It's been a while since I have shared some blogging tips. Well, if you were wondering where I had disappeared to: I took a business retreat (went skiing with the team), then went to Affiliate Summit and CES in Vegas. Also, I was heavily focused on this new project of mine called List25 which I am sure most of you have heard about. For those of you who haven't, then you will hear about it now. In this newsletter, I plan to share exactly how I took this new site (that is still less than 3 months old) to a staggering 4 million pageviews mark not to mention over 1 million unique visitors. This is not going to be some bogus email promoting crap, so it will be rather long. Here is my journey from the conception of List25 idea till now:
Idea came to mind when we were thinking of a new project for David Pegg. Something where he can utilize his creative writing skills. To be honest with you, I hate 99% of lists out there. Some moron spreaded the word out that list posts generate a lot of traffic. Yes they do, but when they are done right. I start seeing more and more blogs just start creating list posts every other day. It killed original content on sites whose sole purpose was to create original content to portray an opinion. I see sites that come out with 50 best plugins for WordPress, 139 best plugins for WordPress etc. Seriously, are there really 139 best plugins that every blog should have? Those lists don't really help anyone. It doesn't even entertain people. I liked lists on sites like Cracked, Collegehumor, and others. Reason was because they were creative. Those weren't written by some SEO copywriter who was putting together a half-ass article to get backlinks. So we had to make choices for the name. List21 and List25 were two that came to mind. I thought doing a list of 10 just makes it look spammy. 25 is a good number. Gut feeling said List25 sounds better than List21, so we registered it.
It was suppose to be a hobby project for David, so we decided to use an existing commercial theme. David started working on writing content, while I started doing some research on related sites in the industry. I was quite surprised at the numbers that I was seeing. So I decided that we need to hold the launch back. We were going to go with in in September, but we held back all the way out till November. I wanted to create a custom theme that highlights our lists, looks good and simple, and is optimal for ad placement.
Normally people say that you need like 50 articles to launch with. I decided to go with an advice that Merlin Mann gave me in 2008. Start with 5 posts and see if you like doing it. So I told David to work on 5 really good articles. In the meantime, I analyzed the top sites in our industry. I opened up Compete.com and SEOMoz tools and started analyzing. I know that no tool online is accurate (they either overestimate the numbers or underestimate it) which is true for these tools to. I was more interested in sources of traffic for these sites. Which social media networks should we focus on. Who to contact in terms of individual bloggers, so on and so forth.
This is the same time we are working on WPBeginner's new design as well. Not a good idea to run two big projects at the same time. We decided to unveil both projects at BlogWorld. Before BlogWorld, I had already gotten cool List25 shirts printed out to giveaway. I had a good idea of how to promote the site. Behold, List25 is ready to launch.
Lesson: Do your research
Launch and Obstacles
We launched and decided to make Stumbleupon and Facebook our two main platforms to grow on. Why those two you may wonder? Stumbleupon (SU) for a site like ours gave us the ability to have booming growth. Facebook although the growth is not as fast as Stumbleupon but in the long run benefits a lot more. Our content was something that SU users love, so it did great. I was obviously using my personal experience and network in social media. I asked a lot of people for retweet and sharing favors. My friends are great, they helped me when I needed it.
Everything was going great. One of our articles went super big on SU (now it has over 1.1M views from SU alone, 29k fb likes, thousands of retweets)... But the bottom line is that things were going great. I decided to do a facebook giveaway for List25. Because I didn't plan this in advance, I never thought of assigning the List25 domain its own dedicated IP. In order to run a facebook contest, we had to have SSL which needed a dedicated IP. Long story short, we had to switch IPs which ended up causing a 4 hour downtime. Result: we have this amazing facebook campaign ready, but we were banned on Stumbleupon. My first reaction was F**K. Now we don't have the growth catalyst. I had to push our facebook campaign back. I sent out emails to all stumbleupon emails I could find online. None responded. Thankfully one of my friends knew someone directly at Stumbleupon. Thankfully, she was able to restore the site back. The reason why it got banned was because our article was a hit and the site went down. A lot of people at once reported that the site is down or not functioning which caused SU algorithm to pull the trigger on our site.
We got back in the algo and the traffic continued to rise. So I launched the facebook campaign. Within one month we were at 27,000 likes. I think a lot went into that count because the campaign alone wasn't the only thing. Timing, right people entering the contest, and a little bit of luck. So I have written a detailed Case Study of how I created the campaign in this article at WPBeginner:
One of my good friends and an avid reader complaint that I didn't really share the details of the campaign in the article above. My answer is I really did (I didn't go in as much details). I showed you every bits of that giveaway campaign. Now its your job to hustle, find the right people to enter, ask your friends etc. You know I asked so many of my college friends for favors. These people ARE NOT in the internet marketing sphere. They are just normal users with 300 - 1000+ REAL friends. I asked them to enter and share our contest. The prize is something that everyone can use. Heck, I even made some of my friends admins of the page temporarily, so they can invite all of their friends to like the page (In exchange I took them out for a meal). Yes, I hustled the heck out of it.
The silly thing about people is that they do what their friends are doing. I as a marketer leveraged that aspect of our social life. Imagine when you have bunch of our friends (who are influencer generation - college students) sharing a giveaway like this. We saw a huge influx not only college students entering, but a lot of parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents entering the contest (just because they saw their loved ones entering). By doing so I had a huge demographic of people who like our facebook page. This is where our facebook ad campaigns come in play. Normally, you would target random people with special interests. Because our growth was happening so fast, I only targeted people who are friends of fans. By having such personal campaigns, our conversion was really high.
Results were pretty obvious, after the first month we were at 27,000 fans. By the time the contest ended we were above 35,000 people. We ran the giveaway for branding purposes and it served its purpose well. By having the user like our page and then sharing our page inherently gave us an advantage in the facebook edgerank. By us having such compelling content, they continued to like our items from our page. The internal growth on facebook allowed us to grow on other networks such as Reddit, Twitter etc. That brought us more people to the site which started us getting more Facebook likes on articles as well as our widget as well. There is something about social proof that really works. We had such a high number of fans that people thought we were buying likes. But what kept us in good waters was the engagement that we had on our pages. We weren't buying fake likes. Everything was real. The number of people talking about this page was high, so new users started liking our page. I found that it was much easier to get likes when we were above 35,000. At the time of me writing this newsletter, we are at 74,940 likes. Yes we doubled the amount of likes in a month because of the growth. Wondering how I did it?
Its really simple. Ads that are targeted to friends of fans convert a lot higher (at least for us they are). As I got 35k likes my pool of friends of fans was super high. Now at 74,940 likes, my friends of fans count is at 27,523,586 people. If more people see my ad, then I will get more likes. I will get more likes if these people know of someone else who likes my page. That is what I was able to accomplish. You are like, Syed you are probably paying a shitload of money for those ads. No I am not. Reason is because I am not driving the traffic out of facebook. I am keeping it all in. I am driving traffic to our facebook fan page. Also the conversion rate is over 100% for each click. How do I determine that? I look at the count of clicks and the count of connections. Lets say 10 people clicked on my ad. 1 of them liked the page and 9 of them didn't. Most people would say moron, that is a 10% conversion not 100%. Well it doesn't stop there. That 1 person has 300 friends on avg. Out of his 300 friends 20 will most likely see that he liked a page. Out of those 20 at least 1 or 2 will like it. Now keep this viral aspect going. Ofcourse my conversion rate is higher than 10% to begin with because of the ad images and text that I have are totally optimized.
I hope I have elaborated enough on the Facebook aspect of things. Bottom line is guys, I hustled. I ran a lot of testing campaigns. Aside from when I was traveling, I really worked an average of 14 hours a day. I hustled!
Lets shift to another major obstacle.
So we are growing fast in traffic, but we are not making the $$$ to fuel the operation. At this time, I don't want profit. I just want to break even, and we are still not doing that. I started asking around for help. Because if we don't make the money, we can't sustain the growth. One day when the site was going crazy, we pushed 4.5 Terabytes (TB) of bandwidth in ONE day. I knew that we had to monetize.
I decided to beta test different ad networks. I looked for private deals. The main issue why we weren't having such good rates was because we had a crazy bounce rate. The bounce rate was in the 70% range. Which was affecting our eCPM rates. Our pages visited by each user wasn't as high as I wanted. I started asking around for other people's opinion the matter.
I was talking with my really good friend, David Henzel, who works at MaxCDN. They deal with a lot of high traffic sites. He suggested that I should split the list into multiple pages. While it is annoying, it would increase my pageviews per visit. I denied the suggestion because I was like that is pretty annoying.
While at CES and Affiliate Summit, (note this was this month), I am asking questions to people whom I know well. I was with John Chow and Jeremy Shoemoney Schoemaker at a dinner we all got invited to. That is where Jeremy said something to me. He said, you know what Syed, you underestimate the tolerance of your audience. Not everyone is as anally retentive as you are when it comes to UI / UX etc. P.S. he didn't say the anally retentive part, but that is how I took it. But you know what, I love it when people point out my mistakes. Because this is the only way I would learn and improve my techniques. Thanks Jeremy.
I had got in touch with a company called Rubicon for serving ads ealier. They were impressed by the growth, but the numbers weren't as high as their requirement (10 million pageviews / month). The person from there reached out to me again asking about the progress of the site. I told him the numbers, and he also said the same thing as David Henzel.
The combination of these events convinced me that I had to give in to what I think is a dark side. I had to go out of my comfort zone and split lists into multiple pages. We decided not to automate this process. Some lists that have more content, we split it into 5 pages. Whereas others we split it into 2 pages. Surprisingly enough, it worked out great. We did not see a backlash from our audience because we had great content on both pages. Plus because we had so much content splitting it into two pages was not as bad as I thought it would be. We rapidly increased our pageviews / user and we reduce the bounce rate to 40% avg. Yesterday the bounce rate was actually 39%. I also noticed that by splitting the posts into two pages, our "popular lists" widget after the post also started to convert better. This event led me to write the post about how to increase pageviews and reduce bounce rate in WordPress which higlights all the things we are doing at List25.
Talking to quite a few other people, they suggested that I make direct deals. We are working out ways to do soft promotions for products that are related to our lists either through their affiliate program or have them sponsor a list. This should be rolling out next month.
Lesson: Always Network, Learn from Mistakes, Ask for help when you need it, Always keep an open mind, Always Hustle.
Diversifying the Traffic
So for a good bit of time, our traffic was mainly Stumbleupon and Facebook. We were popping up here and there on reddit, but now we have an established identity in the reddit community as well. Bunch of our users are submitting our lists on reddit. Twitter has played a good role in growth, but I wanted more. Idea struck my mind after I saw a video shared by someone that showed 25 ways to tie a scarf. I looked at the view count of that video and it was a lot. Can't remember exactly whether it was millions or couple hundred thousands, but nonetheless it was a lot. I said to myself what better way is there to create easily resharable content than videos. I decided to start a youtube channel sadly someone had already taken list25. But lucky for me, that channel had been closed for some time. I picked thelist25 for the time being and started researching how to get youtube channel name. (There is no good article that helps).
Thankfully, I was introduced by one of my friends to a google rep. who put in a request for me. The next day, I had the username @list25 on youtube. This was pure luck. This was right before Christmas. I told David that we need videos. I tried looking for a company that would create videos for us, but everything that is good costs lots of money. Which I honestly was not in a mood of spending. Thanks to Nick Scheidies, a friend I made over the past years, he agreed to create an animated intro for us as a favor to a friend. Thanks Nick. Guys please check out his startup company if you need videos: http://nextlevelink.com/
We got videos up the first week of January. Right now our upload channel views are over 22,000. I think we did a great job with our videos, and it will grow with time. Please check out List25's Youtube Channel (and if you like it then hit Subscribe).
I could careless if the Youtube users never make it to the site. Although I would love them to, but the purpose is branding. I want the List25 logo to be sinked in. If they see it enough times, if they like our stuff, then my gut feeling says they will come to the site as well.
So now we have two very high maintenance things going on for a limited team of 1 really. David Pegg is the only person writing on the site. He has had help by some guest authors and his brother Brian Pegg. I am mostly doing the strategy, marketing, promotion etc. I knew that the growth on youtube will be slow for this vary reason, but I think in the long run this was a good move. If we put out one video every week, then we are good. Our biggest obstacle in diversifying traffic sources was that our site and resources are limited.
We could not partner up with other sites because we can't reblog their stuff. Its really hard to work out a deal when you are not offering much. I believe healthy business relationships only work when both sides bring something great to the table. I knew that we had to think of something fast and quick if we want to continue this growth. Well 25 is a lot, how about something where we can share our random tidbits. Cracked has a Linkstorm section, and I wanted something similar. It would be stupid to blatantly copy their idea and brand. Thankfully to a recent friend of mine, Paul Caridad Sanchez, who suggested the idea of utilizing Tumblr for another project that him and I work on together. I quickly thought to myself, wait a minute. This could work for List25 as well. After a little brainstorming session, we decided to start a new brand for List25 called 2to5. Powered by Tumblr, 2to5 will allow us to harness the power of the tumblr universe while allowing us to utilize our limited resources for maximum result. We can share random stuff that we find online. This would also give us the ability to work out relationships with other blogs in the industry. We can reblog their stuff on 2to5 which doesn't limit us to only lists of 25 things. This also was much easier because all we really had to do was take an interesting image and then link it to the source.
Strategy: we will post 4 - 6 items daily out of which 2 will be our own and 4 would be random stuff that we find online.
I didn't want to launch with some crappy theme because the purpose was branding. I asked David to take some time to slowly work on a Tumblr theme. We ended up launching the site yesterday. You can check it out at:
I don't have the numbers to back up this idea just yet, but I think its off to a great start. Our items are being reblogged and liked by other tumblr users. We are growing a following as well. We will also continue to cross-promote between networks so if some of our users are on tumblr, they can reblog it there as well.
Introducing Pinterest to the game. We have been seeing the numbers from pinterest grow significant enough for me to notice. I decided to join the Pinterest revolution and created a personal pinterest and a pinterest for List25. I don't know about you guys, but I have a strong feeling for this new platform. I think it has potential to get us a loyal following. Please follow my personal pinterest account.
Lesson: Diversify, Think Long term, Maximize Your Resources
I want the site to grow. One of our biggest obstacle right now is our team size and focus. I am working on resolving that issue by getting us more writers. In terms of my goal, I want to hit 10 million pageviews / month by April. I think it is attainable if we work super hard.
I have shared a good bits of insights about how I have done things. One of the most common questions that people ask is which plugins are we running on the site. I have compiled a list of plugins that we are using on List25 on WPBeginner already. You can see it here:
I hope you found these insights helpful for your site. I could have easily put this in an ebook and sold it, but I just thought I should share my experiments with you guys. If you have any questions, you can always tweet at me @syedbalkhi. I always love hearing success stories. I would love to help whenever I can. Keep me and my projects in your kind words.