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051: Content Operations at Massive Scale with Natasha Nel (HackerNoon)

Content Operations at Massive Scale with Natasha Nel (HackerNoon)

Are you making content because it’s meaningful or because the platforms demand that you keep feeding them more? 

Algorithms can hold us hostage. Soon we fall into a cycle of writing stuff because we’re stuck in a production cycle, not because it needs to be written. 

There’s a moral dilemma for content marketers. The platforms we use to create and promote our work are addictive for the users and chain us to grueling content schedules, but they’re also essential to our jobs. 

In this episode, Natasha Nel, VP of Growth for Hacker Noon, discusses how the site produces content and the steps she’s taking to break those bad cycles and focus on quality over quantity. 

Show Topics

  • Craft good headlines, not clickbait
  • Promote podcast with transcripts
  • Stay present in the room
  • Don’t get held hostage by platforms
  • Bring quantity down, so quality can go up
  • Experiment with microcopy

Check out Hacker Noon

Follow Natasha Nel on LinkedIn or Twitter

Listen to the podcast

Watch the video

Key Takeaways

08:21 – Manage a huge group of contributors

Hacker Noon takes contributions from anyone who wants to write about their experiences in tech. They currently have 20,000 contributors.

“The large majority is our contributors who submitscompletely of their own free will as mentioned. So about 20,000 people globally. Internally, if we have time, we aim as a team to publish probably a story a month, maybe two, three stories a month of those on the marketing or content team. The broader team is obviously always encouraged to publish as often as they can physically, to just use the platform. But the majority of everything that you read on Hacker Noon is submitted by people who are real human beings working in the tech industry and writing about their experiences and the things that they’re learning.” 

15:05 – Craft good headlines, not clickbait

The editorial team spends time crafting better headlines for the stories they receive. They focus on describing the story and adding a cultural reference.

“What is the story really about and try and separate from this very clicks-driven approach. Because I just think particularly at Hacker Noon, we are trying to not contribute more noise to an endless stream of clickbait that’s out there. So really just first question is what is the story about, and how do we describe that in the most simplistic and honest and real terms so that no user who clicks through, no reader who clicks through will be disappointed or in any way feel tricked or sold in some way. How do you do that? Then once you’ve got that base level description, can you bring in maybe something that’s a little bit pop culture, intertextual, a reference from something that is relevant to the current zeitgeist culturally? That’s my number one trick. I like to make sure that where possible if I can bring in the relevant, Squid Game for example was a huge one because you knew that everybody was watching it. Can you somehow relate your headlines to something real that goes on in there, jokes-wise, memes-wise? Can you bring in humor and a relevant cultural point?” 

19:40 – Keep an open submission policy

Hacker Noon’s philosophy is about making the internet a better, more open place. They’ll publish anything that is of value and relates to tech.

“We have the broadest line ever in that you can submit anything that’s about tech and these days, what can’t you make about tech in the world? So people can really submit any story under the sun. Our editorial line is guided more by things like making the internet a better place. So being open both with your ideas and quite literally open sourcing your projects and writing about that and promoting open source projects. So those kinds of more broader decentralization philosophies guide the team and guide the way that we think about the internet and how we want to contribute to it. But in terms of what we’ll publish, really anything that’s high enough quality that really adds value, that’s educational, entertaining, interesting newsworthy, topical, and related to technology. We’ll publish it.” 

28:28 – Get started with podcasting easily

Podcasting has such a low barrier to entry, Natasha thinks everyone should give it a shot.

“During the early days of lockdown, I kind of convinced the leadership team at Hacker Noon to revive the Hacker Noon podcast, which had kind of been lying dormant for a little while. I don’t know why actually, but we picked it up again and it was such a fun experience for me to kind of learn to do. I guess my first comment on podcasting is if you’re not doing it, why not? There’s such a low barrier to entry, really easy setup. So Google-able, just figure it out. What do you need to buy, what do you need to do? Relatively easy to set yourself up. And once that’s done, there’s a thousand platforms that are really great that now offer even audio integration with Spotify and things like that. It’s so easy to get music. That kind of thing is just taken care of. We use a great transcription app that means that every podcast is a lengthy blog posts that can be used in multiple ways.”

