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.

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I underlined the sentence three times in two different colors of pen. I’ve gone back and read it over and over again. Google data is the repository of our collective id, or something like that. Christian Rudder, OK Cupid founder and author of “Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking,” was talking about the humanity revealed in big data, particularly behavioral data.

It’s the classic marketing focus group problem: gather a small group of individuals representative of a target demographic, ask them some questions with multiple choice or verbatim answers and develop insights based on that. But the small group/focus group approach to understanding how people work, what they need, how they feel is inherently flawed. It’s unnatural, for one. Very few people actually experience life in a focus group and even fewer approach life as a multiple choice scenario. Secondly, the mere fact that a person has chosen or been selected to be a part of a study automatically taints their responses by selection.

Rudder argues that the Google search bar is the only place we reveal who we are, what we care about, how we feel. There is no question, just an implied promise that whatever your heart desires is only  a few key strokes away. Google data can reveal how we feel about anything from race to ‘The Bachelor,’ astrophysics to holiday gifts.

A lot has been made lately about social media and how data is being collected for research purposes. Just listen to this episode of the Radiolab podcast and you’ll probably be stunned to learn that, at any given time, each of the 1.5 Billion users of Facebook are unknowingly a part of up to 10 studies, experiments or research projects. But even social media has it’s flaws. For one, the person we are on social media is, at best, only a version of who we are in the rest of our lives. Even the most earnest social media user is only capturing a part of who they are.

So what’s a marketer to do?

I’ve been a part of research and planning efforts that have been based on all of these sources. And the work that has resulted has always seemed to miss the mark. Work based too much on panel research tends to be small. Content projects that begin with search tend to lead to distraction. Social listening to inform a brief tends to skew perception.

A better approach is to begin with a theory, a brand story or a vision of a desired relationship with your audience or customers. Then test the theory with research. Design the story, then use Google data to understand how search can best ensure it is heard. Design the relationship, then use social listening to understand how to invite users to it.

Big data tools are incredible and can be very helpful, but that data is only valuable if you decide first what you’re looking for. Google may indeed be the repository of our collective id, but that doesn’t mean it should dictate what we do.


Courtesy of Miami University
Courtesy of Miami University

In the fall of 1996, I was a freshman at Miami University, a heartbreakingly pretty campus nestled into the rolling hills of Southwest Ohio. I knew the moment I visited the campus for the first time – pulling up to an intersection bound on all sides by red brick and cream accented Georgian architecture that I was home. And to this day, Miami occupies a special place in my heart. At that time, all entering first year students were required to participate in a summer reading program based upon a theme. Miami, having a student population that was primarily white, primarily middle and upper middle class, was using the program to introduce diverse voices to  what was assumed (rightly, in my experience) to be a relatively sheltered undergraduate body. We were supposed to have read Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers prior to our arrival on campus and take part in a series of symposium and dorm floor meetings on the topics of diversity, tolerance and the expansion of our own cultural awareness that would take place before classes started and throughout the academic year.

It was all good stuff. It was important to get us – and here I mean people like me who fit the intended audience of the program – out of our comfort zone and begin talking about race, identity and preconceived notions related to ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds. And for the most part, the university did a good job with the curriculum. I especially enjoyed the dorm-level meetings. Make no mistake, Miami was not what you might call a diverse place in those days. But I had the good fortune of have Tshaka as my resident advisor. Tshaka was enormous – easily six foot six and three hundred pounds. He was smart. He was wise and he had just the right amount of patience for a bunch of idiots like the guys in my dorm.

He once sat us down to talk about how race impacts our perception of people and how our own preconceptions can taint relationships before they are formed. One of the guys in my hall raised his hand to – very obnoxiously – tell Tshaka that he thought talking about race was a waste of time because he “didn’t see color.”

“How can you not?” I remember Tshaka saying. “I am a big black man and I’m proud of being a big black man. Saying you don’t see the color is like saying you don’t learn names. It takes away a part of someone’s identity and makes you look self-absorbed.”

Needless to say, we were all careful about sanctimony after that. Tshaka helped us to think differently by thinking at all. And I suppose by the end of the program, we were all a little smarter – at least as smart as a bunch of 18 year-olds could be – and imagined the world a little differently.

