ll be hard pressed to get more than a “gee thanks” for your review.

However, if you start with a problem, your review becomes that much juicier

For example, lets say I’m considering redesigning my website and wanted it to be more modern.

If I were to ask Twitter (or Linkedin Answers, or Quora, or Reddit, or Yahoo Answers etc etc…) what the best books on modern web design philosophy were, I’d be sure to get a slew of answers. Some of them would agree with each other, and others may cause a heated debate.

That being the case, when I wrote the review, I would start the blog post talking about my problem (a site redesign) then tell the story of how I came to the book.

As I write the review, it’s from the perspective of how well the book helped me update my thinking on modern web design.

Doing this gives me a built in audience (the people who recommended the book), an angle to write the review from, and a built in distributer ( I would only publish reviews that speak highly of the original author)

Another way to approach the review is to analyze popular fiction with the angle of solving a problem.

Granted, drawing parallels and weaving in lessons may challenge you as a writer, but imagine not clicking on “How 50 Shades of Grey helped me design a brand spankin’ new website”

Round Ups

Margie Clayman is my favorite at this. At the time of this writing, her most recent is 100 People Who Don’t Get Enough Credit Online. Basically, create a large list and link to people who you think are awesome in a particular area.

Nothing wrong with this on it’s own and these types of posts generally attract a ton of traffic because everyone on the list goes out of their way to share it with their readers, especially if the micro reviews are flattering.

BUT what if… we approached it problem first?

An article like “Want your website to convert 10,000% better? Hire these 50 web devs.”

This profiles web developers who are strong in a very specific area.  Use the post to highlight their strengths and tell your readers that they should learn by following the new developer. Be sure to pats the developer on the back for something they clearly put a lot of time and effort into. “Norcross is skilled in color theory and can intuit the best layouts to guide visitors into lead capture pages”

Hypothetical Posts

These posts are usually fun thought exercises like “What if Google and Yahoo merged?” or “What is the future of Marketing?”

But what if you did a hypothetical post about someone else’s problem, and how it could potentially become your own?

What if Facebook collapsed? What would that mean for small businesses and bloggers?

What would a day without Google look like?

Using this problem based approach can turns the fun hypothetical angle into a serious and deep thought provoking discussion.

Discussion drives traffic. Traffic means business.

See where I’m going with this?

There are thousands of more angles we could talk about here, but the message remains the same.

Make it personal, make it about real problems and tell a real story. It may seem like we’ve come a long way from the “How To” article, and that’s because so many problems aren’t always black and white.

“Being an authority” doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers, it’s about finding what works for you and giving the context around why it works.

This article may not work for you, and that’s ok – your experience may not work for everyone. All you can hope for is to help other people who share your situation.

If you’re not the de facto expert, don’t try to “fake it till you make it” by writing a “How to” article like it’s the final word, just start with “these are untested theories, but I’d love your help to make it work…”

At the very least, you’ll be attracting people who are experimental and excited to take risks. Sure beats being secretly blamed when things don’t work right?

Really, this whole online game is a huge work in progress, and we’ve all got something to learn from each other. If you liked where this article is coming from, could you do two things for me?

  1. share this article with someone who you’d see get more personal. and
  2. leave a comment letting me know what other ways your personality could be weaved in (or if you disagree with me, let me know why)

Looking forward to your thoughts ;-)

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  • Dan Leavitt

    Have you started working on a “Death of the ‘DIY’ Article” that you can schedule to post in about 6 months? It’s only practical! I’m still struggling “how to” overcome losing my writer’s block crutch. Guess I’ll just need to exploit my DIY expertise while there is still time!

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    Haha! No I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right, it does only make sense. As far as overcoming the writers block, talk about that, or read more stuff. Best thing I ever did for my own blogging was to read more fiction. helped me tell better stories.

    You know what would be cool? A livestream of you actually DIYing. Still kind of how too, but would make for a great Google+ hangout show. What do you think?

  • http://www.sarkemedia.com/ Sarah Arrow

    Hi Tommy, A how to article in your niche is a demonstration of your own expertise and not an exercise in driving search engine traffic. If you restore furniture, no matter how human you sound if you don’t show your knowledge your post isn’t going to convert into sales.

    And that is the primary goal of many blog posts, to convert the reader into a buyer. So in conclusion, no the how to post isn’t dead and bloggers should still write them, but never for search traffic and only to demonstrate their capabilities to their own audience, regardless of its size.

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    Thanks for jumping in Sarah, and you’re right in a lot of ways that it is important to still demonstrate your knowledge. However as bandwidth becomes more available, and technology becomes more affordable, the straight up written article by itself is not as effective as say a “how to” video or a livestream of the actual process.

