Ash Read, Editorial Director at Buffer, talks through: how to compete in an industry saturated by content marketing; finding your unique differentiator; the power of brand and vision in content; how to create and update “topical” content; and the content strategy he used to grow his side project’s traffic from 0 to 130,000 monthly pageviews.
- Ash Read is the Editorial Director at Buffer, and the founder of modern homeware directory, Living Cozy.
- Ryan Law is the Director of Marketing for Animalz, an agency that delivers high-quality content marketing to enterprise companies, startups, and VC firms.
Mentioned in the Episode
- Ash's side project, Living Cozy
- Webinar, How to Manage Big Blogs (feat. Buffer, Zapier & Amplitude)
- Breaking Brand, a Buffer podcast series
- The Animalz article about "content whales," Here’s How to Handle a Wildly Successful Article That Makes the Rest of Your Content Look Bad
Listen to the episode above, or check it out in your favorite podcast app.
Ryan Law: (01:13)
I am obviously here with Ash Read from Buffer. Ash was kind enough to give us a ton of his time, a few weeks ago, to join the panel discussion we had about the challenge of managing big blogs. So his experience working with the behemoth that has become the Buffer blog alongside a couple of other really generous people from Amplitude and Zapier.
Ryan Law: (01:34)
I'll link to that because that is well worth checking out. That's one of the most interesting conversations I've been a part of, but there are a couple of themes in there, which I just was really, really interested in, really wanted to talk to Ash a bit more about. So Ash, thanks for turning up and thanks for chatting to me.
Ash Read: (01:49)
Yeah. Thanks Ryan. I always enjoy chatting with you and anyone from Animalz. So thanks for inviting me on.
Ryan Law: (01:54)
Yeah, pleasure. The main topic I really wanted to get your thoughts on, something that I know a lot of people are dealing with and many more people are going to be dealing with in the next couple of years is competing in a really, really competitive hyper-saturated niche or maybe niche for the US listeners listening as well.
Ryan Law: (02:15)
Obviously at Buffer, social media is one of the main tenets of your content strategy. I can probably think of no other topic that is more saturated and more competitive.
Ash Read: (02:25)
Yeah. It's definitely an oversaturated space and we always joke that most results pages for any social media topic is us, Sprout, Hootsuite, Later. Sometimes HubSpot are in there, or more often than not they're in there. And yeah, it's such a competitive space. And also from a product perspective, it's a very commoditized space. We all work with the same APIs.
Ash Read: (02:56)
We execute differently. Our products offer similar services in different ways, but we can't really do anything with the APIs that our competitors can't. So it's not just a content space where we have to differentiate, but yeah when you know those same brands are going to be hanging out in every SERP, every piece of content you write, it's very important to try and figure out how to differentiate.
Ash Read: (03:19)
And I think for us having an opinion is the number one thing. We're a very mission-driven company. We aren't about maximizing revenue, chasing every dollar, building the biggest building in the world. We just want to have... We want to serve small businesses and we want to serve a lot of small businesses, but it's not about growth over everything.
Ash Read: (03:47)
And I think for us that needs to translate into our content and that's the differentiator. It's the reason some customers stick around with Buffer for a long time, is the product helps them, but they also get to know our company culture. They know some of the people behind the company, they are interested in the way we work, the way we operate and trying to just get that into our social media content or at least tell a narrative that's a bit different to other companies is really important for us.
Ryan Law: (04:22)
It's such an important point. I love you pointed out the slight homogeneity of products because that is totally not unique to Buffer and social media. So many industries, most products, I think, fall into this one-to-end category where they are all offering variations of the same theme. Maybe there are a couple of minor differentiators.
Ryan Law: (04:42)
But those true zero-to-one, totally new, totally novel, totally mind-blowing products are actually really few and far between. I think you're probably going to have quite an easy time in marketing if you have a product that does something that nobody else does, but for the rest of the world we're trying to compete against a fairly similar market. That's a great point you've made there.
Ryan Law: (05:01)
So how do you go about doing that? How do you go about actually incorporating your mission, your brand ethos into your content while also doing the utilitarian thing of actually ranking for stuff as well?
Ash Read: (05:14)
Yeah. It's a fine balance because, like you say, you have to rank. We want to rank for those keywords. And if we take an approach that's maybe too cavalier, we're not going to appear where we need to appear. For us, the way we try and think about it is, we have a company mission and vision, which sits above everything we do from product to marketing, to HR, people, all of that.
Ash Read: (05:38)
And our company vision is a world with more small businesses that do good while doing well. So we want to encourage more small businesses or people to start small businesses and also just to think about how you can do well. How you can be a net plus for society, not just grow the bottom line.
