How can you bring thousands of readers to your blog and convert them into customers? Here’s how one entrepreneur, without any prior content marketing experience, did it.
Katherine Hague is the CEO and co-founder of eCommerce platform ShopLocket. In early June, Hague launched a new content marketing strategy to replace ShopLocket’s earlier blog initiative. The new publication is called Blueprint, and it investigates the stories behind hardware entrepreneurs. Despite its infancy, Blueprint started off with a bang; its first post reached the top of Hacker News and gained thousands of views within a span of hours.
While Blueprint is experiencing early success and is different from most content marketing strategies, that’s not to say Hague is a veteran or one of those self-proclaimed “gurus”. In fact, she doesn’t pretend she’s an experienced content marketer, which is exactly what makes her story interesting. She is an anomaly.
Let’s have a look to see what she’s up to, how she got such early traction with Blueprint, and what action steps you can take today to change your content marketing strategy’s trajectory.
The First Steps
“It was good content, but it wasn’t really driving any particular traffic and it wasn’t different from anything out there on the web,” says Hague, referring to ShopLocket’s first attempts at content marketing. Previously, ShopLocket’s content marketing was based around its WordPress blog with general themes around customer service and marketing. (The most recent articles titled, “We’ve partnered with Automattic to offer the first ecommerce integration for WordPress.com, starting with Enterprise and VIP customers,” and “The Absolute Hardest Thing to Tell a Customer”). The weekly effort had tapered off with two posts between the months of March and April.
Hague had a problem; her content marketing strategy wasn’t working. She wanted to engage consumers in a different, unique, and interesting way. She knew there was an abundance of interviews around the web with software founders or the next big internet startup but she also observed a knowledge gap for companies building real things and shipping hardware to customers. There remained a silent niche for readers wanting to learn from entrepreneurs who have created hardware products and physical products.
It was time to make a change in that direction. Initially, Hague and ShopLocket started off with one interview and sent it to a few friends for feedback. This sample consisted of customers, fellow entrepreneurs, and people Hague and ShopLocket would want to interview. Hague wanted to validate her idea and gauge: what did they think? Did they think this was interesting? Hague also sent her friends mockups to give her friends an idea of what the blog would look like.
After hearing positive responses to Blueprint, Hague decided to launch it. Prior to launching, Hague already had 3-4 interviews queued up. When she was speaking with me, she advised content marketers to aim for consistency — and shipping content in regular cadences.
Despite not having an entire strategy fleshed out, Hague didn’t impulsively decide to install WordPress and start a blog. She had a very clear idea of what her vision was (articles that would seem like sitting down for a 30-minute coffee with someone) and validated it with different samples of readers before moving any farther. She already had an idea of what the reader wanted even before she started, which put her work ahead of the rest of the content out there.
Checking the Scoreboard
Blueprint’s first post, an interview with Thalmic Labs co-founder Stephen Lake, had clever timing. Hague knew Thalmic Labs was going to be making a major announcement; the day Thalmic Labs announced $14M in funding, Hacker News picked up Hague’s Blueprint post and it became the most upvoted. This led to over 10,000 people reading Blueprint’s first post.
Hague adds that the timing came with the risk that the momentum and noise from Thalmic Labs’ announcement could drown out the Blueprint interview, which wasn’t specifically related to the funding announcement. Fortunately for ShopLocket, the risk paid off.
A large number of visitors reaching the initial Blueprint link also visited ShopLocket homepage. A few hundred people signed up for ShopLocket as a result of Blueprint’s first few posts. Hague points out ShopLocket logo at the top as the most effective one that drives visits to the ShopLocket homepage.
Hague continues to look for feedback. This is partially done implicitly in the metrics: she looks for feedback in newsletter list sign-ups, and Twitter shares and mentions. She also considers more explicit feedback, like e-mail responses. A side perk: Blueprint was a great way to build relationships with people who she was interviewing — who happen to be influential people in their respective spaces. Hague could now ask them for feedback and advice.
Blueprint’s greatest sources of traffic have been Hacker News, Reddit, and StumbleUpon. Hague plans to expand through content syndication partnerships and StumbleUpon advertising.
The ShopLocket Process
Hague does all the interviews, and each Blueprint interview takes around 30 minutes. She does it over Skype, or in-person if she’s around the area. She also sends them a few questions over e-mail that appear in the more candid sections of the interview (e.g., “When and where were you the happiest?”). Hague saves a lot of time and typing by getting the conversation transcribed on SpeechPad.
The interview is transcribed and pasted into Google Docs, which Hague shares in case the interviewee wants to veto anything.
“Cumulatively, it takes us about the collective time of about a day to do an interview,” says Hague. The majority of this is in the hands of the designer, which doesn’t come as a surprise — each Blueprint page is beautiful, and built to delight readers.
The long-form content remains in an interview Q&A format because Hague wanted to convey the interviewee’s personality through his conversational diction and choice of words. Similarly, in order for the reader to learn more about the interviewee, Blueprint is decorated with graphics that detail the interviewee’s rituals. High-resolution photographs keep the reader scrolling through the post and complement the text.
Hague was careful to build something that ShopLocket could be proud of, and this principle extends to content. “Put yourself in the shoes of the person that’s going to read it,” she says. There are tons of blogs on the very broad genres of social media and the different types of selling. As you’re publishing your post, think carefully: would I want to read something I’m about to write? Often times, Hague notices entrepreneurs and content marketers simply creating filler content to fill up the editorial calendar.
Blueprint was inspired by visually-appealing, magazine-style blogs and publications, says Hague. It’s built on two principles: extremely strong content, and having it be very visually appealing. She mentioned Ryan Holmes’ Work/Life article as an example.
Don’t underestimate design, advises Hague; it has the ability to extend people’s attention spans. Design can be used to hook readers into the interview, and make them curious enough to begin scrolling down. “If you don’t come to something that doesn’t look great, you’ll probably click away,” says Hague.
In terms of models, Hague advised reading blogs that excel at content marketing, such as KISSMetrics, Buffer, and Clarity.
What can YOU do Today?
Content marketing is all about understanding the customer, emphasizes Hague. Instead of reading content marketing books, Hague recommends having a look at Delivering Happiness by Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh. It is a book about understanding customers and delivering better experiences.
Fundamentally, Hague believes that content marketing isn’t so much about mechanics of writing content, or designing the blog, but figuring out what your customers want and what would be interesting to them. Align your writing styles and voice, as well as the aesthetics of your blog or content marketing initiative to match those of your readers’ tastes.
If Hague were to give you a crash course in content marketing, she would suggest:
Reading blogs that are doing it right (Mentioned above)
Talk to 20 of your most active customers
Talk to 20 of our least active customers
Talk to someone who writes content for a living
Talk to someone who does PR for a living
Figure out: what does good content, in your niche, look like? What do your customers or potential customers actually want to read?
“What works for us won’t necessarily work for you,” reminds Hague. That means replicating Blueprint’s strategies and tactics may generate some different results for you and your niche; you have the information now, and it’s up to you to test it, and see what sticks and what doesn’t. The crux of content marketing success is to understand the customers’ (or readers’) desires, priorities, and preferences. If design is a priority to your readers, figure out what devices they are reading from (Blueprint features responsive web design), what styles they prefer, what feelings the design elicits, and what attracts their attention.
You don’t have to be a content marketing expert to deliver content that consumers and customers will love and talk about. Ship content regularly, adapt accordingly, and build something that will make you proud.