How to write about information and make it spread.
When we started writing a company blog in December of 2011, we never expected to hire 5 full-time writers, publish several books, or turn into a content company that makes money by selling products.
This is a long blog post. It contains everything we know about how to make content and get it to spread on the Internet. It’s the story of Priceonomics, and how we built a business turning data into content. It started out as a brief handbook we gave to new Priceonomics writers; now we’ve expanded it.
But how do you make content that performs, and how do you distribute it? The Content Marketing Handbook (this blog post) is our attempt to share the “secret formula” of the Priceonomics Blog so that when you write something, customers, journalists, and readers take notice. Is there a formula to the Priceonomics Blog that other companies can copy? Sort of. Here it is:
Write about information. Make it good. Have a plan for how it will spread.
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.
To our surprise, 200 people, mostly startup founders and marketing executives of fairly sizable companies, signed up to attend our talk.
The Priceonomics office isn’t that big, so we couldn’t possibly accommodate 200 people. This size constraint, however, held an advantage: We had to run 10 small presentations instead of one big one, which meant we could test 10 slightly different “offers”.
And so we gave ten presentations that were identical until the very end. On the last slide of the presentation, we presented different “offers” for how we could help companies make better content.
First, it was clear that our approach was reproducible by other companies, even without our help. Every company should write about its data! Within a few weeks of the first presentation, we received emails from attendees who said that the articles they wrote about their company’s data got picked up by the media, rose to the top of Reddit, and outperformed anything they’d ever done by 10 to 100x.
We also learned a lot by presenting 10 different “offers” of how Priceonomics could help companies make better content.
From talking to companies, however, we discovered a bigger problem that software alone could not solve. 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.
So, we next tested something different. We offered to help companies get better at making content. We would help them come up with ideas for how to turn their data into great stories and edit their pieces so they’d be really good. We charged $2,000 per month for this service, which was like hiring Priceonomics as the editor of your company blog.
A lot of people signed up for this service!
Companies paid us $2,000 per month, and we helped them develop ideas based on their data, edit their articles, and do their best work. And they could see the results in Content Tracker, so they knew it was working! Right away we made way more money than we would have from book sales.
Towards the end of this process, we hit on it: The optimal way to take the knowledge and software we’ve developed at Priceonomics. A better way to productize the knowledge from this Handbook.
We’d make content for companies based on their data and then just charge them based on the performance.
Companies wanted performance (articles that generated customers, PR, and traffic), so that’s what we’d sell! We knew how to look at their data, turn it into content, and make it shareable. As long as companies used Content Tracker, we could charge them based on performance.
We offered to help companies turn their data into awesome content marketing. We’d put an insane amount of effort into it, and we’d do it at cost. But, if the content got 5,000 views or 5 press mentions, they’d pay an additional success fee.
When you consider the time and effort involved in creating content, we knew many of the companies we talked to were already spending way more than thousands dollars per month on their content marketing. But they weren’t getting results. Paying us to make content was a low-risk proposition with completely aligned incentives.
Companies started buying content from us. Some tried it once and then asked if they could sign year-long deals. One company bought one piece of content from us. The next month they bought 4. The next month they bought 10. This was nuts! It worked because we were selling performance, not content. Companies don’t need content; they need things to happen when they publish content. Good content is just the catalyst for performance.
This is why we are announcing our new content marketing agency, the Priceonomics Data Studio. It’s sort of half analysis firm, half content firm, just like Priceonomics.
Throughout this book, we urge you to think of content marketing like a campaign that must be waged with tremendous effort. Nothing good ever happens by accident. You need to start with great ideas, you need to have a plan for how to distribute that content, and then you need to execute that plan. Your content will not be picked up by the media or go viral by accident. You have to engineer that sort of outcome.
Chapter I: Getting Started
The Priceonomics Blog almost didn’t happen. Today, we get tens of millions of free visitors to our site each year who buy books, data, and highly-valued business services from us – but we almost screwed things up from the the get-go.
In late 2011, Priceonomics (our company) started off as an online price guide for used items. We built web crawlers that checked how much people were selling their old iPhones, bikes, and cars for, analyzed the price data for these items, and then posted it on our website. We were like Kelly Blue Book for everything.
So, we built and launched a website – and guess what happened? Nothing. This wasn’t our first internet startup, so we expected that. The internet is a vast place: people won’t notice a new website or app unless you figure out a clever way for people to find it.
