Growing a Product for Marketers With the Help of an Industry Insider

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hi, my name is Nelson Shaw. I'm a programmer and entrepreneur. I originally studied computer science and math at university, followed by a three-year stint in wholesale finance. Since then, I’ve spent four years across multiple startups, projects, and freelancing with a few successes and a few failures.

My co-founder Carl Thompson and I built Contento, a guest posting platform for marketers.

Carl has been a digital marketer since the dawn of digital marketing. He dropped out of high school to become a digital marketer at the age of 17, and then went on to found a few companies, including TradeGecko, and later a digital marketing agency. Carl is a content evangelist and his frustration with getting good content into good hands is why Contento was born.

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What motivated you to get started with Contento?

After finishing up with TradeGecko in Singapore and moving back to New Zealand, Carl started the digital marketing agency Momentum Marketing. There he experienced the difficulties of trying to distribute content through publishers. Sharing content through established media/blogs is valuable for brand awareness and link building, but having to build relationships with publishers is a slow and painful process.

Guest posting and media placement are a key component of inbound marketing. However, the outreach process has always been incredibly cumbersome. We thought there had to be a better way.

Contento was still in the early stages, but Carl believed the concept had legs, and I was coaxed into the team following some initial customer development. After three months of talks with a variety of brands, agencies, and publishers, we uncovered some key findings that now shape Contento.

We found that publishers are struggling to make money online. Banner ad revenue is now at an all-time low, sitting at around $4 per thousand impressions. That’s a tenth of what it was a few years ago.

The other interesting find is that publishers don’t want press releases — they’re outdated and most are trashed almost instantly. Unless you’re an existing, paying client, your press release won’t get a second glance. PR agents still can’t seem to get their heads around this new reality.

The days of free placement are over. Market fish and a bottle of rosé can’t buy you coverage anymore. We believe we’re now in an era where SEO and PR are struggling to merge: PR agencies don’t understand the value of backlinks and SEO agencies don’t want to deal with media.

What went into building the initial product?

In late January, we had collated enough feedback and data to start on the initial designs. We mapped out the user journey through the entire guest posting process. It was clear that we could simplify the entire process with some clever design.

Having almost 18 years of experience in web design, Carl started to mock up the initial designs in Adobe XD. Material UI was our UI base and we developed our own unique customizations to it. Using the click-through design exports from XD, we were able to do some basic user testing with some of the contacts we made through the customer development stage.

When it came to building the product, I knew it was important to get something into users hands quickly. Therefore I choose ReactJS and Firebase as the stack. I had already built quite a few React apps, so I was confident that this could be built quickly. I had also used Firebase and knew that it would be fast to develop with.

In the past, I had used the Firebase RealtimeDB, so figured I would use it again for Contento. What I didn't realize is that implementing the security rules and business logic can get messy very quickly. Contento doesn't have tricky security requirements, but simple things like handling team member permissions and who can view/edit pieces of content are a bit harder to implement.

By the time I'd started, Firebase had actually released a new database called Firestore. It's similar to the RealtimeDB except more structured and had far more powerful security and permission settings built in. I initially decided not to use it and stick to what I know, but a few months after we launched the product I realized that using Firestore would make all our security rules and database structure much simpler. I then spent an extra two weeks doubling back and moving us over from the RealtimeDB to Firestore.

The days of free placement are over.

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The first release of Contento was on a monthly subscription. We had some okay usage. By okay, I mean a few articles going through per week, including one for $1,200. But we quickly realized that not all brands guest post regularly and, after a bit of discussion, we decided to move to a pay-as-you-go credit system.

This way each new customer still gets a free trial (one free credit) when they sign up, and if they have a good experience and want to do more they can. This lowered the barrier to entry and we almost instantly saw an increase in sign-ups.

If a business wants to use us just once a month, they can do so without feeling like they're paying for a service they aren't using. We believe the remaining credits act as an incentive to use them, and we make more money from our margin on the publishing fee anyway.

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How have you attracted users and grown Contento?

Initially, it was from our own networks. Carl has a large network in the media industry in New Zealand, so we drew on that to get our first publishers signed up, as well as trial brands and agencies using it. We have tried four main strategies over the last few months.

Paid Traffic

In the beginning, we used paid networks, like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and banner ads through AdRoll. We found paid channels worked okay to gain our early customers. For us, LinkedIn has the worst ROI. In fact, we just couldn’t make it work. We could get conversions around $15-17 on Facebook and Instagram, but that’s still too expensive for us.

We also used AdRoll for retargeting. We had two campaigns running: a set of banners to retarget brands, and the other to retarget publishers. This worked okay, but over time the ROI has declined as the audience quantity increases and the quality decreases. A more targeted approach might be needed here.

We’ve found the most success in paid advertising with reddit. It’s an easier sell when marketing directly into the related subreddits such as r/seo, as people are already more familiar with the pain point and can see value in our offering. Conversions from reddit can be anywhere between $3-10, depending on the countries we’re targeting.

SEO/Content Driven

Creating quality content to promote and increase organic traffic is a key play for us. We use our own product to place articles on blogs.

This has been great for our SEO and our Domain Authority has increased pretty fast. We’ve been seeing a decent increase in organic traffic — an average of 40% month on month — but are still somewhat off being top in our niche. We clearly have more to do here and intend to make it our main priority.

