Stuff I Wrote: June 2014

Depositphotos 2902188 xs 300x300 Stuff I Wrote: June 2014Here are 20 posts I wrote that were published outside of this blog in the month of June. I’m really grateful to be writing for some of my favorite sites in the planet, and I hope you get a lot of value out my writing.


Content Strategy




What I Learned From My Failed Crowdfunding Attempt

avatar aa368c6d5c31 128 What I Learned From My Failed Crowdfunding AttemptAs you recall, I was working on getting 40 backers for a crowdfunding project on Beacon, to write about people overcoming odds to learn new skills. I unfortunately did not get all of the backers needed for the project to be a success. This really bummed me out because I love what they are doing and think the cofounder I interviewed is a genius… and because I really believed in the project–and still do. But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining, and I learned a few things in the process. Here are the lessons  got out of it.

1. Details are really important.

I hired one of the best editors I know to take a look at my project draft and help  me flesh out the concepts. And I think it was the best investment in the project. It helped me get incredibly clear on the stories I wanted to tell. Even though the project didn’t get enough backers on Beacon, I plan on pitching and writing articles in the same vein, and possibly working on a book proposal. Having great clarity on the approach for each segment will be my guiding light.

2. Did I mention that details are important?

Along the process in getting the project posted, I was asked some probing questions about my project description, which made me realize that the person asking wasn’t really clear about what I was trying to do. Some suggested changes would have given off a different impression than what I had intended. And a couple of times, updates with typos or errors were sent out, which I felt reflected poorly on the project and on myself. One of the biggest mental blocks I have right now is my often unrealistic expectation that people who manage projects I work on will have a greater understanding of them than I do. I’ve found that my desire for a de facto meritocracy is compounded even more when it’s a project I care very deeply about… the more passionate I am, the more I really need to work on my own patience.

3. Crowdfunding can feel like groveling.

I usually have no problem selling, but for some reason, asking people to pledge felt like begging. I was even more leery of asking multiple times. Although I got a lot of exposure about the project and thought it would sort of sell itself, I felt weird being very salesy and overly promotional when it didn’t. Even asking people to share the project with their friends felt a little icky to me. The truth is that you burn through a lot of social capital doing so, and I had a feeling the project wouldn’t be backed the entire time, so it felt like wasted effort.

4. Passion projects can make selling even harder.

Knowing that even 40 people at $5/month wouldn’t cover my expenses made it more difficult for me to work hard to reach the goal.

5. Timing is everything.

I was hesitant to launch this campaign so close to my wedding, when I already feel like a mere wedding invitation could come across as a request for gifts, and before a planned move cross-country. In retrospect, I wish I would have waited, even knowing that summer launches don’t work as well.

6. It is hard to mobilize people around a common idea rather than a theme.

I’m thinking a campaign based on just one central topic, such as weightlifting or programming, would have gotten more support within that specific niche than the way I went about the campaign.

7. Recurring subscriptions make people nervous.

They’re worried they’ll keep paying even when no updates are made. I think it’s a valid concern, since I subscribe to a Beacon writer who hasn’t updated in months. Having access to every other story in Beacon is pretty great, though.. In any case, a lot of people wanted a non-recurring model that was lower than the two we set (at $30 and $55), which would’ve been okay if I had reached critical mass. Otherwise, though, a$5 donation toward what is supposed to be an ongoing project doesn’t mean very much, which is why Beacon uses an ongoing subscription model I think people used to Kickstarter are more comfortable with a non-sub model and magazine/literary journal people are more comfortable with subscriptions. Both rely on a critical mass or a certain amount of cash in order to work and help fund a project. In any case, it seems that we are still learning what works and doesn’t work in the crowdfunding space.

8. Sometimes it may be easier to go through a gatekeeper.

I have never had luck building an enormous email list and selling people on my list info products. However, I’m really great at getting publishers and brands to pay me to write. Most people have the opposite experience. I don’t know that one is  necessarily easier than the other, but perhaps different people are geared towards different models. In any case, there’s no way I am giving up on this idea, though perhaps Beacon isn’t the answer.

9. There is no real sense of closure when a project isn’t backed.

Once my project didn’t get funded, I didn’t have a nice debrief call or anything. It just sort of fizzled and died.I don’t even have email addresses for everyone who pledged, though  plan to try to find them so I can keep people informed on the status of the project. I still don’t feel like the idea is any less valid and the amount of support I did get feels like a partial win for me, but I still feel like the whole thing isn’t really resolved yet.

