Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and...Read more
Heather Armstrong is the blog founder, writer, also known as “Dooce”. In this episode, we speak with Heather about her journey of being one of the most prolific mommy bloggers, influencer marketing, and how she’s growing her business these days.
State of Digital Publishing is creating a new publication and community for digital publishing and media professionals in new media and technology. In this episode, we speak with Heather Armstrong, founder, also known as Dooce, on her journey of being one of the most prolific mommy bloggers and how she’s growing her business these days. Let’s begin.
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Vahe Arabian: Hi, Heather, how are you?
Heather Armstrong: I’m good, how are you?
Vahe Arabian: I’m good, thanks for joining us.
Heather Armstrong: Of course.
Vahe Arabian: The reason why I wanted to bring you on is that I’ve read quite a bit about you and how you’re called the queen of mommy blogging. We’ll go into a bit of that, but also I want to go into what you’re up to these days as well. Just for those that don’t know much about you and the website, if you can just provide a background, an introduction would be great.
Heather Armstrong: Briefly, I started blogging in 2000, 2001. I was working as a web designer and decided that I wanted a space of my own to write and design and edit. I hand-coded a few pages of HTML and sent it to a few friends of mine never thinking that more than 12 people would read it, but then within five years, it was supporting my entire family. It was the sole source of income. I started writing it when I was single and living in Los Angeles. It morphed into me getting married and then I got pregnant and I thought that I was going to give up the website when I got pregnant or when I had a baby because I wasn’t going to have time, but when I had my daughter the audience exploded. That’s when my trajectory really took off. People wanted to read stories from me about parenthood. I was one of the first women to document all of this on a blog and to get paid to do it through banner advertisements.
Vahe Arabian: Just for those who don’t know, is it pronounced as Dooce or?
Heather Armstrong: It’s pronounced Dooce, D-O-O-C-E, Dooce.
Vahe Arabian: Dooce, cool. With Dooce, specifically, I guess I think we all know to some extent that it was a bit more easier back in the day because there wasn’t as much competition and everything else, but with how you’ve evolved your strategy and your monetization from that, I know you’re not working on it as much these days, but how did it evolve over time so that you continue to do what you want to do?
Heather Armstrong: It was always really organic and there was no model to follow back then at all. It was all building itself and back then I got paid exclusively just from running banner advertisements and that was it. I didn’t have to run sponsorships, I didn’t have to run campaigns, I just had to write. That’s all I had to do. I learned my audience, my audience wanted to hear about my dogs and they wanted to hear about my children, so that’s where I focused most of my content. I built a community section of my website where readers could connect and talk to each other about parenting and depression and whatnot, but really it evolved very, very, very organically where I was responding to my audience and they were responding to me. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but because the model was just banner advertisements, the strategy was just to keep my audience happy and keep me happy as well, but was like, “What does my audience want to read,” and to give them the best content that I could.
Vahe Arabian: How did you define, back then, what your audience was looking to read because you mentioned that you had children when you first started, but obviously all moms aren’t going to be in the same stage as you are, but how did you define what you wanted to write about and keep them happy doing so?
Heather Armstrong: Before I had my kids, I made my name in the blogosphere, I guess you could call it that, I made my name being a really outspoken, irreverent, often profane. I wrote about things; I would say things that people were afraid to say out loud. I was very, very irreverent and that’s why people read me. Here I am talking about parenthood in that same vein. I’m telling people exactly what I think about, what it’s like to raise a baby, and what it’s like to be pregnant. I knew that I had to maintain my tone while maintaining the content. People wanted to come and I wanted to get and be irreverent and take on parenthood and I knew that that was my brand. I know people hate to use that word, but it’s a really accurate way to describe how I had to go about growing this business.
Vahe Arabian: Understood. Like you’ve mentioned, you focus on the content, focus on the community, and then you decide to diversify a bit. Sorry, I’m going to cut this part out, sorry. I just wanted to ask you, in working with other brands and looking at other blog networks and companies that were active back then, how were you involved with them back then and how is it now in comparison? Do publishers come to you these days as well in a similar approach in trying to collaborate with you? How is that ecosystem now?
