I recently came across The Content Marketing handbook (How to write about information and make it spread) by Priceonomics and simply had to share it with my team (especially our marketing folks). You can find the entire (free!) handbook here:
Unfortunately, the entire handbook is a 180+ minute read. They have, helpfully, put the key takeaways from each chapter in a 6-page version you can get (for your email address) here:
After looking at both, I believe the summary to cut out a little too much and I thought summarizing the post in bullet points and sharing it with my team would be an effective strategy. A buddy of mine who I sent this to asked whether I minded him sharing this, which got me thinking that the small collection of readers on this blog (and potentially elsewhere on the internet) may find this useful as well.
I want to preface this entire lengthy summary by saying that I own NONE of the content below, it is a summary of the fantastic work by the Priceonomics folks (specifically Rohin Dhar, for this article) and that all credit goes unequivocally to them. I hope I can help by spreading a few portions of their wisdom to a wider audience below.
Please visit Priceonomics for more: https://priceonomics.com/
Table Of Contents
- Chapter 1: Getting Started
- Chapter 2: Information Marketing
- Chapter 3: The World Is Flat
- Chapter 4: Social Networks
- Chapter 5: The Writer's Playbook
- Chapter 6: Writing Hacks
- Chapter 7: Writing
- Chapter 8: Why This All Matters
- End Note
Chapter 1: Getting Started
- To rank well you need two things: content on the website, and links to it from other website.
- When they started they made the mistake of thinking that a blog was to talk about your own products and sell them.
- By writing an article that was genuinely interesting (Aeron Chair arbitrage) vs. dull (Xmas gifts for cheap w Priceonomics) they got #1 ranked on HN, WSJ picked them up, etc.
- After 4 years of blogging they can say with certainty — If you're going to spend time and effort blogging, there's NO POINT writing things that aren't good.
- If you write a post and nothing happens, you begin to expect that future writing will fail as well. If the first BP failed, it's unlikely they would have put as much effort into the 2nd one.
- Effort-Performance-Outcome theory.
- Default state of internet is that no one cares.
- This book is about Making Good Content and Creating A Process.
Making Good Content
- Many ways to define "good content".
- Most co's try to copy other styles and formats.
- Focus on making interesting things that also have some benefit to your company.
- Information gets you customers.
- Your company is an expect on its own information - that's what you should write about.
- This book does not presume you have a large marketing team.
- What can you de reliably with small scale.
- Don't "play-act" and emulate what you think you're "supposed" to do.
- Content needs to be great bc it's competing with the best on the internet.
- Focus should be creating a process that produces a favorable outcome.
- Information is the best thing to write about.
Chapter 2: Information Marketing
- Getting "earned media" is incredibly challenging.
- In a journalist shoes — every day they receive 100s of emails from people pitching story ideas. Each request is 5-10 hours of work.
- Getting someone to write about you is a sales process.
- Blind pitching a journalist is like being a telemarketer.
- Journalists will write about you if it doesn't create a lot of work for them and the story will get a lot of attention.
- This book is about marketing by sharing information.
- If you write a story about data and make is accessible enough, you'll appeal to that little data nerd that resides in anyone.
- Every co. has access to info that contributes to a better understanding of the world, or at least of its little niche.
- Write about things that are interesting to you — you have to keep things interesting otherwise your own enthusiasm will wane.
- They only started exploring broader questions about industries AFTER they'd mastered their own data.
- Information is not limited to data, you can also write about people's lives — everyone has an interesting story.
- Key to writing about stories, anecdotes and small pieces of data: Stick to what you know. Don't stretch it into something it's not.
- PR is a negotiation between you and a journalist. You are asking for their time, what are you offering?
- Help journalists do their job — writing interesting articles which generate eyeballs.
- Provide info. that is unique, authentic, and interesting.
- Anything and anyone can be interesting.
- Data-driven reports by companies have spread like wildfire.
