Gregory Ciotti

Startups + Marketing

30,000 Newsletter Subscribers in 12 Months (Startup Lessons Learned)

Few businesses benefit as much as software companies from the use of content marketing (or whatever you’d like to call it).

Why then, do I always have such a ridiculously hard time finding examples of startups who execute well on content?

Tough to say, but today I wanted to at least contribute a modest content success story outside of the usual suspects (Mint, OKCupid, etc).

The Help Scout blog has had a rockin’ first year, and in a paltry 12 months we’ve managed to build up a newsletter of 30,000 subscribers, when tens of thousands of visitors per month (over 100,000 last month).

I’d like to simply distill some of the more important things I’ve learned over these past 12 months and go over the fundamentals of how we made it happen.

1.) Work on Your Weaknesses, but Compete with Your Strengths

Excellence in anything increases your potential in everything.

In many ways, the word “frenzy” is quite applicable to many online marketing departments.

Inbound Marketing

Options galore turn many campaigns into a blur of quick decisions. Diving into this, that, and the other feels like the right thing to do, but the reality is that few companies can even do a single channel well, let alone all of them at once.

It’s the same kind of ignorant thinking that you find in dieting—before starting with the fundamentals (eating less, exercising regularly), people head immediately into strange routines and complex eating patterns. There will always be time to experiment (and it’s encouraged), just make sure you master the basics first.

It became very clear to us that our strengths were founded in uncommon content and exceptional design.

I played my part with data-driven customer service content (which was specifically chosen, more on that later), eschewing the vapid, anecdotal mess that is the #CustServ blogosphere (a few fine folks produce good customer service content, but they are the exception).

Our designer Jared definitely shouldered a lot of the weight in getting people to take notice—in an industry where ClipArt still makes an appearance, Jared has been able to make even wordy, 80+ page eBooks (which by definition should be simple) look polished:

Housed on our resource page, you’ll notice that many of the guides are gated—these downloadable eBooks have played a huge role in the growth of our newsletter, and we’ve yet to have a single person complain about them being “opt-in” only.

Point being, choose and stick with a strong channel you can excel in before planning strategies for everything under the sun.

Later, largely in thanks to our second marketing hire Ivana (the Empress of Spreadsheets, in case she reads this), we were able to work on some of our marketing weaknesses, including targeting higher quality leads and nailing down search terms that truly converted.

Speaking of search, on to lesson #2…

2.) Email + Search is the SaaS of Marketing

Slow to start, but once the ball gets rolling… watch out!

Most people view SaaS businesses in this exact fashion. What more startups needs to realize, however, is that email + search is the marketing equivalent.

You get a well-placed smack in the face if you mention the term “growth hacking” in our marketing department, so below I’ll outline why these oldschool internet marketing (yeah, I said it) tactics of search and email have worked so well for us.

First, look at how slow organic search was taking off, and where it is now:

Search Traffic

From where I’m standing, 40,000+ monthly visitors from search ain’t shabby, especially considering that our domain has only really begun to build up some authority in the past few months.

Email shows the same trend—growing a newsletter takes time, but once you begin to build a following of loyal subscribers, the game becomes more about keeping quality consistent. Here is a sampling of the traffic we’ve received just from our newsletter:

Email Traffic

…but the real reason these two methods work so well is because they are simply incredible in tandem.

Sending a broadcast to your newsletter is a great way to get a new post off the ground. With thousands of people heading to your latest post when it’s published, it will naturally attract shares and links.

These mentions in turn help the post rank in search, and since search is able to drive visitors long after the post has been published, it will bring in—you guessed it—more newsletter subscribers.

Below is a sample post that did well before we started really targeting search. Notice how our email list really helped the post take off. Unfortunately, look at how it dies out after only a few days time:

Post 1

 

Thousands of visitors initially, but a pittance afterwards.

Compare that to a post that also did well thanks to our newsletter + sharing, but that had a tremendous shelf life after it began to rank for it’s targeted keyword:

Post 2

As you can see, the post is now outperforming it’s launch day, bringing in more visitors now thanks to search than it did when our entire email list was pointed at it.

It’s out of the scope of this article to give you a run-down of a complete search and link building strategy—but simply note that even the brain dead stuff, like making sure that a majority of the pages on your site are at least targeting a keyword—can go a long way in making sure old pieces of content don’t fizzle out and die.

One page, one term, a simple reminder that every piece of content on your site should target one keyword (a la one page, one goal).

