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Some Lessons from the Long Tail of a Hairy Arm

Some Lessons from the Long Tail of a Hairy Arm

Many years ago, we published an online magazine called (we even published a couple issues of a traditional magazine by the same name). focused on issues of interest to freelancers or, as we called them, "independent professionals."

Although we stopped updating content on the site back in 2001, we have kept the site live. And since the site tended to talk about timeless issues like how to land clients, how to manage clients, and everything else related to pursuing a successful freelance career, the site has traffic to this day!

Lesson 1: If you write about solutions to common problems faced by your target audience, you're content will stay evergreen!

Given the evergreen nature of's content, it's not surprising that traffic, while not super-voluminous, has at least remained steady. The fact that someone would write a blog post today based on something we published thirteen years ago, however, was quite surprising!

And yet, that's exactly what happened. In a recent column focused on "managing your boss," Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian penned a piece drawing heavily on a column written by Lawrence San that we published in 2000, "The Theory of the Hairy Arm."

Lesson 2: You never know what piece of content will have the longest tail!

Lawrence's original piece (which Burkemen apparently found via MetaFilter) concerned itself with a problem that freelance designers and writers often face: no matter how good your work may be, the client will want to change some aspect of it, if only to feel like they did something.

To anticipate this need while maintaining some control over the final outcome, Lawrence's column advocated introducing an obvious flaw (the "hairy arm" of the title) that the client could readily spot and ask you to remove. Since the hairy arm isn't integral to the work, you need not change anything in the end, while your client goes away happy feeling like they made a contribution. 

Lesson 3: You never know just how your content will be (re)used.

Burkeman's piece was not about graphic design nor was it about freelancing. In fact, it wasn't even so much about the hairy arm theory as it was about realizing that the people "higher up in the hierarchy" often need to feel useful and that it can benefit you to help them achieve that. 

In other words, it can be difficult to predict exactly how others will put the ideas expressed in your content to use. In fact, they may apply it to situations that are only tangentially related to the original situation you were addressing. 

Lesson 4: Make your content a little quirky AND useful and it may live forever!

Lawrence's original post had two notable attributes. First of all, it offered practical advice on a specific problem. Secondly, it did so humorously. It's no accident that both the title and the sub-title to Burkeman's post uses the expression "hairy arm," which, while not necessarily universally funny, definitely reaches out at grabs you (see what I did there?).

That your content should be useful is a given. That it should be useful AND quirky (or, at least, written with a distinct and even idiosyncratic voice) deserves emphasis. After all, on a practical level, it's unlikely that any advice you may have up your sleeve is absolutely unique or unfindable on the internet.

What can be absolutely unique and otherwise unfindable, on the other hand, is your perspective, especially when expressed with humor, candor and a recognizable human voice.

And that's what learned from the long tail of a hairy arm.

Image Source: Lee Haywood

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