This might be the single weirdest title I’ve ever typed. At least, it’s the weirdest one for me personally.
I’ve now spent more than 20 years programming and more than 10 blogging about programming. And those blogging efforts have earned me 4 million page views on my first blog alone.
And yet, here I am, telling you not to let people like me—engineers—choose topics for your developer tool blog.
Seems ridiculous, but I stand by it and I’m going to explain why.
A Little More on My Background (Don’t Worry, It’s Relevant, I Promise)
I have spent my career in software. I logged about a decade as an engineer or architect, climbed into management, and then eventually became a management consultant in the space.
Throughout all of that, I blogged about my travels in the software world.
Now, I did this mainly because I like software and I also like writing, having no clear motive in mind. In this fashion, I stumbled my way into a situation that I couldn’t have named at the time: I became an influencer.
I had this software blog with thousands of regular readers. Due to a proclivity for populist rants and tactical sarcasm, I regularly trended on Hacker News and Reddit. And I did this all by writing what amounted to a column and, of course, picking my own topics.
Influencer Engineers Are Vanity Metric Kings and Queens
So far, this probably seems like a pretty good argument against my thesis in this post.
But here’s the thing. Do you know how successful I was at monetizing the audience?
Laughably unsuccessful (inasmuch as it occurred to me even to try).
For a few years, dev tools companies would approach me and run ads on my site for a few hundred dollars per month, until they’d tell me they weren’t getting enough lift from them. And I wrote a book some years ago, to which the blog funnels enough folks for beer money.
But the overall picture is a stark one, and it’s a stark one of under-capitalization.
As a blogging engineer, I knew how to choose topics that earned a loyal following and drove tons of traffic. But I, of course, didn’t know how to create and nurture a funnel of any kind. Like most other influencer engineers, I became a savant of vanity metrics.
The Metrics That Matter
In 2015 and 2016, my traffic and reach had started to grow prodigiously enough that I attracted dev tool companies’ interest beyond banner ads. They started asking me to write for their blogs.
At the time, I just figured it was because I was such a great columnist and witty writer. In 2020, I realize they wanted to build subscribers and organic traffic. My audience was a bonus, and my writing chops were, sadly, probably just “you’re fine, I guess, whatever.”
But, what I lack as a wannabe Charles Dickens, I make up for in entrepreneurial and business savvy. So when enough of these companies reached out and asked for content, I realized there was an un-scratched itch in the market. I took the excuse to leave 100% travel management consulting behind and, in 2017, Hit Subscribe was born.
As a business owner, I now had to learn why companies were willing to pay for blog content. And it wasn’t my wit or my slightly-better-than-average odds of trending on Hacker News. I’ve spent the last 3 years voraciously learning the ins and outs of content marketing and marketing in general, and I now have a deep understanding of the principles at play.
Here is the DaedTech blog, month-over-month, for the last four years. For years before this, traffic and following had increased impressively. But in recent years, you can see a leveling and stagnation, followed by a decline.
And that’s fine.
Why? Because DaedTech is a hobby blog where I write about whatever I feel like. There are no table stakes, so why put in any more effort than it takes to indulge my writing hobby?
But for your company’s blog, there are table stakes. And that’s the core of why you shouldn’t let influencer practitioners set your content strategy. Like former me, vanity metrics are what they know, and vanity metrics are what they’ll bring you.
When Engineers Choose Topics for Your Company’s Blog
None of this is to say that engineers aren’t valuable in your content production. They’re essential, in fact. You need authoritative techies in order to connect with your techie audience.
You just don’t need them for strategy. (Unless, of course, they’ve learned a fair bit about marketing.)
To drive home the point, let me relate a few somewhat common scenarios among our clients.
Your Internal Engineers Write Posts That Don’t Do Much
If you’re a marketer or an early stage founder at a dev tools company, you have a very logical first place to look for content, assuming you lack the time or voice yourself. Wrangle your engineers to do it (in their copious free time, of course).
So you pick out some topics for them to tackle, ask them to write, and sit back, waiting to bask in the authentic content. But then, crickets. They never do it.
Next step? You relent, and invite them to write about whatever they want to write about.
They respond to that with a discursive rant about the singleton design pattern or something. (At least, that was a favorite topic of mine years ago.) Maybe your audience greets it with yawns or maybe it goes viral. Either way, it has nothing to do with your offering, so, unless you’re going to pivot to somehow selling angry Reddit comments, there’s no commercial value.
In this situation, clients usually just abandon the engineer content program.
Then Guest Engineers Write Posts That Don’t Do Much
But they don’t abandon marketing or content altogether, of course. In some cases, plan B becomes, “well, let’s tap the community for content. Let’s have a contributing guest program.”
This is an excellent idea, full stop. In fact, it’s the reason Hit Subscribe exists—what we deliver, at its core, is a curated techie guest blogging program. But where things go sideways is the fateful utterance of the words, “let’s have the writers pick their topics.”
During sales conversations with prospects, I always ask them “what have you already tried?” And a “write about what you want” guest blogging program comes up from time to time, with an explanation that it didn’t work because… you guessed it… it brought a little direct traffic, but the traffic didn’t convert. And it didn’t later bring any organic traffic, either.
Once again, the culprit is delegating the strategy piece to the authors in order to get them to write.
(As a brief aside, one of the earliest ideas I had for Hit Subscribe, when we first started working with authors, was to ask them to write about what they wanted and then to try to sell those articles on consignment. This, “if you write it, they will come” strategy is an entirely predictable thing for an influencer engineer to dream up, and it’s also entirely ineffective.
Clients, let’s just say, weren’t interested. Ever. “I don’t really see how that article helps us.”)
