Gregory Ciotti

Writing / Content Strategy

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.

Promoting to your audience

Promotion means getting more people to read what you publish. However, most companies forget new readers can inhabit their current audience.

Every content team vastly overestimates the percentage of their total readership that has read, applied, or even remembered any individual article. Evergreen material is almost certainly sitting idly in your archives, ready to be “promoted” to the audience you already have. Here’s how to approach this opportunity.

Resources — Turn future stock into flow

Content blurs the line between customer acquisition and education. In all content teams there should be contention between the two in terms of how they are prioritized; think of the relationship as a Venn diagram that doesn’t want to overlap. You usually have to make them intersect and work in tandem.

For example, while blogs are effective tools for acquisition they fall short for education. After “Hello World!” and your first few dozen articles, you’ll begin to feel your blog breaking down as material becomes buried in the catacombs beneath Page 2. You have a discovery problem, but it gets even worse — related content is scattered across multiple posts, which makes for a poor learning experience. You’re sharing tidbits instead of a full course.

Editorial teams address this by shifting focus to “stock” in the perpetual balancing act of managing stock and flow. As Robin Sloan defines the two terms in his seminal post, “flow is the feed while stock is the durable stuff.” There are, however, a few inherent problems with large projects focused on creating stock:

  • Working on stock takes a lot of time and interferes with the creation of flow. You can’t take a month off from publishing to create a new resource; it’s usually done on top of your day job. Small teams especially feel the pressure because they’ve so few hands on deck.
  • Marketers try address this problem by using previously published content to form a new resource. A sound idea, but most teams rarely go far enough: they produce PDFs that look, read, and feel like an incongruous collection of blog posts. It’s inelegant and ineffective.

A more structured approach is to start with the end in mind. Figure out what future stock (resource, book, guide, etc.) you want to create by listing the chapters or sections needed, then work on and publish select chapters as flow first. Turn future stock into flow, then reassemble it into stock.

Red is relevant content you’ve already published, black the chapters you’ll publish as flow to your blog, and gray the chapters you’ll keep unpublished until the guide is ready to be released.

In practice, this might look like the following: outline a new handbook you’re going to publish for readers, decide you need six chapters (or sections) to give the topic fair coverage, work on said chapters one at a time in the upcoming quarter, and release a few of them as blog posts.

You can then take the posts you’ve published, edit them together in a cohesive fashion with the material you kept unpublished, and launch the whole project as a full-length guide. This affords you time to work on expansive content without completely disrupting your publishing cadence. As a side benefit, you’re testing the waters with the chapters you release; good or bad, the reactions you get will tell you something about your work-in-progress.

While this methodology might not work for everyone, it checks quite a few boxes for me, including the ability to plan for obsolescence. The very reason I consider it a promotional strategy is because you’re designing a way to give your content a second chance to land right from the production stage.

Don’t let your pillar material get swallowed up by the content deluge. Parse it out it as flow to keep momentum, but make sure it fits together as stock so that it can have a long shelf-life.

Refreshes — Resurrect your best articles

Another lesson you’ll quickly learn while growing your archive is the demand for industry insight is far greater than the amount of information worth sharing.

You’ll begin to mentally revisit topics only to find you’ve already written about them and have few new thoughts to add. There is good news, however. Instead of diluting your library with thin material, you can simply improve and republish what’s already there. I call these “Refreshes,” as in enhancing existing content with new advice, examples, and visuals.

The art of an editorial audit is worth its own lengthy post, but the abridged version is you want to update old pieces for the following:

Comprehensiveness. When we initially wrote about phrases to use in support, I drew heavily from our own support team’s experience (that’s my secret, captain). Later, as the team grew, so did our collection of phrases. I added three more phrases and republished, resulting in a substantial lift in search traffic.

Accuracy. Although every company publication should skew towards the evergreen, experience can change your opinion along the way. What’s published is your understanding of the issue at that particular moment; if your views change your writing should, too.

Freshness. Time makes fools of all writers by aging our once carefully selected examples, data, and screenshots. Most inserts will have at least aged aesthetically. This is where your visual designer gets to cringe at her old work as she polishes the past to fit with current brand guidelines.

