Stephanie Morillo (content strategist and previously editor-in-chief of DigitalOcean and GitHub’s company blogs) wrote a book titled The Developer’s Guide to Content Creation — it’s a book for developers who want to consistently and confidently generate new ideas and publish high-quality technical content.
We talked with Stephanie about why developers should be writing and sharing their ideas, crafting a mission statement for your blog and thoughts on personal brand, her 4 step recipe for generating content ideas, as well as promotional and syndication strategies to consider for your developer blog.
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- The Developer’s Guide to Content Creation
- The book did well on Product Hunt with 356 upvotes
- Writing a dev blog and need help? Schedule a 30 minute content session with Stephanie.
- What Admiral Grace Hopper really meant when she said, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
Stephanie, thanks for joining us. We are here with you, somebody who seems to have done it all; you’ve done lots, so you have a great background in this industry, and most recently you’ve done something that I think is for the first time - you’ve written a book, “The Developer’s Guide to Content Creation.” So congrats on publishing, and thanks for coming on the show.
Thank you for having me, I’m excited to be here.
So if I were to look at people who were qualified to talk about content creation for developers, it seems like you are very well qualified, working with Bundler, RubyGems projects, as well as editor-in-chief previously at DigitalOcean, and GitHub’s company blog… So you’ve been doing this for a while.
I have been. I’ve been doing content for as long as I remember, and it was funny when I learned how to program many years ago. I did it under the premise that I was gonna become a developer, but I realized that I hated coding… And it went beyond the whole “This is a learning curve. You’re gonna have it for a little while.” I was like, “No, I actually don’t like this.” But what I do like is when I find a solution to a problem that I’m having, I like writing about it.
I was in communications prior to moving into tech, and it was funny because I learned how to code, and most people would think the next step is you’re gonna be a developer, and I was like “No, I don’t wanna do that. I actually wanna be doing what I’m doing, but in the tech industry.” I love reading what people put out, what technologists put out, I love seeing how they promote their stuff…
I really enjoy reading good documentation that doesn’t make me feel frustrated with a product, and enables me to get things done quickly… And I love it when people pay particular attention to how they write things, how they present things. Because I think we tend to take writing for granted, we assume it’s a skill that everyone has, and a thing that everyone can do, because on some level…
…if you’re literate, it’s something you can do, and it’s something that likely you take for granted… But there’s a difference between doing it and doing it well, so I really appreciate it when people do things well, and I wanna help more people do it really well.
What do you think the secret sauce is to “doing content”? What’s the secret sauce there?
Well, frankly, there’s no secret sauce. You can ask anyone from Stephen King, all the way down to your sister who’s writing poems in high school. It’s writing more. Writing is hard, and you just have to write a lot.
And you also have to read a lot. It’s really just practice. The more you write, the better you get. The more you read, the better you write… Because when we read - and we’re not necessarily aware that we do this when we read, but when we read, we notice things that work really well, or things that we like, and we start to incorporate them into our own writing style. So you’ll read something and you’re like “Wow, that’s actually really good. I love how they did X.” And then you start using X almost as a template for your own content, and then you start incorporating that into your own writing style. So the best way to get better at writing is by reading more… And just keep writing, even when you don’t want to.
Yeah, it’s conditioning, really. The more you read, you’re conditioning your mind to see each other’s phrases, and how you writing something out, or lead a story or narrate a story… It’s similar to the way if you’re hanging around somebody more often, if they start a phrase a certain way, or begin speaking a certain way, at some point you will both eventually mimic one another, or vice-versa. So it’s almost like picking up good habits, I suppose. It’s almost like “You are who you hang around.” If you hang around people who are doing terrible things, they’re not doing very good in their careers, you might also do terrible things or not do very well in your career. Whereas if you hang around somebody who is, I guess, more accomplished, or has ambition, you might also mimic their ambition.
Yeah, that’s true. And there’s also the fact that if you read about different perspectives on the same piece of content - let’s say you were learning git and you feel comfortable enough to actually start using Git in your projects, and you used one particular book to help you learn Git, if you read more and more content related to that topic, even though you’ve already mastered it, sometimes you’ll find that the concepts stick better in your mind.
That was actually a lesson that I learned from my mentor, Steven Nunez, who taught me how to code. He told me that everytime he would buy a book on Ruby, he would always read from the first chapter. Even though he was already by that point a mid-level Rubyist, he said he always would read it from the beginning, because sometimes people would explain things and then you would learn one new thing about that concept that you didn’t know about before.
So that’s the opportunity also of reading things - it shows you that there’s no one right way of doing things, which I think is really important, because sometimes we’ll find our favorites and we’ll say “This is what I want it to be”, but frankly, there are other people who are doing it really well, who are explaining certain concepts or writing things using a completely different style… And as a result of being exposed to that particular style, you may now see or understand that particular topic in a brand new way.
So I think that’s also the benefit of reading a lot - you’ll learn one new thing that you didn’t know before… Which says a lot, frankly, because technology is so big, there’s no way you’re gonna know everything about any one single thing. It’s a wonderful way, I think, of just exposing yourself to different perspectives on explaining the same concept.
You certainly helped many authors get the first several chapters of their books read, because at some point you do feel like you’ve grown beyond the bootstrap, or the training wheels (for a lack of better terms). That’s something that you use a lot whenever you’re first riding a bike, and there’s a reason for that - so you don’t fall down. But I never really considered, I guess, going back – it’s back to the basics. You hear that a lot, “back to the basics.” We even did a show about that, “Back to the basics of Agile.” It was a very good show from 2019… So it would make sense to revisit what seems familiar or second-nature, just because you might learn it a different way, and it just expands your experience level with it, and your know-how of it.
That’s a really good point. When I was first scoping out what I wanted this book to cover, I was really trying to think what “back to basics” meant. And it was interesting, because at first I almost didn’t write this book. I was like “There are a lot of blog posts about various topics that I touch in the book.” Or I thought that it was foundational almost, that it was so one-on-one that no one would find value from it. I’m glad I didn’t listen to that hunch.
[08:08] Yeah, I’m actually glad that I didn’t listen to that… Because what made me realize that we needed to go back to basics was working with developer advocates. Developer advocates at most companies are just content powerhouses. They’re blogging all the time, they’re writing articles all the time, they’re contributing to documentation all the time, they’re giving talks all the time… They’re doing all of these things just at a level and a scale that most individual developers can only dream of, and it’s because that is part and parcel of the role…
But when I started working with developer advocates who were (I think) much more farther along in their content production process, I realized that a lot of them didn’t actually have the foundational knowledge when it came to content creation… And that’s okay, because they’re not content marketers. So there was no problem with that. It was more like they would hit a bump in the road and they would ask themselves “Okay, what’s next?” or “How do I measure the impact of what I’m doing?” or “How does this affect something else?” …like a company goal, or those kinds of things. And that’s actually when I realized “Okay, that’s incumbent on us to take a step back”, and I can show you how you can put all of those systems (very foundational systems) in place, that’ll help you get over that particular obstacle.
Why do you think that is for dev rels that this “back to basics” or this basic level of foundation you say isn’t there? Because many of them kind of fell into these roles, or evolved into this role? There’s no curriculum at school for that job, right?
It’s sort of a unique problem for a company, and then also a unique kind of person that can do that… Because it can be very taxing, because it requires a lot of (as you said) content output, and also travel. So there’s a unique kind of person who can do that job. Why do you think the foundation is lacking though?
That’s a great question. From my observation of developer relations, developer advocacy, is that it grew very organically. I think a lot of people were doing developer advocacy type work before that particular role actually coalesced into a function that we now see at companies… And depending on where the developer relations team sits, also dictates what kind of resources they have on-hand to help them build.
How do you mean like “where they sit”? You mean like adjacent to a marketing department do you mean?
