Become a Writer Today

How to Do Content Right with Steph Smith

November 22, 2021 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
How to Do Content Right with Steph Smith
Show Notes Transcript

Steph Smith is a growth marketer, writer, and the author of Doing Content Right.

Steph has a fascinating take on how to launch a book. In fact, she has an altogether different approach to most authors.

As her book is about creating content for businesses, she promoted it first on Twitter, where she first validated the idea with her audience. 

In this interview, she talks about how she did that before she launched the book on Product Hunt.

It's the first time I've heard of an author launching their book on Product Hunt, and I was fascinated. 

Steph believes that when you launch a book, you should go where your audience is and build a community around your book. 

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Using a Twitter following to grow interested in your book
  • Why Steph chose Product Hunt to launch her book
  • How Steph wrote the book in 49 days
  • What to do if your non-fiction book starts to date
  • Why there are more opportunities than ever before for content creators
  • Steph's favorite keyword tool and is SEO the best way to grow a newsletter?


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Steph: I went to launch the book and, as I mentioned before, I tweeted about it and I said, “Would people want this?” and a lot of people said yes but a couple people, not even that many, but a couple said, “I would actually pay more for this, you should charge more,” but I said, “More? Like I don’t know how much more is, like would you pay $20, $30?” And not just you, the few people who said it, but like what would people in general pay for it?

Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: Doing content right, what does it look like and how can you do it?

Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. I have a special interview for you this week. Her name is Steph Smith. She’s a growth marketer, writer, and indie maker. She’s also the author of the book, Doing Content Right.

Now, I wanted to talk to Steph for quite a while because she has a really interesting take on how to launch a book. Typically, when I’m launching a book, what I’ll do is send it out to beta readers, I’ll get feedback and solicit early reviews, publish it on Amazon, promote it using my e-mail list, and set up ads using Amazon ads and potentially Facebook ads.

Steph took an altogether different approach. Because her book is all about creating content for businesses or by businesses, she promoted her book first on Twitter, where she validated the idea with her audience, and in this week’s interview, she talks about doing just that, and then she launched her book on Product Hunt. I hadn’t heard of authors launching books on Product Hunt before until I discovered Steph’s work and I was fascinated to hear about her approach. My key takeaway from this interview is that when you’re launching a book, you should go where your audience lives.

In this case, Steph’s audience is business owners or content marketers or content creators, all people who would be using Product Hunt because they like the products and services that are featured there. In other words, if you’re writing a thriller book or a romance book, it probably doesn’t make sense to launch a book on Product Hunt but you could ask yourself, “Where do my readers and audience hang out?” and then get some of your work in front of them.

Steph’s got me thinking about how I’m going to promote some future books that I’m working on. I’ve talked before about the parenting book, which is almost ready for publication. The title is I Can’t believe I’m a Dad and I’m actually recording the audiobook at the moment. By the time you listen to this podcast, the book will be live, and I’m also considering what books I’m going to write after this.

To validate my ideas for those books, I’ve started producing content on my personal site, that’s I’ve started producing content about creativity, about content marketing, and about the creator economy. 

It’s a little bit different to the types of articles I publish on Become a Writer Today, which tend to be articles about the craft, about the latest writing apps, and also about selling more books and building your audience as a writer. So if you’re interested in learning more about content marketing or the creator economy, you can always visit my personal website.

My other key takeaway from this interview with Steph is to build a community around your book. Steph pre-sold her book and she got lots of feedback from early readers and that’s actually something I’ve used with previous books, even though I’ve never launched one on Product Hunt before. I got feedback from beta readers and I used their feedback to clarify sections in some of my books, to fix grammar and typo mistakes, and also to resolve other issues. 

A beta reader is not a replacement for an editor or a proofreader or a copy editor and you will get conflicting feedback from beta readers. It can be difficult to figure out what to do when that happens. My rule for handling feedback from beta readers was to thank everybody for their suggestion and then consider if the suggestions made sense for the book. If it was feedback about one particular issue from one particular person and I didn’t feel like it made sense, then I’d move on, but if several people raised the issue, then I will go back and fix whatever they raised in the book in question. 

