A primer on growing your brand - as an indie publisher or for your business
There’s a renaissance in blogging/self-publishing for indie writers & brands in no small part thanks to the beautiful usability of Substack: some timeless ideas on how you can thrive
This week I was excited to learn that Hot Takes, which of course you’re currently reading, is now ranked in the Top 100 Substack publications in technology.
This is super encouraging as I really only started a new independent media project when the pandemic had just begun (after a ~3 year blogging hiatus). Of course, I had a head-start as I already had a large/engaged opt-in email list built over 14 years of publishing independently, but as that was all a result of work done in the past it’s exciting to see work in a new platform trend up in organic, opt-in growth from sharing longer form ideas again. Interest in long form, a breath of fresh air vs the flighty and cacophonous world of Twitter is thriving, as the last 90 days of subscriber growth here shows.
There’s clearly a renaissance happening with blogging/self-publishing for indie creators in no small part thanks to the beautiful usability of Substack (which has helped make writing a joy again for me) and other modern publishing tools.
Over the past few months I’ve had discussions with several friends on publishing strategy for audience development, because there’s renewed interest here in developing a unique voice in the world. It’s one of the bright spots for me over the last year, because it shows how much people care about their industry, ideas and ultimately improving the world (3 cool sites to check out from talks I’ve had over coffee with their creators: Doomberg on macro economic takes - who is taking the world by storm and created one of the fastest growing brands in the category, Tiny Rebellions by my friend Heather who already has great traction sharing diverse and thought-provoking ideas, and Bonnie Kavoussi who is just getting started publishing but is a content marketer professionally and is going to do amazing). Goes without saying, I recommend you subscribe to all of them, all share really unmissable ideas.
Anyway to give back to the community for helping share Hot Takes posts around the web with your friends and contacts/helping me reach a cool milestone, today I thought I’d share a brief primer on how I’ve approached digital publishing since around 2004 both personally and professionally, plus lessons learned. The cool thing is, if you approach this seriously and commit to it, there’s actually far less competition than you think. Most give up far too soon. Your secret, almost unfair advantage is commitment over the long term. Dedication here compounds, always.
First up: why you should care about building your own media brand
I’ve given talks and written extensively in marketing and media trades the importance of self-publishing on your own domain or Substack and why, in a social media obsessed world, your own platform external of stream-based sites remains your most critical asset.
If your company is focusing efforts on social “outposts” such as Twitter and Facebook as the main hubs of your social presence, you’re (with some exceptions) doing it wrong. Twitter and Facebook (i.e. – networks where you do not control the signal to noise ratio) should, for a majority of brands, not be your main focus. Rather, they should function as outposts to grow opt-in for a publishing platform of your own (self-hosted or otherwise) – with that being the focus.
I understand the reasons for this. Twitter and Facebook are popular in particular because they are easy. It’s easy to update a Facebook page with frequency and engage with users there. It’s easy to share great links in Twitter that get ReTweeted and leverage it as a CRM tool. Even easier to set them up. But easy is not necessarily better unless it leads to outcomes. There are reasons that more robust platforms like blogging are less focused on. It’s a blank slate and requires creativity, critical thinking and planning. On the flip, there are many reasons why this is more valuable.
You need to grow a community through a social technology that lets users opt-in directly to content (i.e. – through email, where content is getting pushed to users in a way they won’t miss it). I would argue email — while not as “sexy” — is far better than Twitter or Facebook as a method of distribution. Twitter and Facebook (and even LinkedIn) are not opt-in at the source as they are configured as real-time streams. They are designed for you to miss things and focus on just what’s new, now. Ironically enough every single one of these companies leverages emails to re-engage users and drive them back to their platforms. Big tech shouldn’t be the only one that takes advantage of this, you should too.
Opt in at the source - growing your publishing hub
The problem with a focus on any sites that places a premium on real-time is your messages are always competing for attention with so much else. In Facebook and Twitter brands are competing for attention amongst user’s friends, business contacts, other brands and pure media players. It’s overwhelmingly busy, and you can’t win anyone’s attention for very long, let alone any deep focus (they are literally the opposite).
If, through the changing tides of user preference you continued to self-publish, you kept accruing equity. And that equity wasn’t denigrated through the creation of new platforms, rather your brand was made more valuable. Use new platforms to grow community, but don’t neglect your most valuable asset: an owned presence which plugs in to the rest of the web.
Independent publishers remain beacons of signal in a changing landscape, and the social web is still very much a problem in search of a solution. Publishers who are positioned as a solution and have an activated community continue to win in a world where no single network, web service or technology has a monopoly on attention.