Chapter 3: The World Is Flat
- This chapter covers how content publishing world works.
- Today everyone is on a level playing field
- When you write things you have to DO SOME THINGS to make the content successful
- When you write content, you must have a channel in mind for the content to spread
- Think about distribution before writing otherwise nothing will happen
- Make a plan for how your content will spread and put it in place before you write
- Most people when thinking of distribution think about Facebook or other social media — for most of their successful pieces they did something else FIRST, something outside FB which made the article popular
- Most articles were not pop. on FB till other things happened to make them viral
- If you can't come up with a plan for an article/how it will spread — write a different article
- Not enough to publish great info, have to wage a campaign to make sure that the right people find out about it
- When you start writing content, force yourself to send at least 50 personalized emails to people who you want to cover your report
- Email should be short and sweet
- Interesting enough to get them to click on the link and read your content
- Having 1 or 2 people write about your information kicks off an avalanche of other people who write about you
- You have to put in unpleasant work if you want the content to be successful. Outbound ALWAYS precedes inbound.
- Train yourself to anticipate what you'll say to a journalist BEFORE you create the content you're going to publish
- Emailing journalists is not the only way...
Supernodes Of Distribution
- Journalists are "supernodes" in the information network of the internet. Curate info and relate it to lots of people
- Focus on convincing a handful of people who are gateways to larger audiences. Much more tractable task
- Most powerful supernodes now are SOCIAL news sites
- Hacker News
- Designer News
- These sites are the single most important part of content distribution
- Only submit to social news sites if you know they will like it. Do not ever post things that are purely self promotional
- Conform to the community norms
- If your content is fantastic, it will rise to the top of these news sites. You'll get "The Bump"
- Once 1000 or so people see the article at ~ the same time, that's enough for every journalist, partner or customer interested in that content seeing it
- Content marketing distribution is all about getting The Bump.
- If you write great content, you have a good chance of being rewarded on the social news sites
- Certain things, however, need to happen first:
- Someone has to submit your content to the site
- Within a small window of time you need at least a handful of votes in order to make the front page
- Once you get these votes, your content will rise and fall on its own merit
- Very hard to game the system, all the sites use algorithms to detect when people create accounts just to upvote stories
- Unless the work is stellar, there is a slim chance you'll make it to the top of these sites
- Once you get big enough and have some readers some of this stuff starts to happen for you
- The amount of work you need to do to create The Bump decreases over time. If you consistently write great things, other people start doing things to help you out
- Social news sites is a much larger traffic event than being linked in an article by a journalist. In their experience only ~1% will click through to your site
- On cadence:
- When they first started publishing they wrote new things every 2-3 weeks. Infrequent enough that self publishing to HN was not a big deal
- Eventually began publishing every day and stopped posting their own content. Publishing that frequently risks spamming these forums.
- So should you post to supernodes?
- Yes — in the beginning
- You need to participate in the news site as a community member for a while before doing anything with your own content
- Understand content + norms around posting
- Once you start creating a volume of articles, eventually you can stop trying to spread your articles and let people do it for you
- This position is earned by consistently creating content that people love so much they'll want to share it with others
- Don't try to game the system — you can't.
- If writing about information, you'll find a lot of receptive places out there for your content. It's one of the few forms of marketing okay to post on these supernode sites because info. is valuable if presented in an unbiased way.
Chapter 4: Social Networks
- Last chapter we argued that company content can be just as successful as content by media co's. Avg. BP on Priceonomics gets 25,000 views. More than most brand-name media co's.
- This chapter is about social nets, but mostly FB
- FB was largest traffic source but less important than success with supernodes - especially social news sites. Primarily because FB is a lagging indicator
- Things go viral on FB only AFTER a critical mass of people have seen it first
The Power Law Applies To Everything, Including Content
- If you need The Bump to go viral, why focus on FB?
