When I joined the Levels founding team back in 2019, one of my first roles was to lead our strategy for educating a wider audience on the impacts of metabolic health. Our first tactic: Build out a written content operation.
This may seem strange, given that my background as a clinician is in the surgical world, but it made complete sense to me. As a physician, I joined a health tech company to foster a new perspective on how to help people stay healthy and thrive. Part of this is accomplished through the actual product — in our case, the first consumer biowearable program to help people understand their metabolic health — but part of it is also achieved through awareness and education. Written content is a powerful tool for connecting with others about your vision for the world. (I also happened to have a longstanding love of writing about medical humanities and healthcare policy, and editing the International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention.)
I also understood that, if I wanted Levels to succeed, we had to get people to understand what we were doing and why it matters for their health. Two years ago, very few people were talking about metabolic health — and we were trying to create a new paradigm around it. Written content allows you to cross that chasm and spread inspiration and buy-in. With the help of content, I was confident we could generate a movement to reverse the metabolic disease epidemic.
So, despite minimal professional editorial experience, I got to work building a blog — which today has well over 1 million unique pageviews — and has supported our company in many ways, and, most importantly, has become a trusted educational resource. If you’re looking to do the same, read on to learn the guiding principles that helped me along the way.
1. Start early, even if it’s scrappy.
I think the biggest mistake you can make when it comes to starting a content operation is not starting it soon enough because you don’t feel ready — a mistake I almost made myself.
When we were preparing to publish our first few articles in January of 2020, my instinct as a risk-averse doctor was, “Absolutely not, we’re not ready.” We didn’t even have a product yet and barely knew who our audience was. I really credit our CEO, Sam Corcos, for encouraging me to get something shipped. He instilled in me a commitment to velocity and rapid iteration; getting content up fast and learning from reader feedback. This approach has helped our company in multiple ways.
For one, we got to learn on the job while the stakes were low. With only a couple hundred people seeing each post and no meaningful revenue being driven by content, it was no big deal if we decided to take down or change an article that didn’t seem to be resonating. Instead of stressing about everything being perfect, we got to experiment, learn what our audience liked and disliked, and iterate — all of which ultimately made our content strategy stronger once the stakes were higher.
Moreover, it’s important to start publishing content ASAP because of how the value of content scales over time. When you put something out there, the content engine starts going: Google starts seeing it and it builds “SEO juice” as people click on it, people start sharing it on social, you can start creating other content around it, and so much more. For one unit of work towards content, you can get so many lasting units of output — especially for evergreen content (aka content that remains relevant over a long period of time). The sooner you start publishing, the sooner you’ll reap those rewards.
To give some concrete numbers: In January, 2020, we had three articles on glucose and skin health, glucose and exercise, and glucose and weight loss. That month, these articles cumulatively got 588 page views. A year later, Jan 1, 2021, those same three articles collectively had more than 34,000 page views. Our post on “What should glucose levels be” had 1,500 pageviews in its first month — now it has over 300,000.
So don’t wait until you feel ready. Start now so you can learn from your audience instead of working in a void and build the initial traction that will help you grow over time.
2. Build strategy by adding value to the internet.
There are a lot of opinions out there about how to build a successful content strategy, many of them conflicting: Publish a million short articles to drive conversions, publish long-form articles to build engagement, focus on keyword stuffing for SEO, focus on clickbait titles for social shares. I cut through the noise by following one key rule: Add value to the internet.
These days people don’t want to see interruptive ads, they don’t want to see fluff pieces, they don’t want to feel like they’re reading a sales article. Most often, when people are reading content on the internet, they’re looking for a question to be answered. They have a pain point in their life, so they Google it — at which point, you have an opportunity to help if it’s related to your company. Over time, you’ll start ranking for these terms on search because people are consistently coming to you for answers.
That really helped me frame our early content strategy (and it’s a tactic I learned from reading They Ask You Answer, by the way). It’s also what led me to avoid a strictly content marketing approach, where we’re just doing whatever it takes to drive people to the site for conversions, to more of an editorial effort, where we’re providing quality content to build trust. I became focused on producing the best possible answers for people related to metabolic health.
