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Blogging case study: What makes Zen Habits successful?

The word 'Blog' typed on a typewriter

(Note: This is the first in an occasional series case studies that focus on popular blogs around the web.)

Zen Habits is a popular blog created and maintained by Leo Babauta. It’s about, in Babauta’s words:

finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.

Zen Habits is a blog that does many of the things that SEO experts, marketing experts, and blogging experts say is wrong. I’m sure that any company that focuses on SEO services would have a field day with it!

Regardless, Zen Habits is a blog that’s wildly popular with around two million readers.

Let’s take a look at why I think this blog is so popular and successful.

The blog itself

Zen Habits runs on WordPress, with a theme that Leo Babauta created himself. I don’t think the platform or the theme have a lot (if anything) to do with the blog’s success, though.

The striking characteristics of the theme are:

  • Babauta rarely uses images with his posts
  • Babauta runs no ads
  • It’s text only
  • It has a single-column layout, centred on the page. Only the newest post appears on the main page
  • Navigation is at the bottom of the page

Zen Habits is minimal, but it works. I’m willing to bet that Babauta doesn’t stress about SEO or SEM or keyword choice when writing his blog posts, either.

Surprisingly, Babauta’s released all of his blog posts and ebooks into the public domain. Anyone can take Babauta’s work, freely post and share it, use it as the basis of their own work, and more.

Factors That Make Zen Habits Successful

There are five factors that I believe make Zen Habits successful:

The first, and I’d say most important, factor is that Zen Habits is authentic and honest. The blog started out as a chronicle of Babauta’s efforts to lose weight, get back into shape, and eliminate his debt. He shared tips for doing that, for being more productive, and for leading a simpler life. The blog still focuses on the latter two points, but is also heavily into explaining and helping readers apply the concept of mindfulness.

Babauta’s also honest about his stumbles, failings, and failures. Whereas many bloggers in his niche near perfect, untouchable gurus, Babauta regularly admits that he’s human. That he backslides. That he makes mistakes. He doesn’t beat himself up about it, but learns from those mistakes and shares both his stumbles and solutions with his audience.

The second factor is the blog’s simple, accessible writing style. Babauta was a newspaper reporter on Guam for many years and honed his style in that job. He writes in a calm, almost Zen-like tone. One that talks to the reader, not talks at or down to the reader. That’s important because people don’t come back to a blog if the writing is stiff, boring, long winded, or reads like it was written for search algorithms and not humans. And unlike many productivity bloggers, Babuta doesn’t use gung-ho language and doesn’t push the so-called latest and greatest tools. The blog is tool agnostic, and instead offers tips that you can apply to any tool and to your life.

The third factor is that Babauta shares useful information that you can apply to your life. It’s not just theory. It’s things that he’s tested out in his own life and which he’s found to work.

The fourth factor is that posts on Zen Habits aren’t too long or too short. They vary in length. Some posts are a few hundred words long, while others are well over a thousand words long. Babauta isn’t going for the so-called prescribed length or optimal length for sharing or any of that. He writes as much as he needs to on a topic.

The fifth and final factor is that Babauta built a community around the blog. He did that using social media, by doing interviews, by writing books, and by offering courses. And, most importantly, writing posts that drew in and kept readers. That took a while, but it obviously worked.

Summary

Despite doing things in a way many blogging experts would consider wrong, or maybe because of it, Zen Habits has an estimated two million readers.

Sure. you can say that it’s OK for Babauta to take what’s essentially a contrarian approach to blogging because his blog is so popular. But if go back to the blog’s humble beginnings, you’ll see that Zen Habits has always followed that contrarian flow. With this blog, the writing and the information a king. Everything else is cruft.

Readers flock to Zen Habits for the information, for help, for authenticity and honesty. And they get it. All of the things that the SEO and marketing and blogging experts say is important for a blog doesn’t matter to Babauta or his readers.

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