Yeah. For example, are they marketing, are they their own team? In my team’s case, we sit under engineering, and the setup was actually very unique, because I was a content strategist that was embedded in the developer relations team. I wasn’t for marketing in that I was telling the developer advocate “We need more traffic on this” or “We need you to promote this.” I wasn’t dictating marketing strategy. I really was trying to help developer advocates maximize their content output and make sure that I could help them tie those into broader team/company goals… And I think the problem is that developer advocates have to produce so much and do all of that stuff, and I don’t think that the many teams that work with developer advocates are necessarily aware of what the gaps are, or they haven’t been able to articulate it yet.
Our team was really unique in that they decided to have this very unique function embedded within a developer advocate team, and it’s not something that I’ve actually seen before. So I think as a result, our team was really able to take their content production to the next level, because we were actively planning, we were actively talking about tracking, and dashboards, and analytics, and doing all of these things for the developer advocate team and showing them the value of that… Whereas I don’t know enough about how other developer relations teams work to understand whether or not other teams have that particular kind of functionality.
But it was nice for the developer advocates to have a content person that wasn’t really dictating what they needed to do. It was more like “Okay, I’m gonna show you best practices, but I’m also going to liaise between marketing and us, and try to be the bridge between both teams.” Because oftentimes–
You need that.
[12:07] You do. Frankly, there’s not always an alignment or understanding between developer advocates and marketing. I think there might be some tension between both teams or not a real understanding of how both teams roll up into company goals, and then how they can help each other without it being kind of like a power struggle for who is more important than the other…
Those power dynamics are very interesting, frankly. But I’ve had the opportunity, thankfully, to be in a position where I was able to play nice with both, and show both how we could work together without anyone stepping on each other’s toes.
Let’s zoom out for a minute… This area of conversation, content creation, makes a ton of sense for developer advocates, or developer relations teams. Your book is dubbed as “For devs who want to consistently and confidently generate new ideas and publish high-quality technical content”, but let’s start out with the premise itself, because there’s lots of devs out there listening who maybe aren’t even interested in doing that. Is there a solid sales pitch of why that’s valuable, why should they care, and what are the wins from creating content if you’re not a dev rel?
Yeah, that’s a great point. Frankly, developers themselves - not necessarily developer advocates, but the individual developer who is learning something, they are the ones that are driving the literature that is used to educate other technologies and other developers. We’re the ones that are writing the content that other developers are using. So someone is learning (I don’t know) how to use a specific framework, they decide that they wanna write about how they did something and share it on dev.to, for example.
So individual developers are doing this already, even if they don’t have any kind of corporate backing. They wanna learn how to blog, they really love community platforms like dev.to. They’ve seen people screencast, or they’ve read engineering blogs that they really like and they wanna try their hand at writing content that’s going to add value to another individual developer somewhere else.
So I would say the majority of technologists - developers specifically, let me get more specific… Developers specifically, the majority, are content creators. They are already writing short blog posts, they’re already recording screencasts and video, they are already contributing maybe to documentation for their own teams, if not open source documentation in other forms of writing… And they care about these things. We know that developers really deeply care about good, well-produced written content, because that removes any blockers from their capability to do something.
I always cite this particular stat, but GitHub conducted an open source survey in 2017. I would say one of the most salient points there was that 93% of respondents said that missing or outdated documentation is the single biggest problem in open source. Documentation which tends to be, for some people unfortunately, an afterthought, more often than not it’s a written artifact, and it shows you how to actually do something. It tells you how to do something. 93% said that it was a big problem, and developers are already filling the gaps for that. If they’re seeing that the documentation is missing something, they’re producing guides and tutorials that show people how to use that technology with something else. So I think it’s a necessity, because developers are already doing this in the community at large.
And secondly, I think from a – and I know people hate this particular word, so take it with a grain of salt… But from a personal branding or from a career development perspective, demonstrating that you can communicate clearly and concisely, and that you can present an argument or write out points in a way that enables someone to do something, is a very powerful sell. I believe very strongly that being a good communicator is just as important as some of the more low-level technical skills that are needed to do a role… Because you’re gonna have to communicate what you’re doing to someone anyway, whether that’s through written communication, whether that’s when you have a meeting with stakeholders and you have to present to them and explain to them why you can’t build this one feature in 24 hours… You have to be able to explain all of that.
So I think that learning how to write better in particular, but that goes to speaking or any other form of content creation, demonstrates (I would say) one’s rigor as a developer.
So you kind of half-apologized, I suppose, for saying “personal brand” or career development. Why is that? Why do you think people - devs in particular - have this angst against this idea of personal brand?
I think that overall there tends to be a tension with marketing among the developer set in particular. Marketing is met with a lot of suspicion. And I can’t say that I necessarily blame developers for that particular notion. We’ve all seen examples of bad marketing, or marketing that is deceptive… Similar to the concept of dark patterns in UX. We’ve seen these more or less neutral things be used in nefarious ways, or seen it done ineffectively and we find it more annoying than anything. That actually took me a while to get over, because I realized that developers thought marketing isn’t that great, but frankly, a lot of developers are doing marketing. If you do word of mouth, guess what - that’s marketing. If you’re tweeting to show people about your new blog post or your new podcast, you’re marketing. If you’re sharing anything, that is a form of marketing.
So marketing in and of itself is neither good nor bad, it’s really just a way of us showing or sharing with people something that we really enjoy. Obviously, organizations – every company has a marketing department, because an organization wants the world to know what they’re working on, they want people to buy or use their products, and that’s also not a bad thing. That’s why we build products. We want people to be able to use them.
So personal brand I think tends to have a rep because it’s almost like the commodification of a person, which I can completely understand… You know, when we start looking at ourselves as products or as businesses, as opposed to people and individuals. But I’m using “personal brand” simply because I don’t know that there’s a – if there is a better term for it, I’m definitely open to using it, but I do think that for the most part, many of us understand what we mean when we say “personal brand”, and that’s why I use that term… But with the understanding that it’s kind of charged.
[20:18] Let me add a little amen to that. I think you’re hitting on some of the right strokes. And myself as a developer - I’ve definitely had an adverse reaction to certain forms of marketing in my life… And I think it comes down - one facet at least - to authenticity, which is something that I value very much, and I think many developers do. And there’s something about a personal brand that feels inauthentic, because it’s as if you’re doing something for this public face, versus something you would naturally do. And like you said, there’s this ickiness there. In the past we called it reputation – I mean, it really is about your reputation, right?
So whether you call it that or you call it career development…
That’s why I’m confused why you feel so bad about it.
Well, there’s definitely a stigma around that.
There is an icky factor there. Maybe my roots for the matter might clarify things, or only make them more murky - is Gary Vaynerchuk. Many years ago I was highly influenced by him. And I still listen to him often, but I take him with a grain of salt, because he’s got a different energy than I do. I can’t keep up with Gary, I will admit that. However, in a time when (to my understanding) no one was thinking about this idea of personal brand, he was sharing this message of it… And I guess I can see, to some degree, the inauthentic sides of this public-facing shell, so to speak… But for me, it really helped me understand “What am I optimizing for? What am I trying to do? Who do I want people to know me as in my professional life?”
And not that that was inauthentic or whatever, it really helped me to clarify “Who is Adam? What are his goals? What is he trying to do? Who is he trying to be known as?” And that really helped me to figure out “Okay, if that’s who I wanna be, or if that’s who I am, that’s my identity, then what am I gonna optimize for?”
That’s a really good point, because one of the topics that I touch upon in the book is the concept of target audiences. When you write a blog or when you have a screencast, you have a target audience, even if you have not properly defined who that audience is; there’s some type of person who has some type of experience that you expect will read your post or resonate with your content, and in that particular chapter I discuss how to tease that out and to properly define your target audience.
So when you’re thinking about a personal brand, as you’ve just explained, you’re thinking “Who is Adam? Who is he trying to reach?” You have an idea of what this ideal target audience is and what they might be interested in, and how that relates to what you’re working on, so that you can, like you said, optimize for that particular audience. Obviously, you’re optimizing for an audience that you care about and you’re doing something that matters to you. It’s not like you’re optimizing for the oil industry; I’m pulling it out of thin air here. That’s not your audience.