Heather Armstrong: It’s completely different now. For six years, I was able to support my family and to support three employees through banner advertisements alone. That was it, I never did a sponsored post until very late 2010. Suddenly, there was a convergence of, a whole bunch of things happened. Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook got really popular, Twitter and that started taking audiences away from blogs because people would stay on Twitter or Pinterest all day. Then the bottom fell out of the banner ad business model and literally overnight a banner ad that would sell for $7 began selling for $0.15. I was signed exclusively to an ad network that was based out of San Francisco and while they did sponsored content, they knew that I didn’t want to do sponsored content, so they were fine with me running banner advertisements.
Heather Armstrong: Then they came to me and said, “There is no more money to be made running banner advertisements. We’ve got to do sponsored content.” I had to completely change the way that I was making money suddenly in 2011. I had to start working with brands and writing content around brands and that ultimately became something that I didn’t want to do because I didn’t sign up to do that. I signed up to write about my life in a very organic and honest way. By 2014, the only way to make any sort of living doing a blog was to manufacture an experience in your life around a product and to feature that product in your post. I took a break from blogging for almost two years because I couldn’t force my kids into these fake experiences.
Heather Armstrong: I came back to blogging because I loved to write and I loved to write about my family and I love to chronicle my life, but now I don’t even work with an ad network. I run some banner ads on the website for, I made very little from that, but I now negotiate my own contracts with brands who want to work with me. Now there’s far more hustle, far, far, far more hustle that goes on in terms of finding paid work to keep the website up.
Vahe Arabian: I’m sure it’s very difficult, but at the same time it’s also trying to keep true to what you’re trying to do as well.
Heather Armstrong: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: How much of a role did your subscriber base play in being able to go and drop contracts or negotiating with other brand advertisers directly?
Heather Armstrong: That is the basis of my being able to do so, is that I have a large following on several different platforms, on Twitter and on Instagram. My blog has been around for 18 years and I have that cache to come to a brand and say, “People have been reading me for this long. If I choose to partner with someone, they know that I’m very serious about it and they know that I’m really picky about it, so my audience is going to trust whoever I partner with.” It’s definitely the audience that enables me to be able to go to these brands and say, “I can show you these many eyeballs and these many impressions and you’re a part of a very small number of people that I’m willing to work with. I don’t just work with anybody.”
Vahe Arabian: Have you tried to figure out any process or way to try to scale your efforts in this because you are the sole identity of this brand and that you are individually picking out all the partnerships?
Heather Armstrong: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’ve tried several different things over the years. I’ve tried different subject matter, I’ve tried guest writers and what it all really comes down to is my audience doesn’t want to read somebody else, my audience wants to read me, which proves problematic in terms of scaling this because there’s only so much content one person can produce. At the same time, the father of my children moved to New York four years ago, so I’m a full-time single parent of two girls. What that requires of me physically takes away what I can physically do business-wise. I made a conscious choice four years ago that really ultimately… I’m an ambitious person in the sense that I want to do my job really well, but I don’t have the ambition to take over a publishing industry or to start a publishing industry. I really just want to tell really funny stories. If I can do that well and I can provide for my family doing that well, then I feel like I’m very satisfied. Over the last four years, I’ve tried to strike a balance between how do I take care of my kids and how do I provide for my kids at the same time. I really did say, “I can’t grow this into something larger than what it is right now.”
Vahe Arabian: When you look at the website now, you’ve got the podcast, you’ve got the shop, you’ve got the community. It looks very diversified. I don’t know, maybe that can help with diversifying your monetization, but doesn’t that spread you a bit too thin as well at the same time?
Heather Armstrong: It’s taken four years. The balance is setting a really strict schedule for this slotted hour a week is for this and this slotted hour a week is for that. It’s a really busy schedule, but at the same time I have the flexibility of this job and I spend a lot of time with my kids and I’m still providing for them, so it’s working. What you see on the website is a collection of a lot of archived material as well. I have 18 years of content that I can pull from to propel me forward.
Vahe Arabian: That’s absolutely a valid point. I guess you can prioritize, have you thought about how you can prioritize a lot of the archived content, like put it into the shop for example or repurpose it in some way as well?
Heather Armstrong: Yeah, I do try to pull from the content of the archives quite a bit. Sometimes I’ll rerun posts. I have some featured reads at the top of my website where I’ve pulled some of the most popular posts from the past. There’s also a lot of money to be made in affiliate linking. A lot of the influencers, they’re influencers now, they’re not bloggers. They’re called influencers and a lot of influencers now can make a really good living doing nothing but linking to the clothes that they’re wearing. I’ve diversified that way as well by linking to products that I use in my home and making a commission off of the sale of that. My audience really, they have a certain amount of … They’ll allow that a bit, but they can’t tolerate it that much. My audience is not here to see an outfit. My audience is here to read a story about my daughter.
