3 Steps That Took Our Blog From 14,000 Readers to Over 400,000

A little over three years ago, Sam Slaughter, Contently’s VP of content, asked me to run The Content Strategist.

I’d been writing for the site for a couple years, and I often fantasized that Sam would notice me on the sidelines, admire my immaculate Jewfro, and hand me the ball. In true Contently fashion, I ran the blog for the first month as a freelancer, working remotely from Tel Aviv.

(Pro tip: Work remotely from Tel Aviv. You can sleep in until 11 a.m., yet still be a hard-nosed editor who’s awake at 4 a.m. New York time, motivating writers and sending a slew of authoritative emails.)

I spent that first month crafting a fresh content strategy while keeping the train running. I knew that TCS had not begun to approach its potential. It only had about 14,000 readers and fewer than 8,000 newsletter subscribers. As a trade publication, we weren’t going to turn into BuzzFeed overnight—or ever—but given the booming interest in content marketing, there was clearly potential for us to build a high-value, niche audience.

Three years later, that’s what we’ve done. These days, anywhere between 340,000 and 500,000 marketers and media execs read TCS each month, and our newsletter is approaching 100,000 devoted subscribers. Our publication generates thousands of high-quality leads each month and drives 10x+ ROI for our business. We’ve won numerous awards, including Best Brand Publication at the 2016 Digiday Awards.

I don’t write this to brag, or because I’m hoping that our executive team reads this and gives me a raise. (Okay, maybe that last part is a little true.) I wrote this because people always ask me how we built TCS, and I’ve never written a post detailing our main keys to success.

So here’s that post. Like any ambitious publication, we’re still hungry to improve, but we hope that this helps. And if you want to get in touch with any questions, reach out to me at lazer@contently.com.

1. We started by committing to our mission

You’ve probably heard the tired cliché that content marketing is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s used at damn near every marketing conference. But it actually falls short of describing what content marketing is really like.

Content marketing is really like a political campaign. You have to introduce yourself to people and earn trust. You have to listen to their concerns, and you can’t just start off ultra-aggressive, brazenly demanding that people give you support before you do anything to earn their trust. (Some exceptions notwithstanding.) More than anything, you need a mission that drives your content and resonates with people.

At Contently, our co-founder Shane Snow has talked extensively about how Contently wants to “build a better media world.” This may sound like a corporate platitude, but if you’ve heard Shane speak, you know it’s not. It’s our mission.

From the onset, I knew this mantra would drive TCS. We believed we could make the media world better by helping brands work with smart, creative professionals to tell stories that people actually want to read.

On TCS, my job was to show marketers the way by reporting on the good and the bad in the content marketing industry, and publishing helpful strategy tips, analysis, and advice. We needed to do so with editorial integrity that prioritized honesty and transparency over company messaging. In order to help people, we had to gain their trust, and we weren’t going to do that by pushing Contently’s software every third paragraph.

I was lucky enough to work at a company founded and staffed by journalists who trusted me to do that. It quickly started to pay off, and within six months, we grew our readership from 14,000 to 100,000.

This isn’t a revolutionary tactic. Pretty much every successful content marketing example—GE, Casper, Red Bull, Dollar Shave Club, Moz, Marriott—follows a similar audience-first ethos that’s guided by a mission.

(Full disclosure: GE and Marriott are Contently clients.)

2. Next, we got smart about distribution


By the fall of 2014, the business side of Contently was pretty pleased with our editorial operation. The audience growth corresponded with a big jump in inbound leads and opps, and we began to invest more in our editorial.

We launched a sister site called The Freelancer to expand our editorial mission to the freelance community. Jordan Teicher, whom I’d somehow convinced to spend three months as a vastly overqualified editorial intern, became our second full-time editor. Another editorial intern, Kieran Dahl, became our social media editor. And in many ways, he’s the star of this second key.

With a bigger budget in hand, I gave Kieran a small chunk of change to use experimenting with paid Facebook ads, a tactic that was becoming incredibly popular among publishers. I had no interest in juicing pageviews (after all, we weren’t selling display ads), but I did want to use Contently Analytics to see if we could increase meaningful engagement, drive conversions, and acquire loyal readers who might not have know about TCS.

I wrote about this strategy at length here, but essentially, we used our analytics to understand which stories we could promote on Facebook and get unusually high returns. A cheap cost per click (CPC) is great, but you really want stories that will cause readers to:

  • Spend a lot of time with your content
  • Finish the majority of the article
  • Read other content
  • Share the story with their social networks
  • Become email subscribers
  • Download gated assets
  • Visit product pages and fill out demo request forms

The screenshot above, for instance, shows the performance of an interview I did with Seth Godin among people who came to the story via Facebook. Since the attention time was high—125 percent better than our average story—and had a cheap CPC, it made sense for us to put even more money behind it and pay to promote it to more people that fell within our target audience on Facebook. After all, if you’re spending $500 to produce a piece of content, it often makes sense to spend an extra $50 to get twice the returns.

This strategy allowed us to quickly convert readers coming from Facebook into newsletter subscribers—who are by far the people most likely to be loyal readers of your site. Over the next six months, our audience grew to over 200,000 readers.

3. Finally, we established a strategic methodology for our content marketing

When you’re running a publication, there’s a pretty strong temptation to go with your gut.

This isn’t always a bad thing. As an editor, you often need to trust yourself and jump on a story, especially when it’s a popular topic and the opportunity cost of sitting on your hands is high.

But you also need to regularly step back and evaluate what’s working. I explain this process in the content methodology report I co-authored with digital analyst Rebecca Lieb earlier this year, but one of the most important tactics is to tag your story (by topic, persona, format, etc.) and compare production metrics to performance metrics. That way, you can see which stories are under- or over-performing against your KPIs. Here’s an example from my personal dashboard.

This snapshot allows us to easily see which topics and formats we’re relying on too much, and which ones we’re not using enough.

You also want to examine which content performs best across different channels and tailor your distribution strategy accordingly so you’re spending your time wisely and getting the right content to the right people.

When we started doing this religiously, we saw a lot of blind spots and missed opportunities. For instance, “Fun content”—quizzes, comics, humor pieces, etc.—was actually one of the most effective ways for us to drive loyal readers; on the flip side, straight industry news pieces (without in-depth analysis) tended to underperform. Nowadays, we do a deep dive every month (Contently Analytics makes that super easy), but as we recommend in our methodology paper, you want to go through this kind of review at least every 90 days. It did wonders, allowing us to nearly double our audience yet again.

What’s next

As I was telling my therapist the other day, writing an article like this makes me uncomfortable because I always think we can be doing better. So when I update this article in a year, what tactics will I be talking about? Here are some areas we’re focusing on:

  • Multimedia content—mainly video
  • Capitalizing on social platforms to create resources for underserved topics (check out The Facebook Strategist, a Medium hub we’re currently building)
  • Using business intelligence platforms to understand how we can do a better job reaching Contently’s most valuable readers
  • Getting Brian Morrissey drunk and stealing Digiday’s email list (kidding… probably)
  • Increasing personalization on-site and in our newsletter
  • Creating more utility content that’ll rank well in search and serve our audience

If it all works out, hey—maybe Sam will even let me go spend a month working from the beach in Tel Aviv again.

Image by Getty Images

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