Content Marketing Masters

How Zapier’s Co-Founders Focused on Creating Value Beyond ROI

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In 2014, Zapier content marketer Danny Schreiber, sat down for what was supposed to be a standard Google Hangouts meeting with his remote team. He expected the call to follow the usual 30-minute agenda, but instead the team spent the first half of it trying to resolve audio issues—and a quick Google search didn't come up with any solutions.

After the call, Schreiber took an afternoon to write up everything he could find out about Hangouts, including testing features that were undocumented even by Google. If he was having issues, he figured other people were too. And he was right: The post netted over 5,000 page views that month—and over 75,000 in its first year. 

Today, Zapier's blog gets more than 1.25 million monthly visits. Some months, it generates more than half of all visits to the company’s website. Zapier’s content team achieved success with a surprisingly simple strategy: Think about problems their readers may face—joining a Hangouts call, for example—and then find answers and publish in-depth articles about them.

In a sea of tech companies whose content strategies prioritize SEO above all else, Zapier stands out as a rare breed. While their strategy has become more sophisticated throughout the years, it's based on one goal: Write good content that's helpful for their audience. 

Of course, Zapier didn't hit those staggering numbers overnight—and they didn't stumble upon their dead-simple content strategy immediately.

In the beginning: no strategy and loose goals

Zapier's blog in 2012, courtesy of the    Wayback Machine

Zapier's blog in 2012, courtesy of the Wayback Machine

If you venture 100 pages back into the archives of Zapier’s blog, you can find the earliest posts published by the company’s co-founders. They wrote about their experience at Startup Weekend, shared tips on how they were building their product, and posted thought-leadership pieces for an audience of other startup founders. 

“In the beginning, we were really just writing about our experience trying to build Zapier,” CEO Wade Foster tells Campfire Labs. “We thought sharing our experience might be helpful to other businesses trying to do the same thing—and thought maybe we'd get some attention from it.”

One way the founders promoted their content was by posting the articles on Hacker News. They were fans of the site, which, at that point, Foster says, had a lot of posts about how startups were growing. Since that was the type of content Zapier’s founders were publishing, several of the company’s early posts struck a chord with the Hacker News community.

“It felt good to see that 5,000 people were on the site reading something we’d written,” Foster says. “But if you've ever published anything on Hacker News, you know what the traffic from it looks like. You get a massive spike in traffic, but then it flatlines after a few days. It doesn't help you build a sustained audience.’

Foster knew they couldn't continue to rely on one-hit wonders from Hacker News, so he did two things: He started building an email list that he hoped would help them build a more sustained audience, and he hired a content marketer—Danny Schreiber—to focus full-time on the blog.

The shift from blogging to content marketing

When asked how the strategy for Zapier’s blog has changed over time, Schreiber points to a content strategy maturity model from International Design Inc:

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Before he joined Zapier, Schreiber tells Campfire Labs, the company’s content approach fit into the “Reactive” stage. They were creating content, but as Foster said, there was little strategy involved. By the time they hired Schreiber, they had moved into the “Tactical” phase. There was more purpose behind publishing content to the blog but still not a lot of strategy.

The job Schreiber applied for called for a “content marketer who cares about telling stories.” His job was to write interview-driven case-studies that told the stories of how Zapier’s customers were using the product—and other methods—to be more productive at work. 

“It was a highly tactical role,” Schreiber says.

Schreiber started out by interviewing Zapier customers—and people who were building productivity software—and writing their stories. When he couldn't get people to agree to an interview, he would watch public domain YouTube videos on similar topics and write recaps of the best lessons from those videos.

“Frankly,” Schreiber says, "it was all over the place."

But even with a simple tactical approach, Foster and Schreiber could see that their content was working. In a blog post at the end of 2013—four months after hiring Schreiber—Foster wrote that their most-read post of all time had yielded more than 25,000 unique visitors, and they had increased their newsletter subscribers by 1,340% in the final quarter of that year.

Building a content strategy through trial and error

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Customer stories are still a focus of Zapier’s blog. But the content team’s focus has expanded to include topics other like productivity at work, tools for work, and remote work.