You’re not actually creating stuff that might appeal to people in that particular industry. I’m guessing that your audience is developers…
…and those are the kinds of people that you care about. So what you’re doing is you’re optimizing for an audience that you care about, because you’re a part of that audience. So - 100%, I hear you.
So how do you niche down even further into that, or do you? So if I was Joe Developer, and I was thinking “Okay, I’m gonna start my blog, because I think that his is a valuable thing. I wanna give back to the community, and I also wanna establish my reputation and my personal brand as somebody who knows what they’re doing.” All the reasons we’ve discussed; I’m gonna write a technical blog. And one of the things you talk about - this mission statement idea which you have in the book, as well as what we’ve just started talking about, which is defining your target audience… I’m writing my blog for developers; do I niche down even further and say “This is for frontenders who live in Europe?” How demographic is it, and what are some examples of target audiences you could write for?
[24:11] Yeah, that’s actually a good point. Some people might wanna actually target it down to an exact demographic, and I think a notable example there would be a developer who is writing content not in English. Maybe they’re writing in Spanish or in Brazilian Portuguese, so we know that they are interested in writing for developers in Brazil or Portugal, and that is why they’re utilizing that particular language.
But I do think getting a little bit more specific about what type of developer is really important… So just as a way of helping you focus your content. No matter what kind of blog or podcast you create, you’re not gonna be everything to everyone. And what you wanna be able to do is to help you focus your content to meet the needs of a particular audience.
Now, there is the concept of a primary audience and a secondary and tertiary audience. Your primary audience could be frontend developers, but your secondary audience could be engineering managers. You wanna get hired for a job at a cool company, so you want a potential engineering manager or recruiter to look at your blog, so they get an understanding of your thought process and how you break things down. Maybe they also wanna read what kind of topics are you interested in and what you wanna cover.
And then a tertiary audience might be someone who’s looking for front-end developers in Brazil for some random project. Maybe they really need a developer, they don’t know where to start, they’ve found your blog through Google… They’re like “Wow, this person seems to be hitting all of the target keywords that we’re interested in. We need somebody who understands React Native, and we need this, that, and the third.” And then they decide to reach out to you as a result of your blog post. That’s happened to me.
So my primary audience is software developers - and I mean that very broadly. People who don’t know much about content, but are interested in writing… They love consuming content. They love reading newsletters, they love reading blogs, they love reading really good documentation… They may or may not be super-confident in their own writing skills. They might actually struggle with being able to write, but they wanna write better. That’s a desire. A desire for them is learning how to be better content creators.
A secondary audience for my book could be publishers. Somebody’s like “Hm. We need somebody to write a book about content marketing for developers” and they come on my blog. They are not my primary audience, but they’re nonetheless interested in that particular content.
And then a tertiary audience could be people who are interested in hiring a technical writer to write the documentation for this open source project that they created. They happen upon my blog, and they’re like “You know what - we’re gonna reach out to Stephanie because we like what she has to say, and she wrote this really awesome article about content strategy and open source. That’s the kind of person we need.” So there are levels to this; you have your primary audience defined, but you also have the other ones in the back of your mind. As long as you have the first primary audience defined, you at least have a starting point… Because it gets very overwhelming.
What do you feel about this then - I often hear YouTubers say this, and I often even see bloggers say this; they say “I’m creating the content that I wish was out there. The kind of content that I would wanna consume.” Does that blur the lines with target audience, or does it define it better, because they can empathize with their would-be readers, so to speak?
[27:46] For them, they probably think “Okay, I am my ideal reader or my idea viewer.” But what are the attributes? You still have to fluff out what the attributes of your target reader are, just (again) so the reader becomes real in your mind… Because you’re making assumptions when you create a blog post or you create a video; you’re making an assumption about what people understand or what they know before they come to your blog. So if I were to say that - and I’ll just turn it to myself, because it’s easier to use an example… If I were saying “I’m writing the content that I wish existed out there”, well, I know that I am a content person…
I’m very odd, in that I’m a content person who came to the dev space through engineering. I did not come through a traditional marketing path. I became interested in developer marketing through the developer track… And in all of my interactions with developers I realized that there were common misconceptions about writing or creating content, or even things that I learned as a result of working with engineers and helping them place their articles in different publications, or writing their first ever blog post for the company blog.
So if I were writing for myself, that would be the kind of person that I would be writing for. And it’s important, again, just to – you can say “If I’m writing for myself or somebody who’s like me, what do I posses that this person should possess?” Should they possess a certain amount of years of certain skills? Are they interested in frontend or backend? What are they doing, what are they interested in? What are their problems? You have to define what their problems are. Because at the end of the day, even if you wanna write the kind of content that you wish somebody else had written, you are not your audience. Your audience has certain problems that you are presenting the solutions for. So you have to define that.
You have to understand “What problem am I solving for this person?” Because nobody is gonna wanna read a blog post, frankly, that sounds like you were just laughing the whole time at your own cleverness… Right? Nobody finds that fun. That is the reason why it’s kind of important to separate yourself from your ideal reader and your ideal user, so that you can better articulate what the assumptions are that you have about this particular audience, and that you can better define what their problems are, so that you can create content to solve that problem.
Another aspect of this, in addition to audience you talk about mission statements… And I’m curious - you talk about crafting a mission statement that clearly defines your blog’s goals. What does a mission statement look like and how do you create one?
A mission statement is – the way I wrote it was… I kind of write the reason why my blog exists. I want to write a blog for developers to help them become better content creators, and my goal is to empower developers to become better content creators. So my goal - this is the reason why my blog exists, followed by what my goal is.
The mission statement actually came out of me working on DigitalOcean’s blog, their company blog. I was their first content manager on the blog. The company blog was – it’s really funny… It was a resource that existed kind of nebulously. Digital Ocean’s really great with their tutorials and their documentation, I’m sure y’all have seen it… Their company blog was used just as a promotional channel for the occasional feature release, or “We have a new data center here.”
So in that particular point in time we were publishing something like one blog post every 30-60 days, and I’m talking late 2016 into the first quarter of 2017. So when I took it over, I was convinced that the company blog could really be used as a way of getting people interested in the company. Like, “Wow, DigitalOcean is doing really awesome things. This is the kind of company I would want to work for”, and also as a place to pull the curtains back and show people a little bit more about how our engineering team works and how the products were actually designed, and what some of the design decisions were… Because a lot of company blogs tend to be “Look at us! Look at this thing we did!” And those blog posts tend to perform really well. But then there are also people who are interested in actually learning more about the inner workings of the company… So that’s what I started at.
[32:13] I didn’t start with a mission statement, I started with “I just need to get as much content as possible.” So I was interviewing everybody under the sun; the VP of engineering, I was having conversations with multiple engineers, I convinced the brand design team to write a blog post, I convinced HR to write a blog post on remote teams… But it got to a point where we were like “Okay, that’s great. Now we’ve increased the publishing cadence.” We have more content, now we’re publishing twice a month. Now we’re publishing once a week. Then it got to be “Okay, but why are we doing this to begin with?”
Yeah. “What’s the point?”
What is the point? And the question there was “What do we do well and what do we want the blog to achieve that’s separate but corollary to the other content channels?” Because every other content channel had a strategy. The product documentation had a strategy, the open source tutorials - that team had a content strategy. We needed a reason to exist, and that’s why the mission statement is important, because it keeps you from having to constantly pull that straws to figure out what works. It tells you “This is my North Star. This is my goal and this is my aim. And everything that I’m trying to work on, everything that I’m working on, is with that goal in mind.” That way, when you do hit a wall, it’s not actually pointing to that goal, to that North Star. It’s easier for you to disregard it and say “You know what - no, this isn’t really something that I need to be working on, because it’s not actually helping me achieve my goal.”
Something I heard recently regarding mission statements - but it’s more… What’s an easy way to describe it? The basics as the way you described the mission statement for you was “The goal on my blog is…” and what I’ve heard is a reverse of that…People tack themselves into beliefs. So if I was in your shoes, Stephanie, and I said “I believe that software developers have great ideas, and the one thing keeping them from that great idea is being able to communicate it.” So if you said “I believe” rather than “my goal is”, how do you think that changes for you?