- Live investing, content marketing is a hits-driven business
- In 2014 they wrote 319 articles, of those 10 made up 50% of traffic
- If your goal is reach, FB is your tool. Think of it as a channel unto itself, with its own set of dynamics
- One question determines it all: "Why do people share?"
Facebook Is The New TV
- In prior generations people would put their kids to bed and zone out to TV. Now it's all about social media
- People didn't watch TV at work in the past, put most everyone has clicked through to FB or a Buzzfeed article
- Think of FB as "demand generation", not "demand fulfillment" (Sheryl Sandberg)
- Big difference between FB and TV is that FB gets their content for free. Cable companies used to decide what got shown, now it's the algorithmic feed
- The more shares > the more shows
- When you post something on FB ask yourself this question: "Is this the kind of content that Facebook will want on its platform in the long term, given its goal to be a hub for quality content that rivals television?"
Why Do People Share?
- Two case studies for modern content marketing would be OkCupid and The Oatmeal.
- The Oatmeal is a good example of a site that understand (a) why people share and (b) bundles commercial projects with content
- Started by Matthew Inman - cartoonist. Not naive artist who thinks good cartoons will make people come but things about distribution mech. by which people will share them
- He thinks about WHY people will want to share what he publishes
- What we share is a form of self-expression. What matters when we share is how something makes us feel
- We also share media and content that reflects how we want to be perceived or things we have reactions to
- First question to ask: "What does the reader express by sharing this?"
- Cognitively - can someone read your content and come up with something interesting to say about it. If you have nothing to say, you likely will not share it
- Unless someone can easily go through the process of digesting an article into a shareable nugget, the article will not be shared no matter how great it is
- Ask "why will someone share this?" before we start writing. When they can't come up with an answer they refine the idea until we do
Will It Play On Facebook?
- Not saying you should creating content just because you think it will go viral on FB. History shows the FB algorithm can break you with small changes should you base your model on it
- If you're creating content for marketing purposes, you want to publish content that attracts people authentically interested in your companies info
Does Twitter Matter
- Yes, but WHY is a little complex
- For them, data would say Twitter is not valuable. FB sent 10x more traffic than Twitter in 2014
- Most sharing on FB is default private, whereas Twitter is a public messaging system
- If your goal is to get the media to write about your data, Twitter is more important than FB. For journalists, Twitter IS social media.
- Form on content matters — for them (long-form content) other social media like Tumblr, Instagram, YT, etc. don't matter but may matter for other types of media (images, videos, etc.)
- Humans have short attention spans, especially on the internet
- You need to grab their attention right away, write clearly and follow an organized structure
- Your article should have a POINT and you must hammer that point home
- The most likely reason your essay is not shareable is that it's not very good
- Prose may be beautiful, information interesting, but that's not enough. Unclear, poorly organized writing is bad writing
Chapter 5: The Writer's Playbook
- An internet audience is a distracted audience
- Most readers are surfing the web instead of working. Right away their job is on the back of their minds
- Internet is also noisy — everyone now makes great content, not just the stalwarts. Also a lot of crap. Everyone is competing for attention
A Punchy Intro
- Start every essay by punching your reader in the face — not literally, but grab their attention
- Always assume your reader stumbled on your article and is seconds away from closing or burying the tab forever
- Most content lives + dies by the intro. Without a great one, no one will read your article
- The second most important — the conclusion
- Conclusion reminds the reader what they should take away from the piece. Provides shareable nuggets on a silver platter
- The essay's topic sentences are equally important.
- When editing, sometimes they just read intro, topic sentences and conclusion. Essay should stand alone on these segments. This mimics how people skim articles
- Assume people are skimming your content — remember, they're at work and they're not invested
- Focus on topic sentences improves writing. Forces you to not bury important points in the middle of lengthy paragraphs
Tone & Viewpoint
- Tone should be conversational — read as though spoken
- We grow up writing essays in school that are the opposite of how you should write for the internet. Formal, academic tone is boring for the reader and sad for your content
- Sound how an intelligent person talks
- Also to consider — what is the viewpoint of the piece?
