Monthly Archives: March 2016

Fictional Content Marketing Case Study: Selling Candy Online

Originally posted on the ReferralCandy Blog.

Let’s explore a fictional case study: Suppose you’re selling candy.


I’ll assume you love candy to begin with and have some expertise in the subject, which is why you’re selling it.

  1. Identify all the candy enthusiasts you can possibly find online. Who’s making it? Who’s eating it? Who’s doing YouTube reviews of it? Who’s blogging about it? You want to have a clear map of this stuff, preferably outside of your head so you can refer to it.
  2. Saturate your personal newsfeed with all the candy news you can get. Start reading all the candy blogs. Follow all the candy enthusiasts, join all the candy forums.Do this until you’re absolutely certain that you know more about candy than anybody else. You should at least be in the top 20% of people who know candy better than the bottom 80%. Otherwise why are you even in the business? If it’s more than you can take in, scale back and focus on absorbing a few channels that matter the most. Always be on the lookout for a better source of information (but don’t let that allow you to be complacent in your interactions with others!)
  3. Tell the world who you are, and be as specific as possible. What’s so special or interesting about your candy? Is it sweeter? Richer? More fun, more entertaining, more varied? Cheaper? Healthier?
  4. Develop and execute a rudimentary content strategy. 
    1. About your candy: How is your candy made? Who makes it? How is it packaged? How many different kinds of candy are there? Use lots of pictures, and communicate lots of passion and attention to detail. A compelling enough story can drive people to make purchases they otherwise wouldn’t consider.
    2. Uses for your candy: What can people do with your candy? What are the uses of candy? What sort of desserts could be made with candy? What sort of occasions might someone buy your candy as a gift?
    3. Other candy-related goodness: What’s the history of candy? What did you think about Christina Aguilera’s Candyman? What about the 1992 horror film Candyman? Candy (2006)? Hard Candy (2005)?
  5. Identify every single possible thing that people might search for.
    1. Types of candy: Peppermint? Gumdrops? Gummy bears? Marshmellows? Taffies? Candy floss? Cotton candy? What are the different sorts of candy available around the world? What are the health benefits of candy?
    2. History of candy: What interesting ways could candy be packaged in? How did candycanes become a Christmas tradition? What about Easter Eggs? What about trick-or-treating at Halloween?

Once you’ve listed out all these questions, figure out which are the ones you’d love to have the answer to, and which ones you’d be able to answer almost immediately. Ask your newfound friends in your candy communities about what they’d like to know more about, what they’d like to read. Grill yourself with questions, then get somebody to grill you too.

Writing all of these posts will take time, of course.

But they’re gifts that keep on giving. You’ll never be completely sure in advance which posts will be your superstars, so churn them out as quickly as you can.

Recommended Reading


  • If you want to learn about SEO, go to Moz. Watch Rand Fishkin’s youtube videos and scan through his slideshares. I’m especially a fan of Why Content Marketing Fails. Ahrefs and Backlinko are also doing fantastic jobs right now.
  • If you want to learn about Conversion Rate Optimization, I recommend ConversionXL. Peep Laja is committed to smart, no-bullshit stuff that actually works. Here’s a great post about referrals, courtesy of Tommy Walker.)
  • I’m always referring people to Samuel Hulick also does great teardowns at UserOnboard.
  • If you want to learn about Customer Support, I recommend Gregory Ciotti of HelpScout. GrooveHQ’s blog is pretty cool too. 
  • If you want to learn about starting a business from scratch, I recommend Richard Lazazzera’s work. He has a definitive guide on Shopify, and he has his own blog at (He also wrote a great post on referrals.)
  • If you want to learn about content marketing… there are some places that are a good start- Copyblogger, Buffer, CoSchedule, Intercom. But to be honest I think most people haven’t really thought about this deeply enough. We all tend to fixate on superficial stuff.
  • Email Marketing? Vero has a very comprehensive guide.
  • The design team and I are always talking about creating something akin to MailChimp’s Voice and Tone guide.
  • Want to put together an amazing slideshare? I’d refer you to How I Got 2.5 Million Views On SlideShares. Also SlideComet’s How To Create SlideShares that Convert. And Eric Schmidt’s How Google Works. Doug Kessler’s Crap.


