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Should Startups Blog? An Essay (with Data) to Decide Once and For All
Visit a startup’s website, and you’ll eventually drift towards a few standard links, from About to Team to Contact. But among those options, appearing on almost every site, is one link that simply doesn’t belong with the rest: “Blog.”
Don’t misunderstand, it’s not the fact that a startup’s blog exists that’s so troubling. Instead, it’s why it usually exists and why it gets lumped together with all those other basic navigation links — namely, because many startups launch blogs simply because they’re “supposed to.” As a result, most sit idly, gathering digital dust, perhaps getting the occasional company news article, but never gaining any traffic and never becoming what blogs really should be for startups: critical marketing assets.
So the question needs to be asked: Should seed-stage startups even blog in the first place?
To answer, I wanted to share what I’ve learned over the past few years of running various startup blogs, as well as content marketing more generally. The most successful blog on which I’ve worked was HubSpot’s, where I led the team as head of content. As of Q2 2013, when I left to join NextView, they were generating around 2 million monthly views and had over 300,000 subscribers. Today, I run this blog – The View From Seed (you can subscribe here), and my own blog, Sorry for Marketing, in addition to consulting or writing for several more.
So, should startups blog? Yes … but only if they fully and completely buy into two things: the right mentality and the right goals.
Content marketing, of which blogging is a subset, is surrounded by lots of noise today, so we need a simple definition. This also doubles as the mentality startups need to accept in order to succeed. My definition is as follows:
Content marketing is just solving the same problems that your product solves through media you create and promote.
That’s it! Jargon and complexity need not apply. Solve the same problem your product solves. Yes, you’re doing it through a different medium than the product, but the goal remains the same. Through this definition, everything gets clearer. It’s not about all that hype and rhetoric, nor is it about “being a publisher.” (You don’t sell ad space, so the mechanics are fundamentally different). It’s simply about solving problems.
And EVERY startup is built to do exactly that.
Think of it this way: Even in the seed stage, before most companies find product-market fit, they understand the problems they’re trying to solve. All founders should be able to articulate that mission in a clear, concise statement. This should be true at any company, but it’s even easier at a startup. That’s literally all you are during the first 18 to 24 months — a promise to solve a problem (your founding mission) and a commitment to finding the best way to do that (your search for traction).
Eventually, if the company succeeds, your product will succeed in solving that problem, while your blog and all content marketing should drive qualified visitors, subscribers, and/or customers to that product. Both should always align, and both must be consistently built as assets and as solutions for your customers. The lone difference is that one asset — your blog — helps your audience before they’re ready to buy. The other — your product — helps them after.
But this rarely happens. The definition gets muddied, the tools and tactics get in the way of the goals, and egos creep into this type of marketing — you now have bylines, after all.
Unfortunately, in many cases, this turns a blog into a glorified list of company news or chest-beating opinion pieces, ranging from the ubiquitous “Welcome John Doe to the Team” to product updates to attempts at being brilliant or clever rather than helpful.
These types of content are actually pretty lousy for growing audience. They don’t “behave” the right way online. (I’ll share some data to show how they behave in a bit.)
Some entrepreneurs rationalize these types of posts as investor relations or recruitment tactics instead of marketing, which is totally reasonable. However, these goals can be achieved by placing all company-centric content on a separate page and calling it Company News, Investor Updates, or Culture Hub, perhaps. Publishing a blend of content about your company and general advice articles is dangerous — not only is it confusing to the reader, you’re hurting your ability of growing a successful blog in the not-too-distant future.
That brings us to the goals of seed-stage startup blogging…
With the right, customer-focused mentality firmly entrenched, startups should then turn their attention to the right goals.
For context, growing a blog audience is not a direct-response approach to marketing. If you’re very young as a company and simply need to acquire 10 alpha customers or 100 free users, then paid acquisition via search, display, and social are better bets, as well as any scrappy, non-scalable means of acquisition you can execute.
Instead of immediate acquisition, blogging and building an audience are investments in the very near future (2–6 months) as well as the more distant future. That’s because, while content marketing is lousy for direct response without an established audience, it’s a much more efficient means to scale your marketing. It’s also useful in accelerating the all-important feedback loop for a young startup, since owning an audience means you can constantly learn from them whenever you want.
To gain those benefits, your goals for your startup’s blog should be:
- Build an inventory of helpful content
- Grow an email list
I’ll explain the email part first, since it’s much simpler. After that, I’ll share some data to explain why an inventory or collection of helpful content is the most powerful marketing asset you can create.
