5 Most Important Writing Lessons Learned After Pivoting Our Blog Twice

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The story of why we started a fully focused content marketing strategy here at Buffer is actually one that isn’t glamorous at all. It was born out of pure necessity that we couldn’t get any press coverage for the launch of Buffer.

For the first few weeks I was on board, I tried restlessly to do one thing: get the top tech news sites to do a write-up about our newly launched app. It didn’t work out at all. Pitch after pitch I emailed got no reply or a short “no”. Not a single tech blog was interested in covering us. And I couldn’t blame them.

It led to a simply conclusion in my head: If no one wants to write about us, at least we can write ourselves.

Since then, we’ve published over 400 articles on the Buffer blog and around 150 pieces of content all around the web as interviews, guest articles or slideshows.

This blogpost is a look into the process of how we got to where we are today, what we’ve learnt and what you can hopefully take away from it.

The evolution of the Buffer blog

1.) Twitter tips: January 2011 – October 2011

The blog started out focusing on just one, very niche topic: How to do well on Twitter. As we were just starting out, this was a great wedge in. We couldn’t lose track and could really build an authority around a topic that a fair amount of people were interested in. This was our mantra:

Product and content need to be tightly interlinked. If your product solves a problem in a particular space, write content that solves the same problem – without referencing your product.

Buffer was a Twitter app to help you do better on Twitter. So our blog produced content to help you do better on Twitter too, without Buffer.

2.) Pivot to: Social Media tips: November 2011 – June 2012

After around 9 months, we quickly realized that there is only so much you can write about when it comes to tips on Twitter. The natural expansion was to move to overall Social Media marketing tips.

By the time, we had already expanded to offer posting to Facebook and LinkedIn, so the “product & content connection” was also ready to be rolled out.

3.) Pivot to: Lifehacks, writing, customer happiness and business: since July 2012

What we write about today, which also represents by far the most successful blogposts are focused on Lifehacks, efficiency and workflow tips as well as guides for better writing and customer service.

What’s most important is that this also represents the new vision we’ve developed for Buffer itself. We wanted to move away from just a social media offering and become a true utility helping you to live a more efficient life in general. And this is also what this blog is now about.

I’ve dug into what the key lessons were for us and here are the 5 learnings that made the biggest difference to how we write and publish new articles here on the blog:

 

1.) Truly understanding your audience – who will read your blog, who should you write for?

The first big lesson for us, was to understand who we should actually write for. Finding an answer to this question took us a long time to figure out. What helped us eventually a huge deal was Rand Fishkin’s guide, titled The content marketing manifesto. As Rand is the CEO of Moz, running one of the most successful company blogs on the web, he has been my go to resource for all things content marketing for a long time now.

In particular, there was one slide, I kept coming back to over and over.

It is this one, titled The relevance scale:

This one line is something well worth pinning to your desk or wall. Don’t write for your customers, don’t write for potential customers either. Write for these people:

“Write content that is relevant to anyone who will interact with potential customers” ~ Rand Fishkin

When we moved from Twitter tips to Lifehacks and way to live more efficiently, we could finally achieve that.

 

2.) Achieving top quality – Ask: Will anyone email this article to a friend?

When writing a post, I get into a mindset to answer just this 1 question with a Yes: “Would anyone email this article to a friend?”

It’s an extremely simple proposition. Yet, it has changed my writing completely. If I put myself into a reader’s head going through a post and seeing whether someone will say “Oh, this is interesting, John will really like this”, then I go ahead and publish it. It’s almost like an invisible threshold to pass. I need to improve the post until this level is reached. I will iterate, find more research, get more examples, until I can truly imagine this happening.

From putting out a simple Tweet about this, the feedback was also truly stunning and it seemed to resonate with lots of people:

 

 

3.) The structure of your articles is as important as your content – how we do this

A third key change that we’ve made is the structure of our articles. If you look at one of our most successful posts in the past, for example an article about What multitasking does to our brains, you will immediately see what I mean:

  • First, give an introduction with a personal story or quote on why this topic is interesting
  • Second, have 2 extensive, heavily scientific sections exploring the topic, as for example, multitasking, sleep, nutrition or happiness.
  • Third, end the post with 3 unique and hands on tips to implement changes based on ideas from the research.

That’s it, that is the structure we’ve followed for each new post, making it at least 1300 words long, packed with interesting insights from start to finish.

