Going Long: How 5 B2B Tech Brands Built Valuable Audiences Through High-Quality, Longform Content
“There’s not a whole lot of value in writing a decent blog post anymore. [There’s not a lot of value] unless you can be pretty extraordinary.”
— Rand Rishkin, Founder, Moz
Clive Thompson was the first person to introduce me to the idea of scarce publishing. The author of Smarter Than You Think and a contributing writer to Wired and The New York Times Magazine, he built his career by telling the right stories. Unlike most bloggers, journalists, and writers these days, Thompson publishes two to three dozen pieces of what he calls “culture”—a word he uses interchangeably with “content”—every year. By comparison, former tech reporter Bekah Grant penned 1740+ posts for VentureBeat during her 20-month tenure there.
Thompson and I first met at a quaint coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in early 2011. At the time, rapid, frequent publishing was a cash cow. Businesses such as Demand Media learned what Google’s machine algorithm loved, and produced fast, cheap, and disposable content that would rank favorably in Google search results. By 2009, Demand Media was already pumping out “4,000 videoclips and articles a day,” according to Wired. It was the rat race of more, and it felt like you had no choice but to get into the maze.
Thompson had a different idea. He believed there was more content than people could possibly consume; the challenge for readers was choosing the right stories to spend time with. So instead of competing with publishers on the basis of volume or speed, Thompson wanted to author a blog that maintained a sparse publishing schedule and featured the best and most in-depth content on a specific topic. His hope was that every story he published would introduce a wildly new idea to readers. Originality and thoughtfulness would be his allies.
“When something is scarce, we suspect—and are usually correct—that it’s going to be more valuable,” he told me recently. “[Our reaction is], ‘Wow, these people don’t speak up unless they’ve got something to say.’ I think that’s absolutely true of a lot of low-volume blogs.”
At the time, volume publishing was booming. A week after I met Thompson, content farm Demand Media IPO’d. Shares jumped 33 percent the same day, valuing the company at $1.5 billion, a higher market capitalization than The New York Times.
Shortly afterward, though, Google made significant changes to how it indexed content, condemning sites it believed produced low-quality content. Demand Media’s revenue and stock price plummeted. Now, more than four years later, Demand Media is valued at approximately $93 million, a mere fraction of what it once was during its heyday. The lasting impact of Google’s algorithm changes has begun to help reward quality publishing once again.
Given his traditional publishing background, I thought Thompson was a laggard; instead, his commitment to quality was exactly the right decision to make. His heavily trafficked longform science and culture blog, Collision Detection, led to a critically acclaimed book, Smarter Than You Think, and a thriving career as one of the most prominent technology writers of our day.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed content pioneers in the B2B tech industry follow Thompson’s lead. We’ve seen them come to understand that quality is the only way to break through in a short-attention world—55 percent of visitors spend less than 15 seconds actively on a page—where one great story beats 10 mediocre articles every time.
The power of longform
While “snackable content” has been all the rage in agency circles over the past few years, marketers in the B2B tech industry have been discovering something much different: Thoughtful longform content is actually your best chance to go viral and make an impact.
An analysis of the 10 million most-shared online articles by OkDork and BuzzSumo suggests that longer stories outperform shorter content. Articles over 2,000 words are typically shared 8,000–9,000 times, while most posts with fewer than 2,000 words are shared 4,500–6,000 times. When it comes to boosting traffic and increasing social lift, longform wins.
Research from eMarketer also finds that B2B buyers are more engaged with case studies, e-books, and white papers than with other forms of content. A majority spends significant time—sometimes upwards of an hour—reviewing branded content prior to purchase.
But it isn’t just a matter of length. To capture audiences’ attention and truly drive purchase decisions, brands need content that is high quality.
That’s the challenge, and as 2015 winds to a close, a number of B2B tech companies have risen to the occasion. They’ve figured out how to create content that hits the holy trinity of B2B content: high quality, longform, and purposeful. In the process, they’ve built audiences of hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of monthly readers.
To better understand the phenomenon, I spoke with five B2B tech companies experiencing tremendous success.
