“Far less thought goes into making history than remembering it.”
This is reason enough for a whack on the side of the head —but there are twenty five more where that came from. For example, what happens when we look for the second right answer?
To make something repeatable we need to understand why it works. Finding the reason why it would work for us requires we go beyond the obvious —often what everyone else is doing.
Yet most organizations and teams hardly have time and space to do so. And in not having those conditions of time and space they rob themselves of better results.
It is simpler than we assume when we say we should put in the work, but it's by no means easy to choose this path. The Priceonomics team has provided a valuable tool for anyone willing to make sense of how things work.
Its Content Marketing Handbook teases out the key differences between the “optimizing” vs. “creating” —the first is based on the familiar testing, the second is more about experimenting. There is more to the words than meets the eye.
What they put together is helpful at different levels.
Going from idea to execution
We all have great ideas all day long, but until we attempt to make them happen we have not found a product, service, marketing program, or even a piece of content that will resonate. We just have an idea. Often we attempt to get to the decision —go or no-go— without the proper steps and call it a day.
Thinking that there is only one right answer precludes us from learning more about the nature of the problem. Deciding too soon eliminates potential options.
Priceonomics ran an experiment:
We decided to put together a presentation at our office where we would talk about the “Priceonomics way” of doing content marketing.
We had no idea if anyone wanted to hear us talk for an hour about how to turn company data into content and make it spread. But we posted the event details of this talk on a few startup forums and email lists with the hopes of attracting an audience.
Our not-so-secret plan for this presentation, however, was to present an “offer” to help the companies that attended the talk implement the strategies of our book. Could that “offer” (whatever it was) generate more revenue than merely selling a book?
Our ideas about what exactly to offer were vague, but it would involve helping companies create better content marketing through our software or a service that helped companies turn their data into content.
They hit pause a making a decision from vague ideas until they had path they could shape. Holding small in person meetings created a greater volume of feedback —and by expanding their options, they found a second answer to their main question of how this would help business:
Many companies had a huge, “hair-on-fire” problem with content: They spent a ton of money and time on their blogs, and nothing ever happened! No traffic, no media mentions, no customer leads, nothing.
They just kept checking the “we should do a blog post” box, but there was no return on that invested time. For many companies, Tracker could only show them what they already knew: their blog was a ghost town.
That in itself is an expensive problem. But it is a more damaging one because it creates the perception that blogging or content doesn't work. When it's the execution that needs help. Taking an “optimizing” mindset to an endeavor about “creating” leads nowhere fast.
One step alone created a set of customers —companies that needed help with editing and tracking content. But it also uncovered a further need —from a set of companies that did nothing with that same service:
The companies always got too busy to finish the blog posts or run the analysis. They kept paying us $2,000 a month for the service, but they weren’t fully using it. That didn’t feel very sustainable, even if the margins were enviable.
If this sounds familiar is because it is. Companies constantly buy more software and services than they need. It's a cultural thins to want to keep options open, especially in a market of abundance. But it's also human to hoard. One can only visualize what happens when it's buffet time to know.
This second problem created a better product for Priceonomics, content creation for those organizations that abandoned the effort; using their data and charging based on the performance. Which utilized the firm's Content Tracker (free to use.)
Performance-based pricing for a product when it over delivers on top of a freemium model that delivers data on what performs back to them.
Finding the second answer to get started
There are volumes of tips about what to do and not to do online. But best practices mostly make for excellent sound bites and PowerPoint decks to resell over and over. “Fake until you make it” advice creates a false sense of security.
Further, when we play-act as something we are not we end up having to deliver on something we don't know much about. A better way is to explain something from our experience and knowledge. In some cases, this may require learning much more about a topic. Being curious is a good entry point for pursuing a more creative life.
As Roger von Oech says, “When there is a limit to what you can do, you can do so much more.” This seems counter-intuitive, but constraints have always been the creator's best friends. Creativity is a competitive advantage.
Earlier in the month, we had run an interesting experiment. We employed our pricing data to find good deals on used Aeron office chairs on Craigslist, and then we resold them to other startups at a substantial mark-up. The process of finding these chairs, lugging them around San Francisco, and selling them to our friends for a profit was pretty entertaining, in a Tom Sawyer sort of way.
We wrote a blog post about this experience and called it “Adventures in Aeron Chair Arbitrage.”
Counter-intuitive information backed by results data works. Which underscores the importance of strategizing. Strategizing involves choice based on time dependent information whereas strategy involves choices based on assumptions. And one of the problems with assumptions is that they skip the whole critical thinking process.
Priceonomics reminds us, “The default state of the internet is that no one cares,” and that is discouraging:
In organizational theory, there is something called the Effort-Performance-Outcome theory: you will only put forth the effort necessary to succeed if you reasonably expect that effort will pay off. This explains why workers slack off once they believe that their output won’t be used for anything important.
It also helps explain lots of social phenomena, like why the cycle of poverty is so difficult to escape: if you grow up somewhere where there are no examples of hard work leading to success, there is no case to be made for hard work
Why giving people information to make better decisions works
Because it's the famous teaching them how to fish. As Dan Pink says in To Sell is Human, even the pitch process is collaborative. Trying to pressure, cajole, and/or beg to convince in the hope to convert people takes a lot more effort than providing the information for people to help themselves.
Doing most of the work to find compelling information and explaining why it matters goes a long way to build a path to our doorstep. This is the premise to what Priceonomics dubs information marketing —it helps our intended audience and helps us at the same time.