Vahe Arabian: How are you planning your cross initiatives or how are you planning your future plans with your website and trying to also sustain the income and all that at the same time?
Heather Armstrong: I just turned in a manuscript for a book that is coming out at the beginning of next year. Having a book is also really helpful in terms of being able to book speaking engagements. I tried speaking engagements for a couple of years and the money to be made doing speaking, which I really enjoy, comes when you have a book to sell. You’re more readily to be booked when you have a book that you can bring to a conference or what not and sell the book. That’s part of my plans for the next couple of years is to churn out a few books while I … Writing a book while maintaining your website, I don’t recommend it to anyone.
Vahe Arabian: It’s a monster task to take on, yeah.
Heather Armstrong: It’s a monster task and I even said to my audience, “Hey, I have to get this manuscript written, so what you’re going to see here on the website is going to be few and far between,” but then once I turned in the manuscript I was able to start publishing a little bit more every week. I have talked to, even in the last week, I’ve talked to four different people who do influencer marketing on Pinterest and Instagram and Twitter and everybody is having to take a look at the landscape and figure out how to keep doing this because it’s really shifting underneath us. Because Facebook and Instagram have changed algorithms and people who used to see 90% engagement on posts are now seeing a third of that, all of us are having to completely adapt constantly to this changing landscape. What I want to do over the next few months is take a step back and study and look at some trends and decide where I want to go. I’m right now in the process of reevaluating what I want to do with everything.
Vahe Arabian: Bigger publishers are also the same. I’m not trying to be too negative about it, but even with GDPR as well it looks like there’s a massive reset that’s happening, in general, looking at the platform, trying to not focus too much on platforms and trying to focus on direct relationships. It’s a good time for everyone to reset and evaluate.
Heather Armstrong: I actually, just really quickly, the local newspaper here, the big paper here in Salt Lake City, Utah, just laid off 30 people. This is a publication that has over 13 million page views a month and they can’t, they’re basically looking at shutting the whole paper down because they can’t continue to operate the paper because making money online is proving impossible. You’ve got a publisher that’s got 13 million page views a month that’s saying, “We don’t know how we’re going to sustain this.” That kind of spells doom for everybody else as well.
Vahe Arabian: But how are they trying to monetize online? Are they focusing on subscriptions, because you’ve seen the exceptions with the New York Times and a few other of the bigger publishers that are focusing on subscribing a paywall?
Heather Armstrong: Yeah, they have tried that. They make most of their money with the print edition of the paper. That’s where the bulk of their revenue comes from. Online they’re running banner ads and they’re trying to encourage people to subscribe, although they’re not being as militant about it as the New York Times.
Vahe Arabian: Understood. It appears that maybe this sort of transformation hasn’t been completed, but I only hope that they turn it around.
Heather Armstrong: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: Definitely. In saying that as well, Heather, you’re taking the book publishing path and you’re using a lot of the content online. Isn’t that still focusing, you said earlier that you’ve decided that you don’t want to tackle a big challenge and you don’t want to go into the publishing route, but you’re taking a book publishing route?
Heather Armstrong: I’ve already published three books. I’ve done publishing before, I know what that beast is like. The book publishing route is more of an avenue towards something else. The clout that comes with having a book, especially if you get on any sort of list or any sort of bestseller list or anything, the clout that comes with that opens a lot of doors. After my last book, I swore off books and said I would never do it again, but then I had a story to tell last year and I started writing and realized that … I don’t know if you’ve heard today, the book that I’m writing is about a suicidal depression that I went through last year and the year before. I’ve made a lot of, my career has been based quite a bit on the writing that I’ve done about depression. People really want to hear those stories from me, so I’m writing this book about how I got through that episode of depression. Then we found out today that Anthony Bourdain killed himself and then earlier this week we found out that Kate Spade killed herself.
Vahe Arabian: I heard that yeah.
Heather Armstrong: So many people are reaching out to me saying, “Your voice is so important. Please don’t stop doing this.” I think, this is going to sound really religious of me and I’m not a religious person, but over the last couple of years, it’s sort of been … The signs are all pointing toward my calling in life is to help destigmatize depression and mental illness. That is what I’m looking at in the next six months, is how do I take what I’ve done and turn it into something that can help people. Whether that means continuing to write on my website or in books, or that means founding a non-profit and going that route, that’s something that I’m considering as well. Again, right now it’s all, it’s not all up in the air, but I am on a day to day basis reassessing the landscape.
