When I meet with founders and investors, they assume at SaaStr we are some sort of content and social marketing geniuses. Let’s be clear — nothing could be further from the truth. We have no one on our tiny team with a background in content or social media. Everything is a hack. And we have no real idea why some things “perform”, and others don’t.
But 5 years and 50,000,000+ views later, and with a $10m budget for 2018, I’ve learned a few things.
Let’s start with where we’ve gotten to today. Some things work and some don’t, today:
- 1M+ views a month on Quora, sometimes more (5 years in) — but growth has slowed to 50% YoY or so, near as I can tell. This is spread over 2,250 answers and 30,990 followers.
- 1M+ views a month on SaaStr.com blog (5 years in) — but traffic is no longer growing materially (3% MoM), and importantly, all the traffic is “deep links”. No one goes straight to “www.saastr.com” anymore. Not for years.
- On track for 10,000+ attendees at SaaStr Annual 2018 (next year will be year 4). We’re running at 166% of 2017 ticket sales right now, up from 400 attendees to the first SaaStr “soiree” in 2014
- 100k+ downloads a month on the SaaStr podcast (1 year old) — on fire, growing 19.7% a month
- 110K+ total twitter followers (up from very few 2 years ago). Growth was very fast once we started putting “unique” content on Twitter, but now appears to have slowed to ~6% a month, which is still doubling.
- A beautiful, high-end 15,000 square foot SaaStr CoSellingSpace in SF that brings together 25-30 amazing SaaS companies to work and scale together. Come try it out for a week for free!
- A ~30,000 email subscriber list and weekly newsletter (2 years old). I give us a B- here. It’s a very high quality list (more discussion below), but I’m not sure 30,000 is that impressive a number given the above reach.
- 100k+ LinkedIn followers (up from almost none 1 year ago), great growth — 11%+ a month — but engagement so far is limited.
- 2k YouTube subscribers — completely flat and tiny. Only 4,500 views a month despite some of the best content available anywhere, period.
- 5k Facebook Page likers — token growth and tiny 1.4% a month growth. A failure, at least, so far.
- 13k followers but only 3k reads a month on Medium — a total failure, and only growing 1.9% a month
- The 15,000 square foot SaaStr “CoSelling Space” is about the most awesome place for SaaStr start-ups and sales teams to work in SF, and it’s great. We do events there now, the SaaStr team works there, 3 companies that work there have already raised VC rounds, and it’s great fun for 20-30 great post-SaaS start-ups to work together, and to work with them. I love it, and our goal is to grow to 30,000-50,000 square feet over the coming years. But it’s very expensive to provide a low-density, high-end workspace in SF (close to $1m a year, in total) and likely will never break even.
- 15 people a day read SaaStr news, which I think is awesome, but clearly, no one else does.
- We briefly did a Video AMA series on Google Hangouts called “Lunch With …“, but while it was sort of cool, it was a fair amount of work, and in the end, the podcast performs 100x better.
- We aren’t really sure why so many people come to the SaaStr Annual. The email marketing list isn’t that big (30k) and no other channels “perform” in driving attendance.
- My personal Twitter account (@jasonlk) and our “corporate” account (@saastr) both have ~40k followers and got there in about the same time, but all the “corporate” one does is recycle links to blog content and provides nothing new or unique, and requires zero hours of my time. So who knows what people want on Twitter. Recycled links appear to be perform just as well as carefully crafted insights.
So perhaps sharing those lessons will help others in some small way think about content marketing.
First, a little history. The first SaaStr blog post was in 2012: “Everybody Lies: SaaS Revenues in the Inc 5000”. It was a topic that as a founder I found cathartic — actual quantitative data about how every SaaS start-up overstates its revenues. This also lead to the first “fav” we got on Twitter — from Aaron Levie. That at least showed I wasn’t the only SaaS founder that at least found the topic interesting.
Looking back on it, it was a good post because it was an authentic and unique voice. No other SaaS founders were talking about the truth about scaling, growing, and worrying about B2B businesses in quite such a direct way.
But back then, we only had about 300 followers on Twitter and 0 subscribers to our blog.
The key to growing the blog initially, looking back on it, was a tiny bit of “growth hacking”. Google+ back then had a feature where you could essentially create a group email list and push content to anyone you’d Gmailed with (this feature is long gone). I used that to assemble 3 lists of of 100 high-quality industry folks I knew and pushed the blog posts to them through this Google Plus email list. The audience was small, but engagement was high.
This created a high-quality initial audience for the blog, and fairly high early engagement for something with very few views.
Second, we began answering questions on Quora that were of personal interest. While for the most part, none of the answers themselves had many views for a long time, as a group, after 24 months, we hit 2,500,000 views on Quora. But it took 2 years to get there. From there, it took another 2 years to 20,000,000 views. So there are some power laws in content marketing, two.
The key to Quora, at least for me, is that I did what was easy. I used Quora questions as a vehicle to stimulate a memory of some mistake I’d made, some learning I’d had. And I made a rule if I couldn’t get the answer done immediately, I’d move on. So Quora was very high time ROI. I didn’t have to think up a topic, and the short format lent itself well to my ability to output content. In the early days, it would take me 2+ hours to think of, write, and edit a blog post (down to 10 minutes today) … but 5 minutes for a Quora answer. Which really was just a post of a different kind.
Third, we began to do events to bring the community together. We had a content-free meet up that went well, and then 500 or so folks came to our first Spring Soiree in 2014 with the co-founder of Marketo and my VPS and VPM. From there, our first all-day SaaStr Annual in February 2015 maxxed out at 800 attendees during the day, and then 1000 or so at the party. The ’16 Annual grew to about 3,000 on-site and 5,000 nominal attendees, the ’17 Annual grew to 6,000 on site at any time and 10,000 nominal attendees, and the ’18 Annual is running about 2.2x of the ’17 Annual so far. We also did informal Summer Socials with speakers in London, Los Angeles, and New York that were well attended (300-500 each).
“Interestingly”, we don’t really know why folks come to the SaaStr Annual. The only source of ticket sales that is material is our newsletter list, but at only 30,000 subs, it’s not really enough on its own to drive the 10,000 attendance in 2017 and certainly not big enough to drive a 20,000 person event in 2018. Paid marketing doesn’t materially perform, and is expensive. Twitter does work a bit for promotion — we had a lot of tweets — but still only made up about 5% of ticket sales. Our podcast worked — it drove several hundred attendees. But blog posts and the rest did not sell a material number of tickets or sponsorships. At least, not that we can see via our rudimentary attribution.
OK so what as of today, do we know? A few thoughts:
- Blogging is “dead.” Notwithstanding the continued overall growth in our content, as a group, direct traffic to SaaStr.com has declined over the past 24 months — substantially. Yes, in aggregate, we get perhaps 1m views on our SaaStr.com content, but very little is direct to the homepage. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t blog. SEO, links from social and other sites still perform well. But far fewer people go straight to blogs. As you probably could guess. See, e.g., why Mark Suster moved to Medium for his blog.
- Podcasting is hard, on many levels. It’s a ton of work to do what Harry Stebbings does for us. Post-production takes a lot of time, and it’s very hard to build an audience. There are so many podcasts now, and little organic way to discover new ones. So unless you can crush it with a podcast, you may find the ROI very low, given that it’s far more work to do a good podcast than a good article. While we are crossing 60,000 downloads on each podcast now, we had the benefit of very heavy promotion on SaaStr.com and Twitter to push it.
- Platforms work. Facebook and Medium don’t work for us, at least not yet — see above. But Quora certainly has, and LinkedIn may to an extent. Platforms are the new homepage. They drive traffic if you do it right. But you have to work it.
- Events have “dis-economies” of scale. Once an event grows, the costs go way up. It cost us $800 per attendee, all-in, to put on the 2017 SaaStr Annual — far higher than the average ticket price. The meet-ups for 300-400 folks we did in the earlier days cost about $10 per person, though. The bigger the event, at least in the Bay Area, the more expensive it is to produce. Even a 100+ person event in SF in a nice events space will cost you $30k to put on. Smaller events are much, much cheaper. Maybe do more smaller events.
- Twitter only performed once we were at scale, maybe ~40k total high quality followers. A tweet to 100 random followers isn’t gonna do anything, folks. If you can’t find a way to build an important, on-point audience in Twitter, I’m not sure there’s any real point at the end of the day. Also, people say a lot of dumb things on Twitter.
- Mediocre content does not perform. Contributed articles and boring sponsor posts on SaaStr.com are read by very, very few folks.
- Events are great — but the competition in the Bay Area is intense. There are so many great events in the Bay Area. When we did the first SaaStr Soiree in 2014, we were the only event like it. Now, there are amazing SaaS events every week in the Bay Area that are 10x better than that first Soiree. The bottom line with events, is there’s really no point in going to anything other than the 2 best events in your industry. So doing a “me too” event is tough, especially in the Bay Area. But the good news is, you can put on the very best event for your customers by definition. So my suggestion is don’t try to put on an industry event in the Bay Area unless you are sure you somehow can be #1 or #2. Do a customer event instead. Higher ROI, much easier to put on.
- You have to keep adding new layers. Yes, you can see power laws in the our views and attendance numbers above. But eventually, for us at least, every individual channel sort of peaks. Quora, while huge, now at 32m+ views is growing 50% YoY, not 100%+. The blog growth has slowed down at 1m views/month. Twitter is still growing quickly, and the podcast is still on fire — but they are newer initiatives. I think if you want your content marketing to keep growing, you have to add new layers that perform. Our goal is one new material initiative / channel a year.
Ok so those learnings are a bit of a cautionary tale. What can I tell you to simply to help? A few thoughts:
- Pick one content medium you are passionate about and can be great at. SaaStr.com started off as a blog for 100 folks I knew, that I was sort of spamming via Google+. But I had passion about it. I put 2+ hours into each post and only did topics I personally cared about. That created both authentic content, and content in a “white space” that wasn’t been filled before. Those early SaaStr posts, looking back, were really good. Some of the best ones. I cared so much, I put so much time into helping you not make the same mistakes I did … it took a year for that body of content to take off, but eventually, it did.
- Outsourcing content marketing doesn’t really work. I know it’s tempting to hire someone to write blog posts for you and do a podcast. I guess that’s OK if you have sufficient capital. But everything is so crowded today. It’s hard for me to believe something inauthentic, and/or outsourced, will ever materially perform for you.
- Give it 24 months. Just like a start-up. This is hard, too. As you can see on Quora, it took us 24 months to get to 2m views, but then we got to 20m views in the following 24 months. Don’t expect 5 blog posts to all of a sudden start creating amazing leads. Yes, this can happen. But set something up that is sustainable.
- High quality in the beginning will work, even if the audience is quite small. Having Aaron Levie be the first to favorite a SaaStr.com blog post on Twitter showed I was on to something, at least to me. If your goal of content marketing is leads … it may be enough if 20 prospects read your article. Make the articles great. I can tell you from contributed articles on SaaStr — almost all of them are terrible. Almost all speaker panels are terrible. Almost all podcasts are boring. Make it great. It’s better 10 prospects for a $20k deal read a few great pieces of content.
- Later, at least, you do need a cadence. We do 2 new podcasts a week, 10 Quora answers a week, 2-3 new blog posts a week, 10 speaker series events a year at the new SaaStr CoSellingSpace, 1 regional event, and 1 big SaaStr Annual. Interestingly, when we doubled the amount of SaaStr.com content per week about a year ago, it didn’t lead to any more views. It’s more content than people need there, I think. But you do need a cadence. It will force you into doing a time and effort analysis. Set up a schedule, and keep to it.
Some thoughts for now. Will come back later with more learnings.