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Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich

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Six-Figure Content Programs: A Lesson (and Change) in Positioning

(Editorial note: I originally wrote this post over on the Hit Subscribe blog. I’ll be cross-posting anything I think this audience might find interesting and also started a SubStack to which I’ll syndicate marketing-related content.)

Since its founding, Hit Subscribe has had terrible positioning.  And this has been entirely my fault.

Now, before this self-flagellation descends into "awkward to watch," I will offer two important mitigating considerations:

  1. Hit Subscribe's new business has always been at least 95% pure inbound, so bad positioning has never been an acute pain.
  2. Almost all services, practices, and "agencies" also have terrible positioning, so few people have ever noticed or cared about ours.

But I have long been among those few who notice these things.  And since on channels like DaedTech and YouTube I'm constantly admonishing indies about de-commodifying themselves, I have felt the dissonance as a bit of a burr in my saddle.  But that didn't motivate me to fix it, so I've just had to live with my own low-grade hypocrisy.

Until now, that is!  We've changed Hit Subscribe's positioning and updated our offerings page accordingly.  We build six-figure traffic programs.

And even though this arose out of my intent to hire help in marketing and delegate lead qualification against our ideal customer profile (ICP), I think this is worth a reflective blog post, particularly for those among my readership that find the subject of positioning to be interesting.


A Quick Definition of Positioning

For context, let me briefly define positioning.  Perhaps the easiest way to understand a brand's positioning is to imagine it answering the question, "Why work with you?"  More formally, you can think of it as the brand's best attempt at a unique selling proposition (USP), which is an explanation of when and why it offers a better solution than any alternatives, be they competitors, DIY-ing, or inaction.

Someone guessing at Starbucks' positioning might say, "Predictably good coffee available everywhere."  For Tesla, at one point, it was owning an EV without sacrificing a fast driving experience.  It's why buyers give you money.

Compared to product companies, freelancers, generalists, and agencies tend to struggle mightily with positioning.  It's not for a lack of trying.  It's just that every attempt tends to devolve inevitably into "we're the cheapest" or "we're the highest quality" (which is just "we're not the cheapest upfront, but we are the cheapest in the long run.")

If these types of businesses and practices do mature past this intensely commodified positioning, it's usually just to add a superficial property about the clients they serve.  "We're the cheapest vendor... that serves the banking industry."

(As an aside, I would argue that there's a pretty low ceiling on positioning maturity for any entity that bills by the hour since hourly billing is ipso facto commodification.)

Navel-Gazing: Why "Developer Marketing" Is Terrible Positioning

At its inception, Hit Subscribe was just an operationalization of a growing number of dev tools companies (mostly static analyzers) offering me, Erik, money to write content for them.  My wife, a professional editor, started editing my posts, and boom, a done-for-you content business was born.  We then scaled by backfilling those two primary roles with contractors and opportunistically expanding our deliverables into adjacent value-adds.

But at the core of things, we never really moved away from the innate commodification of the core deliverable.  Those initial Erik-then-Hit-Subscribe customers were looking for software engineers to write content, so the positioning was, and remained, nearly identical to a company selling custom app dev.  "We sell the commodified labor you're looking for."

For years, I mentally futzed with this at the margins.  "It's not that they want engineers to write content, but rather that they're marketing to engineers," I lied to myself.  "So developer marketing is our positioning."

But that's terrible positioning, in the same way that "Rails developer" or "SEO specialist" is terrible positioning.  It's terrible positioning because it's all about the labor and not at all about the client, what they're looking for, and what kind of transformation they're hoping to achieve.

Don't believe me?  What does the ICP and buyer look like for "developer marketing?"

  • Fortune 500, bootstrapped indie, pre-seed startup?
  • Founder, marketing VP, SEO, or content manager?
  • Dev tools company or non-dev tools company marketing their API?

Sure, whatever, all of that.  As long as there are code snippets in the blog post, Bob's your uncle.

Moving Toward a Meaningful ICP

Ironically, Hit Subscribe has never done any real marketing outside of dutifully stocking socials a little and me ranting and conducting live content experiments here and on Make Me a Programmer.  But I'm looking at doing actual marketing this year since Hit Subscribe has expanded and segmented itself into practices, each of which could use a stable, predictable pipeline.

To do any kind of sane marketing, you need to figure out who you're talking to.  So suddenly, our "Bob's your uncle" positioning, for the first time in our history, became an actual blocker.

We needed to figure out what an ideal customer profile looked like and what persona usually reached out to us from those customers.  This is who we should talk to with our marketing.

But even this was relatively complicated by a long history of generalizing and opportunistic expansion into adjacent offerings.  Ideal customer for which offering?