I love that.
I believe software developers need to have a better communication lens to communicate their ideas. That might be one way to say it. But this aspect of “I believe.”
I love that, because I think it really centers the user and the reader in that particular statement. And you’re kind of stating, “Okay, this is something that I have anecdotal reason to believe…” You’re not stating it as a fact, so you’re leaving it a little bit flexible. But I do love that it’s “I believe this particular audience has a problem, and what’s keeping them is [the thing that I can help them with].”
I actually like that a lot. I’ve never seen that before, but I think that would function very well as a mission statement.
It also helps you to believe in yourself. You can do something wholeheartedly, every single day, and show up, if you believe in it, right?
That’s very true.
It’s almost selling it back to yourself. It’s the first litmus test - does it pass the You Test? Do you believe in it? If so, then you can write it down and hopefully lead others to also believe in that.
I like that a lot.
I’m just over here trying not to make an R. Kelly Space Jam joke. [laughter] “I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky…”
You’re showing your age, Jerod…
Owwwww…! Everybody likes Space Jam, come on… One of the coolest websites in history.
Billie Eilish likes Space Jam. She knows what that is.
That’s true, that’s true.
That’s right. So there’s a phenomenon with developers - probably with lots of people, but there’s a phenomenon wherein we want to write a blog, start a blog, and we find ourselves doing everything tangentially related to doing that.
Oh yes, I know what you’re gonna say…
The common thing is like “Oh, I’m just working on my platform, or my blog CMS, or say that I’m at Jekyll, designing my blog”, and there’s one post on the blog that’s like “Hey, I’m here! I relaunched! I’ve got a new system. I switched from a GitHub flavor markdown to my own markdown parser.” So we do everything but. And I’m just curious what’s your advice with regards to mission statements and audience and all this stuff which is kind of like blockers to getting going.
[36:17] Do you advice people to just start writing and then figure these things out as they go, or is it like “Hey, we need to sit down and really consider these things before I’m gonna put that first post out there?” Because I fear many people will never get their first post out if they can’t figure out who their target audience is, or they don’t like their mission statement.
I advise that they start off with figuring out their audience, their mission statement, and with actual drafting of their content before they get into figuring out what the right solution is. There is a section in the book that does touch upon different blogging solutions. Just to give people an idea, a sense of what’s out there, my general advice is to choose the platform that makes the most sense for you in that it’s not gonna be too time-intensive. For me, I started out with my blog – my blog was on Jekyll, and it was hosted on DO. In the beginning it was great, but it actually grew to be extraordinarily cumbersome, and I hated having to use Git hooks and SSH into servers in order to get a typo fixed. I was like “This is not gonna work for me. I’m never gonna use this site.”
So I actually moved over to a hosted solution. I moved over to Wix. For me it’s great. It’s all drag-and-drop, and as soon as I press Publish, guess what - it’s live immediately. I don’t have to wait for things to build etc. But I think we get too excited with tinkering and with the tech before recognizing what the actual point of the blog is. You basically just wanna choose a blog solution that’s gonna be relatively easy for you to maintain, meaning it’s not gonna be too cumbersome… If you don’t wanna find yourself having to update a lot of stuff, then you might wanna consider something else. Don’t go for the shiny technology first; figure out what your content is, and then have a for-real conversation with yourself to decide how much actual time you wanna spend on blog maintenance mode… Because it can actually take a lot of time.
Once you have this shiny, new thing set up, “Oh wait, now I actually have to maintain it” and “Now I actually have to work on blog operations in addition to being a content creator.”
So I recommend actually sitting down and thinking about your content first, before you start thinking about the solutions.
Yeah. You’re right, Jerod - all too often we get stuck behind these tinkering scenarios, rather than the writing. I feel like people often get stuck behind that, but then the next step to optimize for would be “How can I get an idea down first? What is my flow for capturing an idea?” Even if it’s just in a to-do list with a basic fragment of an idea, how do I then take that into draft mode, that is in a writing process that I enjoy, that I can find flow in, which is a key brain science aspect, to kind of get into this aspect of flow, because that’s what a lot of good writing comes from - shying away from everything else in the world and focusing completely on this idea, getting it out; synthesizing this idea from your brain into writing.
So going from this draft process, this writing process to a publish process, do you believe that minimizing the friction there is what a key aspect could be for many people who get stuck?
I have not heard that necessarily be the issue for people, the drafting to publishing, only because a lot of devs tend to be very particular about their preferred workflows…But it’s really about figuring out how to come up with ideas, where to store those ideas, and then how to actually sit down and start working on the drafting. I find that the actual – with the publishing stuff, I find that that doesn’t tend to be as much of an issue as the actual frontloading of everything… Like, “How do I sit down and come up with a bunch of ideas? How do I come up with a preferred cadence?” People get really excited in the beginning when they have a blog, and they have all these ideas, and you will see blog post after blog post after blog post.
[40:03] I remember working with one developer advocate who they had a screencast going on, and they decided to publish once every three or four days. It was an aggressive cadence, but it wasn’t something that was sustainable in the long-term. So you’ll see that they’ll kind of peter out after a few months or a few weeks, because they just went through everything that they had in the beginning, but they weren’t constantly seeding the ideas, and they weren’t constantly drafting something, or thinking a little bit further down the line.
It’s really about looking at content as a process like any other process. Think about the engineering process, use that as a particular metaphor if that really helps you. If you think about things in Sprint - I work on an Agile team, so we use Sprint a lot. If you think about how you break down each aspect of the task that you’re working on… The same thing goes for content; you have to come up with the idea, then you have to decide “Okay, what are the prerequisites? What’s the requisite knowledge that people need in order for them to start working on my post? What are the key takeaways for my readers?” and then there’s nothing magical about outlining. If you like to work on bullet points, you can; if you wanna use sticky notes, you can also do that… But the point is actually breaking down content.
I don’t know if this is the same for y’all, but I’ve definitely heard from developers that they just don’t know what to write about, because there’s this misconception that writing is – I don’t know, you just have like a muse or something; you’re just gonna be inspired, and you’re gonna sit down, and the first draft is gonna be the most amazing thing. I promise you everybody’s first draft is really not that great. And if we all sat around, waiting for inspiration in order to write a blog post, we’d be waiting for a really long time.
A lot of people don’t realize that you can and should write without this source of inspiration or motivation to drive you forward. They also don’t realize that you don’t have to come up with what you consider to be the most awesome idea ever. There’s a lot of knowledge that you have, a lot of foundational knowledge that people are actually interested in… And you can actually reuse a lot of the stuff you have. But again, because people don’t have the vocabulary really to start thinking about content as a production process, I think that is really what is inhibiting people from actually getting started.
So content is king, or queen, depending on how you look at it, as we’ve just been discussing… And it’s also the hardest part, right? Whether it’s getting the idea or putting the pen to the paper, or they keyboard to the text editor, or whatever it happens to be, that’s where most of us fail or struggle or strive, at least. It’s the 99% perspiration that sometimes produces a blog post, otherwise it produces a really rich drafts folder that never sees the light of day. So help us with content creation… What are good ideas? What’s a great premise for a blog post or a piece of content, and how do you just keep churning those out or coming up with them? What are your advice on that?
Yeah, so I’ll definitely give away the four ways of generating ideas that I outline in the book. The first one is write down a list of ideas of things that you already know very well, so things that you’re confident talking about. Two is write a list of ideas of things that you already have. You mentioned the drafts folders. Everyone has a drafts folder of things that they have thought about publishing. Maybe they started a blog post about something quite some time ago, and they kind of dropped it.
There’s also the fact that we have a lot of content that we’ve created in the past that we don’t repurpose. So if you gave a conference talk on something that took you 40 or 50 hours to write, to script and to create the slides, and you gave it at that one meetup or that one conference, guess what - you can repurpose that content and turn it into a blog post. You can take your notes and decide if you wanna pull high-level takeaways, or you can actually just turn your script into a blog post. I’ve done that in the past, actually, and it’s great.