The reason I share this story is because the name of the program Miami ran that year was “Speak Loudly Against Hate.” It was everywhere – stickers and buttons given out at the book store, on fliers hung in the quads and posters in the academic buildings. And, one night, sometime in the second semester, we were having a dorm meeting when Tshaka asked why it was important that everyone speak out against hate. The answers were what you expected – thoughts about the silent majority, about standing up for beliefs rather than just having them, etc… As the easy answers died down, a friend of mine raised his hand and asked this:

“Why should we speak loudly?”

Tshaka, normally very stoic and cool looked a little perplexed. My friend continued, “if we all speak loudly, aren’t we just making the world louder? Shouldn’t we try to speak effectively instead?”

Dr. Phil McGraw, who has built not only a career but an industry around offering advice for real world problems, gave an interview on parenting advice to Carson Daly on the Today! Show. The question was asked how to discipline a child throwing a tantrum and the psychologist and television show host answered this way:

“If a child is having a tantrum, the best thing you can do is whisper because it is so different from what they normally hear. If you get down at their level and whisper, then they kind of have to shut up to hear you. They’re very, very curious… (Yelling) stops communication, that’s the problem. As soon as you start yelling, they just kind of go into shutdown (mode).”

The signal-to-noise ratio is a measurement used in science and engineering “that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. It is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power, often expressed in decibels. A ratio higher than 1:1 (greater than 0 dB) indicates more signal than noise. While SNR is commonly quoted for electrical signals, it can be applied to any form of signal (such as isotope levels in an ice core or biochemical signaling between cells).”

Every minute, 72 hours of footage is uploaded to YouTube, according to some estimates. Every 18 months, the amount of information available on the internet doubles and some people believe that timeframe is getting shorter. Google handles nearly 40,000 organic search queries per second and Outbrain, a content recommendation engine that provides related content (articles and videos) to online readers and watchers, handles about 20,000 clicks in that same tiny length of time- billions per year. The Huffington Post alone publishes nearly 2,000 pieces of content every day. And it’s just one of nearly a trillion web pages out there – which is even too much for Google to index.

Here’s how the most integral company online puts it on it’s own blog in 2008:

“Today, Google downloads the web continuously, collecting updated page information and re-processing the entire web-link graph several times per day. This graph of one trillion URLs is similar to a map made up of one trillion intersections. So multiple times every day, we do the computational equivalent of fully exploring every intersection of every road in the United States. Except it’d be a map about 50,000 times as big as the U.S., with 50,000 times as many roads and intersections.”

That’s a whole lot of noise. And the thing about noise is that it often propagates more noise. My college friend understood this intuitively. It’s one thing for one person to stand up and shout – maybe even two, three, four. But the more people shouting, the harder it is to hear and be heard. Just like the screaming child and the parent yelling for her to stop, the most effective thing to do might be to whisper.

The first question that comes up in every content strategy consultation or project I do is always the same: How much content do I need? If you’ve already begun a content marketing program, you have probably asked yourself the same question. And rightfully so, it’s a natural question to ask – it just happens to be the wrong question to get at the answer you really need.

The right question is actually seven questions and they are as follows:

What am I trying to achieve?

What value does my company or brand bring to the table to meet a consumer need through content?

How does content reinforce my brand positioning and promise?

How much content is reasonable? Can I actually expect an individual – because content is not a one-to-many proposition, but a one-to-one-many-times proposition – to need, want or reasonably consume a high volume of content?

How much content can I create or curate at a high quality, putting an emphasis on originality and consistency?

How am I going to use content to connect my digital footprint and how am I going to use individual channels in a coordinated fashion to amplify the impact?

What do I have to say?

These questions should help shift your thinking from volume (noise) to intention and value creation (signal). Let’s look quickly at each of them to get a little better idea of how they impact your approach.

Luke Wiley is a hacker. He’s not the kind of hacker you’re probably thinking of – he doesn’t break into computers or steal identities, he doesn’t hack life’s little problems by putting his iPhone into an empty glass to amplify his music or freeze his bananas to make them last longer. The thing that he hacks – the thing that put him into a position to retire in his early thirties – is money. Specifically, he’s an investment and retirement planner and one of the best at the global firm he works for – which, unfortunately, has some company rules in place that prevent me from naming it. But, trust me, you’ve heard of it and Luke has risen rapidly up the ranks in a very short period of time.

Sound investment strategy, from Luke’s perspective, involves a lot of forethought and a willingness to approach a problem from an unusual angle, to look at solutions that may – on the surface – go against conventional wisdom or traditional thought.

What is that if not hacking?

