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Field Notes #074: Content > Algo > User

Field Notes #074: Content > Algo > User

Content creation without distribution is a lot like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it. 

You can spend all your time crafting the perfect experience, ornamenting every sentence with beauty. But if it’s not delivered to your intended audience (or even your unintended audience), it will have no impact, by definition. 

Thus, we need to emphasize the “marketing” in “content marketing.”

Think of it like this: your content is a product, and you want your product to have users. 

Distribution is the layer by which you reach those users. Platforms, typically Google search or social media, offer opportunities for content to reach your intended audience. They serve this content through algorithms, which is a fancy word for a set of rules or process that guides decision making. 

Here we re-invoke the concept of the 4 Ps of Marketing:

  • Product
  • Price
  • Place
  • Promotion

Place, where and how your product is displayed, is critical to its consumption. 

It’s not different for physical, literal products. CPG companies need to find distribution with retailers, online (DTC or via social commerce), or some other mechanism. 

Content finds its audience on platforms – owned, paid, or earned.

Can you distribute content without a platform? Theoretically, yes. You could create content so good that it triggers word-of-mouth sharing, which some of you may call “dark social.” 

However, let’s return to the analogy of product in a literal sense: would you build a startup completely reliant on word-of-mouth with no other channels, platforms, or predictable acquisition efforts? Would you raise capital, with a straight face, and say your strategy is to “build it, and they will come?” 


So if we want anyone to see our remarkable thought leadership, our barbecue content, we’re left to untangle a bunch of algorithms on platforms to try to get in front of our audiences.  

What’s an Algorithm?

The technical definition is generic: 

“a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.”

In our context, just think of it as a set of rules used to sort through, prioritize, and deliver content on a feed. 

Google has a search algorithm that sorts documents and ranks them by relevance, helpfulness, and authority when a user enters a search phrase. 

LinkedIn delivers content within a user’s feed based on their past behavioral patterns, those they explicitly follow, engagement on posts, and more. 

Point is, even your local radio DJ has rules by which they choose the next song to play. All platforms have systems by which they deliver content and incentives that govern those systems. 

Those incentives, almost always, point back to enterprise value generated for the company. Google wants you to search more often and click more ads (balancing user experience with monetization). LinkedIn wants you to spend more time on their platform. They also want you to engage with content to drive better targeting and ROI for their B2B customers and their sales, marketing, and HR solutions. 

How Algorithms Differ on Different Platforms

Simply put, “On Google, users search for content. On [social], content searches for users.”

Google and other search engines seek to match the intent of a user. Social platforms seek to deliver content the user didn’t know they wanted. This is evident in the evolution away from the social graph and towards the “For You” feed. 

That’s why marketers will often break these down in two (falsely dichotomous) buckets; demand creation and demand capture. 

But like the quote above from Josh Spilker suggests, no matter where you’re distributing content, you’re always contending with an algorithm to bridge the gap between the content and the user. 

What Does it Look Like to Optimize for the Algorithm?

Optimizing for the algorithm doesn’t negate the need to write for the end user. In fact, if you believe Google, they care more about the end user than you do (grain of salt aside….)

However, it means you need to match the incentives of the system in hopes of getting your content delivered. 

Like, if I want to rank on page 1 for “content marketing,” I need to look at what Google is already ranking to infer the user intent of that query:

If you don’t speak Spanish, all of those pages are essentially titled “What is Content Marketing?” 

That means I probably shouldn’t title it something contrarian like “The Unconvention Truth About Content Marketing and SEO.” It doesn’t match what people are looking for. 

Does it mean your article has to be the exact same as all the others? No. Common misconception. 

It probably means there is table stakes information you’ll need to include, such as a definition. But you can add unique angles, twists, data, and product-centric information that allows you to stand out. Have your cake and eat it, too. 

On social, to be honest, I don’t entirely know how to optimize for the algorithm. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn’t. And it changes all the time. The key first principle is: GET ATTENTION. 

How you get attention is a bit game theoretical, as you’re fighting with a bunch of other marketers shouting in the public square like deranged preachers. So when a tactic works, it has a finite time horizon as everyone starts to copy it. 

What’s hot now? 

Hot takes, selfies, lessons learned, carousels, memes, and satire. 

What’s not? 

Linking out to longer form posts, and oddly, video content. 

Do I personally enjoy the fact that algorithms necessarily flatten content creation by incentivizing a narrow set of formats and ideas? No. I’ve ranted about that before. But I’m a pragmatist with clients to grow and rent to pay. 

