“I learned a ton in [my teaching] experience about effective communication and teaching other people how to be better writers,” said Joshua Parkinson, Chief Customer Pain Killer, Post Planner.
Between his experience as a former collegiate instructor at the University of Maryland and his time teaching literature to soldiers on military bases in Kuwait and Afghanistan, Parkinson developed his “Ten Commandments” of writing.
According to Parkinson, the No. 1 commandment is, “Write for the reader, not for yourself.”
As a teacher, Parkinson added, your entire motivation is to help your students, not yourself — the same principle applies in marketing. This motivation to help rather than to act selfishly is even reflected in his title, Chief Customer Pain Killer, as is his focus on educating customers.
“I think that whole mantra is super important to writing on the Web … put yourself into the reader’s shoes, and read your own writing through someone else’s eyes. In the end, that’s kind of impossible to do. But the more you try to do it, the better you’re going to write,” he said.
All of Parkinson’s experience led him to create Post Planner in 2011 without him, “really ever considering myself a marketer,” he said.
Post Planner sells an app on a monthly subscription model, and content plays a huge role in establishing trust and educating customers on the product.
“The more traffic we get on our blog and website, the more people find out about our brand, find out about our app, and sign up for our newsletter, the more likely it is that eventually, hopefully, they become customers,” he said.
Parkinson faced three challenges at the beginning of this content-focused plan:
- Low site traffic
- Not being seen as a authority
- Only having sales-focused content to share
“I had known about these challenges for the previous six months to a year. I knew we had to solve these problems … but I didn’t really know where to start,” he said.
“I didn’t foresee everything that was going to come of it, but I knew that we had to start producing original content, and I knew we had to boost our traffic to our website. The only way to do that without spending a ton on ads was to produce high-quality content,” Parkinson said.
After realizing these problems, Parkinson hired blogger Scott Ayres to the Post Planner team to write most of the new content that was needed.
“It was really hiring him that started this whole entire process of what we’ve managed to accomplish to this day. He was the impetus to it all,” Parkinson said, adding that while he was running the business, doing customer support, and working in product development, he didn’t have the time to write quality blog posts every week.
In a startup, Parkinson explained, the addition of one talented employee can make a huge difference.
“This whole entire campaign rests on the foundation of pushing out three to four blog posts every single week. If you don’t do that, none of this works,” he said.
They implemented a three-part content marketing strategy in January 2013:
- Three to four weekly blog posts
- Consistently sharing and re-sharing blog posts on Facebook
- A Sunday newsletter sharing the week’s blog posts
Also, the small amount of content Post Planner was previously putting out was mostly entertainment-based instead of valuable how-to content.
Part of the content marketing strategy involved moving away from entertainment and having Ayres write consistently for value.
Step #1. Use original content in newsletter for value
Post Planner started a newsletter in the summer of 2012.
“It’s funny how things happen in a startup. You don’t really plan things, they just kind of happen a lot of the time,” Parkinson said.
He met with a company that produced newsletters with third-party content. The company used the newsletter as a resource, “just to get your subscribers to open and realize that you’re not trying to sell them stuff. You’re just trying to send them a newsletter with valuable content to share,” Parkinson said. “I really liked that philosophy, and I started using their products … to send out a weekly newsletter.”
It was a good short-term solution for the small startup and helped begin list building, but Parkinson knew Post Planner was capable of producing content that would have a much greater impact.
“It was great, but we weren’t sharing our own content. We really weren’t getting traffic from that newsletter; we were just kind of trying to build the subscriber base and provide value to them,” he said.
When Ayres became a part of the team, “suddenly we had three or four posts a week to share on our own and get traffic coming back to our website,” Parkinson said.
Parkinson decided to run solely Post Planner’s own content for two reasons.
“One reason is the obvious one. We would rather send people back to our own website than back to other people’s websites,” he said.
The other reason, he explained, is that the original newsletter was sending out 10 links to different blog posts, and they realized sending out so many links would result in fewer clickthroughs than sending out links to three.
“The fewer options you give your subscribers when they open that email, the more likely it is that they’re going to click one of them. So, we went from 10 posts in our newsletter, mainly third-party, to basically three posts of our own links,” he said.
“Our newsletter is a weekend newsletter,” Parkinson said, adding that it is sent out Sunday morning.
He tested Friday, Saturday and then Sunday, and Sunday mornings generated the most clickthrough and website traffic.
Parkinson also added, “it kind of kickstarts the week.” The team has not tested during the week, because “our whole philosophy is that we want it to be an end-of-the-week-type thing.”
Saturday is Post Planner’s lowest traffic day, and he believes that by sending the newsletter out on Sunday, they are also boosting traffic on Monday for subscribers who wait until Monday to open the newsletter.
“So we head into every single week with a big wave of traffic coming to our website,” he said, adding that throughout the week, they push out new blog posts to keep that traffic up.
Step #2. Create an editing process for content
Now that these blog posts were being created and sent out in the newsletter, “I suddenly had several drafts of blog posts a week,” Parkinson said.
With his background in writing and teaching at the university level, Parkinson became the editor for the blog posts. He focused not only on grammar and structure but also on making sure the posts maintained the right direction.
“On the one side, pushing out great blog posts is just the pure content. … But on the other side, which is just as important, if not more important, is the editing and the optimization of the post that goes into that before you actually push ‘publish’ on WordPress,” he said.
Choose images carefully
The process Parkinson and Ayres go through to edit the copy involves choosing a singular image for the blog post carefully, “not only for on-page optimization, but also for sharing optimization on social media,” he said.
Parkinson believes in keeping the left margin of blog posts clear, so images are always square and placed in the top-right corner for consistency.
“We don’t want to disturb that left margin. We want to keep that thing uniform going down the page,” he said.
Making sure images are clear, bright and engaging is extremely important, and if the images don’t fit those criteria, Parkinson said he will put them in Photoshop to edit them. This helps not only with the post itself, but also with social sharing.
“When someone shares it on Facebook, I want it to pop and attract eyeballs. … So, if I put, for example, an image that’s kind of dull and it doesn’t have a lot of contrast, especially if it’s kind of black and white or Facebook blue — all those things, in my experience, are going to make it less noticeable,” he said.
Parkinson tries to use images of people or brighter colors that provide contrast on Facebook, particularly oranges or yellows in object photos.
Consider SEO in editing process
Because Post Planner was still trying to build up a solid search engine reputation, Parkinson also considers the SEO prospects of a post and how they can be improved.
“The [content] we push out is very readable, very scannable. It’s just very easy content to consume, and the reason for that is because it’s well-edited,” he said.
In his process, Parkinson makes sure that open graph elements, such as the title and description that are shown when a post is shared on social media, are strategically crafted.
“That goes hand in hand with the SEO setup of each blog post. You want to make sure that the headline is a great headline. … I spend maybe 50% of my time just thinking about the headline,” he said.
The trick to a good headline, he said, is one that includes a solid SEO keyword but isn’t written only for that purpose — going back to Post Planner’s main goal of writing for the reader, which is “a huge challenge unto itself.”
Parkinson has a WordPress plugin called WordPress SEO that allows him to see what the title and description will look like in a Google search result while he’s editing.
According to Parkinson, the new focus on how-tos and tutorials has had a big impact as well as the consistency and increased magnitude when it comes to the posting schedule.
“The value of the content is much higher because people are going to our website to learn how to do things,” he said.
Step #3. Keep content simple
The goal of Parkinson’s editing in every post is a phrase that has stuck with him over the years: “The goal of every single sentence is very simple: to get the person to read the next sentence.”
“That’s our whole philosophy. We want people to read through our entire posts. So, when I’m editing, that’s all I’m thinking about,” he said.
Just as marketers worry about friction on landing pages, Parkinson worries about friction in sentences.
“That involves not only constructing easy-to-read sentences and conversational sentences, sentences that the reader can hear in their mind very easily. They don’t have to think to read it,” he said.
The layout of a blog on the page is also critical for easy reading, he added.
“You have to break up your copy into a lot of headers, sub-headers and a lot of one- and two-sentence paragraphs. People disagree on this, but at least on our blog, there’s no place for a
seven-, eight- or 10-line paragraph,” he said.
Blog posts often include lists, popularized by sites like BuzzFeed, for this reason.
“If your readers actually read to the bottom of your blog posts, there’s going to be a huge effect from that,” Parkinson said.
Readers will receive value from the content, which in turn will make them much more likely to share it, he added. They may also be more likely to leave a comment to engage with other readers and customers on your website.
Constantly strive for improvements in process
The biggest problem Parkinson has run into throughout this process is himself, he admitted.
“We don’t have the resources to do it as well as we could. I’m a huge bottleneck in the system because I’m running the business, and I refuse to put out a post that hasn’t been edited,” he said.
A full-time editor is being hired, but during the campaign to get this content process up and running, “those are the real challenges — it’s opening up those bottlenecks and making sure that we’re posting as many high-quality blog posts as possible,” he said.
Step #4. Create evergreen blog posts
Pushing out a good blog post, sharing it on social media, putting it in the newsletter, and then forgetting about it may work for a lot of marketers, Parkinson said, but a startup has to strive for more.
“My recommendation of what works for us is to continuously recycle that blog post,” he said.
Parkinson and Ayres aim to create content that is evergreen, “which means as long as content hasn’t become dated and stale, and … is just as valuable today as it was when it went live on your blog, then you can continuously recycle that content on Facebook and continue to boost its traffic,” he said.
His philosophy is to blog intelligently, so he chooses topics that will be valuable for readers up to a year after they were originally published. This way, the effort of writing and editing these posts so thoroughly goes further and drives traffic for longer.
“Recycling and reposting old evergreen content is huge. We get a ton of traffic from Facebook hitting all these old blog posts,” he said.
If the team had simply forgotten about the posts, he added, this would be traffic just left on the table. By continuing to share them long after the original publish date, they’re seeing boosts to traffic and SEO benefits that would otherwise be passing them by.
“The big picture is pretty simple. It’s that content marketing works. It works. It will grow your business,” Parkinson said.
He has no doubts, he added, that if he left his content marketing the way that it was — scattered posting schedule and entertainment-focused — he would be leaving money on the table.
“If you put valuable blog posts out there that are readable and provide value, then you are going to see an ROI on that. I have no doubt about it. But you have to do it in a way that’s consistent, that is high-quality,” he said.
Since doing so, Post Planner has seen the following growth from December of 2012 to September of 2013:
- 1,365% increase in unique website visitors
- 1,852% increase in organic (Google search) site visitors
- 931% increase in page views, from 25,400 to 236,400
- 1,328% increase in newsletter subscribers, from 2,600 to 34,500
In the future, he added, Post Planner will be going in the direction of more multimedia content, such as podcasts and webinars. The blog will also be doubling its output to between six and eight posts a week.
“We’re going to have a lot more guest posts, guest bloggers … and we’re also going to try to do more investigative journalism. Instead of just these how-to and tutorial-style blog posts, we want to become more of a hub for tech and social media news,” he said.
The main lesson to be learned, and applied moving forward, is to have “consistent, high-quality and effectively distributed [content],” Parkinson said. “Take all the FAQs that your customers are asking you, and turn every single one of them into a blog post and optimize them for SEO.”
That is what Parkinson preaches to friends and family. “If you run a business, there’s no doubt about it. You should hire a blogger, get [them] answering those questions and out on the Web, and start drawing inbound traffic,” he concluded.
Scott Ayres, Ambassador of Awesomeness
Joshua Parkinson, Chief Customer Pain Killer