At the end of the day, it’s your book, it’s your article, it’s your creative project, so you’ve got to make a decision about what’s right for it and what one person likes, another person will dislike.

I also remember I got some great writing advice from a writing instructor years ago. He explained that when somebody reads your articles or when they read your book, you can’t sit or stand behind them and explain what you really meant by the paragraph, by the sentence, or by the chapter. The words and the ideas in your book and in your writing have to speak and stand for themselves.

Now, with that said, if you enjoy this week’s interview with Steph, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes or sharing the show on Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. 

More reviews and more ratings will help more writers find the show. You can also reach out to me, I’m on Twitter, @bryanjcollins, and let me know what you’re up to, what you thought about this week’s episode, or if you’ve got feedback or guest suggestions. And if you really enjoy the show, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter. For just a couple of dollars a month using the link in the show notes, I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, software, and books.

Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Steph Smith, author of Doing Content Right.

Bryan: Welcome to the show, Steph.

Steph: Thanks so much for having me.

Bryan: Steph, you had a really interesting launch strategy and validation strategy for your book, Doing Content Right, but before we get into that, would you be able to give listeners a flavor for your background and who you are?

Steph: Sure. I never know exactly how to answer this question because I do a bunch of stuff. I work full time at a company called The Hustle which is now owned by HubSpot so I guess I work there. I lead their Trends product. I build a bunch of projects on the side, you mentioned the book. I also learned to code a couple years ago and built projects there and, yeah, I guess that’s a good summary of my background.

Bryan: So, Doing Content Right started out in a different way to how non-fiction authors typically start their books. How did you validate your idea for Doing Content Right?

Steph: Yeah, so I think if you’re thinking of most book authors, they get some sort of book deal, perhaps they have some huge following already and then, you know, they proceed forward to write the book and publish it. What I wanted to do is, one, I had no idea that the book would become so big and I actually had no idea if people would even want the thing so I had found this outline from a year before of 3,000 to 4,000 words of just an outline of things that I wanted to say about content and I had rediscovered it and basically was like, you know, if I actually wanna go create something that the outline is 3,000 to 4,000 words, it’s gonna take a lot of my time but I wasn’t sure if people actually wanted this thing.

So I tweeted about it and I just said, “Hey, I found this outline,” exactly what I just told you, “Would people read this?” and I kind of told people what was in the outline in a super high level and a bunch of people were like, “Absolutely, yes, I would want this,” or, “You definitely should pre-sell it,” or whatever, and so I had enough validation through those comments that, within a couple hours, I just pulled up a Gumroad page to pre-sell it and then started pre-selling it and, since then, it’s done, I guess, better than I could have ever imagined at that time but that was a nice way of validating the need for it before actually investing the resources.

Bryan: So you’ve about 30,000 Twitter followers, which is quite a lot for getting engagements. Did you have that many when you put up the original tweet and outline?

Steph: No. So that’s — what I think a lot of people think is that if you have a big Twitter following, you can then drive sales to products, which is obviously true, but it can work the opposite way. So, when I created the book — or actually when I first tweeted about it, I think I had around 6,000, maybe 7,000 max followers at the time so, yes, certainly a following of some sorts but, you know, a quarter of what I have today and a big driver of the followers since then has been the book, right?

People talking about it, people tagging me and stuff, new people buying the book who then end up learning about me. So I think it can work also in the reverse way but, yes, to get back to your question, I did not have that many followers at the time.

Bryan: And had your followers already been interested in content marketing and creating content or was that something you gradually shifted towards?

Steph: You know, it’s a little bit of both again where I had certainly some people who knew me for content, because I would tweet about content every so often, but, actually, most of my followers early on knew me for indie making or indie creating, so, years before, I had learned to code and I had created, you know, all these projects through code and, actually, my early followers came from that. 

Some other followers came from knowing me kind of as like — I never like to label myself this way but as an expert in remote work. I’ve been working remotely for the last five, six years, and then only more recently and kind of leading up to the book did some followers start to know me for content, especially as I worked for The Hustle, which a lot of people knew as like one of the biggest newsletters in the world so, yes, some of my following did know me for content certainly but, actually, a lot of my following I think knew me for other topics.

Bryan: I don’t think many authors launch a book on Product Hunt. What made you decide to go that route?

Steph: Well, I knew from launching prior products, as I mentioned, I had tinkered with other products that I built through code, that it’s just an excellent platform if you build something that people want to get traction with. 

What I actually did differently this time around with the book is my other projects I had launched on Product Hunt immediately, because I was like, “Look, I created this thing, I want the world to know about it,” but what I did with this project is I waited around six months after creating the book, after getting traction, after people reading it, supporting it, buying into it and believing in it, then I launched and I think one underrated aspect of that, which obviously I didn’t make this up but I had actually learned this from another creator, Harry Dry, and how he launched is that when you launch immediately on something like Product Hunt, you’re almost hoping that the launch drives your success, the success of your product, right? 

You’re hoping that this launch drives a bunch of attention and then your product will be successful. I think what I did instead with the later launch is actually the opposite where I had validated the product, got by and got a bunch of people behind it such that when I launched on Product Hunt, that’s what brought me to number one. I had so many people who already were like ready to support the product so instead of the launch making the product successful, the existing product actually made that launch even more successful.

Bryan: When you say the existing product, does that mean the followers on Twitter and also people who pre-bought the book on Gumroad clicked over to Product Hunt and supported you there or was there some other way that you built it up?

Steph: Yeah, no, it was exactly that simple, just people who already were supporting the book, who thought it was worth their money and were excited for other people to buy it. 

Just — I was actually surprised because, in prior launches, as I said, I would just launch a product, it would just be ready and so there was no one there to even like know is this something worth promoting or supporting, but, this time, I had launched it and I actually went into like several community chats a couple minutes or hours after launching and all these people were kind of promoting it for me in those communities without me even asking them to do so.

Bryan: Do you believe more non-fiction authors should use Product Hunt for their books?

Steph: I mean, one of the key kind of takeaways of the book in terms of the distribution section is you have to find out who you’re trying to attract and where they hang out. So, for me, as someone creating a book about content, there is, you know, maybe not a perfect intersection but an existing intersection between people who hang out on Product Hunt and people who want to build an audience through content. 

So, for me, that made sense. But if you’re writing a book about, you know, let’s just say, cooking, that maybe has some intersection with the people on Product Hunt but it’s gonna be a much smaller intersection so you always just want to figure out who you’re actually trying to attract, be very discreet and precise about that, and then ask yourself, who does — or where does this persona hang out, right? And it may be Product Hunt. If that’s the case, yeah, go launch on Product Hunt. If it’s not, then go launch or promote your stuff in places where those people actually hang out.

Bryan: Did the actual launch on Product Hunt itself take long to manage or to engage with people on Product Hunt?

Steph: No. I mean, it’s always kind of — so definitely a lot of energy on the day of, because you need to prepare all the assets, the page, then you need to launch it then you need to respond to all the comments, deal with any issues with the product, if there is any, but I think I had done this four times before so it was a little easier for me. 

I think if it’s your first time, my advice for people is not to overthink it, because I think there are many things that you can worry about on Product Hunt and your launch and trying to perfect the copy, for example, but, at the end of the day, just kind of like 80/20 principle, 20 percent of your effort is gonna lead to 80 percent of the impact and so don’t try to perfect everything on the platform. I just remember that from my early days of launching on Product Hunt.

Bryan: You wrote the book in 49 days?

Steph: Yes.

Bryan: That’s incredibly fast. How did you do it?

Steph: Well, I always say when people ask me this that I did work off of an outline, certainly, but then in addition to that, it’s a culmination of all the things that I learned and practiced for years, right? 

