Interview with Matthew Inman (Oatmeal)

by Brett Borders on November 9, 2008

Matthew Inman is a 26-year-old independent marketer and designer based in Seattle. He worked for 4 years as the CTO and lead developer at SEOmoz – where he designed the complex web applications involved in their SEO tool suite.

Some of his notable social media accomplishments include writing classic viral linkbait articles, and drawing hit cartoons that rake in thousands and thousands of diggs. He also built and promoted his own free online dating site, Mingle2, single-handedly taking on huge corporate sites backed by multi-million dollar budgets (like and Matt took a break from his busy freelance project schedule to share his thoughts with Social Media Rockstar readers.

Many people think you are unusually multi-talented: skilled at programming, writing, marketing, illustration and design. What is your educational background?

“I’m 100% self-taught. I started doing web design and development in when I was 13 years old (around 1995), so by the time I graduated high school I already had quite a bit of experience: I could design web pages, knew my way around a UNIX shell, and could code in a couple different languages. This enabled me to basically skip college and go straight to work at the height of the dot-com boom.”

Matt having some (juvenile) fun in downtown Tokyo

How did you develop your skills?

“Turning my skills into hobbies really made a huge difference in my life. I enjoy design and illustration so much that it’s sometimes difficult for me to classify it as work. The same goes for programming, linkbait, or whatever else. (This applies to most things, however there are definitely some tasks out there that I would be quite happy never, ever doing again). Basically enjoying what I do makes it a lot easier for me to get better at it, because I’m eager to learn and kind of obsessive. Also, I’m constantly reading and tinkering.”

What are your thoughts on the theory of the right brain and left brain?

“I enjoy what I’m doing more if I work on right brain and left brain tasks interchangeably. It mixes things up and keeps work interesting. If I devoted an entire day to just coding I’d probably get burned out. Instead I try to alternate between the creative stuff and the detailed stuff.”

Tell us about how the creative process works for you?

“I have a giant 17″x14″ illustration pad that I scribble everything down in with a mechanical pencil. This includes design concepts, linkbait ideas, illustrations, web page mockups, and an endless horde of bizarre illustrations and notes. I tend to jot down everything I think of with no real regard for structure, and then later on I filter it down to only the good stuff. For me, the best test of whether linkbait is effective is if it genuinely entertains or intrigues me. If I’m not laughing at my own joke I bag it. Humor and weirdness has always worked best for me, so I tend to stick to those channels.

For inspiration I read the usual sources: Digg, Reddit, Mixx, and so forth. I also read a lot of online comic strips, “best of” Craigslist posts, and I spend a lot of time using StumbleUpon.

Also, If you want inspiration for linkbait that is beyond just editorial bait (blog posts & articles), the facebook app directory is actually a fantastic resource. Look at what’s popular in there and adapt some of those ideas to the blogosphere. ”

At what point did you first completely “get” the concept of online viral marketing?

“The first quiz I ever created for Mingle2 was called the Geek Quiz. It was 20 questions or so and it issued a percentage score of how geek you were. When I launched it traffic instantly shot up with the majority of the referrals coming from stumbleupon. Prior to this, all the linkbait I published would typically follow the same pattern: I’d publish an article, see massive amounts of traffic from digg or wherever, and then it’d die off after a few days. The Geek Quiz was different because the “I am x% geek!” HTML badges encouraged bloggers to keep reposting the quiz. Because of this, traffic didn’t die down after the social media sites stopped sending referrers – instead it flourished. It was almost like the blogosphere itself had become a social media site and my linkbait had “gone hot.”

I don’t know if this was the first time I ever “got” viral marketing, but it definitely was a turning point for me. ”

What social media projects or linkbaits have impressed you the most?

“The writing style and subject matter of many of the authors at have hit the linkbait nail on the head. The material is easily digestible, funny, and their site is very sticky (every time I read a Cracked article I end up going on to read several more).

I also think Free Rice is absolutely brilliant. It’s not exactly linkbait, but it’s great viral marketing. I’m all about linkbait that either entertains the user or rewards them. If your linkbait isn’t funny or engaging, instead give them a short task to do, such as a quiz or a game, and then provide a way for them to share their achievement with others.

Also, I love how this guy tells his story. He mixes creative writing with illustrations and this format could easily be adapted to a variety of different subjects.”

You single-handedly built an ENORMOUS number of links with viral widgets, but then then Google banned your sites… So do you think viral widgetbait is out? What types of content do you think holds the most long-term promise for viral marketing in the future?

“Google’s policy on widgetbait is a bit hazy right now, but I don’t think it’s completely out – it just has to be on-topic and the anchor text in the badge has to be relevant to the quiz. You can’t put ‘How many hungry kittens could your dead body feed?’ on a website that sells kitty litter. Instead, I suppose you’d have to make a quiz called ‘If ground down and processed, how much kitty litter could your body produce?’ or some other such nonsense. Keep it relevant and make sure the user knows what they are linking to.

I’m always an advocate of providing utility or reward to a user in the form of HTML. This includes widgets, badges, blog templates, and any other functionality which can be massively distributed in the form of HTML code. In the future we’re going to see more and more of this from myself and other marketers.”

What are you working on these days?

All the new stuff I’ve been working on has to be kept under wraps for now, but here’s a few linkbait pieces I recently made for Mingle2:

What do you like to do for fun?

“Running, snowboarding, movies, swimming, drawing, vector illustration, and traveling.”

(Note: according to his most recent Twitter updates, Matt has also been surfing and training for a marathon!)

What is the greatest buzz or most amazing experience you’ve ever had in front of a computer?

“Probably the first time I played Quake against a friend of mine who lived down the street. We did it over dial-up and I thought it was the most fun I’d ever had in my entire life. Unfortunately this caused me to get really addicted to online games and I spent way too many of my teenage years playing them when I could have been learning things about computers that are actually useful :)

Tell us about your computer system? What software tools do you consider to be essential to your social media game?

“For my workstation I have a MacBook Pro. I love OS X mostly because it has a unix back-end (without all the upkeep & hassle of having a Linux box), so when I need to I can drop down to the command line and work there instead. It also lets me run a local web and database server locally so I can develop on my laptop and then deploy to a live server later. For my servers I typically use FreeBSD, which is a unix variant.

The Social Media toolbar from 97th floor is invaluable for me, as well as the SEOmoz Rank Checker. I also use the SearchStatus SEO plugin for Firefox.”

You’ve accomplished quite a lot by your mid-20′s.. but what about your future goals? At what point in your career will you be able to stop and say, “Wow, I’ve REALLY made it!” ?

“I was gonna give you a wishy washy answer about personal success, but I decided against it. Instead, I’m gonna be honest: I want a 7 figure income before I’m 30 :)

Seriously though, my ideal future would be to create a successful online property that doesn’t rely on search rankings to survive. I’ve seen how delicate that basket can be.”


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  • zaknicola (Zak Nicola)

    Good interview with Matthew Inman:

  • factive (Cameron Olthuis)

    reading an interview with one of the most creative social media dudes I know @Oatmeal

  • CoreyHammond (Corey Hammond)

    Retweeting @Oatmeal: Interview with yours truly:

  • Oatmeal (Matthew Inman)

    Interview with yours truly:

  • granolajoe

    Being the same age as Matthew and see how much he has accomplished in his lifetime is really inspiring. It’s also really cool to see how far he’s gone and just being self-taught. There are times I’ve felt like I need to go back to school just to earn a degree and legitimize the stuff I’ve learned on my own (basically, everything I know about the Internet, especially design, social media, web administration, etc), but hearing about his success has made me change my mind.

    Oh and FreeBSD FTW!!!

  • Dave Dugdale

    Great interview with Matt. I like the format and the pics.

    My favorite line is, “If I’m not laughing at my own joke I bag it.” This is totally true.

    The linkbait videos that I have done – the ones that make me laugh to this day are the ones that have done the best.

    Usually the weirdest ideas are the ones that do the best. After you have created one that is just weird (and funny) and you get lots of links from it – you sit back and say, wow I can make a living from being a bit crazy and silly.


  • Brett Borders


    Yeah, Matt has done a lot and sometimes it makes me feel like I need to catch up or do more. ;)

    @Dave Dugdale,

    Glad you liked it….Stay tuned for more good interviews, coming out next week!

    My take would be to try and find something you laugh out loud at, test it out on a few friends and diverse folks and see if THEY laugh too.THEN go for it! Also, don’t overestimate the morals and tastes of social media users who are bored at work ;) . .they go for some pretty cheeky stuff.

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing, this interview was pretty dope! Matthew is definitely ahead of his time.

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