Sorry (Not Sorry), Self-Promotion Doesn't Work
If you hate promoting yourself on social media, I've got good news! It wasn't working anyhow.
In true internet grandma-style, let me settle into my digital rocking chair, straighten my lap blanket, and begin with a good ol’ back in my day…
When I started creating content online, there weren’t any proven strategies for promoting yourself or your content. No one was talking about building an email list or a social media audience. It wasn’t that those things weren’t happening—they were.
It’s just that “strategy” didn’t consume us. I had an email list and social media following in the thousands before I ever started to think about "growing my list" or "building my audience."
Keep reading or listen on your favorite podcast app.
I'll readily admit that growing an email list or building an audience was easier in 2010 than it is in 2024.
But one of the reasons it's harder today is because things have gotten so "strategic." Competition and market saturation are certainly factors. However, I believe a much bigger factor is the rapid decay of the digital environment and its contents—decay that's driven by what Cory Doctorow calls "enshittification."
"Enshittification" describes the predictable lifecycle of social media platforms.
First, platforms are super generous to users; then, they squeeze users and behave super generously to advertisers; then, they squeeze advertisers to create a super generous profit margin for their shareholders. What started as a cool new place to hang out online becomes a shitty shadow of its former glory.
First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
— Cory Doctorow
For people who use social media platforms to consume content, enshittification neatly encapsulates why a favorite platform goes bad. But for creators—people who make content for social media—enshittification doesn't just make a platform unpleasant to use. Enshittification changes what creators make.
As Rebecca Jennings wrote for Vox last week, the drudgery of self-promotion and personal branding is a reality for anyone trying to "make it" as an independent worker today. That's true. But also not true at all. The idea that everyone has to "self-promote" (and that we all hate it) is predicated on an assumption that self-promotion works.
I'm sorry to break this to you, but self-promotion doesn't work. The impression that self-promotion is effective results from the influence of enshittification on creators.
Let's define terms. When I talk about "self-promotion" in this context, what I'm referring to is digital content with the primary purpose of directly soliciting action from viewers of that content to benefit the creator of that content. It's content with a core message that sounds something like "hire me," "sign up for my free workshop," or "listen to my new podcast episode." I don't think there's anything wrong with this type of content—just that, by and large, it's not as effective as people hope it is.
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How enshittification leads to the self-promotion imperative
From a content creator's perspective, a new platform is like a blue ocean—it's hard not to build an audience when you're an early mover because a new platform is trying to earn your loyalty (and your free labor). That early stage in a platform's development is a time when creative experimentation and expression are valued. The platform isn't just attracting new users. It's also learning what those users want through your experimentation and varied expression.
When a platform shifts its largesse from users and creators to advertisers, creators have to compete with advertiser content. Advertisers, by their nature, are strategic—they need to ensure that the ads they spend money on create some desired effect. Because ads appear in the feed right alongside creator content (as well as more casual users), creator content must become more strategic, too. The line between creator content and advertiser content blurs—by which I mean we're rarely confused about what's a TV commercial and what's a TV show, but we regularly mistake social media ads for social media content.
Advertisers love how non-paid content blurs with paid content because it makes their ads feel more "authentic." Platforms love it because advertisers love it.
In the final phase of enshittification, when platforms withdraw their generosity from everyone involved except their shareholders, both creators and advertisers become desperate. Creators and advertisers have to increase their "spend" to achieve the same results as before.
For advertisers, increasing spend literally means the money they spend on ads as well as the agencies they hire to run their ads. When clicks and views were cheaper, advertisers would be happy with "brand awareness." Ads could be fun, more like the content that other users were creating. But as ad prices increase, ads shift to "conversion marketing"—the image and copy perfectly executed to lead to whatever action the ad was designed to catalyze.
For creators, increasing spend means spending their social capital in the form of more and more frequent posting and direct solicitation. Instead of making content meant to be engaged with right on the platform, they make content meant to point to other content (or products) elsewhere—usually on their own website or a direct monetization tool like Patreon. Creators become self-promoters.
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the vast majority of promotional content sucks. It sucks to make. It sucks to have a feed full of it. No one likes self-promotion, if by self-promotion we're talking about content designed to get you to do something else—whether that's click, sign up, buy, or follow.
Self-promotional content of this type is inherently valueless.