Our goal was for people to discover the Priceonomics price guides through Google. People look up prices and conduct product research all the time on Google, so we needed our results to show up there. If you wanted to find out how much a used iPhone was worth, it was imperative that Priceonomics appeared in the search results.
To rank well in Google Search results, a website needs two things: content and links to it from other websites. Our content strategy was less than ideal, but that was the nature of our product. Our algorithms had created thousands of web pages for every product we’d priced. They were not the rich, handmade, content that Google loves; they were thin pages with the name of the product, its price, and links to a few places where you could buy the product.
In the short term, our website had so many of these pages that we couldn’t really improve the quality of them (outside of improving the algorithms that generated the pages**.
What we could control, however, were inbound links. In order to rank highly in Google’s algorithm, not only do you need good content, but you need other people to link to it. That’s a signal to Google’s algorithm that your content is authoritative and should show up in Google search results.
TechCrunch staff told us the article would go live December 20. The article would be helpful, because a link to our site on TechCrunch would, in Google’s eyes, improve our credibility. We also decided that after the TechCrunch article went live, we’d write an article using our data, submit it to Hacker News, a popular social news site in the tech community, and hopefully reach more potential users. (And get more links from news sites that would discover Priceonomics.)
For some time, we contemplated what we could write about. Christmas was coming up and the Internet was buzzing with articles about gift ideas. Since Priceonomics was a pricing site for used products, we decided to write about used things you could buy as Christmas presents. Since we planned to submit the article to Hacker News (a website geared toward programmers and run by our investors at Y Combinator) we wrote about presents that “hackers” would like.
Our blog post – “Buy Christmas Gifts for Hackers on Craigslist” – was, of course, terrible. Who wants to buy used products for Christmas gifts? What does it even mean that a product is for a “hacker”? Did we think that New York Times writers would see this and think, “We must write about this intriguing website that will tangentially help people buy used things for computer hackers”?
The biggest problem with this post was that we play-acted at being marketers. We were doing what we thought marketers did. Every company has a blog, and they all write things like this, so we figured that was what we were supposed to do. At the time, we weren’t experienced writers or content marketers, so we thought the point of a blog was to talk about your products and sell them. That’s what marketing is: salesy and boring.
Here’s the good news, though: we never published that moronic blog post. December 20 came and went, and TechCrunch didn’t publish the article announcing our launch. Our blog post about Christmas presents ran the risk of being irrelevant.
Finally, on the evening of December 22, 2011, the TechCrunch article about Priceonomics went live. The next day, we were set to post our “insightful” article about the price of used Christmas gifts, but we faced some nagging issues. First, it was December 23rd – two days before Christmas and pretty late in the game to buy gifts on Craigslist. More importantly, we didn’t yet have enough data to calculate the prices of several products we were recommending.
So, we scrapped the blog post and started fresh at the last minute. What could we write about instead?
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.”
We hit “publish” on December 27th and submitted this post to Hacker News. Slowly, people upvoted the article until it was the most upvoted link on the site. For Priceonomics, it was a huge hit.
Our post was on the front page of Hacker News for almost 24 hours and reached a huge swath of the technology industry. The Wall Street Journal’s technology blog wrote about our story, many industry leaders shared it on Twitter, and almost instantly our search engine results improved.
While getting covered by TechCrunch sent 6,000 visitors to our site, we learned that a popular blog post on our website could send 20,000 visitors in a single day. It was better to write popular things on our website and attract our own crowd than to try to cajole journalists into writing about us. When we published interesting information on Priceonomics, the journalists came to us!
*Following the success of our first post, we focused on writing interesting blog posts that shared new information and attracted huge audiences**. Though our company has since shifted gears, one thing has remained consistent: the Priceonomics Blog has devoted readers despite its corporate origins. Since we started it fours years ago, we’ve reached over 30 million people – all for free. And the Priceonomics Blog just keeps getting bigger.
If you’re going to spend time and effort blogging, there is no point in writing things that aren’t good. Instead, spend a little more time and write something great. Just because almost every company has a boring corporate blog that no one reads doesn’t mean you need to emulate them. Trust us: they should not be your role models.
But there is another reason why the Priceonomics Blog would never have taken off if we published the crappy Christmas gifts blog post: spending time and effort on work that fails is discouraging. If you write a blog post and nothing happens, you begin to expect that future writing will fail as well. If our first blog post had failed, it’s unlikely we would have put as much effort into the second one. We would have written off blogging as a waste of time, as it is for 99.999% of corporate blogs ever started.
