Part 1: Don’t Grow Your Garden in Someone Else’s Yard

May 4, 2021
8 min read

I’ve watched many companies and artists house their work only on Medium or only on Instagram. Many well-meaning creative people build an audience only to move their readership later. The downside of starting out this way is simple: You do not own these platforms. You are shuffling your work against volatile business models and algorithms that you will never understand or control. It is a weak bet on your future.

But I can also empathize — and in some ways agree — with why so many companies take this route.

These “homes” promise connection and community, access and authority. For a long while, they kinda did. Many early adopters of these platforms found great success — which, if used wisely, they’re still leveraging.

Distribution is always a game about power. Take that power for yourself, and publish on your own site first, then distribute. Build your own garden and create authentic, compelling stories rooted in your brand that give generously to your audience. That’s how you’ll ultimately grow your voice in the marketplace. Building an audience is power. And it’s not easy.

This image shows an existing — and growing — pattern.

Companies that are building their own gardens are investing in the long game of earning an audience. This garden is an extension of their brand; a way to produce stories that are not being told elsewhere, to own a narrative and carve out a niche where they become a go-to resource. 

By producing your own stories that get talked about, you save money on outbound leads. You depend less on market forces and the whims of platforms. You don’t have to rely on earned media ever again. Instead, you have your own ecosystem. You stay on top of people's minds and live in their conversations.

But a huge percentage of a company’s budget is used for traditional advertising. Why? Our world was built on advertising. Numbers are legit and it's an established game that works. Facebook and Google, originally viewed as these magical tools for searching knowledge and finding connections, harvested data and became efficient (if intrusive) elegant advertising engines. They have all the power because of audience. Want access to that audience? The best data and analytics? Pay up. It's far easier for a decision-maker at a company to point to advertising as the avenue where money is going out and coming back in.

In order to shift customer perception so they can understand who you are and where you're going, you have to consistently tell new stories.

The future is in connecting the dots between
brand + editorial + product + community

Example 1

When Mailchimp rebranded in 2018, the functionality and design of their product had minor updates. Instead, they spent their energy investing in their own garden — Mailchimp Presents — that produces interesting stories about entrepreneurship. These stories are as weird, wacky, and wonderful as the Mailchimp brand itself (as they should be).

Mailchimp was moving away from their story about being an "email marketing service" and shifting to a larger narrative about supporting an entrepreneur's journey every step of the way. Now, they have a thriving ecosystem that produces award-winning podcasts and documentaries, covering stories about side-hustles to career transitions to mom-and-pop shops. Rather than relying on advertising — which they've done beautifully in the past with campaigns like MailShrimp and FailChips — they invested in a team that now creates at scale. No more outsourcing stories. No more dumping millions of dollars into campaigns that get talked about for a week at best. No more relying on traditional media to get their story right. 

For something like this to succeed, leadership must have buy-in. Yes, numbers matter because a company has to grow, but there’s also a belief that these kinds of endeavors pay off in the long run. You cannot quantify it like a Facebook ad because that’s not what it is for.

(Example 2: Why I Built a Garden for COLLINS)

COLLINS is a globally renowned strategy and design firm, known for its work with Spotify, Dropbox, Mailchimp, Twitch, Airbnb, Instagram, Crane, Robinhood, and The San Francisco Symphony.

Why would an agency — a business that is in service of clients and has won nearly every award in the industry — invest in an editorial platform?

How does an editorial bring in new business or better talent? What's the business advantage?

Read a 360-degree case study on how COLLINS built an editorial powerhouse.

Example 3

One of the strongest examples of a product + publication fit is WeTransfer (a service that allows you to send files) and their gorgeous editorial, WePresent, which highlights unexpected stories about the creative community using the product. The connection is natural: Their core customer is also the core reader of the publication. Drop the bucket in the well and you pull something out every time. The editorial is baked into the product, and the product feeds the editorial.

As Holly Fraser, Content Director of WePresent, said in this interview by Sonder & Tell:

“We don’t view WePresent as ‘content marketing’ in the traditional sense. The platform is run by a team of arts journalists striving to create conversation-worthy work that makes an impact. I think if other brands follow our lead and make work that comes from an authentic place, that creates opportunities for journalists, photographers and artists, then that’s a good thing.”

