Contentions: The best content marketing example is Marginal Revolution

Marginal Revolution should be how every person or company measures success with its content marketing efforts. 

Let’s evaluate it from a marketing perspective: 

  • It has made authors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok undeniable leading thinkers (i.e., thought leaders)
  • It has become an incredibly effective launchpad for their projects (like Emergent Ventures, or acquiring PhD students for George Mason University)
  • It has been the medium for them to build an audience of millions of readers, many of them with equal influence—off the top of my head, for Tyler, Derek Sivers, Ryan Holiday, Patrick Collison, etc.

David Perell asks Tyler and Alex, “What kinds of blog posts lead to the most interesting inbound?” 

Tyler says:

“I think it’s the sum total of teaching a person how you think, is my guess. That’s hard to measure. That’s what I think gives you interesting inbound, rather than any, ‘Oh, that point about corporate tax was so brilliant.’ That doesn’t really happen. Is there such a point about corporate tax at this margin? I don’t even know. But how you think is what sticks with people to the extent anything does.

I really appreciate this from a marketing perspective, because once people learn to start thinking like you, they also start buying into your work and eventually your products. Case in point… 

Alex says: 

“I think that’s right, and inbound [could] be interpreted in different ways, but one of the most interesting inbounds has been students coming to George Mason, saying, ‘I’ve been reading you since I was 12.’…We have students who are reading us, who started reading us at age 12, who are now getting their PhDs. And that’s amazing, but yeah, it’s weird.”

This all resonates with me and will be how I advise companies to evaluate success moving forward. The measurements will probably still be brand engagement based, or awareness based; the end vision, and evaluating the strategy to get there, should be closer to Marginal Revolution than any other software company blog. 

There are two related fragments I want to close with:

1. Goodhart’s Law, which is often stated as, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

2. Shreyas Doshi, on Farnam Street, discussing measurement vs. evaluation: 

“You hear in business meetings that if you can’t measure it, you cannot improve it. These kinds of statements are taken as truths. And over time, I realized [that] used in the wrong context, they tend to cause a lot of damage that we don’t even realize because we feel like we are being smart when we say, “This thing must be measured before we can improve it.” The way I realized some of the flaws in this thinking—of “you cannot improve something that you don’t measure”—is [by] looking at my personal life and evaluating it.

I am a parent. And I asked myself, “Am I measuring how I’m doing as a parent, or am I measuring how I’m doing as a spouse?” And while I clearly improved in certain areas of parenting, I had not done any measurement there.

So then I started asking myself, “Well, if I’ve clearly improved in this area of parenting or this area of being a spouse, but I don’t measure it, I don’t track it on a daily basis, I don’t have any metrics associated with it, and yet I can tell that I’m improving in these areas, … how am I doing that?”

The way I know that I’m improving is because I’m evaluating. And that’s where I feel like there’s a difference between the idea of evaluating how you’re doing and measuring how you’re doing.

The fundamental observation here is that sometimes evaluating how something is going is enough. And sometimes if you try to measure a thing, you might improve the measurement, but you might not actually be improving the underlying thing.” 

P.S., A fun fact about blogs, consider Stratechery and Ben Thompson was the original inspiration for Substack!

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