Nate Weiner of Pocket on Writing Remarkable Content

Nate WeinerPocket is one of my favourite productivity apps. I use it to save interesting articles to my phone and read them on the go. I also like that it shows me the types of popular non-fiction articles other writers have published. This helps me figure out how to improve my writing.

Nate Weiner and his team created Pocket in 2007, initially calling their app ReadItLater. Like many products, it was born out of need.

In this podcast episode, Weiner explains:

  • How to write non-fiction articles and content that people read and share
  • What you should know about the reading habits of your audience
  • Why reading isn’t going anywhere, any time soon (as a father of kids who spend a lot of time using tablets, this was encouraging.)

And lots more.

If you’d like to learn more, check this article I wrote for Forbes based on my interview with Weiner.

Pocket CEO Nate Weiner Explains How To Create A Top Productivity App

Listen now

Transcript below

Announcer: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan Collins: This week, I’ve been researching how to focus more on, what kind of [inaudible 00:00:17] distractions? One of my favorite tools for doing is the app Pocket, which I’ve used for several years, and Pocket is a tool that you could use to save articles to your phone, and to read them [inaudible 00:00:28], when you’re ready.

Bryan Collins: I feel it’s quite good, because if you see something online that you want to read, all you have to do is save the article to Pocket, and then, you can continue on your working, and so on. So it’s a good way we have of conducting [inaudible 00:00:39] now, because you can build up a [inaudible 00:00:41] of articles that you’ve read over the past few years, and I think it complements [inaudible 00:00:46] quite well.

Bryan Collins: It’s quite interesting in how people create an app like this, so I had the opportunity to speak to the founder and CEO of Pocket, Nate Weiner, and I asked him whether or not the nature of reading is changing, and he had some really interesting things to say about that.

Bryan Collins: He also talks about how to write articles that are received well online, and get lots of shares, and so on. I think you’ll find, his tips are quite helpful, if you want to write an article, or you want to write something that resonates with your readers.

Bryan Collins: But I started the interview by asking Nate why he created Pocket in the first place.

Nate Weiner: Yeah. I mean, Pocket really was born, out of, just personal need. I was finding that I was always e-mailing links to come back to, about things I wanted to learn, or articles I wanted to read, but … and never found myself actually coming back to them, because they’d kind of just get lost in my inbox.

Nate Weiner: So, back in 2007, a little Firefox ad on there allowed me to be able to capture that content, and then, be able to pick it up at another time, and know and trust that it’s in a single place. I was very quickly after I made that, I discovered that a lot of the same problems in Pocket. At the time, it was called Read It later, really kind of took off from there, and it’s been something we’ve been working on since.

Bryan Collins: What type of people do you find use Pocket today?

Nate Weiner: There’s quite a wide range. A lot of people use it to capture the things that they find interesting, the things that they want to learn, and discover, and spend time with. It might be trying to learn some new skills for their career, or something in their personal life, but it’s also a way to kind of, understand and unpack what’s going on in the world.

Nate Weiner: Breaking news is not something that people typically save to Pocket, but they save a lot of content about what’s going on in the news. If some incident happens, the types of content they could save around that into Pocket is more like, a breakdown of that, or a dive deep, or trying to understand why this is happening, in kind of, the context of things.

Nate Weiner: And them, also, people do use it for different ways to save things, like recipes, or things that they’re … if they’re planning a trip, they might save content, as they’re organizing around that trip, as well.

Bryan Collins: I mean, one of the things I feel like Pocket, I suppose, helps me do is actually to focus, in that our phones are great, because they can be a gateway into the world, and provide lots of information and articles. But, perhaps, if I’ve got something I need to do, I feel like I can save it to Pocket, and read it later. Do you think it has productivity benefits for people who maybe get distracted while they’re working? Or what have your experiences been with that?

Nate Weiner: Yeah, absolutely. I think the early version that really kind of bore out of more productivity, that the first place Pocket was ever discovered and shared, was on Lifehacker, for example. But it’s very much kind of that behavior you describe.

Nate Weiner: I mean, if, in the middle of the work day or the middle of an activity, you come across something that’s really interesting, Pocket is a really great way to allow you to continue to focus on your task, and just be able to, again, save it and trust that you’ll be able to come back to it on your own time, in a different place, where you can really focus on it.

Nate Weiner: It’s focus on both ends. It’s focused on the current task, and allows you to kind of delay that, the article time.

Bryan Collins: Yeah.

Nate Weiner: Also, what’s really important is Pocket gives you a really uncluttered, focused place to consume that content, when you’re actually ready for it, as well.

Bryan Collins: Do you have any tips for people who find technology as sometimes distracting, and maybe, you need helping focusing?

Nate Weiner: Oh, man. For me personally, I think it’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time this year, really just trying to get on top of my own phone usage. We let our phones and the notifications, and the different apps we get into, in creep a lot into our open time. Open free space thinking time.

Nate Weiner: I’m trying to find myself on the bus, for example, rather than sitting and aimlessly scrolling through Twitter, actually, just taking some time just to put my phone down, and think.

Nate Weiner: I have a couple of different apps that I’ve been trying for managing screen time, and things like that. It’s still pretty hard to manage, though.

Bryan Collins: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, it definitely can be. One other thing I was interested in, is, Pocket has a recommended feed. I’m guessing that’s based on the type of articles I’m saving into Pocket. If I save a lot of articles about writing, for example, I start to see more articles by other people about writing that appear in the feed.

Nate Weiner: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s one thing that’s most interesting about Pocket, and then, the platform that we’re trying to build for it. Which is, now we have millions of people, essentially kind of hand curating the Web for us every single day. People are saving about the things they’re passionate about, the things they’re interested in, and they’re curating out each little niche of the Web.

Nate Weiner: For example, there’s plenty of people who are saving content about writing, and the signal that we get from that allows us to be able to kind of bubble up the best of the Web around those topics, to help make it easier for people also interested in those to find those. The stories that show up in the recommended field are selected by these kind of, the people within Pocket, who are digging those up.

Nate Weiner: Then we, on top of that, apply more of the filter around a perspective of quality. We don’t just recommend whatever is the most popular thing, or it’s getting the most amount of saves. We actually look at how people engage with that content, and try to recommend it to you, based on how likely you think that thing will be valuable to you, rather than just Pocket [inaudible 00:06:24].

Bryan Collins: Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah, because I thought it was purely based on, maybe social shares, or search algorithms. I’m just curious, then, if I’m somebody who’s trying to write an article that is well-received by my audience online, have you kind of seen any learnings about the types of articles that people tend to save more of, to Pocket, or maybe spend more time reading?

Nate Weiner: Yeah, I mean, the way that you define quality, which is such a, I admit, a very vague term.

Nate Weiner: The way we’ve come to define it is this notion around content respects people’s time and attention. We just talked about, it’s a very distracting world today, certainly as it relates to around content. There’s a billion things that people could read instead of your article.

Nate Weiner: I think, from our perspective, we look at it is, if your content is effective in Pocket, it’s got to be something that’s valuable. It’s got to have something that people can take away from it. If they could read a billion things, why are they reading your article? It’s got to be something that really respects their time.

Nate Weiner: If it’s an informative article, keep it crisp and to the point, because people have very limited time. If it’s entertaining, or it’s a story, obviously, you don’t need to make it bullets, or anything like that, but you want to blend the balance between respecting people’s time, and that creative outlet.

Nate Weiner: Then, I think, the other piece, and certainly, as it relates to recommendations, I think that we spend a lot of time slipping in a lot about, is the unfortunate aspect of, still, in today’s day and age, how important is just, on the headline, the title of the article. Because that is the thing, the cover in which they judge your book.

Nate Weiner: As sad as it is to say, we actually see a lot of amazing articles within Pocket, that struggle to get reach, just because the title is not great, and/or doesn’t given enough context to a potential reader about why they would want to read that.

Nate Weiner: I think we continue to explore some different ways, to be able to help them learn from that, but it definitely is a really important piece, as you write, at some point.

Bryan Collins: So, as well, what advice would you offer somebody who wants balance writing a headline for, I don’t know, searching Google, versus social shares, versus, the outlet that they’re trying to write for? Have you noticed any trends and headlines for articles that tend to perform well?

Nate Weiner: Yeah, I mean, in search, I generally find it’s more about that evergreen longer tail. Somebody is looking to try to answer something, or find something, and ideally, your article pops up to help answer that question.

Nate Weiner: On social, I find that, the more that you have that really big, compelling, interesting takeaway that people can talk about, or is there that one or two, just like, really great snippets or quotes that people can share?

Nate Weiner: On social, we find, a lot of the time, if you just share, for example, just the title, than just the article, it really doesn’t get that much pickup. But if somebody kind of shares that really crisp, really interesting quote, that can give people a lot of context as to why they might want to read it.

Nate Weiner: I mean, I think, that’s at the root of it, which is, how do you help a potential reader understand, what the value they might get out of reading your article might be? And without having to click through. The more that you can kind of tease that out, and intrigue them, the better.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, I know. I definitely agree. There’s one other thing I’m interested in, is, Pocket is … I suppose it has a freemium model, so how do you measure success with an app like Pocket? Do you go by the number of people who are using, who are installing it? Or do you look at the amount of people who upgrade to the paid version?

Nate Weiner: I mean, there’s different measures of success. I mean, our mission at Pocket is about, how do we enable people to consume stories that are worth their time and attention? That is really a lot of what we’re focused on, both within, kind of the Pocket experience of, we don’t look at, just raw active users, or the number of people saving.

