How do you actually enter the U.S. market when English isn’t your first language, the U.S. isn’t your home country, and you’ve got no money to invest in sales and marketing?
Peep’s firm grew from a small conversion optimization and web design firm based out of Estonia, with only Estonian clients, to a 10-person firm with an almost exclusive U.S. client-base.
How did Peep build his U.S. client-base? Exclusively through his blog which became, according to marketing guru Noah Kagan, “…one of the most popular conversion blogs online.”
Here are few stats about the growth Peep’s blog:
- 100,000 email subscribers in less than a year
- 15,000 visitors by the 3rd month
- 22,000 visitors by the 6th month
- 90,000 by the 10th month
Pretty amazing stuff.
Peep was gracious enough to spend time with me so that I could share his experience and wisdom with Content Propulsion’s readers.
If I Don’t Blog, the Business Will Die
Peep, a lot of my readers are outsourcing providers from outside the U.S., including a lot from Latin America, and there is some skepticism when it comes to content marketing as a marketing tool for entering the U.S. market, as well as so many people out there are still skeptical about it.
Sure, well you know, I’m from Estonia and all of my company is in Estonia, yet our clients in the US, so I’m kind of like your outsourcing readers.
Oh, that’s fantastic. So, when you first started your agency, did you consider other types of marketing strategies, business development strategies, or did you always want to go with content marketing?
I had been in the business of “expertise” in the past, not in the US market, but in Estonia. So I had already done it once with another blog, I had one the most popular online marketing blogs in Estonia, and so I knew that if I’m in the business of expertise, content marketing is going to be great. So I did not consider anything else, plus content marketing is the cheapest way to get going because you don’t need money, you just need time.
I guess a lot of people have this hesitation, but content marketing is how my business lives. If I don’t blog, the business will die. I blog like my business depended on it, because it does.
Did you have any hesitations about being an Estonian and blogging for the United States market?
How to Blog In The U.S. When You’re a Foreigner
The blogosphere seems to be saturated. Was there any room in the market [for my blog]? I combatted this fear by doing a lot of research and figuring out where the gaps were and what was my way in.
I was examining what other people were doing, and I was examining what works.
I figured out that what works is long form content, super-thorough stuff (2,000 – 3,000 words). I figured that if I do something that it so difficult to do that others were not willing to do it, then that’s my way in. And it worked!
My fear number two was my language skills. My English level is, let’s say, 99%, but the last 1% is the hardest. So I had my wife, who is American, edit my blog posts, I also found an editor in Austin who was really cheap. She edited every single blog post and had very fast turnaround time. She charged me like 25 bucks per blog posts, which I thought was really cheap.
Do Your Research
Right. So another related fear is, “How fast is it going to work?” When you tell people, “We’ve to give this about a year to work,” they look at you with this funny look. Right?
Right. That was also what I told myself, that I’m okay for the first year if I don’t see many results. Of course, you hope for better. But to avoid suicidal thoughts I was telling that to myself.
But I didn’t want to just write and hope, because that’s naïve, especially if you start out with a new blog and you have no backlinks, the odds of people accidentally finding your content are very slim. You need to be proactive about getting your content out there.
What I did was I identified communities where people might hang out that might be interested in my content: LinkedIn groups, Subreddit’s on Reddit, bigger social sharing sites like Hacker News, and inbound.org.
Then my very first blog posts I wrote with specific communities in mind. Because I just recently had my own failed startup I had been reading Hacker News on a daily basis out of my own personal interest, and I did some analysis as to what kind of posts do really well on Hacker News, and I found out that this community really likes research-backed stuff.
If there’s no citation to your claims they’re going to call bullshit.
They [Hacker News readers] really seem to like the peculiarities of the human mind, so I wrote two blog posts. One was something like 17 ways to persuade people, and was all scientific, research-driven. And one was about pricing, because I also knew that how to price their services is a major pain point for startups.
So I did my own research, I read a pricing book, whatever blog posts I could find, and put together piece of research. Both of those blog posts went viral in that community, and once you hit number one in Hacker News that’s 30,000 visitors a day!
So you’ve got to get a really good feeling for what is interesting to a particular community – you’ve really got to have your finger on the pulse of that particular community.
Right. It’s best if it’s a community that you’re already part of naturally, like a Facebook group for instance. It’s not like you start the investigation cold, because getting to know a community takes a long time. I had the advantage that I was already part of the community before as a passive member. I never contributed content to it, I was just reading the content.
So your first couple of posts then went viral because you actually identified topics that were of interest to a particular community.
I think it’s pure luck that both these posts went viral, because those communities are so over-saturated with content, and it’s hard to figure out the timing of when you submit the posts, and who happens to see it, and whether they upvoted it or not. A lot of it is luck.
I was lucky, but I was hustling.
Drive Email Subscriptions
So I got this initial surge of traffic, but since I’m a “conversion” guy, I knew when the traffic came I needed to capture their emails so they would come back, so I had different ways to capture email.
I offered them the option to download the blog post as a PDF file in exchange for their email address, and then I also offered a white paper.
