Blog posts tend to follow a few familiar “shapes”—that is, the data plotted in Google Analytics tells the story of the post. You can read these shapes without knowing much about keyword volume or traffic sources. You can probably even tell if the post is going to be a hit or a dud within a few weeks of publishing. But this is all anecdotal. We wanted to find out if the patterns we see are indicative—and, more importantly, predictive—of success. So we looked very closely at a few blog posts that had been viewed more than 100,000 times to see if our observations were backed by data.
The results offer a template for success, but also a new and more scientific way to think about measuring your content.
The 5 Phases of the Content Lifecycle
Thinking about content as either viral or evergreen is limiting. To succeed, a post ideally needs both short-term appeal and long-term engagement. The shape of its performance in Google Analytics tells the story. You've likely seen many posts with a spike early on and then....nothing.
We used 100,000 lifetime pageviews on a single post as a benchmark for success, but that certainly isn't the only way to define it. It's clear, however, that posts in the 100k club have delivered good value.
Most shared a very similar shape. Here's an example:
Example #1: An Archetypal Success
AdEspresso, We Analyzed 752,626 Facebook Ads, and Here’s What We Learned
This post, like others that are this successful, goes through five distinct phases:
- A spike phase when the post is first published.
- A trough phase where it looks like growth is stagnant.
- A growth phase as pageviews increase over a few months.
- A plateau phase as growth levels out.
- A decay phase as traffic to the post starts to drop off.
The initial spike skews the long-tail view. This post delivered the huge majority of its pageviews well after the spike phase died off. (AdEspresso has published an impressive 13 posts that have earned 100,000 pageviews or more.)
Here is another 100,000+ view example with the same growth shape from Appcues. The spike phase was less dramatic, which makes the growth phase more obvious:
Example #2: A Long-Tail Success
Appcues, The 5 Best User Onboarding Examples
Let's take a closer look at example #2. When we break down the source of the traffic to this post, we can see what is driving each phase:
The initial spike is driven by community links (shown in orange) like GrowthHackers, Inbound, Designer News, Reddit, The Hacker News, etc. There is also some traffic coming through email (green) and direct traffic (red). A few weeks later, there is a second bump, this time with more traffic coming from email and from social (teal) as a result of a second round of promotion on those channels.
The overall traffic then flatlines for weeks. The time frame between the second email-driven spike and the start of the growth phase is over three months. During this time, overall views bumble along at ~100 per week. It looks like the post is going nowhere.
But then the next phase kicks in—the growth phase. Growth over time comes from organic search traffic. For this particular post, organic traffic really comes into its own after the Week 25 mark. It is at that point that organic search traffic becomes a significant component of all traffic to this post.
In approximately the first half-year this post was live, most traffic comes from direct views, email, and referrals. But in that second half, organic takes over, growing as a proportion of all traffic to the post and growing the absolute traffic to the post.
We can also see that in the trough phase, from approximately Week 12 to Week 25, organic traffic was growing as a proportion of all traffic. The headline numbers were flat, but organic was already starting to pick up the slack from smaller direct, email, community and social traffic.
At its peak, organic represents 87.4% of all traffic to this post. For growth, it is not just the absolute numbers that determine success, it is also the ratio of organic/other traffic.
At the one-year mark, the post transitions into the fourth phase—the plateau. At this point, the post has reached #1 for the keywords related to the post, maxing out the volume of those search terms. It happily stays at this point for over a year before traffic starts to wane.
If we look at the proportion of traffic in each phase for this post, we get:
About 97% of all traffic comes after that initial spike. An incredible 90% comes after the post has already been live for six months.
The fifth phase—decline—is clearly seen in this post. This happens when newer content supersedes this post and starts to cut into the organic traffic to the post, causing a decline in overall traffic, or when search volume for the target keywords declines.
Let's look at two more examples of the same shape, both from 100,000+ view posts. The first was published in 2015:
Example #3: A Slow Decline
Wistia, Recording Audio with a Canon 5D Mark III
The initial spike, growth, and plateau are all visible. In this case, the article has declined slowly over the past two years, though it still pulls in a respectable ~200 views a week to the blog. Given the post's enduring value, it's ripe for a content refresh. With a few changes to the title and some of the content, the decline could be stopped or reversed.
Here's another example, this one published in 2014:
Example #4: Continued Growth
I Done This, The Science Behind Why Jeff Bezos’s Two-Pizza Team Rule Works
This post from I Done This doesn't seem to suffer from decline, even after four years. In fact, incremental growth continues.
Why does the Wistia post trend downward while this post trends up? The difference between these two posts is the subject matter. The first (long decay phase) deals with a piece of hardware that is time-boxed. The second (long growth phase) covers something truly timeless.
What are the takeaways from this?
- Distribution matters. Nearly all successful posts we examined had a strong spike phase. This initial traffic allows you to sow the organic seed. People have to see your post to start linking to it. Additionally, a search algorithm can collect data on how people interact with your new post (dwell time, bounce rate, etc., factor into rankings). Getting it out into the world through Reddit, Twitter and especially your email list is important for the awareness that can lead to links that later help drive organic traffic.
- Growth comes from search. But if you want to make a splash on The Hacker News and haven't thought about anything past that first day, your post will die and your blog won't grow. Additionally, past a point, the size of that initial spike doesn't seem to increase the size or velocity of continuing traffic—sustained success has more to do with on-page optimization, quality content and evergreen topics.