Example 4

How might great storytelling and editorial sway a person to become a customer?

I stumbled upon an article on Wealthsimple about Anthony Bourdain — RIP, legend — about how he didn't have a savings account until his mid-forties. As a broke millennial, his words resonated with me. It didn't make me feel like a total failure; plus, I had never read something so personal about money from a celebrity. Wealthsimple, which does auto-investing wealth management, is the only company of this kind that has invested in an editorial platform. With smart writing, good design, and a strong point of view about the conversations they wanted to cover, I was immediately hooked. So, I signed up.

Example 5

Stripe is already loved for its mission, who its founders are, the companies they collaborate with, their stance on climate change, and they amplify that with Stripe Press. My bet is that they’re going to do something similar to Mailchimp: invest in an editorial engine and become the go-to resource for all things eComm and entrepreneurship. Don’t be surprised in the future if you see a brand like Stripe or Mailchimp on your Netflix menu.

Example 6

Cora, a rising star in feminine care, has a publication called Blood & Milk, where they write about “taboo” topics vulnerably and thoughtfully. A great product + a publication that expresses their values and beliefs, through a lens of generously uplifting and empowering women: This is how brands will create a competitive advantage vs. those who don’t build their own gardens.

Why? When you give customers meaningful stories that help them make sense of the challenges in their lives, especially cultural or personal topics, they are going to tell others about it. Those stories make you love the product, and the products remind you of the stories.

But not every company will — or should — build its own garden

Coca-Cola does not need an editorial platform because its brand is about happiness. This is why they sponsor wholesome events and, since the beginning of time, associated themselves with anything involving happiness.

But if you're an artist, a start-up, an agency, or a renowned brand looking to have more control over your future, an investment in growing your garden is a way to contextualize who you are, what impact you're making on the world, and why you're different from the rest. If you can nail the tone of voice consistently and create and curate stories rooted in your values, your customers will connect with you, and they’ll connect others to you. 

A few dots have to connect in order for a company to invest in their own garden.

  1. Leadership must fully buy in. Decision-makers must understand brand affinity, even when it's difficult to measure and hard to run numbers against. There’s a leap of trust that must happen for leadership to see what the future might hold with developing an editorial brand, not what’s necessarily currently bringing in revenue.
  2. There must be a dedicated in-house team. WePresent operates with less than 10 full-time people. Typically there’s an editor/manager, and two or three full-time writers, and guest contributors. I can't imagine building something long-term with freelancers. Freelancers are great when you have a solid foundation, understand your audience, and need help with ramping up publishing.
  3. Develop a defined point of view. Companies that don't have a specified point of view believe that the practice of branding will save them. It won't. What stories can only your brand tell, based on your history, culture, work, and beliefs? Tap into that. Most companies are sitting on a goldmine of stories; the skill of a writer is to unlock them.
  4. Know that your work is cut out for you. You’ll need designers and engineers. You’ll want to produce articles/videos/podcasts/newsletters (yes, all of those things) while also managing the different phases of each project. It’s a ton of work, there’s no way around it, but it’s the most rewarding work, too. You get to make the decisions about what you say, what you support, and what you value, and that amount of freedom is priceless.
  5. What does success look like? What gets measured gets funded. In the context of COLLINS, the success were two things: are we getting better clients and are we getting better talent? How do you measure that? You can track every client meeting and see how many times they mention something from the editorial. You can learn through the interview process that the designer wants to join not only because of the clients we worked with but also because we thoughtfully tell stories, give credit, and provide context into how we do our work. If no client is mentioning it, no hire cares about the project, then it is a failure. Thankfully, the opposite is the reality: clients choose COLLINS because of our editorial, because it addresses their fears or questions, and designers pay close attention to how we transformed the way we talk about our work.

If you’re going to plant a garden, make sure to do it in your own yard, where you and your company will reap the ongoing rewards of not only click throughs and site visits and newsletter subscribers, but commitment to your brand, your product, and your voice.

This brings me to something I've built.

Read a 360-degree case study on how COLLINS built an editorial powerhouse.


No comments.