The following is an excerpt from an interview I did with Tim Ferriss two years ago via e-mail. The interview was prompted by an e-mail I sent that he later featured on his blog. Read his post here.
Tim Ferriss understands digital content. Really understands it. He has an innate grasp on the relationship between content and human behavior. This understanding is the basis of his brand. Without it, he’d just be another blogger, another frustrated author shopping a book around that gets less and less relevant by the day. Instead, he is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, one of the most popular and power bloggers in the world and a guru to millions of devotees to his empire.
Ferriss started off like a lot of recent college grads. Fresh out of Princeton, he took a job as a salesman working for a digital storage company and was immediately frustrated. Cold calls, pointless meetings, the minutia of office life. He saw holes in the system. Problems with the expectations that he put in his 9-5, follow the script and remain true to the company’s processes were maddening to Ferriss. He knew there was a better way to do things, to drive greater results in a fraction of the time. And he began hacking the system. He focused on current customers, identified opportunities to get to decision makers by focusing his calls in the 8 am and 6 pm hours – when gatekeepers and admins were away and could, thus, not run the kind of interference that prevent him from getting results. He was making progress, but his results-oriented eschewing of company protocol landed him in hot water with management.
So, just as he had done with his job requirements, he set out to hack his career. He launched a company called BrainQuicken, selling an ingestible supplement designed to improve cognition in performance athletes. He identified a very specific market for the product – martial arts and bodybuilding enthusiasts – and focused all of his marketing on them. The company quickly took off, providing him the financial freedom to leave his job and focus on his growing company.
He was a one man show, outsourcing all aspects of his business to overseas assistants, customer service call centers in India, manufacturers and supply chain management firms. And as the company grew, Ferriss soon found himself in a position not dissimilar to one he was in at his old job. Overworked, under constant pressure and fully attached his e-mail and phone line. He was making great money, but was chained to his work 90 hours a week and wondering if there was a better way. He was ready to call it quits, to throw in the towel when he realized that frustrations of running his business were self-made. He once again set out to hack his business and his job, removing himself as a roadblock from the company’s smooth and efficient running. Within 18 months, he was working just a few hours a week and profits went up even more.
It was around this time that an entrepreneurship professor from his alma mater, Princeton University, invited him to guest lecture on the topic of tech entrepreneurship, offering advice and challenges to would-be Tim Ferrisses on a regular basis. He titled his lectures “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to his product. The lectures were successful and gave Ferriss the idea of writing a book about his career-hacking experience, which he did.
Like any first-time author, he began the process of finding a publisher with a certain degree of naive optimism. He was confident in “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit” as a needed resource. His experience at Princeton had validated his message, but when the book was rejected for the 27th time, he knew what had to be done. So, Tim Ferriss began the process of hacking publishing and it was then that he went from successful, if unknown, entrepreneur to content marketing visionary and spent just $200 doing it.
Ferriss began with the insight that the problem with his book was not in its content, but its title. So he devised a test. He created several title and subtitle combinations and set up placeholder websites using the title as the URL. The content of all the pages – which described the book – was identical on all the sites. He made a small ad purchase through Google Adwords and conducted a two-week test to see which title drove the highest click-thru rate. At the end of the test, he chose the title combination with the highest engagement and resubmitted the book proposal with the new name.
Since 2007, “The 4-Hour Work Week” has sold more than 1.5 million copies and been translated into 35 languages. The associated blog became one of the 1,000 most trafficked blogs in the world within its first year and has not let up since then. His next two books “The 4-Hour Body” and “The 4-Hour Chef” have both been best-sellers and his blog routinely shows up on best lists.
So why is Tim Ferriss important as a content marketer? Because he understood that it didn’t matter how good his content was if it wasn’t found and consumed. He could have been proposing a book with the answers to all of life’s big questions, if no one read it, it didn’t matter. He also demonstrated a keen understanding of the relationship between content and testing. He wasn’t dogmatic about his title. He didn’t plant his feet in the ground and refuse to budge. Instead, he adopted a test-and-learn mentality to refine his offering and make subtle changes that drove deeper engagement. Since then, Ferriss has gone on to lecture everywhere from South-by-Southwest to TED and become a fixture in the digital landscape. He advises some of the most successful tech start-ups in Silicon Valley and manages to remain true to his low-involvement, high-results philosophy.
He has also remained true to his content approach. In a time when media proliferation has many brands and marketers frustrated, when content marketing seems to be leading to volume and velocity over engagement and results, Ferriss has remained audience and results-oriented. I asked him about his content planning and whether or not he ever feel pressure to crank out more content on his, more volume, more current topics and content about events happening now and here’s what he had to say:
“You can’t out Fox News Fox News. Timely news-based content turns life (or business) into a keeping up with the Joneses nightmare. I focus on evergreen/useful content that is as valuable 6 months from now as it is the day it’s published. It might mean less immediate traffic, but it means sticky traffic and also Google traffic that will add up to monstrous traffic later. This all factors into conversion and sales, if that’s your priority. My approach allows great flexibility and offers the option to hit STOP without losing it all. If I stopped writing blog posts tomorrow, I’d still make tons of income from my traffic (via books, start-up intros, speaking gigs, etc.). That was never the primary intent of my writing, but it’s a nice side-effect!
“People prefer to trust other people, not brands (e.g. Steve Jobs versus Apple), so I have the advantage of being a single-person-based media provider. Brands can do this by singling out killer personalities to drive their brands ( e.g. Bobby Flay for Food Network in the early days).
“People want to follow humans, not trademarks. Plan accordingly.”
He also understands that he represents his brand. He is the person behind it, the driving force. To that end, 90% of all his content is planned. He refuses to bow to the pressure of a newsroom mentality.
“I write about the things that capture my attention and imagination, first and foremost,” he says. “Guessing what other people want is exactly that — guessing. The remaining <10% is experimental and based on reader leads.”
Ferriss may be an individual and not a brand, but there’s a lot content marketers can learn from his example.
- Consistency in producing content that is building toward long-term engagement.
- Flexibility to adapt content in order to drive engagement.
- Creating feedback loops that allow for optimization of content based upon actual behavior.
- Humanity – understanding that content is about making a connection with someone.
Understanding larger trends and audience profiles is important, but content is not consumed by audiences. It is consumed by people – individual people for whom the content is entertaining, insightful or engaging in some way. It needs to be created in the same way, by people who are looking for the same thing. Content is a perfect how brands can mass communicate on a one-to-one basis. But doing it effectively means thinking outside the brief and considering the human element.
If brands take anything from Tim Ferriss’s example it should be this: Content Marketing is not about overnight success, but about building over time. It’s about using analytics tools and a test-and-learn mentality to understand what’s working and what’s not, what resonates and engages and what doesn’t. Its about focusing on what makes a connection and being consistent in your approach. Don’t bend to the pressure of creating too much content. Instead, remain true to your brand and seek to humanize the interaction between yourself and your audience as much as possible.