16 lessons learned from 6 years and 500,000+ words of content marketing

It’s coming to the end of 2013 and I’m in the fortunate position of having an exciting, high growth business. A business that does zero advertising. A business where the only marketing we do is creating helpful content for people and telling interesting stories.

It’s fun and it’s a nice place to be, but it hasn’t come easily. It hasn’t been overnight. It hasn’t been passive. It hasn’t been viral.

Here are a few fun facts from my 6 years of active blogging and content marketing.

Amount of content

  • Since my first post 6 years ago I’ve produced somewhere around 500 pieces of content, which is roughly half a million words (a few less than War and Peace)*
  • In the last 18 months I’ve put out close to 250 pieces of content.
  • For the vast majority of the time it’s been me, myself and I doing every aspect of the content. Since June this year Alex and I have been working on content together (although I haven’t counted his posts above). For a brief while, I had a VA doing the write-ups for our podcasts. I’ve had a handful of guest posts on my sites, but no more than 5 in total.
  • In July 2012, I sold my business along with my blog where I’d written 186 posts and all of my social media accounts. I had to start everything from scratch – I retained an email list of around 1,500 people but I removed all of my recurring customers many of whom were my most engaged readers. If I had my time again, I would keep it!

Topics

I’ve focused my content around the topics of entrepreneurship, online marketing, web design, analytics and content marketing. Here’s a word cloud created by mashing the 3 RSS feeds from my current blogs and submitting them in Wordle. Big one in the middle says it all really!

dan_norris_posts_word_cloud

5 years without traction

  • I wrote around 350 on-site articles before I had an article with more than 10 tweets. Almost every article I wrote prior to a year ago still has less than 10 tweets, with only a handful with just over 10.
  • I wrote about 150 posts (perhaps 40-50 guest posts) before I had a single offsite sale that I could attribute directly to my content.
  • I didn’t really start believing we could build a business purely on content marketing until this year.

Some highlights

  • In August 2012, I created 13 articles in 1 day.
  • In 1 week in December 2012 last year I launched a new podcast, created 10 podcast episodes, wrote 6 blog posts and appeared on 3 other sites.
  • Probably my most impactful piece of content was Is Startup Validation Bullshit. It’s had just under 6,000 views, 188 tweets, 99 comments, 58 backlinks, it had a whole episode of one of my favorite podcasts recorded about it and it resulted in me finding a co-founder for a business that hit a $100k run rate in 5 months. Not bad for 1 blog post!

Some fails

  • I’ve tried just about every sort of online content you can think of including webinars, plugins, infographics, illustrations, podcasts, videos, long posts, interactive posts, detailed marketing guides, email courses, video training, guest posts, interactive guest posts, guest interviews, media releases, ebooks, auto responders, PR outreach, influencer outreach, Quora answers, forum marketing, Twitter following you name it I’ve tried it. Most haven’t worked particularly well long term.
  • I’ve never had anything I’ve written go anywhere near viral.
  • I’ve still never had a single vote on Hacker News (to my knowledge).
  • I worked for 2 weeks full time equivalent on a post which included an illustrated sidebar, embedded interactive checklist and almost 5,000 words that had less traction than posts written in 2 hours after a few wines.

Key learnings and things for you to try

I’ve learned a few things after writing 500,000 words of content. Here are the main lessons and tactics you can try for your business.

