Web Design Secrets of the (Internet) Rich and Famous

November 28, 2011

What do you need to have in place in order to attract thousands of readers?

Today I’m going to look at five blog-heavy websites, most of which are pretty much Internet Famous.  All of the site owners run businesses which depend on the blogs, and together they demonstrate the power of five different elements: desire, rapport, content, headline, and brand.

Desire: Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Work Week


Most very successful blog-based businesses are offering something that people want very strongly, and Tim Ferriss is a good example of that.

My first reaction is a sort of horrified double-take (I am so not the target audience!) but as I read more I’m thinking, gosh he’s good. The blog is an extremely confident selling platform for his books and systems.

The design is simple and high impact: a dark background that’s a perfect foil for video and strong photography. The core blog design is really very simple and internet old-school: stories are black text against a white background, links are classic blue underline, and only the orange headings inject a touch of styling.

But the story’s the message, and the stories are pretty powerful. Tim is in the business of offering outrageous, adrenaline-fuelled possibilities: it’s a kind of wonderful macho fantasy.  Only real. Or nearly. Read the blog, and you’re sharing that desire for a short, intense, high earning working life interspersed by tough workouts and Cabernet Sauvignon.
What can you learn from Tim, putting aside his extraordinary self-confidence?

  1. Creating fantastic content directed towards a very specific, strong audience desire
  2. Confident and bold styling that matches the content
  3. Posts laid out for fast reading (short paragraphs,  nice use of headings and bolding)
  4. The use of commenting guidelines to guide the conversations
  5. Confident selling throughout (the Hello Bar, video trailer, advertising)

But the hardest thing to imitate is the man’s style. And there’s the secret.

BTW, I am also deeply amused that his Day in the Life piece involves pretty much an intense 7 hours of work.

Rapport: Marie Forleo, Marieforleo.com

Marie Forleo is another mega-successful business blogger. Like Tim, Marie’s site is blog-style (the regular content takes centre stage), and the layout couldn’t be simpler.

Unlike Tim, Marie actually doesn’t talk about herself very much, except as background illustration.  Marie puts up a weekly video-based blog post addressing reader questions (Q&A Tuesday). There are probably thousands of sites aimed at women entrepreneurs that use the same format, so why is Marie so successful?

Marie really, really knows her audience. That is actually unusual in this area – she talks about simple and more complex business dilemmas, and she invites her audience right in to share their own experience.  She puts a great emphasis on sharing, both in the video and in the comments.

What else can you learn?

  1. Posting content as regularly as clockwork
  2. Using a quirky personality, not squashing it out
  3. Training your community to respond in a certain way
  4. The use of video posts, supported by text – they’re not video only
  5. Confident calls to action (share this, tweet this) – commercial but simple

(Marie is of course very, very lovely and honestly I do think that helps. We kind of want to be her, like we (kinda sorta) want to be like Tim. So perhaps nice clothes and some makeup for the video-blogging would help, too.)

Content: Erin Doland’s Unclutterer.com

Erin Doland’s site about decluttering is is a magazine-style blog, in that there is usually something to read here every day.

There’s also a forum, a link to the food blog, and that’s about it.

No big body or business promises, although the blog definitely caters to a modern need to get organised.

But what you can really learn here is how to mix up your content and set up a range of article types that provide variety and really involve your readers.

There is a whole range of regularly-recurring features, and I’m going to spotlight them as my five things to learn.

  1. There’s Workspace of the Week, which is based on reader photographs submitted to a Flickr pool, and is obviously very visual.
  2. There’s Unitasker Wednesday, which is an amusing piece on useless gadgets.
  3. ‘Ask Unclutterer’ is a  Q&A feature based on questions from readers, and usually gets lots of reader response (note that the feature has its own little logo) Take ‘what to do with a wedding dress.’
  4. A year ago on Unclutterer highlights articles from the archives – lots of blogs with big archives don’t really make use of them; this one organises them nicely.
  5. And finally Unclutterer uses monthly themes, which this year address Erin’s personal uncluttering goals.
This variety of post styles allows the writer to cover a lot of different ground, and on a daily updating site, it makes for a good experience. You’re not coming back to the same conversation, day after day: there’s a mixture of mood, style, and involvement.

Headlines: Copyblogger.com

Copyblogger is probably one of the biggest blogging advice sites out there, and it’s a little different from the last two, in that it’s far less personality-drive. Also, Copyblogger’s home page is not the blog home – instead, it’s a clear showcasing of the software products offered.