Side note: it’s usually a bad idea to completely replace content on a URL that’s existed for a long time, especially if it’s already ranking. Add to what’s there or delete what’s unnecessary, but avoid replacing an article wholesale.

The exception is when you want to merge old, insufficient posts into a comprehensive new piece. Two successes we had include consolidating separate lists of customer service books into a single post, and rounding up scattered data on the cost of bad customer support onto one page. At the time of this writing, these refreshes have reached #1 and #3 on the SERPs, respectively.

Since republishing can help surface old material and improve fledgling search rankings, it’s smart to build it into your existing editorial calendar (if you have a deep enough archive). At Help Scout, Friday was the day we typically chose to publish a refresh; it was one of our dedicated content archetypes.

We’re far from the only ones to bake this into our strategy. Pamela Vaughn, Principal Marketing Manager at HubSpot, wrote a fairly detailed guide on turning historical optimization into a repeatable process. Her findings highlight what a lot of legacy publications are sure to discover: content operates on a power law. Because of this, your old material probably contributes more to your current growth than you think.

Historical optimization is about taking older pieces with momentum and adding fuel to the fire, instead of just sitting back with your fingers crossed.

Lifecycle — Use content as customer success

If you’re genuinely treating your marketing content as a form of customer success, then a growing customer base is equivalent to a growing readership.

Your customers should be the audience best-served by what you publish; are you highlighting your benchmark material to help them find success, or letting valuable education linger in a forgotten, hard-to-explore archive?

The wrong way to turn the ship around is to start bombarding customers in your interface, especially during sensitive periods like their first 30-days after signup. I recall being sent a “Guide to Marketing Automation” from an email marketing provider before I had even set up my list. Don’t you have to buy me dinner first?

Help Scout has a few initiatives I think strike a nice balance. One example worth looking at is the Field Guide emails sent out to customers who have settled into the product. Here’s one I received on making the most of my Reports.

Videos and product tips abound, but multiple links take you to the blog, where our product-agnostic material focuses on best practices rather than the features of any specific tool. Of course, your content should intertwine with your core product philosophies, so everything recommended in our posts can be done through Help Scout in some manner.

A customer’s ability to get the most out of your product doesn’t just rest on familiarity with your features. Customers benefit from the compelling context only you can provide, including the motivation to change their behavior. Your marketing content is a welcome guest here, so long as you knock before entering.

Another medium where you can apply an education-focused lens is your actual newsletter. I’ve previously written about the value of a newsletter welcome series, but I prefer the direction Anum Hussain took this concept: treat new subscribers the same way good products treat new users by deeply understanding their definition of success before you start erratically sending them updates.

Anum had recent newsletter subscribers enter an onboarding phase for about 4 weeks (when using a similar idea with clients, I’ve found a shorter timeframe is more flexible). During this period, new subscribers are sent the best and most relevant content around their biggest challenges. This isn’t necessarily your most popular pieces, but the material that will make the strongest first impression and set the standard for education. Focus on showing new readers how quickly your content can help them make progress right now.

As is usually the case, personal newsletters trounce company newsletters in this regard. A good example of applying the principle above in an even more targeted way comes from Brennan Dunn, who has new subscribers self-select the topic that is most relevant to them the moment they subscribe.

Compare the above to how the vast majority of newsletters throw you right into the deep end and you can see the advantages.

  1. Sign-up, immediately receive “Wednesday’s post,” even if it isn’t relevant to you.
  2. Sign-up, get a welcome message asking about your biggest challenge right now, then receive curated picks of the publisher’s best content on that topic. Once the welcome week is over, you’re kept on the newsletter to receive the latest posts.

Which newsletter experience would you rather have?

Promoting to outside audiences

The two major problems I see in the myriad posts on off-site promotion are a lack of prioritization and a general disregard for brand.

I understand more people are starting than scaling and thus “quick wins” command more attention, but so many of these touted hacks won’t actually produce returns worth reporting, and you could hurt your reputation in the long run. Off-site promotion is yet another activity that suffers from a fixation on random, right-now tactics over a cohesive strategy.

Of course, another problem is that it’s hard to share a deliberate strategy when you don’t intimately know the company’s current situation. As such, you won’t find a bespoke strategy here either. Sorry. But I’ll at least cover things I know work and that I feel support my belief that promotion can build brand.

I won’t talk about methods most teams already understand, methods I have less experience in (paid promotion), or methods I believe have been covered to death (email outreach).

Search — Prioritize topics, then keywords

Search needs to be on every publication’s radar because it’s still one of the most effective ways to grow your traffic at scale. This point is vividly illustrated in Hiten Shah’s survey of successful publications; every blog past the 8 million annual visitor mark relied heavily on search.

It’s a small sample and, yes, it’s likely we’ll see dramatic changes in the coming years, but search in its current form will remain a top priority when planning for the future. Nothing, save email, matches its ability to produce compound returns.

Since search rankings take time to build momentum, how do you lay the foundation for something that blossoms in the mid- to late-game? I start with what I can completely control: getting the on-site structure organized. This means grouping content in a way that provides both educational value and allows you to pursue challenging keywords.

What was old is new again: if you haven’t noticed, there’s been renewed interest in the use of pillar pages and subsidiary posts in order to neatly organize related content. As detailed in HubSpot Research, this is likely due to a shift in user behavior away from short, fragmented search queries to more complex questions, and advances in search technology that allow for better discernment of topic context.

What this ends up looking like is a hub and spoke model that aims to address the issue of siloing content across your site. As HubSpot argues in the video above, this requires an initial focus on identifying topic clusters before delving into the more granular art of keyword research.

I mostly agree, but I’m not sure this is an evolution of the discipline. Also, I’ve found it’s usually recommend that marketers create a pillar page that more closely resembles a collection of links instead of something to actually read.

Currently, I prefer a more brand-friendly version of what writers like James Clear are doing. Go to James’ article archive and you’ll see topic clusters clearly separated at the top of the page. The difference is, each of those links takes you to an extensive guide built from previous posts — flow turned into stock.

On every one of those pillar pages the material is grouped into topics that heavily link out to related posts. On one such guide, I counted dozens of related links. It’s a guide targeting the difficult, one term query of “motivation,” and yet it currently sits at the number one spot.

At Help Scout we released a similarly comprehensive guide on hiring for support that we worked on with Cassie Marketos. Cassie conducted a lot of interviews and wrote mostly new material for the guide. But we also drew from previously published articles, and we published a couple chapters from the guide to our blog. The Hub currently ranks for its target keyword, but so do the Spokes. I fail to see why a hub page can’t fulfill its acquisition purpose and stand alone as something to actually read.

Disclaimer: I’m not an SEO wizard. I’m just a mediocre marketer who likes to write and rank. If there’s something I’m missing here, email me with your spiciest take and I’ll update this section accordingly.

One final thing I’d like to mention is the under-appreciated “one page, one term” principle. Or, making sure everything you publish has at least one keyword for which it could rank. If your publication is small, it’s also wise to plan for an “Upgrade” term by selecting an additional keyword that’s one step above your primary target.

When you pair the practice of finding an Initial and an Upgraded keyword with your ability to republish old content (covered above), you’re setting yourself up for some this-shouldn’t-have-worked wins in the future. Case in point: I used to rank #1 for “customer service.” I still do, but I used to, too.

Social — Find your way into the right feeds

When I was at Help Scout, our marketing department wasn’t big enough to justify a dedicated social media team. It was a tack-on responsibility, so for a while we had a strict modus operandi: pursue ideas that wouldn’t take up a lot of time.

Such aerially challenged fruit can’t be picked forever. I do, however, have one approach any publication can try out; one that I’ve rarely seen other companies use. It’s called “social swap.”

Help Scout would regularly exchange posts with Entrepreneur Magazine on both Facebook and Twitter. This was called the Social Swap program by their community manager, a term I’ve since adopted. Once a week, I would email a handful of articles that were eligible to be shared. Often, I would work around Entrepreneur.com’s theme for the week. In return, we would share customer service related posts from their site to our own social channels.

Some of these exchanged posts took off and resulted in tens of thousands of new visitors to our blog. A small yet noticeable bonus was that we grew our social following every time a social swap went out.

While a surge of traffic is nice, when I help clients make use of this idea I always emphasize the need for meaningful targeting (who you pitch) and clear positioning (how you pitch) over going for the largest social following.

