How we got 11.3 million pageviews without the growth hacking bullshit

“Once you publish a blog post, you have to email as many influencers as possible,” he tells the guy next to him, “and ask them to share it on their social media.”

I know I should mind my own business and stop listening to their conversation. But overhearing strangers in coworking spaces is always more interesting than staring at my screen all day long.

“Start your email with a sentence that flatters them. Maybe just pretend you care about something they published.” He adds, “You’ll also need software to track if they open your emails so you can send them follow-up emails later.”

So you can keep spamming them, I want to walk up to them and correct him. But I don’t judge him. We marketers love to destroy beautiful things.

Want to ruin something? Give it to us. Take influencer… social media… email… LinkedIn… we’ll add the word “marketing” next to each one and before long the world will be sick of our spammy tactics.

The word “content” isn’t any exception. In a recent essay, Intercom’s editor John Collins explains why they dropped the term “content marketing”:

“Combine ‘content’ with ‘marketing’ and you further undermine what you’re creating. The phrase suggests the entire point of the exercise is marketing. But if you focus on publishing great content, you’ll actually need to do minimal marketing to attract people to your product.”

Collins goes on to highlight that the term “content” itself is also problematic.

And he is right: “content” does commodify the core of what we do. But we all continue to use the word for want of a better catch-all phrase for our articles, books, and podcasts.

But do we have a better alternative?

‘Storytelling’ as a growth engine

11.3 million.

That’s the number of pageviews the “content” we created for our clients got over the last nine months.

People want me to talk about growth hacks or loopholes we found with Facebook ads. But our formula comes down to one thing we believe does a healthier job of capturing what we do: storytelling.

We discovered that if we focus on storytelling and worry little about the marketing part, the compound return that kicks in at around the fourth to the sixth month is simply mind-blowing.

We spend long hours, often a few days, on a single story.

Growth begins with words. Stories, they move people. And moving people is magical for building a business on your own terms, without worrying about competition.

The reason is simple: People don’t desire products. They desire feelings that products give them.

And storytelling is an incredible tool that acknowledges such distinction, a tool so few people are capable of using or understand the true potential of.

Getting people to read your story, a long-form essay, or a blog post, gives you those few priceless minutes to make an in-depth, intellectual connection with anyone around the world.

The readers of your stories in return start giving you their trust, one story at a time. And trust over time equals power.

We call this power “compound growth” which, after a few months of consistent storytelling, turns into your unstoppable in-house growth engine.

I explained the “compound growth” concept in detail in another essay so I’ll cut it short here.

But enough with the returns or benefits of storytelling.

Let’s get to some serious stuff.

How to move the masses

Building your own storytelling engine isn’t rocket science. And the truth is you don’t actually need to hire agencies like us to build one.

In a world where the majority spend their days on growth hacks and blame the algorithms when things don’t go well, focusing on the storytelling part easily gets you among the top 1 percent.

I want to share three building blocks we go through with each of our clients, which I hope will help you kick off your own storytelling strategy.

Let’s begin with high-level decisions.

1. Define your core narrative

“Over 90% of tech company content continue to be egocentric, focused on them (products, capabilities, company) instead of the customer (and the benefits that their solutions enable).” — Gartner

Before blaming those 90 percent for publishing selfish content, let’s consider a few best-in-class others that do quite the opposite:

  • Intercom’s blog doesn’t talk about its chatbot products; its content instead focuses on how to make business personal again.
  • JotForm doesn’t hard-sell its audience on its online forms — forms are boring and there are dozens of identical online form competitors. Their content instead helps organizations become more productive.

Unlike egocentric brands, the above examples tell stories beyond themselves. And they demonstrate what we call the “core narrative,” which is the first step to building your storytelling strategy.

Your core narrative is what you sell beyond your product. It’s the broad idea behind your otherwise selfish brand.

Defining a core narrative helps you to tell stories beyond yourself and still sell your product without shoving your product down people’s throats.

And every brand has a good narrative to sell — I mean, tell.

Got a product you think isn’t sexy enough? You can still craft a narrative.

The full-service storage company Clutter doesn’t hard-sell its boring storage services. It talks about delivering piece of mind.

The same could go for an accounting company. Why not talk about freedom instead?

In his by now legendary memo, Slack’s founder Stewart Butterfield highlights how selling a bigger idea beyond their group chat product could help them define a new market, instead of battling it out in a large market with dozens of incumbents:

“What we are selling is not the software product because there are just not many buyers for this software product. That’s why what we’re selling is organizational transformation. The software just happens to be the part we’re able to build and ship.”

Defining your core narrative guides every other content decision.

Content teams that otherwise run around like headless chickens finally receive a clear direction for what slogans to write on their homepage, how to craft their otherwise hard-selling marketing newsletters, etc.

You can think of your core narrative also as your “adjacent possible.” As Article Group’s Steve Bryant highlights:

“The point of an awareness strategy is not to capture dollars by selling a thing, it is to capture attention by selling an idea adjacent to that thingBy capturing attention with ideas you own that idea. By owning the idea, you own the audience. By owning the audience you can tell the audience what to pay attention to, and thereby define the marketplace. That is a long-term play. But that is the power of an awareness strategy, and thus the power of content.”

This doesn’t mean you should never publish about yourself, though.

As a business, you will obviously have content about your product launches, case studies, or company announcements. Indeed, Intercom often publishes about its feature releases; so does Basecamp.

That’s why it’s critical to break down your core narrative into tiers. You can think of your tiers as categories your stories will cover — they help you to turn such high-level narrative into an actionable content plan.

And your tiers can have a varying dose of “you” — from a tier that covers product-related topics (more about you) to one that solves your audience’s other, broader problems (nothing about you).

In other words, when brought together, the portfolio of your tiers should bring together the pieces of your core narrative.

But how you balance your tiers heavily depends on your content goal, which brings us to the next building block:

2. Define your ultimate goal

It’s easy for us to sit here and criticize content teams that publish ego-centric content.

But we should remember they spend most of their time inside the business. Add to that the pressure to convert website visitors into sales.

Yes, content does eventually lead to sales. But tying content directly to sales is a tricky business.

This doesn’t mean thinking of conversions is bad; after all, you need to pay the bills if you are in business.

And things like SEO, ads or webinars work great when people have a clear problem to be solved, i.e., when they know they need a solution.

But how about other market conditions where building even some “awareness” is challenging, never mind the conversion? Will those aggressive conversion strategies or ego-centric content work? Think of markets where…

  • people don’t even know they need a particular product/solution,
  • or markets where there are too many identical competitors, which is becoming the new normal in an increasing number of industries.

Such big-picture realization is crucial. “That’s when brands, who know they SHOULD be doing content, start wondering whether now is the time to start,” notes Steve Bryant:

“The challenge is that most brands aren’t good at awareness. A brand is a selfish thing. It was born as an idea about itself, it raised money talking about itself, it sells product talking about itself. It rightly and correctly does SEO and programmatic advertising and targeted banner ads and webinars and cold calls and feature releases and press releases about itself. But this is why brands aren’t good at telling stories beyond themselves. A brand wants people to aspire to its product. To a brand, their product is the customer’s goal.”

If you keep believing your product is your customer’s only goal, you’ll keep talking only about yourself.

But shifting such thinking isn’t easy. And it requires having a few of the following ingredients in place:

  • Expectations of your top management: Do you have a deep buy-in from decision-makers within your organization? Do they understand how content works and how long it actually takes to reap the benefits of compound returns? Or are they in it to make some sales overnight?
  • Runway/resources: What’s your runway? The fewer the resources/months you have left, the more pressure is likely to be put on content. More pressure then increases the risk of doing some dangerous things to your audience, e.g., locking them up in landing pages or driving them crazy with those aggressive popups.
  • Market dynamics: Do people in your industry know they need a particular solution so they seek out content, say, on Google? Is your market overly crowded with identical competitors? As mentioned earlier, such big-picture analysis can be key for defining and balancing your tiers (e.g., SEO content vs. big stories).
  • Growth stage: At what stage is your business? Content does take a long time. If you are at an early stage or haven’t even found a product/market fit, then getting into the storytelling game is probably not for you.

Your answers to these questions will shape your goal. They’ll explain the difference between an aggressive publisher and a smart one who know your audience isn’t a moron.

3. In the content game, your writing is your product

Define your high-level goal.

Build your core narrative. Break it down into tiers.

Come up with individual story ideas under each tier.

These are all fun steps.

But they mean nothing until you do one thing:

Sit down alone with your thoughts to type words on a blank page.

Doing the thing isn’t easy. You’ll often end up doing everything related to the thing in order to postpone doing the thing. This is where spending too much time on the “marketing” part can become addictive.

But eventually, you’ll have to face the reality that, in the most cluttered marketplace in history, your writing is your product.

If we borrow Sam Altman’s legendary “product” quote and apply it to “content”:

If you want people to pay attention to you someday, you have to eventually write so good that people will recommend it to their friends — in fact, so good that they want to be the first one to recommend it to their friends for the implied good taste. No growth hack or brilliant content promotion idea can save you long term if you don’t have a sufficiently good writing. So if you’re trying to grow your traction around a mediocre writing, fix it now. Don’t try to avoid the problem by writing lazy listicles or looking for aggressive tactics. And if you’re just starting out, take the time to write stories your audience loves, no matter how long it takes.

Take the time, no matter how long it takes. This is one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned over the last years.

Writing a compelling story isn’t easy to pull off all the time.

It takes hours, often days, to bring together a compelling argument, organize your thoughts, and solve a series of logic problems about the order of ideas.

Gumroad founder Sahil’s note on how long it takes to bring together a compelling story as one of his recent stories is approaching one million readers.

When storytelling is done well, though, time proves it was worth all the effort; that one powerful story leaves an impact that a dozen listicles can’t even get close to.

That’s the difference between a clickbait article that goes viral and a story that is authentic and real.

Growth begins with words. Stories, they move people. And moving people is good for business.

How to build a startup empire without selling your freedom

bootstrap without investors

Finding a startup to work for is easy. Finding a founder whose vision you believe in isn’t.