Ash Read: (05:58)
And then our mission as a company is to provide essential tools to help small businesses get off the ground and grow, and also to create uplifting content to help people believe they can grow their business. And with those two things in mind, at the start of each year, we all have a few brainstorm sessions, open discussions around what does that mean for us. And we try and come up with a set of themes or narratives that we want to talk about that year in the market and try to tie those to each piece of content we write.
Ash Read: (06:35)
At the moment we've got three that we focus on. One is, having a purpose beyond profit is a super power for small business. Consumers care about much more than just product quality and experience now. They want to know the values of the companies they buy from. That's something that we want to touch on and share where we can.
Ash Read: (06:54)
Then the second one is, truly caring is the best way to build a business customers love. So experience is important. The companies that are only focused on ROI and what they get back from a reaction, they're probably not going to be around in five or 10 years. So truly caring is important.
Ash Read: (07:11)
And the third one is, anyone should feel empowered to build a small business. So tying back to our mission of more small businesses. Right now, I don't think it's accessible for everyone to start a small business. Everyone from certain backgrounds, certain places they can start a business but not everyone can. And that's something that we want to help encourage.
Ash Read: (07:35)
And I think the ways that we bring those through in our content, it can just be as subtle as the examples that we use, right? If we're talking about Instagram Reels, can we share Reels from a company that has a purpose, that isn't just focused on profit for anyone to feel empowered to build a small business? Can we focus on diverse, small businesses, right?
Ash Read: (07:56)
It's not just like the case studies that everyone reads and the examples everyone knows, and the companies that go on tech crunch and all that. Can we show how real people are starting businesses from various backgrounds? And yeah, that's how we try and weave it in. And I think it's important to think about yeah, we're writing about the same keywords, we need to include the same information essentially to rank.
Ash Read: (08:24)
80, 90% of our content is similar to competitors. You can't get around that. It's what it has to be. But that last 10% is the stuff that I think will hopefully make someone think like, "Buffer is for me." It's the thing that's going to get them excited to try Buffer or get them excited to dig deeper into our story and that's essential.
Ash Read: (08:49)
Honestly, it's a pain. I can't tell you how many hours I spend trolling, looking for examples of businesses and things like that to include in our content. But yeah, it's one of those things. It's hard to put a dollar ROI on it, but it is important and it just feels important. And it's the right thing to do.
Ryan Law: (09:12)
I think the example was paced there as well. That's something that is really increasingly hard to do, to find relevant, interesting examples that nobody else has done. And it's increasingly undervalued, I think by lots of companies. Certainly I remember when I was a younger content marketer and you're trying to churn out a few articles each week and you're really time constrained.
Ryan Law: (09:33)
And the example you default to are the same handful of examples every time. And they're probably examples that everyone already knows or are already in the search results. And most of the time are probably not that similar to the audience you're actually writing for and at best that's slightly boring, and at worst, I think that's actively alienating if you're trying to reach a really specific audience. It sounds like you just live in this world, you just inhabit that world, you engage with all these E-commerce companies almost as a user, as somebody who actually cares about it.
Ash Read: (10:05)
Yeah. I think it's important to actually know the customers and the one thing I always default to if I feel stuck is just try and speak to a customer, try and just learn what they're going through. What are they doing today? What are their problems? And one of my favorite examples, and I go back to this all the time, was I was speaking to a Buffer customer last year and they run social media and marketing for a juice company.
Ash Read: (10:31)
They've got eight juice stores in one state in the US and he was just like, "I read your content. I read HubSpot. I read Later. I think I'm not looking for tips. I just want a bit of inspiration. I have to make juice sound interesting in Instagram 365 days a year. I just want a little burst of inspiration."
Ash Read: (10:53)
When you just hear those little insights, it reminds you of why doing this is important, how it can actually help people. And also it just gets you completely unstuck because it's super easy to get stuck in Ahrefs or SEMrush, whatever you use, looking at keywords and forgetting the actual people are searching for those keywords. And also it's just refreshing to find content ideas from speaking to humans, not machines.
Ryan Law: (11:21)
Yeah. Totally. I was thinking about this myself the other day and tweeted something to that effect. As, again, content marketers, it's very easy for us to bias towards the most readily available data, which is normally competitor analysis, pull up Ahrefs and see what your competitors are ranking for.
Ryan Law: (11:37)
And you can get quite myopically focused on those keywords and the justification is, "Ash, they are doing it, then we should be doing it." But you're totally right. The more you do that, the more you fixate on that, the more you begin to resemble those competitors, and the further you get away from the first principles, which is, "I want to help these people. I need to do the things that these people are doing."
Ryan Law: (11:58)
And a lot of the time, as well, once you begin talking to customers, you realize that your competitors aren't actually doing it very well, anyway. If you were to copy them, you'd probably be copying something that is not as good as what you could create yourself.