- Priceonomics banned the word "I" from the blog. We write every piece as though the entity had written it. Only "we".
- Only put bylines at the end of articles
- No first person has benefits — Forces you to avoid opinions ("I think" are banished). When you can't state opinion you rely on facts
- Benefit of not using I also keeps away trolls. Trolls require another person to troll. Trolling a data company is much less satisfying than attacking a person
- It also makes the company brand sacrosanct. If people on your team hold your viewpoint and culture, this helps produce HQ work
- Using "we" instead of "I" is Priceonomics culture, not saying everyone should do it but helps in the ways listed above
Being Right Is Important
- Every time you publish something on the net, 1000 people will try to prove you wrong (if enough people see it)
- Anything involving data will have every assumption challenged
- The scariest part: It's unlikely you're the world's leading expert on something you published, so when experts join the fray you had better be right
- Secret to minimizing chances of catastrophic mistake: Keep the scope of your argument narrow
- In every post, they try to make one really good point and make sure they are right about that point
- When you write a BP think of it as a war between you and all the people who want to disprove your conclusions. Don't fight a multi-front war
- Language you use matters, it determines the scope of what you're trying to improve. Word choice matters
- Long-form information-driven content is usually sparked by the interest of an individual. Writing is most often a solitary activity
- But publishing something under your companies label is a team activity. Need editors and vetting
- No one had a journalism background on their team so they made their own process
- Every Friday — meeting to discuss ideas. Some for short BPs, others for long-form essays, others for data reports
- Many times pair a writer with an engineer for data, but one writer assigned and that's their full time job
- The most valuable role of an editor is to assess every statement in the draft and make sure it makes sense
- Also makes the article more interesting through suggestions about organization and word choice — most importantly, making sure the writers don't publish something that's not right
- Last step before publishing is choosing titles for each post
- This is probably the most talked about step of content creation
- Titles are important for two reasons: Titles are one of the main things folks will see on social media, and because no one wants to share an article with a boring title (it reflects on them)
- Priceonomics has their own way of doing titles: It should honestly convey what the article is about, and it should emphasize the point that we think the reader will share
- For priceonomics, their goal is to write the most definitive article about a topic, so the title needs to sound definitive
- Write the entire article in a way that's consistent with the image you want to present — and don't stop at the title
- This is a general cliche term but still worth considering
- Priceonomics voice is objective and data-driven
- Was a natural growth or writing about data and share information
- Brings a consistent lens to the topics you write about and share a common style
- Writing becomes a lot easier when everyone is on the same page about how it's supposed to work
Chapter 6: Writing Hacks
- #1 tip: Commit to writing and just doit
- Conventional wisdom says you should write every day to flex the muscle of writing
- While this may be a great way to start a personal writing project and write about personal opinions or experience it's not ideal for a company
- A company that wants to master content marketing needs an early taste of success
- If you're going to work at making content, you may as well become addicted to success. The way to get addicted to writing popular content is to make really good stuff
- Measure the outcomes and push yourself to make things even better
- During the first year at Priceonomics every article took ~40 hours to create. A lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into making a really good blog post
- The returns on writing something great are enormous - the returns on writing something average are zero
- What's the optimal amount of content? As much as you can while keeping it really good!
- Sometimes it can be hard to come up with ideas, so they've come up with some "hacks" for ideas
Writing About Data
- They've written about so many different topics on the Priceonomics blog that general themes have emerged
- When you write about data it's helpful to have themes. Here are some common themes we turn to.
- A ranked order list
- How much does something cost?
- Data that proves someone's strongly held intuition, or that disproves a weakly held one
- A surprising trend
- The relationship between two things
Writing About An Industry: What Information Is Valuable To Other People?