“I’ve never been one to do things the way other people are doing it just because it’s the way it’s usually done,” he tells me. We’re sitting at a Bob Evans across the street from his office. He’s eating a bowl of oatmeal, extra pecans, extra blueberries, extra brown sugar. There isn’t an ounce of fat on him and his suit is immaculate, just the kind of thing you’d expect a guy in finance to be wearing. What you may not expect is that he bought it from an outlet mall and had it tailored. Total cost – about $500. The less successful people in his office probably pay five or ten times that amount for their suits. But Luke knows the suit is just a uniform – not a status symbol – so why pay more?

He’s not a guy who falls too hard for the conventional.

In his book, “The 52-Week Low Formula” (Wiley, 2014), Luke lays out the principles that he has developed over the course of his career that help him create extra-ordinary value for his clients by identifying undervalued stocks and diversifying in such a way to protect people’s money. It’s not so much a formula as it is a formulaic means of approaching a problem. It’s similar to the way Luke’s hero, Warren Buffett, approaches investing, but focused on the individual rather than the world. There are five filters that help him narrow down the 3,000 (or so) publicly traded companies to 25 and practical and experimental evidence suggests that they work. In backtesting by independent research firm Morningstar, Luke’s 52-Week Low formula has outperformed the S&P 500 by more that 30%. But perhaps more impressive is the way his approach has insulated his clients from bubbles like Tech stocks in the late 90s and real estate in 2008 by identifying undervalued companies primed for a comeback and riding them for short, prescriptive periods of time.

It’s helped him step away from an industry of industrial grade sameness. While many advisors pride themselves on service – sending flowers on birthdays and gifts at the holidays – Luke has been able to differentiate his value to clients in terms of performance. He doesn’t promise astronomical returns – though they often happen – but he promises to remove the confusion and stock-chasing panic that leads some people to disenchantment with his industry. It works for him, for his clients and for anyone who follows his logic. But what’s most interesting is the obscure 17th Century mathematician that inspired his approach.

“I was reading a ‘Margin of Safety’ by Seth Klarmann when I was in my 20s,” Luke says, “when I came across this quote from a guy named Jacob Jacoby that changed the way I look at almost everything in my life.”

Jacobi was a mathematician living in Germany in the 1600s when he published a paper that would help define modern calculus. In it, he postulated that the most valuable way to solve a problem is to imagine all non-desirable outcomes and the steps that lead to them, then (basically), do the opposite.

“Inverse, always inverse,” Luke says. “Its the way I approach everything. If I want to have a good marriage, I think of all the things that could lead to a bad one – infidelity, dishonesty, disrespect – and do the opposite. If I want to have a healthy heart, I identify all the things I can control that would ensure I have a bad heart and avoid them – smoking, getting fat, eating poorly.

“When it comes to investment strategy, I follow the same way of thinking. I imagine all the factors that would lead to instability, overpricing and losing money and find the opposite,” he says. “It’s not that I have a magic ball – there is no magic ball. I can’t see the future. But I can identify all the risky indicators and avoid them.”

To that end, Luke has never owned Apple, never fought to get in on an IPO. Instead, he finds companies that are being overlooked, assesses them through a disciplined filtration process and buys them when they’re at their lowest price in the last year – their 52-Week Low. He buys 25 at a time and every six months resets his strategy. This way, he’s always looking where other people aren’t and, nearly 80% of the time, doing so pays off – the companies he buys bounce back.

It’s the opposite of hitting the Wall Street lottery or knocking a grand slam out of the park. It’s stepping up to the plate and hitting singles more times than you strike out. It’s the investment equivalent of what Michael Lewis wrote about the Oakland A’s doing in “Moneyball.” It’s deconstructing the problem with the way people typically invest, looking for a solution and having the courage and discipline to pursue that course of action while Jim Cramer and the talking heads are shouting otherwise on TV.

Jacoby’s axiom would help revolutionize modern mathematics, economics and thousands of strategic-minded people looking for non-conventional and efficient solutions to conventional problems.

The Power of Inversion

I love the movie “The Princess Bride.” Maybe with the exceptions of “The Sandlot” and “The Big Lebowski,” it is my favorite movie. I’ve watched it at least every year since junior high and it seems like every time I watch it, it gets better. I love the characters, the humor, the inside jokes and sideways glances. And in a movie where every scene is cinematic gold, my favorite is the standoff of wits between Wallace Shawn as Vizzini and Cary Elwes as The Dread Pirate Roberts.