Vahe Arabian: Do you think being able to publish about your journey in motherhood and your family, do you think the underlying issue was around depression or were you also, I’m sure you’ve been focusing on other topics as well, but you think the recurring theme in the understanding audience needs was also around that? That maybe that’s why it’s come to this point that you are focusing on this issue?
Heather Armstrong: Yeah, when I had my daughter, my audience exploded and six months after I had my daughter I checked myself into a hospital with a really bad case of postpartum depression and spent four days at the hospital trying to get better. I was really scared because I thought people were going to write me off as the crazy person, when, in fact, my audience tripled the day that I checked myself in the hospital again. They wanted to hear me talk about it. I always come back to the topic of it because a lot of my audience came to me during that episode and that’s what they want to hear from me, is, “Please, help me feel less alone.”
Vahe Arabian: It’s a very … I think it should be spoken more about. It’s a bit sensitive, I think, but having that voice is important for people out there for sure. With that in mind, how do mothers now … I mean back in the day, there was a vacuum. Also being mentioned as the queen of mommy blogging, a lot of people back then as well have used blogging as a way to express themselves and also share their stories with other people. What are your thoughts around that now? Do you think that it’s still more the case that that’s happening, or it’s less, or what do you think about that?
Heather Armstrong: I’ve given a few speeches about this, I think when I talked about what happened in 2010, 2011 when Pinterest and Instagram and all that hit, I call it the Pinterestification of the internet where everything turned into really, really pretty pictures. The successful influencers now just post pictures and they monetize those pictures. People who call themselves bloggers aren’t doing any sort of writing. They’re just posting really pretty pictures of food or their house or their outfits. What used to be this really, really vibrant ecosystem of women writing about the struggles of depression and parenthood and what it’s like to work as a woman, these blogs are all gone. It’s like a complete desert now and everybody has taken those stories that they would host and own on their blogs, they’ve taken them to Facebook. I think that’s where the majority of people are getting their support now, is they’re taking to Facebook and writing really long Facebook posts or they’re a part of a Facebook support group.
Heather Armstrong: I’m happy that those forums exist, except for the fact that Facebook owns that content. In a flash, Facebook could take it away. In a flash, you lose all those stories that you’ve written and you lose the community that’s built there and then what do you do? This is the problem that I see with these influencers establishing these platforms on Instagram. Instagram owns that content and it could disappear tomorrow, which is what I loved about blogs is that these were our own spaces that we owned. We owned all of it. We made the rules, but I do think that the stories that used to be written and told, they’ve all gone to Facebook.
Vahe Arabian: Again, like I was alluding to before, I think this whole shift in how people can better connect with their audiences and develop direct relationships beyond platforms. How do you think new bloggers or people who focus around sharing their stories about motherhood can be someone like yourself who has been able to grow and connect with their audience? Do they have to just do what you did back when you first started? I know you’re evaluating a lot of that stuff now with your own initiatives, but off the top of your head, what do you think, what are some of the fundamental things they can do now to start building their audience?
Heather Armstrong: I think doing what I did, I don’t know if that’s necessarily possible now because it exists in a completely different form. I’m looking at, starting a blog right now to try to connect with a whole bunch of people is not a good idea. I think that that would be like putting on socks like trying to walk through a giant puddle of mud. Blogging to reach a lot of people right now is not really a good strategy. I’m reading about people on Instagram who are trying to make a go of having that be their business, they’re spending hours and hours and hours a day doing nothing but creating content, responding to comments, finding other accounts to follow, dm’ing those people. Their whole day is spent on the platform trying to game the platform. If that’s what you want to do, more power to you, but that’s not something that I want to pursue. If you want to connect to a bigger audience, that’s the kind of work you have to put in these days.
Vahe Arabian: I guess everyone’s being accustomed or they’re being trained to game the system by how it’s supposed to be.
Heather Armstrong: Right.
Vahe Arabian: How is your… I believe you also started… like you were saying before, you’re looking at starting your non-profit and you’ve got your podcast and everything else. How is that going so far?
