How Trung Phan Built an Audience of Over 680k in 3.5 years

Trung Phan is a master at going viral. He’s built up an audience of over 680k people on Twitter in just 3.5 years.

He has a methodical approach to making sure something is going to go viral before he even hits publish.

And he’s been able to translate that into a thriving newsletter called SatPost.

Each week, Trung shares a long-form piece about business, tech, and the world in general while pulling out super interesting facts about that topic.

How Trung Makes Money

Trung’s monetization models have evolved over the past few years, but here is how he is currently making money from his writing.

Bearly.AI

Bearly.ai is a software Trung has developed with his co-founder, Parham Negahdar.

It is kind of like a ChatGPT Chrome extension, that helps summarize articles, do research, and even check the grammar of what you’re writing in real time.

Bearly.AI costs $20 a month, or $200 for the year.

WorkWeek

Trung was one of the original creators brought into the WorkWeek universe when they got started.

WorkWeek essentially pays creators a guaranteed income to its creators. They handle the monetization and sponsorships, so you can focus on creating without the hassle of bringing in ad revenue.

Twitter Subscriptions

Trung also has an option for his followers to subscribe to him on Twitter at $3 per month, to support his work.

He occasionally publishes private posts for his subscribers, but that’s not the main point of the subscription.

Not Investment Advice

Trung is also part of the trio behind the “Not Investment Advice” podcast.

He runs this with Jack Butcher and Bilal Zaidi and they talk about all kinds of current events around Twitter, business, startups, and crypto.

Instead of a monetization play, this feels like a group of guys who genuinely enjoy chatting with each other, and it has the benefit of amplifying their other projects as well.

The Growth Timeline

Trung’s growth has been pretty incredible.

In 2021 alone he went from 10k followers to over 300k.

Trung wrote for The Hustle until Feb 2022. When he left he had almost 350k followers on Twitter.

And he’s almost doubled his audience since then.

The Growth Levers of Trung Phan

There are a LOT of growth levers we could cover here, but these are the ones I believe have had a major impact on his growth.

😹 1. Humor-infused business content. There are 2 types of content Trung creates, and both play different parts in building his audience vs building affinity with them.

♻️ 2. Evergreen mixed with viral posts. This is my favorite piece. The way Trung uses evergreen content to add more depth to his short-form content…and then repurpose it via that short-form is fantastic.

💡 3. Information flow and discovery. Trung has a very methodical way of finding “the best stories on the internet.” I’ll break it down for you.

👩‍🍳 4. The recipe for virality. How he knows exactly what’s going to go viral before he even starts writing.

1. Humor Infused Business Content 😹

Trung’s goal in life is to get people to laugh.

That’s what he loves doing, so when you see his content strategy it will make sense.

Before he decided to double down on Twitter, he looked around at the content being posted there and knew there was a gap he could fill.

There weren’t many people talking about business and tech while making people laugh.

The laughs he generates play a huge part in why his content gets shared so much.

Smart Threads, Dumb Memes

But he knows that to grow on social, he couldn’t only share jokes.

There are two main categories of the content Trung creates on Twitter:

  1. Smart Threads
  2. Dumb Memes

He used to even include this in his profile, and while he has since removed it that is still a good indication of what you can expect.

Let’s break down both of these in more detail so you can get an understanding of what they are and why they are so relevant to his growth story.

Smart Threads

In short, he writes threads because those give you the best chance at growth on Twitter.

In 2020 and 2021, writing great threads was a surefire way to grow your follower count. They get shared a lot and can lead to huge follower growth.

But unfortunately, it’s hard to infuse jokes into 280 characters. So he reserves most of that space for the story and leaves humor out of it.

Dumb Memes

Because threads don’t give him a ton of room for humor, Trung posts memes and jokes between these threads.

It’s hard to grow an account by just posting memes.

While these require a lot less effort to create and help keep Trung’s audience top of mind – the meme space on social media is very competitive.

So he needs both pieces of this puzzle to grow his following.

Running Jokes

He also incorporates humor into his content with running jokes.

This is something he’s learned from the comedy world. Your favorite comedian likely has “bits” or running jokes they make repeatedly.

It makes people feel like they’re part of something.

There are several running jokes Trung has with his audience. One of his most obvious running jokes is about how LinkedIn is so cringey.

He even wrote an article about it in January 2022.

He makes fun of LinkedIn all over the place:

Because he is posting this on Twitter, and generally people on Twitter prefer that platform to LinkedIn, these do extremely well in terms of engagement.

He even has this article pinned to the top of his Substack archive for the SatPost newsletter:

Hilarious.