Why Email Matters, Early and Always
When you first start blogging, your content might be surrounded by calls-to-action (CTAs) about you or your product, but those should be secondary, appearing on your site’s nav bar and/or right rail. Your primary CTA needs to ask readers to subscribe to the blog via email (and not RSS, by the way).
Building your email list matters for a number of reasons:
- You gain permission to contact them again: To successfully build an audience over time, you need permission to contact your target customers and to do so for free and on your own terms. With your blog subscribers, you actually own the attention and already have permission to reach out, rather than needing to pay for clicks and conversions, i.e., borrow attention, whenever you need something.
- You don’t need to publish as much content: Without an email list, you need to constantly appear to your audience in their social feeds and search results just to stay relevant. That requires a ton of content, which most seed-stage startups struggle to deliver. But with an email list, consistency matters more than frequency. You’re able to deliver a post to a group of potential readers and promoters on your own schedule.
- You’re reasonably assured of successful launches: Your email list can amplify both future marketing initiatives and future product launches. Rather than hoping someone hears about them, you know that at least some people will.
- You can test and learn quicker to find traction: Through surveys, split testing, and/or launching things directly to some or all of your list, you’re able to test, measure, and learn more quickly and easily. The seed stage is all about finding traction, so what your email list tells you can literally influence the entire direction and success of the company.
- You can grow your audience through your existing list: When you send people helpful or entertaining content instead of promotional messages, a wonderful thing happens: They sometimes forward it to others in their network. We saw this at HubSpot, as our email list — more so than social or search — was the top driver of new contacts. Interesting, right? The people we’d already reached helped us reach new subscribers. (We even added a button right in the email body to encourage more forwarding, which increased this behavior.)
- You can convert new users/customers: Lastly, as is the traditional use case for email, you can nurture people towards using or buying your product.
(In case it’s helpful, a simple way to add a CTA to your blog is through Hello Bar.)
Why Building an Inventory of Content Matters
The second goal of a seed-stage blog is to build a collection of helpful content.
Building an audience is like pushing a boulder up a hill. Yes, you can ask 10 people to each try pushing it one at a time, but it’s MUCH more effective if all 10 push together at the same time.
Similarly, the value of a blog is how much work each post does for you in aggregate. You want a collection of content that all has staying power and continues to drive traffic down the road. Some posts will get only a few views initially but continue to receive a few hits every day for weeks or months thereafter. Others get a lot of traffic initially, then zero next week. Still others get almost no traffic organically but might be highly effective when emailed or shared on social, acting as sales-enablement content or fodder for social follower growth.
So every time you get a moment or the motivation to blog, rather than obsessing over one article’s results that day or week, think of it as an opportunity to continue building the base of a more powerful whole.
Data: Why an Inventory of Helpful Blog Content Succeeds
In December 2013, when I was at HubSpot, I stumbled on some data that forever changed how I view business blogging.
I was checking our monthly blog report and noticed that a seemingly mundane post (How to Create a Facebook Business Page) ranked third in that month’s top 10 most-viewed articles. While it was somewhat surprising to see such a simple post generating so much traffic, it was the publish date of the article that really blew me away: October 2012. That post was FOURTEEN months old! And yet it got the THIRD-MOST TRAFFIC all that time later — and it did so for a blog that sees over 2 million views per month. It’s not exactly easy for a post to rank in the top 10 of a blog that large. That meant literally thousands of people read that old post 14 months later.
Scanning the rest of the monthly rankings, I noticed that this wasn’t an exception. It was the rule. Just four out of the top 10 most-viewed posts that December were actually published in December. The rest were much, much older.
Stepping back from just the top 10 posts, I looked at the entire blog. I found that 70% of HubSpot’s roughly 2 million views came from posts that were more than a month old.
Said another way: That entire team could stop blogging for a whole month and still see 70% of the expected results — zero work needed.
Now that’s ROI! Show me a PPC campaign capable of doing that.
So what was happening? Exactly what we’ve been discussing today: HubSpot started their blog with the mentality of solving customer problems, then systematically created an inventory of helpful content, capturing subscriber emails along the way.
A Look at the Behavior
When I first saw that 70% number, I became obsessed with how different types of content behave. Hoping to learn more, I did a quick audit of our blog content and grouped the posts into two categories: basic, helpful articles (e.g. How to Drive Leads through Twitter) and theoretical, abstract stuff (what I dubbed “thought leadership” or more egocentric content). Without sharing actual numbers, here’s exactly what was happening and why owning an inventory of customer-focused content can be so powerful.