On top of this, there is a lot of microstructuring that is very important. The best tips I’ve read on this are from Social Media Examiner’s guestposting guidelines, here are the most important ones:

“a. Use short sentences: Most online readers are skimmers. Accommodate them.

b. Add lots of subheads: Break your sections using Bolded Subheads. Try to get creative as subheads lure readers to read your copy.

c. Highlight key text: Please bold, or italicize key points you are trying to make.  Feel free to mix the use as needed. “

The line that I can’t highlight enough here is: Most online readers are skimmers. Accommodate them. This is actually worth printing off and putting on your wall. It’s very hard to get caught up in complex sentences with difficult words – don’t.

 

4.) Maximize your own excitement – What is the stuff we ourselves love to read about?

This point is a lot more emotional and hard to put numbers to. When we changed the direction for our blog, we simply asked “What is the stuff we love to read about? Which blogposts get us excited?

The answer we came to are the topics you see covered here today. The whole team has started to blog on their own blogs, so naturally insights about writing were useful. We are a competitive bunch, looking to improve our ways of living at all times. Learning more about nutrition, sleep, productivity and overall life efficiency is something we couldn’t crave more.

Getting topics for posts, getting everyone excited and most importantly, getting lots of people contribute to the blog turned out to be awesome. Alyssa and Joel both started contributing amazing content about their workflows and tools that made them work efficiently and the whole team became much more involved and energized.

 

5.) Pictures are more powerful than you think: The science of using images properly

“If you put an image – any image, next to a claim, even if that is a decorative images, that claim will become more believable in the eyes of your ideal customers.” ~ Derek Halpern

The use of images is something that took me a very long time to understand. Yet, when we pivoted our blog for the 3rd time, I finally read and understood the power of using images properly.

As Derek describes above, the experiment from Erin J. Newman with 70 undergraduate students went like this. She gave each student a statement to rate “true” or “false”. These were simple statements like:

“The liquid inside a thermometer is made of magnesium” or

“Macadamia nuts come from the same  evolutionary family as peaches.”

The same statement shown with an image, was always more “true” than the one shown without it.

Especially with heavily scientific blogposts, adding a high quality image made a huge difference in terms of engagement and reshares. If you read this article on multitasking for example, you will immediately see that the comments about the post relate mostly to the section with the image of a brain scan.

This was a very powerful lesson and we’ve been using images with a lot more care since realizing this.

 

The results

Of course, this post wouldn’t make any sense if I wouldn’t share the exact details and results of our change. Of all the posts written since July, each single one gathered more traffic than the best post we had written on our previous blog iterations. Here is a breakdown of the bare stats:

Of course the Buffer blog also sent a huge amount of traffic to Buffer’s site through this. Here is the breakdown:

  • Since the pivot in June: 48,975 visits turning into ~ 6000 new signups for the site.
  • Comparing this to the same time period before (January – May): 35,432 visits turning into ~ 4,200 signups.

Another amazing outcome, which we were extremely humbled was that Lifehacker republished several of our articles, giving them another huge boost of traffic, getting an additional 50,000 – 100,000 views.

Of course, it’s important to note that the main reason for us to blog is not for new customers. Our key focus by providing great content is best described through Rand Fishkin’s awesome definition:

“Content marketing exists to build familiarity, likability and trust.”

Changing our blog so drastically definitely made us feel very uncomfortable. Yet, the journey since then was a lot of fun and taught us a huge amount about writing and what really counts. What were your key experiences from publishing content? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

 

 

About the Author

Leo Widrich

Co-founder and CMO at Buffer. I enjoy writing about lifehacks, social media tips and updates to Buffer. For some more personal posts, check out leostartsup.

  • arbus

    “We couldn’t loose track and could…” It’s lose.

    • LeoWid

      thanks a lot, just updated that! :)

  • http://www.benjaminlang.com/ Ben Lang

    Brilliant, Leo.

    • LeoWid

      thanks so much for the shout Ben! :)

  • http://www.YourMarketingGal.com Jo Guerra

    Just found out about you. What a great article and great advice. I am sharing this. Actually it is not only helpful, but inspiring. So, congrats for taking (what I know is) so much time to share such great info. Yes, I skimmed but also read a lot. Thanks.

  • http://www.YourMarketingGal.com Jo Guerra

    Oh, can I not create a new account? Can I only sign up through FB, Twitter or LI? Can’t seem to.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Jo, thanks so much for stopping by and so glad the article was interesting.

      Oh right, do you mean signing up for Buffer or for Disqus? If it is Buffer, you can easily also create a new account with password and email by clicking here: http://cl.ly/image/383t2u0a3B3w for Disqus you should also be able to signup at http://disqus.com. Let me know how you get on and if I can help with anything else! :)

      • http://www.YourMarketingGal.com Jo Guerra

        Yep, on Buffer. But someone responded to my email. Thanks.

  • http://cindyking.biz/ Cindy King

    Thanks for sharing your story, Leo… I was wondering about the changes :) Great tips too! I’m looking forward to following what you do in the future too.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Cindy, thanks a lot for stopping by and yes, I meant to share this in more detail for a while, really glad I could finally write the post.

      Yep, more awesome stuff coming really soon! :)

  • http://twitter.com/dhemley Debbie Hemley

    Great messages!

  • http://twitter.com/acoyfellow Jordan Coeyman

    I love your raw honesty, Leo. You guys are a class act, and I cherish the content you share.

    • LeoWid

      thanks so much for the kind words Jordan, I greatly appreciate it! :)

  • http://twitter.com/szabozsuzsa Zsuzsa Szabo

    Leo, these are great advices, thank you! How much time you spend with blogging a day?

    • LeoWid

      Hi Zsuzsa, that’s a great question, I would say I spend around 1 day a week for blogging, hope that helps! :)

      • http://twitter.com/szabozsuzsa Zsuzsa Szabo

        Then it seems to me that you are quite effective in that! It includes all the research you do for it?

  • http://caneelian.com Caneel Joyce

    Awesome post – in fact, much awesomer than expected when somebody sent a link with just the title. The title of this post is about pivoting, but most of the post is about writing great blog posts: posts that will be read, loved, shared, and help strengthen a business.

    Titles are so important in the success of any blog post. I’m sure you know this. Titles are the promise that gets tweeted to the world. When a reader clicks through to your blog, the post should deliver on that promise.

    But here there seems to be a bit of a mismatch between the title’s promise and the post’s content.

    Usually when this happens, the title is BETTER than the post. It promises something that the post doesn’t deliver. But here, your post is better than the title.

    Readers (as users of your product, aka your content) are motivated by THEIR problems, not YOUR solutions. This is basic lean startup stuff. And the word “you” is very effective in boosting conversion rates – people love talking about themselves.

    Great post overall. Packed with insights! But you may have a good reason for this, so I’m curious:

    Why did you chose to focus your title on your blog doing YOUR pivot and not me writing MY blog post?

    • LeoWid

      Hi Caneel,

      You are absolutely right, the title of this post could be improved a lot and I just tried to do that. Your analysis is spot on, from reading the title you think the lesson is about how to pivot, when really it is about what we’ve learned from writing after the pivot.

      Let me know what you think of the new title and if it represents the new changes better. :)

      • http://caneelian.com Caneel Joyce

        Nice! Still maintains a link to the old title so that people won’t get confused if they clicked through from an older link. Looking forward to your next.

        • LeoWid

          appreciate that, thanks Caneel! :)

  • http://twitter.com/aschottmuller Angie Schottmuller

    I must admit… I wasn’t interested in the post title, but the votes on inbound.org inspired me to click-through. I’m so glad I did! Great case study, Leo! I love the five key takeaways and how the insights helped you plan a better strategic plan and vision for Buffer. Thanks for sharing!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Angie, thanks a lot for stopping by and really appreciate the heads up, you and @caneel:disqus made a great point, the title was definitely misleading and I’ve updated it to fit better explain what’s coming in the post, hope you can let me know what you think! :)

      And so glad you liked the content, really glad I could share our story here and will update you soon with some more cool things!

  • http://twitter.com/mgwitham Michael Witham

    Precisely why I unprovokedly deemed you as the best content marketing blog I’ve come across.

    • LeoWid

      that is awesome Michael, thanks for the kind words of appreciation! :)

  • http://GGene-SIS.com/ Donna Johnson

    With this very valuable awesome post, you’re now on the same par with seomoz, in terms of being an authority on content marketing. Saved it and will continue to use your tips & share it as a great resource for colleagues/clients.

  • Sarah Wiltshire

    Thanks Leo. I’m just coming back to my blog again, after a few month’s absence. So, really encouraging to read that you’ve revisited the focus of your blog too, that’s just where I’m at. Will be digesting your tips and seeing how they can improve my blog too, thanks again.

  • Abhinav

    Hi

    its a fantastic post with lots of learning, thank you

  • http://twitter.com/hyderali_ Hyderali Shaikh

    Nice post leo!

    Thanks for sharing your advice. It seems the title of the post & the post itself is something different. So writing this whole piece of content took you how many days? I’m asking because you answered someone that you write on once per week. Is that so?

  • http://twitter.com/JanetAronica Janet Aronica

    Hey Leo! Really like this post. I was wondering what was going on over here :) I really appreciate someone trying something different in the (crowded) social media space. Good on you guys for doing it in such a strategic way and sharing the results with the class.

  • cottageguru

    I blog for the vast vacation rental owners market and encourage them to create a blog to promote their property and region. All these tips are excellent and I will be sharing them. There are a lot of scams in this industry that impact trust so Fishkin’s definition was great to share too. My first visit to your blog and now bookmarked!

  • Pablo Orellana

    Super honest, Leo. Is this the first blog you write for? How much time do you spend to write an article like this?

  • http://blog.paulgailey.com/ Paul Gailey

    I’ve called out that slide 29 also. It’s totally:

  • Dr. Chris Tetley

    Super useful and interesting post Leo. I’ve really been enjoying the blog recently.

  • Peter

    Great post, Leo. Looking forward to using some of these tactics for our own blog. -Peter

  • http://profiles.google.com/martin.cohen Martin Cohen

    Very interesting. I do not have a blog, but I am a (imho) good proofreader. To illustrate, your picture showing “magnesium” has different texts for the two sides – one has “is made”, the other does not.

  • Shari

    Change is occasionally uncomfortable; however, what’s now crystal clear is how much you’re relishing in your transformational success. One of the hardest things for me in my blogging infancy was ditching the journalist hat. Blogging audiences don’t just clamor for facts and how to’s, they also want to be engaged with relevant content.

  • http://about.me/lucahammer Luca Hammer

    8,4 vs 8,1 visits for one signup. Why do you attribute this change to the pivoting of the blog? Or do you only say pivoting was important to increase traffic?

    You always have great tips but I am not sure about this.

  • NeilDesai1

    Very good article Leo. I totally agree with the five points you make. You have some quality content on here. Keep up the good work. Cheers :-)

  • http://www.buildtracks.com/ Gregor – buildtracks.com

    Great post. I think you speak / write with integrity which is probably one of the defining factors. One question; on “48,975 visits turning into ~ 6000 new signups” who does that conversion compare to other online or offline marketing strategies?

  • http://twitter.com/moritzplassnig Moritz Plassnig

    I really like your blog & your posts. I have one question: What’s your definition of “successful”? Signups, paying customers or just more page views / shares (ofc. that are vanity metrics but imo. the brand get a huge boost nevertheless and you boost your organic growth in the long run)? Btw. the conversion rate didn’t increase that much (12.25% / 11.85%).

  • Blaze Arizanov

    I was stroked from the your sincerity and honesty starting from the first paragraph…

    Keep sharing..

  • http://twitter.com/1stwebdesigner Dainis Grāveris

    Oh this was really good reading! All points you made are so well researched and explained, helps trust so much, but you already know that :)

  • Test

    Hi the lifehacker link is broken

  • DJ Dan Murphy

    Brilliant!

  • Marco Testos

    Hi Leo, Hope you don’t mind re-oping the discussion 1 year on! I note that you take inspiration from Rand at Moz, so here’s something that I’ve been puzzling over. If the purpose of Content Marketing is to build familiarity then one might expect the engagement numbers to reflect the approach: So if the Buffer blog has 10K regular email subscribers – one might be forgiven for thinking that the number of customers is less that 10K. Perhaps 10% of the readership convert – so 1K customers. But we all know that Buffer has 1000 x that number. See where I am confused?

    Of course I understand there are other customer acquisition channels, and you have stated that approx 100K users come from guest blogging (amazing insights and thanks for THAT post), but given the fact that you attribute so much of your acquisition engine to content marketing, surely your email list should be MUCH larger than 10K subs? What am I missing here? Rgds Marco

    • Belle

      Hi Marco,

      Hopefully I can help here a bit by adding some more context. Our email list is quite small, as you say. This is one area of our content strategy that we’ve kind of neglected up until now (it’s grown to almost 15k in the past couple of months since we started paying more attention to it), so it’s probably not a good indicator of the number of readers we have.

      In terms of pure traffic, our average right now is around 700k/month. So those numbers, plus the guest posting and word-of-mouth among existing customers make a little more sense. Does that help?

  • Lynie Copywriter

    For marketers, blogging is very important to their jobs — nevertheless it isn’t simple. You need to come up that has a subject, publish something engaging, optimize it for SEO, doing SEO Copywriting, and consider a ton of other steps to be certain we are writing the top probable post that stands out from other similar subjects online. SEO copywriting could be the very hard task involve in SEO yet very worth it. Copy Writer