The Definitive Guide to Content Marketing
In the early days of iDoneThis, we had never heard of content marketing. We had no cash, no knowledge on how to acquire customers, and no idea how to run a business, and we figured that we would write a few blog posts about what we were trying to accomplish with iDoneThis.
That tiny idea is how our journey into content marketing began, and it’s how we grew iDoneThis from nothing to becoming a million-dollar business — entirely through content marketing.
This guide includes absolutely everything we’ve learned about content marketing. We’d love to hear what you think on Twitter at @idonethis.
Table of Contents
- Tell Your Own Story with Content Marketing
- The Power Law of Content Marketing
- Content Marketing that Leverages Community
- How to Get Your Content Featured
- Content Marketing as a Distribution Problem
- The 3Rs of Content Creation: Remix, Reuse and Republish
- Company Culture as Your Content Marketing Differentiator
1. Tell Your Own Story with Content Marketing
Every milestone is an opportunity to attract attention to your startup because you have a piece of “news” — a new piece of noteworthy information that no one else but you has.
When you have something to announce, conventional wisdom says to go to the press and blogs with your story because they (1) have distribution and (2) are expert in crafting a story. In the past, we’ve offered nuggets of news to journalists as exclusives, and we’ve gotten written up by Betabeat and The Next Web this way.
However, we’ve recently experimented with writing our own story on our own blog. Telling a narrative that’s personal and shows how we work behind the scenes and harnessing the power of social news for distribution has resulted in our all-time one-day high for traffic and 1,000+ signups, more than double the signups resulting from our press coverage. Through that experience, we’ve learned the importance of writing your own story and turning transparency and narrative into a competitive advantage.
1.1. PR: The Old Way
Here’s the short email I sent to Courtney Boyd Myers at The Next Web when we passed 200,000 daily dones. She had written about us once before, and we had a great experience with that early press coverage.
Hey Courtney, we’ve crossed a significant milestone here at iDoneThis and I wanted to give you an exclusive on it because you kicked things off for us with your article back in January.
Our users have gotten 200,000 things done using iDoneThis.
I’d love to talk with you about what people have gotten done. One person used iDoneThis to finish his Ph.D. My co-founder used iDoneThis to go from the couch to finishing Tough Mudder. Another guy even used iDoneThis to propose to his girlfriend.
Let me know if you’re interested in writing about us!
She agreed and asked me some questions, and a few days later, we had a story: iDoneThis announces its first milestone: 200,000 completed tasks.
We got 400+ signups from the article, some traffic, social media buzz, and pats on the back from friends.
1.2. Case Study: Writing Our Own Story Does 2.5x Better
When we hit 500,000 daily dones, we decided to do something a little different. In addition to getting press coverage about how we hit 500,000 daily dones, we wrote our own story on our blog that gave a behind-the-scenes look on the year leading up to hitting our big milestone.
The Next Web story got around 1,000 people to click through, producing over 400 signups. Our blog post got 3,000+ people to click through, resulting in just over 1,000 signups.
Lacking a distribution network for our post, we turned to Hacker News. Social news sites like Hacker News are a democratic force, giving everyone an equal say — one upvote — in determining the placement of an article.
That’s not to say that social news is a meritocracy. Most people I know who have turned getting to the top of HN into a repeatable process use an email list to request upvotes whenever they post a piece in order to get the requisite momentum to reach the top. Nevertheless, HN is still one person, one vote rather than one person positioned as a gatekeeper, as in the press. Plus, quality is a big determinant in an article’s staying power once it’s placed near the top of the main page.
Press and PR is obviously press-centric, curated by editors, whereas social news is centered around the individual reader. When you get press coverage, you build a relationship with the press — for instance, getting to know the journalist who wrote about you, and you’re more likely to get written up by that journalist and publication again.
When you write your own story and do content marketing instead of PR, you build a relationship with the readers themselves. They follow you on Twitter and “like” you on Facebook, creating subscriptions, essentially. Through these channels, you can reach them again, leveraging your HN email list into a Twitter and Facebook following or, put differently, your own distribution network.
Both create a repeatable process for driving traffic to your site, but the latter is more reliable and the content it demands is more personal and, I think, compelling. Ultimately, “news” most often refers to funding announcements, new feature releases and the like — not, for instance, a description about the clever way that you solved an interesting problem.
Content marketing via writing your own story is your opportunity to establish your MVP (Minimum Viable Personality), show the world who you are, and make that your competitive advantage.
2. The Power Law of Content Marketing
One of the toughest aspects of content marketing, especially early on, is that it feels very hit driven and unscalable.
You’ll produce article after article that no one reads. Then, you’ll have an article that hits and you’ll feel fantastic. But then it dawns on you that, for your content marketing to produce results, you’ll have to get another hit. Being in a hit-driven business can wear down your morale.
We’ve found that content marketing outcomes follow a power law distribution. Understanding that will help you manage your own psychology and craft your content marketing to suit power law outcomes.
2.1. What is the Power Law?
The Power Law is a statistical concept “where one quantity varies as a power of another.”
In a power-law graph, you see that the few to the left, highlighted in green, dominate the value being created. Then it’s followed by the yellow section, which is the long tail.
Often, what’s commonly known as the 80-20 rule is described by a power law distribution. The 80-20 rule is that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort.
What’s problematic about the power law in the context of content marketing is that it feels like a hit-driven business in which you’re on a constant treadmill. However, the flip side of the power law is that, with data, you’ll begin to see that to get the 20 articles that are hits, the only thing you need to do is write 100 articles.
The more data you gather on your content, the more you can use the power law to your advantage. It’ll begin provide you emotional solace and show you a way forward.