If you’ve already done it for one particular audience or medium, there’s no reason why you can’t do it for something else. So if you did a screencast on something that was really interesting, maybe you wanna write some of the top five things that were discussed, or the top five tips to entice people to actually look at the screencast. That makes for a good blog post.
Something that you did on the job in the past, or an open source project that you were working on - talk about the process of how you actually built the thing or worked on the thing. So things you know, things you have.
The third way of generating an idea is trying to figure out what people need. Chances are we check out Stack Overflow, or even Twitter. If you’re there and you’re engaging with developers in a particular forum, and people say “Hey, I have issues or problems or trouble with one particular thing”, chances are there’s probably not enough content to explain how that particular thing works… So you can write the blog post, or the screencast or what have you, that presents the solution to that particular problem. So pay attention to the things that people need.
[46:17] And then the fourth way of generating ideas is to write down a list of things that you actually wanna learn about. I find that there’s a lot of value about writing about your learning process. When I started blogging - I started blogging back in 2012, when I started learning how to program. My mentor suggested “You should keep a blog just for yourself, where after every lesson you kind of rehash what we’ve discussed, you share some of your personal thoughts about it, and you’re kind of like re-teaching yourself the concept, you’re explaining it to yourself, just so you can gauge your level of understanding or where the gaps are.” It’s actually really valuable for a lot of people to use writing in that particular fashion.
So if you learned how to build a blog with Gatsby or whatever, hey, why don’t you write about it just as a way of showing people your learning process and your thinking process? There’s a lot of value in writing about the things that you really like to.
I like the learning aspect though, because there’s something that happens whenever you learn… You’re almost childlike in your ability to - in a good way, of course - sort of like be giddy about it. You have this excitement, generally, whenever you’re new at learning, and you’ve just learned something and there’s an accomplishment there to share.
What often happens too is that for the person coming down the road behind you, behind that learning process, is somebody who can identify with how you discovered the problem, how you began to learn this new thing…
And in some way, whether it’s literally getting to know Stephanie, or literally getting to know Adam or Jerod, they sort of know you through your writing, and you’re almost part of their tribe. A big piece of being accepted is having a tribe, and that’s almost an on-ramp to community.
I like that. To add on to that, there is an assumption that because you are writing, you have to come from an authoritative position, you have to be an expert in the thing that you’re writing about… And writing about something that you’re actively learning about is a wonderful way of humanizing the person behind the words. We don’t have to be experts for something that we create to be valid, and for it to be beneficial to someone.
I even think, for example, if you’re writing about using an open source technology and you’re describing your process, I think that would actually be value for a maintainer to see. We always say that we want beginners to poke holes at our stuff to help us see what some of the usability issues are with a particular library, or what have you. If you start noticing that someone is struggling with a particular aspect of using your particular technology or whatever it is, then that’s really good information for a maintainer. And I think it’s also nice to read about people’s frustrations.
I actually have a blog post on my blog, way back from 2013, and the hero image (the main image) is a two-year-old girls crying, and (I think it’s like) “Let’s try this again.” I basically talked about how I was learning Rails, and I was working on an old PC that my mentor gave me; he installed Ubuntu on it, and I lost everything. The whole thing malfunctioned, I was really having a hard time understanding MVC… So I met up with him at a Starbucks in Midtown and I was crying. I was like “I don’t know if I can do this, I feel really stupid.” He was like “Don’t worry.”
He kind of like sketched out what MVC is on a piece of paper, and then helped me troubleshoot the machine, and then by the end of the post I’m like “Okay, I’m a little bit calm now, so let me get my app started again, and we’ll get back into it.” Those things are valuable, because it’s important for people to feel like they’re not the only ones – technology unfortunately has the effect of making us feel like we’re the dumb ones, as opposed to…
[50:09] We’re dealing with something that is hard, and something that is imperfect; it’s not us that’s broken, really, it’s just that we’ve come up with imperfect solutions to problems that are really complex, and as a result they’re kind of difficult to grasp… And that’s not on any one person. So I love those kinds of blog posts, I think they’re great.
It shows the humanity, right?
Yeah, a hundred percent.
One of the core reasons we are [unintelligible 00:50:33.19] and we’re trying to care for or help other humans solve problems… And I think we get lost in this idea that it’s just tech, or it’s just software, it’s just this startup, or just this mission, that we forget the humans, the humanity behind things. We have to be – it’s like a back to the basics of humanity.
There’s also a blind spot that comes with expertise, which makes it really difficult to write well beginner content, as an expert… Because you have this gap; maybe you’re not the expert who created the thing, but maybe you’re a person who started as a beginner, and then strove for a certain amount of months or years, and now are expert. Maybe you’re an expert Ruby on Rails developer. It’s very difficult for that person to write in such a way that considers the beginner’s mindset enough to lead them to success… Not because of a failure of the person who’s writing, but because they’re so far removed from being a beginner that there’s so many things they don’t realize they just know inherently or through experience, that a beginner does not have.
So I really like the learn aspect of writing, because you’re really well positioned to teach somebody who follows after you, because you were just where they are. You weren’t there five years ago, you were there while you were writing that blog post.
It’s fresh, yeah. Stephanie, something else you mentioned too was this aspect - and I think you didn’t say it, but I’m gonna put some words in your mouth and you can agree if you think it makes sense, but… This hub-and-spoke model.
Can’t she disagree…?
It sounds like if you have this hub as an idea, and the spoke being the medium that you publish to - say it’s Twitter, or a blog post, or a talk… Being able to have this big idea and synthesize it into different mediums; can you revisit the – to me it seems like people don’t often think about that. And maybe an easy analogy might be you have this big idea for, let’s say, a podcast episode, that makes a lot of sense, but then from that is an easy blog post that sort of takes the bigger, overarching idea… And then taking a similar aspect and saying “Okay, how do I take that same idea and condense it down to a single Instagram image, or a story?” …so that I can now be on these different social platforms that have their own audiences, their own different social structures to them, that bring awareness to your ideas.
I love that, I agree with that completely. When you think about the amount of time and effort that is required to create a piece of content – and I like to use conference talks, only because I think they tend to be (for me anyway) rather labor-intensive…
A lot of time involved…
It takes me quite some time to come up with the idea, write the script, and then you have to have the slides, and then you spend time practicing and giving mock talks to your significant other, which is what I tend to do when I try to practice… You have dedicated all of this time to that one thing, but everyone is not gonna necessarily go to that conference recording if it’s available.
This is a pet peeve of mine with conference talks - when people are asking for your conference slides, they’re not asking for the one or two or three or 40 slides with memes and emojis on them. What they’re actually asking for is the information and the content that you conveyed, more often verbally, than the stuff that’s actually in those slides.
The big idea.
[53:55] Yeah, you have all of this information that can be used in a medium that will make it more accessible and broader to people. Not everyone reads blog posts, which is why short tweets, like 30 seconds of video, short podcasts, long podcasts etc. That’s why the different mediums cater to different people. But I think when you repurpose your content for different mediums, you’re broadening your reach.
I’ll use you all as an example. You recognize that everyone won’t necessarily sit down for an 80-minute podcast, but you transcribed it and you’re making it available on that page to allow someone to read along, should they wish. Because for some people, that might be less demands on their time maybe to read, than it is for a podcast. But then again, you’re making it available on audio, because there’s some people who on their commutes to work really enjoy listening to these kinds of podcasts. So you’re maximizing your reach, and you’re also making it accessible for folks who might not readily be able to consume the content as audio. And that I think is the important part - if you worked on something that you’re really proud of, understand that there might be other ways of getting the message out there.
For example, me promoting my book. I share images, and I added text to all of my images, of the table of contents. I created an excerpt of the intro and I shot that out to my newsletter list, and then I linked out to that from Twitter, because my content is behind a paywall, which is a price (you have to pay for my book). But if you wanna get a sense of the information that’s in my book, here is some of the content, here’s what you can expect to learn.
