I know someone that spends close to $20,000 a month on a publicist.
I know an author who spends something like that out of their own pocket each month on what’s called co-op, or extra prominent placement at airport bookstores.
I know many people who spend more than that on advertising.
I myself have hired publicists. I have paid for co-op. I used to spend six figures a year on Facebook ads for Daily Stoic.
But several years ago I made a decision that changed my business and radically transformed my career.
I stopped spending money on all of that.
It’s not that I wasn’t getting a return on my investment. But it struck me just how empty it all was. I was putting all this time and energy and money into something, which were I ever to stop, would leave barely a trace behind!
I was thinking of a wonderful quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, while criticizing advertising and publicity, pointed out that a person, “cannot be honest without admitting that its constructive contribution to humanity is exactly minus zero.”
So I took that money and did something very different with it: I used it to start making stuff.
I hired a videographer. I hired a social media manager. I hired another researcher. I hired a bunch of people. I took the entire budget that I had been putting into advertising and built a content team. We built the Daily Stoic podcast. We started making YouTube videos. We started cutting clips from the talks I gave. We wrote explainers and SEO pieces about philosophy. We launched DailyDad.com. We started @DailyPhilosopher on Instagram.
Some people might shrug and say, “Yeah that’s called content marketing,” but it’s actually a deeper philosophical shift.
Over the years, Daily Stoic has created hundreds of videos, articles and emails. With the 500-word daily newsletter, that’s a little more than two books a year of free content delivered straight to email inboxes around the world every morning. We’ve essentially created the largest Stoic library in the world. Hundreds of hours of video on the great Stoic works, the rules the Stoics lived by, Stoic habits, Stoic don’ts, and Stoic questions for a better life. Hundreds of thousands of words across articles on the Big 3 (Marucs Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus), timeless Stoic strategies for happiness, dealing with stress, getting and staying motivated, overcoming procrastination, and handling rude people.
A lot of people have seen that stuff as a result. We’ve done something like 63 million views on YouTube (4.4 million hours watched), and we just hit 1 million subscribers to the channel last week. The podcast does around 5 million downloads a month (well over 120M downloads). The email goes out to nearly 600,000 subscribers every morning…and has been sent something like 450 million times. You can add on top of that this bi-monthly email you’re reading here, plus my monthly Reading List Email too.
Some of the people that have found this content have gone on to be customers, sure. Advertising and publicity are largely used as a means of attracting attention for someone’s business. Content marketing is also a way of doing that. But I’m not saying you should trade Strategy A for Strategy B, or that Strategy B is more cost effective. It probably isn’t–making all this content has been an enormous amount of work and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What I am saying is that instead of using your energy and resources and effort to make stuff that converts, you should use your energy and resources and effort to make stuff that matters.
Because it is valuable in and of itself.
Someone gets shown an ad and buys something, that’s great. But the people who get shown an ad and do nothing? What a lost opportunity! What a waste of their time and yours. It’s nice for the ego to get profiled in some publication…but it is quickly forgotten.
Deciding to make videos, write articles, produce thousands of hours of audio–what I decided to prioritize my work around was making work.
Creating value for others that lasts.
I have a little notecard on my wall next to my desk that says “Am I Being a Good Steward of Stoicism?” I found I couldn’t sleep with myself knowing I was spending a bunch of money on extractive ads. But I can swell with pride knowing I spent the profits that my books have earned making content that millions of people have consumed for free, that has helped spread the ideas in Stoicism to people who would have never heard them otherwise. One helps the world, one helps no one but the ad network.
I could stop making new content today…I could die tomorrow and the stuff we have made would keep on keeping on, reaching people, helping people. And this is really the best part: I would die a better person for having made it too. It was fun. It was educational. It was rewarding.
I must say I wouldn’t go as far as saying all advertising is worthless (we have ads at the bottom of our emails a few times a week, including this one). At American Apparel, nothing was more rewarding than using our advertising budget to support causes like legalizing gay marriage or immigration reform. We also deliberately sought out publications that we believed were doing important work, that we felt contributed to the scene or the community–we put our money there, knowing that in addition to reaching people about our products, we were also helping that publication survive or thrive.
The other reason I want to make it clear that I’m not just talking about content marketing versus ads is that I have very much stretched the definition of ‘content.’ The decision to open a small town bookstore in rural Texas? That’s not the same as a blogpost but it is doing stuff, it is making something that matters.
The Painted Porch as a business makes very little sense on its own. It’s too risky, too expensive, too regional. Yet it’s accomplished so much–not only has it gotten tons of publicity, but it’s been a story I have been able to tell in my content as well as make my content in. It’s also a physical space people have been able to travel all over the world to visit, to bring people to, to post pictures and talk to other people about.
I promise you, the feeling of walking into it–this modern version of the ancient Stoa–is vastly more satisfying than looking at some spreadsheet looking at which Twitter or Reddit ad is converting better. The same goes when I see the people who are on our team: Billy, Dawson, Chelsea, Kristen, Rachel, Ernie, Deezie, and Jess (plus many great contractors all over the world). To be able to provide a living for them, to see them learn on the job, to benefit from and learn myself from their contributions, to watch us come together and make something larger than the sum of our parts? It’s cool seeing your books on an end table at Hudson’s at JFK, but I like this a lot better.
If you’re going to do something, I say, do something real. Do something that matters, that makes a difference.
Each of us is only here so long. We can only work on so many things. We can spend our time, energy and resources in only so many ways.
The question is how are you going to use these limited resources?
To me, the answer is to do stuff that matters. Make things that matter to people, that help people.
Make a constructive contribution to humanity.
It will come back to you.