- When you're an expert in an industry, you have hard-won information about how it works
- This is valuable to other people
- Much of what you think is common knowledge could be extremely helpful to someone else
- The right information at the right time can be incredibly valuable to someone
Writing About People: The Hero's Journey
- Every movie or book about an epic adventure follows the same pattern
- The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Campbell) details 17 steps every protagonist goes through in a typical story line
- They most often use this framework when we're telling the stories of how companies are founded
- Ask every single customer if you can profile how they were founded — they will be flattered, you'll have incredible content for your site and you can showcase you have actual customers
Coming Up With Ideas
- The most important part of writing is starting with a good idea
- If you're going to invest 40+ hours in a report or blog post, you're doomed if you choose an idea with no legs
- Even worse if the idea is offensive or paints the company in negative light
- Coming up with good ideas takes some judgement but you can build better judgement by reading great content
- Examine the highest ranked content on the social-news sites we mentioned earlier. What is it about those ideas that makes them spread?
- What's more difficult is execution — for that you have to hire great people.
Chapter 7: Writing
- The writers at Priceonomics practically kill themselves to do good work
- Talented people expend effort in a system that rewards that effort
- Writers want to reach people — if your blog is a ghost town, there is little incentive to make great things. No one will read it!
- How do you find talent that thrives in such a system?
- Some suggest freelancers — not what you should do in the beginning
- In order for your content to succeed, the people who make it have to really care about your business. They need to understand your company and what makes it interesting
- If someone doesn't care deeply about your problems, don't expect them to solve them
The Hiring Process
- Three things they ask for from applicants: A writing sample, a resume, a list of topics
- Resume is least important, they look at it for 15 secs mostly for experience
- Writing sample is much more important. Can they write something clear and interesting? Maybe 5% turn out to be able to
- Ideas section is the most important part of the application. When the right writer applies you know because their list of ideas works
- If the candidate passes the screen of a good applicant, we schedule a 30-min Skype interview to discuss the applicant's ideas, background and experience
- Only 1% of the applicants get these interviews, 50% however go on past them
- They then pay the applicant to do a freelance article for them. Jointly we pick an idea, tell them how much we pay, and come up with a process for working together
- Surprising — 1/3rd of applicants disappear at this stage, another third produce work substantially owrse than expected, and the last third show promise
- After the article is submitted they work together to edit and publish. When done, there is a final round of interview where they spend half a day interviewing the writer (mostly a formality for culture git)
- In their experience, it takes ~2 months for a new writer to hit their stride
Chapter 8: Why This All Matters
Decisions Must Be Made
- When you start with content marketing they suggest using your companies data to see if you can make data-driven stories
- If you can't pull that off, may not be worth your time to focus on content
- How much content should promote vs. inform? At Priceonomics it's 90% inform, 10% promote
- You need to pick your own ratio and may be very different from theirs
- The less promotional your content feels the larger audience you can build up
- You also have to figure out how not to be biased. No one will read your company blog if it's about topics you have a vested interest in (at least obviously)
Should Content Marketers Feel Icky
- Articles you read online are considered "content" yet so many other things (food, fashion, art) are not. What makes one content and the other art?
- Priceonomics idea: Content is media that is basically free to consume but that is bundled with something else that costs money
- Most content sites bundle their work with advertising
- Content marketing gets an icky reputation because of the thought that "this co. is writing interesting things to sell me something". Their philosophy - that's less icky than writing content that aims to sell attention and personal data
- Priceonomics has maintained throughout the book that they are crazy
- They believe the content they write is better than what you'd find in a newspaper of magazine because they're not trying to drum up pageviews for ads
- Caution against copying them too much because they are fanatical about what they do
- Don't consider yourself a lowly "content marketer" — consider yourself someone who makes great content that happens to be monetized through product sales instead of ads
- The most important point in the book: Your work has to be great to stand out.
- Write about information. Make it great. Have a plan.
I hope you found this useful and please contact me if you'd like to see more of these!