I think when we start to think about it that way, and about broadening our reach, it actually gives our content a longer lifespan. It makes it a little bit less ephemeral, and it brings new people to your content. If you wrote a blog post that was like “Quick show notes for a Changelog episode”, some people might not be sure if they wanna tune into Changelog, but because they some of the pulled quotes that you pulled out, and some of the really interesting points, and you include those in your show notes, now someone says “You know what - as a result of that, I think I’m gonna press Play and tune into this.” So I think that’s the thing - you’ve gotta incentivize people in different ways, to tune in.
This is something we’ve been thinking about quite heavily, which is obviously why it’s near and dear to our hearts, and fresh - this aspect of this on-ramp. Because not everybody, as you said, is gonna wanna give the commitment and time to a 60-minute, an 80-minute, or even a half-hour podcast, if there’s no incentive for them to do so. We had actually quite heavily thought about “What are some easy on-ramps that just make sense?” Jerod’s been doing a great job of pulling out different 90-second clips onto Twitter, that sort of encapsulate an idea, we’ve done some things around blogging that sort of take the bigger idea of a segment… And pull from, as you said, our transcripts and turn that into a blog post, that you may discover as a reader.
And I’ll say, how often have I found a great talk because they blogged about their talk? It’s the same idea. How do you not just simply stick to this one single hub that you sort of established some spoke that says “Here’s my big idea”, but “Here are some easy ways to discover some nuances about it that you might like, and then decide to invest more time.”
Yeah, there’s always listing out the takeaways. Some of the key takeaways is really important. And I know you all don’t do this - you don’t just drop a podcast on Twitter and say “Hey y’all, Stephanie, who is somebody you may not know, was our guest this week on our podcast.” Nobody is gonna wanna tune into that, because they don’t know who I am, they don’t know what we talked about… They see that it’s 80 minutes, they’re like “Okay, that’s nice. I’m gonna keep scrolling.”
But in this particular case, maybe Jerod posts some bloopers on Instagram, with some funny audio. He does the same on Twitter, so that people are like “Whoa, that’s actually really cool.” Or like “Check out these tips that Stephanie gave the Changelog crew, a.k.a. the founders of a media empire”, which will then tell people “Okay, well, you know… If she can do this for them, maybe she could do something for me”, right? [laughter]
[58:06] You tease the interesting things out, the interesting quotes, the 90-second clips, to give people a little bit of color. 90 seconds is great, because you can listen to that at work even, during your lunch break, and say “Okay, I’m gonna bookmark this so I can listen to it later.”
I think what’s important is that developers are clear about what the takeaways are for the reader. Why should the reader or the listener actually care about this? We know that you as the creator care about it, but why should I care about this podcast? What is it gonna do for me? And once you answer the “What is it gonna do for me?”, you put that out there.
When I went to promote my book, I put “You’re gonna get a hundred and something pages of content, there are gonna be 17 guided exercises, there are 14 worksheets that’ll show you how to create a content calendar. It’s downloadable”, again, I put the table of contents… And I used a lot of funny images. I did bad Photoshops jobs of the cover of my book on Billie Eilish’s Grammies. I did some on Rihanna and Cardi B reading a book, and I had my cover photoshopped on it… Because the humor gets people interested.
You do stuff like that, and it doesn’t always have to be super-serious… But if you do things with a way that adds your personality to it, it’ll at least make people intrigued.
Yeah. Seth Godin wrote a book called Purple Cow; I believe that’s the name of it, Purple Cow… And you wanna stand out, for once; that’s what you’re doing - you wanna stand out, you wanna be in pop culture and use something like that to catch people’s attention… But then throw a book that’s not at all relevant to their music or their careers into the mix, and that makes sense.
Something else you mentioned - there’s this idea of “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” So you may wanna eat the steak, but the thing that you’re trying to sell is the way it smells, the way it sizzles, the atmosphere. The steak is the steak. Sell the sizzle.
I love that… Sell the sizzle.
Another correlating idea that’s out there is the Why. Sell the Why, versus just simply – that’s a lot of what Apple does in the marketing, is they sell the Why you want it, not the thing that they’re selling you.
Yes, yes. A hundred and ten percent. And I think if more folks started asking themselves those questions, it would lead to more interesting answers, I think.
Stephanie, I’m stuck back on your bloopers idea, because that presupposes that we make mistakes… And as you know, we never mess up.
Oh, never. Absolutely.
[laughs] So… So sorry, we can’t do that one.
I’m sorry. Yeah, redact when I say bloopers. [laughter]
So this is interesting, because through this hub-and-spoke, if that’s the thing we’re talking about here - but really, I think repurposing of content, like take a conference talk and turn it into a blog post, take a podcast, produce these different assets… You’re kind of blending the two concepts of content, because you’re really kind of creating derivative, but still unique and different content, with promotion.
It’s going where the people are and repurposing the content for these different platforms, which I think is very cool… Are there any other low-hanging fruit, when it comes to promotions? Let’s just take the stereotypical developer blog post… “Ten reasons why I think React is the next big thing”, and it was written five years ago, or whatever. Let’s say I have that in my back pocket, I just hit Publish… Is there low-hanging fruit for promotion? Most developers send a tweet out and then that’s it. They hope that it catches fire, and if it doesn’t, they’re pretty much done. What’s the “best practices”, or what would you suggest – what do you do with your own content in terms of promotion?
That’s a good question. So yeah, social media is one thing, but I also like to think about getting organic traction, so search engine optimization. The assumption is that a lot of people are gonna come to your posts through Twitter, and there are actually a lot of different channels that people use to happen on your content.
Thinking for example about your blog post titles. If it’s something on React, these kinds of titles really [unintelligible 01:01:56.01] when it’ll be like “React Native with something” - okay, that’s great; what does this mean? What am I going to learn? What am I going to do? People are not very descriptive when it comes to their titles.
[01:02:11.06] People wanna know exactly what they’re gonna be reading and what exactly they’re gonna get out of it. Attention spans are very low these days. People have a lot of demands on their time. They usually will look at your title to glean whether or not it’s something that they even wanna open to read, believe it or not. So you might look on Twitter and see that a bunch of people retweeted your post. But then if you go on to your blog analytics, if you open up Google Analytics, you’ll find that five people read it, even though you got 20 retweets. And then all those five people came through Twitter. You didn’t get any traction from Google at all, which means that when some developer went into their search engine, as we know they always do, and typed in “How do I do XYX with React Native?”, your blog post didn’t come up. You have to think about how people search on the internet. Think about your own queries.
I’ll do something like that… I’ll say “How do I do this with that?” and sometimes you’ll get a Stack Overflow question being the top hit on that page… And then you won’t find the actual content related to that on the first page. It might be on the second, or third, or fourth page, and no one goes to the second, third, or fourth page on Google, for the most part.
Unless they’re really hunting.
You have to really, really want to spend your time on Google in order to find that information, and a lot of people really don’t. Being intentional – you have to be specific with your titles, and you have to tell people exactly what they expect to get in order for them to actually click and read your thing.
What do you think about this idea then - if you’re in this position and you can say “Well, where are people searching for the answer if they have this problem?” Developers, in a lot of cases, hate to admit it, but Google is their friend, sometimes their best friend, and often Stack Overflow is the second best friend, because Google leads them there; or they just go right to Stack Overflow’s search engine and there you go… But the point is so often we get this aspect of “I became a good developer because I googled my problems and found Stack Overflow posts and solved them”, which is great.
So the question might be, if I’m writing about this problem, where would people be searching to find this? Google might be the best first answer, but the second might be particular Slack communities, or documentation websites, or issues, or somebody’s newsletter, or something… What do you know about that? What kind of advice do you have around that front?
One of the pieces of advice that I shared in the book is if you came upon your idea while searching through particular issues people had with a particular thing, and you decided to write the solution or share the solution to the thing, then go back to the community where you found that and share it out.