Learn marketing by analyzing what’s worked on you

Originally posted on the ReferralCandy Blog.

1: Improve your personal understanding of marketing by analyzing the marketing that’s worked on you.

This is the force multiplier, which makes it the most important thing of all. You can’t hope to control what you don’t understand.

Understanding marketing well requires:

  1. Exposure to marketing as it is done in the real world (everybody has this; everybody is marketed to)
  2. Critical analysis of marketing as it is done in the real world (this is where you gain an advantage over others)
  3. Actual marketing practice in the real world, with actionable feedback

You won’t become a seasoned professional overnight, but you can make the most of your situation by analysing your own personal experiences more thoroughly.

Ask yourself: What marketing has worked on you?

List out all the brands and products that you love.

  • What was your first encounter with them like?
  • How did you fall in love with them?
  • What was it about the experiences that inspired your personal loyalty? If you’re working as part of a team, ask your peers about this, too.

The common denominator seems to be this: Good marketing is the fulfillment of a promise. It could be a promise of quality, of responsiveness, of design. The challenge for marketers is to make a good promise, and then overdeliver.

How to deal with creative anxiety

Originally posted on the ReferralCandy Blog.

Creative anxiety sucks. Horribly.

Before anything else, here are the 6 steps you need to take:

  1. Acknowledge that creative anxiety can be dealt with
  2. Realize that creative anxiety is fundamentally an experience of fear
  3. Articulate the precise failure conditions you think you’re worried about
  4. Recognize that failure isn’t actually as bad as you’re making it out to be
  5. Get feedback from someone you trust (this helps you avoid CATASTROPHIC failure)
  6. Finish. Go for done, not perfect.

Some context:

I used to deal with it by distracting myself for hours, before freaking out and trying to rush everything. I thought the solution was to eliminate distractions, so I literally unfriended and unfollowed everybody on social media.

I found that I still ended up basically spending my time over-researching all my articles. And I still freak out and rush everything. So now I have to limit my research time. But even that feels like it doesn’t address the root of the problem fully.

Recently, I’ve actually had a couple of moments of clarity where everything came together, and I was able to write and create without being crippled by fear or anxiety. It was so blissful. I’m writing this primarily to reflect on that bliss, that I may be able to recreate it regularly at will.

One can hope. May we all become productive, efficient members of society.

Here are the steps I’d prescribe to anybody who’s anxious, stuck, avoiding their work:

1: Acknowledge that creative anxiety can be dealt with.

It’s something you’re experiencing, and it’s something you have the power to do something about. It’s something that’s happening in your body, in your nervous system.

You might not be able to prevent it from happening, but you can learn to deal with it, cope with it, prepare for it and work with it. Acknowledging this is the first step, and it’s very liberating. In fact, it’s an indicator that this is something that matters to you:

“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles

2: Realize that creative anxiety is fundamentally an experience of fear.

Fear of failure, usually. Stephen Pressfield wrote a whole book about this.  This is a very primal, primitive experience that can feel very at odds with rational thought. You might know intellectually that you’re capable, yet the fear paralyzes you anyway.

I experienced this just yesterday, when I realized that I hadn’t adequately prepared for a marketing meeting where I was to present my plans for our blog’s editorial direction. I had thought about it a lot, and I had a ton of things that I wanted to say, but it was all one hot mess inside my head.

This was by Dorothy Parker in 1945- and she was a sickeningly good writer. Good to know that this afflicts us all, I guess!

This was by Dorothy Parker in 1945- and she was a sickeningly good writer. Good to know that this afflicts us all, I guess!

3: Articulate the precise failure conditions that you think you’re worried about.

As Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein described in his post How to Overcome Procrastination by Facing Discomfort, this often reveals itself to be way more trivial and silly than it had seemed when you were gripped by it.

For me, I imagined myself fumbling badly through the presentation. Everybody would be staring blankly at me, thinking, “That’s stupid, that doesn’t make any sense at all, wow u are suck”. My incompetence would be revealed. Any good work I had done up to that point would be discovered to be fraudulent, and I would bring shame and dishonor upon my ancestors.

Okay, so that probably wouldn’t happen. But that’s what it felt like, until I tried to put it into words. That was when I realized that at worst, my colleagues would think, “Visa so didn’t prepare for this,” or “He sorta sounds like he knows what he’s talking about but I don’t really get it.” Both of which are rather survivable circumstances.

4: Recognize that failure isn’t actually so bad.


*Stolen in turn from Austin Kleon


There’s two kinds of failure, I think. Failure to meet the lofty expectations you might’ve had when you were setting out, and disastrous failures (the kind that gets thousands of retweets and shares on news sites, telling everybody what a horrible person you are.)

The first is inevitable. The second is quite easily avoided.

5: Take catastrophic failure insurance: get feedback from somebody you trust!

When we came to another task, it was “I have to make a decision about whether to speak at this conference I was invited to in May. But I don’t know whether it’s a worthwhile opportunity!” Jordan replied, “That makes sense. So what’s the very next step you can take?”

That actually had a pretty easy answer: I could ask the organizer who invited me how many people would be in attendance, and decide on a minimum number for which I’d consider it worth it. I could ask for advice from Asana’s PR team as well.” – Justin Rosenstein

For me, when I realized that I was in a muck, I knew that I would benefit from running it by someone instead of “going dark”.

So I pinged Dinesh via IM (even though I sit next to him in the office.) I just wrote, “Hey, I need to stress-test some thoughts about editorial direction,” and I just vomited out a bunch of thoughts. I then asked “Any red flags / missing details? What am I missing / overlooking / oversimplifying?”

I can’t actually remember what exactly he said, but I remember feeling relieved almost before he even responded. The mere act of articulating myself to another person- instead of agonizing over it myself- saved me so much stress and time!

When researching this phenomena, I learnt that Pixar actually does the same thing with something they call a Braintrust. They understand that even the most effective people doing creative work will lose themselves in the details, and need feedback from trusted peers to get themselves unstuck.

6: Finish your work, and enjoy the triumph of overcoming the Resistance, you beautiful warrior, you.

Reflect on your experiences and build your databank/understanding of the nature of creative anxiety and fear.

Because it will be back again. It doesn’t go away.


Here are some resources that I’ve found incredibly helpful in thinking about all of this:

Hope it helps.

What are your experiences in dealing with creative anxiety? I’ll be happy to be a sounding board for anyone who’s stuck on their own quest(s)!

Content marketing mistakes: Misallocating limited resources

Originally posted on the ReferralCandy Blog.

4: Misallocating limited resources. (BE VERY PROTECTIVE OF YOUR TIME. Seriously.)


Minimum Viable Content! This idea is shamelessly derived from Jussi Pasanen’s (@jopas) idea of how to build Minimum Viable Product.

The most counter-intuitive realization I’ve had about content marketing is that well-meant ‘research’ can ruin you.

Here’s a painfully true story:

  1. I once wanted to write a blogpost that compared the marketing of Oreo and Nutella. I wanted to demonstrate how they were similar, how they were different, and I wanted to use the juxtaposition to write an insightful essay about the nature of marketing itself.
  2. I wasn’t very clear about who I was writing the post for, or what the post was supposed to solve. My metric for “the post is done”, implicitly, was “when it satisfies me”. You can imagine how that played out.
  3. The solution, I thought, was for me to get more context. So I started doing more research. I spent 3 full weeks agonizing over the post. I would read more and more about the chemical compounds of chocolate, the way chocolate is grown, the psychological effects of eating chocolate, the history of NaBisCo (which owns Oreo), the guy who invented the Oreo creme filling, the history of the family business that owns Nutella. I probably know more about Oreo and Nutella (and Mars and Hershey… all very interesting stories) than 99% of people.