Zapier discovered its other core topics—and developed its strategy—by testing different ideas and then measuring the response to see what resonated with readers. Some of these experiments you’ll still find on the blog today. Some, you won't.

“It was this sort of meandering journey,” Foster says. “That exploration helped us find things that were unexpected—but that worked in ways that totally made sense. So I think our willingness to try different things helped us lock in on a strategy that works really well for us.”

“By 2017 or 2018, we had made it to that strategic phase,” Schreiber adds. “But I don't think we would be in the same place we are today—and with as much certainty—if we hadn't had that tactical phase where we were trying things that we weren't sure would work or not.”

By trying lots of different things and always using data to determine what worked, Zapier built a content marketing strategy that was perfect for their business. Here's how they did it.

Using customer feedback to find topic ideas

Zapier has always taken an all-hands approach to customer service, so both Foster and Schreiber had plenty of opportunities to speak with customers. And speaking with their customers gave them two crucial pieces of data: what roles their customers were most likely to work in, and what specific information Zapier’s customers were struggling to find

The first piece of data encouraged Foster to shift his approach to the blog in the early days. While he started out writing mostly about topics of interest to developers, he learned that Zapier’s customer base included many other roles. Understanding his target audience better helped him brainstorm and test different types of content.

The second piece of data gave rise to one of Zapier’s main content types: app roundups. Lots of Zapier’s customers were asking the support team for recommendations on other tools they could use. For example, they had a form builder app but were in the market for a CRM.

This gave Schreiber the idea to hire freelance writer Matthew Guay—who ultimately became Zapier’s second marketing hire—to thoroughly test all of the apps in Zapier’s tool categories and write roundup pieces highlighting what was unique about each tool. Publishing these app roundups helped Schreiber refine Zapier’s strategy even further.

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Tracking KPIs to determine which ideas were working

Foster and Schreiber measured specific KPIs for every new piece of content to determine what was successful. Through that process, they identified which types of content resonated with their different audiences.

Initially, Schreiber had focused on growing email subscribers for the blog’s newsletter. Any time he published a new piece, he reviewed how many new subscribers that post generated, how many current subscribers clicked the link in the email to view the post, and how long people stayed on the page to read the content.

“New subscribers were an indication that what we were producing was valuable,” Schreiber says. “If someone is willing to give you an email address to receive more of your content, it’s a sign that you're producing great, helpful content.”

But after Schreiber started publishing Guay’s app roundups, he discovered something else. While those pieces generated some interest through Zapier’s newsletter, they were driving far more traffic from search.

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The traffic coming from organic search to Zapier’s app roundups revealed another viable channel for the content team to focus on. And unlike common marketing advice that says you need to be everywhere, Zapier has only ever focused on those two channels: email and search.

“At Zapier, we have this philosophy that you should know what you're good at and do what you're good at,” Schreiber says. “We wanted to be good at email. We wanted to be good at search. So we didn't spread ourselves too thin.”

Testing ideas even when testing isn’t ideal

One of the difficulties of using a blog as a testing ground is that it can create a non-ideal experience for existing readers and customers. 

For example, there's a lot of content on Zapier’s blog right now that Schreiber says “doesn’t really belong there.” The company is in the process of moving all of its app content off of the blog so that the blog can be focused on productivity content. But Zapier’s design and development teams aren’t yet ready to make that change.

Still, that hasn’t kept Zapier from publishing new and different types of content. 

“We don't wait on design and development to try new things,” Schreiber says. “We're willing to test and sacrifice some short-term user frustration for the long-term satisfaction of our users. If you let the design or layout of your pages constrain how you test new content, you’ll fall behind the people you’re competing against within the content arena."

Zapier's unconventional approach to content marketing

Technical SEO was always a focal point of Zapier’s website. The company focused on making sure the site was fast and could be easily indexed by search engines. But when it came to the blog’s early days, Schreiber says, there wasn't a robust SEO strategy.

“What we did was write for our audience,” he says. “And honestly, that’s the best SEO strategy there is: Write to satisfy a need. We gravitate toward service journalism for its prioritization of leaving readers with actionable takeaways and steps to better their lives. So what’s at the center of all of this is a genuine care for readers and a genuine desire to serve our readers.”