2.2. The Why of the Power Law and What We Can Do about It
The power law distribution of content marketing happens because we don’t own any of the truly massive content distribution channels. Our content marketing lives or dies based on the whims of places like Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Hacker News. For instance, we wrote a popular article, 95% of Managers Follow an Outdated Theory of Motivation, that got a whopping 27,673 views because it was massively shared on LinkedIn. It’s unclear to us at the moment how to duplicate that kind of sharing on LinkedIn.
We have modest-sized email distribution lists which, when grown, will raise the pageview baseline and better expose each piece of content to the opportunity of blowing up. This is why email lists are vital for SaaS companies, and it’s something that startups like Buffer and Helpscout have done extremely well.
In addition, previously successful articles give us data points that we can use to understand what articles will blow up in the future. For example, the 13,147-pageview article, The Boring Trait Google Looks For in Its Leaders, we wrote was a follow-up to the 22,505-pageview article, The Most Innovative Employees at Google Aren’t Stanford/MIT grads with Perfect SATs, that we published a year ago in May 2013.
2.3. Case Study: The Power Law Distribution of One Month’s Content Marketing
We relaunched the iDoneThis Blog on July 9, 2014, and one of the major initiatives has been to blog on a daily basis on weekdays. Between July 9th and August 15, 2014, we published 26 blog posts on productivity, management, and the future of work.
When you put the articles into 1,000-pageview buckets as above, what you see is that the vast majority of articles has gotten sub-1,000 pageviews. 38% of articles are sub-1,000, 19% are between 1,000 and 2,000, 19% are between 2,000 and 3,000, 7% are between 3,000 and 4,000, 4% are between 4,000 and 5,000, and 7% exceed 5,000.
However, just 2 articles (7%), account for a whopping 53% of all pageviews, and the top 20% of articles account for nearly 70% of all pageviews. What you get looks a whole lot like a power law distribution.
The 20% of the articles that give us 80% of the results can show us the way forward — in terms of both the topics we should be writing about and how to frame them.
I don’t think that means we can get away with doing less work and getting the same results, though. Rather, I think that producing high quantity of content marketing is priceless in terms of gathering more data points on what will work and what won’t.
Ultimately, I expect that we’ll continue to see this kind of distribution but with an ever-increasing floor on how the content marketing performs. In fact, it’s reassuring to think that this pattern will continue to recur, just on a larger scale as we grow.
2.4. Case Study: LinkedIn Publishing — 727,632 Views in 30 Days
We experimented with LinkedIn publishing. Over 30 days, we published 17 articles on LinkedIn that garnered 727,632 views. One single article exceeded 500,000 views and is being studied at LinkedIn for how an article from a non-Influencer spread so quickly.
Here’s how we did it.
The Power Law of Content Marketing on LinkedIn Publishing
10 of the 17 articles we published had less than 1,000 views, 6 had between 1,000 and 4,000 views, one had 154,000 views, and the last had 556,146 views. Greg experienced a similar distribution: of his 255,262 views, 83% of them came from a single article, Why Steve Jobs Didn’t Listen to His Customers.
It’s another case of the Power Law of Content Marketing: a very small minority of articles account for the vast majority of the results.
Compare that with Redpoint Ventures and LinkedIn Influencer Tomasz Tunguz’s pageview distribution for his last 17 articles.
You’ll notice that Tomasz’s pageview distribution is much less skewed and his baseline is higher. Only 4 of 17 articles are below 1,000 pageviews versus having the majority of your articles show up below the 1,000 pageview threshold as was the case for me.
That’s likely a product of having 52,759 followers on LinkedIn to my 3,543 followers. And his outsized following is a product of being both a LinkedIn Influencer and writing consistently great content. The upshot is that articles will still get significant distribution, even if they aren’t trending, whereas my articles will only get distribution if they trend.
Given the power law distribution for LinkedIn publishing, that means that 80% of your articles will flop. What’s vital is that you continue to experiment, focused on producing a trending, outlier article, and not give up.
What That Means for Succeeding on LinkedIn Publishing
If I have six hours to chop down a tree, I’ll spend the first four sharpening my axe — and if I want to succeed in a channel, I’ll spend most of my time reading through all the content that succeeds in that channel.
This observation brings me to an important corollary to the power law of content marketing, which I’ll call the Lady Gaga Rule. For upstarts in content marketing, extreme outcome distributions call for extreme arguments. Being a polemicist — backed by quality — is an extremely effective way to get attention, and it’s 100x better than being boring.
Because Tomasz has 52,759 followers on LinkedIn and I have 3,543, Tomasz doesn’t need to be extreme to get distribution. If my article doesn’t do something different and extreme from Tomasz’s stuff, my article won’t get beyond the small network I have and I won’t get an extreme result. (Tomasz may be a bad example — think Richard Branson: his content does not have to be good, extreme, or even interesting to succeed.) That’s critical to understand in putting the successful content of others in the proper context for yourself.
For example, our 556,146-view article was titled, The Dullest, Most Vital Skill You Need to Become a Successful Manager. That title itself expresses two extremes: dullest and most vital. What the title is promising to you by being extreme is that you’re going to learn something unexpected and that the extreme will be made to seem reasonable. The article fulfills the promise of the title and then some, with some valuable insights from a few of tech’s most successful leaders.
LinkedIn Publishing offers the opportunity for traditionally boring content to reach a massive audience, and when you write a single piece of content that reaches 500,000+ people, you’ll see considerable business results. We reached all-time highs in signups for the days around when the article hit. Include that call to action at the end, go nuts, and let me know how it goes for you.
3. Content Marketing that Leverages Community
Good content marketing targets an audience, and the best content marketing targets a community. The difference is that communities are connected by a network and so they will share and discuss quality content marketing.