I’m sitting next to a founder whose vision I have admired over the past year.

It couldn’t get any louder in this downtown Starbucks in Singapore, but noise is probably the last thing on both of our minds.

We are here to talk about some bad news.

He just got kicked out of the startup he founded two years ago.

He had no idea that behind the scenes, his investors and co-founders had been working on a shocking plan.

“I don’t want to work with you ever again,” one of the investors told him, as the two other co-founders watched in silence from the corner of the table.

Not only was he forced to step down from his role as CEO; he was left with no choice but to give up the few shares he had left in a startup he had founded in the first place.

Over the last months, his dream to build a product customers love had gradually turned into building what investors wanted.

And these investors now wanted him out, too.

Small is the new big

Investors aren’t evil. After all, most of them are genuinely interested in putting, not just money, but value into their investments.

But they aren’t the only way to build your startup empire.

selling your soul to investors

There’s an alternative path being carved out by a growing breed of founders; or, as they’re collectively known, ‘bootstrappers’. These are entrepreneurs who build their ventures with little to no outside funding.

An increasing number of bootstrappers have recently started to speak up and share their journeys. But their voices often aren’t as loud as those who spend a fortune on PR agencies to announce their VC-million funding rounds.

Bootstrappers couldn’t care less about making it to the top of TechCrunch; nor do they bother to build a personal brand on Snapchat or Instagram.

You won’t see them preparing investment decks when their teams need them the most. They are interested in real customers, who reward them with their dollars.

Turn to any industry and you’ll find proof that self-funding is not only possible, but wildly profitable:

– Analytics & SEO? Ahrefs’ crawler is second only to Google’s.
– Email Marketing? MailChimp has over 14 million customers.
– Data collection? JotForm has 3.2 million users and +100 employees.
– Productivity? Todoist is the market leader.
– Project Management? Basecamp has offices in over 30 cities around the world.

Their self-funded journeys aren’t glamorous. They’re not dramatic. Most tech publications aren’t going to risk their CTRs to talk about it.

However, many bootstrapped startups have more customers and profits than their VC-backed rivals.

They often build their empires in silence, with more concern for how their products run than showing them off.

Of course, not every startup can be bootstrapped; business is never one-size-fits-all.

But bootstrappers remind us to question almost everything the startup media preaches, starting with: “Why are we raising funding in the first place?”

Small is the new big. And I’m about to tell you why.

1. Quitting your job vs. ramping up your side gig

The bootstrapper’s skepticism about conventional startup “wisdom” starts at square one.

You rarely see them following the mainstream entrepreneurship advice that suggests there’s a singular, linear path to startup success:

1. Start by ignoring the “haters.”
2. Next, quit your job.
3. Now, hustle 80 hours a week.

Even I followed this model, quitting a fancy corporate hell to pursue a dream, one that was yet to even be fully realized at the time.

Quitting your job before you’ve clearly solved a problem will only add pressure to your 80-hour work weeks as you watch your cash go down the drain, shortly followed by your sanity.

Instead, most bootstrappers start their business as a side project, while also working in full-time roles in the background. Only when their side project becomes a viable source of long-term income do they quit and go all-in.

Take the founders of the startups I just mentioned:

Ahrefs…

– Long before quitting his day job, Ahrefs’ founder Dmitry Gerasimenko started by exploring a bunch of projects on the side.

– While he continued to work full-time as a developer back in 2006, he used his salary to hire other developers to help with those side projects.

– Only when these side gigs started making more money than his full-time income did, he quit his job to figure out which one had the most potential.

– After four years of playing with various side projects, the most successful of the bunch turned into a leading analytical platform: the Ahrefs that we know today, which would bring him neck-to-neck with Google.

quit your job

JotForm…

Aytekin Tank didn’t let a full-time job stop him from building a product that 3.2 million people use.

“I’d wake up at 6 am, answer customer questions, and then go to work. It took me another five years to quit my job and start my own company — even though I already had a successful product.”

This means bootstrappers’ customers aren’t just jumping on the latest craze before abandoning it for the next; they’re in it for the long haul.

2. Slow growth is the new hockey stick curve

Revenue first vs. profits first

For VC-funded companies or anyone flush with cash, it’s easy to say “let’s hire all the people we can and dominate every marketing channel!”

Most investors love that approach, too. They want to recoup their money ASAP, so they pressure startups to achieve exponential growth.

Fast hires and hockey-stick graphs look good on paper. It also means growing the top line (revenue) first and figuring out that sticky profit issue later.

Bootstrappers? They figure out the profit first. Without investor cash raining down, profit is their only goal.

Focusing on profits, however, creates freedom.

Freedom doesn’t come only when you finally make that exit and sell your startup.

Spend less than you earn, and you can grow at your own pace — without burning out.

Choosing freedom over the 80-hour hustle explains how Ahref’s Dmitry can take a week off for family time even during busy periods.

Other bootstrappers follow the same principles of leading a sane life; it’s not a surprise to see Todoist founder Amir hanging out in the park with his little boy or JotForm’s Aytekin picking olives with his parents.

“I know that spending quality time with my family won’t land me at the top of TechCrunch, but it’s a personal measure of success. I’ve grown my business slowly and spent 12 years building a stable business that can function without me.”— Aytekin Tank.

Hiring, firing, and sane startup culture

That’s a 97.5% retention rate over 5 years.

FOMO is real, but it’s not a great strategy. Bootstrappers are proof that Silicon Valley isn’t the only place to found a startup kingdom.

Dmitry has been building his Ahrefs empire in Singapore, Jotform in Turkey, Todoist in Spain, MailChimp in Atlanta, Basecamp in Chicago — not to mention their remote teams spread across the globe.

You can build anything from anywhere.

Unlike 80-hour hustle fans, self-funders are also big advocates of doing work when at work.

It is no surpise they don’t offer ping pong tables or a fridge full of beer so their employees can stay in the office forever. They do offer sane hours, however.

And instead of hiring and firing fast, these self-funders hire slowly, grow slowly.

Feeling responsible for those you hire is a synonym for integrity and the headcount is often a vanity metric — one which bootstrappers don’t have the luxury of subscribing to.

“Optimize on output, don’t optimize on the number of people you hire,” notes Todoist’s Amir, who is proud to report that only one employee has ever left the company voluntarily.

That’s a 97.5% retention rate over 5 years.

3. Create value first and valuation will follow

It took 7 years for Ahrefs to build an empire in the extremely competitive SEO space. They built their product in silence as their competitors raised one million-dollar round after another.

JotForm didn’t go from zero to 3.2 million users overnight. It required 12 years of perseverance.

Their competitor Typeform recently closed $35 million in another round of funding. JotForm closed zero.

Playing the long game pays off, though. JotForm’s Aytekin recently shared how focusing on the customer, not the competition, brought them one million new signups in a single year.

After 10 long years, Todoist has gone from a personal project to an app that helps people complete tens of millions of tasks. Their founder hits the nail on the head when he describes his motivation to bootstrap:

“What’s better than an exit strategy? It’s a long-term mission that your company truly cares about. It’s focusing on building a company that can outlast you and creating something of true value.”

Every startup wants to become a household name. But not all of them are willing to put the work in every single day for a decade.

Bootstrappers are obsessed with building a product customers love. Not competitors. Never investors.

A fat bank account isn’t a recipe for success.

Bootstrapping your growth is good for business. It helps you unlock potential you didn’t even know you had.

It forces you to focus on building something that’s worth paying for instead of wasting resources trying to hit the top of TechCrunch.

After all, you have to sink or swim.

Without investors looking over your shoulders, there are fewer distractions. Fewer distractions mean more time to focus on the reason you started a company in the first place: your product.

And chances are, nobody else understands your customers as well as you do:

“Every time we sat down with potential investors, they never seemed to understand small business. Something in our gut always said that didn’t feel right.” — Ben Chestnut, MailChimp founder

Slow growth is the new hockey stick. It’s sustainable. It’s smart.

And it can help you stay sane in the face of changing markets, technology, and customer needs.
Bootstrappers are proof that tiny teams can play in the big leagues. They encourage us to take our time, scale at our own pace, and do it right.

When budgets are tight, you learn the value of every dollar by keeping an eye on profit. And profit means freedom.

Small is the new big.

//

Don’t Build a Startup, Build a Movement

As a startup marketer, spending my lunch break arguing with developers is not my favorite part of the job.

“That’s bullshit,” our CTO replies. “MailChimp’s product isn’t any better than the rest; it’s just another tool to send your newsletters. Why spend $200/month when their competitors offer the same thing for a few bucks?”

I want to convince him that MailChimp ensures our email campaigns hit customers’ inboxes, not their spam folders.

But he keeps beating me back with technical explanations I don’t fully get.

“Look, we can even build our own email bot that does the exact same thing,” he adds. “You’re just sold on their brand.”

Well, he’s partly right.

Over the last years, MailChimp has built an iconic brand with its design-centric approach and unconventional marketing campaigns.

Monkey mascot billboards with no mention of their name … “MailKimp” and other name-teasing campaigns that reached 334 million people … design-centric annual reports that came with style …

MailChimp’s giveaways were unconventional, too. Free monkey hats for cats were delighting their superfans like me who were ready to pay more.

In a world where anyone can copy your product overnight, instead of knitting monkey hats for cats, MailChimp could very well have chosen to get into an arms race on building more features.

After all, the company was even receiving open letters and warnings from some big customers threatening to shift to the competition if they didn’t build more advanced features.

MailChimp’s answer?

Focus on building a brand customers love.

As we near the end of 2017, the email startup that never took a single dime in outside funding is preparing to close the year with a mind-blowing 15 million customers.

But enough with the monkey business.

Let’s look at the big picture to understand what this means for startups trying to succeed in today’s cluttered world:

  1. You don’t have to disrupt an entire industry: While many entrepreneurs are busy trying to build the next Uber or Facebook, this is a myth we need to dispel. MailChimp didn’t disrupt any industry, yet it managed to build its monkey empire in a market that was becoming increasingly crowded.
  2. If you aren’t disrupting or creating an entirely new market, you can still build an empire in a highly competitive space: And it involves growing superfans who religiously follow your movement and spread the word about you even if you charge premium prices or refuse to get into an arms race on building more features.

What is the secret, though?

How do you reach the masses and grow your fan club that enables you to play the game by your own rules, without worrying about the competition?

The options vary, but some of the world’s most successful startups use two powerful strategies:

First is obviously the “MailChimp way”, i.e., marketing your product like a high-quality brand. As their founder Ben Chestnut explains:

“We make apps for business customers, using low-priced parts, then we market the apps like a high-quality, design-centric, lovable B2C brand.”

But a growing breed of thriving startups uses an alternative strategy — one that doesn’t necessarily require a design-centric approach.

It requires influencing people’s thinking instead:

Don’t disrupt an industry, disrupt the thinking

As Mark Bonchek highlights in his widely popular Harvard essay:

“Companies that successfully market and sell innovation are able to shift how people think not only about their product, but about themselves, the market, and the world.

Don’t sell a product, sell a whole new way of thinking.”

Take Drift, one of the rising stars in the tech scene today.

Instead of forcing their product down people’s throats, the “movers” like Drift sell the underlying shift in thinking, the original insight that led to their innovation.

In Drift’s case, the original insight that led to their product was the old, broken way of marketing and sales that still relied on website forms and annoying sales follow-ups.

Thats why, instead of hard selling or flooding their blog with product info, they talk about how today’s marketing and sales techniques are so yesterday, or why marketing automation and email marketing are broken.

“This is different than your value proposition. It’s an assumption (usually unconscious) about how the world works,” adds Bonchek.

The logic is easy to apply to any startup when you think of it as a template:

We champion [insert], and shift the way people think about [insert] to be [insert].

For instance, Drift champions the new way of marketing and sales, and shifts the way people think about marketing and sales to be more conversation-driven, personalized, and human.

Two other iconic companies — Basecamp and Salesforce — are also leading the way in rethinking existing mental models.

  • Basecamp’s founders grow their superfans by championing the “Un-Silicon Valley way” and shifting how people think about management, productivity, time, growth, or the way startups work.
  • Salesforce champions the “no software” mantra and shifts the thinking from packaged, installed software to cloud computing and software-as-a-service.

Building an engine that shifts how people think

Changing people’s current mental model doesn’t happen overnight.

Rather, you will need a sustainable engine that shows people the new mental model in different contexts and situations, over and over again.

For example, even though Drift’s blog already reaches over +100K people per month, they unlock new channels that reach the audiences they wouldn’t reach otherwise via:

  • Their annual “Hypergrowth” conference, dedicated entirely to discussing the future of marketing and sales;
  • Their “Seeking Wisdom” podcast, where they spread their message through audio conversations.

Like Drift, Basecamp’s founders build a multi-channel engine that helps them reach new pockets of people through their best-selling books like ‘Rework’, their popular blog, and podcasts.

Building an engine to educate people on the new way of thinking isn’t reserved for startups, though.

Giant corporations like GE have already recognized the importance of what they call “mindshare before market share.

GE’s CMO Beth Comstock explains why they heavily invest in their content engine:

“The really good innovations need to be explained before they’re accepted… It has meant becoming a content factory — telling stories across media and methods from data to videos to social media.”

The MailChimp way, the Drift way, or your way

From bloggers to startup founders, today’s makers share a growing concern:

“So much noise, so much competition.”

Spaces like SaaS are becoming increasingly competitive, where companies feel they are almost selling a commodity or that their product could be copied overnight.

That’s why, in today’s most cluttered marketplace in history, building a movement is more important than ever.

Build it the MailChimp way, the Drift way, or your way. No matter what route you take, there is one element that is consistent across businesses that distinguish themselves: being true to yourself.

For MailChimp, it means launching unconventional marketing campaigns that intentionally mispronounce their name:

“We believe the best way to build relationships with customers is to be yourself.

For us, that means having some fun with our name.”

For Drift, it means hosting an honest chat between their CMO and CEO. While the world is full of podcasts that pretend to look professional, Drift’s informal podcast style is one of the reasons that “Seeking Wisdom” has legions of loyal fans.

As Basecamp’s founders note, pouring yourself into your product is a powerful way to stand out from the crowd:

“If you’re successful, people will try to copy what you do. But there’s a great way to protect yourself from copycats:

Make you part of your product or service. Inject what’s unique about the way you think into what you sell.

Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it.

Competitors can never copy the you in your product.”

And it’s good for business.

Don’t build a startup, build a movement — right from day one.

And if you do it right, super fans like me might voluntarily spend their lunch breaks arguing on behalf of your awesome solution.

How to Start a Blog

I will publish an article only when I have something important to say.

That’s what I reminded myself every time the egocentric ‘me’ wanted to publish more often and be the center of attention.

It wasn’t easy to resist.

As I watched new personal brands gain popularity on a growing platform like Medium, it felt like I was about to miss a train I would never catch again.

I constantly felt the pressure to publish more — after all, I had to make use of all those followers.

The conflict never stopped.

On one hand, the personal brand ‘me’ couldn’t let go of his ego and wanted to spend more time publishing content on my personal Medium blog.

But the freelancer ‘me’ had bills to pay and work to do.

And I realised early on that spending all your time blogging or building a personal brand wasn’t the only way to make a living on the internet.

After all, most of my blogger friends were broke and busy giving-giving-giving so they could ask for a sale one day in the future.

I realised I could step off this personal brand stage and make a silent living behind the scenes — by getting my hands dirty growing the blogs of my clients instead.

Somehow, it worked.

The more I focused on helping my startup clients to grow, the more firsthand lessons I learned.

And every time I learned something through that experience, I logged on to Medium and published a new story.

To date, I’ve published 15 essays since I joined Medium. That’s one article almost every two months:

The relationship between how often you publish and how much traction you get is an interesting concept. But more on that in a minute.

Let’s start with the bigger picture.

If you’ve worked with enough clients, you’ve probably heard more than one of them religiously say, “We HAVE TO start a blog.”

But do you really have to blog in the first place?

Answering this question is crucial as it also helps you understand what type of growth you can get from content and how fast that growth will be.

1. Should you really start a blog?

Some people will try to scare you about how cluttered the world of blogging is today, but only a few will mention what’s probably the best thing about content: the slow and compound return.

That’s likely because not everyone has the patience or guts to do the hard work necessary to see what happens when you keep up with publishing after a few months.

Content is a long game and it isn’t for those who quickly lose their interest and jump on the next ‘killer growth hack’ to ‘skyrocket’ their growth by ‘286%’.

Even if they wanted to stick with it, their mindset often is geared towards finding hacks or shortcuts. Little do they know that if they put the same amount of effort into storytelling, they would never need any of that.

Take Inside Intercom, the blog of one of the fastest-growing startups today.

When sharing lessons from scaling their blog over the last four years, Intercom’s legendary editor John Collins summarises content’s slow return like this:

“Kicking off a content generating machine doesn’t pay back instantly… Even if your first few articles are smash hits, you won’t benefit immediately, and you won’t be able to measure how much value you’ve created in the short term.
Remember, unless you are selling ads on your blog, it’s not just about page views.”

What’s your goal?

Are you looking for smash hits or are you here to deliver consistent value, build trust and long-term relationships, and create awareness?

If you blog to play the long game, you may watch some of your articles go viral down the road.
But if you blog to go viral, you might watch your entire blog go down the hole.

And the real magic of content happens when this slow return takes the form of a compound one — one that grows thanks to the incremental gains it earns along the way, even if you started small.

FROM SLOW TO COMPOUND RETURN

It’s possible to categorise content in many ways, but there are two categories any blogger should take note of:

  • 1. Evergreen content: Content that is as valuable today as it will be in the future. In other words, articles that will always remain interesting for your audience.
  • 2. Temporal content: Content that is relevant just for a limited time, e.g., a post that covers Apple’s launch event or the solar eclipse.

To achieve compound return, should you publish evergreen or temporal content?

In his outstanding analysis, Tomasz Tunguz suggests that marketers publish more evergreen than temporal content if they are after compound return:

“While it may not generate long term returns, temporal content keeps blogs fresh.
But to benefit from the compounding effects of content marketing, marketers should actively invest in building evergreen content that keeps contributing to traffic growth, building the company’s brand and eventually generating sales.”

Below is an example from one of my past clients when we shifted to publishing only high-quality evergreen articles:

But depending on many factors such as your niche or competition, the steepness and timing of the compound return differ.

Here is another example from one of my recent clients, Appster, where we found a sweet niche with publishing long-form evergreen pieces:

2. How often shall I publish?

We love to share advice but we often neglect to warn people about one thing:

What works for others won’t always work for you. And what works for you today won’t always work tomorrow.

Those who cut their teeth in the early years of the Web, when 500-word blog posts could win you fame and fortune, will tell you that you could easily get thousands of page views and subscribers just by blogging consistently.

But before religiously following their advice and flooding your blog with me-too articles, try rephrasing “How often shall I publish?” to:

“How often am I able to bring together a QUALITY article?”

Every day?

  • Publishing quality content every single day is no easy feat, especially if you don’t get others to ghostwrite for you.
  • Marketing legend Seth Godin publishes every single day and he knows what it takes to deliver such quality consistently. That’s why he doesn’t spend time managing his Twitter account even though he has +620K followers there. Instead of being mediocre at both, he’ll tell you how, early in his career, he chose to be really good at blogging and gave up on Twitter.
  • Things change if you’ve got the resources, though. Thanks to its army of writers, Hubspot publishes several times a day.

A few times a week?

  • You can always start with your bare minimum and scale up your publishing frequency later. It took Intercom four years to go up to being able to publish QUALITY content five times a week.
  • But sometimes increasing frequency will mean a drop in the quality. The Buffer team decided to go down from publishing fives times a week to two times a week after they found that their standards were dropping.

A few times a month?

  • Just because others publish a few times a week doesn’t mean you have to.
  • One of today’s top startups, Ahrefs, focuses entirely on quality and publishes only a few times a month. According to their marketing head Tim Soulo, this strategy has been their number one growth driver to date.

