Content Marketing

How ‘Smartcuts’ Can Change Your Content Marketing

I have a confession: For the past 18 months, I’ve been secretly writing a book.

As co-founder of a fast-growing company, it seemed like an insane thing for me to do.[1] I’ve spent nearly every evening, weekend, and holiday since early 2013 buried in research or staring at a blinking cursor instead of watching Game of Thrones with the rest of humanity.[2] But the process of researching and writing this book—and end result—has helped me grow as a business leader more than I anticipated.

Perhaps as importantly, it’s reshaped the way I think about content marketing. I think it can change the way you think about it, too.

First, a little context:

Before starting Contently, I covered tech startups as a reporter in New York City. I became obsessed with the way certain entrepreneurs defied expectations and grew businesses through counterintuitive means. My first feature for WIRED was about three guys with laptops who I met in 2009 and shadowed for six months as they grew to one million users by turning their social network, Foursquare, into a game. Around the same time, I saw other local NYC startups—Behance, Tumblr, GroupMe, Gilt, Birchbox—grow like rocket ships and redefine their industries. While reporting on this phenomenon, I met people who’d quit six-figure jobs to build radically successful nonprofits, and picked the brains of ambitious coders determined to topple dictatorships with technology.

I wondered, How do these people do so much so quickly? And why do many other industries and companies seem to move slower, accept the status quo, or even resist progress?

It’s hard to hang around people like the above without being inspired. So two friends and I started Contently with the mission of making a better media world. It’s been a crazy ride: After three years, we’ve helped more than 40,000 freelance journalists and storytellers promote themselves, improve their careers, and even get work. We’ve helped a large percentage of the Fortune 500 do smarter marketing—to tell stories people love instead of interrupting people with sales pitches. We’ve built an awesome team and attracted top investors who’ve put $11 million toward our mission. We’ve grown our own trade publication to hundreds of thousands of devoted readers (like you! Thanks for reading!) and won awards for innovation. And we’re on track to make the media world a better place, just like we imagined.

Contently Group

Shane Snow, far right, and his sassy team.

If you’ve been following The Content Strategist, you probably know that I’ve done a lot of writing myself during that time. Mostly, it’s because I love it. But I’ve also kept doing it because I wanted to keep reporting on—and learning from—these companies that did things so smartly.

But the more I wrote and the more Contently grew, the more convinced I became that this “hacker thinking” I’d identified in my stories for WIRED and Fast Company and so on was not endemic to tech startups, but had been employed long before them by some of the most interesting groups in history.

Don’t take shortcuts. Make smartcuts.

What did Ben Franklin, The Second City comedy school, and history’s fastest-growing media company have in common? Their unconventional success follows a set of patterns that research finds among overachieving people and companies across industries. Boiled down: history indicates that regardless of the industry or discipline, whenever there’s “The Way It’s Done,” someone eventually comes along and finds a smarter way, and that’s how innovation and above-average growth happens. That’s how we got The New York Times, Disney, the Internet, Apple, 3M… even America.

However, Disney, Apple, and the Founding Fathers didn’t take what we might call shortcuts. They weren’t lazy, and they certainly didn’t cheat. But they did break rules—rules that weren’t really rules—and, most importantly, they created value for other people in the process.[3]

This same principle helped the Cubans win their revolution in 1958. It’s helped organizations like Khan Academy and new media titans like Michelle Phan build businesses, and companies like GE and American Express and Adobe and Coca-Cola remain relevant and grow brand influence in a world driven by social media.

This underlies a basic tenet of the kinds of marketing we talk about all the time in this magazine: Tricking search engines in the old days of SEO was a shortcut; conversely, delighting and educating people through stories—and building relationships in the process—is a smartcut. It’s the most efficient way to connect with consumers, and it drives business growth in unexpected ways.

That’s why my book is called Smartcuts. It’s a series of intellectual adventure stories that debunks myths about success in business[4] and distills patterns of smart work and lateral thinking that can be applied to a variety of fields, including—and especially—marketing. I’m hoping that in the same way that Ryan Gosling can teach us about storytelling, the research in Smartcuts about Ferrari drivers, heart surgeons, and amateur rocketeers will help us all do a lot more a lot faster… and at least a little more sustainably.

But for brand publishers, this is an excuse to go deeper:

smartcuts-coverThough the book launches on September 9, I wanted to do something early to leverage the content and research I put together to help brand publishers and readers of The Content Strategist. I’m putting together a special, free white paper called Smartcuts for Content Marketers—a cheat sheet for applying the principles of Smartcuts to specific brand publishing challenges. If you want a copy, click here, and we’ll make sure to send you one when it’s ready.

And since every minute counts in this business, I’m going to teach an exclusive, online content strategy seminar (also free) this summer based on principles from the book and our recent research here at the Content Strategist. I hope you’ll join in!

Here’s the schedule:

  • July 14 @ 1 p.m. ET – Orchestrating a smarter content machine
    1-hour live video seminar with Q&A
  • July 28 @ 1 p.m. ET – Superconnecting to massive audiences
    1-hour live video seminar with Q&A
  • August 11 @ 1 p.m. ET – Leveraging platforms for more powerful content
    1-hour live video seminar with Q&A
  • September 2 @ 1 p.m. ET – Ultimate content strategy Q&A
    90-minute live video Q&A on how the smartest brand publishers are creating and managing the future of content, with Contently Editor-in-Chief Joe Lazauskas, Strategist Leela de Kretzer, Director of BD Elisa Cool, and yours truly.

I’m super excited to announce the book first here on The Content Strategist. If you’re interested in pre-ordering it, know that I’m donating my royalties from these sales to fund nonprofit investigative journalism, to perpetuate great storytelling that the world needs a little more of. If you’re interested in the strategy seminar, email (or look out for our notices here as the dates approach). I hope you’ll join in live and ask tons of questions.

And if you’ve already watched Game of Thrones, please don’t tell me anything.[5] I have some catching up to do.



[1] I thought it would just take a few months. The wonderful folks at my publisher, HarperCollins, laughed when I suggested as much.

[2] I used to get called “Shaun White.” Now random strangers call me “Jon Snow.” You’re all so clever, yes. And of course, I’ve finally started watching.

[3] We’ve tried to build Contently that way. Instead of ads, we make content—as a rule we decline to do traditional advertising. Instead of focusing solely on profits, we put our money toward making things for groups that will probably never pay us directly (like journalists), and toward educating people on how to be successful even without us. And that, ironically, has had the best return on investment of any business effort.

[4] Myth-busting topics include: paying dues, mentorship vs. artistic theft, first-mover advantages, going viral, and “fail fast, fail often.” Oh, and I discuss why your kids shouldn’t learn times tables. O_o

[5] Peter Dinklage FTW!

Image by Tim Simpson

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