How we grew from 0 to a billion users in 2 months

Well not quite, perhaps 0 to 1500 users in 6 months.... now I have to admit I feel a bit inadequate, because the web is awash with headlines of the bigger numbers and when you are trying to grow your users, all those 'how to' blogs make very attractive reading. This leads me to some serious lessons we've learnt from the last 4 months of our startup journey where we've been single mindedly focused on growing our website traffic:

  1. There is no such thing as SEO
  2. Google AdWords have traps to steal your money
  3. Everyone else's growth hacks don't work
  4. Don't confuse research with moving forward

There is no such thing as SEO

We were starting from scratch, brand new domain name and brand new website so we figured we'd make a big effort to get our site on Google's radar. We're pretty tech savvy and quickly covered off the basics:

  • Page titles
  • Page descriptions
  • Register site with search engines
  • Load times
  • And everything else you can check off from this awesome free tool https://seositecheckup.com/
Any half decent content management system will hand-hold you through the 'hygiene factors' of SEO - we use Squarespace and super happy with their product.

After some time, we still couldn't see Crewmojo making an appearance in search result pages. Not to be defeated, we engaged an 'expert SEO consultant' who was going to get us on page 1 of Google. He seemed to know what he was talking about and said we needed to get good quality back links, lots more company social media accounts (pointing back to our site), press releases and a bunch of other things he could achieve over the next 3 months.

Sounded like a plan and we spent a lot of money from our boot strapped budget to get........ not a lot. We have measured a lot of things since day one and could confidently say there was zero impact after 2 months, so we pulled the plug. For all his efforts we briefly made it onto the KUAM news website and a bunch of other obscure news services, we have 40 odd empty social media accounts and some minor improvements to our site structure.

Simultaneously we had a content strategy of writing blogs that would capture Google's attention for our keywords.

One initiative we started and continue to do because we, and our readers really enjoy it, is our '#leadership tips' series where we interview leaders with 4 questions and share their insights. I make this point because we've been doing this for a few months now. We've done 15 interviews, each leader has shared their interview across their social channels (generating back links), the words 'leadership tips' appear in URL's, titles, meta descriptions and numerous other genuine locations on our site......

And the results? Doing a Google search on 'leadership tips' ....drum roll...... Crewmojo is still nowhere to be seen with Google favoring higher authority sites like Forbes, Inc, Lifehack and many more.

In conclusion, you can't hack SEO to make it happen quickly (well we couldn't), the tricks of yestermonth no longer work and 'experts' will happily take your money. We're now approaching SEO with a very different perspective:

  1. We're taking a long term view of producing content that we enjoy producing, with people we enjoy working with; and trusting that over time Google will recognize a site with dynamic, good quality content. 
  2. We're keeping on top of the 'hygiene factors' primarily for our users and their experience eg. titles that reflect the content, accurate page descriptions, responsive design etc

In the meantime we'll supplement our search traffic with paid traffic - see below for our lessons on this topic ;)

Google AdWords have traps to steal your money

Recognizing our organic traffic was not enough, we wanted to supplement this with paid traffic so we jumped into Google AdWords - I was (am) a newbie to AdWords and I want to share my stuff-ups that cost us valuable dollars. This is not a 'how to' on setting up AdWords, I'm still learning myself!

When setting up AdWords, I followed the recommended settings that Google suggested - this was a mistake and here's why.

The first thing I did was create a 'Campaign' - one of the settings is the 'Campaign Type' where Google gives the following help text:

I read the words "Best opportunity to reach the most customers" and in my naivety selected this option (Search Network and Display). This option meant our ads would be displayed as search results and also inline on random webpages that allow google to place their ads.

There was also a setting called Ad Rotation where again I went for the "Ideal setting..."

I then went on to configure other options and kinda forgot about these first settings (in hindsight this was the start of my mess). By the time I got to writing the ad, my mind was very much on the assumption that I was writing ads for people who had searched for our keywords. At this stage I wrote a couple of ads (to A/B test) and pushed them live.

Meanwhile, Google AdWords started (and keeps) prompting me to 'Add keywords' to our campaign with the promise of getting your ads in front of more potential customers.

I thought this was great, I was presented with more keyword variations I hadn't thought of.

Before long I had a LOT of keywords loaded against our ads. Over the next few weeks I was trying to iterate the Ads with A/B testing (which sounded great in theory), trouble is I was completely unable to identify a best performing Ad for a few reasons:

  1. I didn't know what metric meant it was best performing - CTR, CPC, Clicks...
  2. From week to week it kept changing as to which Ad appeared to be best performing
  3. One Ad would get displayed a bucket load more than the other, making it an unfair comparison

I was also trying to see which keywords were being successful but then I realized our ads were only being displayed about 5% of the time for search queries and 95% of the time on random Google affiliate sites. This meant the results for Ad performance wasn't even related to all my keyword work.