- Volume decides the size of your blog. The traffic on the organic ceiling is fairly easy to measure. When you're ranking at the top for every target keyword, you've topped out on traffic. Choose a mix of keywords that drive traffic (top of funnel) and conversions (middle and bottom of the funnel). Each provides their own value.
- Decline happens. Almost all the time. Evergreen content can continue to grow for years, but other sites will want to knock you off the top of search results. If you have that position today, you still have to work to have it next year.
The last takeaway—this takes time. The success of the posts highlighted above are years in the making. You won't see 100,000 views from that initial spike, but you also won't see 100,000 views from organic overnight. It takes time for those views to accrue, but you can see early on whether you are heading in the right direction.
Will Your Post Take Off? Here's What to Look for
It's easy to analyze the success or failure of a post a year or two after publishing, but can you tell early on if a post will get traction in search?
This comes down to whether or not you get to phase three, the growth phase. If you have the slope of organic growth within about six months of publication, the post is successful. If the trough has no upside, you will have no growth.
Here's an example post from Amplitude. Published in 2016, it hasn't hit 100,000 views but is obviously on the way:
Example #5: Success Is Inevitable
Amplitude, 3 Mistakes You're Making with Month-Over-Month Growth Rates
This has reached phase three much earlier than examples #1 (AdEspresso) and #2 (Appcues) above. The initial spike came through email, but within three months, the post is growing through organic search traffic. Phase two barely exists.
When we look at relative channel contributions to traffic, organic is already contributing >90% of all traffic within half a year. This is key to success—the sooner organic traffic takes hold, the sooner you can expect significant (and passive) traffic. You can shorten the trough phase by investing time in promotion and link building after the initial spike. You can also update content and optimize on-page SEO after a post is live to improve its chances for success.
The post continues to grow. It has yet to reach the plateau phase. Considering it is currently on ~75,000 views, it will definitely surpass the 100k mark.
Not every post has to be heading towards the 100k mark to be considered successful. The amount of views you can achieve for any given post is relative to the search volume for its target keywords. Niche posts can be successful within their own restrictions. Here's an example of a post from Clearbit that is not going to hit 100,000 views but can still be considered a success:
Example #6: A Smaller Organic Win
Clearbit, The Modern Guide to Lead Qualification
It has the initial spike driven primarily by direct traffic, which then drops and growth is taken over by organic search. The slope of the growth phase is shallower but still obvious and starts within the first six months. After a year, growth looks to have plateaued.
The same trend is seen in with this ProfitWell post, though its growth phase lasted longer:
Example #7: Search Volume Creates a Ceiling
ProfitWell, How Revenue Recognition Works in SaaS
Traffic to posts like these is bounded by its fairly niche topics. But—and this is an important “but”—this post is targeted directly at the buyer personas for one of their products. The people finding it through search and reading it are exactly the people this company wants to reach.
Of course, it doesn't always work out. Often, it doesn't. Here is an example of a post from a successful company with a successful blog that never reached the growth phase. The trough phase became a flatline:
In this case, 48% of all traffic to this post came on day one. Only 7.28% of traffic so far is from search. This is extremely common. The 100k club posts we've used as examples above are outliers. Here are some things to look out for in the days and weeks after launching a post that you hope will bring in lots of traffic:
- A small initial spike. If you don't see good traffic to your post in week one, it doesn't mean all is lost but does mean backlinks aren't going to be forthcoming. Getting that spike means people are aware of your content. This is an important first step.
- Week-over-week organic growth. Especially in the first six months, you should be seeing steady growth each week. This means the post has gained a foothold and this traction can lead to a flywheel effect—the more people are exposed to the content, the more opportunities there are to link to it, which improves the rankings and exposes it to more people.
- Outsized returns from long-term traffic. Tom Tunguz says that “Only about 1⁄3 of the views on a typical post on tomtunguz.com are generated on the first day.” We have found the same. For the posts highlighted above, we've found that <10% comes in the first week. ~90% of all traffic to successful blog posts comes later.
These are heuristics. Your mileage may vary. But by looking at your Google Analytics through the prism of the five phases highlighted above, you can understand “success” in traffic terms for your blog and learn what works for your readers.
The Compound Effect of Content Marketing
Successful posts grow through good initial distribution and steady organic growth. Successful blogs grow by layering successful posts on top of each other.
The first post highlighted in this article is just one of many on AdEspresso's blog that has passed 100,000 views. When we layer the top performing posts on top of each other, we can see how organic growth over time leads to overall blog growth:
These are just the top 10 performing posts and already weekly views are at 20,000. AdEspresso has posted thousands of posts. Their overall blog traffic looks like this:
They hit almost 150,000 weekly views. This is purely through the compounding effects of content marketing. One post layered on top of another, layered on top of another, etc. As long as you can reach the growth phase on a regular basis, you will be able to grow a large blog.
Blogs even have emergent properties—they are greater than the sum of their parts. The better individual posts perform, the more search engines will see your blog as an alpha resource and rank you higher.
But this success is predicated on individual posts. They have to perform. When you know the signs of success, you can drill down on what works for your readers and what doesn't both in terms of initial and long-term distribution. By doing that, you can replicate success over and over, building layer upon layer of great posts, and build a great blog.
Andrew leads product development and engineering at Animalz.