When should you start making products?
I chat with a lot of folks who want to make and sell products. They wonder when to create a digital product. Which is great—it’s fun to make things that people want. It seems that most of them fall into three camps (these aren’t like the summer camps with an underwater meeting place in the middle of the lake).
- Wanting to make a product but not sure what to make, because they don’t even know who it’d be for.
- Wanting to make a specific product, but not sure who’ll buy it.
- Wanting to make a specific product and knowing who specifically will want to buy it.
The first camp is the hardest to do anything about because it’s difficult to start doing business when you don’t know what business you want to be in. It’s like taking medication when you aren’t sick. You don’t know what the problem is that you want to solve, which is a very difficult business plan to act on.
A lot of people are at this stage—they want to jump the gun into making and selling a product, which might be a mistake (remember, there are no absolutes). How do you solve a problem for someone (which is what a product does) when you don’t know who that “someone” is? How can you write sales copy when you don’t know who you’re writing for, or why? How can you create something so useful someone can’t live without it, if you aren’t sure what use it’d serve?
Even with all of the above drawbacks, this still isn’t a bad place to be. On the contrary, not knowing what you want to make or who you want to make it for is completely freeing. You aren’t tied to anything at this point, other than a need to learn, research and start to notice things. You don’t have to bother with intricate business plans or ideas for courses, books, software, workshops—all you have to do is hone in on your skills, your purpose and who you’d like to serve.
The second camp, the folks who want to make something specific but aren’t sure who they’d make it for, are already in a bit of a pickle. That’s because it’s really hard to have a concrete idea of what you want to build when you have no idea of the product-market fit. As in, it’s hard to solve a specific problem, when you don’t know who you’re solving it for. Because it can’t be “everyone” (unless it’s ending war or stopping global warming or making sure everyone is able to eat). It can’t even be for vagaries, like “people with eyes” or “folks who have the internet” or “women”.
This camp also touches on a common dilemma I hear often: “How do I prioritize finding clients or making products when I’m just starting out?”
My answer is always that you don’t. Work at finding a single client first. Then another. Then another. And do this until you have a firm grasp on not only what they need but why they need it.
When to create a digital product
Which brings me to my point: it’s much easier to do 1-on–1 work than 1-to-many work. In other words, if you haven’t identified your audience or how you can definitively serve them, doing client work makes more sense than building products, especially at the beginning.
Sure, there are examples of people who went straight into products and skipped working with clients. But it is more difficult.
If you don’t know what specific people (i.e. your audience) value about your work, it’s hard to sell it en masse. Seriously hard. But if you work individually with people in your audience and really learn what they want, why they want it and how to keep positioning yourself as the person they want it from, it becomes much easier in the future to make things they want as a whole group.
A great example of someone who took this approach is the brilliant Danielle LaPorte. She started out doing Style Statement sessions with people, one at a time. Then, as those did well, and she wrote a book on it, she started doing Fire Starter Sessions, again, one at a time. Only then did she move fully into products. To get there, she worked with 100s of people in her audience, 1-on–1, and started to deeply understand things about them. So when she started building more and more products for them, they did well (see: very well) because she totally understands her audience. She had been talking to them, individually, for years.
If I can use myself as an example, I really feel like the reason my products do alright is because I spent years getting to know my audience. Decades as a designer, working 1-on–1 with people. Years honing my writing and interviewing, chatting with and calling up my rat people. Waiting to write a book until lots of people were asking me to write one—and writing one on a subject lots of people were hiring me to help with. Building courses and software based on knowing the needs of the folks I serve (again, through interacting and listening to them individually).
Which brings us to the final camp: people that know what they want to make because they know exactly who they want to make it for. Obviously not a cakewalk, but typically the easiest of the three. That’s because you know what to build because people are asking you to build it. And they are asking you to build it because you’re working with them individually. And you’re working with them individually because you know who they are, what they’re after and why they’re after it.
If I was just starting out, had zero audience, but still had the same skill-set as I currently have, I wouldn’t make a product. Yet. First, I’d look for a client who’d benefit from the skills I have. I’d work with them not only to solve what they came to me to solve, but learn why they came to me in the first place. Then, with that knowledge in hand, I’d find a second client, which would be a little easier, since I could position myself a little better—because I now know what that first client was after. I’d do this again and again, paying attention the whole time, for patterns in wants, needs, motivations.
I wouldn’t necessarily wait decades or years to build a product, either, but I would wait until I noticed trends in what my specific audience was asking me to help with. Because that’d lead me to figure out how best to create 1-to-many things.
