23 April 2024 |

By Tracey Wallace

In my daily scroll through Instagram this week, I came across this post from the New York Times. 

It’s a chart of the publications each of the jurors in Trump’s New York trial read. And in my personal opinion, the NYT couldn’t have produced a better ad if they’d tried. 

The most common publication read by all the jurors, whose news intake ranges from absolutely nothing, to MSNBC, to the Truth Network itself, is the New York Times. 

This suggests that if you read the news, you pay attention to what the New York Times says whether or not you agree with their take, or so this sample size of New Yorkers suggest (to be fair, they are all New Yorkers, so it could be a regional take). 

That is one heck of a network effect. 

A network effect, as defined by Harvard Business Review, refers to any situation in which the value of a product, service, or platform depends on the number of buyers, sellers, or users who leverage it. Typically, the greater the number of buyers, sellers, or users, the greater the network effect—and the greater the value created by the offering. 

eBay, Etsy, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram––they all have network effects. The more of us that use them, the more value they all give us, merely because so many others are using it. 

For the New York Times, their network effect seems to be that everyone else is reading them. 

Now, I was already thinking about that Instagram post when the Napkin Math newsletter from Evan Armstrong hit my inbox. 

One of the lines said this:

The point of distribution hacks is to cheaply acquire customers and get network effects going as quickly as possible.

There it was. Distribution. The one thing content needs to gain traction. Whether it be through SEO or zero-click posts on social media. Whatever your flavor of distribution is, you need it so that people see what you made and you can track that back to engagement, and ideally revenue. 

But here was something I hadn’t thought of quite yet: the point of distribution is ultimately to speed up the network effect. 

I don’t think a single content marketing team I’ve ever worked on has thought about network effects. Our goal is to sell the product, to build thought leadership, to drive leads. And as we all know, it often feels like a self-built hamster wheel that turns ever faster each quarter. 

What would it look like if we were to create a network effect? 

What is a network effect for a content marketing team?

The more I thought about this, the more I’ve come to think that the answer is community. 

Think about it: Before the modern blogs we know today, blog comment sections were wild––a precursor if you will to the great and terrible that is social media. 

In fact, the very first publication I worked at outside of college became so well-known because it had first started as a community forum. Unanswered questions from that forum turned into blog posts, with a clear distribution outlet within the community itself. 

That was NaturallyCurly, which was later acquired by Essence. When I left NC to go to Elle.com, I learned very quickly how important that community was. Elle received hardly any of the traffic NaturallyCurly did –– and there was no way to hack it. Sure, Elle had a massive social following and a great brand name. But few people were coming to the site (like, tens of thousands at most a month), whereas NaturallyCurly was generating millions of sessions a month. 

Even now, so much of the content marketing quality standard is defined as “create something that gets shared in a Slack channel.” Or, in other words, create something that gets shared in a community. 

Or, research to see what folks are saying and asking on Reddit, and create content that answers their needs. In other words, look to a community to see what will resonate and what will be needed, and base your blog topics on that. 

Blogs used to be an epicenter of community. Just look at Glossier, which started as a blog––Into the Gloss––and turned now into one of the bigger DTC beauty companies in the industry, built on its community. 

What are we focusing so much attention on distribution for if we aren’t building a network effect opportunity where that traffic lands? 

No wonder we feel so stuck on a hamster wheel. A blog’s natural flywheel has been reallocated to other channels: third-party forums, Slacks, social media. And all of them are only interested in keeping traffic on their own sites, encouraging folks to blog (tumblr-style) there––rather than lean into content elsewhere. 

I don’t have any answers here, but as SEO algorithms change, and demand gen budgets grow, I am finding myself rethinking the purpose of “blog,” and y’all––I think we’ve extinguished the network effect that made the term so popular to begin with. 

And we should bring it back––starting, perhaps, by turning our comment sections back on.