3.) Your Blog Needs an “M. Night Shyamalan”

M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, etc.) is a director who made his name in Hollywood by creating movies that had a unique “twist” ending. This twist was always essential to the movie, and a key part of helping it stand out.

While his career would later take a nosedive as he continually tried to up the ante with each release, your startup’s blog only needs to nail this unique “twist” once.

Build your blog around the “established topic + unique twist” formula and you’ll be ahead of 95% of your competitors, and that’s no exaggeration (in fact, I probably underestimated).

Ask: what sort of content is SORELY missing in your industry?

We noticed quickly that the customer service space is filled with anecdotal content and personal stories. We decided to do the complete opposite, relying instead on consumer research on customer loyalty.

Here’s a sampling so you can get what I mean…

Notice the headlines find a balance between Gawker sensationalism and the typically boring writing you’ll find in the B2B space.

Also notice that each piece is focused on some sort of consumer data. This was our “twist”, similar to how I combined psychology + personal development for my blog Sparring Mind.

With a plethora of reasons to ignore you, your site has to give people a clear, unique value proposition on why they should stick around. We recently solidified our unique position with a call out box above our blog… that also collects emails:

Help Scout call out

4.) You Don’t Need to Be On Social Media to Make Use of It

If you go to the Help Scout about page, you’ll see the sad state of the team’s social media usage—while we are very social-able people in person, many of us don’t even have a Twitter account (gasp!).

As the most active “tweeter”, I probably update once every other day, if that. Surely, though, the company social media accounts are far more active?

Nope.

We don’t even have a Facebook page.

We pretty much just use our company Twitter (@HelpScout), which updates 3 times a day (if I remember to do it). It’s real use, however, is monitoring mentions and replying to questions/support issues that people may have. Also for giving thanks to our supportive customers!

Now, we’re a B2B company, so my perspective is skewed here, but the reason we aren’t “all atwitter” over things like Twitter is that you don’t need to be on social media to make use of it.

Socia Schmedia

That’s our most popular post on social media, The Psychology of Color. My promotional strategy via social media? I shared it on our Twitter account… twice.

TIME TO SLAP THAT “SOCIAL MEDIA EXPERT” STATUS ON MY BYLINE, YA DIG?

Social media is distribution; your only job is to give them something worth sharing.

“Promoting” a piece of content should be relegated to getting it in the hands of people who already have your ideal audience. This is better done over email, and I can’t tell you how many times a single email has lead to a link, which then lead to hundreds of new visitors and email sign-ups.

Remember that these emails aren’t about spamming. The key is to find people who will genuinely find your content fascinating, and let them know you thought it might interest them.

It’s far better to be practically useful than to be practically everywhere.

5.) White Bread, Wheat Bread, and “Affinity Content”

Stay with me here.

The concept of “wheat bread” and “white bread” content has been incredibly helpful in forming our content strategy and our overall publishing calendar.

In essence, wheat bread content is the deep dive stuff that really appeals to your most valuable customers, but that probably won’t get a ton of social traction (it’s made for a small audience). Conversely, white bread content is made for sharing. It’s light, is possibly a list post, and the end goal is to get more links and shares to your site.

Both have their uses, trust me.

For wheat bread content, one great strategy is to actually create a system that people might use regularly. We did that with out post on Customer Feedback Systems that Work. This wheat bread post was purposefully made for our community manager customer, and if I convinced you to implement the system suggested, you’d think of us every time you used it!

On the other hand, white bread content is necessary for bringing in those much needed links for search, and to drive more overall brand impressions. A great example here would be our infographic on What Bad Customer Service is Costing Your Business. While it contains data and pretty charts, it probably won’t affect your day to day, but that’s okay, because we are mostly worried about shares and links for content like that.

Lastly, your company blog should experiment with “affinity” content.

You may have saw that post on color and thought, “Why bother with that topic?” The same goes for some of our other articles, like 10 Pricing Strategies or Building a Website Customers Love.

These articles actually performed very well with our core audience, despite the fact that they aren’t about customer service. The trick is to make sure the “affinity” also interests your ideal reader (SMB owners care about pricing techniques too), and to introduce this content sparingly, and only after you’ve established yourself as an expert in a single topic.

We did this after building up a loyal following via articles just about customer service. To keep things interesting and to bring in other potential customers who might use Help Scout for their business (eCommerce owners, marketers, web designers, etc.), we experimented with this affinity content, and it’s done quite well.

Put a Bow On It

That’s a wrap for this post, hopefully it’s helped someway in your content strategy. Don’t forget to stop by the Help Scout blog to get a first hand look of how we used content to grow a beloved business.

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