Back in August I quit my job at a communications firm with two goals in mind: Could I launch a website completely from scratch and build a sizable monthly audience? And once I built that audience, could I monetize it to the extent needed so I would never have to return to a traditional day job? Though I’m still a ways away from where I hope to be, I did pass an important milestone a few days ago: my articles reached 100,000 total views. Sure, lots of websites out there receive more traffic than this in a single day, but most of them either have large editorial staffs or have been around much longer than five months. And while I hope to reach a point sometime soon when I’m regularly generating 100,000+ visits a month to my content, I wanted to pause and analyze how I reached this milestone and outline some of the lessons I learned along the way.
One of the brutal truths you learn while writing on the internet is that no matter how great your content, there’s no guarantee it will be seen by anyone. Especially when you’re first launching your website you have to accept that a good portion of your articles will fail to take off. A few days after I started writing full-time, I published one of my most-researched articles to date, but because it was placed on my site when I had virtually no audience, it’s only generated a grand total of 150 pageviews. So in order to overcome this hurdle, you want to begin consistently publishing content so that any new readers you do pull in will have fresh content every time they visit. You want to build momentum, so with each new article you increase your chances of it being seen by the right people who will then go on to share it to their social media streams. I’ve made it my goal to publish something every single weekday, and though most weeks I end up only publishing four pieces of content, the percentage of my articles that generate impressive traffic has increased significantly.
Getting people to visit your website is only half the battle. Your efforts are wasted if you’re not inspiring a sizable percentage of them to share and/or subscribe to your content. You need to optimize your site so there are calls to action. For instance, while I was building the social media strategy at US News & World Report, I noticed that a very high ratio of those who were sharing our content on Twitter were using the Twitter share buttons. Because it’s easy to control the text that’s automatically generated when you hit that button, you can modify it so that every time your content is tweeted it also includes your Twitter handle. This leads to a sharp increase in followers:
There are lots of little tricks like this that can drastically increase the time spent on your site, the number of articles consumed in a single visit, the number of shares your content receives, and the number of subscribers who will come back for more.
Diversify your referral streams
Five years ago you gained a new reader when they either bookmarked your site, subscribed to your RSS feed, or signed up for your email newsletter. Now there are over a dozen major platforms that have millions of users. I was fortunate that when I launched this blog I had already built up a sizable, high quality following on Twitter, which has made it much easier to seed my content within the tech and media community. But starting in August I started looking to beef up my presences on other platforms. Though I’ve been on Facebook since its early days, I hadn’t put much effort into building out a professional audience, and for the longest time I struggled with whether to focus on building a presence on a separate page or encourage people to follow my public updates on my main profile. A few days ago I finally decided that the emphasis needed to be placed on my professional page, and so I removed the follow buttons for my personal profile from my blog.
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When trying to write daily content for a blog, you realize quickly that you only have so much leftover time to invest in other platforms, so it’s important to choose which networks can produce the highest ROI for your content. Though I’ve long been interested in trying out Pinterest, I recognize its network is better for cooking, design, and travel blogs than tech and media news. In the end, I decided to invest my efforts in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and email. I also reprint one article a week at Medium (more on that in a minute).
Quality vs quantity
When I launched my blog, I initially decided that I would publish several aggregated posts a day with very light commentary and then work on longer, well-researched articles that I would post once every few days. But pretty early on I determined this wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. The aggregation posts were sometimes good for short bursts of traffic but I got the sense that it wasn’t high value traffic, the kind that enhanced my personal brand and led to more followers. So about a month in I scrapped that idea, and rather than publishing several posts a day, I would write one longer column per day, a column that strove to look at an issue from a different angle. My decision was vindicated pretty quickly when I saw several of these pieces gain traction. It turned out that my punditry skills were just as strong as my reporting skills.
Speaking of reporting, one of the best ways to generate a readership online is to publish original information that can’t be found anywhere else. Luckily, I have years of experience as a journalist; I started my career a newspaper reporter and have written for several major outlets ranging from US News & World Report to The Atlantic. At least once a week I publish an article for which I interviewed multiple people. Not only does this result in articles containing never-before-seen information, but my interview subjects often share my articles to their influential networks.
For the first two months or so, I was dead set on only publishing content exclusively to simonowens.net. The thinking was that I could maximize personal brand recognition if every reader who landed on one of my articles did so on a website that prominently featured my name and photo. But because my website was so new, I was writing extremely high quality articles that came nowhere near realizing their full potential. After interviewing blogger James Clear about his success through syndicating his content to other outlets, I decided to go that route. I began by cross-posting my Monday columns to LinkedIn and my Friday columns to Medium. Though not every post took off, some saw explosive viewership. One post at LinkedIn was chosen for LinkedIn Pulse and received over 50,000 views. A column I posted to Medium last week generated 4,000 views.
