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?


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!


Warwick Marketing Conference

Today, I attended the Warwick Marketing Conference, organised by the Warwick Marketing Society of my school. It was a full day event filled with amazing speakers. Just to mention a few speakers, Ryan Den Rooijen from Google talked about how content creation is changing; Howard Nead from IPG Mediabrands spoke about how marketing principles have not changed but technology has changed how things are done and Abigail Brown from Cancer Research UK talked about marketing to beat cancer and shared many interesting examples. I’ve learnt so many things today that it is impossible to type them all out in a blog post. Hence, I would like to share one of my most important takeaways from today – Taking actions.

Taking actions

The answer to the question above is simply (well, not so simply) taking actions. I strongly believe that taking actions to develop one’s passion in marketing will help a student get a marketing job that he/she is interested in. When I say taking actions, I do not mean simply reading up about marketing and applying for internships; but real actions where you hone your skills and exercise your creativity, such as practising content creation through blogging, promoting your society and events in school and volunteering to help small charity organisations with their marketing. This is similar to how designers always create their personal portfolio of designs, because they can show prospective employers or people who are interested in their design services what they have done.

This is not just my opinion but it was also mentioned in today’s conference by Jackie Jobes, who is in charge of graduate recruitment from IPG Mediabrands and Sarah Ellis, Head of Corporate Responsibility and Society at Sainsbury’s.

Someone asked about the importance of internships when applying for a marketing job and the Jackie from IPG Mediabrands answered that internships are not the only thing they look for. They are also keen to know about what have you done in your personal time to develop your passion in marketing. She even said that, “We expect that you have a blog.” With the rise of content marketing and the fact that almost every company has a blog nowadays, I can understand why they have such expectation. Hence, she suggested applicants to link their CVs to their own personal portfolio or website.

UPDATED 09/03/2014: Jackie added that it’s not just about having a blog but also ensuring the quality of the blog.

Then, a student asked Sarah Ellis from Sainsbury’s if experiences in a (likely unknown) startup is considered to be valuable, compared to experiences in a well-known corporation when applying for a marketing job. This was her reply:

This reiterates not just how valuable startup experiences are, but also the importance of actually doing something in the field of marketing for someone who is looking for a marketing job.

If you are interested in starting with internet/online marketing, do check out this really informative guide created by Eric Siu of GrowthEverywhere: The Beginner’s Guide To Becoming A Full Stack Marketer. He included several great resources where you can start learning about the various aspect of online marketing such as SEO, PPC, Copywriting and more. Read and take actions!

To end off, here’s a quote from Sarah Ellis:

So in summary,

[Tweet “If you want to get a job in the marketing field, start practising the art now.”]

P.S. If anyone wants my notes from today, let me know and I’m happy to share it.
P.P.S. In my next article, I will write about what I’ve learnt from taking actions. So if you are interested, hang out or subscribe to my articles (: