Last year I upped my writing and online publishing commitment significantly as a year-long experiment. In this post I want to share what I did, what I learned and what you might take away and use yourself.
Falling Into and Out of the Writing Rhythm
I built the consulting practice that was Win Without Pitching (before we pivoted to a training company in 2013) on the back of my writing. After establishing some quick writing momentum in the beginning, back in 2002, and then adding plenty of outbound work (mostly email) and some speaking engagements, I got to a critical mass of lead generation and clients. From there I published monthly for years, averaging 1250-word articles every month. The business grew steadily.
When The Win Without Pitching Manifesto was published in 2010 I leaned heavily on the book for lead generation and slowed the pace of my web writing. I was essentially allowing myself a brief content sabbatical as a reward for finishing the book. The sabbatical never really ended however. It turned into something closer to the writing equivalent of purgatory. The numbers show that I was stuck.
In 2011 I published only four times for a total of about 5,000 words. Then the same again in 2012. In 2013 I upped my game and published six times and then six again in 2014 – still only half of what I had been producing in the early 2000’s. It’s painful to type these numbers.
Web traffic remained somewhat level throughout the first three years of my writing holiday, largely due to the free online version of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, but late in 2013 it started to decline. 2014 was poor. I took stock of how little I had published in the preceding years and decided I needed to snap out of it. I was going to write more often in 2015, but how often? What was the magic number and how much time should or even could I devote to writing?
(I’m a slow writer. I once polled a group of writer friends and asked them how long it took them to write the 1,000 to 2,000-word pieces they were publishing on their websites. The average was around two hours. My own estimate was it took me 16 hours.)
Chris Lema writes on the specialized niche of membership-driven WordPress sites. He publishes every day in an experiment that began a few years back. (Seth Godin publishes every day too, but his posts tend to be 300-400 words while Chris likes to write to the same length I do: 1200 words or more.) Chris continues to publish every day while holding down a full-time job and running a side business.
I decided I would shoot for publishing every week, while still writing to the length I like, 1200+ words.
Here’s what happened…
In 2015 we published 36 posts, averaging about 1250 words each (my guess – I only counted a random sample) for a total of about 45,000 words. Thirty three (33) of those posts were new content authored by me, putting my annual word count at over 40,000 – about 9 times what it was in the trough years of 2011 & 2012.
Looking back I think I probably could have published closer to 50 posts but because we also send marketing messages for our training program, webcasts and seminars, we felt at times we were over communicating to our list so some weeks when a marketing message was going we wouldn’t publish thought leadership.
We’re still sorting out the proper ratio of content to promotion, and while I can’t prove anything I feel like we (and probably you) should be making a minimum of three deposits into the relationship in the form of valuable content for every withdrawal we make in the form of a marketing message. Three gives, one take feels right to me.
By the end of 2015 we had restored web traffic to our historic highs, almost doubling both users and sessions from 2014, with an upward momentum that should take us to new highs early in 2016. In short, the return was there. (Given that we were a consulting company in 2012, a training company in 2015 and in transition in between, it’s difficult to tie the increase in traffic to revenue because of the change in business model, but I know momentum when I feel it.)
Similarly, our net subscriber list grew by almost 20% – the highest rate it had grown in many years. We publish on a Thursday and get some immediate unsubscribes and cleans, then by Monday we’ve gained those back and Tuesday and Wednesday we’re in the black. It’s an interesting pattern.
The Cost: Was It Worth It?
Now let’s look at the other side of the equation: the effort. Was it worth the time and stress of trying to publish every week?
The short answer is, oh yeah.
I used to joke to Chris Lema that I knew his secret to publishing daily while meeting so many other commitments: Adderall. Now, after my own one-year experiment I’ve discovered his real secret: its actually easier to write with frequency than it is to write sporadically.
By committing to publishing weekly I was forced to build writing time into my schedule every week. When I was committed to publishing only monthly I wrote when I could find some holes – when I was done all the other things I was committed to doing. Writing went from one of the last things on my list to one of the first.
I also sped up. A post now takes me 4 hours. Some have taken me longer and some I’ve banged out in two hours. That was never possible for me previously. I’m now publishing about three times more content than I was back when I published monthly but it’s taking me about the same time or less.
Another benefit of upping my frequency is I now see content ideas everywhere. I probably note two potential topic ideas every day. When I’m speaking to my clients I often respond to their thoughts with, “That would make a great article.” I see headlines everywhere. When I wrote less frequently I often struggled to come up with topics.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of writing so much is I have developed more new ideas, models and program content in the last 12 months than I did in all the barren years. By the measure of my own knowledge, 2015 was probably the biggest growth year I’ve ever had. (The fact that this growth doesn’t show up on my balance sheet is a disgrace to the accounting profession.) Nothing furthers my own thinking better, faster, deeper than writing about what I’m thinking.
The Content Caveat
Before you take my lessons and start to apply them, let me first touch on the importance of content. I’m personally familiar with dozens of firms that produce prodigious streams of content but don’t reap the rewards I garnered in 2015 because they lack focus or a point of view.
It’s not enough to be writing about your area of expertise – you need to have an opinion on your subject matter. You’ll find that most who engage with your content come for the knowledge you’re giving away but they’re moved by your perspective, your point of view. If they reach out to you to discuss working together I’ll wager that it’s your slant on the topic, rather than the topic itself or the depth of your knowledge, that causes them to do so.
So, yes, please learn from my experience on how beneficial it is to increase the pace of writing and publishing, but remember that if you’re not coming at your subject matter from a provocative point of view the results will be slow in coming and the return on investment might not materialize. In addition to the effort, it takes a healthy dose of personal risk to make content marketing work.