Ash Read: (12:10)
Yeah, definitely. And I think as well it's just not genuine. It's not coming from the same place. So we're doing this new podcast series at the moment and one of the companies that we're featuring, they're a chocolate company and he said something that really resonated, where he was like, "I could give you my recipe, my tools, my ingredients, and you couldn't make my chocolate."
Ash Read: (12:30)
And it's just like, "Yeah, contents, the same thing, right? We will have the same tools." I could give anyone our Google sheet full of keywords, but you're going to produce the content different to how we are at Buffer.
Ryan Law: (12:44)
You're putting it like an email from the content managers, "Your competitors now are trying to take you up on that offer and get your list of keywords."
Ash Read: (12:50)
They'd be disappointed by how messy it is.
Ryan Law: (12:54)
On that topic, actually, I'd be curious to know how does keyword research fit into this? Like, targeting the audience. Obviously it's a very specific audience. Are you quite selective with keywords or do you take a broad approach and then use the examples to make the content relevant?
Ash Read: (13:09)
Yeah. I would say we've gone through cycles, so a few years ago we were super broad. It was just we want to cover every social media topic, even if it's not super relevant. We just want to be there in that discussion, because the thing that we have found is posts scale. I think in Animalz, you call them whales, the outsized posts.
Ash Read: (13:32)
Even if they're not super relevant, they do drive signups for us. The conversion rate isn't high, but they do work and we would chase all the traffic that we could. Then we niche down a bit. And I think where we're at now is broadening out again. So as I mentioned, Buffer's focused on helping small businesses to get off the ground and grow. And since we put that mission in place, that's opened up a whole world of keywords for us because we're now thinking outside of social media.
Ash Read: (14:04)
And I think the thing with social media and probably any space is once you've been doing it for years, there's only so much you can write about. And we have... There's optimizations we can make, there's pages we can jump up for certain keywords, but largely all of the posts that are going to unlock massive growth for us, they've already been written. There's no huge keywords out there that we haven't covered.
Ryan Law: (14:33)
Yeah. No low hanging fruit anymore.
Ash Read: (14:36)
Yeah. We have certain posts that will do 20, 30, 40,000 visits a month. We're not writing those anymore. Those are out there. We update them, we keep them fresh, but we're not going to go to Ahrefs and find them. So I think for us being able to broaden outside of social is a key thing for us finding new keywords and opportunities for Buffer to be discovered because that's how we look at things.
Ash Read: (15:01)
So we have what we call a content library, which is where all of our SEO content is housed and that essentially just exists to increase the number of opportunities for Buffer to be discovered. And we have another blog where we have less focus on search, more on culture, what's going on, industry trends, that stuff where we're less worried about search. But yeah, when it comes to keywords, I think you can sometimes get too focused on forcing yourself to find the keywords or trying to find opportunities that aren't really there.
Ryan Law: (15:36)
Yeah. I totally agree with that. And I think there's a bit of a mindset in some cases where people are stuck thinking, five, 10 years ago, when I got started in content marketing, it was so much easier than it is today.
Ryan Law: (15:49)
I wasn't particularly good when I got started and I was able to generate hundreds of thousands of visits from stuff that I cringe when I read now, just because there were so many keywords. Even being able to find those keywords was a differentiator and so few companies were doing it, but that is not the case today.
Ryan Law: (16:06)
I'd be really curious to know. I think I'm seeing more and more companies work in non-search content into their strategies, I think, as a bit of a hedge, or as a bit of a way to communicate and differentiate from a brand perspective. How do you think about the allocation of content at Buffer? Is that something you're investing more heavily in? Or how does that work?
Ash Read: (16:27)
Yeah. Like I said, there's the two blogs, the library for all of the SEO stuff and then we have, we just call it the hub because it's just a hub of everything else. And the idea of separating them out came from serving different personas, really. So with we have the library, we're serving people that want to learn the basics. They want to go from A to B and honestly they don't really care much beyond, "Can this piece of content solve my problem."
Ash Read: (16:59)
And some of them will click through to Buffer and most of them will just shut the browser after we've solved the problem and that's what it exists for, right? It's people that want to know, "How do I set up Instagram? How do I get started with Reels? How do I create a Facebook page?" And those people are very important customers to Buffer.
Ash Read: (17:19)
They're people that we care a lot about, but also a bunch of the people that use our tools, like the example I used earlier of the juice company they're not looking for the basics. They just want a little bit of inspiration, and on the hub we try to get for them that there. So we'll interview other social media marketers, do spotlights with different brands on how they're doing things. And it's also really important for us there to have on that same space.
