Note: The intro below is similar to my talk at Content Marketing World 2015 on prolific creators. If you found this link from that presentation, feel free to skip right to the list near the end. This post is admittedly pretty long, but along the same lines as the Content Talent Crunch, this idea of "prolific creators" is the most important topic facing our industry today.
As Italian, there are two things more special to me than anything else in the world: family and food.
And the sacred overlap of the two in an Italian household is the sauce. Every Italian family seems to have their own version and own secret recipe. And everyone’s is the absolute best on the planet according to that family.
Back in college, when my mom would visit me during my senior year, she’d arrive at my off-campus house with a giant cooler of food containing, of course, ample stores of her homemade marinara sauce. My 6 roommates in the house would inevitably wander into the kitchen whenever my mom arrived, recognizing what was in that box. We were gonna eat like kings that night and for a few nights thereafter.
One weekend, as I left to visit friends at another school, I told my roommate Tim to help himself to the leftover sauce in the fridge. It was a simple enough gesture. But when I returned on Sunday night, I asked Tim why there was a bunch of orange sludge caked onto the same pan containing the remains of my precious homemade sauce.
“Oh — I needed to make more sauce than we had left so I just added a bunch of Velveeta cheese to it."
They never did find Tim’s body...
My point is that everyone everywhere looks for hacks and shortcuts to the supposed “right way” of doing something, mostly in our efforts to create simply more stuff. Some of these hacks and shortcuts are great. They save time and improve the end product. But most of these are BAD.
Tim’s was BAD.
But here’s the problem: In marketing, we all get pushed, every day, to create more and create better content. We push ourselves. Our bosses push us. Our clients and customers push us. The breakneck speed of the internet pushes us.
And some people are genuinely able to deliver a ton of really great stuff … without needing to melt some crappy fake cheese all over things.
Over the last few years, these types of people — these prolific creators — have become a bit of a personal obsession. If we only studied these individuals, I know we could all have more fulfilling, more successful careers and companies. Whether those prolific creators are writers, designers, podcasters, videographers, coders, chefs, brewers, artists, architects, or something else, we need to ask:
How do they operate? What makes them tick? What’s their secret? How do they combine the ability to be both craft-driven (my proxy for the subjective, nebulous term “quality”) and productive (my proxy for the slippery slope so often associated with cheap tricks or obnoxious tactics, “quantity”).
Quality vs. Quantity Is Not a Real Thing
Search your feelings, dear reader, you know this to be true. Talk to any good journalist and they’ll tell you, they need to deliver multiple pieces every single day, work on larger, higher-impact projects across multiple days or weeks or months, AND live up to a very high quality bar. These things aren’t opposites in the literal sense, and thanks to our friends in “real media,” we should also see that they’re things that can be achieved together.
But I get it. I get why the marketing world so often juxtaposes these two ideas. As you do more things, whether voluntarily or due to external pressures, the quality of your work inevitably dips:
ow, some people in marketing and business overall like to obsess over their tech and tools at the expense of implementing sound strategy, hiring great talent, and (most critically) actually talking to customers. They believe you can delay the inevitable dip in quality by bolting on a bunch of tech or adopting a slew of optimization tactics. And to some degree, they’re right. You CAN delay a steep drop-off in quality by doing so, at least for a time, which is where this plateau comes in:
But even with the best tech and the smartest (or, in too many cases, spammiest/black-hat-iest) tactics, you eventually reach a point where it all just falls apart. And I call this moment...
The Crapping Point
The crapping point is the moment at which no amount of technology or process can delay the inevitable: You're creating too much content to sustain any semblance of quality. You've crapped out. Crap-o-la. Craptastic. Crap along if you feel like a room without a roof (#GetCrappy).
But there are people in this world who are able to push their crapping point further and further out, even before using any tools or techniques. They’re just plain GOOD. Add the tech and tactics back into the equation for them, and they hardly ever need to worry about creating enough content or improving the quality of their work. They laugh at the rest of us sitting at our creative kids’ table, eating glue. They are downright prolific.
