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How do startups get their content marketing to work? (techcrunch.com)
230 points by middle1 4 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments

You can keep trying to hack Google all you want, and you can definitely be successful for short periods of time if you invest enough time and money. But there's also the difficult but straight forward way out -- write content that people want to read.

Digital Ocean, Cloudflare, and others have adopted this strategy with great success. Writing good quality content takes time, good copywriters, subject experts, editors, and designers. It's not easy. It's not a hack. But you can bet it will outrank any cheap hacks for the foreseeable future.

Digital Ocean, Cloudflare, and others have adopted this strategy with great success

This is a confirmation bias, however. There are a lot of orgs trying the same strategy to absolutely no success, great content that doesn't have the social proof rotting away in obscurity.

Even among the ones who yield success, that tends to come and go. It's a very short path between "wow great content" and content that is cynically (and sometimes accurately) seen as a thin veneer over self-promotion.

There was a period when Netflix, for instance, had tech pieces on here constantly. The crowd lost interest. They're still pumping out the content, presumably at a significant manpower cost, to seemingly little readership.

I run a content marketing agency. The problem you're talking about is, indeed, a massive one. But that usually happens when companies create content without thinking about its distribution.

While you certainly must create content that your audience wants to read, it is even more important that you have a clear plan for distributing it. If your content isn't supported by a strong SEO plan, and if you don't have a clear social media and PR strategy for it, you won't see results, no matter how good the content is.

Yep, don't forget to do the marketing for your marketing.

Isn’t distribution of content is like just posting what you wrote on reddit or on HN nowadays?

Way more than that. It's a combination of SEO + PR + social media. So you'd have some content that other sites might be willing to publish or link to (say, in a weekly "best of" roundup). Some other content that would focus purely on keywords supported by a backlinking campaign to rank well in search engines. And some other content that would focus on topics that would resonate with, say, the HN crowd.

Ah this takes me back to the ol'days: content is king, but distribution is queen and she wears the pants.

Would you mind to link some of these quality articles of not so successful companies? Maybe HN crowd would bring them some of the deserved success.

At Netflix's level, the tech blog content shifted from being content marketing to content recruiting.

At scale, recruiting is often about marketing. It's about conveying a compelling story that pulls people in.

There is another strategy that doesn't need high quality content. Companies like Zapier created thousands of pages with little variations following the rule of "how to integrate X with Y".

They also did a lot of work to make it appear that these pages were bespoke, even if they were autogenerated. A nontrivial accomplishment.

Like all those "how to resolve missing xyz.dll driver" autogenerated pages?

Those pages are the worst. They were everywhere in SERP in the late 2000s, and I still a few today. "Alternative to [software name]" type searches bring those pages out in hordes.

It is so obvious they are auto-generated, do people still fall for them?

To be fair, that’s essentially what this article is saying, particularly the parts about Google now being able to track engagement and thus using that signal to boost results rather than just backlinks or domain rank.

I think Google these days link the information they get from Google Analytics and their DNS service requests to boost some domains and links over the others.

Good content is one part.

Amplification (getting your content out) is the other part, and unless you've got an audience already, it's even more time consuming than preparing the actual content.

Not if you r niche is too small for Google to recognize

If there was any niche too small for Google search to recognize, Google search wouldn't be Google search.

Some super-basic things I learned at a past job that might help newbies:

1. Use a subdirectory instead of a subdomain for your blog. That alone helped half of our customers get better ranking.

2. Keep editing older posts so they always stay up to date. Somehow Google picks this up, and people also bounce when they see outdated information. That was a quantum leap for certain blogs where we tested this approach.

3. Picking the right keywords is more important than relying purely on feeling. Lots of our customers fought that and wasted money. SemRush, Moz, etc can help you.

EDIT: And how could I forget...

4. Outsourcing content (and content alone) has great ROI but outsourcing strategy (at least to an agency or another company) is a money pit and a scam, and you'll still end up having to do A LOT of work yourself anyway.

> Keep editing older posts so they always stay up to date.

Sounds like a bit of a rat race compared to just writing more timeless articles, or just leaving dated topics for reference.

While newness may be a great metric for Google I'm not so sure it creates the best incentives for building an Internet full of useful, quality content.

Not everything can be "timeless". Plenty of content is about the state of X at time Y. Things change and if your article is good and getting a long-tail of visitors, it's in your best interests to keep it updated with changes, or at the very least add a note to where newer information can be found.

The metric isn't exactly "newness" but relevance.

Timeless or "evergreen" content doesn't have to be updated. It's alright to keep them as is.

But keeping obsolete content online is a pain in the ass for users, so they will increase your bounce rate. Either update them or show a big notice on the top with a link to a newer article. Google will hopefully pick them up and the internet wins.

That's a somewhat odd thing to say. StackOverflow would be better off not leaving dated topics for reference (as you can see when someone leaves a comment about how they wish the highest voted answer was actually up to date with the latest changes in that technology), and aspiring to be the StackOverflow of your niche is actually not such a bad idea (in the sense that they do allow and encourage updates to the answers). Besides, in some domains which overlap heavily with technology (e.g. marketing automation), writing timeless articles is pretty hard. Lastly, updating genuinely out of date content is a big favor for your readers and one that they will appreciate, even if your overall view is simply "Fk Google!".

Can confirm: long posts that you update as new knowledge surfaces actually work well. Think of your site as a wiki.

"Think of your site as a wiki."

That's an elegant way to put it.

When outsourcing content have you always just hired freelance writers or hired agencies?

I didn't want to manage a bunch of freelance writers so I went out looking for an agency to help execute our content strategy but it seemed almost all agencies were pitching way more on helping with strategy and less on their ability to create content.

Actually I've been in this business for 5 years and worked in both agencies and content companies, so I have more insider knowledge rather than experience as a customer, hope it's ok.

Most agencies are just hiring freelancers and putting a 10x markup on it. Since they're probably using multiple freelancers per customer, they can't guarantee consistency, which is why they need internal reviewers (which adds to their overhead).

The strategy part is not a lot of work, and I've seen the people that do it working with up to 50 customers simultaneously, so it's not as if it takes a lot of time. 75% of the secret sauce is just picking words out of SemRush. I'm not even joking.

The best ROI right now, IMO:

1. Have one or two good freelancers you trust. You'll have more consistency in your texts and you won't have to manage much. Most freelancers already know how to do the SEO part, because agencies already hire them to do it. They're cheap, so it is easy to "test" them before committing. Good freelancers are low-maintenance.

2. Outsource the strategy to a freelancer. This way you won't be tied to an expensive contract with heavy fines and they'll be able to spend more time. Sometimes they'll also produce content, other times they'll be able to manage other freelancers for you.

3. In my experience, most agencies use run regular consumer tools behind the scenes: Buffer, Semrush, Moz, Mailchimp, Hubspot, and A LOT of Google Docs. SEO checking is done using Yoast, which is free. Most of those tools are simple to use.

This might be a stupid simple question, but where do you post your blogs once they're live? just share on linkedin or other social media? HN is obviously one destination but its a tough place to get large visibility.

I don't really have a company but I've been in the industry for 5 years, my advice isn't much personal experience as it is insider knowledge. Hope it's ok.

The answer: it really depends on your audience and your goal with the blog post.

- 1. If you just want people to find you on Google with certain keywords, you really don't have to post it anywhere. This is very common for non-technical audiences, and they will mostly find it by themselves. Tell them in the end of the blogpost to follow you on social media and add an option to get their e-mail, if this is the kind of audience that does it.

- 2. If it's something that might interest to your current followers and further engage them (such as long form content), post on your own social media accounts and send to your newsletter subscribers. Avoid posting the things from #1 on social media unless it is interesting to your followers, because people will get fatigued.

- 3. If it's really high-quality content that will bring brand awareness, then post on aggregators. Hackers News and Reddit doesn't work for traditional marketing, keep that in mind. Examples: don't use marketing language ("by the way, did you know we make..."), never push readers to follow you on social media or subscribe to the newsletter (icons and a form at the end are more than enough) and don't even talk about your product unless it's absolutely necessary. People are smart enough to find about it by themselves.

- 4. Technical tutorials and wiki-like content, like Digital Ocean and Cloudflare do, work great for technical audiences. You only have to post the REALLY good ones into HN. People will find out about the others by looking into your blog sidebar, or archives, or by searching Google. There are aggregators and subreddits that allow other kinds of tutorials.

- 5. Try making tutorials and "behind-the-scenes" content for things related to features you release. Example: I just noticed that your company released a Google Cloud DB Migration service. Try to find out what kind of tutorial people need related to Google Cloud and put make a blog post. Then post them on aggregators related to Google Cloud. Make them easy to find via Google. Make specific mailing lists related to Google Cloud. Oh, and since your company is working with multiple cloud providers, comparison posts work wonders too ;)

A tip: take a cue from sociology/psychology and forget about your "target audience" for a moment. Instead, focus on two or three very specific "personas" that make sense for you business. Imagine a person and set a gender, an age, job, location, salary, everything. This will inform you where you need to post, how often, the language you have to use, sometimes even which platform you have to use.

TL;DR: Know your audience.

From experience, it's fking hard. But common sense does apply.

I'm 100% in on content marketing for my business and after roughly 2 years of dabbling, experimenting and honing my skills I think I sort of get it.

For anyone starting out, all the common advice is true:

1. Create valuable, original content. This can be VERY specific to a VERY specific niche. People LOVE reading about how the sausage is made.

2. Go where your audience is. Took me a while to figure out. For me that is specific sub reddits and HN. Twitter to a lesser degree.

3. Keep a schedule. Once a week, once a month. Whatever works for you.


4. Get a tool / platform that removes obstacles. Probably why Medium got so popular. It makes writing and adding pictures really easy. No subliminal / subconscious blocks on writing that next post. I use Ghost now. Same experience, just private. The cost is trivial if this is your only marketing outlay.

This might be a stupid simple question, but where do you post your blogs once they're live? just share on linkedin or other social media? HN is obviously one destination but its a tough place to get large visibility.

I have a list, but this is somewhat optimised for technical people

hackernews indiehackers twitter reddit linkedin stackshare

I use plain markdown. I can create content anywhere - if I am on another machine I can just email myself the file and get it on the site later.

To get it on the site, it's just add/commit/push in git with Netlify.

I think it was Intercom CEO who said something along the lines “Everyone wants to do content marketing until they discover how expensive it is.”

You can decide you want to start content marketing, take one guy from marketing team and tell him to start pumping out “relevant” content.

Or, you can acknowledge that content marketing is like a product: it needs target audience, needs to solve problem for this audience, have a distribution and promotion process, PR backing, have a goal for your company and, the most important, it needs to be good stuff by default.

So many people treat content as “build it and they will come”, which is exactly how to achieve nothing remarkable.

There's an underlying problem of spam here, that Google is still not detecting very well, and that is the filler that is filling up the entire internet.

Aside from curated sites, the whole thing is becoming low-value carbs.

Often, finding a 'help' article or video, you get tons of low-grade content surrounded the little thing you need to learn, along with a deluge of ads.

This model isn't really working, I don't think it ever has: junk content with junk ads, it's a big value destroying entity.

Google now knows a lot about individuals, it'd be nice to have maybe some kind of user-rated systems so we can just use each others knowledge to avoid the junk.

Part of the problem is that it's nigh impossible to make money on simply providing useful information. People use ad blockers, they find ways around pay walls, they scoff at the idea that writing good information is real work worth actual money.

I've blogged for years. It doesn't make adequate income to support me. I get all kinds of flak from people who tell me to "get a real job" rather than helping me find some means to get traffic, develop a good niche and monetize it.

I also work for a writing service as a way to help pay my bills. I try to write stuff I can feel good about, but the reality is I am sometimes guilty* of adding to the kind of online "spam" that gets routinely decried as having ruined the internet.

I would prefer to be "part of the solution, not part of the problem." But it mostly doesn't pay to try to write high quality information with no pay wall, no product you are shilling, etc.

We have designed an internet where the only way to make money for the information you write is to be selling something else. And then we complain endlessly about the lack of quality information.

Pointing out the obvious connection between these various things mostly gets me grief. People want excellent information available online for free and they just refuse to see how and why that's a broken mental model.

If you want an internet where you can find good writing whose only goal is to provide good information for the reader without selling you something, then find some way to make it profitable and worthwhile for people to do that.

* To be clear, I don't feel guilty. I don't think it's morally wrong. I think what's morally wrong is the vast majority of people expecting excellent content to be completely free. That is a de facto expectation of slave labor from content producers.

In practical terms, we are incentivizing the creation of the kind of content that gets decried as low value "spam" and disincentiving the creation of independent, quality content.

"You get what you pay for." This is what pays. I've gotta eat.


"Part of the problem is that it's nigh impossible to make money on simply providing useful information"

I think again this is a Google problem - there is inherent value in 'good help' it should be profitable at some level, accepting the fact that there is a commodification to that as well.

I hope google catches onto the fact that, as a user, I don't want a bunch a dwell time when I'm looking for a recipe. Right now the winning strategy seems to be to write really long stories, forcing the user to search in the article endlessly before giving the recipes

Oh, is that why so many blogs seem to be bloated with filler content for what could have been a page? I always thought it was because those writers are hired guns with a word count to hit, but gaming the engagement metrics makes a lot of sense.

This might be a blind spot for Google because the longer you stay on any given webpage, the better it is for them, since 50% of all webpages have ads served by Google or one of their subsidiaries.

I wonder if this will be Google’s downfall one day. Some AI enabled competitor will come up with a search engine that delivers exactly what you’re looking for instead of the most engaging content.

> I wonder if this will be Google’s downfall one day. Some AI enabled competitor will come up with a search engine that delivers exactly what you’re looking for instead of the most engaging content.

A search engine that consistently delivers English language Wikipedia as the first link for any query that has a related term on it is a search engine I'd switch to today. Google used to be like that, with a Wiki link in the top 3 results for pretty much anything I searched for. These days, I'm happy if it'll be on the first page, and this is the first time after dropping "verbatim search" that I felt Google search engine to significantly decline in quality.

Tried duck duck go? In my experience it’s better for getting to Wikipedia for stuff like you describe

Years ago; didn't stick to it. I guess it's time to try it again, thanks for the reminder!

It's seemed to get a lot better in the past 6-12 months.

I switched on my phone only and it’s been a much better experience.

No AMP either.

I use DuckDuckGo for the exact reason. And sometimes when I'm sure I need a wiki for a keyword, I search for keyword !w and it takes me directly to the wiki page.

That is assuming

1 That Wikipedia does have the best answer (problematic for YMYL searches)

2 The searchers intent is informational queries - not much point in showing Wikipedia for a "buy" query

RE 1. I can't imagine any YMYL search for which Wikipedia isn't an order of magnitude better result than content marketing garbage that currently occupies the top spots. Sure, the official website of the relevant government or organization would be best, but Wikipedia is almost always second best, and currently neither of those are the most likely results to get.

I know in theory Wikipedia isn't trustworthy, but in practice, it is good enough, and its form does a lot of work here. Most entries are structured to be information-dense and fluff-free (unlike the content marketing crap), and they cite their sources (unlike both content marketing crap and many official government sources). This overall makes it one of the most useful resources for generic health queries.

RE 2. I wouldn't complain if I was doing "buy" queries. I don't do those often anyway (for similar reasons I don't use shops for product discovery[0]).


[0] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19643059

You mean, like Duck Duck Go?

There's a Chrome extension to fix that: https://github.com/sean-public/RecipeFilter

> It is born out of my frustration in having to scroll through a prolix life story before getting to the recipe card that I really want to check out.

The article addresses this issue and suggests the opposite is true:

> In 2019, what do most of the top-ranked blogs have in common? They skip filler introductions, keep their paragraphs short, and get to the point.

Maybe those approaches of needlessly long text with irrelevatn backstories are simply outdated?

It could be both: that the top-ranked recipes are content-dense with no filler, but the recipe space is just so HUGE so anyone else in the long tail HAS to intro their recipe with an entire article in order to even have a chance at breaking through.

That’s great and all but Google still ranks Forbes articles much higher than content we produce which to anyone in our industry we are the circa TechCrunch for Food and Ag circa 2007. Unfortunately good doesn’t see it that way and favors bigger name publications with much lower nutritional value.

It’s very possible to outrank them but you’re not going to like the process. It’s very simple: write A LOT and cover A LOT of keyword variations.

Over the course of about 3 years, I wrote around 500 blog posts about Amazon and specifically its 3rd-party marketplace. I wrote for a small startup making software in that space. This is a heavily covered topic by the mainstream media.

MANY of my posts were shit that never got any traffic after the first couple of days they were posted. But many others still rank very highly for topics also covered by the mainstream media.

Nobody wants to hear it but spray and pray is the approach that really works but you have to put the time in. You can do more research and be more systematic, but that just eats into the time you have to write and you’ll just get frustrated by the time you wasted researching what you thought was going to be a home run of a blog post.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and Have ft journalists and a half dozen expert freelancers. We’ve done all the SEO optimization and are usually responsible for coining new terms and trends. As I mentioned the industry sees us as THE go to news source but Google doesn’t.

Are you saying that Forbes shows up significantly higher in search results for highly specific topic searches that you should rank higher in, or for more general searches, or something else?

"It’s very simple: write A LOT and cover A LOT of keyword variations."

This is exactly what you shouldn't have to do if the search engines were reasonably close to accurately measuring relevance.

In fact, a site with a single article that nails the response should outrank a site with thousands of pages of fluff.

I saw with my own eyes people on some freelancer websites requesting 200 ProductHunt upvotes for like 200 US dollars. Getting SEO ranking today on Google is much much harder than it used to be until around 2014-2015, now everything is exponentially harder, Facebook doesn't get you reach until you pay them tons of money to even reach a tiny fraction of your own organic subscribers and they even cause automatic unlikes among your organic subscribers to extort you further, Twitter is less shameless when it comes to extortion for reach but it's not as it used to be 5 years ago. It's really very hard to go viral even with a good product unless you have at least tens of thousands of dollars to throw on direct (i.e. ads and promoted posts) and indirect marketing (e.g. paying blogs, journalists, youtubers, etc... to promote your products)

For nutrition, there's a ton of really bad clow quality half true content that ranks really well in Google because people spend time and engage with that content

And it's all garbage whose authors and publishers deserve a special place in hell, for propagating bullshit that's occasionally dangerous to health, often wastes money, and it's a drag when dealing with friends and family members who end up believing it.

Not just in nutrition - in pretty much everything pertaining things common to all humans - health, cooking, childbirth, etc., the search results are dominated by information-free garbage that wastes a lot of time for people seeking information.

I'm sure a lot of anti-vax content has excellent engagement metrics, too.

FWIW the only reason I’ve heard about Lambda School is because people I follow either liked, retweeted, or mentioned Lambda School so many times that I could not have heard of it.

I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but it’s basically “get your CEO and influential investors” to incessantly tweet about your company.

Not sure if it’s considered pure content marketing but a mix of content + influencer marketing.

That's called "word of mouth", essentially people personally recommending something to other people because they like it. Social media has allowed for amplifying your reach to anyone who follows you but it's fundamentally the same thing.

"influencer" marketing is bullshit. The only real part of it is the same old celebrity/talent-agency business that has existed for a century.

I feel like they are dismissing the value of backlinks too much. Google is better now at spotting unnatural ones. But (real) backlinks seem to still overcome everything else. They work better with good content, titles, etc, on the page. But those other things don't work at all without links.

Who even does backlinking anymore? If you link to an article on social media (where people are most likely to share), Google doesn't count it as strongly as an organic backlink that appears on a website.

Back in the day, people would create infographics and request other sites to embed it with a backlink. That type of link building strategy is old hat now, and feels skeevy to do if you're a funded startup.

"Who even does backlinking anymore?"

Those "organic backlinks" aren't all so organic. There's a lot of grey between outright buying/begging a link and just hoping some links appear solely because you wrote such great content.

It’s weird, but I have a site where google has indexed tens of thousands of urls and drives hundreds of clicks from google search a day before even launching it, without any backlinks. Backlinks will obviously drastically increase both the number of urls indexed as well as the ranking for queries and give an associated click through rate and corresponding traffic increase. Kind of blew my mind traffic would start coming pre launch though, certainly unexpected. SEO is way different now than when I started getting heavily into it in 2003!

The undercurrent here is online ad markets, how big they've gotten, and how little value is left for seo/content to target. Basically, advertising ate the world.

15 Years ago seo/content marketing was the biggest customer recruitment method. The whole online ad industry was probably $5bn-$10bn. Today, the online ad industry is $300bn-$500bn.

Google: "snack subscription," "divorce lawyer" or "cloud database." These are valuable "high intent" ads. Most/all of the screen space is dedicated to ads (I need to scroll on both laptop and phone to see organic results). They get most of the clicks and (you'll need to take my word on this) their conversion rates are much higher. This is because the advertiser can control/optimize the UX: what the ad says, what the landing page says, etc.

Most of the customers have been harvested by the ads. Not much is left for oorganic. Organic is less visible, less clickbait-ey and coverts worse.

For highly valuable queries like the one above, whatever is left after ads have taken a lions share is often scooped up by aggregators (who may also bid for ads) This leaves very little for content/seo.

Getting to the point:

1. Write articles for queries that actually prioritize articles.

With a lot of exceptions, this also means "write articles for "low intent" queries. IE, queries with far lower commercial value. You could also pay to appear on these queries. It'd be much cheaper than "high intent" queries, but either way, these are unlikely to be directly en route to acquiring customers. There is a massive difference between users who arrived looking for "flatshare in London Docklands" and those interested in "average rent per sq ft." Leading into the pitch is great, but the conversion rate will still be 10X lower or worse. Advertisers also like to convert cheap traffic, and it is much harder for content marketers.

My overall point is that the 50X-100X growth of the online ad market over the last 15 years is directly proportional to the number of customers acquired via online advertising. The competing channels have gotten proportonally smaller.

This is not just searh. Social media & "content" advertising have grown even faster, also cannibalizing organic.

Anyway.... Content markerting is now a niche strategy. If you are building the next wikipedia, quora or stack overflow, seo/content would be a great. If you are building a snack subscription, accounting software, or online babysitting service... the deck is stacked against you.

I run a family of newsletters that go out to over 450,000 developers and to be honest I'm surprised how few companies I see get it right. We are always looking for content that would be interesting to our readers, and the number of companies that can consistently produce such content is quite small.

Writing the most amazing article with the perfect keywords, with all the right metrics, shared on the best channel, won’t convert if your product sucks. Build a product that markets itself. Build a product that people actually love. That’s useful. That’s remarkable. That people want to recommend to others and talk about.

Nobody cares about your product or your company just because you spent hours writing a blog post, or labored over the right keywords, or posted it at 9AM instead of 5PM. Or spent thousands of dollars on content marketers.

Make something people want.

Produce something which is mostly accurate, but not 100%. so then discussion happens, and you get shouted at, or down voted. User interaction is very important, and if it divides, it’s even more important.

Anyone in search of highly effective content marketing should check out grow and convert by Devesh and Benji.

They don't.


i'm the article's author. a moment ago, i came to hn as i normally do throughout the week. my heart skipped a beat* when i saw my tc post was on here; i didn't tell anyone to upvote. for whatever that's worth.

* it's unfortunate that my reaction to seeing myself on hn is less "cool, readers!" and more "oh no, i'm about to get ripped apart in the comments"

HN has a lot of anti-voting ring protection, so I doubt it would have stayed in #2 for long if this were the case.

There’s been some talk about this in other threads, but I’m still confused how it could tell the difference between a voting ring and a legitimately popular article without having many false positives.

I’m curious about this too, but I don’t think they’ll talk openly about it. For some hints, you could probably look at what data Google reCaptcha collects. The newest version (v3) doesn’t even require a user to click anything except a single button.

I bet Reddit and HN use timing, browsing time, clicks, and mouse movements, among other things to tell if a lot of visitors are just coming to the site to upvote a single story or are genuinely browsing the site before coming across something interesting.

I avoid talking about because I don't want people getting ideas, but it's easy to detect voting rings with HTTP referers and voting history alone

Content marketing is usually easy enough to tell; even if upvoted by a voting ring, it'll be mercilessly flagged down.

The flip side I don’t hear about is using up/down votes to shape discussions. You’ll often read discussion on the same topic with drastically different sentiment at the top.

Not clear that you can really monetize HN subscribers except if you have something that would probably rise in the rankings on its own.

Of course that's what all anti-SEO people would say. Hmm.

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