Ariel Liu
Ariel Liu
Jun 8, 2017 · 5 min read

In January, my friend, Ben, launched a personal project, Webtendo, and posted it on Hackernews, but it never got much traction. In February, I started making stuff. I knit a hat, painted some abstract paintings, and drew a lot. Some people even suggested that I start an Etsy shop. I thought it would be a great learning experience to dip my toes into entrepreneurship, so I did. But no one came.

Since we both struggled to attract attention, I started looking into how to start a business and how to sell products. Here’s what I gathered from reading articles, watching videos, and taking online courses about how to start businesses. What I realized is that the idea of content marketing for businesses can apply to any idea you want to spread as an individual.

What is content marketing?

In Amy Hoy’s email newsletter about starting a business, she explains that content marketing can be broken down into these steps:

1. you create content
2. people like it (and hopefully share it), and then
3. you point them to your product.

Content marketing is like blogging, but with a purpose. While blogging may tell a story from life, content marketing aims to leave the reader with valuable insight. Following Amy’s model, I create content that’s valuable to people so that they will subscribe to my content and so I can later point them to a “product.” For me, a product is whatever it is I’m passionate about enough to share. It could be an idea, a political view, a mobile app, or anything that tickles my brain.

Build a following today for tomorrow

Ben had a game platform he wanted to popularize and I had art that I wanted to sell. He had tried distributing through Hackernews and I had tried dressing up the presentation on Etsy, but in the end we didn’t see significant traffic to our respective products.

In Amy Hoy’s Stacking the Bricks post, she explains that her company, 37signals (now renamed Basecamp), started by launching, not a software product, but a whitepaper. They saw a problem, and gave the solution in the form of an ebook. That whitepaper gave them the credibility to sell their eventual software solution as well as the ability to start bootstrapping buyers of the ebook as initial customers.

Amy talks about businesses, but the same idea can apply to individuals. Unless I’m able to create an organically viral video, an audience won’t gather overnight. That’s why I do content marketing: to start building a personal following and grow my social capital.

Investing in social capital

Financial advisors and mom tell me that I should start saving for retirement now. Saving now means that I can have a pile of money when I’m older. What’s said about financial capital could also be said about social capital. Start putting content out now, so you can have a pile of people who want to see, read, or experience what you produce in the future. Of course, as with financial investments, I like to diversify my portfolio of social investments, and content marketing is just one of many ways to make friends, engage in a community that’s interested in the same things as you, and gain influence.

While money can buy me material goods, it’s much harder to buy someone’s trust, attention, or mindset. That’s where social capital comes in. At some point in my life I will be passionate enough about an idea, a cause or a product, that I’ll want to spread the word about it. Without social capital who will listen to me?

What content do I create?

When I’m looking at a painting, a web app, or an entrée at a restaurant I often wonder, “How did they do that? I want to do that too!” I wish more people would show us how they got to where they are to teach us how we can do it too. It’s the reason why articles titled “How I…” are synonymous with clickbait. We love seeing how it’s done.

In Shaunta Grimes’s “How to know what to write about,” she explains that you can either:

  1. teach something you’re an expert at
  2. learn something you’re not an expert at

Amy Hoy calls them “ebombs” for education bombs. “The best ebombs don’t just educate the reader, they give the reader a result. A fix. A tiny win.”

I used to think I had nothing to say or teach. Why should I talk about something I have no authority to talk about? The reality is that I do have something to say. I can talk about what I’m doing now, my life purpose, and how I found it. I write about where that takes me. I’m taking my curiosity and teaching others something I learned.

Here are some ideas on what to write about:

  1. Describe an insight you had today. Find the moments your mind was blown.
  2. What makes you keep doing what you’re doing? What are your motivations and goals?
  3. What’s working and what’s not working? What would you have done differently?
  4. Are you in a rough spot? Write about your anger or depression or confusion. People will relate with your situation and be glad that you shared your vulnerability.

These are just starting points in the absence of teachable expertise or learning. My litmus test for content is: “would the me of last year have wished this article/post/tweet existed?” If the answer is yes, I know I have to write it and publish it.

My content is redundant! Someone else already wrote it

My friend who had been practicing jiu jitsu since childhood would move to a different city for internships or work and find a jiu jitsu dojo to continue his practice. He found that some instructors would explain a move in a different way that made the move way easier to perform. He marveled at the difference in teaching and wondered why the first teacher didn’t explain it that way!

Your way of internalizing the world is different. Your writing and way of expressing your learning is different and could benefit someone in a different way.

As much as writing has been about throwing an “ebomb” at readers, writing about my life purpose has also been for myself. Writing has allowed me to reflect on what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and add depth to my purpose. The hope is that sharing insights adds to the world’s collective body of knowledge to make it just a little bit better.

Thanks to Ben Mann

Ariel Liu

Written by

Ariel Liu

Writing, drawing, and musing on

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