This is extremely powerful, because when you first start content marketing, you don’t have a personal network through which you can distribute your content marketing. Communities represent the opportunity to join and make use of an existing network to get your content marketing in front of potential customers.
3.1. Case Study: The Communities that Seeded Our First 5,000 Users
In the past with iDoneThis, we’ve taken the “build it and they will come” attitude towards web development … and they never came! Here’s the story of how we got our first 5,000 users by constructing custom narratives for influential communities.
The major insight we had early on was that our first 5,000 users already existed, they were just part of other communities. We decided that we would go to those communities, tell them a custom narrative (not a generic story), and see if they were interested in our product. It turns out that they were.
At 9am PST on January 3rd, we posted a “Show HN” article on Hacker News with the hook that we built the site to keep our New Year’s Resolutions.
Note that our Show HN post was made as an external link to idonethis.com, and we made a comment on that post describing the project. We decided to do that instead of submitting a text story to HN with the first comment as a clickable link. We had anecdotally observed that posts without external links were not making the front page too often after HN added “Ask”, and some of our friends had observed this also.
The Next Web
That afternoon, Courtney Boyd Myers at The Next Web picked up the story from Hacker News and wrote a short blurb about us.
Throughout this process I began to notice just how deeply enmeshed Hacker News is in the startup and tech media network. I didn’t realize that journalists lurk HN for stories, and in fact, now, HN is so big that there’s entire media built on top of it like The Startup Foundry and Hacker Monthly. @hackernewsbot tweets out top stories from HN and has almost 9,000 followers, including influencers like Chris Dixon. Early adopters write short blog posts about discovering your product and taking it out for a test spin.
Our simple post on HN reached the bottom of the front page for only three to four hours, but resulted in approximately 2,300 visitors over the next month and a half. The majority of traffic directly from HN and TNW, some 1,400 visitors, came on the first day and dried up within a few days, but visitors continued to trickle in from other sources such as Twitter for over a month. Our launch day saw 150 signups, but our user count continued to increase by over 50% over the next month and a half.
At the end of February, we cross-posted the article to three relevant subreddits, /r/GetMotivated, /r/Productivity, and /r/StopSmoking. We made sure to address Reddit in the title of the submission with “Hey [Subreddit]” and include in the title a statement of purpose for iDoneThis relevant to the subreddit. And we engaged the Redditors who checked out the site in the comments to the submission.
Those three subreddits were possibly the optimal size — about 16,000 subscribers in total, so that we got a good number of eyeballs on our site, but they weren’t so huge that all we got was a traffic spike that came and went. Our posts remained at the top of those subreddits for two to three days and generated over 50 comments worth of discussion.
Around this time, someone happened to post the Jerry Seinfeld Productivity Secret article from Lifehacker on HN. That article was actually a source of inspiration for iDoneThis, and I happened to catch the news item before it floated to the very top of HN. I wrote a short narrative relating concepts in the article to iDoneThis and the community at HN.
Coincidentally, fellow HNers rguzman, peng and I recently built a simple web app which was inspired by this article.
It’s called http://idonethis.com.
We email you on a daily basis asking you what you got done today. We put your email response into a calendar and check off the day. Look at your calendar to see your streak from yesterday to motivate you today.
We posted the site on HN back in January and got some great feedback which we incorporated (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2064038) along with some nice press coverage (http://thenextweb.com/lifehacks/2011/01/03/idonethis-have-yo…). We’re at a few hundred users, a good proportion of whom email us on a daily basis and tell us that that the site is helping their productivity, helping them quit smoking, reminding them to exercise & diet, etc.
My comment on that article stayed near the top during the article’s run at #1 on HN and drove considerable traffic to our site. To my surprise, our high-karma comment on a top news item fared better than a news item that makes it onto the front page (albeit only for a few hours). We got about 25% more traffic from our comment versus our submission.
In total, we got about 400 signups from 3,000 new visitors which tripled our user base. Characteristic of Redditors and HN’ers, the folks that joined up with us were engaged and savvy. They blogged and tweeted about us, and even offered to make screencasts and build web applications on top of our service.
Lifehacker – This was the big one
Is that a hockey stick in your pocket?
A month prior to getting written up by Lifehacker, I had cold-emailed them along with other life-hacking sites to pitch iDoneThis and nothing came of it.
I’ve built iDoneThis which is an email-based productivity log. Our users include a few prominent startup founders. One user called our service a “subtle yet powerful motivator.”
We email you everyday and ask, “What’d you get done today?” Your email responses go into a calendar. Look at your previous days’ accomplishments to motivate you today.
Unlike other tools whose usefulness is counterbalanced by their obtrusiveness, iDoneThis is email-based which adds zero overhead.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions here or by phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX.
In trying to pitch iDoneThis to bloggers the second time around, I went after a smaller fish. I came across the perfect news item: a Lifehacker article that described the same process the author implemented by hand that iDoneThis automated. The article had actually played a prominent role in the conception of iDoneThis along with the Seinfeld Productivity Secret article, and it was syndicated from How-To Geek, a smaller site. I wove a short narrative more prominently around the former article and sent an email out to How-To Geek.
Hi there, How-To Geek, I came across your daily productivity log post on Lifehacker awhile back (http://lifehacker.com/#!5582372/use-a-daily-log-to-keep-yourself-focused-on-productivity). I started to use the system and it worked great for me. I was inspired to create a web application to make this process work best for me.
What I ended up with is iDoneThis.com, an email-based daily productivity log. At the end of every day, the site emails you and asks, “What’d you get done today?” All you have to do is write an email back in response. Your response will go into a calendar for that day with a check mark. Look over your previous accomplishments to inspire you today.
