Writing An Article Is Like Creating A Product

writing-an-article-is-like-creating-a-product

Today, I had a random thought about writing, and I’d love to explore it with you all.

The thought: writing an article — or even a book — is like creating a product.

To write something that people would want to read many times, we can think of the process as creating a product.

Let me elaborate.

Start with a problem

The top reason why startups fail is because there isn’t a market need for their product.

These entrepreneurs usually start with an idea. The idea feels so promising that they want to execute it and create the product. They think it’s a good idea but they usually don’t know if anyone needs the product. After they have created the product, they have to search for people who would use the product.

After reading up more about startups, I learned that the better way is to start with a problem. Find a problem a group of users has and then build a solution for that problem. If the product solves their problem, I’d have already found my users. (Of course, it’s harder than I seem to imply it is.)

This is the same for writing. When I’m eager to share an idea, I write a piece without thinking if anyone would need or want to read it. I admit this is the case for this article. The concept hit me this afternoon, and I felt compelled to share it.

That is alright if I only want to share an idea with others. But if I want to write something people would read, I have to start with their problems.

The better option is to know who I want to write for and write according to their needs. At Buffer, we created four personas based on our researchers’ interviews. This gives us a better idea of who we writing for and what problems they have.

buffer-personas

Introduction as onboarding

A good onboarding process guides users to find the core value of the product as soon as possible. Once users experience what the product can do for them, they are more likely to keep using the product. For instance, for Facebook, it was getting new users to 7 friends within 10 days.

If the onboarding process is too confusing, users might stop using the product then. It doesn’t matter if the product provides people a real value. If the onboarding process doesn’t convince them about that, they might not keep using the product.

The introduction of an article feels like an onboarding process to me. It tells the readers what they can expect from the article. If the introduction convinces the readers that the article would be valuable to them, they will read on.

Even if the article has valuable information, people might not read it if the introduction doesn’t hook them.

Design for usability/readability

Good design isn’t only aesthetically pleasing. Good design allows users to achieve what they want intuitively and easily.

An article can be well-designed too. There are two parts to the design of an article — the formatting and the visuals.

1. Formatting

Research has found that people tend to only scan through articles.

On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

But, if the formatting can convey the key points of the article well, readers might be more likely to pick up the key points. Here’s an example of the difference formatting can make (image by Ash Read):

formatted-text-vs-unformatted-text

A technique we use at Buffer is to highlight the key point of a section using a H3 subheading immediately after the H2 heading.

formatting-with-subheadings

People who scan through the article will notice the subheading — or key point — easily and immediately get an idea what the section is about. If it interests them enough, they would read the section.

This post by Ash Read goes into more details about formatting, but here are the 3 key points:

  • Use eye-catching subheadings
  • Make it scannable
  • Write short paragraphs

2. Visuals

Another part of design is the visuals. I’m guilty of using images and graphics just to break up a huge chunk of text. A huge chunk of text can be hard to read as seen in the image above by Ash Read.

Using images is a common practice to give readers breaks while reading the article. But it’s best when the visual is actually explaining something. This post by Jason Fried does it really well.

jason-frieds-post

The article is about how Andrew Mason described Meetup.com. The image explained the idea really well. I could even understand Jason’s point just by reading the title and seeing the image.

To me, that’s a great use of visuals. A picture says a thousand words. While it might not always replace a thousand words, a visual should help explain an idea I want to communicate so that I can use fewer words to describe it.

Solve the problem

At the end of the day, a great product solves the problem of the users.

That is the foundation for the product. An onboarding process can’t be effective if the product doesn’t provide a value in the first place. Great design wouldn’t save a product that isn’t valuable to the target users, too.

Like a great product that users would use repeatedly, an article has to be valuable enough for readers to want to come back and read it again. It has to solve a problem the readers have. There are articles which I read over and over again.

The content of the article forms the foundation of the article. The introduction and design build upon the content. If the content isn’t valuable to the readers, it doesn’t matter if it has a great introduction or if it’s well designed. People might read the article once but never again.

What do you think?

Great products solve a problem that users have, have an onboarding process that lets users experience the core benefits, and are easy and intuitive to use. People use such products over and over again.

Great articles solve a problem that the readers have, have an introduction that attracts readers to keep reading, and are easy to read and understand. People read such articles over and over again.

To me, writing an article is like creating a product.

What do you think of this idea?

What 1200+ of the World’s Best Marketers Think About the Future of Social Media

what-1200-of-the-worlds-best-marketers-think-about-the-future-of-social-media

I’m excited to share this guest post with you all!

I have been lurking on Inbound.org, a community of awesome inbound marketers, for several years. I remember spending much of my free time in university on Inbound.org and GrowthHackers.com because I was interested in marketing.

This week, I had the chance to guest post on Inbound.org, sharing my thoughts on our recent State of Social Media 2016 report. It’s incredible seeing the post on the homepage of Inbound.org and the great discussions it sparked.

I’m very grateful to Cameron Seher, who not only helped us share the survey with the community but also invited me to guest post there. Thanks, Cameron!

If you are interested, here’s the guest post: What 1200+ of the World’s Best Marketers Think About the Future of Social Media

The 20 Best New Social Media Tools to Try in 2017 (And How to Use Them)

the-20-best-new-social-media-tools-to-try-in-2017-and-how-to-use-them

This article is my latest blog post on Buffer’s Social blog and one of my favorite pieces among the ones I have written for the blog so far. It was a great fun trying out and writing about those tools.

I even received an email from the founder of one of the tools. He said that the blog post drove traffic to their site and people were signing up for their tool. I’m so glad that this post had such an impact!

If you want to check out this post, you can find it here: The 20 Best New Social Media Tools to Try in 2017 (And How to Use Them)

P.s. 15,000 shares? Wow! Huge thanks to all of you who shared it.

How I’m Learning to Become a Better Content Marketer

how-im-learning-to-become-a-better-content-marketer

I recently became a content writer at Buffer. Buffer is a tech startup relatively well-known for content marketing, among many other things.

(Disclaimer: We gained that reputation before I became a content writer.)

I used to focus on community building. Recently, I had the opportunity to venture into the world of content marketing. A big part of content marketing is writing, and I don’t consider myself a great writer.

So I’m thankful for the opportunity, especially being able to learn from and work alongside some of the best content marketers in the industry.

At the same time, I also know there’s a lot of work ahead of me.

What I Have Been Doing

For the last three weeks, I have been working much harder to improve my writing.

I wrote at least 750 words a day.

I worked on the basics of writing such as spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.

I took notes in my Evernote whenever I learned something new.

But I know that if I want to become a better content marketer faster, I need to do more.

Figuring Out A Plan

When I was thinking of what I could do, I thought of my university days.

My grades were pretty good but it wasn’t because I’m smart (I don’t think I’m smart). It was because there was a great system for learning. And I like to think I’m rather diligent in following the system.

Because I trusted the system, I did everything the system had planned for me. I attended (almost) every lecture. I did (almost) every tutorial before the seminar classes. That served me well.

When I stepped into the “real” world, I realized things are different. No more syllabus, no more lectures, no more homework. I became a little lost.

I thought about it, and I think I might have found an explanation.

Back in university, instead of having to figure out how to learn, I was focusing on learning. With the system, I knew exactly what to do to become better.

Now, without a system for learning, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I have been learning in a disorganized manner.

My gut feeling was that having a system would be beneficial to me if I want to learn faster.

info-vs-knowledge

(Graphic by Hugh MacLeod)

Defining What I Need to Do

Before I dive right into creating a system, I thought it’d be great to define what I need to do.

To become a better content marketer and writer, I know I need to do more than writing regularly.

My hunch is I have to go through the full process of creating a content. Many times. While I have been writing daily, I haven’t been publishing my writing. I haven’t been editing and refining my writing, too.

I’m sure I’m missing out valuable lessons there.

Having considered that, there are two major things I need to:

  • Publish more online
  • Learn more about content marketing

Creating A System for Myself

After I’ve defined what I need to do, I could start creating a system to speed up my learning.

Like the system in my university, I want to have a system which gives me a clear idea of what I need to do to become better.

Thankfully, Kevan Lee, a great content marketer (and my team lead), generously shared how he got into content marketing. I decided to follow his approach.

Here’s the system I’ve come up with:

  1. Publish twice a week: This can be on the Buffer Social blog, our Medium publication, here, or other blogs as guest posts. By publishing articles, I’ll go through the full process of content creation — from ideation to research to writing to editing to promotion.
  2. Create a playground: This blog will be my playground. Apart from publishing articles, I can experiment with new things. I thought of experimenting with email newsletters, re-publishing onto Medium, and more. Also, since few people know about this blog, it takes some pressure off me.
  3. Read more articles and books: One thing I noticed is I can’t tell what a quality article is and what makes it great. I believe reading more will help me improve my judgment. More specifically, I want to read two articles a day and finish one book every two weeks.

my-content-marketing-learning-system

Bonus: To add structure to my learning process, I’m taking HubSpot’s content marketing course as well. It includes about four hours of videos and an exam at the end.

