Stop Worrying About Engagement & Other Good Advice I Ignored
“Trying to go viral” is not a strategy. I learned that the hard way. Here’s how I screwed up early on, and what I do now that works.
For a certain value of “works”, at least.
It’s taken me many years to develop solid content creation habits. I wish it was because there was some secret knowledge that takes a long time to discover, but the reality is that I was ignoring what my more accomplished friends were telling me because it felt too simple and boring.
The told me: find something you can do consistently — and then stick to it.
That’s it. No secret hacks. No weird tricks. Just consistency and incremental growth.
“Going viral” is a bad strategy.
I spent much of my early career trying to invent The Thing™ that would put me on the map. I dedicated a lot of effort to a single piece of content. My goal was always to do something so remarkable that it would go viral.
Unfortunately, that strategy didn’t work.
Trying to go viral is a flawed strategy because it skips to the end. Sure, it can happen that a piece of content takes off on its own — I’ve had it happen once or twice — but the likelihood of that happening is low. And even if your content does take off, it’s vanishingly rare that an isolated effort catapults your career. The truth is, even “overnight sensations” have usually been working for a long time without recognition before they finally break through.
Put more plainly: if you're not a consistent creator, the likelihood that you’ll suddenly find yourself rich and successful as a creator is borderline zero. I held out hope that I was an exception to this rule for a long time.
I’d get into a groove and publish steadily for a bit, and I’d start to see growth, new subscribers, and people sharing my content on Twitter. Then I would go heads down and disappear. I’d see my early growth and tell myself that now was the time. I needed to focus all my efforts on creating The Perfect Thing™ that would finally break through.
That never happened.
While I was heads-down trying to create my perfect piece, all the momentum I was building was lost. What I thought would take me to the next level was actively setting me back.
At the same time, I saw pieces published in Smashing Magazine or CSS-Tricks that were shared far and wide, and I’d get jealous. I felt my content was at a similar level of quality to what I was seeing Smashing or CSS-Tricks — they even published my work every once in a while!
I was missing the point. It wasn't the quality of the content. The answer was that they published every day.
The closest thing to a guarantee is consistency.
In every case I can think of, a creator who sees success has a proven record of publishing consistently. The only exceptions to that rule are one-hit wonders, and that’s the opposite of what we’re talking about here.
I was looking at each piece on its standalone merits, and that was causing me to miss the point entirely.
Stellar creators publish constantly.
The best way to achieve high quality is through practice. Publishing frequently meant that these creators were getting a huge amount of practice and feedback, which they could use to further improve and grow.
These consistent posts were useful to the people who were interested in learning what they set out to teach, but there was an additional benefit: people learned that CSS-Tricks was always going to have something new for them!
The “virality” of these sites wasn’t because they’d figured out how to make lightning strike twice. Their success was cumulative. Each post was a tiny push forward that maintained their momentum and increased their footprint in the community. They weren’t aiming for virality; they were showing up every day and doing the work to put something out into the world to help their community. The occasional viral post was a bonus, not the goal.
Meanwhile, I was refusing to publish because I wanted to make something perfect. Weeks, sometimes months would pass, and I’d be silent. I wasn’t building any momentum, and I felt it when I did publish, and my content failed to show up in the conversation.
It was a nasty cycle to be in: I hurt my chances of growth by not focusing on consistency, and my infrequent posts didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped, which hurt my motivation to stay consistent.
To stand out, be helpful (incrementally)
When we look around on Twitter, for example, many of us are following hundreds of people, if not thousands. All those people are sharing content in our timelines.
But how many can we call up by name? I’d wager it’s only a handful, and I’d bet good money that they all have one thing in common: they’ve been creating a large body of work incrementally over a sustained period of time.
Two folks who exemplify this perfectly are Matt Pocock and Cassie Evans. If you’re into TypeScript, you’ve almost certainly come across something Matt has written or created. If you work with Greensock, Cassie is an absolute powerhouse creator for GSAP examples and inspiration.
Creators like Matt and Cassie show up just about every day with something to share. They’ve built momentum and notability within the communities they’re trying to reach.
And, every once in a while, they release something that goes viral.
Focus on cumulative growth
It’s extremely important to remember that creating content is a process, not a one-off project. Try to find a format that’s easy to follow and sustainable to produce on a regular cadence. Don’t focus overly on the performance of individual pieces — look at trends over time.
For example, I post an episode with a guest once a week on YouTube. I have grown about 24% year over year on my channel. On a day-to-day basis, I don’t see massive spikes in my numbers, but my growth has been steadily trending up and to the right for years now.
I’ve been consistently making Learn With Jason since 2018. I've made hundreds of episodes at this point, and each one has been a little bit better than the one before. Each episode follows a format that I've been refining for the last five years now.
It doesn’t feel like a lot when I look at it weekly, but if I zoom out on the timeline, it results in a huge body of work. And, despite not having explosive growth or constant viral content, I’ve built a sustainable enough model that I’ve been able to make Learn With Jason my full-time job.
I couldn’t have gone full-time after just a few episodes — at least not without massive risks and effort on my part. I put in consistent effort for years and built momentum that people trust now.
Don’t assume you can publish a few pieces and quickly go full-time.
Expect that it’ll take dozens of reps. Likely hundreds.
Look at how many pieces of content well-known creators like Kent C. Dodds and Sarah Drasner have published over time. They earned their prominence in the community through shipping constantly for years on end.
Most of us have likely only seen a fraction of everything they've created, but we think of folks like these as prolific creators.
That's because they're consistent, and it's because they build on formats that work for them.
Find a format you can iterate on.
The best creators I know have templates that they follow to cut down on friction during creation. This often takes the shape of “episodic content” like podcasts, but it can be applied to various ideas.
Salma Alam-Naylor put together the FYI Fridays format, a template for creating short-format videos for platforms like TikTok and YouTube Shorts.
Cassidy Williams has a huge number of templates for all sorts of content she creates, which she mentioned to me is a huge factor in her ability to stay consistent with the many places she publishes.
If you watch an episode of Learn With Jason, I follow a strict format for each episode, including a few sections where I say the same things verbatim every episode.
Having a predetermined format removes the need to invent every part of every piece of content from scratch. A template means some decisions are already made, and you can focus your creativity on the pieces that matter (like what you want to say, rather than how you’ll say it).
If you start looking for it, you’ll probably be able to find patterns in almost every creator’s projects that help them reduce the friction of creating — and help them establish their “voice” as a creator since the format also creates familiarity that brands the content as uniquely theirs.
A note about “paying dues.”
I should clarify that I don’t think there are any “dues” that need to be paid. If a new creator figures out how to rocket to prominence in a sustainable way for them, I’m all about it!
Instead, I’m sharing what I’ve learned and observed over a long career: while it’s possible to hit the jackpot and rocket to success quickly, the vast majority of the folks you see making it as creators got there through putting in the work, finding ways to eliminate friction in their creative process, and by focusing on cumulative progress instead of one-off launches.
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I’m a web generalist who believes that a great path to a fulfilling career is through exploration, play, and examining how we interact with the world around us. I publish across multiple sites and media regularly, so subscribing to my newsletter is the best way to make sure you don’t miss anything!