How we learned to build a blog audience for free (after expensive mistakes!)

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If you own a blog or website, you’ll know how valuable traffic can be – and how hard it can be to get it. Over the past 10 months we’ve made plenty of (expensive) mistakes before we finally learned how to build our audience for free. And now we’re sharing what we learned with you.

When we launched our website last April we announced it far and wide to all our family and friends and Facebook contacts. And for the first two days we sat back and watched the hits add up. But then it all went quiet. Too quiet. And we were left wondering exactly how we would find the tens of thousands of people we needed to visit our site every month to achieve our aims.

And so began what is nearly a year-long quest for the holy grail of blogging – free or cheap traffic. Along the way we’ve made a few mistakes and learned a LOT. And if you’re looking for ways you can get your blog or website content out there without emptying your savings account, we hope our experiences will help you.

Why we were Google Adwords unluckiest customer

Our first foray into paid advertising was Google Adwords. Tempted by the carrot of a £75 offer, we contacted Google as soon as we saw our initial post-launch traffic dive off a cliff.

As a self-funded start up, we didn’t have thousands of pounds to throw at online advertising (actually if we’re honest, we didn’t even have pounds, but we recognised the value of investing in marketing) so thought really carefully about our ads and placements.

We chose 10 premium UK sites that we knew our target customers liked and waited for the traffic to roll in. However, before we’d signed off our ads properly, our campaign went live. And not on the stylish, highbrow UK sites we’d handpicked. No, our ads were plastered all over Swedish carp fishing forums, Korean news sites, Nigerian wedding dress blogs and other random locations.

While we tried to unravel what had happened, our campaign went live proper – at a cost of between £1 and £1.50 per click through (thanks to our very narrow choice of target sites). However even then, on a budget of just £10 a day, our results were predictably disappointing.

What we learned from Google Adwords

To cut what is a very long and boring story short – one that earned us the label of Google’s unluckiest customer from our account contact (although everything that could go wrong with our account did, I can’t fault the helpful, patient and polite service we received) – we learned several things from our Google Adwords experience:

  • It’s not a good choice if you just want traffic for a blog on a tight budget.
  • You need to think broadly about the sites you place your ads on.
  • It’s a wiser investment if you’re driving traffic to a sales page.
  • You need to have the budget to test and tweak the campaign over time.

From talking to other website and business owners, our conclusions seem pretty universal. The businesses that have had the budget to tweak Google Adwords (and use remarketing) over time, and drive traffic to a monetised or sales page, have reaped the rewards. So it clearly DOES work, just not for our particular needs at launch.

How we stumbled upon StumbleUpon Paid Discovery

Slightly burned from our Adwords experience, we were reluctant to try paid advertising again. That was until we read a very enthusiastic reply by an online marketing guru on Quora (they were raving about the relatively little-known cost-effective advertising opportunities of StumbleUpon Paid Discovery).

Curious, we gave it a go. And loved it! Easy to set up, you pay for your page to be ‘stumbled upon’ by a tailored audience. We were able to ensure that our site was discovered by women from certain countries, within a defined age range with specific interests.

Not only that, you can see how many click throughs you get from each interest (and how long they stay on your site on average) so you can tweak your campaign for maximum effectiveness. All this for between a bargain 12 and 20 US cents a click through!

Why we stopped using StumbleUpon

We enjoyed great peaks of traffic with StumbleUpon Paid Discovery, for a self-defined budget of just £3.50 a day. However with a site that, as yet, doesn’t provide us with an income, we just couldn’t afford to pay for traffic on a long term basis. So reluctantly we stopped stumbling.

We really liked the ease, cost and flexibility of StumbeUpon Paid Discovery, and if you have a site or blog that IS monetised or you do sell through, it may be worth giving it a go. It was, for us, the cheapest source of paid traffic.

Experimenting with Facebook ads

Our next online marketing experiment was Facebook ads. After promoting the virtues of paid reach on our social media course, we decided we needed to walk the walk and try it ourselves. So last December we started promoting posts and trawling for Facebook Likes – without great success.

Like StumbleUpon you can define your audience on Facebook ads, but you can’t select specific interests which we found disappointing. Another disappointment for us was how confusing we found it to set up and manage our ads.

We’d think we set one ad to run for one week with a total set daily budget, to find the ad wasn’t running when we thought it was (I still don’t know what time zone they work in!) or we were somehow running three versions of the ad that day, and spending three times our daily budget.

Our Likes crept up slightly, but certainly not to the degree we expected for what we eventually paid, and with the changes in the way that Facebook now present updates from businesses we decided that Facebook ads just weren’t for us.

Why Facebook ads may be right for you

Again, one reason that Facebook didn’t offer great value for us is that our traffic doesn’t yet convert to sales of any kind. However, friends with online shops rave about the benefits of Facebook ads for their business, so it clearly DOES work for some people – and maybe that includes you (and if you ever do work out what time zone they schedule their ads in, please let us know).

How we learned to build our traffic for free

In the end, what has worked for us has been building our traffic for free. And sadly, there’s no quick and easy secret we can reveal for this! We’ve put in a lot of hours, learning and effort. This is what we’ve learned so far:

  • Building a good, engaged Twitter following is a wise investment – the majority of our traffic comes from tweets. To do this, we recommend reading up on good Twitter practice and spending the time and effort to apply what you learn. There’s no short cut!
  • Get engaged on social media platforms. Since we started commenting, liking and sharing on Facebook more, our Likes have grown – and in fact we now get more Likes through engagement than we did through paid ads.
  • Playing with your updates. We’ve tried different kinds of formats and language in our updates, working out over a period of time what kind of update, words and timings get a better response.
  • Use social media platforms to reach people, but then take them onto your site or mailing list. You don’t ‘own’ your social media followers and if for some reason a platform closes down or suddenly changes the way they work, you could lose them.
  • Understand the basics of SEO and always bear your keywords (and your audience – don’t stuff your blogs until they’re unreadable!) in mind when you write.
  • Reach out to other blogs talking to your audience and ask if they want to swap posts. You get to talk to their audience, and you get good content for your own site in return. Plus if the other blogger is active on social media, they’ll promote their blog on your site to their followers and drive traffic. And lastly, you’ll start to build up links to your site to help your SEO.
  • Comment on other blogs. We’ve learned that by commenting on big industry blog posts (especially if we can catch them soon after they’ve been posted) we can pick up traffic for our own site.
  • Analyse your traffic and learn what types of blog posts are most popular – and write more of them. Also see where your traffic is coming from, and how tweaks you make to your social media and blogger outreach affect your numbers so you can see what’s worth doing more of.

Do you have experiences or advice to share?

Of course these are just OUR learnings from a very short ten months. You may have your own experiences to share – or some great tips we haven’t discovered yet.

So please let us know if there’s something we’ve missed, or if you’ve had more successes with things we’ve failed at. We’re always happy and hungry to learn (and share) more. Feel free to comment below, tweet us or comment on our Facebook page.

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