Our users include techies, lawyers, and female bodybuilders, among others. This is what they’ve said:
“One of my favorite apps.” – Naveen Selvadurai, co-founder of Foursquare.
“I love iDoneThis. It’s probably my favorite webapp that I regularly use.”
“I really like it — simple and easy… . It’s great!”
“Loving the service. I’m surprised by this, but it’s actually a pretty subtle, yet powerful motivator.”
It’s a dead simple way to implement your productivity method, and I’d love it if you shared it with your readers.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
On March 30th, our article made it on to How-To Geek and it featured the storyline that I presented to them. The next day, Lowell Heddings of How-To Geek emailed us, unsolicited, to say that iDoneThis might appear on Lifehacker the following day. We hadn’t asked How-To Geek to push our story to Lifehacker, so this was a pleasant surprise. Sure enough, on April 1st, iDoneThis was on Lifehacker.
All told, we got 25,000 new visitors and around 4,500 signups. The higher conversion rate was surprising but it speaks to the value in getting promoted by sites whose audience is co-extensive with the one you’re trying to reach.
Lifehacker traffic is still coming in as the iDoneThis article was serially released in Australia and then Japan. Also, the users that have come in through Lifehacker have stuck around. Out of the first 5,000 users we have, 4,000 of them are active. About one-fifth of our users email us just about every single day.
Our experience speaks to the power of constructing tailored narratives for influential audiences, the value of talking with your users for encouragement and to evangelize your product, and the benefits of having some good luck.
3.2. Case Study: Quibb
Quibb is a way to share what you’re reading at work. It’s not the biggest site on the web, by design, and what makes it remarkable is the quality of its community. Quibb is the only place on the web where our content regularly gets in front of people like Hiten Shah:
— Hiten Shah (@hnshah) July 17, 2014
that blows the article up.
If you actively write, you should be sharing your content and contributing to the community on Quibb.
How Quibb Works
You share articles on the site or via other clients like their iPhone app. I personally like their Share-to-Quibb Chrome extension which makes it super simple to share while you’re viewing the content. Quibb is unique in that it’ll show you not only who has liked what you shared, but also everyone who has clicked through to take a look.
Read what other people are sharing by going to the site or whipping out the iPhone app. Part of the heart and soul of Quibb is its daily email with links to great content, which can get as high as a whopping 70% open rate. The daily email rounds up articles that have been shared, liked, or visited by the people you’re following, ranked in order of popularity.
How Articles Blow Up on Quibb
Every article I’ve had that has blown up on Quibb has had the same thing happen.
For example, we wrote an article about our startup expenses that became one of the most popular articles on Quibb.
What started the cascade of views and likes was a single like from Andrew Chen, one of the advisors at Quibb.
That’s to say that Quibb is influencer-driven, much like Twitter, not democratically-driven, like Reddit. Andrew has 4023 followers on Quibb. Since content spreads via your network of connections, an influencer’s action will have a tremendous impact on content distribution.
Compare that to the democratically-driven upvotes on Reddit, where each individual vote holds the same sway. Andrew’s upvote has the same impact on distribution as Joe Smoe’s. The upshot is that, on Quibb, you’ll need to make content that appeals to the supernodes if you’re to tap into the power of the network.
Quibb is not first and foremost a distribution method. In fact, it only accounts for 2% of our referral traffic but that doesn’t diminish its importance. Its superpower is that brings together a curated network of (mostly startup and tech) people to build and participate in a community.
Like Product Hunt, it ends up having an outsized influence exactly because of the strength of its community. Whether you’re thinking about building an additional distribution network for your content or finding a quality resource for interesting food for thought, you’d be remiss to overlook Quibb.
4. Content Marketing that Gets Featured
Our content frequently gets featured, and we’re often asked how that happens. In content marketing, there is a lot of noise, so if you want to create successful content marketing, it’s vital that you get featured.
The answer is surprising, but it’s the truth: Most of the time, we don’t do anything to get featured.
One fundamental content strategy we have here at iDoneThis is: “Think distribution first” — a constant reminder that the hardest part of the content game is that your job isn’t over when you hit publish. Just because you write it, people will not come. So your approach has to be comprehensive, from planning and drafting all the way to considering with a good dose of empathy and self-awareness whether people will read it and how you can make it easier for them to do so.
The key to getting featured anywhere — whether it’s coverage or mentions from press, influencers, other businesses, and basically anyone with an audience — is simple but ever-challenging. Create great content. Make it easy to notice and choose.
Here is a case study on how we were featured by Buffer, along with 5 specific tips on how you can get your content marketing featured anywhere.
4.1. Case Study: How Buffer Got Us Over 4,000 Social Shares
If you’ve ever fallen into that useless mental pit of tumbleweeds — hitting refresh on your stats to watch a stasis of traffic and shares — you can understand the thrill of being chosen by Buffer as a content suggestion within the tool and their new ioS app Daily. The ability to connect with and be shared by even a fraction of their million-plus users is amazing.
Thanks to a spot in the Buffer suggested content section, our post “3 Surprising Science-Backed Ways to Find More Time,” for example, was shared more than 4,000 times. We wanted to dig deeper into how we were featured by Buffer and show some of the awesome impacts this has had for us.
Let’s look at another post, “Build a Lucky Startup, Don’t Leave It To Chance,” which performed decently. In a little over two weeks, it’s gotten over 1200 pageviews, though our social sharing stats show that we’ve only just broken the double-digit mark across channels.
Contrast that with another post of Walter’s about what Google looks for in its leaders that did fantastically after it become suggested Buffer content:
That’s a huge jump in numbers.