  1. Build an email list from Day 1 – Your email list will be your biggest source of engaged readers, biggest source of customers, most valuable and transferable asset and best measure of content success. If you aren’t converting 5% of your visitors to subscribers then read this.
  2. If you are looking for short term results, Content Marketing is not going to work – View it as an investment and don’t feel guilty spending time creating content. Investing is wise… I’m sure someone smart said that. Everyone has the same amount of time, some people prioritize content and others don’t. If you want to build a business using content marketing then prioritize it. Write a blog post today and tell me about it in the comments below, I’ll give you feedback on it.
  3. Content Marketing is not going to give you easily quantifiable results… At least not in the short term. It will work long term, if you do it right. Here’s how to do it right!
  4. Create content on your own site for the long term – But remember, the best thing to do early on is to bring in new visitors. A good way to do that is to create content on other sites. You need to grow your reach, your audience and your new visitors in order to build up authority on your own site. Being able to create contently solely on your own site is a luxury that comes with authority and traction. I’m still regularly posting content to other sites after 6 years and 500 posts.  Check your Analytics today and see what % of your visitors are are ‘new visitors’. If it’s less than around 75%, do some off site content like a Slideshare presentation or a guest post.
  5. If you don’t believe content marketing will work, it will show and your content won’t work – You have to believe that creating useful information for people is a good thing for you to be spending your time on. If you don’t believe that then stop doing it today, the web doesn’t need any more shit content.
  6. Choose a medium that suits your skills for best results – I don’t read much at all, but I like writing. My buddy James reads a lot – but he hates writing, so he does video. If you can do both then great, but don’t force it just do what you are good at. Check your blog and see what content is getting shared the most. This is probably the one you are best at. ConvertPress has an analytics section that does this for you.
  7. The more open and honest you can be, the better! Some people will think you are a tool. Some people will appreciate it. Most won’t say anything. If you have thick skin, start doing monthly income reports today, people love them!
  8. Be genuinely helpful – Some people will question your motives, some people won’t. Again, most will say nothing. Which is why it’s important to know yourself whether you are trying to help people or not. Either way, people will be able to tell from your content. Ask yourself, why are you writing this blog post? If it’s not to help someone then trash it and write something with good intentions.
  9. You have missed the point if you say ‘My content is for Google rankings’ – Content doesn’t bring rankings. Great content brings people, those people share the great content and over a long enough time, Google is smart enough to work that out and reward you with rankings. Content created FOR rankings is not going to bring people and therefore won’t bring rankings either. There are no sensible shortcuts. This is mindset related. Don’t think about content marketing as an SEO exercise. If you are creating content for SEO purposes please stop and contribute some real value instead (TWEET THIS).
  10. Your content will impact people – Just because you don’t have thousands of people praising you, doesn’t mean it’s a waste. I regularly hear from people who have been inspired by our content and quite often they are people that I’ve never heard from before. People who have never left a comment, never replied to an email, never linked to me and never mentioned me on social media (to my knowledge). If you are having doubts, let me know in the comments and I’ll tell you what I think you should do next.
  11. Don’t get too bummed or too excited about the results of 1 post – It’s extremely difficult to predict how a post will do. There’s some science to it, some art, some luck and some timing involved. Try to improve your numbers but don’t give up if a post bombs (remember I had 350 bombs before I  had traction). Please don’t launch an AMA thread about how you’ve cracked the formula if you have one post that goes viral.
  12. You are better off ignoring Google – With my previous blog, I checked my Google rankings every day. It ranked for some amazing keywords, which made me feel smart (I had keywords getting 18,000 exact searches). The problem was, the blog only ever had 5,000 monthly visits. I haven’t paid any attention to what Google is doing for the last 2 years. I’ve still had some very good results with some posts ranking well (just by doing these things), but we don’t really pay attention to it and certainly don’t rank for major keywords like my last blog. Funnily – our current sites are nearing 30,000 visits. They have a balanced source of traffic, which is a much better than having almost all of our traffic coming from Google. We do what we are good at, we try to be useful and Google looks after itself. As an action point, make sure you are doing these things and stop worrying about Google.
  13. Create actionable content to increase your chance of success – This post is not just about what I’ve been through. I’ve included this list here in the hope that you can apply some of what I’ve learned. Pay attention to whether people are actioning your stuff. Are your commenters saying ‘Great post I enjoyed it’ or are they saying ‘Great post I made 2 of your suggested changes today and it improved our business’? And by the way if you do action any part of this post please let me know below!
  14. Content is very difficult to measure with numbers – My podcast gets very few downloads, but has been responsible for most of the relationships that have helped the rest of my content spread. Your high traffic posts might not convert. Be smart around your numbers but the most important things are that: you are improving, you are helpful and your impact is growing. Don’t be so quick to judge the results of your content.
  15. Content marketing is a true differentiator and competitive advantage – Most people don’t make it past 50 posts. Most people don’t get it. Most content is average. If you do get it, if you want to improve your content, if you are committed, then don’t give up. The harder it is to do, the better advantage it provides for a business. Anyone can outspend us on Adwords, but it’s going to be hard for them to write 500 good pieces of content that drive tens of thousands of visitors each month to their site. It’s going to be especially hard for them to do it without spending a lot of money. Treat content marketing like an investment that will result in an advantage that none of your competitors saw coming until it was too late (TWEET THIS).
  16. Content marketing is rewarding – Even if it doesn’t make you rich, you are helping people, contributing to the conversation in your industry and learning. You are being a creator, not a hater. Even if your vanity metrics aren’t going up, to me it’s still worthwhile. If you’ve created a piece of content this week then give yourself a high 5. You’ve added more value to the world than your competitor who spent $100 on Adwords.