Once every few months?

  • Backlinko’s Brian Dean publishes almost once every two months and it made him one of the top players in the SEO game today.
  • For my personal blog, I can bring together a post I’m happy with only once every few months, yet I couldn’t have asked for a better strategy to bring me a constant stream of freelance clients.

Publishing often is easy. Publishing quality content isn’t.

Yet delivering top-notch quality remains the most powerful way to cut through today’s cluttered webspace.

Instead of copying what worked for others, start by determining how often you are able to bring together a QUALITY piece.

You can always scale up or down depending on how your audience and market respond.

And unless you have an army of writers, make sure to consider what other things you need to be good at instead of being mediocre at everything.

3. How long should my articles be?

With Appster, we’ve been testing publishing long-form posts on my Medium publication, The Startup.

And this lengthy approach has helped us to quickly go from a few hundred visitors in May to almost +150K monthly Medium readers in August.

Those like us who found success with long-form posts will advise you to go heavy on the length, but don’t often mention the worrying percentage of people who never read your content to the end.

How long should your articles be? Try rephrasing this question to:

How long does it take me to get to the heart of my topic and leave an impact?

Here is a blog post from Godin that is only four words, excluding the title:

And when comparing length vs. density, Godin adds:

“… if you seek to make a difference, shorter isn’t what’s important: Dense is.
Density is difficult to create. Too much and you’re boring. Not enough and you’re boring.
The formula is simple to describe: make it compelling, then deliver impact. Repeat.
Your speech can be two hours long if you can keep this up. And if you can’t, make it shorter!
Long isn’t the problem. Boring is.
If someone cares, they’ll stick around. If they don’t care, they don’t matter to you anyway.”

It takes M.G. Siegler roughly 500 words to get his point across. How long does it take you to get to the heart of your topic and deliver impact?

If someone cares, they’ll stick around. If they don’t care, they don’t matter to you anyway.

4. Where shall I blog?

In The Truth About Blogging, I wrote 1,573 words to compare blogging on a self-hosted blog with blogging on a platform such as Medium, Quora, or LinkedIn.

Choosing whether to publish on your own WordPress blog or on Medium is not a zero-sum game. The nice thing is, you can blog on both.

Very few people know I also have a WordPress blog and publish my articles on it first.

This way, while my WordPress blog gets all the SEO traffic, I use Medium’s built-in audience to take advantage of additional traffic sources and grow my email subscribers so I can take them home if Medium decides to close shop one day.

Here is how I blog both on my WordPress blog and Medium, and do the same for all my clients:

  • As soon as you publish your article on your WordPress blog, submit it to Google and Bing to ensure search engines index it.
  • You can then cross-post to Medium either using Medium’s WP plugin or the import feature. Both options will make sure your Medium story has a ‘canonical tag’ that will link back to your WP version so Google won’t punish your site for duplicate content.
  • Once done, I send all my subscribers and followers to the Medium version of my stories, not the WP.
  • The reason I do this is because I try to drive as much initial traffic as I can to Medium since it heavily increases your chances of unlocking new Medium traffic channels: rising up on featured tag pages, getting featured by Medium staff, ending up in more newsletters sent by Medium are a few examples. This multiplier effect is what makes this platform so powerful.
  • If you need more Medium-specific help, I listed some actionable tips to grow your Medium blog in a previous post here.

But while cross-posting to Medium is smooth, many platforms like Quora or LinkedIn don’t allow canonical tags.

As a solution, some people wait for a few days before cross-posting just to make sure Google indexes their WP version, and others cross-post only parts or slightly tweaked versions of their work to make it look like a brand-new post.

5. What do I do with the traffic?

Page views can easily become a vanity metric if you don’t have a goal or are not clear on what to do with that traffic.

Turning your blog traffic into followers or subscribers is great, but reconnecting with them to let them know about your next article is getting increasingly difficult.

Though we like to call subscribers or followers as ‘assets we’ve full control over’, the gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook continue to update their algorithms to decide what we all see.

As a result, the organic reach on social networks like Facebook keeps hitting record low rates and an increasing number of email campaigns now end up in the Gmail spam folder.

An alternative way to make sure your content actually reaches your audience is to spend a few bucks on retargeting ads. Thanks to new startups such as Pixelme, it is now possible to build a retargeting audience on third-party sites like Medium.

Cutting through the clutter of today

Content is a long game and the rules of the game have changed significantly over the last years.

In Collins’ words, it’s no longer enough to be just “doing content”:

“The tired old practises of soliciting guest bloggers with zero bar for quality, releasing “ultimate guides”, and “top 10 quotes” don’t work well.
It’s not an area where “average content” will work well, and to that end optimistic or aggressive content calendars usually lead to mediocrity with no return.”

Before flooding the world with another me-too blog post, reconsider your balance between quantity and quality. It can make a huge difference.

And in this new era of content, delivering quality is only one tiny step to building an audience — because we don’t own our audience.

As Meghan K. Anderson perfectly puts it: “Regular monthly visitors, big subscriber lists, well-trodden conversion paths give us the illusion that we own the attention of our audience — but it is only an illusion.”

In the most cluttered marketplace in history, readers’ attention is fleeting and it is our job as writers to constantly earn our audience’s attention and trust.

Build a Product vs. Focus on Growth

build a great vs focus on startup growth

We have exactly $325,710 left in our bank account.

The cash is burning fast, and we’ve already wasted a big portion of our seed investment trying to market a product for which we thought we had already found a product/market fit.

“Four out of ten,” shouts Lauren, breaking the silence we’ve had for almost twenty minutes in our meeting room.

Things were finally looking promising, with the new version of our product we’ve been testing over the last weeks.

“Four out of ten people repurchased our new product! And some even brought their friends. Now, imagine we achieved such a high repeat rate and word of mouth in all the locations where we’ll be launching.”

Sitting today in this meeting room in Singapore and seeing Lauren’s excitement over those four out of ten people, I remember, once again, how reading those powerful lines from Sam Altman had hit me back in 2013:

“… if you want to be a great company someday, you have to eventually build something so good that people will recommend it to their friends-in fact, so good that they want to be the first one to recommend it to their friends for the implied good taste. No growth hack, brilliant marketing idea, or sales team can save you long term if you don’t have a sufficiently good product.”

I’ve helped quite a few startups with growth, but this was probably one of the rare ones where the founder’s entire focus was on organic growth, driven by customer satisfaction and word of mouth.

It was really rare, though. Usually, the first months at a startup begin with a ‘exploration phase’ where you often hear ‘oh yes, we just got the first $500K investment, let’s hire as many good people as we can and spend the money on exploring growth channels like Facebook ads.’

Then, this attitude quickly disappears as the runway gets shorter.

Soon, things get serious and it’s time your HR brings on board an analyst to understand where those dollars went and which of those random traction channels brought growth.

And if what starts as a simple analysis turns into a decision to restructure your entire startup, the marketing team is likely to be the first to get kicked out the door, so those not-yet-fired can make the product work with the rest of the cash left in the bank account.

But why hire and fire fast or focus on growth too soon, before understanding whether your product was working in the first place?

It turns out this often-overlooked dilemma is more complicated than it seems.

Product vs. Growth

It’s obvious: The first step to building a great company starts with making something worth talking about.

But what is not so obvious is at what stage of building your startup do you understand whether what you’ve made is something worth talking about?

When you’re still small, it’s easy to fool yourself (and investors) and bring month-over-month growth by spending money on inorganic growth channels such as ads, marketing, or getting featured on TechCrunch.

But as you grow bigger, it gets increasingly difficult to sustain such growth rate by buying your way through if the word about your product isn’t spreading organically.

At this stage, you might take different routes, among which also lie these two options:

  • Step back to understand what exactly isn’t working with your product and iterate/pivot or have the guts to start over if necessary.
  • To sustain the same growth rate, set more aggressive targets for marketing and sales teams.

“… if your product isn’t quite working, but you have to hit these really aggressive targets, you end up forcing it… even if you hit the numbers, they won’t be real. You spent a lot of money to get there. And what is the point in acquiring all those users, if they leave once they see the product?”

That’s Andrew Chen, part of the growth team at Uber, once again, repeating that, without a great product, there is no growth.

And he isn’t alone, either. According to Bill Macaitis, the legendary CMO of hyper-growth startup Slack, when measured solely on aggressive short-term metrics, the sales and marketing teams then have an incentive “to do bad things to people — to put them in those prison landing pages and start calling them before they’re ready.”

This is especially important for seed-stage startups thinking about how best to position themselves for their series A, as they get confused about whether to focus on traction or on product.

According to renowned investor, Rob Go, when startups focus exclusively on a growth solves (nearly) all problems strategy, things get sacrificed in favor of growth. “You might do unscalable, hacky things to get customers. You might do tons of stuff manually to fulfil the promise of your service instead of taking more time and using more resources to build software. You will probably make decisions to sacrifice margin for growth,” he adds.

startup founder dilemma

But wait, this isn’t a zero-sum game

This isn’t either growth or product.

You still need growth or some traction, at the very least, to find the few early customers who will use your product and help you understand what they want.

And many founders will also confess focusing only on product and ignoring marketing failed their startup, never mind those experts recommending why you should start marketing the day you build your product.

In his best-selling book Traction, DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg points to ‘The 50 Percent Rule’ and suggests spending 50 percent of your time on product and 50 percent on traction.

Hence, the problem isn’t focusing on growth.

The problem is focusing on growth too much, too soon.

Having the guts to start over

Airbnb took almost 1000 days to find a product people loved. Since then, their organic growth via word of mouth has been phenomenal and still continues today.

Slack, referred to today as the startup with ’insane’ growth, started with games, kept making games for four years, failed at making games, pivoted its entire team toward communications, started building the Slack we know today toward the end of 2012, and only by August of 2013 was it running in private beta.

We easily forget building something great takes time, and instead, try to staff up very quickly the minute money is in the bank, just because the people we found available for hire are great, regardless of whether we actually need them or have a position to fill.

Before stepping on the gas aggressively, why not measure if what you’ve built is worth talking about?

Most startups set Net Promoter Score (NPS) as their number-one metric to measure user love. Some startups have also been sharing lessons from sending their survey to measure NPS.

And next to NPS, a few others, such as Slack, also use CSAT (customer satisfaction) as long-term metrics.

As Sam Altman concluded last month in a follow-up post he published after three years:

“Startups are defined by growth, but growth isn’t step one in building a great company. If you focus on trying to grow before you make a product people love, you are unlikely to succeed… so if you’re already growing a company around a mediocre product, fix it now. Don’t try to avoid the problem by raising capital for growth– the problems will still be there, with higher expectations. And if you’re just starting out, take the time to build a product your users love, no matter how long it takes. When they actively recommend your product to friends, you’re in the right place.”

Don’t hurt your company by focusing on growth too much, too soon.

The Future of Startup Marketing

the growth hacking myth

When I decided to start freelancing for startups, people kept advising me to always ask for the client’s budget right at the very beginning.

So I asked.

“Hey man, oh yeah, thanks for asking. Well, as you know we are a startup and we don’t have a budget yet but we’ll give you a lot of exposure.”

A lot of exposure? What does that really mean?

While I was spending the early days of my freelancing journey sending out pissed-off emails to free riders, I noticed those free riders were at least being honest.

I’ve seen clients disappear without paying right after I sent them the final project files, while some others pretended to be upset so they could still disappear with the files.

According to some close friends, the reason I couldn’t make freelancing work was obvious:

“Stop wasting your time trying to target desperate entrepreneurs and startups. Go offer your marketing services to big companies with deep pockets instead. Entrepreneurs are broke and they don’t even know what they want. They are the worst clients ever.”

I never managed to find a corporate client “with deep pockets,” whatever that really meant. But I decided to start approaching startups that I knew had raised at least some funding, instead of targeting the so-called “broke entrepreneurs”.

I also figured the founders of these just-funded startups still had to build their in-house teams so they would be open to getting some freelancer help down the road.

But getting paid wasn’t the only trouble with serving startups.

Every time I approached these clients telling them I could help with marketing or growth, I was treated as a magician who was expected to bring phenomenal growth overnight.

Some religiously believed their growth had to be similar to those hyper-growth startups like Slack and a few were sharing example stories such as how Airbnb achieved spectacular growth by growth hacking Craigslist.

slack-strong-growth

Having such sudden and crazy growth expectations wasn’t entirely the fault of those founders, though. It was the new trend in town:

Growth hacker in. Marketer out.

The first decade of the 2000s in tech were the days when being a marketer was still cool. There were no words like “hacker”, “startup”, or “growth” attached to it.

And when someone asked about what we did, our answer was pretty simple: marketing.

Then in 2010, Sean Ellis appeared on the tech scene and coined the term “growth hacker”.

sean ellis

His insanely popular “Find a Growth Hacker for Your Startup” essay had something bold to say about startup marketers:

“…Rather than hiring a VP Marketing … I recommend hiring or appointing a growth hacker. A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.”

Soon the term was everywhere and many influencers were helping it spread further. According to Neil Patel, growth was the sun that a growth hacker revolved around and the marketers didn’t revolve around that sun in the same way:

“Of course, traditional marketers care about growth too, but not to the same extent.”

While some people had difficulty understanding the hype around the “growth hacker”, the term was too cool to ignore.

I was one of those many marketers who were rushing to update their Twitter bios by changing their job titles from the boring “marketer” to the new, cool “growth hacker”.

It was also when the word “hustler” was just starting to become popular. So we were now both “growth hackers” and “hustlers”, and we were boosting our egos every time we told people how busy we were growing the hack out of startups.

growth-hacker-magician

While most of the growth-hacking advice contained invaluable lessons, we the marketers managed to ruin things yet again. With the excuse of hacking our way through, some of us started to employ heavily aggressive and spammy tactics.

Using tactics like Twitter follow-for-follows, spammy email pop-ups, black-hat SEO backlinks purchased for $5 on Fiverr, auto-favouriting tweets, or Instagram like-for-likes were enough to call ourselves growth hackers.

And the last few years have seen numerous examples of failed spammy tactics and sparked a huge discussion that questioned if growth hacking was bullshit or ethical, or whether throwing away your integrity was worth a few extra clicks.

While I understand the critics, I fully trust it wasn’t the intention of Sean Ellis or his followers, whose insights helped many startups grow. He probably had no idea to what extent the world would misinterpret his term and confuse it with employing nonsense hacks.

After all, it’s fair to say that many of those shortcut tactics actually worked.

The cycle is always pretty straightforward:

  • A tactic starts to work great.
  • Others (Hello, marketers. Oh wait, hello, growth hackers) notice it’s working great.
  • More people adopt the tactic.
  • The tactic soon becomes fatigued, typically by the time someone writes a blog post to brag about how they grew their startup by 345 percent without spending a single penny on marketing.

While we’re too busy milking each tactic for all it’s worth, the consumer isn’t a moron. Her BS-detectors are getting better and she’s becoming smarter than ever before at ignoring our old-school tricks.

“Hey, but I’m sure my audience pays me attention,” you try convincing yourself. But recent research suggests that the average human attention span of people is now shorter than that of a goldfish.

And the moment you hope to get some search traffic, you realise there are now businesses dedicated to ensuring your content never makes it to the front page of Google.

Come on. Let’s not even talk about the millions of blog posts published every day, the ever-rising shopping cart abandonment rates, or the percentage of people who never read your content to the end.

internet-live-stats

But enough with these depressing stats, because I’m not writing this essay to add yet another point to the growth-hacking debate or to talk about the first-world problems I had when freelancing for startups.

Instead I want to highlight a few points on what all the clutter and sad stats might actually mean for the future, especially for those of us who are spending their days and nights trying to grow a startup on a journey full of ups and downs.

The Future of Startup Marketing

    • Not only that, but giant gatekeepers such as social networks continue to declare one war after another against those shortcutters. Google is now moving more email campaigns to spam folders than ever before and they just announced they’ll be starting to punish sites with annoying pop-ups.

    • The slippery road of chasing such “get rich quick” hacks matter also for the type of audience you might want to build for your business. By engaging in those short-term tactics, we only attract customers who have short-term goals, and frustrate other people whose trust we lose.
    • Envisioning the future of startup marketing begins exactly at this moment, when you realise the cost of playing the long game is actually not any higher than following the shorter path which takes you only so far. In the most cluttered marketplace in history where ad blockers are now topping app stores and people are getting better at ignoring us than ever before, playing the long game thus requires reconsidering the way we ask for a sale:

    • To cut through the clutter of today, best-selling author Jay Baer suggests your marketing should be so good that people would gladly pay for it if they were asked. Marketing today is defined by how useful it is to your customers. And the bar for what’s useful has risen substantially, so substantially that it’s getting increasingly difficult to impress your audience. Take the marketing we do at Crew as an example. Despite having a blog with over a million annual readers, a series of popular podcasts, and tons of useful side projects that attract quite a few million monthly visitors, we’re still struggling to impress even our most loyal audience. We’re constantly reminded that if we quit creating extreme value, they might as well quit sticking with us as they’re surrounded with many other awesome options. Applying Jim Rohn’s advice, we realise the secret to growing a startup is to find a way to do more for your audience than any other startup is doing.
    • And when the bar to impress people is so high, instead of trying to create value on their own, a growing number of startups now form strategic alliances together, such as Product Hunt teaming up with Amazon or Crew with Designer News.
    • Of course, there are many other ways to deliver extreme value. When growing the top of your funnel is getting increasingly expensive, many startups are finally recognising the importance of retention over acquisition. They focus on word-of-mouth-driven growth strategies, mostly by delighting their existing users and setting Net Promoter Score – ‘the one number you need to grow’ as many refer to it – as a company-wide metric. Slack is probably the best-in-class example when it comes to relentlessly focusing on customer experience.

Growth doesn’t come from reading a bunch of growth-hacking articles or applying a set of universal tactics just because they worked for another random startup. And it isn’t necessarily a job reserved only for the growth hackers many love to call magicians.

Rather, growth starts with the very first line of your code and needs a great product that your full team works hard to improve, day by day, one baby step at a time. Growth is thus everyone’s job, not just marketing’s.

And growth often happens to those who are here to stay and start a business they hope will last forever; those who believe in the power of consistency while the majority find it boring and don’t have the patience or vision for it.

Growth doesn’t happen overnight.

Kill your startup’s conversion funnel

funnel marketing

On my way to the co-working space, I grabbed my mobile to read the same Slack message yet another time:

“Ali, that’s good, but we should look at what converts.”

It never failed. It was either a client or a colleague on the same marketing team. There was always someone who never missed the perfect opportunity to remind me of the importance of a conversion funnel:

  • Get a bunch of website visitors,
  • then do something to turn some of them into leads — aka people who have shown interest in your business,
  • and then do something else to turn those leads into customers.

That ‘do something’ part was exactly what stressed me out the most every time I was reminded to stop wasting time on things that don’t sell and to get my focus back on what converts.

kill conversion funnel marketing

In the fancy world of A/B tests and viral factors, we loved to call ourselves growth hackers.

But weren’t we supposed to build products people love instead of wasting our lives optimising the colour of damn buttons to increase signups by 0.0123456789 percent?

Crew’s Mikael has an interesting take on chasing those short-term wins:

“Most people are digging down and trying to optimise what they already have — trying to get that extra 3–4 percent increase. But the more time you spend doing that, the less time you spend stepping back and looking for the bigger opportunities. The ways that you can see 100 percent or 1000 percent increases overnight.”

Tracking every single action people take on our website sounds great. Optimising funnels is perfect.

But wouldn’t it be better if we spent the same effort in delighting our customers, given that at startups we have only limited resources?

I can’t tell you why our business is growing

“We’ve grown a lot in the past year, but I can’t tell you why we’re actually growing. Sure, every time someone walks in the door, we give them the best possible experience and we really do make them happy. But why do more new people walk in each day? I don’t really know.”

That’s Ben, founder of Huckleberry Bicycles, who has no clue why his bike business is booming despite being located in a bad neighbourhood in San Francisco.