Most of this traffic was just fly-by traffic, they came and went without opting-in. But some did!
if you get trending on Hacker News, because it has more than a million readers a month there, and if you’re on the top ten on the homepage there, people just start tweeting your article. Also a lot people do these round-up blog posts, and people started to link to my articles because they found me through Hacker News
So I got my initial set of back-links, my initial social shares which brought me even more traffic, and a lot of them opted-in – and every single week I sent an email newsletter to this list with a my new blog posts.
Right, and then at that time you were publishing one blog post a week. Right?
I think even more. I think two, maybe sometimes three. My frequency was higher early on.
I used to sit up late in the night. I was often up until 2 a.m. working, writing these blog posts after taking care of my client work.
Once the viral traffic died down my daily traffic really died down with it, but since I had captured an initial set of emails, I had a small starting audience because I managed to capture 700 or so emails in the first month. That was enough to start building my blog.
Commit to Quality
I also made a decision that I would never publish anything that was not the best in the world on this topic. Of course when I look back at those articles, what I thought were the best in world I now find laughable. Some of those articles are, say naïve, and some are incorrect. I think my inexperience shows.
But now three and half years later with much more experience under my belt, I think my content is much better. But back then it was good enough to get going.
As long as you write the best content that you’re capable of producing, I think that’s good enough – because competition is nuts – you can’t just write yet another 3-400 word article and hope for the best.
Yeah, you’re right.
Especially if it’s beginner level topics. I mean most basic topics have been written about 17 billion times already.
So you said earlier f you don’t blog you die, that your company depends on the blog for leads and sales. At what point did those subscribers and readers turn into business opportunities?
How to Sell With Your Blog
I think within the first three months I started to get leads inquiring about our services.
On my blog I was always very passive about pushing my services – I still am! I don’t come to you and say “buy buy buy.” You kind of have to work to buy from me.
I do have a banner and a menu link to my services. So if you’re impressed with my content, you come back, you read multiple articles of mine, and then you have a need for this service, maybe not right now, but you might have three months from now. Then you’ll remember, “Oh, yeah, that guy. He’s writing good content about this, clearly he’s an expert about this topic.”
And then you would find my service page, click through, and then you would be taken to my agency landing page that is generating leads for me.
I kept the blog separate from my services website, but I see no harm in keeping them on the same site as well, that’s all right.
Yeah. So you made it a more strategic decision to have your blog and your website on different domains, but you don’t see anything wrong with having the blog on the same domains or website. Right?
Yeah. Exactly. I even had two different brand names. My agency had a different name than my blog. We just recently merged the names, because the blog became much more well-known than the agency, and also the name for the agency had kind of a European spelling, so Americans had real trouble spelling it, so to just eliminate the confusion about this, we just merged the brands.
How to Sell $20,000 Retainers
How were you able to ensure that you had quality subscribers in your email list?
We are mostly selling retainers that cost $20,000 a month, so you definitely can get enterprise clients through content marketing, but it took a while before we started getting bigger companies as leads. I’m not sure whether it has to do with how old and established your blog is, and whether you have a bigger company with more money and to appeal to customers who are more conservative about dealing with new businesses – I don’t really have any data on it.
But in terms of how to attract the right people, your content should solve the problems that your target audience has. So, if you’re writing productivity tips and selling software development, that’s not a good match.
If you’re talking about complex enterprise software development, or Kan-Ban vs. Scrum issues, that might be the ideal content.
And I personally don’t enjoy writing beginner level content anymore. I do see the need, and typically my beginner level stuff does better in terms of social sharing and gets more tweets and likes and stuff.
But I feel that the more advanced level content I write, the savvier clients we get. If there’s a savvy buyer, they also don’t want to read basic bullshit. They want to read advanced level content. If you write more niche content, your audience is going to be smaller but higher quality.
I was talking to somebody on Twitter the other day, and somebody said, “Why don’t you be more like a Hollywood actor: for every blockbuster, you do one Indie movie,” so you write a basic post that is more general, and then a more advanced post.
So the advanced post is like the indie movie, and the more basic general post is like the blockbuster.
Exactly, so the blockbuster does well on Twitter and Facebook and it grows your audience. It grows traffic, but not necessarily leads. And then you write more advanced level content that is more attractive to your actual clients.
I really like that analogy, actually.
The last question, when you were just starting out with your agency, you had to eat, pay the mortgage, etc. You didn’t get your first client from content marketing until about three months later (note from Fernando: these results are not typical), what did you do in the meantime? How did you get your initial clients?
My first leads were all my personal relationships, and they were Estonian clients, not American clients. So while we were building up our American audience, our clients were still based out of Estonia.
One last bonus question, what was the decision to move to the states versus being in Estonia? I guess I already know the answer to that.
It had nothing to do with the business. It’s just that I fell in love with an American girl.
Okay. So do you think you could have done this business building with content marketing while still living in Estonia?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because we never meet clients face-to-face ever.
We have had retainers that are a year and a half, and we’ve never met. That’s the beauty of the American market.
That’s something that is not true in Europe. In Europe you need to shake hands, and I lived a year in Panama and you definitely need to shake hands there.
Whereas in the US, especially with big corporations, they’re distributed companies. They’re used to vast geographical distances. They don’t want to meet up. Your small mom and pop shop wants to meet, but big companies don’t give a crap.
We just have lots of Skype, regular calls over phone, whatever. Your communication needs to be good but you don’t need to meet. I definitely would be able to do this from Estonia, no problem.