    With furniture restoration as the example, the question then becomes do I really need a full in-depth “how to” also, or will a series of before and after photos do?

    Afterall, are you trying to educate the competition? Do a large percentage of your customers really care about the entire process? Or do they just want to know you’re the right person to restore their stuff?

    Now if you sold a program on how to restore furniture, that might be a whole different story, but it’s not the same as the guy who restores furniture down the street, and that’s a very important factor to consider (otherwise you just end up wasting time)

    There is no real right answer here, and it really does come down your business model and your customer, but 9 times out of 10 more research is always required.

  • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

    This is great stuff. However, I can’t get super excited about the headline. I believe “Death of” would be right up there with “How to” in the overused headline file. Still, great points made here.

  • http://couchable.co Tyler Herman

    Almost didn’t read because of the title. Actually liked the article though.

    Because of the changes to SEO people are shitting out massive amounts of spam labelled as “content marketing”. How-to articles are a good example but not the only ones.

    People think that the more content you write the better. Now instead of building links to infinity, people are writing content to infinity. Google creates these arms races and users end up suffering because of it.

    The internet is getting full of garbage.

    We don’t need more content, we need better content.

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    It is a little sensational, I’ll agree. What would you have gone with instead?

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    Here Here!

    I was actually at a conference last night where Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz spoke, and he was basically saying “link building” as we’ve known it is going extinct. Now it’s all about creating awesome linkworthy content and building your network. In some ways that’s really awesome, and in other ways it will breed horrible leeches of people. Hopefully we’ll be able to police this more ourselves, but still, there are some very shady folks out there.

  • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

    Must I answer that? It’s your article and it’s a total winner. But if you insist…

    The “How Not To” Article About Creating “How To’s”

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    ;-) I dig it!

  • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

    No charge. Love your writing. Gotta check out your show.

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    It’s my stronger medium :-D

  • http://www.rackservers.com.au/ Rob RS

    “How To” is the new “Top 10 of…” seeing the end of both would be nice.

  • Hezi Hershkovitz

    I don’t think ‘How To’ would be dead, maybe somehow would lessen its value due to the increase of writers who are engaging with topics that involved with HOW TO as a word attachment to whatever point of view they want.

  • http://www.readysetstartup.com/ Susan Jones @ ReadySetStartup

    Tommy, if you mean the death of the plethora of crappy ‘how-to’ articles that really gloss over in depth subjects and leave the reader no better off than they were before – I will gladly agree with you.

    I do think though, that there is a dearth of good quality instructional articles. I find in my niche that people are crying out for information on real steps they can take to reach their goals. And the information just isn’t there. That’s what I’m focusing on in my writing – action-orientated, practical information that people can apply and it seems to be working.

    So I don’t think how-to articles are dead, I just think you need to know what you are talking about and write with integrity to make them successful.

  • Ron Jamieson

    I had the exact same reaction to the title as some other commentators – annoyance, with a feeling I totally disagreed. On reading it, though, I realised that it’s not the death of how to articles which is imminent, but those without personality (in my eyes) showing through. Business owners (and social media marketing practioners) are still looking for articles on how to create facebook tabs (to take an example close to this blog), but there are a hundred ways of delivering the how to message. Making it interesting – whether via a story or experience – to the individual is the key and will differentiate it from the others. But one story or experience will be more or less appealing depending who the reader/viewer is. When I’m looking for a solution to a problem I often go to a number of youtube videos concerned with the issue before I find one which I find I can relate to and learn from. Here’s to more “how to” posts and videos for me to choose from.

  • http://incomepress.com Joey Kissimmee

    this post totally opened my eyes to the “How To” thing. I definitely know it’s an overused title, and I always try to start with “why” or the “problem” of the how to. Then explain why it’ll help them.

    Now the reviews I always stayed away from cause it wasn’t my thing. But after reading your post, it makes total sense.

    Great post Tommy.

  • http://BeingWellLifestyles.com Dr. Jay Warren

    Your article has inspired me to get back to writing more heart-centered and genuine content. I started writing pieces that way back when I just had a newsletter to my patients and then started my own site. But then I got trapped in the “How to” rut somehow. Don’t know why really. Maybe because as you said, there’s so much of it out there that I thought that’s what I should write. Sure those kinds of articles provide value. But looking back, the post that got the most comments (or any comments!), sparked conversation in the office, etc. were the ones that came from the heart about solving a problem (usually health and wellness related for me) or exploring an issue open and honestly. People related to that and it impacted them, one way or another. As for the “How to’s”, I don’t know if they had any impact because they were never mentioned/discussed. Thanks for your great article and for the inspiration it’s provided me!

  • http://www.youreverythingservices.com/ Deb Lamb

    Absolutely one of the best articles I’ve read in quite some time! You have inspired me to add some personality to all my writing and to try your method. I love the idea of doing away with the “how to” articles. I’ve written quite a few of them and they do get boring after awhile. I just loved the way you presented this outstanding information. I’m motivated and inspired!
    Deb :)
    Ghostwriter

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    You nailed it right on the head. The “How to” isn’t dead so much as the way the information is delivered is. When you look closely, this article is also a “how to” but the way it puts the information out is much more layered. I mean, that’s how life really works isn’t it?

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    Well yes, of course! Startups in particular could benefit greatly from some good “how to’s” but the way it would be delivered could/should/would be done from more of a mentor standpoint. With a little personal story weaved in, it makes the information more palatable, and gives a deeper sense of connection.

    If you tell the story of how you got funded (like bufferapp did) for example rather than just Step 1. Step 2. Step 3. (or even in between the steps) it’s going to be better than the high blogging horse many “how to” writers sit on. (know what I mean?)

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    Upvoted.

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    Hey thanks :-) Please keep me posted on how it’s working for you, and if you have any questions, or hit any stumbling blocks, feel free to reach out. I’ll be more than happy to walk you through :-)

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    I love that! Would you mind keeping me posted on your progress? I’d love to watch as you get back into the more emotional core of your writing. Also, if you have any stumbling blocks, feel free to reach out @Tommyismyname:disqus

  • http://www.jacobcurtis.co/ Jacob Curtis

    Absolutely LOVE the “telling a story like a human being” format! This seriously hit home for me as I produce weekly social media tutorial videos on my own website.

    I now have:

    -Presentation of problem
    -tutorial
    -resolution or…
    -failure and what you learned from it

    …on a post-it note tapped to my computer monitor.

    Cheers

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    Perfect! I think it adds a whole extra layer that most people aren’t willing to put in, so thanks for taking that leap in your own videos! I dig it and can’t wait to see what you come up with :-)

  • http://www.wonderoftech.com Carolyn Nicander Mohr

    Hi Tommy, This is such a great article! You definitely inspired me in writing today’s post. I write a tech blog for everyday people and decided early on that I didn’t want my blog to be a tech “how to” guide. Sometimes I do feel the need to explain how to use the tech I am writing about but that is rarely the primary topic of my articles. I try to interject personality into my articles but I had strayed away from that a bit. Thanks for the excellent illustrations of the power of personality.

    No need to bore our readers!

  • http://robcubbon.com/ Rob Cubbon

    As someone with a blog chock-full of “How to’s” I thought I was going to hate this article. But I really like the argument. I agree that we should tell a story and start before “Step One” with the bigger picture.

    I still like “How to’s” because I wouldn’t know how to do much without them!

  • kysaan

    Thanks Tommy,
    What a great article,

  • http://BasicBlogTips.com Ileane

    Hi Tommy,

    Interestingly enough, a post on my called “How To Get Your First 2,000 Twitter Followers” ranks extremely (and surprisingly I must admit) well in Google search.

  • http://youtube.com/user/tommyisastrategist Tommy Walker

    HA! That’s pretty funny actually… and now… I don’t quite know what to say :-P ::walks away::

  • http://www.shaanhaider.com Shaan

    And the irony is that the top 3 most popular posts on Social Mouth, according to the widget in the sidebar , are also How To guides :)

    1. How To Build A Facebook Landing Page With iFrames

    2. How To Get Twitter Followers Without Using A Mass-Following Tool

    3. How To Build Your Facebook Landing Page (If You’re Not A Programmer)

  • UJDIZGHQQX WZJEGCZUURGF

    “How To” with it’s Wal-mart instruction manual voice is sucking the
    life out of your blog. It restrains your personality by limiting you to
    “step by step” and invites conversation only from the clueless and
    contrarian.
    http://www.g4w.de/

  • Vibhu Gauba

    This article may not work for you, and that’s ok – your experience may not work for everyone.

    Regards
    http://theoutsourcebot.com

  • kelly bushing

    nice article. would you please updating your blog? i want to know more.

  • Tantza

    Yes I agree. This should be more than work.
    http://sport.croupiers.co

  • Lovemore Nyatsine

    Wow this is a brilliant article. What if you could write a book? It challenges convention and certainly proffers game changing options. Well done and thanks for sharing!