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.
There is nothing less motivating than writing blog posts on the Internet for most corporate blogs, because no one ever reads those blog posts. Write multiple posts like this – posts that don’t influence your company’s sales, exposure, or leads – and you’ll quickly lose motivation.
The default state of the internet is that no one cares. So many articles, videos, and blog posts compete for people’s attention that average work often goes unrecognized. It’s pointless to publish anything that isn’t fantastic, because it will certainly be ignored.
We got lucky on two dimensions – and without this luck, it’s unlikely that the Priceonomics Blog would have thrived. First, despite not having any real writing experience, we happened to write something good (rather than something boring, like we’d planned). Second, things happened when we wrote the blog post: we got lots of traffic, coverage, and customer interest. We were motivated to continue writing largely because we saw the benefits of doing so.
This book is about these two things: making good content, and creating a process that makes sure good things happen to your company when you publish it. It’s pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Making Good Content
Most companies try to copy other companies’ styles and formats. Most commonly, imitators try to be funny, because “funny” is one of the currencies of the web: people share things that are funny on social networks. But funny doesn’t get you attention from *The Wall Street Journal**, doesn’t inspire confidence in front of potential customers, and doesn’t highlight your company’s expertise. Funny is what you get when you hire an ad agency full of creative 25-year olds – people who don’t fully understand your business – to manage your company’s content.
Instead, your focus should be on making interesting things that also have some benefit for your company. This approach narrows your focus, and that’s helpful for coming up with topics to write about.
You should write about information.
After spending years producing hundreds of reports and reaching tens of millions of people, you can trust us on this point: authentic information that your company has access to is the currency of truly valuable content marketing.
Sure, there may be more “shareable” content out there – cute animal pictures, snarky commentary, celebrity gossip, and the like – but that stuff won’t get you customers.
Information, on the other hand, will. It can be data that your company produces, insights you have because of your industry experience, or stories about the people you have access to.
But you can only write about your own data for so long before people (including you) get tired of it. To vary our content, we started diligently researching economic questions like “What happens to stolen bikes?” and “Are speed limits are too low?” We started digging into the stories of entrepreneurs, researchers, and everyday people. And we published what we found on our blog.
We built a framework for how companies can write about information: write about data, industries, or people. Make sure this is original information your company has authentic access to, and that the information is novel and interesting. Your company is an expert on its own information – that’s what you should write about.
But if you spend just a fraction of the amount of time that we do on writing, you’ll produce some really great content. If you do it right, it will get you press mentions and customer leads in perpetuity. It will establish your company as a leader in certain areas. And it may even get you invited to speak at conferences in your field.
But there is no point whatsoever to churning out average material. You have to make good things.
What Happened at Priceonomics
We started the Priceonomics Blog so we could get links and improve the ranking of our Price Guides in Google search results. To some degree, we succeeded at this. Lots of people came to our site through Google.
But this was not as helpful as we’d hoped. Our visitors were transient people who looked up a price and left. Later on, they barely remembered which website they had found the prices on. These casual visitors never translated to dedicated users of Priceonomics.
In addition, whenever Google changed its algorithm for how it ranks search results (as it frequently does), it wreaked havoc on our user growth. Some days we’d come into the office and find that traffic was booming. Other days we’d come in and find that Google had decided to decimate our traffic. Things weren’t looking good for Priceonomics. Our original idea was falling apart.
But our blog was our bright spot.
Despite its status as the “marketing blog” of a corporation, it started attracting regular readers. We hit over a million visitors a month – then two million! Our friends at other companies started asking us if we’d be willing to sell them data we were publishing on the site. At first we demurred, since we were not a data sales company. But as it became apparent that they’d be willing to pay what we thought was an absurd amount of money, we agreed. Later companies showed interest in using our software and expertise so they could make their own data-driven content, and we turned that into revenue as well.
Suddenly we had a business model in place: we could write to our hearts’ content on the Priceonomics Blog, and occasionally use it to sell very valuable services to businesses. Shortly thereafter, we shuttered the consumer price guide that we had worked so hard to promote.
Instead of making content with the aim of getting links for Google searches, we decided to make great content simply because we loved to make great content. Sometimes, this content promotes our own products, but even this content is great because it uses all the interesting data our business generates. It’s authentic information that Priceonomics has access to and other people find valuable.