We have some excellent customers in the enterprise that use us as a shared content service partner.  There are perfectly lovely smaller outfits that turn to us for keyword research and SEO cleanup jobs.  Fast-growth startups will come to us and say, "Build me an insane amount of organic traffic as fast as possible."

The first important realization in trying to make sense of this situation was that Hit Subscribe and its practices don't have ICPs—our offerings do.  And once we started to think about that mapping, a unifying theme emerged.

Finding the Unique Outcomes Our Customers Value

The core of Hit Subscribe's value proposition has, historically, been having techies write content and tech-experienced editors edit that content.  Specifically, we've created a large bench of talented folks doing this as a low-commitment side hustle.  And in a very real sense in the dev tools world, we turn your prospective userbase into your cooperative workforce.

Put another way, we offer community content as a service.

But thinking about ICPs and establishing meaningful positioning means you need to stop thinking about the particulars of your labor and model and start thinking of your buyers.  In our case, it means asking ourselves why our ideal customers find community as a service so valuable.  And that answer now defines our positioning.

Our ICP finds this valuable because no other model is capable of delivering the prodigious funnel metrics they want on the aggressive timeline they're given.

In other words, you're not going to get from 500 visitors a month to 500,000 a month in two years by having your VP of marketing write blog posts or having a founder wrangle two or three freelance content marketers.  Organizations with this kind of GTM vision require a unique, battle-tested partner to do this, particularly when the content in question is highly specialized.

Why "Six-Figure Content Programs?"

Concomitant with this realization about why a subset of companies were interested in our traffic models and scale of contractor bench came the realization that these customers tended to be the best customers, both from a profit and a culture-fit perspective.  And on the flip side, the most awkward fits tended to happen with customers where I could reasonably ask, "Why would you need a giant bench of side-hustling software engineers for that?"  Or worse, "Why are you coming to us for search engine traffic when nothing about your lead generation landscape suggests that's a good channel for you?"

Now I was onto something.  Our historical best clients and best success stories had all partnered with us for hockey-stick-shaped traffic graphs and committed to the channel.  So I teased out some fairly crisp attributes for lead scoring purposes, based on this emerging ICP:

  • They had ambitious, quantified funnel goals.
  • They were confident enough in organic as a channel to commit at least six figures to it over time.
  • Their offerings lent themselves very well to the channel (e.g., low entry price point, individual contributor users, self-serve signup process).
  • They either grokked SEO or didn't, but either way, they trusted us to grok it for them.
  • They'd baked their segmentation and GTM enough to make radical tactical changes unlikely.

Staring at that, I realized I had a grand unifying theme on my hands.  Our lovely smaller customers were all either aspiring to this position or looking to us to help them answer the question of how much they should invest in organic.  And our lovely enterprise customers had all once been in the position above and (with our help or predating us) had blasted through the six-figure traffic thermocline at some point.

In any case, the theme was clear: good clients for us are ones that either might need or definitely do need a prodigious amount of traffic.  So the elevator pitch becomes "six-figure content programs" because funnel goals on that scale have become our specialty.

Revisiting Qualification and Disqualification

Over the last few years, I've often found myself reluctantly, and as a matter of feel, telling marginal prospects who are looking for "thought leadership" content that they should just find a freelancer.  This tends to be an awkward conversation, though, because I feel bad not wanting to help them.  Neither of the historical motivations for turning this business away feels particularly client-first:

  1. The business owner in me recognizes that clients wanting "thought leadership" will go very slowly and agonize over each delivered paragraph, making it a low-profit engagement that probably moves no needle of any kind for them, either.
  2. The easily bored consultant in me recognizes that staffing this type of engagement is an absolutely trivial (and thus profoundly boring) problem to solve.  Just some combination of Upwork and writing samples and, bang, instant thought leadership that mercifully doesn't involve me in any way.

But in disqualification conversations, it's never felt very good to say, "Your problem is boring," or "Your nervousness about your brand will make this too low stakes to be worth the account management."

Now, however, I can articulate this type of ill fit in a non-judgy, self-effacing way.  "We build six-figure traffic programs, and that doesn't seem like what you're after."

Positioning Is Iterative

Having this thought exercise in the books is going to make life easier.  It's going to make it easier for us to identify mutual-fit clients, score leads, market, and hire marketing help.  And it's going to make it easier to focus on what we do well, leading to improvement and refining our offerings.

But it's also important to recognize that positioning isn't something we've crossed off the checklist and are done with.

In my experience, positioning is a highly iterative proposition.  We've ponied up the table stakes and moved away from generalism, so it's a start.  But now we need to evaluate if and how the messaging resonates and how meaningfully it helps us make good decisions.

Still, after a lot of years of going without meaningful positioning, it's nice to have this start.  And hopefully this thinking exercise spurs some of you out there a little, especially in services, to poke a little at your own positioning.

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