How to Ride a Wave of Growth, or Revel in Its Crash

the growth wave

For all the talk of creating great content, there’s a significant and often unspoken factor at work in every successful blog: timing.

Riding a trend is one thing, but it’s an oversimplified way of looking at the situation. Trends are always on the way up or down, but plenty of blogs have found sustained success. Let’s look at two different scenarios.

AdEspresso, the Facebook Ad optimization tool, is an example of a business whose blog has successfully ridden a wave of growth. In this case, it’s a once-in-a-generation trend—but that guarantees nothing. AdEspresso’s content marketing has been a runaway success thanks to timing and, more importantly, great execution.

When AdEspresso published its first blog post in September 2012, Facebook reported that its annual ad revenue was $6 billion. In 2018, Facebook is on track to leverage its 1.45 billion daily active users to earn more than $40 billion in ad revenue. The Facebook Ad platform has absolutely exploded. Here’s a look at the growth in monthly active users against quarterly ad revenue—both in billions:

As you might imagine, search volume for “facebook ads” and thousands of related keywords mirrored Facebook Ad’s growth. It’s easy to forget that hindsight is 20/20. Although AdEspresso couldn’t have known that Facebook would reach more than a billion people every single day in 2018, the company did know that content creation would help serve advertisers as interest in the platform grew. Their content production has been remarkably consistent.

Here’s a look at AdEspresso’s publishing schedule over a three year period:

Over the past nearly six years, AdEspresso has published 793 blog posts—that’s an average of 3.25 posts per week for 244 weeks. They have targeted a huge variety of keywords related to Facebook advertising, and it’s paid off: The site now ranks on the first page of search results for more than 10,000 nonbranded keywords, and they rank first overall for more than 1,000.

These posts have consistently performed very well, a nod to AdEspresso’s execution and eye for quality. The chart below buckets the number of articles by performance. Most posts earn between 10,000 and 19,999 lifetime pageviews, but nearly 100 have earned more than 20,000. An incredible 13 posts have earned more than 100,000 pageviews—that’s well over 1 million pageviews from just 13 posts.

There’s an old investing adage that says, “Time in the market is more important than timing the marketing.” And while the sentiment holds true in content marketing, timing the market carries some weight. Imagine if AdEpresso started creating content in 2017. You can be sure someone else would have filled the gap and built their own successful business on top of it. Still, time in the market is far more important; the value of compounding traffic is what lifts sites from hit-driven content to sustained, long-term growth.

Between 2015 and 2017, organic traffic increased by an average of 9.79% each month. This may not sound like much, but it was the engine that propelled the site from 84,000 pageviews in January 2015 to more than 10x that three years later.

The share of organic traffic vs. all other traffic is a key indicator of its growth trajectory. Earning greater than 50% of all traffic from organic search is, in the B2B SaaS space, extremely good. AdEspresso hit that number years ago. Today, organic traffic drives an incredible 79% of all sessions.

The pie charts below show that AdEspresso’s organic presence has been steadily increasing. What it doesn’t show is that traffic from other sources has been increasing as well. This trend is typical of sites with strong organic growth. As search traffic increases—perhaps the most important indicator of a site’s overall health—other sources begin driving more traffic as well. More people follow the brand on social media, subscribe to the newsletter, and go to the site directly. Organic traffic grows faster, hence the pie charts below, but it’s a tide that lifts all ships.

AdEspresso’s success, even with the rise of Facebook Ad’s platform, was never a given. If you have the opportunity to ride a wave of growth, keep a few things in mind:

  • It will be just as hard with the wave as it would be without.
  • Organic traffic is the only way to scale long-term—nothing else even comes close.
  • It will require a consistent effort for a number of years, but it’s worth it.

But what if the topic you cover isn’t growing like Facebook Ads, or, worse, the wave already crashed?

This is especially interesting in the content marketing space. Search volume is trending downward, but companies are spending more money than ever on content. When we say the wave has crashed, we mean that content has graduated from trendy to commonplace. Information is fragmented and cheap. We’re aiming to change that.

The Animalz blog launched in January 2018. There’s plenty of competition in the space, including well-established sites like the Content Marketing Institute. Founder Joe Pulizzi wrote the site’s first post 11 years ago, and they’ve published 3,000 articles since. When it comes to time in the market, they have a massive advantage. (Kudos to Joe and his team for taking the initiative long before it was clear that content would explode.)

We can’t go back in time and start a blog 10 years ago. Time in the market is still key to our success in content marketing, but it’ll take years for that to accumulate. The wave of content marketing about content marketing has crashed—a lot of people jumped on this trend, which resulted in a lot of noise. Readers are tired of the same old content marketing truisms—“create actionable content” and “build an audience of raving fans”—that overlook the nuances of actually implementing and running a successful content marketing program. The more noise there is, the better the opportunity for a new player to come in and establish themselves.

That’s exactly what we’re doing here at Animalz. Assuming that the wave has crashed means that we have the opportunity to revel in the chaos, which, in this case, is most accurately described as noise. When a trend is on the rise, there’s not much to do besides get on board and execute as well as possible. But once it’s no longer trendy, new doors open that require very different approaches.

It’s not necessarily harder or easier to grow a blog after the wave has crashed, but it does require a different strategy. The following suggestions aren’t hypothetical—these are actual strategies we’re using to grow our blog.

Find your voice first, optimize for search later.

There are two reasons you don’t want to chase search terms right out of the gate if you’re launching a content effort in an established market:

  1. You’ll waste a lot of effort competing for top-of-funnel keywords. Not only would it be extremely difficult for Animalz to rank for “what is content marketing,” but it also doesn’t serve us well. We want to attract readers in search of answers to sophisticated content marketing questions. Top-of-funnel content has its place, but it’s often a high-effort, low-reward proposition.
  2. You won’t learn enough from your readers. For all of its benefits, search traffic doesn’t provide much data on the people who reach your site. We’re spending more time on email and social media so that we can establish relationships with our readers and get their feedback.

Without the pressure to start ranking right away, we can hone our message. Our content is designed for CMOs and content marketing leads who need advice on content strategy. The tone is practical, but we maintain a healthy skepticism of so-called best practices. The channels we rely on for traffic right now support our current goals in a way that search doesn’t.

Challenge the Status Quo

It’s always easier to break into an established space when you have a fresh message. Lucky for us, content marketing is saturated with advice so widely accepted that it’s easy to stir things up. We’re systematically approaching clichéd advice with our own takes—which, by the way, have been earned in the trenches from previous content gigs, freelance work, side gigs and, most importantly, our customers.

Here are just a few recent posts that have (1) taken a counterintuitive stance and (2) helped us get the blog going:

In addition to taking a new stance, we’re aiming to reach a more strategic reader. There’s enough “content marketing 101” advice out there. Our posts should help inform a conversation between a CMO and a content manager about the real-world implications of their content strategy. In short, be different and be smarter.

Publish often.

This advice contradicts our own philosophy on content. We’ve often said that blogs publish far too much content, which waters down the effectiveness of the site and creates all kinds of SEO problems.

This doesn’t hold up in the early days; the more you rely on SEO, the less content you need. But the more you rely on social media and email, the more content you need. It’s easier to get readers’ attention if you have multiple opportunities to do so.

Write as often as you have something to say, with the goal to publish once or twice each week.

No Strategy Is Complete without Timing

Regardless of your industry or your target reader, timing plays a significant role in your content strategy. The right approach will help you choose the right distribution channels and scale much quicker. And as your market and your reader evolve, you’ll need to evolve with them.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.