Our blog saved our company. It made us distinctive and let us stand out in a sea of other companies. We love our blog, we love writing about data, and we love telling stories. Our mission for the Priceonomics Blog is to bring new information into the world. This is a responsibility that we take very seriously, and we want others to copy what we did: create great content that shares information while generating sales.
Chapter I Summary: Getting Started
- Don’t “play-act” and emulate what you think content marketers are supposed to do.
- Your content needs to be great, because it’s competing with the best media on the Internet.
- Your focus should be to create a process that produces a favorable outcome when people at your company expend effort at making content.
- Find the overlapping area between great content and content that helps your company.
- Information is the single best thing to write about.
- Information = data, industry, people.
- This Handbook is about the process of creating and spreading great content.
Chapter II: Information Marketing
Have you ever tried to get a journalist to write about your company? It’s extremely difficult.
Put yourself in the journalist’s shoes: every day, she receives hundreds of emails from people pitching story ideas. Each and every one of these emails is a request for her to do five to ten hours of work to research your company (or whatever it is you’re pitching), and then write and edit something accurate, interesting, and cohesive. Imagine if hundreds of people stopped you on the street every day, asking you to spend this much time and energy to help them out. You’d go crazy.
Getting someone to write about you is basically a sales process. You’re trying to convince her to part with her time, in exchange for something you have to offer. You better have a good reason for it to be in her interest to write about you, because you’re essentially cold-calling her like a telemarketer.
Blindly pitching journalists is equally challenging. Instead, you should get the journalist to want to write about you by helping her do her job.
Traditional PR (public relations** is the telemarketing-like strategy. It’s a negotiation between you and a reporter. You are asking the reporter to help you out by writing about you, but what are you offering her in return other than a lot of work?
Journalists are most likely to write about you if it doesn’t create enormous amounts of work for them, and if the story is likely to get a lot of attention. Say you are a congressman and you accidentally share an indecent photo of yourself on Twitter. Everyone will write about you, because it takes very little effort to write the article, and it will assuredly be successful.
Then there are articles that require a lot of work for a journalist, but come with a high payoff for them. If you have a tip that could lead to a Pulitzer Prize, a journalist will invest months or even years on that story. But their bar is pretty high.
Lastly, we come to what this book is about: marketing by sharing information. This involves taking information that your company has access to – or can create – that is *genuinely newsworthy, and publishing it. The goal is to create something that helps other people (journalists) achieve their goals, while making your company look good.**
This means providing data that journalists can use to easily write articles that are interesting and newsworthy. Take a scan through The Wall Street Journal: every article about an economic trend cites data published by a company or third-party organization. When you provide information like that, you are doing valuable work for other people. Journalists will start coming to you as a source. You are bringing something to the table instead of asking someone else to do work for you.
Writing About Data in the Modern World
While OkCupid wasn’t huge compared to Match.com or eHarmony, it did have millions of datapoints about the most appealing topic in the world: sex. It had information about how attractive its users found each other and how often they messaged each other. OKCupid also knew variables like their age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
The average marketer might look at this data and say, “So what? We have data about people’s ages, big whoop.” But the OkCupid team used this data to tell stories that everyone wanted to talk about.
They had data about how likely people of different races were to send and receive messages asking for dates. They found that, of all their heterosexual female users, African-Americans sent the most messages, but received the fewest. They wrote about what features in a message – length, language, subject matter – maximize the likelihood of someone responding. These posts received millions of views and tens of thousands of shares on social networks.
The OkCupid blog was a masterpiece of data and storying telling; it also attracted a lot of press attention. By the end of their run, our sources at the company told us that OkCupid’s bloggers had a list of 300 members of the press, each of whom requested to be notified whenever they published a blog post. Instead of cold emailing journalists and begging for attention, OkCupid found a way to make the journalists come to the them – and it was all because they shared information.
Writing about data isn’t easy. The OkCupid team had two people working on its blog full time, which is a huge investment for a startup company. Most people who look at data will find it boring or impenetrable. As we’ll talk about later in the book, it takes a lot of time to pull a story out of a data set and make sure it’s right.
Once you write this stuff, where does it go? First, believe it or not, there are dozens of people who likely cover the paper industry and need things to write about. An analysis of trends in the paper industry helps them do their jobs. An interesting anecdote about paper is something they’d link to, because no one ever writes stories in which paper is the protagonist!