Ash Read: (17:46)
We have all of our open culture and transparency so that we can hopefully get people into the Buffer story. So the library is more about, "Let's help solve your social media problems," and then our hub and our more topical content is more about, "Get to know the brand. How can we help you day-to-day? Know our company story, learn about the people behind the company."
Ash Read: (18:09)
And I think sometimes those pieces they'll have big peaks of traffic when you publish them, then they'll just drop off and that's fine. I think if the message is important, if it's something that needs to be said at the time, it doesn't need long-term traffic. And we have so many posts like that from when Buffer was founded 10 years ago.
Ash Read: (18:31)
The whole story is on that blog and it's far more important having that there than having those posts drive traffic. When we need to reference them, they're there. The whole story is laid out and I think sometimes a topical piece can become an SEO piece. So this was five and a half years ago, I think, when I started at Buffer.
Ash Read: (18:52)
I wrote this piece on Twitter polls just as the polling feature came out and it just exploded, caught us completely off guard. We just put it out there. I think literally overnight it was a 20% spike in search traffic and it got featured in the Google News section for 12 polls and it really blew our minds. And then after a while that just disappeared and we were just like, "Well, what do we do now?"
Ash Read: (19:20)
And essentially we just transformed that into a guide for Twitter polls. Instagram Stories is one of my favorite examples of that. I remember Stories came out and I'd just jump on it, write a rough guide. Here's how it works. Here's some examples of the super early companies that use it.
Ash Read: (19:41)
And that was the same big traffic for the first couple of weeks when it was newsworthy. Then it died off and then we just turned it into a guide on Instagram stories and that's still one of our best performing pieces three or four years later after we published it.
Ryan Law: (19:58)
That's so smart. So you're using the same URL for that. You're just changing the content after the viral's peak has waned.
Ash Read: (20:07)
Yeah. Essentially once the traffic dies off from it not being used wherever you're maybe being... It doesn't happen so much now, but share-worthy back in the day. Once that died off, just rewrite the content into something that has long-term value.
Ryan Law: (20:24)
I was going to ask about that as well, because I think most content strategies have to consider the topical aspect of content to some extent. Most of what we wrote at Animalz, for example, we intended to be largely evergreen because we were writing about processes and frameworks and mental models, stuff that hopefully will last a long time. But there's always a small subset of stuff that does get outdated. Obviously when you're writing about literally technology platforms that are pushing out new features all the time, is that a huge headache? How do you keep on top of that?
Ash Read: (20:54)
Yeah. It's not just writing about other platforms either. Our platform evolves and I'd say every week I probably get... Someone from our Customer Advocacy Team will share a link that a customer shared and just said, "This is outdated," or, "This feels wrong." Keeping on top of it is a challenge and I think sometimes it's good just to not be too precious about your content and just redirect it.
Ash Read: (21:22)
Sometimes it's not salvageable like when it's a post about the best Buffer features to help you and it's six years old and it hasn't been touched for that long, just redirect it to something new. I think that's something that we try and do, probably not as much as we should. I think at last count we've got 700, 800 posts and we called a few about 18 months ago when we migrated domains.
Ash Read: (21:53)
I think sometimes it's the best thing to do, is just to get rid of it. And also sometimes pieces can not be so relevant anymore. So companies evolve and Buffer started out 10 years ago as a way to share tweets. It was a tool to help you spread out your tweets. Then another point in life, Buffer went big on extensions and wanted to be the default way to share content online and was a bit more of a consumer product.
Ash Read: (22:25)
So we had these big, hugely successful pieces on the psychology of color and these not necessarily marketing pieces. Those were great pieces of writing and they served their purpose at that time in Buffer, but it's probably okay to delete some of them now. And it's also those kinds of pieces, again referring to the whales Animalz talks about. They can dip and it looks you're having a terrible month, everything's going wrong, but it's just one outdated piece of content making your analytics look bad.
Ash Read: (23:01)
A few months ago we had some dips in the search rankings and what was interesting was the search rankings dip, the traffic dip, the clicks from Buffer, from our blog to the marketing site they dipped, but signups stayed fairly consistent. Some days, some weeks they were even up and it sucked to see the traffic going down, but being able to just see okay, the business isn't being impacted too heavily by this was really nice. And I think sometimes you can get too wrapped up in traffic and maybe it's good to look at something a little bit more important sometimes.
Ryan Law: (23:44)
Yeah, absolutely. One of the big epiphanies I felt like I had a few years ago was... For the Animalz blog, I publish content most weeks and I look at the state of the blog front page and I think, "Yeah, I'm proud of this. This is a good representation of our brand. Anyone that finds this, they're getting the best of Animalz."
Ryan Law: (24:02)
But then you look at your analytics and you realize that 80% of your traffic is actually because of organic search going to stuff that was written years ago. And there's actually a lot of positive correlation, in most cases. The older the posts, the more of the traffic goes to it.