It’s the obvious nature of a retail business, you might be thinking. And you’re right. In offline businesses, you can’t really track conversions even when you buy ads.

Remember John Wanamaker. He was the first retailer in history to place a newspaper ad, in 1874. And when asked about the return on his advertising investment, all he could say was:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

History has seen countless businesses like John Wanamaker’s, ones that didn’t have the technology to track their conversions. Yet many of those businesses managed to turn into phenomenal success stories that we still study in business schools.

While they couldn’t tell us why exactly their businesses were growing, most of them relied on the same thing Huckleberry’s Ben did with his bike business: making sure to give customers the best possible experience and make them happy.

Can we apply the same approach of those offline businesses to the online world and stop worrying so much about optimisation?

It turns out some of today’s most successful web businesses already do.

Turn the funnel upside down

Last year, 204,383,657,109 emails were sent using Mailchimp.

Yet Ben Chestnut, the founder of the 15-year-old giant email company, has never called himself an email marketer. “…mostly, it’s because I hate funnels. And professional marketers just won’t shut up about those God forsaken things,” he says.

Most of those people who hate funnels tend to have one thing in common: they don’t go for new leads. They go for existing customers — and they go for delighting them.

And those anti-funnelists always remind you that focusing too much on conversions is a short-sighted strategy that is mostly used by those businesses who are running to some sort of an exit, or maybe living quarter-to-quarter.

Yet Mailchimp’s Ben uses an alternative method when it comes to delighting their existing customers. He calls it the ”upside down funnel” approach:

turn the funnel upside down

“…I just take that funnel, and turn it upside down… This approach works especially well for early-stage businesses. When you start a business, you don’t have a budget for marketing. You probably don’t have the time or talent for it, either. The only thing you’ve got is your passion. That damned, trouble-making passion that suckered you into starting your business in the first place. Take that passion and point it at your customers. Deliver awesome customer service. Delight them. Empower them.

He goes ahead to clarify what he means with empowering your customers:

“When I say ‘empower them’ I mean empower them for free, with no strings attached. Because when companies make people sign up and register to download their content, we all know they’re about to feed us into the automation meat grinder…”

Replace funnels with extreme value creation.

“Empowering your customers for free, with no strings attached” is a pretty interesting concept also because it challenges the popular marketing advice that tells you to give enough value to your audience so that you can ask for a sale after.

But the consumer isn’t a moron and she is getting smarter about ignoring our tricks, more than ever before. And the short-term revenue that comes with asking for a sale isn’t always worth the trust you lose in the long run. At Crew, we call this act of constant empowering “extreme value creation.”

give-give-give-and-ask

 

Of course we still keep an eye on numbers and conversions — hello investors! But nobody on the marketing team runs around the corridors with calculators in their hands doing A/B tests. And no one obsesses about optimisations or chases marginal short-term gains.

It’s complicated.

It seems pretty easy, right? Kill your conversion obsession and just focus on delivering value.

Well, it doesn’t work perfectly in the real world, especially when the stakes are so high.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, investors keep reminding us. The pressure gets even higher when the runway is short, cash is burning fast, and the competitors top all the tech news with their latest funding rounds.

And when the pressure is so high, so is the rush to chase short-term gains that sacrifice long-term benefits.

We block the whole page with email pop-ups that force visitors to sign up to our newsletters. We call it “optimisation” while we proudly talk about our ‘ridiculously successful’ growth hacks. And, of course, we hate to miss the opportunity to write a blog post to brag about “How we boosted conversions by 700%.”

In those moments, little do we realise that by engaging in those short-term tactics, we only attract customers who have short-term goals. Little do we take note of those other people we frustrate whose trust we lose.

No matter how strong the temptation to obsess about conversions or short-term hacks, we need to understand that what lies behind sustainable growth is our ability to delight our customers with our dedication to extreme value creation.

Unless you’re dreaming of and rushing to sell your business as soon as possible, it’s the long-term value that makes people talk about your brand with their friends.

What do people tell their friends about you? Is it your button colour that converts 0.0123456789 percent better than the other? Or is it the extreme value you delight your users with?

Finding side project ideas

zaino

62%.

That’s the percentage of Crew’s revenue driven by our side projects last week alone following the launch of one of our latest tools.

Every time I see such high ROI on our side project marketing efforts, I feel this urgent need to convince every single one of my startup friends to stop wasting their money on ads or writing those sad listicles to grab more eyeballs.

Side projects help your business connect with only those that matter by creating lasting value instead of renting their short-term attention using aggressive shortcuts.

In a previous essay, I tried to explain why side project marketing is taking over the world and made a further analysis in the first lesson of Make This Year.

In this post, I want to share a practical approach to how to come up with side project ideas.

Before we start, allow me to quickly recap three things about side project marketing:

  • Taking time and effort away from building your business to work on a side project is a big choice and one that isn’t for everyone. It’s a choice that you and your team will have to make on your own.
  • But once you get in the serial making mood, you’ll quickly notice that side projects can be way less distracting than other marketing methods you use to create value for your business. Some side projects take less time and effort to launch than it takes to write a blog post, and they bring higher ROI.
  • Today, there is a free tool for almost everything and you don’t necessarily have to hire a designer or developer to launch your side project. You can always start small and decide later whether to hire some help.

One of the most striking things about side project marketing is to realise how strongly it’s linked to creating value for your audience. The answer to ‘How do I come up with side project ideas?’ is almost the same as to ‘How do I create value for my customers?’.

If you read ‘Side Project Marketing is The New King’, you probably remember I used Brian Clark’s golden rule of marketing to explain the relationship between value creation and sales:

“Give Something Valuable Away in Order to Sell Something Related.”

Remember that the intention here is not to find a sneaky shortcut to make a sale but to create value for others through tools, apps, websites, or software — value that is related to our core business, but built ‘on the side’ without losing our main focus.

Let’s look at some powerful ways to come up with side project ideas. And while there are other options, I tried to cover the processes that’ve helped us ship at least one project a month.

1. Catch key decision breakpoints – (X vs Y)

One of the most valuable side projects you can build is a tool that helps your potential customers decide between different options they face when buying your product or service.

Let me explain with four examples:

1.1. Decision breakpoints: Core product variations

Most products and services usually come with different models or variations that your clients need to choose from, such as deciding whether to buy an iPhone 5 or 6. So ask yourself, can you build a tool that helps them choose the best option for their needs?

Here’s one tool we built which became one of our most successful side projects:

side-project-marketing

At Crew, we match our clients with the high-quality designers and developers in our network so they can build things like apps, websites, and branding assets. But many potential customers aren’t even sure whether to build a website or an app. So we built http://APPvsWebsite.com — a quick tool that will help you understand which platform your product belongs on just by answering a few simple questions.

The result? The number of people who use such tools might leave you speechless. They also bring impressive amount of search traffic:

app-vs-website-search-results

Think about how you could apply this to your own business. Are you selling bikes? What different types of bikes do you offer? Mountain bikes? Road bikes? Hybrid, cruiser, folding bikes? What about creating a tool that will help your potential customers choose which option is best for them?

1.2. Decision breakpoints: Core product substitutes

Sometimes it’s not just different models your potential clients are choosing, but rather similar, yet substitutable, products.

For instance, if potential entrepreneur clients decide not to hire a designer or developer through Crew, how else can they build their app?

Well, for one, they can learn to design and code themselves instead of hiring people. So, how about a tool that compares hiring coders vs learning to code? Or a course on how to take a digital product idea from idea to execution?

Let’s think about our bike retailer example again. What other transportation options do people have? Walking? Bus? Subway? Buy a car? How about making a tool comparing all of the alternatives?

1.3. Decision breakpoints: Your competitors

If people don’t buy from you, who else is selling a similar product out there?

Type ‘Buffer’ in Google and first thing you’ll see is an ad from their competitor Hootsuite:

buffer-vs-hootsuite

The interesting thing is when you click on it, Hootsuite’s tool is actually helpful to understand the difference between the two companies.

While some might argue the ethics of a move like this (all is fair in love and advertising!), when done in a transparent and honest way it can not only help to steal customers away from your competitors, but also help filter potential users before you spend any time on them at all.

1.4. Decision breakpoints: Related benefits

Your potential customers deal with many other problems that are related to the core problem your product solves. And there’s no better way to keep a happy, returning customer than give them more value than they ever expected (or asked for!)

So what other related problems do they have? And what are the dilemmas they face when trying to solve those problems?

At Crew, the issues our customers have don’t end when they finish building their app or designing their site at Crew. In fact, that’s usually just the beginning for a startup or small business. And while their ‘business transaction’ technically ends when the final product ships, we’ve found that providing value in the period right after the product is ready is a great way to keep people happy.

For example, most of the people we work with are startups or small businesses who work remotely and often asynchronously.

So a huge issue many of them face is keeping up with their communication. To help them decide which app they should use to manage their teams, we built http://slackvshipchat.com

slack-vs-hipchat

Don’t constrain yourself to thinking that a side project has to be a tool or website. SlackvsHipchat is almost like a long-form blog post, just displayed in a way that makes it more appealing and exciting for potential customers.

2. Help your customers get better at what they do

Alright. So we’ve seen the opportunities to create side projects based around your customer’s decision breakpoints. But there’s another great well of side project ideas you can pull from: Education.

Creating value starts with putting yourselves in your customer’s shoes and understanding how their problems don’t end when they buy your product.

Instead, they usually have a much bigger problem to solve, and want to get better at solving it. Here’s a couple examples of how you can give them that power.

Frontapp builds a tool that helps companies provide customer support, but a huge part of good support is good communication. So they built http://www.goodemailcopy.com — a side project site that offers best-in-class copy examples from great companies to inspire and educate their potential customers.

Similarly, at Crew, our potential clients don’t just want to build an app or a site, they want to build a business. That’s why one of our most successful projects offers them a beginner’s guide to building an online business, while another helps them boost their revenue.

Take a step back and think about all of the ways your customer measures success, not just the one you are directly trying to provide. Creating that level of big picture value creates lifelong customers.

