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3 - The Eighth Essential—Content
To monetize your personal brand into a business using social marketing networks, two pillars need to be in place: product and content.
—Crush It!, chapter 5
It’s still true that the right product and content will be key to building a vibrant personal brand. That part never changes. But how you develop your content and increase its reach definitely has. In Crush It! I recommended simultaneously pumping out content onto all the different channels using a social-media Web service (anyone remember Ping.fm?). It was only later, however, that I realized there had been another misunderstanding. I should have specified that I didn’t mean you should pump out the same content across multiple platforms. Rather, I wanted you to develop high-quality native microcontent. For those of you new to this, that means content that is specifically and perfectly designed to suit the platform you’re using to disseminate it. The audience on Twitter isn’t looking for the same kind of content as Instagram followers. A Facebook post will have greater impact if it’s not just a cut-and-paste job from your blog or a ten-minute video that should actually be living on YouTube. Even if your audience overlaps among the platforms, people are in a completely different mind-set when they’re visiting one platform than when visiting another. If they’re on Twitter, they’re likely trying to keep up with current news. If they’re on Facebook, they’re probably catching up with friends and family. They may go to Snapchat to consume a blip of entertainment on their lunch break, but they’ll go to YouTube when they’re in the mood to settle in for the evening with some long-form video, the same way previous generations watched TV. You should be plotting how to adapt your content to appeal to every platform your audience might visit in a given day.
Creating all that content can seem daunting, but it’s a lot more manageable if you focus on creating one big piece of pillar content that can be splintered into other smaller bits of content—content that breeds like rabbits, if you will. The concept can best be illustrated by a chart my team and I created for VaynerTalent, a division of VaynerMedia I established for influencers who have grown their personal brands as big as they can on their own and need extra help to keep growing. It’s a service for the 1 percent of the 1 percent. If you’re reading this book, you’re likely not there yet, but I hope to teach you what you need to know so that if you get good enough, you’ll need us one day. Anyway, we use a chart to illustrate our strategy for creating endless bits of microcontent out of one “pillar” piece of content:
What those pieces of content actually look like, and the platforms you choose to use, is what you’re here to figure out. More on that in part II.
In Crush It! I also established that great content is a result of passion plus expertise. While the opportunities for people to become stars on various social-media platforms have multiplied, to have a prayer of becoming even the eighty-eighth best whiskey Instagrammer, you’re going to have to make sure that you are constantly updating your knowledge and providing information and insight that people can’t find easily anywhere else. Moreover, you’ll have to do it in a unique and memorable signature style. There’s no way around it—your content must be amazing. For some that reality can be as paralyzing as a snakebite. Here’s the antivenin: you don’t have to wait until you’re an expert or you’ve designed a perfect website or written ten perfect blog posts before launching a business. Quite the contrary.
Document, Don’t Create
In 2009, I devoted only three lines to the idea that “you can even make the learning process part of your content.” It was an aside, a possible solution if you were young or still building cred. Since then I’ve come to realize that, actually, the learning process should be your content. That means it’s not a problem if you’ve got more passion than expertise. Our best-loved icons aren’t the ones born to the manor who stayed in the manor. They’re the ones who started out tinkering in their basements, who sold product out of the backs of their cars, who rose and fell and rose again. The only ones we can’t forgive are people who won’t admit to their imperfections or own their mistakes.
It’s true that great content hinges on great storytelling and that every story in the universe has already been told. But not by you. You are unique, and you provide nuance, perspective, and details that no one else can. That means you don’t just have the ability to generate unique pieces of creative—you are the unique piece of creative. Don’t worry about getting people’s attention by plotting a poetic YouTube video or writing four drafts of a snappy Facebook status post. Instead, use every platform available to document your actual life and speak your truth. Let people learn who you are, then let them watch you develop into who you want to become.
At the end of 2015, DRock, my videographer, started following me around with a video camera everywhere I went during work hours. The only time the camera was turned off was during sensitive meetings or when I went to the bathroom. I wanted people to see what hustle really looked like, how I could squeeze so much productivity into every minute (and incidentally, to prove that even when you’ve “made it” and are “important,” you don’t have to act like an arrogant jerk to the people you interact with on a day-to-day basis, especially those working in service jobs). It was important to me to address a frequent speculation I was seeing in my feeds, which was that I was exaggerating how many hours I worked per day. I wanted people to see that when I said I worked from about six a.m. to ten p.m. Monday through Friday, I was serious. Moreover, I have been working those hours for about a decade.
Most important, however, I wanted to provide a learning tool for the kind of people built like me. I learn by watching and doing, not by reading. It’s not uncommon for me to get a message from someone who tells me that they picked up something valuable from watching me interact with people on-screen or from a random rant that I offered from the back of the car. In most cases, I’m almost positive that that moment meant nothing to anyone else, but to hear that on that day I was able to help one person means the world to me. I can’t take a meeting with every person who wants my advice, but I can teach by example and let them learn from that. None of us can predict with utmost certainty exactly what’s going to happen to us. We will probably meet the people we arrange to meet, but we could also have random encounters. We will probably have the conversations we have scheduled, but who knows where those talks might go? Documenting guarantees that every encounter and every engagement is captured so I can ensure that I’m never caught off guard when I experience a moment that could spark a valuable piece of content for my followers. Documenting has liberated me from the pressure of having to create all the time.
Use Snapchat, Instagram Stories, YouTube videos, and Facebook Live three, four, five times per day to share the world through your eyes. Let your audience meet your cranky uncle, let them see what you’re eating for lunch, let them follow you as you slog through the workout you love to hate. Invite them in when you move into your first postdivorce apartment or your college dorm. Take them along on your vacations and business trips. Think of yourself as the star of this show and the production company.
Is everything about your daily life inherently interesting and new? In the right hands, yes. It’s not easy to make a personal documentary, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to produce Modern Family. And which do you think you’ll get done faster? What’s the cost? It’s worth a try. Maybe you’ll hate it (it took me several months to get used to having a camera follow me wherever I went), and maybe you’ll fail. But maybe you’ll build the audience that earns you $80K a year, or $380K, which can come through the ads, affiliates, speaking engagements, books, sponsorship deals, and other ancillary revenue-earning opportunities that come from having a strong personal brand. You never know what you’re going to put out that inspires someone important to reach out to you. People who see your work will come to you with ideas and offers and partnerships. They will buy into you if you give them the right story. At the very least, even if you don’t become the next Kardashian, you’ll likely find that you can healthily supplement your current income doing something that you find interesting and fun.
Documenting to build a personal brand is an especially good tactic if you’re already working a job that you want to leave someday. Build your brand and gain traction in your niche before you ever need to make any money, so that when you are ready to step out of your current job, your brand is there to hold you up and carry you to your next opportunity.
Now, this tactic solves only one hurdle: how to build cred when you have none yet. However, it cannot help you if your content sucks. Sorry, there’s no skirting the fact that any success you achieve will be predicated on the quality of your content. Don’t think you can put out mediocre videos and blogs and get anything but mediocre results, just as you can’t think that putting out a half-assed effort will get you even halfway to where you want to go. That said, just because you suck now doesn’t mean you’re always going to suck. Many of the entrepreneurs we spoke to didn’t know what they were doing when they first started vlogging or podcasting either, and it showed. But they worked at it every day, analyzing their content, engaging with audiences to see what resonated and what didn’t, and studying other personal brands to see what strategies they could adapt for themselves. They practiced their craft as intensely and methodically as a surgical resident practices her stitches or a preprofessional basketball player practices his layups.
Documenting will keep you honest. It makes me laugh when I see nineteen-year-olds and fresh college grads anoint themselves on Instagram profiles as “entrepreneur experts,” or “social-media life coaches.” Like hell they are. Very, very few have earned the right to those titles. Young girls will put up profiles announcing that they’re beauty experts. No, they’re beauty opinionators. You don’t get to call yourself an expert until you’ve put in the work—and the market decides, not you. When I was a kid, I would sit next to my dad in the car and tell him that I was going to be a wine expert and build the biggest liquor store in the country. I couldn’t drink, so I spent all the years until my twenty-first birthday tasting all the things critics and wine labels said wine tasted like—grass, dirt, cherries, tobacco—to develop my palate while I learned the business. It was only when I was of age and sure I had something of real, unique value to offer customers that I went public and started building a brand around my expertise. I was thirty years old and had been in the business of tasting hundreds of wines per week for a decade.
If I could give some advice to my seventeen-year-old self, I’d tell him to turn on the camcorder and capture every minute of his training. How fantastic would it be to be able to share with people the first time I tasted dirt? I could have filmed myself tasting thirty-five different Merlots and telling the audience, “Someday I’m going to be able to tell you which is which while blindfolded,” and then three years later I could have filmed myself blind taste-testing a row of red wines and correctly identifying those Merlots. And then I could have created some content that juxtaposed those two videos and showed the world how far I had come. It would have been honest, and it would have been great storytelling. At twenty-six I was going to be who I am today; it’s a shame the whole process of getting here has been lost to history. Sure, I tell my story in books and during keynotes, but imagine the detailed lessons I could have shared, the mistakes people could have watched me make, the learning curve I could have provided, if only I had thought to document my life in the moment. The beauty expert wannabes could do the same thing. Instead of going to the department store, getting makeup advice from the reps at the cosmetics counter, and then filming themselves regurgitating the information as though it were their own, they could film themselves asking questions at the makeup counter, educating their audience while educating themselves. Then they could build content with that new knowledge and refer to that video over and over.