Ryan Law: (24:16)
And as soon as you realize that you suddenly think, "Oh God. I have to re-optimize everything, get everything up to date because they're coming in on content that five years old that talks about outdated features." Yeah. Just a hell of a realization to have when we're so focused on the creation aspect of content a lot of the time.
Ash Read: (24:35)
Yeah. I think once you reach a certain point where you've been publishing for a few years, I think paying attention to what's already there is key. I think honestly as I look at Buffer, if we weren't expanding and broadening our positioning to be more small business, the opportunities for us to grow in search I don't think are new keywords.
Ash Read: (24:57)
They are every few months when a new feature launches. We can write about that and that would eventually be a search term. But I think the bigger opportunities for most sites that have been around for a number of years is the stuff that's already there.
Ryan Law: (25:12)
Yeah. And it was a very nice segue because that's something at Animalz we are thinking a lot about. We're trying to build processes for that. We're doing a lot of auditing and that kind of thing, because I think we've reached a point in content marketing where it's mature enough that lots of companies have great content creation processes and they just haven't applied that same thinking to optimization and looking at old content and identifying those whales.
Ryan Law: (25:37)
I guess a pragmatic question for you, actually, even 800 or so posts, how do you keep on top of that? What do you look at every day, every week to know what's working, what isn't, to work out where you should be focusing?
Ash Read: (25:50)
Yeah. We have a mixed panel dashboard that brings in all of the signups traffic from blog to marketing site, all of that. And that's my source of truth for company impact and how is our content moving some of the key metrics for Buffer. But then I tend to just like analytics... I don't know. I find the longer I spend in marketing and content marketing, the less tethered I am to analytics.
Ash Read: (26:21)
I don't refresh it five times a day now. I jump in probably every other day just to check, a little health check, is anything broken? The other week we made some updates to our blog and we accidentally cut out the analytics code and I logged in and I was just like, "That doesn't look good." We had no visits.
Ash Read: (26:43)
It's good, I think, just to keep on top of it from that perspective. But then every month I try and just do a bit of a deep dive and look into which pages are getting traffic? How that's dipped over the last month? Or how it's grown over the last month? And then I use Search Console just to dig into those results. So if we're seeing growth, where's that growth coming from? If a post is dipped, what keywords are dipping? That's the stuff I care about most.
Ryan Law: (27:09)
We had a good experience at Animalz as well, which forced that realization upon us. I think we've probably talked to you about this, but it was actually through a bit of cold outreach on our contact us form. Someone wrote in and said, "Hey, I don't know if you realize, but you're actually got the tracking code installed twice on your website. Could you..." The biggest internal panic you've ever seen. Me as Director of Marketing feeling I've made some heinous mistake.
Ryan Law: (27:33)
And we checked, it was installed twice. And we realized over the past two years since our site redesign, we've been double-counting traffic. I was initially flabbergasted and really sad that we hadn't cracked 100,000 pages like I thought we had. But then I realized the thing that wasn't broken was the SQLs and the new signups and the revenue. That was still growing at the same rate.
Ryan Law: (27:56)
And actually it was weirdly a good thing because I realized we'd hit those growth objectives with half the traffic I thought we had. That was a huge epiphany from traffic really, really, really isn't always everything.
Ash Read: (28:10)
Yeah. And a nice way to double your conversion rates as well by just removing tracking.
Ryan Law: (28:14)
Yeah, exactly that. Yeah. In my marketing report that month, I was like, "Hey, good news, everyone. Doubled." Well, talking about competing in competitive niches, I'd love to talk a bit about your side project, I prefer to call it that.
Ash Read: (28:29)
Ryan Law: (28:31)
For people that don't know, what is Living Cozy?
Ash Read: (28:33)
Yeah. So it's essentially just a directory for modern homeware brands. Yeah. Home and furniture brands. Kind of trying to build it into a space to discover the best brands and products to share our home with. That's the elevator pitch.
Ryan Law: (28:47)
And what made you want to do that?
Ash Read: (28:49)
Yeah, a couple of things like, first we produced a podcast series called Breaking Brand a couple of years ago and that followed a direct consumer brand called Pattern. And they were focused on homeware goods. And that series, we'd spent a few months really studying direct consumer at Buffer and that opened my eyes to all of these amazing, interesting brands out there.
Ash Read: (29:14)
Then I think the real catalyst was I moved house and every piece of furniture I needed, I'd search such Google and I would discover places like Ikea and all the ones that I know already and Wayfair dominated every search [crosstalk 00:29:32]
Ryan Law: (29:31)
Wayfair is everywhere these days.
