‘Blogging Was About Survival’: How Unbounce Got 9,800 Customers With ‘Ridiculously Epic’ Content
In 2009, most marketers hadn’t heard of Unbounce, a software company that helps marketers create and test landing pages. But as of 2014, just five years after the company’s founding, it has earned over 9,800 paying customers and makes $7 million in annual revenue, according to Unbounce.
So how did Unbounce do it? A lot of it has to do with a particularly “epic” piece of content aimed at “noobs.” No, it wasn’t a guide on how to beat the latest World of Warcraft raid, but something much nerdier: an overview of how to win at the online marketing game. Here’s Unbounce’s story.
Surviving and thriving with longform
It’s hard to quantify how much faith a company has in content marketing, but it’s a promising sign when it launches its content before its actual product. That’s exactly what Unbounce did in 2009, launching its blog six months earlier than its product release.
“In the early days of Unbounce, blogging was about survival,” says Dan Levy, content strategist at Unbounce. “It was the only way for us to raise awareness of our brand and the need for landing pages in general without spending a ton of money, which we didn’t have.”
Apart from its lack of resources, Unbounce was facing another tough challenge at the time: The concept of “landing pages” was not as commonplace as it is today. Based on this graph from Google Trends, search interest in landing pages in August 2009, when Unbounce was officially founded, was almost half what it is now.
According to Levy, “It was very much a new market, [and] a lot of education had to be done around landing pages, around the need for landing pages, why would people use landing pages, and then how do we go about building them and optimizing them for conversions.”
A lot of this education was done through the Unbounce blog. Even in its earliest posts, it’s easy to see how Unbounce had a flair for longer, in-depth content. Its first post was a 14-chapter e-book, which the company used to generate leads as it were building its software. Unbounce also experimented with other formats such as interactive quizzes, typographic manifestos, and tutorials in the form of infographics.
But what really gave Unbounce a boost in its following was the comprehensive “Noob Guide to Online Marketing,” written by Oli Gardner, one of the co-founders of Unbounce. Originally a guest post on Moz (then SEOMoz), the “Noob Guide” is a six-month marketing course in the form of a 13,000-word article and one truly giant infographic.
The guide covers the complete range of major marketing disciplines, from social media marketing to pay-per-click advertising. Marketers who wanted to display the infographic in their offices found that, when printed, the entire graphic ran six feet long—Levy calls it “ridiculously epic.”
“It’s not just ’12 Tips for Your Landing Pages’ or ’20 Reasons Why You Need to Build a Landing Page’,” Levy says. “It’s really showing the larger market ecosystem that landing pages are a part of, [and] that landing pages, ultimately, are essential in every marketing campaign.” In other words, Unbounce wanted to make sure that even an audience unfamiliar with the concept of landing pages could quickly see how it would fit in their general marketing strategy.
Since then, the “Noob Guide” has been downloaded over 150,000 times and has been translated into seven different languages. It lives on as a 62-page e-book that you can find on its own landing page at Unbounce. Four years after its original release, people are still finding this content and sharing it.
Producing complicated longform content can be a daunting effort, but it’s paid dividends for Unbounce. After all, this kind of content is not only educational to readers, but can also help demonstrate the company’s unique knowledge and skill set. As a B2B company, that’s key for convincing cautious companies to ultimately invest in your product.
An editorial, company-wide approach to content
Given the length and depth of the early content from Unbounce, it’s easy to think that it started with a fully staffed brand newsroom—but this is far from the truth. Since Unbounce’s product hadn’t launched yet, and the company had limited resources, only one person was working on content marketing: Unbounce co-founder Oli Gardner. “The day we started the company was the day I became a marketer,” he wrote on Inbound.org.
Unbounce’s initial lack of resources proved to be a blessing in disguise. Gardner’s hands-on approach with producing, managing, and promoting content built a “culture of content” within Unbounce as it grew. The importance of content spread throughout the organization, with people across different levels and departments involved in creating the content. This is especially evident in the Inside Unbounce blog, where Unbounce staffers report on their progress and ideas.
In 2013, Unbounce took this content culture a step further by building a dedicated in-house content team. It hired Levy, a former journalist, as its content strategist. “I was the first person hired to focus exclusively on content,” Levy says.
As the company’s content strategist, Levy’s role is to lead the five-person content team. His team produces content across a variety of channel: a blog, a podcast, webinars, e-books, and a glossary of marketing terms are all part of Unbounce’s content strategy. The company also runs a monthly video series called “Page Fights,” which are purposefully brutal—yet educational—takedowns of poorly constructed landing pages.
Levy has attempted to maintain the quality of the content set by Gardner since day one, even with all these disparate content formats in play.
“My background is in journalism, so I bring a journalistic mindset to content marketing,” Levy says. “That means editorial rigor, making sure everything that we produce is factual, that it’s original, that it’s credible, that it’s backed with sources and data, and that it’s polished in the same way that any magazine content will be polished.”
And, like most modern media companies, Levy has implemented a data-centric approach to the way Unbounce does content.
Every blog post is tied to specific metrics
Where Levy’s editorial background diverges, however, is in how exactly these metrics are implemented. As the blog is ultimately a marketing effort, the team is highly conscious of the specific function of each piece of content.
“Our blog is our flagship marketing channel, so it serves a variety of roles in our funnel,” says Levy. “That said, we try to make sure that every post has one primary goal, which can be tied to a specific metric.” This primary goal could be any of the following: To bring in traffic measured in social shares and unique pageviews, to promote a specific campaign such as an e-book or event, or to increase sign-ups for a free trial of Unbounce’s product.
One approach that Levy and team have been using recently is pairing specific content pieces with a landing page template Unbounce’s potential customers could use.
“For instance, we recently had a copywriting expert write a super informative post about long-form sales pages and when marketers should use them,” he says.
Before the post went live, the Unbounce content team asked the product team to create a longform sales page template to complement it. Readers could download this template and use it to build their own longform sales page, just as the post described—a kind of hands-on, interactive learning tool that helped drive the underlying concepts of the post home. “Basically, we gave them the advice and the tools to act on that advice in one fell swoop,” Levy says
What was the result of this experiment? The landing page where users could download the template currently has a 46 percent conversion rate. A 2012 survey from Marketing Sherpa shows that for software and software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies, the average conversion rate hovers at around at 7 percent. The post may not have been as epic as 13,000-word article, but the clever interactivity helped it stand out from your typical blog post.
Despite all the challenges Unbounce faced during its early days—the lack of resources, the market’s unfamiliarity with landing pages, and the marketing team being a one-man show—its early bet on high-quality longform content paid off.
But, like anyone in the content marketing business, Unbounce has realized it often isn’t enough to just publish high-quality content and call it a day—you need to tie your content to specific metrics and goals to justify continued investment.
So far, Unbounce has found 7 million reasons to keep going all in.
A previous version of this article stated that Unbounce had 7,800 customers; the company’s self-reported figure is actually 9,800.Image by Arthimedes