Get traffic or bust
here's what worked and what didn't to get users and to climb to rank 1 in search
Personal note: missed last weekend b/c wasn’t in a good place, but we are fighting back 💪
Today at a glance:
why traffic/distribution matters
what worked with an emphasis on content
what’s worth experimenting with (had mixed results - maybe you handle it better?)
what didn’t work
This is an action-oriented post sharing my experience getting users for consumer-facing products.
Why traffic/distribution matters:
Someone said that “first time founders care about product, 2nd time founders care about distribution”. I think they are right.
I used to obsess about building the product, but after building and failing many times - I learned that a good product is not enough. I supported teams where we were late to the game, had the best product with a bullet, and didn’t grow as fast as I hoped because the competitor had distribution on lock. I placed too much value on our execution/product and I was wrong. I was also on the other side where I believe we made mistakes, but because we had distribution and/or we were first - it was hard to unseat us.
Product is important, but in today’s noisy world you have to stand out and you have to think about distribution/growth from day 1. Should note that this applies to consumer - I have no idea about B2B. Sales team !== distribution for consumer.
There are few good products, but there are many “great-looking” products. All these products are competing for consumer attention. You can have a great fucking product tomorrow and still tread water without users. That’s a problem for # of reasons with largest being time. Having a product with little traction is demotivating for the team that built it. You may eventually run out of energy or funding. Your competitor or someone who has distribution solved may just rip whatever secret sauce you have.
You’ve seen this image by now. We can question MSFT #s and quality of those users, but even if this graph is directionally correct it tells the distribution story well. This must have been part of Slack’s calculus when selling the company.
So what worked in driving traffic? Here’s a list. Each can be a 1 pager:
Treat growth like a strike team. RAH-RAH/why it matters, stand-ups, accountability, a plan with experiments/long-term bets and owners.
Think about naming from day 1. Look at who you compete with for search and # of queries. Think about how the name will show up as a favicon or a phone app, look at domains, social handles and more.
Claim socials and start posting on day 1 with emphasis on Twitter. Start thinking not just about your content, but also your voice and what will land with your community. Do not hire for socials until very late into the game. Founder or a PM can and should handle.
Turn blogs into tweets. More reason to blog
Turn product releases into brand energy moments on Twitter
If you have any financial or marketplace product - seed wallets/accounts to jumpstart ecosystem
Community events. Loaded item, but at the min think about what those can be. You can build a tradition - a ritual with your community!
If you have an existing product and you are building a seed product - using existing product selectively to drive traffic to the seed via emails, socials, in-product banners. Avoid spamming core business. Emphasis on selective upsell to seed.
Guided in-product modals based on user experience (i.e. if they had a good experience) to recommend product to friends or to review
Do a ton of unscalable work for your users. Labors of love. DMs on reddit/FB groups, zoom calls, emails from the heart. Get to know them. Spend time with them. Make them fall in love with your product and your team. Best teams don’t stop talking to users.
If you have a paid tier - spike traffic with selective discounts. These can be discounts on abandon carts, time sensitive discounts (expires in HH:MM:SS) tied to product releases or more.
Think about how you show up on mobile and how you show up in each browser. You should be testing your site on mobile. And if the UX is broken for a niche browser - disable it and direct to Chrome.
Check out AppSumo if you are a freemium SaaS app. You can get a lot of traffic and a high-value backlink page. $ is a bonus.
Make sure all your pages are indexed correctly. Go through this list by GOOG and spot check a # of pages in your console.
Win Bing. Yes Google matters and more on that below, but win Bing. Different sources say that Bing accounts for ~15-20% of search. Is your audience on Bing? Maybe not. Is it easier to win Bing than Google? Yes. Will you say no to rank 1 on bing? No, because beggars can’t be choosers and all these wins add momentum for the product and your team.
Study ahrefs, semrush and your google search console (not GA - the search console). In an hour of grinding you can figure out: where your competitors are getting traffic by geo/by keyword/by backlink type, what people are searching for when they search for you, where you are weak and where you are strong. You can then build a content strategy to shore up the SEO gaps and to 2x down where you are already strong. You can also figure out where you need to drive backlinks and who has high PR (page rank). Go on offensive with these!
