What I learned from the Priceonomics "Content Marketing Handbook"

I read through a guide called The Content Marketing Handbook recently after seeing it on Hacker News.

The guide instructs how to write content based on real information that can spread virally to reach 100k - 2M readers. The company behind the guide has actually succeeded at this repeatedly. After establishing their reputation they have been able to make money through product sales.

At 30,000 words the post is almost a book. It took me two evenings to read. Here's what I learned from it:


  • Some success stories: AirBnB analysis post was super popular, OKCupid did a fantastic blog series on dating data and Future Advisor got a lot of useful exposure from their Lyft vs. Uber data.
  • Anyone can be popular now, even posts on company blogs. It doesn't have to be on the New York Times, because even they just get most of their traffic from Facebook shares and Google searches. You can do the same.
  • If you can write a popular article, the positive feedback will get you hooked on content marketing. Start by covering the data you have to get an easy early win.
  • Try a spurt of writing activity instead of gradually every day, so that you can get a confidence boost from a quick early success.
  • Take pride in your work, don't just think of yourself as someone churning out content. Instead aim for greatness. Don't compare yourself against spammy content mills, instead aim to make content on par with New Yorker or Economist.

Why spend crazy amounts of time on a single blog post:

  • Because of the power law, it's worthwhile to spend 40+ hours to make a single blog post if that means you can make it excellent. A really good post can get 1M+ views, a good one 100k views and a bad one almost no-one will look at.
  • The author of the guide Priceonomics reportedly spends about 30 hours to research the content and 10 hours to write up their findings.
  • Don't blindly emulate the types of blog posts other companies are putting out, because some of them are just wasting money producing stuff no-one cares about.

Everything is interesting:

  • There is an entire popular TV series about a paper company. You can similarly find the interesting angle in your own domain. The post gives examples of content you could write if you got hired to make content at Dunder Mifflin. "Every industry has a history, every set of data has an insight, and every person has a story."
  • People are curious, with a little data nerd living in everyone. A post about the history of scotch tape got over 100k views. What information do you uniquely have access to? Write about that. The post gives several examples of such posts.
  • When you write about a more niche topic in an interesting way, it will get easy coverage in news sites that are dying to find good content about that topic.
  • The guide keeps repeating that you should write about information you have access to, not just vacuous posts. But it goes on to say that information doesn't necessarily only mean hard data, but that you may also be able to do research about your field due to your expertise in it. "Just talk about what you know, and stick to the facts."

Plan how you will promote the content:

  • While writing excellent stuff is megaimportant, also think what you'll do with it after you've finished writing. That could mean something as simple as having a specific subreddit (or other channel) in mind to post it to. Look at most popular posts on the subreddit to help you tailor the content to give it the best chance to succeed there.
  • Content gets popular on Facebook only after it has received an initial bump from somewhere else.
  • Besides Reddit, there are other social sites you can initially submit to (Hacker News, Product Hunt, Designer News etc). You can also contact reporters directly who might be willing to cover the findings in your post. Contact at least 50 with personal emails to have any chance of a writeup. Here's an example article that was covered by TechCrunch after Priceonomics directly pitched them.
  • Initially you have to post to link sharing sites yourself, but after you've made really good content consistently for long enough, people will start spontaneously doing it for you (as I'm doing here actually!).
  • They raise The Oatmeal as an example of excellent content, but point out that it started with the creator Matthew Inman making comics for SEO purposes and is generally gifted at making stuff that spreads.

How to go viral on Facebook:

  • Even a post that gets a huge bump of traffic from Reddit will not be super popular, unless it gets shared on Facebook as well. At least for Priceonomics, the vast majority of traffic from their popular posts is from FB.
  • Imagine someone sharing a post to Facebook. They will need to say something about it. Make sure your post is easy to say something about!
  • Lists may be popular, because top lists that happen to include something very relevant to the person reading it (such as the city they live in) make it that much easier for them to share it and say something about it.
  • You can actually summarize your post at the end in such a way as to make it as easy as possible to then go to Facebook and be able to say something about it.
  • If an article confirms a strongly held belief, people may share it to show that they are right.
  • Many movies have a similar formula of a protagonist going through struggles to eventual success ("monomyth"). That's the formula for stories about Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, but it can be used to cover the creation of a company in a similar way.
  • Search the guide for "Finding Themes and Ideas", it has many many more.