Beyond journalists, people like to read (and share) stories that are about their industries, hobbies, and home towns. If you work in the paper industry, how often are people writing awesome stories about the history of your industry, or using data about paper to make an interesting point? Or say there’s a lawyer who deals with tons of paper every day; when an article shows the data behind his misfortune, he finally has a way to convey that aspect of his job to his friends. Writing articles that people want to share is so important that we’ve devoted an entire chapter to the topic later in this book.
You can look at the paper industry and think, “Gee, what a boring industry.” But the reality is that there are interesting stories there – you just need to dig them out. To do this, you have to cultivate the attitude that everything is interesting. Every industry has a history, every set of data has an insight, and every person has a story.
Enterprise Data for Fun and Profit: The Airbnb Case Study
The actual work we do for our customers involves countless hours of writing computer code to get the customized data they need. We get the most out of that work by finding ways to make it interesting so we can write content about it and acquire customers.
Like almost every successful content marketing campaign we’ve ever run, at first nothing happened. But gradually, after hitting the front page of Hacker News, the post got in front of the right people. An industry blog called Skift, which focuses on travel technology, wrote about it. Larger blogs like Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and GigaOm wrote about it. Then the big guys started covering it: CNBC, The Financial Times, TIME, Businessweek, and The Huffington Post all wrote about our study and gave a nod to Priceonomics.
The media firestorm cumulated when actor Ashton Kutcher, who is an investor in Airbnb, shared the report with his tens of millions of Twitter followers. To this day, when major media publications talk about Airbnb, they mention the Priceonomics report.
We did not solicit any of these media features through a pitch. The press came to us, instead of the other way around. Our data created an inbound public relations process.
Of the hundreds of media sites that wrote about our study, not a single one contacted us to inquire about the analysis. They simply took the chart and wrote a story, no questions asked. Why? Because we helped them do their job of creating interesting content, and we made it easier for them by supplying them with easy-to-understand, new information.
You can do this too. What if instead of pestering journalists to write about your company, you created content that was so good that they want to write about it? That’s the process we created; if you create great information, you have a chance of developing a similar process at your company.
Other Data Marketing Success Stories
That day, every technology site wrote about the Future Advisor study. It was great information that helped reporters do their job: write articles that are likely to be popular. In this case, the data was about Uber, one of the most talked-about technology companies in the world. And it was data that settled the “score” between Uber and its arch-rival, Lyft.
Real Estate companies are notoriously excellent at turning their data into media mentions. Read a Wall Street Journal article about rising rent prices and you’ll likely see references to companies that sell rental data to investors.
People love this stuff and journalists know it! At the end of the year, you always see lists like “The Most Popular Google Searches of the Year,” or “The Year’s Most Played Artists on Spotify” because journalists and the general public love getting information. This is precisely why people are always quantitatively ranking things like “The Top Schools in America,” or the “Most Diverse Cities in America.”
If you write a story about data and make it accessible enough, you’ll appeal to that little data nerd that resides in everyone.
Many modern companies have proprietary access to information. Mailchimp, a company that helps other companies send emails, analyzed the most effective times of day to send emails (as measured by how likely someone is to open it) and turned the results into fantastic content.
This same strategy can be applied to any industry.
Every company has access to information that contributes to a better understanding of the world, or at least of its little niche.
Write About Information, Not Necessarily Data
In our first Priceonomics blog posts, we wrote almost exclusively about our data. If you recall, to power our first product (a consumer price guide), we had built a data set of used item prices. We did popular analyses on the prices of used bicycles, used American cars versus used Japanese cars, used e-readers, and used televisions.
We were seeing a lot of interest and getting lots of attention from these articles, but we got bored of writing about the prices of used goods. We decided to instead write about a market that was relevant to Priceonomics. In hindsight, this was a great decision. You have to keep things interesting for yourself, otherwise your enthusiasm will wane, and it will show in your writing.
That said, we only started exploring broader questions about industries after we’d mastered writing about our own data. We recommend you publish at least a dozen reports about your company’s data before you broaden your subject matter. Do not skip ahead just because it’s more fun than writing stories about your company’s data.
When we published our blog post “What Happens to Stolen Bicycles?”, it became, by far, the most-viewed piece we had ever written. The post generated over 100,000 visitors in two days. It drew hundreds of links that improved the SEO rankings of our database of bicycle prices, and NPR even featured us on a radio segment.