A first step to doing this is to create a document of every possible question someone might Google that is related to your company’s domain. If you sell rubber ducks, this might mean questions like: What are rubber ducks made out of? What is the history of rubber ducks? How do rubber ducks float? Why are rubber ducks yellow? If they are going to ask it, you should be prepared to answer it (and answer it well to build trust). Once your company releases an early version of its product, questions will start pouring in from customers. Make sure to keep close track of these, look for themes, and then answer those questions directly in your editorial work.
For me, this resulted in a long spreadsheet of all the conditions, research, and questions that related to blood sugar in some way. Looking back now, that spreadsheet essentially looks like a table of contents for our blog. Do the same for your company and you’ll have a strong content plan in no time.
3. Have a unique point of view.
There’s so much content out there, it can be easy to end up looking like everybody else if you don’t walk in with an understanding of what you’re really trying to say through the information you’re sharing.
When I thought about some of my favorite brands — like WHOOP and Eight Sleep — I noticed they all have such a strong perspective. So while I knew I wanted our content to be heavily based on research, I realized it wasn’t enough to just put facts on a page. We needed to also include a really forward-thinking perspective to shift the mental model about how to approach health and wellness. That became a lens through which we could brainstorm content ideas, edit pieces, and even vet freelancers and new hires down the line.
An example of this is our most popular post, “What should your glucose levels be? Here’s the ultimate guide to healthy blood sugar ranges.” We could have simply outlined the standard, American Diabetes Association criteria for “normal” blood glucose levels — which is what everyone else was doing. Instead, we spent months researching what optimal glucose levels are, talking to experts, and synthesizing the findings. Now, on the first page of Google results for “normal glucose levels,” people find a thorough and nuanced article that will help them improve their health instead of the same ranges over and over again. This is value truly added to the internet and our members — and in terms of metrics, it paid off, with that article now making up about a third of our overall site traffic.
No one wants to read something that sounds like everything else, that is trying to be everything for everybody, or that is party-line or wishy-washy. People are attracted to a point of view, so ask yourself, “What are we adding to the internet with our take on this particular topic?” — and be bold in communicating it through every bit of content you produce.
4. Track metrics early and often.
Analytics can feel extremely overwhelming when you’re just starting to build a content operation, and you may wonder if it’s even worth doing while you’re still getting your sea legs. I’d encourage you to get over your fear of the tools (and, per above, get help where you need to!), and start tracking something ASAP.
Early on, I started reporting basic metrics to the team — like page views, backlinks, and average search ranking for specific keywords — to keep us accountable and make sure we were really learning what worked. Ultimately, it also became an incredible motivator: When you see numbers like 200x growth month over month, you understand the impact you’re having and feel driven to keep pushing forward.
Even better is if you can tie the metrics you’re focused on with your high-level content goals. Since we knew education was a big part of our mission, we knew we wanted people to do more than just land on a page — we wanted them to actually read it! So, engagement metrics like average time on page became important to us. When we saw that our average time on page was almost four minutes, we knew we were doing something right in terms of creating quality, helpful information.
Pick a few metrics that feel right, and start keeping an eye on them on a weekly or monthly basis in a spreadsheet. The lessons you’ll gain are worth the small learning curve you have to get over.
5. Leverage content across the customer and employee journey and all possible channels.
With all the work you’re putting into it, the worst thing you can do is keep content in a marketing silo. If you’re doing it right, the content you’re creating should be used across your whole company to help get your message across.
Our content became a valuable resource for our support team, essentially taking the place of certain product features in the early days. If someone came to us saying their glucose was erratic, and we didn’t have a built-in product feature to help, we could send them a link to an article on glucose management strategies. When we did start creating in-app content, we used our long-form blog content to seed it. Our written content also became foundational for PR efforts, guiding what could make interesting press pitches and providing lots of fodder for our first podcast tour. It even became a powerful lever for fundraising and hiring, with our CEO including links in many emails to show off what we’re really about and the level of quality that we’re committed to.
Moreover, good content can lead to more content. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of multi-channel content distribution, where one core piece of pillar content can be adapted into 20–30 other pieces of content on multiple channels: transforming into social posts, turning into fodder for podcasts or videos, adapted into shorter guest posts for other publications, and so much more. I hope to dive more into that strategy in a future piece.
In the meantime, start building your own foundation by investing in high-quality content and making sure teams across the company know it’s available to them as a resource.
