Steph Smith, leader of the Hustle’s paid subscription business and author of Standing Out in 2020: Doing Content Right, joins Stew Fortier to discuss mastering your niche, creating quality content, and differentiating yourself as a writer.
The summary below was prepared for Compound Writing, a paid invite-only community of online writers. Apply here
1. In 2020, mediocre content is everywhere. To win, write something great.
As the barrier of entry for online publishing continues to lower, the sheer magnitude of content on the internet has exploded. While easy access to an audience is certainly a good thing, Steph emphasizes the importance of ensuring your writing is top-notch. “The supply of content is increasing, but the supply of great content has not increased proportionally to the supply of overall content.
Because the barrier to entry is low, people put content online because they can, not necessarily because they're thinking deeply about it. The world always has room for something that is better, something that is either new that people want or something that is better.” She continues, “There's no point in putting out something that's mediocre because it's not a linear thing. It’s zero or nothing. It's a very exponential curve. There's no point in creating five articles that are average. Instead, you should be spending your time putting together one article that’s amazing.”
2. Quality is just the first step. You also need to do something distinct.
While Steph believes the quality of your writing is essential to success, she reminds fellow writers that finding your edge often involves developing a unique voice and value proposition too. “If you want to be successful, you need to have a differentiator,” she says. “One thing that people do wrong or focus on too much is identifying what they're creating. Yes, you do need to identify exactly what you're writing about, but what is just as important, and what most people kind of skim over, is how they're actually writing about that thing. People don't choose products based on the average of things that they might care about. They choose products based on the single thing that they care the most. Then they pick the one that does it best. Find one thing that people care about in your industry and become the absolute best at that thing. Do not try to be the average of all the things that people might care about.”
3. Think of your content as a product. Ask yourself how it solves your readers' problems.
Steph increases the quality and virality of her writing by treating her content as a product. “Effectively, writing content or creating a newsletter or publication is a product. It's creating something that people want or need. You need to think about whether this is something that solves any problem for someone. Why would someone want to engage with this? Why would someone want to stop what they're doing in their life and engage with my content?”
4. Experiment with distribution channels until you find a handful that work.
In her book, Steph discusses in-depth six different channels that writers can leverage to increase reach. Her bottom line? Focus on your bedrock and social channels for the greatest ROI. “There are channels that are more foundational that you can build up over time. Then there are the viral channels that people naturally gravitate towards because they hit your dopamine centers and feel really good but die out quickly.” She also reminds writers to expect multiple pivots in distribution strategy as audience numbers grow. “In the beginning, you do things that don't scale, and slowly pivot to things that do scale. Then along that way, you're testing a bunch of different channels, finding which ones actually resonate with your audience, what is working, what's driving success for you. Then you focus on those channels and you can ignore the rest. You don't want to be at a point where you have thousands of subscribers and you're dependent on posting across 20 different mediums every day. You want to have certain channels that have more of a bedrock that you build up over time. In order to find them, you need to explore first.”
5. Don’t seek to be a contrarian, seek to be an expert.
Steph acknowledges that contrarian positioning can garner attention, but warns against doing it without a solid foundation. “The better way to be contrarian is actually to be an expert in something. And therefore, that by nature, you are at least to some degree, contrary and because you know, something that others do not know. It's much better to become trained from a place where you actually are contrarian, because you know something that most of the world doesn't know, versus just being contrary just to be difficult or to be different. The best way to be contrarian in a way that's interesting online is just to become an expert in a particular space, and write about that.”