EDIT: This piece did indeed make it to the front page of Hacker News in a meta victory. Thank God.
Hi. My name is Aline, leeny on Hacker News. My team at interviewing.io and I have written a lot of stuff, and most of it has been on the Hacker News front page — of the 30 blog posts I (and later we) have submitted, 27 have been on the front page, and over the last few years, our writing has been read by millions of people.
Though the first few things I ever wrote were driven by a feckless mix of intuition, terror, and rage (I write a lot about how engineering hiring is unfair and inefficient and broken), over time I began to notice some common threads among my most successful posts, and these realizations have made it easier for me to weep less, write more, and to pass on the learnings to my team and create a somewhat repeatable system of content generation.
I’m not altogether unaware that the title of this post has a whiff of hubris about it and merits some amount of disclaiming. I don’t claim that my way of writing is the only way, nor do I claim that it’s going to work forever. Every time I write something and submit it, I ask myself, “Is this it? Is this the one where I find out the formula no longer works?” It’s terrifying and it’s fickle, and I’m beyond grateful to the HN community for reading interviewing.io’s stuff as long as it has.
What makes content sticky?
This list isn’t exhaustive, and surely there are other strategies to crafting sticky content, but I can only talk about the two strategies that have worked well for us. The most effective strategy, in my experience, is to tap into a controversial point that your audience already holds and then back it up with data that you have to confirm their suspicions.
The second strategy is to share something uniquely helpful with your audience that makes them better at some meaningful aspect of their lives.
I use both of these techniques repeatably, but in my experience, the “controversial with data” technique is way more effective than being “helpful”. More on that later, but first, here’s how to execute on both.
Confirmation bias, cocktail parties, and data
What is confirmation bias? It’s why people enjoy saying “I told you so!” It’s the tendency to interpret new information in a way that reinforces existing beliefs… preferably controversial beliefs that your audience suspects are true (and are probably frustrated about) but can’t definitively back up.
In our case, it was a bunch of aspects of status-quo hiring, stuff like: resumes suck, LinkedIn endorsements are dumb, technical interviews are being done badly and the results aren’t deterministic, and so on and so forth.
So, you take that kernel of frustration, and then you put some data firepower behind it. Find the data that you have that no one else has, and use it to prove that those controversial beliefs do indeed hold water… lighting up the same parts of our brain that makes us fall prey to confirmation bias, in other words.1
Another way to say it is that the best content marketing, in my mind, is the stuff that makes people smugly want to repeat it at cocktail parties. I don’t say that with judgment or derision. I derive much of the pleasure in my short, brutish life from being smug and right. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, but it’s true.
So, if you have something controversial to say, why does having data matter? Because no one cares with Aline “Dipshit” Lerner thinks about hiring. You and your readers might hold all sorts of controversial opinions about the world, but until you’re really famous, your opinion doesn’t matter more than anyone else’s. But data (especially if it’s proprietary) can elevate an anecdote to gospel. Data provides you with the credibility that nothing else can at this stage — no matter who you are, if you have compelling data, engineers will listen.
The one thing you really have in your favor in these situations is that, because no one knows who you are, the more sophisticated your audience, the more likely they are to take your good content seriously. You don’t have a brand, you don’t have a comms team or a brand to protect, all you have is the unvarnished truth from the trenches.
With the attributes above in mind, think about what cool stuff you’ve discovered by virtue of working at your company. Do you have a data set you can mine for unique insights? Does having operated in your space at depth put you in a position where you can confirm or deny controversial assumptions about some aspect of human nature or our daily lives? If you’re a founder, what unique insight do you have that made you start this company in the first place? If you’re an employee, what part of the mission/vision/execution really resonated with you, at the exclusion of other options you had in the same space? Then, once you’ve identified the right sticky tidbit, it’s up to you to distill it into plain English and then back it up with data… which in practice means some very clear (and maybe pretty… though clear trumps pretty) graphs or visualizations.