6. Embrace your beginner’s mindset and learn from everyone around you.
While I was the co-founder focused on growing our editorial operation, I was in no way working alone. Part of our culture at Levels is being unafraid to ask for help, being transparent, and staying in close touch with our network. I was amazed at how much our network was able to help me learn how to build an editorial operation, and how many resources were available to me, just because I came to the table open and ready to learn.
For the first six months, I was constantly talking to people who knew about content. I remember hanging on every word from stars in the editorial world like Sonal Chokshi (editor in Chief at a16z), Derek Flanzraich (Founder of Greatist), Sander Daniels (CEO of Thumbtack), Ben Worthen (former Head of Content at Sequoia Capital, current CEO at Message Lab), and Sara Reistad-Long (expert content strategist and journalist). I’d Google things like “top 10 tips to boost SEO status of your article,” and then try some out and see what happened. I learned how to use SEO and analytics tools like AHRefs, Google Search Console, and Google Analytics, and asked friends or colleagues who had proficiency in these tools to walk me through them (pro-tip: record these calls so you can go back and review them!)
If you’re struggling to find people in your direct network to help you out, start following content marketing gurus like Gary V., Nik Sharma, Scott Galloway, or Neil Patel, and read books like They Ask You Answer, Rework, and Perennial Seller. All of these resources helped me immensely.
It really doesn’t matter if you don’t have that much experience in this. Just keep asking questions and learning from people who are smarter than you.
7. Know when — and how — to bring in the professionals.
As you can probably tell (or may know from experience) creating great content takes a lot of time. At some point, you’ll want to bring in other people to help you scale your efforts.
The first step here is usually working with freelancers or contractors. When I found myself staring at a list of 40 articles in our pipeline, I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. So, I employed a slew of different writers: content marketing freelancers, science and MD writers, writers through our PR company, guest posts from other professionals in the health space. There are so many options out there and I felt I needed to experiment to find what would work for us.
There were two major lessons I learned from this experience. One is that you still want to err towards heavy oversight in these early days, making sure you’re sharing your point of view and style with freelancers (such as with brand voice or style guides) and checking that their work reflects that. The second is that outsourcing doesn’t necessarily lead to less work: I moved from spending a lot of time writing and researching to spending a lot of time managing writers, heavy outlining and editing, and coordinating the publishing process.
That’s why, about a year after we started building our content operation, with a strong sense of the ROI that written content was bringing us, I knew it was time to hire someone full-time to run our editorial operation. I also knew it needed to be someone who really “got” what we were doing at Levels and was deeply aligned with our forward-thinking, unconventional approach. I could easily write an entire article on the hiring process we used — in short, it involved:
- Talking to experts in the field to help us define what we really needed for the role. I spoke to close to ten experts who had built successful editorial operations and ultimately ended up realizing that I needed to hire someone different from the profile I’d had in my head. (Initially, I was fairly sure that I wanted to bring on a science writer with an advanced science degree — I ultimately realized I needed a seasoned editor with experience in the editorial processes necessary for scaling our operation, ideally with some science awareness.)
- Writing an extremely in-depth job description and having said experts give us feedback.
- Asking candidates to annotate the job description in Google Docs to explain how their experience related to what we were looking for at every line item.
- Having candidates do several technical writing assignments — which you can review here — including:
- An edit test, where we asked them to read a research article summary and see if they felt it explained the original studies accurately and with the appropriate takeaways. (I intentionally chose ones where I felt it was not summarized well to be sure people would catch that.)
- A pitch, where the candidate had to come up with ideas for a semi-obscure metabolic topic.
- An original essay, where we paid candidates to write an article using research sources that somewhat conflicted with each other.
- A presentation, where candidates had an hour to teach us something about their content experience.
It was rigorous but it was worth it when we found Mike Haney, our current editorial director, who has scaled our content operation in ways I couldn’t have possibly imagined or done myself. Within a few months of joining, Mike had put together a comprehensive content strategy that built on our foundations and then rocketed it to the next level.
So don’t be afraid to start things yourself. As I hope I’ve shown, you can have a lot of impact even with little experience. But then know when it’s time to let go — and put in the time to find the right person to pass the torch to.
Want to dig even deeper into how we’ve built our content machine? Check out our podcast on the topic: part 1, where I discuss the early days, and part 2, where Mike Haney shares how he’s grown things from there.