2. Evergreen Long-Form, Viral Short-Form ♻️

Repurposing content is something I don’t see many newsletter operators doing well. But Trung has done this extremely well.

For context, the longer articles he writes for the newsletter are evergreen, but his short-form stuff generally plays off of a current event or trending story.

He takes something that is happening or a topic that gets people talking. And then filters them over to his newsletter.

Let’s use Eliud Kipchoge breaking the world record for a marathon as an example.

Everyone was talking about this story. No one had ever run a marathon in under 2 hours, and this guy just did it.

Trung shared a tweet breaking down the actual accomplishment (this guy ran 4:35 per mile for 26 straight miles.)

source

3 days later, he emerged from the depths of the internet with a story about Eliud’s supporter, who is nicknamed “Bottle Claus.”

This guy essentially has a full water bottle ready for the runner to grab from him so they don’t have to try and drink from a paper cup while running.

source

Trung wrote a long tweet about the story, including a video of the two interacting during Eliud’s marathon.

That post was viewed over 3.4 million times and got over 10,000 likes.

The interesting part here is that both of these tweets end with Trung linking back to his article on Nike’s Marketing Blindspot.

This was something he had written a month and a half earlier, but the context of the article was super relevant.

This might seem subtle, but because his content is evergreen he’s able to reference back to these stories over and over again.

Whenever a major news story breaks about this topic or something even closely related, he can post a meme or thread about it, and then in the next tweet link back to this article.

Here’s another one:

Remember that running joke about LinkedIn being super cringe?

He links back to that one if the post is even semi-related to LinkedIn.

This is such a brilliant way of making social content that casts a wide net, but then sharing his articles about business and marketing to capture the people who are interested in that.

Cater to the masses, but go deep for the people who care.

And he’s turning social followers -> newsletter subscribers.

Yes, this is basic content repurposing. But at the heart of it, it’s brilliant marketing.

3. Information Flow/Discovery 💡

We know Trung has a knack for going viral, but how does he come up with all of these stories and ideas?

In short, he consumes a LOT of content. But he does it in a very structured way.

Trung’s List of Content Sources

In podcast interviews and elsewhere, he’s mentioned quite a few sources that he uses to come up with this content. I’ll list them here, but I’m positive this is just a fraction of the places he does research.

  • Twitter Timeline
  • Twitter Blue Top Articles
  • Quora
  • Reddit
  • Imgur (great for memes)
  • New York Times
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Economist
  • Financial Times
  • YouTube
  • 50+ newsletters (including The Diff and Money Stuff)
  • RSS Feeds

While this seems like a lot, he has his process dialed in so it only takes him about 30 minutes or so to go through.

But that 30 minutes gives him tons of ideas for content to create.

Comments Over Content

The one thing that stands out between Trung and others who create content is that Trung reads more comments than he does articles.

He says that comment sections are where the majority of his content comes from.

“Just the replies themselves will give you 10+ pieces of content.”

Alright, but is he just reading any comments? Not quite.

Typically what Trung will do is go to Reddit and filter through a few relevant subreddits to his industry.

He’ll scan through until he finds a post that has gotten a lot of upvotes or attention in the past few days.

Then, he reads the comments on that post.

When you go in the comments, you’re getting these PhD’s that no one listens to, but they get to come in and be like “actually, this is wrong, this is wrong, here’s 5 different ways to look at it.”

Marketing Against the Grain

Those comments are where he finds the most interesting stories on the internet. The things these super intelligent people know about, but don’t have an audience to share it with.

Reddit Comments

You can look at the comments on other platforms, but the way the Reddit algorithm works makes the ones there much more reliably interesting.

On other social platforms, you get likes, but on Reddit, you get Karma points for your comments. Those points add to your total “Karma” on the platform which shows on your profile.

Gamifying the comments this way incentivizes people to write better replies and share something interesting that people will upvote.

And Trung just goes in there, pays attention to the interesting stories, and resurfaces them for his readers.

It’s almost a service that he’s offering so you don’t have to go to the depths of the internet.

Packy McCormick even shared hilarious this tweet about Trung and Reddit:

In his early days of writing on Twitter, Trung would even link to the exact Reddit post he found certain stories on.

The Starry Night

One of Trung’s popular posts was about the Starry Night Van Gogh painting. But he wasn’t just telling you about the painting and how he created it, there is an interesting backstory to it.

Trung was on an art history subreddit when he came across and interesting backstory of the art world at the time.

Photographic cameras became accessible for commercial use in 1839.

Since photographs could more accurately depict a scene or portrait, artists began to play around with shapes and forms and paint a more subjective view of the world.