I managed to create an AdWords hell for myself as well as wasting our money on irrelevant traffic.

It was great to get a fresh head on the matter with Co-founder Joel dropping his stuff to help me out. Some of the initial innocuous settings had really tripped me up and we basically started again armed with a little more knowledge. The key changes we made were:

  1. Set the Campaign Type for 'Search Network Only' so we would only show our Ads to traffic generated as a direct result of someone searching on our keywords
  2. Set Ad Rotation to 'Optimize for conversions' BUT we setup Conversion Tracking under Tools > Conversions. This was easy and involved dropping the Google generated java script onto the conversion page of our website. For us Conversions is a primary measure of success.
  3. We only entered about 20 keyword entries per Ad Group and tightened up the default Broad Match of keywords to be close variations eg. Instead of Task Management, we now had +Task +Management (more details on match types from Google).
  4. We then setup a separate Campaign that we set for 'Display Network Only' with the below settings.

The Ads we developed for this campaign were an offer and only get shown to people that have already visited our site (remarketing - very fancy hey?!).

Another impact factor I've not touched in this blog is landing page design and I'm still iterating and working out what works best for Crewmojo. I've come to the conclusion that AdWords default settings come from the perspective of making sure you spend your budget without concern for relevant traffic. That's why it's important to avoid the same mistakes I made.

Current result is we can now properly A/B test ads because we can see a clear winner, so far we are up to a 20% conversion rate for our ads and still nudging upwards. We're also using these results to inform the messaging in our content strategy.

Everyone else's growth hacks don't work

We now have a strategy for our search traffic, we are supplementing with paid traffic and we're working our way through social channels to drive traffic and it's still not enough for our insatiable thirst for more traffic. 

So I set about teaching myself some Growth Hacking methodologies. I've read MANY blogs (hours, maybe even days worth) on growth hacks, I subscribed to newsletters galore in the hope of learning how to become one of these trendy, koolaid 'growth hackers'. I can recite growth hacks from the beginning of Internet time that resulted in unprecedented growth:

  • How Hotmail included a tagline on the bottom of every email sent
  • How Dropbox gave away more storage for every referral
  • How Dollar Shave club made a rather amusing video that went viral

I listened to one podcast that was only 18 months old and it really grabbed my attention for something I could implement quickly. The hack involved a 3 step process:

  1. The use of some software (Followgen) that would auto-like thousands of other peoples tweets which contain keywords of my choice ie. 'leadership'. This results in people seeing my likes in their feed and then following me back.
  2. Setup Google alerts to monitor the same keyword 'leadership', then auto generate tweets from me that share the content from Google news, BUT, instead of linking back to the site that hosts the content on leadership, link back to our site which has iFramed the content in.
  3. Beneath the content that we iFramed into our site, setup an email capture form to collect and grow an email list for those interested in leadership.

Sounds great right. Well, when I went looking for the software called Followgen, I found this page titled 'Why Twitter Shut Me Down' and discovered the software no longer exists! Not to be put off, I thought the second step was still a good idea. Thwarted again, I learnt most sites no longer allow their pages to be iFramed into another site.

In this example it took only 18 months for a growth hack that once worked brilliantly to become obsolete.

There  are many other hacks I researched, and some I tried to replicate because they demonstrated previous great success. Despite the term 'growth hacks' which to me implies 'quick and easy', most hacks do require considerable time and effort to implement (which I am totally up for) - the challenge I had was picking the hack that would have the greatest chance of success for Crewmojo. I call it a challenge because I kept failing at picking the right one!

Rather silly of me, but it finally dawned on me that everyone else's growth hacks weren't going to work for Crewmojo in the same way they had worked for the inventors. It's not just about the hack, it's about the audience, the context, how the hack evolved over time, was it original, who got involved with it and many other external influences.

Instead of trying to implement hacks as a one-off recipe, I've learnt to take inspiration from them, develop our own and then iterate them naturally off the back of our own story. I find it a lot easier to work with our journey than trying to retrofit someone else's.

I mentioned earlier, our #leadership tips series is working well from a content perspective - it is also our very own hack - woohoo! Each interview we publish usually gets shared across the interviewee's social channels, more people signup to receive future tips; and almost without fail each interview results in the nomination of another great leader to interview. It's a self perpetuating loop that is growing at an ever increasing rate. 

Don't confuse research with moving forward

I mentioned I've spent a lot of time researching, busy trying to find the short-cuts and answers in someone else's story that could accelerate our growth.

I believe there is education, motivation and inspirational value in other's stories but for every minute spent reading about someone else, it is a minute not moving our own journey forward.

I've significantly reduced (not stopped) my research and have filled that time with action that moves us forward on our own path. Perhaps I should have had this paragraph up front so you could have ditched me back then?

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed it, hit the heart button below. It would mean a lot to me and it helps others in the early stages of their startup journey too.

Mark Lewis, CEO