Writing about the economics of stolen bikes rejuvenated our blog and gave us more industry-focused topics to write about – topics which, in turn, helped bring new information into the world. We wrote a post called “Diamonds are Bullshit” that over one hundred thousand people shared on Facebook.
Since we opened the blog up to stories outside the company data set, the Priceonomics Blog has really taken off. But here’s the thing: this type of content does not directly lead to customer leads for your business. That’s not to say it isn’t valuable, but we don’t recommend you start out writing entertaining analyses on random topics. Our theory is that your content should be a mixture of things that promote your products and things that don’t.
If you’re ready to write a piece outside your data, you should ask yourself which topics your company can write about that take advantage of your industry knowledge or expertise.
What Other Kinds of Information Does Your Company Have?
Your company has access to proprietary data you can write about. Because of your industry and functional expertise, you can also research your industry more effectively than the average journalist.
But information is not limited to data: you can also write about people’s lives. There is an expression that the plural of anecdote is data. Other people say that the plural of anecdote is not data. Either way, telling a story that your company has access to can be powerful.
Recently, we sat down with someone at a technology startup who was struggling to find something to write about for the company’s blog. The company had raised a large round of venture capital, led by the storied investment firm Kleiner Perkins. The company’s founders had to figure out how to grow faster, and making great content was an essential part of their plan.
We suggested they write a post about what it’s like to to raise money from Kleiner Perkins. A few months later, this company published a great account of how its venture capital financing came about. They refined the idea we suggested, made it better, and told their story in a way that only they could. They posted the story on their company blog, and it generated exactly what they wanted: lots of media attention and visits.
Why was this a good piece of content? Well, the company knew what it was like to get Kleiner Perkins to invest, and lots of people want to know how they can get funding from one of the most successful investors in Silicon Valley. Authentic knowledge that your company has (or can acquire) is a very powerful form of information – even if it’s just relating a subjective anecdote.
One of the core tenets at Priceonomics is that everyone has an interesting story. Every person you come into contact with on a daily basis has a deep-rooted story about heartbreak, triumph, tragedy, or comedy.
The key to writing about stories, anecdotes, and small pieces of data is this: Stick to what you know. Don’t extrapolate and try to turn an anecdote about someone’s life into something else. If you want to talk about the founding of your company, just tell that story. Don’t try to stretch it into some defining moment of your industry, or a world-changing event; your audience will roll their eyes and dismiss your content as lame marketing. Just talk about what you know, and stick to the facts.
We tell you, “Here’s the information we have.” We’d never say, “Here are ten reasons you’ll love this product,” because we don’t know you or what you love. We’d never say “Google is evil,” because we can’t prove that, and we don’t know anything about their motivations. Instead, we’d say, “The data shows Google has gradually de-emphasized organic search and now focuses on getting more clicks on its ads.”
Our style is to give you information and let you decide how you feel: Here is information about a book we just wrote, here’s why we wrote it, and here’s the link to buy it.
So, what are easy ways you can write about this kind of story-based information on your company’s website? Start by interviewing people at your company and writing about them on your site. We know this may sound boring, but it doesn’t have to be! Everything is interesting, remember?
Find the person who has the most boring job at your company (system administrator?) and talk to her. How did she get interested in computer networks? Did a teacher or mentor spark her interest in technology? What sacrifices did her parents make to help her succeed? What is it like to be a system administrator? What are the aspirations of a system administrator? What is satisfying about the job?
You have to truly believe that everyone has an interesting story to tell, and that it’s your job to tell it properly. It’s so easy to look at someone’s job and think it’s boring – but trust us, it’s not. Once you figure out how to pull this off, you can write about everyone at your company an executive, a salesperson, a receptionist. If you relate your employees’ stories in a heartfelt way, it will also highlight the human side of your company.
After you’re skilled at writing about the people who work at your company, *start talking to your customers. In most cases, they’ll be thrilled to have you profile them. Tell their stories: what they do, their tribulations and triumphs. If they’re companies themselves, talk about how they were founded. Ask how they use your product, but don’t make that the centerpiece of their story.**
Some of the most popular articles we’ve written are simply the founding stories of companies.
Information is valuable. It gives reporters something to write about; it brings potential customers to your door; and it establishes you as an expert on your subject.