So if you found a solution to a problem and you found that problem on Stack Overflow, but you decided to write it in a cohesive blog post form, you wanted to recreate what the issue was and then go all the way to documenting the solution - which we sometimes don’t see on Stack Overflow… Somebody will say “I tried to do one thing” and then they’ll paste a bunch of stuff, and then someone else is trying to figure out how to recreate that problem, so they can try to troubleshoot it… You might wanna tell folks, “Oh, by the way, I wrote a blog post about this particular thing”, and you can write that there. You can also share that on Twitter.
If somebody came to you and said “Hey, I had an issue with this one thing”, you might wanna let them know “Hey, thank you so much. I saw that you had this issue and I wrote the solution. If you’re interested, I wrote a short blog post about it. Here you go.”
Definitely try to get the attention of newsletters for whatever particular community that you are trying to reach with your content; I think that’s always really helpful. As you all know, I’m a big Changelog fan, so I try to share my stuff on Changelog, only because I think that your audience is definitely the audience that I like to reach, and I feel would benefit from this content. But if you got your idea from somewhere, you can always go back and say “Hey, I wrote this thing that hopefully solves your question/problem.” Using community forums I think is huge. Sharing it on Reddit, sharing it on Slack… “Hey y’all, I came across this particular issue, and I decided to write a blog post about it. Here you go, you’re welcome to share.”
[01:06:13.19] There are many different places that we can share, it doesn’t just have to be Twitter, and you don’t have to have thousands of followers for people to find it.
Yeah. To your point, Jerod, all too often we just simply - and I say “we” as the proverbial we… We put a piece of content out there, we put one tweet out there, and we walk away from the table. And we’re like “Oh, that sucks, because nobody consumed it, read it or shared it” or whatever… And it’s like “We just tried once.” You swung at one pitch.
That was it. And you probably didn’t even choose the right time for it.
Right time, yes.
What time is your audience actually awake?
What is the right time?
Yeah, like if you tend to tweet during a specific timeframe, where people are busy at work… If they try to tweet at 3 PM Eastern Standard Time and they wonder why nobody actually interacted with it, and then that’s it, and then you don’ tactually try to send another tweet maybe afterhours, when more and more people are gonna engage with their content… The whole idea of scheduling multiple posts to promote the thing that you’re trying to share I think is still something that a lot of – people aren’t really aware that they can do, or aren’t really sure how to do that… But definitely, if you spent your time creating something, definitely come up with a promotional plan that will allow you to promote that thing more than once, so that you can maximize the amount of eyeballs you get on that content… Because you might have tweeted something 8 AM on a Sunday, and - surprise, surprise, nobody read it. But if you waited until noon on Sunday, you may have gotten more people to look at it.
Yeah. All too often we think from our own perspective, which makes sense as a human. I can only understand the world as I perceive it, from my perspective. What I mean by this is we often think in our own timezones… Meaning that while we may have a European audience or an Asian audience or whatever - we’ve got a global audience, speaking for ourselves… And we often only really tweet - or I would say promote content - from our timezone’s perspective.
A hundred percent.
Would you agree with that, Jerod? I mean, we do some after hours, but generally we don’t do a ton of it.
We are scheduled 24/7, we just don’t have 24/7 content.
So it slots in to when we create it, and then it never makes it through the evening, because we run out of steam.
By nature, we create during our timezone, and it gets promoted within a few hours of our timezones’ time.
That’s right, exactly.
We may be overlapping a little bit, but generally we’re not tweeting at 2 in the morning CST or EST.
Unless you were up until two in the morning, you wrote the thing, and you wanna promote it immediately…
…and you’re like “Let me just get this out there.” And then that tweet goes out at 2 AM and two people looked at it, so… Patience is hard, by the way, when it comes to promoting content. Sometimes you create the thing and you really just wanna push it out.
It’s also a patience thing. I suffer from it all the time.
I would also say that promotional success is not an indicator of quality always.
There’s so many factors… We’re always surprised at what we do that takes off and what we do that falls flat, even just in the Twittersphere, and on Hacker News, and even on Changelog News. We put it on Changelog News and people didn’t like it as much as we thought they would… And it’s easy to take that personal and say “Man, I really failed at this piece of content” or “Nobody cares about this thing”, but that’s not always the case.
In fact, we had Ron Evans on the show over the summer at OSCON, and he had this great – I don’t wanna call it a rant; he had this great section all about Grace Hopper, and what she really meant when she said “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission”, and he just… I had never heard this, he said it really well, and I thought “Let’s turn this little section into a blog post.” And I went ahead and created that for him, I emailed Ron, I was like “Hey, I just used our transcript, I took the excerpt, turned it into a blog post… I thought everybody’s gonna wanna hear this. This is awesome.”
[01:09:53.24] So I created that post. I thought it looked really nice. It was all polished up. Ron said “Yeah, publish it with my name it. Cool, go ahead.” We put it out there, and it was like… Nothing. Crickets. Then I think it was 3-4 months later I saw a sudden spike in traffic to our website, and I turned and looked and it was number one on Hacker News, because somebody found it and posted it (months later) and it got all this conversation, it got posted to Reddit… And all of a sudden I was like “Okay, it was just a matter of coincidence, or just…”
Yeah, timing. It just didn’t work out; it doesn’t mean the piece wasn’t good, it just wasn’t good at that time.
That’s a key thing to say, revisit old ideas…
Yes, do it.
Because sometimes that idea will resurface a year later and have a different meaning, or a different audience, or a larger audience, or a more captive audience.
A hundred percent.
So sometimes we, obviously, through Changelog News - as you mentioned, you’re a fan of that, Stephanie - we promote a lot of people’s content… And what shies us away - and Jerod, feel free to share your opinions as well, because I’m sure you have plenty, as I do - we often find people who have great content, but just terrible blogs. Not so much from a design perspective, but just hard to consume. Pop-ups, banners, weird things, ads… I’m fine with that, but just somehow it doesn’t seem very tasteful, that you sometimes question their motive for publishing and sharing the content… If you’re promoting this idea, how do you help people come from a place of desire to help and this - I don’t wanna say bad website perspective, but just easily able to consume the content without getting hit with a banner ad, or some sort of popup, or some weird thing that stops you or interrupts your process to consume it, and become their fan? Do you encounter this a lot? What do you have to say about people like that?
I think it’s important for those folks to question their motivations for adding those particular steps to what I would say the user journey is. My perspective very much – I know some people monetize their blogs, or they’re trying to build an email list, and all of that… I like to give people the content first, and then let them decide whether or not they want to subscribe to a list. I find that what that ends up doing is that it ends up frustrating users. You have to look at it from the user experience.
We know that, as the point of view of a content creator, you might wanna build an email list, you might wanna have a banner ad and all of that - which is great and good - but I do think that simplifying the process from someone clicking on your blog to actually reading it, I find that that’s actually more important than building your list. And it goes back to what we discussed earlier about authenticity. If you’re showing people “Here are the cards. I’m showing you everything, I’m laying it out on the table. This is my content, it’s free, and I want you to read it”, then make it easier for them to read it. Now, if you wanna take them to sign up for your newsletter, maybe you can have a little link at the bottom of your blog post that’s not obtrusive, and it says “Sign up for my newsletter if you want more content.” People might be more inclined to do that if they really like what you have to say and they wanna follow what it is that you have to do.
I say it’s really easy to get into frankly some of those web marketing gimmicks, because we’ve seen other people do it… But what we fail to recognize is whether or not that’s actually harming our reputation and the perception of how good our content is, because we’re adding all of these layers that really don’t need to be there, that you can actually add in a less obtrusive way, and in a way that promotes more authenticity, in my opinion.
[01:14:06.17] And we don’t see it one-to-one, where if I go to a recipe website, just say an individual blogger, an indie blogger blogging about recipes of whatever… That website versus a developer’s website, of a similar recipe in terms of a program, will be different. It’s just crazy how it’s that way. There’s just so many ads out there… The web we have today, I almost don’t like it… In some cases.
Yeah, I think people are thinking too much about monetizing their sites, at the expense of the user experience. I know you’ve seen this with recipes sites - sometimes you’ll get on a recipe site and all you want is the recipe; they’re gonna give you the back-story, and then huge images, and you’ve gotta scroll for years until you actually get to the content you came there for.