Now, it’s important to note that being prolific is about much more than simply publishing more “stuff.” It’s also about more than finishing your work faster. And it’s never about tapping into some almighty panacea, some secret of the internet waiting to be unlocked. (I’m looking at you “How I Drove a Bazillion Leads in Two Days with This One Hack.” You stop that. You stop that right now.)
No, being prolific is about something much more difficult to attain, but much more rewarding for our careers and our companies:
Being prolific is about giving our audiences what they want more quickly and more often.
Audiences don’t want over-optimized, great-for-search-crappy-for-humans content. They don’t want worse writing, worse design, worse audio, worse video, worse code, food, beer, art, buildings, etc. They want GREAT things, but they want us to do the unthinkable and deliver great things more frequently and more often.
Prolific creators are able to do all of that. And they all share five key traits for doing so:
1. Prolific creators have an extreme bias to act.
Whereas many of us might toe the water in certain projects, over-researching or over-planning, prolific creators dive right in. They believe in the idea of JFDI — Just F***ing Do It.
They also understand how to use hacks and shortcuts that lead to a BETTER outcome, rather than one that’s simply good enough to hit “Publish.”
A prolific creator sees the windy path it takes to reach a quality outcome and finds a shortcut -- a shorter path to the SAME great piece being published:
But unfortunately, when most of us take shortcuts, it winds up looking more like this:
Yes, that shortcut above might be faster, but it leads to something WAYYYY worse than the destination we (read: our customers!) really wanted.
Prolific creators take shortcuts in the name of publishing a piece of equal or greater quality. They prefer imperfect action to perfect process and practice. In other words, they “create ugly.” They’re okay doing things some may consider hack-like or atypical, as long as the end product is still great. They figure out the right process and best practice along the way, while they’re busy getting shit done.
2. Prolific creators work out their creative muscles.
Author, speaker, and creative consultant Todd Henry likes to say, “Making is a muscle.” And that muscle needs to be worked out. Regularly! I believe that those who will have the best chance at landing dream jobs in our industry won’t be specialists — they will be generalists. They will be people fluent in marketing and content production. They might be T-shaped (having one deep specialty, like paid acquisition or writing or design) but they will ultimately be conversational and effective across it all. You’re a much more effective leader of multi-disciplinary creatives and marketers this way too.
So, prolific creators, to hone all these creative skills and also acquire new skills, do SIDE PROJECTS! Whether you blog, podcast, carve wood, take photos — anything! — you should be spending at least some time doing things that allow for creative risk-taking, failure, and learning.
And as Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, likes to say:
3. Prolific creators have an intrinsic desire to create.
They don’t just create content because it’s the modern way of doing marketing — they HAVE TO create stuff! They love it. They find joy in the process itself. They create for creating’s sake.
Not everyone is wired this way, but we can all find ways to better focus on and improve our process. Here are three suggestions:
First, celebrate creative wins. Forget the end result for just a second and point out what your team or teammates did well. Be glad that they wrote something great, even if it flopped externally. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to say to each other constantly, “I know you’re working hard to produce that piece. You did THAT really well, and I loved it.” To write and create anything is to give the world a little bit of yourself. Every individual, if given the same exact headline, would create something new and different. We need to recognize how hard that is and celebrate it, results aside. And if we do, if everyone gets more excited about the process of creating content alone, the end results will improve too.
Next, study content for content’s sake. This one is simple but powerful: Hold content review sessions. This is not to review things prior to publishing, mind you — this is a meeting wherein you sit down and analyze a project, whether your own or someone else’s. You discuss what elements inside the content you liked or didn’t like, as well as ways you might adapt those into your own work. You need to become a student of the craft. Not just a kid in the corner who only shows up for the test. If you want the good grade, you gotta study!