10. Some projects are really sticky. Others aren’t.

In the middle of my crowdfunding attempt, I was asking friends on Facebook if they knew of a magazine that read like a cross between Wired and Made Man, or Men’s Journal, but was geared towards women. Women who like gear and tech, and want to decorate but only if it’s done in 20 minutes and costs $30 or less. Women who want to know the best beer bars or burger joints rather than the best grapefruit and yogurt. Women who don’t wear heels and like to go camping and are addicted to apps. A lifestyle site that’s less political than Bitch or Jezebel, and with less fashion and celeb news than PureWow or Refinery29. That post got hundreds of comments, with writers and readers alike very interested in getting involved. For some reason, some types of projects just get people excited more than others. I’m aware that this could be entirely different than how they’d react once it comes time to actually pay for it, but it’s interesting to me what people react to strongly, and what they don’t.

That Contently Summit Recap You Were Asking For

4d6.logo  That Contently Summit Recap You Were Asking ForI went to the Contently Summit in NYC last Wednesday, where marketers from various brands, agencies and publishers converged to hear industry leaders discussing brand publishing, metrics, ethics, audience acquisition, storytelling, and more.

Aside from MadLibs, a man on a typewriter writing poems on demand, liquor-infused ice cream, a really fun photo booth, and great conversation with amazing editors and agencies and brands, there were some panels and discussions as well. Here’s a recap:

Truth in Advertising

The first panel, Truth in Advertising, was a frank discussion about transparency and ethics in brand publishing. (I thought this was actually pretty radical to have during a content marketing summit, but Contently has always been a bit of a game changer.) Panelists included Meghan Graham, DEFY Media VP of women’s content, Eric Goeres, Time Inc. Director of Innovation, and Jeff Jarvis, the Director of Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Transparency was the overarching theme. “We all have biases. The more open we are about those things, the better off we’ll be,” Graham pointed out Jarvis, who has an impressive list of disclosures n his website, said it’s important to make sure the reader is never confused about the source of content. Goeres also echoed the sentiment: “Don’t trick ‘em, don’t piss ‘em off” was his advice.

We discussed Forbes BrandVoice, and whether it is transparent enough to have “what is this?” written on top of the page, with a description when people click on the link. Goeres stated that some would argue that the Forbes brand has taken a major hit, a sentiment with which I agree.

The New York Times’ Orange is the New Black infographic is listed as a paid post, with a small logo and a URL starting with “paid post,” but some argued that this wasn’t transparent enough.

There was also some discussion on making sure that paid content was highly relevant and well-written, with Graham asking if the money from a product you’d normally mock in your editorial section is worth ruining your relationship with your audience.

What I found most interesting in this panel and the discussion is people’s thought processes. It’s easy to view brand publishing and native as a black and white issue, but I appreciate the nuance involved in the discussion. These issues are part of a much larger dialogue, and publishers and journalists alike continue to grapple with them. Resources: Contently’s post on Orange is the New Black

The Numbers Game

Up next was a discussion on numbers with Buzzfeed data scientist Ky Harlin and Moat president Aniq Rahman. Since most metrics and analytic tools are designed for publishers selling ads, this conversation was to discuss metrics to measure to build relationships with customers. Harlin recommended measuring everything, but said that ‘likes’ on their own are a meaningless metric. He does look at viral lift, measuring the propensity for shareability based on the ratio between viral views and seed, or controllable, views. Rahman recommended measuring attention. One metric he  looks at is scroll velocity, to determine whether content is actually read. Resources: 10 Charts That Are Changing the Way We Measure Content

Getting (and Keeping) an Audience

This was a fascinating panel with PureWow Director of Marketing Alexis Anderson, Mediaco Editorial Director Erin Scottberg, and Refinery29′s Senior Director of Marketing Irene Lee. I wrote a recap for the Content Strategist, so thought I’d just link to that! Resources: ‘Growth is Not a Hack’: 7 Strategies for Building a Loyal Audience, and Refinery29′s Intelligence blog

The Storytelling Arms Race

This panel was about content campaigns from start to finish, and including Microsoft storytelling manager Ben Tamblyn and American Express VP of Content Carrie Parker. The two have opposing brand storytelling strategies. Microsoft’s stories tell all about Microsoft, whereas Open Forum is not really about American Express. One interesting takeaway for me was when Carrie Parker mentioned that non-inspirational posts aren’t widely shared, but get traffic via search. Conversely, posts that are widely shared don’t often do well in search. There was also a lot of discussion on great stories (which are not press releases!).Both Tamblyn and Parker predicted that storytelling will include content that’s much more visual, as well as a rise in mobile. Resources: Microsoft to World: Yes, We Can Be Cool and Innovative, Too, and the Net Promoter Score

More Resources:

