Why you should have a content strategy, even if you don’t need one (yet)
I typically advise frustrated and/or cancellation-vulnerable academics to simply start building an independent public-facing persona and platform. For three reasons:
- It’s fun, i.e. intrinsically rewarding — if you’re bored or frustrated, fun can be a big win indeed.
- Immediate pressure relief. The cultivation of exit options makes you feel less vulnerable immediately, way before those exit options even materialize. You remember you have knowledge and skills that are valued by people outside of academia.
- Cancellation insurance. “Cancellation” refers to a sudden, high-profile, politicized fall from institutional standing. Many people don’t realize that getting Cancelled increases your credibility and attention-worthiness to large numbers of people who mistrust institutions. If you have no platform and get Cancelled, you will feel terrible and isolated. If you have a platform and get Cancelled, you will see all of your “key performance indicators” shoot upward (subscribers, revenue, etc.). This significantly counteracts the negative emotions of Cancellation. But more importantly, since you already did the legwork of building your platforms, you can immediately pivot and accelerate freelancing, consulting, and/or traditional employment options, capitalizing on the short-term attention. You really won’t want to build a platform from scratch after a Cancellation (you’ll be demoralized and need money ASAP, but building a platform requires a time investment before income arrives). So long as you have a functioning platform, even if it’s tiny in its numbers, Cancellation can even be a net-positive career break: I used my Cancellation to supercharge my tiny, fringe platform into a full-time start-up.
- There is some probability above zero that your content strategy takes off organically, and you suddenly have real exit options or a lucrative side-hustle (Note: this should not be a major motivation, because it is unlikely for quite some time. And since you don’t really want to leave academia, you’re unlikely to produce the volume necessary to increase this probability substantially.)
How to develop a content strategy: A minimalist version of the system that’s worked for me
All academics compare themselves to more successful academics, so they always feel inadequate. But compared to normal people, even low-performing academics are essentially superhuman content creators. If you can write 8k-word articles about extremely boring stuff, for a few dozen readers (if you’re lucky), who give you almost exclusively negative feedback in the best cases (“revise and resubmit”), you have no idea how much you can create when you get to do whatever you want and you start getting immediate positive feedback from random people around the world.
But academics typically have no clue how to build a platform or develop a content strategy.
What kinds of content, on which platforms?
- A blog is a no-brainer. You’re very likely in the 90th percentiles (at least) for reading/writing skills, and the blog is a very flexible apparatus for a variety of tactics I’ll discuss somewhere else.
- I would suggest you choose one social media platform. I would suspect that for most individuals, the most sensible choice will be Twitter. Depending on your niche and/or temperament, you may have good reason to choose another (LinkedIn if your target market is very commerce-oriented, Instagram if your content is visual or you’re an attractive woman; Pinterest if your target market is middle-aged women). Note: Facebook is not an option. They’ve recently decreased organic reach drastically, i.e. only a few of your friends will see your posts. It doesn’t hurt to post there also, but it’s not a growth channel unless you’re doing paid advertising.
- I would suggest you choose one non-written content platform. Reading text is very cognitively demanding for lower-IQ people. Video and audio formats are exploding in popularity. For most people this will mean either a Youtube channel or a podcast.
- You absolutely need an email list. For many individuals, the free option of MailerLite will be the best choice.
“How will I ever find the time to create all these things?”
- First, you’re going to develop a content strategy and calendar, so you won’t have to come up with ideas every or or every week. You’ll have a list that makes sense and leads to a goal (more on the goal below).
- Second, you don’t need a new idea for every piece of content. Every one idea will be converted into multiple pieces of content.
- You’ll only need to create one new idea unit each week.
To stay motivated and instill coherence to your content strategy, you need a goal. A strategy without a goal is just a list of tasks, and nobody wants to execute tasks with no light at the end of the tunnel. You probably don’t have any goals for your content strategy, which is fine, because I know what your goal should be. I’ve done tons of research and there is a pretty clear consensus on the highest-probability, highest-value result you can reasonably aim for in the not-too-distant future.
Your medium-term goal
If you don’t already have a specific project in mind, I would suggest that you aim to write a short book (indie-published) with a corresponding online course. The book will be priced at about $30, the course will be priced at about $300, and then you’ll also include a premium course option for about $1000 (which includes consulting or coaching hours). Even if nobody chooses the premium option, it makes the $300 seem like a steal.
Most academics have a very, very good chance of making at least a few thousand dollars in less than one year. This claim is based on industry-wide averages; there are thousands of people with much less education than you, fewer credentials than you, and weaker cognitive powers than you, achieving such numbers. There is literally no reason you cannot meet industry averages, and many reasons you can reasonably expect to do quite better.
But remember we don’t primarily care about profits at the moment, as you currently have a nice salary and if money was your top priority you wouldn’t be an academic anyway.
We are adopting this goal because it focuses and constrains our otherwise infinite creative options; it gives you something concrete to look forward to; and if you get Cancelled, this is your most realistic chance at picking up a few thousand dollars immediately (and repeating, if you like it).
How to select your topic
Don’t overthink this. Here’s a simple algorithm.
Step 1: Which aspect(s) of your training and research background has the most market value for people advancing their own careers? For obvious reasons, this is what people are most likely to pay big bucks for: Something that can reliably and rapidly win them a bigger paycheck than the one they are currently able to command. Jot down 2 or 3.
Step 2: Which one of those has a visible subculture anywhere on the internet? It does not have to be “big” because if it exists at all, then it’s big enough. The point of this step is to ensure that you have some places to aim for, pre-existing cultural signifiers you can leverage, and some kind of initial community of people you can receive some immediate feedback from.