Do not sleep on YouTube and TikTok. Both should be a key part of your content strategy. Again, each deserves it’s own thread, but here are 2 tactics that worked: (1) run your own channel/account where you post TLDRs of updates + turn your blogs into videos, (2) reach out to creators to cover you. Pitches and incentives will vary by creator, but there is a way to productize this. YouTube and TikTok SEO are real. They can drive a ton of traffic. You will be rejected, you will have a # of videos get few views, but you will also have a few hits. Those will carry you. To staff #1 you can hire a contractor, give scripts that can be repurposed from blogs and help him/her with thumbnails. To execute #2 you make a hitlist of creators who cover relevant content in your niche, make 3 variants of an outreach note with varying incentives, and cold-outreach to ~150-200/week or whatever your outreach goal is.
Think about localization at some point. Especially if you see competition pulling a lot of traffic from a region where you are weak (study ahrefs/semrush). You can localize quickly alone for your top 5 geos or you can crowdsource translations with something like crowdin. Double down on a geo by pushing content from local influencers (i.e. if need to grow in LATAM - get a YouTuber big in that market to cover you).
Doubling down on content:
Content/owned marketing channels are it. They are pure, they are evergreen, they work for your business while you sleep, they can compound, and they do not drain your P&L. Oh and they also provide tangible value to your end-users. Someone will find your content helpful and you did good that day for that person even if they didn’t become part of your DAU. Great!
I am a non-believer in paid media. This deserves another post, but in short I would stay away because $CPAs are all time high, there are bots that make me question ROI, it’s not evergreen, it hurts your P&L, your team can acquire bad habits throwing $ at growth and more.
So how do we grow via content?
Write on your own subdomain. Avoid medium. It’s bad UX for reader and will not accrue to your SEO
Check out ghost. Anyone on the team can push blogs live - no dev time needed to update pages.
Write competitor friendly content. Write how-tos and reviews that cover the entire space, including competitors. Yes you give them oxygen, but it’s net best for your audience. It makes your post complete. And it will help you rank up faster. Would you rather have rank 1 blog for your keyword with a competitor covered, but it sits on your subdomain and you are the authority on the subject or rank 5 but its laser focused on you?
Put in the extra time in your H1s and H2s. It’s common advice and it’s valid
Figure out what search terms you want to rank for. You can do this by talking to users, by looking at competitors, by using google search console. Write a tentpole 2K+ word blog on that topic. This should take several hours or even days if you are going deep into the tank. It should have a crisp H1 and a wealth of info. Then write several smaller supporting blogs on this topic and link them all together. Last, figure out who else is covering this topic and ask them to backlink to your content. This deserves another post, but the point is that you want to: (1) pick a term and (2) build content on your domain that makes your domain am authority for that term. Rinse repeat with the next term. Methodically work your way through the list.
Things that are worth experimenting with or thinking through (read = had mixed results)
Paid backlink services
Giveaways on social media
Contest for your product. Do X and earn Y from prizepool - must use product
Investment fund. Similar to contest, but you get to decide who gets the $.
Growth hacking Quora. Put a target: 10 posts a day. Go answer every question on quora that has anything to do with your product and plug yourself in a soft way with a link. Ask leading questions that would get answers.
Going after private facebook groups and either growing a persona there and/or sniping users in DM
Signing VIP creators to promote. Mixed ROI. Must be the right talent to make it work with the right terms.
Press. Think product should not be beholden to press releases and a lot of emphasis on pitching press on the team is net -EV. Users for most products don’t care about TechCrunch. Fine to pitch, but would not create a role for this and bluntly could do without. There are some exceptions here for some products and/or if you want to sell.
What didn’t work:
Paid media. Exception is testing quickly to get users with hyper specific thesis and a small budget. For example, running lookalike ads on FB to accelerate path to first 100 users.
Farming out content product. Tried verbilio and contentfly (now draft). To guide the writers I wrote detailed notes on desired tone, target audience, shared writing samples and more. Fail. I found this to be net -EV because you had to spotcheck the writers and the content was subpar. Perhaps I did something wrong, but I did not have a good experience. And it didn’t feel authentic.
Driving backlinks on my own via brute force outreach. Think my pitch was bad
Building karma on reddit to either buy ads and/or to push the product
TLDR: getting users without a magical growth hack/viral success is hard work, but it is doable and it will pay-off. Distribution/getting traffic is worth fighting for and I recommend starting the fight on day 1.