Find the right audience. I like to look for relevant audiences that the company normally has a harder time reaching. For example, one space we had our eyes on at Help Scout was ecommerce. Most publications for online retail write and share equally terrible content on customer support; a pain point our blog could obviously help alleviate. Meanwhile, some of Help Scout’s most successful customers ran online stores, but they were harder to reach than software businesses or agencies.

Make the right pitch. A good pitch helps the recipient envision where your content fits in their social broadcasts. As mentioned above, Help Scout should focus on their unique coverage of the growing importance of support and the community being built alongside it. In addition, you need to speak to the value you can provide. Do your social media posts get good engagement? Do you have an audience that is already interested in what they sell?

If you’re able, it’s best to work with the program manager on what sort of snippets you’d like to share. For example, if the post to be swapped has an interesting callout in the form of a graphic or key takeaway, you can highlight this excerpt when submitting your potential posts for the week.

Communities — Go where the conversation is happening

One of the most misunderstood and abused promotional tactics. Submitting to content-focused communities should create a net positive impact; spamming a place you don’t frequent is not only a bad look, it won’t be to your benefit.

Communities flourish through channels as diverse as the communities themselves (forums, chats, etc.). The two I’ve found to be most impactful for reach are aggregates and industry newsletters.

Link submission sites

Content aggregates have cropped up in droves due to their ability to provide community-driven curation (and even original content). Reddit is by far the most popular general purpose destination, but large niche communities have been built around a variety topics.

Thanks to self-serving postmortems about “That Time I Generated 8,000 Pageviews from Hacker News,” link aggregates have unfortunately been thrown into every playbook marketer’s cheap bag o’ tricks. Please, don’t try to ruin my Reddit experience; the comments do a fine enough job of that already.

It’s easy to forget amidst the hubbub that aggregates are, at their core, communities. And to be successful in a community you have to know what they value and how they operate.

For example, the only Reddit “tactic” I care about is understanding the specific community (subreddit) I’m going to submit to. Generally, blurbs and personal stories command attention and off-site, longform writing doesn’t. Most users are on Reddit for a quick jolt of information they can browse past (photos, comics, Shower Thoughts, Today I Learned). When they do take the time to read, they prefer to hear from real people (Ask Me Anything, text submissions containing advice, questions, and stories).

When I published Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing, I decided to submit it to Reddit so I could really do a number on my self-esteem. Fortunately, my approach worked better than I expected: I submitted the graphic we made for Gary Provost’s passage on “writing music,” which has since become the #1 submission on the r/writing subreddit.

In the comments, I credit where the passage is from and mention that I created it for a piece I wrote. Despite being self-promotional in nature, there were no pitchforks or angry mobs calling for my head. In fact, roughly three thousand people clicked through to read my article. Simple lesson: Take time to learn what a community likes to see/share. On Reddit, short-form I can consume now leads to longform I will check out later.

Another test that worked pretty well was an AMA hosted on Designer News that went live the day Help Scout launched its new brand (and the companion blog post). Having our design team answer community questions took a lot more coordination than a generic link submission, but it resulted in an engaged (if small) group of people who were genuinely interested in the work that goes into redesigning a company’s identity.

Curated newsletters

Industry newsletters that hand-pick the best reads of the week are some of my favorite places to pitch. If you’re going to approach the editor/curator directly, wait until you have a gold standard piece that does most of your talking for you.

Once you make a strong first impression, you’re now on their radar as a future source. I know this because I’ve ran curated newsletters. When hidden gems are your game, an uncommonly insightful and polished publication that the industry hasn’t yet noticed is exactly what you’re looking for.

I made a list of newsletters for our blog’s major topics: places like Support Driven, We Support, and The Helpfuls for our core material. In addition, I sought out and listed select newsletters on marketing, design, and company culture for our team contributions.

Syndication — Let your best ideas land twice

Assuming writing leadership at scale, one of a writer’s strongest allies is republishing; previously written words can often find a whole new audience.

In a recent Ask Me Anything, Camille Ricketts, Head of Content and Marketing for the First Round Review, wrote of syndication:

Is your content so helpful and nutritious that other publications with bigger audiences would be interested?

That’s a question you need to honestly answer, and it’s something Camille and her team can definitively say “Yes” to given the tremendous work they’ve done for First Round. However, if you’re running a niche publication or the equivalent, you’ll probably find it more difficult to republish on larger sites than blogs that cover “startup-y” topics. Mainstream business publications are looking for material that lots of people will find appealing. It’s the tyranny of a small base audience.

It is possible to make syndication work even if this is your current situation. And given the number of open publishing platforms today, you may not even need to convince a gatekeeper in order to reach new readers. Below I’ll share how I approach both traditional and self-syndication.

Traditional syndication

Help Scout was stuck somewhere in the middle of the base audience issue. I had a hard time pitching our support pieces — even though I believe they are best-in-class — simply because most publications look at their analytics and don’t see the mega-viral-hit tag next to the topic of customer service.

Still, it’s their field, so you have to play their game. I opted to pitch articles with wider appeal first, and if they did well, I’d follow-up with support. This is where company-wide contributions were a tremendous asset; because my colleagues were writing about using video, designing illustrations, managing remote teams, and pursuing sustainable growth, we had a diverse archive with which to make a strong first impression.

In all we had bylines at Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur, Quartz, Business Insider, The Next Web, and many others I’m surely forgetting. After you’ve found the right person to talk to, usually an associate or contributions editor, I suggest you consider the following when making your pitch.

1. Informed pitches go a long way. Most advice around syndication strangely stops at the bare-bones stuff, like how to find an editor’s email. That hardly matters if you completely flub the email you send. If you were someone responsible for wrangling contributors and their delusions of grandeur, what would you want to see in a pitch so you could avoid wasting your time?

  • What the piece is about, condensed to a compelling, impossible to misunderstand summary that’s no more than a single paragraph.
  • Why the piece might do well, including evidence supporting your claim: the post was already popular on your site; this topic lacks substantial coverage yet is swelling in popularity; you’ve unique data or a project case study to share.
  • Where the piece fits, which means referencing any ongoing coverage or popular pieces on similar topics. Or, how you’re sharing an important perspective the publication hasn’t yet explored.

2. Appeal to their audience, not yours. For sites like The Next Web, where I seriously doubt anyone goes for hot takes on customer support, we focused on what their audience would naturally amplify. As an example, our first submitted post was a piece Samuel Hulick wrote for us on onboarding new customers.

3. Position yourself against what they publish. It’s smart to position your material against what they already have; where are you filling gaps, or providing an uncommon vantage point? Help Scout’s content shone here: we posited that “support” was an evolution of the call-centers of old, and that our material spoke to this new audience. Many editors agreed.

Self-syndication

Due to the proliferation of writing platforms self-syndication, or republishing your work to an off-site profile, is also a viable way to connect with new readers.

The platforms I’m most familiar with are Medium and LinkedIn Pulse (you might remember my LinkedIn publishing experiment from a while back). With dozens of articles and hundreds of thousands of views on both platforms, here’s are a few things I consider when looking at self-syndication.

What’s the goal? Since you have so much control over self-syndication you should at least detail a few initial assumptions and goals. For example, on LinkedIn we were mostly optimizing for new leads by promoting our (formerly) gated resources.

Meanwhile, on Medium we were looking to build a starter audience on our profile as a foundation for maybe-someday plans to run an off-site publication like ThinkGrowth. We also wanted to get our foot in the door by becoming contributors at growing publications like SWLH and The Mission.

What’s the plan? Throwing “just whatever” at self-syndication is a lazy way to go about it. Try to put half a heart into the practice: outline how you’ll use your different channels to push and promote syndicated pieces, and line up your syndicated pieces with on-site releases.

As an example, if you launch a new starter guide on Topic X, you could self-syndicate an old post covering Topic X with a byline or closing paragraph mentioning your new guide. The difference-maker is to not churn and burn through your archives with abandon.

Lock the door, there’s a marketer outside

Regardless of the quality of execution, promotion is an exercise in interrupting someone else’s workflow to point a novelty-sized foam finger at your own stuff.

I don’t say this to dissuade you from getting great material in front of the right people. Good work deserves to be promoted, and every writer should have arrogance enough to believe that. But short term trades of reputation for traffic rarely play out the way marketers hope they will.

That’s the thing about meeting readers where they live; since you’re a guest in their home, you need to be on your best behavior.

Join 1,158 other writers and marketers