A Marketing Dream Turned Nightmare

And how we fixed it. Sort of.

Hey folks đź‘‹, I'm Kenneth Burke. #BurkeBits is where I share stories, data, and frameworks to help you become a better marketer. Subscribe for free to level-up.

We’d done something great, and we were proud of it—over 100,000 new people were coming to our website every month through organic search.

That was powering our inbound sales pipeline, so our reps didn’t have to worry about anything until someone booked a time on their calendar.

That’s the dream!

But then something unexpected happened.

All that traffic started to work against us, not for us.

Here’s the story.

How It Started

In May 2015, I went to Digital Summit in Atlanta and heard Quinn Tempest give a masterclass on blogging for profit. The main takeaways (still relevant):

  • You’ve got to be posting regularly to get traction online

  • It will take 6 months before you start to see any of that traction

  • Progress builds the more and more frequently you post

  • Play Moneyball—create “base hit” content that answers questions your target customers are searching for instead of trying to hit home runs by going viral

So that’s what I did for Text Request.

The content was not good—mostly veiled sales pitches about why you should text as a business. Over time I got better, started applying some of those research skills I picked up in undergrad, followed Gary V’s “jab jab jab right hook” approach, and hit publish 2-3x a week.

Exactly 6 months later, we started to see traction. Nothing that shaped the trajectory of the business, but enough to justify that we keep doing it.

What Kind of Content Did We Create?

I wasn’t as intentional as I should have been, so topics were all over the place. This lack of focus would come back to bite us. More on that later.

What did work was content that answered questions people were searching for that were semi-relevant to our product. For instance, posts like these ranked high in search results, often #1:

  • How many texts do people send every day?

  • The history of the smartphone

  • How to write professional text messages

  • How many emails do people get every day?

  • 10 reasons Millennials hate phone calls

  • 101 reasons why people text every day

We earned a ton of backlinks from reputable sites like Salesforce, Microsoft, Neil Patel, Forbes, and so on. What helped most here was other writers linking to our posts whenever they referenced our stats (which, thankfully, was a lot).

That fed the flywheel to bring us more traffic, which earned more backlinks, which brought more traffic, which brought in leads.

It created a 7-figure inbound pipeline. It was a bootstrapped startup marketer’s dream! Until it wasn’t.

The Big Problem

Our posts were almost all related to communications, but—as far as Google was concerned—there was very little discernment between business communications and consumer communications.

This always created small problems for us.

Between the 500-ish pages of blog posts, help docs, and product and landing pages on our site, there wasn’t a clearly defined audience.

We would get as much traffic, for instance, from consumers trying to create a group text or figure out what to say to a boyfriend as we would from people trying to improve their businesses.

The consumer market for texting—about 300m people in the U.S.—is much larger than the business market, so there were a lot more people searching for consumer messaging topics than business messaging topics.

And we ranked at the top.

Eventually we had so much more traction from the consumer side that Google pretty much said “oh, they’re writing for consumers, not businesses.”

You could see the change clearly in our numbers. Traffic went up. Quality plummeted. Organic sales disappeared.

What we’d built into an inbound pipeline dream had turned into a self-inflicted spam nightmare. And it was all my fault.

How We Fixed It

There are several things I should have done to prevent the crash from happening at all, and there are several things we maybe should have done to fix it.

Instead, we started over.

As part of a bigger plan that we had anyway, we completely rebuilt and rewrote our entire website. We deleted all of our content, and moved our help docs to a no-indexed subdomain.

It took the better part of a year once we committed to doing it, and we only launched the new site with ~20 (highly targeted) blog posts. And you know what happened?

Our organic traffic fell off a cliff—dropped by 90% overnight.

(I’m not counting URL redirects from deleted blog posts. That traffic didn’t immediately see what they were looking for and bounced.)

And yet… within a couple of months, conversions had improved by 50% from where we were before the downturn. Quality traffic has been growing steadily since.

The Big Takeaway

There are plenty of small SEO lessons in this, but the main thing is this:

Anything you do, create it for a well-defined core audience. Keep your best customer in mind—the one who’s easiest to work with and happily pays on time—and create like it’s just for them.

Vanity metrics like traffic or even time-on-page (one of my favorites) do not matter unless it’s the right people engaging with you.

Keep that in mind for everything you create, and your marketing will be world’s better. And hopefully you’ll avoid my same mistakes!

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