If there are a few possibilities that meet both of these criteria, choose the one you’re most enthusiastic about. If you truly don’t care about money at all, you are welcome to disregard the first two criteria and choose an ebook/course combo that you’re just really excited to produce. There are people doing this successfully, you still get many of the benefits I listed above, just prepare to earn less!
Your provisional title should be something like a course you have already taught, modified slightly with a formula such as the following: “X-kind of Y, for Z-type of person.”
Bad example: “Bayesian statistics”
Good example: “Practical Bayesian Data Analysis for Business Analysts”
Bad example: “German history and politics”
Good example: “Decoding Modern Germany for Diplomats and Policymakers”
Bad example: “Fundamentals of Kinesiology”
Good example: “The Science of Body Mechanics for Jiu-Jitsu”
Developing the content strategy
Now that we have the goal, we can work backwards. To complete and sell a book/course, you need to do two things. First, you need to produce words and audio/video that — when consumed by a student — produce the transformation promised by the title. Second, you need to gather around you a large number of people in the target market, because only about 3% of them will buy your course for $300. Even if you don’t care about selling, and all you want is Cancellation Insurance, you still need the same things: to gain the attention and respect of a public audience, and you do that by producing words and audio/video.
The benefit of the ebook/course goal is that now you can deduce a long list of content that needs to be produced for it.
Just make a list of all the topics that will need to be covered. And break down those topics into discrete idea units. By “idea unit” I mean one discrete insight that you can communicate in less than 1000 words and/or 5-20 minutes of speaking. Put them roughly into some kind of sequence that makes the most sense, but don’t overthink it because you can obviously rearrange and revise later.
Keep going until you have about 20 idea units, in a roughly logical sequence.
This is your content schedule. You’ll aim to do one every week.
To design your workflow, start by asking yourself whether writing or extemporaneous speaking is easier and more fun to you? Discard your academic scruples about quality, prestige, etc. On the internet, consistent quantity matters much more than production quality in your early stages, so you need to design your workflows around your own enthusiasm.
If writing is easier for you
If writing is easier and more fun for you, then every week you’ll:
- write at least one blog post, of about 500-1000 words. All it will seek to do is explain one idea unit.
- use that writing as a script to record a video or a podcast (whichever one you chose above)
- Share a link to the blog post on your chosen social media platform
- Share a link to the audio or video on your social media platform
If speaking is easier for you
If speaking is easier and more fun for you, then every week you’ll:
- jot down a few bullet points on paper
- improv a video or podcast (whichever one you chose above); reminder that you can do this better than 95% of the population because you lecture to college students
- Use technology to transcribe your video or audio into text (Temi.com served me well for a while, though I now use Descript, which is a bit more powerful if you plan to expand your content-strategy operations).
- Post the text as a blog post.
- Share a link to the blog post on your chosen social media platform
- Share a link to the audio or video on your social media platform
Final workflow requirement for both approaches
At the bottom of every blog post, and every audio/video item, place a link or form inviting people to subscribe to your email newsletter. Consider offering them something valuable in exchange for subscribing. A no-brainer option is some really short, free version of the book/course you’re planning. It could just be a PDF with the basic points. Or consider repurposing some old course content you have from previous teaching experience.
Wrapping it up
After you finish producing all the content items on your list, and sharing them out consistently each week, you now also have the raw material for your book and course.
You should edit a bit, and add a bit, but you shouldn’t need to do much additional work if you followed my system.
The process should have also increased your following on social media, and you should now have at least some subscribers on your email list.
When you’ve packaged all your content as an ebook and a course, proceed to sell it to your social media following and your email subscribers. This is its own process of course, which you can develop with greater sophistication when the time comes. But the basic idea could not be simpler.
I’ll be totally honest with you: If you’re starting from scratch, with no followers at the beginning, it’s very possible that this whole process does not earn you many followers or subscribers.
If you don’t grow your list very well, you should be prepared to not sell many ebooks or courses. But that’s OK.
Remember: your main priority was to put systems in place in case you need to pivot and go rogue. And no matter your quantitative results at the end of this process, you have certainly accomplished this goal. You have public content showing your expertise and authority; you’ve done all the hard legwork of learning these systems; you’ve built up your internet production muscle. If you get Cancelled tomorrow and thousands of people are Googling your name, you will see your subscribers shoot up. And in those few days of high attention, everything is ready for you to say whatever you wish to say, to announce your openness to consulting or freelance work, or however else you might wish to use your platform. The point is that you won’t be forced into pure defense and isolated, anxious dread; you’ll have the infrastructure to stand tall and maneuver offensively however you please.
Also, even if you only have 5 email subscribers at the end of this process (and most of you will certainly do better than 5), you only need one of those 5 to buy your $1000 course option for the whole experience to produce a palpable positive impact on your life. Conversion rates are, on average, about 2-3% so it’s unlikely that 1 of 5 will pay you $1000. But it’s not at all impossible. I know someone with only a few patrons on Patreon, but one of them pays $500 a month.
I have given you a minimalist blueprint, assuming that you do not wish to devote more than a few hours each week to this goal. If you follow through on this blueprint, you are pretty much guaranteed to meet the main goals of having some fun and establishing basic Cancellation Insurance. You’re also nearly guaranteed to grow some following and make some money, though your mileage may vary on that and I don’t want to overpromise.
But one way you can significantly increase your probability of success is to ramp up the volume. Blogging every day for 20 weeks would increase your chances of success exponentially, probably. Same for a Youtube video every single day for 20 weeks. I designed this guide to be practical and realistic for the average, full-time academic. If you feel strongly that you’re fed up with academia, or that you’re about to be cancelled any day now, you might very well decide to divert all of your energy toward doing 7x my suggested schedule.
I hope this helps! If you follow this, or anything like it, please keep me posted (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.