RebelMouse Contently Summit Recap 5 Things We Learned At the Contently Summit

Why I Want To Write About “Impossible” Things (And How You Can Help)

Screen Shot 2014 06 21 at 2.23.22 AM Why I Want To Write About Impossible Things (And How You Can Help)“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast…” -Lewis Carroll

It was 1998 when I first stepped foot into Shimer, a very bizarre, non-traditional college, as a student. Our motley crue, which would best be described as a ragtag group of idealists, didn’t look like much. We had off-the-chart standardized test scores and poor grades. (Mine? 1240 SAT–out of 1600 back then– 28 out of 32 on the ACT,  and 2.3 GPA.) Many of us would pool our money together to make sure weed was always plentiful, but couldn’t always do the same for food. Our student body included high schoolers who evaded becoming dropouts by making it into the early entrant program. We also had a handful of adults juggling work and families with school on the weekends.

Some of us struggled with basic social skills. Some of us (me!) struggled with basic hygiene skills. And I’ve sadly watched year after year as my dear friends and classmates lost their lives to everything from drug overdoses to suicide. If there’s a central theme that binds us together, it may very well be our  existential crises and consistent collective struggles with addiction, depression and every other issue under the sun.

And yet there was one thing we could always do, no matter what else was going on in our lives. We could read any book in the entire Western canon, sit around an octagonal table,  and figure it out together.

One time I got stuck in Chicago with a new used bike I’d just gotten. Apparently I read the start date wrong because they didn’t yet allow bicycles on the Metra, not until the next day. The kind bike shop owners offered me a ride–a really long ride–to campus, which was close to the Wisconsin border, and asked me to ‘work’ while I waited for the bike shop to close. I secretly idolized one of the women working there. She wore clunky bike jewelry and had lots of tattoos, sure, but what I really loved was that she seemed to know more about bike repair than anyone else in the store. But when she handed me tools and told me to do something and instructed me to figure it out when I asked questions, I didn’t think I had it in me. I asked someone else for direction and she later told him he wasn’t supposed to help.

What is the difference between these two situations? What makes a group of students, many of who had failed at just about every academic skill they’d ever attempted, get to the point where they expect to be perfectly able to not only puzzle through every book but analyze it, no matter how undecipherable it may be? And what makes someone who’s perfectly capable of wielding a combination wrench AND a patch kit decide that paying someone to replace a tire is the only legitimate option?

These questions are fascinating. How is it that some people overcome blocks, real or perceived, to figure out how to do things they know they’ll never master, whle others struggle with the basics? Why is it that some non-technical folks can figure out how to code in their 50s, while other people decide they’ll never even learn how to use email? How come some city folk can learn wilderness survival and others decide to try to avoid anything outdoorsy altogether? How do you teach yourself a sport in which you’d always have a handicap?

Is it a mindset issue, where you simply will yourself to learn something and won’t give up until you get there? Is it just a burning desire to beat the odds? Or are there particular subsets of skills that can be developed that are transferable across disciplines?

If you’re as interested in these nuanced stories as I am, please consider sponsoring my crowdfunding campaign on Beacon. Just $5/month gets you access to stories about people who gain proficiency in seven different areas, despite handicaps. Topics include coding, drawing, music, Olylifting, language acquisiton, and more! A subscription gets you access to hundreds of writers on the Beacon platform… and you can cancel any time.

If a recurring subscription isn’t your cup of tea, you can pay $30 just one time for a non-recurring 6-month subscription.

Check out the information here:

Many people focus on underdogs who beat the odds to become truly amazing, and many people focus on the prodigies, champions born and bred. Most of us exist in the murky area between the two. We’ll never be world class, but can make a choice between proficiency and ignorance. What makes some people choose one over the other?

Back me and I promise to explore this in depth and come up with answers that are more nuanced than truisms and more accurate than doomsdayers would like you to believe.


Travel Hacking 101: How I Flew To New York For Five Bucks

800px El viaxeru dUrculo 300x225 Travel Hacking 101: How I Flew To New York For Five BucksSo I’ve been visiting New York for the amazing Contently Summit, which I’ve got a lot to share about, but the question I’ve been asked the most is how I managed to land a five-dollar flight to New York City.

People often ask for travel hacking information, and it’s incredibly complex. I really recommend Chris Guillebeau’s ebooks and courses on the topic, as well as the many resources available online.

But a lot of people don’t want to hear theoreticals. They want nitty gritty details about specific trips. So here are the steps I took for this particular trip. (And by the way, this is all completely legal.)

1. I got a Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express. The annual $95 fee was waived for the first year.