Whether we use data directly or we develop articles with information the core purpose of putting effort into content is to help people get smarter; with a side benefit of helping them understand what we're about. For example, at Priceonomis:
we often ask ourselves, “Can we make any company’s data interesting?” To answer this question, let’s imagine that we work at Dunder Mifflin, the notoriously boring, fictitious paper company featured in the television comedy, The Office. If you wrote for Dunder Mifflin’s company blog, what data would you write about?
- The Death of Fax Machines: Our Annual Sales of Fax Paper From 1980 to Present
- How Much Paper Do Accountants Use During Tax Season?
- Who Uses More Paper: Doctors or Dentists?
- Is the Paper Receipt Dying?
- The Resurgence of Holiday Cards
- The Rise and Fall of the ‘Thank You’ Note
- Why Carbon Paper is Experiencing a Resurgence
- Is Paper Getting Thinner?
- The Death of the Phone Book: Annual Sales of Phone Book Paper from 1950 to Present
Very tempting headlines. What if there is no data? Information-based ideas for anyone working in the paper industry to steal:
- Why Do Certain Types of Paper Cause More Jams?
- A History of the Most Expensive Paper
- The Technological Innovation That Made Paper Thin
- How Many Trees Does the Average Bathroom Use Per Year?
- How to Make Ancient Egyptian Papyrus Paper At home
- The Man Who Made a Billion Dollars Selling Paper
- The Family Business That Changed the American Paper Industry
- Why Is Paper Cheap but Ink Expensive?
- What Kind of Paper Was the Constitution Written On?
- The Most Valuable Paper Documents Ever Sold
- How Cheap is Newsprint to Make?
- The History of the Phone Book
- What Is the Most Paper Ever Used in a Legal Case?
Having worked in an ice-cream shop throughout the summer in high school, I could come up with posts about the average weight of a cone vs. a cup; things the most experienced ice cream buyers do; days of the year people purchased which flavors; the tell tale signs of which flavors and container people would ask for, and so on.
If I start working with a client who sells something related by the summer, we might have some fun here.
Priceonomics article about bike theft could have a European spin with a different theme. Same topic, but looking at economic trends, for example, and come up with a different conclusion, or story angle, depending on what we want to say. My mother had her bike stolen at the train station in Italy. It was a gift she had received when she was six (only full bikes back then), and her only mode of transport.
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Anne Lamott focuses on the process of writing and through personal stories. She says when we write from personal experience, or as close as we can to it (which involves a lot of groundwork), we connect.
This handbook explains why it's important for marketers to write well. But it goes beyond to underscore the importance of writing about what we know, including what we learn about.
Because who cares
This is why. The lazy way of doing content distribution online is to go to a popular platform like Medium and LinkedIn and just publish there. It's true that “the sites that have many dedicated users are platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Google Search, Gmail.”
But it's also true that (for now) the Internet has leveled the playing field and any site “can be an information source on par with the biggest traditional media sources in the world.” But gain, this takes work, especially on the onset:
When you start writing content based on your company’s information, force yourself to send at least 50 personalized emails to people who you want to cover your report. Your email to them should be short and have one goal: pique their interest enough that they’ll click the link and read your content.
In other words, we don't need to say everything in the email. Serious publications and writers tend to be quite busy —they also tend to be more discerning. Putting the work into the content and not putting it into the outreach is like making a cake and never fully baking it.
Sometimes we get lucky, but a better way to get lucky most of the time is to have a better system. Participating in social networks —the platforms— helps when we do it with the mindset of being a community member. Early on, Twitter could have become the next TV, but that place is now Facebook's.
It's useful to remember that influence is with the influenced —it is up to the people we reach out or find our content to decide whether it is valuable to their audiences. When we provide enough value, people other than us or our team share the content.
But why would we want to attract just anyone instead of the people who might look for what we offer?
Who is a better question to get to how
Starting with “Will someone share this?” gives us a baseline. By writing an enormously long post with links to other options —like downloading the chapter's executive summary, or requesting the PDF of the Guide— the Preceonomics team gets to learn what works even better.
How many people download the executive summary? How many read the whole thing on the site? How many request the PDF? Who shares it? How many good leads and conversions from each? And so on. They can track all of it with the Content Tracker, their own tool.
With long form content, however (this includes books), clarity and organization are vital. Marketing was about grabbing attention. With ad blocking in a mix that may include customers who are also creators and potentially media holding attention and making a point matter.
Priceonomics' handbook has a playbook section that gets into the editorial strategy aspects of publishing. That includes the importance of having done our homework on data and/or information. The best way to create continuous improvement through experiments is to have ground rules as a starting point. Which calls for decision-making on editorial process, fact checking, style and tone, title formats, voice, etc.
A lot goes into producing something valuable of any kind, including thinking. We fool ourselves when we say otherwise:
During our first year of writing blog posts at Priceonomics, each article we published took at least 40 hours to create. We spent most of that time analyzing the data, cutting it up in different ways, and figuring out how to tell an interesting story with it. We only spent the last 10 hours making the charts look pretty and physically typing out and editing the blog post.
The returns on writing something great are enormous; the returns on writing something average are zero.
But to get there, you have to start publishing more often.
The quality and the quantity both matter; so does direction. Where are we going with our work? How would people otherwise know why it's important enough to spend the time?
[image from Creative Whack Pack]