First, when a helpful, tactical post launches, the traffic it receives over time looks something like this:
Predictably, it gets the most views it’ll ever receive in the days right after it launches. But over time, it still gets some views on a daily basis — maybe 50, maybe 10, maybe two — taking days, weeks, or even months to reach zero views per day. This comes from search, social, people bookmarking it, and email subscribers returning in the future and forwarding the link to their contacts.
We’ll come back to why this matters in a second. Next, let’s compare these helpful posts to all that thought leadership/egocentric blog content out there. The way that content behaves is much different. These traffic patterns resembled either of two common slopes, shown in purple and blue:
In the first case, when one of these thought leadership-style posts performed well (the purple line), it got the most traffic in the moments after its launch, just like the helpful content. But in a short amount of time — much shorter than the red line — its traffic crashed to zero.
Even more troubling, about half of the thought leadership category didn’t work at all. Looking at the blue line, you’ll notice that the initial traffic spike was sorely lacking, in addition to the crash right to zero just like the purple line. There’s almost no ROI on that post.
So even when successful, trying to force thought leadership or write about your own company has a very finite return on the precious time you’d spend writing it. The choice is clear: Focus on solving customer problems, not conveying brilliant or company-first messages. As marketing expert Jay Baer likes to say, smart marketing is about help, not hype.
Now, let’s revisit that red line. That one post doesn’t really matter when you think about it. Who cares that its longtail of traffic gets you 12 extra views next week? That doesn’t matter. That doesn’t make a difference.
But what does make a difference is if all your content behaves like that. Publishing helpful blog posts every time creates a traffic pattern that looks something like this across the entire site:
All those posts combine to create a “floor” of guaranteed daily traffic. At HubSpot, that floor is obviously huge. At a seed-stage startup, you’re still building that foundation. Either way, the value of your blog is actually all of those posts working together in aggregate, especially in the longtail, not the head. (The head is a bonus. If there’s a big spike early, great! If not, that’s okay, so long as your content has staying power.)
Essentially, you want a blog that delivers free results from past efforts. But if you spend time today, during the seed stage, writing about something different, you hurt your chances. HubSpot rarely strayed from being tactical and helpful, and their “floor” now gets them 7 of every 10 views and leads they generate.
(By the way, all those egocentric posts that stray from this core strategy of being helpful actually benefit from your floor of traffic, so you can indeed write them — just wait. Write them when you already get some regular traffic. Additionally, any bigger, flashier projects you launch that create a one-time influx of traffic will also get “stuck” to your blog based on that helpful stuff. It’s why they subscribe. It’s why they come back. It’s why you succeed.)
“Okay, but HubSpot adopted all this stuff early. What about today, when everything is more crowded?”
Before you shrug this off, I’d point you to this very blog as an example.
We launched The View From Seed in July 2014. In December 2014, these were the three most-viewed posts (notice the publish dates):
- Why Startups Should Raise a Seed Round vs. Starting with Series A (Publish date: July 3)
- 7 Atypical Rounds of Funding: What Founders Should Know (Publish date: July 7)
- The What & Why of Hiring a Great Startup COO (Publish date: September 9)
Overall, in the top 10 most-viewed posts in December 2014, just two posts were actually published that month. The rest were older. The rest were “red lines” creating a floor of free traffic.
Just think about how this changes the approach to running a blog. If you judge the three posts linked above based on their first week or two of results, then it’d be easy to call them failures. But they’re not — not even close. They’re hugely valuable building blocks for our base of today’s guaranteed traffic. They’re evergreen posts that have staying power by providing help for our audience. (And since our audience is you, I have to say, I’m thrilled you find them useful!)
The View From Seed is not HubSpot’s blog. It’s a new blog that we launched less than a year ago. It started with zero audience and zero search clout. It has ONE person working on it (hi — I believe we’ve met). But just months after launch, we already saw the positive effects of building an inventory of helpful content. Bit by bit, we’re growing a useful, successful blog.
In the end, whether or not you decide to blog will depend on your specific situation and resources.
But if you do, don’t deploy it like some unimportant site page. Don’t leave it static. Don’t obsess over near-term view counts. Don’t fall in love with the idea of thought leadership.
Instead, solve customer problems. Be helpful, time after time after time. Not only is that the key to building a successful blog, it’s the hallmark of any true thought leader.