How Intel reaches millions through content optimization
Earlier this year, Intel’s tech culture magazine, iQ, was creating more than 60 original stories every month. Since then, the technology giant has pared down its publishing schedule to only three to four articles each week, according to Luke Kintigh, iQ’s former managing editor and Intel’s current global content and media strategist.
As content operations evolve, many brands gravitate towards creating more and more content, essentially placing more bets on creating something that resonates and goes viral. Instead, Intel aimed to avoid the Pareto-like principle in media, in which 90 percent of your traffic comes from just 10 percent of your content. Instead, it wanted to focus its efforts on the 10 percent, and avoid wasting energy elsewhere.
These days, iQ’s English site attracts 1.7 million unique visitors each month. Since the beginning of the year, its returning audience has grown over 50 percent. Today, 30–40 percent of iQ’s traffic is from returning visitors, up from 20–25 percent in early 2015. Another testament to the brand’s ability to engage readers is its predictable social lift, which Kintigh said is 1.6x. In other words, when iQ promotes a post through paid distribution, it generates additional earned media due to each story’s inherent virality: For every 100 readers iQ pays for, it gets 60 more for free.
One of the brand’s biggest successes is its clout and reputation as a provider of quality news within the tech community. Content from iQ frequently gets picked up on Reddit and is heavily upvoted. Some content is referenced in stories on Mashable or tweeted out by popular accounts like @NPR. Within iQ’s gaming vertical, the average reader spends four minutes on site during each visit. Wearable tech enthusiasts enjoy iQ stories for roughly three and a half minutes on average.
Publications like iQ know that long-term success is the result of constant innovation and the ever-increasing standards of publishing. That’s a strategy being used by B2B tech brands big and small alike.
Groove’s strategic approach to scaling content
In September 2014, Alex Turnbull, CEO of help-desk software company Groove, announced he was doubling down on content. With the help of his colleague, Len Markidan, Groove went from publishing once a week to every other day. The results have validated his decision.
“We’ve found a pretty (nearly) linear increase in traffic and subscriptions correlated with how frequently we post,” Turnbull said. But instead of immediately publishing five or 10 weekly stories, Groove made the conscious decision to “control the quality of our content very, very tightly.”
“The biggest limiting factor in our publishing schedule is our team’s bandwidth,” he added. “As we grow, we’ll publish content at the rate at which we think we can maintain the quality that we’re satisfied with.”
For now, Groove’s scarce publishing schedule is doing wonders for the company’s bottom line. “The blog has been, and remains, our number one source of new customers by a very wide margin,” said Turnbull.
Groove’s blog about its journey to $500,000 in monthly recurring revenue attracts an audience of around 120,000 monthly readers and has helped build an email list of 50,000 subscribers, according to Turnbull. Five and a half percent of readers subscribe to the blog’s newsletter and 10 percent of subscribers end up converting into free trial sign-ups. And as the company detailed on its blog, “Subscribers become paid users at a rate that’s roughly 50 percent greater than non-subscribers,” making them worth 3.6x non-subscribers.
To make Groove’s stories the best of its kind on the Internet, the company invests 15–20 hours in each post between content, editing, design, and coding. As a result, readers regularly tune in for updates about the company’s quest to hit a half million in monthly recurring revenue.
“The biggest differentiator we have is the narrative around our startup’s journey,” Turnbull said. “A lot of people have climbed on for the ride with us, and we get a lot of emails from folks rooting for us to reach our goals.”
Asana’s deliberately sparse strategy
In an effort to limit content fatigue among readers, Kasey Fleisher Hickey, head of content marketing at Asana, schedules no more than two posts to go live on the company blog in a given week. This allows Asana, a popular project management tool, to deliver just the right amount of fodder for audiences without distracting them from their jobs.
The Asana blog is a mixture of product-related posts and thought-leadership content. The former helps Asana users and fans take full advantage of the company’s tools; the latter falls under the vertical known as Workstyle, which delves into the evolution and future of work.
The company’s collection of 38 Workstyle articles have been shared on social media 18,473 times, with some surpassing 20,000 pageviews, according to Hickey. Even more impressive: Its email subscriber open rate is a staggering 58 percent.
