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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.

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.

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.