The notion that every company is a media company remains an accurate mindset for how brands should be telling their story and building opt-in audiences. It’s the only way you can deeply form a connection with users and build a reputation that stands the test of time, external of any social media empire’s rise and fall which happens all the time. You don’t want to go down with them. If you pay attention to how the most successful media companies approach the web to not just survive, but continue to thrive it’s simple: to focus opt-in at the source by integrating emerging platforms, using them as micro communities and ultimately leading back to a hub that’s all signal, no noise.
The future will continue to bring additional networks, ways of sharing content / connecting and new corporately owned and independent tools, channels and services. This shouldn’t worry you, it should excite you. But only if you’re building for it.
Publishing as key tactic to a 4.75B $ exit
I’ve previously built several sites (some I’ve deprecated, some acquired) and as consultant helped brands large and small create their own corporate blogs that were rich sources of traffic/organic leads. A fav was Marketo, a Silicon Valley martech startup whose blog/content strategy I helped work on during my tenure at TopRank Marketing with an amazing team of marketers (brief case study here with more details on their results of just one program). They are one of the few startups who fully embraced the notion that every company is now a media company, earlier than most of the tech world and their blog was a top lead source helping them gain traction and become the first big marketing automation winner - they defined the category long before Hubspot was even in the space. The company was acquired in 2018 for 4.75B and having worked on their content (and measurement) during relatively early days I am certain they would not have achieved this result without the blood, sweat and tears that go into being a consistent publisher. It illustrates the importance of committing to this strategy over the long term: whether you’re an individual, brand or pure media company (Marketo continued to publish until the end and still does now under Adobe).
Smart digital growth: increasing returns, not just spikes
Smart digital marketing is set up in a way to provide steadily increasing returns bit by bit over time for your top-line key performance indicators (KPIs). These gains may be difficult to see over shorter periods, but over longer stretches they should become apparent.
Take great care that your digital marketing strategy is one which encourages tactics, to produce increasing returns that compound. A requisite to this is consistency. When you’re executing correctly, your blog, network, content, traffic, and interactions will incrementally add value to your brand and feed into your success. You will create what is known as a positive feedback loop.
It may be hard to see this in the beginning, but your efforts actually get easier and become more successful over time, provided you create the proper conditions to encourage organic growth. Following are several areas specifically where this is true:
Subscribers should lead to more subscribers
Whether you are building email subscribers to a newsletter or a blog, or even new users to a service, if you’re doing things correctly your subscription numbers should be growing naturally as a byproduct of publishing content. If people subscribe and you continue to deliver value, in time they will share it with their peers (particularly with the right calls to action) who also may subscribe, and the cycle repeats. This explains why it’s actually easier to go from 100 to 1,000 subscribers than it is to go from 0 to 100 subscribers. The jump is larger but the momentum is already there.
This won’t happen if…
If you are purely getting people to sign up through push means but don’t have pull means as well, users may have less affinity to share your content than those who opt in through pull means. For example, don’t expect something like purchased subscriber lists to grow themselves; just the opposite: they may not stick around because they are not a naturally built network. For this to be effective, subscribers need to be genuinely interested and passionate about the content presented. Also, if your subscriber base is made up of people like social media power users and well-connected individuals this will be even more effective.
More content published should lead to more social shares
Many businesses make the mistake of not consistently publishing fresh content over time to cover the spread of the long tail and provide plenty of “hooks in the water” for social users to re-share. In fact, some companies and even media entities that aren’t so digital-literate go as far as to remove content from their sites (which is bad for social, as users such as bloggers work to thread the past with the future). Companies that do this not only become less likely to attract referral traffic and shares, but they also put themselves at a disadvantage to other companies who are publishing to the Web on a frequent basis.
This won’t happen if…
If your content isn’t unique, useful, and updated, you likely will not attract social attention which will amplify referral traffic and key sharing KPIs. Being consistently awesome when creating for your industry is the only way to win in an infinite content world, which is requires a long-term, sustained effort. Don’t let “infinite” scare you, the bar is not even high to do great work (a not-so secret: majority are just phoning it in!). Be sure to keep tabs on social sharing KPIs in tandem with traffic to your pages from social. Also consider making content groups to analyze not just singular stories, but larger categories at a time. This will help you focused on what your users are most interested in sharing (pro tip: dig into your analytics tool of choice and pay attention to Multi-Channel Funnels reports) to also see how social is impacting metrics further down the funnel like conversions).
Greater share of voice should lead to more organic PR/word of mouth
There’s the old steadfast of web popularity: that popular brands, people, and products just get more popular and increasing returns happen for those who break an intangible threshold for their niche. It’s why the old adage of “any press is good press” rings true for many.