Month Session
Jul ‘18 213
Aug ‘18 567
Sep ‘18 927
Oct ‘18 1323

Email Outreach

We have a two-sided marketplace, but in reality the top publishers are getting the bulk of the article submissions. We've found this means we can focus on a 2:1 approach of outreach to brands/agencies per publisher.

We use HubSpot for the actual email sequencing, as it works well both for tracking all the email metrics we need and the customer lifecycle.

On the publisher's side, there are many blog posts all over the internet containing lists of blogs/publisher sites that accept guest posts. I've written scripts and tools to scrape the information, gather the email addresses using tools like Hunter, and massage it into our outreach funnel.

We do a similar thing for brands. We've actually ended up developing some secret sauce to automate our prospecting for digital marketing agencies. We collect the emails and massage it into sequencing in HubSpot.

Without proper customer development, you’re doomed.

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When we first started doing this, we had a bit of pushback, specifically from developers. Turns out a lot of devs hate anything that looks like an automated message. We solved this by making sure we don't target any 'tech' types. By only targeting agencies, we build the emails around Carl’s previous work running an agency and how much time was wasted doing guest posting.

This helps make us relatable and we're pretty sure helps with the response rate, which is around 12%.

Forum Posting

We did a Product Hunt launch in late September, eventually reaching 500 upvotes. This resulted in just under 100 sign-ups directly referred from Product Hunt, not counting the extra received direct.

We also spend time answering questions Quora and have experimented with paying for answers to be written. When paying for answers, the cost per answer ended up around $10 (we spent $120 and acquired 12 brands). Quora is great for exposure, but we’ve found the quality of brands coming through isn’t as high as our targeted outreach or reddit advertising. We’ve since moved away from focusing on it, except to write answers ourselves in downtime or when we need a break from normal work.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

Our first assumption is that this would be a classic SaaS model. We started with a monthly subscription but quickly realized the user behavior lent itself to a pay-as-you-go model. Although we want to encourage repeat usage of our guest posting product, some customers just won’t do it enough to warrant a monthly subscription. After changing to a credit-based payments system, we saw an increase in repeat usage where they otherwise would have stopped after the free trial.

We make money in two ways: we take a margin on the publishing fee and also charge one credit when the article is submitted. You get one free credit when signing up, then it’s a tiered model for buying more. The credit system also acts as a quality check to weed out the low-quality link harvesting agencies.

Month Revenue
Aug ‘18 530
Sep ‘18 932
Oct ‘18 730

We use Stripe for taking payments and Paypal for paying out. We may eventually move it all to Stripe, but using Paypal for payouts has been the simplest system for now.

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What are your goals for the future?

I think $50k gross monthly income is a milestone at which we would consider a substantial investment to take this platform to the next level. What that next level looks like is currently a mixture of concepts and ideas. Integrations, additional offerings, full-service solution, and possible media buys are all parts of our bigger “to-be-tested” plan.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

Our biggest problem is the lack of articles going through each month. Nearly 60% of brands say that they want to guest post at least once a week, but the actual number of brands guest posting even once a month is far less than that.

So, the intent is there. Now we have to assist and encourage our customers to create content regularly. We are trying a number of different things to address this.

We have launched a full-service program called Contento Plus. With this service, we match the brand with a copywriter and work with them to develop four articles each month, for a set monthly fee. Users can also choose to receive encouragement emails, which we send tips, tricks, and inspiration on a regular basis to help keep them focused and motivated.

Another problem is increasing the quality of brands signing up and lowering the cost to acquire them. We’re currently focusing on building out more content and improving our SEO. The challenge now is funding this effort while we are still bootstrapping and not yet paying ourselves, meaning we still need to do contract work on the side.

On a positive note, our organic sign-ups are still enough to keep working with while we plug a few more holes in the product.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

For me, It’s been about building a habit of constantly learning, whether that be from podcasts, blog posts, or catching up often with friends to hear about their businesses and share advice. I’ve also placed more effort on having a balanced lifestyle and working smarter, not harder.

I recently read that one of the top predictors of performance is your emotional state. Being happy and relaxed not only means you enjoy life more but you will also perform to a higher level with work. With New Zealand summer fast approaching, I’m hoping to break my days into chunks and get out on the mountain bike as much as possible!

For Carl, there were a few resources that helped him overcome some issues that arose over the past 12 months. He’s always been a “yes man”, a total people pleaser, and prior to Contento he had about 11 different projects on the go. During his sabbatical, which lasted three days, he found Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a book that teaches how to say no and the importance of prioritizing activities to align with goals. This was an “aha” moment for Carl and has helped shape his priorities.

We are both aware of keeping a balanced healthy life, physically and mentally. We practice various mindfulness techniques and workout daily.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

We’ve both been “doing startups” for years now, both been through accelerators, incubators, startup workshops, and community events as participants, speakers, and mentors. There is one thing that stands out as a key component to startup failure or success: customer discovery.

Many founders are so scared of rejection they fail to do the customer development phase correctly. Not understanding your market completely, and subsequently not having the data and insights to back up your assumptions, is a sure way to fail. We’ve seen it over and over again.

Without this key foundation, everything will miss its mark. Branding, marketing, product design — everything you do is based around your intrinsic understanding of the audience you’re targeting. Without proper customer development, you’re doomed.

founders

Where can we go to learn more?

See more on our website, Contento. Mention you heard about us from Indie Hackers and we’ll give you a couple of free credits!

Nelson Shaw , Founder of Contento

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