3. Do the legwork

Let’s stay in our customer’s shoes. Every person and business has limited resources, which is why they appreciate it when you make things easier for them.

One of the best ways to do that is to do the legwork for them. Find ways to help them work smarter and break through the constraints they’re currently facing, whether they’re time, financial, physical, or emotional.

Bonsai knows its freelance customers have limited time so, one of their most successful side projects does the legwork of bringing hundreds of useful freelancing tools together into one place.

While the folks at InVision knew their audience of designers would appreciate a free giant package of UI kit.

At Crew, we do the legwork for our customers and creative community with tools like Coffee & Power, which brings together a collection of coffee shops with that unicorn combination of good coffee, good Wi-Fi, and plenty of power plugs. We also know how hard it is for anyone, from designers to writers to founders, to find good photos, so Unsplash brings together tens of thousands of royalty-free photos that don’t suck by the best photographers out there.

What about you? Where can you use your expertise to do the legwork for your community?

4. Free tools for lead generation

While the tools we’ve talked about so far don’t directly focus on attracting prospects, free lead generation tools help you pinpoint high-quality leads by offering something useful to your potential customers.

Here’s a few great examples:

4.1. Offer one or few features of your core product as a standalone product and give it away for free.

Some great examples include Open Site Explorer by Moz or Notifier by Content Marketer.

4.2. Build a tool that solves ‘microproblems’.

For instance, Hubspot sells inbound marketing software but to be successful at inbound marketing (core problem):

  • People need to understand who their ideal customer is (micro problem). So Hubspot offers a side project called Make my Persona, quick and easy buyer persona development for your inbound marketing strategy.
  • People need to understand how their website performs (micro problem). So Hubspot offers a side project called Website Grader, a free online tool that grades your site against key metrics like performance, mobile readiness, SEO, and security.

4.3. Build a tool around things that stop your customers from buying your product.

For instance, at Crew, one of the things that gets in the way of people hiring a creative to build a website or an app is cost. So we offer tools that estimate how much a website, an app, or a logo costs. These tools drive most of our revenue we generate from side project marketing.

howmuchtomakeanapp

It’s not complicated.

Of course there are many other ways you can create value using side project marketing. You can build something totally out of the box, inspire your customers, or create emotional connections.

But the problem isn’t really coming up with side project ideas. It’s the challenge of being able to move away from the self-centered ‘me me me’ marketing trap and focus on building things that are useful to your audience. Nobody cares about your business, they care about how they look in front of their customers. They care about how they can get better at what they do. They care about how to impress their own clients.

And side project marketing helps you to do exactly that—to move away from ‘me-focused’ marketing and start seeing how you can actually help, be useful, and create extreme value for your customers.

This is the third lesson of Make This Year. You can join the community of makers here.

The Rise of Side Project Marketing

Blogging is an interesting journey. At the beginning, hitting the publish button seems to be the most difficult step. Once you are finally over it, you are likely to struggle with the next hurdle: hitting that publish button on a consistent basis.

Talking about consistency, in his 6000th blog post last week, the legend Seth Godin reminded us once again that you can’t build authority overnight:

“Abbey Ryan has painted a new painting every day for 8 years. Isaac Asimov published 400 books, by typing every day. This is post #6000 on this blog. Writer’s block is a myth, a recent invention, a cultural malady.”

But enough with this writer’s block. What if you really need a shortcut?

What if publishing content regularly is not for you?

What if your business urgently needs quick traction in order to survive?

Advertising immediately pops up in your mind as an alternative method to buy your way through. Renting the short-term attention of your target audience by interrupting them in the middle of what they were busy doing isn’t always the best idea, however.

It turns out 95 percent of people don’t like being interrupted and the other 5 percent hate it. “We hate advertising so much, we’ve trained ourselves not to look at the top or right sidebar on most sites,” Jeffrey Zeldman put it recently.

“Of course, people have been blocking ads forever. By ignoring them,” added Godin, suggesting once again that the best way to contact your users is by earning the privilege to contact them, over time.

OK, but wait:

If blogging takes ages and ads don’t work, is there an alternative that doesn’t cost money or annoy people? An alternative that brings quick traction and results?

The answer is YES. Indeed, this alternative has been bringing millions of website visitors to those who were quick enough to get the hang of it.

Welcome to the world of side project marketing, an underrated alternative between advertising and content marketing that is just starting to take over the world.

seperator

Side Project Marketing Is the New King

“We had no money. We changed our business model and had 3 months worth of cash left to turn things around. If we didn’t we were toast. Done. We needed to find customers. But no one knew who we were. A marketing budget? Please. We were just trying to keep the lights on,” starts Mikael, founder of Crew, explaining how side projects saved their startup.

They decided to give away for free all the extra photos they didn’t use that they had shot for their website redesign.

A Tumblr theme and three hours later, they launched Unsplash — a side project which not only saved their startup, but turned into a standalone product that generates a mind-blowing 11 million unique visitors/month.

unsplash-side-project

“Things like blogging work but can take months before they have a big impact. Building a great product to generate word-of-mouth is a must but that takes time too,” adds Mikael.

Wait. Aren’t we supposed to do one thing and do it well? Doesn’t a side project distract us?

The interesting thing is how some side projects can be way less distracting than other marketing methods you use to create value for your business.

In other words, launching a side project may take less time and effort than writing a blog post, while returning an outcome that is equal to dozens of blog posts in most cases. More on that in a minute.

But first, we need to understand how side projects should link to our core business.

Let’s start with remembering the golden rule of online marketing, laid out by another legend, Brian Clark:

“Give Something Valuable Away in Order to Sell Something Related.”

At a glance, this rule might sound a little too honest to some people. But we need to be careful that the intention here is not to find a sneaky shortcut to make a sale.

Instead, it is to create value for others by creating tools, apps, websites, or a software — a value that is related to our core business that we build on the side without losing our main focus.

And some of those people who like what we create on the side end up willing to learn more about us, so they check out what our core business is about.

It is not a surprise that Unsplash is the number-one referral source to Crew with just a simple link back to their website on the header menu.

So, how do I launch a side project?

Let’s try to answer this question by taking a closer look at real-world examples: Crew and Buffer, two startups that absolutely nail side project marketing.

Two questions play a vital role when understanding the success that lies behind these startups:

Q1. What is their core product/business?

Q2. What kinds of problems do people who buy their product face every day? (Using the golden rule: what valuable things do Buffer and Crew give away that is related to their core product?)

Case Study #1: Crew

Q1. Crew’s core business matches people who have a project that needs high-quality creative work with a pool of handpicked freelance designers and developers.

So, they need to attract/target both sides of their marketplace: 1- Clients who have projects to be done. 2- Creatives or freelancers who will get those projects done.

crew-side-projects

Q2. What valuable things can Crew give away to help those people that are related to their core business?

When I scrolled down on their website, I found a footer section they call Labs — apparently that’s what they call their side projects.

Here are some of their side projects — six tools Crew gives away for free. Take a second to read their tag lines and you will quickly notice that each side project solves a unique problem Crew’s target audience faces:

side project marketing

For instance, ‘App vs. Website’ helps clients (demand side of their marketplace) understand whether they should build an app or a website for their project, while ‘Coffee & Power’ is perfect for creatives and freelancers (supply side of their marketplace) who work remotely.
ROI of these side projects? They generate over 40 percent of Crew’s revenue. They also bring over 100K email subscribers and three of these projects are among the top five referring sites to Crew.

Case Study #2: Buffer

Q1. Buffer’s core business is their social media management software that helps you to schedule posts to networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

So, they need to attract people who are looking to maximise their ROI from social media marketing efforts.

buffer-side-projects

Q2. What valuable things does Buffer give away to help those people that is related to their core business?

Buffer has plenty of tools. Here are a few of them:

pablo-buffer

Again, these tools serve unique needs of people looking to improve the ROI from their social media activities. They drive referral traffic to Buffer’s main website while strengthening their strong brand identity.

Hey, does this mean we should stop creating value by blogging? Does advertising absolutely suck?

Of course not.

If you have an idea, you can always test it instantly with a dirty MVP landing page by purchasing clicks on Google. Or if your goal is to establish expertise in a field, consistent content publishing will give you more authority than a side project does.

The interesting thing with Buffer and Crew is that their blogs are already among the most referred and followed startup blogs.

However, there are a few reasons that explain the rise of side projects:

1. Higher ROI: The ROI of some side projects might blow your mind away. Game Hacks, a side project by Checkmarx, had over 35,000 players in the first 24 hours while receiving massive press coverage. Many leads attracted by this project also turned into real customers later on.

Crew launched Unsplash in three hours and it became the top referral source to their website. I launched this in less than a day, which brought me many freelance clients and over 2 million website visitors.

Yes, some side projects take less time and effort to launch than it takes to write a blog post, and make a bigger impact on the business results.

Should I work for free’ or ‘Daily Drop Cap’, two side projects by Jessica Hische, brought her so many clients and helped her stand out within the design community.

Tina Roth Eisenberg recently gave a talk at SXSW explaining how side projects helped her go completely clientless.

This also shows that side projects, while great for companies or startups, can also be used by freelancers, creatives, bloggers, or personal brands.

2. It’s easier to launch a side project than it used to be few years ago. Nowadays, there is a tool for everything and you no longer necessarily need design or coding skills to launch a quick idea on the side.

Do you want to help your customers with a free online course? There is Teachable. Want to launch a weekly digest of useful curated sources? There is Revue. A free guide or ebook? There is Gumroad. A quick website? There is Squarespace.

Just head over to ‘The 1,000 Upvote Club’ on Product Hunt and you will see that many of those most appreciated (upvoted) products are not necessarily the sophisticated software that require a huge team or coding skills.

Thanks to such community websites, it has also become much easier to distribute and let other people discover your side projects.

3. In our modern era of constant distraction, where people have reached a point where they are now even paying to block ads, those who create lasting value win.

Side projects help you to create value that you can’t build with a single blog post or an ad.
And it turns out side projects have a longer shelf life.