There Are Two Broad Categories of Blog Posts
To understand the practitioner-strategist deficiency, let’s dive into the anatomy of content and blog post strategy. In fact, let’s say that, in really broad strokes, there are two kinds of content that you want for your blog.
- Content that your readers want to see.
- Content that tells readers what you want them to know.
(If you’re interested, these two kinds of content are basically content marketing vs product marketing, respectively.)
Both of these matter a great deal, and both of them factor prominently into building an effective and authentic funnel to your eventual offering. To wit:
- The top of the funnel should include topics that bring organic traffic to your site by answering tactical questions that readers ask the search engines. This makes them aware of your brand and starts to build trust because you’re helping them without strings attached.
- More toward the middle of the funnel comes the message that you want to share with them. This includes your positions on industry topics, thought leadership ideas, and how your product helps their pains. You get traffic to this content by sharing it with followers, linking to it from organic posts, and sending it as lead nurture.
Engineer-Selected Topics Add a Third, Often-Useless Blog Post Category
Now, ask yourself this. For dev tool companies creating content, where do engineers factor into the mix?
The answer is obvious. Creating the content. Without engineers creating authentic content, there is no trust, and the whole house of cards topples.
But what about strategy in the form of topic selection? Well… not so much. Because doing that adds a third, mostly useless category of content to the mix.
- Content that your readers want to see.
- Content that tells readers what you want them to know.
- Whatever the heck the engineer wants to talk about.
Here’s what that looks like in Venn-diagram form.
Software engineer influencers have an important place, both in the broad community and in your marketing efforts. (Their place in your marketing efforts is a topic for another day.)
But that place isn’t in your topic selection strategy. Look how inefficient that is.
They have to come up with and write a whole bunch of stuff in the blue circle before you’ll expect them to deliver a “hooray!” And I doubt you want to pay 10 times for that 1 in 10 winner.
A Quick, Real-World Failure Tale of the “Off Brand” Section
To give you a memorable example of what I mean in the “off brand” intersection between “engineer opinions” and “interesting to readers,” I want to tell the tale of a post I wrote before we founded Hit Subscribe.
It was a post that went viral. Over and over, in waves. I believe this virality occurred because of its unique, resonant, and somewhat poignant premise: the human cost of tech debt.
It went live on the Infragistics site, and it definitely earned them some buzz and shares and such when it did. They had a nice stream of direct and referral traffic reading the article, and then reading the italicized CTA at the bottom of the post:
Here’s a tl;dr of this CTA:
Did you like this thought piece about tech debt and employee morale? Download a trial of our library of web components!
If you’re wondering what the connection is between morale and a done-for-you date picker, there really isn’t one. And that’s because they let me, an influencer engineer, write about whatever I felt like.
The story didn’t end there, either. A couple of weeks later, per my arrangement with Infragistics, I cross-posted the article to my own blog canonically (I didn’t know at the time why this was desirable—I was just appreciative of the pay for a post that I’d eventually post to my blog anyway).
Then this happened:
The version on my site, shared by my audience as an influencer, rocketed to the top of Hacker News. Also, this happened:
A developer and signer of the agile manifesto, famous enough to have a Wikipedia page and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, gave the post some love. The post was the talk of the technical internet for a week or something.
Infragistics must have been thrilled, right? You’d expect that they sent me a case of champagne to toast my prodigious content marketing success, right?
Nah. They never so much as mentioned any of this. And why would they?
It didn’t do anything for them. As an engineer influencer, I had lit the internet on fire with an article for them, and they didn’t even notice.
The article didn’t raise awareness of IgniteUI or the problem space in general. It just raised awareness of me, Erik.
Giving Engineers Topics Can Work Quite Well
Let’s have a look at a different and simpler Venn diagram. This is the one where you, the marketer, retains the marketing and content selection strategy.
Over the last 3 years, we’ve been creating strategies for client after client, helping them realize hockey-stick traffic growth and conversions. And coming up with the right topics alone is hard. You need to brainstorm what your audience is looking to learn, understand which of those topics indicate commercial intent, and then devise ways to build trust while getting them to your messaging.
That’s a lot to juggle in these two circles alone. If you throw the “engineer-planned content” into the mix, you’re basically just layering chaos onto an already complex situation.
Luckily, there’s no actual reason to incur this chaos. Since our early, failed experiment in consignment posts, we’ve built a large author pool and found authors for literally thousands of pieces of content where we created a title and brief for them.
It turns out that if you’re picking topics relevant to your audience (engineers) and your brand, engineers are happy to write on these topics. A lot of them, in fact, are grateful to avoid the topic brainstorming process.
Now, if you’ve initially reached out to engineer influencers and received pushback on topics, you might be skeptical of this. But don’t forget that engineer influencers, like me, are used to having a large following, a column, and a venue in which to hold court. Some are fine with prompts, while others don’t like them.
But forget the influencers for creating content on your blog. People aren’t really going to follow them to your site anyway.
Strategy- (and cost-) wise, you’re better served to advertise with influencers in their own venues. Then, look to the broader engineer community for folks interested in writing to prompts and willing to collaborate on your strategy.
Engineers and Content Strategy
I want to close by making a subtle but important distinction. I’m not actually calling on you to eliminate engineers from your content strategy.
In fact, I advocate exactly the opposite. I don’t think a good dev tools content strategy can exist without engineer involvement—non-SME marketers just can’t understand the technical needs of the audience well enough to go it alone. At Hit Subscribe, we’re building out an account strategist role that combines marketing knowledge with SME knowledge.
What I’m advocating, in the end, is that you not farm out the topic planning part of your content strategy to influencers. That’s an abdication that will make your content creation extremely inefficient.
As a marketer or the owner of a commercial blog, you need to own topic selection. But you also need to understand your knowledge gaps well enough to know when to bring in help from an SME. And you should err on the side of asking liberally for that help.