Customer Development

When you do everything right, and still lose traffic: A scary story with a twist. ft. @Buffer

When-you-do-everything-right,-and-still-lose-traffic-A-scary-story-with-a-twist

Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

“We’ve lost nearly half our social referral traffic in the last 12 months” is the title of a Buffer case study by Kevan Lee that fascinates me. It’s a perfect example of best practices gone wrong. I’ve got to tell you this story:

It was a dark and stormy night when Kevan Lee, of Buffer’s marketing team, admitted his even darker secret:

“We as a Buffer marketing team – working on a product that helps people succeed on social media – have yet to figure out how to get things working on Facebook (especially), Twitter, Pinterest, and more.”

Cue the crickets.

They had a ton of theories about their social slump.

We’ve Been Failing on Social Media for 2 Years. Here’s What We Think It Means. from Buffer

Most of their theories were really good.But still their social referral traffic went down. They lost nearly half in a year.

“I don’t have the answer for what’s gone wrong. I wish I did!”

Kevan found himself spiraling into self-doubt, resulting in some not-so-good theories and some major impostor syndrome (you can do it Kevan! I believe in you!).

Maybe we’ve reached peak content saturation, he wonders. Maybe there’s just too much competition (he cites this 2-year-old stat: “Every time someone visits the Facebook News Feed there are on average 1,500 potential stories  . . .  for them to see.”) Still, there are brands and people out there that continue to rock the social media space (shout-out to Gary Vaynerchuk), which dashes the peak content saturation theory.

One thing he does note is a recent change in the type of content Buffer posts. They moved away from productivity and lifehacking content (which got great numbers) and now share mostly social media tips and strategies.

What I love about this post is that he doesn’t deliver the answer, because he doesn’t know it yet. Instead, Kevan, being the rock star that he is (and I mean that sincerely), ends the post with a few things he’s going to try, and then opens up the conversation to comments and suggestions.

This is where it gets really interesting.

Scott Paley:

Maybe you’re measuring the wrong thing? Is ‘reach’ really what you want? Better to find 10,000 potential customers of Buffer than reach 100,000 people who won’t ever buy…Look at it this way… are sales down as a result of the reduced reach?

Scott Paley:

Another way to look at this… when you create more generally helpful stuff, maybe it goes viral and you get more traffic. But it’s not deep content (so it’s not super useful to your actual customer base.) Or you create content that IS super helpful to your actual customer base, making your product more valuable to those who actually pay for it (or would pay for it.) But that content isn’t super interesting to the general (non-paying) public. Those who are, or could be, customers are happier with the newer stuff. But it doesn’t get nearly the same reach. If this is your situation, you’re doing it right, even if you’re referral traffic is cut in half.

Kevan Lee:

Great one, Scott! Yep, I’d say we’ve leaned more toward the deep content with the hope that it would be more useful for social media marketers (a core demographic for us). One risk of that was reduced reach, which it appears has arrived! (We made the switch about 18 months ago)

And then Rachel and Melissa chime in with completely different perspectives.

Rachel Speal:

Kevan, I know this article is bit old; I actually use Buffer but almost never go to the blog. I found this article through Buzzsumo. Anyway, what Scott is 100% right. Nothing matters except ROI. While you’ve changed the angle of your blog, I think you’ve failed to tie your content to your users/prospects specific social marketing problems. And possibly your headlines aren’t strong enough. I think you need to go back to the blackboard and check who your real customers are, vs who you think they are. Perhaps the demographics have changed since you began. Once you know that, you can get a better handle on what problems they have, and connect your connect to that. Anyway, hope that doesn’t sound harsh. I am a customer of Buffer, and have been for many years. So I am happy with you guys…I just don’t see how the blog adds any value to what I – as a copywriter and marketer- need.

Melissa:

As a paying buffer customer, can’t say i agree with this theory. I used to enjoy the old topics more than the new, more specific ones. I commented in more detail above but essentially — i use buffer because it helps me manage social because social is not my entire job… i want to be efficient and quick with my social updates and buffer helps me do that. While im very into marketing and productivity, im not a social media geek. 🙂

All of a sudden, the conversation takes a turn onto the road of sheer genius, because it’s here that they begin talking about the importance of gathering qualitative data: Talking with your customers about what they want, why they want it, what their goals are, and how your product fits into the larger contexts of their jobs and lives.

Melissa asks Kevan if he’s done (or is doing) one-on-one customer interviews – and he hasn’t been. Though, he says, “I’ve thought a lot about taking a customer development approach to the blog.”

And then Melissa brings it home with this gem (I love Melissa. I haven’t met her, but I love her).

Melissa:

I can’t emphasize enough how valuable it was to do even a small handful of one-on-one interviews in addition to wider surveys. You’d be amazed at what you learn in a conversation that might never come up otherwise. I’ve led this kind of project at several companies now, and am always pleasantly surprised by how much you learn actually talking to customers 🙂

It’s one crazy blog post, and well worth a thorough read as the conversation changes from “why is this happening?” to a conversation about customer development.

I love a good twist at the end of a scary story, don’t you?

Takeaways

In the hundreds of comments this post generated, a few key ideas emerge:

  • Highly targeted content aimed at fewer, but ideal, customers is valuable. A high number of readers in general is really just a vanity metric.
  • If you want to know why your readers gravitate to one kind of content versus another, ask them. Their answers may surprise you.
  • Why don’t they like your new, more targeted content? Maybe they like your product, but don’t want to live your product (in which case: general, fun articles might actually be the right bait for this target audience).
  • Maybe just as many readers are finding you, but through different channels than they used to. Several commenters noted that they switched from following Buffer on social media to getting notifications of new posts via email.
  • Finding out what content appeals to your audience is not something that should be left up to guessing. Otherwise you end up with a really long post of “maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that” – which is interesting, but not nearly as helpful as a good comments section.

The end.


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5 Comments

  • Reply Roy p. February 3, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    I love Kevan’s article, and also the way you analyzed the comments on it.

    I would like to raise another interesting aspect to this situation about Buffer and best practices: They actually don’t follow any (well almost) of the classic social best practices – but were still able to grow the company and blog tremendously. Both in brand awareness and traffic.

    For me this raises a bigger issue with the approach to “best practices” – every good marketer that I know doesn’t follow them.

    That’s why Gary V. is doing so well. He is just out there being as loud of a version of himself as he can be.

    Most best practices you’ll read in blog posts would not work without your own special touch. Either in writing, or distribution (BTW, Buffer don’t put any effort in promoting their content either than on their social channels and mailing list).

    • Reply nichole February 8, 2016 at 12:22 am

      Hi Roy, thanks for your comments. 🙂

      I figured my usage of “best practices” here would be questioned.

      I assume that Buffer has “best practices” – whether that includes meeting blog length requirements, including data in all their blog entries, etc. – else they wouldn’t expect to see results. You can’t expect to see results unless you’re consistent about what you’re doing.

      That said, I would disagree that “every good marketer” doesn’t follow “best practices”, but would instead say that they follow what they consider to be their own “best practices”, rather than those that are considered to be industry standards.

      • Reply Roy p. February 8, 2016 at 8:21 pm

        I see what you are saying and I agree to some level.
        What I was trying to say that what Buffer doesn’t do a lot of the hustle that new content marketers are doing to get noticed, as they got their traction to the blog and built audience way before what we know right now as “best practices” were determined.

  • Reply Arielle Friedlander February 5, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    Wow this is incredibly insightful and such a thoughtful reflection on Kevan’s post – thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and writing this! 🙂 -Arielle from Buffer

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