If I waited for that (which is hard to do, because patience can suck), I’d be in the third camp: knowing exactly what I need to make, because I understand exactly what my audience is after.
This observation isn’t meant to be discouraging. Hell, prove me wrong and make a product while a part of the the first or second camp—I’ll cheer you on. I’m just mentioning what I see as a slightly easier road that can typically have a better rate of return. If you’re in one of the first two camps, you’re still in a great place, where you can change your mind, redefine what you do and who it’s for, and get a really deep understanding of why you do what you do for the people you do it for. This is a fun place to be as well, and doesn’t need to be rushed!
Enjoy where you’re at, because you won’t be there forever. Just don’t let your ego or internet thought leaders push you forward when you know it doesn’t make sense.
The audience and the outcome
If you want to create something for money, there’s an easy framework for quickly figuring out all the decisions you need to make in order to go from start to finish:
- Who it’s specifically for.
- What the intended outcome is.
That’s it. Those two points can guide your development plan, your launch strategy, your content marketing, everything.
If you’re not sure who you’re making something for, you’re bound to try to fill it with too many things. “What if teachers need this? And developers? And doctors? And construction workers? And…” AND STOP IT.
Make what you’re making for one specific, narrow group of people. A group that has common pains and is motivated similarly to fix those pains. That’s it. Expand later, if you even want to at that point (with another product or a separate and later launch).
Think about this. Say you’re making an online course about email marketing and you’ve got a lesson on getting people to sign up for a mailing list. Now, consider who your course is for. If it’s broad, you’ll have to abstract your lesson out so far that it’s not very actionable or valuable because you’re considering how teachers, developers, doctors and construction workers could use the information. You also have to consider teachers, developers, doctors and construction workers when marketing/pitching your course. Your content for your sales page and lessons is now 4x longer.
A specific audience should guide your decision making, like alaser beam. As in, if your email marketing course is for construction workers, you only need to consider them in what you’re creating, teaching and marketing.
Narrowing in on who your product is for is scary because, HOLY SHIT, now it’s not for EVERYONE ELSE. It may seem like you’re leaving money on the table too – money from those teachers, developers and doctors (all of whom, in your mind, are rich and eager). If only you’d have considered them as well, you’d be 4x richer! 4x more money fights! 4x bigger yachts! But math (and life) doesn’t work that way, because the less focus there is on what you’ve made, the less people will be interested in actually buying it.
Thankfully, having a specific audience means you only need to consider one, small group of people. And focusing on that specific group helps you make decisions quickly. What lessons to include? Easy, only the lessons that include the most useful knowledge for construction workers. What to say on your sales page? Easy, just the points that construction workers would care about if they wanted to take an email marketing course.
Getting specific isn’t just good for selling products. It’s also good for momentum because it’s the lens through which all your creation decisions can be made. If an idea or portion of what you’re considering you want to make doesn’t fit or benefit that one specific group, then it’s easy to leave out.
Now, let’s consider outcomes.
It may sound like shady or insincere “marketing speak” but the only way to sell what you’ve created is by telling people what their life will look like after they’ve consumed what you’ve made. This is a good thing, not marketing thought leader bullshit because the outcome is the whole reason you made the thing in the first place.
You made what you made because you want to help people learn how to do something better or help them accomplish something. And focusing on this is how you sell your creation.
Let’s look at an example: What statement seems more powerful to someone on the fence about buying your construction worker email marketing course?
“Learn segmentation, automation, onboarding, funnels and A/B reports.”
“Using MailChimp costs you money. Knowing how to use MailChimp’s features properly will make you money.”
The latter seems better, because it focuses on what a student will be or have once they’ve purchased the course – in this case, money! The former is just a list of things in the course – if you don’t know email marketing, you’ll be like, “WHAT THE HELL ARE THOSE WORDS, AND WHY SHOULD I CARE?!” It’s also boring, since there’s no connection between what those topics will do for you, the person potentially interested in the course.
Focusing on outcomes is also useful because people need the dots connected. You know why what you’ve made is valuable because you made it. You know this stuff inside and out. But newbies, beginners and currently uninformed folks don’t necessarily see the relationship between what you’ve created and how it will help them. That’s why you need to show them. Not because they’re stupid, but simply because you want to take them from beginner to expert (like you). This happens when the dots get connected. When you show construction workers specifically how and why email marketing will help their bottom line – and not just a bunch of buzzwords that are included in the course.
Who is it for? What will they get out of it?
When every product you create, every decision you make and every launch you have considers those two points, getting what you’ve made out there is faster and easier. And thinking about who it’s for and what the outcome is will hopefully net you more than 4x the return. You can always make an email marketing course (or whatever you’re going to make) for teachers, developers and doctors next. From your 4x bigger yacht.