What have you created in 2013?

Are you a hater or a creator? What have you created in 2013? Tell me in the comments.

If you haven’t created anything then let me know and commit to creating something before the year is out. If you’ve created 1,000 posts then let me know. If you’ve created 10 posts let me know. Tell me what you will create in 2014!

content_club_reviewed_blackp.s. want to improve your content? Check out Content Club, where we motivate each to create actionable, useful content that builds businesses!

Calculations

Content numbers are based on:

  • 186 posts on my old blog which I sold in August 2012
  • 41 posts on inform.ly (there were more and they were moved to WP Curve)
  • 28 posts on thedannorris.com
  • 129 posts on wpcurve.com
  • Total – 384
  • An estimated 77 posts or 20-30% of that amount of content has been posted externally (guest posts, media stories, guest interviews)
  • Content not included – 50 odd email sequences and 6 ebooks.
  • Total – 461 – 500
  • For the total word count, I’ve made a guess. My posts are generally 1,000 to 2,000 words, with some at 5,000+ words. Using a rough estimate, you have an 800 word average length multiplied by 500 posts, so that’s 400,000 words. I’ve also produced 6 ebooks (some 30 pages long) and approximately 50 email sequences.

About

Dan Norris is a co-founder at WP Curve and a passionate entrepreneur with an obsession for content marketing.

  • http://hackdigital.net/ Luke Marshall

    Hey Dan,

    That’s a tremendous amount of words. Seriously well done. I’m merely starting this journey and you hit my radar during the 7-day rush. This is great advice, and it was both deflating and heartening to know that content marketing is a slow-burner.

    I’ll be taking the hints on volume, and email databases on-board right away.

    Cheers,
    Luke

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Hey man thanks for the reply. Honestly my path has not been the most efficient no doubt. I think with better targeting and more focus people could get much better results much quicker. Still, I enjoy it and I’m happy we are at this point now. Best of luck and let me know if we can help with anything.

  • Keryn Spriggs

    Dan the Man well done! I have started content marketing as suggested by you :) Really wishing I had started earlier and now I want to start adding in video blogging as this will be easier and more fun for me to create. Any suggestions or awesome video blogger experts I should be following?

  • http://find.brentshepherd.com/ Brent Shepherd

    250 pieces of content in 18 months & 13 articles in one day?! You’re a machine!

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Thanks, yeah I had a few moments of high output. Mind you, people like Schramko and John Dumas have been putting out 1 piece of content a day every day for 18 months ha.

    • http://www.wpcurve.com/ Alex McClafferty

      He loves cutting that ‘human code’

  • Aidan Sheerin

    Hey Dan, would be great to see a word cloud of all your posts. Most commonly mentioned keywords over 6 years.
    Great post and very honest

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Ha good call, any ideas how to create one? I don’t have a record of all of my offsite content and at least 186 of my posts have been attributed to someone else (old blog) but I’m guessing the later posts I could do it?

      • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

        Actually ignore that Aidan, I’ve just updated the post to include the WordCloud and instructions on how to create it. Big ‘Content’ in the middle!

        • Aidan Sheerin

          ‘People Post Content’ seems to be the most prominent words. Quite ironic!