Heather Armstrong: Podcasting is… everybody has a podcast. Podcasting is interesting. It’s not as lucrative, I think, as people want to believe it is. I have a cohost and he and I, we do it weekly. We have somebody who edits it and we have a host. It’s not a big money maker by any means whatsoever. If someone’s going to make podcasting their money maker, they need to go all in on the podcast and need to be focused completely on it and not do anything else. The podcasters who have the big numbers and are making the most revenue, that’s what they do, is podcasting. My podcast is basically to supplement the story of my life and the story of my website. It’s something that I enjoy doing.
Vahe Arabian: Smaller passion project. Are you also trying to reach out to advertisers for contracts on your podcast as well for sponsorships?
Heather Armstrong: Yes.
Vahe Arabian: That’s part of the whole product package that you’re offering?
Heather Armstrong: Yes.
Vahe Arabian: Understood. For those people out there as well who want to do something similar, how have you gone about trying to negotiate with advertisers on sponsorships?
Heather Armstrong: What’s complicated everything is that there are so many influencers out there that it’s spread everything really thin. A lot of people are willing to feature something for free as long as they get the product in hand. They’ll write about a pair of pants because the person sent them a pair of pants, when for those of us who’ve been doing this and are trying to make livings doing this, we can’t pay our rent with a pair of pants. It’s what I have to do and this is why I call it a hustle, what I have to do and what a lot of my administrative time, is convincing brands that what I’m offering them is not free. I can’t do it for free, but I can offer them a quality advertisement basically for what they want to sell if I believe in the product.
Heather Armstrong: I have to convince them why they need to pay for the exposure, that the exposure just doesn’t come for free and that if you’re going to give a pair of pants away to somebody who has 120 Instagram followers, that’s fine, but I’ve built an audience over the last 18 years and my voice carries a lot more weight. When you’re going about negotiating these contracts, you have to look at your numbers, you have to look at your reach, you have to look at what your audience will withstand. A lot of that goes into what I quote to sponsors that I want to work with.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, absolutely. 18 years is a long time as well, so there’s obviously going to be new audience within that age bracket coming in and there’s also going to be others which aren’t going to be there anymore. Is that something that maybe I’m wrong about? How have you been able to stay true to what you’re doing and be able to capture a new generation or a new audience?
Heather Armstrong: I’m not really interested in capturing.
Vahe Arabian: Not capturing, sorry, that would be the wrong wording. I’m just saying how are you able to still continue to convey yourself and the story that you want to help to spread for those people who are looking, even though they might not be in motherhood anymore, they’ve got adult children for example or they’ve changed their scenario, they might not be looking for that information anymore. Do you think that that’s the case, or what are your thoughts around?
Heather Armstrong: Actually, that’s an interesting question because this is why I never liked the term mommy blogger. I would call myself much more of a lifestyle writer and always, over the entire time that I’ve been writing, I always get an e-mail from college-aged kids to grandparents to people who don’t have kids. It’s less about they’re coming for parenting stories than it is, they’re coming to read my writing is what they’re coming to read. I happen to do my best writing around my children and what it’s like to be a mom, that’s my funniest writing. I think people are still coming to me because they want to hear me tell a story. They’re not coming to me necessarily because I have kids or because I have dogs. They’re coming to me because of the way that I tell the story.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, I’m also reading as well, all of that, the value proposition that you provide, the value of the story, the value of who you are.
Heather Armstrong: Exactly.
Vahe Arabian: How can bloggers or writers, how can they make that clearer for people because sometimes it’s harder for people to express themselves to do that or convey that onto the website or platforms they’re on? How can they do that?
Heather Armstrong: That’s a good question. I think you have to be consistent and you have to be consistent over an extended period of time. I think if you’re going to establish yourself as an authority or having some sort of value proposition, you’ve got to establish that over a period of time, overdoing it well, over and over and over and over again.
Vahe Arabian: Repetition is key, yeah.
Heather Armstrong: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Vahe Arabian: In lifestyle, particularly, what have you seen other writers focus on? I know you focus more around those topics that we spoke about before, but what do you think that other writers are writing that is interesting to them, from what you’ve noticed?
Heather Armstrong: I’ve seen a huge, huge surge in social justice writing. I’ve seen, in the last couple of years, careers take off because of, are you familiar with medium.com?
Vahe Arabian: Of course, yeah.
Heather Armstrong: Yeah, I’ve seen careers take off because people have written pieces on Medium about social justice work. They now have bestselling books and they’re writing for the New York Times and are writing for the Atlantic all because they started literally just from their bedroom publishing a piece on Medium about social justice. It’s a really, really hot topic in America especially and I’ve seen writers, their Twitter audiences have exploded. That, for me right now, is a very, very lucrative place to go in terms of establishing a voice.