2. As a promotion, they offered 30,000 SkyMiles for anyone who meets a $1,000 minimum spend.

3. Since I’m not in the habit of putting that kind of cash on a credit card, I went to CVS and bought two Vanilla Reload cards. I used the credit card to put $500 on each card. (Total cost: $3.95 X 2 = $7.80) This process is referred to in travel hacking circles as”manufactured spend.”

4. I also got a free BlueBird card.

5. I transferred the money from the Vanilla Reload card to my BlueBird card.

6. I transferred the money on the BlueBird card back into my bank account.

7. This got me a $50 statement credit, 30,000 bonus miles, and a free bag check on each flight, as well as priority boarding.

8. I got 2500 more points over about six months  by using the card and then immediately paying it off.

9. I redeemed the 32,500 points for the trip I wanted. The flight to NYC cost me 12,500 points and the return flight was at a higher 20,000 point tier. Cost: $5 for the flight. (The tickets I wanted went from $440 to $604.

Amount spent: $7.80 + $5.00 = 12.80.

Amount saved:  $50 credit, $50 for the bag check, $440-604 for the flight.

Total saved: $540- $704, minus the $12.80, equals $527.20 to $691.20 in savings.


Crowdfunding Campaign Update

Screen Shot 2014 06 11 at 6.45.55 PM 300x165 Crowdfunding Campaign UpdateA few days ago, I wrote about my crowdfunding attempt to get 40 sponsors for a book project called Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

I have received 13 backers in 6 days, and am looking for 27 more backers in the next 8.

Please read about the project and consider becoming a sponsor.

$5 per month will help make this reporting possible and also give you access to hundreds of other writers on Beacon.

Again, that site is

All People Suck At Technology

Editor’s note: This post is by my OMGBFF Holden Page, who’s a freelance writer and social media whiz living in St. Paul.

ZzMDL All People Suck At Technology

On Imgur, the headline for this image is “watching my parents use a computer.”

Honestly, I feel kind of left out. Typically my version of “good fucking Jesus Christ how do you not understand,” is reserved for debates about politics with my father, and justifying various life decisions to my mother. Not once have I used this look explaining anything computer related to my parents.

That’s because they are kind of fucking awesome at technology. If they have questions, it’s not because they clicked on pop-ups telling them to clean their computer. There’s a legit problem, and their son is abnormally nerdy enough to embrace the challenge.

While I have always blamed my parents for robbing me of an opportunity to complain about them, it seems members of my generation have managed to fill the hole they left.

This may be a surprise to some; after all, my generation invented the art of selfies, sharing meaningless status updates, and editing pictures of our food. But there is a massive gap between being proficient at sharing your life, and understanding technologies that operate these systems.

It turns out everyone sucks at the latter half.

This first became clear to me during my short stint at a student newspaper. Charged with redesigning the WordPress site, it quickly became apparent that my peers had no idea what they were doing.

Random plug-ins invaded areas of WordPress I hardly knew existed. Parts of WordPress I considered immune to dysfunction caved under the weight of poorly coded premium themes. Over three people managed one WordPress site, only one of whom who had any experience with basic HTML.

While this disfunction certainly bothered me, it still wasn’t enough to induce the look of pure and utter defeat displayed so well by the .GIF above.

No, what induced my personal WTF moment is when the student writers I talked to were scared to use WordPress.

Scared to tinker, to play, to break. And to make better. They clutched to their papers in mock nostalgia, and insisted that the process they put in place was fine. Nevermind that the site regularly went down, updates had stalled for months, and the mundane process of simply writing was convoluted beyond repair.

In short, they were scared to change.

Digital natives were scared to change, to learn and to grow.

It was this lack of adventure that made me quit the student paper. Sure, I changed what I could. I made the site operational, and it continues to operate at a nice clip to this day. But no one was passionate about this change, and many simply ignored it.

This is a far cry from my parents, who met their frustration with technology with an equal amount of wonder and opportunity.

Which brings me to my greater point: It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, chances are you suck at technology if you don’t meet the change necessary with wonder, opportunity and a willingness to break things.

I will reserve my bewildered facial expressions for people who are unwilling to do those things.

You should, too.

Why You Should Stop “Building Relationships”

Paul Klee WI In Memoriam 1938 274x300 Why You Should Stop Building RelationshipsAsk anyone for networking advice, or how to monetize your social contacts, and they’ll likely tell you to “build relationships.” What does this look like? Instead of hitting up strangers for work, you get all dressed up for networking events where you eat small bites of cheese and stale crackers and pretend to be really interested in their lives, in hopes that they’ll one day hire you for something because you seemed really nice. A plethora of business card exchanges take place, and you go home exhausted from all that fake smiling, and then do the whole thing over again.