  • Jason

    Very useful and inspiring article. Thanks for taking the time to share this!

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Thank you for taking the time to comment! I’m glad you liked it.

  • Ryan Kettler

    Love the article Dan! You made lots of great points that inspire me to continue my content marketing efforts. Just counted, 75 pieces of content, on the BoostSuite blog alone. I estimate that about 25 pieces we created this year were guest posts so that rounds off to an even 100! Wow..crazy thinking about that.

    Thanks for contributing to OUR blog!

    Keep up the great work! Cheers!

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Hey Ryan awesome mate that’s a great effort. Thanks for the comment too, I’m glad you found the article useful. Another 100 in 2014?

      • Ryan Kettler

        Yes sir! I’m hoping for many more actually!

  • http://www.kitzmillermedia.com/ Chris Kitzmiller

    Fantastic post, Dan! I love the transparency. We like to hear about success, but failure is so much more interesting. Probably because we can all relate. If you’re doing it correctly, failure happens a lot more than success. I suppose that all depends on how you define success… I’m going to add that to my drafts – a post about failure and why it’s so important. One a week is my goal next year. Cheers! Thanks for sharing.

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Awesome man once a week is great, that is our goal as well. We try to do 1 per week but we’d like to do more. I think I’m going to ask Alex if he’s up to aiming for 1 post per day in 2014! Claff? It will include guest posts as well, that will force us to get that happening.

      • http://www.wpcurve.com/ Alex McClafferty

        Brilliant, let’s do it.

  • Travis Howard

    Great post Dan, hits home no matter what niche we have chosen, can’t wait to read more of your stuff.

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Thanks Travis

  • Peter Ince

    Thanks for another great post Dan! You and Alex produce a bunch of great content, and like another poster said – your transparency is really awesome.

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Thanks Peter. We are aiming for 1 piece of content every day in 2014! We really appreciate your comment, I’m glad you like some of our stuff.

      • Peter Ince

        1 piece of content per day is crazy! You guys have really contributed to inspiring me on my entrepreneurial journey. Thank you both for all you do!

        • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

          Thanks Peter, that’s great to hear. You should join us on the 1 post per day challenge!

    • http://www.wpcurve.com/ Alex McClafferty

      Right on Peter! I’m glad you get a kick out of it and thanks a lot for sharing. Like Dan said, 1 piece of content per day in 2014 is the gauntlet that’s been thrown down. I’m kind of excited… kind of scared.

  • http://supremacyseo.com/ Travis Jamison

    Dan,
    I responded to you via your email, you called me a “nob” and told me to comment on the blog. So here it is.

    You’re email said
    “But it took me 6 years and 500+ blog posts before I really started to get serious benefit from content marketing.”.

    I responded saying
    “I have never seen a bigger motivator to not use content marketing”
    , but really, I was only kind of trolling you to get your response.

    I don’t think you’re giving yourself near enough credit. For the most part these 18 businesses that you have were all created in just over a year (I was with you when you started the first one!), and they were all created with content marketing. None of your old years of posts for the web design biz counts. You’ve crushed it and built a solid following in a 1 year. 1.5 years tops.

    So I was really just coming to say congrats. Even I, the SEO guy who loves to game every system imaginable, completely see the immense value in the type of marketing you do. The very little “guest” content marketing that I have done has paid off many times over.

    Now… if only you would combine a pinch of my stuff with your content marketing… BOOM :). Or just relisten to your own show: Travis Jamison SEO God

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Haha awesome thanks man. I hope Alex doesn’t read this or he’ll be employing you right away.

      • http://www.wpcurve.com/ Alex McClafferty

        I read everything! You’re right @Travis_Jamison:disqus – Dan doesn’t give himself enough credit.

  • Kitty Kilian

    Hey Dan, this is a seriously good and friendly post, I agree with most of it and some of it I had not even put into words yet.

    I agree about the stats, it’s not about those numbers at all. It is about being around, being helpful, checking in every week on your blog and daily on twitter etc and acting like the normal friendly person most of us are, anyhow.

