Modern Influence
13 min read

Modern Influence

You may not know what the future of your career has in store for you, but it probably involves you taking more responsibility for your own success. Two things will lay the foundation -- communication and influence. Here's my thought process on the habits and tools to get started.
Modern Influence

It was circa 2007, I was working at Progress Software as an evangelist. Among other things, I was helping the marketing team by writing for the company's first public blog when one of the VPs asked:

Why do you blog? We've beent trying to get executive leadership to blog, and we can't make any progress... why do you do it?

Put on the spot like that, I'm still surprised at how quickly I answered:

I write because I lead by influence. They lead by control. They don't prioritize sharing and communicating the same way that I do because their position gives them power that I have to earn with each interaction.

A lot has changed since then, and a lot hasn't. One thing that hasn't changed is the fact that in today's professional world you need to own your content. You need a "home base" to show off your portfolio.

You need to influence others.

The language around doing that has changed as have the tools. And, frankly, for the first time, I've softened my own opinion about how hard-core I hold that belief (more on that later).

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday, someone I used to work with. They were telling me that they wanted to put themselves out there more and were talking about re-establishing a blogging practice they started ten or so years ago.

I want to share the synopsis of my advice advice to them.

Why does my advice matter?

One of the main reasons I'm writing more is for me. Another is to figure out how to clarify my unique skill so I can focus on what I do best.

One of the things my wife chuckles about is how often I'm talking about something months or years before it hits a more popular mainstream. A recent and topical example is my interest in the crypto space. I don't have these ideas on my own. I'm not a "visionary".

What I am is a synthesizer. I have keen observations skills and an ability to make connections between observations that might seem unrelated. I literally visualize the extension of the line that connects them to reach further into ideas. This has a lot to do with my martial arts practice... but I digress.

My advice matters to you. While the ideas which I share may be obvious to me, and the people who are the inputs to my process, they might not be obvious to others like yourself. You know, people that have an actual life. I might also be able to explain these ideas differently than others do becasue I tend to wrap them in a story. I often explain things in a way that's easier to make a connection to the idea for the reader.

Anyways, if you're a professional, especially a professional at a big company, I expect you will find this useful.

Blogging

The term blogging is a conflation of two things:

  1. Writing
  2. Distribution

It's probably easy to argue that my list above is incomplete, but from the perspective of the writer you create a blog in order to (1) write, and (2) have a place to put your writing.

By posting your writing to a blog you:

  1. Have links to share your ideas with others
  2. Have SEO relevance
  3. Build a portfolio of ideas and work (for example, when people want to see me present and how I think about presenting, I often share this post from January 2010)

A problem with many people's ideas of blogging has to do with where they post their content.

Since that post I just shared, I've worked at a handful of companies. I've blogged for them all. Most have removed my name from the posts I wrote as an employee (kudos and thank you to Axway for not doing so on either API Friends or Axway's corporate blog). I've also written internally at companies.

By writing on other people's properties, my ideas and writing are distributed in a way that don't allow me to build my personal brand.

This tweet convo between two of my favorite minds on Twitter is talking about Substack, a newsletter platform. The same point applies to blogging. Let's say you wrote blog posts on LinkedIn instead of your own site. Content you post only on LinkedIn attaches to your profile, but LinkedIn doesn't allow you to differentiate your content's brand from anyone else's.

I believe people need to write and own their content. To do so, they need a public blog and their own domain name (URL).

But there's a problem with the way that advice is written. I want my advice to be crisp, and as such, it's too simplified. It leaves out an important trend: Email Newsletters.

Email newsletters

Email has come into play as being relevant on two key metrics:

  1. Reach. Getting permission to visit someone in their inbox is a priviledge, and a sign that you're building trust.
  2. Monetization. It turns out that newsletters are a good business model for independent writers.

I don't want this post to get too much longer (and I have a lot more to say) so I want to ask a question that may not make sense and then answer it.

When you write something, is it a post or is it a newsletter?

This question is one of the reasons I defined blogging as a conflation of writing and distribution the way I did above.

One can easily conflate writing with distribution in the newsletter space as well as the blogging space. Or the writing can be abstracted out of the distribution model.

One can easily conflate writing with distribution in the newsletter space as well as the blogging space. Or, the writing can be abstracted out of distribution where different distribution modes provide different types of value.