Asana effectively engages its audience by “packaging information in a way that’s new and useful,” said Hickey. That means not taking readers for granted and being considerate of their demanding schedules—a tactic that has also been embraced by one of the most successful figures in the B2B tech industry.
How OnStartups generated millions of dollars in total value
Over a decade, OnStartups.com has published 532 posts on entrepreneurship, growth, and traction. Though the data may suggest that author and HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah has published more than one post a week on average, Shah describes his writing schedule as “sporadic—constrained primarily by time.” So far in 2015, Shah has published eight articles, averaging less than one a month. But that is hardly intentional. “I just write when I feel like it and have something to say, and the time to say it,” said Shah.
(Full disclosure: Shah is an investor in Contently.)
Despite the sparse publishing schedule, the blog boasts more than 30,000 email subscribers and overall traffic of “about 60,000 to 100,0000 pageviews a month.” Unlike most blogs that publish loads of content with the hope of achieving a viral hit, OnStartups.com has stayed true to its uncompromising mission of providing the best advice and insights to entrepreneurs.
Of quantifying the success of the blog, Shah said, “Over the years, I can trace a lot of value—millions of dollars worth—to the blog.” A few examples he provided over email include:
- Great candidates for the HubSpot team.
- A source for many of my angel investments (which in aggregate have done exceptionally well).
- A way to test some of my assumptions and get feedback from really smart people.
- A way to build general “reach”—which translated into customers and partners for HubSpot.
- Leverage when it came to discussions with potential investors for HubSpot.
By producing in-depth content that delivers extraordinary value to entrepreneurs, Shah has built a memorable brand for himself and, by association, HubSpot.
How “Snow Fall” transformed Microsoft’s approach to storytelling
In 2012, The New York Times published “Snow Fall,” a stunning interactive essay that received widespread acclaim for its fresh approach to multimedia storytelling. Inspired by theTimes, Microsoft set out to create its own “Snow Fall.” When it finally revealed 88 Acres, audiences were ready. “In less than two days, nearly 800,000 people had read the article, and it inspired about 15 pieces of press,” shared Ben Tamblyn, manager of storytelling at Microsoft, at the 2014 Contently Summit. 88 Acres would soon become the apex for developing the brand’s ambitious publication, Microsoft Stories. With a tagline that reads, “Get an inside look at the people, places and ideas that move us,” Microsoft Stories would publish longform narratives about the work Microsoft employees were doing within the company and the greater community.
But instead of turning into a self-aggrandizing blog, Microsoft Stories became a destination for readers hungry to learn more about the innovative work going on inside the tech giant.
The site differentiates itself from a typical brand newsroom by taking a much slower approach to publishing. “[It is] not uncommon to work on a story for seven months,” explained managing editor Steve Wiens.
Rather than chase breaking news, the team at Microsoft Stories aims to add value to conversations about the Microsoft brand by complementing, rather than conflicting with, public relations and marketing initiatives. “When you’re just looking for the news of the day, you can sometimes miss the hidden gems, exposing stories that wouldn’t normally be told in the news cycle,” Wiens said.
On a monthly basis, Microsoft Stories publishes no more than five longform articles, which readers have come to love. A sampling of nine of the publication’s posts reveals each averages 3,342 social shares, with the most popular story generating over 16,000. Generally, articles on Microsoft Stories fall within the 2,000- to 3,000-word range, Wiens said. “We select a few stories where we can have a big impact and have something interesting to say,” he said. And because Wiens wants readers to come and stay a while, he likened Microsoft Stories to “a slow-cooked meal.”
Instead of snackable content from brands that feels more like thinly veiled advertisements, readers demand unique stories told from the perspective of an influential industry insider.
In 2011, brands—especially those commissioning work through Demand Media—believed the best stories were short, frequent, delivered through Google, and told using a high density of targeted keywords. Today, smart brand storytellers appreciate that busy readers have more of a say in the content they consume and commit to quality accordingly. They do not create content for content’s sake. When they really hit their mark, well, you could even call it a piece of culture.Image by Kyle Fewell