34:11 – Promote podcast with transcripts

Hacker Noon uses their podcasts transcripts to create a variety of promotional content for their blog and social media channels.

“We always will be a primarily text-driven, content-driven platform. So generated this massive transcript, had a great blog post about it, summarizing it with timestamps. And then that got broken down into posts that would be on social media, at least a month worth of daily reminders of, Hey, there’s this podcast episode. Obviously alternating with whatever else came out, but just taking different little snippets of audio. Creating little audiograms that people can listen to in-app. I’m a firm believer that social media shouldn’t actually be used to try and get people out of the app because you’re fighting a losing battle there. So just keep them there listening to your one-minute post if you can or your 15-second story. Just try and keep them there with an interesting snippet of audio, with text always because you never know if they’re listening in a place where they can’t use audio. So yeah, we just figured all of that out as we went long.”

43:15 – Stay present in the room

Natasha said the secret to good interviews and life is staying present in the moment and going with the flow.

“I definitely think that being present is the key to everything in life really. Anything that you do with full attention and managing to stay in the room and hold the space that it takes, which a lot of us don’t do. We’re looking at our phones. We’re looking at other things constantly. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had about let’s say eight out of 10 friends diagnosed with some form of ADHD in the last year. It’s just to me, a natural response of our current times. And I think that in an interview in particular, as long as you can stay present and you don’t get too caught up. As you say, don’t send that preset list of questions, it’s just gonna limit you. Don’t get too caught up in the list of topics that you need to cover, just let things flow and stay really present in the room, respond to what’s happening.” 

47:18 – Don’t get held hostage by platforms

Content creators have to be conscious of how platforms can demand constant attention and pull us away from making meaningful content.

“What I’ve always said about writing is if you’re bored then so is the reader. So we’ve got into this cycle of needing to produce so much so often that often we’re not writing real meaningful stuff. We’re being held hostage by the algorithm and the need to feed it. And nowhere is that more true than on TikTok. It demands this constant attention, and you won’t get views unless you’re posting four videos a day minimum kind of thing. I don’t even know what the latest number is, but it’s a lot. You need to hire a full-time person. We hired a full-time podcast host. I would argue that you definitely need a full-time person, if not two, on that channel. So it’s resource-intensive and it, as you say, has definite moral dilemma material in terms of how addictive it is. But Duolingo, Ryan Air, there’s some brands that are doing such great and hilarious work.”

52:32 – Bring quantity down, so quality can go up

A content philosophy that Natasha finds herself fighting for is the scaling down of content or distribution in favor of spending time on quality.

“I often find myself fighting for fewer emails or fewer posts about marketing a certain thing or fewer ads. I find myself fighting that fight. Or shorter dates for a campaign as well, packing things into smaller packages or employing fewer channels and deploying higher quality messages. Or spending more time making a very high-quality video that then only gets to be distributed properly on certain channels, for example. I often find myself arguing for scaling down so that the content quality can go up. So scaling down on the channels and the tactics and the campaign duration in order for the content assets and the quality of that copy to go up.” 

58:26 – Experiment with microcopy

Natasha likes to put clever copy in places where people won’t expect it, like automated emails.

“At the end of the day, I’m a copywriter and always will be. I love microcopy. I love writing clever emails, particularly if they’re automated. People don’t expect to be surprised with delightful copy in a forgot my password email, but it’s such an opportunity to just have the best time and put your jokes in there and put your best stuff in there and really make a moment in somebody’s day. Because the one email you know they’re going to have to open is your password forgot email. And I get so much joy out of those kinds of writing tasks. So no matter sort of how far I’ve gone, I’ve always tried to keep close to keeping at least 20% of my week spent on writing.”

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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.