Gregory Ciotti

Writing / Content Strategy

An Apology to Growth Hackers (Kind Of)

You know growth hacking is still undergoing an identity crisis when the top entries at regularly look like this:

Growth hacking has an image problem, not an intentions problem.

The “apology” I mention is in regards to an essay called Don’t Let Growth Hacking Ruin the Customer Experience. The “kind of” will be addressed shortly.


David Ogilvy’s last will and testament

All marketers should be voracious readers.

One book on my shelf that I feel is deserving of more attention is Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.

It’s much more than book on advertising; there’s an ample amount of wisdom on topics like candor, management, and creativity. And of course it’s delightfully written.

Each line of prose is dripping with humor-laden bravado. My personal favorite:


Can We Make Pop-ups a More Neutral Experience for Readers?

Email subscription “pop-ups” are one of those low-controversy topics that gets everyone in an uproar.

Sadly, I think this is real.

Sadly, I think this is real.

You know the deal — it’s easy to have an opinion, so the crowd pulls up their armchairs and fires away (time for me to get in on this! What are you blind ref!).

Generally speaking, as with most controversial topics, the crowd has divided like Moses parting the sea.

One group of folks says that pop-ups are the bane of the web; evil, greedy ways to “trick” people into subscribing.

Other people claim that the data tells a different story — if numbers go up and few people complain, then what’s the problem?  Nobody in this camp will (or should) try to argue that pop-ups are a plus for the reader experience, however.

Those points considered, is there a happy medium for pop-ups?

I can’t say I have an answer, but I’d like to share some thoughts on running a pop-up just for a company blog (the Help Scout blog) and the results that we’ve seen.


How I Eliminated the Hosting Headaches that Continued to Plague My Popular Blog

Hosting is definitely a headache.WPEngine Review

There really is no two ways about it — it is consistently a pain in the ass, and dealing with it is, at best, a necessary evil.

Great hosting matters though; not only for financial reasons, but for your own sanity.

Getting gray hairs due to regular hosting issues is not something I’m willing to tolerate!

Taking your hosting seriously is something that comes with the territory if you run a blog, or any website. I’d even argue that you should lock down a great host before your site takes off (I’ll explain why in a minute).

Although I’m the Chief Blog Astronaut (I may have made that title up) for the 250,000+/monthly visitor Help Scout blog, I don’t have to worry about hosting there.

I get to worry about hosting for my collection of personal websites, which are no traffic slouches in themselves.

Here’s a screenshot of the unique visitors for my blog Sparring Mind from a few months ago. Sparring Mind is my behavioral psychology blog that has now crossed the 100k unique visitor mark:

TrafficBut a growing readership is a good problem… right?

Absolutely, but at the time (early 2013), dealing with constant downtime sure made it feel like a nightmare.

And things were only about to get worse…

I had a few sources that started sending a whirlwind of traffic to my site all at once:

  • I co-created a YouTube video that now has over 1.5 million views (that video resulted in 7000 new subscribers in the first week!)
  • I started a syndication agreement with some huge sites, including the likes of Lifehacker, where my articles were getting 150,000 views a piece.
  • I collaborated with an awesome comic who agreed to let me republish a strip that gained 12,000 Facebook likes on the first day

Things were getting crazy, and I was honestly close to pulling my hair out at times as I argued with my old hosting provider — my site kept going down, and that leaves a really bad impression on people.

I needed a new solution.

WordPress Hosting Without the Headache?

Fortunately for me, I have some great acquaintances in the blogging space who are more than willing to give me advice.

For my high-traffic “troubles,” I asked my buddy Leo Widrich of Buffer what they were using for the Buffer blog. If you don’t already know, the Buffer blog is insanely popular — if my site is a Camaro, the Buffer blog is a damn Ferrari!

They get over 717,000 unique visitors each and every month. Not pageviews, not overall visits, but unique visitors. Yowza

Leo told me that this whole gargantuan blogging operation has been kept afloat consistently via one provider: WP Engine.

(Yes, that’s my referral link. However, it’s the only affiliate program I’m signed up for since blogging is mostly a personal passion for me. I’m signed up because I recommend them all the time, I love the company & team that much!)

I had heard of the WP Engine folks before because my friends over at the Unbounce blog—which has to be one of the most popular marketing blogs in the world—also use the service.

I was curious if this was going to be right for me. At this point, Sparring Mind was even past the 100k mark thanks to those sources I mentioned above. I was going to need to sign up for their Business plan, which would scale me to 400,000 monthly visitors.

It definitely wasn’t the cheapest software I’ve ever signed up for, but I had to remind myself that picking the right host wasn’t like picking the right blog theme — this was the “engine” (har har) that would power my entire stable of websites, including my flagship site.

Skimping here is just about the worse choice you can make, because when your site goes down during a big traffic period, that results in subscribers lost and potentially dollars lost as people click ‘Back’ and never return (and you do want high traffic periods, right?)