Really, it’s contentless—that is, lacking substance or meaning of its own.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In response to Jennings’s article in Vox,wrote about how she enjoys making the content she creates for Instagram and TikTok. “Jennings’s article is far more pessimistic than I feel,” wrote Stein, who was quoted in the original Vox piece.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Stein feels optimistic about social media and how she uses it. Last week, Stein shared how she turned her Instagram feed into a satirical take on wellness culture. I shared her article. I described her new approach as “brilliant, hilarious, and so very envy-inducing.”
Why delete an entire feed’s worth of effective social media marketing to build a feed of satire from scratch? “On Instagram,“ she explained, ”I had begun to worry that my reputation as a book coach and teacher had eclipsed my reputation as a satirist and novelist.” Someone else might have tried to reverse this reputational slide by double-downing on self-promotional content. “Buy my book!” “A day in the life of a satirist” “Mother’s Day is coming—my novel makes a great gift!”
But, well, yuck. Who wants to do that? Nobody! Satirists be satirizing. Novelists be novelizing.
Stein knows that self-promotion isn’t nearly as effective as remarkable content. So, instead of self-promotion, she opted for remarkable content that has meaning all its own. Content that people want to talk about. Content that invites followers into something other than her career aspirations.
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The bridge to no results
As I mentioned at the top, the online environment has changed dramatically since I first started “working online.” Instead of seeing what we create online as one of many possible stops on a person’s virtual road trip, we imagine all roads leading to our latest blog post, free course, podcast episode, or video.
We don’t offer the traveler a bite to eat and a full tank of gas and then send them on their way with suggestions of where they might stop next. We try to turn our online homes into a veritable Hotel California. Our “strategy” has turned what were vibrant social boulevards into desolate highways littered with billboards begging you to click the “link in bio.”
And it’s all happened in the name of results. Are you seeing results?
I don’t fault those (including myself) for mistaking self-promotion for effective content creation. It’s part of the enshittification cycle. But hitching a ride on the platform death spiral isn't the only way to go.
Hitching a ride on the platform death spiral isn't the only way to go.
I'm a Canva power user.
I've even said that slide decks are my love language. Canva, for the uninitiated, is a super powerful visual design tool. I might even call it a visual design assistant. Canva provides an enormous library of illustrations, photos, and videos to use in visual content—and its influence on the content you see on social media is immense. Canva also provides a library of pre-designed templates for a wide variety of content types (e.g., Instagram posts, TikTok videos, worksheets, presentations, etc.)
I rarely use a pre-designed template without changing it beyond all recognition, but I do peruse the pre-designed templates for ideas about how to structure my visual content. The self-promotion imperative is evident in the incredible array of templates on offer that essentially say, "Look at me!" If you're looking to quote yourself to amplify your personal brand, Canva has you covered there, too. And if you just want to increase the number of times you pop into someone's feed with the lowest-hanging fruit of motivational quips? Yep, Canva has templates for you.
Interestingly, though, Canva also has you covered if you want to create a full-on magazine. It has templates for informative Instagram carousels. It'll help you organize online with templates for activists.
My guess is that there's no way to know which type of template (self-promotional or not) is used more often. Though I would love to have that info. What we can glean from scrolling through Canva's templates is that we have so many more options than self-promotion. And, like Stein, I find those options so much more fun and fulfilling.
Creating media that gets seen and engaged with (the ultimate in self-promotion) is an interesting creative challenge.
And while there may be times when explicit self-promotion is necessary, creating media that has its own substance and meaning will always get better long-term results. If social media is part of a marketing strategy (and it doesn't have to be), then that strategy has to be about more than driving traffic or increasing sales.
The most successful social media accounts today are rich. They’re thick with engaging content. They innovate on the constraints of the medium. They are wildly inspiring to me.
I never get the feeling that they’re saving their best stuff for their website or email subscribers. They make remarkable content and put it on social media for people to engage with it. These accounts have earned the attention they receive precisely by creating content that people actually want to appear in their feeds.
They're pushing back on the creator enshittification cycle one post at a time.
Self-promotion just won't produce the same results. Strategically signaling your success with photo shoots or fabulous vacation pics doesn’t offer much reason to follow you. Feigning excitement about your latest launch or free course won't build your brand, no matter how hard you push.
If you do want to include social media in your marketing strategy, how do you do so without relying on self-promotion? Here's how I think about it.