The best kind of information to write about is data that your company has access to. Even still, because you’re a smart person working in a specific industry, you can talk about that industry and its issues in an informed way. And if you cultivate a mindset that everyone has an interesting story, you can tell the stories of the people and companies that are important to you.
But as you write about information, it’s important to keep in mind that the upside of doing a good job is enormous, but the upside of doing an average job is absolutely zero.
Chapter II Summary: Information Marketing
- Public relations (PR) is a negotation between you and a journalist. You are asking for his or her time; what are you offering?
- Help journalists do their job, which is to create interesting articles that reach many people.
- Providing information that is unique, authentic, and interesting is currency.
- Information promotes your company and helps journalists write great things.
- OKCupid made company data interesting in the modern era and proved that it can really spread.
- Time and time again, data-driven reports by companies have spread like wildfire.
- To do this job, you have to believe that every company has interesting information.
- Beyond data, strive to understand your industry and market. This information is valuable and interesting to some people.
- Everyone has an interesting story to tell.
- Everything can be interesting – even office supplies.
Chapter III: The World Is Flat (The Level Playing Field)
Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of Paypal and the first investor in Facebook, believes that the best interview question is, “What is something you believe that nearly no one agrees with you on?”
Here’s something we believe: If you write something good, it doesn’t matter if it’s published on your obscure company blog or on The New York Times. It can be successful either way. In fact, it’s probably better for your company if you write incredible content on your blog rather than letting other publications publish them as op-eds or guest posts.
In this chapter, we’re going to walk you through how the content publishing world works. Consider it your playbook on spreading the things you’ve written.
Where Traffic Comes from Today
Thirty years ago, before the internet, the way you got your message out was to beg newspaper reporters to include it in their articles.
Around the turn of the century, Google emerged as the dominant source of traffic and customers on the web. To get your message out, you could still engage in expensive outbound PR. But, if you were clever, you had a new way to reach customers: by churning out content and hoping that people found it through search queries.
The front pages of news websites started seeing fewer and fewer visitors. Instead, most of the traffic these large news sites saw was from Google users searching for random articles. People would perform Google searches, get linked to a web page, briefly skim it, and then return to Google without really caring which website they just visited.
In the current era of publishing, social networks are surpassing Google search as the primary way people find content. Today, virtually every content website’s largest source of traffic is Facebook. Content has to be so exceptional that people will choose to go through the effort of sharing it with other people: On Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and even email. Like before, when someone shares an article on Facebook, the reader clicks through, reads the article, and returns to Facebook without really caring which site they visited.
Even The New York Times’ homepage is dying. In the newspaper’s “innovation report,” published in 2014, the company reported that less than 1/3 of its visitors come directly to the front page. The rest find random articles through Google searches and social networks.
The reality today is that publishers of content don’t have many true “users” – at least, not in the brand-loyalty, check-it-every-day sense that they did decades ago, before the internet, or even at the onset of the internet. When it comes to content, the sites that have many dedicated users are platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Google Search, Gmail.
While this is bad news for say, traditional incumbents like The Washington Post, it’s not bad news for an upstart or a startup. You’re on a level playing field with the big guys, because your content can be amplified on the web using the same mechanism that they rely on.
How to Break News: Priceonomics on Square
Priceonomics focuses on publishing information, not news. News is a form of information with a very short shelf-life. The “evergreen” content we focus on is relevant in perpetuity. But we can write about things that would be considered “news” – and when we do, we can do it just like the big guys.
To get this story out, we wrote a tweet about the article, and appended the words “tip@techmeme.” What does this mean? Well, it meant that we were submitting a tip to the tech news aggregation site TechMeme, a website that lots of tech industry reporters read.
An editor saw the tweet, decided our article about Square’s new product was newsworthy to Techmeme’s audience, and posted it to the site. From there, technology journalists discovered it, and Priceonomics was cited by TechCrunch, The Verge, Business Insider, and almost every technology blog.
This anecdote isn’t meant to suggest that you should break news on your corporate blog. We only did this because it took almost no time for us to write, and we were curious to see what would happen.
But this story offers two lessons. First, your content is competing on a level playing field. You can write something, publish it on your site, and it can be popular. It can go viral and be cited by mainstream media publications even if it’s posted on the blog of an unknown company.
Second, when you write something, even if you have a decently sized audience like we have at Priceonomics, you have to do some things** to make the content successful. So what exactly can you do?
