Launch Academy is one of the best force multipliers available to entrepreneurs and the Vancouver tech community. I signed up with the allure of funding, mentorship and follow-on traction. Entrepreneurs here are abuzz with energy and ideas for experiments. Did you try Facebook Ads? Are you doing content marketing? Did you try outbound email, and the list goes on…
Little did I know how hard the startup game is. The struggle is real. As an early stage startup, there were too many possible experiments to try. Not all advice you hear is applicable. The mentors don’t know your business – but if you can build a rapport with them, magic can happen.
I’m going to share one such powerful idea that has worked well for us. We were able to grow our website traffic by 3,000%. But behind the numbers is a strategy and a set of tactics to help you achieve similar results.
The Launch crew has your back.
Another uneventful day at Launch Academy. I was putting finishing touches on a presentation. I had been working hard on the slides for a couple of hours, and when I looked up everyone around me had left for the day. I realized that it was well past midnight. Completing the slides was time-sensitive. My excuse was that I was going on a vacation the following week.
Launch’s policies dictate that the last person to leave needs to punch in the security codes to arm the premises. I took a quick look around to make sure I was the last one. I didn’t want to inadvertently set the alarm off in the middle of the night.
As I looked around, I was a little surprised to see one of the staff members with their headphones on still grinding away. The General Manager of Launch Academy Hussein Hallak was burning the midnight oil like the rest of us.
One of the things I’m super appreciative of at Launch is that the crew is available to talk anytime. Even if it’s 1AM. Hussein and I made small talk, and the good and bad about our respective businesses. I had come to respect Hussein’s expertise in getting your messaging right and being authentic. In more concrete terms, it’s writing content that resonates and finding the right people to share it with.
There are lots of ways to write content, and lots of ways to distribute it. I’m no marketer by any means. What I DID know is that if you write a blog post, no one is going to read it. Organically anyway. There’s just so much stuff to read everyday. Check the homepage of Medium.com and I bet you’ll find a thousand pieces on your topic of interest.
You have to be smart about it.
Late that night, in a matter of minutes, Hussein laid out a framework that brought clarity to the content production and distribution process.
Content distribution falls under four categories: organic via Google, social, paid promotion and press. Paid promotion and press can work, but it gives you a short spurt of growth that will evaporate the next day. Social can work for the President of the United States – I’m not so sure about the rest of us.
The only sustainable, long term distribution channel is search traffic via Google with Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It behooves for us to learn SEO and take advantage of it if possible.
The only problem was that SEO was a black box for me. I’ve only ever come across scammy and black-hat practices.
But as I’ll outline, thanks to Hussein, SEO is far more structured and there’s a method to the madness. I’m going to share his strategy and how we executed against it. I’ll share results along the way.
Be forewarned – there’s no magic bullet. You HAVE to work hard. If you’re looking for a quick win, you will face disappointment.
How Google works, in a few short paragraphs.
SEO works for you when a user searches for a phrase on Google and sees your website as one of the first few results. It’s unlikely the user will make a purchase right away, but it’s a way to build a reputation in their minds. If your page is relevant to what the user is searching for, it’ll create a positive association for them. If the positive association keeps recurring, then over time, the user is more likely to become a customer of yours as opposed to the competition. It’s the principle of reciprocity at work.
There are two facets to ranking high on Google. Ranking high is important because hardly anyone clicks past the first page of results. Ranking on page two is not ranking at all.
First, you’ll need to have content that matches the search phrase. The broader the phrase, the harder it is to match for that phrase. For example, it’s easier to match for “tesla price in california” compared to “tesla price”. Obviously, there’ll be less people searching for the narrower phrase but hundreds of these small streams of traffic will combine to become a giant torrent.
Second, you’ll need to be seen as an authority in the eyes of Google. How does that work?
Google sees links from other websites, known as backlinks, as a sign of authority. More backlinks = more authority and you’ll rank higher.
I’m generalizing a lot, but you get the gist.
Big caveat: you do not want to create spammy pages that match for search terms or buy backlinks. Google will penalize you and you will disappear from the face of the internet. That’s painful and really bad.
You need 🎉SIZZZLE🎉 to sell the STEAK.
The strategy outlined by Hussein is a two pronged approach which I affectionately call “Sizzle and Steak.” To recap our previous section: to rank high we not only need to have pages that match search phrases, we also need to be seen as an authority.
Sizzle is content that’s novel, something super interesting that people will be attracted to. It doesn’t always have to be 100% original, a new viewpoint will suffice. People will want to naturally share your content over social channels and link back to you. Opinions on what constitutes sizzle will differ. BuzzFeed is famous for their listicle posts that creates a lot of buzz and gets shared a lot. Oh, Buzz+(social)Feed = BuzzFeed.
Steak is the foundation. You can call it the “meat and potatoes” of your website. It’s a set of exceptional content that narrowly matches search phrases. Content so good that after reading your page, the user would have completed their search and will want to close their browser window. There are a lot of techniques out there you can read up on, e.g.: the Skyscraper method.
The sizzle and the steak go hand in hand. You need the sizzle to earn backlinks and the steak optimized for search engines. It’s important to note that the audience for the two types of content is not the same. As your sizzling content gathers backlinks, it causes the steak to rank higher. And because the steak is so good, it sets a cycle in motion that you can use to dominate the organic search results.
Alright, that’s the million dollar insight.
Now time to execute.
I knew from the get go that listicles were not our jam. Every time I see a specially engineered article to bait clicks, it leaves a bad after-taste. Listicles and infographics might be a way to generate quick traffic, but they aren’t helping you establish your brand. Unless your brand is about entertainment and a quick laugh, then by all means do that. Not passing a value judgement here, do what’s appropriate for your business.
As I alluded to earlier, the SEO game is a long one. You and your team will need the motivation to push through the lows and I guarantee you there will be lows.
As a data analysis startup, we find data and how society relates to data fascinating. That’s why we started a company around analyzing data. Why deviate from that mission?
You can see where I’m going with this – Why not make our work sizzle? Why not tell compelling stories with data that people will find interesting? Isn’t that the whole point of data analysis?
We had found the perfect opportunity at the intersection of data analysis, crafting a narrative and making it sizzle. Or at least that was the hypothesis. We had to test if we were capable of executing.
For the purposes of our first test, we chose to focus on Canada. We had access to Canada’s open data portal with thousands of data sets. As we were poring over the list, we felt it was natural to pick a topic that highlighted the changing demographics of Canada. And we chanced upon the perfect one – Canadians and the languages we speak.
The process of finding an interesting story from data varies on a case-by-case basis. You definitely don’t want to write about the English-French divide. That’s the first idea that comes to mind but it’s not novel. In general, you want to discard the first 3-4 ideas on a topic that comes to mind.
As I started to analyze the data, a narrative started to form in my head. At the end of the analysis, I was ready to write a multi-page article. This was exactly like high school all over again, except on topics I cared about. I’m Canadian after all and if it wasn’t clear thus far, I also love data analysis. I started to fill in the body of the article, and lo and behold: a 2000+ word article on the languages we speak in Canada. Complete with charts and comparison tables to support our narrative.
Who would read this?
I know my peers would. I know people who cared about Canada would. I know my wife and her peers - who weren’t remotely interested in the next hot API – would read it. We just had to see how far we could take it.
I shared the link to the article on Facebook. I also shared it on Reddit.
Well, it blew up.
Dozens of upvotes. Hit the frontpage of /r/canada. Comments were starting to roll in. They were 100% civil which I found surprising on Reddit. I learnt a lot about Canada that day, and I’ve been here my entire adult life. 🇨🇦
After it all died down, I took a look at the stats. Thousands of visitors, 50+ comments and one stat really stood out.
The average time on the page was FOUR MINUTES.
That’s a magnitude higher than anything else on our site. Canadian languages be sizzling, indeed.
Well, what if it was a fluke?
I was curious to see if I could repeat the experiment. There were a lot of assumptions baked in:
- there’s an infinite set of interesting topics to write about
- being able to craft a narrative that sizzles
- finding the people who were interested in this kind of content
- people are engaging and sharing the content
I went back to the proverbial open data drawing board. I had a list of rough topics I wanted to write about, like energy, health care, etc. Nothing really stuck. Until I came across a year upon year tax data from the Canadian Revenue Agency. With the tax season around the corner, this topic should be on everyone’s minds.
But what compelling story can you tell about taxes? Accountants - please no offense intended.
Who would be interested in an data heavy article about taxes, should we come up with an interesting story?
I’ll spare you the details. After a couple of hours of analysis performed with our product: another 2000+ word article on saving patterns of Canadians.
I did the usual rounds of submitting to social networks and went to bed. So much for going to bed. My phone was buzzing all night.
Over 90 comments, dozens of upvotes and thousands of readers. The topic was a little more charging, so the comments were not 100% civil. Lesson learnt.
Again 4+ minutes average time on page.
Our one-trick pony is now a two-trick pony! 🦄
Average time on site is an important metric.
What do you think is the most scarce commodity on the internet? It’s people’s attention. There’s always another website a click away.
In the age of instant gratification, being able to capture your audience’s attention for over four minutes is truly special. It means you’ve hit a nerve and your content is resonating. If we were able to achieve high engagement rates with data that’s publicly available – imagine what you could do with proprietary data that no one else has access to. Your content becomes a huge competitive edge.
The implications of high engagement rates opens up a huge opportunity. Your content now has legs and becomes a marketing asset on its own.
The second half of the equation: some steak, please.
We are only half-done, we will now describe the rest of the strategy that Hussein laid out for us.
For context, a little more background on our product. Our product is a data analysis platform for companies and organizations to analyze their proprietary internal data. It uses a standard language called SQL that has been around for around 40 years. Just as we care about the data analysts who would be our audience, we also care about the quality of the actual analysis.
A key differentiator of our product is that it allows analysts to ask deeper and richer questions. There should be nothing holding you back from that little insight that could change the course of your business. At no point should you have the data, but are not able to ask the right questions.
From talking to hundreds of companies over the past few months, we’ve realized that there’s also a talent shortage in the market. Companies know they need to incorporate data into their day to day decision making, but unsure how.
Fortunately, universities, MOOCs and coding bootcamps have sprung up in the last few years to address this data talent shortfall.
We had an idea. What if we built a compendium of advanced data analysis tricks that we’ve seen in our client work? Anything that helps data professionals level up in their careers. Unlike a physical book or a video course – evergreen text content that can be frequently updated. It should be genuinely useful to current and future analysts. Plus points for building credibility with potential clients.
So we got to work.
After a couple of days, we built several examples of advanced analysis techniques that is immediately applicable to an analyst. Soup-to-nuts, an analyst should not have the need to look elsewhere for further information.
Let there be a 1,000 data analysts bloom.
It’s too early to say if the second half of the strategy will bear fruit. I’m confident it will. We are already seeing a steady rise in search rankings and organic traffic, a few weeks in. It’s a long term game, and we are destined to stay the course.
Highlights & Conclusions.
My friends, that concludes my story. The 20-minute conversation with the superstar Hussein has opened up a new growth channel for us. Early data is promising. I’m excited to watch it unfold.
I have two specific asks:
- Write really, really good content. If you want to hire an expert who can analyze + write + distribute articles on your proprietary company data – let’s chat. Average content isn’t performing anymore.
- Take care of yourself. And buy my main man Hussein a drink if you run into him! 😊
References & Links:
- Launch Academy ← Vancouver’s Leading Startup Hub. They even run a fab online entrepreneurship program. Check them out!
- Hussein Hallak – Twitter | LinkedIn
- My contact – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Steak → Advanced SQL Recipes
- Sizzle → When we tried to find out how Canadians save money – we fell flat on our faces. This is our story.
- Sizzle → 5 Astonishing Facts on the Growing Language Diversity of Canadians.