“It’s more likely you’ll use a good product many times than read a good blog post many times. This repeated usefulness is what makes software products so valuable. With a blog, you need to continually produce content at a high level and high rate to keep people coming back. This is possible, it just takes longer,” says Crew’s founder Mikael.

Side projects come with many other benefits. You can use them as a way to test new ideas instead of confusing your product offering by adding a new feature to your core product.

“Side projects are refreshing and exciting for your team: The daily slog and relentless focus on your main product can become monotonous,” says Adam, explaining how Coverr.co, a side project by Veed.me, blew up overnight, bringing them over 100K unique visitors.

From ‘Me Me Me’ Marketing to Value Creation

It is not rocket science: People don’t really care about your business unless you give them a reason to. But they start to care once you start doing the legwork that helps them or creates value.

Following Joe Chernov’s advice, this means focusing on creating awesome stuff that doesn’t even feel like marketing in the first place.

Instead of setting a selfish goal like, “We need 1000 unique visitors in 30 days,” we should ask ourselves, “How can we help 1000 people? What can we give away that is related to our core business?”

Chances are, if they like what you put out there, some of them might want to know more about your core business.

What are you selling? What do people who buy your product really need?

One of my current clients is a real estate startup that offers rentals exclusively for expatriates. As a side project, we are launching a tool that lets customers understand which neighbourhood fits best to their tastes and family. It’s a simple simulation tool that asks them questions and suggests the best neighbourhoods as a result.

Are you selling WordPress themes? What valuable things can you give away to help your customers? How about a free guide that teaches them how to set up and run a WordPress theme in 15 minutes? Or a tool that helps them understand what theme fits perfectly with their taste or goals?

With a higher ROI and repeated usefulness, side projects are here to stay. And it has never been easier to build and distribute them.

Retention > Acquisition

3,520,934
That’s the number of blog posts written today.

5,740,000,000
That’s the number of Google searches per day.

782,651,327
That’s the number of tweets sent today.

investing in growth before having retentionThat’s the million-billion stats planet we live in.

And in that million-billion stats world, some strange things have been happening in the marketing arena.

An interesting piece of news came from an unexpected startup last month.

Buffer, a company considered one of the leaders in social media, announced that they had been failing on social media.

The introduction to their shocking announcement was brutally honest:

“We as a Buffer marketing team — working on a product that helps people succeed on social media — have yet to figure out how to get things working on Facebook (especially), Twitter, Pinterest, and more.”

Buffer has had the reputation of being completely transparent, from making their salaries public to showing consumers exactly where their money goes. Still, it was probably not an easy decision to share failure news in public.

Indeed, you could sense it in Kevan Lee’s hesitant words:

“… I’m a bit scared to publish: We’ve Been Failing on Social Media for the Past 2 Years,” he tweeted.

It didn’t take long before the article hit my newsfeed being shared by many marketing people I follow.

Was it time someone finally took the courage to say out loud the things we have been scared to confess?

So many people were joining the Buffer discussion.

While many were admitting their social traffic was also record low, some industry experts including Rand Fishkin were expressing opinions about why Buffer might have lost half of their social referral traffic.

Buffer wasn’t the first one to bring this up though. In parallel, some other influencers seemed to have been sharing similar thoughts over the last year.

Is this the social media fatigue everyone has been talking about?

Have we reached a moment where we can no longer stand the idea of ‘liking’ yet another marathon or baby picture of our friends?

Maybe we’ve developed a magical eye skill to scan tweets without engaging with them. The truth is:

Social reach is just one side of the story

We are starting to see content saturation in many forms. The concept of information overload isn’t new, it’s just getting intense. Steve Rubel called it “attention crash” eight years ago.

And in his popular “Content Shock” post last year, best-selling author Mark Schaefer told us content marketing might not be a sustainable strategy.

He suggested we were about to reach a point where content production would intersect our human capacity to consume it. And it would become uneconomical to produce content afterwards.

content-attention-shock

While some argued that there would be no content shock, a strong part of Schaefer’s thesis relied on the assumption that each human has a physiological, inviolable limit to the amount of content they can consume.

And that limit would create a ceiling beyond which our messages would receive little or no attention from the audience.

Indeed, a very recent study conducted by Moz and Buzzsumo analysed 1 million articles and found that the great majority of content got little material response: 50% of the content received 2 or fewer Facebook interactions (shares, likes, or comments) and 75% showed no external links.

Is this the beginning of a new era we might soon call “#ConsumerTakeOver”?

An era where consumers finally take control and react by ignoring our messages.

An era where they start muting the noise, blocking ads, and cleaning up their cluttered newsfeed by un-liking pages, ignoring tweets, or unsubscribing from newsletters.

blocking noise in attention war

The truth is most of us got it wrong. We religiously followed the advice of experts to publish content consistently and flooded the world with ‘me-too’ blog posts.

“The thing is, a lot of these experts cut their teeth in the early years of the Web, when 500-word blog posts could win you fame and fortune,” says MarketingProf’s Puranjay.

We scheduled 12 tweets per day just because they told us it was OK to tweet every two hours. We confused self-promotion with self-expression and found aggressive ways to increase the number of our followers and page views.

And along the way, we forgot about her, the consumer. We forgot she was the reason we started our businesses in the first place.

The Engagement Magic

And the trouble with focusing on growth before you have retention

David Ogilvy, the father of advertising as the world called him, warned us 52 years ago not to underestimate the power of consumers:

“The consumer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.”

In today’s modern world of gender equality, he would probably rephrase it to “he/she is your spouse.” But his inspiring words make it pretty clear that we shouldn’t take any consumer for granted or insult their intelligence.

The rules of the game in the online space are changing like never before.

In a world where consumers become increasingly selective over what they consume, retention is emerging as a key factor that differentiates the successful from those who fail.

renting users

Retention is the most important factor in traction and growth according to many, including Brian Balfour, VP Growth at Hubspot. Tarun Mitra highlights its importance by noting:

“If you invest in growth before you have retention, you’re renting users, not acquiring them.”

We might have thousands of users, followers, or customers. But how many of them are true fans?

How many of them read every single article we publish or click on every single tweet we send? How many of them actually pay attention to our company newsletters?

Instead of trying to attract more eyeballs in an unquenchable thirst for never-ending growth, we need to pause and learn to engage the audience we already have.

Tribe

COMMUNITY

True Fans

While most of us were busy flooding people’s newsfeeds with posts and tweets, few others got it right from the very beginning.

They were smart enough to realise that even just five engaged true fans were more valuable than five thousands followers.

I’m talking about those who knew that the secret to success was to find a way to do more for others than anyone else is doing. They are the ones who have been building a community of true fans by engaging them through extreme value creation.

true-fansKevin Kelly’s principle of 1,000 True Fans suggests that a creator (such as an artist, musician, photographer…) needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living. In his words, a true fan is:

“someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing… They have a Google Alert set for your name… They come to your openings… They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

But let’s make three things crystal clear about audience engagement:

1. Engaged ≠ True fan

Kelly’s true fans principle relies on the assumption that each true fan spends $100 per year to help the creator make a living. This economical contribution is what differentiates true fans from others.

This is also where we get confused the most. We think that if we keep giving and creating value for people, they will all give back and buy whatever we are selling when we ask them in the future.

true fan

Though businesses exist to make a profit, we need to understand the subtle difference between an engaged person and a true fan. Just because someone engaged with or showed interest in, say, your tweet, product, or newsletter doesn’t mean she or he will purchase anything you produce.

2. The power of an invisible audience

Your tweet or article didn’t get the attention you think it deserved? Not enough retweets or shares? Well, here is some good news. Your audience might be way bigger than you think.

A joint study by Stanford and Facebook found that your actual audience size is four times larger per post than you think. Your invisible audience, or the ‘quiet observers’, might also have some friends who might be your future fans.

Amanda Palmer highlights the fact that the relationship building between the creator and fan is not just in one direction, but in many. Mike Masnick calls it “the artist giving to fans, the fans giving to artists and, beyond that, the fans giving to other fans and artists giving to other artists.”

3. There is no right way to engage an audience

There is so much to learn from those who have built a community of true fans by engaging their audiences. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Find a unique voice: Paul Jarvis calls his true fans his “rat people” and is famous for using a sharp sense of sarcasm to engage his tribe.
  • Take accessibility to the next level and be available: Justin Jackson, a guy crazy about making stuff, has built a community of makers on a Slack channel called “Product People Club.” While some influencers make themselves available even on a 1-on-1 Slack chat, others engage their tribes by being responsive on Twitter or offering AMAs, products, live chats, feedback sessions…
  • Make few people feel special: “Make your first 100 users feel like thought leaders,” recommends Erik Torenberg, explaining how they leveraged community to grow Product Hunt. Giving exclusive access to only a few people or sending gifts are some possible ways.
  • Help customers get better at what they do: According to Helpscout’s Gregory Ciotti, “Nobody wants to be a camera expert — they want to be a great photographer. Success means helping customers become better at what they do.” Startups like Helpscout or Buffer delight their audiences by publishing top-notch content that improves the businesses of their customers.
  • Identify a niche and build a community around it: Instead of employing traditional marketing tactics, Hubspot’s co-founder Dharmesh Shah coined a brand new term nine years ago: ‘inbound marketing’. This not only boosted the awareness of Hubspot but also gave birth to one of today’s most popular community websites inbound.org. The same happened when Sean Ellis built a community of people passionate about growth on growthhackers.com, after he coined ‘growth hacking’.
  • Use side project marketing to create extreme value: In a world where blogging takes ages and ads no longer work, I tried to explain in my latest post how side project marketing can be an alternative growth machine. levels.io is yet another serial maker who has built a community of digital nomads by launching tools, from Nomad List to Nomad Trips.

How many of your followers are your true fans? What are you doing to engage them?

It’s always nice to talk about fancy metrics or growth hacking terms like A/B tests and DAUs. But when it comes to growth, how many of us set a qualitative target such as “Delighting your tribe”?

Content shock may or may not arrive, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix what we already know hasn’t been working.

Your customer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.

And it looks like it’s finally her turn to teach us how to do this engagement thing right.