The iron triangle

Hit Subscribe is a content agency, and a growing one at that.  Don’t worry.  This isn’t going to be a post about how great we think we are, which I’ve advised you not to write in the past.  Our growth matters in this context because it’s made me realize that there is something of an iron triangle for content agencies.
If you’re a content agency or if you contract one, this matters to you.  It’ll tell you which clients you can handle and which agencies you should seek out, respectively.

What is an Iron Triangle? That Sounds Cold-War-Ish

“Fast, cheap, good.  Pick any two.”
Iron triangle
That, in a nutshell, is the iron triangle.  It’s known more descriptively as the iron triangle of project management, and it’s well known in software circles.  That’s because it describes an important concept.
The idea is that in a software project, you can’t change one of these qualities without affecting the others.  For example, let’s say that you commission a piece of software and you demand that it be feature-complete/good.  If you then decide that you want to have it done really quickly, the only quality that you can draw from to make this happen is the cost.  Fast and good is expensive.
There are variants on this theme.  You may hear, “fast, cheap, all the features you want—pick any two.”  And some say that the iron triangle is really more of a three-dimensional pyramid with four points: scope, quality, cost, deadline.  But let’s not get too far into the weeds here.
The real idea is to relate this concept to content agencies.

Content Agencies Have an Iron Triangle

Let’s also briefly talk about what a content agency is, in the broadest terms.  In this case, I’m referring to a contractor or business that supplies regular content to clients, such as blog posts.  I’ll talk from the perspective of this style of content, and if you produce another form, such as graphics or what have you, I’ll leave it to you to map what I’m saying to your world.
I run a blog content agency, so it’s best if I speak to blogging content.
And with blogging content, we have our own iron triangle.  This is in the context of how we deliver content to clients.  Here are the corners that describe your content:

  • Versatile
  • Collaborative
  • High volume

So if we’re going to offer it as a catchy slogan, we might say something like, “lots of topics, lots of your involvement, lots of posts—pick any two.”  Alright, so it’s not quite as catchy as the iron triangle of project management, but hopefully you get the idea.  And like the iron triangle of project management, the iron triangle of content agencies has quality somewhere in the middle, woven throughout these other concerns.

Defining the Corners: What Content Agencies Can Offer

Let’s dive into these corners a little and explore what I mean by each.

  • Versatile.  A versatile writer or agency can write about a whole host of topics and speak to any personas to whom your blog speaks.  Need a middle of the funnel posts to show management how to use your offering?  Or maybe a detailed post aimed at entry level DevOps team members about setting up an environment?  Whatever.  The versatile shop has you covered.
  • Collaborative.  A collaborative writer or agency is content to write posts highly customized to what you want.  They’ll iterate with you back and forth about what should go in the post and what tone it should have.  And they’ll happily revisit and even rewrite posts at your request.  (Or if not happily, at least readily.)
  • High-Volume.  This sort of speaks for itself.  A writer or agency is producing lots of posts.  Think enough posts to comprise the entirety of a client’s blog.

As I went from writing here and there as a side hustle to presiding over a bustling agency, I’ve cycled through all of the corners.  So let’s take a look at what those are, which will signal to you which you should be or which you should look for.

Versatile and Collaborative: One Writer of Many

This is where I personally started with blogging.  A few companies found my personal blog and brand, DaedTech, and reached out to ask if I’d write for them.  I agreed (and years later, this would prove the genesis for Hit Subscribe).
I’ve worked as a software developer, manager, executive, and consultant.  So I can speak to a pretty wide array of personas.  On top of that, I’ve used a lot of techs and programming languages over the years.  This made me highly versatile.
Being new to paid writing, I was open to being quite collaborative.  I had full time consulting work and only light work on the side blogging, so I was happy to spend time collaboratively planning topics, going over posts, and adapting them to the site owner’s preferences.
That said, my earliest clients were mostly people for whom I was writing just a fraction of their posts.  I couldn’t provide the volume that they needed.

Collaborative and High Volume: The Blogging Machine

So what happens when a blogging client asks you for higher volume but wants to continue collaborating heavily on each post?  Well, you need to narrow your focus and make the posts more cookie-cutter and predictable.  You sacrifice versatility.
Perhaps the most classic example that I can think of is the post series.  In the blog world, this is where you agree on not just the contents and tone of a single post, but for an entire recurring series of them.  For instance, “let’s write a blog post about how to comment out code, and then repeat that for every programming language.”
With a series like that, client and writer/agency can spend a great deal of effort on the first post and then put the pattern on autopilot for more.  Of course, you can do this in ways other than with a series—that’s just one option.  But the common theme with the approach is that the client has a lot of input to a prototype post and then lets things proceed in relatively cookie-cutter fashion.
Of course, when you take this approach, you lose versatility to economies of scale.  As the client, you retain a great deal of control and you get a lot of volume out of the content provider.  But by retaining control and de-emphasizing author autonomy, you remain heavily involved.

Versatile and High Volume: Hit Subscribe

As I took on more blogging clients, it was natural to move up, in terms of volume.  I can recall telling some of them that I didn’t have as much time to spend on planning each post with them, particularly if they wanted me to assume responsibility for most or all of their content.
In many cases, the response was to engage me as a blogging machine.  “Let’s plan out some series and posts en masse, and then you don’t need to be as versatile in your decision making.”
But then, a curious sort of thing started to happen.  And this curious thing led Amanda and me to found Hit Subscribe.  Some clients started instead to say, “why don’t you just do what you think is best with the blog?”  In other words, they wanted to take advantage of the versatility that I could bring to bear.  And they also wanted enough volume for us to run their blogs.
At this corner of the iron triangle, blogging becomes a done-for-you service.  The writer/agency is versatile enough to write all of your posts and can produce enough volume for those posts to be all that your blog needs.
But to do this, you have to give up control—you have to stop sweating each individual post.
Why is that?  Why does it work that way?
Well, think of it this way.  When you’re dealing with a content agency that has the bandwidth to run your entire blog (and others’ besides) and that has the versatility to cover all of the different posts that you might want, they’re probably employing many authors, some editors, and others besides.  They’re probably optimized to run lots of blogs.  And they’re probably de-optimized to treat each individual post as a work of art.
To engage a blogging service that handles all of your needs in a done-for-you fashion, you have to cede some control.

Moving Through the Stages

I wrote this post in roughly the order that I moved among points of the iron triangle of content agencies.  But that’s not to say that moving through these concerns is necessary, or even desirable.  It just means that you have different options.
If you want blog posts that speak to every audience member you might have, and you want to have a lot of influence over them, expect that you won’t have a lot of posts to your blog.  If you want more posts and you’re willing to narrow their focus, trading versatility for volume is a good answer.  And if you want a lot of blog posts that speak to all comers, then you need to cede specific control and treat your blog as a service that you can outsource.
There’s no “one size fits all” solution, but you have options.  And, hopefully, after this blog post, you have data points.  Or, at least, triangle points.  So decide what’s most (and least) important to you, and seek the bloggers you need.