You can also see how the Google piece, published just one day before “Build a Lucky Startup,” had a better start out of the gate, traffic-wise, and then saw a dramatic increase when it first turned up in Buffer’s suggested post collection on July 16, totaling nearly 9,000 pageviews to date.
￼While we, of course, have other sources of distribution and referrals, the power of making it into the Buffer ecosystem — first as featured content and then chosen by Buffer customers to be shared in their social media accounts — is clear. Social became our top category of referral traffic:
Curators have a particular problem of constantly having to feed the beast of social media with more and more content. The suggestions at Buffer are currently up to 25 new stories a day, which — even for a team that reads and writes as much as they do — can be a challenge, day in and day out. And it’s the same for many writers who are constantly searching for interesting material to cover. If your stuff is good, they’ll want to cover or feature it.
So for whoever you’d like to be reading, sharing, highlighting, and writing about your content — make it easy for them. Remember that everyone involved in this game is a busy human.
4.2. 5 Tips to Get Your Content Marketing Featured
1. Remember the humans.
Buffer’s suggested posts feature is a joint curation effort, largely by Courtney Seiter (Head of Content Marketing), Leo Widrich (Chief Operating Officer and cofounder,) and Kevan Lee (Content Crafter) — with the rest of the team chipping in with their favorites.
Kevan explains the straightforward process: “[W]e don’t share based on obligation, contract, or affiliation. We simply locate the stories that we find most fascinating and drop them into the app for you to enjoy.”
Remembering that there are still humans out there, hand-picking content that they’ve actually read and enjoyed is key. Getting featured doesn’t come down to an algorithm. It depends on people — with their limited attention spans and desires to learn and be entertained. What’s more, you can connect with people to build relationships. You can’t build a relationship with an algorithm.
We’ve been fortunate to call the Buffer team our friends. While there’s absolutely no obligation or quid pro quo at play in the curation process here, relationships do help you get on people’s radars.
2. Know your audience.
Currently, Buffer offers five suggested content topics — marketing, lifehacking, inspiration, design, and business/startups. On our blog, we write about how to make your worklife better, productivity, management, along with a few thoughts about content marketing. That means we’re hitting 4 out of the 5 topics, so it’s a match that makes sense.
If you’re a biotech writer, you’re not going to pitch Opera News. Editorial staff hate getting off-topic requests and content curators usually have areas of expertise and focus as much as more traditional publications do. If you’re looking to get the attention of a certain influencer, you shouldn’t have to do something crazy and drastic beyond what you’re already doing to get someone to pay attention to you. Work your mutual advantages — does their audience match your audience?
3. Take an interestingness pulse.
Content curators often develop a readerly spidey-sense about what’s interesting. They have to, to be able to pick out something among the firehose of information out there and then be able to successfully place it back in the torrent to share.
There are a few tricks to find out what people are finding interesting just by looking at what’s already popular. What’s being shared through Buffer or Reddit? What keeps popping up on your Facebook feed? For example, when Kevan is on the hunt for some good content suggestions, he’ll take a quick look at share counts on the articles in his Feedly. It’s a reliable shortcut to what people are already finding interesting or helpful.
Walter does a particularly good job of understanding what’s popular in our audiences and delivering articles that play on those themes and interests. Take the Google post. We love writing about autonomy because we think it’s an incredibly valuable element of meaningful work, but making that point with something he learned about how Google does things was one way to feed the hunger of people really into Google and tech.
4. A picture is worth a thousand … shares.
Over time, we’ve been putting much more attention into including photos and images in our posts. It takes longer and is sometimes a pain, but it usually helps improve the piece by illustrating its concepts. For example, for this piece about workplace gratitude, which was a Buffer suggested post back in May, I decided to make a visual graphic using Canva of some of the stats I thought were particularly intriguing.
Images are incredibly important in getting your content shared. Buffer has found that tweets with images get 150% more retweets, and they — along with anyone who’s using the image power-up — are on the lookout for content with visuals to share.
5. Stick with your mission.
Hitting upon what people are interested in is great, but what’s even more compelling is aligning with common purposes and values. Chris Savage, CEO and cofounder of Wistia, describes what happens when you strive to produce mission-driven content:
When you’re trying to push someone through the funnel, it limits the kind of content that you can make and it limits how that content is going to be shared…..A lot of the content I love the most doesn’t ask me for anything.
That’s a guiding principle for us at iDoneThis — to write according to our mission to make work better and more impactful. And we’ve gone so far this way that sometimes people don’t realize that we sell a product in addition to creating content.
The content suggestions featured by Buffer are an extension of how they express their values in their own amazing content into how they curate. As Courtney explains: “[W]e always try our best to keep the suggestions in line with our core values – like happiness, clarity, reflection and gratitude.”
When you write along your mission, you create stronger material and connect more deeply with your audience — including people and companies that hold similar values.
5. Content Marketing as a Distribution Problem
What’s true for your product is true for content marketing. The hardest part of starting a company most likely is acquiring your customers. The hardest part of starting a blog is acquiring your audience.
Distribution is the limiting constraint. Start there.
That’s why our mantra for content marketing is: Think distribution first.
Thinking distribution first means framing all of my thinking with respect to content marketing around distribution. Here are the 5 factors to consider about content marketing when viewed through the lens of distribution.
5.1. 5 Factors to Breaking Down a Distribution Channel
Is the distribution channel democratic or does it have a gatekeeper?
Reddit and Hacker News are two great places to start distributing content marketing, because they are democratic. Compare that with getting published on Forbes where you have to go through a gatekeeper like an editor or a PR firm to get written up.
One trick that I’ve used successfully is simple but effective: prove your success elsewhere, then go waving it around to everyone you can find. Here’s an example of a pitch I sent to Alyson Shontell at Business Insider that resulted in the publication of a guest article about bossless startup company cultures.