Nate Weiner: We actually look at, are we helping people to actually read and consume the things that they save? How effective are we at that? Because, really, when you save something to Pocket, you have this intent to complete something, to learn something, and we really want to be able help people with that.

Nate Weiner: And then, with our recommendation products that do exist outside of Pocket. For example, in Firefox, if you open a new tab, you will see three stories, kind of, the best of the Web, from Pocket. And you don’t have to be a Pocket user. They’re jut there. We surface them a lot form the data that we have within Pocket.

Nate Weiner: Our goal, there again, is about helping people to consume great stories. And our perspective there is, how do we help cut through the noise for people, and help them discover and find things that they might not have otherwise?

Nate Weiner: For us, it is about, it is reach. We want to be able to help impact this stuff, at Internet scale, but it’s ultimately really about the quality and the effectiveness of our ability to help people, and do a better job, consuming good stuff.

Bryan Collins: Okay, and Nate, I was just wondering, but I suppose one of the features that I like about Pocket is, it’s quite a minimalist app. I mean, have the articles that have the feed, and so on. So how do you decide what to add and what not to add to the product?

Nate Weiner: Yeah, I mean, it kind of goes back to what I was just talking about. When we did the initial redesign of Pocket, when we renamed it, and basically, really tried to plant a flag in the ground around putting the content first, and respecting the content. And, as a result, the app is really about what you put in it.

Nate Weiner: We try to get out of your way as much as possible, but be to kind of be helpful, in the moments where we need to be. You’ll see, when you open the list, for example, we have really quick ways to be able to navigate and filter around. For example, if you save a bunch of video content, we allow you to very quickly switch to that. You don’t have to go organize videos, and put those into folders.

Nate Weiner: We try to do a lot of those things automatically, where we can, to help you save time. But then, if you click into an article, you’ll see that it’s a very simple, very uncluttered experience, and if you scroll, the toolbars get out of your way, and we try to, as much as possible, again, focus in on the content.

Nate Weiner: Because that is the core of what we want Pocket to be this, like, very clean, uncluttered, focused space for you. Which is so different than every other thing on your phone today.

Bryan Collins: Is there a big team at Pocket, that works on the app, and service?

Nate Weiner: It’s not super big. We’re about 40 people today.

Bryan Collins: Okay, where you all based?

Nate Weiner: We’re kind of all over. Our main headquarters are in San Francisco, but we have folks spread all over the US, and a few outside of the US, as well.

Bryan Collins: Do you have any kind of tips or learnings you’ve learned, from leading a distributed team like that, when it comes to building an evolving product?

Nate Weiner: Yeah. I mean, collaboration, communication is key, and I think we start it all here in Francisco. And so, working remote with something that we’ve really had to learn, and get better at it.

Nate Weiner: It’s something that doesn’t just come for free.You really have to work at it, so the more that we’ve moved to things like Slack, and our videoconferencing, where we just try to make things as seamless as possible, to help remote folks just seamlessly jump in the conversation, then be able to understand what’s going on at any moment, is really important.

Nate Weiner: But it’s definitely a muscle you have to work at. It doesn’t come for free.

Bryan Collins: To just return to the theme of focus that we were talking about earlier, do you think the nature of reading is changing? Like, for example, I suppose I have a 12-year-old son, and He spends a lot of time looking at YouTube videos. So, I think if he was to use Pocket, it’s probably videos he would be saving, rather than maybe long form articles.

Nate Weiner: Yeah. I mean, video has always been very popular within Pocket. I mean, YouTube, I think, remains, actually, the number one saved domain for the last seven, eight years. It’s absolutely a great use case for Pocket, especially where you have content that’s longer in nature, and requires a specific place to be. ‘Cause, a lot of times, we’re in the middle of the day. Watching a video is going to be real tough, so to be able to capture that, come back to it, is a great use case for video time Pocket.

Nate Weiner: But, do I think that reading or things like that are going away? No, I don’t think so, but I do think that the mediums in which we are able to consume content do evolve. For example, audio within Pocket is actually something that’s growing, and I don’t mean, like, people saving podcasts.

Nate Weiner: What I mean is, we have a feature that enables people to take the written content they have saved, and actually just listen to it, through kind of, texted speech. What that has done for users is, it opens up this whole other space, that they can consume content. Where, before, they had to sit and hold their phone, or look at their computer and read something.

Nate Weiner: They can now consume that content while they’re out on a run, or while they’re driving to work, or they’re making dinner, and opens up a whole new space for them to consume things. I think what we see happening is just, again, as more things evolve, the medium in which we can consume this stuff can evolve, and change, and make it easier to open up spaces. But I don’t think that necessarily means that reading, for example, is going away any time soon.

Bryan Collins: I hope you enjoyed this podcast episode. If you did, please leave a rating on the iTunes store.

Bryan Collins: And if you want to accomplish more with your writing, please visit, and I’ll send you a free e-mail course. Thanks for listening.

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