Documenting isn’t valuable because it captures how interesting (or not) you are now; it’s about preparing for how people will watch you ten years from now. Cassius Clay was only twenty-one when he declared, “I am the greatest.” But then he went about proving it and became Muhammad Ali. Why can’t you do the same, even on a smaller level? Think about how you feel when you watch a clip of Justin Bieber singing when he was twelve, or video footage of Michael Jackson rehearsing for the Thriller video in a dance studio with his choreographer. Can you imagine if we could watch Vera Wang cut her first patterns and sew her first wedding dresses? Or if we could be privy to George Lucas’s thoughts as he developed ideas for his student films at the University of Southern California? Not the way we can now through a biography or interviews, but captured verbatim in the moment, before they could be subject to the mental editing we all apply to our memories over time? It’s an amazing thing to see talent grow and to bear witness to the evolution of greatness. Someday, you could be that kind of inspiration to others if you capture the journey.
Documenting also gives you an archive to work with that can help you validate your early promises or, as I like to call it, earn your keep. For example, people thought I was crazy in 2012 when I said that Facebook stole Instagram when it bought the company for a billion dollars. I get ridiculous pleasure releasing that old footage now that as of its last valuation, Instagram is worth $50 billion (and much more, in my opinion). Documenting your business ensures that you’ll have many opportunities to say, “I told you so.” I recently filmed a meeting with Kyle, a rapper Rolling Stone picked as one of “10 New Artists You Need to Know” in 2015. We talked music and marketing and songwriting, and it was awesome. In ten years, when he’s as well known as Eminem, that video is going to be viewed thousands and thousands more times by his fans. For many, that will be their introduction to me. Even more awesome . . . for me—; ).
A lot of pseudo-experts will justify subterfuge by saying they’re just taking the age-old advice of fake it ’til you make it. But no one needs to do that anymore. The only reason people used to have to fake it was because they had to convince the gatekeepers—the agents, the directors, the publishers, the music producers, the talent scouts—to give them the shot they needed to prove themselves. But the Internet plays the middleman role now, and the Internet can’t stop you from putting your work out there. Put your stuff up and see what the market has to say about it. Take it down if no one likes it (or keep it up for historical reference). Change it up and try again. Take risks and learn from them. Daniel Markham of the What’s Inside? YouTube channel, which boasts five million subscribers, launched several video channels before he finally put up the one that got people’s attention. Once it started gaining traction, he applied everything he had learned from his failures to improve his channel’s content quality, user experience, and monetization strategy.
There’s another reason not to fake it. The only people who fall for your act when you pretend to be something you’re not are the exact same customers you’re not going to want in ten years or even ten months. Simultaneously, you lose credibility with the top tier of customers you’re going to need to grow and sustain your business. You’re sacrificing long-term growth for short-term gains, and I think that puts entrepreneurs in a vulnerable position in the long run. Who’s going to trust you when they know you’re willing to snow the ignorant?
It is not OK to be manipulative; it is OK to be a novice. I hope you understand the difference. It’s exciting to watch someone thoughtfully, strategically, and intelligently come into their professional own. Embrace your newness; in many ways it could give you an advantage. You will likely have a fresh energy and enthusiasm that many more-seasoned professionals have lost. That’s attractive. And admitting that you’re still learning will give people a reason to check in on your progress. It will also make it that much more exciting when you can finally say, “I told you so.” Have you ever been watching a movie or TV show when the kid who used to star in all the school plays and talk about making it in Hollywood suddenly appears on-screen, or seen the face of someone you used to know on the cover of a national magazine? It’s almost impossible not to get worked up about it. “Holy shit, I know him! He did it!” From then on, whenever the conversation makes it possible, you will probably slip in the fact that you knew that person back when nobody else did. Now, as excited as you are, imagine how excited your old acquaintance is knowing that hundreds of his old classmates are having the same reaction, especially if he was mocked or put down for daring to think he had enough talent or smarts to be a star. Believe me, it feels good. It will feel even better if you’ve documented your journey up to that point, so that people can see how hard you worked to make it happen. If enough of us start to document, we could completely destroy the myth of the overnight success.
Put your stuff out in public so you have to live up to it. As long as it’s valuable and you know it’s true, don’t judge it. Let the market show you whether you’re good or not. There’s always something new, and the only way to win is if it’s your truth. Just produce. Become that personality, and own it.
Your natural gifts can take you only so far. If you want to be the best, you’ll have to work at it, but avoid being a perfectionist. Perfection doesn’t exist; it’s totally subjective. We earn people’s respect and loyalty when we let them see us up close and dirty. Knowing that should ease any misperception that you have to start this process fully formed. Remember, there was a time when Kobe and Beyoncé still had to use their last names.
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