Vahe Arabian: You’re actually thinking about taking your voice in that direction as well.
Heather Armstrong: No. If I were to suggest anybody who is good at that, I’ve written about it a little bit, my voice is better suited to writing about how grumpy my kids are in the morning. The women who are, and I say women because I read mostly women, the women whose writing that I’m reading that was on social justice, it would blow me out of the water. I would not know how to approach the subject as well as they do. We’re talking about women with Master’s degrees and I’m really excited for them that they found these audiences.
Vahe Arabian: They’re more specialized, that’s pretty much what it comes down to.
Heather Armstrong: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: Okay. Have you seen other writers that are in a similar boat as you have been, that have been able to shift from one voice to another?
Heather Armstrong: All of the blogs that were around when I, back in the day, none of them exist anymore. Most of the friends that I have that had mommy blogs back in the day, they have gone on to more conventional work because the ad network that I made a living off of for so long doesn’t even exist anymore. They’ve gone on to more conventional work or they work for magazines or they work as editors for like Slate and I haven’t really … I’m looking around and I’m trying to think of anybody that I know personally who does this for a living anymore and the only people that I know who do this for a living are people who have shifted towards, less about writing and they’ve shifted towards DIY or crafting or party supplies or fashion.
Vahe Arabian: Non-sensitive stuff.
Heather Armstrong: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: Which, again, that’s conflicting with what you’re about.
Heather Armstrong: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Vahe Arabian: How is your relationship then with editorials, like media publishers and editorials? You said that you have some people, some of the bloggers who have moved on to them. How is your relationship with them and how do they feel in the ecosystem for you and trying to publicate your brand and amplify your brand?
Heather Armstrong: I don’t really speak with them anymore. We used to hang out at blogging conferences quite a bit, but I think they’re still surprised that I’m around and doing this. I think some people are just like, “Is she still doing that? Oh my god,” and taking a more conventional job means far more stability. When you’re collecting insurance from an employer, there comes a level of relief with that. I’ve had to live under the threat of not being able to get health insurance the entire time that I’ve been doing this. I don’t have the regular benefits that people have from working a regular job. I think when you go back to work in the public sector, maybe they have taken comfort in that.
Vahe Arabian: Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complex in America than other places. In Australia, you can pretty much purchase health insurance without having those criteria there.
Heather Armstrong: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: You’ve done pretty much, are you collaborating within the editorial sites on any initiatives at the moment?
Heather Armstrong: No, most of the work that I do outside of my website is with non-profits that I’ve partnered with. I decided a few years ago that if I can maintain my platform and still bring in a good income, that I was going to use my influence as much as I could for other organizations who are working really trying to make this a better world to live in. Any of the extra time that I have, I have a few non-profits that I do work for and I spend time with them.
Vahe Arabian: I was actually reading today as well when I’ve recorded this, I was actually reading today that a new subscription-only startup was actually collaborating with non-profits and doing audience surplice. What one would do was they would promote their services on their website and the non-profit would do vice versa because they have similar audiences. Do you think that that can be something you can also look into or potentially to see if there’s any benefit without obviously trying to take advantage of the mutual audience that you’re both targeting?
Heather Armstrong: I would have to feel clean and good about myself for doing that sort of thing. I wouldn’t want to take away from the mission of a non-profit. I’ve done a lot of work with non-profits, so I know what they go through and I know how hard the administrative part of it is, but yeah, I’d have to feel good about that sort of arrangement.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, that makes sense. How are your non-profit efforts now? How are you collaborating with them at the moment?
Heather Armstrong: I have been on the board of directors of a maternal health organization since 2011. I’ve traveled to Haiti and Tanzania and, where else have I been? I’ve been to Peru, we’re going to Arizona later this year. It’s all about bringing healthcare to mothers who don’t have access to it, that’s the main organization I work with. I also work with an organization that’s based in Colorado, but they do a lot of work in Thailand and in Southeast Asia and they’ve worked in human trafficking. What I’ve done for them is I’ve gone on trips with them and I’ve chronicled the trip and been sort of a, I wouldn’t call myself a journalist, I would call myself a storyteller and would come back and I would tell their story through pictures and through words. That’s been really, really satisfying.
Vahe Arabian: Both in terms of achieving your mission and helping with the non-profits, how you define that, or how would you define that feeling for you?
Heather Armstrong: The feeling to me is that, okay, I have this audience that is eager to help. The people in my audience are eager to help out. They are socially conscious individuals and if I can bring light to a situation through a non-profit that’s doing really good work, I’m really happy to do that to lend the platform that I have to an organization that needs the exposure. That is satisfying to me.
Vahe Arabian: Absolutely. I hope one-day digital publishing can get bigger and can make that bigger difference as well for media professionals, like for whatever noble cause that they wanted to achieve as well for audiences.
Heather Armstrong: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: How do you define, you said that you don’t consider yourself as a journalist, but more of a storyteller. A lot of journalists classify themselves as storytellers, but I guess anyone can be a storyteller. What are your thoughts around the view of anyone being a storyteller? I know that technology has helped make it more accessible and to help cover events and experiences worldwide more easily, but what would you qualify as someone being a genuine storyteller that can help the audience with understanding an issue or topic?
Heather Armstrong: I think when I say storyteller I am really talking about words. You can tell stories through photographs, of course, but when I talk about my storytelling I’m talking about words. I had a friend, she once wrote a book and it was like a practical thought-starters for blog posts. This was a long, long time ago, but the title of her book was Nobody Cares What You Had For Lunch Today. I think the difference between a lot of writing is that a lot of writing is not interesting, it’s not fun to read. Nobody is going to get past the first paragraph, but if you can hook somebody on the first sentence, that’s where the good storytelling comes from. In places like Medium, again, providing a platform for people who want to get their stories out, it’s a great place to start.
Vahe Arabian: I found a lot of gold nuggets there, especially for data-driven stories or different case studies as well for publishers that are trying to do initiatives. They do a lot of their posting there, so I definitely appreciate what Medium has done to date, although they keep changing their business model.
Heather Armstrong: Yes, they do.
Vahe Arabian: What are some of the skills that you’ve learned that other people can learn to become better storytellers? What’re some of the fundamentals they can learn?
Heather Armstrong: People ask me all the time if I take notes, and I do in my head. A lot of my writing is tangential, but what it does is it draws on four or five different situations in my life. If I’m going to write about my daughter, my daughter is picky eating at dinner. It usually involves four or five other scenarios that have nothing to do with her picky eating, but somehow contribute to the story. I guess layering your stories with depth and color and the breadth of life. It’s not just, “My daughter’s a picky eater,” it’s creating the whole picture around her sitting at a table, fussing over a bland noodle. I always tell people to, if they’re not good rememberers, travel with a notepad and write something that your kid said or write down an interaction that you had at a grocery store and reference that later somehow in writing.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, what has triggered, when you saying, that to me at the moment was how there’s even… I did a lot of podcasts with someone else around, which are on medium.com as well. They focus on history journalism and they start with today, but then they connect back with a lot of the things that were the cause of that, rather than just you telling people what everything is.
Heather Armstrong: Exactly.
Vahe Arabian: I think mommy blogger, sorry to say that. I think people who are focusing around the topics you focused on and also just around motherhood as well were able to convey that. I think that made a big contribution in how storytelling is today. What are your thoughts around that?
Heather Armstrong: Yes, I absolutely agree, I absolutely agree. The really successful mommy bloggers were the ones who were crafting stories. We weren’t just telling you what happened during the day, we were… I always said that right as if you were sitting around on a Friday night with your girlfriends and you were drinking a glass of wine, and you’re telling them about your ridiculous week, and you’re all laughing about it. And how would you tell them the story to make them laugh? You wouldn’t just say, “My kid did this really stupid thing.” You would go on and on about how you got into that situation in the first place and it’s like, how do you make people feel like they’re sitting at your dinner table and you’re sharing a glass of wine and you’re laughing about your week? That’s how I think most of us who were really big back in the day, that’s how we were writing about things.
Vahe Arabian: Do you think that there’s some sort of recovery of that happening with all this reset in GDPR and a lot of different platforms, or do you think that we’re going to take a different approach or try to evolve technology to try to cater a different game or different playing field?
Heather Armstrong: I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get back what we had back in the 2000s. I don’t know if we can recover that, considering where everything has gone. There are still really good writers out there, but I don’t think that we’re necessarily going to be able to recapture the community that we had back in the 2000s. Everything is so different and fractured and strange now.