While passing the exam doesn’t necessarily make me a great content marketer, knowing that there’s an exam usually has a psychological effect on my mind to work (even) harder.

I believe this system should adapt as I progress further so I expect it to change in the future.

Keeping to the system

A challenge for this would be to stick to the system.

It’s much easier to say that I want to do all that than actually doing them.

So I thought of a few ways to help me:

  • Writing this post and publishing it is in itself a way. I hope by doing so, I’d feel more accountable to keep with the system.
  • At work, I found that when I tracked the progress of a project, the project would tend to be at the top of my mind. So, I created a spreadsheet to track my progress. (It’s public if you want to check it out!) I kept it simple as I want it to be easy to update.
  • For the last three weeks, I have been tweeting about my daily writing streak. Receiving encouragements from others has motivated me to continue. So, I’m going to tweet about my progress for this too. Perhaps wanting to be able to share my progress with this system could keep me going too.

Over to you

Do you use a system to speed up your learning? How do you keep yourself accountable?

I’d love to hear and learn from you!

2 Opportunities For Learning After Graduating

graduation

I remember when I was back in university, the head lecturer of a business module told us the main objective of his classes is to learn how to learn. At that time, I thought most business classes were quite fluffy. So after hearing this, I wasn’t sure if the lecturer was being serious.

Throughout my education, I learnt many things but I never thought about the process of learning. I didn’t have to since most things were structured very nicely for students. I’d attend the classes, do the homework, and study for the exams. That’s how I learnt.

When I started work, I realised things are very different. If I don’t actively seek things to learn, there’s a chance I might not learn new things at all.

Importance of learning (fast)

I graduated with an accounting and finance degree and my first (and current) job is on marketing and community. Most, or maybe even all, of the things I learnt in the university are not quite directly applicable to my job. So I knew I have to pick up the relevant skills as I go along. I have to learn of my own accord.

I think it’s not only about learning, but also the speed of learning. Being able to learn fast is advantageous. The faster I’m able to learn something, the faster I’ll become good at it and the faster I can produce results. This is something I’m still working on.

Take my triathlon hobby as an (anti) example. I’m taking probably too long to learn how to prevent an injury. Over the last few years, I suffered from multiple injuries that have hindered my training progress and made me miss several races. Smarter athletes are quick to learn from their injuries and become good at recognising early symptoms and avoiding injuries. Staying injury-free allows them to keep up with their training and race better. Being able to learn fast helps them race fast.

Learning on the job

After graduating, I see two main opportunities for learning. The first is learning on the job.

As a junior, most of the things I’m working on are very new to me. Whenever I’m given a new assignment, I’m usually not very certain what to do immediately. That is actually very exciting because it means there’s a great potential to learn new things. I’d read up on the relevant topics, think of how I’d approach the project, execute my plans, ask for feedback and iterate. I like to think it is through working on such not-too-familiar projects that I’d learn the most and become better.

Having a mentor at work can be very beneficial for speeding up the learning process (and I’m grateful to have one). While it’s great to try things out myself, see how things turn out, and learn through the process, it might not be the most efficient way of learning. For example, I’m trying to improve my writing and my team lead has written countless blog posts before. It has been helpful to get his advice on my drafts and learn how to improve them.

Most of us will spend a huge percentage of our lives working. I believe it is where we’d learn most of the things we’d eventually know if we actively seek to learn on the job.

Learning outside work

The second opportunity is learning outside work — making the effort to learn during my free time.

I found that it’s best when I learn things that compliment what I do in my role. When the skill is required regularly in my role, I’m able to practice it frequently. It feels effective as I get to practice the skill while getting my work done. Furthermore, when I get better at the skill, I become better at my job. At the moment, I’m focusing on learning to write better but there are many other skills that are complimentary to my role as a marketer such as data analysis, user psychology and more.

I can also see the benefits of picking up a skill, which isn’t as required in my role right now but might be useful in the future. However, it might harder to find opportunities to practise on a regular basis. Without regular practice, I find it more challenging to master a skill quickly and I’d likely lose it over time.

Overall, I would lean towards learning and practising skills I can immediately apply in my role than those I might use in the future.

Lifelong learning

“If a man empties his purse into his head no one can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” —Benjamin Franklin

While writing this post, I started to wonder about how I have been learning since I graduated from university. My hunch is that I have been trying to wing it and it is probably not great. I’m keen to explore more on that since there are many years of learning ahead!

What are your thoughts about learning? When and how do you usually learn? I’d love to hear from you.

Being A Junior

first-bufferoo-meetup

About 3 months ago, I joined the Marketing team at Buffer. I started working on more (traditional) marketing projects — traditional as the lines between Community and Marketing are quite blurry at Buffer. I have been managing our Medium publication, experimenting with a guest posting strategy and helping out with content distribution.

Despite being at Buffer for slightly more than a year, I recognise I’m very junior in this new role! In fact, I’m simply very junior! This is my first job out of university and my first proper job in my life.

Beginner’s mind

Being a junior can be quite advantageous. It helps me look at things with a beginner’s mind — because I am a beginner!

As I’m not very knowledgeable about marketing, almost everything that I come across in my work is new to me. Each time, I’m presented with a great learning opportunity. Having a desire to learn new things and understand them better, I have been asking quite a bit of questions regularly. (I’m so thankful that the team is so helpful!)

Asking good questions to the right people helps me learn faster. However, as helpful as my teammates are, their time is valuable and limited. So I tend to ask my best friend, Google, first, if possible. Thanks to the great internet and amazing people, there are many helpful resources and articles online. When I still don’t understand the topic after reading up on it, I’ll ask for help.

Apart from asking questions, it’s also important to store and act on the new knowledge. I know I’m quite forgetful so I usually write notes in my Evernote. I have a notebook called “Marketing” for marketing related notes and another called “Development” for more general knowledge such as feedback from my team lead and good phrases to use when communicating. Also, I found that if I could act on the new knowledge as soon as possible, I tend remember it better.

Looking through the beginner’s lens keeps me in the learning state. It is a way of thinking, which I feel shouldn’t change even when I become more experienced.

Asking for advice

Apart from asking questions, I often reach out to more experienced teammates for their advice on the things I’m working on. For example, when I first started working with our guest bloggers, I wasn’t sure what to look out for and I wasn’t confident about my judgements. So whenever I receive an outline or draft, I’d ask Kevan or Ash for their advice and thoughts.

Things become much easier with their help. However, it’s almost like they did the work (and thinking) for me. I don’t think I’d learn as much as if I attempted to assess the outline or draft myself first. When I reached out to them, I made it a practice to say something along the lines of “Here are my thoughts on this: … I’d love to hear what you think about this too!”. I don’t get it right all the time and neither am I a pro yet. But through the practices, I gained a better idea of the things to look out for and I feel (slightly) more confident about my judgements now.

In my recent 1-on-1, Kevan shared a 30-90 principle with me — asking for advice when the work is 30% done and again at 90%. At the 30% checkpoint, I should have done my research and written down my rough thoughts or plans. The check-in is for making sure I’m heading towards the right direction. If all feels good, I’ll continue working on it with the advice given. The second check-in is for refining the details and bringing it from 90% to 100%. That’s the ideal situation and there could be more check-ins in between. We have taken this approach with things such as my blog posts and my Quarter 4 Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).

Bringing a different perspective

As a junior, it is easier to think that my opinions or suggestions are not that valuable. I think that might not be a great mentality to have. I like to think that every team member brings a different perspective to things since we all have rather different background and experiences from one another — a great benefit of diversity! So I might think of something others have not.

There might also be a chance that I have come across something the rest of the team has not — though, the reverse might be more likely. I recently started a practice to help me build up a handy repository of ideas and examples. I have been storing good articles, marketing examples and inspirations in an Evernote notebook called “Marketing Inspirations” and giving them an appropriate tag so I can easily find them in the future. The idea is that whenever we are discussing new projects, I’d be able to pull out a few relevant ideas or examples to share.

Having said that, I think it’s important to recognise that I do not have as much experience and context as them. They might have tried some things before and found that those didn’t quite work for us. A practice we have at Buffer is to be suggestive rather than instructive, which I found is a great way to share my thoughts. So I tend to say things like “I wonder if (suggestion) might work” or “Perhaps we could try (suggestion)?”. Sometimes, I’d add “You might have thoughts of this already!”.

Keep practising my craft

This probably doesn’t apply to juniors only but I think it is especially important for juniors. Practising is a great — or maybe only — way to improve our skills.

The frequency and consistency are crucial. I have been learning to code since about 4 years ago. I would usually code for only a few weeks, lose the habit and forget quite a lot of things by the time I want to code again. That’s why after 4 years, my coding knowledge is still rather basic. I wasn’t coding often or long enough.

On the other hand, my sister has been practicing her craft very regularly over the last 6 years. When she started, she was baking simple cupcakes. Now… well, I’ll let photos do the talking:

winifred-kriste-cake

(The flowers on the cakes are all edible!)

Right now, writing feels like the best way to improve my marketing skills. I’m not very confident about my writing but I know writing more is the only way to get better and writing frequently will help me improve faster. (Fun fact: My team lead, Kevan Lee, used to write 2000 words minimum every day! I think few would dispute he is a great writer and marketer.)

