If You’re Doing Content Marketing: Do You Want Vanity Or Do You Want Exposure?

I have been involved in the content marketing world for a long, long time.

Over the past 4 years, I’ve generated over 50 million organic views on my written content—with $0 spent on advertising, retargeting, or Boosting. I’ve written over 400+ columns for Inc Magazine exclusively. I’ve had work published in just about every major publication: TIME, Forbes, Fortune, Business Insider, CNBC, The Chicago Tribune, and dozens more. And in the past year, I’ve built a 17+ person company called Digital Press, writing and publishing over 1,000 pieces of content for our clients.

I have a very unique philosophy when it comes to content marketing.

In working over 100 different founders, investors, and C-suite executives on publishing written content, I’ve heard just about every company desire under the sun:

“We want to go viral.”
“We want to get into major publications.”
“We want to create our own blog for SEO.”

But none of the above expectations actually move the needle for a company looking to attract the right kind of attention. In fact, many of the things companies think “work” are given to them by people who haven’t actually “walked the walk.” Of course an SEO firm is going to tell you that blog content on your website is what you should be doing—they’re incentivized to do so. Of course a PR firm is going to tell you that getting featured in a major publication is going to have a huge impact on your business (it’s not).

So many content marketers sell the dream of what they haven’t actually executed themselves.

And that’s disappointing.

As a result, companies invest thousands of dollars into initiatives that don’t actually pay dividends. Instead, they chase short-term rewards instead of investing in a much longer-term payoff. And what nobody tells you about effective content marketing is that it doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, that’s the entire point. There’s no such thing as “building industry expertise” in 3 months. That’s barely enough time to figure out what it is you’re actually trying to stand for.

And because it takes time in order to see a dramatic return on investment, most companies opt for the easier (and more costly) option instead:

Vanity Instead Of Exposure

It’s astonishing to me how many people want to see their name appear in a major publication.

When you ask them why, the first answer usually has something to do with wanting millions of people to know who they are and what their company does. Unfortunately, the average piece on a major publication receives less than 1,000 views. So while the entire site might be a content behemoth, the truth is your tiny mention is being buried beneath a pile nobody is going to sit through and read.

This is a red flag, and shows that while companies talk about wanting to see a return on their investment, what they actually care about is vanity over exposure. They would rather spend a few thousand dollars (or in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars) to be able to say, “Hey, look at us being mentioned in a publication,” instead of driving 5–10x the exposure.

Now, it’s worth acknowledging that, in some cases, it’s worth investing in building your credibility as a company.

When you’re first starting out, you should probably work on acquiring some industry clout.

If you look at the first few paragraphs of this piece, I mentioned some of my accolades before I even got into the content. It’s important to let people know where your knowledge is coming from, and why you’re the person they should be listening to.

One of the big mistakes I see companies and executives make, however, is they chase the accolades and the credibility badges before (or sometimes, instead of) asking what’s valuable for them to share. They would rather pay a PR firm to chase down a columnist to write about how they great they are, instead of taking a moment to think about what’s going to truly resonate with the person they’re trying to reach.

This one simple decision then leads down two very different roads:

When you approach content marketing from this short-sighted lens, you end up creating a machine that is dependent upon your most recent win. Your entire strategy is built around the idea that if someone hears you’re doing great right now, they’re going to want to do business with you.

But what happens 6 months down the road? What about a year from now? 2 years from now? 5 or 10 years from now?

All of a sudden, that 1 content piece has no relevancy. Nobody reads a piece about how a company executive was great in 2012 and thinks, “I have to reach out to this person—they’re who I want to work with.”

The above is what I like to call The Vanity Strategy.

The alternative, although far less shiny, is far more reliable (and profitable):

Instead of creating short-term content with the intention of telling people how great you or your company is, try to pull back and see the bigger picture.

  • What do people want to learn from you?
  • What knowledge have you acquired that would be incredibly valuable to share?
  • How have you learned what you’ve learned?
  • What’s your unique story—and what aspect of that story can a reader hear, implement, and yield similar results?

All of the accolades I mentioned at the beginning of this post—accumulating 50M+ views on my writing, having my work published in major publications—came as a result of 1 thing and 1 thing only: I wrote social content that answered people’s questions, with my own personal story.


Well, for one, because I learned very quickly that the amount of viewership you receive by having a piece placed in a major publication is pretty minimal. Even when I was writing daily for Inc Magazine, my monthly viewership never once exceeded my viewership here on Medium or over on Quora.

Not once.

But two, in treating my content as Answers to people’s Questions, I slowly built a web that now acts as a long-term library on the Internet. My 3,000+ articles on the Internet (an investment that has taken 5 years) have led to:

  • 40%+ of our Digital Press business being generated by inbound leads or people who read my content and introduce prospective clients directly.
  • Invitations to speak at conferences all over the United States (and internationally)
  • Invitations to contribute to major publications (I received a column at Inc Magazine after writing on Quora for about a year)
  • Invitations to appear on industry podcasts like Entrepreneur On Fire
  • The ability to easily connect with industry leaders, authors, entrepreneurs, speakers, and more.

All because I treated the content I wrote as a long-term investment, and not a short-term stage.

As someone who has been doing this for a long time, here are a few words of advice:

Don’t compromise the vision for today’s step.

So many companies get caught up wanting to see immediate results (and you can define that in 10 different ways). If you’re dealing with programmatic advertising, like Facebook ads, then that’s a different conversation. But when it comes to written content, there is no such thing as a “3-month thought leader”—and anyone who sells you on that idea is lying to you.

Every single person I’ve given this advice to (friends and clients combined), without fail, has achieved the same results. I’ve watched friends go viral (I even had a friend get more views on a piece than I’ve ever gotten). I’ve watched clients accumulate hundreds of thousands of views on their work, and get invited to contribute to big publications.

It’s the people who stick with it the longest, that reap the largest rewards.

Don’t settle for short-term vanity.

I promise you, no good investor thinks that way.