REVEALED: What I Learned Working At Business Insider

Today’s my last day working for Henry Blodget and the amazing machine that is Business Insider. It’s been a crazy fun ride, and I’ve learned a lot, but opportunity knocked and I’m answering.

I get the chance to launch and run a brand new publication for IDG Enterprise called CITEworld, focused on the use of consumer technology in the workplace, and the intersection between the two. I still believe that the enterprise is undergoing a once-a-generation change, driven by the breakup of the longstanding Windows client monopoly, and the rise of self-provisioning cloud systems that are picking off parts of the traditional enterprise software stack.

CITEworld is going to be the one-stop resource for the disruptors, covering subjects from BYOD to the social enterprise to renegade development, and I’m incredibly excited at the chance to shape it. An early version is here, and the official launch will happen later this year.

Before I move on, a moment of reflection.

One of the fun things about writing for an online-only publication is you know how many people read every single story you write. And one of the great things about Business Insider is its transparency. BI publishes the number of views that every story gets — that’s the little flame that appears next to our bylines. The haters can rant about linkbait and headlines and slideshows and whatever else drives them crazy about BI, but in the absence of any better objective measurement, pageviews are a pretty decent proxy for how well a writer is engaging readers.

So I had to find out: which of my stories were most popular? Did they have anything in common? What might I learn from this?

Here’s the list:

1. Apple Now Has More Cash Than The U.S. Government July 28, 2011.

Combine two of the hottest topics of the year — Apple’s becoming the most successful company in the world, and the U.S. government almost running out of time to lift the debt ceiling — and kaboom. In this case, the headline was the story.

2. What Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, And SAP Don’t Tell Customers Nov. 19, 2011. 

Wow. A summary of a talk by a Gartner analyst that just went crazy. This proved that enterprise software was a reasonable topic for Business Insider to write about.

3. This 26-Year Old Founder Is Raising $100 Million To Take On Giants Like Microsoft. Aug. 29, 2011. 

When I went to interview Box CEO Aaron Levie, I never had any sense it would be one of my most popular stories — wasn’t enterprise software supposed to be boring? But Levie was a great interview, and Gawker (I think?) picked out a great quote about how young companies focus on meaningless consumer apps because that’s all their founders know about. (“If you’re in your early 20s and you’re hanging out with a bunch of other people in their early 20s, nobody has a sense of the kinds of problems that ‘real workers’ run into every day.”)

This was the most popular Q&A I did, although Steve Blank (Stanford, lean startup guru), and Aneel Bhusri (Workday, Greylock) were also surprisingly popular. I was less surprised by the interest in Bill Gurley (Benchmark) and Keith Rabois (Square), since both are huge names in the valley.

4. Twitter Just Fired A Cannonball At Facebook And Google+. Dec. 8, 2011.

This was my live news coverage of Twitter’s unveiling of the “new new” design. I think this was helped by the fact that I posted live from the event, and the unusual imagery of the headline. Cannonball? Kind of retro, I guess. Like pirates.

5. People Who Use Macs At Work Are Richer And More Productive Oct. 28, 2011. 

A summary of a Forrester research report with an admittedly provocative headline. This must have been passed around by smug Apple fans — or perhaps angry Windows fans.

6. This 29-Year Old Just Got Named To The Starbucks Board. Dec. 14, 2011.

This was a brief article based on an interview with the super impressive Clara Shih — not even a full Q&A. It posted several hours after the news, so really a “second day” (or what we now call “second minute”) story.

I think this story did well because of the way I backed into it: I was honest that I didn’t really know much about Shih until I heard that she was replacing Sheryl Sandberg on the Starbucks board. Then I talked to her and she blew me away. I imagine a lot of other readers didn’t really know much about her either, and were happy to learn about an extremely accomplished woman under 30. I got to meet her a few months later, and she’s even more intense in person.

7. STEVE BALLMER’S NIGHTMARE: How Microsoft’s Business Actually Could Collapse. Nov. 22, 2011. (total divided by 12 pages)

I had a great time writing this story, but I think the positive response was a little bit of confirmation bias at work. A lot of folks believe or want to believe that Microsoft could go out of business soon. (It’s still amazing to me how common this conversation is in Silicon Valley.) This slideshow laid out a plausible chain of events that could send Microsoft to ruin.

We did similar stories about Google and Apple and they weren’t nearly as popular. And I did one earlier in the year on how Microsoft’s big customers would keep it alive for a long time and it wasn’t very popular either. Go figure.

8. Steve Jobs Was Right: Google IS Turning Into Microsoft. Dec 3, 2011.  (total divided by 12 pages)

An article on an interesting subject with a plainspoken headline and some funny (I thought) pictures. Having Steve Jobs’ name in the headline probably helped. MG Siegler’s linking to it also helped, even though he called it annoying that I formatted it as a slideshow. But apparently readers didn’t mind.

9. HP’s TouchPad Is Officially A Bomb: Best Buy Wants HP To Take Them Back. Aug. 16, 2011. 

There was a time last year when readers couldn’t get enough bad news about HP.

