Patrick McKenzie on twitter:
I think people in the tech community tend to undervalue large portions of the marketing skillset, and e.g. building a narrative for a decisionmaker persona then solving backwards to the artifacts that would create it is useful.
But in many phases of the business, this works:
The secret to marketing, and I’m 100% serious, is to not do it very well. That way you are charmingly, endearingly incompetent and constantly build up reserves of trust and goodwill from all the value you’re leaving on the table
Patrick then continues:
A good portion of some advice in the community, like “write for yourself”, is a shortcut on having to do the whole decisionmaker thing, because you’re overwhelmingly likely to yourself have problems that at least some other people do and to speak in a way some of them will like.
A semi-considered guiding light I had when writing for many years is “Just write about things you would have found surprising 5~10 years ago in a way that you of 5~10 years ago would have found maximally compelling.”
I do tend to believe that if you can figure out a way to create compounding value over time then things will often work out swimmingly, though you do have to continue putting work into the other things.
(A tragedy, and I mean that phrasing, is when someone who has figured the value creation thing out then ends up in starving-artist land and has to curtain their output and get a job doing something much less important simply because the job is competent at turning work into $.)
I think the ideal marketing is when you are able to build narratives for key decisionmakers but no-one can see you actually doing it. It’s hard as hell but if your team can pull it off, it’s the best of both worlds.
Patrick McKenzie on why writing is useful even if you don’t have an audience:
I think too many people are paralyzed by their ability to write or their desire to write. They say things like, “It doesn’t matter to write if I don’t have an audience to be able to ship those words to.”
I think that even if you have literally zero people who read what you write today, it is still worth writing that thing today. Because you will produce an asset that you can use in the future in 1-on-1 conversations. This is 180 degrees from how most people think about audience building or writing online and playing for the numbers.
If the only thing you got out of writing an essay is that the next time you‘re doing a job search — when you are writing cold emails to hiring managers for whatever the position is that you‘re going after — you can use that one essay that you wrote back in the day as a proof of work. Like, “Hey, I have clearly thought about this more than most people who are sending you a cold email with a link to a resume that you are going to skim for 30s.” That would already be the highest ROI on writing a piece that most writers will get.
Patrick McKenzie on how he started writing online — and also what are attributes he looks for in a niche:
The selection of topics from my first several years of writing online is basically, “I‘m just going to blog about whatever is on top of my mind today”. And so in a day where I did a lot of accounting, I would write about accounting. In a day where I did a lot of optimization of the performance of my Java Swing app, I would write about the performance of a Java swing app, etc, etc.
It was sort of scatter shot, there was no rhyme or reason other than, “Well, if you enjoy my story, then here‘s the next update on it”. But if you weren‘t I bought into the patio11 story, then there was no particular reason to come into my blog on any given day. (Well, aside for maybe like you enjoy just the consumption of things that I write in my voice.)
After a couple of years, when I was looking back at both of my stats and what people were telling me — “This is clearly our best work” — I realized that I have a comparative advantage on the intersection between marketing and engineering.
I am a much better engineer than virtually all marketers. I am a much better marketer than virtually all engineers. And I wrote about that intersection very well. The more I wrote about things in that intersection, the better it did. The better I wrote long, meaty, detail-heavy posts in that intersection, the better they did.
That vs. the 200 words, “Well, I‘m trying to keep up my streak. So, I might as well write something today to say that I wrote something on Thursday.”
After I started operationalizing that and saying, “OK, I don‘t have a boss per se for my blog, I can still write about anything I want to write about. But when I‘m thinking of things to write about, I should probably be covering stuff that‘s in my ‘beat’ or adjacent to it.” And I should probably be writing in form factors that work for me — which tend to be 8000-word-effort posts.
Then, people started liking the output more. I started getting better at that variety of output. There was a compounding goodness to it. I had more of “brand developing” for myself, that is not “scare”. There was a virtuous cycle there. A tighter brand for my work caused more people to like it, cause them to come back more often and to recommend it to people. Cause them to, if things adjacent to that brand were discussed online, people would inject me into the conversation even without me being in that room, which gave me more opportunities to write, which gave me more… Circle all the way around.
I don‘t specifically regret spending a couple of years just in that experimental phase of throwing stuff to the wall on the Internet and seeing what sticks. But if I got to do over, I would probably have been actively looking for:
- What is working?
- What do I enjoy writing?
- What fills a need? — What fills a hole in the Internet?
There are holes in the Internet, but there are some that are more valuable than others. It is extremely useful to me that the thing that happened to be my intersection is extremely commercializable for well heeled companies. Software companies, in particular. Companies that aren‘t going to run out of money to throw at the question of engineering plus marketing software anytime soon.
So, if I got to do over, I would be looking at: What are the opportunities that hit both my interests and my ability to write something well, and the expressed, known needs of relatively well heeled participants of the economy.
Patrick McKenzie on finding where your audience currently lives and gradually injecting yourself in there:
The chicken-and-egg — the cold start problem — is a real problem.
Your audience exists somewhere. It is likely a combination of both:
- People who don‘t yet know that they should be friends
- But also folks that are already friends because they already are an audience elsewhere
So, if you find those places where your crowd (or the people who should be in your crowd) naturally congregates, participating in those spaces and then gradually injecting your stuff into those spaces works rather well.
Too few people remember it, but there was back in the day this forum called the Business of Software that was hosted by Joel Spolsky. There were yours truly and maybe 2,000 other people there who were building software companies all at the same time. If you use the magic math of participation on the Internet that implies there were a couple of hundred thousands people reading it. A lot of those two thousand people went on to do great things. Of the 60 people that read my blog on the first day that it existed back in 2006, I assume virtually all of them saw it because they had seen me, you know, participating on that forum for 6+ months. And they saw it when I posted. “Hey, I started a blog today and I’m going to launch a piece of software in a week here’s my post about it.”
The explosion of social media in the last couple of years makes this easier. Because you can sort of like interact with people who have large audiences on social media. The tricky bit of it gradually, and in an authentic way, introduce your pieces and replies about their pieces, or your thoughts into replies about their thoughts.
There’s some deep, deep social technology and nuance about doing that in a way that is both true to your values and not annoying for the person that you are sort of climbing onto and also not annoying for their audience. But I’ve seen many, many people do that, and do that relatively well.
There is also, by the way, people who have a standing invitation — like myself — “Please send me email. I like getting email. I like reading things that people have written etc.”