    The only point I don’t find works well is guest blogging, #4, but that is because Holland is too small and has too few interesting blogs to write on.

    I like my visitors to be returning visitors, by the way, but I guess you mean: keep a fresh stream coming all the time.

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Hi Kitty thanks. I guess it depends on your business. Our business operates worldwide 24 / 7 so every blog visitors is a potential customer for us. Which also means every blog out there has potential customers in their audience. It’s very hit and miss and works best when it’s highly targeted but either way you have to get new people to your blog or else you won’t grow. A lot of people try to grow their blog from inside out and I think it is better to get a higher percentage of new visits who are more likely to convert and more likely to share your content to new audiences. Once you have a big list and posts gain natural traction it’s not quite as important.

      • Kitty Kilian

        Yup, I get it. It’s an interesting point. It does depend on your business. You offer quick online help – very concrete. If you offer counseling, or a writing course, like I do, it works a bit differently. But – for getting more people to your blog – there the ideas would be the same.

        Mark Schaefer mentioned just the other day that he only looks at recurring traffic – if that metric is going up he concludes he’s on the right path.

        At Sobcon Chris Brogan told us he really only watches how many people ‘jump onto his mailing list’.

        What is your opinion there? I would be interested. (I mean: they focus on content first and foremost. Because optimizing all of the other things takes a lot of time. They make a choice. And they HAVE grown ;-) )

        • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

          Yeah I understand there’s different views on this. I look at email list conversions because that’s ultimately what drives our business forward. If I was more of an artist id pay more attention to on page metrics

  • lisaleague

    Awesome Dan!

    I’m not exactly sure when I stumbled across you, but I’ve been a fan since – I especially like your posts where you break down the how-to’s and whys. They are genuinely helpful – and it most certainly adds up over time.

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Thanks Lisa, it means a lot. I need to get back into more ‘how to’ type posts. I kind of realised that as I put together todays post which was about our top hits of 2013. Most of the big ones early on were long how to type posts which I haven’t done a lot of lately.

  • http://bisswebsite.com/ Michail

    Dan, thanks for the inspiration. I’m up to about 200 articles/post and and 2 ebooks. I

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Nice! You should definitely aim for 1 post per day in 2014 like us. You are almost there already!

  • http://www.successwithfocus.com/about/ Jeff Jones

    Hi Dan,

    Between different (limited) successes and outright failures, I’ve probably created just under 200 posts and an audio download. The sites started as straight affiliate sites when I had no idea what the hell I was doing to my recent site where I’m actually trying to help a fellow human being solve a problem many people have. I’m just starting out but I’ve been bitten by the “is this really worth it?” bug. Then, I ask myself if the content will help somebody, say “yes” and knock it out.

    I know content marketing is a long-term investiment. With your suggestions, I’m compiling a short list of blogs I want to post on and will engage them. Heck, I’m already engaging them (hint-LOL!).

    This will be a post I’ll be referring back to often.

    Best,

    Jeff

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Ha awesome good to hear Jeff. I think a lot of it is also just working out what is really useful to people and just improving over time. I probably shouldn’t count my first few hundred posts. There’s been a big change in the last 18 months. We are definitely keen to get more contributors for our blog in the new year. So far we have only had a few and the process has proven difficult to manage. Hopefully we can figure it out in 2014 because me and Alex want to aim for one piece of content per day.

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  • Chris

    Great article. Inspiring me more and more to take content seriously and invest more of my time into the study of it and getting better at it.

    Thanks Dan.

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Thanks Chris, great to hear mate.

  • Nickmarquet

    Hey Dan, I’m on this post (which is a good one) due to the email you sent regarding the floating social share buttons. But I’m perplexed as to why they are at the top of the page and not the bottom. Surely you share content after you have read it and not before…?

    • http://wpcurve.com/ Dan Norris

      Good point mate. It actually should lock in place as you scroll down but it doesn’t seem to be doing that. I find that a little aggressive anyway so I’ve changed it to show above add below the content and not lock as you scroll.

      Thanks for pointing that out, I hadn’t noticed.