Gregory Ciotti

Writing / Content Strategy

Editorial values cannot be an afterthought

Values are a codified way to operate in spite of reasonable alternatives. They describe in no uncertain terms what behavior you need to win and why.

Editorial values are not your style guide. While there may be some overlap between the two regarding how you plan to communicate, the purpose of having values is to choose the actions that will drive your strategy and enable it to succeed.

If there are no “reasonable alternatives” to a specific way to perform, you’re not communicating a value, you’re reciting a platitude. For example, there are many ways for a successful publication to set their personal bar for “koala-tea” content, but no company blog on earth has it as their mission statement to produce absolute shit (sometimes they still do, but villains are the heroes of their own stories).

As such, “write things people like” is not a value; you need to dig deeper.


Content promotion is about meeting your readers where they live

Unfortunately, most of the available advice on promoting your content is either low-impact or it doesn’t lend itself well to scale.

As your company publication grows so will your audience, which means on-site activities will naturally begin to offer more leverage more often than the majority of what you can do off-site. Taking your time, or your team’s time, away from this work to promote needs to be justified with results.

This is why I’m a bit wary of so called low-effort promotional tips and tricks; it’s not that they won’t work at all, but that you’d usually be better off spending the time exploring a new archetype, conducting a content audit, or working on making your material better.

Don’t get me wrong: I remember the early days and recognize there’s a time when two dozen outreach emails are the only way to scrape and claw your way to your first few readers. But editorial teams with even a modicum of traction need to make their hours count by prioritizing ways to promote content they already have to audiences that already exist.


How to publish more content without dropping your standards

When a company increases the cadence of its publishing there’s a risk of the bar dropping lower than a limbo contest.

There’s no substitute for more quality material, but management and marketers often forget you can’t schedule insight, and good ideas need time to prove themselves in practice before they’re ready for the public. Smash cut to overzealous declarations of, “Sure, I’ll have something interesting to say five days a week!” Standards soon vanish just to get the calendar filled.


Getting your entire company to write creates more value than you think

Publishing as a team

This is Part II in a series on creating a culture of writing at your company. To read Part I, click here.

A great content marketing strategy is built on what the company collectively publishes, not what you personally write.

Knowing the difference will stop you from trying to be the lone steward of good stories in your company. Publishing interesting ideas from your colleagues counts all the same; content is an end result, and readers rarely care where it comes from.

During your search for ways to feed the calendar, you’ve probably turned inwards and considered having your teammates publish what they’re working on or thinking about. There’s a potentially high upside in making this happen, and tested ways to reduce the challenge of getting other people’s words fit for game day.

But first, you have to start with why.


To create a culture of writing at your company, start by providing incentive

Publishing as a team

This is Part I in a series on creating a culture of writing at your company. To read Part II, click here.

Your company blog is an extension of the company itself; it’s how you talk to the world. When you look at what you’ve published as a collective, does it feel like you’re doing a good job of representing all the hardworking people who keep the ship afloat?

If you’re most companies, the answer is a firm “No.” That’s a shame, but it doesn’t happen on purpose. Because content is a cost-effective acquisition channel that can and should be measured, it usually turns into the marketing team’s pet project instead of a robust company platform. While every project needs an owner, this can cause teams to miss out on publishing high-impact stories from all across the organization.


Getting your company to write creates way more value than you think

Publishing as a team

A great content marketing strategy is built on what the company collectively publishes, not what you personally write.

Knowing the difference will stop you, as the Content Marketing Manager, from trying to be the lone steward of good stories in your company. Publishing interesting ideas from your colleagues counts all the same; content is an end result, and readers don’t care where it comes from.


Simple SEO wins for startups with one page, one term

For many startups, SEO is viewed in the same vein as Tarot cards and palm readings.

The whole process seems like a sham, and its reputation isn’t helped by genuinely spammy “SEO outreach emails” where some automated message tells you that your site needs optimization. Yeah, okay.

Truth is, there are a number of quick wins any SaaS company can take advantage of by using the one page, one term methodology.


What your introduction needs:
author objective, reader incentive

The introduction to any piece of writing serves as the first steps towards an intended destination. Good decisions here will be paid back throughout the rest of the journey.

One useful way to find and keep focus is to define author objective and reader incentive in every introduction you write.


How I Eliminated the Hosting Headaches that Continued to Plague My Popular Blog

Hosting is definitely a headache.WP Engine Hosting

There really is no two ways about it — it is consistently a pain in the ass, and dealing with it is, at best, a necessary evil.

Great hosting matters though; not only for financial reasons, but for your own sanity.

Getting gray hairs due to regular hosting issues is not something I’m willing to tolerate.

Taking your hosting seriously is something that comes with the territory if you run a blog, or any website. I’d even argue that you should lock down a great host before your site takes off (I’ll explain why in a minute).

Although I’m the content marketing manager for the 250,000+/monthly visitor Help Scout blog, I don’t have to worry about hosting there.

I get to worry about hosting for my collection of personal websites, which are no traffic slouches in themselves.

Here’s a screenshot of the unique visitors for my blog Sparring Mind from a few months ago. Sparring Mind is my behavioral psychology blog that has now crossed the 100k unique visitor mark.

Scaling a growing blog

But a growing readership is a good problem… right?