Launching is a full-contact sport
- It doesn’t happen when things are perfect, because things are never perfect.
- It doesn’t happen when we’re ready, because we’re never truly ready.
- It doesn’t happen when we know how things will turn out, because we can’t ever guarantee outcomes.
- It doesn’t happen when we’re experts, because there’s always something left to learn.
- It doesn’t happen when we’re famous, known or popular, because those things are both fleeting and utterly subjective.
- It doesn’t happen when we’re confident, because it’s impossible to be confident when there are so many unknowns.
- It doesn’t happen we compare ourselves to other people or their launches, because comparison only leads to unnecessary suffering.
- It doesn’t happen when everything goes right, because something will always go wrong.
Launching is a full-contact sport. Whether it’s a book, course or some other product, launching happens when we aren’t sure if something will work and yet we move forward with it anyway.
Regardless of how many times I launch a new whatever, regardless of how much I learn from my previous launches or from launches of people far smarter and talented than myself, I realize that launches mostly involve just stepping to the edge of a cliff, hoping the water below is deep enough, jumping, then feeling your heart pound out of your chest as gravity quickly pulls you down.
You can plan for the jump and that does help a little. You can judge the distance between you and the water and that does help a little. You can know why you’ve made what you made (and why you’re now free-falling) and that helps a little. But all those littles don’t ever add up to a lot.
A friend of mine said that I am like a “product launching tank” because regardless of the outcome of my launches (since some go great and some are colossal failures) I just keep pushing forward at the same steady pace.
After thinking about that statement for a bit, I think it comes down to a few things. The first is that at the time of publicly launching anything, I’m already at least half-way finished creating my next thing. So the momentum is there. Secondly, the process is really what drives me – everything else is gravy. I also think it’s just a quirky personality trait of mine where I have to keep making things to feel useful and taking risks by releasing them. I wish I could turn it off sometimes, so I could rest or relax or enjoy doing “nothing” for a spell, but I’ve yet to find that off switch.
Finally, I make and launch things to make sense of the world. Oftentimes I don’t know what my opinion on something is until I’ve explored it thoroughly, used it and made my experience of it into something else. When I was young, I took my ghetto blaster (and several other electronics/engines) apart and tried to make new things with them, invariably breaking them beyond repair and having nothing to show for it. Maybe that set the bar really low for future launches. Maybe it just stoked that urge to answer, “let’s see what happens if I try this…”
By all means, you do not have to create and launch things. But if you do, know that simply hitting publish or share or release or send means that you’ve joined the ranks of the few who put their ideas out into the world for others to see, judge and hopefully… use and enjoy.
Launching is a full-contact sport. You can suit up in protective gear, you can make a game plan, you can even have a great coach. But at the end of the day, the only way to see how things will play out is to get out onto the field and play.
Most of the time when people think of “minimalism” they think of less stuff. Or tiny houses. Or 34.8 perfectly arranged items that all fit into a single backpack. Or, to a lesser extent, lots of tiny houses, each with their own backpacks filled with 34.8 perfectly arranged items.
But what if we applied minimalism to our mental space?
What if we decided to declutter thoughts that were no longer (or never) served us? What if we agreed not to add anything to our plates until something is removed? What if we achieved “inbox zero” for our brains?!? (Ok, I don’t even know what that one would actually mean, but it sounds cool, right?)
Paring life and thoughts down to only what’s essential means we’ve got to prioritize. Boundaries need to be set and tested. If you reply to emails late at night and on weekends, people you work with will expect you to be available at those times. Or if you never say no to friends who are constantly asking for your time/energy, those friends will always expect that of you. Because if we don’t set boundaries for ourselves, others will set them for us–and we may not like where they draw the line.
We can’t do everything. We can’t say yes to everything. We especially can’t have zero boundaries if we want to have the mental space needed to create things.
Mental minimalism requires focus on the present. Because focus only works if you’re focusing on one thing (it’s funny how many people tell me the number of things they’re “focused” on). The past and future have a tricky way of creeping into our thoughts, and if our thoughts now live in a tiny house with a meticulously organized backpack, there just isn’t room for many of them.
The past tells us things like our previous failures define us or that we aren’t the type of person that could ever do something we want to do. The future is equally awful at taking away our focus, by screaming at us that what we’re working on could fail, or that people will mock us, or that we have to say yes to something because it could be our big break, or that everything we’ve currently got might be taken from us (possibly involving a zombie apocalypse).
Don’t let those thoughts that don’t serve you into your tiny mental house! There’s no room, and they’ll make a mess of your carefully arranged backpack.
I like to think of my own mental minimalism as an MVP, which in this case, refers to: Minimum Viable Progress.
I can’t make progress in life if I overextend myself. I can’t make progress if my thoughts are caught up in the past and present. And I also can’t make progress if my mind wants to own a task that’s too big and daunting to accomplish in a single step (like having “write a book” on my todo list). It’s also impossible to make meaningful progress if I’m instead focused on vapid growth.
Our minds, like our houses, have a tendency of filling up the space available–simply because it’s there. Instead, why not fill that space with…space? That way there’s room to grow, focus on and own (both mentally and physically) only that which serves us.
Know your endgame before you start playing
Are you looking to make money selling things or are you looking to make the world a better place with what you make?
It’s an honest question and the two options are very different.
The latter involves being interested in giving value to someone other than yourself. The former involves doing anything and everything to add zeroes to your bank account.
Neither option is inherently wrong either. They just involve different strategies for execution and different metrics to evaluate success or failure.
If you’re simply looking to make money, the strategy basically comes down to getting what you’ve made in front of as many people, as often as possible—showing them how their life isn’t complete until they’ve clicked PURCHASE. You need to do what it takes to get attention and close sales. Success is much easier to measure too—you simply look at how much money you make. Did it cover the costs of making it? Does it cover your livelihood and expenses? Awesome – you win and you’re a success.
If you’re looking to make the world better with what you’ve made, it’s a little more difficult. Just because you want to make things better doesn’t mean the universe will align and market your product on SnapChat for you or allow you to manifest an audience through the power of patchouli.
Making the world a better place through the work you put out into it starts with you and how you answer the tough questions. Do you actually like the work you’re doing? Does it align with a greater purpose in your life? Is the message behind what you’ve made bigger than what you’ve made? Are you truly stoked to make it?
People are attracted to excitement, so if you’re genuinely excited about something, others will take notice. Real excitement is contagious, like the flu (but with less sniffling).
Though making something that makes things better doesn’t stop with you. It also includes being super valuable and in service of others. What about your work helps the audience it’s for? What about your work makes their life better? What about your work makes them truly stoked? Because when they’re excited, others will take notice of that too.
Measuring the success of making things that make the world better is also a little muddy. There are several key performance indicators (KPIs) involved, each of them based on your own unique purpose and passion. Sure, money or revenue can be a part of it, but they’re not the only indicators. How much did you enjoy the process of creation, regardless of the outcome? How much did other people enjoy what you made, regardless of the volume (as in, maybe only 3 people bought it, yet all of them used it in a way that positively changed their lives).
In measuring success this way, it’s fairly easy to succeed as well – you make work you love that’s lined up with your purpose and valuable to the audience it’s for. So, did you like making it and did another person like consuming it? Awesome – you win and you’re a success.
We get caught up and stuck in our thoughts when we change gears in our focus, or when we try to measure success for both types of work for the same product.
If you’re in it to make the world better and you only look at money, you’re doing your work and process a horrible disservice. Similarly, if you’re in it to make money and you feel unexcited or uninspired, you’re also doing that work and yourself a horrible disservice too.
There’s no such thing as a big break
Someone asked me the other day how I got my big break (i.e. the opportunity to work for myself full-time).
I told them, like Santa Claus or unicorns that fart rainbows, I don’t actually think big breaks exist. Sure they sound amazing (who wouldn’t want a farting unicorn?), but they aren’t grounded in reality.
We chase opportunity though. That one thing that’ll change everything. The unexpected call that will make you a household name. That single bit of exposure that’ll draw millions to buy your product so you never have to worry about money again. The influencer who, if they just noticed us, would tell their hordes of raving fans.
What appears to be a big break for other people is really just the result of not knowing the backstory. The actor that won an award who we’d never heard of prior spent a decade learning her craft and making connections. The business person who’s company blew up over night started four companies before that and two of them failed in the first few months. There’s always a backstory and it involves hard work and taking action towards something that may not pay off.
That’s how creative life works. No secret tricks or life hacks you just don’t know yet. No hacks that save you so much time that clocks run in reverse in your presence. It sounds about as sexy as golf pants because it’s just lots of work.
And it also sounds like a horribly dystopian vision of creativity, but I assure you, it’s the opposite. The struggle is where the magic happens. Unknown outcomes drive us to push ourselves beyond our limits to make something not just good but remarkable.
Achievement is never the result of a single action, it’s the build-up of all of our actions. So taking those tiny steps is where the magic exists in reality. Toiling over the work, regardless of how it’s received, is what should light you up like a bonfire on an empty beach.