None of that stuff helped me.

The post was bloated and incoherent. It was a tremendous waste of time and energy, and it was deeply demoralizing.


People who talk about content marketing without talking about resource constraints Really Annoy Me. Source:

The scary thing about doing ‘research’ is that it always feels like you’re making progress.

You’re putting in the hours, doing the reading, collecting the data. You’re getting more information about the space that you’re in. But that’s not actually helping you get to where you want to go. And the clock is ticking.

  • You want to get to the peak of user satisfaction as fast as possible. That means you need to get insight, pronto.
  • You want to identify the problem that needs solving, then allow that to inform the research you need to do.

Once you get that, you get useful feedback. You get shares, you get requests. You get more energy, you get more resources. And then you can afford do the more ambitious things that you were originally hoping to do.

Content marketing mistakes: Repeating what others have written

Originally posted on the ReferralCandy Blog.

Mistake #3: Repeating what others have written. (“Why should I read your stuff when someone’s already said it better?”)



Based on Matt Might’s “The Illustrated Guide To a PhD”.

I find that Clayton Christensen’s ‘Jobs-To-Be-Done’ idea is a particularly useful insight for thinking about content. People ‘hire’ a piece of content to ‘do a job’ for them.

Turns out that Gregory Ciotti (again) has already written a good post about creating content from a JTBD perspective. I agree with his assessment 100%.

Now there’s no point in me writing it. I can just refer you to Greg’s post.

This can seem depressing initially, if I fixate on wanting to have written it first. But it’s really quite liberating. It means that I’m now freed to think about what the next steps might be.

You create new value by beginning where the best writing has left off.


Remember that addictive game, City Bloxx? Creating new content should be like that. We add to the collective space.

Brian Dean from Backlinko alluded to this when he described the Skyscraper technique.

Skip the stuff other people have already done.

Duplicate content is the bane of the Internet, and more crucially, it’s boring. Instead, change your lenses. If everybody is looking through telescopes, bust out the microscope. Look deeper. Look farther. Look broader. Make comparisons. Chase down the implications.

If you want to write something, and you discover that somebody else has already written it, just link to that and then build off of it.

Write what should come next. Write what should’ve come before. Ask questions that haven’t been asked yet, and then set out to find the answers to those questions.

“But everything’s already been written!” False.

I often catch myself thinking this too, and yet… every so often, somebody comes up with something that the rest of us recognize as fresh, high-quality content. How do they do it? What are they doing differently? Typically, they begin by examining some facet of the idea-scape to a greater nuance.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel– and more importantly, you have neither the time nor the resources. Pick something specific and really dig into it.

Here’s a fun story about how this worked for us:

  1. We found a great series of interviews that Brian Honigman had done with successful entrepreneurs.
  2. We figured that it would be compelling to fit those interview passages into a single, coherent narrative, and so we did.
  3. That Slideshare subsequently got featured on Business Insider, making it a win-win-win for everybody involved (the interviewees, Brian, ourselves, readers.)


Content marketing mistakes: Not specifying the problem

Originally posted on the ReferralCandy Blog.

Mistake #2: Not specifying the problem. (If it ain’t sound broke, they ain’t gonna be fixin’ nothin’.)


If we’re vague about a problem, people don’t respond by figuring out. They respond by moving on to the next thing in their feed.

Quite a lot of good stuff has been written about this, so I can just link you to it:



The central idea is conceptually simple: Humans are wired to think in narratives, using change and contrast to help us make sense of things.

So why don’t we, as writers, focus on the transformations that our content will give our readers?

We just haven’t had enough practice in modelling the minds of others so extensively.