Ash Read: (29:34)
Yeah. Amazing for the rest of the rest of our team, but just really annoyed me. I just wanted to start it because I knew there were all these cool brands out there. I felt there was opportunities to help them be discovered.
Ash Read: (29:45)
And I think the other thing was just, I hadn't started a side project for a while. I hadn't grown a site from zero for a number of years, probably since before joining Buffer. So it was also, I think, just a bit of a test like, "Can I actually do this? Can I sharpen the tools and try and build something from zero again?"
Ryan Law: (30:06)
I imagine. Does it feel a lot different doing it today, just what I would've done in the pre-Buffer days? Because I've done a few similar things and traffic doesn't come quite as readily as it once did from my new found experience.
Ash Read: (30:18)
Yeah. It definitely feels like more of a slug. There's a lot more trusting the process I think and doing what you think are the right things and hoping in six months time, it's going to start paying off.
Ryan Law: (30:31)
Would you mind sharing, what is the strategy before? Obviously I'm guessing very content-focused because you are fantastic at content marketing.
Ash Read: (30:38)
Yeah. Content is the focus. We have the brand directory, which you can just go on there and filter furniture brands. We're working on a location filter so you can search brands available in the UK, Canada, US. And that's one experience on the site and then the rest is the content which actually drives most of the traffic.
Ash Read: (31:04)
So I'd say about 90% of our traffic is Google organic search. And the strategy for me was I think finding the super low hanging fruit, so combing Ahrefs looking for all of the things with zero keyword difficulties and getting excited about something with 200 searches per month. And I think catering for those and then the strategy that I picked up on after a couple of months was essentially trying to tackle what I was calling throwaway content from bigger publishers.
Ash Read: (31:41)
So the homeware niche is massive. There are so many competitors in that space, but you often see sites like Apartment Therapy or The Strategist, all of those ones. Hunker is a big one. They rank, but they rank because of their authority not because of the content. And quite often what I found is it's possible to outrank them with pieces that are written specifically to rank for those keywords.
Ash Read: (32:14)
So one of my favorite early successes was sofa-in-a-box brands. There's companies like Burrow, Floyd, they now ship sofas in boxes so you don't have to wrestle them around corners and upstairs and-
Ryan Law: (32:27)
Ash Read: (32:30)
I think it was, maybe, I don't know, 1,000 searches a month for it, but the content that was ranking was just super basic like, "Here's a list of sofas and 100 words about each one." And I think by really focusing on ranking for these keywords, I was able to overtake a lot of those pieces.
Ash Read: (32:49)
And at the moment, I mean, it still fluctuates. I've noticed the results pages for home keywords seem to just be all over the place. I'll jump up and down so much every day, but that posts now ranks. I mean for The Strategist, CNN, we were above for a little while. I think we might still be.
Ryan Law: (33:09)
Ash Read: (33:11)
That's been really cool. And I think one of my other approaches is something I've called just layering content. So essentially it's getting a first draft out there and then adding to it. So one example is a piece I wrote about sectional sofas. That's a huge keyword. All the different variations of it probably get 200,000 searches a month.
Ash Read: (33:37)
I honestly didn't expect to rank for it. So the keyword I was talking was best sectional sofas. I started out by just putting out short introduction, listing 12 brands then put that out there just to have it so it can get to page four in the search. This is a process of done with most of my content in the last six months, is put that V1 out there and then I will add another layer which will be get experts.
Ash Read: (34:10)
So speak to interior designers and say, "Can you give me perspectives on these brands?" Then add those in. Then now as I've got relationships with a couple of the brands, I can speak to their PR people and say, "Can you just give us a snippet about this sofa? What makes it special," then I'll add that in, then put a bunch of FAQ's at the bottom on how to care for it, how to build it, how to style it in your room.
Ash Read: (34:35)
Six months ago, if you'd asked me to write four and a half thousand words about sectional sofas, I would never have done it. But by putting out a 1,000 word piece and then just every few weeks going back and adding a few 100 words here and there, it's become this real great detailed guide. But I would never have done that from zero to four and a half thousand words.
Ryan Law: (34:57)
That is super smart. Because I used to do the exact opposite of that. The really silly thing, which was on my side projects, this is the key word. I'm going to do 6,000 words. I'm going to sit down, I'm going to crank it out and not leave this desk till it's done. And I hated every second of it. And the content was terrible as a result.
Ryan Law: (35:15)
Whereas this way, a you break it out, you're motivated by seeing those early results that make you think, "Yeah, maybe this is worth putting a bit more effort in," and then you get better results and you can justify adding a bit more in. That's super smart.
Ash Read: (35:27)
Yeah. It's really helpful. And it's encouraging because I think when I started the site from zero, I think I read something on... I don't remember which blog it was, but it's just analytics for new blogs. And it was like, "Just don't get worried. Don't worry about clicks. It doesn't really matter." And that's what I've been looking for.