When we sit around and wait for opportunities to show up, we’re not taking action. Worse, we’re taking the power and control to make great things away from ourselves and giving it to some unknown “big break maker” (who may not even exist).
We can take control though and we know how without hacks, Pinterest quotes or expert blog post round-ups. We just need to do the work that’s in us to do. We just need to keep making what we’re making. To not wait for someone else to tell us it’s ok, or good enough, or launchable, or valid. Yes, it could fail or only be a moderate success, but that’s outside of our control any way.
Want to improve your chances of being in the right place at the right time? Keep doing amazing work, putting it out there and then refining it. Those small but compounding opportunities are much more likely to occur if you’re doing that and not waiting for the phone to ring (who uses the phone anymore any way?). And you’ll be much more ready for them if you put in the work.
We can’t skip over the difficult parts of creating without invalidating the whole process of making things. The sweat, research, trials and failures, dead ends and unknowns are exactly what makes things great.
The process can be enjoyed as much or more than the outcome because otherwise, why bother? If you’re waiting for a big break, you might as well keep waiting for farting unicorns. Instead, if you’re looking to put your best work out into the world, you don’t need a big break to do that. You can start right now by putting in some hard work and giving yourself permission to move forward.
The myth of passive income
Few terms incite HULK SMASH feelings in me like “passive income”.
We might as well interchange it with “magic fairy dust” or “unicorns that shoot rainbows from their asses”.
It’s a false-positive in product data though.
It seems like money is being made while you’re: sleeping, binge-watching Netflix, eating cereal in your underpants, or jet-setting around the world.
The problem with this picture is that the work is done up-front, while little-to-zero revenue is being made. The allure of passive income makes it easy to forget all the hard work that goes into something before money ever starts coming in. After all, “earned income” doesn’t have as nice a ring to it.
Yes, products have the ability to generate more income than services, because of their 1-to-many relationship with customers. Whereas, with services, you can only take on so many 1-to-1 clients before you max out (even if you’re charging top dollar). So the allure of passive product income is there like a beacon, beaming out from a unicorn-operated lighthouse from the marshmallowy shores of Rainbowland.
I’ve never seen a single example of truly passive income — meaning someone made consistent revenue without doing anything. The myth is perpetuated online, mostly by people who haven’t made any products or are telling you about passive income because they want to sell you their product that teaches you how to make passive income.
“Make money in your underpants while watching reruns of Friends! Joey did it last month and raked in $34,873!”
An example like the above is easy to sniff out and ignore (even if, for some weird reason, you’re a fan of Friends). But if we’re not careful we’ll find ourselves chasing some version of that in our own lives.
I never make products because I want to make money while I sleep or hear beeps on my phone alerting me of sales, while I sit around in my underpants. I make products because I enjoy making things and providing value to others.
I also make products because I enjoy actively doing work. I don’t care about the easy road or hacking the system to make money without effort. I like making money because there’s effort involved. It’s hard work, and it feels good.
Products require investments. I’m not talking about Valley investors or series-A funding either, I’m talking about you, a person who makes things. If you want to make a product, you’ve got to invest your time and effort, hoping it’ll pay off. If it does, it’s because you did the work upfront, and not because a unicorn shot a rainbow out of it’s ass and made your product profitable.
My most profitable product is something I spent hundreds of hours working on upfront to make happen (and then I spend hundreds more hours refining it and even relaunching it). It makes me money because I’ve worked so hard on it — and not because I shit gold bricks while I watch TV.
All the people that I know who have a “passive income” from products also work harder than anyone else I know. They put in the time upfront to make valuable and awesome things. They continue to market, create and invest in their products. They spend endless hours a week doing interviews, making connections, putting out feelers and creating tons of epic content.
There’s no coincidence that the people making the most passive income from their products also work the hardest.
You can’t make money without doing work. This is a good thing. Because the people that work their asses off to make valuable products that help others are sometimes rewarded with sales that happen even if they’re not working at that specific moment.
On simplifying: pizza & complications
We like to complicate things.
Product launches, service offerings, websites, pizza…
Why do we do this?
Sometimes I think it stems from an idea that something needs to be complicated to hold more value. As in, an online course with 34 lessons and 197 bonuses must be more valuable than a course with just seven lessons. Or a book must be more useful if it’s 655 pages long instead of just a paltry 243.
Complications can lead to difficulties though. It’s harder to make a complex course with loads of custom features, and it takes longer to write a book that’s 655 pages (especially when it may only need 243).