10. Google May Have Made The Worst Mistake In Its History This Week. Jan 13, 2012.

This was my honest take on a move that was very unpopular in techie blog circles — Google putting Google+ social results prominently in search results. But I was wrong and Henry was right: nobody outside tech noticed, and the move hasn’t affected Google’s search market share one bit.

11. More Hints That Google+ Is A Deserted Wasteland Feb. 27, 2012. 

The Wall Street Journal got stats from ComScore showing that nobody was using Google+. I simply noted it with a plain honest headline (I had done similar stories in the past based on data from other providers) and the story went crazy. Again, probably some confirmation bias here: a lot of people already believed or wanted to believe Google+ was a flop.

12. Marc Andreessen: The “Clock Is Ticking” On Oracle. Sept. 28, 2011. 

A Silicon Valley superstar just put one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world in the dead pool. Usually, stories about Oracle tank. But Andreessen’s name in the headline, and his blunt and bold call, made this a hit.

13. GM Is About To Move 100,000 Employees To Google Apps. Nov. 4, 2011.

I wrote a lot of Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office stories at Business Insider, and they always did surprisingly well — like this one. This was an early proof point that Business Insider readers really would read stories about enterprise business software if it fit into a larger “battle of giants” narrative.

14. Berkeley Explains Exactly Why It Chose Google Over Microsoft. Dec. 23, 2011. 

Another Google Apps vs. Microsoft story that went off the charts.

15. Google Just Opened Its First Retail Outlet In London. Sept 30, 2011. 

I still think the importance of this move hasn’t been appreciated yet. Google wants to be a lot more like Apple. You can’t sell consumer electronics devices without a big retail presence. It’s just a question of how fast they get there–and whether their existing ads business stays strong enough to support a big retail push.

HONORABLE MENTION: Google Fiber Is The Most Disruptive Thing Google’s Done Since Gmail. July 27, 2012.

I only include this because it was the last post I wrote for the public site and I’m very glad to go out on a high note. I got a few emails countering that Google will NEVER build out a full nationwide fiber network, the capex is way too high, it would be suicidal. Maybe so — stay tuned. I also had a couple readers point out that even the free service comes with a $300 setup fee, which I should have acknowledged. But I still think Google deserves big praise for this.

LESSONS LEARNED:

Apart from the obvious fact that people like reading stories about Google and accomplished people under the age of 30….

* People want to read about people. I wrote about tech and business for SAI, but my most popular stories focused on humans rather than technology, money, or corporations.

* Confirmation bias. Contrary to popular belief and/or accusation, taking controversial or unpopular stands does NOT goose traffic. I think people have their narratives already laid out in their minds, and they tend to read stories that fit into those narratives. If you write a contrary story, it has to tap into a vein — something that a lot of people are thinking but not saying. (Henry is great at this.)

* Readers don’t care all that much who’s first. My exclusives and scoops did fine, but none of them went crazy. Other SAI reporters had some bigger scoops that turned into bigger stories. But overall, it seems like as long as you’re not ridiculously late, readers don’t necessarily care who got to a story first — they just want the smartest, clearest, most interesting take on it.

* If the story’s good enough, a plain headline is OKSometimes a little colorful language helped, especially if every other  publication was covering a topic with kid gloves or missing a big point, but overall the Business Insider headline-fu isn’t all it’s made out to be. Business Insider’s success is more about picking the kinds of stories to write (and NOT to write), and then writing the headlines and stories in plain English. How refreshingly obvious.

* Write what you love, forget the rest.  Many of the stories I was proudest of did OK, but weren’t smash hits. Like my conversation with two researchers who exposed how giant patent holder Intellectual Ventures does business, or my Windows 8  and Google stock split FAQs, or my predictions of which products Microsoft would kill next (7/10 so far), or the work I did on the aborted Hulu sale, or some of my really fun office tours, or the slideshows about cars, or the late-night post about Silicon Valley being the land of true believers. I never for a second regretted the time I put into them.

It’s important to keep readers in mind, but there’s no predictable way to know whether any given story will resonate. So the best approach is to write about what you care about, be frank and honest, and have fun. Do that consistently, and readers will sense it and follow along.

Anyway, a great heartfelt thanks to Henry Blodget and Julie Hansen for giving me a break and an incredible degree of freedom, and to my daily editors at SAI, Nicholas Carlson and Jay Yarow, for instilling the BI work ethic into me and busting my chops when I needed it — and getting out of the way when I didn’t.

Onward.

8 Responses to REVEALED: What I Learned Working At Business Insider

  1. Good luck Matt. Enjoyed reading you at SAI, looking forward to CITEworld.

  2. Great post. You are right that it’s not always easy to predict which stories will do well. And concentrating on what you are interested in is a great strategy and one that I use extensively. If I’m interested in something it’s far easier to write a story that interests others.

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  5. [...] “REVEALED: What I Learned Working At Business Insider,” I learned two very important career [...]

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  7. Melvin says:

    So these are the mystical trade secrets of Business Insider…

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