As shown in this screenshot of Zapier’s organic growth chart, it worked:

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Educating, not selling

While Zapier’s early content was almost exclusively about company and product, more than half of Zapier’s blog posts today have nothing to do with product. And when there are mentions of product in a blog post, they’re highly contextual and directly related to the topic at hand.

“Zapier's content team’s mission is to help people be more productive at work and provide them with the toolset to do so,” Schreiber says. “And if we can introduce people to Zapier through the content we publish, we do so because that helps them be more productive too.”

Schreiber believes that educating people is not only important for growing Zapier’s audience, but also for enabling Zapier’s continued growth. He points to an article that says 57% of small business owners say they lack familiarity with available online tools.

“To me, this was a great stat because as product builders and tech companies, we often think we're solving all of these problems for small business owners,” he says. “This was a strong reminder that just simple operations within a tool are still new things to be learned by people who could become your strongest advocates and best customers.”

Focusing on value beyond ROI

When asked about the role Zapier’s blog has played in the company’s growth over the years, Foster points to a number of factors. For one, the blog drives a large percentage of traffic to the site, so it plays a significant role in growing and maintaining awareness of the product.

The blog also attracts new partners. Because Zapier writes about partners on the blog, it captures the attention of new partners who want to be a part of what Zapier is doing. And like many great company blogs, Zapier’s content helps attract new customers, creates a sense of community, and helps educate existing customers.

“Visits to the blog don't always lead to a new customer,” Foster says. “But the product and the blog feed each other. They reinforce each other nicely. Both grow awareness of each other.”

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And while Foster says it's important to try to measure ROI, he says those measurements are usually just a baseline for the benefits of content marketing.

“It's difficult to pinpoint data that shows its exact benefit,” he says. “The data is going to undersell its importance to us. It can provide a baseline, but it's definitely worth more than that. It's just tough to quantify some of those things. Attribution is a really difficult problem in marketing.”

“I think you should certainly be measuring ROI,” he adds, “but I think you probably have to figure out some multiple that accounts for returns that are more difficult to measure—especially if you're starting to hear from people who are telling you how they're benefiting from it.”

Understanding and segmenting audience

The Zapier blog’s two main focus areas—productivity and apps—cater to different audiences.

Productivity content isn’t necessarily optimized for search; it’s designed for Zapier's email newsletter audience. The app content, on the other hand, is search-optimized, and the company has started to increase its focus on on-page SEO for their app content in the past year.

When Zapier’s editorial team considers a new idea, they look at it from two angles: Will it serve Zapier’s newsletter readers? And will it help people find Zapier through search? 

With this approach, Zapier manages to drive visits from returning visitors and new visitors to the blog. However, Schreiber describes this approach as “an ambitious undertaking.” Zapier employs two full-time editors and three full-time writers, accepts guest posts, and has had as many as 40 freelance writers contributing to the blog at one time.

For content teams trying to do both, it’s important to understand the target audience before forward with new content—including what each specific audience wants. 

Schreiber notes that Zapier has run surveys for their email audience and blog visitors, and the responses from those two audiences were quite different. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the company is working to move app content off of Zapier's blog and onto its app profile pages. 

“So far, we've been building productivity and app content,” says Deb Tennen, Zapier's Contributed Content Manager. “Now, we're working on separating those two types of content into different products to be sure that we're surfacing the right content to the right people.”

If you build it right, they will come

Zapier's journey and success show that by identifying an audience, taking time to learn and understand what that audience needs, and focusing on writing content that helps people, it’s possible to build a blog that not only drives large amounts of traffic but also grows product awareness and revenue.

“Really successful content marketing delivers the same value as the product itself,” Schreiber says. “If you're using Zapier, you're automating something and getting more time back in your day. You're getting more value from your toolset, so that puts you ahead in the workplace, it puts you ahead of schedule, and it empowers you to be more productive.”

“Those are the goals of the Zapier blog as well. If we've delivered what we need to deliver, we've helped people get the same value from our blog as they do from our product.”