Bigger than SEO: The Zero-Metrics Thought Leadership Blog Referral Partners Can’t Stop Talking About

Early in 2023, Filippo Conforti started publishing Commerce for Devs. An old-school blog of the type that was popular in the early 2000s and 2010s, it’s written primarily for developers interested in ecommerce. It lays out Filippo’s vision for how the so-called “commerce layer” of the internet should function.

I started reading it because Filippo is cofounder of a former Propllr client (also called Commerce Layer – I’ll explain that in a bit). I am not the target audience for this blog at all, but I enjoy reading it: its subject matter is technical but the writing is accessible. I feel smarter and better-informed every time I read it, even when I don’t understand all the details.

After about a year, I reached out to Seth Bindernagel, VP of marketing at Commerce Layer.

“How’d you get him to do it?” I said, meaning how had he convinced his CEO to commit to publishing the blog every week – and more than that, how he’d gotten Filippo to write so well and eloquently when he was 1) a developer by training, and 2) not a native English speaker.

“First of all, I didn’t,” he said. The idea and execution, he said, were entirely Filippo’s. He asked Seth’s opinion on the project, but day to day, Seth’s role is, at most, light proofreading before posts go live.

I’ll admit that’s not the answer I was hoping for. I was hoping for some insight I could turn into a sort of playbook for getting SMEs on board with expert content creation.

But as we spoke about Commerce for Devs, I realized Seth was offering something much more valuable: a whole new way of thinking about thought leadership.

In this piece, I’ll capture key moments from our conversation, along with takeaways for marketers interested in thought leadership and how to conceptualize it, create it, distribute it, and assess its value.

The Commerce for Devs Origin Story: a Philosophy for a New Internet Layer

Seth offered some helpful background for me during our call: one model of understanding the internet breaks it into seven layers, from the physical machines to the application layer we interact with.

In the last couple of decades, though, online commerce has become a hugely important part of the internet.

So important, in Filippo’s opinion, that we should consider commerce the internet’s eighth layer – the commerce layer. And while all kinds of companies and individuals are and have been using the internet for commerce, nobody was offering any thoughtful guidelines on what this hugely influential layer should do.

How should websites integrate transactional data? How should brands sell product across borders in multiple markets? How should commerce (data) interplay with content (data)? What about multi-domain shopping carts? Should checkouts be “optimistic”?

If none of that last paragraph made sense to you, think of it this way: we have mental shortcuts (“heuristics,” if you’re fancy) that save us time and energy for so many aspects of business. For example, I’m keeping these paragraphs short so they’re easier to read.

I’m using conversational language so your eyes don’t glaze over.

I didn’t have to labor over those decisions; I know they’re better than the alternatives thanks to the many smart and thoughtful people who have developed a philosophy of content marketing.

In ecommerce, though, there is no such philosophy. (Or there wasn’t until last year.)

This stood in contrast to Filippo’s early days as a developer, when he read (for example) Agile Development with Rails (currently in its seventh edition), a book all about how to build awesome things with Ruby on Rails. It had a huge impact on his career and on those of many other developers.

And here’s the thing: that book represented one point of view. It captured a single philosophy of how to build awesome things. It reflected deep engagement with the technology in question and deep thought about its applications.

With Commerce for Devs, Filippo set out to do something similar for ecommerce.

But Really: This Is Philosophy, Not Marketing

Here’s where things get really interesting.

After committing to literally writing the book on ecommerce, Filippo, CEO of a company that sells ecommerce functionality, says his marketing team couldn’t use it.

As in, they can’t tie it to the Commerce Layer domain. They can’t see traffic numbers or have access to the blog’s signup lists. They can’t log into the associated Slack forum and subtly pitch people in the comments.


“So…” I said to Seth. “How are you measuring its value?”

“We’re not,” he said. “We know it has inherent value.”


Then he added: “Filippo thinks we’d really diminish [the blog’s] credibility if we turned it into a marketing channel.”

And there, my friends, is where things get tricky.

We at Propllr talk all the time about credibility and how thought leadership can help you build it for your SMEs and your brand.

But we’ve never been brave enough to acknowledge that the very act of publishing said thought leadership on a blog owned by a company trying to sell something related to those thoughts might inherently diminish their credibility.

It hurt me to even write that.

But company blogs are not newspapers; there is no expectation of fair and balanced reporting. There is no expectation that opposing viewpoints will get equal space. It is entirely reasonable for readers to approach the content they see on company blogs with skepticism.

Let’s put that aside for a minute, though. I’ll come back to it, but I want to go one step further re: Commerce for Devs.

Referral Partners Love Commerce for Devs

No traffic numbers, no email signups. But at the big industry conferences Seth attended last year, a lot of people mentioned the blog.

What kind of people, you ask (I asked)?

“Large strategic partners, agencies, systems integrators who do the heavy lifting for large brands,” said Seth.

“They represent a powerful referral channel for us.”

I’ll just let that sit there.