It’s tempting to fall into the trap of creating content that tells rather than shows, and the myriad blog posts out there to the tune of “here’s how we run meetings” or “here’s our product process” are proof of that. Typically, posts like this don’t do very well because frankly, no one cares about how you run your processes until you’re a household name that others are trying to emulate. One exception to this rule is if you want to highlight something polarizing you’re doing. In that case, feel free to shout that directly to the world so it’s loud and clear and makes its way most directly to the fringe community you’re targeting. In other words, if you’re really gung ho about TDD, you can write a blog post called “Why we ALWAYS use TDD with no exceptions”, and it’ll do great because of confirmation bias among TDD evangelists, probably the very people you want to target.2
Though, in my experience, the controversial cocktail party technique is the most effective, you can’t always bust out controversy at the drop of a hat, and you might have plenty of useful, interesting things to say that don’t tickle our desire to be right. If you can’t be controversial, then be helpful. Note that “helpful” means giving your readers specific, actionable advice about things that have a big impact on their lives (love, work, sex, health) rather than general worldviews on these topics.
Also, note that being helpful is not nearly as effective as being controversial. Woe is us.
Controversy is more effective than being helpful… here’s the data
And, there’s this post, which has had one maybe controversial idea so far (namely that making your readers feel smug is what gets you eyeballs and clicks) but no data to speak of. To right that gross injustice, I looked at all the posts my team and I have contributed to Hacker News over the years and tagged them with 3 attributes: whether they were controversial or helpful and whether they had data.
Below is a graph showing the average number of HN upvotes per post type. I looked at whether a given post was helpful or controversial. And for each type, I broke apart posts into 2 subcategories: whether they had data/graphs or not.
I refrained from doing any significance testing because teasing apart independence here would have been an unprincipled nightmare. For instance, most of our helpful posts didn’t have data, so the relationship between whether the post was helpful or had data wasn’t entirely independent. That said, there’s probably still something useful to be learned from just looking at the means of upvotes for each category, namely that if you don’t have data, then write helpful stuff. It’ll do OK. If you do have data, controversy reigns supreme.
Examples of good content marketing
It’s easy to wax general. I don’t think this post is going to be helpful without some examples. Here are some examples of stellar writing that fall into the categories above.
Examples of controversial, data-driven content marketing
For me, the canonical, original, great data-driven posts all live in the OKCupid blog served as the lodestar of what good blogging could be. These days, the original posts are buried in a cave where no site nav breadcrumbs will go (they’ve been replaced by a sad facsimile or what they used to be, utterly inoffensive, bland, and humorless), and I had to google to find them. But, you know, gems like this:
- OKCupid – The lies people tell in online dating where the controversial idea is that people really do lie a lot in online dating (this was controversial in 2010 back when it was socially appropriate to be embarrassed that you were dating online)
- OKCupid – The case for an older woman where the controversial idea is that women over 30 are viable (very sad for me that this is controversial)
- Uber early blog – Rides of glory where the controversial idea is that you can guess which of your users are having sex based on their ride usage data (this post was what introduced me to Uber and I expect helped meaningfully build their brand… there’s a reason it’s no longer up and I had to link to the web archive)
- Priceonomics – The San Francisco drug economy where the controversial idea is that it’s very lucrative (and not very hard) to be a drug dealer in San Francisco, and many users are in tech
But… do posts HAVE to hit a nerve and make some portion of the population uncomfortable? Though those tend to be the most fun, this isn’t necessary to produce great content. Hiring is typically a much more tame subject than sex, but it’s possible to write controversial things about it — I’d be remiss if I didn’t link you to some of the things we’ve written. Here are a few favorites that exemplify our take on controversial, data-driven blogging:
- Lessons from 3,000 technical interviews and Lessons from a year’s worth of hiring data where the controversial idea is that where you went to school doesn’t matter; where you work doesn’t matter that much; stuff like typos and grammatical errors in your resume, as well as your extracurricular MOOC activities, matter way more
- We built voice modulation to mask gender in technical interviews where the controversial idea is that there ISN’T bias against women in technical interviews
Examples of helpful content marketing
As we discussed earlier, not all good content marketing falls into this controversial-anecdote-backed-up-with-data format. Some successful posts just have really useful content that make you better at some meaningful part of your life.
- 1Password – Introducing Travel Mode: Protect your data when crossing borders
- Thoughtbot – Write good commit messages by blaming others
And of course, a few of ours:
- Exactly what to say when recruiters ask you to name the first number
- What do the best interviewers have in common
So, we have some theory about content marketing, and we have some practical examples. What now? To wit, here’s one last controversial piece for you: drinking a little might make you a more prolific writer.
How to actually make yourself write
The “cocktail party anecdote backed by data” premise is reliable and repeatable and it works, and I expect as you read this, you probably have some ideas about topics you could write about. Ideas are the easy part, however. How do you actually summon the wherewithal to write?
Before he was a hipster text editor, Ernest Hemingway was a churlish, surly alcoholic writer with an allergy to adverbs who coined the phrase “Write drunk, edit sober” and changed my life and liver forever.
When I was maybe halfway through writing Lessons from a year’s worth of hiring data (the first successful post I ever had), I hit what felt like an insurmountable wall. I had already spent months manually counting typos in resumes, had run a logistic regression and a bunch of statistical tests, and was pretty sure that I was onto something — the number of typos and grammatical errors in one’s resume appeared to matter way more than where someone worked or went to school. And there were other surprising findings, too. But when I tried to get the words out, they wouldn’t come. The typos thing was super cool, right? And surely a better, more competent human would do that finding justice when writing about it. In my hands, the work read like an insipid, stilted school assignment. I drew the blinds and sort of curled up in a ball on the ground for I don’t know how long… eventually my ex-husband and his friend who was visiting came home, a few beers in, and peeled me off the floor.
I don’t remember what the two of them said to me exactly, but my brain put it away in memory as something along the lines of, “Stop being dramatic and get out of your head and drink with us, for life is short and brutish.”
So I drank. And maybe then we had a dance party or something… I don’t know. But at some magical, serendipitous moments, Florence + The Machine came on. And I sat back down at my computer and started working myself into a frenzy to the tune of the music… “Hiring isn’t fair, the world isnt fair…. hiring isn’t fair, and the world isn’t fair, and fuck the fact that everyone uses resumes and rejects all manners of good people even though they’re clearly a crock because typos matter 50 kajillion times more than pedigree.”
And in that slightly drunken, fevered frenzy I wrote the rest of the post. It ended up getting cut in half or more by friends who were kind enough to extract a few cogent bits from whatever it was that I produced. The writing in that post isn’t the best, but it’s ok… and it was good enough to get the payload about typos (and generally about how dumb resumes are) across clearly, which is ultimately what mattered most.
Why does wine help me write (please see the footnote before you unleash your wrath)?3 Because, for a brief hour or so, it stills the inexorable pull of self-editing and silences the voices that tell you you’re a piece of shit who can’t write worth a damn. Now, you might still be a piece of shit who can’t write worth a damn, but you’ll never become a piece of shit who can write unless you actually write.
Once the voices are quiet, you can get out whatever is in your head. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be ordered or flow, and it doesn’t have to be the most important takeaway you anticipate your post will ultimately have. Whatever it is will be raw and real… and then you (and your friends or coworkers if you’re lucky) will prune the drivel and mold it into something good.
So drink your wine (or don’t drink… just do whatever gets you in a good place) and put on whatever music fills your heart with rage (or inspiration if you’re not a broken human like me), and get to it. And do it again and again, until the ritual itself is what gives you comfort and lets you produce.
But, friends, be warned: please do your data analysis sober.
1 The folks at Priceonomics succinctly assigned “confirmation bias” as the right term for this technique. I first heard it at a workshop they ran. I had been doing this for years but hadn’t ever heard the term before. They do great work around content marketing and have made a business out of harnessing confirmation bias and data. They’ve also written a much lengthier guide to what makes good content than this post.
3 I’m probably going to catch a lot of flack and vitriol for encouraging drinking. Look, it works for me. It doesn’t have to work for you, and it might be really bad for you in particular because of some unserendipitous mix of genetics and past decisions. So, instead of drinking, let’s use alcohol as metonymy for any number of activities that quiet the voices in the head and let you focus. I hear that among the well-adjusted, meditation is all the rage, as is physical exercise. For those on the fringe, we drink in the dark.