So, sure, yes, it took a short period of time for me to actually go and like publish it and put it on paper but I was working off of stuff that I knew really, really well and if you were to ask me to write a book about something that I don’t know well in 49 days, well, I’m not gonna be able to do that, right? So I think it’s always like maybe a flashy stat to say, “Oh, yes, I wrote this in 49 days,” but, really, it was more like seven years and 49 days, if that makes sense, as in seven years of actually learning and perfecting this stuff so that when I actually sat down to write it, it just flowed really naturally.

Bryan: You also had an interesting pricing strategy for your book. Could you describe how that worked?

Steph: Yeah, so it was a tiered pricing strategy, which I’ve since launched another product and used the same thing and it basically started at $10 and every 30 sales, it went up by $5 and the reason that I did it was because I had no idea what to price it at so I think pricing, in general, is a beast of its own to learn and figure out to master. 

And so I went to launch the book and, as I mentioned before, I tweeted about it and I said, “Would people want this?” and a lot of people said yes but a couple people, not even that many but a couple said, “I would actually pay more for this, you should charge more,” but I said, “More? 

Like I don’t know how much more is, like would you pay $20, $30?” and not just you, the few people who said it, but like what would people in general pay for it? And so I actually used the tiered pricing as a mechanism to get data so I could see, oh, people are still buying at $10, still buying at $15, $20, etc., and I actually did see it taper off just in the presale at $35 so, actually, that’s why I kept it, once it hit $30, I kept it at $30 until launch and then even throughout launch, a couple months after that I actually started to increase prices.

Bryan: So I know the book has a lot of bonus material, which is a little bit like a course but why not just jump straight to the full-on digital course model that many content creators follow?

Steph: That’s actually what I did for this new product because, I mean, it’s a very silly reason but it’s how people operate. It’s all about perceived value, right? So people will laugh at paying $30 for a book because they say, “A book? Books are $10,” but then a course with the exact same material, they’ll say, “Of course, I’ll pay 30 bucks. I’ll pay $300 for this,” right? 

So, actually, the whole reason that I didn’t do things in exactly what you said, as a course, originally was just because I had no master plan originally, right? I had an outline, it was originally gonna be a blog post, then I asked people if they’d want this book, people said yes, I had no idea how well it would do and then I started to layer on some of the other bonuses so that, as you said, I could actually increase the prices but I learned my lesson coming into the second product that I launched recently, knowing that so that, actually, instead, I was like I’m just gonna sell this as a course from the get-go.

Bryan: Yeah, makes sense. Makes sense. The book is really specific so it gets into search engine optimization, newsletters, and did you ever have any concerns at any point that some of this information could date? Because that’s something I found writing non-fiction that I often have to go back and update old articles or even old chapters in old books.

Steph: Yeah, so, absolutely that came across my mind and there are certainly parts of the book that, yeah, like they might date and I may issue like a new version at some point but I did actually, with that in mind, try to design the book so that it didn’t date in the same way as that maybe something that was really, really technical. 

Even though I tried to be really kind of prescriptive and clear and write in depth, I tried not to focus on really transient things. So, even as an example, in, you mentioned SEO, in my chapter about SEO, what a lot of people do when they talk about SEO is they talk about all of the ranking factors that exist today, how to think about them, and how much they matter. Now, that’s maybe helpful to some people but those change over time, right? 

Even if you were to ask Google a year from now what ranking factors exist, one, they wouldn’t tell you precisely but, two, they would have changed. What I tried to do is talk through exactly how to think about SEO, talk through three things, credibility, relevancy, and usability, which really all of the ranking factors ladder up to, and then explain why Google cares about those things and then help you think through how you can implement them in a way that, hopefully, you know, of course, it will date to some degree but, hopefully, won’t date to the same degree.
Did the same thing with the first chapter where I talk through building your personal monopoly in a way where I’m talking about these mechanisms that I really don’t think change or maybe they take decades to change so I did try to incorporate that in the way that I was writing the book.

