Content Marketing

How Buffer’s Blog Posts Get Shared Thousands of Times

By now, most people have heard of Buffer, the social media scheduling app and poster child for startup content marketing done right. Their blog posts get thousands of shares, helping market a business that boasts over one million users and nearly $4 million in annual revenue. But three years ago, founders Leo Widrich and Joel Gascoigne had nothing—no funding, no experience, and no connections. They pitched Buffer to top tech blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable, but nobody wanted to write about them, even blogs with smaller audiences.

In an interview with marketer John Doherty, Widrich explained, “That was the realization for me. It was like, ‘Well, if all this power of marketing something lies with the writer, then maybe I need to become a writer myself.'”

And the Buffer blog was born.

Write for your potential customers… Or not

Buffer began as a Twitter scheduling app, so for the first 10 months, they focused their blog on tips for crafting better tweets, getting more followers, and using Twitter for SEO.

Once Buffer rolled out features for LinkedIn and Facebook, their content followed suit, and for the next eight months, they published more general social media tips. “Over time we realized this [strategy] only has limited reach,” Widrich said. “This kind of content spreads, this kind of content is interesting to some people, to newbies who don’t understand anything about Twitter and so forth, but it doesn’t go as far.”

Then one day, Widrich saw “The Content Marketing Manifesto,” a presentation on the fundamentals of content marketing from Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz. The slide that struck Widrich the most was about the relevance scale.

Instead of creating your content for potential customers, Fishkin advocated, create it for influencers who are already reaching them.

For Wildrich, this was a revelation.

“It’s not for potential customers, it’s not for current customers, it’s for people who could potentially interact with potential customers,” he explained In an interview with Mixergy. “… [W]e said, ‘We want to scale this.’ We want to really, really have a large audience that could be inspired, be interested by the content we produce and go away and maybe tell someone, ‘Hey, I read this great post on the Buffer blog.’ And this guy says, ‘Actually, that’s cool, and also Buffer looks cool—I might use that.’”

In other words, the trick was to tell stories that struck a nerve with people who had an audience. This new approach led to posts about psychology, creativity, and general life hacks. Some examples include:

After the shift in strategy, Buffer’s blog posts quickly quadrupled their social reach from 250 shares per post to more than 1,000 shares per post.

Build relationships, not links

Guest blogging was another important factor driving Buffer’s early growth. Widrich wrote approximately 150 articles for other blogs in less than a year. The result? They acquired around 100,000 users during that time, according to Widrich.

Over the past two years, many businesses and agencies have tried to use guest posting to gain more back-links and improve their search engine rankings; as a result, it’s tainted the practice, turning guest posting into a borderline gray-hat SEO technique. “Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book,” wrote Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team. “It’s not that way any more.”

But for Buffer, guest blogging was more about reaching a larger audience than looking for back-links. “Relationships are hard to track, but are actually the most valuable things that you gain from guest posting. At the end of the day, if you do a lot of guest posting you simply make a lot of friends,” Widrich told Search Engine Watch.

Those new relationships gave Buffer the opportunity to grow their community to include the friends and followers of major social media influencers. Plus, whenever Buffer had important announcements about their products, it was easier to get bloggers to write about them because of the relationships that had already been built.

“It’s been something that was very gradual though,” Widrich said. “Of course the early [posts] barely drove any traffic, and only very gradually did things improve. I think that’s very important to understand. It will take a while until you can find the right frequency of posting.”

The anatomy of a viral Buffer blog post

Widrich talked to bloggers Marc and Angel Chernoff to deconstruct the impact of their blog post “30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself.” The lengthy listicle detailed the detrimental things people do each day that cause long-term damage to their lives. This post received more than 500,000 Facebook likes, 20,000 Tweets, and 400 comments.

What Widrich learned from the post’s success seemed counterintuitive. Marketers are so used to the idea that people don’t read online that they think blog posts should be short. But based on what the Chernoffs found, posts posts can be substantial, as long as they are skimmable.

He also learned to use psychology when crafting headlines. “30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself” interests the reader since people want to know if they are doing something they should stop. “If you are writing something that’s unique that people might have a feeling of otherwise missing out on, then this is a fantastic trigger to get people interested in your content,” wrote Widrich.

Does this mean duplicating Buffer’s post template will lead to viral success? Not necessarily. But there’s a more important lesson: Instead of relying solely on hearsay about what type of content works, test unconventional ideas to find out what works best for your needs.

Scaling through culture

After Buffer saw the results of their blogging efforts, it was time to scale their content strategy. That meant two things; they hired their first full-time writer—Belle Beth Cooper—and they started a second blog. Culture played a big role in both.

The new Buffer Open blog gives an inside look at work culture at Buffer, covering everything from how they hire to how they calculate pay—a post that was shared over 6,000 times. That culture was also a big reason that Cooper decided to join the team.

“The thing about Buffer’s culture that attracted me most was probably the focus on self-improvement and working smarter, not harder,” she said. “That includes supporting each other to build healthy habits like exercising and eating better, and the company supporting us to travel around the world while we work and set up a workspace that’s conducive to our productivity.”

This culture is so attractive that when Buffer called for applications for new content crafters, they received over 900 applications in January alone.

The ability to attract writers so easily is the thing of dreams for many larger brand publishers—so is seeing most of your posts get shared thousands of times. While Buffer’s strategy might not be completely replicable, there are a lot of lessons to take away from the giant success of a startup blog.

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