You realize creating content is essential for building an audience for your product or service. That’s the easy part. But do you find yourself wondering if you’re doing this whole “content” thing right? Is there not a better way to accelerate growing an audience?
As a full-time writer, I get it. I started my career in local journalism, pouring my heart into feature stories, which often fell flat in terms of page views. It’s frustrating and disheartening.
Since then, I’ve spent more than four years writing hundreds of articles for a pretty well-known personal finance website called The Penny Hoarder. These articles have garnered millions of page views, and, yes, I know what it’s like to “go viral.” (Who knew people would be so interested in work-from-home Amazon jobs?!)
So what’s the secret?
It’s not enough to just do what everyone else is doing. You’ve got to stand out, find your voice, create a name for yourself and build a media brand.
Of course, this won’t happen overnight. But when will it happen? Alex Wilhelm understands your frustration as much as I do. He’s a senior editor at TechCrunch and the creator of Crunchbase News, a digital publication that garners millions of page views. He’s built websites and media brands from scratch.
So what’s the secret to creating a system for content that consistently gets views? He shared his go-to tips on an episode of Indie Hackers, and I’ve got a few of my own. Take a gander.
OK, so you may have heard this a time or two, but it cannot be said enough: Consistency is key. Let me say it again for the people in the back: CONSISTENCY IS KEY.
This is super important when you’re trying to attract a larger audience.
“One of the most obvious and well-known facts — but still least regarded piece of advice — when it comes to writing on the internet is regularity,” Alex says. “And the reason why everyone knows it's true is because it works. And the reason why no one does it is because it's hard.”
I like creating a content calendar. Set a goal for yourself. Say you want to publish three articles a week. Map this out on your calendar, and include the topic for each. This will help keep you accountable.
And if you’re struggling to write new content regularly, Alex offers up a smart strategy: Tap a few writer friends to contribute pieces of content to your site. This makes room for new voices — and potentially a new audience (think: their social followers).
And, hey, you can always hire a journalist or two. There are plenty of freelancers out there willing to lend a hand.
This may seem a bit simpleminded, but not enough creators write content that people actually want to read.
“If you write stuff that people care about, over time, they will stick around, and they will attach themselves to your brand, media property or account because you've provided them something they didn't have,” Alex says.
Now, figuring out what people want to read — what they care about — can be tricky when you’re just starting. (This is another reason why consistency is so key!) You’ll need to be patient at first, but as you progress, pay attention to your website analytics and social engagement numbers.
Take a look at page views, subscribers, followers — even the time spent on-page. This can usually give you a pretty good idea of what folks are attracted to content-wise.
And don’t just focus on what topics get traction. I also suggest paying close attention to headline structure. After all, that’s the first thing folks see when they click, so you want to make sure you are testing headlines and gaining performance insights.
Now, it’s worth noting you don’t want these numbers to rule your life (or content strategy). By doing this, you could get too hyper focused and miss opportunities to explore new content formats or topics. There’s something to be said for a gut check and ask yourself what you’re interested in writing and reading about.
Good writing is important when building your audience. You don’t want to publish content riddled with grammatical errors, awkward sentence structures or bad grammar. That tanks your credibility, plus, as a reader, it’s just kind of annoying.
But if you’re at the beginning stages of building your website or blog and you’re not ~yet~ a professional writer, don’t worry. Here’s Alex’s take on the matter:
“The cool part about writing on the internet when you're not good at it is no one's probably going to read it — no one's really paying attention yet. So by the time people pay attention, you'll have got some practice in the bank, you will have done a couple of hundred posts, and you'll feel better about it.”
Sure, sure. That’s easy for a journalist to say, but it’s true, and that’s what Alex did when he started his career at a small website. He could write and learn along the way.
Here are a couple of other tips to help you write consistently in the meantime:
📚 Read good stuff. It almost sounds too simple, but one of the best ways to learn is to read books by talented writers who you admire. “Whenever I feel my style going to sh*t, I go read more books, and I get better because you absorb through intellectual osmosis,” Alex says. “The Bloomberg Way” and “The Elements of Style” are also two go-to resources for writers. I also suggest regularly reading your favorite websites and email newsletters. Again, pay attention to those headlines! What’s making you click?
📞 Phone a friend… or your mom. If you don’t have an editor or a mentor to give you feedback on your writing, ask a friend or family member. Bonus points if they fall into your targeted audience. (Mom may not understand the ins and outs of VC funding rounds, for instance.) Pick up the phone and talk through your piece of content. What was confusing? What was lacking? What was good? As a writer, it’s oftentimes difficult to zoom out and see the big picture, so this type of third-party feedback is essential.
So, at the end of the day, just write! You’ll get better as you go.
Picture this: You’re on a hike, and you grab a handful of trail mix and toss it in your mouth… It’s only peanuts. Where’s the other good stuff? The raisins? The M&Ms?
The way people consume content is similar to the way they like their trail mix: They want a healthy variety.
You can’t write dozens of ultimate guides and expect to hold your audience’s attention. In the same vein, you can’t just write a bunch of clicky Buzzfeed-style list articles and call it a day. The people want variety!
You want to cover a variety of topics in a variety of formats for a variety of platforms. This will prevent reader burnout (no one wants to read the same kind of article over and over) and also writer burnout (you don’t want to write in-depth SEO guides on the reg).
Again, it’s super important you don’t get caught up in page views. They can be a helpful guide, but they don’t tell you everything.
Let’s say you publish an article on Tesla. It hits big and gets a lot of page views. Great — that’s like grabbing a handful of M&Ms out of your bag of trail mix. Jackpot! But that doesn’t mean you need to lean into it and only post articles featuring Tesla news from here on out. (Too many M&Ms will send you to the dentist’s chair.)
So, sure, your audience may be interested in Tesla news, but that doesn’t mean you should spam them with it.
When figuring out your content mix, use that content calendar I mentioned as a tool. As you plan your articles for the week or month, focus on variety. Maybe you write an ultimate guide article for Google at the beginning of the week. Then plan to write a quick article about a relevant news event mid-week before wrapping up with a fun listicle on Friday.
Bottom line: Trail mix Content mix is essential.
Here’s a final piece of advice when it comes to building your audience and creating your brand: Don’t do what everyone else is doing.
“The last thing you want to do is descend into ‘generica,’” Alex warns. “You don't want to become exactly similar to some other publication, you don't want to lose your angle on the world. You want to bring something that other people aren't. Otherwise, why are you doing it?”
Here’s an example: Content featuring a news hook (meaning it’s tied to a current or trending event) typically performs well on social channels. You can definitely cover any relevant topics like this, but that doesn’t mean you should just regurgitate a news article and click publish.
Find your own take, your own voice. Readers want to know: What’s in it for me? What unique thing will I learn or take away from this article?
At the end of the day, ask yourself what you want to read more of that you haven’t been able to find on the internet. That’ll be a “good sniff in the direction of where you should go,” Alex says.
There’s a lot of competition out there these days, but don’t let that scare you. If you’re reading this, chances are, you’ve got something important or unique to share, and, at the end of the day, that’ll be essential in building your audience.
If you enjoyed this article, check out this Indie Hackers episode with Sam Parr. (Yup — you know him from The Hustle!)