Right. The basics: ingredients, instructions.
Yes! And if we add all those extra layers, all we’re doing is creating frustration, and people are not sticking around; they’re just grabbing what they need and going.
Right. They’re consumers…
And that’s fine.
…not investors, I suppose.
Yes, a hundred percent.
Investors by investing their time.
And they’re users. You have to optimize for the user, and not just trying to put somebody through a funnel, or trying to get your pennies or whatever from showing them all these ads… Which, by the way, will lead people to leave your site, and then go back to Google, and look for another page with the same recipe, that has less steps to get to the thing.
I will say, on a personal note, if I hit your web page and you popup a newsletter signup overlay, over the content that I’m trying to read, it’s an instant close for me. I’m out. I’m not even gonna stick around and try to find the X. There’s too many other websites. I’ll go read somebody else’s. And especially on Changelog News, Adam - you asked me to give my opinion…
That one’s a show-stopper for me. We love featuring people’s content; I go read it and see if this is good, and shine a light… And if I’m reading your post that you submitted to Changelog News - by the way, listeners, changelog.com/submit; we love to have you submit your stuff - and it throws a newsletter pop-over, I’m just out. You’re not gonna get it, because you’re not respecting the reader.
Write for a reader. We have a newsletter signup, we want people to sign up for our newsletter, and we promote it in a way that is tasteful and does not interfere with the main purpose of what the website is, which is to serve the reader. So there’s of things – I think that’s the main one developers do… Especially indie devs tend to be less spammy than the recipe sites. We don’t always have the best taste, there’s lots of great free themes out there, so that’s gotten a lot better, the overall readability of a website; I think a lot of developers fall back on – you know, GitHub publishes a lot of themes, there’s default themes you can use, which has really helped… But man, the newsletter overlay thing is just out there in droves, and it’s really disruptive to the reading experience.
Yes. Well, Stephanie, you have a user experience background, so you can probably appreciate this aspect of us, but what Jerod was basically saying is that when we think about linking to somebody’s stuff through our newsfeed/newsletter, we also not just think “Is that good content?”, but “Would our audience appreciate going to this website?” Will they have the same interruptions or bombardments that we just experienced? Would we wanna put our listeners/readers through that? And if the answer is no…
We’ve all but banned Medium posts. A Medium post has to be really stinking good for us to put it on Changelog News, because the reading experience on Medium - not because of the authors, but because of the platform - has just tanked. It’s completely tanked.
Pardon the interruption…
2:So we almost banned it altogether, but every once in a while someone writes a thing and you’re like “This is so good, I’ve gotta link to it”, but I don’t want to.
You’ve just gotta add it on there.
I’ll email them and say “Can you please write this on your website?” I’d love to link to it.
That’s good. And they should have it on their own wesbite anyway…
…just because you don’t want all your good stuff owned by somebody else’s platform. You want your own platform. So that s generally good advice anyway.
Is that advice in your book then? …this perspective on having your own website and then syndication. Do you talk about syndication whatsoever in there?
I don’t talk about syndication in particular, because I felt that that might get too overwhelming. I had to think about scope.
Because I know that Medium and dev.to are two particular platforms that a lot of people like to publish on… And I took the diplomatic route in that if you wanna publish on those platforms, that’s great, but make sure that you still have a destination that is yours, where you own all of the content. Because a platform can decide to do whatever they want, and add all of these paywalls and overlays, as you described with Medium. Or they may decide to shut down one day, and guess what - that’s all your content. At the end of the day, what you wanna do is you wanna drive people to a singular destination that is all you, where they can find all of your stuff.
So definitely syndication is one of those things that I am very big on. My personal preference - take it with a grain of salt, listeners - is that you own your blog, and that Medium and other places are not your primary places to blog; that you have a blog that you own and that you choose to syndicate some posts on some of these other platforms, in order to reach new audiences and maybe maximize visibility, or bring people back to your site.
I definitely have opinions about the whole Medium thing, and it’s really unfortunate… But I’m glad that you’re looking at it that way. Because as you can tell, you care about the user experience, and as a result, people continue to come back to your site, and they continue to listen to your podcast, and they continue to subscribe to your newsletter… Because you showed people that you can be an open platform that really cares about the user experience, and drive people to pages that also align with your mission and your values, and people get good value out of that. That’s really important.
Yeah. I will +1 your idea of having your own blog. I fully agree with that. We both fully agree with that. Jerod and I both do.
Absolutely. Own your own content, own your own domain, and then syndicate out.
Yes, a hundred percent.
If you bring your content to us, we’d rather you have your own space and share that with us, as it makes sense for all the reasons Stephanie just mentioned…
…but we always would desire for you to have your own site to lead back to. That’s the best way also to have a personal brand, and to have a career path. Your own website, your own domain is the linchpin of that.
Stephanie, thanks for writing this book and thanks for not giving in to your hunch of not writing this…
It may have been a little tiny bit of impostor syndrome or something like that there, with the fact that you didn’t wanna write it, or you weren’t sure because the idea might have been out there… But thank you so much for persevering. Resilience and perseverance is one key aspect of people that we don’t often get to see enough of, and I’m glad that you overcame that and wrote this book, so… Thank you for sharing it with us, and thank you for your time.
Thank you very much for having me. It’s been great.
I’m really curious, having been a first-time publisher, any lessons learned? For self-publishing a book, self-selling a book… What’s some lessons learned you’ve had from self-publishing, self-selling?
Oh, my goodness…
Don’t do it. [laughs]
No, I actually recommend doing it.
Yeah, I recommend doing it.
I actually pitched this idea to a publisher, and before you can pitch the idea to this publisher – it’s a publisher that I admire, and they make you fill out like a four-page proposal with everything from who’s the audience, “Give us your 30-second pitch”, “What marketing channels can you leverage to promote this content?” And I filled out the entire thing, I emailed it to them, they got back to me a few weeks later. They were like “We absolutely love this.” I got on a call with them and they were like “We don’t know how to promote this to our audience…” But it was actually nice getting that validation from them, because I thought to myself, “It’s okay if you don’t think it works for your audience, but I know there’s an audience for it.”
And what I did to validate the book ideas was that I announced that I was writing the book, even though I had like maybe 3,000 words. And the amount of retweets and likes that I got actually validated my idea, because people were telling me “I’ve needed something like this. I’d never had anything like this. Where can I buy this book, where can I buy this book?”
So I started saying that I was gonna write the book before I actually wrote the book… And then I gave myself a date six weeks in the future, just so I could try to get it out really quickly… And it worked out. If you’re gonna self-publish, I suggest the pre-orders. I used pre-orders on Gumroad as another way of gauging interest in the book. So if ten people pre-ordered over six weeks – I mean, I would have written the book anyway, but it would have told me “Yeah, maybe there is such a small audience that would like this book.”
If you get triple that in pre-orders, that tells you “Wait, there’s more people who are really interested in this.”
So if you’re gonna self-publish a book, validate the idea. It could be with friends, it could be with the external audience… Ask people if they would buy this book. Tell them what this book is and what they’re gonna learn and what they’re gonna get out of it. Then once you do that, set a date for yourself. It’s really easy to say “I’m writing a book”, and then you don’t have a date in mind, so you kind of push it off…
Listen, I had to do everything in my power, because I was like “January 28th.” That was six weeks in advance. I was like “Okay, that means I have to finish writing the book.” I wrote the book in 11 days; I had to have somebody read the book, I had to hire people to edit the book, and then I spent myself three weeks on design and getting the book nice and pretty for the PDF.
So set a date for yourself, because that forces you to work backwards and actually set a schedule and start working on things. I had “Week of this, I’m gonna do that. Week of this, I’m gonna do this.” Otherwise you can just push it, push it off. And it has to be a date that you can meet. Now, I’m a writer, so I was comfortable with six weeks, but that might not be you. You might say “I’m gonna do it in eight weeks” or “I’m gonna actually do it in three months”, but set a date that you’re actually gonna put it out.
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