When we make or build things for a living (see: entrepreneurs and creative freelancers), our minds are great wheelhouses of ideas, constantly churning. Our creativity is what makes us, us. It’s brainstorming. But too often we don’t then scale it back to its essence, to its minimum viable product (in startup terms) or its “here’s the idea with everything removed except what’s necessary to make it work.”
My favourite pizza is (vegan) cheese, sauce and dough. I’ve tried pizza with loads of toppings and it’s tasty yet but much harder to eat. Toppings fall off and the crust gets soggy (because lots of toppings tend to leak juices/water). So I always end up back at cheese, sauce and dough. I think I want 14 more toppings in theory, but in practice, I know that cheese, sauce and dough is the perfect pizza for me. Cheese, sauce and dough is the MVP of pizza.
For my business, I’ve gone for the cheese, sauce and dough approach. It’s currently limited to one product and one service. Right now, I’m focusing on my freelancer course and web design. I have many, many products that are built and even more services I could sell and offer, but they require too much time, energy and brainpower. Sure, I often want to (and sometimes do) add new things to the mix, but not before a lot of internal debate on if the end goals outweigh the complications.
It’s tempting to make it more complicated and add more products (or toppings!) to the mix, but I always come back to the idea that it’s easier to focus and get work done more quickly (and with greater quality) when there are fewer moving parts.
It seems like I may be able to make more money selling three books, five courses and two online teaching events as I would selling a single course (and no books and no events). But the time and mental space required to sell all those things vs. one of them would be so much greater.
Also, from a customer’s perspective, it’s much easier to choose between a single product or service vs. a multitude of products/services. Want to work with me? Hire me to create your website (and that’s it). Want to learn the business of freelancing? Take my freelancing course. I’ve got one choice for you. It’s a yes/no, instead of “Which one of these is right for me? Which one of these should I choose?”
The fewer the complications, the more likely you’ll see a better outcome.
I’m not advocating that you pare down to a single thing. Maybe (say, if you’re Amazon) selling one thing would totally ruin your business. What I’m asking you to do is to consider what in your life, work or otherwise, have you made needlessly complex?
Complexity isn’t inherently bad, but like most things, it needs to be questioned.
Maybe all you need is cheese, sauce and dough.
Content marketing isn’t the dirty word you think it is
People call me a “content marketer” often (not sure if it’s a compliment or insult), so let’s talk about how you can use the articles you write to sell the products or service you’ve got.
Too often, clients, friends, and confidants (i.e. people I talk to on Slack) tell me that they don’t have time to write articles that support their business. Then, in their next (digital) breath, they tell me how their business could be doing much better. When I mention to them that useful content could support and grow their business, and they could do a lot better if they made time for writing, they reply that they don’t have time to write. This, my friends, is known as a total logic fail.
Let’s start with what content marketing isn’t. It’s not simply blogging. Otherwise, there’d be thousands of teenagers on Tumblr who could put “content marketer” on their resume (although I’m sure some do, those pesky teens!). If you’re writing entirely for yourself, that’s a journal—there’s nothing wrong with that, but it won’t be effective for selling anything.
Content marketing is the intersection of where the writing you do serves the audience *and* you, the creator, equally.
Your audience wants value from timely, useful, and engaging information. You need your business to grow (whatever growth means to you), make money, and be continually exposed to new audiences.
With this type of writing, there’s always an intended next step. Buying something, signing up for a list, registering for a webinar, sharing something socially, ranking in a search engine for a term, etc. There’s some explicit action that happens after someone has consumed what they just read. Because they made it all the way to the end, they’re finishing reading now, and are looking for what to do next.
The reason I’m called a “content marketer” is because my weapon of choice for selling what I create is writing. I choose this weapon because it suits me the best, and aligns with what I like do and how I like to show up in the world.
As a writer, I know I can write. Whereas if I had to make cold calls or give speeches, I’d be a sweaty mess of “uh’s” and “hmm’s.” Writing has consistently and strategically grown my product business (books, courses, online events) to make up more than 50% of my income in less than three years.
So maybe you want to be a content marketer, too? Maybe it’s not such a dirty term after all. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not as much work as you think.
Here’s how you can maximize a small amount of time to use content to help both your audience and your business.
Start by always having a list of ideas for topics you want to write about. What do you add to this list? Questions your audience has asked you, related content to your most popular existing articles, using apps like BuzzSumo to analyze topics/competition, even articles you’ve read that you have a unique or opposite take on. Have ready access to this list of ideas (either in a physical notebook or a text file that you can access from your computer or phone). Add to it constantly and be on the lookout for new ideas to add to the pile while reading, watching TV, scrolling on social media, walking in the park, or even eating breakfast.
Now, look at the list and pick the first idea that stands out to you. You’re going to write a content marketing article on this idea!