The 3Rs Digital Content
Respect the medium
Respect the audience
Redistribute the idea
Content is not the same thing as form or medium. The content of a piece of media is the idea, information, or entertainment value it contains. It's the meaning of the thing. That's not to say that content isn't influenced by its form or medium—it absolutely is. But a particular idea—the content—isn't bound by the form or medium it's initially expressed through.
For example, when I'm working on a new piece, I work simultaneously in a few mediums. Primarily, I write. But I also hear that writing as a script since it will likely be turned into an audio essay. I create with clips and sounds in mind. I also often work with visual media—diagrams and mindmaps. The idea—the content—is constant, but the way it's packaged and distributed can vary.
In this way, I can create valuable pieces of content for each place my brand shows up online. Those pieces of content—unlike a promotional post—end up getting shared and engaged with. While any individual piece of content might not do much to get someone to listen to my podcast or sign up for my newsletter, the accumulation of interest in my content will move people to give it a try.
1. Respect the medium
Each content distribution channel (e.g., your newsletter, your TikTok, your Instagram feed, your podcast, etc) is suited for a different medium (e.g., essays or articles, images, audio, etc.).
To get the most from the distribution channels we use, we need to make sure that what we’re sharing on those channels is in the medium best suited for that channel. And we likely need to make adjustments to our content in order for it to work in that medium. If I want to share the same content I put in my podcast on Instagram, I need to turn it into visual communication. If I want to share an article I wrote as a podcast episode, I need to turn it into a script that works for audio delivery.
It’s never as simple as copying and pasting.
But it doesn’t have to be difficult. Simply thinking about what kind of content we engage with on a particular channel will help us form guidelines for how to repurpose our content in that medium.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind how a channel and its media are used or engaged with changes over time. New trends pop up. Creators pioneer fresh formats. I don’t think it’s necessary to constantly adjust what we share to match the latest trend. But it’s worth keeping an eye out for what intrigues us and giving it a try.
Finally, respecting the medium also means being discerning about where we show up and what forms we’re creating in. If "copy and paste" is all I have time for, I don't bother. I don’t have the capacity to rework every podcast episode into a YouTube video, so I don't make YouTube videos. I'm sure I could do well on that platform, but I just don't have the resources to do it well.
2. Respect the audience
Respecting the audience means taking into account who we’re talking to, depending on how they're experiencing our content (i.e., where they're reading, watching, or hearing).
Different channels and platforms influence how users perceive the content they find there. On a low-friction platform like TikTok or Instagram, a piece of content is much more likely to be shown to someone who has only a cursory relationship with the person or brand that created that content. A higher-friction channel like an email newsletter or podcast, on the other hand, will almost exclusively be shown to people who have a stronger relationship with the person or brand that created the content.
Depending on what kind of audience I’m creating a piece of content for (super familiar, kind of familiar, total stranger), I’ll make different choices about how I present that content. I might choose a different way to lead into an idea, explain a concept more thoroughly, or use different examples.
3. Redistribute the idea
Redistributing an idea means sharing it across multiple distribution channels.
Redistribution goes beyond simple repurposing. It takes an idea and recreates it to work in a different medium and for a different audience than it was originally created. Note that the goal here isn't to promote the original content. Instead, the goal is to engage new and different people with a useful or insightful piece of content where they already are.
Instead of trying to steal their attention away from what they’re doing on any given channel, I try to earn & hold their attention where it is already. That’s a much easier (and rewarding) prospect. And I'm not stingy about it! I'll recreate the best idea from my long-form content as a short "bite-sized" version.
When I redistribute content, my ultimate goal is to create a remarkable, standalone piece of content for each channel I distribute it in.
Consider the last piece of high-quality content you created. It might have been a podcast episode, a great social media post, a video, or an article.
How would you take that same idea (or one of the ideas in a larger work) and recreate it so that it works on TikTok? Or LinkedIn? Or as an Instagram carousel?
How could you get your work in front of new or different eyes without self-promotion? How could you show more and tell a whole lot less?
Not only is this strategy more likely to get results, but it's also creatively rewarding. Not only is it creatively rewarding, but it's essential to maintaining our digital ecosystems and pushing back against the pressures of enshittification.
If we're going to continue to use social media, let's commit to sharing content that enriches, inspires, and truly matters—because, in the end, that's how we make a digital environment in which we can thrive.
This is a significant revision of an essay I first published in May 2021.