In an era of extra-short attention spans and a severely over-saturated media landscape, it can be a real struggle to get people excited about your creative output online - no matter how good it is.
If you're a regular DEV reader, chances are you've also written a blog post on a technical topic before - or you've at least thought about it.
What made you decide to do this?
Most of y'all probably had a coding problem, and then you solved it in an interesting way, and you want to share your solution so that others might benefit from your experiences.
And we love you for that!
But the content creation alone is usually not enough.
How do you convince anyone to give up a few minutes of their day to read your blog post or watch your latest video - especially when you consider that we are all basically one click away, at all times, from watching literally any TV show or movie ever released?
You're gonna hate me for this, but the answer comes down to...
...did you guess it yet?
I know - I had zero interest in marketing when I first starting writing online.
For years I neglected Marketing 101 because I hated the idea that I would be "manipulating" people somehow.
I don't want to persuade anyone to do anything they don't actually want to do!
But at the same time:
I do want them to engage with this stuff that I've poured so much time and energy into.
Well then, that's going to require some convincin', I reckon.
Surely, I reasoned with myself, once people come to the site and read the very dry but informative description of the book and see that it meets their needs, the sales will naturally start rolling in.
So I got more serious about email marketing. I started running experiments with my list of about a thousand subscribers at the time.
I tried doing it "on my terms" by avoiding the kind of standard marketing tactics that often turn me off as a consumer. The results were dismal.
Eventually I set aside my better judgement and ran a "this weekend only!" sale - you know the kind:
This weekend only: take 25% off of my ebook. It's the deal of a lifetime so don't miss out! Hurry - quick - this offer ends Sunday at midnight!!
I sold more copies in that weekend alone than I had in the months since I originally launched the book.
I didn't force anyone to do anything. No lies or shady business.
Nobody communicated that they were unsatisfied with their purchase. Some reached out to thank me.
That's when I finally had to admit that maybe these kinds of marketing tactics are so common because - hear me out on this one -
...I know, groundbreaking stuff, right? :P
In the years since that first product launch, I've wizened up considerably to the ways of online marketing.
I'm not afraid of being intentional about trying to sell what I create - because why else did I create it, if not to get it into the hands of as many people as I can?
Content marketing isn't terribly complicated. If you keep some basic guidelines in mind when you're crafting content and thinking about how you're going to present it to the world, you can significantly improve your ability to reach a much wider audience.
What follows is pretty much everything I've learned about creating engaging content in my ten years of publishing online, distilled down into as few words as possible. It's not a formula so much as a framework for optimizing your chances of success with any given piece of content.
'Value' is one of those buzzwords that's been shredded to pieces by shady marketers.
So what do we actually mean by this?
Give your readers what they need!
Or better yet:
Give them what they don't even know they need yet.
Anticipate their needs and they'll think you're magical.
The vast majority of what you see on social media amounts to the opposite of providing value: people want to take from you, whether it's your money or just your attention.
This approach rarely leads to engagement, unless it happens to be controversial or provocative in all the worst ways (more on that momentarily).
Your job as a content creator is to go out of your way to give.
Nobody cares about me.
They want to know what I can do for them.
How does this thing I've created solve their problems?
Even when I'm writing about myself, I am meticulous about framing every detail in terms of how it relates to 'you', my intended reader.
No matter what I'm writing about, my goal is always to give you info or advice that you can act on.
If you re-read the introduction to this post, you will notice that I was very intentional about framing the whole thing in terms of "you."
I could have said "I am blogger on Hashnode, and I sometimes struggle to get noticed. Here's my strategy for increasing engagement."
Instead I went with "If you're reading this, you're probably a blogger who sometimes struggles to get noticed. So how can you increase your engagement?"
They both convey essentially the same information. But I'd wager that you are about a thousand times more likely to be interested in the latter version.
All of the most popular things I've ever published online had some element of emotional appeal.
This ain't rocket surgery - people make decisions with their emotions.
The tough part is figuring out what actually resonates most with your audience. This requires being an exceptionally good listener.
This is also an area where it's important to tread lightly - people don't take well to having their emotions abused or manipulated, so when you go for the heart, it has to be genuine and not gratuitous.
I've had a handful of tweets go "viral" (by my standards anyway) on Twitter. Almost all of them were about my career transition and contained a strong emotional hook that resonated with my readers. Crucially, they all came from my actual experiences - people can tell that I'm being authentic about what I'm describing.
But of course you don't have to tell some life-changing story in order to create an emotional connection with your audience. In tech writing, it can be as simple as "hey, have you encountered this problem before? Sucks, doesn't it? Well, I have a solution..." That's enough to establish a rapport with your reader.
On the internet, the name of the game - for better or worse - is engagement.
People are most likely to engage with the stuff that elicits a strong reaction - whether positive or negative.
This is a dangerous game, but the payoff can be enormous!
You can be provocative while remaining positive - one way to pull this off is by making a strong statement about a belief that you genuinely hold, without watering it down via weasel words.
One of my coding mentors encourages his students to cultivate "strong opinions, loosely held."
It's not "possibly maybe one of the best" - it IS the best! Full stop.
Sure, I could be convinced otherwise. But I want to instigate the conversation!
Let people disagree if they want to! Maybe I hope to be proven wrong.
There can be value in this kind of discourse, when it's done in good faith. That's easier said than done.
And yes, you can also generate a whole lotta engagement through negativity.
But - trust me on this one - you're basically setting yourself up to become Emperor Palpatine, sustained purely by the toxic bad vibes emanating through the universe.
Marketing is a whole lot like The Force, honestly. It flows through all things in our galaxy, and it can be harnessed for incredible good or pure evil.
Don't be like Emperor Palpatine. I don't think it ended well for him.
My policy for creating content has always been to give away the best stuff for free.
That has a lot to do with my personal ethics, but it's also the best way I've found to generate goodwill with an audience.
With everything you share for free, your goal should be to receive overwhelming feedback that "I can't believe they aren't charging money for this!"
When you give away your best work for free, you'll be amazed by how many people will circle back around to purchase whatever you might create in the future purely because they want to support you.
If engagement is the currency of the internet, then cultivating goodwill is how you persuade people to invest in your work.
Growing an audience is a whole skill set unto itself, but the ground rules I've laid out here ought to be enough to set up any blogger for maximum success over the long term.