Hey Alyson! I wrote an article about how top startups build boss-less cultures that was near the top of Hacker News and that 10,000+ people read.
Would you be interested in a guest post on the topic? I’d tighten it up and add more examples from top startups like Skillshare and Stripe.
It’s a hot topic in the startup world, as startups aren’t only disrupting industries, they’re reinventing how companies are built and organized.
Let me know what you think.
Here’s a related trick that plays off of the same dynamic: When you write a successful post, it will inevitably get tweeted by other tech journalists and the content of the post will make its way into other pieces. I reach out to those journalists with “(iDoneThis)” or “(iDoneThis founder)” in the email subject with just one thing to say—”Thank you”. Later, if I think I have something of interest to them, I’ll send them a followup email using the same email thread.
This works because I am sincerely incredibly grateful to have people mention us and share our articles, and their sharing of the article qualifies their interest and knowledge of who we are and what we’re about.
Finding a relevant distribution channel that’s democratic can help the no-name founder bootstrap these processes.
Will the distribution channel give you a one-time boost, or can you turn it into a repeatable process?
PR is often denigrated because it’s often either expensive or not repeatable. In other words, it only becomes repeatable by spending money in amounts that are likely per customer greater than customer lifetime value. The main reason for this is because PR is based on personal relationships.
There’s a place where the distinction between content marketing and PR blurs, and that’s what I would call the “business development” approach to content marketing.
The idea mirrors the distinction between sales and business development: either sell one widget at a time, or make a distribution deal for someone to sell widgets for you. You can either pitch one journalist and get one story at a time, or you can pitch the editor and make a single deal for them to publish your articles for you.
Once you get knee deep in this, you see how content publishing on the internet works. Business Insider publishes Inc articles. SFGate publishes Business Insider articles. And on and on. There is nothing these machines crave more than content, especially content that’s qualified as being the stuff that their audience will like.
In my experience, a business development deal in this context takes one of two forms: a guest posting gig or a republishing agreement.
A guest posting gig means that you have to write original content, and you may have to get approval for it. But you have a relationship with the editor and the publication so that your content will get published on a reliable basis. Nevertheless, a word of caution: this is not for the faint of heart. Leo Widrich of Buffer, who is basically the god of guest blogging, got Buffer to 100,000 registered users almost entirely via guest posting but he did that while producing 1-2 blog posts every day for months.
Republishing means not having to create new content and possibly not having to submit the articles for approval if the republishing process happens programmatically.
To make these deals happen, it’s helpful to think like a biz dev person. How do I get a warm intro to a decision-maker? What’s my angle/edge? What’s their interest? What’s my value prop? What’s my social proof? What’s my success story?
Who is my audience, and how do they consume content in this channel?
Know your audience, as the old adage goes.
Focusing on distribution forces you to think about who you’re writing for — potential customers, potential partners, potential investors, etc.
Thinking about your audience will help you to choose the appropriate distribution channels. Looking at the intersection between who the audience is and what kind of content succeeds in that distribution channel is vital to crafting content that will also succeed in that channel.
There are a few dimensions along which content can be crafted in accordance with how the audience consumes content within that channel. For instance, images do really well on Facebook while quotes do really well on Twitter. Longer thought pieces do well on Metafilter and Hacker News, while skimmable articles (tools posts, tips posts, etc.) do well on Inc.
On a more basic level, you can’t leverage Pinterest as a distribution channel unless you make your content an image; you can’t leverage YouTube unless you make your content a video; you can’t leverage Slideshare unless you make your content into a slide deck.
A mistake that we’ve made that I often see is using automation to crosspost the same content to multiple channels. When Twitter posts get crossposted to Facebook, what you’re left with is Facebook posts with Twitter syntax that’s nonsense to most Facebook users and looks horrible because of the lack of syntax highlighting. Twitter posts on Facebook don’t make use of the ability of Facebook posts to be longer than 140 characters, to share links without having the short URL clutter the post, and to have images appear as images on the Facebook wall, not as links.
Sincerity and authenticity under this frame of thinking happens at the intersection of fidelity to the distribution channel and your company’s/product’s soul.
When content isn’t tailored to the channel, what ends up happening is that you have a presence, but you don’t thrive. You don’t get much for your trouble.
It’s not enough to exist in various distribution channels, it’s vital that you understand what content does well, how it does well, and why. It’s obvious that on Tumblr, for example, if you’re reblogged, more people will see your content because another person’s reblog means that they’ve reposted your article in their feed. Another basic of social media distribution is that if you have more followers, more people will see your content.
What’s less obvious is that on Tumblr, in the sidebar, if you hit “Find Blogs”, it will take you to the Spotlight page. (Perhaps, as well, you’re more likely to be a suggested follow if you’re a Spotlight blog.) Apparently a lot of people use this to find blogs to follow, because after being put on the Spotlight page, we went from having a few hundred followers to our current count: 180,000+ followers. We’re extremely grateful to Tumblr for that.
There are endless opportunities to be featured — to be above the fold — and it can make a huge difference. In my experience, this involves figuring out the site mechanics that elevate content and connecting with the right gatekeepers.
How do I capture my audience and build my own distribution channel?
You have it best when people come straight to you for content, and you aren’t reliant on any channel for content marketing distribution. Part of the point of this article is that writing the content is probably less than half of the job in making content work for you — the other half of your job is getting distribution. When you’re able to distribute your own content, you have it good.
One a basic level, this may mean putting a Twitter follow button and a Facebook like button on your blog. When you build up a following, you may get as much juice by pushing your content through your social media distribution as you would by getting the article published on Forbes.
Another tactic that I’ve heard is effective is requiring an email address to access certain pieces of heavy duty content (like an e-book), and then using that email to push content. Email newsletters with relevant, high quality content like Wistia’s newsletter do very well. A great product for your email newsletter is Campaign Monitor, which makes it easy to design gorgeous marketing emails.
The harder part is building a real community. Hacker News is an example of a community that emerged out of a set of content’s shared themes. I started as a reader of Paul Graham’s essays and bought into the hacker ethos, and so I naturally became a member of the Hacker News community. Now Hacker News is a powerful platform for publicizing Y Combinator companies. They leveraged an audience into building a community.
A community is much more powerful than an audience, because a community grows as it grows, but an additional audience member isn’t likely to mean an additional audience member.
How do I create high quality content marketing in a scalable way?
When distribution as a constraint begins to loosen, the hardest problem is producing great content over and over.
One easy way to start is by taking a storyline that has proven to be successful in the past and rewriting it to suit different distribution channels. Take the interesting thread from the successful article and make it interesting in a number of different contexts. You can get pretty fast at this and produce content that you’re more certain will be interesting to a lot of people in only a few hours.
A related tactic that companies like Buzzfeed and Business Insider have turned into an art form is taking content that you’ve observed is successful elsewhere (e.g., Reddit), boiling it down to its essence (ie, taking the most interesting thing out of it and making it the whole article), sticking a killer title on the post, and watching the visitors roll in.
Another tactic that I’ve observed is what companies like Yipit, Seatgeek, and OKCupid have done really well with. They use data from their platform to produce industry research that the fact-hungry press picks up. The press cites your stats over and over, and all you had to do was do research once. The bonus is that pulling the stats sounds like fun.
However you accomplish it, the thing to be avoided is creating a hit-driven content strategy. We still experience considerable variance in the results of our content strategy, but it’s far less than when we first got started. Reliable distribution is the foundation to a repeatable model for effective content.
6. The 3Rs of Content Creation: Remix, Reuse and Republish
It’s extremely time consuming and draining to create a high volume of content, but it’s absolutely necessary. I have thought long and hard about this key question of content marketing: How do I publish at least one high quality article every single day that will increase sales?
I’m going to share with you the 3 tricks to blogging that I learned over the last three months — all of these strategies can be easily applied to your ecommerce business. My mantra is simple: remix, reuse, and republish.
6.1. Don’t create content, remix “de-risked” content
I used to fall into the trap of thinking that every time I sat down to write a blog post, I had to rewrite Ulysses from scratch. That meant that I usually just stared at my screen, unable to write down a single word.
Leo Widrich of Buffer advises the exact opposite approach: “Copy the hell out of others.” While you should never steal another person’s writing, you should always look at what content has been successful in your area and mimic it while making it your own.
I wrote a blog post that over 30,000 people read in less than an hour using Leo’s technique. My product, iDoneThis, helps make people and teams more productive. So I knew that I wanted to write a blog post about personal productivity. Instead of racking my brain for ideas, I took to Hacker News, a popular link-sharing site, and searched “productivity”.
The two links that got by far the most attention were: Marc Andreessen’s Guide to Personal Productivity and Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret. I pulled out one interesting tip from Andreessen’s guide on how he stays productive and made that interesting nugget an entire blog post. Then I played on the title of the successful Seinfeld post by calling my article, “Marc Andreessen’s Productivity Trick to Feeling Marvelously Efficient.”
I had no doubt that people would love my post because the content had already been de-risked. Sure enough, tens of thousands of people read, shared, and learned a valuable productivity technique from the article.
6.2. Reuse, reuse, reuse: one successful blog post is another successful blog post that’s yet to be written.
Writing just one blog post that strikes a chord with your audience is a huge accomplishment. Given how hard it is to write a single blog post that tens of thousands of people love, I used to feel paralyzed by the huge challenge of writing yet another post.
Then I began to wonder, had every single one of my potential customers seen my blog post? Wouldn’t that snippet of knowledge that I’d shared also be useful and interesting to people who weren’t on the receiving end of the distribution channels that I’d initially used?
This is how I began to realize that if I wrote just one successful blog post, I had the seeds to write many more successful blog posts.
For example, I wrote this blog post for my company blog: Silicon Valley’s Productivity Secret, which over 40,000 people read, but I struggled for months afterwards to write another post that would achieve comparable success. I started to think I was a one-hit wonder.
That’s when I realized that there were many people out there that hadn’t read that one hit. I rewrote the article, condensing the originally longer narrative post into an easily digestible, useful “tips” post. It was published on Business Insider as 4 Secrets To Silicon Valley’s Productivity where over 2,000 people read it:
The best part about all of this? It took less than an hour to write. As this process becomes more and more natural, you’ll produce content that’s of higher quality because it will become more and more refined around what’s interesting about the article. And remember, it’s absolutely vital that you never unexpectedly give a publisher content that has been published elsewhere, because that will make your contact look foolish and that channel will likely be closed to you.
6.3. Republishing creates leverage — it’s like creating clones of yourself
The deeper I got into this content game, the more I noticed how professional content publishers leveraged the techniques I described above. Buzzfeed and Business Insider are two publishers that have elevated content remixing to an art form.
When I was browsing around Business Insider one day, I was surprised to discover that much of their content is actually republished content from other publishers. In turn, Business Insider articles are also republished on other sites.
I had an idea: even though my company iDoneThis was not in the content publishing game, wouldn’t it be awesome if the iDoneThis blog could get in on this republishing game plan? Then I wouldn’t have to remix or reuse articles, and they would automatically get republished for broader consumption.
I pitched the contributors editor at Business Insider with a simple value proposition. I have 5 articles that 10,000+ people have read, and I’m producing more high quality content every single day. Do you want my valuable, de-risked content for free?
She said yes, and now our best articles go on to Business Insider regularly, which helps spread the word about what we’re doing at iDoneThis to thousands of people every day, and I don’t have to lift a finger.
Content marketing helps you stand out from the fray, creates communities and trust in your voice, improves search optimization, and gets the word out and people in the door, whether that’s a virtual or brick-and-mortar door.
Use the remix, reuse, and republish strategy to leverage the existence of great original content and your resources to maximize the ability to pique people’s interest to click, try, and buy, and understand who you are and what you do.
7. Company Culture as Your Content Marketing Differentiation
As marketers, we’re always searching for a formula for how to be successful — but there’s no formula for this:
While watching Wistia’s recent dance video promoting a feedback survey, I realized that it wasn’t the production, the camera, or the lighting that made the video so compelling or explained why I watched and shared it with friends. It was the personality of the company’s people shining through.
Wistia offers incredibly comprehensive resources on how to make incredible marketing videos for your company, but there’s one vital ingredient to successful content marketing that can’t be taught in an instructional video.
Today, it’s company culture that creates content marketing messages that spread. It’s that secret sauce that’s impossible to replicate.
7.1. A Brief History of Marketing
Psychologist George Silverman pioneered the notion of word-of-mouth marketing, back in the 1970s, long before Twitter and Facebook. At the time, he was conducting focus groups with physicians when he noticed a fascinating and powerful phenomenon.
“One or two physicians who were having good experiences with a drug would sway an entire group of skeptics,” Silverman observed. On the other hand, “a dissatisfied group of ex-prescribers who had had negative experiences” with a drug could also persuade believers in the drug to stop prescribing it.
Word of mouth is incredibly powerful in its ability to persuade, but because communication was much more limited forty years ago, word-of-mouth messages had far less of a propensity to spread. Marketers still had to pay publishers and gatekeepers to distribute word-of-mouth messages on a much larger scale.
With the advent of the internet, and social media in particular, that all changed. Today, messages can spread incredibly quickly around the world, and you don’t have to spend a single penny. Now, the power is distributed among everyone — and the kicker is that people will spread your message for free.
But there’s one catch. You have to have a message worth spreading.
7.2. Case Study: How Zappos Invests in Culture to Tell a Message Worth Sharing
Early on, Zappos was like any company that had a healthy advertising spend to get its message out. Then CEO Tony Hsieh had an interesting insight that led him to slash their advertising budget.
Hsieh noticed that the most powerful marketing messages came from positive customer experiences. Articles like this one, Check Out The Insane Lengths Zappos Customer Service Reps Will Go To, received tens of thousands of views and spread the brand of Zappos without having to spend a single cent.
“[L]et’s take most of the money we would’ve spent on paid advertising and paid marketing and instead of spending it on that invest it in the customer experience/customer service and then let our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth,” Hsieh decided.
That worked because Zappos intensely invested in the value of customer service in their company culture. In fact, a core tenet of Zappos’s cultural values is to deliver WOW, a customer experience so over and beyond the norm that it makes you say, well, “WOW!” It’s that ingrained, infectious culture that drives outlier performance to the point that people feel compelled to spread the message about Zappos’s brand themselves.
7.3. Case Study: The Wistia Way
Like Zappos, it’s Wistia’s internal company values that drive its distinctive videos. Wistia co-founder and CEO Chris Savage described the way they do things as: “Go a little over the top, have a lot of fun with it, and express our own excitement.” That’s how you end up with a rap video for a new feature announcement instead of your typical email blast and a dance video asking you to fill out a boring old survey.
They invest in their unique company culture by spending a lot of time fostering it and thinking about the vocabulary they use to communicate internally. It’s not trivial or something that comes without deliberate effort — Savage told me it’s something that they’ve had to “fight for.”
To Savage, this extra effort is worth it. Their internal weirdness and distinctiveness, which radiates in their videos, becomes Wistia’s competitive advantage that drives their formula for making successful videos time and time again.
7.4. How to Make Culture Your Company’s Content Marketing Advantage
The best thing about culture is that it can’t be replicated by copycats. Culture works when it’s authentic, and that which is authentic is highly personal.
Here are some concrete tips on how you can cultivate your company’s distinct and authentic culture.
- Write down your company values.
For Moz founder and CEO Rand Fishkin, writing down company values “defines not only SEOmoz’s strategic differentiation in the highly competitive field of SEO, but also helps to set the standard of quality for all work and content produced.” It unifies your efforts internally and creates something of a universal style guide for your company’s work that explains why people will care about you.
- Stay away from paid acquisition early on.
Bonobos founder and CEO Andy Dunn calls paid marketing “crack,” an addictive drug that drives fundraising, top-line revenue, and the appearance of growth, but it gets you no closer to figuring out your core business and who you are fundamentally as a company. It’s actually the pain of the journey without the temporary relief of startup drugs that leads to self-actualization and a core business that drives a value-laden content marketing story.
- Overcommunicate internally.
As Picasso observed, “when art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.” So often, when company founders get together, the talk turns from high-level conversation on culture and happiness to the nuts and bolts of how tone gets established internally through the the actual tools and processes your company uses.Companies noted for their culture like Zappos and Wistia don’t just use email alone, they use a multitude of tools and processes, each with a specific purpose to ensure the best internal communication. For instance, at Wistia, they use iDoneThis as an accomplishment list that shows others what they’re working on, they use Yammer for watercooler conversations, and they have weekly standup meetings where they announce their goals for the week. This way, their growing team feels like it did when it was just four guys sitting around a table, and Wistia can more effectively coalesce and foster its unique company personality.