How ThatHigh.com Solved the Chicken and Egg Problem and Grew to 1 Million Pageviews a Month with No SEO

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.

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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!

  • Ben

    My startup, ParkGrades.com, is in the same boat with respect to the chicken and egg — really helpful to read ThatHigh’s experience to see what works and what’s just *ahem* hocus pocus…Thank you for this interview, Ilya!

  • Alex

    I haven’t found a way to make CPC advertising effective yet either. I guess it’s time to try other places from this article!

  • Dino Vedo

    Great stuff as always! But SEO does work wonders!

  • Ben

    I’ve been trying to get a similar idea off the ground: http://myclassisboring.com/ I had no idea that it was this much work to get things rolling. Thanks for all the information, it looks like I have a few months worth of work to do.

  • qna

    I do like the part of faking content!It is really inspiring.

  • How ThatHigh solved the chicken and egg problem and grew to 1 million pageviews « Interesting Tech

    […] Read more here Posted in Uncategorized , interesting, science, tech | No Comments » […]

  • Joseph Stalin

    I guess this now the HN standard. You copy what someone else has written, make some inane comments, then repost. All we’ve learned from the content on this blog is that Ilya Lichtenstein is a worthless piece of trash. Thank you for revealing that.

  • Ilya Lichtenstein

    I don’t censor comments here, but if you’re going to be mean, at least have the guts to stand by your comments instead of posting anonymously.I didn’t copy anyone’s content. The quoted text is an edited transcript of an interview I conducted with the creator of ThatHigh. The content is completely original.

  • 123

    facepalm @ #6, go back to [email protected] inspiring find. Bookmarked.

  • Peter

    Great article and an interesting take on things. I was off put by faking the user activity at first but it’s really just part of the content, which you are also developing, so why not? Great post.As for copying what someone else is writing — even if that were the case, which it’s clearly not — who cares if there’s some insight and value to it.Regardless, keep up the good work.pete

  • Rishi

    This was an awesome article. Thanks for posting. Lesson in community building learned!

  • Jonathan Hearty

    Great article, and incredibly relevant to my website, 420list.org! Will take this into consideration and keep pushing hard.

  • o hai guyz

    saw your link on wickedfire, thought it was another bullshit mmo blog but this is actually a nice informative post. i like the idea about simply being more creative than competitors and being willing to do the shit they wont do. a buddy of mine promotes parties and a few weeks ago i told him to stop spamming on facebook and just print out 10,000 stickers (the ones they use for illegally parked cars that are impossible to remove) and slap em up everywhere. less effort in the long run and it worked a lot better than spamming invites that no one looks at

  • Ilya Lichtenstein

    Yeah, I’ll be posting more stuff affiliates should like soon. If I ever become a mmo guru douche, please call me out on it, I’m never going to be selling info products or putting up ads here.

  • FerrisH.

    Pretty good breakdown Ilya. Wheres my pills? Im coming to s.f. in march sometime

  • Akramquraishi

    Using chalk and marker to promote a site.. pretty unconventional and interesting…

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  • adrianchilders.com

    Wow! Enjoyed the post. Gotta think outside the box. Just came across the blog and subscribed 🙂

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  • Ilya Lichtenstein

    Thanks for the kind words, Adrian.

  • Treycrll

    hhey how about you fuck off you thnk your ideas are so smart and insigtful. Well they’re not. You’re just a sad lottle blogger thay needs to give a negative review of an all stonee game to gain a response from others who don’t appreciate the stoner life style. Just because you don’t approve of somthing you choose to simply call it college humor even though pot culture has inspired millions.of.people around the globe. Ignorant people like you piss me off

  • Ilya Lichtenstein

    I’m leaving this comment up as evidence that in online discussions meanness and stupidity are always correlated.For the record, I have nothing against pot culture, and this isn’t a review, it’s just an example of thinking through a marketing angle for a particular kind of audience.

  • CarsFlipProfit

    Actually, doing on-site optimization is an integral part to SEO. Everything else is link building and Social Media. Arguably, Google looks at your time on site, bounce rate, and other metrics as a ranking method and to tell if your page is relevant to the search terms. I really like the idea of tagging for viral buzz. Sort of like OBEY and other street art, it’s a really cool way to get people talking about your site. Good idea! Really, it’s amazing to get that much traffic in a matter of weeks.

  • j_breese

    I’m very impressed by ThatHigh’s story. What I liked best was that I finally encountered another online entrepreneur who was willing to hit the streets and run a guerrilla campaign to promote his site, which in overall proved very cost-effective and generated qualified traffic.I liked this post so much infact, I even wrote it up just this morning: http://www.johnbreese.net/what-a-lazy-pot-smoker-can-teach-you-about-internet-marketing-success/Great interview.

  • Shaadi_Cafe

    Thank you very much for the information. We are also struggling with the chicken and egg problem …. you can imagine a dating site for indians!I’ll try to put the learnings from this post to practice this week!Thanks for the stuff on content and SEO … can relate to your experience! 🙂

  • wordsearch

    this is how I started one of my forums, initially I’ve created about 5 accounts and started creating crazy conversations…

  • Victor Antofica

    now I get 1K+ visitors/day

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