Differentiate your content. And more tips for makers who are “bad at marketing”

Published on
June 24th, 2021
Steph Smith, Head of Trends.co and author of “Doing Content Right,” shared her perspective on what makes good content and what she tells every creator to do before they start their own newsletter.
Steph Smith recently became a Maker Grant recipient for her ebook course “Doing Content Right.” For her day job she heads up Trends.co, the premium newsletter started by the Hustle and acquired by Hubspot earlier this year. You might be surprised to hear that she hated writing when she was in school, choosing to study engineering chemistry.

Stumbling upon content was a fluke, but she quickly realized she was fascinated by content. Writing in the real world didn’t just look like the long-form essays she knew from school. After developing a deep interest in the way content reaches audiences, it wasn’t long before positions started to fall into her lap. Since then, her fascination has catalyzed her side projects and career.

Doing Content Right is a resource covering everything she knows about publishing online to help creators write and scale successful blogs and newsletters. Although she only took 49 days to write it, she explains “what it really took was six years and 49 days.” For years she had jotted notes into an outline, slowly forming a compendium of her expertise. The book quickly became an essential resource for creators in our community after launching it in March.

As a storyteller and content creator myself, I love the actionable format of Doing Content Right. I was eager to get Smith’s thoughts on common barriers to creating or misconceptions about content summarized our conversation here.

Content takes many shapes — don’t just focus on what you’re creating, but how you’re doing it differently.

As mentioned earlier, Smith wasn’t always such a big fan of writing because she had a curated perspective of what it was from school (i.e. essays). Recognizing that there are many forms your content can take — from podcasts to graphics to TikToks — is often the first step to getting started.

Yet, Smith says she sees too many people jump from there to producing.

“I have so many people tell me ‘I want to create a tech newsletter.’ And that’s great! But, I haven’t learned anything from that statement about whether you’re going to be successful or not. There are so many newsletters about tech that are successful, and there are so many that are not. There are so many topics you can write about and you can be successful in any of them. The topic matters to the extent that you should care about it and be somewhat of an expert in it, but what matters more is how you’re differentiating it and how its serving the needs of people.”

Before putting your head down on creating, Smith encourages creators to think about how they’re differentiating what they produce. Most of the time, the differentiator is not as groundbreaking as you might think. Many people find the Hustle to be funnier which gives them more joy in their day. The same goes for Barstool Sports in the sports category. James Clear’s 3-2-1 newsletter is so concise that it’s more stress-free, she explained, because you can get through it faster.

“If you can’t articulate to someone: ‘My content is more X than my competitors’ then your content is probably not differentiated enough and other people can’t recognize why they should pay attention to you and not someone else.”

If that sounds too simple, you’re right. It is a pretty simple concept. Smith said people always wish that it was more complex than that.

What’s important is that it’s effective. The differentiator is why people choose to consume one type of content over another when both are about the same topic. That’s why Smith often tells people to start by going through their inbox and writing down one sentence or adjective that describes what they love about their favorite content producers. She guarantees that you’re not going to say that you love Barstool Sports because they write about sports. You most likely follow them, read their work, and share it because it’s funnier. Replace funnier with X for your favorite creator. Is the content shorter? Prettier? Data-driven? More in-depth? More clear-cut? You get the point.

Finding your differentiator isn’t really new. Smith spoke about Costco, which entered general retail — an extremely competitive space — with a clear differentiator: cost. As Smith pointed out, Americans are so familiar with the brand that they forget “cost” is actually in the name. Costco defined its differentiator and went all in to attract customers that valued cost savings. They traded off all the things people might care about in a store experience (especially those people who don’t care about cost; they’re not the focus here!) — bulk goods, tons of SKUs, a beautiful environment — to make Costco the cheapest. You can find cost-savings in every nook and cranny of the customer experience to the point that their $5 rotisserie chicken has become infamous.

Many forget to consider their differentiator when it comes to their content though.

“A lot of people try to be the average of everything, but if you try to be the average of everything, you’re going to speak to no one.”

Great content has the ability to communicate concepts in a way your brain understands.

Recently, Smith has been impressed by the content coming from the minds over at Chartr. We talked about what it was that made their content stand out.

“Most of the time people think that the newsletter should be mostly text… Chartr is in a really competitive space but they’ve grown like crazy and all they’ve done is take a lot of the same stories everyone’s talking about and made them visual. That’s all you're doing with content. Trying to use a fraction of someone’s attention to communicate something. They are even able to take really obvious concepts and convey them in a way you understand differently.”

Chartr’s most recent image shows the way our listening format has changed over time. Smith’s point, we all know that streaming has grown in popularity over the last decade. Looking at Chartr’s graphic of streaming within the context of the music industry as a whole puts that concept in a new perspective. Here’s a snippet of the copy Chartr paired with the graphic in the newsletter.

“Putting individual artists to one side, it's actually not a bad time to be in the business of making music. Data from the RIAA reveals how streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have breathed new life into an industry that's been struggling to keep its head above water for 20+ years… For the first time in this century, the overall music industry pie is actually growing.”