In addition to this, I also reached out to my contacts at places like Daily Dot, PBS’ MediaShift, and Harvard University’s Nieman Lab and worked out deals where they could reprint my content.
There were several benefits to this strategy. Because my articles were plugged into much larger networks, my content and byline reached much wider audiences. This usually led to a sharp spike in new followers whenever a piece of content took off. The success of my LinkedIn posts has resulted in hundreds of new subscribers on that influential platform. It also led to emails from potential sources who had seen my content on these platforms. A Nieman Lab reprinting of an article of mine led to an email out of the blue from someone who ended up being a source for one of my most successful articles.
Of course there are downsides as well. Only a small percentage of those who discover your content on these other outlets will even notice your byline. And because they’re more established, they’ll usually outshine you in terms of SEO. For instance, if you Google “James Clear” and “Simon Owens,” you’ll find the reprint of my article at PBS.org. The simonowens.net version is almost impossible to find on Google.
Revisit your archives
This is one I need to improve on. There’s this assumption that once you publish a piece of content you can just share it once and everyone who follows you will see it. But the reality is that only a tiny percentage of your followers will see any given piece of content you share on social media, and though you should be careful to space out your promotions of the same piece of content, you can get away with sharing it several times in order to reach more people. Also, as you begin to accumulate new followers over a period of months, there will be a bunch of people who have signed up to read your content who would have never been exposed to your past articles. Some of my biggest traffic days have come after I shared a piece of content a third or fourth time. Back in August I wrote an article about Reddit’s public dialogues with the world’s top scientists. The piece did pretty well, generating about 2,000 views. But a few weeks ago I noticed someone share the article on Twitter so I decided to retweet him. My retweet was seen and retweeted by one of my most influential followers, and the article just exploded from there, generating an additional 8,000 views. And to think, it was all because I retweeted out an article that I had assumed was long past its expiration date. Vox tried an experiment recently where it began updating and sharing articles that were more than two months old, and it saw half a million visitors as a result.
I have to admit, I’ve experienced many dark days since launching the blog, days when I published articles I had spent weeks researching only for them to completely flop. These were days when I was absolutely convinced that no matter how hard I tried and how much quality content I put out, there was just too much noise on the web for me to break through with a single-author blog. Luckily I’ve had friends and family there to talk me off the ledge, to remind me of the days when my content did extremely well and assure me that they would increase in frequency. That increase has definitely begun to occur, but I know I’m nowhere near where I eventually want to be, and there will be plenty more days in the near future when I get discouraged. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over all these years creating and promoting content on the internet, it’s that building an audience, one that returns to your blog over and over again, takes time, and so you have to be patient. As long as you’re creating great content and exploring all best practices for marketing that content, it will get noticed. And as it gets noticed, slowly but surely people will recognize you as an original voice and sign up for more. So while it’s helpful to pause and reflect on the first 100,000 views, my energy now is to focus on reaching that next 100,000 that much quicker.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.
There is a certain level of irony that BuzzFeed doesn’t sell advertising based on CPM (basically, a cost per thousand impressions/pageviews), yet in terms of pageviews there are likely few news sites that can rival it. As Felix Salmon notes, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti chose to eschew the typical pageview whoring you see on sites like Business Insider (slideshows, misleading headlines) in favor of improving the user experience:
That’s partly because, its massive traffic numbers notwithstanding, BuzzFeed is not actually in the traffic business, and describing it as a “web traffic sensation” rather misses the whole point of the company. While a company like Business Insider makes money by selling inventory to advertisers, BuzzFeed doesn’t: you won’t see any ads on a BuzzFeed story page. If you feel a little bit disappointed after clicking through to a Business Insider story, at least the company has sold your visit to a client. But if you feel a little bit disappointed after clicking through to a BuzzFeed story, BuzzFeed gets no benefit at all. The people at BuzzFeed want their stories and quizzes and videos to ideally reach everybody who will love them — and no one else.
If you use a web analytics tool like Google Analytics or Omniture, you know that most of the tools’ utility comes from telling you what happened yesterday. Very little emphasis is given on why that thing happened yesterday or what’s likely to happen tomorrow. We see a traffic spike but then have to dig further into the tool to find out where it came from. We look at month-to-month numbers and are forced to use a calculator to determine growth percentages. We look at a steady incline and wonder where that line will end up in six months.
Des Traynor offers up an interesting list of suggestions of how all these weaknesses can be ameliorated.
For some reasons, unless it’s midnight on a Sunday every weekly chart I look at collapses at the final period. Unless its the 31st of the month, every monthly chart drops off a cliff too. Technically it’s “correct”, but it’s also dumb. It doesn’t aid analysis, and confuses more often than clarifies.
A simple improvement would be to either flag incomplete periods, or, better yet, show what they’re trending towards for that period. I realise that sounds crazy, but maybe it’s time analytics tools start doing some analysis.