Write down the following items in a spreadsheet (let’s use this article as the example):
- What’s your goal in writing about this idea? Ex. “I want to teach people that content marketing is easier than they think it is.”
- What’s the reward your audience gets for consuming an article about this topic? Ex. “They learn how to use content marketing to drive revenue and exposure in their own businesses.”
- What’s the main point of the story? Is there a secondary point? Ex. “PRIMARY: Content marketing is easier than most people think it is. SECONDARY: Writing consistent content takes less time than people think, too.”
- What makes those points valid? Is there data, a unique personal story, research that backs it up? Ex. “50%+ of my revenue is now coming from products—all because of content marketing.”
- What is the result a reader would see if they, too, acted on the main point you’re making? Ex. “Better/more business if they used content marketing correctly.”
- What are 5–10 headlines you could use for this post? Ex. “Content marketing isn’t the dirty word you think it is” “How I use content marketing to generate more than 50% of my product business revenue” “Why content marketing can work for you, in less time than you think” “If you’re too busy for content marketing, then you’re too busy to grow your business” “Get out of your own head about content marketing—it can help drive business”
- What’s the next action you want a reader to take after reading the post? Ex. “NEW READERS: Sign up for my mailing list. EXISTING SUBSCRIBERS: Download the XLS worksheet and actually use it.”
Guess what? In answering those simple questions, you’re now 80% (or so) of the way finished your article. No staring at a blank screen for hours or life hacks required, just asking yourself a few simple questions for each idea you’ve got. Let’s put the answers to those questions together a little better:
[A6 – Pick your best headline or A/B test the strongest ones.]
[A2 – Use the reward your audience gets to illustrate a pain point—what happens if they haven’t taken action.]
[A1 – Spell out what you are illustrating.]
[A3 – Clearly explain your point(s).]
[A4 – Back the points up with data or stories.]
[A5 – Describe what the outcome looks like if your reader acts on this.]
[A1+A2 – Reiterate your goal and why your audience cares.]
[A7 – Give a concrete next step now that they have the information. Bonus content, buying, signing up, sharing, etc.]
Without writing the article by staring at a blank screen, you’ve just written the entire outline, now all you need to do is make the sentences flow together in your own style. If you’re just starting out with writing, remember that writing is basically a muscle—it gets stronger the more you exercise it. So don’t be discouraged if things at first are slower than you expect. You’ll get faster the more consistent you are with your writing practice.
“Now Paul,” you might be thinking, “That sounds so formulaic and boring! And not at all like the creative person you are or—more importantly—that I am!” But here’s the thing. The formula may be … well … formulaic, but the key is all in how you apply it. How you take the information and make it into a flowing story for your readers. It’s like saying, “Oh, I don’t read fiction because they’re all stories of a character who starts out, goes through some things, and ends up in a different place.” The high level stuff IS formulaic—it’s what you do, what data that makes it interesting, and what makes it you.
With a bit of practice and consistency, there’s no reason you can’t spend an hour each week writing at least one of these articles. That way, you can get your words, ideas, and brand in front of your audience on a regular basis, and the more you write, the faster and easier it becomes. There’s no excuse not to carve out a bit of time each week if you have a business.
One extra thing I’ve figured out by doing this for a few years is that it’s easier to write a bunch of articles at once than it is to write just one, wait a week, then write another. Once you get into the rhythm and flow after writing one, you may be able to crank out another couple right after it. This helps you stay a few weeks ahead of your publishing schedule, which leads to less stress (also known as, “Oh shit! I have to release an article tomorrow?!”)
Staying ahead of your schedule can also help you commit to only publishing your best content. The formula above doesn’t guarantee greatness, it just helps frame content quickly. So you may find that some posts just aren’t that awesome. However, if you’re head of your publishing schedule by a few weeks, you can throw the bad ones away and keep the best for sharing.
I’ve used the above ideas to sell books, drive mailing list signups, sell courses, and keep my brand top-of-mind. It works for me because I get to share in a way I feel comfortable with: writing and teaching.
Using content to engage, teach, and inform your audience is a powerful sales tool. It helps define you as an expert as well as a helpful person, which leads to trust, which then leads to sales. All done in a non-slimy, non-sales-pitchy, really honest way. You help the most important people to your business ( your audience ), and reciprocation from them helps your business. It’s a win-win.
For those of you paying attention (which I assume is everyone who has read this far), this post was written using the formula I just outlined. I took an idea from my list of topics and went through each question, then put the answers to those questions in a order that gave me an outline. From there it took a little while longer to turn it into the article you just read.
