I dispense a lot of marketing advice on this blog. Most of it is backed up by data, or my own experience, or the conventional wisdom accumulated by thousands of marketers. But it’s important to remember that, in marketing, there are no hard and fast rules or surefire strategies for success. Here’s an example of a project that eschewed conventional wisdom, broke all of the rules, and managed to generate explosive, viral growth through somewhat more unconventional channels.On the surface, ThatHigh is a site that should have never gotten any traction. The primary paradigm of the site is derivative of FMyLife and not particularly unique. It falls into an incredibly competitive and increasingly fragmented humor site for college kids niche. It’s aimed at a fickle, disloyal, and shall we say…forgetful audience. And, worst of all, it faced the chicken-and-egg problem that plagues most user generated content sites- it needs content to attract users, but it needs users to generate that content.
Given how stacked the odds were against it, the meteoric growth of ThatHigh to over 1 million pageviews a month is all the more impressive. I recently spoke to the founder of ThatHigh to learn exactly how he was able to bring in significant traffic without doing SEO or spending lots of money on advertising. In his own words:
Getting the Idea for ThatHigh
While I don’t consider myself to be a stoner, I have always thought that the web lacked a place for smokers of all types (casual or frequent) to discuss ideas and share hilarious or amusing thoughts. These places exist but they lack the brand and business-drive that often makes such sites successful. Most of them aren’t well known. When a friend suggested I make a site like this and call it “That High” (very much a ripoff of FML), I thought the idea was too good to pass up. So I registered the domain name, and built the site with two other people over the course of one night. It was started as an experiment, more than anything.
It seems that more than a few successful sites began as a half-formed idea built during a frenzied hackathon. If you think something might have a chance of succeeding and you can get at least something out quickly…just throw it up and see what happens.
Struggling to Retain Traffic
The first thing I tried was submitting the site to reddit, digg, and a few other private forums. This went very poorly because the site didn’t have much content. I figured putting a few stories up would be enough, but it wasn’t. Most of the feedback was very good, but the site didn’t retain any traffic because of the lack of content.
The vast majority of users are consumers of content, not producers. If you don’t offer some value to a casual surfer immediately…They.Will.Bounce.
Seeding The Site With Content
So I made a bunch of fake accounts, mined the web, and posted as much as I could find to the site under different accounts. Then I went into the database and manually created a ton of votes for each of the stories, to make it look like there was as much activity as I could. I even posted some fake conversations in the comment sections.
This is exactly how reddit got initial traction too. The fact is that if you’re building a content site, you need to think about getting content first, before getting users. There are two ways to do this. You can bring in high-value content producers users want to see for your site(FunnyorDie, Huffington Post, etc) or seed the site with content other users can engage with(by writing it yourself, hiring forum posters, getting interns to write blog posts, etc).
Identifying and Reaching the Target Audience
I have no idea where I got the idea, but I decided that College Humor would share much of my target audience, so I found the “submit link” section of their website and submitted ThatHigh.com. About a week later, they accepted our submission (it’s all moderated) and we got a TINY little link in their sidebar for a few days. They had changed the text to “This is your FML. This is your FML on drugs.” That first day, our site got something like 20k visits. This was an absolutely enormous spike and I had certainly never run a website with that much traffic. The traffic from CH eventually trailed off (after just a few days). At that point, we had a definite userbase. Users were registering, submitting, and voting. I no longer had to fake activity, which was awesome.
The CollegeHumor traffic spike may seem like sheer luck, but it’s anything but. It’s actually the result of identifying the most highly targeted and relevant audience for the site, finding the specific microtargeted segment of that audience most likely to convert into regular visitors and engage with the site (people who frequent humor sites, for example) and identifying the places they gather online.
Growing Without SEO
I’ve done almost zero SEO. I don’t know enough about it to spend lots of time in that area. I changed the title tags to match each page’s content, I submitted a site map to Google Webmaster Tools, and I added the relevant meta tags. I think my site’s pagerank is something like 2 / 10, so not that great. But it turns out, for a site like this, that doesn’t matter. At least not yet. I fully admit this is an area where I might see some increased traffic and revenue if I spend some time on it, but there are only so many hours in the day. My search traffic basically consists of users searching for “that high” or the standard variants.
SEO is not the only way to get traffic for free. Instead of pandering to the caprice of search engines, your time could be better spent with on-site optimization for retention and engagement, working on increasing the amount of pageviews per user, time on site, and so on. The reason ThatHigh can grow without SEO is that it’s a naturally, pardon the pun, sticky site. The constant flow of new content in short, easy to digest bits means that some users will come back multiple times to check what’s new on the site. Also, note how the site is carefully engineered to minimize friction whenever possible. Voting and submitting are incredibly easy to do, and don’t even require registration. Minimizing the amount of mental energy required to interact with a site is key to keeping users engaged and coming back to create content.
Testing Paid Traffic Sources
I’ve tried advertising with AdWords, Project Wonderful, StumbleUpon, Facebook, Reddit, and a few others. By far the most effective is StumbleUpon. I put $5-$10 many months ago, and when the initial stumbles gained a good rating from the users, the site just exploded on SU. This was many months ago, and I still see a significant amount of traffic from SU daily. I think I got lucky and struck a chord with some of SU’s users, and maintaining a high rating on the site ensures that it gets stumbled more often. Win! Reddit ads are probably the next best thing. I tend to stay away from CPC advertising because it doesn’t give me a good return on the money. Reddit allows you to target to specific subreddits (if you like), and I’ve been experimenting with this again very recently to find a good strategy there.
It’s incredibly hard to justify paid advertising to promote a content site that isn’t selling anything. You’re essentially trying to pay for the ads through simple traffic arbitrage, a strategy that has not been very effective for quite a few years. The common theme of the traffi
c sources that did work for ThatHigh, and probably work for other content sites, is that paid traffic is used only for the initial push- the first few stumbles, a little bit of awareness on reddit. After that, the traffic starts coming in organically and takes off without further action from the advertiser. Consistently paying for stumbles is a foolish endeavor- but buying a few stumbles to get initial momentum can be tremendously powerful.
Hustling and Doing Whatever it Takes to Get Traffic
The hardest part, I think, was getting the initial traffic. Online ads were good, but I also spammed the hell out of my college campus (months ago). Most people want to build a site like this and then stop, wait for users, and get rich. It doesn’t work that way. Every 2 days or so, I’d go to my school’s quad and chalk every vertical surface I could find. Then I’d do the same thing in town. I even went to one of the dorm’s and used dry-erase marker on the mirrors and windows on each floor and in each bathroom. This was pretty tedious, but it worked very well. Within days the site’s traffic had doubled. This is the kind of thing that most people won’t do.
Sometimes, driving traffic simply demands ingenuity, creativity, and hustle. Be more creative than your competitors, work harder than them, and test faster than them. Go where your competitors dare not because they are too complacent, too conventional, too risk-averse. There are literally thousands of diverse traffic sources out there…go explore them!