The story of why we started a fully focused content marketing strategy here at Buffer is actually one that isn’t glamorous at all. It was born out of pure necessity that we couldn’t get any press coverage for the launch of Buffer.
For the first few weeks I was on board, I tried restlessly to do one thing: get the top tech news sites to do a write-up about our newly launched app. It didn’t work out at all. Pitch after pitch I emailed got no reply or a short “no”. Not a single tech blog was interested in covering us. And I couldn’t blame them.
It led to a simply conclusion in my head: If no one wants to write about us, at least we can write ourselves.
Since then, we’ve published over 400 articles on the Buffer blog and around 150 pieces of content all around the web as interviews, guest articles or slideshows.
This blogpost is a look into the process of how we got to where we are today, what we’ve learnt and what you can hopefully take away from it.
The evolution of the Buffer blog
1.) Twitter tips: January 2011 – October 2011
The blog started out focusing on just one, very niche topic: How to do well on Twitter. As we were just starting out, this was a great wedge in. We couldn’t lose track and could really build an authority around a topic that a fair amount of people were interested in. This was our mantra:
Product and content need to be tightly interlinked. If your product solves a problem in a particular space, write content that solves the same problem – without referencing your product.
Buffer was a Twitter app to help you do better on Twitter. So our blog produced content to help you do better on Twitter too, without Buffer.
2.) Pivot to: Social Media tips: November 2011 – June 2012
After around 9 months, we quickly realized that there is only so much you can write about when it comes to tips on Twitter. The natural expansion was to move to overall Social Media marketing tips.
By the time, we had already expanded to offer posting to Facebook and LinkedIn, so the “product & content connection” was also ready to be rolled out.
3.) Pivot to: Lifehacks, writing, customer happiness and business: since July 2012
What we write about today, which also represents by far the most successful blogposts are focused on Lifehacks, efficiency and workflow tips as well as guides for better writing and customer service.
What’s most important is that this also represents the new vision we’ve developed for Buffer itself. We wanted to move away from just a social media offering and become a true utility helping you to live a more efficient life in general. And this is also what this blog is now about.
I’ve dug into what the key lessons were for us and here are the 5 learnings that made the biggest difference to how we write and publish new articles here on the blog:
1.) Truly understanding your audience – who will read your blog, who should you write for?
The first big lesson for us, was to understand who we should actually write for. Finding an answer to this question took us a long time to figure out. What helped us eventually a huge deal was Rand Fishkin’s guide, titled The content marketing manifesto. As Rand is the CEO of Moz, running one of the most successful company blogs on the web, he has been my go to resource for all things content marketing for a long time now.
In particular, there was one slide, I kept coming back to over and over.
It is this one, titled The relevance scale:
This one line is something well worth pinning to your desk or wall. Don’t write for your customers, don’t write for potential customers either. Write for these people:
“Write content that is relevant to anyone who will interact with potential customers” ~ Rand Fishkin
When we moved from Twitter tips to Lifehacks and way to live more efficiently, we could finally achieve that.
2.) Achieving top quality – Ask: Will anyone email this article to a friend?
When writing a post, I get into a mindset to answer just this 1 question with a Yes: “Would anyone email this article to a friend?”
It’s an extremely simple proposition. Yet, it has changed my writing completely. If I put myself into a reader’s head going through a post and seeing whether someone will say “Oh, this is interesting, John will really like this”, then I go ahead and publish it. It’s almost like an invisible threshold to pass. I need to improve the post until this level is reached. I will iterate, find more research, get more examples, until I can truly imagine this happening.
From putting out a simple Tweet about this, the feedback was also truly stunning and it seemed to resonate with lots of people:
3.) The structure of your articles is as important as your content – how we do this
A third key change that we’ve made is the structure of our articles. If you look at one of our most successful posts in the past, for example an article about What multitasking does to our brains, you will immediately see what I mean:
- First, give an introduction with a personal story or quote on why this topic is interesting
- Second, have 2 extensive, heavily scientific sections exploring the topic, as for example, multitasking, sleep, nutrition or happiness.