Lastly, reward and encourage creative risks, perhaps by allowing people to do a small percent-time project (Google’s 20% time is famous for having spawned Gmail and other products). You can also game-ify the pitching of big, crazy new ideas, provided you create a safe space for failure. For example, in a past job, we joked that a demon was breaking our product. So I put a little cartoon devil on a paper with the phrase “Break Stuff!” and everyone on the team could submit one of these tokens to have carte blanche on executing a wild new idea. Sometimes, the idea didn’t work but they learned a lot and were better for it. Sometimes, they found a great new project or way of doing something that we made part of our regular work.
4. Prolific creators generate many ideas from one.
When it comes to producing a high volume of work (we do need that too, along with quality), it comes down to two things:
1) Can you turn one good idea into many?
2) Do you have an idea pipeline?
The second is straightforward so let’s start there: Use some kind of app that syncs on desktop and mobile where you can instantly save all ideas. Great idea pipelines tend to have two halves. The first is full of random ideas for single posts (headlines, paragraphs, data points, links, etc.). The second half is meant to help you sustain your publishing, and I call this half “The Well.” This contains things like mini content brands, series, templates, and other recurring things that help you fill gaps between your original content and/or become known for a great series or content brand. The Well is something you can dip into without it running dry, whereas coming up with standalone, unique ideas can be more difficult.
You can see how a few organizations organize their pipelines in this post.
Now let’s address that first part: Can you turn one good idea into many? In an upcoming post, I will share a visual aid on how to do this. Suffice it to say that, to be prolific, you need to tweak small things about one good idea to create many more like it. So if your topic is “podcasting for business,” for instance, you might start by writing How To Get Started Podcasting for Business. That’s (A) for begineers, (B) a how-to post, and (C) a text article. But tweak just one of those three things (like, say, C), and you might have a SlideShare or a podcast or a video or a graphic explaining the same thing. Change B from “how-to” to “list” or “interview” and you have an entirely new idea. THAT is what prolific creators do in their heads almost instantly — they dance around one idea by altering some small facet each time.
5. Prolific creators LEAVE their industry echo chambers.
This one is short, sweet, but mighty. Your ideas and your content hinges on your person. If I give you and a friend the exact same headline or intro paragraph, your resulting blog posts will be ENTIRELY different and unique. That’s because no two people experience the world in the exact same way. And you want to steer INTO that — go experience things that aren’t just the marketing echo chamber. If all you read are listicles about marketing, guess what you’ll write? More of the same. What a horrible way to stand out!
As Steve Jobs likes to say, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
ALL THAT SAID...
There’s a sixth and final thing all prolific creators do that isn’t exactly part of this list. In fact, these five things plug into this overarching, all-important principle. It can be summarized by this historically prolific and brilliantly creative guy, John Cleese:
want to live in a world where creativity is democratized. It’s the right of the many, not the right of the few. But we have to approach it the right way. We have more technologies and tactics than ever before to enable our own creative powers. We just need to understand that “being creative” isn’t something you can schedule or switch on and off.
Think of it like “being healthy” — you don’t block off time on your calendar to start being healthy. You don’t move back and forth between being a healthy person and unhealthy person. It’s a continual state of existence. It’s a mode of operating. It’s how you structure and conduct your life that breeds truly prolific creatives.
Is this hard? Yes!!!
But the hard is precisely what makes something worth doing.
The "Thank God That Exists" List of Tools for Content Creators
Welcome one, welcome all. Whether you read my thinking on prolific creators above for the first time just now, revisited the material after seeing me present it, or skipped right to this section, we’ve arrived at the part every marketer craves: TIPS AND TRICKS!
(Just picture a bunch of marketers furiously pouring buckets of coffee over their heads and flipping tables.) "YAAAAHHHHHRRRRGGGHHHH TIPS AND TRICKS YAAASSSSSS!!!"