Being a junior is a very rewarding experience and I’d love to hear your experiences as a junior! If you are a senior in your company/team, do you have any advice for me?

Photo credit: Jip van Kujik

I Write to Remember

Write to remember

Earlier this year, I set myself a goal to write weekly. Embarrassingly, after 38 weeks, I have written 7 posts.

When I was writing this post, I read some of my previous posts. It was a nice walk down memory lane. I was reminded of my 30-in30 day writing challenge, my first week in London for my internship with Kayako and the internship itself. I wrote about my experiences and the lessons I’ve learnt. I could feel I’ve grown quite a bit since then. Reading all those posts made me wish I had written more since then. But, any reasons I come up with about why I didn’t would likely be an excuse so I’ll skip that. For now, I’m just excited to write again.

I want to write to become better at writing and expressing myself, to document what I have learnt and to share the lessons with others. I want to write because the act of writing makes me sit down and think, because it helps me reflect and think better and because it helps me grow. I want to write so I can look back next time and see how much I’ve grown. Above all, I want to write so I can remember how I was thinking about things at various points in my life and career. I want to write so I won’t forget.

(And I wrote this to remind myself why I want to pick up writing again.)

Taking a break and catching up with friends

This weekend, some of my close friends came over to my place for a Chinese New Year gathering. Apart from the dinner on Friday night, they had also planned a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday. Being quite a workaholic, I told them that I had to catch up with my studies and work so I wouldn’t join them.

Thankfully, I eventually decided to join them and had an amazing time exploring Shakespeare’s birth town with them.

I was reminded of a post by Jason Zimdars of Basecamp and especially this sentence:

You won’t remember working a little later or catching up on Saturday because the people you love interrupted you but you’re certain to remember those little interactions.

I didn’t manage to catch up on the things I planned and I’ll have to work harder some other time to do so. However, I did catch up with friends whom I have known for 11 years (I’m only 23!) but not met for a while because we are all busy with our own lives.

As the quote suggests, I won’t remember having to work a little more because my friends “interrupted” me, but I’ll certainly remember this weekend I spent with them – talking till 5 in the morning, sleeping for a few hours and heading out for a day trip.

Thanks, guys!

My 7 brothers and I

Good Side To Things

my desk

Last Wednesday, I was working at my desk by the window when a group of teenage boys walked by and saw me by the window.

“Do you know how to fix the iPhone?”, one shouted at me.

Hearing that remark, I assumed that he was taunting me for being an Asian. (I might be wrong!) While I was a little annoyed, I decided to pretend that I couldn’t hear him through my headphones and continued working on my laptop.

Then, they became rowdier – knocking on my window, shouting at me and banging on my door. I continued to ignore them despite them being right in front of me. Eventually, they gave up, toppled my wheelie bin and walked away.

Was I irritated? You bet! Was it all that bad? Not quite!

Coincidentally, I had an assignment for one of my modules – Strategic Games due the following day and I turned this incident into the content of the essay!

I had to write about an interactive situation in the media or my everyday life which resembles a strategic game. I was struggling to think of one until this incident and it felt like a great example of brinksmanship!

I think I have to thank the boys now! 😉

Everything happens for a reason

I wanted to write this post because I feel that when something seemingly bad happens, it is seldom as bad as it seems and if we look hard enough, there’s likely a good side to it. Everything happens for a reason.

Also, I wanted to share that it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of discrimination. I don’t fault the boys entirely because I believe I’m not perfect in this way generally too.

While I do not intentionally discriminate others, I believe I make unintentional (and possibly not so nice) associations of people due to my unconscious bias (Thanks, Natalie and Courtney, for the unconscious bias training!). And this incident and reflection are a great reminder for myself to tackle my unconscious bias. Again, another good outcome 😊

Good side to things

Personal Growth

I have been thinking about personal growth recently and I came to a conclusion that personal growth is about being able to make bigger decisions better. Bigger in the sense that these decisions have greater consequences or will affect more people.

For example, one of such decisions I have made is going to the UK to study. (“going” as I’m in Hawaii now ;)) It was a decision which had greater consequences for my life than, I believe, all the decisions I’ve made before. Furthermore, the decision wasn’t only about me, but also my family and my girlfriend.

Making that decision, experiencing the outcomes and learning from it helped me grow. I feel that if I were to make similar decisions now, I’ll be better at analysing the situation and deciding what to do than before.

So I believe that making bigger decisions and learning from them is a great way to grow as an individual.

personal growth