Vizzini is a cunning swindler who has kidnapped Princess Buttercup. Roberts a dashing mystery man hidden by a black mask and a big reputation who is in pursuit of the princess. He has already bested Vizzini’s swashbuckling swordsman Inigo Montoya in a battle of skill and the giant Fezzik in a battle of brute strength. Vizzini has neither skill nor strength, so The Dread Pirate Roberts challenges him to a battle wits, pouring two glasses of wine. Roberts challenges Vizzini to decide which goblet he poisoned with iocain. What follows is a four minute debate that is pure comic genius. And (spoiler alert) in the end they both drank from their goblets. Vizzini falls over dead and the princess asks the pirate how he knew which one Vizzini would pick.

“I didn’t,” he said. “I’ve spent years developing a tolerance to iocain for just such an occasion.”

The Dread Pirate Roberts understood the value of inversion – of starting at the end and working your way back to the beginning.

It seems counterintuitive, counterproductive even, to follow Luke’s path and attempt to solve problems by looking for all they ways they can’t be solved, but his approach of working your way backward from what you don’t want to have happen is something you learn to do from a very young age.

Every elementary school kid has stared at his or her desk and tried to navigate their way through a maze. Those kids start off doing what everyone does – they put their pencil on the start and begin exploring through the twists and turns. More often than not, they end up with half-erased lines and a messy paper. Then some of them will figure out that they don’t need to put their pencil down and begin tracing the possibilities with their finger before committing to a mark. But the most strategic thinkers among the pupils understand that the end dictates the means and begin working their way back toward the start from the end.

When it comes to creating digital and content marketing strategies, it’s easy to think like a first grader and start from the beginning. This might mean starting specific channels or platforms, an e-mail program or existing website and trying to figure out what to do with it. You try things, you experiment and you look at measurement that broad and vague but fit the platform. You might look at traffic for a website or open rate for an e-mail or social following. But isn’t that a little like measuring the length of the lines you drew on your maze without really knowing how to get to the finish?

Before you can know whether video content is going to be more effective than written content or whether Facebook is a better solution than Twitter, you have to have a clear picture of what you are trying to accomplish – or, as Jacoby might have thought about it, what you don’t want to accomplish.

No marketer likes to waste money. In a day and age when budgets are already fractured and fragmented, we’re always looking for new ways to drive results. So why, then, do we constantly fall for the latest fad? How is it that we allow ourselves to be constantly chasing the latest social network, platform or tool?

Because we’re always looking for a breakthrough.

The next time you’re on Amazon, search the term: “Diet Plan,” “Diet” and “Diet Pill.” Just those three searches return more than 200,000 results. Nearly a quarter of a million products, all designed to tap into our push-pull relationship with our weight and body image. But, don’t we all know the things we need to do to get in shape? Don’t we know that skipping the fast food and eating broccoli, getting off the couch and working up a sweat will get us moving in the right direction?

Of course we do. So, why then are there so many products on Amazon?

Because we’re always looking for a breakthrough.

But at least with your diet you know what you are trying to achieve. You might be looking for a shortcut or a jump start, but you have an end game in mind – looser pants, higher esteem, generally better health.

In the digital space, we too often buy the pills, the plans and diets, but we don’t know if we want to loose weight or rotate our tires. In that way, it’s easy to see why we might continue to try new things – new routes from the start point of our maze. To the person who doesn’t know where they are going, every path looks like the right one.

Constantly chasing fads or adding platforms to your digital footprint might keep busy and it might even get your brand some attention in the press, but it doesn’t mean you are getting to the goal. If you want to drive business results, focus on business results. Design strategies and find the right tools to making them come to life. It’s not a question of figuring out how your brand should show up on YouTube or Facebook, it’s a matter of figuring out how YouTube and Facebook can be used to deliver results for your brand a good experience for your users.

Luke Wiley could have made a nice living and a career out of the following the crowds. When the market was good, he could take credit, when he was bad he had a scape goat. But following the crowd was not Luke’s end game, he wanted to deliver value. And he knew that delivering value meant figuring out all the things that could destroy value and avoiding them.

You should do the same thing when you work on your digital strategy. Identify all the things that would make your program ineffective, inefficient or, worse, ordinary and that factors that will guarantee that those things will come true. You’ll find doing so will reveal the path forward, just as sure as you should never fight a land war in Asia and should never gamble with a Cicilian when death is on the line.