My advice? Stop. Just stop.

Why? Because “building relationships” by being fake nice to people in hopes of something in return is manipulative, and it poisons the well. Enough new “friends” who are secretly–or not-so-secretly–scouting for work and everyone is suddenly paranoid when someone is genuinely nice to them, wondering what it is that they actually want.

I’m not saying that getting to know people is a bad thing. I am saying that treating people like numbers to help you on the way towards your goal is ruining “real” networking for people who actually just want to associate with like-minded folks without expectations of anything in return.

People are not numbers.

If you’ve ever been to a store to buy an appliance and felt like your newfound friend was very upset after spending a ton of time showing you options when you didn’t go with the one they selected, or even (gasp!) decided to think about it and come back another day, you know what it feels like to be treated like a number, or a stepping stone to someone’s quota. It’s not fun. But hey, at least you expected it in a store. Attempts to build one-sided relationships at industry events create a bad dynamic, and ultimately stop people from wanting to attend altogether.

So instead of attending networking events in hopes of meeting people who will give you a cookie in the future, why not try being real?

Beyond “Schmoozing”

Here’s my strategy:

  • I don’t go to any event that I’m not absolutely intrigued by. That means that I might go to the Hack Factory to learn lockpicking because I think it’s fascinating, but I won’t go to BNA meetings, even though I could probably profit off of their nepotism with a slew of referrals.
  • I don’t talk to anyone I’m not genuinely interested in, and not just because I’m hoping to get something from them. I only talk to people I actually like and want to get to know. (I only work with people I like and want to get to know, but they’re a teeny subsection of people I want to talk to either at industry events or cocktail parties.)
  • I don’t engage in weird politics where I feel like I’m competing for someone’s attention, or surrounding them when they’re trying to leave the room. This creates a competitive, cutthroat-like dynamic, and I’d much rather bow out.
  • If someone is in line to talk to someone, I gracefully step aside to give them their turn. I already talked to someone, now they get to, and we can both follow up when we want. It’s all good.
  • I don’t give people referrals just because we’re friendly. I only pass on names if I’m absolutely sure their work is high quality or if I’ve had experience with them in the past. Likewise, I don’t expect referrals from people just because we’re friends. I’m perfectly happy keeping referrals and friendships separate.
  • Again, if I happen to be meeting with someone socially, even if they can potentially do something for me in the future, I don’t make that the point of our meeting, nor do I expect it. I apply like everyone else.

Now don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love meeting new people and talking to them about their projects, and helping people with whatever it is they’re working on. And I am absolutely not afraid of selling or marketing. I just try not to muddle the two.

(For more on my approach to ethical selling, see Skip Miller and Jill Konrath‘s books.)


Elephant in the Room Episode 3: Age Dynamics

podcast 300x300 Elephant in the Room Episode 3: Age DynamicsIn this episode, I spoke with Holden Page, who got a gig as a community manager at the age of 19, and got his client into TechCrunch.

We’ve got some real talk about strengths and weaknesses that come along with different age groups, all of the messy dynamics that come up, and ways we can try to alleviate them.

  • Holden discussed his experience as a community manager at the age of 19.
  • Common concerns and difficulties in people who are used to routines and people who champion new ideas.
  • Using introductions and describing people’s experience to inspire confidence and smooth out issues with delegating to someone new.
  • Helping people feel valued and collaborating effectively using everyone’s strengths.
  • Creating transparency and a good teamwork dynamic where pushback is encouraged.
  • Being open-minded to suggestions and also giving oversight and support.
  • Static software versus expecting regular upgrades & to be constantly relearning.
  • Bottom line: communication AND being open-minded.

There are some minor sound issues at the end. Apologies for those.

Posts and products we mentioned:

5 Ways Newsrooms Can Catch Up To Digital Savvy Competitors, my Contently summary of A Goat Must Be Fed.

Draft (tool for collaborative editing)

And just in case you missed the old episodes, check them out:

Episode 1: Net Neutrality with Bartees Cox
Episode 2: Metrics with Sam Blake

Podcast Preview: Age Dynamics & Generational Gaps at Work

podcast 300x300 Podcast Preview: Age Dynamics & Generational Gaps at WorkTomorrow, I’ll post the third episode of The Elephant in the Room. My guest, Holden Page, is a freelance writer and former corporate community manager.

We’ll be discussing generational gaps and age dynamics at work.

We’ll delve into political/cultural problems that arise, how to deal with a distinct lack of experience, and whether or not these situations are necessarily due to someone’s age, anyway.

We’ll talk about what organizations need to do in order to address dysfunctional dynamics and work together as a team.

Stay tuned!