Ash Read: (35:48)
So I have this step-by-step process of okay, publish a piece then after a few weeks or months, how many keywords is it ranking for? I don't really care where, but if it's ranking, that's cool. And then I use Ahrefs for that and that's the first test. Once it's ranking for 20 keywords, that's great. Then I'll go to Search Console and the next step is like, "Is anyone actually clicking on this?" Or, "How many impressions am I getting?"
Ash Read: (36:16)
First one is keywords, then how many impressions am I getting? Then another month down the line, I'll start thinking about, "Are people clicking on it?" And then another month or two down the line, it's like, "Am I driving any revenue from this post?" And I think with content and starting side projects, it's easy to start focusing on that end point, whereas that's really demotivating.
Ash Read: (36:40)
That just really sucks because you're not going to make any money, you're not going to get conversions from a post for months. And I think by having steps and celebrations along the way, it keeps it interesting and it feels like progress and it's fun because it's a side project. It's like, "I'm doing this outside of work. It needs to be interesting. It needs to be fun. It shouldn't feel like a slug." And I think that's why it's important to find processes that make it interesting and not feel like work.
Ryan Law: (37:10)
Yeah. I've found that a lot recently. I'm in the middle of trying to drop my second book. So I love writing as most content marketers do. And I had a bit of an existential crisis a few years ago and thought, "If I die tomorrow without writing a book, I've done something terribly, terribly wrong." And the thing you realize when you sit down to actually write a book is that, "60,000 words and it has to make sense and it has to be interesting? Oh, God, that's hard. That's a logistical challenge."
Ryan Law: (37:38)
So yeah, trying to do exactly as you say and celebrate tiny little milestones on the way, little 200, 300 words snippets here and there just so you don't bulk the enormity of what's facing you. I guess, related to that, how do you balance it with work? How do you match these two things together? Because that's something I've always found really hard to do.
Ash Read: (37:59)
Yeah. It's definitely a challenge. I think it fluctuates the amount of work I put in. It will go up and down with my energy. I think the thing that's important with side projects is, to keep it fun I try not to put pressure on myself. I think at the start of the year I had a week or two off around Christmas and New Year and I was just like, "Oh, I'm going to set myself some okay hours for this side project."
Ash Read: (38:27)
And it just made me miserable. I was just like, "This is really boring. I don't like this. Why am I doing this in my spare time?" And I just try not to have expectations, focus on trying to grow it, but if it doesn't grow this month it doesn't really matter. And then I think in terms of splitting time, I try and find I have... Just before I start work or just after I'll try and get an hour in.
Ash Read: (38:52)
And then we switched to four-day workweeks at Buffer last year, which has just been amazing for side projects. I now have Fridays I can spend working on it and that really helps. It frees up a bit more evening and weekend time. And I think as well the thing with side projects is try definitely to take it seriously like, "I want this to grow. I want it to be a big site that can...
Ash Read: (39:17)
Maybe one day it pays my full-time employment, who knows. But I don't want to sacrifice seeing people, going out for dinner, watching sport. Euro 2020 is probably the worst thing that's happened for my side project in the last year, because there's just football on all the time."
Ryan Law: (39:36)
I love that. And I mean, I've always thought, with side projects as well, they're always beneficial to your full-time hustle as well because you're learning new skills, you're applying it, you're developing empathy by building something yourself.
Ryan Law: (39:49)
Obviously that's not a particularly exciting reason to do it. You want to do it because it's fun and you're having a good time. But I think rewarding people with a bit of time and head space to do that has got to be good for everyone.
Ash Read: (40:00)
Yeah. I definitely like it. It helps so much with day-to-day work. I think even just the challenge of getting backlinks, I haven't had to worry about that for a long time. Buffer has so many backlinks, such a strong domain profile that I don't worry about it day to day.
Ash Read: (40:19)
But then taking the site from zero is just like, "Oh, I need to get backlinks," and that challenges you, I think, to think about things in unique ways, challenges you to do stuff you don't do day-to-day and I think it also just provides you with more empathy for other sites and for other people.
Ash Read: (40:38)
And I think there's just definitely breakthroughs that it's helped me with in work. And also just a confidence thing. It's cool to know I can build sites without Buffer. I've been here five and a half years. There's definitely times where you start to question, "Am I doing well because of Buffer or is Buffer doing well partly because of me?" It's very hard to detach yourself from the company for a while after a while. So I think that really helps too.
