How to distribute your writing

A friend approached me a week ago or so with a really great long-form article he’d published. 3,000 words, really in-depth, oozing industry expertise. I wasn’t even part of the industry and I enjoyed it. He asked me for suggestions, and my main question was:

What’s the plan for people finding this piece?

Our minds immediately jumped to search engine optimization (SEO). But many advanced industry leaders do not search for industry problems or questions on Google (for all sorts of reasons!):

  • Keywords or unbranded search terms are unclear (Perhaps even the problem itself is unclear)
  • The situation is far too specific or complex for a general search
  • They don’t trust a Google search to solve the problem 

SEO as a process is wonderful because it’s so tangible and concrete. It’s been decades of education, and the principles are simple, so people generally understand how to get a piece to rank. Even if they don’t, the SEO industry has promoted its benefits and processes enough to get people to trust it. If you’re a leader or marketer and you’ve got time, the risk of betting on SEO is not high—you certainly won’t get fired for trying to implement SEO. (This also explains why there are a gajillion SEO marketing agencies.)

5 years ago, I was working on Tommy Walker’s team as his deputy editor for Shopify Plus. We were writing articles for leaders of ecommerce companies who would not be searching for their problems, similar to my friend’s case. One of his key points was to ask, “What Slack channels do I want it to be shared in?” 

What Tommy meant was, unbranded SEO is just one way that information flows, and as I mentioned, it’s not always so great for pieces like the one my friend had written. There are tons of other ways that information can flow:

  • Social media broadcast
  • Social media messages
  • Social news (like Reddit and Hacker News)
  • Slack and Discord channels
  • Branded SEO (coining new terms like “The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex”)
  • 1:1 email 
  • Email newsletters
  • Syndication through industry publications
  • Podcasts
  • Interviews
  • YouTube

My friend could meet potential readers where they are and reformat his article to fit at each of these places—which means essentially creating a new piece of content for a platform (e.g., turn the article into a tweetstorm, or a LinkedIn or Medium post, or a YouTube short, or a really specific graphic that focuses on a key stat or concept which he shares in Slack channels). People behave differently, and have different expectations, at each of these places and platforms. Everyone is also sensitive to self promotion, and their guards will go up. Harry Dry shares a great resource on how he promotes his content, and spends a significant amount of his time sharing and replying to people. I also found Michael Lynch’s course How to hit the front page of Hacker News useful, as well as Ryan Fan’s piece on making non-curated articles successful.

If my friend wanted to bring people back to their website, they could do that too—linking to it from social news sites, sharing it with influencers (through 1:1 email with industry contacts, or friendly, kind, and well-considered cold emails asking for feedback), asking for feedback, developing branded SEO, for example. I love what Amanda Natividad writes on permissionless co-marketing (which is a great example of coining a term to match a new idea, which I just typed into Google!). Alex Turnbull shares his process for courting influencers at Groove’s blog

I’ve never loved the word, “Distribution,” to describe content (I prefer “promotion”), though I’ve adapted a clear way to think about it in Creative Acts for Curious People, which involves a stack of 10 to 15 index cards. It was originally written to explore distribution for a product or service, and I like it because it makes the invisible idea of content distribution much more visible:

Take two cards from your pile. On one card—let’s call it Card A—draw a picture of your [article], and write down a few notes about what it is and [the problems it solves]. On the second card, Card Z, describe who you hope will [read your article]. Create a specific persona (one of your future satisfied customers) and make up the following information: where they live, their age and occupation, where they buy things similar to your idea, and any other demographic information you think is relevant. Sometimes this persona is based on a real person you know or have interacted with while doing research for your creative project. If not, use your imagination to come up with a realistic character.

Tape one end of your string to a wall or chair, and then tape the other end at the farthest point of the room, again using the wall, a chair, or whatever is handy. At one end, use a paper clip to attach Card A—your concept—and at the other end, attach Card Z—your customer. The length of string that stretches between Cards A and Z is your distribution channel, representing the distance your [article] will have to go to reach the person you hope will use or benefit from it.

Use the remaining cards to write down, step by step, all the different hands your [article] must pass through (or steps your service must take) to become available and appealing to your customer.

Add more cards to your string until you have a convincing distribution channel. If someone in your life knows about business, ask them to walk along the string with you and point out any gaps or weak links. Refine your channel until you can imagine “shipping” your [article] all the way down the line.

Remember, good work usually doesn’t sell itself. It takes a lot of effort to make things matter. Pick a few tactics and focus on them, until you’re confident with each one. Remember that each time someone reads your work is a chance for you to build trust with them, and that trust is the key to doing business. If you’re completely out of ideas, ask yourself what problems your product or business solves, and what questions you hear a lot from people.

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