Guns n Roses’ iconic Appetite For Destruction album has sold over 30 million copies worldwide - that’s thirty-times platinum.
But the album was released in July of 1987 to very little fanfare, selling just 200,000 copies in its first six months. The album continued to linger for almost an entire year before legendary record executive, David Geffen, convinced MTV to play the band’s single, Welcome to the Jungle after hours. It got its debut on Sunday’s 4am rotation, but rock fans quickly began to request the song en masse and the rest, as they say, is history.
Guns n Roses didn’t have a content problem during that head-scratching year of 1987 - they had a distribution problem. And that is in many ways the internet marketer’s age old question.
As at the time of writing:
In a saturated market, standing out can be a challenge.
And in order to stand out, we need to look for ways to differentiate ourselves.
When it comes to content, we can do that through niche audience content and/or compelling actionable insights and/or effective content distribution.
As others have said before me, it might be prudent to spend 50 percent of your time and budget on content creation, and 50 percent on content distribution, because when it comes to content - unless you already have a captive audience - it’s simply not a case of ‘build it and they will come’.
I should know. Over the past few years, I’ve penned over 500 blog posts, dozens of articles for third-party publications, and produced several podcasts and over 500 podcast episodes.
And I am all too familiar with the sinking feeling that comes with spending hours researching and writing an article, only for it to receive 37 reads.
Having said that, I’ve also seen first-hand what an amplifying distribution channel does for content that was otherwise lying dormant for months on end, just like Appetite for Destruction.
In some way, this revelation is encouraging, because it is easy to become disheartened when content you’ve spent hours writing doesn’t get traction.
First, you’re disheartened because you think the content should get more eyeballs.
But then, after a while, you begin to question the quality of your content and your abilities as a writer, producer, and content creator.
Perhaps you even consider throwing in the towel and getting a job at a bank!
As I wrote in What Beethoven Teaches Us About Trending on Medium, of my 250-odd blog posts on Medium:
This is the nature of the 80/20 principle - a fundamental and universal feature of the natural world, which stipulates that the top twenty percent of causes are responsible for eighty percent of effects.
But, if we dig a little deeper, we’ll also find another factor at play here - distribution strategies.
My fifth-highest performing Medium post (Philosophy Stole My Ambition) was shared on Twitter by Naval Ravikant - note the huge spike below on the day that he tweeted.
I’ve written a number of pieces for Harvard Business Review, most of which are about 700-800 words, and none of which I think are anywhere near as thoughtful or comprehensive as my long-form analyses that I publish elsewhere else. Again, I’m reminded that what I might be pondering as a content problem, and a failure on my part to hone my craft, is perhaps more often than not, simply a distribution problem.
Just last week, HBR’s Linkedin account re-shared a post I wrote over a year ago, and within a few hours, it racked up the following engagement.
Over 4,400 likes and 127 comments - about two orders of magnitude more than what my own typical Linkedin posts manage when sharing similar, or even the exact same, piece of content.
Just three months ago, during the pandemic, I launched a media outlet called NoFilter. It’s early days for us, but we’ve been publishing lots of long-form analyses on goings on in the world of business, politics, culture and society, as well as producing a number of new podcasts. But for the most part, the performance of many of our articles has been modest at best.
However, when we took to Reddit to share our article on Spotify’s Censorship Moment: Joe Rogan, Podcasts and Politics, the article blew up, and performed about 50-times better than our average piece.
Of course, advertising is another tried and true method of content amplification, but it is only worthwhile if you’re targeting the right audience and they actually engage with your content - watch it, read it, listen to it, comment, share it, subscribe, and so on.
We launched a podcast called Battle of the Bands which looks at iconic battles between artists throughout music history, and initially the response was lukewarm. But after spending just $100 on Facebook ads, it stimulated conversation and hundreds of spirited comments from fans of the two bands we profiled in season one, Megadeth and Metallica - and by virtue of this, listeners.
What all of this told us is that, for the most part, it’s not the quality of the content that’s the problem, but the distribution of it.
So if you’re finding yourself struggling to get the eyeballs or eardrums that make your efforts worthwhile, and you’re beating yourself up over your supposed creative abilities, consider whether what you have is a content quality problem, or a content distribution problem.
Having said all of this - there are no guarantees that what has worked for you once will continue to work for you again.
Yes, techniques like influencer marketing work, but it only works if you can get the right people to share your content, and that my friends, is often much easier than it sounds.
Yes, advertising works, but what if your cost to acquire continues to exceed the value of your readers or listeners?
Yes, forum marketing works - but only if you’re sharing the right content, sharing it at the right time, on the right forum, and doing so in a way that doesn’t see it deleted, or downvoted into oblivion.
It is easy to draw a straight line between our successes and what we did to get there, and ignore the role that luck and all of our inevitable screw-ups played along the way - this is what we call the narrative fallacy.
Or maybe, just maybe…my content plain sucks, and that’s why much of it doesn’t get traction? I’ll let you be the judge.
Oftentimes, when it comes to any creative pursuit, what it ultimately boils down to is having many at bats.
So, keep swinging.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.