All in all, 1+ million unique visitors and almost a year later, I’m glad I went with WP Engine for the following reasons:

  1. Great customer service. I put this first for a reason. I am the king of breaking my sites. I’m also known to run crazy off-site experiments like the things I mentioned above. I need to be able to get a hold of someone who knows what they are doing, and their support team has always been knowledgeable, friendly, and responsive.
  2. Exceptional uptime. Right after customer service comes the cut-and-dry aspect of what you’re really paying for — a guarantee that your site will be safe from an unexpected (or expected!) tornado of new traffic. Every site owner is chasing “rush hour traffic” to their site, and you don’t want to have those efforts go to waste by having your site drop off the face of the earth in front of thousands of new visitors.
  3. Site speed. WP Engine definitely helped take my site speed to new levels — multi-server clusters, fast hardware with in-RAM caching, and a CDN to help load the site as fast as possible. Better yet, for Fred Flintstone’s like me, this is all managed by them.
  4. Security. I had to ask around about this because to be honest with you, I don’t truly understand the ins-and-outs of site security. I’ve been told (by people who I know and trust) that WP Engine has top notch security, and the other concerns I had were put at ease when I saw this offer: “If your site still gets hacked, we’ll fix it… for free.” (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve never seen another hosting company offer anything like this.)

You Need to Pick a Good Host from Day 1

Okay Greg, I hear you. Once my site takes off I promise I’ll…

Let me stop you right there.

Although I love me a bootstrapped business that hustles to keep costs lean, hosting is one of those things that you’ll want to spend good money on BEFORE you start having problems.

I’m reminded of this quote from legendary advertising man Claude C. Hopkins:

Prevention is not a popular subject, however much it should be. People will do much to cure a trouble, but people in general will do little to prevent it.

That’s a pretty honest look at human nature, and it highlights an important point: we are more likely to react to things than to be proactive, even if the proactive behavior will lead to better results.

Remember those big traffic sources I mentioned above?

Many of them came totally out of the blue. The video, which I had spent weeks working on, was launched one morning without anyone telling me.

Links and mentions often come out of nowhere, and it will only take one such experience of getting a big mention and having your website break down to make you realize: “Damn, I should’ve taken steps to prevent this before it happened.”

Get lean with everything else. Use a basic design, sign up for MailChimp’s free plan for email subscribers, and stay away from premium WordPress plugins if you’d like.

But don’t skimp on hosting, ever.

Seriously, even if you exit out of this post and sign up for another hosting service, make sure it’s a good one! Don’t let your site tank during a moment where it should be shining.

The only reason I recommend WP Engine is because it’s the solution that has worked best for me.

Thanks for reading, and happy blogging!


Content Marketing Fundamentals to Always Remember

I feel bad for startups interested in leveraging “content” (don’t you just hate that word?).

They excitedly look for advice, only to find bullshit like leave comments on other blogs, as if anyone has that kind of time on their hands.

Or worst of all, they’re greeted with hoo-rah motivational garbage that doesn’t actually say anything.

Roses are red, violets are blue… great content.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but the Help Scout blog has seen some pretty impressive growth by following a few fundamentals that (I believe) should never be forgotten.


A not so Svbtle reminder to own your words

It’s been a big day for both @Svbtle and @Medium — yet I refuse to use them, or any other hosted platform, as my main blog.

I think it is important to own your words both figuratively and literally.

Today, Svbtle gave me a great reminder of why I hold this opinion.

In their Open for Everyone announcement, they let slip a paragraph that should frighten writers everywhere:

We’re working on a way to guarantee that your written content will remain available on the web for at least five years.”

After I tweeted my amusement this section was hastily deleted, and no wonder! That’s not a guarantee, it’s a warning.

How about instead I host my own work, keeping it available until I fall off the chair?

Don’t get me wrong, Svbtle and Medium are both gorgeous platforms. They also allow you to re-post work from your original site and possibly get it in front of a new audience.

But for consistent, serious publishers I fail to see the incentive to write something original on either platform.

They get the traffic from your hard work, and if their ship sinks, they are taking you and your archives with them.

The blogging world doesn’t need another Posterous fiasco, and I shouldn’t need to worry about switching platforms every other year.

Setting up your own site is ridiculously easy these days. WordPress (.org), Ghost, and Jekyll are all great options.

In short, I still wish both teams the best of luck, but I want to warn curious writers about what they are actually getting into when they decide to let someone else own their words.

Your favorite Italian,

Gregory Ciotti

PS: For those asking, I run 90% of my sites on WP Engine (aff), obviously hosting WordPress.

PPS: For added absurdity, I published this on Svbtle too.

Go Home Nintendo, You're Drunk

Great communication is an art. Perfecting it is a science. The best companies approach with care and caution.

Then there’s Nintendo:

Marketing isn’t something you do to customers, it’s something you do for customers.

Yet Nintendo appear content with subjecting buyers to a string of names so convoluted that even the true fans are having a hard time keeping track. Can you imagine what it’s like for a non-gaming parent to shop for one of these things?


The 5 Core Human Drives (Which Does Your Business Sell?)

Recently, I’ve been reading The Personal MBA (by Josh Kaufman), and my thoughts are so far that it’s an interesting book, but it’s definitely aimed towards folks who have had zero experience in the arena of self-employment.

That’s not to say that the book isn’t valuable, it’s just that each section reads a little too quickly and won’t dive into topics deeply (if that is what you are looking for).

That being said, there are some great fundamental discussions in the book.

I wanted to discuss the section on core human drives, and hear your thoughts about this categorization of what people want.