Bryan: When you describe building your personal monopoly, it sounds like you feel there’s more opportunities than ever for content creators today.

Steph: Yes.

Bryan: What type of opportunities do you think are untapped, that somebody listening to this should consider if they’re not making much money from creating content?

Steph: Well, I think the issue and I know this well because I felt the same way is that a lot of people think, “Oh, my god, there’s so much content out there, how could I ever stand out?” and, yes, we are in an information economy, there is more content than has ever existed, but that will continue into tomorrow, there will be more content, and the day after there’ll be more content, and the sheer amount of content is not what you should be concerned about, it should be do you think you can create better content than what already exists? 

And, of course, you might think, “Well, there’s so much out there, how could I create something better?” but if you actually have a keen eye for what’s already out there, what I think a lot of people do is they think, okay, there’s already so much in, let’s say, the health space or the travel space or these really broad industries and they try to find something that no one has written about, right? 

They try to find some very small niche and that can work, right? So that can be your way of standing out by finding something that no one has tackled. That’s incredibly hard to do, especially when we’re in this, you know, democratized space where almost anyone can create content so, really, that’s where I think a lot of people go wrong. The opportunity lies in finding your, as people say, personal monopoly, which means finding a space that you know more about, hopefully, than most people and you do it in a differentiated way. 

So differentiated, this sounds so basic but a lot of people don’t think this way, is your content more funny than what already exists out there? Is it more deeply researched? Is it more contrarian? Is it more visual? And there are so many examples of companies that have gone into spaces that people think are saturated and found a way to very, very concretely be better. 

So, as an example, there’s a newsletter called Chartr.  It created a business and tech newsletter, which a lot of people would say, “There’s so many business and tech newsletters out there, how could I compete?” They simply made their newsletters so much more visual. They have these beautiful infographics and data visualizations that they have just grown like a weed. They I think are huge now, hundreds of thousands of subscribers, launched in 2019, and that’s a perfect example where you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you don’t need to find something that no one else is talking about, you just need to do it better. And the final example that I always give that kind of seems to cement this for people is the same thing is true with businesses. 

So, if you think about businesses that already exist out there, again, sometimes people think, “Let me go find something that doesn’t exist yet,” and Costco is the perfect example of a company that went into general retail, very, very competitive space, and basically what they identified is there’s this one aspect, this one lane that people care about, which is cost so they said, “We’re gonna be cheaper,” and they traded off all these other things, whether it’s the store ambience, the how easy it is to get to Costco, the package sizing, the number of SKUs, and they traded all of that off in order to get the lowest cost items. 

So, that’s just a summary of where you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you don’t need to find something that no one else is doing, you just need to find a way to do something that already exists significantly better.

Bryan: You described a newsletter that relies a lot on the visual appeal to attract subscribers. Your book also has like a really distinctive visual look. Was that something you set out to incorporate when you were writing it?

Steph: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s just something that I personally enjoy as in I enjoy kind of like manifesting a vision that I have in like the design that comes with it and I think that is like another way where, again, you can differentiate, where it may not be the most important thing that you should focus on. 

Of course, if you’re writing a book, you should focus on the content being amazing, but, again, people draw associations. When they think of Costco, they have almost like an emotion tied to it because they know it’s cheap and they know that they enjoyed the samples or whatever it is. I wanted the same thing as I designed my products to not just be like high quality content, where people are going through somewhat of an experience. It’s almost like, you know, just how people view branding and so it wasn’t the foremost important thing but it’s something that I think about and honestly just enjoy doing as I’m building out my projects.

Bryan: Yeah, I’ve been thinking more about how to put images into a newsletter that I have. Did you sketch them out or design them yourself or hire someone?

Steph: So, for that project, Doing Content Right, it was all my own illustrations and if people are interested, there’s — I’m not affiliated with them at all but if you just Google like “Illustrator Course Udemy,” I think it’s probably the top option and I think it’s like eight hours of content and I just learned that on Udemy and then, since then, just designed my own illustrations.