Psychologist Matthew Lieberman points out that it’s pretty amazing that we can figure out what other people think at all, but this is a superpower we’re only recently beginning to refine and develop.

The ‘Curse Of Knowledge’ outright obstructs us from seeing things from a laypersons point-of-view.

Dan and Chip Heath described this in their book Made To Stick (here’s a great summary): Experts in a given domain have figured out for themselves why something is meaningful, and they can then think more effectively in abstractions and jargon. But this translates badly to passers-by to the domain, who don’t know why something is significant.

The disconnect is like a visual illusion: it doesn’t quite go away even when we realise and acknowledge that it exists.

The good news is, once you learn to think in a customer-centric, reader-centric, user-centric perspective, you’ll find that the responses, feedback and shares you get are vastly superior. You’ll get hooked on the feedback, and crave more of it.

Content marketing mistakes: Not specifying the audience

Originally posted on the ReferralCandy Blog.

Mistake #1: Not specifying the reader. (When you write ‘for everybody’, you write for nobody.)


Imagine an article titled “This Article Is All About -your name here-“. Wouldn’t you read it?

This might seem slightly counter-intuitive, but the more specific you get, the better. Here are some ideas to help you get more specific about your readers:

Write open letters to specific people.

In a funny, twisted way, people are more interested in reading what you have to say to one person than in what you have to say to everyone. We like to be spoken to directly, and we like secrets. Do a Google search for “open letter” and be amazed.

Write for the smartest, busiest version of your ideal customer.

Challenge yourself to write powerfully and succinctly. Write up, not down. If you write for the smartest reader you can imagine, you’ll never have to feel embarrassed about your work.

Start with Why.

Remember, the default, equilibrium setting for everybody is inaction. If you don’t grab somebody’s attention by appealing to something that matters to them, they won’t read it.

Dig into the gory details.

Having a specific person in mind when you write allows you to dig deeper into the flesh and guts of whatever you’re writing about, which always makes things more interesting.

Get to know your readers in person.



An example of a persona sheet you might use. Source:

Buy them a beer and pick their brains. Find out what makes them tick, and what they want. You’ll save yourself a lot of trial-and-error.

Further reading: Here’s a great example of a quality persona by Ian Lurie from Portent. I’ve also enjoyed the following blogposts he’s written about the subject:

The constraints content marketers have to operate in

Originally posted on the ReferralCandy Blog.

  1. First of all, you have limited resources. Let’s not sugarcoat that, because the more starkly you face this truth, the better. If you or your team run out of resources before you achieve your goal, it’s game over. You lose your shot. Let’s just keep that in mind.
  2. If you want to achieve your goal, you have to make stuff that people want. Otherwise your content, however clever or magnificent you deem it, is going to go untouched. (Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.)
  3. You don’t have the resources to help everyone, so you need to prioritize. You start byhelping one person.
  4. You can’t help that person solve ALL her problems, so you have to focus on helping her solve one specific problem. (And solve it satisfactorily, otherwise you just wasted both your time and her’s.)
  5. To help her change one specific thing, you have to develop a deep understanding of why she is in her current state. (Developing this understanding is an iterative process. You can’t just do a bunch of reading and figure it all out overnight.)
  6. Are you still there? Once you understand the problem, you’ll have to figure out the steps that she needs to take to get to the next, better state. (The challenge is to pick things that are simple-enough-to-do, rather than perfect-but-unlikely.)
  7. Once you’ve written something that made this one person’s life marginally better,you earn her trust. (Hooray! This actually feels really good, and will motivate you to keep going.)
  8. Do this repeatedly over and over again, and it compounds as you build relationships.These relationships become an ‘unfair advantage’ that you can leverage to achieve cool things.

As Rand Fishkin says in his kick-ass SlideShare “Why Content Marketing Fails“…



Next: The Mistakes you’re going to make


I have accumulated quite a bit of content marketing experience and know-how in the past 3 years. I’ve decided to write down what I’ve learned, so that I might be able to help others.

Questions to answer: