I’ve been there… many times.
Ahrefs’ blog (this one) is blog #8 in my 6‑year blogging journey—that’s how long it took me to separate what actually worked from the seemingly endless supply of marketing fads.
Back when I joined Ahrefs as a CMO (~3 years ago), this very blog was far from popular. It had ~15K visits per month, and despite publishing 3 new articles every week, traffic was plateauing.
So I made a decision, we would instead focus on quality over quantity. (More on this later!)
As of today, we publish ~2 posts per week (in 2016–17, we only published ~1 post per week) and our blog traffic has grown tenfold.
But who cares about traffic, right?
That won’t pay the bills.
From day one, I made a conscious effort to decide whether or not blogging was a good investment of our time and resources.
My primary KPI was ARR, not the arbitrary monthly traffic to Ahrefs’ Blog.
In all honesty, I never even tried to measure how well Ahrefs’ Blog performs as a customer acquisition channel, mostly because I don’t believe that conversions happen in such a linear fashion.
But if you look at our ARR graph for the same period, you can see that it correlates nicely with the popularity of Ahrefs’ Blog:
And I have zero doubts that “content marketing” is one of the two biggest customer acquisition channels for Ahrefs (the other one being “word of mouth”).
So let me share four core principles of our content marketing strategy, that helped us increase our blog traffic by 10x and get thousands of paying customers along the way.
1. Focus on organic search traffic ONLY
It can be tempting to write about whatever currently excites you.
This could be a hot industry topic, an exciting feature release, or even just a random rant.
Don’t do this!
To illustrate the reason why, try asking yourself one simple question:
Will this article send me traffic two years from now? (And how?)
Nine times out of 10, the awesome hot topic you had in mind starts to make little sense.
For example, here’s a recent post from Search Engine Land about Google’s rollout of a “more results” search button on mobile.
This is a hot topic because it only just happened.
But do you think people will still be searching for (or care about) this in a couple of years?
It’s a post with a short shelf-life, so traffic will likely fade to nothing very quickly.
You could combat this issue by relentlessly publishing “hot articles” every single day like SEL does (as they’re a news blog).
But in reality, this would only give the illusion that your blog is growing.
If you were ever to pause and focus on something else, traffic would quickly fade to nothing, bringing you back to where you started.
(Not to mention that doing this as a solo blogger is pretty damn hard—some might say impossible!)
But there’s a solution to this problem.
If you can write about topics that people are searching for month after month, and somehow push your posts to the top of Google search results, then traffic won’t fade.
For as long as your article ranks in Google for relevant search queries, you’ll receive consistent organic search traffic.
No need to publish 10–15 new blog posts every month just to stop traffic from dropping.
You can publish 10–15 articles IN TOTAL and then take a vacation, leaving your blog traffic to grow passively.
That’s the beauty of SEO.
So these days, we have almost zero flexibility with the topics that we write about on Ahrefs’ Blog.
We don’t follow the latest trends, and we rarely write about random topics that cross our mind.
We ONLY publish posts with organic search traffic potential.
Want to see an example?
Look no further than this very article.
You likely already noticed (from looking at the title + URL) that we’re trying to rank in Google for “how to increase blog traffic”—a term with 350 monthly searches, according to Ahrefs.
But I know what you’re thinking…”350 monthly searches doesn’t sound like much,” right?
Good point! But if you’re an avid reader of the Ahrefs blog, then you already know that search volume is a bad predictor of total organic search traffic potential.
So instead, let’s look at how much search traffic the top ranking pages get.
I’ll use the SERP Overview report in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer for this.
Hmm, it looks like we could consistently attract 600–1K visitors per month from organic search if we can make it to the top of Google.
So for us, it’s well worth targeting this term! 🙂
This rule is so close to our hearts, in fact, that we recently decided to delete all articles that weren’t sending us any organic search traffic.
As a result, we removed almost ⅔ of all our published content.
At the start of November 2015, there were 541 posts live on the blog.
Now there are 208.
(We have another BIG purge planned soon, too!)
This only had a positive impact on our blog traffic growth.
OK; that was the “general strategy,” which explains WHAT you need to do to grow your blog traffic.
Now, how about some “specific tactics,” that will teach you HOW to do it step by step?
However, I couldn’t possibly explain everything you need to know in this article; there’s too much advice!
Don’t worry, though, because I spent the past ten months creating a very detailed video course that explains almost every single actionable tactic that helped us get Ahrefs’ Blog to where it is today.
You can sign up here: https://ahrefs.com/blogging-course
2. Focus on topics with high “business potential”
Traffic is a vanity metric.
It hardly means anything for your business.
Let me illustrate that with a vivid example.
You’ve probably heard of HubSpot, which is one of the biggest marketing software providers.
Like many SaaS companies, they have a blog, which happens to get millions of visitors from Google search every single month.
But can you guess which of their articles sends them the most search traffic?
It’s this one — “How to Make an Animated GIF in Photoshop [Tutorial]”
Do you already see what I’m trying to say?
HubSpot is a company that sells marketing software, but the article that sends the most organic traffic to their blog is a tutorial on creating a GIF image.
What are the chances that someone looking to make a GIF needs (rather expensive) marketing software?
On the whole, they don’t!
In other words, despite bringing them tons of search traffic every single month, traffic from this article is unlikely to convert into paying customers for Hubspot.
But this doesn’t stop them from trying.
You can see that this post is filled to the brim with all kinds of “lead generation” forms.
It looks like they’re trying to get some contact information from people visiting this page, so they can then put them through their lead nurturing funnel and pass the “hottest” leads to their sales team.
That works, I guess.
But don’t forget that all these people wanted to know was how to make a GIF.
Even with the best lead nurturing funnel and the most skilled salespeople, the conversion rates will undoubtedly be pretty low.
Here at Ahrefs, we want to stay small and lean.
We don’t have a single person on our sales team. Nor do we have the time and resources to create long-winded “lead nurturing” funnels.
That’s why we only write about topics that are highly relevant to our product offering. Look:
This allows us to mention Ahrefs’ products in our content.
For example, let’s say you Googled “how much traffic does a website get.”
Naturally, you click the first result—this post from the Ahrefs blog.
It talks about the various methods you can use to estimate website traffic.
In “Part 2 — Organic Traffic Estimation Tools,” we mention Ahrefs.
Because of this, there’s no need for us to obtain anyone’s contact information.
We’re not in the lead nurturing game.
We’re teaching people how Ahrefs’ can help solve the problems they are ALREADY looking to solve, directly within our content.
So, while that “how to make a GIF” article (from Hubspot) gets 4x more search traffic than our entire blog (according to Ahrefs’ estimation), it’s not a topic we would ever consider creating content around.
I think we would struggle to convert these people into Ahrefs’ customers—it doesn’t make sense from a business perspective.
That’s why I like to assign a so-called “business value” score to all our article ideas.
Here’s the simple scale I use:
- “3” — our product is an irreplaceable solution for the problem that people want to solve;
- “2” — our product helps quite a bit, but it’s not essential to solving the problem;
- “1” — our product can only be mentioned fleetingly (mostly for “brand awareness,” rather than a “sales pitch”);
- “0” — there’s absolutely no way to mention our product.
Clearly, we try only to cover topics that score 2–3 and never publish anything that scores zero.
But aren’t you being too salesy? Don’t you turn people away from your blog by talking about your product all the time?
I don’t know why so many people ask me this question, because I’ve never received such complaints from our blog readers.
Even the opposite.
Like I just said, we try to focus on writing about topics where “our product is an irreplaceable solution.”
That’s the case for anyone Googling “how much traffic does a website get.”
We would be doing our readers a disservice if we didn’t tell them about the functionality (in Ahrefs) that could solve the problem with which they’re struggling.
I would, therefore, assign a “business value” score of 3.
But let’s take a somewhat more extreme example.
This article on “SEO Title Tags” clearly has a business potential of “1”, because you don’t necessary need Ahrefs to write great title tags.
But we managed to find quite a few practical applications for our tools and data and share them in that article.
Here’s how one of our readers reacted to that:
And besides, other than those random people that find our articles on Google, we have thousands of paying customers who want to get the most out of our toolset.
By publishing content related to the core functionality of our toolset, we’re educating our customers on how to better use our products, and get more value out of them.
(Did anyone say ‘churn rate?’)
Here’s a comment that was posted just 15 minutes ago, while I was writing the previous paragraph:
So while most content marketing guides talk about the “buyer’s journey” and “ToFu vs. BoFu content,” we have replaced these concepts with our “business potential” score.
Reason being that “top of the funnel” content may convert well if your product naturally fits there. (Plus it’s worth noting that an article can take a reader from the top of your funnel to the bottom in <1k words.)
3. Focus on the quality, uniqueness and “authority” of your content
It’s crucial that you focus on both the search traffic and business potential of topics.
But there’s one final ingredient:
Neglect this, and you won’t see any success whatsoever.
But I know what you’re thinking:
“Oh, ‘publish great content?’… I’ve never heard that advice before! #sarcasm”
I hate this kind of vague general advice as much as you do; it usually leads to more questions than answers.
Like, what is “great content,” anyway? Ain’t your content “great” already? And how do you know if it’s not?
Well, here are three actionable concepts that I believe all “great content” must embody:
This can be quite subjective.
But when people talk about the quality of their content, I’ve found that they’re often referring to the following traits:
- Is it visually appealing? (i.e., website design, quality images, stylish typography, etc.)
- Is it well-written? (i.e., perfect grammar, excellent structure/flow, stories, examples, hooks, etc.)
- Does it solve the problem? (i.e., how well it articulates the solution, how deep it goes, etc.)
I know a lot of people who immediately close a website if it looks bad.
This is why we sometimes invest in cool featured illustrations for many of our posts.
Damn. I LOVE them! 🙂
I know even more people who lack the patience to read an article until the end. That is, unless the author of the article made a conscious effort to keep them engaged throughout.
But most importantly, your article needs to address the search query you’re targeting properly.
Neglect this, and the way it looks and reads will make little difference.
You need to nail all three of these aspects to ensure that every visitor sees your content as “high-quality.”
Someone has likely already published an excellent article on the topic that you want to rank for.
Hundreds of people probably have.
Take “how to increase blog traffic,” for example.
There are millions of articles on this topic, some of which are admittedly great.
So why does the world need yet another article on that same topic? And how that new article is going to stand out from the hundreds of others?
If you don’t have a good answer to this question, you’d better put that topic aside and consider writing about something else.
Your first thought might be that you should write a 100% unique article.
Good luck with that one.
In the grand scheme of things, this is nearly impossible unless you’re at the very forefront of your industry and all you do after waking up is innovate.
(Do you fall into that bracket? I know I certainly don’t!)
Other than that, the only way to publish something unique is to use your personal experience.
I mean everyone can write an article with general advice on how to lose weight.
But if you spent the last 2–3 years of your life personally testing all kinds of diets, exercises, and medications, you could surely publish a highly unique article about your weight loss journey.
If you’re a company, not an individual — that works too. You can talk about your unique business experience, or your unique conversations with customers, partners, competitors.
Take GrooveHQ, for example, who started a blog documenting their journey to $10M/year in revenue.
They rarely published anything “new,” but the fact that it was all based on their personal experience made it highly unique.
In case you struggle to squeeze any good content out of your personal experience (let’s say you’re just a copywriter in a large company), your last resort is to try explaining something better than others.
I can’t think of a better example of this than “why procrastinators procrastinate”—an article from waitbutwhy.com.
Tim Urban—the guy behind the blog—somehow explains this topic perfectly with illustrations like this:
But you don’t always have to go this far.
If there’s already a ton of content on some topic, you could try to distill all that information in a single article. That would hammer the point home better than any alternatives.
Let’s go back to the topic of weight loss.
Would you prefer to read about weight loss from a shredded person or from an overweight person?
The answer is obvious, right?
You want to learn things from people with authority on that topic.
But how do you become such a person? I mean, the world is full of much more credible people than you when it comes to your chosen topic, right?
Well, although you may not be the best practitioner when it comes to a specific topic, you can surely be a great writer, researcher, and storyteller.
Malcolm Gladwell didn’t become famous for sitting in a lab and doing some research.
He became famous curating the research of other smart people, who supposedly weren’t very good at writing.
Here at Ahrefs, we often find that we lack the necessary practical experience to write about a topic.
But we have two loopholes that we regularly exploit:
- We crowdsource opinions;
- We interview experts.
You can see examples of this throughout our post on dwell time.
Because the use of “dwell time” as a ranking factor is a somewhat controversial subject matter, we asked a few knowledgeable industry veterans to chime in with their opinions.
One thing that we’re always trying to avoid is (what we call) “opinionated writing.”
This is because we can’t risk giving people advice that doesn’t work, or that will only work only under a specific set of circumstances.
We know that by helping people achieve actual results, we attract new paying customers.
So we don’t really care about impressing people with “smart secret ninja tactics”; that’s why we focus on creating epic content around more “conventional” strategies that have already been proven.
4. ALWAYS promote your content
You should now have a piece of content that:
- has organic search traffic potential;
- has high “business potential”;
- is high-quality and unique.
So that’s it, right?
Not so fast.
If you’re to stand any hope of ranking for your target search terms (and attracting organic search traffic), you also need to promote your content.
This is because more eyeballs = more backlinks.
More backlinks = higher rankings.
And higher rankings = more passive organic search traffic.
Here are a few ways to promote your articles:
- Sending a newsletter to email subscribers;
- Posting on social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.);
- Submitting to Reddit and any other relevant forums/communities;
- Reaching out to everyone who was mentioned in the article;
We do all of this when we publish a new post on the Ahrefs blog.
But while such promotion is certainly worthwhile, there is one BIG problem:
You can only do these things ONCE… so they’re NOT scalable.
For example, we get a nice spike in traffic when we promote newly-published posts to our newsletter subscribers.
But this traffic spike isn’t replicable—it’s a one-time thing.
That’s why the primary goal is ALWAYS to rank high in Google, so as to send passive search traffic to your article.
You should, therefore, NOT quit promoting your article just because you’re out of items on your content promotion checklist.
You should ONLY stop once you reach that goal.
So what scalable strategies can you use to promote your articles and build backlinks?
- paid promotion (Facebook ads, etc.)
We do both of these when we publish new content on the Ahrefs blog.
Here’s an example of an outreach email we sent (and the response) when promoting our link building guide:
Not a bad result for sending a few emails, right?
We usually perform outreach to those who have previously:
- linked to articles on the same topic;
- published articles on the same topic.
But what about paid promotion?
Here’s one of our Facebook ads:
Don’t have the money to pay for paid ads?
No worries. Focus on outreach.
Make sure you get your content in front of those who (a) are likely to find it useful, and (b) have the power to link.
But remember, the quality of your content plays a vital role in the success of such promotion strategies.
When you have AMAZING content, you don’t even need to promote it that hard.
It spreads by itself.
Pretty cool, right?
But what did we do to get these raving reviews on Reddit?
We didn’t even submit our content to Reddit; one of our readers did.
Nor did we ask people to upvote or leave favorable comments; the Reddit community enjoyed the post and did this naturally.
The result? A nice spike in traffic… with ZERO intervention from our marketing team.
(And remember, more eyeballs = more traffic, which often leads to more backlinks, which leads to higher rankings and more organic search traffic!)
This wouldn’t have happened if our content wasn’t up to scratch.
In this case, no amount of promotion would generate the desired results.
You can learn more about content promotion in my “blogging for business” course: https://ahrefs.com/blogging-course
Back to you
Clearly, there’s more to increasing blog traffic and creating a robust customer acquisition channel than the four concepts I’ve outlined above.
But I have a firm belief that these form the very foundation of your success.
It took me quite a few years to figure out how content marketing and blogging translates into business growth, mainly because there’s so much misinformation on the web.
That’s why I’ve decided to share our story with Ahrefs’ Blog in a video course, where I pull back the curtains to reveal every strategy we’ve used over the past three years to turn this very blog into one of our most valuable business assets.
So if you want to learn more about building a successful blog, I highly recommend that you sign up for my course. 🙂