This freedom led to Van Gogh’s interesting take on a starry night.

While lots of people know the Starry Night painting, this was an interesting piece of the story that many people probably don’t know.

source

And it made his thread 1000x times more interesting, leading to a ton of engagement and over 1,600 retweets on that post.

4. The Recipe for Virality 👩‍🍳

Trung has an interesting point about why he uses content he’s resurfaced from Reddit.

He says Reddit content already passes a certain layer of virality. If it’s doing well on a platform that incentivizes you to put out good content, it’s going to perform well elsewhere.

Then when you layer more information on top of that idea (humor, more interesting facts, relate it to something else in history) it’s a recipe for a post that has the potential to go viral.

Sure, you could argue that threads about unknown people on Wikipedia or Reddit posts are dead and no longer work. But that’s not exactly true.

His recipe?

  1. Find an idea on Reddit that got some traction
  2. Put it into YouTube to see if there’s an additional insight or more to the story
  3. Create a tweet combining that initial idea, with an interesting fact

Here’s an example.

He said he might find something on Reddit about Steve Jobs and the iMac.

He then goes to YouTube and types in “Steve Jobs iMac”, and he finds a video of Steve showing off the new iMac and the video has millions of views.

Clearly, something is going on here. So he’ll dig in deeper and find out more about the story to include in his post.

It’s a little more challenging than just finding something interesting on Reddit. Trung says that YouTube has a better algorithm for surfacing good content, but the comments section isn’t great.

Add Nuance

It’s not enough to just repost something you found. You need to combine it with information that makes it even more interesting.

Which is pretty much how everything is trending at this point. News by itself isn’t that interesting when you can read it in thousands of other places.

“On Twitter, there is a new “map” every day too — it’s called the main news story. When playing the Twitter game, my job is to write the funniest or most insightful tweet about that top story. Win or lose, it’s my form of fun.”

Trung Phan

But, if you add a historical context to it (i.e. Trung or Heather Cox Richardson), then you’re onto something bigger.

You’re creating unique content from a story people already resonate with.

He goes into gathering mode – Google Doc – dumps screenshots into there

https://twitter.com/TrungTPhan/status/1570432767032459271

How You Can Replicate Trung’s Success 🗺️

We’re not all naturally good at going viral, but here are a few ways we can replicate some of the results Trung has seen.

Play the Long Game, but Have Fun

Like it or not, there is a certain amount of “playing the game” you need to do if you want to grow at the speed Trung and other creators have seen.

Trung has been reading and going deep on ideas for 15+ years. He’s read thousands of books and spent countless hours going down rabbit holes.

While it might look like a big waste of time to an outsider, this knowledge he’s been accumulating allows him to make connections others might not see.

Something Jeff Bezos does today might remind him of a story about the 1930s that he read.

Trung said that even if he wasn’t getting paid, he would still write and do research because he genuinely enjoys it.

“There are only so many new subscribers you can get in a week….you just have to let time happen. The end is where the payoff is.”

Trung Phan

Are you willing to learn and write about your topic even if no one reads it?

It might not sound like it, but I think this is the most impactful piece of his success. He just loves the work.

He is able to enjoy the process because he adds a playful side of himself when he’s not posting “smart” threads.

The balance of this keeps growth going but makes it more fun for him as well. He’s keeping himself interested and making people laugh at the same time.

Instead of just being serious all the time, are there ways you can do something similar with your content?

Build a Content Discovery Engine

Trung has curated a very tight list of places he’ll go to find content. He’s honed this list over years of trial and error and I’m sure it changes as well.

But having almost a mental checklist of places to look when he’s in “information discovery mode” makes the process faster and more effective.

How can you create a specific list of sources you use to find ideas and content? Instead of scrolling feeds all day, being intentional about your consumption can amplify the results.

Evergreen Long-Form, Trending Short-Form

While Trung’s short-form social content is driven by news and current events, his articles are evergreen.

This lets Trung repurpose his content in a very simple way. It’s brilliant.

Write 20-30 pieces of evergreen content, something that will still be relevant in a few years.

As you write shorter tweets about current events, there’s a good chance you’ll have a longer piece you can link to after almost any short-form post.

If you want to read more about systems and content repurposing, check out the deep dive I wrote about how Justin Welsh makes millions every year as a solopreneur. His systems are next-level.

chenell basilio

Chenell Basilio

Chenell is the head writer and reverse engineer at Growth In Reverse. She spends her days researching newsletters, audience growth, and generally figuring out how to help others create better content.

She has an almost useless Bachelor's Degree in Geography, enjoys running, listening to podcasts, and eating guacamole. 🥑

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