The way I think about it there are three approaches to newsletters:

  1. Write a post, send it out via email. Chris Lema does this and I get an email daily because he's been writing daily. Each email is clearly a post distributed via email. There's no personalization in the email, just the content. I can't say enough kind things about Chris. If you write online you should subscribe. One of the innovators in this whole space, Ben Thompson at Stratechery, who delivers four paid emails a week to subscribers uses this model too. He describes his business as "a website that delivers posts through email" and specifically not as a "newsletter".
  2. Write a newsletter that really is a post. It's written as an email but happens to be archived on a website that can look like a blog. Wondertools is a great example. Happy 1-year anniversary Jeremy! Click on that link and notice. It's the opposite of Chris' distribution model. Chris sends unpersonalized email with just the content. Jeremy serves up personalized emails on a web page that makes the emails look like a blog post. At the end, he even says "thanks for the replies"; a comment that's out of place in a blog post.
  3. The third approach is one that Ben Evans employs. Ben writes posts (he calls them essays), and his newsletter shares each post as a bullet with a summary along with other posts he finds interesting. This is different from Jeremy. Ben creates content and then writes a newsletter to distribute that content (along with other content). Jeremy writes a newsletter that has the content in it and does not (appear to) write content otherwise. Even if you aren't a subscriber, you can read Jeremy's newsletters online.

My personal choice is approach number 3. I like to write, but can't always commit to a schedule. So I write posts when they come to me. I also like to connect with people. So, I write a newsletter. It includes some of my posts (not all), and other stuff that's on my mind, that I believe my audience would find interesting/useful but isn't content I'd write a full post about.

By the way, another distribution channel is social. So, you can think of writing, and then distributing your writing as:

  1. a blog post online (where SEO helps pull readers in,
  2. as a newsletter where you can build a connection with your audience, potentially even monetizing the content, and
  3. social snippets to push your content out where future readers are hanging out.

Intermediate summary

This is long, but I'm going to go with it. Let me pause for a second to make sure you're still following.

The white collar career path is changing. No more corporate ladders that you climb for decades; the higher you get the more control over people you wield. Today, it's about your portfolio of work, your special skills, and influence (through communications.

Owning your ideas and portfolio online is important. 10 years ago, that meant blogging. The big decision that people didn't always know to make was to have your own domain name so that you could change providers but keep search relevance.

Today, newsletters have emerged to build a more personal connection with your audience that can be monetized. But, it's still just writing and distribution.

Back to the conversation that inspired this post

If you recall, a year ago when you started reading this post, that yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend who wanted to restart a latent blogging habit they had from about ten years ago.

I explained that any blogging strategy that you start today should consider newsletters. The newsletter trend was new to my friend, at least as it pertains to working in public through blogging.

So I quickly ran down the newsletter landscape as follows.

Substack

They're the well known company in the space. They make it really easy to get a newsletter started. Eliminating user friction is super important but I question the value Substack can add in light of the negatives to having your content on a platform you don't control.

There are real questions as to how much they can help you grow your newsletter. They limit your branding options. They take a cut of your subscription revenue (which up to a point is good because building payment back-ends is complicated, but for a large newsletter there are diminishing returns).

Again with Substack as with early blogging, a lot of people are making the mistake and using the Substack domain. Look at Jeremy's WonderTools newsletter above. It's wondertools.substack.com. You can setup a custom domain, and it looks like you don't even need a paid Substack account to do so.

Substack is a quick way to get started, just like writing content on Medium is a quick way to get started blogging.

You probably don't need to be reminded that first there was Blogger, then there was LinkedIn, and now there's Medium. Substack is hot now, but what does the future hold? I'm not the only person who's skeptical about these sorts of companies:

Revue

I setup a Revue account a while back. In fact, in March of 2019. I wrote one newsletter because that's how I learn, by doing. I wasn't intending to keep it going, though was open to the idea.

I like the feel of Revue more than Substack. Obviously, that's personal.

Recently, Revue was acquired by Twitter. It's a good play by Twitter, and I'm excited to see what happens. Ben Thompson at Stratechery lays their opportunity out quite nicely (you must be a subscriber to access his post).

In short, Twitter has a great social graph, and they can eliminate lots of friction and help people find and connect to their audience either via short content (Tweets), newsletters/long-form (Revue), or voice (Spaces).

If I were to choose someone else's platform to start writing with today, I'd use Revue. There are other tools, from Mailchimp to ConvertKit (both of which I also use, the former for my dojo, the latter for free email-courses to promote my book). If you're going to use a tool to get something done, use a recent one. Newsletters have changed a lot since Mailchimp started, and while it can do what you need, just start fresh.

There are also tools like Podia and Gumroad that are quite good. However, those tools are really designed for people who will also sell some sort of content product. My chain of thinking here is really focused on professionals who want to share ideas and engage an audience like we might do at our day jobs.

Hey World

A side note, and a simple contender.