- Third, end the post with 3 unique and hands on tips to implement changes based on ideas from the research.
That’s it, that is the structure we’ve followed for each new post, making it at least 1300 words long, packed with interesting insights from start to finish.
On top of this, there is a lot of microstructuring that is very important. The best tips I’ve read on this are from Social Media Examiner’s guestposting guidelines, here are the most important ones:
“a. Use short sentences: Most online readers are skimmers. Accommodate them.
b. Add lots of subheads: Break your sections using Bolded Subheads. Try to get creative as subheads lure readers to read your copy.
c. Highlight key text: Please bold, or italicize key points you are trying to make. Feel free to mix the use as needed. “
The line that I can’t highlight enough here is: Most online readers are skimmers. Accommodate them. This is actually worth printing off and putting on your wall. It’s very hard to get caught up in complex sentences with difficult words – don’t.
4.) Maximize your own excitement – What is the stuff we ourselves love to read about?
This point is a lot more emotional and hard to put numbers to. When we changed the direction for our blog, we simply asked “What is the stuff we love to read about? Which blogposts get us excited?
The answer we came to are the topics you see covered here today. The whole team has started to blog on their own blogs, so naturally insights about writing were useful. We are a competitive bunch, looking to improve our ways of living at all times. Learning more about nutrition, sleep, productivity and overall life efficiency is something we couldn’t crave more.
Getting topics for posts, getting everyone excited and most importantly, getting lots of people contribute to the blog turned out to be awesome. Alyssa and Joel both started contributing amazing content about their workflows and tools that made them work efficiently and the whole team became much more involved and energized.
5.) Pictures are more powerful than you think: The science of using images properly
“If you put an image – any image, next to a claim, even if that is a decorative images, that claim will become more believable in the eyes of your ideal customers.” ~ Derek Halpern
The use of images is something that took me a very long time to understand. Yet, when we pivoted our blog for the 3rd time, I finally read and understood the power of using images properly.
As Derek describes above, the experiment from Erin J. Newman with 70 undergraduate students went like this. She gave each student a statement to rate “true” or “false”. These were simple statements like:
“The liquid inside a thermometer is made of magnesium” or
“Macadamia nuts come from the same evolutionary family as peaches.”
The same statement shown with an image, was always more “true” than the one shown without it.
Especially with heavily scientific blogposts, adding a high quality image made a huge difference in terms of engagement and reshares. If you read this article on multitasking for example, you will immediately see that the comments about the post relate mostly to the section with the image of a brain scan.
This was a very powerful lesson and we’ve been using images with a lot more care since realizing this.
Of course, this post wouldn’t make any sense if I wouldn’t share the exact details and results of our change. Of all the posts written since July, each single one gathered more traffic than the best post we had written on our previous blog iterations. Here is a breakdown of the bare stats:
- Most popular post: “What happens to our brains when we exercise and how it makes us happier” with 51,000 pageviews, well over 2000 social shares and 42 comments.
- Least popular post: How much sleep do we really need to work productively?with 22,792 pageviews, over 1500 social shares and 37 comments.
Of course the Buffer blog also sent a huge amount of traffic to Buffer’s site through this. Here is the breakdown:
- Since the pivot in June: 48,975 visits turning into ~ 6000 new signups for the site.
- Comparing this to the same time period before (January – May): 35,432 visits turning into ~ 4,200 signups.
Another amazing outcome, which we were extremely humbled was that Lifehacker republished several of our articles, giving them another huge boost of traffic, getting an additional 50,000 – 100,000 views.
Of course, it’s important to note that the main reason for us to blog is not for new customers. Our key focus by providing great content is best described through Rand Fishkin’s awesome definition:
“Content marketing exists to build familiarity, likability and trust.”
Changing our blog so drastically definitely made us feel very uncomfortable. Yet, the journey since then was a lot of fun and taught us a huge amount about writing and what really counts. What were your key experiences from publishing content? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.