The common thread between people who hire me to do websites, consulting, buy my books, listen to my podcast, or take my courses is this: they want a bigger audience. Hell, I too wouldn’t mind a bigger audience of rat people sometimes.
I recently gave a talk on audience growth and starting from scratch, and while I don’t have all the answers, I do know a few things. I’ve learned both from my own experience and that of the people I work with (some of whom have much larger audiences than mine).
First things first, this information falls entirely short if you do not start with the audience you’ve already got.
Your current audience—the people who are already listening, buying, engaging—these should be the most important people to you. Far above anyone you wish you were reaching. If it’s 10 people, 100 people, or even 1,000 people—if you’re not doing right by them, right now, none of this will make a lick of difference (aside: do differences lick?). Make sure you’re listening, communicating, and helping the people who are already paying attention to you.
The next thing to think about is your message.
This isn’t what you’re selling or what you’re writing about. It’s not even who you are. Your message is what you stand for. It is bigger than any single thing you do or say. It’s like a rallying flag that you use to direct your forward motion. It’s what makes you stand out beyond anyone else who has similar skills as yours.
Your message helps craft what makes your unique voice cut through the noise. It’s what draws people to you (even if many other people are talking about the same topic or building similar products).
Unless your message is interesting to both you and your audience, one of you will get bored and drop off.
You may think that developing your own unique voice is easy, since, hell, it’s your voice. Sadly, this is not the case, especially in writing. Finding your voice takes work. It’s part internalization, part confidence, and part a damn lot of practice. I’m not sure developing your voice as a creator is something you can ever completely win at—you have to continually check in with yourself to see if it consistently aligns.
Your current audience, your message, and your voice are the groundwork. Next you need to consider why audiences grow. Why do some people build sizeable groups of people who pay attention to them, and some people aren’t able to?
Growth happens when your audience shares what you do with their own audience.
Think about it. In order for your numbers to grow, people need to first hear about you. How do they do that? By listening to people they already listen to. If those people they’re already listening to mention you, you’ve got a good chance of adding them to your audience ranks.
In order for someone to want to share you with their own people, think about why you would share someone else’s work. Chances are, they said something smart, interesting, entertaining, or useful. You feel good about learning from them, you align with their message, so you want to tell others (and you do). Now you’re helping them grow their audience.
At the heart of it, audience growth requires each of the following things to be present:
- Value: if someone is not getting value from you, they’re not going to pay attention. So value must to be present in order for your audience to grow. How do you figure out what’s valuable to your audience? You listen to them.
- Message: what makes what you have to say unique? What do you stand for? An audience needs to react with, “Yes! This!” or there’s no hope they’ll tell their own people.
- Consistency: want to show your audience you give a damn about them? Show up for them. Regularly. This is why I write and share every Sunday. And it’s why other creators set schedules for sharing, because if it’s not a schedule somewhere, chances are it won’t happen.
- Generosity: trust and gratitude are built when you do something nice for someone else, with no strings attached. Do enough genuinely nice and helpful things for people, and they’ll start talking. You should want to do good things for your audience, because they are your audience.
- Evolution: one trick ponies never see audience growth because they’re one-trick ponies. It might be exciting to watch the trick the first time, but by the 1,547th time, it’s kind of boring. Unless there’s newness, change, and exploration on your end, there’ll never be growth in your numbers. Creators can’t sit on their past work and coast for every long. Especially not online where our attention spans barely eclipse that of goldfish.
Your audience is not made up of numbers or stats or metrics.
Your audience is a group of individuals who share a common idea, value, motivation, or pain. Each one is more unique than they are similar. It’s easy to overlook the humanity when staring at numbers on a screen, but there are people on the other end of each of those numbers. People, each with their own lives, struggles, and satisfactions.
Looking merely for growth is not enough, and frankly, it’s a horrible goal. You can’t just wish it into being. You need to take lots and lots of small steps towards it: test ideas, analyze results, and adapt/change as necessary. Save the magic bullet for infomercials (they’re awful blenders at any rate).
Why do you even need growth? When I was doing just web design, I only needed a few dozen clients a year. That was the perfect number of people paying attention for me to make a living.
For smaller products or services (like $5-10 ebooks), more are required. But, there’s also enough. Enough people where it still feels like a friendly small town and not a hostile city. Enough people where you can make a difference, and moreover, help them succeed. Because if you can help your audience truly succeed, they’ll reward you for it.
So when you’re thinking about what you can do to grow your own audience, consider these points we’ve just covered. I don’t have “5 easy tips to get the numbers you want, guaranteed,” but these ideas are worth thinking about if you want more people to pay attention to your work.