When you write content, you must have a channel in mind for that content to spread. It’s important that you publish incredibly useful information, but unless you think about how that content will be distributed to the audience you have in mind, nothing will happen.
You need a plan for how your content will spread, and it has be in place before you start writing.
If you talk to an advertising agency, it will be mostly about Facebook, the largest source of traffic to content sites on the Internet. Someone at an ad agency can make you a “social media” plan, but most of that plan will actually be about Facebook.
This is not the way you should think about content.
Facebook is one of many channels on which content can spread. When you start thinking about how your content will spread, don’t start with Facebook. While Facebook is the largest source of third party traffic to Priceonomics, traffic from Facebook is a symptom of other content channels working well – not a primary cause of our traffic.
For most of our most successful pieces, we did something else first – something outside Facebook which made the article popular. Only then did people start sharing it on social sites like Facebook. Most articles we write aren’t popular on Facebook until many other things happen to make them viral.
After you write a piece of content, you need to take steps to get it in front of the right audience.
If you can’t come up with a plan for an article, write a different article.
Our First Content Grand Slam
The first enormously successful piece of content marketing we did was an analysis on the used sales prices of iPhones versus Android phones. We calculated how quickly each lost its value after initial purchase, and then we published a report about how iPhones had better resale values than Android phones.
Can you guess what happened next? That’s right: Nothing, until we *did some things.**
There are many blogs dedicated to writing about Apple and mobile phones, so we made a list of 50 of them and emailed each one individually about our study. We didn’t have any personal connections, so we emailed the generic addresses on their “Contact Us” pages.
Of about 50 emails, we got zero responses back.
So we thought about other people we could email. We remembered that a reporter at TechCrunch (the 900-pound gorilla of tech blogging) had previously written about our launch. We wrote him to see if he’d be interested. Here’s a lightly edited version of what we wrote:
Hi Josh, Hope all is well, thanks so much for writing about us when we launched a month ago! Just wanted to let you know Priceonomics just published some interesting data about how fast phones depreciate (iPhone v Android v Blackberry**. https://priceonomics.com/phones/#cell-phone-depreciation Basically the iPhone dominates in resale value rankings. Thought you might be interested in this! Best, Rohin
His response a few hours later: “Great study, I’m writing it up now.” He then asked a few questions about the data and put together an article about our study. A few hours later, TechCrunch published an article, “Study: iPhone Resale Value 63% After One Year, Android 46%,” which cited and discussed the Priceonomics report.
The TechCrunch article led to an avalanche of coverage from sites like GigaOM, The Atlantic, CIO.com, PCWorld, TUAW, Apple Insider, Cult of Mac, Macworld, and ZDNet. Some of the websites that had ignored our pitches wrote about the Priceonomics cell phone study.
The piece was an epic success, but it nearly failed. If we hadn’t emailed dozens of reporters, all our hard work would have been for nothing.
It isn’t enough to publish great information. You have to wage a campaign to make sure that the right people find out about it. More than 50 journalists rejected us, but finding one person who wanted to write about our study made the post successful.
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.
If you can get them to do that, then your email campaign is successful. If your content is good enough and journalists see it, they’ll write about it. But you need to be covered on both these fronts: the content has to be good and journalists need to see it.
This is what’s called an outbound process. You are “reaching out” to journalists to see if they are interested in your information. You don’t need to have personal relationships, or an expensive PR firm (which is not to say these things don’t help, if you have the resources); you just need to present the information.
Having one or two people write about your information kicks off an avalanche of other people who write about you. This is the sweet spot: “inbound PR.”
But the reality of inbound PR is that it doesn’t happen unless you put in work up front to make it happen. Sure, as you get larger and more successful, journalists will follow your company. If that happens, when you put out information, you don’t have to do as much work. But you always have to do some work so that the information you put out has a channel to spread.
you have to put in unpleasant work if you want your content to be successful.
Another reason we tell people to email journalists after they publish a report is that we want you to anticipate what you’ll say to them *before you are creating the content. What’s the hook going to be? How will you pitch it to someone? Why will it be interesting?**
The secret to getting inbound press is doing a little work that creates it. That means anticipating the channel that your content will spread through, and then making sure it gets there.
Supernodes of Distribution
When it comes to content, the internet is just a network of people looking for stuff to read and videos to watch. Journalists are some of the network’s “supernodes”: they curate information and then relay it to lots of other people.
focus your efforts on convincing a handful of people who are gateways to a larger audience.*