I mentioned earlier, ten years ago at the top of this post, that I've softened my opinion a little about owning your own platform. That's because of Hey World.

The makers of Basecamp launched an email service called Hey last year. I signed up right away, though have since stopped using it. It's redefined email. It's beautiful. It's fast. But, I can't deal with email threading. Believe me, I tried.

Anyways, they created Hey World to eliminate friction and let writers focus on writing. It's compelling. You write an email, send it to world@hey.com, and you're done. People can find it, read what you write, and subscribe for more.

Just focus on the writing, eliminate all friction. Beautifully executed.

And it's free if you are a Hey email customer (which is not free, but not expensive).

It's just not for me.

Which begs the question, what do I do/recommend?

Ghost

I do like tools.

I also am technical enough to have gotten Ghost setup using Ghost(Pro). In fact, Ghost itself has no configuration. But, I follow my own advice and use a custom domain.

It doesn't take much, but you have to be willing to configure a DNS record. And, since I use Hover as my domain registrar, I needed to configure Cloudflare too. I got help from the Ghost team, so I wasn't alone in the process and found the directions easy to follow.

I don't mind paying a few dollars a month (it's $9/month billed annually) to have someone to ask for help, to manage email delivery, and to manage upgrades.

That said, I'm getting closer to using a different domain I have, and I'm going to have to block some time to figure out how to switch domains. I'm sure it's straightforward, I've just never done it.

I'm an affiliate, so if you do decide to use Ghost Pro, I'd appreciate it if you'd remember to use my link when you sign up.  

Another option is to host Ghost on your own infrastructure, connecting it with Mailgun for mail delivery. You'd need more technical skills than I choose to cultivate. I know I could do that sort of config too... but I don't want to spend my time doing so (and neither should you if you only care about writing). I like tools, not infrastructure.

Anyways, why Ghost?

  1. You can blog and easily incorporate email delivery.
  2. You can easily turn on a paid-membership when you are ready.
  3. They're a good company.
  4. The Ghost(Pro) offering makes it super easy to get started. It's just as easy to start as Substack or Revue, there just isn't a permanent free plan (you get 14 days free to try). It's more flexible than the other choices and you own your own destiny with the platform.

If I've piqued your interest in Ghost you want to read this easy-to-understand comparison between Ghost and all the alternatives. They even share deep dives into the differences between Ghost and popular alternatives if you want more.

When you get started, if you want a theme to make your site look like Substack or Patreon, check out Superthemes. I was using Dan's Substation theme, and expect to go back to that or Patron once I get a minute to learn a little more about a few things.

Finally, use Fathom Analytics for fast, simple, privacy-centered analytics. I'll write more about this soon.

Summary

I had no idea I was sitting down to write over 2,700 words. If you got here, thank you (and maybe subscribe?).

If you're a professional white-collar worker, your world is changing. You need to start managing your portfolio of work instead of trying to climb the corporate ladder. You need to consider how to lead by influence, rather than by control. You need to build authority. And, on that subject, I found this post I wrote two+ years ago that's still relevant:

3 Tips for Authorities Inside of Big Orgs
First things first.I’ve tried newsletters before... but they haven’t stuck. I believe they’re important and interesting... but I just haven’t stuck with it. Partly because I don’t have an objective. That’s a fancy way of saying my newsletter hasn’t mattered.I blog. So, my thoughts are captured and s…

One way to lead by influence or build authority is to think and write publicly. Then build an audience of like minds.

If you write internally or on your company blog keep copies. Only one company that I've ever worked for has kept my public posts in my name after leaving. It's not just me or the companies I've worked for. It's natural for our content to fade over time and important for you to prevent that.

Why Developers Should Archive Their Old Content
Archiving content, especially content that has been published on an external website, helps us ensure that we can keep an accurate record of our writing and that we’re never caught by surprise if our content is removed or deprecated by a publisher.

Words sometimes fail us. Especially when it comes to complex ideas. That said, a simplified point of view is that blogging has evolved to include newsletters. An easy way to understand this is to think about the difference between the content (the idea) and the delivery. So, there's nothing new. Just think and write.

I shared three ways to approach email delivery above.

  1. Write posts, send posts via email.
  2. Write an email newsletter, publicize newsletters on a blog.
  3. Write posts, write a newsletter that also includes your post summaries/links.

I strongly recommend using Ghost whichever approach you choose. Their $9/month Ghost(Pro) service makes it as easy to get started as Substack or Revue (disclosure, I'm an affiliate) while allowing you to own your content and subscribers.

Also, use your own domain. It's so much easier to start with your own domain than to change later.

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