In just a moment, Chartr’s graphic takes your abstract perception of streaming habits, and provides you with a new, information-based point of view about how streaming has given music sales new life.
via chartr.co

Content distribution, or marketing, doesn’t have to come at the end.

Perhaps the most common thing that makers in our community struggle with is marketing. “I don’t know how to market,” “marketing is out of my comfort zone,” and “I don’t know where to start” are shared feelings, and not just among non-technical makers (don’t worry, you’re not alone). Starting – usually from scratch — means there’s a lot to navigate even for seasoned marketers, influencers, writers, and beyond.

“A lot of people think ‘Let me go make something and then share it after,’ and then it feels really uncomfortable to share because it feels really self-promotional. The first thing is realizing that marketing doesn’t always need to be post-production. Building in public, for example, is a form of marketing and it feels more natural because you’re not showcasing or presenting a finished product.”

Another thing to keep in mind is building marketing functions into the product so that it’s sharable in nature. Smith pointed to her fellow grant recipient, Marty Bell at Poolsuite FM. The Poolsuite team isn’t mass marketing their product and posting in every channel (and we know from Bell that the team doesn’t track marketing KPIs). Instead, marketing is built into the product. In other words, the experience is so detailed and thoughtfully created, and so cool, that it’s the website visitors that are doing the marketing for Poolsuite.

“I also think it’s important to question why you’re bad at marketing or why you feel uncomfortable. If you’re presenting a really great product and showing it to people who need that product, it also doesn’t feel so much like marketing. If you’re taking something that you’re not sure people really need or blasting it across 30 Telegram groups, it’s going to feel uncomfortable and you’re going to wonder why no one is listening. If you feel like there’s friction, you better believe no one else is going to share it if you don’t want to share it.”

Smith also suggests stepping back and taking a look at the gap between what people need and what you’ve produced if you’re feeling a disconnect when you’re marketing. That should bring you back to making something marketable.

It’s worth pointing out too that not every project has to be needed by someone. Her product, Eunioa, was just something she created for her own joy.

Consistency is not as important as quality.

If differentiating sounded too easy to you, take a breath before rushing off to write 30 new blogs for your new substack. Smith says she hears from a lot of creators who, in her opinion, overly focus on consistency. She understands the importance of consistency herself — she’s currently working on a new podcast with her partner called “Sh*t You Don’t Learn in School.” When we spoke, they were near the end of a 30-day challenge to produce one podcast a day to get better at the skill and get comfortable with the practice. She plans to use it as a jumping-off point for another podcast she’s working on, once she’s ready.

Content isn’t a one-trick consistency pony though. Many believe that if you focus on consistency, the rest will come but Smith doesn’t agree.

“I think consistency is really important for the purpose of practicing a muscle every day. You want to be able to show up and create. But unless you’re a daily newsletter, for example, consistency at the expense of quality is not, what I think, you should be doing”

There’s A LOT of content out there. We all have access to amazing content everywhere, all the time. That’s why Smith encourages spending enough time to differentiate it.

“For everything you do, at least try to be among the best. I’d much rather create 30 articles throughout the year that I’m really proud of and that have a chance of really hitting, than publishing 300 that are pretty good.”

Gating content reduces the ability of content to do the work for you.

As the Creator Rennaissance booms, more aspiring creators are attracted to the benefits of entrepreneurship. As appealing as success cases make that seem, hasn’t the creator economy created even more competition? Differentiation sounds harder when more people are savvy enough to see the consumer-to-product gap.

Smith believes anyone has the space to be successful (“There’s room for anyone to stand out”), but she did caution about one thing she sees many new creators rush to do — gate content. Many people almost idolize top creators who’ve turned enough steady revenue to quit their corporate jobs for a substack full-time career. Many of these creators, however, had significant followings before they moved to monetize.

“The second you put something behind a paywall, it’s going to be that much harder to grow. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m not telling people not to gate their content, but you have to be aware of it. It’s almost like bootstrapping your product versus pursuing VC. It’s a choice and you have to be aware of the consequences of both.”

Get feedback about what you’re producing early.

I started by telling you how Doing Content Right was in some ways a work in progress for many years before Smith actually put “pen to paper.” She also asked her community whether they’d be interested in reading and paying for it before she started turning her outline into a full-on book. They responded enthusiastically with many even saying they would pay more than her suggested price.
It reminded me of Ben Tossell who told Product Hunt that Makerpad, the no-code community, started when he asked others if they’d be interested in paying for a subscription to instructional videos about how he built with no-code. “There’s no better motivation than when someone’s already paid you to do something,” he told us.

Smith added that it goes both ways.

“It’s great to get that feedback if it’s the other way too. If that answer is no, no one wants this, at least you found that out before you actually created something.”



Check out “Doing Content Right” here.
Published on
June 24th, 2021
Comments (3)
Water specialist. He was fond of guitar
Thank you so much for this information, it helped me a lot
love books
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