(Sorry. I’m hoping you read the above paragraphs before getting to that part. Because these tips and tricks only help if you have. Let’s move on before I get too snarky about our industry's search for shortcuts…)
Content Creation Tools
- Shortcut These Shortcuts -
Makerbook has a lot of this stuff (though not all) listed by category - http://makerbook.net/
- Writing -
Hemingway App - http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ Tells you where you should simplify your writing and language
Astrohaus - https://astrohaus.com/ - a modern, digitally connected, distraction-free “typewriter”
Word2CleanHTML - http://word2cleanhtml.com/ - Strip your copy of any troublesome HTML that could result in weird formatting in your CMS, i.e., “Why isn’t that line break working?!?!!?!?!” (Hurls laptop out window)
- Design -
Infogram - https://infogr.am/ Using templates, create infographics
Pixlr - https://pixlr.com/editor/- Like Photoshop in the cloud
The Noun Project - https://thenounproject.com/ - Icon search
Tiny Chart - http://tinychart.co/ Make beautiful charts
ThingLink - https://www.thinglink.com/ - On top of any image, place interactive hotspots (which can contain things like copy, links, and more)
Icomoon - https://icomoon.io - Custom built icon fonts
0 to 255 - http://www.0to255.com/ - Find variations of any color
HTML Color Picker - http://html-color-codes.info/colors-from-image/ - From any file you upload, grab the HTML code for a given color to use in another program and stay on-brand
Pablo, by Buffer - https://buffer.com/pablo - instantly create Twitter-compatible photos with text overlays
Compressor.io - https://compressor.io/compress Compress images to reduce their file size to then upload elsewhere
Haiku Deck - https://www.haikudeck.com/
More design tools for non-designers on Product Hunt: http://www.producthunt.com/@gjestice/collections/design-tools-for-non-designers
- Photography -
Unsplash https://unsplash.com/ - Free, beautiful, hi-res, do-whatever-you-want-with-them stock photos
Compfight http://compfight.com/ - Stock photo search
Death to the Stock Photo - http://join.deathtothestockphoto.com/ - Quality stock photos, for free, for anything
PlaceIt - https://placeit.net/ - Place your own screenshot onto photos of phones, laptops, and other screens
- Audio/Video -
Dissolve - http://www.dissolve.com/ - Stock video footage
Auphonic - https://auphonic.com/ - Levels the volume, removes white noise, and generally cleans up audio files
video2mp3.net and Convert2mp3.net - Both let you convert videos to mp3s to capture their audio
Speech Pad - https://www.speechpad.com/ - Cheap way to transcribe your podcasts/videos/audio
Wistia — wistia.com — Video hosting, analytics, and marketing tools. They offer a free account as well.
GIF Brewery http://gifbrewery.com/ - Convert video clips into GIFs
Screen Flow - http://www.telestream.net/screenflow/- Screen casting and video editing software for Mac
- Interactive -
SnapApp — snapapp.com — Plug and play interactive content experiences
Embed Code Generator - http://www.siegemedia.com/embed-code-generator — it, um…it generates code to embed stuff. Duh?
Form Bakery - http://formbakery.com/ - Build professional forms easily
SplashThat - https://splashthat.com/ - Create beautiful invite and event pages (plus collect RSVPs, add maps, and more)
- Workflow/Productivity -
Coffitivity - http://coffitivity.com/- The name is a mashup of Coffee + Productivity. Play soothing coffee shop background noises as you work
Noisli - http://www.noisli.com/.U3wYeRWXAYw.facebook Block out noises and get in the zone
Namechk - https://namechk.com/ Figure out if that username or URL is available across tons of different platforms instantly
A/B Significance Test Tool - http://getdatadriven.com/ab-significance-test - A quick way to test which variation wins, and whether the results are statistically significant
Cash Board App - http://cashboardapp.com/ - Time tracking, invoice services, and similar tools for freelancers
Keyword Tool - http://keywordtool.io/ - An alternative to the Google Keyword Tool to find out what audiences are searching
Trello and Evernote — both great tools for keeping ideas and thoughts organized. (Trello is better of teams)
And, lastly, a look into my obsessively organized workflow AND an ode to hackish content creation process (with a design hack anyone can use) which may or may be all that organized and/or help you be prolific but still comes with the comic picture below.
Comic courtesy of my friends at BrandComics.com - thanks for an awesome comic that makes me painfully aware of how ridiculous I am guys! :)