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Write content to trigger conversations (and community)

For a long time I built and maintained the prior iteration of this blog. When I was a software engineer building enterprise mobile and web applications, I made a conscious decision to post solutions to all the annoying problems I encountered on this blog with detailed source code snippets and documentation. By making a habit of this, I reasoned, I could go back and find my own solutions to problems and also create a public resource to build my brand. 

It worked pretty well. After five years of software engineering work, my site averaged tens of thousands of hits every month. It was all people Googling for common problems with iOS, Android, JavaScript, Ruby on Rails and then reading my website, finding the answer and then leaving. I had hundreds of articles, some of which took me a week to write – They were really quite good!

It was very comforting for me to look in Google Analytics and see massive spikes in traffic whenever an article I wrote hit the front page of Hacker News. The metrics for read-times my blog was getting were also phenomenal. People were spending 5-7+ minutes on my content on average, something which signals a very high degree of engagement. By having such a great and useful blog, I told myself, I am surely setting myself up for massive future career success in this domain of programming things. 

But then a funny thing happened: Nothing. 

I didn’t really pay much attention to it at first since I was so busy with my programming and contracting work. I sort of just assumed that by providing this great content, I was somehow “earning something.” Recruiters could look at my blog and see all my work, obviously, I imagined. I also thought that the volume of articles I wrote demonstrated that I knew my way around a range of valuable technologies. My GitHub, which accumulated some stars (not an epic number), showed that I was writing code that people in the industry found useful.

Except: None of the content I wrote seemed effective at converting into anything worthwhile. I wired my website up with Google AdSense. There were some clicks sure, but nothing that great. Then I tried the Amazon Affiliate Program. Once and awhile people bought something, not that often. These monetization strategies just didn’t work on that type of content. 

As for finding contracts and getting jobs? Not so much. Recruiters seem to primarily care about whether or not you match a checklist they have of pre-defined qualifications, none of which is “wrote hundreds of useful articles on this topic” (although these articles did ultimately get me hired at Intel when a recruiter flagged me as a potential developer evangelist). Developers have lots of websites to help them solve an annoying problem, without an incentive or reason to stick around (a community), they just want to solve their issue then bounce out. 

Despite the traffic I was getting, nothing really changed about my life. I didn’t get any extra twitter followers. No one sought my out on LinkedIn. I never receive feedback or emails via my About section. All of the client work I got? Referrals were the only thing that really worked. It turns out: If you build it (content), they will come…but then they may just leave without so much as a “thanks for that article!” 

With so much effort, time, money and energy put into content there must be a reason – it SEEMS very important, but I feel there are some very important distinctions about HOW content matters. The effect can sometimes be less direct than one might imagine (hey, read this blog and buy something right now!!!). 

Whatever content strategy gets you contracts, leads, inbound recruiting – apparently I was not engaging in it. I resisted rebuilding my website for years until I had a better understanding of WHY I should write content and the specific results I wanted to generate from my content. 

My goal with this website and my content now is different than before: I want to drive Conversations (and community). I hope to produce very targeted content pointing at key pain points that really resonates with the kinds of people I want to talk to (people building and marketing complex edge computing products).

For me, content has the following key functions:

  • It shows that I think on these topics deeply
  • It shows I can talk about my demonstrated experience in these areas
  • If I write it properly, it resonates on multiple levels (hyper targeted)
  • It is a useful tool: I can send it to people to trigger conversations
  • It is useful as a method to convince people to join my community (something I have not started quite yet)

If I were to do my technical blog again, I would have started a Discourse community on my blog (something I plan on adding to this website) focused simply on troubleshooting Android, iOS, Ruby on Rails problems and getting started. Content gets people in the door, but you need people to stick around and keep talking or there really isn’t much point engaging in it. 

Closing thoughts: How do I know if I have created good content? In the book “Never Split The Difference,” the author talks about how certain methods of conversation cause people to suddenly begin telling their entire life story. In my experience, when someone reads content which really maps to them, they start to talk: They want to have a conversation. I think that is the perfect goal to measure whether or not I am being effective with what I right here: How many people wanted to talk after they read what I wrote here. 

So let’s see how my new objective goes: I write content to trigger conversations (and community).


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