Bryan: Oh, wow, impressive. And were you doing this in Adobe or something else?

Steph: Yeah, that course, it teaches you in Illustrator and that’s the program I use.

Bryan: Oh, fantastic. Fantastic. So, also, what’s your favorite distribution strategy today for content creators?

Steph: Well, there’s gonna be no universe one because, as I mentioned before, you need to figure out where your audience is and then figure out how you can access them on those channels. 

So, what works for me doesn’t work always for other people. The channels that I primarily use are Twitter, I just happen to enjoy that channel and you can kind of think of some channels as own channels versus non-own channels or channels that have scales. So, Twitter is one that has scale that I then convert people to into own channels, whether it’s my newsletter or a course that I’m selling or a book that I’m selling. 

The one underrated channel that I, in general, always vouch for, at least as it relates to written content, is SEO. So we talked a little bit about this before but the reason that is such a game changing channel if you know how to do it properly is every other channel has transients, which means that, basically, the output that you get today is based on the input that you put in today and maybe a couple days prior, but it’s transient, right? 

So, if you ranked on Hacker News, it’s really exciting and you get tens of thousands of page views, but then, a couple days later, it’s gone. SEO is something with bedrock which means that the foundation that like you lay today hopefully will exist for at least a couple weeks, if not months, if not years into the future, and then every slab of bedrock that you’re adding on top of that is additive instead of, again, additive for a second and then disappearing. So I think, in general, if you’re building any sort of online content, if you’re not thinking about SEO, you’re almost like doing your future self a disservice.

Bryan: What are your favorite keyword research tools?

Steph: Ahrefs is definitely the best one. I mean, I’m not affiliated with any of them. There’s tons of other ones, to be honest, like, again, though, it’s 80/20 where I’d say most well-known keyword tools will get you far enough. 

Ahrefs is just like the most comprehensive one but I will also say that most people who use Ahrefs only use a couple features that could easily be done in other tools. So, it’s comprehensive but there’s only a few features that most people use.

Bryan: Okay, makes sense. And do you have a particular approach for keyword research? Do you go after competitive terms or do you do link building?

Steph: Well, I mean, keyword research, I think I would say is separate from link building but there’s, yes, there’s an overall SEO strategy that people should deploy which, again, revolves around usability, credibility, and relevancy, which relevancy relates to keyword research and making sure that your articles are actually tackling keywords that you’re writing about and there’s a relevant relationship there. 

Credibility is all about building domain authority which relates to link building, as you said, and usability relates to actually making your site usable, because if people are bouncing, well, guess what? That goes into the Google algorithm. Now, as you mentioned about keyword research, I think there is an important relationship between relevancy and credibility which just means that you’re targeting keywords that are actually within your range of being able to rank on, so if you are targeting a keyword, which a lot of people do, they’ll make arguments like, “Oh, this keyword has a million searches per month so if I even get like 0.01 percent of that, like that’s a decent amount of search volume.” 

Well, no, the search engine results page gives traffic or allocates traffic in an exponential way or decreasing exponential way, which means that if you’re on the 10th page, you’re getting no page views. So, you should actually target trying to rank in the first three positions for keywords which are, again, in your kind of like competitive domain and you can identify that based on, again, things like Ahrefs will give you a keyword difficulty score but you can also determine this simply by looking at a domain and looking at the domain authorities of the websites on that page and then compare your domain authority and if your domain authority is less than 30, then you probably should get it to at least 30 so that you even have a chance of ranking on anything remotely, you know, worthwhile ranking on. 

And then the final thing I would say is one other proxy that you can pay attention to, which is not perfect, it does not necessarily have a linear relationship with competitiveness, is just the search volume. So, again, a lot of people search or a lot of people tackle keywords with a lot of search volume. Generally, you actually, if you’re early on and you have a low domain authority, you want to tackle keywords with some, so certainly not zero, some search volume, but not very much search volume, in the hundreds to low thousands of keyword searches per month.

Bryan: Makes sense. I’ve also noticed there’s a lot of discrepancies in search volume and competitiveness scores between the different tools. Is that something you’ve seen as well?

Steph: Yeah, because something to keep in mind is they’re all using scrapers to basically proxy what they think a particular keyword is getting searched. It is not correct data but it is correct enough data that you can get a sense of how competitive that keyword is. And something to also keep in mind is that it changes over time, right? 

So anything that you search on a given day as having, let’s say, 3,000 searches per month, if you check again in a couple days, or certainly in a couple months, it may not be 3,000 so it’s all dynamic and it’s also like more complex than the output that you see, right? Because it depends on where those searches are happening as well and every ranking for a particular keyword is dynamic by location as well, right? So you may be ranking number one in the United States but number 10 in Ireland and that does matter in your overall organic traffic that you’re generating, but without going down all those rabbit holes, yes, it can differ between tools but the tools itself should give you a general enough sense of how competitive a keyword is and you don’t need it to be precise.

Bryan: If I’m looking to rank for organic traffic, should I go after terms that have a high CPC or cost per click?

Steph: Well, so, cost per click is — this is actually something that’s confused by a lot of people in the sense where they think that if something has a higher cost per click, it means that they, you know, should or shouldn’t rank there. It can impact you just in the sense that if something has ads there, of course, your organic rankings are further down the page. 

What the cost-per-click metric actually tells you, though, is not necessarily how competitive that keyword is but how commercial that keyword is, meaning that these are companies that are willing to spend on this because they think they can actually convert people on that particular keyword. There are extremely competitive keywords with absolutely no AdWords rankings on there because it’s not a commercial keyword, right? It’s not — I guess one other aspect that I’ll walk into is intent, search intent. 

One of the types of intent, there are several, is commercial intent, which means someone actually going to this particular keyword is looking to buy something so that’s why you’ll see pretty much any keyword with commercial intent with people bidding to rank there on AdWords but there’s also informational intent, there’s navigational intent, there’s several other — there’s, I think, four types of intent that you should learn so if you’re listening to this, go learn the types of intent and if you’re creating any sort of content, you should be trying to rank on informational queries only. 

That is actually one of the most — I will say there’s two things that people get wrong. One of them is trying to rank for huge keywords that they don’t have the domain authority for. The second one is not understanding search intent and then trying to rank on search queries that are not informational and Google will never rank a commercial query with an informational article or vice versa and the same thing is true for navigational or informational, you can do any sort of combination, and so if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go just kind of Google “search intent” and you’ll learn what I’m talking about and that is, again, one of the key things that people get wrong when they’re thinking of SEO.

Bryan: So, informational will be how-to articles and so on?

Steph: So, informational is people seeking information, which sounds really simple but it’s, “How do I get this wine stain out of my carpet?” It’s not always a question but it — most of the time, if you’re wondering if something is informational, you can reframe it as a question. So, for example, someone, instead of asking, “How do I get red wine stain out of my carpet?” because we all know we rarely type out a full sentence when we’re Google searching, you might just search “red wine carpet,” but most of the time, you can tell the intent of a query by going to the actual — like searching that particular query because Ahrefs will not tell you and seeing what is ranking there already. Is it pages where someone is selling a product? 

Is it long-form articles similar to yours that you actually wanna rank? If you see it’s long-form articles, that’s the type of query that you want to assess if you wanna rank on. If it’s a bunch of companies selling something, you don’t wanna rank there. Similarly, there’s hybrid query so it’s not always straightforward where, for example, if you search the word “Apple,” some of the queries, or some of the results, I should say, are about the company, most of them are. Some of them are about the fruit. Some of them are about something entirely different. And so sometimes Google has hybrid results pages based on some percentage of people looking for one thing and some percentage of people looking for another. You generally wanna stay away from hybrid pages and just stick to, if you’re writing content, informational-driven pages.

Bryan: A big part of your book is also about the rise of newsletters, even though I suppose they never really went away. Is SEO the best way to grow a newsletter or should newsletter owners also be thinking about paid traffic?

Steph: So, there’s kind of two parts to this answer. One of them is it depends what newsletter you’re writing because if you’re writing a very, let’s say, news-driven newsletter, right? You won’t be able to rank as much for SEO because most of the things that people are searching for are things that people are searching for long term, right? 

So, someone — what happened in the news today is not gonna be something someone’s searching for three months from now, right? So, if you’re writing a purely news-driven newsletter, you can’t really benefit from SEO as much as something that’s not news driven. If you are writing something that is more evergreen, then, yes. If you’re writing anything evergreen, SEO should be baked into your strategy. 

If you’re writing a newsletter and you wanna grow it quickly over time, paid ads are basically a cash infusion to grow quickly. If you are doing any sort of paid ads, you need to make sure you understand your cost per subscriber, not just on the side of your spend but on the side of monetization. If you don’t know how much you can make off of a subscriber, you need to be really careful on what you’re spending to acquire that subscriber. So, generally, I would encourage people not to do paid ads immediately because you have no idea what your monetization capabilities are.

Bryan: Okay, and if somebody is ready to do paid ads, should they be looking first at Facebook or should they be looking at using Google?

Steph: So, again, it depends where your users are and it also depends how precise you need to be about targeting people. So, for example, if you write a newsletter about something really, really discrete, then you may benefit from advertising on Google first because you can actually target those specific keywords or those specific questions on Google that people are searching for. 

But I would say there is no perfect ad platform. You can also use Quora, lots of people grow through Quora, Reddit, Twitter, there’s tons of different ad platforms. I would say test a couple of them so you get data for your respective newsletter. With that data, you can decide where to double down. People tend to see the best results on Facebook simply because it tends to be one of the cheaper channels. Other channels like Twitter just don’t have as, you know, sophisticated targeting capabilities. But I’d say one of — two of the underrated ones tend to be Quora and Reddit because they do actually have pretty good targeting and are not as expensive as I think Google is. Google is one of the most expensive, LinkedIn is probably the most expensive.

Bryan: Okay, okay, and, finally, your new course is coming out at the time of recording this interview. Would you be able to tell listeners what it’s about?

Steph: Yes, it’s — so the first book that I wrote was called Doing Content Right. This one’s called Doing Time Right, which is all about people getting the most out of their most scarce resource, which is time, right? 

So I think it’s a pretty universal theme that people are trying to do more in less time and we go through basically a four-step framework, which is about elimination. So what you can eliminate from your life; automation, it’s what you can automate after that; delegation, so whatever’s left over after automation, what you can delegate and how to do that; and then, finally, iteration, which is about moving a little faster.
If you’ve done already or assessed the things that I just mentioned before that, and the reason that we set it up that way is because, when people think about productivity, a lot of people think, “What can I do? I can move faster,” and that’s iteration but we actually think that what most people should do before that is figure out what they can eliminate, what they can automate, and what they can delegate before that and we kind of surround the course or the course is kind of built on the foundation of a bicycle journey, which is how we kind of analogously associate with life and how we spend our time which is just that, on your journey, you’re trying to get to some faraway destination.
If you’re jumping on your bike without eliminating all the stuff on your back that’s weighing you down, without actually getting the equivalent of an electric bike that can make your journey easier, you’re just gonna have a really shitty journey and the course is meant to show you how you can make that journey a lot more enjoyable and not just jump straight to the iteration part of the journey but go through those prior steps. And if people are interested, they can find it at

Bryan: And if they want to find out more about your other work, where should they go?

Steph: So, the book can be found at and, in general, you can learn more about any of the projects that I launch at, that’s my site, and if people are active on Twitter, that’s also where I’m the most active and my handle is @stephsmithio.

Bryan: Thanks, Steph.

Steph: Awesome. Thanks for having me.

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