Absolutely, but at the time (early 2013), dealing with constant downtime sure made it feel like a nightmare.

And things were only about to get worse…

I had a few sources that started sending a whirlwind of traffic to my site all at once:

  • I co-created a YouTube video that now has over 3.5 million views (that video resulted in 7000 new subscribers in the first week!)
  • I started a syndication agreement with some huge sites, including the likes of Lifehacker, where my articles were getting 150,000 views a piece.
  • I collaborated with an awesome comic who agreed to let me republish a strip that gained 12,000 Facebook likes on the first day

Things were getting crazy, and I was honestly close to pulling my hair out at times as I argued with my old hosting provider — my site kept going down, and that leaves a really bad impression on people.

I needed a new solution.

WordPress Hosting Without the Headache?

Fortunately for me, I have some great acquaintances in the blogging space who are more than willing to give me advice.

For my high-traffic “troubles,” I asked my buddy Leo Widrich of Buffer what they were using for the Buffer blog. If you don’t already know, the Buffer blog is insanely popular — if my site is a Camaro, the Buffer blog is a damn Ferrari!

They get over 717,000 unique visitors each and every month. Not pageviews, not overall visits, but unique visitors. Yowza

Leo told me that this whole gargantuan blogging operation has been kept afloat consistently via one provider: WP Engine.

(Yes, that’s my referral link. However, it’s the only affiliate program I’m signed up for since blogging is mostly a personal passion for me. I’m signed up because I recommend them all the time, I support the company and team that much.)

I had heard of the WP Engine folks before because my friends over at the Unbounce blog—which has to be one of the most popular marketing blogs in the world—also use the service.

I was curious if this was going to be right for me. At this point, Sparring Mind was even past the 100k mark thanks to those sources I mentioned above. I was going to need to sign up for their Business plan, which would scale me to 400,000 monthly visitors.

It definitely wasn’t the cheapest software I’ve ever signed up for, but I had to remind myself that picking the right host wasn’t like picking the right blog theme — this was the “engine” (har har) that would power my entire stable of websites, including my flagship site.

Skimping here is just about the worse choice you can make, because when your site goes down during a big traffic period, that results in subscribers lost and potentially dollars lost as people click ‘Back’ and never return (and you do want high traffic periods, right?)

All in all, 1+ million unique visitors and almost a year later, I’m glad I went with WP Engine for the following reasons:

  1. Great customer service. I put this first for a reason. I am the king of breaking my sites. I’m also known to run crazy off-site experiments like the things I mentioned above. I need to be able to get a hold of someone who knows what they are doing, and their support team has always been knowledgeable, friendly, and responsive.
  2. Exceptional uptime. Right after customer service comes the cut-and-dry aspect of what you’re really paying for — a guarantee that your site will be safe from an unexpected (or expected!) tornado of new traffic. Every site owner is chasing “rush hour traffic” to their site, and you don’t want to have those efforts go to waste by having your site drop off the face of the earth in front of thousands of new visitors.
  3. Site speed. WP Engine definitely helped take my site speed to new levels — multi-server clusters, fast hardware with in-RAM caching, and a CDN to help load the site as fast as possible. Better yet, for Fred Flintstone’s like me, this is all managed by them.
  4. Security. I had to ask around about this because to be honest with you, I don’t truly understand the ins-and-outs of site security. I’ve been told (by people who I know and trust) that WP Engine has top notch security, and the other concerns I had were put at ease when I saw this offer: “If your site still gets hacked, we’ll fix it… for free.” (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve never seen another hosting company offer anything like this.)

You Need to Pick a Good Host from Day 1

Okay, I hear you. Once my site takes off I promise I’ll…

Let me stop you right there.

Although I love me a bootstrapped business that hustles to keep costs lean, hosting is one of those things that you’ll want to spend good money on BEFORE you start having problems.

I’m reminded of this quote from legendary advertising man Claude C. Hopkins:

Prevention is not a popular subject, however much it should be. People will do much to cure a trouble, but people in general will do little to prevent it.

That’s a pretty honest look at human nature, and it highlights an important point: we are more likely to react to things than to be proactive, even if the proactive behavior will lead to better results.

Remember those big traffic sources I mentioned above?

Many of them came totally out of the blue. The video, which I had spent weeks working on, was launched one morning without anyone telling me.

Links and mentions often come out of nowhere, and it will only take one such experience of getting a big mention and having your website break down to make you realize: “Damn, I should’ve taken steps to prevent this before it happened.”

Get lean with everything else. Use a basic design, sign up for MailChimp’s free plan for email subscribers, and stay away from premium WordPress plugins if you’d like.

But don’t skimp on hosting, ever.

Seriously, even if you exit out of this post and sign up for another hosting service, make sure it’s a good one! Don’t let your site tank during a moment where it should be shining.

The only reason I recommend WP Engine is because it’s the solution that has worked best for me.

Thanks for reading, and happy blogging!

David Ogilvy’s 10 most valuable lessons on advertising

All marketers should be voracious readers. One book on my shelf I feel is deserving of more attention is Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.

It’s much more than book on advertising; there’s an ample amount of wisdom on topics like candor, management, and creativity. And of course it’s delightfully written.

Each line of prose is dripping with humor-laden bravado. My personal favorite: