Breaking Down Employee Blogging, Part 2: Our Publication Process

In my previous post, I shared the rationale for why we pay our software makers to blog daily for the past decade.

In this article, I’ll share each step of that publication process. I’ll also offer advice or feedback to anyone looking to run a company blog. This same process could govern any employee-generated content system.

Step 0: Employee authors get on board with blogging.

Atoms began writing for Spin before I showed up at Atomic. From what I hear, getting makers to start blogging was no small feat.

But Atomic cleared that cultural hurdle. The expectation and process became normalized. Now, every new Atom joins the company aware of their blogging expectation.

If you are reading this post in hopes of kicking off an employee blog at your company, this step may be the hardest.

Step 1: The author sees their due date nearing.

Every full-time software maker at Atomic contributes to our blog. And we try to publish daily. As such, we ask each contributor to submit an original article once every so many days. The number of days is roughly equal to the number of employees we have writing. Right now, that’s about 70 contributors and about 70 days. As the company grows, the time between post submissions grows.

If your blog is new or your company is small, you could choose to publish only four or five days each week to lessen the workload.

Because of our daily cadence, we want the deadlines for authors to be rolling, as opposed to all at once. That means each writer has their own deadline for content. Our writers learn about their own upcoming deadlines in two ways. The first way is they reference our company Radiator, which shows the number of days each employee has before their next deadline. Or, 10 days, three days, and one day before a post is due, if they have not yet submitted it, they get an automated email reminding them of the deadline.

Atoms built these automated tools and processes using WordPress Plugins and Google Sheets. I’m happy to share our specific implementation if asked, though there are many ways to do this well.

Step 2: The author picks a post topic.

As opposed to starting with traffic research, our authors work to identify a topic they think will be helpful to their audience. This is irrespective of monthly traffic or keyword difficulty.

Over the last seven years of managing Spin, I’ve seen some patterns in how authors pick these topics. Good posts can come from anywhere, but they’re often:

  • Hard-won lessons shared;
  • A technical problem encountered and its solution;
  • Reviews of new tools;
  • Something they can’t get off their mind;
  • Exploration of theoretical technical concepts;
  • Practices for getting insights from stakeholders;
  • Ways to use tech to improve quality of life outside work; or
  • Advice they wish they could have imported to a younger version of themselves

I often hear that coming up with a blog post topic is the most challenging aspect of writing for Spin. Sometimes people believe their idea is too simplistic for the blog or audience. Other times, the anxiety of the looming due date stirs up writer’s block. Some writers avoid this by keeping a scratch pad at their desk to capture fleeting topic ideas. It’s not uncommon for Atoms to say, “That’s a Spin post!” when in conversation with their colleagues — for me, at least.

Step 3: The author frames the post.

After coming up with the topic, I hear writers struggle with deciding what their post should contain. I observe this is often due to one of two missing elements of a great blog post:

  • A tight frame, or
  • A specific audience

A frame is a lens through which the author explores the topic. A blog post is not a book, and it needs to have a tight focus to be effective. Any topic can receive an overly-large frame. We also see overly-narrow frames. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Say you wanted to write about computer keyboards. To write an effective blog post about the topic of keyboards, you need to come up with a frame. Here are some appropriate frames for a 500-1,500-word post on the topic of keyboards that we’ve published on our blog:

Here are some improperly-scoped frames:

  • The history of the computer keyboard (too broad)
  • The keyboard shortcut to print a document in Microsoft Word (too narrow)

Picking a frame can come before or after the selection of a specific audience. Authors need to choose their audience carefully. That informs what the author can assume the audience will know or find interesting.

Using our keyboard example, here are some appropriately specific audiences:

  • People who use keyboards that are only able to type with one hand
  • Experienced software developers looking to improve their efficiency

And some improperly scoped audiences:

  • Your little sister who is trying to buy a new keyboard (too specific)
  • Any software developer on Earth (too broad)

Once authors identify a topic, a frame, and an audience, the post is halfway written.

Step 4: The author structures and writes the post.

Some authors choose to outline their post before they write it. Outlining an introduction, thesis, three supporting points, and a conclusion is still a valid way to get your point across, just like in middle school.

Some frames will lend themselves to a structure. For example, “Three reasons why I love my Braille keyboard” will break down into a body with a heading for each reason. Other frames require more structural creativity. You can build a structure made up of sequential steps, pillars of an argument, a chronological retelling of a story in a few acts, or a list of ways of approaching a problem.

Posts with clear structures are empathetic. Readers appreciate logical and helpful headers to help them access information fast.

Once the author has a topic, a frame, an audience, and a structure, they draft their post until it’s ready to submit. On average, it takes our writers three hours to complete their posts — time for which we pay them their normal hourly rate.

Step 5: The author submits the post for editorial review.

We happen to use WordPress as our blogging platform. When an author completes their post, they save their post’s status as “Waiting Review” in WordPress. When they do, they are automatically credited in the deadline system with another period of days until their next post is due.

We contract out our editing work to a trained journalist and editor — currently the fabulous Sarah Rigg. Sarah likes to maintain a queue of posts in the backlog so that she doesn’t need to edit and publish a post with less than a week’s time turnaround.

She reviews posts’ formatting — including code blocks, content quality, and completeness. If the post needs more work before it’s scheduled — usually because the frame or audience is too ambiguous — Sarah Slacks the author. She asks them some questions about improving the post, and she gives them a deadline by which to complete their edits.

If the post looks structurally sound and complete, Sarah performs a copyedit of the post. She also adds a photo from our annual brand photography shoots. She optimizes the post for search if the author is targeting a searchable topic. If the post has no SEO description, she’ll summarize the post with the targeted keyword. She also tends to give the author-written headline a tweak to make it clearer or more intriguing.

Once she’s completed the post edits, Sarah schedules publication for 8 a.m. This process takes her about .75 hours per post.

Sarah and I keep a 20-minute weekly meeting. In the meeting, we discuss any edge cases, editorial style guidance, WordPress maintenance, or anything else related to shipping Spin. (I also usually get to see pictures of her very adorable dog, Scooter.)

Step 6: The post is published and promoted.

When our posts are published, Sarah also manages the task of sharing them on relevant social media platforms for reach. She also shares each post on our internal Slack channel so that Atoms can learn from one another’s ideas, advice, and ruminations.

The same Radiator that displays the authors’ deadlines also displays a widget measuring Spin’s traffic in real-time. It shows which posts are getting the most traffic that day. It also shows the day’s hourly traffic values layered on top of the same data from the previous week.

This feedback — along with post comments, social media reactions, and more complete Google Analytics data — helps authors hone their writing craft.

Pride in Human Content

Our system has served Atomic and its Atoms well. I’ve seen prospective Atoms find Atomic through the blog. I’ve felt my colleagues’ pride when they hear about how one of their posts has made a developer’s life easier. I’ve heard clients share their confidence in our technical prowess, as measured by Spin content. I’ve seen my colleagues who move on to other jobs prove their mastery to future employers by sharing a backlog of their dozen Spin posts.

From a marketing perspective, I’m also proud that we’ve stayed true to the intended purpose of Spin: being genuinely helpful and giving back to the world of software makers. Spin has always been written by our human employees for human consumption.

That said, our process has and will continue to evolve. When I took Spin over, we were living through a trend in content marketing where humans wrote for machines through obsessive search engine optimization. Now, we seem to be entering a phase when machines are writing content for humans with the introduction of AI tools like ChatGPT.

So long as we keep seeing the value and traction of paying our makers to make original content for other makers, we’ll keep thinking it makes good sense.

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