Otto von Bismarck famously said that “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” When it comes to digital marketing, there’s much that we can learn from those who have already been where we’re trying to go.
Venture Harbour’s Marcus Taylor wrote an in-depth analysis deconstructing how six blogs, including Mashable, KISSmetrics and ProBlogger, grew to over one million visitors each in as little time as six months.
Digital marketing firms Single Grain (where I'm CEO) and Venture Harbour have collaborated to boil this analysis down to the seven principles on what set these successful blogs apart from their less successful competition.
1. Posting frequency matters, but not as much as persistence. When Pete Cashmore founded Mashable.com, he worked 20-hour long days writing content for his site. From Mashable.com’s archives, we can see that in the early day he consistently wrote one to five articles per day. ProBlogger’s archives also show a similar frequency of content publishing.
It’s no secret that the more quality content you publish on your blog, the faster it will grow. However, there’s something that’s significantly more important than your blog’s posting frequency -- persistence.
“The key to success in blogging (and in many areas of life) is small but regular and consistent actions over a long period of time,” said Darren Rowse, founder of ProBlogger.
Building a blog is not easy, and requires a huge amount of effort to reach a tipping point. All of the blogs analyzed persisted with a high posting frequency over a long period of time.
2. Know the 20 percent that drives 80 percent of your results. Vilfredo Pareto’s law observes that 80 percent of the effects are typically the result of 20 percent of the causes. Pareto first observed this pattern in the distribution of wealth and land ownership in Italy, but soon noticed that there’s an imbalanced relationship between inputs and outcomes in many areas of life.
In the context of blogging, 80 percent of your traffic will usually comes from 20 percent of your content. Eighty percent of your profits usually comes from 20 percent of your products or advertisers, and so on.
The blogs that grew the fastest leveraged this phenomenon and used it to become more effective.
KISSmetrics knew that infographics were its most effective form of content. As a result, it has posted over 47 of them in two years, generating over 2.5 million visitors, and 41,000 backlinks from 3,700 unique domains.
Nick Eubanks built a Japanese blog that took this concept to a whole new level. He reached 1.4 million visitors in under six months by cleverly weighting the opportunity and difficulty of ranking in Google for a list of over 50,000 Japanese key phrases.
With this information, he was able to build a blog that targeted the 100 keywords that offered the optimum combination of opportunity and difficulty. It worked.
3. The importance of good timing and owning a niche. It would be very difficult to build a social media and technology blog as successful as Mashable starting today. Cashmore started Mashable just when social media was emerging. Rowse created ProBlogger just when blogging was emerging.
Many of the most successful blogs we know of today are successful in large part thanks to their timing.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, Outliers, he speculates that many of the rags to riches stories we hear of great leaders such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates forget to mention one important detail -- timing. Of the 75 wealthiest people in known history, a list that includes ancient pharaohs and kings, almost 20 percent were born in the same generation and from the same country.
Timing plays a key role in the equation of success, and it’s evident when we look at the most successful blogs of today.
While the ships may have sailed for starting high-traffic blogs on wide topics such as social media, travel or cooking, there is a limitless and ever increasing myriad of niches that are up for the taking.
Peep Laja grew ConversionXL to more than 100,000 monthly visitors in just over a year by choosing a very specific niche (conversion-rate optimization) and becoming the best blog on that topic.
4. Over the long run, useful content usually beats viral content. You might think from reading web-marketing blogs that viral content is the be all and end all of digital marketing. Over the long run, though, useful content usually outperforms viral content.
When analyzing the highest traffic and most-linked to pages on successful blogs, it became clear that very rarely were the most successful articles viral hits.
The most linked-to article on ProBlogger is "What is RSS?" On GetRichSlowly, the most linked-to article is on high-yield savings accounts. Hardly what springs to mind when you think of topics for a viral sensation.
5. Building traffic takes time, but this time can be reduced with planning. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Mashable, ProBlogger or KISSmetrics. Building a high-traffic blog requires time, but this time can be reduced with careful planning.
As illustrated by Eubank’s example above, careful planning can be the difference between reaching a million visitors in six months or 60 months. By knowing specifically how you intend to reach your goals, you maximize the likelihood of hitting them.
The more specific your plan is, the sooner you can reach your goals.
6. Utilize the power of compounding. After analyzing 1,435 good companies, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, concluded that one attribute of great companies is that they all reach what he calls the "Flywheel effect."
The flywheel is a huge heavy metal disc mounted on an axle. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to turn. The first revolution may take days of pushing all day and night, but as the flywheel gains a bit of momentum the second revolution takes a tiny bit less effort.
After weeks and months of pushing the flywheel it finally reaches a point where it spins faster and faster under its own weight. The flywheel is a great analogy of how building a blog works.
What this is really referring to is the power of compounding. Building a successful blog takes a tremendous amount of effort, but over time, the amount of effort required to keep it growing, negotiate deals and drive revenue, decreases.
This effect was perhaps most obvious in Neil Patel’s case with KISSmetrics. Patel has founded three successful blogs that have all reached millions of people.
In an article on Quicksprout, Patel says that his first blog took almost five years to reach 100,000 visitors a month. His second took just under two years, and his third blog took just a year and a half to reach 100,000 monthly visitors.
This is a result of the compounding effect of Patel’s connections, knowledge and opportunities. Put another way, it’s a lot easier to get to 100,000 monthly visits when you own two technology companies, an agency and several blogs with hundreds of thousands of monthly visits.
Just like the first year of starting a savings account, the first year of blogging is always the hardest, as the power of compounding is yet to kick in.
7. Using stakes to overcome the emotional challenges. Growing a blog is an emotional challenge that requires will, passion and persistence. Successful bloggers need a driving force that keeps them persisting through the hard times. We noticed that many of the bloggers analyzed alluded to having stakes on the line.
Rowse’s wife gave him an ultimatum to make blogging a full-time job within six months. Cashmore had a strong desire not to be employed or have to go to university. The others, too, had a reason to work as hard as they did to get their blogs off the ground.
In summary. When we learn from the success of others, we have to take a few things into account. First, the opposite of what works can also work. The other truth is that what worked then may not work now.
The point of a principle is to be conceptual enough to work across multiple scenarios over time. While copying the tactics that ProBlogger and Mashable used may not be as effective today, the strategies that got them there do stand the test of time.
By being effective, persistent, patient, and focused, you can improve your odds of building a successful blog -- as those before us did.