Vahe Arabian: It is unknown, but for a lot of people, for me as well, I think that helps try another gateway and trying to find what it is that can be more fractured is what makes it worthwhile as well.
Vahe Arabian: So, I’ve got some basic questions around your setup and your tools and technologies that you use. What are the things that help you stay productive and focused?
Heather Armstrong: It can completely consume my life if I let it, so I set a specific amount of time in an hour block a day for email and then I will check it once again at the end of the day and then I’m done. That’s been the most productive tip for me because otherwise I will just be stuck in Gmail all day long. I run five different email accounts and it’s ridiculous. But I use the Notes App on my phone and it syncs with my Mac. I use that for everything. If I’m taking notes, it’s on the Notes App. I use that app all the time and I still use Photoshop every single day.
Vahe Arabian: For your head posts, also featured images on your posts?
Heather Armstrong: Yeah, images and sometimes I’ll do a little graphic design here and there, but it’s still probably one of the main applications that I use on my computer.
Vahe Arabian: Cool, and those are your current setups and do you do the management of your website or do you have, like you had back in the day as well, a few people that help you?
Heather Armstrong: No, I had a company redesign my site a year ago and it’s on WordPress. And it’s really stable, it’s hosted really well, and if anything goes wrong with it I can just send a note to this person that I know at the company and they can fix it within the day. So I don’t have anybody dedicated to the backend of my website right now, no.
Vahe Arabian: And anyone else supporting you, because I know you have that strict schedule and there’s a lot to take on with the book publishing as well. Is there anyone else?
Heather Armstrong: Nope, it’s just me. (laughs) It used to be a lot of people and business has changed. Now, it’s only me. I am the sole person running this whole endeavor, that’s it.
Vahe Arabian: Power to you, Heather, I hope you keep going forward with your initiative as well. Heather, just to wrap up as well, what’s your advice you would give for those who especially want to be in the position that you’re in now or consider, having what they had, starting with, and turning it into a publishing brand, what would be your advice now? I know we said some of it in the beginning.
Heather Armstrong: Well there’re two main pieces of advice that I would give and one is to seek the advice and counsel of a business strategist. I wish I had done that because I am not this savvy business person at all, I’m a writer. That’s my main talent, is writing. Me, in my blood, sweat, and tears, I am the commodity, I am the product. I wish that I had, back in the day, consulted someone who has a business degree. I would give that advice to anybody going into this, and the other thing I would say is, be prepared for the criticism and the scrutiny of opening up your life like this. I was in no way prepared for what I was going to live through, especially at the height of things in 2009 and 2010 in terms of the hate and the criticism and what was written about me and my family online. It was unbearable at times and I wish that I had either gotten therapy sooner or had some sort of mentor to tell me that it had nothing to do with me and that I shouldn’t have taken it as personally as I did.
Vahe Arabian: So how have you overcome some of those challenges to this point now?
Heather Armstrong: I stopped reading. There are websites dedicated to hate. There are websites dedicated to it specifically and I stopped reading it in 2015. My life completely turned around, it was amazing. If I’m reading an e-mail and I think it’s going to be bad, I stop reading it. And I block people and delete comments all the time. I have no guilt over any of that. I always tell people, don’t let anybody come in and use the bathroom on your living room floor. You wouldn’t let anybody do that, so why would you let someone onto your Instagram feed or your blog post and leave a nasty comment? Just block them and delete and it has been very satisfying.
Vahe Arabian: And what about from the business side?
Heather Armstrong: In terms of criticism?
Vahe Arabian: No, like you said, having that business strategist and operation wise. Is it more just managing your emails and putting in some systems to support yourself?
Heather Armstrong: Yeah, it’s all about time management and you can get behind so fast. If you’re not on top of it every day, you’ll fall very, very quickly behind. You’ve got to put some strict rules in place about email, how long you’ll waste on Twitter, how many times you’ll post on Instagram. You’ve got to put some really strict rules into place because content takes time to create and if you’re not leaving yourself the time, your contents not going to be good and people will be able to tell.
Vahe Arabian: You can easily procrastinate and push back on the content as a result of being distracted.
Heather Armstrong: Yes. (laughs)
Vahe Arabian: I can say that as well because I’m not from a writing background and I’m getting into it, and I find that to be one of my challenges. Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate your honesty.
Heather Armstrong: Yes, absolutely.
Vahe Arabian: Thank you.
Heather Armstrong: My pleasure.
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