Content creation is expensive, so I prefer to have people look at it and convert. 

Landing Pads and Owned Audiences

You’ll have to deal with the algorithm to garner first touch attention, but ideally, you convert that attention into subscribers.. Permission marketing. Everything old is new again. Time is a flat circle. 

If you can build an email list, or a podcast subscription base, or any sort of opt-in audience, then you don’t have to worry about algorithms or curation. You can say whatever you want on your podcast or your newsletter, and perhaps with the exception of the title or initial hook, people who subscribed will read or listen. 

But you have to attract them to sign up somehow. So we build on rented land (Google, social, whatever). You can look at these as landing pads, as John-Henry Scherck suggested in his Goldenhour talk

Drive thousands of visitors via organic search, garner millions of impressions with zero-click content on social, but make sure you capture some of that rented audience, else you’ll constantly be complaining about the capriciousness of the algorithm, and some day, the platform may just turn off the spout and dry up your entire stream of traffic:

Image Source

So consider having owned or subscription pools, and consider diversifying your content portfolio to mitigate potential platform risk. 

Build a Risk Allocated Content Portfolio

We introduced the barbell content strategy in early 2020. It borrowed from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea to index on two extreme ends of the portfolio: incredibly safe bets with little downside, and risk bets that give you exposure to large upside. 

The first principle behind this is you want to be clear about the purpose and risk of an investment instead of muddying the waters with a bunch of middle-tier risk and performance assets. 

Many people will write a piece of content with no stated purpose or distribution channel in mind. This, unless explicitly written to solve a sales objection or customer problem, is unlikely to succeed. 

On the other end of the spectrum, some marketers expect a single page or experience to do it all. We’ll write this brilliant piece of thought leadership, optimize it for search, it will go viral and we’ll repurpose it for every platform. Wishful thinking. Best to separate your content into discrete buckets. 

Piece A is designed to attract organic backlinks.

Piece B is designed to rank in search and convert readers to product users. 

Piece C is designed to spark debate in our industry and be passed around on dark social.

The specific allocation of your portfolio is unique to you, and it will almost certainly evolve over time. 

Real World Example: A Startup Case Study

We have an early stage client, and I won’t mention their name because I didn’t ask them, who is executing absolutely perfectly. 

They’re simultaneously in a competitive space (data products) and also creating their own category (a term they helped popularize). 

We were hired to build out their organic search engine, at least as part of phase 1.

They haven’t launched to the public yet, so we’re building “landing pads” to all of their core, product-related terms. It’s starting to work (this chart underestimates the actual traffic by a good amount):

However, simultaneously, they have built up massive audiences on social media. I’m talking 100s of thousands of LinkedIn followers between multiple team members. They have a Substack that they write contrarian hot takes as well as technical content for data engineers. And they wrote a book, which they also use as a gated asset and lead capture to build out their owned audience. 

So our SEO program, which indexes on definitional content, how to content, and product-led content, is one of many levers in their content portfolio, the job of which is to drive first touch users who then convert to deeper content assets like the book or the newsletter. 

Demand creation and demand capture, operating in perfect harmony. 

The Future of Platforms and Distribution

Early platforms are the wild west, so you can often arbitrage being an early adopter to get a large audience before it’s competitive. 

Or the platform fails and you wasted a bunch of time and money (Clubhouse, Google Plus, etc.). 

Will AI be the new platform that drives customers and traffic? Maybe. 

Are we preparing for it? Yes. Read more about that here. Or email me back and I’ll tell you our early experiments. 

Are we taking our foot off the gas pedal with channels that already work like gangbusters on the possibility of the rise of a new channel? No. And you shouldn’t listen to influencers who tell you to do so. 

Truth is, Google still sends a ton of traffic to websites, and a lot of that traffic converts into users and customers. 

So before lurching forward and putting all your chips in a speculative bet, I’d recommend balancing that with some boring work in boring channels that still, by and large, work really well. 


The larger your owned audience or brand grows, the less you need to rely on algorithmic volatility. 

But when in the traction or growth stage, you’ll likely have to learn the incentives of your chosen distribution platform and sculpt your content to perform well under those rules. 

That doesn’t, however, mean you have to produce bad content, though.

Look at it like this:

New coffee shops or restaurants, nowadays, need to get traction via Instagram or TikTok to attract new customers. So they optimize aesthetics to appeal to food influencers on IG. They put up a neon sign, add extra sprinkle on a latte, whatever…

But they can still serve a good cup of coffee. 

Write the hook, but deliver the goods.

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Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.