Ryan Law: (41:07)
I saw a tweet from Peep from CXL, I think, a few weeks ago. It was to the effect of, "If you want to hire really great marketers, don't hire them from huge well-known brands because marketing is actually easier for those companies," and I do agree. It is hard to... I sometimes have moments of crisis questioning the impact of what I'm actually doing, am I being dragged along by something that would succeed without me? Or am I having a big part of it?
Ryan Law: (41:33)
So yeah. Nice to actually get stuck in and try that. Just curious, what have you found working for backlinks? Because there was a time in my first few side projects, I was literally doing that whole blog commenting thing back in the day, trying to get a few cheeky, little dip follow links from related sites.
Ash Read: (41:49)
Yeah. I've definitely not mastered it. And it's something that... I think getting backlinks has always felt like this dark art to me and I've not mastered it, but the one thing I have found that works is I started an interview series with founders of different home and furniture brands. And I just have this notion document where every new brand I discover or all the brands on the site are on there.
Ash Read: (42:16)
And then I have one tick box for if I've added them to a directory and then another, do they have a press page on the site? And if they do, then I'll just reach out to their founder and try and interview them. And once it's live, just say, "Do you mind featuring it on the first page?" And 90% of the time it works.
Ash Read: (42:33)
And it really helped me just to get this break through and I have backlinks from 15 or 20 biggish name brands now. That really helps. And then the other thing was just I opened every single Help A Reporter email for about six months.
Ryan Law: (42:56)
Oh, man. I can't imagine how long that took. Wow.
Ash Read: (42:59)
So, yeah. That was my routine every morning. It was just open up my laptop, check the previous day's free HARO emails, see if there's any to reply to, and trying to... I'd set a goal of one or two per day and then realized I was just being one of those people that's responding to posts. It's a request they've got no right responding to, so I stopped doing that.
Ryan Law: (43:25)
I'll use a realization I had a few years ago. It was that, it's okay to create content just for links. Even if people will never buy from it, even if it will never drive traffic, especially when you're a new company, links is the most important thing you need to start contesting those keywords.
Ryan Law: (43:42)
One of the best articles I ever wrote from a business perspective was... It was a terrible, horrible, garbage article, but it worked so well for me. Back when I was a freelancer, I wanted to partner with some marketing agency. I wanted to get on their radar because they make for great customers. So I did a really indulgent round up of the top 50 marketing agency blogs in the UK. And my only criteria was 50 agencies that I wanted to work with.
Ryan Law: (44:09)
I sent them all a badge that they embedded on their websites. I got quotes from them, got a bunch of links from it and a bunch of business and never really seen or read by anyone outside of that. But for the purposes of link building, it was great. I do think that you have to shape content to an individual goal a lot of times and link building is different to traffic and sales.
Ash Read: (44:28)
Yeah. Definitely. We've seen it at Buffer. I don't know if you saw the same at Animalz, but our annual reports, the state of remote work, that gets thousands of backlinks every single year. And yeah, I would to try and do something like that, I think, on the side project as well. I know I have a list of ideas just going through Google trends and trying to find the most popular sofa color in every single state in the US and just publishing that and trying to get a few backlinks for it.
Ash Read: (44:58)
I think that is an important thing of, it's okay to write something just for a link. My process of building links would be interviewing a founder, spending an afternoon writing up the article and then just hoping they would put it on their page when I published it. And it's a slug, but it works.
Ryan Law: (45:19)
But still, that's a good ROI. I imagine getting a good one solid link, I'd be happy with that.
Ash Read: (45:23)
Yeah. That's it. Links from those kinds of brands I think it's especially important just because they are super relevant links. It's not just a random link on a random blog. It's a high authority brand in that space.
Ryan Law: (45:37)
Wow. Ash, we've tackled all the questions I wanted to get through. This has been a bunch of fun. Any parting words? Where can people find you these days? Anything you want to promote that you've got coming up in the pipeline at either Buffer or Living Cozy.
Ash Read: (45:50)
Yeah. I'm most active on Twitter, which is Ashread_ and that's R-E-A-D. I definitely go through flurries in Twitter. I'll send out a bunch of tweets one week and then I won't for a few weeks, but I open it every single day. That's probably the best place. And then, I think things to promote, I mean, if you're looking for furniture, definitely go to Living Cozy.
Ash Read: (46:12)
But other than that, Buffer we have a new podcast series coming out in the next couple of months, all about small businesses and future of work and those kinds of topics. That's taking up a bunch of my time lately. I'm really excited for that and keep your eyes peeled for it when it comes out.
Ryan Law: (46:31)
Awesome. I'll share as many links as I can in the show notes for this as well.
Ash Read: (46:35)
Perfect. That's another one.
Ryan Law: (46:37)
Cool. Oh yeah. Thank you so much, Ash. It's been an absolute pleasure.
Ash Read: (46:41)
Yeah. Thanks for having me around Ryan.