The Commerce Layer Sales Team Loves Commerce for Devs

A content marketer through and through, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around having all that great content and not using it in sales conversations.

“Our sales team eagerly shares it,” Seth clarified. “It’s so hard to create content in this space because it’s so technical. But our team now has lots of pieces they can share and say, ‘Here’s a blog post our founder wrote. Here’s how we think about this.’”

After all, Filippo is upfront about being the cofounder and CEO of Commerce Layer. The point is not to keep that a secret but rather to deliberately uncouple his thought leadership from lead generation.

The point is to communicate his philosophy of what the internet’s commerce layer should be, to share ideas with others invested in this question, and to do so in a way that isn’t tainted by one party trying to sell to another at the end of every article.

So far, that’s made him all the more credible in the industry.

Can It Work for You? 5 Essential Ingredients for Success

Who among us wouldn’t want the kind of hardcore authority and credibility Filippo is building for himself in the ecommerce space? But is it even worth trying?

I asked Seth for a reality check: Filippo seems uniquely positioned to make something like this work: he’s a great writer. He’s got a clear viewpoint and it fills a hole in his industry. He doesn’t have to be convinced of the value of publishing his ideas.

Is this even the kind of strategy other people can emulate? Especially marketers who are already fighting an uphill battle to demonstrate the value they drive?

“The most important thing is: do you have something to say,” said Seth. He was emphatic about this.

And not only something to say, but a point of view about how it should be communicated.

“Filippo not only had something to say but had already structured it from Chapter 1 through Chapter 12: this is how you do ecommerce,” said Seth.

And while he conceded that someone who isn’t a great writer (or doesn’t have time to write) could make this strategy work with a ghostwriter, he emphasized that a strong point of view and an idea of how best to communicate it are essential starting points.

(It’s also worth noting that a blog isn’t the only option for capturing ideas: platforms like TikTok make it easier than ever to record and distribute video content. And anyone with a smartphone and an opinion can spin up a podcast. I’m approaching this from a writer’s perspective, but having ideas matters more than the medium you use.)

To sum up, this strategy might work for your organization if you (or your CEO or another internal expert) have these five things:

  1. Something to say to a specific group of people
  2. A plan or outline of how to say it
  3. Commitment to capturing the ideas
  4. A format for publishing (blog, TikTok, LinkedIn, etc.)
  5. A distribution strategy (email, social, word of mouth, etc.)

But What About SEO 🫠?

I had to come back to this, because it’s often the most difficult hurdle to clear for content marketers, even when we’re not trying to launch an industry-defining blog somewhere besides the company’s domain.

So I asked Seth: what about SEO?

“People over-value SEO,” he said. “Or they underestimate how hard it is to get value from SEO.”

I nodded sagely.

He went on: “Most CEOs and founders I’ve worked with have fallen victim to the idea of ‘free marketing’ that SEO promises: you just have to find someone who knows how to do SEO, then your marketing will work.

“But,” he went on, “You don’t get SEO simply by writing good content and hoping you get traffic. You need to create good content and build out a great brand, brand voice, and incredible position of credibility so that you can use that content in a different channel.” He paused. “Maybe one day you can use it for SEO too.”

Closing the Loop: Credibility on Company Blogs

Early on, I raised the question of skepticism: when someone reads your company blog, they’re rightfully skeptical of your claims because they know you’re trying to sell something.

True. But also: they’re probably reading your company blog because they’re considering buying something. Or they’re trying to figure out whether they can do that something themselves.

They’re trying to understand the different approaches to doing a thing and want to understand various practitioners’ approaches.

And, realistically, most people also know that any newspaper they read is imbued with the reporter’s and publication’s point of view.

Which is to say: there is no “neutral.” There is no “unbiased.” A decade ago, it was common for B2B content marketing to affect a “neutral” position, then slide in a pitch at the end of a blog post.

“Look at us, we’re not influenced by the company that signs our paychecks,” was the tone, but in reality the information was being presented to make the company selling the thing look great and the alternatives look crummy.

Today, anyone can get “neutral” generic content from a generative AI chatbot. In fact, more and more people are turning there as the search giant we once relied on gets worse and worse.

But B2B buyers don’t necessarily want neutral information. By the time they’re considering solutions, they want a point of view. They want to know why you stopped doing free trials, why you approach projects the way you do, why your software zigs while your competitors all zag.

For me, the biggest takeaway from reading Commerce for Devs for a year and talking to Seth about its creation was not that this approach makes sense for every – or even most – business owners.

Rather, it was that the most important thing B2B blogs can do right now is have a distinct point of view and a distinct voice.

If you take one thing from this post, take that.

Think of your best client of all time. Write for them. Think of the last person on earth you’d want to work with. Write to send them running.

You’ll irk some people by doing this. And you’ll pull in the ones who share your vision and make them feel warm and bubbly every time they see your name. And when it comes time to talk about working together, you’ll have a much easier time closing the deal.