At first glance it seems to hard to dig advice out of such a plain-looking site. But there’s a lot in there. The post recipe is simple: long articles, dead factual how-tos, often in list form, that are introduced by a teasing headline written in sentence case. Oh, those headlines.  They are as cheesy as hell, and yet…even as I write this, I’m distracted by another 20 pieces that sound like I have to read them, right now.

The Mad Men Guide to Changing the World with Words 

50 Can’t Fail Techniques for Finding Great Blog Topics 

The headlines rouse your curiosity and drag you in, even as you know you’re falling for a bit of a trick.

Once again, this blog is also about desire – in this case, all those readers who want to blog better. The design is sparse, to the extent that content  appears to takes precedence. But the understated layout is elegant, and the typography is doing a lot of work.

My five  takeaways:

  1. Oh, those headlines! But there are some other neat things, too.
  2. The Tutorials in the sidebar highlight the site’s major themes, while also spotlighting their various software solution
  3. Within the individual posts, the use of ‘Sites that link to this post’ encourages people to write and link back
  4. Archives are featured in the sidebar – there’s such a lot on here that archives are very useful
  5. The software products offered by Copyblogger are constantly positioned as answers to business problems, not just boring old software, so Studiopress becomes Design Optimisation, and so on.

Dead commercial, very useful, very deliberate. It gets people wanting to read.

And finally:

Brand: Michelle Ward, WhenIGrowupcoach

With apologies to Michelle, I suspect she is not Internet Famous in the same way as the others. I’ve included her site as a nice example of the last element in the list of five: brand.

As you’ll appreciate from the previous list, lots of very successful websites don’t appear terrible ‘designed’ at all. Michelle’s site, on the other hand, has a whole ton of obvious design – the cartoon drawings, bright green background,  animated video intros, and so on.

What I love about this blog is the totally coherent package of Michelle, her services and her design – it’s a very happy, disarming site design, and it demonstrates Michelle as a cheerful positive presence.


    1. Colours, imagery, photos and even products have a coherent, identifiable tone.
    2. You’ll go a long way before you come across a happier About page.  It offers 5 different versions of Michelle’s story, and a couple of terrific photos.
    3. The ‘What is Coaching?’ page explains the coaching process very clearly. In the sidebar, you can listen to a snippet of live coaching – again, a vivid demonstration of what it would be like to work with Michelle directly.
    4. Her FAQs, in the same style, demonstrate Michelle’s approach and expose some important presumptions/worldviews for prospective clients
    5. Products are also faithful to her happy brand voice, like the rhyming book.

It may or may not resonate, but you know exactly where she’s coming from.

So, your job: build a site that serves deep desires, creates terrific rapport with its audience, puts up wonderful content, brings readers in with teasing headlines, and is designed beautifully to create a coherent brand.

Simple really.

In the comments I’d love to know what stands out for you, from reading those blogs. I have a load of little things I’d like to try, but I am very struck by the ‘desire’ part of all of these sites. Harder than it looks.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

nasrin shah abushakra November 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I love this Alison! Thank you so much for sharing the above sites.  I need unclutter asap.  Also loving your site, it’s my first visit and I will be back often! 


Ali Mac November 28, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Unclutterer is excellent! 

Glad you liked it :D


Kathleen Prophet November 28, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Excellent post, Ali!  Such a toolbox of ideas to create seamless branding and presence.  I am going to tighten up my services page, et. al.  My work is trickier to understand so I really need to get people there through both the imagery/felt sense of the space as well as clear definition… video doing the work and outline of exactly what the sessions will entail.  Going to use your post to help me get there.  Thank yo!


Ali Mac November 28, 2011 at 10:21 pm

The felt sense of the space! What a great expression. So many blogs are flat, but they needn’t be.


Erin November 28, 2011 at 9:19 pm

This is great insight! Your explanation for the five lessons with Unclutterer are almost identical to the conversations I had with our publisher before we started doing them. Although, I don’t know if I would call me “rich and famous” :)


Ali Mac November 28, 2011 at 10:20 pm

OMG! I love your blog. :D

I suspected you weren’t exactly in the same space as Tim Ferris but it seemed rude to presume…Yes, I was casting around for examples of varied content and thought it stood out very nicely. I’ve been remodelling my office and I always end up back on Workspace of the Week.


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