This won’t happen if…
If you don’t think through ways to be a legitimate part of industry conversations in relevant trades and build relationships with writers there, you’ll basically be invisible to those covering the industry. Creating a PR strategy is an in-depth process but one worth spending the time on, as PR can impact many digital KPIs that feed increasing returns.
Great digital publishing and optimization isn’t just about a big launch or inconsistent participation, It is a gradual process, which with continued focus over time will provide increasing returns. In other words: all of your previous efforts should help future efforts be even more successful and work for you while you sleep. Of course use big events and moments in time may be capitalized on to drive jumps in KPIs, but do so in a way that’s conscious of the long term.
Now that we’ve gone through a few tenants of growth, let’s talk measurement and analysis work that will help multiply returns…
3 key metrics groups specifically for publishers to sweat and questions they answer
1. Ad/monetization metrics – how is my site performing?
Assuming you already have a thriving site (after all, no site is going to be profitable or even generate earnings out the gate), analyzing and optimizing against monetization metrics is an important step to take to grow your revenue and be able to confidently reinvest in content, promotion, etc. Even if your site is new, understanding how you monetize with less traffic remains important, because it’s probably not worth your time scaling traffic if you aren’t going to see a good return from it.
Until going through the effort of adding a zero onto your page views (this is not easy) is worth the returns of getting that additional zero on your earnings, you should continue to test your monetization strategy. As a note, for most publishers it is smart to diversify revenue streams between advertising, some sort of product (either paid digital content like e-books, physical products like T-shirts), events, etc. to not make you over-reliant on one thing. Or go the increasingly popular and scalable route of paid subscriptions such as Substack/Revue and the many other modern publishing platforms provide. A final tip with this bucket: wrangle your monetization universe so you know what hard numbers you will have to achieve at the top of the funnel to get to the right monetary outcomes to support the site (the above image is via AdSense earnings for one of my sites per around 1K in rev, and if I was generating other revenue from it I would want to measure that, too).
2. Audience behavior metrics – does my publishing actually attract repeat visitors?
When looking at site analytics, I think a lot of sites (especially traditional publishers just starting to care about digital measurement) make the mistake of simply chasing more page views, social shares, etc. But audience reports in Google Analytics and other publishing tools tell the story for how difficult it is going to be to grow a site due to user loyalty. If you hit one spike but none of those visitors return, that was one-time revenue you might have earned from them (and it will likely be tiny as first-time visitors are not as likely to generate revenue).
The loyalty factor (related, I also just wrote an intro to customer lifetime value yesterday ICYMI) matters so much because you want acquisition/top-of-funnel metrics to grow over time, but this becomes extraordinarily difficult if you are on a perpetual, infinite hunt for new users and none return. Smaller/newer sites will have a greater issue with developing loyalty because it may take multiple times getting in front of the same user before they form that all-important habit of seeing your site as a daily or weekly visit (and hopefully eventual subscriber). Reputations are valuable, but of course like anything else that is of value in this world, take time to build. In addition to looking at things like new vs. returning visitors, you should also check out frequency/recency reports in your analytics tool of choice which for publishers can help determine your optimal cadence for publishing.
One more on this: a dead-simple tactic every publisher and marketer should do right now if they haven’t is look at the most socially successful content and put it in your editorial calendar to create additional posts in a similar vein. For example, if you drafted a resource on “top 20 ways to solve X problem” in your category, it may be worth taking a fresh look and creating a new version of that resource and re-promoting. The point is, you can look at what the web is organically sharing that you’re creating which provides a reasonable expectation of what may achieve future, similar levels of success. It’s especially interesting to find the content you neglected to promote well that ended up catching on almost 100% naturally. This is one of the strongest signals you’ve created something genuinely sharable.
3. Delivery/community metrics – am I growing a base of people for organic amplification?
Different from the above loyalty metrics, subscriber and community metrics (let’s go ahead and put those together for the purposes described here) are the number of people who have opted-in to receive your updates each month, and are actually viewing said content. With an ever-increasing amount of ways users receive recurring content digitally: social, apps, RSS/email, aggregators etc., publishers need to plug into the web in all ways possible and be agile/open to new opportunities to build community as they happen. Don’t try to tell the fish where to go, that’s impossible, simply continue to drop lines where they are. We cannot change the wind we can only adjust the sails.
Of course there are more things to take a look at from a publisher perspective than I’ve gone through today. Some not mentioned above would include content archetypes, narrative/conflict development and activating cohorts/tribes that generate the most amount of awareness and attention, your site’s best authors/voices, types of headlines that work best, advanced content tracking, etc. But it’s been my experience working with publishers both on the agency side years ago and while at Google talking to some of the web’s largest sites such as the New York Times, those with a passionate, interested community (the result of a focused strategy) are the ones unlocking attention and revenue in a durable and sustainable fashion for the long term.